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Well past sunset, Elias hiked up the hem of his gray sage's robe and rounded the avenue's next corner. Jeremy was close on his heels, but at his stumbling footfalls, Elias glanced back. Jeremy had tripped over his too-long robe yet again.
"Will you slow down!" Jeremy grumbled.
"Let's get this finished!" Elias shot back. "I don't want to miss Elvina at the Bang-Tankard inn. And neither should you . . . if she brought a friend, as promised."
Jeremy grumbled again but quickened his pace.
Elias hurried on through sparse pools of lantern light cast upon the wet cobblestones of Calm Seatt, the king's city in Malourné. So much remained uncertain for his future in the Guild of Sagecraft.
He and Jeremy had only recently achieved "journeyor" status, completing their years as "initiates" and then "apprentices." Now they need only be given assignments somewhere in the provinces, maybe even in neighboring Farien or Witeny. Up to five years of duty abroad would follow, and then perhaps their skills would be recognized. They could at least petition and test for "master" status. Maybe one of them might even one day gain a post at a guild branch with the coveted title of "domin." But Elias was worried.
Tonight he"d have to tell Elvina that he would be leaving for a while. She wasn't the kind to wait. And why hadn't he and Jeremy been given assignments yet—instead of errand duties? How insulting for a pair of journeyor sages. And why?
All because of Witless Wynn Hygeorht and her half-rotted tombs from abroad!
"Is she smart . . ." Jeremy panted, "aside from pretty?"
"What . . . who? Oh, of course she's pretty . . . she's gorgeous! You've seen Elvina."
Trotting the last city block to their destination, Elias hopped up the steps of a small shake-wood shop. He barely noticed the hand-painted sign above the door—the Upright Quill. Dim light was seeping through the shop's shuttered windows, and then something thumped sharply on his back.
"Not Elvina, you bits"a"brain!" Jeremy hissed. 'the other one . . . her friend!"
Jeremy slapped at him again, but only the cuff of his too-long sleeve connected. Elias fended it off.
"I don't know!" he whispered back.
His friend buckled over, hands on knees, trying to catch his breath. Jeremy finally straightened his plain face slack in astonishment.
"You haven't even met her? Do you even know her name?"
"Of course I do," Elias returned.
The last thing he needed was for Master Teagan—or worse, Master a'seatt—to catch them in some petty argument outside the scribe shop.
"It's . . . it's . . ." he began.
But the name of Elvina's friend escaped him—or had she even told him? Either way, he wasn't about to let Jeremy ruin his evening plans. Not after all the work it"d taken to avoid Elvina's father.
"You ass!" Jeremy whispered, about to swing again.
A sharp creak of old hinges rose behind Elias.
Warm light spilled around him, illuminating Jeremy's suddenly abashed features. Elias spun about and came face-to-face with old Master Teagan.
The elder scribed glared at him from the shop's open doorway, and Elias shrank back.
"What's this nonsense?" Teagan creaked. "And where's that timid cohort always following behind?"
"I . . . um . . ." Jeremy began.
"We"re not doing anything," Elias answered. "Just here for the latest transcription folio . . . as instructed. And Nikolas wasn't assigned to come with us."
Thankfully, as far as Elias was concerned.
As much as he liked the shy young man—in a general way—Nikolas had barely achieved apprentice status. He was a bit old to have advanced so little. Besides, Elvina wasn't very found of Nervous Nikolas.
Scrawny, shriveled, and half-bald, old Teagan peered at Elias through round, thick-lensed glasses. His amplified pupils above his extended nose gave him the look of a gaunt hound sniffing out a fox beneath a chicken coop.
"Get in here," he ordered in crackling voice, "before all the heat leaks out."
Elias didn't wait for Jeremy and stepped briskly into the scribe shop's warmth.
The front room was little more than a wide and shallow space. It's long and worn counter blocked off two doorways to the shop's rear—and behind that counter stood the tall and dour Master Pawl a'seatt.
Shining black hair hung straight to the shoulders of his charcoal suede jerkin. And although a few strands of gray graced his locks, not a single wrinkle showed on his face. It was hard to guess his age. His features were a bit squarish and never seemed to show emotion, but his brown eyes, too bright for that color, were cold and intense.
Elias didn't care for the shop's owner any more than for Master Teagan, but a'seatt was well regarded at the guild. Elias had to be polite in all dealings with this establishment.
"Aren't you done fussing?" Teagan called.
Elias glanced back. Jeremy had snuck in behind him, but the old master scribe wasn't looking at either of them. Teagan closed the door and impatiently watched the shop owner behind the counter.
"Another error," Master a'seatt returned flatly.
"What?!" Teagan squeaked and quickly hobbled over.
Pawl a'seatt never looked up. He scanned page after page in a stack freshly transcribed by his staff.
"Not in the scripting," a'seatt replied, "in the translation."
Teagan grumbled under his breath. "Enough already. You think you know more than sages?"
"An error nonetheless," a'seatt answered.
Elias watched the shop owner dip a quill precisely in a stout ink bottle. As he scrawled something on a spare parchment sheet, the right door beyond the counter cracked open, and a small head peeked out.
"Ah no," Elias muttered.
Imaret was barely tall enough to peer around Master a'seatt's back and over the counter. Her kinky brown-black hair was tied back, but too many errant strands bounced around her caramel-tinted face. And her eyes lit up at the sight of Jeremy.
Elias scowled, but Imaret didn't notice.
Why did grim Master a'seatt have a thirteen-year-old girl working in his scriptorium?
Imaret was known on the guild grounds and suffered more than once as she tailed Jeremy about. Instead of attending one of the four public schools run by the guild, someone, somehow, had paid for her more intense tutelage. Certainly not her father, who was only a retired sergeant of the regulars.
"Hello, Imaret," Jeremy said politely.
Elias rolled his eyes, but again, no one noticed.
Imaret dropped her gaze bashfully, opening her small mouth to speak.
"You have finished cleaning up?" Pawl a'seatt asked, not looking up from the pages.
Imaret raised her eyes, her mouth still open.
"It's late, girl," Teagan added. "And I don't need another sharp word from your parents."
Imaret's pout turned to a vinegar scowl, and she backed through the door with a last lovesick glance at Jeremy.
Pawl a'seatt finished another notation. When he set down the quill, Teagan snatched up the sheet of notes.
'seven?" the old scribe moaned. 'seven corrections to the translations? I can barely read half the sages" symbols in what we transcribe, let alone know what they mean. Our task is to provide clean copies for their master codex—not to correct their work. How would you know what's an error or not?"
Elias wondered how, indeed. Translating scattered passages from Wynn Hygeorht's texts had been a slow and tedious process, from what he"d heard. Whatever pieces could be completed with certainty were recorded in the sages' Begaine Syllabary. Occasionally this might include certain untranslated words or phrases carefully rendered in the original symbols and languages.
Neither Elias nor Jeremy had actually seen the contents of any folios sent out to selected scriptoriums. The whole project was hushed and secret, and only guild masters and domins were directly involved. Yet Master a'seatt, mere owner of a private scriptorium, had the presumption to correct work he knew nothing about.
'that is all," Pawl a'seatt said, and he lifted a more worn collection of sheets from under the counter. "Now for your corroborating count."
Teagan paged quickly through the first crisp stack. "All of our work is present."
"And the guild's note sheets?" Pawl asked.
Teagan reviewed the second stack more slowly, its sheets wrinkled and creased by repeated handling. He accounted each against the inclusions list sent with the folio.
"All present," he confirmed.
The old master scribe began wrapping both stacks in a larger sheet of russet paper, but he stopped as Pawl a'seatt held out his corrections list. Teagan blew an exasperated snort, but he took the sheet and placed it upon the stacks before wrapping them all.
Master a'seatt brought out a blue wax stick and the shop's heavy pewter stamp, and he sealed the package closed. He then slipped it into the same leather folio in which the sages" work had been delivered that morning.
"Finally," Jeremy whispered.
Elias was no less eager to be on their way. Elvina was waiting.
Pawl a'seatt held out the folio, and his brilliant eyes settling coldly on Elias. But as Elias took hold with both hands, Master a'seatt didn't let go.
"You will return immediately to confirm delivery."
Elias slumped in dismay as Jeremy groaned.
They were going to be very late to the Bang-Tankard inn. For an instant, he thought to argue, but a'seatt's hard gaze made him quickly reconsider. He nodded again.
"Come on," he grumbled and pushed passed Jeremy for the door. "We"ll have to hurry."
He was already trotting the wet cobblestones by the time he heard Jeremy close the shop door.
"Wait up," Jeremy called.
Elias had no more patience. When he came to the first side street, he skidded to a stop. Only then did Jeremy catch up. Elias could barely make out the crossing alley way at the side street's end.
"No you don't," Jeremy warned.
"It"ll be faster," Elias countered. "We can cut through to Galloway Street, then the main alley behind the northwest market, and out to Switchin Way."
"No!" Jeremy snapped. "We"re supposed to stick to the main streets, where it's well lit."
"Damn you, I"m not missing the whole evening. Elvina's only . . ."
"Elvina this, Elvina that . . . blessed ink and sand! Are you going to let that girl run your life?"
Elias stammered for a few breaths. "Well, at least I have someone I"m leaving behind, when we finally get our assignments!"
Jeremy flinched as if slapped, and his face clouded over.
"Fine!" he growled. "Go bumble around in the dark. I"m not slipping and sliding on chamber pot leavings in some alley. Not for some girl . . . when you don't even know her name!"
Elias slumped, the folio dragging down in his arms.
Jeremy had never been any good at holding a girl's . . . a woman's attention—not counting Imaret. Either tongue-tied or babbling about whatever he was currently studying, he was lucky if any companion lasted through a whole meal. But Elias wished he could take back the low blow he"d struck his friend.
Someone moved beneath a shop awning down the way. The indistinct figure halted and seemed to be looking their way.
Oh, that was all they needed—to have the local constabulary set on them for disturbing the peace with all their shouting in the street.
"Just this once, trust me," Elias urged. "It"ll be worth it, you"ll see."
Jeremy didn't answer.
"We"ll stop at the inn on the way back," Elias offered. "You can't wait with Elvina and her friend . . . and I"ll go give Master a'seatt his damn confirmation."
"Fine," Jeremy mumbled.
Elias turned into the side way, but he glanced once down the main street.
Whoever had been standing outside that one shop was gone. Hopefully the constable had simply moved on. But the sooner he and Jeremy were away from here, the less likely they"d have to deal with another on patrol. At the side street's end, he turned southeast into the alley. And Jeremy followed, muttering the whole way.
'stay clear of the center gutter," Elias advised, "and keep your robe up. You won't have time to change if it gets soiled."
"Yes, yes," Jeremy grumbled.
They made their way past the back doors of shops, around crates and ashes cans and less identifiable shapes in the dark space. Three side alleys passed by before Elias heard a sharp rumple of cloth. Jeremy had stumbled again, and he paused.
Jeremy came up short to keep from running into him. Elias could barely make out his friend's face.
"What?" Jeremy asked.
"Nothing," Elias uttered. "I thought you slipped."
Ready to press on, Elias started to turn, but Jeremy back-stepped, his eyes popping wide.
"What was that?" he whispered.
Elias froze, staring at him. "What are you talking about?"
"Ahead," Jeremy whispered, "between us and the light of the far street . . . something crossed."
Elias looked down the alley. At the faraway exit into Galloway Street, a lantern around the corner spilled light across the opening. But he saw nothing more.
"A stray dog scavenging garbage," Elias assured. "Come on."
A shadow filled the alley, blotting out the far light.
Elias backed up one step, bumping into Jeremy.
"Who's there?" he called.
The shadow shifted slightly, like hesitant movements beneath a voluminous cloak. The far avenue's light only rendered its silhouette filling the narrow space. It was so black he could barely make it out. And the wide hood's opening was only a pocket of night.
"We've no coin," Elias called, trying to sound forceful as he clutched the folio to his chest. "You"ll gain nothing by robbing sages . . . be off!"
But the figure didn't move.
"Come on!" Jeremy whispered, tugging the shoulder of Elias" robe.
Elias retreated three steps. As he turned, Jeremy bolted. They were halfway to the side street's entrance near the scribe shop when Elias glanced back over his shoulder.
The alley was empty. The dim glow upon Galloway Street was plain to see in the distance.
Jeremy squealed sharply.
Elias barreled blindly into his friend's back, and they both stumbled. Still trying to right himself, he looked ahead.
A shadowed silhouette stood at the alley's head spilling into the side street. Light from the street barely reached it, but its full form showed clearly.
It was so tall that Elias would've had to reach up to grab the neck its hood. And still he saw nothing within it. Its cloak wafted softly, though the night air was still and breezeless. Beneath those flexing wings of the black cloth, there was nothing but night's darkness.
"Come on!" he hissed.
Jeremy only whimpered.
Elias snatched the back of his friend's robe as he fled down the alley. He almost made it past the final side alley, when the distant light of Galloway Street suddenly winked out.
Elias shuddered, sliding to a halt.
Jeremy snatched his arm and pulled him into a side alley. He didn't even have the wits to pull back nor realize their mistake, not until they swerved two corners, straight into a dead end.
Someone else tried to grab him from behind.
Elias whirled away and heard his robe sleeve tear as he stumbled deeper into the alley's end.
"We have a few coins!" Jeremy shouted. 'take it . . . take it all!"
A tinkle of scattering coins filled the blind alley. But Elias kept his eyes on something else as his back met a brick wall. He couldn't see it clearly at first, that black fist gripping a piece of his gray robe. Then it opened, and the scrap of gray fell.
Elias thought he saw long fingers wrapped in shredded strips of black sack cloth.
The shadow figure drew closer, seeming to grow in height.
It didn't lean down for the cast coins, and he heard no footfalls in its approach.
"Help!" Jeremy screamed. 'someone . . . guards! Help us!"
But Elias couldn't take his eyes off the figure towering over him.
Its cloak folds spread, seeming to climb the alley walls. He heard Jeremy pound on wood, maybe the back door of some shop. But he was shuddering even before the air turned frigid.
The smell of dust choked Elias, just as an overpowering scent of strange spices thickened in his head.