Bookworm–Snippet Two

27 Feb

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Chapter One

The sun rose above the Watchtower, scattering rays of light down towards the Golden City below. As the light glittered off the shining temples, the voices of the priests rose in greeting to the morning light. The bells, each one a representation of a different god, rang out, sending a glistening crescendo across the city. It seemed to hang in the air, echoing off the five mountains that surrounded the city, before slowly fading away into a deafening silence. In its wake, the sound of the city coming to life seemed dull and faded. Nothing could complete with the morning chorus.

Elaine cursed the morning as she tried to close her eyes and go back to sleep. The tiny apartment seemed too warm, even in the mornings, but it was all that they were able to afford. She tossed and turned as she pulled the blanket back over her head, knowing that it was futile. It was already too late to go back to sleep. The sound of Daria getting up from her bed on the other side of the room only reminded her that she had to get up herself.

“Get up, you lazy thing,” Daria called, as she tugged at Elaine’s blanket. “I don’t think you dare be late again, do you?”

“No,” Elaine said. She’d been reprimanded twice for being late, even though it hadn’t really been her fault. But no one was interested in excuses, not in the Golden City. There was no shortage of trained, but untalented magicians to do the work their betters chose to ignore. “I don’t want to be late at all.”

Daria snorted as Elaine released the blankets. She was already standing in front of the mirror, studying her reflection as she donned her enchanted earrings and necklace. Elaine felt a hot flash of envy – her friend’s redheaded looks brought no shortage of admirers – before swinging her legs off the bed and standing up. There was no time to waste admiring Daria, or cursing her own mundane appearance. She walked out of the bedroom and into the bathroom, splashing cold water on her face to wash away the last traces of drowsiness. There were spells to wake oneself up, without ill effects, but she’d never been able to master them.

And besides, the voice of one of her tutors whispered in her ear, magic has a price

Elaine shrugged off the memory as she walked back and stood in front of the mirror, glaring at herself. She saw a mousy girl with light brown hair, dark eyes and a slightly oversized nose, one large enough to suggest that one of her parents – whoever they’d been – had been an aristocrat. It had certainly been suggested by the other children at the orphanage, and later by her classmates at the Peerless School. They’d taunted her for being motherless since the day they’d realised that no one was interested in adopting her. In truth, Elaine wasn’t entirely sure why she’d been accepted to the Peerless School. Her magical talent was very limited, barely more than any hedge witch. A hedge witch would probably be more useful than her.

She pulled off her nightdress and reached for her tunic and shirt. As a graduate of the Peerless School, she was entitled to wear black, but she’d never felt the urge to show off her very limited talent. Instead, she wore subdued brown that matched her hair. It was strictly functional. She didn’t have the money to waste adorning herself.

“I may be home late tonight,” Daria said. “Jade was talking about going to the Arena, and then to one of his favourite eateries. And after that…who knows?”

Elaine felt herself flush. An upbringing in the orphanage hadn’t prepared her for the life of a free woman in the Golden City, although she didn’t really want to go out dancing and enjoying herself with young men. Or so she told herself; in truth, part of her would have loved to go out and just lose all of her inhabitations. She looked over at Daria, who was donning a red dress that showed off enough of her legs and chest to make Elaine flush. Her friend seemed to have a knack for meeting people and making friends that Elaine lacked.

“Have fun,” she said, automatically. Daria didn’t notice, but then she never did. She was a good friend, perhaps the best friend Elaine had, yet she never seemed to notice when anything was wrong. “Try not to catch anything you don’t want to catch.”

Daria chuckled as she headed into the small kitchen. “I’ll keep myself safe,” she promised. “And you’d better be off. Miss Prim will have you transfigured into something more useful if you’re late again.”

Elaine nodded, picking up her wand and placing it into the small holster hidden within her sleeve. Most magicians hid their wands in dimensional pockets, where they could be retrieved at a moment’s notice, but Elaine had never had the skill or patience for such complex spells. Besides, it sometimes came in handy not to have to cast a spell to recover her wand. Without it, she was barely capable of any magic at all.

“Have fun,” she said, again. Daria was her friend, after all. “I’ll try not to wait up for you.”

The hex on the door hissed at her as she placed her hand on the knob, reluctantly recognising her signature and allowing her to exit. Even combining their resources, they hadn’t been able to afford an apartment in the better parts of the city, not when the entire population of the Empire seemed determined to move to the Golden City. The landlord charged incredibly high rates, too high for her to afford if she lost her job. She silently cursed him as she walked down the stairs and out onto the streets. Whatever he did with the money he collected from his tenants, it didn’t include renovating the apartments. There was no security hex on the outer door.

As always, the streets were crowded with people trying to get to their workplaces or merely wandering the city, enjoying their chance to see the Empire’s capital. Elaine had to smile at the expressions on some of their faces as they gawked around, looking up at the Watchtower or down towards the Imperial Palace. History had been made in the Golden City, from the First Necromantic War to the disappearance of the Lost Prince. On every corner, a statue of some nobleman from the wars or particularly legendary wizard seemed to gaze down disapprovingly at the tourists infesting the city. In their days, Elaine was certain, the Golden City had been truly golden.

She walked along the streets, careful to ignore the horses and carts as the aristocracy headed towards the Imperial Palace to start playing politics with the Regency Council and the Grand Sorcerer. There had been a time when she’d wondered if her magical talent would be enough to win her a place among the rich and powerful, but like all of her dreams it had come crashing down into dust. She simply didn’t have the talent to serve as a Court Wizard, helping to maintain the fragile peace in the Empire, or as an Alchemist working to push back the boundaries of magical knowledge. All she was…was a librarian.

It wasn’t a bad job, really. Books had always fascinated her, even as a child. The orphanage had had quite a few books and her guardians had insisted that she learn to read, believing that it would be easier for her to attract a family who might adopt her. That had never happened, even as she grew older, but she’d never lost the fascination for books. And if she couldn’t afford her own library – even the new-fangled printed books were expensive – at least she could work with them in the Great Library. It was a position of great responsibility. Miss Prim had told her time and time again.

“Read all about it,” one of the broadsheet criers shouted, breaking into her thoughts. “Duke of Tara to visit the Golden City! May be engaged to Princess Lorraine! Read all about it!”

Elaine ignored the proffered paper and strode past the crier. She wasn’t entirely sure that she approved of demeaning the printing press by publishing stories about the rich and famous, but she had to admit that it was encouraging people to read. Not that they always printed the truth, of course. Even in her position, she knew the underlying reason why the Duke of Tara would be visiting the Golden City – and it didn’t have anything to do with asking the Regency Council’s permission to wed anyone. The Grand Sorcerer, the supreme authority in the Empire, was dying. And if the Duke happened to be in the Golden City when the Grand Sorcerer died, he’d be in a position to influence the outcome of the contest to select the next Grand Sorcerer.

The thought made her look up, towards the Imperial Palace, a dark building of towering, brooding stone. No Emperor resided there now, not after the Second Necromantic War. Officially, the royal bloodline had died out when the Witch-King made his desperate grab for supreme power before unleashing a nightmare across the entire world. Unofficially, there was supposed to be a missing heir – but no one had come forward and claimed the Throne. A vast number of pretenders had tried to claim the Throne over the years. They’d sat on the Golden Throne and had never been seen again. The Throne, it was said, knew the true royal bloodline. No substitutions were accepted.

She halted as she turned the corner, just long enough for a line of soldiers to march past and down towards the Watchtower, positioned on the North Peak. Elaine had read enough history to know that the Watchtower had saved the city during the First Necromantic War, but had been destroyed and rebuilt during the Second War – after which it had been maintained by the Regency Council. There was no threat to the Empire, at least as far as she knew, but doubtless they had their reasons. It was also a none too subtle reminder of their power, of the mailed fist within the velvet glove. The Golden City was the Empire’s capital. No disturbance could be tolerated within its walls.

The last of the soldiers tramped off into the distance, followed by a small number of young boys with dreams of becoming soldiers themselves. Elaine shook her head in wry amusement at their antics, before glancing up at the position of the sun. She was running late and she really needed to move quicker. Miss Prim would definitely not be happy if she was late. Thanking the gods for her decision to wear her tunic, rather than a long skirt, she started to move as quickly as she dared. The crowds pressed in around her, seeming to grow thicker as she approached the centre of the city. They’d been joined by small children on their way to school, escorted by their mothers or, in some cases, the family slaves. Elaine shivered when she saw them, remembering her tutors at the orphanage. They’d threatened to sell her into slavery if she didn’t behave herself.

She allowed herself a small pause for breath as the Great Library came into view. It was a towering building, although not as tall as the Imperial Palace, surrounded by statues of famous Alchemists. The statues were still as long as people were watching them, but they seemed to move slightly when they were unobserved. They were part of the Great Library’s defences against unwanted intruders, but they had always given her the creeps. The statues seemed to hate her somehow, even though she couldn’t have explained why. It was probably a reflection of her own limited sensitivity to magic.

The massive stone doors opened for her as she approached, recognising her magical signature as one who was allowed access. Successive Grand Sorcerers hadn’t been inclined to place all their faith in the statues, no matter how many enchantments had been used to make them obedient and invincible guardians. The Great Library was layered with layer after layer of defensive spells, some bluntly obvious to even the merest of magicians, some so subtle and deadly that any would-be thief would have no opportunity to realise that they were there until it was far too late. Even the Peerless School, a building designed to contain magician accidents caused by trainee sorcerers, was less well defended than the library. But then, the magical knowledge stored within the stone walls was the source of the Empire’s power. It could not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.

Inside, the cool dry air left her feeling uncomfortably sweaty as she ran through the corridors, feeling them twisting and turning around her. The interior of the building lay within a pocket dimension, making it literally bigger on the inside than on the outside. Elaine had been told that the Great Library was actually alive, at least on some level, but she’d never been able to sense any governing presence. Perhaps it was just too subtle for her senses to detect, or perhaps it didn’t talk to mere humans. The Great Library had outlasted both of the Necromantic Wars and many other conflicts besides.

The corridors straightened out suddenly and she found herself in the foyer. It was a luxuriously decorated room, covered with paintings of librarians through the ages, but there was no mistaking its purpose. Not everyone could be allowed access to the Great Library, or all of the collections housed within its walls. Students from the Peerless School, Senior Wizards, the Regency Council…they had access. Everyone else had to apply to the Head Librarian and convince her that they deserved to enter the Great Library. One day, Elaine told herself, she’d be in that position of power. It was an oddly cheerless thought.

“Elaine,” a stern voice said. Elaine froze, and then tried to calm herself. “What have I told you about being late?”

Elaine bit down several different answers and did her best to look contrite. “I’m sorry, Miss Prim,” she said. “The roads were crowded today.”

Miss Prim glowered at her. She was a tall woman, old enough to be Elaine’s grandmother – and a slave, bound to the Great Library. From the rumours Elaine had heard, Miss Prim – not her real name, but one fostered on her by the Grand Sorcerer – had been one of the more successful would-be thieves who tried to steal books from the library. After she’d been caught red-handed, she’d been enslaved – and, as punishment, assigned to the library she’d tried to rob. The spell binding her wouldn’t allow her to leave, or to do a bad job.

“We are going to have to do something about your lateness, my girl,” Miss Prim said, severely. Her voice had a knack for cutting through to the heart of any issue. “It really is quite unacceptable. The demand on our services has been rising over the last few months…”

As the Grand Sorcerer prepares to meet the gods, Elaine thought, sourly. Every Senior Wizard in the world would be considering their own bid to become Grand Sorcerer. They’d be studying, brushing up on their spells – and making contacts with other wizards and even the mundane community. Power was a drug to many wizards and the position of Grand Sorcerer was the most powerful position in the world.

“…And so I expect better from you,” Miss Prim concluded. “Consider yourself lucky that we are no longer in the habit of beating our inferiors. I suggest that you go get yourself suitably presentable for doing your job. You’re going to be assisting some of the very best wizards in the city.”

Elaine nodded as she walked through the foyer and into the small office behind the desk. The Great Library had a dozen reading rooms and a hundred different open collections, but few of the visitors would be interested in books they could buy for themselves. No, they’d be interested in the restricted volumes, the ones kept firmly under lock and key. Some of them would even try to convince her to retrieve books from the Black Vault, despite the Grand Sorcerer’s edict forbidding access without permission from the Regency Council. Elaine found herself silently praying that none of them would be foolish enough to turn nasty if she had to refuse their demands. The Great Library itself took care of any troublemakers, but the effects had a nasty tendency to spill over onto unsuspecting bystanders.

She donned the grey smock worn by library staff and took a moment to check her hair. There were a dozen other assistants in the library at any one time, scattered through the reading rooms and helpdesks. Despite herself, Elaine knew that the job was important – and it required a special class of person, someone who could be trusted not to abuse the access granted to them by the library. In her case, it hardly mattered how many forbidden tomes she read, whatever the rules said. She simply didn’t have the power to utilize many of the spells other wizards used daily, let alone dark spells that hadn’t been used since the Necromantic Wars.

“Room Thirteen,” Miss Prim said, when Elaine emerged from the office. “Daphne’s on the desk, but she needs help finding material. Too many wizards up there and they’re getting impatient.”

“Yes, Miss Prim,” Elaine said. She turned and walked down the corridor. Sometimes, the corridors shifted, seemingly at random, but this time the library seemed inclined to remain still. Room Thirteen was larger than the foyer, with a handful of desks manned by grumpy wizards reading older books and making notes. A small line of wizards stood in front of the main desk, waiting impatiently for their turn. Elaine walked around the desk and looked up at the first in line – and realised, too late, that it was someone she already knew.

“Frogeye,” a delighted voice said. “How nice to see you again.”

Elaine wanted to sink into the floor. Of all the people who had to visit the Great Library – and who she had to serve personally – it just had to be Millicent. The one person she’d met whom she never wanted to see again.

Wonderful, she thought, bitterly. This day just keeps getting better and better.

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2 Responses to “Bookworm–Snippet Two”

  1. The Deposed King March 2, 2012 at 11:29 am #

    Well its a lot cleaner than my start. I like your room thirteen and the vault.

    Although you have the Grand Sorcerer fostering Mrs. Prim name and job instead of foisting it off on her.

    You should have your character be taken with the urge to reply with Milicent’s school name. “Hi Newt legs” But stop herself because it would just get her into trouble if the wizard/former schoolmate complained.

    The Deposed King

  2. chrishanger March 2, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

    That’s what I have in mind…

    Chris

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