a novel of the Collegia Magica
The Soul Mirror - Chapter 1
by Carol Berg
36 Nieba, midday
881st year of the Sabrian Realm
"Here we are, Damoselle de Vernase." My escort drew aside the overhanging pine branches so I could better view the disturbed ground. A raven flapped away, screeching, scraping my already stripped nerves. The shallow ravine was heavily wooded, preventing any glimpse of the severe gray walls or the round, slate-roofed towers my younger sister had called home for the last seven years.
Lianelle had once told me that forests were the perfect representation of magic: roots that delved deep into the rich, layered loam of all that had come before, shadow and light, growth and decay, mystery and life. All of it connected and balanced, ever changing, yet old beyond history. My sister had lived for magic. And now she had died for it - all her merry teasing, her laughter, her brilliance wasted on lies, dead dreams, and superstition.
The wiry little man shuddered and licked his pale lips with an overlong tongue. "Mage Bourrier says that, for the last tennight, Acolyte Lianelle has scarce been seen about the collegia. Whatever she was working on, it was certainly not her assigned duties or lessons. The alchemical stores were dreadfully out of order, the aviary unswept, and she had not yet submitted her essay on theoretical formulae for shape transformations. One of the tutors found her out here. Evidence bespoke a magical explosion . . . as I told you. Horrid."
And then they had dug a hole and thrown her in without a song or a prayer or a kinsman's touch to bid her farewell. A girl of seventeen. Horrid could not even begin to describe it. What of despicable, vile, unconscionable?
Yet another spasm of pain shivered my heart. Anger and resentment burned in my chest like fiery ingots, and I wanted to yell and weep and curse every stone of this place and every bastion of Heaven. But I swallowed the knot in my throat and clamped my jaw tight. Anne de Vernase did not crumble before strangers.
The patch of raw earth scraped out of the scorched bracken had been outlined with salt and sprinkled with herbs, likely some magical foolery intended to keep evil away - or contain it. Unbelievable that anyone could countenance such nonsense, when academicians could view the structure of a salt crystal through magnifying lenses and write treatises cataloging its properties. Every day scholars and academicians unmasked another enchantment as a fraud.
Only Lianelle had ever been able to fool me into thinking there was any substance to sorcery. "Certainly not in the common practices," she would say, with a mixture of excitement and worldly wisdom laughable in a girl who had spent almost half her life within these walls. "Most large magical workings are illusion, and anything for sale in the marketplace is a waste of good coin. But the fundamentals - spellwork, binding power, elemental linkages between natural objects - those are real. That's what I study at Collegia Seravain." And then an oriole would settle on the top of her head or the hearthfire would flare into stringy flames the deep blue of iris, and Lianelle would swear she had not thrown lamp oil in the hearth to make it burn so strangely or sprinkled seeds in her hair to attract the bird, but had done it all with magic. Laughing.
I folded my arms in front of me as if by force of will I might not lose the last bits of her. My sister. My dearest friend in the world. How could she be dead?
Their salt barrier had not lasted even a sevenday. Rain or animals had already blurred and broken the white lines.
"You've not marked her burial place with so much as a stick," I said, the magnitude of the hurt leaving privacy and dignity in ruins. "Did no one recall she had family to mourn her, to give her honor to ease her Veil journey? Why was she not taken to a proper deadhouse?"
My companion's fluttering hands dismissed my concerns, his bony wrists protruding from his sleeves as if he had put on a younger apprentice's gown. "The chancellor determined we could afford no delay in such untidy circumstances. A master mage came from Merona and laid heavy enchantments about her body to ensure nothing of her mistakes lingered to harm others. Being ungifted, you perhaps would not understand."
Ungifted. Paeans to the Pantokrator and his saints that I was ungifted in the ways of magic! Better to be plain, plodding Anne than dead like my gifted sister or locked away unable to tell day from night like my gifted mother. With my brother four years' hostage to a king's vengeance, I seemed to be the only functioning member left of a family my father had once named "as perfectly balanced as the elegant ellipses of the planets." My father, who had explained the world to me, only to prove his every word a lie. My father, the royal diplomat, the man of science, the traitor.
I squeezed my arms tighter, fingers pressing to the bone. "This land belongs to the collegia?" I scanned the rugged landscape for some fence or marker.
"Yes. Though much of our lower, flatter land has had to be sold off, a disgraceful result of the king's new tax levies¾the forest reaches and cliffside lands remain under our hold."
"Then certainly the mages will not object to me placing a stone marker scribed with my sister's name here. A small thing. Out of the way." Too little, too cold, too hard to remember a bright spirit. "She died while in the school's care."
"Um . . . I will have to inquire, of course. I was told only to show you." The balding man, not a day younger than fifty years, chewed his nails like a schoolchild. The masters of the collegia had sent an aging apprentice¾a nobody¾to guide me here. Someone who could answer not one of my thousand questions. No adept, no mage, and certainly no master could spare the time to explain why a sixth-year student at Collegia Magica de Seravain had been found half-buried in last year's leaves, her flesh scorched and her fingers missing. I supposed I should be grateful they had notified me at all.
My guide scuttered up the slope of the ravine on his way back to the forest path.
For two hours I sat outside the collegia gates, awaiting word that the mages would allow Lianelle's grave to be marked. The autumn day waxed warm and hazy. Fibrous streaks of cloud left the sky brownish gray rather than blue, promising rain by nightfall, a welcome change. Even the leafy wood that crowded the narrow lawn appeared dry, its greens grayish, the undergrowth already dying. I crushed the surging emotions of previous hour until they had subsided to a familiar fevered dullness. Until I felt dead, too.
"Damoselle de Vernase!" The balding apprentice called out from behind a wicket gate in the gatehouse wall. "Chancellor Kajetan agrees to the marker. The stone must be cut small and designed to lie flat on the ground. When it is ready, the stonemason should apply to the groundskeeper, and he'll be taken to the site. Now, will there be anything else?"
Anything else? Everything else! My skin flushed hot, then cold, then hot again. Choked by events I could not allow myself to feel, I could spit out only the mundane. "My sister's things," I said. "I should take them with me."
The jittery apprentice glanced over his shoulder. Well behind him, in the rectangle of sunlight at the far end of the dark gate tunnel, a broad-shouldered man leaned on a white stick and stared back at me. His features were indistinct, save for dark brows and thick black hair that threatened escape from a bound or braided queue. A silver band glinted from his neck - a mage collar.
"If anything of a personal nature is discovered, it will be forwarded to you along with the girl's death warrant," said the apprentice. "This concludes our business. Divine grace, damoselle." The wiry man slammed the wicket and retreated into the shady tunnel. Once he exited the tunnel, the arched rectangle of light was empty.
So that was that. The sorcerers of Collegia Seravain had not allowed me even to step inside their door. Suffering such disrepute as they were already, they likely feared my unsavory family connections would taint them irreparably.
Five years previous, my father had enlisted three sorcerers of the Camarilla Magica in his scheme to overthrow his oldest friend, the King of Sabria. The three had been caught using grotesque, murderous means to "enhance their power for magic" and paid the price on the headsman's block. My father yet eluded capture. The penalties for his infamy had been paid only by his victims and his family.
I hiked the long dusty road down the hill to the whitewashed village of Seravain. As constant practice taught me, a rapid walk helped loose the knots in one's belly.
In the village I endured another two-hour wait, this time for the stonemason to return from mending a customer's springhouse. To contract with the stonemason to engrave a small plain marker with Lianelle's name and embed it in the ravine took two silver kentae and no time at all.
The stonemason gave me the name of the village baker's half-wit son, who might be spared long enough to drive me down to Tigano. From there I could take the evening coach back to Vernase. I'd be lucky to get home before middle night.
"Damoselle Anne! Anne de Vernase!" I'd not yet rounded the village well to the baker's house, when the shout halted me. A fair-haired man came pelting down the road from the collegia, the long sleeves of his gray gown flapping behind him like pennons in a Feste Vietre parade.
I waited for him in the middle of the deserted road.
"You're Lianelle's sister?" He skidded to a stop not a handsbreadth from my nose. Sweat dribbled through the fine layer of dust coating his boyish face, and plastered tendrils of pale hair to his high forehead.
I stepped back to leave a more comfortable space between us. "Sonjeur?"
"I'm Guerin - Adept Guerin - Lianelle's instructor in semantics - lexicography, cryptonymics, and all that. And her friend, I think."
My sister had written about her semantics instructor a number of times. Wizardly talented, she had called him, and wickedly handsome. Lianelle had never been temperate in either speech or living.
"She mentioned you."
"We were just beginning- " The adept's voice faltered. Puffing out his cheeks, he released a long, shaking exhale, then held out a small roll of red leather tied with string. "The day before she died, she asked me to post this to you. But I'd not gotten around to it, and in the upset, forgot I had it. When I heard you were here today . . . Oh, saints and angels, damoselle. I am so sorry."
His sorrow enveloped me like a fire-warmed blanket on a winter night, more welcome than any word or artifact. But I dared not accept such seductive gifts. Grief had broken my mother.
I nodded and said nothing
His fingers were slow to release the leather packet. The bundle was heavy for its small size, the smooth leather warm and damp from his hand. A folded paper protruded from the flap.
"They've had me into her dormitory cubicle to decode some papers. Said she was plotting with her father. But they were only notes she took in my tutorials." His frowning gaze lingered on his hands, as if the troublesome bundle remained there. "I had no idea her father - your father - was - "
A woman banged open her door and yelled at her daughter to come in for supper.
Guerin glanced about uneasily. "I must get back, before¾ I've duties."
His imminent departure raised a fluttering panic, questions crowding and bumping to get through my constricted throat. "They'll not tell me what happened," I blurted. "Only that she was trying to work some enchantment that was too advanced. What was she doing? I swear on my hope of Heaven, she had no dealings with our father. And why would they bury her so quickly? Why in secret? Why in that ravine?"
"I know little more than you." His wide brow knotted. "She was upset that morning. Begged off my tutorial, swearing me not to report her absence. Said she had something dreadfully important to do. She asked if I still had this, and when I said I did, she pulled out that paper and scribbled your name on it - so I would be sure to get it right, she said. She could have been going anywhere. Students often cut through the ravine to avoid the door warden. But I had this awful, sick feeling about her all day. When she didn't attend her afternoon tutorial, I went looking for her the first moment I was free."
He tightened his jaw and closed his eyes for a moment.
"A small, focused explosion killed her," he went on, "damaging her chest and her hands. But whether it was the fire or the impact or the magic itself did the mortal damage, I couldn't tell. There were no particles lying around - no objects used in the spellwork - that might tell me what she was attempting. The magical residue was of a kind wholly unfamiliar to me, and once I'd summoned my superiors, I wasn't allowed to examine her again. But my mind refuses to let it go, as it just doesn't make¾ You see, your sister was a very good student, damoselle. Talented. Eager, but not rash. She should have been a first-rank adept long ago."
A frigid hand squeezed my heart. "Are you saying that someone else did this to her?"
"No. The magical signature was hers alone. There was not so much as a bootprint near her." He rubbed his arms and stepped backward. "I am so sorry. So very sorry."
This could not be everything. Though it scalded my tongue to speak of it, I had to know. "Adept, surely you know the kind of vile sorcerers my father was involved with, and what they did to Ophelie de Marangel, to others. Lianelle wasn't - "
"Certainly not!" He hushed me with the words, his eyes darting at the windows and doors open to the cooling evening. "No one was bleeding her, damoselle. Nothing I saw . . . nothing I knew of her . . . suggested she was being used for power transference. Divine grace, lady."
Before I could ask more, he was trotting back up the road.
Certainly Lianelle could have made a deadly mistake. She was forever rash, and always headstrong. I'd spent half my life cleaning up her messes. And a determination to prove she was more than just a traitor's daughter could easily have led her to overreach. But someone had failed her. Failed in protecting, failed in teaching, failed in caring.
Inexpressible fury set my whole body trembling, so that every step down the road required an act of will. My sister was dead and no one would tell me why. But she was the daughter of Michel de Vernase, and slander already tainted her memory in a place that should have been her shelter. Had her tutors murdered her before fifty witnesses here in Seravain village square, no one in the world would care, and I could do not a blasted, bloody, wretched thing about it.
"Let me roust Remy, damoselle. He'll parse you up to the house. It's past middle-night." Mistress Constanza, the proprietress of The Cask, watched the Tigano coach rattle out of her rutted inn yard. Her ample figure filled the bright-lit doorway of the sole inn in Vernase. Wavering yellow light spilled around her robust silhouette, along with the sounds of hearty laughter, boisterous conversation, and well-lubricated singing. "If you'll pardon my saying, dearie, you've got the look of a rug's been beat too many times."
"I think I'd rather walk home tonight, thank you, Constanza. The rain has left the air so pleasant after the hot day."
"Sure you won't come in and ease your bonesprits with a cup?"
"Not tonight, mistress." I could not bear the thought of company, the sidewise glances, knowing nods, and incessant murmurings: Treason . . . unholy sorcery . . . wife near burnt the place down . . . the wild boy prisoned . . . the youngest so odd . . . that plain'uns the eldest, no feelings, corked tight as a swollen bung, damned her own father . . . Gossip helped fill the friendly Constanza's ale mugs, but my family had provided enough of that for a lifetime of swilling.
"As you will, dearie." As I picked my steps carefully across the inn yard, she called after me. "Is your brother hale, then, damoselle? Such a direful confinement in the river damp. I perspected perhaps this journey . . . so sudden . . . Or was it the contessa, sweet angeli comfort the poor dear lady? Still helt in the mountains with her kin, is she? Her brothers tend her, I think?"
"My brother endures, mistress." Though when I wrote Ambrose this day's news, he would surely batter his head to pulp against his prison walls. "And my mother's condition is unchanged. Thank you for your concern."
My aching back would have appreciated transport, even in Constanza's rickety donkey cart, but I had used up the last of my ready money for the stonemason and the coach fare. I'd not so much as a kivre to tip Remy. On another day, the petty humiliation of such impoverishment might have bothered me more. But all such nagging worries had long coalesced into a single overriding truth: My family was broken, and nothing in the wide, starry universe was ever going to repair it.
The steep hike up to Montclaire stretched very long and very dark. The only sentient being I encountered along the path was the soldier assigned that particular portion of the estate's encircling watchposts. Four years they'd kept up this stranglehold, lest the traitor conte abrogate his celebrated intelligence and attempt to visit the family he had abandoned.
The insolent guardsman near singed my hair with his torch as he examined my face and questioned my late excursion. With well-practiced hauteur, I rebuffed his attempts to pry out gossip. By the time I let myself through our outer gate, climbed the last swell of the hill, and used the faint light from the stable lamp to step carefully through the churned muck of the yard, the moon had set.
A sturdy man, more grizzle on his chin than on his round head, awaited me on the flagstone terrace, lamp in hand. "Mistress Anne, we have a - "
"It'll have to wait until morning, Bernard. I can't think another moment."
Underneath the spreading walnut tree, that dearest of men traded his lamp for my cloak. He wore the faded purple jacket and breeches, meticulously white linen shirt, and threadbare hose that he donned in the evenings when he became footman, chamberlain, and porter after a day spent as gardener, vintner, carpenter, and steward. "My lady, I must tell you¾"
"Please, not now."
Even his urgency could not penetrate my leaden spirit. Almost everything Bernard had to tell me was urgent: The grapevines were dying; the roof needed patching; the chimney in the reception room was clogged with starlings' nests. Always and ever.
But, of course, he did not deserve to be chastised for it. I summoned one more breath of control. "Thank you for waiting up. Angels' peace be with you this night. And to Melusina the same."
Bernard's wife Melusina also played multiple roles: cook, housekeeper, laundress, and maid. In truth, we three did everything around Montclaire, and it was never enough. The most beautiful house in Sabria was slowly falling to ruin, yet today and tonight I could not care.
"Is it true, then, about the little one?" he called after me softly, as I started toward an open door into the house.
I looked back. "Yes, it's true."
The soft circle of lamplight illuminated his round, ruddy face as it crumpled in grief. His sorrow tore at me like hot pincers. If I stayed to comfort him, I would be undone.
But when I stepped into the small parlor beyond the open doorway I at last grasped what Bernard had been trying to tell me, what a burning stable lamp and fresh muck should have told me, considering I had sold the last of our horses two years past. An unfamiliar cloak lay over a small traveling case, and a tray bearing the bony remains of boiled fish sat on a small table beside a half-empty decanter of wine.
We'd had no visitors at Montclaire since a few months after the trial, when my mother's irrational behavior had grown severe enough we could no longer mask it. Only creditors, or wanderers in search of work or custom, neither of which we could provide, had wandered by. And, of course, yesterday's messenger from Seravain. Saints shield me from worse news.
Leaving the lamp behind, I peered through the inner doorway into the foyer. A slim, stiff-backed gentleman with close-trimmed brown hair and hands clasped behind his back was examining my father's telescope, on display between the curving arms of the grand staircase. Though richly made, the visitor's garments were unadorned and conservative in cut. Black and gray. No puffs, no ruffs, no trailing lace or colored ribbons. His modest height topped me by little more than a handspan. Familiar . . .
I eased past the arched doorway, hoping to glean his identity before choosing to engage or escape his attention. But he must have heard my footsteps. He pivoted sharply.
"Damoselle Anne," he said, bowing slightly and exposing the back of his left hand on his right shoulder as Sabrian law required of those born to a family of magical inheritance.
The law required the same of me, no matter that my father was not born to the blood and that I took no supernatural gift from my mother's family. But anger erased every other concern at recognizing the slight, soft-spoken man. This was the questioner. The wheedler. The Royal Accuser. The king's odious secretary or investigator or agente confide - whatever he was - who, with relentless pursuit and irrefutable logic, had destroyed my family.
"Sonjeur de Savin-Duplais," I said, wrestling to find words contemptuous enough to drive him away. "How dare you come here?"
Copyright © Carol Berg, 2010