The Sanctuary Duet
Dust and Light - Chapter 1
by Carol Berg
Year 1291 of the Ardran Principality
Year 214 from the unification of Ardra, Morian, and Evanore as the Kingdom of Navronne
Year 1, Interregnum, mourning the death of Good King Eodward
Rumors flew into Palinur on a malignant north wind. After seven bloody months, Perryn, Duc of Ardra, Prince of Navronne, had battled his contentious brother Bayard back into the northlands. While frozen roads and rivers locked Bayard in the river county, Perryn was returning triumphant to his royal city. For better or worse, King Eodward’s throne was his. Navronne’s brief war of succession was over.
My unfocused anxieties felt somehow traitorous to my heritage. The politics of ordinaries shouldn’t touch me, a pureblood sorcerer, gifted by the gods to provide magic to the world. Were they yet living, my parents would berate me for unseemly distraction and my teasing brothers call me soberskull or grimheart. But the war had touched me, and would forever, no matter which prince won the prize.
The frigid air pricked like needles this morning. Another fretful night had left me nervy, as if bowmen stood on the rooftops, arrows nocked and aimed at my back. Ten times in the half quellé from my town house I’d spun around, imagining a pickthief fingering the gold chain about my neck. Now the babbling river of people flowing through the back lane of the Council District had come to a standstill, trapping me between a heavily guarded flock of squalling geese and a rickety tinker’s cart headed for some nobleman’s kitchen.
The blockage did naught for my composure. I’d determined to reach my studio at the Registry Tower early and had foolishly assumed the streets might be less crowded while the morning was yet dark as pitch. But refugees from the northern battles had swarmed into the city ahead of Prince Perryn’s legions. Barons and villeins, freeholders and crofters, monks, practors, and townsmen crammed the streets with wagons and carts, trading their belongings for what provision anyone could offer. What hopes people bore of sustenance in a famine year might be realized only in Palinur - and before the returning troops ravaged the remaining stores.
Fools, all. The new year had not yet turned, and Navronne already lay in the grip of yet another ruinous winter. Market stalls were bare, grain stores heavily guarded. Meat and fish commanded a price akin to rubies.
The poor light - a weedy torch here and a grimy wagon lamp there - scarce penetrated the murk. An escort to carry a lamp and clear my path was a luxury my purse could no longer support, and when my steward had offered to hire a linkboy, I’d refused, unwilling to wait. A poor decision. I was expert at those.
Exasperated, I squeezed past the tinker’s cart, only to end up ankle-deep in a stew of ice and muck, blocked yet again. Two men were pounding each other bloody, surrounded by jeering onlookers.
“Move aside!” Magelight blazed white from my hand, quieting the noise in the lane.
Most folk properly averted their eyes at the sight of my mask and claret-hued cloak and squeezed to the sides of the lane to let me pass. I could properly summon a constable to punish those who did not, but that wasn’t going to speed my progress.
Unfortunately, neither was the uncomfortably direct assertion of my prerogatives. A rag-topped cart crammed with women and children choked the lane ahead, while three men attempted to repair a broken wheel. The families had painted their foreheads with dung to appease whatever god they believed had brought this doom of war and winter on the world.
I considered reversing course altogether, but an alley sheering off to my left looked more promising.
The alley was certainly no garden path. I stepped over piles of unidentifiable refuse, a bloated cat, and a beggar, either sleeping or dead. But the empty quiet was a welcome contrast to the cacophony that rose again behind me. Only the wind sighed and whistled through the dark slot.
I dimmed my magelight. I needed to conserve power, rid myself of distraction, and focus on my work today. A portrait done the previous afternoon needed repairs before the Master of Archives inspected it.
Lucian . . . see . . .
I would not look back. Would not. The breathy words were naught but wind.
. . . meddling . . . end it . . .
. . . no saving him . . .
I made it halfway to the graying light at the far end of the alley before I whirled about and raised my light again to affirm that the touch on my shoulder and the footsteps—soft as bare feet on green grass—were mere imagining.
At six-and-twenty, I was a man of fit body and intelligent mind, a pureblood sorcerer of honorable bloodlines and with an exceptional magical bent for portraiture. Save for one small failure in discipline five years past, which had borne entirely unsubtle consequences, my conscience was clear. So why did I have this incessant sense of being watched? My eyes insisted that shadows darted away as I rounded corners and that wisps of colored light glimmered in the dark courtyards outside my windows. Only in the last tenday had my fancy added these whisperings just at the farthest limits of hearing. Warnings, but of what, I had no idea.
Not that I believed in them. That would be madness.
The sensations were not magic. Every day of my life was filled with magic. Nor were they ghosts. Were ghosts real, mine would be only three months raised and so numerous I could not mistake them. These oddities had gone on nigh half a year. Reason could explain none of it.
No matter reason or belief, my fears were undeniable. Reason did not always hold sway, and purebloods were not immortal.
Lucian . . . listen . . .
Without looking back, I raced from the alley into the busy boulevard that led uphill to the Tower.
By the time the city bells pealed ninth hour of the morning watch, I was glaring at the sketch propped on my easel. The subject, an overripe girl of fourteen, had come into the Pureblood Registry the previous day for her biennial portrait, which seemed a silly exercise in the face of such world-shaping events as war and disastrous winter. Instead of the pups and roses she wanted as her background setting, my fingers had insisted on drawing wrecked houses and hanged men. The girl’s grandfather Pluvius, Master of the Registry Archives and my own contract master, would most certainly disapprove, so I’d come in early to remove them with an unsatisfactory wash of ink.
Touching my pen to the portrait yet again, I raised the girl’s true image, shaped in my mind at her sitting. A quick comparison to the actuality on the page, and my will released the enchantment waiting in my fingers like liquid fire. A few quick strokes instilled a little more of the spoiled-daughter pout so clear in my mind’s eye. Better. Truth.
Even so mundane an evocation of magic filled me with awe and divine purpose. No matter personal grief or inexplicable megrims, magic held me centered—an inexhaustible source of wonder.
The fire in the grate had left the tower studio stifling. Blotting my fingers, I hurried across the cluttered chamber to the fogged casements and twisted the latch, welcoming a drift of cold air.
Better to be here than down below. My boots were dry. The air was quiet. A small fire blazed in the pocardon, the royal city’s ancient market - thankfully nowhere near the town house where my young sister remained secluded with our devoted servants - but I could not smell it. Here in the chambers of those who administered the lives of pureblood sorcerers, all was as it had ever been: serene, unhurried, andwell disciplined, separate from the chaos of ordinaries, as the gods intended.
A bitter draft swooshed through the tower room, riffling fifty loose pages before the door slammed shut again behind a rumpled giant.
“Earth’s Mother, Lucian! I thought I was never going to get here this morning.” Gilles dropped his pen case and sagged onto a stool, puffing and blowing, his cloak muddy and twisted halfway round, his hose ripped, and his mask drooping from the left side of his flushed face. “Some cursed lackwit found a stash of five pigs and let them loose. A thousand beggars were tearing each other apart to get at them.”
Despite the grim circumstance, I had to grin. “Pigs. And yesterday it was geese. And the day before - hmm - your manservant spilled your morning posset on your sleeve?”
Though the Albins, the wealthiest of all pureblood families, provided their son an armed escort party, he arrived most mornings in a similar state. Gilles attracted disorder like beggars attracted fleas. Tripping over his own feet or annoying his hound served as well as riot or ill wind.
I appreciated Gilles. He had mentored me when my first contract brought me to the Registry Archives, and he had taken it with grace when I was given a senior commission of six major portraits only a few years later. Although his uncle was a Registry curator, he had never been offered one.
Our skills meshed well; I worked better with younger men and with elders of both genders, Gilles with middle-aged women and fidgety children. We had even supped together several times over the years when our work kept us late. An ordinary might describe us as friends, though such frivolous relationships were discouraged in pureblood society.
“Surely Prince Perryn’s victory will settle the city,” I said, turning back to the window. “Of the three, he’s said to be Eodward’s truest son, noble in mind and bearing.”
“Bayard’s stubborn, though,” said Gilles, blotting his broad forehead. “And until he’s crushed entire or someone finds Eodward’s will saying which one inherits, Bayard won’t leave off fighting. But even Bayard the Smith couldn’t be a worse sovereign than the Bastard of Evanore or the Harrower priestess, may she writhe in Magrog’s chains for eternity.”
I actually knew very little of Perryn or Bayard or the third royal brother, the bastard prince who ruled the south, but every day of my life I would beg the gods for some fitting end for the vile priestess, Sila Diaglou. She and her fanatical Harrowers believed our ten-year siege of ruinous weather, the rampant plagues, diseases, famine, and war were humankind’s penalty for corrupt living. Harrower mobs had destroyed far too much of worth in their pursuit of purity and repentance, ravaging, burning, slaughtering innocents in the name of their vengeful Powers. . . .
I closed my eyes and summoned discipline. Emotions about the unchangeable past, especially when snarled with ordinaries and their politics, only cluttered a man’s thinking.
My grandsire had been wise to negotiate my first contract with the Registry itself. A historian of rare gifts, he had warned of the upheaval to come at mighty King Eodward’s death. Young and stupid, I had chafed at the limitations of a Registry position. A contract with a town, a hierarch, or a noble family outside Palinur would certainly have fetched better terms - more prestige, wider contacts, a better stipend to fill the family coffers - and surely more interesting work. But youthful folly had already squandered my grandsire’s favor that might have allowed my opinion to be heard.
The Pureblood Registry will endure, no matter the shifting loyalties and upsets of ordinaries, my father had said, trying, as ever, to ease the bitter gulf between my grandsire and me. The world cannot live without pureblood magic, and our survival, as well as our prosperity, is founded on Registry discipline. You’ll flourish there.
Unfortunately, Patronn had not lived long enough to see his own father’s predictions fulfilled. Nor had my grandsire, my mother, my brothers, nor any child or elder of my bloodlines - all of them dead in the ordinaries’ war. Only Juli and I were left.
“I just hope for order in the streets,” I said. “I’ve not taken my sister out in months. Her tutors have stopped coming; gone into hiding, I think. Yet she insists she should be out rebuilding the Verisonné Hospice or designing an enlargement of the Fullers’ Guildhall.”
“Rebuilding? Designing guildhalls? A girl of fifteen?”
“Idiot child. No one’s building anything until times are more settled. And without serving a proper apprenticeship, she’s like to build roofs that will collapse. Though, in truth, it’s not just that . . .”
I let it go. No need to bemoan my inadequacies as surrogate parent. Juli was immensely gifted, and star-eyed about her magic despite our personal sorrows. But her stubborn nature was going to bring us more grief.
“Oh!” Gilles clapped a hand to his head. “Almost forgot. I met Master Pluvius on the stair. You’re to attend him immediately in the Curator’s Chamber.”
“Great gods, Gilles!” I slammed the casement shut and raked fingers through my hair. Tugging my shirtsleeves straight and adjusting my wrought-gold belt, I eyed the blue velvet pourpoint I’d discarded when I began work, weighing the consequences of further delay against the disrespect of casual dress before my superior. Of course, Master Pluvius himself - forever fussing over me - had recommended I work in shirtsleeves to keep my outer garments clean. But he also held the future of a very important commission in his hand, and he was ferocious about promptness.
“Did he say what this was about?”
“No. Just that you should come immediately.”
“Sorry, Lucian!” Gilles’s call drifted after me, as I abandoned the pourpoint with its hundred button loops and raced for the upward stair.
“Lucian de Remeni-Masson, you've met Curator Pons-Laterus and Curator Albin, the Overseer of Contracts?"
My stomach knotted as I faced three senior administrators, attired not just in customary pureblood formality, but in their official gowns of black and wine-red stripes. I felt half naked in undertunic, shirt, belt, and hose. Stupid, stupid, stupid, not to take the time to present myself respectably.
Guilian de Albin, Gilles's uncle, looked like a sculpted idealization of a pureblood - long straight nose, his raven hair oiled and pulled back severely from a noble brow, thick-muscled body - and he fulfilled every expectation of such a figure. The Albins were not only the wealthiest but one of the most powerful, and definitely the most traditional, of families. I'd once heard Albin reprimand a fellow curator for allowing his own daughter to address him first.
And Pons, of all people. I'd had dealings with Pons. She knew the worst of me. Her black eyes, so like the pits of olives, had been pinned to my back every day for nigh on five years. Why was she here?
Summoning composure, I touched fingertips to forehead and bowed deeply to each. "I do have that privilege, Master Pluvius. Doma Pons. Domé Albin. Pardon my rude attire. My...uh...current occupations delayed the delivery of your summons."
I would not lie. Yet neither would I excuse my delay by blaming Gilles, even if his uncle weren't sitting in front of me.
"Sit, Lucian." Pluvius, the white-bearded Master of Archives, the robust, hearty historian who directed my work, motioned me to a stool in the center of the room facing the U-shaped table where he joined the other two. His sober expression told me nothing. Pluvius could dither like a nursemaid and bellow like a guard commander, all in the same hour over the same incident.
Natural apprehension at sudden formal meetings warred with rising hopes. Rumor said my commissioned portraits of the six Registry curators had won high favor. While following the formal style of previous official portraits, I had distinguished each with a more naturalistic background. Every instinct in me said the paintings marked a major step forward in my skills. They were pleasing in balance and form and the likenesses excellent as well as true.
Though the portraits were not yet hung in the Tower rotunda, Pluvius had quietly set me to preparations for a portrait of my grandsire, hinting a second senior commission might be involved. I'd been working late on preliminary sketches every night for a tenday, reaching deep into power and memory and grief to touch the truth of a man I had known better than any other living person. Without question, the sketches were the best work I'd ever done. It was time for me to move up.
Curator Albin inclined his head in my direction. "Your family's loss these three months since was a blow to all pureblood society."
Body and spirit grew rigid. His cool reference shuttered excitement and rising hopes as spilled ink blots a sketch.
"The Remeni have been elite for generations. And the Massoni were already so few. Both bloodlines nearly wiped out in a single night. Dreadful, tragic..."
Dreadful? Tragic? The words were entirely, grotesquely insufficient. No distance of time would ever ease the horror, its image embedded more deeply than any portrait my magic could create. The cool late summer night in the rolling hills outside Pontia, moonlight bathing our beauteous vineyards, still healthy amid the land's failure. Music and laughter bursting from the great hall of our family estate, as my grandsire, my mother, father, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins celebrate my youngest brother's first contract. Someone - my father? one of my uncles? - queries the first hint of smoke that was not candles or hearthfires. And celebration transforms to panicked horror as they realize the hall is ablaze and the doors barricaded.
Rampaging Harrowers had drowned my family's dying screams with their nonsensical chants about purity, repentance, and corrupt magic, or so the local magistrate had reported. Gleefully, I'd thought. The leering ordinary had worn a telltale of Harrower orange inside his jupon. Madmen were everywhere these days.
"...and, of course, it has left you in a difficult position - only six-and-twenty, lacking four years until you can be named Head of Family, yet serving a contract that expires in the spring. You will need a negotiator. Second Registrar Pons-Laterus" - he motioned to the woman beside him - "has graciously taken on that commission."
My chest near caved. My worst imagining come true.
In the past months I had pursued every remote family connection, hoping to enlist a competent advocate before the Registry appointed a random official to negotiate my next contract. But the war and the dreadful weather had made the great families wary of entanglements. And now, of all of them, the Registry had given me Pons. Goddess Mother...
The Second Registrar, a hard, sour woman as gray and blockish as the Tower itself, had served as Registry investigator for the city of Montesard during my years at the University, the years when my youthful indiscretion had brought disgrace upon my family and altered my future.
I exhaled smoothly. Do not let them see. Albin will think you an undisciplined child, as Pons does already.
"I am honored by this most generous gesture by the Second Registrar," I said, bowing in Pons's direction even as my gut churned. "But, perhaps...Master Pluvius once offered..."
"It is entirely inappropriate for your current Master to negotiate your next contract," snapped Albin, who'd had the final say on every pureblood contract for twenty years. "He cannot be objective."
Yet one could say the same about any Registry-selected negotiator. Pons would be strictly honest, no doubt, but she made no secret of her disdain. She believed family influence had unduly mitigated the consequences of my unseemly involvement with ordinaries in Montesard.
"But I'm sure the Second Registrar's duties demand her undivided attention," I said. "As my contract does not expire until almost mid-year, I've other avenues - "
"Alas, not so," said Albin. "All next year's contract expirations for Registry positions have been advanced. The stipends already paid will not be reclaimed for the unfulfilled months - an expensive sacrifice on our part. But our attention must be directed toward the new king, affirming our traditional cooperation and prerogatives. Your contract expires at midnight tonight."
Tonight! I could scarce squeeze out the necessary response. "Yes, of course, domé, that sounds wise."
Negotiations without preparation...altogether unwise. I needed to study my current contract, gather comparisons from other portraitists, convince the Registry to cede a more appropriate income for my skill level and perhaps shorter hours. Tutelage for Juli came dear and I needed to be available to chaperone her lessons. Then, too, this was likely my last chance to shape my future.
For almost thirty years, my father's father had served King Eodward as Navronne's Royal Historian, using his magic to read battlefields or borderlands, for delving into ruins or deciphering ancient texts to extract the sweeping truths of war, migration, and civilization. The king had credited my grandsire with helping him grow Navronne into a healthy, prosperous kingdom, renowned in the world - one with some chance to withstand this abrupt decline in the weather. I had longed to follow in his footsteps.
The gods had gifted me in exceptional ways, both with power for magic and with a family that indulged and nurtured it. My grandsire - our Head of Family - had been willing to challenge Registry tradition for me. And in a youthful lapse of discipline I had thrown it all away.
Disappointment and grief would never leave me when considering my grandsire. My determination to cleanse the stain I'd brought to his name had rested in the hope of more serious, substantial service than anniversary portraiture. But one did not display emotions, especially such private ones, outside the family.
"I suppose Curator Pons and I must finalize a proposal right away and set a contract meeting for this evening," I said.
Curator Albin crossed his arms and sat back in his chair, waiting.
Master Pluvius studied the table in front of his folded hands.
Pons planted her forearms on the table and leaned forward. Plain silver rings gleamed from her thick fingers as she tapped a sheaf of documents. "In truth, Remeni, the Registry has made no new offer for your service. As we've no time to solicit any other offers from outside, I've gathered together what open bids for portraitists we have already. Perhaps one of these will suit."
No new contract offer... My mind stuttered and reeled. Of course the Registry wanted me back. My work here had been exemplary. A senior commission while in my first contract. The promise of a second with my grandfather's portrait. Never a reprimand. My every moment since my disgrace had been given to improving both my art and the self-discipline my role in life demanded - to becoming a man worthy of the Remeni name. Master Pluvius had long said I could wrestle out details that made my subjects near step out of the canvas, allowing Registry investigators to identify any pureblood inerrantly. Lord of Fire and Magic, what had happened?
"I don't understand." My voice - properly calm and detached - might have belonged to someone else. "Have I somehow failed in my work, in my deportment? Master Pluvius?"
"Certainly not, lad. It is just an unfortunate rearrangement of the Archives. Unique circumstances. Unsettled times."
"First Curator Gramphier knows of this?" To invoke my personal connection with the highest ranking official of the Registry galled, but Gramphier had been my grandsire's longtime colleague. He had encouraged my Registry contract as a way for me to demonstrate my worth.
Pons settled back in her chair, her face impassive save for the touch of scorn on her thin lips. "Naturally Gramphier knows. But if you wish to let your contract lapse as we solicit new offers for your service, we can halt this right now. You could contact me when your intellect is functioning at some useful level."
Bitter truth quenched my hapless protests. My service must be sold. Juli and I had no other income. Our Ardran vineyards had frozen two winters running; who knew if they would ever come back? And, along with every person in the world we loved, our family's treasury had been lost in the Harrower raid. We were nearing the end of the funds my father had provided for my maintenance in Palinur. Juli had brought my last stipend on a visit to the royal city. A sudden overload of work had prevented me from escorting her home in time for our brother's celebration, else we would have burned alongside the rest of them. I needed a contract. And the curators knew it.
"No, no, Doma Pons. Certainly I'll hear these bids."
Registrar Pons read through each application in her stack.
A Karish abbot sought a pureblood artist to travel alongside, illustrating prayer cards to enlighten unlettered villagers.
A customs official on the eastern borders needed charts of goods carried through the border station for taxing purposes.
"...and your skills at reflecting the inner person would suit this Trimori mine," she said, waving an age-yellowed parchment. "The governor wishes to ferret out spies from common felons sent to labor in the pits."
"A traveling position is out of the question," I said, "as are those in remote or military outposts. My sister is a maiden of fifteen without other family. I must see to her education."
And the stipends these offered were pitiful. None would support a pureblood household, much less allow me to accumulate the wherewithal to rebuild our family. These bids had gathered dust in the Registry vaults because they were insults.
Swelling anger threatened my composure. Purebloods bound themselves and their children into service on the assurance that they would be provided every dignity and comfort they had at home, as well as the means to grow their families' resources to withstand such troubles as war and famine. We held the power of magic, the greatest gift of the gods to a troubled world. Wealth kept us independent of ordinary life, enabling us in turn to preserve, nurture, and enhance that life for all.
"Well, then..." Frowning, Registrar Pons thumbed through the stack and pulled out one. "I see only one that might suit. One Bastien de Caton offers a position here in Palinur. He requires line drawings for purposes of identification. Compensation left to negotiation. But it is only a one-year contract. Do you wish to interview the master?"
I leapt at the offer before an angry outburst could disgrace me further.
"No need to interview him." Identification portraits were exactly what I was doing already. And for only the year. In the interim I could find a better advocate and search more thoroughly. "An offer in Palinur suits best. If I am required to live in, I'll at least be able to look in on my sister. As long as the contract meets Registry standards..."
Registry contracts were quite strict about personal security, respectful address, comfortable accommodation and sustenance, and permissible penalties for unsatisfactory work. My age left me no standing to disapprove contract terms - only the Registry and the Head of Family, or in my case, Pons, had a say. But even Pons would not undermine pureblood prerogatives with a poor contract. Only recondeurs - renegades who had forsworn Registry, family, and the compact with the crown that kept us independent - were subject to unrestricted contracts.
"I shall sit down with this Bastien and negotiate the best terms possible, given the unsettled times," said Pons. She dipped a pen and scratched a few notes on the page. "I shall stipulate that you will live in your own home, though I'm sure he will insist on appropriate hours. I foresee no difficulty in coming to a suitable agreement."
"Come here, Lucian," said Master Pluvius. Before I could think, I was signing my name where his finger pointed. Curator Albin snatched the paper from under my hand and applied his seal to the bottom. As if the terms were already settled.
Pons rose briskly, her formidable bulk blocking the gray light from the casements behind her. "We shall provide the usual escort party to deliver you to your new master tomorrow...if all goes well in the negotiation, of course. If not, we shall look again at the other offers."
"Yes, certainly. My gratitude for your consideration, Doma Pons, Domé Albin, Master Pluvius."
The three curators had already reached the doorway as the necessary politenesses stumbled from my tongue. The gray light blurred, and ceilings and walls tumbled over themselves. I felt as if I had been trampled by wild horses.
"Go home, Lucian. Whatever you're working on will have to be finished by someone else." Master Pluvius's farewell threatened to explode my skull. He lingered in the doorway. "I'm sorry about all this. Be sure I shall give you good recommendations."
"I appreciate that, Master."
Yet why would I expect differently? The Registry required every pureblood to sit for a portrait each year until age twelve, every two years until age thirty, and every ten years thereafter. Each small artwork was magically linked to its subject, and our signatures irrevocably bound the artist and the work. The accuracy imposed by our bent ensured that no ordinary could pass for a pureblood, and no pureblood could pass for another. Gilles and I could scarce keep up with the load. How could they not renew my contract?
"Master, why - ?" The doorway was empty.
If this Bastien de Caton was a person of influence, his request would never have been left unfulfilled long enough to gather dust. If he represented a town, a market fair, a temple, or another institution, the offer would have borne that name as well as his. And Caton. The man took his name, not from a noble seat or reputable family, but from some nearby settlement or crossroads so insignificant the name scarce shifted the dust of recollection. He was no one.
I raced after Pluvius, only to see him vanishing down the stair. "Master," I called, "who is this Bastien de Caton?"
The old man looked up, the torchlight reflecting a profound sadness that shook me to the marrow. "He's Palinur's coroner, Lucian. Your portraits will be used to identify the dead."
Copyright © Carol Berg 2017
Back to the Sanctuary Duet