One False Step

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The library was Daryna’s favorite place to spend a winter afternoon. Snow had started to cover the glass roof of the central atrium, casting dim shadows over the wide, jutting balconies and the catalog room far below. With the high ceilings and the cavernous vaults over the stacks, the library should have been frigid. But even on the coldest days, the air stayed warm and dry.

This had nothing to do with the big red flames roaring in the four open hearths around the reading room. Those weren’t real fires, after all. Just illusions. Instead, the temperature of the library was kept steady by hundreds upon hundreds of tiny spells—around the doors, on the endcaps of the shelves, on the leading of the glass ceiling. Even on the floorboards underneath that creaked and groaned as Daryna pushed the big iron book cart over them. The spells had been exquisitely balanced over the centuries. Terminating even the smallest of them could lead to a crashing, tumbling cascade of failures, until the whole library lay buried in blocks of ice or crackled to bits of dry tinder.

“Don’t touch anything. Don’t cast any spells. Don’t use any magy at all.” That’s what Earnwine had told Daryna on her first day working there.

He trusted her a bit more now, after forty years, though her training wasn’t nearly complete. On this particular frigid day, she was up on the third floor of the stacks, rearranging the theology texts according to Earnwine’s latest cataloging system. He came up with a new one every century or so, apparently, just to keep from getting bored.

Far below, she heard the front door bang open, and a hearty voice cry out, “Earnwine! How are you, my dear fellow?”

She knew that voice! She ran to the railing of the nearest balcony and looked down. Sure enough, it was Faustinus. Her Faustinus! Her Servius, in fact, because she was one of the few people who used his given name. She hadn’t known he was coming to Diernemynster. What a treat!

She whispered a transport spell under her breath, and after a moment of stretching, twisting discomfort, she was standing on the main floor of the reading room, right at his side. He feigned surprise, even though he must have known she worked there, and he would surely have felt her spell. She had only one quick moment to squeeze his hand in greeting, and then Earnwine joined them, arriving the conventional way in long strides from the reference desk.

“Ah, Faustinus! Delighted to see you,” said the Librarian. Faustinus was a divisive figure among hillichmagnars, but Earnwine stood decidedly in the camp of those who admired him. “Didn’t know you were visiting. Did you just get in?”

“Yes, just this moment.” Faustinus swept off his black, snow-covered cloak by way of proof. Underneath, he was sheltering a small package of wax paper in a pocket of his slim-fitting black leather tunic. He held it out—first to Earnwine, but then to Daryna, instead. “I heard you were working with the theology section, and I happened to find this in an old bookshop in Presidium.”

Earnwine raised an eyebrow. “You came all the way from Presidium? Not that I’m not grateful for any addition to the collection, of course.”

Daryna knew he hadn’t come eight hundred miles just to deliver a book. Feeling a blush creeping up her cheeks, she busied herself with unwrapping the little package. Inside, she found a thin quarto-sized volume with worn blue covers. The title page proclaimed it was The Collected Sermons of the Patriarch Ivor Antonov.

“I’m pretty sure we don’t have this one,” she said. “I’ve never even heard of this fellow Antonov.” This embarrassed her to admit, since judging by the name, he had been Loshadnarodski.

“Minor theologian,” said Faustinus with a careless shrug. “There was a bit of a fad for him at the Myrcian universities a century ago. I met him once. Terribly dull sort of fellow. Kept going on about how we’re all worthless sinners, and Earstien is this close to chucking us out to freeze in the Void.” Faustinus held up his thumb and forefinger, barely a quarter inch apart. “Honestly, it’s the sort of book that’s only of interest to obsessive collectors.”

“You know me so well,” said Earnwine with a warm smile. “We should get it entered in the catalog right away. Daryna, could you….” His voice trailed off, and now he blushed, too, as he looked from her to Faustinus and back again. “Actually, I can do the entry myself. I’m sure you two have…er…. Well, I’ll just be over here at the reference desk if you need me.”

“Enjoy yourself,” said Faustinus, as he pulled the front door open again. A swirl of snow blew in, hanging thick in the air for just a second before it vanished in the library’s climate spells. “Care for a walk, Miss Olekovna?”

“Why not?” she laughed, as she grabbed her own cloak from a hook near the door. “Looks like a lovely day.”

They turned left on the front steps, so the wind came at an angle, rather than straight into their faces. Already thick drifts were piling up against the dormitory, dining hall, and music hall. Daryna assumed they were headed to one of those buildings. They had secret meeting places in all of them—little closets or disused storage rooms. Or then again, there was the choir loft in the chapel, just to their left now. Sometimes she felt guilty when they went there, but at that moment, huddled close to him as she walked through the snow, she didn’t care about sacrilege.

To her surprise, though, he didn’t seem interested in going back inside. He crossed the broad courtyard, passing right by the warm, inviting windows of the dining hall, and led her up one of the steep mountain paths.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“Nowhere in particular,” he answered.

To their right, the ground fell away, first in a steep, icy hillside, which after a few hundred feet became a sheer cliff. With the snow and the clouds, it was impossible to see the bottom, but Daryna could almost feel that yawning gulf, and it made her legs tremble. Faustinus gallantly walked on the outside, but that did nothing to calm Daryna’s nerves. There was barely room for one person on the path, let alone two.

“Normally I love an outdoor romp as much as the next girl,” she said, “but it’s positively dangerous out here.”

“The path widens just around the corner,” he said, pointing. And indeed, there was soon enough space that he no longer pressed tightly to her side.

She was just starting to breathe easier when he spoke again.

“I wanted to have a word with you. There’s something I have to say, and if we’re alone together inside somewhere, I’ll be too busy taking your clothes off to say it.”

For a second, she felt a sickening drop deep in her stomach, almost as if she’d fallen off the side of the cliff. She had a terrible premonition that he was about to end their affair, and there was nothing she would be able to do to stop him.

When she finally dared to look at him, though, he was smiling. “I want to take you away from here,” he said. “I want you to come to the Empire with me.”

This was so completely unexpected that for half a minute, she had no words of her own. She just kept repeating, “Away from here?” over and over, trying it out with different intonations and inflections like it was a foreign word she was learning for the first time.

“Yes, away from here,” he said, his smile widening. “Just the two of us, together forever. I love you.”

“But…but…but Servius, we can’t!” she blurted out. “I mean, the rules say we can’t.”

He tipped his head back and laughed into the falling snow. “The rules? Daryna, my dear, we’ve been breaking that particular rule together for twenty years.”

“But that was just here and there, on and off! What you’re asking…that’s not the same at all!”

“No, it’s not!” he said, throwing out his arms. “It’s far, far better!” He spun in place, and she looked down, suddenly panicked that he might step off the ledge in his enthusiasm. Only to discover that he already had.

She looked back down the path and was stunned to see a single set of footprints—hers. He’d literally been walking on air for the last hundred feet, and she hadn’t even noticed his levitation spell.

“Get back here, you idiot!” she cried, grabbing his sleeve and pulling him onto solid ground again.

He embraced her as he landed. “So, is this a ‘yes,’ my dear girl?”

She couldn’t help it; she kissed him. But then, as his hands started to wander up inside her cloak, she stepped back to give herself a little space. “It is not quite a ‘yes,’ Servius. Not quite yet. Let me think about it.”

He looped a finger through the laces at the front of her bodice and pulled her close again. “Take all the time you want.”

They spent most of the afternoon in one of the upstairs practice rooms of the music hall, and by supper time, he very nearly convinced her to leave. But one thing still nagged at her. “I’m not actually finished with my training,” she pointed out. “I probably have another decade to go. Maybe two.”

“I can teach you more than anyone here could,” he said, in between kisses down her bare stomach.

“I don’t doubt it,” she said, running a hand through his thick, dark hair. “But I can’t leave without talking to Shyama. I just can’t.”

Daryna found her mentor in the training room, practicing her Wiga. She was punching and kicking her way through a brick wall, which she would then rebuild with a spell and destroy all over again. Daryna remembered the drill with something less than complete fondness.

The dust was still clearing from the latest round when Shyama noticed Daryna. “Here for some practice?”

“Er…no, actually.” Daryna nudged a shattered piece of brick with her toe. “I was wondering….” She cleared her throat and started over. “I was thinking I might go to the Empire for a while.”

“By yourself?”

Daryna didn’t know quite what to say, but judging by Shyama’s raised eyebrow, she already knew the answer to her question.

“Are you asking my permission?” Shyama took off her well-worn leather sparring gloves and tossed them on a nearby bench. “You’re more than old enough to make your own decisions, Daryna. If you hadn’t been born a hillichmagnar, you’d be a wizened old grandmother by now.”

“But I haven’t finished my training yet.”

Shyama gave a dismissive wave. “There’s no firm rule on that. As your Lareowess, I can declare your training over whenever I think you’re ready. And frankly, you’re as ready as you’re ever likely to be.”

“But…but I’m reorganizing the library right now, and Earnwine—”

“Ha! Earnwine is happiest when he’s alone with his books. Trust me, you don’t need to worry about him.” Shyama patted Daryna’s cheek. “You’re all grown up now, my dear. It’s your decision to make.”

For a few seconds, Daryna felt something close to disappointment, and she wasn’t sure why. Had she been looking for a way out? Had she come to Shyama hoping that her mentor would forbid her from leaving? But then why would she have expected Shyama to do anything of the kind, when Shyama had studiously pretended to know nothing at all about the affair with Faustinus?

Daryna’s lip trembled, and her throat tightened. “Fine, then. I’ll go to the Empire.”

That night, Faustinus used a transport spell to get into her room, just as Daryna had expected he would. They lost themselves completely for a couple hours, but eventually, when they had time for conversation, he returned to his earlier question.

“Rumor has it,” he said, “that Freagast Harald has declared your training complete, on the advice of your Lareowess. A fully trained hillichmagnar, and barely in your seventies. Quite a feather in your cap.” At that, he raised a hand, and a long peacock feather appeared in his fingers. He trailed the end of it lazily over her body.

“That tickles,” she said, brushing it away. “And that’s not my ‘cap’ you’re sticking it in.”

“Sorry.” He snapped his fingers, and the feather disappeared. “But now that you’re free, can I assume you want to come with me to the Empire?”

She could have said “yes.” It was on the tip of her tongue to say it, in fact. But to her own surprise, she found herself saying, “Let me keep thinking about it. I promise I’ll give you an answer soon.”

“Anything I can do to help you make up your mind sooner?” He poured some oil on his long, dexterous fingers and put them precisely where the feather had been a moment before. “Anything at all?”

“Probably not,” she sighed, “but please don’t stop trying.”

He left quietly and discreetly an hour before sunrise, telling her that she could find him in the music hall later if she wanted to talk, but only after she got some sleep. She went to the dining hall, instead, hoping for some time to think alone over a hot cup of coffee.

Right at the entrance to the dining hall, however, she was intercepted by Astrid. The woman must have been using some kind of concealment charm. Or perhaps Daryna had just been lost in thought and hadn’t seen her in the shadows of the long stone archway. She would have avoided Astrid if she could have. Freagast Harald was technically the leader of Diernemynster, but Astrid was his right hand, and since Harald was very, very old now, that meant Astrid was effectively the one in charge.

“I hear you’re to be congratulated,” she said.

“Thank you. Very kind.” Daryna bowed, then sidestepped Astrid and walked to the broad hearth behind the high table, where a pot of coffee was already brewing over the fire.

Astrid followed her, of course. “I also hear that you’re thinking of leaving us for a time.” She leaned close, one hand on the mantlepiece, trying to catch Daryna’s eyes. “Is that true?”

“Possibly.”

“Would this, by any chance, have anything to do with the fact that Servius Faustinus has slithered back to join us once again?”

Daryna said nothing. She remembered someone—probably Shyama—telling her that Astrid was the one who had originally come up with the rule that required celibacy for hillichmagnars.

“You know,” Astrid went on, “Diernemynster was first founded as a retreat where hillichmagnars could escape the cares of the mundane world. Particularly the sin and vice that is, regrettably, rampant out there.”

Daryna set the pot back on its hook with a little more force than necessary. Some of the coffee sloshed out and hissed in the fire. “Are you saying I shouldn’t leave?”

“I think it would be an extraordinarily bad idea.”

“Too bad, because I’m going, whether you like it or not.” Daryna drew herself up straight and peered down her nose; she stood more than half a foot taller than Astrid. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take my coffee to one of the practice rooms at the music hall.”

Not even a minute later, she lay in Faustinus’s arms, with the coffee resting half-finished and forgotten on a music stand. “I’ll do it,” she whispered, as he lifted her skirt. “I’ll go with you anywhere. Just take me away from this place.”

He looked up with an impossibly smug grin. “As it happens, my dear girl, I’ve got the horses saddled already. We can leave immediately, or at least we can leave once I’ve finished what I’ve started here.”

They left separately. He went first, mainly because she was a little too twitchy for a few minutes to sit comfortably on a horse. But then she mounted up, riding down the valley with only a single, short glance over her shoulder at the stately old buildings of Diernemynster—her home for more than half a century. She almost expected someone to come running after her—Earnwine, or Astrid, or Shyama. But no one did. She couldn’t even see anyone watching from the darkened windows around the courtyard.

At the lower end of the valley, where the little Ledrith stream left the mountains and the land opened into the rolling hills of Newshire, Faustinus was waiting for her.

“Any regrets?” he asked.

“No,” she said, and she meant it, even though her heart raced and her stomach fluttered uncomfortably.

They camped that night at the top of the Styrung Pass, at the edge of the great Cruedruan Plateau, and she knew immediately that she had made the right choice. There was nothing in the world so perfect as the way they fit together, curled under silk sheets and a black bearskin. And if there were anything better, she didn’t want to know about it. She wouldn’t ever know about it, because the rest of the world faded to nothing. It was just the two of them, riding side by side all day through the trackless snowdrifts, and then making love for hours in their tent after the sun went down.

When they spotted civilization again, she worried everything would change. There were hundreds of people in the gray, muddy streets of Terminium, the first city over the border, and Daryna resented every one of them. Why couldn’t she and Faustinus be alone together again? But then he took her out drinking and bought her new clothes and jewelry. Such clothes, too! Thin silk and lace, stretched taut to display her body in ways she would have thought wildly inappropriate even a week earlier. But when she saw how Faustinus eyed her in the new dresses, she decided they were exactly right for her.

Everything was right. Everything was perfect. Faustinus told her that he had made reservations with a series of caravans and canal boats heading west. “We’re leaving these blasted mountains,” he told her. “We’re going down where it’s warm, and I’m going to take you to see everything and everyone. You’re going to have the time of your life. Trust me!”

She believed him, but early the next morning, before the sun was even up, she woke suddenly, heart pounding, breath coming in quick, ragged gasps. It had only been a dream, she knew. And the details of the dream were quickly fading from her mind. But the terror remained with her. She had been at the edge of a cliff, or perhaps on the threshold of some great doorway. Beyond there was darkness and cold. Not the darkness of night, or the cold of winter, but something deep and endless and eternal. Something that was the absolute absence of light and life. And a voice, too—a terrible voice that filled all the world, even though it was barely a whisper. It had spoken to her, and its words had fallen on her like an avalanche, beating her down and crushing her until she was almost nothing at all. Most of what the voice had said, she had mercifully forgotten, but she remembered the question at the end: “What have you done with the Light I granted you?”

Daryna rubbed her eyes and found they were full of tears. She reached out for the half-empty bottle of wine by the bed, but the taste of it was sour and foul now, and she could barely choke it down. Faustinus lay beside her, still fast asleep, a contented smile on his lips.

“Oh, what have I done?” she thought, clutching a pillow to her chest. “Earstien, what have I done?”

The End

2 thoughts on “One False Step

  1. Pingback: And We’re Off! – J.S. Mawdsley

  2. Pingback: A Lot of Character – J.S. Mawdsley

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