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Thief of War
By Beth Bernobich, Dominick Saponaro
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 Beth Bernobich
All rights reserved.
The oldest records say Duenne's University was born from a philosophical debate begun in a wine shop. According to those histories, two elderly scholars disagreed over whether our lives were governed by fate or free will. The argument continued over a half dozen jugs of wine, attracting an ever-larger audience, including the shop's owner, who kept his establishment open far beyond the usual hour. The following day, others joined the debate, which splintered into smaller groups.
Within a year, twenty scholars had established lectures in philosophy and rational thought. Within a century, the University had erected its own buildings around the same old wine shop, which housed the new offices for the Bursar, the Registrar, and the Senior Masters.
* * *
I stood before the brick archway that marked the entry into the University Quarter. Narrow stone-paved lanes unraveled before me, like a skein of thread tossed haphazardly over the riverbanks. I was sweating in the thick heat of late summer. All the residents and students had vanished withindoors, and a deep quiet overlaid the district, broken only by a faint trill from the nearby Gallenz River. Ancient houses and lecture halls, built from rust-colored brick and gray stone, hid the river itself from my view, but a rank scent of mud and water hung in the air, as clear as any marker on a map.
My carrier cart had already departed, leaving behind my trunk of clothing and books, as well as myself. My haversack with my personal papers and letters of credit lay at my feet. Of course I had directions from our agent, telling me the best route to my destination, together with the instructions I needed for this next and vital step. But what I remembered the clearest were my sister's words
Pretend to trust them, she'd said, and they will believe you. They've all turned complacent, living here in the heart of the Empire. Even those from the outer provinces.
I summoned a boy with a wheelbarrow and gave him a few coins to take charge of my trunk. Then I swung my haversack over my shoulder and headed toward the University offices.
* * *
"Name," the old woman said. "Family, given."
After several wrong turns in the maze of streets, and a long climb up the stairs, I had finally gained entrance into the office for the Registrar of Duenne's University. Pigeonholes stuffed with scrolls lined one entire wall of this cramped office. Shelves lined a second wall, and drawers a third, as if all three hundred years of the University's records resided here. The air was filled the scent of paper dust and ink, and the heavy fragrance of spices I could not identify. The Registrar herself bent over an enormous desk, with a massive book open before her, each half as thick as my hand was wide. A row of pens in inkwells stood between us, like so many pieces in a game.
My feet ached and the leather strap of my haversack dug into my shoulder. I wanted to sit, even if that meant the hard stool shoved against the far wall, but from the Registrar's edged smile, I knew she would not permit such a liberty. So I stood with knees bent and my hands clasped behind my back, as though I stood before my grandmother and the Council of Versterlant.
And so I did, after a fashion. According to the graven plate outside the office, my questioner was Vrou Renata Nef. Every new student presented themselves and their papers to her, confirming their qualifications to study at the University.
"My name is Irene Denk."
Nef glared at me. Many would have found her expression unnerving.
I waited a moment and smiled. "Denk, Irene."
Silently, she recorded my name in the volume, where each page was divided by faint vertical dots into a dozen columns. She wrote in square, upright letters, using a pen with a metal nib instead of a brush. Lèna had described the implement, among the welter of other details she poured out from her sickbed. Southerners were very strange, she kept saying. Even when they seemed the most ordinary, they would surprise a person. The implication, that those surprises were almost never pleasant ones, remained unsaid.
"Judging by your given name and your face, you are a resident of the province of Fortezzien, yes?"
I nodded. "City of Veria."
It was dangerous to offer too many answers, but the opposite also applied: keep too many secrets and you made them curious. Veria was a small city on Fortezzien's western coast. My grandparents had selected the province and city by scanning maps of the region and consulting a history of its recent past. With the influx of Imperial trade ships, Veria had expanded swiftly in the past ten years, and only a minority protested the Empire's presence. My province of origin would explain any flaws in my accent, and my Veraenen surname would imply loyalty to the Empire.
Vrou Nef recorded the city name. She added a curious symbol in the next column. It was nothing like the Erythandran letters Lèna and I had memorized as children, when our grandparents had first conceived their plan, nor did it resemble the script of any northern language.
"What do you propose to study here, Irene Denk?" the Registrar asked.
"Philosophy," I said. Philosophy would lead eventually and naturally to magic. Our plans were indirect by necessity.
"And if you could not? If we denied you?"
I hesitated. Lèna had not mentioned such an odd question. However, my tutors had prepared me for the unexpected, and I had a number of plausible answers in reserve. Some of them were even true.
"History," I said. "And linguistics."
Nef studied me with grave eyes. She was far older than I had first estimated. Her coarse black hair overlaid a nest of white, just visible when she tilted her head to meet my gaze. More telling, fine lines etched her dark brown face, and the way she held her body spoke of an inflexibility of habit in mind and action, which I associated with great age and with my grandparents.
"Linguistics," she said softly.
"And history," she added. "An excellent choice. With those subjects, you might choose any number of professions. Most first year students are not so perceptive. But then, you are a year or two older than most applicants."
Five years older. That was the reason our Council had chosen Lèna to make the first attempt. There had been talk about sending me in the guise of a servant, or some other minion, to the palace itself, but my mother insisted I could not pretend the part well enough, and after a long and terrible argument, my grandparents agreed. So, like Lèna, I applied to the University.
Nef wrote History, Linguistics in the next column, followed by another notation in that unknown script.
"We shall need records of your past studies, any letters of recommendation, and whatever certificates you have earned."
Silently I handed over the sheaf of papers I had guarded through the long journey from Versterlant. Each one represented hours of research, and more hours spent under oil lamps, forging the necessary signatures and seals. The result was a packet that proclaimed me a student of one Michalis Iannou, a tutor in the arts of philosophy and science, and someone qualified to study at university level.
Nef scanned through my documents twice, as though she were memorizing their contents. She then recorded another cryptic notation, followed by a longer comment in Veraenen. I stretched onto my toes and pretended an interest in the strange carving above the doors on the opposite side of the room. Not one of the goddess Lir, which I had expected, nor one of her brother god, Toc. This one was an ugly, squat thing, with a face like an ancient sea monster.
I jumped at the unfamiliar name, then scowled. Anger covered a multitude of mistakes. (It had at home, where my sister had died. Where family subsumed life.)
Nef laughed softly. "You might be older than the usual first-year student, but you aren't any wiser. Here, take your papers. Make your payments to the Bursar. His office is on the second floor of this building. You can arrange housing with him, or if you prefer, you may rent rooms wherever you like in the city. You start classes in two weeks."
She wrote a few lines on a sheet of parchment, then pressed her thumb against the lower left corner, murmuring to herself. The quality of the air changed, I caught a hint of breeze in that windowless room, and a sharp green scent cut through the heavy spices. When she withdrew her thumb, a complicated pattern of copper and black occupied what had been a blank space.
Magic. Even here. And used so casually.
If the Registrar noticed my surprise, she gave no sign of it. She blotted the parchment, then extracted several different packets from a desk drawer and collected them into a neat bundle, which she handed to me. My own records disappeared into a different drawer.
A clear dismissal.
I retreated into the Registrar's antechamber, where I examined this new set of papers. One packet consisted of maps for the University buildings — lecture halls, laboratories, offices for the various departments, and more. Another listed regulations for students, requirements for degrees, and other useless information. If my plans succeeded, I would gain a position in the palace long before anyone cared about my qualifications for a degree. Oh, but here was useful stuff. Lists of official dormitories, plus advertisements for private lodgings. And last of all, the paper with that extraordinary seal.
Irene Denk, it read. Entrant to studies at Duenne University. Departments of Philosophy, Rational Thought, and Magic.
* * *
Let me digress. No, let me explain.
Six hundred years ago, the horsemen of Erythandra rode south into Veraene's plains. They murdered the chief of Duenne. They established themselves as kings over all the surrounding tribes. Theirs are the names for Lir and Toc used by citizens of the Empire, and theirs is the language for magic and government and learning.
My own province of Versterlant has escaped the Empire thus far. We occupy a land too cold and frozen for their attention, and bounded by the richer lands of Austerlant and Immatra. I grew up listening to the roar of the ocean against our shores, the creak of ice-bridges from one island to the next, and each spring, my heart was seized by gladness as I watched the months-long winter blackness splinter into sunlight.
But rumor slowly came north, how the Empire thought to add the northern lands to its treasury. Austerlant and Immatra, with their gold. Us, with our trade in fish and furs and oil. Austerlant has an army, but it cannot compare with the Empire. And we? We have nothing but winter and ice to defend us. And so my family offered my sister first, then me, as a sacrifice to keep our land free. And I, and my sister, had agreed.
To that end, Lèna and I spent our days studying languages and magic. We devoted our nights to practicing spywork. Versterlant's Council sent an agent to Duenne as well. Afrim Halil owned a sewing shop in one of Duenne's wealthy districts. Under the name Anzo Weber, he had collected information about the Court and the University for the past ten years. Ours was a long-lived set of plans. We had at least another decade, we thought, until those rumors of war turned into the truth.
Then came Halil's report, just twelve months ago. The factions in Duenne's Court had shifted. The Emperor required a victory abroad to prevent defeat at home. Even now, Halil wrote, he negotiates with his ministers to send his armies north within the year.
Lèna had set off at once for Duenne. Her goal was to steal the Emperor's most powerful weapon, the three magical jewels, which legend said the goddess Lir had bestowed upon the ancient kings of Erythandra. Those same kings and their mage priests had used these jewels to conquer all their enemies and create an Empire. The Emperor would still have his armies, of course, but such a theft would send the Court into turmoil. It might even overturn his reign. I shall be a thief of war, my sister had said.
My sister failed. She died. Now I must try to do what she could not.
* * *
"My name is Nedda Korbel," said the first woman.
"Mine is Klera Thaler," said the other. "And this monster is called Biss."
Klera bent down to scratch the miniature black-and-white cat at her feet. Biss nipped at her hand, then leaned into the caress, her purr rattling like a steam kettle.
Nedda and Klera had posted an advertisement for a fourth person to share their lodgings. Our agent had strongly suggested I take a single room in the dormitory block, but a brief tour had convinced me otherwise. All the rooms were like closets, with a hundred students in each house. I was certain I would go mad from the chaos within a month. Nedda's placard, written in neat script, promised generous quarters, low rent, and the quiet of a district outside the University Quarter.
Nedda was the older of the two, a graduate student in her seventh year. She was tall and solidly built, with sharp-cut features and a ruddy-brown complexion. Klera had begun her third year at the University, and was at least two or three years younger than I was. Even before she told me, I knew she was a native of Veraene.
I clasped their hands in turn. "My name is Irene Denk. From the city of Veria in Fortezzien."
Nedda's mouth twitched. "What do you study, Irene Denk of Veria in Fortezzien?"
Laughter bubbled underneath her voice. I could not tell if her mockery was friendly or not.
"Philosophy," I answered evenly. "And rational thought."
They exchanged glances. Perhaps my reply was more edged than I first supposed.
Klera's next comment said it was.
"Our friend bites," she said. "She draws blood."
"Indeed," Nedda replied. "But we have begun wrongly. I study juristic. My household consists of nothing but merchants, and they find it useful to have a lawyer in the family. Strangely enough, I do not disagree."
"Unlike me," Klera said. "I came here to study economics. Which I do most faithfully, whenever I can spare the hours from my poetry. The third member of our foolish crew is Nedda's cousin Taavi. He had not returned from his summer apprenticeship, but even when he does, we shall see nothing of him. He is working on his certificate in architecture, and he is sadly behind on fulfilling his adviser's demands."
Nedda shrugged. "Taavi will come back when he can. And he pays his share of the rent. Let me show you the room," she said to me. "You can decide whether it suits."
With Biss trailing behind us, Nedda and Klera led me on a tour of the lodgings, which occupied the entire floor. There were three bedrooms in all. Nedda and Klera occupied the largest, having divided the room with tall bookshelves. Taavi's, hardly more than a closet, was tucked in the corner next to theirs, with a tilted desk set opposite the two windows. The last was long and narrow, empty of everything except dust and a broken-down bed. I suspected the building had once belonged to a more prosperous family, because the floors were of fine blue tile, and the ceiling in the common room had once been painted, though its colors were now dimmed by smoke.
Klera and Nedda left me alone in the empty bedroom that might, or might not, become mine. I drifted around its circuit, noting what furniture and other possessions I would need to acquire, until I fetched up by the window, which overlooked a small courtyard. One chicken was pecking in the dirt outside a large coop. A rooster perched on a shed nearby. From a distance came the muffled noises of the immense city, but I had the impression of having found a quiet shelter.
I pressed both hands over my cheeks and closed my eyes. My features had been overlaid with new ones by magic — my hair made thick and springy and my complexion darker — so that I could pass for a native of Fortezzien, but underneath the mask, I could sense my own self, held in waiting.
How would it be, to spend an entire year or longer in these rooms, with these two women? To make them into friends, even when we could be nothing but enemies?
The future does not send us offerings, my mother liked to say.
Only of the past, I thought.
Everyone dreamt of past lives. It was the legacy Toc granted us, in remembrance of his own death and rebirth. We lived, we died, and our souls leapt from flesh to flesh and life to life. But we all of us carried our past in memories that visited us in our sleep.
I, too, had dreamed, but my dreams were scattered and vague. Nothing that offered any clues to the life I lived now.
Biss curled between my legs and settled on my feet, a warm and immovable weight. All at once I wanted nothing more than to unpack my trunk and sleep until the semester commenced. If I must, I can always change to new lodgings, I told myself.
I turned away from the window to find Klera hovering outside the door.
I like it," I said. "How much for the first month?"
Excerpted from Thief of War by Beth Bernobich, Dominick Saponaro. Copyright © 2013 Beth Bernobich. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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