a novel of the Collegia Magica
The Soul Mirror - Excerpt
by Carol Berg
Lady Cecile drew a flowered shawl about her shoulders and bade me follow her. A key linked to her belt unlocked an inconspicuous door in the corner of the writing room. To my astonishment, a small, octagonal room of scarlet silk and velvet lay beyond the door.
Two blue-liveried guards snapped to attention as we entered, and a bald gentleman in blue brocade opened an elaborately paneled door three times my height, one of four that opened off the room.
"Divine grace, bellassi Cecile," said, in heavily accented Sabrian. "Time be for serving lessons tonight?"
"Divine grace, Doorward Viggio. Damoselle Anne is new to Castelle Escalon this season. Her Majesty is at cards, I understand."
"Indeed so." The gentleman inclined his back. "Damoselle, welcome. I am Rulf de Viggio, Doorward Hereditary of the Queen's Household."
Lady Cecile ushered me through an extensive series of luxurious apartments, done up in shades of blue and lavender. I'd no time for any impression beyond high ceilings, refined comfort, and gracious simplicity, at least, not until we arrived at a sitting room.
As Cecile set her lamp on a table beside an unlit hearth and used it to light a few candles, I noted the further evidence of pervasive superstition. Oddments hung here and there: a bundle of dried herbs in every doorway, a grapevine wreath over every window, a bundle of small brass bells and colored feathers on the marble mantelpiece. Charms, I knew, but whether to ward off sickness or poison, to freshen the air or prevent mold or keep ink from drying too fast, I had no idea. Ridiculous to imagine such things worked.
An altar stone held a place of honor along one wall. Hung with pimpernel, toadflax, and deep green, wax-leafed ivy, it held far too many tessilae. Too many dead for a woman not yet forty.
"While Her Majesty is unendingly gracious and lenient in matters of protocol, she does have a few very particular requirements. One window on the east and one on the south must be opened each night, no matter the weather, and each must have..." Lady Cecile picked up her lamp and led me into Queen Eugenie's bedchamber, as if she had never hinted at purposeful madness or murder.
After a quarter hour of fruitless fury, I became caught up in my bizarre schooling. The queen must indeed be the most superstitious of women. Nighttime rituals involved more of placing charms and burning enspelled herb bundles than of tooth cleaning or hairbrushing, and of lighting particular fragrant candles to burn through the night than of smoothing sheets.
"...and always to close the bed curtains before the lamps are lowered." Lady Cecile showed me how to refasten the silver clips once the heavy silk curtains were released about the wide bed. "Except for this one."
She led me around to the side of the bed nearest the windows, the side one might assume the first to be curtained off against the chill and the last to be opened. Setting her lamp on the bedside table, she demonstrated how the curtain at the head of the bed had been sewn in two panels. The wide panel nearer the center of the bed was to be released; the narrow panel nearest the bedpost and pillows was always to be tied back unless the queen herself closed it.
"Now bring the lamp and we'll examine her medicine box." Cecile moved around the end of the bed.
But as I made to follow, the strangest thing caught my eye. Half hidden behind a painted screen, a metallic ring perhaps a metre and a half in diameter had been embedded in the wood floor between the bed and the open window. The ring seemed to suck the golden beams right out of the lamp, stretching them impossibly thin and bending them around its perfect circumference.
"What is this?" I whispered. Fascinated, I sank to my knees and brushed a finger along the ring. To my surprise, it was not metallic at all, but more akin to amber glass. And the stretched light beams were not some trick of sputtering flame and startled vision, but actually streaked around the circle of amber regardless of my viewing angle. Likewise the shadows were not just the inverse of the light beams, but shooting splinters of blackness independent of the golden streaks.
The air in the sitting room stirred, as if an open door had let in a winter draught. Our lamp guttered and almost went out.
"Ouch!" I snatched my hand away. A snap of heat had shot straight up my arm to the center of my forehead, like a charge of the virtu electrik.
"Anne?" Lady Cecile peered around the bedpost. "Grace of angels, girl, never touch that."
"Whatever is it?"
"That sorcerer's filth." She spat her answer in such a way as to close off further probing.
We spent a half hour with Eugenie's extensive collection of potions and tonics. I would never remember it all, especially as a ferocious ache in the center of my brow grew worse every moment. The lamplight glancing from the faceted glass vials and bottles sliced through the air like sabers.
When the west tower clock struck ninth hour, Cecile began reordering the medicine box, which required pulling out a few remaining items lying loose in the bottom - a flat tin that rattled as if filled with buttons, a drawstring pouch of gray silk, a bundle of cinnamon sticks tied with string - and installing everything again. "Antonia will bring the cleaning girls in half an hour. Be aware: Antonia's word is law in this room."
"Our mistress might dispute that, dame."
My spirit froze. No mistaking that resonant baritone, though it was bereft of madness on this night. The soft, low voice came from the dark doorway behind us. Yet not the least sound or movement had warned of his presence.
Lady Cecile jostled the cabinet as she twisted around, clinking and rattling the bottles and vials. "Master Dante," she said. "Why are you here?" Her challenge was undermined by a slight quaver in her words.
"Our lady queen bade me survey her chamber before her return. To make sure there be no...unwanted intruders."
He entered the pooled lamplight, a man of modest height and simple, sober garb - not the rustic shabbiness he had flaunted in the royal assembly, but black breeches and hose, and a full-sleeved shirt the hue of overripe plums. His silver collar glinted in the light, bright against the shadowed hollows of his face.
Close to, the mage appeared far younger than I would have guessed, no more than thirty, though his eyes... My skin shivered. His eyes, set in a fine spiderwork of sun creases, were not black, but the deep, intense green of a sunlit wildwood. They hinted at experiences more remote than those of my great-grandsire Cazar, who had witnessed the ending of the Fassid empire and the last, lingering scourges of the Blood Wars.
"I ween I should bespeak an introduction, dame." The cool interest, voiced with the slight patois of the northern mountains, might suggest him a more disciplined sort than the man who had beaten his adept in the Presence Chamber. Yet one of his black-gloved hands gripped the infamous white staff.
"Divine grace, Master." Familiar forms seemed to restore Cecile's more customary calm. She took my hand and led me to the center of the room. "May I acquaint you with Her Majesty's new maid-of-honor, Anne de Vernase? I am training the young lady to the queen's service. Anne, Master Dante, Queen Eugenie's First Counselor."
I dipped my knee, slightly dizzy. My forehead ached and burned, as if a carpenter had attacked it with an auger. I summoned anger and resentment to hold me together. This man would not see me quail at his mere presence. No matter this mannered arrogance, no matter his true allegiance, he was a brute. If Lady Cecile was right, he had slaughtered my mother as truly as any knife-wielding barbarian.
"You expose a braver soul than mine, Dame Cecile, to bring a traitor's daughter to this room. Perhaps I should banish her, as I do haunts and spectres." He drifted across the room toward the windows, passing between us and the bedstead, inspecting the various charms and wards tucked here and there along the way, touching this one, adjusting that, breathing a whispered word on another. He touched every bottle and jar in the medicine box. "What danger do you represent, damoselle?"
"None, sonjeur," I said to his back, purposely failing to acknowledge his rank, as he did with the ducessa. "What grievance could I have with Queen Eugenie, who demonstrates such tolerance as to welcome me here?"
He reversed sharply, his back to the tall windows. His deep-set eyes were narrowed, his black brow raised skeptically. "You carry many a grievance, I think. Your father searches for sorcerous power he cannot wield himself. Who better to benefit from his findings than his nurtured children, who carry the mark of blood inheritance? Have you nae wish to take your share of his discoveries and right the wrongs of the world? Your mother's nerves remain fractured, I hear."
Fire exploded in my breast. How dare he speak of my mother? "You know nothing of me, mage. But be sure of this: Were I gifted in the practices you call magic, I would not share in my father's work, or your work, or any such vileness, even were it the sole means to heal my mother's injury, so cowardly inflicted, or return my innocent brother's freedom, or turn back time itself to prevent my sister's diabolic murder!"
The clang of tuned bronze sliced through the thickening air, turbulent with lamplight and shadow, as the palace bells pealed the half hour. Lady Cecile, pale as church dust, used the interruption as an excuse to snatch my arm and drag me towards the door. Her heart's pulse rattled like a rabbit's. "Time runs. We must abandon you to your duties, Master, and return to our own. Come, Anne."
He may have answered. He may have laughed. I couldn't hear, for the world blurred as she bustled me through the dim-lit rooms and past the bowing guardians in the scarlet waiting room. By the time we stood in the deserted outer salon, I was shaking, and dizziness threatened to drop me on the gray carpet.
"Are you an entire fool, girl?" she spat. "To speak like that to him?"
"Angels defend us, my lady. What is he?" I said, clamping my trembling arms around my stomach. Not even Duplais's razored questioning had left me feeling so raw.
"The queen's current favorite is what he is. Dangerous beyond dreaming is what he is. Some say it was no earthshaking but this mage caused the destruction of the Bastionne Camarilla, yet the prefects do not, cannot, touch him. There are more reasons than border uprisings or disaffection that keep the king away from Merona." She smoothed her hair and mustered her more accustomed dignity. "Now, are you quite well? I must get back to Belinda."
She must have interpreted my tremors as affirmation, as she hurried into her sitting room without allowing me to speak. "Not at all well," I whispered to her back.
Copyright © Carol Berg, 2019