In the years separating that life from this, I have visited Benedict’s library many times – night-time expeditions when my only company is Swift’s ghost, guiding me to those books she needs me to read. But twice a year I’m forced to endure being in my father’s presence in this place. At those times I stand in front of his desk, my tutors’ reports spread over its polished surface. While he lists my failings as daughter and
mage, I look at the paperweight. And remember.
Mages do not make things. That is work for non-magic kine, for the guilds. Except for the mages of Tierce, the city of glass. The adepts of Tierce vie with one another to create the most beautiful objects, melting sand, silica and pigment with their minds and forming the glass into intricate shapes.
My father’s paperweight is one of the masterpieces of Tierce. I still wonder what truly happened seven years ago – how much I actually remember and how much I imagined. Did the glass really respond to my touch? Was there a buzzing, or was it the blood surging in my head – my own fear and rage – I heard? That night is so dark in my memory I can’t be sure.
Now I lean over the desk, watching the swirls of metal frozen in the glass. I can hear myself breathing – too fast – as I reach out a finger and touch the paperweight. It feels cold and dead. Are the silver threads moving? I bend closer . . . then jerk backwards as the door clicks open and my father enters the room.
It takes all my will and years of practice to stand calmly and meet his eyes. They are a clear yellowish-brown. Lizard’s eyes. On his right cheekbone is a shiny round scar. His hairand neatly curling beard are still dark above the white lace collar he wears over his black robes. But although he has hardly changed, at sixteen I have grown nearly as tall as he. I keep my face empty, my eyes blank. He has never once mentioned what he did to me that night. We both know I will never tell anyone. My mother was declared mad. I carry her taint.
Aluid is nowhere to be seen and I allow myself a small sigh of relief. At least I won’t have to watch his eyes bulge with outrage as he lists my crimes.
‘The third precept, Zara?’ My father walks to his desk and sits down. I am not invited to sit. ‘That is distasteful. It smacks of hysteria – lack of self-control.’
‘Aluid invaded a hawk I was flying.’
My father lifts his head a fraction of an inch; his eyes narrow as if deciding whether to believe me or not. ‘He conveniently forgot to mention that fact. Well . . . I can hardly blame you for anger. But.’ His eyes flash. ‘Your reaction was that of a kine! Presumption by someone such as Aluid, or any mage, is to be met with the mind and the mind alone. I do not ever want to hear of you using your fists as a weapon. You are to remember who and what you are. Is that clear?’
‘And what provocation did you give your tutor?’
Telling him the truth will infuriate him further but if I don’t tell him, he’ll hear it from Aluid. I take a deep breath. ‘I prevented the hawk’s kill.’
I can’t read the expression in his eyes, but the air between
us turns sour. The silence grows longer and still he looks at
me. Then: ‘You become more like your mother every year.
You are the image of her, and you seem to have inherited her
mental frailties as well.
‘Yet you are my blood as much as hers!’ The words hiss through clenched teeth. I flinch but my father has already regained control. He studies the paperweight. One manicured, blunt-ended finger traces the silver lines of his mage mark winding over the curved glass. His eyes lift to me and the cold determination in them is terrifying. I catch my breath.
‘You are my only child, Zara. My blood runs in your veins and I will not have it wasted. Your gifts are undeniable. I am the greatest adept of the age and your mother was extremely talented. But you lack mental discipline. Find it, Daughter.’ He stares at me, his brown eyes unblinking. ‘Or I will instil it in you.’
My knees grow soft with fear.
My father’s voice continues: ‘I want no more botched lessons or half-hearted attempts. No more subversiveness or you will reap the consequences. Do you understand?’
I beat back a wave of faintness and nod.
‘Good. Now . . .’
For once, Time is on my side. Before Benedict can announce my punishment, someone knocks on the door, then pushes it open. My father’s chief aide, a grey-haired mage named Challen, enters. Her sharp eyes dismiss me. ‘Pardon, Archmage. Pyramus wants to see you. Urgently.’
My father lifts his head like a hound scenting prey. Danger! I freeze and do my best to become invisible – I need to know what this is about. Pyramus will be bringing news of some new plot. But which one? Benedict remembers my presence. He turns to me with a frown of irritation, gesturing for me to leave. ‘Return to your studies, Zara. Apologise to your tutor and do not give me cause to see you again this twelveweek.’
I bend my head submissively and hurry from the room. Pyramus stands outside the door looking, as he always does, like a shopkeeper dressed up in mage robes. No one would guess that this small, plump man is one of the most dangerous adepts in Asphodel. He nods respectfully to me as I pass. What does he know? I break into a scrambling run as soon as I am out of sight. I tear along the corridors, praying that I’m wrong, but I fear that I – and the one person in the world I might call a friend – may be in deadly danger.
The Academy crowns the tallest hill in Asphodel, a limestone fortress of magic, its red-tiled roof faded to pink by centuries of southern sun. Four wings enclose a courtyard. Each side of the square represents one of the elements – air, water, fire, earth. A magician’s tools. We play with the stuff of life itself.
I make myself slow to a walk as I reach the top of the hill and mount the wide marble stairs leading to the portico. The guards either side of the entrance barely glance at me. Some one hundred and fifty student adepts attend the Academy, our long white robes constantly aflutter in the hill winds that slip through every crack in the old stone walls. We few are the most gifted young mages in the city, destined for positions of leadership and power. Anonymity is impossible. And with my height and red hair, I’m all too obviously Benedict’s daughter. Which is something of a handicap for a spy.
My heart pounds impatiently as I stride through the peristyle. Lessons have begun and the courtyard is empty of students. Winter’s silence is broken only by the splashing of the central fountain, the rustling of ancient rosemary bushes. This place contains all the indifference of Time.
A sudden sense of futility spurs me into a run. I dart to the stairs that scaffold the courtyard and sprint up the wooden treads. The top floor of the Academy is no longer used. The clay tiles paving the corridors are cracked and grimy. The frescos on the walls are faded, the painted figures ghostlike. For years there haven’t been enough students to fill these old classrooms. No one comes here except rats and mice, and the cats that hunt them. And Gerontius.
At the far end of the eastern corridor is a door no different from any of the others. Except it is warded. As I lift my hand to knock, the latch clicks up and the door creaks open on rusted hinges.
‘Come in, Zara. I had a premonition you would visit today.’
I know this room so well I hardly see it. But it’s suddenly important that these things exist: the faded tapestries covering the walls, the walnut desk, the battered leather armchair. Centre of all, Gerontius himself, sitting at his desk, a book open before him. Large and hairy – white beard framing a face red-veined from love of wine – and dressed in robes that went out of style three decades ago.
Frightened as I am, a smile creeps over my face. ‘You are the biggest liar I’ve ever met. Your wards told you I was here. You’ve never had a premonition in your life.’
‘I wouldn’t wager on that.’ Shrewd eyes stare at me through puffy lids. ‘But it doesn’t take magic to know you’re not here for a glass of wine and a chat. Sit down and tell me why you’ve come.’
I pull a chair to face him and perch on its edge, fists clenched against panic. He’s so solid, so real, this old man. Surely he’s been here forever, one of Time’s own children. He was my mother’s favourite tutor. Long ago he gave me a message from the dead that changed my life. I owe him everything: who I am, my very survival. And, looking at his wrinkled, fat old face, I realise I love him. Tears burn my eyes and I blink them away. There’s no time for love – only fear.
‘Pyramus,’ I say. ‘He knows something – he’s meeting with my father now. Has he been sniffing around?’
The old man puffs out his cheeks; expels a long, low breath. For a moment he says nothing, then slowly nods. ‘Of course. When does he not?’
‘There’s something, isn’t there?’ I see it in his eyes. ‘Tell me!’
‘The less you know –’
‘Stop protecting me! I’m not my mother. I’m Benedict’s spawn.’ I glare at him. ‘Never forget that. I don’t. Besides, I’m not a child.’
‘No.’ He frowns at me like a sullen bullfrog. His hands are shaking. He’s frightened. Oh gods! I feel ice grip my bowels. It’s as bad as I feared.
He nods slowly, his eyes on my face. ‘You’re right. And you’ll find out soon enough. One of the Knowledge Seekers disappeared two days ago. His guild and family don’t know where he is. He could have had enough and run for it. He might be dead in a ditch. Or he may have turned informer.
Thing is, he was my contact. There was nothing to do but lie low and wait. But this news rather suggests I’m compromised. That’s it then . . . it’s time I went, Zara. Your father will be after the names in my head and we can’t have that. Think what would happen to the poor man if he found out about you, for instance.’ He snorts.
Gerontius is putting up a good front, but I don’t believe it one bit. ‘Where will you go? They’ll be watching. You won’t be allowed out of the city.’
‘I’m not without resources, child.’ But his voice shakes. His eyes are watery. Gods. I can taste his fear. It fills the room like night mist. Panic floods my body, churning my stomach.
‘What resources? Gerontius! . . . Time’s grace! What are we going to do?’
The old man looks at me. Then, slowly and carefully, he closes the book he has been reading and pushes himself upright. He lumbers around the desk and takes me by the shoulders. I cringe slightly at the unaccustomed intimacy of touch.
‘There isn’t time for explanations.’ His eyes look past me into his own thoughts. ‘I made my plans long ago. Thank you for telling me. Now . . .’ His fingers tighten on my arms. ‘Get the hell out of here and stay clear of me, no matter what happens. Swear it by Time’s grace, girl!’
I stare at him. He shakes me. ‘Swear!’
‘I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what you’re going to do. I can’t just leave you!’
‘You always were a worrier.’ He smiles. ‘Now. Remember your mother and what she died for. Remember Swift. And, if you can bear such an unsavoury old man, remember me.’
And then I know: he doesn’t plan to leave this room alive.
‘Gerontius! No! I won’t let you!’
He sweeps me into a bear hug, gently kisses the top of my head and releases me. And before I can say anything – do anything to stop him – the old adept gathers his magic and shoves me out the door on a gust of wind. I fly across the corridor, slam into the opposite wall and tumble to the floor, bruised and dazed. The door crashes shut behind me and, as I stumble to my feet, I watch the wood change to stone before my eyes. And then I’m pounding on a wall where there’s no longer a door – or any sign that a room exists behind the thick stone. Gerontius has walled himself inside his own tomb.
And I have been Death’s messenger.