by A.C. Stewart
4592 words. This is the second draft version of my WIP.
Four years ago
The night, I felt, was made for going back on your bravery.
I stared out into the dark swell of the ocean ahead of us, listening to my father--the founder of the Order of Psalters--give a final lesson before I met with my first client.
"Like a kingdom, an organization can be toppled by those inside it," he said. "Only a fool would have his eyes set on outside threats without being aware of the way his men grow restless when they feel they aren't being listened to. We have to make sure even the smallest voice is heard."
Except Aillard's wasn't a small voice--he was resounding, and he'd taken half a dozen of my father's men to his side, all of them chirping his same words: If you want our respect Charles, you'll let the Order use her powers.
I had wanted this. How many times had I begged him to let me come when he was meeting with a client or a sponsor?
But now that it was forced on me . . .
The feel of my father's hand on my shoulder shook me from my anxious thoughts. His grip was firm, fingers digging into bone. "Quillan," he said. "Breathe."
I hadn't realized I'd stopped breathing. I'd been so focused on the shadows that swathed the dock, the sound of the ocean whirring and crashing against the cliff sides west of us. My cloak was already soaked through, the soles of my boots creaking against the slippery wood beneath us as I shuffled uneasily. "I'm not ready," I admitted, ducking from his heavy gaze. Rain pelted everything around us, bouncing off the imported goods sealed away in crates, slicing through the small arc of light the lanterns at the trading strip offered.
Water slid down the bridge of my nose, resting against the bow of my lip. We didn't have time to stop and let me have this moment. If we were late--if the book got wet--Cirrilo wouldn't close the deal.
My father let me have the moment anyway.
"You've always been ready," he chastised. I cowered at his tone and he pinched my chin, forcing me to look him in the eye. "It's always been in you. Don't think you're lacking because you were forced to keep it hidden."
Forced. By a childhood spent on the run, by the decree that books weren't allowed to be kept, let alone opened by someone like me.
I swallowed back the bitter feelings that forced brought.
The kingdom made it clear that books were for their control, not to be trifled with by commoners.
For people like us, who went against those laws, life was spent hidden. The Order gave us the opportunity to peek out from those doors that were closed to us.
It gave us faith.
I nodded, the action shaking my father's grip away. My hand reached for the box the book was stored in, hidden under my cloak.
If it wasn't the time or the rain that could turn this night on its feet, then it was the patrols that frequented the strip. "We should move," I said.
The rain continued as we stalked across the long waterfront, keeping close to the darkness that overhung from the cramped merchant offices along this block. There was one particular building we were headed for. It was the only office lit at this hour. Cirrilo let us in, a frown on his face as he watched water drip from our clothing onto the glistening floorboards below. "Did you have to take the wettest path over here?"
I looked to my father, waiting for him to stamp Cirrilo's tone with an iron heel. I'd seen him reprimand men plenty of times, but he said nothing, instead sweeping his wet-slick hair from his face and regarding the client with a warm smile. "The rain started halfway here. We would have taken a carriage if we knew it was coming."
Cirrilo was a handsome man, much younger than my father. He looked to be in his twenties, with black hair that was cropped closely to his head and a sharp chin. His mouth was perfectly symmetrical, and I watched as he continued with his complaints. "Why is there a child in my office, Charles?"
I am not a child, I thought. I hoped he could see the defiance in my face as he looked me over. At fourteen, I knew I wasn't going to be taken seriously by most in the trade. But child was a stretch.
"Who do you think opened it?"
He shut his trap at that, leading us into his study without saying any more. My father had gone over what we were to do before we left the shop, but I found myself distracted by the mounds of documents on the desk in here. By the wall of maps, all obviously made by a different cartographer, each rendered in such individual style. A short-haired hound lay in a pile of blankets in the corner. The dog lifted its head, watching us for a few seconds before going back to sleep.
I pulled the box from my cloak as the client sat down, my ring snagging in the fabric. I tugged it free with a jerk, causing me to lose my feeting. Recovering, I clutched the box and waited until the flush in my cheeks to leave.
Tonight was the first time I was allowed to wear the ring--now that I was officially a member of the Order--and I wasn't used to having any type of jewellery on me. It was plated in gold, with a flat face. Engraved on the front was a cursive P. I donned some dry gloves, covering the ring entirely from view.
Unwrapping a muslin cloth from the box with shaking fingers, I flipped the latch open. The book came free with a plume of dust and straw and I bit my lip, using my glove to wipe away any specks of dirt. I must have accidently shaken the parcel on the walk over.
Cirrilo was quiet as he watched, and I looked to my father for reassurance that I hadn't screwed the deal. Books were meant to be kept in the best condition possible.
He gave me a comforting, close-lipped smile. Father had lost weight in the years since my mother had passed, the skin around his face looser than it had been then, his beard longer. His brown eyes were still the warm color I'd always known, only now they were framed with deep-set wrinkles.
I cleared my throat. "It was difficult to open, but I was able to eventually breach it."
Difficult was putting it lightly. The book had taken me three weeks to open--and had caused me to lose whole afternoons to blinding headaches.
But once it was done we were able to ascertain its contents. A journeyman's book, filled with detailed maps of lesser known oceanic channels. Routes that hadn't been taken in fifty years.
My father was the one who'd let Cirillo know that we had something every merchant in the city would be interested in. He'd heard of his wealth, heard that he ran an empire of goods he charted into Aelhallow.
Now it was time for us to take a cut of that wealth.
My mind went instantly for the book. The quicker I showed the client what I could do, the more willing he'd be to empty his coffer.
I spoke to the book, opening a path where it could hear me and I could hear it and anyone around us could feel the way I pierced the bond that made it what it was.
"Can you hear the ocean?" I began.
"I can," it delighted. "And it has been so long."
"You'll be able to hear it more often," I said. "You have the chance to sail again, to retrieve the treasures written in your pages. I'm giving you over to your new home."
The book let out a satisfied noise, any lingering magic falling from its leather binding.
I waited for my own magic to fall away, to lead me back to the office before I spoke. "The book will no longer lock itself away. Whatever the curse did to it, it no longer suffers from magic."
Cirillo's mouth was agape. He shook himself, blinking as if he wasn't sure if any of this was real.
I gave up the book, my hand instantly chilled once it was gone from my grip. I had become accustomed to the warmth of its tawny leather.
Just to let him know that I was good enough, that I deserved to be here as a member of the Order, I straightened my back and said, "I hope my display was enough to show you how serious the Psalters are about our plans for the future of this kingdom."
He swallowed. "Of course" he said, almost as if he wasn't aware he could speak yet. He turned, "Charles I didn't dare believe the message you sent me. But now. If you need . . . I'd be happy to support the cause."
I smirked despite the fact he didn't bother to address me. Not only was he willing to pay for the book, but he now wanted to offer his sponsorship. My father had gone over with me many times about how the Psalters acquired support from not only common folk, but also powerful men like Cirillo.
Seeing it first-hand was invigorating.
I waited outside while they talked over the details, letting the shower of rain wash away the side-effects of using my magic. It left me with only a roaring feeling of power rushing through my veins.
I was powerful.
My skin felt hot under the waterlogged dress I wore. I'd done it--I'd sold the first book opened by my hand.
After a few minutes he stepped from the office, his arms laden with pouches of coins. "I can't fit them all in my pockets. Here," he said, handing me some of the small sacks. "Make yourself useful."
I let out a half-wild laugh. I had made myself useful. I'd secured us enough money to pay rent on the many apartments and warehouse blocks the Order used for their activities.
"I have plans for the shop now that we know you can do this. I'll have the men move the press from the basement and we can set up a room to meet with clients in there."
The shop. Ironhold books. It was only a front for my father's endeavours within the organization. On the outside, it looked like every other bookshop along the Paper District, where we sold only kingdom-approved novels.
Now it had the potential to be so much more.
"How does it feel to be an initiate of the Order?" he asked.
I skipped over a puddle, my smile big enough to fracture the years worth of doubt that had hovered over me like a storm cloud. "It feels like I can do anything."
"I went to lengths to bring it here."
The slap of his girdle book hitting the counter broke me from my concentration, as did the young man who stood over me, watching me talley the inventory of my latest shipment into the ledger under my nose. I set down my pen, irritation flaring through me.
I could feel Eira's gaze on me from where she was shelving the new stock. My friend--the second half of Ironhold Books--wanted to see how I'd react.
It wasn't common for a client to come to me with a book they wanted opened, but even less so for someone to prance in with no care for the anonymity this part of my work required.
I looked to the puckered leather that made up the exterior of the girdle pouch the book was encased in. It might have been wretchedly ugly, but at least I could gauge how old it was.
And how much trouble it might cause.
The young man cleared his throat at my silence, his previous confidence melting away with each second he waited for me to speak. He dropped his gaze to the floor, leaving me with only a downward angle to view his features. Straight nose, sharp cheekbones and golden, feathery lashes that matched the tones of his curly hair. I knew by looking at him that he came from money, with the fine make of his clothing and the way he seemed to be completely unaware of the danger having such a book out in the open was.
Even the prospect of money wasn't enough to keep the bite from my reply. "Did you stop to consider the risk you put me in by bringing it here?" I gestured to the vast room. The bookshop was empty, but the door was open to the streets outside. Anyone could have walked in to witness what this man probably thought was a subtle introduction. "I have a certain way of doing things, you see."
He shuffled with uncertainty, playing with the cuffs of his shirt. "Was I supposed to send a note ahead--"
I raised a palm up towards him, "Put it away."
He fumbled for the book, slipping it inside his doublet. Some of the tension in my shoulders and neck released. I didn't bother to see if he was following as I got up and strode for the private quarters. Instead, I called over my shoulder to him, "I have a basement."
Eira would take over my position for now. I'd fill her in on the details after this was over.
The man hurried to catch up to me. "My family doesn't know I'm here. If my father caught word of it . . ." He stumbled over the words. I'd been in the business long enough to know what he meant. The book was likely an heirloom--somehow kept from the kingdom's hands even after the burials, where many saw their own private collections seized.
"We believe my great grandsir wrote his alchemical notes in it when he was abroad at the Institution," he finished.
We passed the cramped kitchen, the smell of sugar and melted butter filling
this part of the building. I paused at the door to my cellar, unlocking the bolt.
He stopped behind me. "Not that he was one of those alchemists. He was particularly fond of dew."
Dew had been a mild sect of alchemy to study. Perhaps he thought adding in the distinction would make me less wary of taking on the commission. I wasn't worried about alchemy--that only made it all the more interesting to me--but I was worried about whether or not I'd have angry family members showing up on my doorstep.
"What happens to me if your father finds out we're doing this?" I said as we took the worn steps down, stopping short of the door leading into the room my collection was stored. My hand paused on the handle as I looked up to him. He smiled at me, opening his arms in an inviting gesture. I could see past the faux, self-assured way he held himself--right through to the way the corners of his eyes wrinkled uneasily. "I'm always careful." He nudged me with his elbow. "I made a mistake before. I should have sent word ahead of my visit. But I was careful when I took the journal from my family's vault. No one will know I've brought it here."
I'd have to take his word for it. And working on something risky did have its appeals. Girdle-bound books had been popular among the aristocratic men who went off to expand their knowledge on suitable subjects. A journal from a student of alchemy . . . well, it was interesting.
I pushed the door open, enjoying watching him stiffen in the presence of the old books that lined the back wall, and gestured for him to take a seat at the table. The books had an uncanny way of knowing when to make themselves known.
He grimaced. "I didn't realise I'd be able to feel them."
I turned away from him to hide my smile. "They won't bite," I said as I slipped on my silk gloves and walked the length of the room. The bookshelf in here was a mural of colour and material. There were volumes with silver clasps and latticework, leather and silk and cloth. "Would you like to introduce yourself now, or do you prefer we do this anonymously?"
"No--that's okay," he said. "My name is Nolan. From the House Grayson."
"Mmmm." I pressed my lips together. Not the largest power in terms of the families around here, but still a substantial name. I could use it to my advantage. "You've heard of my rates?"
"I was actually hoping we could talk about--"
I spun to face him, an eyebrow crooked at his tone. "Double the figure in your head. Then we'll talk."
His pale skin flushed a deep red instantly. I watched him struggle internally for some kind of leverage, something to say. Often clients had the upper hand. But the ones that didn't . . . well, they just had to deal with doing things my way.
His gaze drew lighter, trailing my body, lingering where my plain dress cinched at the waist. He was going to take that direction, then. "I'd give you my title if I knew you'd do it. The price really isn't an issue," he said.
I scoffed. "I accept coins--not titles."
He threw his head back in laughter, blond curls spilling over his stiff collar with the movement, before meeting my gaze with glittering eyes. "They are synonymous, are they not? My money only comes from my name."
Oh, he's certainly testing me, I thought. I couldn't keep my smile from turning wild as I took a step closer to him. His face fell at whatever he read in my eyes.
"You wouldn't want me tarnishing your name," I said at a near-whisper. It was the truth. What I did was dangerous. Who I was . . .
Certainly not some quiet little would-be-wife for a man who didn't even know how to read a room.
I straightened with satisfaction at the horror painted on his face, pulling out the chair across from him while he recovered from his failed attempt at flirting. I ran my hands down the rough fabric of my dress as I sat. "Now that we've agreed on the issue of my prices," I said with a low tone. "I'd like to do a test breach of the book."
He swallowed thickly, producing the journal and pushing it across the table to me. "Of course," he said.
I was well-versed in my Bookcraft now, though it didn't come without problems along the way. Opening enclosed volumes could be difficult if I didn't give them what they wanted. As important as it was to know the client I was working with, it was more important to know the book.
It was an unknown art, as much as the reasons behind them closing themselves away from the world was unknown to the common people. When the High King had sent his soldiers to siege the First Library, when he'd declared the abysmal rows of sacred texts heretical and had them sent to the pits, the books had protested their fate.
A curse, and all those that had not gone to the earth would no longer open because of it.
I prodded the book with my mind, testing to see if it would react.
"Would you like to be told a story?" I said.
I could feel the way it yawned awake, a consciousness ebbing its way into my mind. "Yes," came the reply, slow and drawn-out.
That was enough for me. I pulled myself back to the basement, back to where Nolan watched me with an awed expression, the action like wading through tar. "I don't think it'll be too difficult to open. Give me some time to consider exactly what it could want, and I'll have it done. After payment, of course."
"Could I witness you do it?" he asked.
I paused, thinking of the other clients I had lined up. I might not have enough time. Often it took a few sessions to crack one of them. "I'm not sure . . ." I admitted.
"I'll pay more. What I just. . ." he paused, grappling with the words. "I--I've never felt anything like it."
"Leave it with me," I said quickly, running my fingers against the face of the book and pulling it closer. "Along with a way to contact you. When I'm near to opening it, I'll send a letter so you can be there."
He rose from his seat near dizzily. "Thank you," he said. "You have no idea what it will mean for my House to have this opened."
Even if you stole it from your father and made the gamble to leave it with someone like me? I thought bitterly. I could feel my mood souring, along with a subtle, pulsing pain at the front of my skull from using my power.
I needed to get him out of here before I truly snapped. "Eira will see you out. She'll give you my details too."
He was too stunned to question me. And if he hadn't noted Eira when he arrived here, he'd have to figure out who I meant on his own. I moved to stow the journal on my shelf, hoping I could get this over with quickly so that I could go upstairs and lay down before my headache worsened. It was always bad those first few times coming into contact with a new book.
He left silently, and I could feel my movements slowing as I went to lock up again. Gods, I was so tired already.
The ledger would have to wait until after I'd rested.
By the time I made my way upstairs and into the bookshop to tell Eira that I'd be absent for the next few hours, Nolan had already left. Looking at the terse smile on my friends face, though, I knew right away that there was an issue. She didn't even have time to warn me before the problem made itself known.
"I'm here to see Kavleta," Lord Olphet of the Porthouse said, stepping out from behind one of the aisles with a displeased look on his face.
The Councilman was one of my biggest clients. A right pain, he always demanded we do things on his terms--and hardly gave me any room to work with whenever I had a book he was interested in.
Kavelta wasn't ready to be seen.
And my headache was growing.
I glanced at Eira and could see the unspoken words she was throwing my way. We need the money, Quillan.
"Right," I said to Olphet, still reeling from Nolan's visit. "If you'll follow me then."
Eira bent her head respectfully as we passed, her light hair pinned in intricate braids around her head. By the looks of it, she had been in the process of finishing the inventory I'd been doing before Nolan arrived. I truly didn't know what I would do without her. When I'd had to take over the shop from my Father's name after his execution, she'd moved in straight away and had been here since, propping the business up when I was at my worst. Negotiating deals and working with the new publishing houses that were cropping up everywhere in the recent years, sending baked goods to clients when I offended them.
She even helped out where she could with the true side of Ironhold. The dealing of illegal books.
Keys out and doors unlocked, and I was back in the cellar already, Olphet at my rear. Until now, we'd negotiated over Kavleta through correspondence only. Why he was so eager to see the book now, when he hadn't mentioned a visit yet, was beyond me.
"Can you give an estimation on some of the materials used in the making of Kavleta?" Olphet asked as I patted at a spot on my neck. The air was damper here and I was breaking out in a sweat at the now-throbbing pain behind my eyes.
Kavleta was the name I'd managed to pry from the work at my first attempt at breaching. After three elaborate lies and a rather scandalous secret, the book still wouldn't open.
"Cloth-binding. The glue looks to be gelatine."
"Are there significant damages?"
"Some fade to the face, but it's being stored properly now. I can't say for the pages yet."
"So, it hasn't been opened?"
I paused, holding back my annoyance. As if there are others like me in the trade, I thought.
"I find that the worthwhile books are the most stubborn, Lord Olphet."
He huffed and I tried not to squirm under his gaze.
"I was hoping to have it archived with my collection immediately. Can I at least expect it in the next few days?"
I ran my gloved fingers along the books, extending my arm into the shelf so that I could push Kavleta forwards, mindful of using the spine to pluck it from its position. "Sir, I'll need at least a week--"
"I have business outside of the city. I really cannot wait longer than a few days."
I gritted my teeth, trying to think of something when he spoke again, "I suppose I can send Zillah instead." The set of his mouth was terse, though, creasing his brown skin and distracting from his hooked nose. "You have a week. Otherwise you might have to try another avenue."
He knows I'm not going to try another avenue.
"Of course," I replied with a docile tilt of my lips. I set the book on the table. Kavleta was a deep scarlet colour, with a nondescript face. The corners of it were notched with iron that was engraved with sigils.
I'd spent hours scouring codices for information on what it could be, and found hints that it might have been a grimoire, written around the forming of the sea-breakers.
The Porthouse was my first thought after that discovery, and I did not want the sale to fall through.
"I'll have her close the deal if she deems it ready on her arrival."
I made myself appear grateful that he was sending his daughter. "Thank you, Lord Olphet."
He nodded at me to continue and I opened my mind, feeling the book begin to stir.
I approached carefully.
"Was the last revelation really not to your liking, Kavleta?"
I felt the way it stretched its consciousness, awakening from the slumber. "One man's taking on a failed skirmish sits bitterly on the tongue, little one. We cannot be sure of its truth."
"And truths are what you wish for?"
"Oh, I know you like the feel of a little lie, sweet, but when one sits so long without a meal, one needs something more than stale cob bread. I should like a feast as delicate as braised lamb and buttered beans."
Glancing at Lord Olphet, I hoped that he wouldn't pick up on what I'd tried to tell the book. I could be punished severely for harbouring that kind of information. But Olphet sat with a smile across his face. The Lord always loved to watch me converse with my collection.
"Then I shall find you something grand." I stated, overselling it.
The book sighed, and I could feel its pleasure. "Something to ease the hunger, little one. Something big."