Sunlight hit Alcina’s face and she hissed as she covered her eyes. “Do you have to?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the maid said as she tied back the curtains. “Your rules.”
Yes, yes, on the days she was going to work, the curtains had to be opened. It was sensible, it took the edge off the sluggishness she felt every morning, but there were times when she hated sunlight. It could be so oppressive. “Then I can change them.”
“Only between the twelfth and the sixteenth hours of the day.” Karali returned to the small table beside Alcina’s bed, where a tea tray was waiting. She picked up the small pot and poured hot dark green liquid into a delicate cup. “That’s your rule, too.”
Alcina closed her eyes and let her hand fall back to the mattress, feeling the dread flow through her, pressing against her chest. It was going to be one of those days. She thought of excuses to avoid getting out of bed. Headache? Stomach cramps? The utter lack of desire to speak to or look at anyone?
No. She felt awful, but she didn’t think the day was going to be quite bad enough to justify hiding in her room.
“You don’t want your tea getting cold, ma’am,” said Karali. As though Alcina hadn’t been drinking that same tea every morning for years. As though she didn’t know ris tea tasted eleven times worse when it was cold.
Alcina pinched the bridge of her nose. She was in a vicious mood already. She opened her eyes and rolled up to her elbow, faking a smile. “Thank you, Karali.” She picked up the fragile teacup and downed the contents in a few swallows.
Karali, a plump woman in her late forties with beautiful white hair, pale skin, and kind blue eyes, smiled back. She had worked for Alcina for nearly five years and seemed to accept her quirks with equanimity.
On the table beside the tea tray were copies of two news circulars. The Daily Challenger was the circular Alcina favoured, as it was the only one in the city that would dare criticise Principal Councillor Danoso and his band of thugs. “Should I look at that?” she asked.
Sometimes the news, especially bad news, overwhelmed her.
“You might enjoy it, ma’am. The Council has officially reversed their decision to expropriate the Catori estate.”
“Really?” It had been a year-long scandal and a twelve-month nightmare for the farmer who owned the estate. “Are they admitting they lied about wanting the land for the military base?”
“The official statement is that the sketches for Principal Councillor Danoso’s new home were misfiled by the attendants of the land registry office and should have never been attached to the deed for the Catori estate.”
“Of course,” Alcina said drily. “And the excuse for changing their minds about needing the land?”
“They have decided the land isn’t suitable to their needs.”
“The writer was quite sarcastic,” Karali added. “Cameron.”
“Cameron is usually sarcastic.” That was why she liked him so much.
But she decided not to read the circular. While that one article would be a pleasure to read, there would be others, full of information about the attempts of the Council of Gydnerth to violate one law or another. It would be enraging or disheartening, and she wasn’t up for that sort of thing, not that morning.
The other circular was The Daily Truth, an awful rag that slavishly praised Danoso and printed what was surely the most unprofessional trash that had ever been put to paper, appealing to the worst of people’s emotions instead of their thoughts. Alcina had always been leery of those who claimed special access to the truth, as they seemed to value truth the least, and she always felt as though her intelligence was draining away whenever she read that circular. She thought the name sensible people called it, The Rabid Weasel, was far more appropriate.
She felt she needed to know what Danoso’s supporters were claiming, and for that reason frequently inflicted upon herself the fiasco that was The Rabid Weasel’s version of news, but that morning … no.
“I’ll get your bath ready, ma’am.” Karali left the room quietly. Always quietly. She was so good at that.
Alcina hauled herself from the protection of her bed. From the side table she picked up the novel she’d been reading the night before and she sat in the chair beside the window. Written by one of her favourite authors, the novel was hilarious and it made her smile. The temporary lift the humour provided made starting the day a little less horrible, made the chores of bathing and dressing in a light blue cotton dress a little easier to perform.
The breakfast Karali brought her wasn’t her usual fare of eggs and toast and a bowl of fruit. Karali would have told Thom of her low mood, and he had put together a meal of fresh scones with rhubarb compote and a huge bowl of clotted cream. The sight of it made Alcina smile. Her cook was so thoughtful.
Like the book, the meal would provide only a temporary lift, and her mood would suffer a dive not long after, but it would help her gather the resolve to get out of the house.
And that was all she had to do, get out of the house. Once she reached Madam Lawal’s residence, she would probably get immersed in her work and the heavy sensation in her chest would dissipate.
It was too much food for a single sitting and she ate every bit of it. She rose from her chair. She clasped her hands together, hard enough to whiten her knuckles. She took a few deep breaths, then walked to the door.
She pressed her forehead against the smooth wood and closed her eyes.
Just get out of the house.
She was aware of Karali behind her, several feet away. She knew the maid was watching her, but Karali never nagged her at this part of the routine.
Another deep breath and Alcina pulled open the door, charging through it before she could change her mind. She strode through the short corridor and took the stairs down to the first floor a little more quickly than was safe.
Moren, a butler too grand for Alcina’s small house, was waiting in the foyer. A dark-skinned woman in her fifties, of average height, broad shoulders, and a cheerful manner, she exuded a sense of serene strength.
“Good morning, ma’am,” she greeted Alcina warmly. “I hope you are well today.”
Karali would have told Moren she was not, but Alcina appreciated the pretence. “Very. And you?”
Alcina took a closer look at her. Moren seemed a little tense, unusual for her. “Are you sure?”
Alcina didn’t believe her, but etiquette didn’t allow her to press. “Why don’t you take some free time today?” If Alcina couldn’t ask about Moren’s difficulties, she could at least give her some time to address them.
“That isn’t on the schedule, ma’am.”
“Schedules are made to be changed.” Not hers, she didn’t manage sudden changes well, but they seemed to be good for other people. “Think about it.”
All right. No more stalling. She had to get moving or her resolve might weaken.
Like every other house on the street, and most houses in central Ottan, Alcina’s front door was placed immediately on the street. No handy sidewalks as she’d seen in other cities. The capital of Gydnerth had been built in a hurry, with little regard to long-term organisation, and had grown quickly, the largest city in the country, with a population of nearly ten thousand. Comfort in public was rare. Pedestrians were forced to share the narrow streets with horses and carriages.
It meant slow progress through the streets, frustrating on the best of days. At times, it meant brushing up against other people. And noise. Lots and lots of noise.
That made mornings difficult, too.
Sometimes she thought about how much easier it would be to live in a more spacious city, but there was no point to it. She couldn’t leave Ottan. Not permanently.
She kept her gaze down. At times it was easier if she didn’t look at the faces of those around her, didn’t risk any sort of engagement, even one so minor as meeting their eyes.
You can’t turn around and go back home, she said to herself. You can’t turn around. She pressed her hand against her chest, trying to make it easier to breathe.
Half an hour later, Alcina entered the house of Madam Andalus Lawal, her employer of five years, through the servants’ entrance. She walked up the stairs to the ground floor and then to the small office in which she performed her work.
Alcina assembled her supplies on her tiny work table. She crumbled charcoal into a mortar and ground it into a fine powder with a pestle. She cleaned her hands and then cracked open an egg over a bowl, spilling the egg white from the egg shell. She poured the yolk from shell to shell, working more of the egg white free. Finally, she gently rolled the yolk from palm to palm, soaking up the last of the egg white.
She held the egg yolk in her right palm, tilting her hand over the mortar. She pierced the yolk with a needle and poured the liquid within into the mortar. She discarded the skin of the yolk into the bowl with the egg white.
With a brush she combined the yolk and charcoal. She added water, dabbing a finger into the mixture and putting her finger to her tongue. She mixed in more charcoal, a little at a time, until the paint tasted right.
She filled two bowls with water and carried them, the paint, and two brushes to her desk. She sat in the comfortable chair and removed from one of her drawers a stack of paper. She divided the paper into three piles. On one, written in black ink, were the instructions pertaining to the legal proposal Lady Lawal wanted to present to the Municipal Board of Waterways. On the second, Alcina’s rough draft of the proposal, written in pencil. On the third, the first two paragraphs of the final draft, painted in grey.
It was one of her earliest memories, one that came to her every time she worked. Four years old, sitting on her mother’s lap, holding a thin, light brush, dipping it into watery paint, knocking off the excess, and drawing lines on the paper. Not true pictographs yet, but the smooth curves that were needed to turn ideas into unbreakable magic.
“That’s right, ‘Cina,” her mother had said in a mild tone. “Wash the brush before you change colours. Yes, that’s good.”
And then, later, when she was learning what the curving strokes meant. “Speak them out loud, my love. It makes the paint binding.”
And later still, learning the colours. Blue for contracts, yellow for laws, red for bills, purple for proclamations, orange for wills, black for treaties, grey for correspondence and proposals, green for Council records.
As was proper, Alcina’s education was in time transferred to the Scribes’ Guild, but her mother continued to work with her, introducing to her skills long before the instructors of the Guild did so.
Having memorised the contents of the pencil draft, Alcina painted strokes of grey across the paper. She didn’t get far before there was a knock on her door. “Come in.”
Lawal’s maid opened the door. “Scribe Noatak, Madam would like to see you.”
“Thank you.” Alcina cleaned her brush before leaving her office.
Lawal’s house had been built generations before, and therefore it was small but of high craftsmanship. The floors were white marble and the walls and ceiling were tan walnut. The windows were large and of the finest glass. The tapestries, woven of light blues and shades of grey, had come from Wocin, a country known for its fine artwork.
It was orderly and relaxing. At times such order helped slow Alcina’s racing thoughts.
She knocked on Lawal’s door. “It’s Scribe Noatak, Madam.”
Lawal’s office was considerably larger than Alcina’s, as was correct. It was constructed as the rest of the house had been, pale floor and walls and ceiling, with two enormous windows and tan shelves that were filled with books and scrolls. A huge desk was covered with documents, most of them written in grey paint.
Madam Lawal was in her eighties, bent with arthritis and reliant on her cane for mobility. Her grey hair was thin and her large black eyes looked out of place in her pale, wrinkled face. She looked almost sickly against the dark leather of her chair, but her mental vigour hadn’t declined in the years that Alcina had known her.
“Have a seat, Scribe Noatak,” she said with a wave to the other chair. “How are you today?”
Alcina smiled. “Quite well, thank you for enquiring.”
“Excellent.” Lawal nodded. “We’ll have to put aside my current proposal for now, Scribe Noatak. More important issues demand our attention.”
“I see.” Alcina didn’t like changing projects mid-stream. It disrupted the flow of her work on the first document. When going back to it, she had to start from the beginning and she always ended up feeling she’d forgotten something important.
“I need you to draft another proposal to present to the Council.”
In the prior two years, Alcina had drafted for Madam Lawal three proposals to be offered to the federal Council. All of them had been rejected.
“I know,” said Lawal, no doubt recalling the three previous failures as well. “But the attempt must be made.” She picked out one of the letters on her desk and held it out to Alcina.
It was not a letter from a scribe. The pictographs were written with black ink and the figures were of the common style, a little less elaborate than those Alcina used in her work.
Odd, the lack of the name in the salutation.
Information has come into my possession, information that we feel must be addressed.
Who was ‘we?’
As you are aware, I have had a long-term association with a certain individual.
Well, that was vague.
As is his custom, he speaks to me of his professional interests, and his latest interests are more extreme than any of his previous endeavors. At the core of his scheme is to compel those who handle correspondence to deliver that correspondence to government agents on demand, with lack of co-operation resulting in harsh sanctions. To my knowledge, the government agents must meet no requirements before making their demands, and the handlers of the correspondence are to be provided with no circumstances in which they may refuse.
With the hope that you find this information useful,
There was no signature.
“I need more of the particulars to fully understand this,” Alcina reluctantly confessed.
Lawal spent a moment studying her. Alcina tried not to squirm under the weight of the other woman’s scrutiny.
Lawal finally said, “I’m about to entrust you with some delicate information and the safety of others who regularly face great risks for the good of Gydnerth.”
Was Lawal referring to the members of the armed forces? Was there some sort of military clash coming? Alcina hadn’t heard anything. “All right.”
Perhaps Alcina’s response was too casual, for Lawal glared at her, not something she usually did. “This is extremely important,” she said sternly. “I have become confident that you have the character to protect these people. Is that confidence unwarranted?”
Lawal examined Alcina’s face again before continuing. “The individual referred to in the letter is Councillor Listar Hykler. The writer of the letter is Sir Stot Belonen, the prostitute Hykler frequents.”
Alcina’s mouth dropped open. “Hykler’s married!” He was also ancient, and not someone Alcina wanted to picture having sex. Ever. With anyone.
“That he is. And I doubt his spouse knows anything about it.”
“Are you sure this Stot Belonen is genuine?” Certainly, Hykler was constantly writing essays and giving speeches about the evils of divorce, and one always had to worry about anyone so obsessed with other people’s marriages, but, well, she would have thought him too proud to pay for sex.
She was picturing things. She looked at Lawal’s decanter of whiskey with longing.
“Yes,” said Lawal.
Alcina would have liked a few more details, but Lawal’s judgment was infallible and her character unimpeachable. Still, Alcina had to ask, “How was Belonen able to breach the confidentiality contract?” That was supposed to be impossible. A badly drafted contract could be riddled with loopholes, but she would expect a man of Hykler’s position to hire the best scribe for a matter so delicate.
“I don’t know, but I trust this information,” Lawal said, her tone revealing a hint of irritation over being questioned.
Breaching confidentiality was a sign of poor character regardless of the failings of the contract, but that violation of ethics wasn’t the important aspect of the letter. “Am I reading this correctly? There is an intention to create a law that will allow Investigators to read people’s private correspondence without the need for judicial oversight?”
“Such a law would violate decades of legal precedent.”
“As we all know, legal precedent doesn’t hold a great deal of sway over our current Council.”
“Yes, but I can’t imagine even Hykler being this foul.” Councillor Hykler was known for having little respect for anyone’s rights other than his own, but what the letter was describing was far beyond anything else he’d tried. “This will never pass.”
Lawal gave her a level stare. “Are you sure?”
Alcina’s first inclination was to say, Yes, of course, but then she remembered that Principal Councillor Danoso was a vile bastard who had brought a bunch of vile bastards with him, including Hykler. She was still shocked that they’d been elected, no matter how bad the other options had been.
“All right, then, the Supreme Court would strike it ….” She trailed off. Not long ago, she would have been confident the three-seat Supreme Court would disallow such violations, but no longer. Justice Lisemaj Pamona, a fierce defender of the Patriation Text, had been recently forced by illness to retire. Constanza Lysenka, a crony of Danoso’s, had been appointed to take her place, leaving the court with two judges who favoured Danoso’s views.
And the law couldn’t be challenged until someone was arrested under its authority. It took years for a case to reach the Supreme Court and a great deal more money than the average resident had access to.
“Exactly,” said Lawal, correctly interpreting Alcina’s hesitation. “We don’t know when Hykler’s bill will be released to the public, but when it is, we want to make sure the people have a proper understanding of what the bill means.”
“And you want to present a proposal that will accomplish that before Hykler releases his bill.”
“Councillor Midsomer’s slot to present motions to the Council is approaching,” said Lawal. “She doesn’t want to let the opportunity pass without using it, and she is as concerned by Gydnerth’s backward slide as we are.”
“But Danoso’s people dominate the Chamber.” The councillors were supposed to vote independently, not according to whose banner they had campaigned under, but that independence was rarely exercised. Anyone who failed to comply would have funds mysteriously denied to them in the next election. “They could oppose consideration of the motion as soon as it is raised. Even if the motion is put to the floor, it will be voted down.”
“Nothing is certain, and while a successful motion would be ideal, the point of this proposal is not to be passed, but to alert people as to how far and how fast the race to strip them of their rights is running. I hope to distribute the proposal to the public before Midsomer presents it to the Council.”
“I don’t know how eager people will be to read a proposal to the Council.” That sort of thing was dry stuff even to scribes.
“Oh, they’ll enjoy this one. And it’s up to you,” she stabbed a finger at Alcina, “to make sure the language is accessible.”
“Yes, Madam.” It would be more interesting than the proposals about border surveys, the creation of a harvesting Guild, or water standards. “Can we give them a history lesson, too?” she asked with little hope.
“No one is interested in the history of Gydnerth,” Lawal said placidly. “Not enough wars.” She handed Alcina another sheet of paper. “These are some ideas I’ve had.”
Alcina quickly read the list. She smiled.
“I’m glad you approve,” said Lawal. “So let’s get to work.”
Chapter Two is here: http://moiraj.livejournal.com/391300.html