Three Roses, Bk 1: The Names of the Dead
(Draft as of 10/2021)
Prologue: The Battle of Oldgrove Field
1531, Moon of Irathiel (Late Spring)
An arrow sprouted from his destrier’s neck. The beast’s galloping stride faltered. It bayed in terror, then gave out beneath him.
Artur IV Astargent, King of Angeral, flung himself from the saddle. Ahead, the twig-thin spire of St. Asherah’s Cathedral slipped from view, lost behind a line of roofs scarring the middle distance. Wet earth slammed into him, punching the breath from his lungs. He rolled, skidded through the mud. His skull rebounded off a dent that had been driven into his helm. The world rang as if struck by a bell’s clapper.
… how the bells had rung over the city, how the very heavens had proclaimed him…
His coronation day. How long ago had that been? He found that he couldn’t recall. Time seemed to have collapsed in on itself: the distant made proximate, the long-ago made now.
Why, came a spectral voice, piercing the roar of blood in his ears, why must it always be war? Is there no other proving ground for men and peoples? What of peace, Majesty? What of our homes and families?
He recognized the voice. It was that of Tomas Contzen, the Irathic priest whose repeated requests for an audience he’d finally granted on the night before sailing his host across the sea to retake Angeral from the treachery of Rikard Black, his oldest friend, and Nicolas Astargent, once the closest of his brothers. Artur and the priest had spoken alone together in the manor house that the Count of Vergem had provided for him.
Why, Majesty, Contzen had asked, when you have only to say “No”?
… It’s not so easy as that, priest…
His every muscle burning, Artur levered his steel-burdened frame from the earth. He tottered on hands and knees, quivering like a newborn calf. With an effort, he groped at his helm, pulled it free. Air and sky slammed his senses. He gagged, vomiting strings of bile into the mud.
Again came the priest’s voice.
Should every conflict not seek above all else its own resolution? Should the telos of war not be peace? You bid me speak freely, Majesty! And so I ask: why do you set sail on the morrow for your island kingdom? Why, when you can end the wars this very instant? You have only to decide. You have only to say “No.”
Artur swung his head around, searching the blurred distances. Behind him, to the south, a clutch of mounted men were approaching. To the north lay the outskirts of Whitside, smudged like a lone brush stroke on plaster. In that direction, he knew, lay Long Bridge and the river and, finally, Lloudyn, the capital of his stolen kingdom, crowned by St. Asherah’s on its high hill.
… It’s not so easy as that, priest…
He would never make it back there.
Is it not?
He would never return home.
But if I may, Majesty, for how long has Arnos fought Norloch, Norloch fought Arnos? Nine years? Ten? How many men have fallen in your battles, how many lives destroyed in their wakes? And for what? House Arnos and House Norloch, the White Rose and the Black… Do you not see, Majesty, you are brothers! Brothers!
The ground bucked beneath his gauntleted hands. The knights who’d been pursuing him closed in, a ring of horseflesh and riveted steel. Two of the riders swung from their saddles, armor rattling. They approached, swords drawn, blood-black. Above, a banner sagged on a pole: the White Rose of Arnos.
Others were closing in as well. Artur squinted up at them. Impossibly, each bore to his eyes the visage of the Irathic priest: lank black hair, spearpoint noses thrusting over narrowed mouths.
“You are brothers,” the surrounding throng seemed to chorus. “Brothers!”
One of the nearer shapes spoke. “It’s over, Artur. Yield.”
He knew this voice as well. Rikard Black—traitor, kingmaker, the man upon whom he’d been fool enough to bestow the dukedom of Corfolk.
Yes, Tomas Contzen had said at night under a midspring moon, Duke Corfolk, your oldest friend, betrayed you. Yes, the Duke of Stars, your very own brother, betrayed you. And for what? A love-match? Were you not king? Was the choice of love not yours to make? But Majesty, neither Corfolk’s nor your brother’s betrayal would have been of the least moment had there not been a rival faction for them to join—and no such faction would exist in Angeral had your lord father not claimed the crown as his birthright, as your birthright, all those years ago…
What of your son, Majesty? What shall become of him in the months and years to come?
Hunched over in the mud, Artur Astargent’s eyes and wits began to clear. Through lines of ragged wet hair, he saw that it was Rikard and Nicolas looming over him, soiled swords at the ready. Even now, he thought with vague satisfaction: even unhorsed, on hands and knees, armed only with the dagger at his belt, still they feared him.
“It didn’t have to come to this,” Nicolas said, his voice slurred with exhaustion. “We’ve got no choice now, though, do we? You’ll live in irons, Art. Irons, like your boy! You!”
They shall call him kinslayer, Artur thought, saddened.
The kingmaker and the kinslayer.
No, the Irathic was right, we’re all kinslayers…
“Well? What do you say?” Nicolas barked. “Or have you at last run out of words?”
The voice of the priest of Irathiel, priest of the Twelve-Pointed Star, whispered through him, the words flickering like sheet lightning in the high, receding places of his awareness.
You are eager to say that yes, of course I’m right—but that I overlook the fact that your lord father would need have taken no such measures had Geoffrey of Arnos not usurped the throne from Brandon II. But Majesty, that was, what, five, six decades ago? How far back shall we trace the lines of legitimacy? The Greatheart himself, your most revered forebear, was but one more usurper…
Only now, reeling as if upon ground made sea, did Artur understand what, in his winding way, the Irathic had been trying to tell him on that final night of his exile: that in truth he had no choice but to do as he was going to do. There was no stopping it, no more than one could stop an avalanche by trying to reason with it.
And the priest was right. Damn him, but he was right. Artur could see that now. The appalling truth of it struck him with the force of celestial revelation. From the very moment of his birth, he had been fixed upon a trajectory that led precisely here, to this spot of earth. The imbecile inevitability of his every action and reaction disclosed itself to him. With a mystic’s clarity, he saw that all men, even the mightiest, were naught but patterns of intersections in a cloth woven millennia before, at the amaranthine moment of Creation.
“The Greatheart—himself,” he gasped, cackling. Laughter racked him.
“He’s delirious,” Nicolas said with incongruous concern.
“We’re done here,” Rikard snapped. “Take him, now.”
A gust of sodden wind billowed the White Rose banner. Nicolas hulked forward, boots squelching in the mud.
Artur drew a breath that scorched his throat, lurched to his knees.
He did not know how he could be so certain, but he was: they would call Nicolas kinslayer.
… we are all kinslayers…
It must always be war, he had told the Irathic priest, because evil heeds no reasons. Blood and toil alone prove the true.
Doing only what he was always going to have done, what he could not but do, Artur freed the dagger at his belt. Moving with unexpected speed, with the fluid precision of a lifelong soldier, he slammed the sharpened steel into an opening between his brother’s greave and knee cop.
Nicolas cried out as much in surprise as in pain.
Blood and toil alone…
An unseen blow crashed down upon Artur’s back, flinging him face-first to the ground. He fell, but did not land. He plunged through the skin of the earth as if through the surface of a pond. For a timeless time, the Worldweave itself seemed to cradle him as in a mother’s arms…
… and then—for it seems there must always be a then—the clutching threads dissolve, parting around lances of white, acrid brilliance, and he exhales, plummeting down and out and away, his soul surrendered to…
Artur IV Astargent, King of Angeral, was heard to rasp, “All of us, usurpers,” and to cackle, choking, as death took him.
Chapter 1: The House of Yesteryear
“Begin at the beginning”—a phrase as beguiling to reason as any tautology, and as empty. The difficulty I face is not the common difficulty of selecting among various possible starting-points. It is true, of course, that countless roots feed the trunk of the History I attempt to set out in what follows. But as in the pagan image of the World Tree, these roots draw their water from the spread of branches above them, feeding that water back into the trunk and thence into the branches that nourish the roots. Herein lies my difficulty. Where to begin when describing events the consequences of which will reshape the past and thereby the present?
– Jerome Casterdi, Preface to The Secret Histories
At evensong on the day before he was to start back for Duncaster, which in the turbulence of his waking dreams was already a graveyard ruin, Jerome Casterdi put off the cassock of a Sophieli novitiate, donned his layman’s clothes of a year before—the linen drawers and light woolen tunic still fit only because his mother, in her wisdom, had insisted on making them too big for him—and slipped unnoticed through the gateway of the Academy Sophiel, bound for Long Bridge and the stews of Whitside.
The pair of sentinels at the gate paid him no mind, leaning on their halberds and talking to each other in low, bored tones. If they’d noticed him in the crowd of dayworkers departing the Academy, they were evidently not inclined to stop and question him.
Their laxness was hardly surprising: strictures at the Academy always loosened between terms, especially in summertime. Besides, having just completed the second year of his noviceship, Jerome was finally allowed to venture into the city unchaperoned. His only infraction lay in not wearing his cassock, but everyone knew that the guards tended to look the other way at such trifles. Even so, as he merged into the stream of humanity flowing down Broad Street toward the river, he couldn’t shake the prickling sense that he was doing something wrong, that at any moment hands might dart from the crowd and seize him for truancy or worse.
I don’t belong here, he thought in the odd, doubled way that he’d come to associate with his waking dreams, as if the words were overlaid with an intrusive echo, a second inner voice that was somehow both his own and not his own.
I must go back…
He ignored the senseless urging of the voice, unsure in his own mind what it was referring to, the Academy or Duncaster.
Like most Angerishmen, Jerome spent the better part of the year cursing the incessant rain and gloom that was such a fixture of life on the Lascionan Isles. Now, perversely, he found himself scowling at the clear, sapphire-blue slot of sky above him. It was an absurdly pleasant evening in Lloudyn, the sprawling capital of Angeral: bright and clear, warm but not stifling. A northerly breeze swept in from the countryside, dispelling the worst of the ubiquitous stink rising from alleyways and watercourses and the river. With the workday over and the curfew bells still three hours off, a kind of feverish good cheer had gripped the cityfolk, young and old alike. It seemed to Jerome that only he was immune, a lone brooding island amid a tossing, boisterous sea.
He cut eastward through a narrow, rubbish-strewn alleyway that ran between a row of town houses and the stone wall of an innyard. His hand instinctively clutched the purse at his belt, though he was more likely to lose it in the crowds, which teemed with as many thieves as the alley had rats.
Coming out onto Kingsgate Street, he nearly collided with a knot of fresh-faced young men—apprentices, no doubt. They were dressed much as he was, but looked to be a few years older. “Sorry!” one of them cried, another “Watch it!” as they hastened past, continuing on their way downhill toward the bridge.
It was entirely possible, even likely, Jerome reflected, that this group was bound for the southbank bawdy houses. That was where Jerome meant to tell his dorter-mates he’d been off to, should they ask. It occurred to him that perhaps he ought to turn his cover story into the truth. There was nothing to stop him from going straight to Slattern Lane or The Cuckold Court and using his coin to buy an hour alone with a naked woman in a steamy, perfumed alcove.
In recent months, Reynard, the oldest of the three novitiates with whom Jerome shared a dorter room, had taken to insisting that whatever the cause of Jerome’s peevish ill-humor, it had one and only one guaranteed cure. “And since you’ll never pry open the knees of a Sophieli girl,” he would say with a knowing smirk, “it’s off to Whitside for you!”
Reynard claimed to speak from experience. He boasted of having seduced three—not one or two, but three!—female novitiates in his time at the Academy. He refused to disclose the identities of his conquests, naturally. He was a liar and a fool. With one breath, he would cast himself as a model of gentlemanly discretion; with the next, he would dismiss these poor, nameless creatures as unworthy of his amorous attentions, for—as Jerome had heard him say on several occasions—no timid slip of a girl would do once you’d known the caresses of a woman schooled in the erotic arts.
Yes, Reynard was most certainly a liar and a fool. But that didn’t mean he was wrong that an evening in a bawdy house might do Jerome some good. He’d never lain with a woman before, despite twice having crossed into Whitside with that goal in mind. Who knew how it might affect him? If it gifted him even a night or two free from the waking dreams, it would be worth it…
He had to admit that the sordidness of the idea appealed to him; it suited his grim mood. But he was after more than just a temporary reprieve from the doubleness afflicting him, and that was the most he could hope for from swiving some stranger, however skilled she may be at the act. What he needed was answers, or the beginnings of them. Since he didn’t dare confide in his Sophieli instructors—not yet, at least—there was only one option available to him: he must go to the Merantic wizard of Whitside, who was known to ply his disreputable trade amid the bawdy houses and opium dens of the southbank warrens.
He must go to The House of Yesteryear.
It wasn’t far, but the crowds thronging Long Bridge slowed him, and it was the better part of an hour before he reached the south side of the River Tamesas.
Along the sweeping length of the bridge, tall, narrow buildings pressed in on either side of the roadway, their open shop-fronts offering everything from raw wool and simple ironware to expensive silks and spices imported from the West. He kept a hand on his purse as he threaded through the press. The tide was going out, and beneath the shouting clamor he could hear the rapids churning through the great stone arches below.
The gatehouse guarding the bridge’s southern end was festooned with the severed limbs and parboiled heads of murderers, pirates, and Norlochi traitors to the crown. High up on the ramparts, one of those funereal poles thrust half-a-length or more above the rest, looming over them as the spire of St. Asherah’s Cathedral loomed over the city’s lesser towers. It was evident even from street level that the head adorning the pole, a desiccated husk picked clean by gulls and ravens, had been displayed far longer than the customary thirty days. Rumormongers in the city claimed that it belonged to none other than Artur IV Astargent, the old king who’d been killed the year before a few miles south of Whitside, in the Battle of Oldgrove Field.
Jerome knew this for the nonsense it was. Artur Astargent had been laid to rest beside his father in cathedral ground at Wanstead. Not even the kingmaker, Duke Corfolk, would so mistreat the remains of one who had been crowned and anointed in the name of Thoriel and the God. Even so, Jerome paused in the street to stare up at the grisly trophy. It may not be the head of King Artur, but it served perfectly well as an emblem of Angeral’s long travails.
Inevitably, thought of the wars stirred up memories from Jerome’s waking dreams. He’d grown so accustomed to these intrusions that he didn’t so much as flinch when the ghostly scene swelled around him like a kind of double-vision, half-drowning out the present.
… and he is back in Duncaster, standing with his parents at the parapet beside Westgate. It is midmorning, clear and cool, winter easing into spring. Below them, in the field outside the wall, there is an army, and a man—Henri Mowbray, Duke of Murcen, surprisingly youthful. Above the duke flaps a banner emblazoned with the Twin Arrowheads, and the duke is holding a dagger in the air and saying, “Friends, friends! Do you not see that the time for standing aside is past?” …
All lies, Jerome tried to tell himself. Lies and doubleness and waking dreams…
Yes, he had gone back to Duncaster in the spring. And yes, Henri Mowbray’s army had passed through the area early in the campaigning season. But the Norlochi force had not marched on Duncaster. The surprisingly youthful Duke of Murcen had not stood in the field below Westgate and called out, “Friends, friends!” as he readied to set his men loose upon the town, to pillage and slaughter and burn it to the ground.
Jerome could remember smoke and screaming and the blaring of trumpets in springtime, yet none of it had happened. Nor, he had thought, was it conceivable that it could have happened. At the time, the idea that a nobleman would order such an atrocity had seemed absurd. The Angerish wars were a dynastic conflict fought between branches of the royal family. The majority of those killed in its battles were foreign mercenaries. The unrest brought suffering down upon the people in all sorts of ways, to be sure, but not directly.
Only later, when he’d returned to the Academy for the spring term, had he learned that another Norlochi army—the one in the Southlands, led by Mowbray’s liege lord, Brandon Astargent—had visited upon Andershall the fate suffered by Duncaster in his waking dreams: the town destroyed, her people put to the sword. And Jerome had recalled Henri Mowbray saying, “Do you not see that the time for standing aside is past?” and “Those who refuse to stand with us must themselves be accounted traitors,” and he’d thought, It might have happened to us after all, then…
That was when he’d begun to take the visions more seriously. Now, after a season of following that divergent life in dreams that assailed him both abed and abroad, Jerome found that the memories of the other life were as real to him as any of his true memories were—realer, maybe.
Go back, he thought—or was it the other Jerome’s thought?
Setting off with renewed purpose, he headed west down Southbank Street, into the quarter of Whitside known as the stews. There were still some respectable bathhouses to be found there, but few ventured to Whitside simply to bathe, and most had long since been converted into bawdy houses, whose baths and steam rooms were ancillary attractions at best. All manner of unsavory entertainments had sprung up like mushrooms in the shadow of the bawdy houses, having been driven from Lloudyn like the brothels themselves by the ordinances and strict regulations of the city fathers. There were playhouses, bear-baiting pits and cock-fighting rings, dens for smoking opium or hashish, and lurking down dark laneways, fortune-tellers by the score—along with a Merantic wizard, who promised not knowledge of the future, but a chance to relive one’s past.
A vendor of skewered beef and onions singled Jerome out, called, “Gotta keep yer strength up in the stews, lad! Only one denar a piece! You’ll not find a better deal!”
He pressed on. At a corner between a tavern and a nondescript dwelling, he slipped into a laneway that opened at the far end onto a small, squalid yard lined with several shop-fronts. The river pressed near, but all Jerome could smell was trash, unwashed bodies, and stale beer, shot through with the exotic tang of opium and hashish.
A dozen or more men and women—vagrants, by the looks of them—lounged about in the shade, some leaning against walls, others sprawled on the ground, sleeping or unconscious. The more alert eyed Jerome with shrewd, measuring gazes. They would see a clean young man in fine new clothes—nothing elaborate, but good cloth well-tailored, though perhaps getting a little small for him: not a lordling or squire, certainly, but far from the street urchins they would be used to seeing in the backways of the Whitside stews. The purse at his belt would not be empty, and though he may know how to use the dagger that hung at his opposite hip, he was unlikely to pose any serious threat to them should they elect to take a closer look.
Jerome knew he should be afraid, and he was. He could feel it churning in his gut; but it was oddly muted, overlaid with a calm borne of dark experiences he had never experienced. He felt anew the swelling of the waking dreams, but now the doubleness stopped at the boundary of his skin, permeating him while leaving the world intact.
I am two people, he thought, both like and unlike myself…
And the other Jerome harbored no fear of this place or these people.
“Lost your way, have you, boy?” asked a woman in a slurred, drowsy voice. She was reclining against a wall of peeling cob, her eyes heavy-lidded and her legs crossed beneath her. At her side, a tall man, wide-shouldered and sunken-eyed, rose to his feet, flexing big-knuckled hands.
“No,” Jerome said, studying the shop-fronts, “but thank you.” He found the one he was looking for. Where the others were open, shutters thrown wide, the shadowed forms of people visible within, this one was dark and closed-up. The only indication of what lay inside was the sign hanging above the door: the outlined constellations of the Wolf and the Serpent.
“Ahhh,” the woman wheezed, “you don’t wanna go in there, boy. Trust us. The poppy’d be safer…”
Ignoring her, Jerome crossed the yard, pulled open the heavy oaken door of The House of Yesteryear, and entered.
He stopped short two steps into the front room.
On the far wall, a bank of wide, diamond-paned windows let in such a generous amount of sunlight that they must have an unobstructed view of the river. Before the windows stretched a long bench of polished wood. A man with a cudgel and short-sword at his belt loomed up at Jerome’s left, but returned to a stool in the corner after giving Jerome a quick once-over. The only other people in the room—a woman well into her middle years, with a book in her hands, and beside her a boy of perhaps twelve or thirteen years—offered no greetings. They regarded him incuriously as he gawped in wonder at the chaotic profusion of objects crowding the dusty space.
Skeletons, mostly of fishes and birds, dangled from the rafters. Skulls covered part of one wall—some antlered, others tusked or horned—alongside tortoise shells as big as kite shields and, hanging from hooks, the preserved forms of creatures he couldn’t identify. On the wall opposite, all manner of oddities crowded shelving that ran from floor to ceiling: feathers and seashells, baskets of stones and minerals, petrified eggs and tiny metal men and an elaborate chamber clock whose face gleamed golden in the sunlight. There was a three-foot-tall statue of lacquered wood, depicting a man in unfamiliar dress who held a spear across his body. He had narrow eyes set in a broad, flat face. Jerome guessed that it had come from—or was meant to look as if it had come from—Occiënas, the Far West, beyond the Silk Roads.
Standing before a bookshelf, the woman replaced the slim illuminated volume she held. She wore a low-cut, front-laced bodice. Her arms and feet were bare, and her silver hair hung unbound over her shoulders. She had the look and even something of the air of a harlot. At this thought, heat rose in Jerome’s cheeks despite that the woman was older than his mother.
“You are troubled,” she said in a clipped Forsish accent, and he wondered what she was referring to, if she had noticed his blush.
Battling sudden unease, Jerome said, “I’m here to see the Meranti. Have I come to the right place?”
The woman cocked her head to the side, studying his face with a frown. “You have coin, yes? A wizard’s services are not cheaply bought.”
He rattled the purse at his belt. “I can pay.”
Her face lifted into a mercenary smile. With a gesture, she said, “Then by all means, enter and be welcome to The House of Yesteryear.”
As Jerome came forward, the woman said, “If you wish it, I will share with you the provenance and secret properties of the many curiosities you see all around you. There is much you will find to be of interest in Old Worm’s collection, I’m sure.”
“Old Worm?” Jerome said. The woman’s accent had thickened over these words—Ould Verm—and Jerome suspected that it was an actual name in the Low Countries, on the far side of the White Sea.
“Yes, he is my employer, and the Meranti you seek.”
“And you are?”
She inclined her head. “I am Dorothea Bartholin. I look after the collection and its master.” She placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “This is Foulke, Old Worm’s apprentice. I’ll not ask for your name. But if you’ll forgive me, I must say that you’re a most curious visitor to our establishment. You are, what, all of sixteen, seventeen years? It saddens me to think of one with so much future ahead of him seeking to retreat into the past.”
Again Jerome thought, I must go back…
A soft whirring of gears on his right drew his attention. The chamber clock gave off a melodious tinkling. He counted seven chimes. That meant he had two hours left before the curfew bells would ring and the gates of Lloudyn close for the night.
“I’m sure at least some of these ‘curiosities’ are of great value,” Jerome said. “The clock alone would fetch a hefty price. Aren’t you afraid of being robbed?”
“No one bothers us here,” the boy—Foulke—said in a cheerful, chirping voice.
Dorothea nodded her head. “It is true, for the most part. Even those without fear of the Wolf think twice before crossing the Serpent.”
No doubt there was something to that, Jerome thought, but it didn’t explain how such a conspicuous display of wealth could survive in the stews. The Wolf constellation represented Macariel the All-Seeing, Archon of justice and the past. Merantic horology was a bastard offshoot of the more sophisticated thaumaturgical art practiced by the Aletheics of the Order of Macariel, which was itself derived from the Avetic sorcery of the once-dominant Order of Irathiel, the Dark Archon, whose constellation was the Serpent. Fear of sorcery ran deep throughout all corners of society—the still-potent legacy of ancient horrors—but wizards were far more benign than sorcerers were. They were more likely to evoke suspicion and dislike than terror. Though a Meranti’s power was akin to sorcery, it was not sorcery. There was no serpent in this den.
Despite his incredulity, Jerome let the question drop. He hadn’t come here to investigate The House of Yesteryear, but to avail himself of the services it claimed to offer.
“You can regale me with the wonders of Old Worm’s collection next time,” he said. “Will the Meranti come to me, or shall I go to him?”
Dorothea Bartholin’s brows rose as if at a minor impropriety. “As you wish.” She gestured toward the back of the room. “Foulke will accompany you.”
The boy grinned, waved Jerome on with an excited fluttering of his hand. “This way!”
There was a narrow slot of empty wall tucked in on the far side of the bookshelf. Foulke pushed against the wooden paneling. A section gave way with a creak of hinges. Beyond ran a short passageway leading to an interior room that blazed with lantern light. The doorway breathed out a heady mix of incense and opium. The fumes were thick enough that Jerome hesitated, not wanting to be fuddled by the poppy. But he’d come too far to turn back now. Besides, Reynard and the others would find it suspicious if he returned to the Academy without showing signs of revelries enjoyed.
“Come on!” Foulke enthused.
The interior room was larger than the outer room and seemed austere by comparison. Tapestries draped the walls. Fine Denrahish carpets covered the floor. The ceiling displayed the thirteen Archonical constellations, as if in imitation of a chapel; but here they were laid out according to the precepts of astrology, not theology. It was like a huge, rudimentary star chart, the constellations picked out in golden spangles upon a dusky background. An iron pendant lamp hung from a bracket set at the chart’s central node.
Directly beneath the lamp, an ovular table held writing implements, two neat stacks of books, and a scattering of golden censors emitting wisps of blue-grey smoke. Behind the table, an old man sat in a high-backed chair facing the door. A long grey beard hung down over his chest. He wore a tall, wide-brimmed hat of the same ochre color as his robes. Bejeweled rings gleamed on the fingers steepled before him. He regarded the newcomer to his inner sanctum with eyes that were glassy yet shrewd, bloodshot yet alert. A shewstone rested on a plinth to the old man’s right, and to his left there stood a waist-high armillary sphere, its brass rings encircling a celestial globe, as fine a model as any Jerome had seen at the Academy Sophiel.
Foulke swung shut the door, then went to stand beside Old Worm’s chair. “Our latest patron, master,” he said, smiling at Jerome.
Unlike his young apprentice, the wizard seemed if anything annoyed by Jerome’s presence. “You’re just a boy,” he said in a low, gravelly voice, then coughed.
At sixteen, Jerome was a grown man, but he didn’t dispute the claim. He had the feeling that the wizard was trying to rile him, to get him on the defensive. But why? “My coin is good,” he said, pressing a hand to his purse.
Old Worm’s frown deepened. “Why have you come here, boy?”
“Why does anyone visit a Merantic wizard? I’m here to relive my past.”
Old Worm snorted. “Past? What past?”
“Midmorning on the sixth day of the Phoenix Moon.”
“So specific!” the wizard croaked, laughing. He leaned forward, waved smoke from one of the censors toward him. He drew in the vapors, then released a long, slow breath. “You’re referring to the spring just past, I take it?”
“But that was mere months ago.”
Why does he antagonize me? Jerome wondered. It was as if the wizard didn’t want his custom. Nothing about this encounter made any sense to Jerome. He elected to remain silent.
“Whatever happened on the sixth of Anephel,” Old Worm said after a time, “there is no changing it, even in visions. You know this, yes? I can return you to your past, but ever shall it be the same past; and though a sliver of you-now shall stand as spectator in the Merantic trance, ever shall the you-then be the same you-then who lived that past for the first time.”
“I understand,” Jerome said.
Old Worm nodded his ancient head, sighing sagely. “I believe you do. Odd, that…” He gave a little shake of his head, as if to chase away an errant thought. “Let us proceed, then.” He coughed, leaned his elbows onto the desk. “Before speaking of remuneration, I must warn you of the dangers of the Merantic trance, as I do all who come seeking it. When one returns to their past, their I—meaning their I-now—ceases to exist. Do you understand what this means? Time spent in the trance is time forever lost. Think of it as a hole punctured in the fabric of a life. Now, to be sure, our lives are sturdy, thickly woven stuff. A little pinprick here and there is as nothing to it. But accumulate enough pinpricks, and any fabric will eventually begin to tear. Should that occur, a person’s awareness will be cast adrift, unmoored in the sea of time…”
The wizard hesitated, grimacing slightly, as if warding back tears or a bitter memory. “It is a sorrowful thing…” Then, gathering himself, he said, “I say this because, for some, the trance becomes a powerful lure. Once it is experienced, many find that they yearn for it despite its perils. Some cannot resist that lure, and it consumes them. So consider yourself warned. Proceed in this only if you feel that you must.”
The last thing Jerome had expected was for this southbank wizard to try scaring him off. It was surprising, but also admirable. Jerome had spent much of the spring term at the Academy learning about sorcery and the thaumaturgical arts, including Merantic horology. He knew its dangers well. Indeed, he’d hit upon the idea of coming to this place only after seeing one of the unfortunate souls Old Worm had just described—one of Old Worm’s victims.
About a month ago, that had been, during the final weeks of the spring term. He’d been walking down Southbank Street when he found his attention drawn powerfully to a hollow-eyed man shambling from the mouth of an alleyway. The man could have been a typical vagrant, albeit one of the lowest of their kind, with his filthy rags, his unshod feet marking a bloody path behind him; but Jerome had undergone the Testing for raptural Sensitivity only days earlier, and he could sense the aura of rapture about the man, like a whirlpool feeding back into itself, a self-contained and inescapable prison. He’d known at once that the man was not simply fuddled by drink or opium, nor was he simply mad; no, he was a Lunâtos, one of the Severed. And that meant that the Meranti of Whitside was not, as Jerome had previously assumed, a charlatan, as so many self-proclaimed wizards were.
“I accept the risks,” Jerome said.
Old Worm spread his hands wide. “Very well. The sixth day of the Phoenix Moon just past, you said?”
Feeling suddenly light-headed and heavy-limbed, Jerome approached the wizard. There was a narrow bench on the near side of the table, and he took the liberty of seating himself upon it. He glanced down at the censors, wondered if Old Worm would cover them if he asked.
“And for how long would you like to remain in the trance?” the wizard said.
“A minute or two only.”
Old Worm cocked a bushy brow at Jerome, then at Foulke, who looked equally perplexed. “So short a time? Are you certain?”
“But, if I may,” Foulke said, “the formulae guiding the trance aren’t that precise. We can place you to within an hour of terce, but that’s the best we can do.”
“I understand,” Jerome said.
Old Worm snorted. “The young master says he understands! Very well, then!”
At a gesture from the wizard, Foulke drew out a book from one of the stacks, began leafing through its pages. They were crowded with star-charts and obscure mathematical grids and formulas. He knew from his recent studies that the Meranti would need to determine the precise position of the stars over Angeral at the date and time of the experience he wished to induce. It could be tedious work, given the discrepancies between the round of the calendar and the wheel of the heavens, but not for a time so near the present.
“What would happen,” Jerome asked the wizard, “if you returned someone to a time before their birth?”
“Have no fear of that,” Old Worm said. “I do not make mistakes, let alone ones of such magnitude.”
“Still, what would happen? I’ve always wondered.”
The wizard paused thoughtfully. Then he said, “Imagine nothingness, absolute and unbroken. Then subtract from that nothingness your own imagined experiencing of it, for experience—as we understand it, at any rate—is itself something. That should give you the barest inkling of the horror such souls are made to endure.”
Evidently having found the page he sought, Foulke handed to the wizard the book he’d been consulting. To Jerome, he said, “Don’t worry. We know what we’re doing.”
“Hmm, yes, that’s the one,” Old Worm said, studying the book. “Draw up the pitch constellation.” To Jerome: “Now, as for the matter of remuneration. My fee is eight solidi.”
Jerome sputtered, choked on an intake of vapor, coughed. Haggling was a near-universal custom, at least when purchasing something other than staples such as food and drink, but he’d not anticipated such an outrageous opening offer. Through a ragged throat, he said, “I could buy a cow for that! I’ll give you two solidi, not a denar more.”
Old Worm squinted at him. “Given your tender years and probable dearth of funds, I’ll accept four solidi. It’s a generous offer.”
“Two solidi, six denari,” Jerome countered. “Otherwise, I’ll go, and thank you for the free taste of the poppy. Indeed”—he drew a deep breath, released it with a sigh—“at present I’m feeling quite content with this evening’s excursion.”
Old Worm grumbled deep in his throat, drummed the fingertips of one hand on the tabletop.
“I’ve completed the pitch constellation, master,” Foulke said, angling a sheet of paper toward the wizard. He dipped the nib of his pen in the inkpot. “Shall I proceed with the modulation key?”
“A moment,” Old Worm said. To Jerome: “As outrageous as your offer is, I’m inclined to accept. First, however, I must consult Dorothea. You met her on your way in, I’m sure. She keeps the books, you understand. Indeed, she keeps this whole place up and running, yours truly included. Boy,” he snapped to Foulke, “go and ask if we can accept a mere two and a half solidi for a casting.”
“Yes, master,” Foulke said.
The apprentice disappeared down the passageway leading to the front room. Jerome found himself alone with the Merantic wizard. An awkward silence fell between them. Everything about this situation suddenly struck him as absurd, comically so. It took an effort of will and diaphragm not to laugh out loud. The poppy’s doing its work, he thought, marveling at the placidity with which he could contemplate his dire, portentous circumstances.
How had he ended up here?
Since his last visit home to Duncaster, in the spring, he’d been having dreams of another life, another version of his life—a dark, dreadful vision. He’d come to think of them as waking dreams, both on account of how they sometimes chased him into the daylight, doubling his vision, and because, even when they came to him in his sleep, they were not the stuff of dreams, but of waking life. They’d grown only stronger and more insistent since he’d undergone the Testing, and now he was utterly convinced that the dreams and the other Jerome they revealed to him were somehow real, even though that was clearly impossible.
It was all deeply troubling, to be sure, especially given that any seeing of what-was-not reeked of potential sorcery. He had decided, reasonably, that he had to learn more about what was happening to him. Equally reasonably, he had concluded that he could not risk confiding in Rhapsode Josine, the Sophieli wizard who had administered his test, nor anyone else at the Academy. Should they come to suspect that he was capable of wielding sorcery, they would be duty-bound to deliver him to the Order of Irathiel, a prospect so dreaded that it was routinely invoked to frighten children into obedience. But he had to do something, didn’t he? Surely he did. But now? Now he found himself in the Whitside stews, haggling with a Merantic wizard over the price of a horological casting, the table between them piled with astrological tomes and giving off wispy tendrils of incense and intoxication. How absolutely absurd!
He regarded Old Worm with what seemed new, fresh eyes, becalmed and discerning. The man could have sprung directly from the pages of a storybook, with his towering hat, long grey beard, and air of grumpy sagacity. He might not be a charlatan, but there was no doubting that he was an actor of some description. Indeed, it seemed to Jerome that the wizard had taken the old tropes too far, into the realm of parody. Did he even make use of the exquisite armillary sphere, or was it there only to look impressive? And then there was the shewstone, which Jerome hadn’t given much thought to until now. Merantic horology—indeed, the whole branch of thaumaturgy to which it belonged—made no use of shewstones. Why was it here?
Misinterpreting the shift of Jerome’s attention, Old Worm said, “Fascinating, is it not? That is my orbuculum. Crafted of bloodstone mined a thousand years ago in distant Nohaias, beyond the Hyrcani Sea, it’s one of the foremost treasures of my collection. Come,” the wizard wheezed, lifting himself to his feet. “Let’s have a closer look, shall we?”
Jerome joined the wizard at the plinth. The flat, wide, rounded mineral crowning it was a dark, opaque green flecked with red. It did indeed resemble a bloodstone. But Jerome knew how to recognize orbuculums—or shewstones, as they were usually called—for the Rhapsodic wizards of the Order of Sophiel used them in their scrying. In recent months, he had passed many an hour in the Academy’s lunarium with Rhapsode Josine, surrounded by a half-dozen or more of these precious occultics. What stood before him now, he knew, was no shewstone.
He watched with growing apprehension as Old Worm leaned his head back and, closing his eyes, reverently placed one of his hands upon the fake bloodstone. “The power!” he crooned. “I needn’t utter a single incantum, and still it flows through me like a river!”
Jerome let the man sway there as if entranced for what seemed a long time. Then he said, “You’re lying.” It was not an accusation, just a statement of fact. “Why would you lie about that?”
Old Worm drew himself up, huffing indignantly. Obscured by his beard, his mouth worked like that of a cow chewing cud. “I’m not—I don’t,” he sputtered, for all the world like an actor who had forgotten his lines. “How dare you call me a liar!”
“Enough, Old,” Dorothea Bartholin said from the mouth of the passageway. “You’ll not fool this one.”
The old man continued to protest. “But I—he—”
“Enough,” she repeated more sharply. “It’s not your fault. This one’s a Sophieli, I suspect—and his raptural Sensitivity is strong, very strong.”
Jerome regarded Dorothea Bartholin, her feet bare, her silver hair long and unbound, with a sense of calm so complete it bordered on bliss. “It’s you,” he said. “You’re the Meranti.”
She mimicked a curtsy. “At your service.”
Chapter 2: The Casting
That the majority remain ignorant of these things is hardly surprising; indeed, it is by design. But ignorance is the most fertile ground of all for the cultivation of baseless conviction (a phrase I have long found to be redundant). Therefore, allow me to dispel the mists of millennia regarding certain key concepts related to thaumaturgy and sorcery, beginning with these terms themselves.
The first thing to note is that, properly understood, thaumaturgy and sorcery refer to distinct, though related, shamanic arts. “Thaumaturgy” derives from the Ancient Nikean “thaumatourgós,” meaning “performer of wonders.” Today, we call practitioners of thaumaturgy “wizards,” from the Old Angerish “wysard,” meaning “one who is wise.” Wizards of all types are characterized by their possession of occult knowledge. They are “wise” in the sense that their arts allow them to see and know things that are hidden from ordinary people: they are oracles and augurers, soul-scryers and peerers-into-shewstones. The sorcerous arts, on the other hand, allow their practitioners not only to see and know what is, was, or will be, but to decide and determine what is, was, or will be. Sorcerers accomplish this feat by channeling seiyadir, the cosmic force that is responsible for the movement of time and thereby for the Weaving of the World. As conduits of seiyadir, sorcerers are able to weave—and reweave—the very pattern of history itself. Those who refer to them as “godlings” do not exaggerate by much.
– Jerome Casterdi, The Secret Histories (Appendix I)
“At your service,” Dorothea Bartholin said. “And you are?”
Feeling neither the need nor the inclination to lie, Jerome said, “You’re right, I’m a Sophieli novitiate.”
She strode into the room on light, dancerly feet. She came up behind the ovular desk, peered down at the page that Foulke had prepared. It contained the pitch constellation that, if incanted by one with the requisite skills and training, would deliver him back to the morning on which, in the world of his waking dreams, Henri Mowbray’s army had razed Duncaster.
Meanwhile, Old Worm had dragged the chair toward the far wall, clearing a space for Dorothea. He doffed his ridiculous hat and with it, Jerome realized, the character of a Merantic wizard. With an end-of-the-day groan, he sank into the seat of the chair, his loose-limbed ease entirely unlike the stiff formality of the character he played.
Jerome was fascinated by the pair. “Why all the subterfuge?”
Looking up, Dorothea Bartholin said, “Many reasons. Few who come here end up experiencing a casting. Of those who do, few possess the raptural Sensitivity needed to discern that the trance is induced not by Old’s pointless droning, but by me, in the passageway or behind a tapestry.”
“So why reveal yourself to me?” Jerome asked.
“Because…” Dorothea hesitated. She frowned, her glance sliding away from him. “I don’t know. You caught out old Old”—old Ould—“but… I don’t know. There’s something strange going on in Angeral, and there’s something strange about you, my young Sophieli… Tell me, am I making a mistake in trusting you with our secret?”
“Of course you are,” Old Worm said in a voice very unlike that of the wizard. It was higher, looser, with a pronounced Forsish accent. “This isn’t like you at all, Thea.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” Jerome said. He produced a two solidi and six denari from the purse at his belt. Counting them out, he placed the silver coins on the table with a clink. “Shall we proceed? I need to be back in Lloudyn before the curfew bells ring.”
By way of reply, Dorothea called out, “Foulke!” Scowling down at the table, she began shuttering the censors. “How many times have I told you,” she said over her shoulder to Old Worm, “not to burn black stone when Foulke is in here with you?”
“Pah!” Old Worm groused. “It won’t hurt the boy. It’s mostly hashish.”
Dorothea waved at a long serpent of smoke hanging in the air, dispelling it. “Then I fear my nose doth deceive me greatly. Open a window, will you?”
Old Worm rose from his chair with a dramatic groan of protest. Foulke entered as the old man pulled aside the tapestry on the north wall, unlatched and drew open the window that lay behind it. He pushed out the shutters, and an unusually pleasant river breeze swept into the room.
Foulke had joined Dorothea behind the desk. She leaned over his shoulder, examining the sheet of paper he had prepared. “The sixth of Anephel just past, yes? Good. Continue with the modulation key, please.”
“Yes, mistress,” Foulke said, eagerly plucking the pen from the inkpot.
“Now,” she said, turning her full attention on Jerome. She looked him up and down. “I would wager that you’ve just completed your second year at the Academy.” When he offered no response to this, either to confirm or deny it, she went on, “That means you’re fresh off the Sophieli’s test for raptural Sensitivity. The test awakened the Sensitivity in you, yes? You’re fairly pulsing with rapture even now. It’s quite extraordinary, really. Are you to become a Rhapsodic wizard, then? Or have you yet to make your decision?”
Still he remained silent. Dorothea Bartholin said, “You are troubled,” a repetition of the first words she’d spoken to him. “What is it you’re afraid of? What has brought you here?”
At first Jerome had kept his peace in order to see how much she would get right about him. Now, though, he simply didn’t know what to say to this woman. Even if she came to suspect him of sorcerous potential, it was unlikely that she would take it upon herself to seize him in the name of the Archonical authorities. This was the Whitside stews, and she was hardly an upstanding citizen herself. Most Merantic wizards were failed Aletheics who had absconded from the Order of Macariel rather than spend the rest of their lives training their future masters in the rudiments of Aletheic soul-scrying.
Still, Jerome had never before given voice to his suspicion that he was a potential sorcerer, and the words did not come easily to his lips. The idea both thrilled and repelled him; it was a wellspring of both hope and fear.
“I’ve been having dreams,” he said.
Dorothea arched her brows at him, a silent request for elaboration. When he declined, she said, “Yes? We all have dreams, I reckon.”
“But these are different…” And he explained what he could of the waking dreams: how for the past three months and more they had disclosed to him, day-by-day, a different version of his life, one that had diverged sharply from his own life on the sixth day of the Phoenix Moon. He told her how utterly real the dreams were, about how the person he dreamed of—the other version of himself—would sometimes seem to accompany him even when he was awake, like a second set of eyes peering out from behind his own.
“Sometimes,” he admitted, “when I have a thought, I can’t tell if it’s my thought or something the other me is thinking…”
These words trailed off into a taut silence. He looked out through the open window, saw that, across the river, the shadows of evening were deepening among the quayside inns and warehouses. He could hear the calls of watermen, the slap and splash of oars drawing scullers and wherries and tilt-boats with their passengers this-way-and-that across the river.
Old Worm broke the silence. “Bloody hell!” he rasped, sketching the sign of the Starcross over his chest. “Best send this one packing, Thea. A daimon’s got to him—or worse.”
Dorothea tossed a cautioning look Old Worm’s way. But when she returned her attention to Jerome, it was not without suspicion. “Is that what you think has happened? That a daimon of the Outworld has possessed you?”
“Then what do you think is the cause of this… this…”
“Doubleness?” Jerome offered.
“Yes, good, I like that. This doubleness, then. Well?”
“I don’t have the slightest idea.” He barked a laugh. “Unless it’s that I’ve gone well and truly mad.”
Dorothea nodded her head. Clearly, this possibility had occurred to her as well. “And you’ve come here to discover the truth of your past, to see whether it will turn out to be the life you lived or the life of your waking dreams.” It was not a question, and she did not look for a response. Instead, she asked Foulke, “How much longer?”
“Nearly done,” the boy said without looking up from his neat, mysterious numerological scribbling. What had they called it? A modulation key?
“Good.” To Jerome, Dorothea said, “If I may, what happened to the other you on the sixth of Anephel?”
Jerome stiffened. The waking dreams rose up within him, doubling his vision…
… and he is thrown into screaming chaos. The Norlochi troops make their way through Duncaster, pitching brands onto thatched roofs as they pass. In the press of people fleeing toward Eastgate, Jerome feels Lyra’s small hand slip from his own. Terror seizes him. He turns back, calls her name. He reels against the oncoming tide. For a moment he is sure he will fall, that the mob will trample him to death against the cobbles.
“I’ve got her,” his father says. He is coming up behind Jerome, his size and the force of his presence opening a space for them in the press of humanity. He effortlessly scoops up his ten-year-old daughter. Lyra lashes her arms about his neck, her legs about his hips. “I’ve guh—”
An arrowhead punches through the drooping tangle of Maurizio Casterdi’s beard. He gapes at Jerome, eyes wide with shocked disbelief. Blood pours down over his chin. Lyra screams. Maurizio’s knees buckle. He staggers, expending the last of his strength in an effort to pivot his frame so as not to crush his daughter beneath him…
The double-vision faded quickly, as it always did. The sounds lingered longer, like echoes down a long cavern. Distantly, he could hear himself bellowing for the crowd to give way as Dorothea Bartholin said, “What just happened? Who’s Lyra?”
Jerome felt numb, though tears stood quivering in his eyes. He must have spoken aloud while in the grip of the vision; he hadn’t known he did that. “She was my sister,” he said. He shook his head, wiped at the wetness on his cheeks. “I mean she is my sister.”
They were all staring at him now, Dorothea and Foulke and Old Worm, with a kind of superstitious reticence that was surely a rarity in this place.
“A person cannot have more than one past,” Dorothea said with sure and settled conviction. “To think otherwise is to deny the most fundamental of all laws governing the cosmos, the law of noncontradiction. I do not know the meaning or source of your waking dreams; but if they disclose to you a world at variance with the one you have actually lived—the one you know to be real—then they can be naught but figments. Regarding this much, at least, I can reassure you here and now. So let us proceed.”
Dorothea Bartholin, the Merantic wizard of Whitside, seated herself on a bench opposite him. “Normally,” she said, “Old opens the proceedings with a spot of chanting, for the edification of our patrons. He has a fine baritone, ideal for reciting the Canticles, and it goes over marvelously well. But we can dispense with the theatrics, you and I, yes?”
Jerome nodded his agreement. Though the effects of the vapors he’d inhaled hadn’t diminished, a sudden clattering of nerves had him wishing that Dorothea had not shuttered the censors and unshuttered the window.
“As you’ve no doubt learned in your studies with the Sophieli,” she went on, “Choric practices, whether sorcerous or, like my own, thaumaturgic, do not require any actual singing of the resonant harmonies. I need sound the aoidê”—she placed a fingertip on the paper Foulke had prepared—“only with the sigalía, the inner voice. You will hear the resonance once we’ve entered a shared raptural space, but until then, the procedure will be very much like what you experienced during your Testing. Are you ready?”
He expected her to close her eyes, perhaps tip her head back and sway a bit, as Old Worm had done over the fake shewstone. She did none of these things. She kept her sharp blue eyes fixed on him, holding his gaze with such intensity that he did not think himself capable of looking away or even blinking. Almost at once, he felt the first tingling intimations of the rapture-state, like a breath of winter cold pinching his face, needling his arms. Paradoxically, this cold brought beads of sweat to his brow.
Staring hard at Dorothea, he noticed a slight tremor at the corner of her left eye in the instant before a great upwelling of raptural power spilled out of her, blurring and warping the air around them both, as if plunging them into crystalline waters.
Those without or with only slight raptural Sensitivity would have no way of knowing that anything had happened. But in Jerome’s case, Dorothea’s power struck like a spectral whirlwind. On alternating waves of heat and cold, it carried the scent of sulfur mixed with a cloying, metallic acridity. It seemed to pull him in even as it pushed him away—push-pull, push-pull—a queasy, wrenching sensation. Light of the purest white flashed and streaked around him, like falling stars.
And as in the Testing, when he and Rhapsode Josine had stood with hands placed upon a shewstone blazing with that same bleached light, something in Jerome reacted to the power spilling from Meranti Dorothea. He seemed to separate from himself, as if he stood both inside and outside of his own body. It felt as if he were lifting into the air, a hard stuttering motion, rising again and again from his spot on the bench. Then the walls and ceiling and floor of the room dilated and retracted, falling away into a darkness studded with distant eddies of light, leaving only him and the wizard and the space between them…
… until even those things fall away: he, the wizard, the space between. His soul plummets outward in all directions, drawn along otherworldly tangents, branching from the plane of terrestrial time toward the encircling horizon that lies enfolded within the present of each lived moment. He seems to be endlessly falling, falling without moving. A cascade of voices dizzy him: his father singing, his mother calling for him and his brother, the collective babble of an inn’s common room. These familiar sounds give way to others, as wave succeeds wave upon the shoreline: shouts and screams, the pleading cries of the dying, the bloody laughter of soldiers set to pillaging.
Gradually, the voices recede, and with them the vertiginous sense of stationary movement. As if opening already-open eyes, Jerome stares out upon the keneôn, the spaceless space of rapture. He is a roiling mote floating in a blackness bounded by great encircling arcs of light. And he is not alone. A presence blooms in his mind, vivid and vital. It is approaching him—or he is approaching it—at great speed, and with it comes a thundering hammer of sound, a many-voiced harmony that seems to spill down from the arcs of light, to set them spinning like the rings of an armillary sphere, faster and faster. The sound crashes into him—or he crashes into the sound—and it is as if the mote of his being explodes out of him, throwing a new arc across the face of the black.
He feels the great, cosmos-shaking song propel him backward along this arc that is his life entire. It is drawing him toward a fixed, predetermined point with the force and inevitability of celestial decree. He knows, distantly, that the song is Meranti Dorothea’s incantic resonance. He tries to give himself up to its impetus, imagining himself a leaf caught in a river’s irresistible current; but to his surprise, he finds that he cannot do so. Something—someone—within him refuses to let go.
In a hidden corner of the keneôn, a second resonance is building. It reaches out, seizes him. In that moment, panic flares through the presence in his mind. This new, second song collides with the first. With a dissonant roar, a hitherto unseen and unimagined dimension cuts across the spaceless space, like the ecliptic cutting across the path of the stars, and he feels himself being plucked from the sure lines of the course that has been laid out for him. Terror boils through him. He veers onto that secant plane, dragging the presence and its song skittering in his wake. A globe of sulfurous light rushes out of the darkness and swallows him whole…
… and he was climbing the spiral stair to the upper transept of the domarchon in the Priory of the Immortal Prophet at Duncaster, seeking solitude. He had taken the first opportunity to excuse himself and flee the chapter house, where his parents were still meeting with the contingent of Sophieli who had arrived at the priory that afternoon. He’d been surprised to learn that the Sophieli had come all the way from Lloudyn not out of concern for the town, but to speak with him. His surprise had hardened into dismay when he learned that Rhapsode Josine, a Sophieli wizard, numbered among them.
Tall, arched windows of stained glass ran along the domarchon’s western face. From the upper transcept, Jerome could peer out through the lighter panes, over the priory wall, to the remains of the town. It was a clear night, and by the light of moon and stars he could make out the slow curve of the town wall and the bulking shape of Westgate. Campfires dotted the space between, throwing their meager light upon the tents and hunched forms of the craftsmen who had gathered here to raise Duncaster from the ashes of Henri Mowbray’s assault.
Jerome had decided against returning to the Academy for the spring term in favor of remaining in Duncaster, to assist in whatever way he could with the rebuilding. Down in the chapter house, the Sophieli had impressed upon him the importance of completing his second year of study. He had, after all, taken vows to that effect. They assured him that they understood why he had chosen to remain with his family. Allowances could be made in his case, they said, given the unusual and tragic circumstances surrounding his truancy.
Rhapsode Josine had taken no part in the discussion, only watched him with a kind of haughty curiosity that was both intent and detached. No mention had been made of how, upon his arrival home for the springtide festival, Jerome had convinced his father that they should all leave Duncaster for a few days. He could scarcely explain himself then and could do no better now, but somehow he’d known that Henri Mowbray, Duke of Murcen, was going to attack and raze Duncaster. Upon the Casterdis’ return, Jerome’s display of premonitory power had become the talk of the priory, and he was sure that word of it had reached the Sophieli. That was the real reason why they were here, and why they’d brought a wizard with them.
“May I join you?”
He jerked at the sudden, unexpected voice. He’d not heard anyone mounting the stairs. Squinting into the shadows, he saw a shape in the plain habit and veil of a female Sophieli novitiate coming toward him. She was about his age, maybe a year or two older. She smirked in a shaft of moonlight, said, “You didn’t know I was coming? But I thought you were an oracle.”
Anger bristled within him, but her playful, questioning look dispelled it. “Kiera,” he said without thinking.
She looked astonished, and he felt the same. This girl must have come with the Sophieli from Lloudyn, but he’d not seen her before. How, then, did he know her name? That Kiera was her name he hadn’t the least doubt. Indeed, he felt that he knew her well, had known her for many years and would know her for many more to come.
Is this another premonition? he wondered.
“So it’s true, then?” she said, half-questioningly. “You’re—”
She froze in mid-sentence. He waited for her to continue, but she did not. When he tried to speak, he found that it was impossible. They were fixed in place, both of them, caught in moonlight as if in amber.
And then he heard the sound, a great bellows drone that seemed to rattle the stones under his feet.
“Make it stop,” said a small, high, tremulous voice.
He turned toward the sound, discovering only in the movement that he was capable of moving. Yet it was a movement that did not involve his body, that left his body behind. Only his awareness shifted to where a young girl stood, illumined in darkness as if in the glow of footlights. Tears stained her cheeks, and her lips were bleeding, and she clutched a torn bodice to her breast.
“Please,” she said, “I don’t want to be here. Make it stop. Please…”
… and as if he were opening already-open eyes, Jerome found himself looking out across a table laden with books to where Dorothea Bartholin sat, terror quivering in her watery eyes. The air shimmered all around them. Gradually, the back room of The House of Yesteryear coalesced out of the whirling raptural confusion.
Dorothea slumped onto her elbows, gasping, like someone half-drowned. Foulke was at her side, urging a cup of wine on her.
“What did you do to her, boy?” Old Worm bellowed, spitting, at Jerome. He was on his feet, looking every inch the wizard he was not.
Jerome struggled to grasp what was happening. He’d just been in rapture, a Merantic casting. But it had delivered him neither to his own past nor to the past of his waking dreams. Instead, he’d been cast into a world that was a cross of the two, a world in which Duncaster had been destroyed, yet his family had survived. What did it mean?
An ursine growl drew his eyes. Behind him, a huge man filled the mouth of the passageway. He’d been the one standing guard at the front entrance. Behind a tangle of black beard, the man’s lips were peeled back from his teeth, and he had a hand on the hilt of the short-sword at his belt.
“Let him be,” Dorothea said, her voice firm. She did not wipe at the tears staining her cheeks. “It’s over. I’m all right.” When another low growl issued from the guard, a look of annoyance flashed across her face. “I said I’m all right, Raboc. Hackles down, both of you.”
The two men held their peace, but that was all. Old Worm continued to glare at him, and glancing back a second time, Jerome saw that the guard, Raboc, had not released his grip on the short-sword.
“What happened, mistress?” Foulke asked softly.
Dorothea at last accepted the cup of wine the boy offered. She took a long swallow, set the cup on the table. “A counterforce skewed the casting.”
“A counterforce?” Foulke echoed, evidently unfamiliar with the idea.
“It would seem,” she said, regarding Jerome coldly, “that our Sophieli friend here is one of the Aware.”
These words chilled Jerome as surely as Dorothea’s raptural incantum had done. He’d long known that he possessed acute raptural Sensitivity; the Testing had merely confirmed it. But if it were true that he was also one of the Aware—one of those few who could access seiyadir, the power that turned the wheel of the stars—then he was not merely a potential wizard, but a potential sorcerer.
“But I didn’t do anything,” he rasped through a parched throat. “Something went wrong with your casting. I ended up… somewhere else.”
He thought then of the young girl who had appeared in the raptural vision: bruised and bleeding, her bodice torn. “Make it stop,” she had said.
Where, he wondered, had Dorothea ended up?
“I didn’t do anything,” he said again, though with less, not more, conviction than before.
“You most certainly did,” Dorothea said. “You threw open the second dimension of rapture. Only the Aware can do that.”
Old Worm took an involuntary step back. “I was right, then. He’s a sorcerer.”
“Truly?” Foulke chirped, his eyes bright and curious.
“No, not yet,” Dorothea said. “But sooner or later he’ll wield seiyadir. He won’t be able to stop himself, just as he couldn’t have stopped what happened here today.”
The bench on which Jerome had been sitting thumped to the carpets. It took him a moment to realize that he was on his feet. Swaying, he blurted, “But I didn’t do anything! I couldn’t have done anything! I don’t even know what happened. A counterforce, you said? A second dimension of rapture? I have no idea what any of that means!”
Dorothea drained her cup of wine. She had regained much of her earlier composure. “I know. It wasn’t your fault.” With a gesture at Old Worm, she said, “Give him back his two and a half solidi.”
“What? No! I won’t do it!” Old Worm shot back.
“You will,” Dorothea commanded, her voice quiet but firm. “We’ll not take any coin from this one.” To Jerome, she said, “I’m sorry the casting went awry. I’m sorry I couldn’t relieve you of some of your burden. Instead, I’ve only added to it, and I’m sorry for that as well. But at least now you know the truth. Now you know what you are.”
Old Worm thrust out a handful of coins at Jerome. He shook the fist holding them. “Take it, boy.”
He did. His hands were trembling. “What do I do now?”
Dorothea drew a soothing breath. “At the very least, stay away from shewstones and Rhapsodic wizards—unless you want to end up in chains, bound for Cordinas.”
Terror boiled through Jerome at mention of the island home of the Order of Irathiel, two thousand miles away, in the sunbaked waters of the Sea of Amara. “But if I leave the Order of Sophiel, what then?” he asked, panic edging his voice.
She shrugged her shoulders. “You might retreat from the world, seek a life as far from other people as you can manage. That’s what most of your kind do, or so it’s said. Now, if I were in your position…”
“Yes?” Jerome prompted, a kind of desperate hope seizing him, as if his fate hinged on whatever she would say next.
“If it were me,” she said, “I would go to Astarim, to the Collegium Dionaras.”
“You’d do what?” Old Worm spat. “Go to the heretics? Are you mad?”
Jerome was equally shocked. For the past dozen years, the heretical teachings of the self-proclaimed prophet Martyn Tavner had swept across the Continent, bringing war and upheaval in their wake. When the Paulis, Vicar of Thoriel and spiritual head of the Ecclesia Elaarim, had denounced Tavner’s teachings as a return to the ancient Dionite heresy, Tavner’s followers had embraced the charge and begun referring to themselves as the Order of Dionare. It was claimed that Tavner had recovered the ancient mysteries of Dionari sorcery and that his followers were training potential sorcerers in places such as the Collegium in Astarim, a canal city on the far side of the White Sea.
Jerome’s Sophieli instructors had dismissed the claim as bravado on the part of a hard-pressed minority. But Dorothea and Old Worm were Forsish. They might have come to Lloudyn from Astarim itself.
“It’s true, then?” Jerome asked. “The Tavnerans are harboring sorcerers?”
Dorothea stood. “I’ll say no more. Go now, Sophieli. Leave here and do not come back.”
This abrupt dismissal startled and dismayed him. He looked beseechingly at Dorothea Bartholin, at Foulke and Old Worm. He felt that to leave this place was to abandon all hope of avoiding the twin perils of either surrendering himself to the dreaded Irathics or—a possibility less tangible yet even more terrifying—inadvertently hurting those around him through some blind, uncontrolled act of sorcery.
Unlike wizards, sorcerers were able to alter the course of events, past, present, and future. That was why they were so feared and reviled. If not properly contained, even minor sorcerous alterations of the Worldweave could result in what the ancients had called agenês—unworlding. Had he uncovered the meaning of his waking dreams after all, then? Was he destined to unworld this world and to bring that other, blasted world into existence in its place? Was he to be the true author of Duncaster’s destruction, the true murderer of his family, of his mother and father, his brother and sisters?
“Raboc will escort you to Long Bridge,” Dorothea said. “You haven’t much time before the curfew bells ring. Go now, Sophieli, in peace.”
Having no choice, Jerome left, down the passageway, through the room of curiosities, and out into the squalid yard. There he paused. The vagrants eyed him and his hulking shadow, but said nothing in deepening darkness. He looked up at the sky. The first pinprick stars were beginning to appear overhead. He recognized an emerging constellation: a belt of three stars, the curving back of the Leviathan of Elestor, the Fallen Archon—Elestor who had become Malchidael, the Great Adversary.
An ill-omen, that, if ever there was one.
Until recently, Jerome had put little stock in omens and the like. Now, having lived for months with the doubleness of his waking dreams, he no longer knew what to believe. Sometimes it seemed to him that the world thrummed with occult significances, that it was pocked with unseen eyes behind which lay inscrutable intentions. The rest of the time, he simply thought he was going mad.
But he was not mad. No, it was much worse than that.
“Sooner or later,” the Merantic wizard of Whitside had said, “he’ll wield seiyadir. He won’t be able to stop himself…”
Yes, his was a fate far worse than mere madness.