Ollyver’s tone stayed flat with hardly a flicker of expression, his thick arms folded almost casually across his broad chest. Yet my time on the road with him allowed me to see frustrations simmering below the surface. Even in the dimness of my caravan his blue eyes glittered; crystalline, cold and furious.
“That is your prerogative, master.”
I struggled to match his outward calm and somehow managed to keep the mockery from my voice. It was not enough.
“You are a foolish girl,” he said, turning away.
The caravan door closed with a quiet click as he left. Only then did I allow myself to deflate. For all my aloofness, for all my apparent indifference, his words tore a hole through me. His casual dismissal and the full implication of my failure struck at my core and I struggled to breathe.
A brief, silent sob wracked my body. Every single day these people ate away at me and made me resent my placement among these charlatans. I craved the order of the Academy and every beat of my heart was a cry, a yearning for all I had left behind.
Yet the only thing worse was being sent back in disgrace. The very thought paralysed me.
I had tried to follow Scholar Pavel’s advice; to trust Ollyver, to do all he asked. Yet this was no place for an apprentice Reader. The Royal Court, the Great Houses, a position with an ambassador; these were the placements I had anticipated for one of the Academy’s most talented students, especially one with a flair for the world’s languages.
Scholar Pavel had refused to tell me anything, which only served to fuel my anticipation. Was Ollyver a spy? An operative on crucial business for the Queen?
A scant handful of hours. That was how long my excitement had lasted. Traitorous hope had lingered for days afterwards, clinging on even as Ollyver and his troupe passed through village after village, town after town, plying their trade. Now my obedience to the Scholars and the life I had left behind chafed. A yoke around my neck, it taunted all my perceived successes back at the Academy.
Outside I heard the others muttering and laughing. No doubt Ollyver had told them of our latest confrontation. No doubt they laughed at my expense. I continued to pretend their scorn meant nothing to me. They were all tricksters; cheap imitators with no skill, less education and fewer rights to anything they claimed. Real Readers had no need of parlour tricks. Real Readers did not pretend to indulge in the impossible. Real Readers did not trawl the countryside scratching around for paltry sums from gullible folk, amounts they could earn in moments in any court in the land.
Out of all of them, I suspected only Ollyver had any real understanding of just what it meant to be a Reader. After all he had clearly duped the Academy into allowing him to practise this farce. That alone was enough for me to despise him. To have subverted everything he knew, everything the Readers stood for, all to con commonfolk, disgusted me more I could have believed possible.
Yet, for all my strident denials, the company of the troupe was insidious. Far away from the Academy, from everyone and everything I cared for, these people were all I had. Being sent back in disgrace was little better while quitting to return to the Academy would mean the end of my life as a Reader. If I somehow managed to escape expulsion, it would be years before the Scholars granted me another apprenticeship. If I failed here, the future spread like a featureless landscape in front of me.
Alone, with only bitter thoughts for company, a dark shroud settled around my shoulders. An old friend, it offered an impossible choice. Either I forsook everything I stood for or I embraced failure.
The air around me felt thick and viscous, sticking in my throat. The confines of my caravan extended only claustrophobic comfort. Outside I could smell breakfast cooking. Bacon, porridge, flatbreads, all drew my attention to the routine already underway.
I wanted to gag.
Ollyver’s deep, booming laughter burst out at some joke and I grimaced. With everyone else he was gregarious and caring. Only I managed to extract anything else. To begin with he had smiled when I told him of my training, of how highly the Scholars thought of me and I revelled in his attention. All that had changed the moment I discovered into which pit of hell the Scholars had abandoned me.
A soft knocking shattered my thoughts.
“Time to set up, Lani.”
Dinah’s voice sounded cheerful without a hint of mockery or disappointment. Of all of them, only she still retained an aura of geniality. The others had abandoned attempts to include me days ago and I vacillated between wanting Dinah to leave me alone and craving her brief companionship.
“Give me a few minutes.”
My voice trembled. Frustration and depression mingled into discordant symphony. The need to rouse myself forced away my indecision. I had to go outside. I had to face today’s villagers, today’s fools.
A glimmer of hope called me. One final possibility, one final chance. Almost I dared not think of it lest it slip away. A different path. One of my choosing. A declaration of all I stood for.
On previous fairs I had allowed myself to be bullied into submission. The threat of disgrace had been enough to ensure a limited compliance with Ollyver’s sacrilegious demands. Now I rejected my lingering obedience and to Scholar Pavel’s trust in him. If I were to fail, I would rather it be on my own terms because I could not stay here any longer.
With my heart thudding an excited rhythm, I stripped off the garments the troupe had provided. Flimsy, revealing and garish, they belonged to dockside prostitutes, not a Reader. Extravagant costume jewellery and make-up ordinarily completed the image, all chosen to draw attention away from my mousy hair, my dull eyes and plain features.
My apprentice robes lay at the bottom of my chest. Creased, a little dusty, but still perfect, they suited my resolution. A drab brown, they lacked the allure of the troupe’s costumes. Shapeless and nondescript, they did nothing to attract the eye. Instead they were a true representation of what a Reader should be; a servant of truth not a gaudy liar.
As the wool settled and scratched against my skin I felt calmer than I ever had on the road. Now I felt complete, at peace, ready to face whatever the world offered me. Today I truly felt like a Reader.
I stepped outside.
Part of me expected to become the centre of attention. My ego all but demanded it. Instead the others studiously ignored me. The twins were busy putting together the stage for their acrobatics display. The other so-called Readers put the final, grotesque touches to vulgar stalls. Ollyver prowled, casting a discerning eye over everything, offering jests, encouragements and criticisms.
Only Dinah looked my way, my presence a distraction from washing the morning’s dishes. Older than the other members of the troupe, she acted as a maternal figure, her greying hair and expanding waistline only adding to the image. A flash of her bright smile and a nod towards a steaming bowl of porridge sat next to a plate of bacon and bread were the first welcoming expressions I had seen today.
“I saved you some.”
“Thanks,” I said, picking up the bowl.
The warmth from the porridge seeped through the thin, wooden bowl as I began to eat. Thick and with a pinch of salt, it warmed a path down my throat, spreading its nourishment through body and soul. For a heartbeat the illusion of a positive day filled my thoughts.
“You need to set up your stall.”
My latest mouthful stuck in my throat. Dry, viscous pap, it clogged my airway. I longed to spit it at Ollyver’s feet. I had been completely unaware of his approach and now my heart sought to pound a path free of my chest.
For a heartbeat I wanted to argue with him. There was no time to do it on my own. Customers would soon be arriving. I had barely had time to start my breakfast. All manner of excuses filled my thoughts.
The words remained unspoken and realisation followed. I could set the stall how I wanted, as a real Reader needed. Like my clothing, everything could be of my own devising.
I kept my tone flat and devoid of expression. Before he could respond, before he could make any comment on my attire, I turned to my task, abandoning the remnants of my breakfast despite the protestations of my stomach. I felt Ollyver’s eyes boring into the back of my skull, his gaze crawling across my skin, skittering over my body. I refused to look aside or deviate from my task.
No one offered to help when the table legs spilled onto the dirt. No one offered to help as I struggled with the table top. No one commented as I tore the banner the troupe had made for me.
Lani the Omnipotent Lorekeeper.
I stripped away the lies, leaving only the truth. Even the embroidery around my name offended me but I could do no more. When coupled with my clothing, it should be enough for those who understood such things. Unfortunately the places we frequented were devoid of such people.
As I settled into my cushioned, straight-backed chair I caught cursory glances from the locals. My disdain and indifference was reflected in their eyes. They were little more than magpies, attracted to the shining, sparkling signs, ignorant of the fate that awaited them, of the falsehoods on offer. If they could not fathom the truth they were beneath my notice.
Dinah the Mystic of Far Cashan.
If she had travelled even halfway to Cashan I would have been surprised.
Klara the Serendi Seer.
Make-up provided her colouring, not any Serendi blood.
Garth the Blind Prophet.
Garth’s blindness was a poorly executed act.
Around me they all conducted their business, queues forming at their booths. Few people bothered me. Those that did came seeking the future and I sent them to join the other fools, ignoring their frustrated looks. For a time, I watched the twins’ acrobatics display until even that began to bore me. I had witnessed it countless times and amazement gave way to the irrepressible onslaught of monotony. Only keeping an eye on Ollyver held my interest, my anger simmering away as he stalked the crowds, seeking the weak-minded to exploit.
“Look at this.”
A piece of paper thrust under my nose broke the tedium. Perfumed, tinged turquoise with neat elegant script, the note told me everything the voice had not. As I looked at my customer, all my first impressions were confirmed. He was well-dressed with a fine silken shirt coupled with a magnificent ruff. The frills and folds supported a haughty face, upturned nose, callous eyes and a smirk that told me he thought he was taking pity on a pathetic Reader by gracing her with his patronage. A minor, local lordling, slumming around with the commoners.
Someone who should have known better.
“Of course, my lord.”
I kept my tone curt, refusing to give more than lip-service to his status. His face twisted in anger at the deliberate slight, the lack of immediate, sycophantic obeisance.
“I want to know what the future holds for Jenna and me,” he said, letting the letter drift onto the table.
His ignorance of the Reader’s art and his lack of any respect almost made me turn him away like all the others. However, with little prospect of anything else to alleviate the drudgery, I decided to make the best of it and follow his initial instruction.
Before I turned my attention to the letter, I looked beyond the lordling. As I expected, a woman stood nearby. Wearing a modestly cut turquoise gown that shimmered in the sunlight, I had little doubt this was Jenna. The hem of her dress dragged in the mud, dirt and damp inexorably ascending the fabric. She hung onto the arm of another man; a chaperone. A proud, curious look and fashionable clothes marked him as another lordling. The shared auburn hair, dark eyes and full lips marked them as siblings. Both watched their companion with interest, amused smiles never far away. Clearly they too understood nothing of my art.
Only once I had familiarised myself with the protagonists did I begin to read.
A single word and I became engrossed. It sank into my eager mind. The elegant, cursive script painted intricate images. Within a sentence I could glimpse the letter being written, the flow of quill across parchment, the text unfolding before my eyes.
I took a breath, inhaling the scent of perfume, paper and ink. I barely heard Stefan’s breathing, hardly registered the tittering beyond him. All that mattered was the letter before me and the truth it contained.
Within a paragraph I was in the room as Jenna wrote. I saw her writing desk. Solitary, uncluttered, it was adorned by only a few objects. A mirror. A carved, ebony figurine. A cameo portrait. Silver inkwell. All ostentatious gifts incongruous with the rest of the room. Fading, frayed tapestries drooped in surrender from the walls while dust gathered untended in corners. The windows sulked behind a thin layer of grime.
And amidst it all, Jenna. Her mouth moved along with every word, every stroke painfully precise. A glint in her eyes and a smile on her lips spoke of some mischief, some ulterior purpose.
By the bottom of the page I formulated a hypothesis. A young lady of marriageable age coupled with a family home descending into dereliction. A local lordling was a welcome suitor bringing the promise of wealth and luxury gifts. It did not take a Reader to see a plot to ensnare a rich husband for the sake of the family.
I almost opened my mouth, almost tore myself away from the scene to let Stefan know the fate in store; a wife after his wealth, joining a family who cared for the depth of his pockets, not his paltry charms. Yet something stopped me. The image shifted. Jenna might be focused on each quill stroke but some of her attention lay elsewhere. The tilt of her head. An occasional glance flicked over her shoulder.
Another dictated her words.
My mind descended deeper into the letter. I read the spaces between the paragraphs, between words, the emptiness within the letters themselves. I was a Reader and nothing could escape my notice.
The brother. Dictating from the doorway. A dreamy look in his eyes, his body tensing with every syllable as Jenna’s quill scratched a path across parchment. All his emotions were raw, pouring out of him and onto the page.
“. . . read anything,” Stefan said as I drew away from the letter.
How long I had spent within the words? Long enough for boredom and frustration to creep into Stefan’s face. Long enough for the others to have gravitated towards him. Long enough to have discovered the truth.
“These are not Jenna’s words,” I said.
Stefan’s head snapped round. Incredulity marred his face. Behind him I saw Jenna blanch.
“I told you she was rubbish,” he said with a laugh and a sneer. “She can’t even see whose writing it is.”
No one else shared his humour.
“It is Jenna’s handwriting,” I said, remaining calm and patient, speaking as if to a child. “But the words are his. She does not care for you but he does.”
I pointed to Jenna’s brother. Shame flooded his face along with a trace of fear. He opened and closed his mouth but nothing emerged. The truth lay bare for all to see, in their stares, in their silence, in their fear.
“But given your ‘clandestine kisses’,” I said, reading a phrase from the letter, “you are far from unaware of his affections.”
Silence spread, encompassing me in a cloak of truth. A silence of confirmation.
“You lying bitch!”
Stefan slammed his hands down on the table, his face inches from mine. Spittle flew from his lips. Crimson suffused his cheeks, every beat of his heart pulsing at his temple. Never before had I witnessed someone so angry at the simplest and noblest of truths.
I did not react. His anger could not reach me. I was a Reader and impervious to such things. Even here, among such wretched company, a Reader remained sacrosanct.
“I am a Reader. I do not lie.”
My calm, steady voice was a deliberate choice. Stefan’s emotions boiled.
“You bitch! You’ll pay for your lies!”
A hand clenched into a fist. In slow motion he raised it. I stared at him; impassive and impervious.
“You need to leave. Now.”
With five words, Ollyver appeared. Without a hint of his approach, without any demands for an explanation, just there, one hand gripping the lordling’s shoulder, fingers digging into muscle and bone. A spasm of pain flashed across Stefan’s face.
The urge to smile, to display my superiority, was almost more than I could stand.
Stefan tried to fight back. He struggled, squirmed and failed to dislodge Ollyver’s hold. He raised his other fist but Ollyver grabbed his arm, forcing it back down. A rock, he absorbed all the lordling’s anger, all his energy.
“You need to leave. Now.”
Stefan struggled harder but to no avail. Nothing could shift Ollyver. No force on earth could erode his exterior, let alone the petty rage of a solitary lordling. Of everyone, I ought to know. Stefan’s fight drained away, dissipating, leaving only abject anger.
“You’ll pay for this. You’ll all pay for this.”
Ollyver released him. For a moment he staggered, trying to compose himself. Around us a crowd had gathered, all to bear witness to his humiliation. Of his two companions, I saw no sign. Without another word, without even another glance, the lordling retreated, his dignity in tatters. The crowd began to disperse, their entertainment curtailed.
Finally Ollyver turned to me. Rage I could have understood. An inferno of anger to lash me into submission, I could have endured. The cold, expressionless face was something I found unbearable. His eyes were solid crystal, boring into me, scouring my soul. It chilled, sending shivers through my bones.
“Go to your caravan.”
Part of me wanted to argue; Stefan had caused the problem, his annoyance, his ignorance, had brought out the truth. But I was a Reader. I did not have to defend my actions. Ollyver could do nothing to me, not any more, not now I had embraced my fate.
“As you wish, master.”
I got to my feet, conscious of eyes watching my every movement. The other members of the troupe witnessed my disgrace, my final obedience while the remaining stragglers of our audience hoped only for more excitement.
With all the poise I could muster, I bowed low to Ollyver as if he were a Scholar at the Academy. With every step I felt stares piercing the back of my neck. With every noise I wanted to flee. With every breath my heart hammered as I struggled to control my emotions; fear at what the future held, anger at Stefan’s petty threats, rage at Ollyver’s continued calm and above all else, permeating and weaving between them all, a calm triumph. My dismissal might now be inevitable but it had been achieved on my terms. A return to the Academy could only follow but at least I had a tale that might just keep me from expulsion.
After an age of walking I reached the sanctuary of my caravan. Trapped within its close confines I was free from the stares, from any unsolicited empathy, free finally to relax and allow my emotions to reign.
I smiled even as I started to shiver. My sides rippled with laughter even as my hands shook, the tension of the situation rolling over me at last. I slumped onto my bed, my legs unable to support me. Finally my ordeal might be over.
How long I sat like that I had no idea. Long enough for my fear to have turned into a hard knot of anger. Long enough for the tension to have leached away. Long enough for the sounds outside to return to normal. The noises taunted me, mocking and belittling my achievements. How could they all go about their business knowing what awaited me? How dare Ollyver allow it to happen without coming to see me first? Did he expect me to beg? To abase myself before him?
If he believed anything of the sort he would be very disappointed.
Time continued to drag by, inexorable and intolerable, each moment adding steel to my anger. Just when I was starting to think Ollyver could sink no lower in my estimation, he proved me wrong.
A whisper of paper on wood caught my attention. Below my door a single scrap of parchment slid into my caravan. For a heartbeat my eyes refused to believe what they saw. Incredulity warred with incandescent rage. How could he resort to a coward’s tactic? How dare he not face me as I deserved?
I left the note where it was. I would not read it. Instead I would make him perform his duty.
I waited. Every breath grated through my throat. With every heartbeat my fury crystallised, its edges sharp and deadly.
Still no one came. The world outside turned as normal and indecision began to fog my judgement. Was I wrong? Had someone else sent the letter? A note of sympathy and support perhaps?
I bent down to take a closer look. I had been wrong. This was no simple note. On the few occasions the troupe needed paper, it was fresh, virginal and white. This looked to be old parchment, stretched tight, discoloured and on the verge of disintegration beneath inquisitive fingers.
Curiosity overwhelmed what little resolve remained. I picked it up, handling it with the care such ancient parchment deserved. Scrawled across the surface, almost tearing it apart were words I had not anticipated. I did not need my Reader’s skills to divine their meaning.
I said you would pay, bitch.
Stefan. The stupid lordling. He thought to threaten me with words? It almost forced some levity on my situation. Did he truly know so little about Readers?
My eye was drawn down the page. Dark, crimson ink stared out at me. Thick and indelible it seemed to spread before my eyes, reaching out, pulling me in.
“No,” I said, forcing the word out of my throat as I realised what lay before me.
It was supposed to be a legend. It was supposed to have been destroyed generations ago. It was supposed to be a dead language; dead, forgotten and never to be resurrected.
Runic swirls captured my eyes. I followed them, unable to tear myself away, unable to close my eyes, unable even to blink.
What little was taught at the Academy, what little detail remained in the library’s tomes, spoke of it entrapping Readers, a writing that, once read, compelled a Reader into obeying its author. How it worked, no one knew. No hint of such a thing still existed, or so the Scholars had led me to believe.
To hold such knowledge, to be able to manipulate a Reader with a few strokes of a quill was only punishable by one method. The law might be old but it survived.
The ink pulled me further in, spiralling down between its lines. I could not help myself. I could not draw away. I could not even drop the parchment. My entire body refused to obey as the runes filled my vision. They carved themselves into my brain as my eyes traced the patterns.
I began to hear a quill scratching. I saw it moving across the page. I smelt the ink, the fresh parchment, the stale sweat of a man.
“The Reader will understand and burn.”
Guttural, croaked and full of weary venom, the words sounded inside my skull. Carefully enunciated, his voice added power and meaning to the runes.
And then I could see the speaker. A grizzled old man sat in a chair, his back bent as he hunched over his desk. Dark eyes looked up from the parchment and somehow found mine.
The sound of a scream blocked my throat. I tried to look away but his eyes held me fast. Behind him a fire blazed into life, pulling me into its heart.
“. . . to watch for anyone . . .”
A raised voice forced its way into the vision. It sounded almost like Ollyver. Yet he sounded strange, his words coming from a long way off, muffled by the roaring fire. I tried to focus on it, on something, anything except the vision before me but it slipped away.
Knowledge rushed into me, drowning out everything else. The quill strokes required to create Old Kendaric. The intricate runes. How to reach into a Reader’s mind. How to protect oneself while writing. Myriad different runes swept across my eyes, stinging and searing.
“. . . don’t care. Just get . . .”
The knowledge burnt. It ripped through my mind, devouring everything, leaving behind a ravaging fire of understanding. It suffused me, overwhelmed me. Flames licked at me, tasting, consuming, wrapping themselves around every inch of flesh
“. . . to take her. We need to . . .”
Knowledge of the man before me flowed through me. Razic. One of the last to practise Old Kendaric. The final witness to the deaths of other practitioners. The last to be found and executed. The one intent on punishing those responsible even from beyond the gates of death.
I had heard of him. Even now his name echoed with horror as it passed down through generations of Readers. His skill, his proficiency and his hatred for those who persecuted him and his kind all contributed to his infamy.
And now I understood just what he had seen and what he had suffered. His memories merged with my own. I watched as men and women were burnt alive, my mouth framing silent curses. I held a quill that scratched runes on parchment, runes destined for the hands of Readers. A flood of memories I could not avoid.
And through it all I understood. I understood what he had seen. I understood why he acted as he did. I understood just why he believed the Readers had to be punished. A generation washed away by flame. A generation of knowledge burnt to ashes by fear and hatred. Too many dead, too much lost until only Razic remained, forced to twist something he loved to monstrous purpose. His knowledge of the language surpassed everything I thought I understood, tearing away the myth to reveal startling, horrifying truth ignored by those whose answer was the pyres.
The fire intensified; a raging inferno that burnt from within. A force of unquenchable vengeance. A righteous flame.
“Lani! Stay with us! Fight it!”
The yell sliced through sweet agony. For the briefest of moments the flames died away. I sucked in a mouthful of air. It seared a path straight to my lungs before I could stop, before I could once more succumb to Razic’s words.
“That’s it Lani. Fight it! Now, Dinah!”
My body started to fight against the compulsion. It sucked in breath after burning breath. It struggled to survive even as my memories, Razic’s memories, demanded final release.
“It’s working. Come on Lani. You can fight it.”
Beyond Razic the flames started to recede. Coughs racked my body, involuntary, hot and agonising. The vision faded as I spluttered and struggled to get clean air into my lungs. I wrenched myself away from Razic’s glare, away from the vision, away from the runes.
Everything went black.
Hands shook me back to consciousness. Voices murmured above my head, indecipherable and incomprehensible. It took me painful moments to recognise the language. I opened my mouth to speak and coughed instead. My lungs burnt, bringing with it the flood of memories; Razic, the flames, the cancer of runic symbols that sat within my brain, and above it all the death sentence waiting to be carried out.
The only remaining question was when. Would Ollyver do it? Or would I be sent back to the Academy first?
I wanted to cry but tears would not come. I felt dried out, a husk.
“Lani? Are you back with us?”
I opened my eyes. Ollyver stood over me, peering down, a wrinkle of concern across his forehead and pity in his eyes. The image conflicted with everything I expected. Anger, disdain, righteous indignation, all I could have handled. Anything but this.
He pressed a damp rag to my lips, squeezing gently.
“You’ll need this,” he said as my mouth struggled to accept the offering.
The water stung parched, cracked lips, welcome rain in an arid desert. Eagerly I swallowed, soaking it all up even as fire streaked down my throat. As soon as I could I asked the question that plagued me.
“When are you going to kill me?”
Ollyver’s face never changed. I stared at him. The concern remained. The pity remained. Perhaps he had not heard. Perhaps he did not know what had happened. Perhaps he did not understand just what I knew.
I did not even dare to hope.
My heart sagged. So much for any hope of a quick death rather than a drawn out return to the Academy and the inevitable trial. One that could result in only one outcome, one I had already seen many times through Razic’s eyes. Apparently I did not even warrant that much mercy.
“No one’s going to kill you.”
The words failed to register. The very concept was absurd. Of course they were. They had to. The knowledge in my head screamed for it.
“But I read Old Kendaric. I know it.”
Deeply ingrained obedience of the Readers’ laws prompted my words. My survival instinct had deserted me and I could not even summon the energy for regret. Even my loathing of the troupe had all but vanished, replaced only by the knowledge of my doom.
“I had heard you were more intelligent than this, Lani. I had hoped you would have seen the shape of things before now.”
Nothing could have prepared me for those words. They bludgeoned me into awareness. My mouth dropped open and my brain whirled into action.
Ollyver said nothing more. Instead he settled back into his chair, content to wait and watch.
The first nugget of epiphany came quickly. Old Kendaric. Its compulsions were unbreakable. Once caught in its embrace it never let go. Not without any outside influence. Not without the aid of Old Kendaric itself, or with the destruction of the runes.
Someone else had to have intervened. Ollyver? One of the others? Either way they had to understand just what I had held in my hands. But why would a travelling troupe know anything about such matters? Especially when they had shown no sign of even the slightest understanding of Readers’ affairs? The questions rattled around my head.
Until it struck me.
A charade. A façade. One so complete it fooled everyone. The towns it visited. The lands it travelled through. Even me. Scholar Pavel had singled me out for this, to join this troupe. A company containing those who understood Old Kendaric.
An important task, he had told me. Was this it? To seek out Old Kendaric and other such forgotten scripts? To scour the lands for scraps of knowledge and . . ?
I could not finish the question. I did not know enough. Leaps of faith and logic could only take me so far.
Whatever the answer, just thinking about it made my stomach churn. How could the Scholars allow such people to exist? How could they allow such knowledge to travel the world? How could they not have told me?
But then I found I did know the answers. They lay in my reaction, in my revulsion and shock. The Academy had to seek out such things. For all that Old Kendaric could weave, it could not be allowed to exist. Too many might be swayed by its power, intent only on what it could achieve, not what it could be.
“You seek out Old Kendaric,” I said. “You destroy it.”
A smile quirked the edges of Ollyver’s lips as he shook his head.
“We make it safe.”
I almost cursed my stupidity. Of course the Scholars would not want such knowledge destroyed. For all its pernicious qualities, even Old Kendaric had to be preserved. Even though it could be turned into something malign, there yet remained something wondrous and pure within its patterning for those with the will and desire to see.
“I had hoped your first experience would not be with so malicious a message. We had heard a local lord had some fragment, an heirloom, but we had no idea it would be one so vicious. Or that Stefan would have any real idea of what his family had let alone be so foolish as to use it. The twins have gone to investigate further and deal with the lordling, but I am sorry.”
Bile rose in my throat as memories of the vision threatened me once more even as I struggled to extract the full meaning behind his words. They had known about this? The twins were looking into it? I scrabbled for understanding and discovered it hiding within everything I had believed I knew about the troupe. Not all of them were Readers. A group like this would need a different set of skills from those taught and nurtured at the Academy; those able to inveigle truth and rumours out of our patrons, others who could liberate any texts from unwilling donors as well as those able to handle any documents that came their way.
All the while, Ollyver searched my face for acknowledgement, for forgiveness. I schooled my expression, keeping it as blank as possible. It was too soon to know what I thought about what had happened. About what I had been forced into. Much too soon.
He looked away.
“If you want to return to the Academy, we won’t stop you.”
I had believed myself beyond surprises. I was wrong. How could he let me go? How could he allow me to leave, knowing what I did? I could keep quiet about the troupe but how could I live with the knowledge of Old Kendaric and what it could do?
I opened my mouth to argue but a raised hand forestalled me.
“If you wish to return we can make it . . . safe for you. We can make you . . . forget. The Scholars will understand. It is up to you. Take all the time you need.”
My life teetered on a precipice. Behind me lay the safety and security of the Academy, of a life I knew and enjoyed, a life in which I excelled. Below me an uncertain drop beckoned, a lonely fall populated by only a few, a descent fraught with unknown dangers and filled with the perils of Old Kendaric.
I had thought I would need days to think things through. I had thought it would be difficult.
Instead I took a deep breath and made my decision.
© November, 2014 A. J. Carter
A. J. Carter lives in the United Kingdom. He has not previously been published.