Alcina and Lawal discussed the contents of the proposal for nearly an hour. Alcina spent another two hours finding the books and scrolls she needed from Lawal’s library, and yet another flipping through them and absorbing the background information that would need to be reflected in the proposal. She was eager to start putting paint to paper, but the time to meet her mother for their weekly lunch had arrived.
As the worst part of the day had passed, Alcina’s mood had lifted. The congested streets were less overwhelming, the sunlight less harsh. She exchanged smiles with those she passed and short greetings with those she knew.
Her route took her through the core of the city, past Patriation Park, the oldest and largest public park in Ottan. One of the few open green spaces in a crowded city, it was a place for people to gather for picnics, to celebrate feast days, to play games.
And complain about the Council.
There was a small crowd listening to a young man standing on the Speech Dais, which was a simple cube of limestone, three feet high. Alcina wandered close to hear his words.
“And that’s not the only Guild they’re trespassing on!” he shouted. “They are attempting to place their supporters as masters in the Printing Guilds. Untrained, inexperienced men and women meant to choose and teach our young, to indoctrinate them with the Council’s backward agendas.”
Danoso didn’t like Guilds. Didn’t like their independence, their control over who they chose as members, what they taught them, and what sort of work members were permitted to do once they were released from training. He directed intense animosity towards the Guilds entitled to financial support from Council coffers, the Healers’ Guild and the Academic Guilds.
He had no problem giving money to the military Guilds. Gydnerth wasn’t at war with anyone and hadn’t been for decades, but that, according to the Principal Councillor, wasn’t a reason not to pour in more funds. And the Investigators’ Guild, growing faster than any other Guild in the country, that was very popular with Danoso.
“And when the printing Guilds refused admittance to these ‘masters,’” the young man raised his fist, “their taxes were increased threefold!”
The last of Alcina’s serenity slipped away, replaced with outrage. She was aware of Danoso’s attempts to weaken the Guilds, but whenever she was reminded of it, the fury rushed through her again. And there was nothing she could do about it, not right then.
Two Investigators, easily recognised by their garish purple and yellow jerkins, were standing by the Dais. It was understandable and reasonable for Investigators to keep an eye on any large gathering, in case there were disturbances, but those two were watching the speaker, not the spectators.
She noticed three other Investigators moving through the crowd. She glared at them as they paused in front of every spectator, one at a time. She couldn’t hear what they said, but it wasn’t hard to guess as each person, usually with a black look, handed over whatever bag they had with them. The bags were searched and returned.
Apprehension spiked through her as she put her hand on her purse. What would happen when she said no? For she couldn’t do otherwise. Investigators had no right to search bags in public, and all of the spectators had the right to refuse, but that didn’t mean Alcina wouldn’t end up the recipient of a derogatory lecture. In front of so many people, it would be humiliating.
“Let me go!” she heard from the front.
One of the Investigators had grabbed the speaker’s arm and was trying to pull him off the Dais.
What did they think they were doing?
“I’m permitted to speak here!”
Alcina clenched her teeth. “Excuse me,” she said in a sharp tone to the people immediately before her.
Two of them glanced back.
She gestured towards the Dais. “Please,” she said impatiently.
They stepped aside.
With a quick litany of requests to pass, she made it to the front of the group as the first two Investigators were joined by the other three. The speaker was on the ground, barely able to keep his footing as the Investigators jerked him this way and that. “Stop this!” she called.
They ignored her.
Certainly they weren’t actually trying to arrest him?
Alcina didn’t dare touch any of the Investigators, so she hugged the speaker, surprising him and everyone else, adding extra weight to his form and increasing the difficulty of moving him.
“Oi!” one of the Investigators shouted, squeezing her forearm hard enough to hurt.
That was all she let him say. “Patriation Text, Chapter Twelve, Subsection Two Two!” she yelled. “No speech critical of any political figure can result in the detention of any citizen, resident, or visitor within the borders of Gydnerth!”
The Investigators paused, and all but one removed their hands from the speaker.
So did Alcina, relieved to find that evoking Gydnerth’s most important text had some impact on some people some of the time.
The Investigator who’d refused to release the speaker sneered. “What do you think you are, a scribe?”
“Patriation Text, Chapter Twelve, Subsection Three – ”
“Fine!” he snapped. “Just shut up, for gods’ sake!” He released the speaker. “Name,” he barked at her.
“I don’t have to tell you that,” she shot back.
He glared at her.
She crossed her arms and straightened her posture. She was slightly taller than he was.
He scowled. “Move out!” he ordered the others. They didn’t like it, they grumbled and sent poisonous looks at Alcina, but they went away, which was all she cared about right then.
Alcina pulled in a deep breath and slowly let it out. She couldn’t believe that had worked.
“Are you really a scribe?” the speaker asked.
“Can I know your name?”
“Scribe Alcina Noatak.”
“Sir Astair Vaughn.” He offered his hand. “Thank you.”
She shook it. “You’re welcome.”
“That was almost enough to make me like scribes.”
“Thank you,” she said wryly.
He grinned at her. “You’re welcome.” He climbed back onto the Dais.
Alcina glanced about. Most of the spectators had drifted off, and she didn’t blame them. The park, which was supposed to be a place of safety, didn’t feel so safe right then. Wishing Vaughn well, her mood raised by her successful dispute with the Investigators, she moved on.
Her mother, High Scribe Dalas Noatak of the Council of Gydnerth, was waiting for Alcina in one of their favourite restaurants. The Slick Tomato was a small shack with rickety furniture, worn decorations, and excellent food. Only five tables were crammed into the small front room, and Alcina always wondered how the owner managed to stay in business.
All of the tables were taken, Alcina’s mother having snagged the one closest to the door. It was the table at which Alcina felt the most at ease. It was reassuring to know she could duck out of the building if the crowd or noise proved too much for her.
Dalas looked up at Alcina’s entrance and smiled. Alcina shared with her mother a tall, lanky frame, black hair, and dark brown skin and eyes. Dalas looked much younger than her fifty years, and strangers often thought they were sisters, which could be entertaining.
Did Dalas know of Hykler’s bill? It would be strange and wrong for Alcina to know of certain affairs of the Council when Dalas did not. It definitely felt wrong having to keep the information to herself.
Her mother rose from her chair and learned over to take Alcina’s hand and kiss her cheek.
“Good afternoon, my love.”
Alcina returned the kiss. “Good afternoon, Mother.”
They took their seats.
Her mother’s sentinel, Simon Pametan, was standing against the wall, not so close as to be looming over Dalas but close enough to protect her from physical and magical attacks. As the Noatak family had supplied the Council with its High Scribes since Patriation, so had the Pametan family provided the sentinels who protected them. Alcina had known Pametan all her life.
He grinned at her. “Good afternoon, Scribe Noatak,” he greeted her warmly.
“Good afternoon, Pametan. I hope you’re well.”
“Very well, thank you, ma’am.”
“It’s ferociously hot, isn’t it?” said her mother.
It wasn’t, actually, but her poor mother was wearing the uniform of the High Scribe, a thick leather jerkin that covered her from throat to wrists, thick leather trousers, and tall leather boots. The leather was spelled to resist attack and was to be worn between the ninth and eighteenth hours of those days when the High Scribe worked at the Tower or attended special government events. No High Scribe of Gydnerth had ever been assaulted due to their position, but the custom of the High Scribe wearing such gear and being assigned a sentinel was a tradition inherited from the neighbouring country of Anglora.
Sentinels were equally unfortunate when it came to on-duty apparel. Also entirely of leather, but black. A tight black tunic, from the high collar around the neck to thick cuffs at the wrists. Black leather trousers gathered into tall black leather boots. Whoever had designed the uniforms had clearly never had to wear them.
“Someone needs to create a spell that cools the air,” Alcina responded.
Dalas took a sip of wine. “Which Guild would that appeal to? Healers?”
“Architects,” Alcina suggested. “They could sink the spells into the walls.”
“The military would find it useful,” Dalas mused. “It might make things easier for our soldiers if their uniforms were spelled to withstand the heat in summer.”
Upon thinking about it, Alcina was sure there was a Guild working on such a spell, given how hot summers could get. There might even be more than one, keeping their work a secret. The Guild that designed a spell owned not only the spell but the effect it was meant to create, and the Guilds could be viciously competitive.
The waiter, who was also the owner, came to the table. “Good afternoon, Scribe Noatak.”
“Good afternoon, Sir Anderson.”
“You’ll be wanting the chilled apple juice, then?”
“And the chicken and potato pie?”
“I’ll be back shortly.”
It was pleasant that Anderson remembered her favourites but a little sad, she thought, that she was so predictable.
Her mother took another sip of wine, and Alcina noticed the line of her jaw was a little more rigid than usual. “Is all well, Mother?”
“I’m afraid I can’t speak of it.”
It was odd, being a scribe and having a scribe for a mother. Alcina was bound to keep her employer’s confidence, as Dalas was required to keep to herself much of the work she did for the Council.
So Alcina changed the subject. “I thought you might be regretting letting Jenniver go,” she teased, referring to her mother’s former lover.
Dalas glared at her and Alcina smirked.
“She wanted to get married,” Dalas pointed out for what must have been the twelfth time.
“She was very young.” Only a few years older than Alcina.
“Exactly. Young people are supposed to want to be free, to try their feet, not submit to the ties of matrimony.”
“And Raul was too rural,” Alcina continued.
“I have nothing against farms, but he wanted me to live there. It was too far from Ottan.”
“It was only a one hour ride.”
“Each way. Would you live so far from where you worked?”
No. Never. Not for any reason. “No, but I’ve never experienced true love with a farmer.”
“Why don’t we talk about your lovers for a while?” Dalas proposed with exasperation. “The one who didn’t do anything. What was his name?”
This wasn’t nearly as much fun. “Rohan was entertaining.”
“He was aimless, and too old for it. And then you went too far in the other direction with that Lyndani woman.”
“She was smart.”
“She was boring.”
Alcina sighed. Dalas grinned.
Then Dalas looked up at the ceiling. “Do you hear something?”
Alcina and Pametan looked up as well. Alcina did hear something strange. Creaking. And was that dust falling from the beams?
A shiver went down Alcina’s spine as the creaking grew louder.
“Get out!” Pametan shouted. “Everyone, get out!”
He raised his left hand, palm up. The delicate red lines tattooed around his wrist, up the back of his hand, and around his index finger emitted a red glow that formed an arc above everyone’s head as the beams began to collapse. “Get out!”
Alcina and Dalas leapt from their table, the other patrons screaming and running after them. Alcina was shoved aside by a man barging up behind her. He then pushed Dalas through the doorway and into the street. Alcina heard a shout from outside and the squealing of a horse.
Alcina escaped from the restaurant. A woman was desperately trying to bring her mount under control. The bastard who had shoved Dalas was running away. Alcina’s mother was lying in the street, curled up and gasping.
Dalas’ chest looked caved in. Blood was welling between her lips. Her throat rattled with each painful breath.
“My horse reared and landed on her,” the rider quickly explained. “The chest, I think.”
“Get back!” Alcina heard Pametan shout. “It’s going down!”
The noise, which had retreated from Alcina’s attention as she stared at her mother, came roaring back. The groaning of the wood shifting and splintering, the shattering of glass, and people screaming as they ran from the building.
Other horses were shying away, one bolting and dragging a carriage right into a building at the corner down the street.
Alcina grabbed her mother’s hands and pulled Dalas across the street, Dalas’ scream of agony slashing at Alcina’s heart.
When they were as far from the collapsing building as she could manage, Alcina dropped to her knees beside her mother. “A healer will be here soon, Mother.” That was a certainty. With a disaster like this, people would be running for as many healers as they could find. “Just a few more moments and you’ll be standing again.” The Healers’ Guild was creating new spells all the time. It was amazing, the things they could do.
Everything would be fine.
It felt like an impossible length of time before she finally heard the words, “I’ve got a healer!” and a man joined them on the ground, apparently unconcerned that his fine linen trousers would be soiled. Alcina’s relief was dampened as she noticed the colour of the metal around his throat and wrists, in his ears, and on every single finger. Green. The colour of healers dedicated to childbirth. Not the sort of healer they needed.
But healers were given knowledge of all areas of medicine by their Guilds, as scribes were taught every area of law. He looked fairly young. Perhaps he would remember.
“I’m here to help you, Dalas,” he said in a gentle tone, possibly recognising her from her High Scribe uniform. “I know you’re in a lot of pain, but I have to make you steady before I can soothe you. Do you understand?”
Dalas was unable to answer. She wasn’t even looking at the healer. Alcina doubted her mother knew he was there.
The healer removed one of his rings from the third finger of his left hand and held it four inches above Dalas’ chest. It glowed, but only dimly. The healer glanced at Alcina and shook his head.
“Don’t you dare do nothing!” Alcina hissed at him.
The healer put that one ring back on and took four others from the fingers of his right hand. He placed one on Dalas’ throat, on each shoulder, and on her stomach. A green glow appeared between them. He gently put his hand on Dalas’ chest. “Listen to me, Dalas. Listen to the tone of my voice, not the words.” And he began to speak with a vocabulary that was gibberish to Alcina, delivered in the form of the recitative common to operas, words rising and lowering in pitch but falling short of singing.
Alcina had never liked opera.
The healer pressed his hand right against the wound and Dalas cried out at the pain. The healer kept speaking.
Pametan had drifted close, too close, his gaze on Dalas instead of their surroundings. Alcina didn’t blame him. Dalas had never been injured under his eye.
The healer, without a break in his speech, shook his head again.
No. That was not possible. He was right there. Her mother wasn’t going to die.
But then the healer stopped speaking, pulling away his hands.
Alcina grabbed his arm. “Keep trying.”
“Do you want to speak with her?” the healer countered.
He didn’t move. “Do you want the last words to fill her ears to be from a stranger or from a loved one?”
If she had any final words for her mother, she had to say them right then.
It couldn’t be happening.
Alcina blinked her tears from her eyes, so she could see her mother clearly. She bent down, putting her forehead against Dalas’ temple. “I love you, Mother.” She could barely get the words out. “You are my model. I hope to be everything you are.”
“I’m so sorry,” Pametan whispered. “I failed you. I’m so sorry.”
High Scribe Dalas Noatak died.