Warning: Contains adult themes, coarse language, child abuse, same-sex relationships, graphic violence and sexual assault. Not suitable for children.
Devesi kept her hood pulled low as she walked along the dark corridor, her footsteps echoing in the dusty silence. The small ball of cloudy blue mage light hovering above her head was barely bright enough to illuminate the floor a few metres in front of her. She stopped at an old metal door that was identical to all the others she had passed. A note was pinned to the stone wall.
- Be at my office one hour after sunset. -
It was that time of the year again, when her presence went from being entirely repulsive to barely tolerated. Devesi turned her gaze away from the note and unlocked her den door. As she took off her wool lined gloves she saw that her hands were shaking and it irritated her. Fear or something worse had infected her and all because of that stupid note. It shouldn’t have arrived for another week and she needed a moment for the shock to wear off. Devesi wondered if this was a ploy to keep her off balance. The cold cynicism of the thought was refreshing and helped the fear subside.
The summons was the same as the last one from her foster aunt. It was almost time for the annual bonuses to be distributed. There would be paperwork to sign.
On her back was what appeared to be a long beetle shaped backpack, but beneath the battered leather cover was her folded windfoil. A powerful magical object she flew to do her job as a full service courier for the Archive Guild. She slid the straps off her shoulders and glanced around her tiny den that had originally been a storeroom. A few modifications and a bathroom were meant to make it liveable, but Devesi didn’t live here. To her it was the same as any other dorm room that she stayed in for work.
Her hand hovered over the light activation rune for the crystal orb in the ceiling and she paused, thinking about what she was about to do. Was she really going to continue to just buckle under for another year? She would be seventeen in less than a month. And she had been trying to convince herself that she should ask for a transfer. This was her chance to bargain for it, while Chaydo wanted something from her.
Before she could talk herself out of it, Devesi pulled the straps of her windfoil back on and checked the chronometer strapped to her left forearm. She could get to the bureau before it shut if she hurried. The note caught her eye as she locked her den door behind her and she snatched it from the wall, tearing the paper.
She ran through the maze of dusty corridors, her mage light a pale blue comet keeping pace with her above her head. At the last intersection before she reached the central staircase she dodged a large cobweb and its hairy occupant. The wide stairs followed a square layout with a landing at every turn. The fourth level was as dark and silent as the fifth so she didn’t have to slow her rapid descent but the third level was brilliantly lit by crystals orbs in ornate stone sconces. The mage light was no longer needed and Devesi terminated the spell with a gesture. Dozens of people were also using the stairs and she had to slow down to avoid bumping into them. She brushed away a cobweb that dangled from her hood and joined the flow of people that were heading downward. The central staircase wasn’t enclosed by rock walls below the third level as it wound around the huge pillar of stone that supported it and metal balconies flared out from the landings.
The base of the stairs opened onto the floor of the main hall, it was the largest cavern and popular with the villagers. Mature fruit trees grew in gardens that resembled woodland glades and open air orchards. Bumblebees flew in nectar scented spirals as they lurched drunkenly from flower to flower. Fountains connected by glass covered channels in the floor were kept stocked with several species of fish, crustaceans and edible plants.
Randomly spaced alcoves and niches in the stone walls were carved and decorated with beautiful designs of fantastical creatures. Large foils covered the ceiling with a simulation of a brilliant blue summer sky complete with an artificial sun and an occasional drift of fluffy clouds. Enclosed kitchen stands in a rippling sea of verdant moss provided areas to prepare food and drink for picnics on raised sections of stone floor. Children walked or sat in pairs or small groups, ran and played games or squabbled in shrill voices.
Some of those children were Devesi’s age.
A wide ornate arch marked the transition from the main hall to the bureau, the large cavern that housed the guild offices for the village. All five of the guilds were represented: Healer, Warrior, Craft, Earth and Archive. Broad archways between each guild led to other caverns. Emblems etched into the floor in front of the five wide double doors made it easy to identify the different guilds. Wound around the pillars that formed the colonnade bordering the large circular courtyard were artificial plants delicately sculpted from stone, metal and coloured glass. The ceiling foils were set to accurately mimic the actual sky. Overcast clouds, dark with freezing rain, blotted out most of the evening light of a late winter sunset. The crystal orbs next to the guild doors glowed brightly to compensate, making for a strange mingling of differently hued light.
At this time of day the Archive Guild offices were usually preparing to close and there would be a bustle to complete all official business. Today it was in an uproar. Junior assistants in dark yellow and white tabards rushed past, heavily laden with files. Devesi stood behind a pillar to catch her breath. She didn’t know what to think, there had to be two dozen people or more just in the foyer. She had never seen so many people in the Archive Guild offices before.
What could be going on? This was similar to the administration change she had seen the year before at Isle-Peak, the largest town in the region. If it was a change of administration what would that mean for her? Devesi was the only courier for the village. Would she be able to get a transfer to a different post? Maybe she should come back later at the time she was ordered to in the note, if she walked in there now she could get into all sorts of trouble.
A group of assistants hurried past and she overheard them complaining about how long they were expected to work this evening on an audit.
Cold sweat dampened her hands. An audit meant trouble, big trouble and there was no possibility of leaving now. Devesi straightened her shabby coat and walked into the foyer. Evan, an elderly bureaucrat close to retirement, stood behind the reception desk. He was arguing with a man in a formal uniform embroidered with gold interlocking hourglasses that marked him as a senior ranking member of the Archive Guild.
‘This is an audit, you're not meant to be prepared for it. All records should be kept up to date at all times. Where is the employee register? I won’t ask again. Hand it over immediately or you will be charged with obstructing this investigation.’ The man in the formal uniform said.
Evan fumbled for an excuse. He spotted Devesi and made a discreet shooing gesture. She hitched her windfoil higher on her back and approached him as though he had waved her over.
‘No–’ Evan muttered.
‘What are you doing? Why aren’t you answering me?’ The man in formal uniform demanded then he saw Devesi and turned to her. ‘Who are you? Do you work here?’
She bowed with her right hand flat against her heart in a formal salute before introducing herself. ‘I am Courier Devesi.’
The man glared at her. ‘You? You're a child!’
As proof of her claim Devesi opened her coat at the waist to show that she wore the grey, densely woven canvas belt that minors had to wear over her dull yellow work tunic. The belt was threaded with all of the buckles she had earned, including the one with the full service Archive Guild emblem.
‘Please excuse me, but I am a full service courier–’ she began.
The man held up his hand to stop her from speaking. ‘Yes, I know who you are. I am Dion, an investigative clerk for internal accounts and miscellaneous discrepancies, here to find out just what has been going on in this office. Come with me, Courier Devesi–’
Evan shot a poisonous glare at Devesi. ‘Administrator Chaydo will want to speak to her first–’
‘The suspended administrator is currently busy explaining herself to my fellow investigators. You are now formally charged with refusing to cooperate with us.’ Dion gestured and three security keepers in black, white and yellow uniforms stepped forward. ‘Process Evan and advise him of his rights.’
Evan spluttered indignantly as he was taken firmly by the arms and marched down the left corridor off the foyer. An investigative clerk, did this mean Chaydo was being investigated? Evan was her faithful lackey. The grovelling bootlicker fawned on Chaydo like a lovesick puppy.
It was probably too late to request a transfer.
Dion was watching her, but she knew she had given nothing away. She was a master of the blank expression. No matter how scared she felt.
‘Devesi, you claim to be a full service courier, is that correct?’ Dion asked.
‘Yes, I have been a full service courier for the past two years. I was left this note on the wall outside my den.’ She handed him the piece of paper, there was no point trying to hide anything.
‘It’s unsigned, but you know who it is from?’
‘Yes, it’s the same as the others from Chaydo. She always uses the same blue ink and I recognise her handwriting.’
He handed the note back to her and stood up straighter. ‘Very well, we shall proceed. I must now ask you how old you are and because you are underage I am required by law to contact your parents or parental figures.’
‘I am sixteen years old and have been Chaydo’s foster child since I was five.’
Dion’s eyes blazed with a cold fury. Devesi froze and tried to convince herself that he couldn’t do any violence to her while there were witnesses. After a long moment the tight painful feeling in her chest slowly eased. Dion gestured to someone behind her. A woman in a pale yellow and bronze senior assistant tabard joined them.
‘In these unusual circumstances I will have to arrange for you to have an impartial advocate for your case. Kirsten, who is available to be an underage advocate?’ Dion asked.
Kirsten flipped open the file in her hand to a list of the current personnel. They discussed who would be best for the job and narrowed it down to two possible candidates, but they didn’t seem happy about the limited options. Dion wrote a brief message to be delivered to the two candidates and Devesi was taken upstairs to wait in one of the consultation rooms. The moment she was left alone in the room she put her windfoil on the table and stretched in an attempt to ease her tense muscles. With Chaydo possibly under arrest she had no idea what to expect. Devesi checked that the two braids that she had put her hair in that morning were still neat. She wound the plaited ends into a bun and pinned it into place. There wasn’t much she could do to improve her appearance. Her formal guild uniform may have made a better impression on the people she was about to meet, but it was too late to worry about that now.
Loud knocks at the door jerked Devesi out of her thoughts that were rapidly growing darker. Dion and two other people entered the room.
‘Devesi, this is Karda and this is Taerys.’
Dion pointed first to a tall man with black hair. His short beard was flecked with silver on either side of his chin. He was dressed in a loose long sleeved shirt and leather patched heavy canvas trousers suitable for hard outdoor work. Taerys’ black hair was braided and tightly coiled in a flowing elaborate knot around her head. She was dressed in a loose blue and black linen tunic with sleeves attached on laces and matching trousers. Fastened to her chest with black leather straps was a section of breastplate. It was enamelled in Warrior Guild blue with a silver crest in the small flared section in the middle of the top edge.
‘Hello.’ Devesi bowed politely.
Karda stepped forward to shake Devesi’s hand. ‘Hello, do you know if they are bringing us anything to eat? It’s nearly time for dinner.’
People usually avoided making contact with her. Devesi was momentarily stunned by the warmth of his hand and friendly smile. ‘I don’t know. I was just told to wait here.’
‘Typical. What do you say, Dion? Taerys? We could wait here for food but it would be easier if we all went somewhere else to eat.’ Karda said.
Taerys smiled as she stepped forward and shook Devesi's hand. ‘I agree. Will that be a problem Dion? This is just a meet and greet so Devesi can decide which one of us should be her advocate, there’s no real reason we have to stay here.’
‘I think we should let Devesi decide. What do you say? Know any good places to eat around here?’ Dion asked.
‘Sorry, I don’t know.’ Devesi said.
‘How about we eat at your place then? We could cook something up ourselves.’ Taerys suggested kindly.
Devesi tried to imagine them in her tiny one room den, the only furniture was a worktable and one rickety old stool. Plus she didn’t have any food in the place. All she had to eat were the leftovers she had scrounged at midday from Isle-Peak during lunch.
‘I live on the fifth level in a tiny den.’ Devesi said.
‘You don’t live with Chaydo?’ Dion’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.
‘Not since I made full service almost two years ago.’
Dion looked at Karda and Taerys. ‘What about you two, know any places we can eat?’
‘This is the first time I've been to Narrost.' Taerys said.
‘It's my first time as well.’ Karda added.
‘I’ll talk to my senior assistants. They’ll know by now.’ Dion said.
He led them downstairs. As they walked through the foyer there was a commotion from the right side corridor. Two security keepers were trying to restrain a struggling figure.
‘Devesi! How dare you tell vicious lies about me! You ungrateful little bitch!’ Chaydo screamed and lunged forward in an attempt to force her way through the people barring her way.
The elegantly slender woman looked nothing like her usually perfectly coiffed self, her honey blonde hair had come out of its gleaming coils and the ends were sticking up like angry serpents. Ugly creases marred the heavy silk of her white and gold uniform and large ink stains of various colours covered Chaydo’s hands and sleeves. Judging by Chaydo’s current level of agitation, it was clear that the investigation was a complete surprise to her.
‘Enough Chaydo, compose yourself or I’ll have you locked in manacles until the investigation is finished!’ Dion ordered.
His words fell on deaf ears as Chaydo attacked the security keepers, her fury was terrifying and the distinct tang of magic sparked through the air. A woman in long flowing robes of shifting colours embossed with symbols appeared at the top of the stairs. She glided down the steps, pausing when she was above Chaydo. Between her hands she held an almost transparent pattern of runes that distorted the air as she cast a paralysing spell. It didn’t stop Chaydo from screeching a torrent of vile abuse.
Dion murmured in Devesi’s ear. ‘That is Adept Chloe. She is assisting us in our investigation.'
Chloe gestured again, casting a second more complex spell and Chaydo was silenced. Adepts had a reputation for being the most powerful and skilled magic users far beyond the abilities of ordinary people. If one was involved in the investigation it must mean that the guild was taking it very seriously. Chloe came down the stairs to talk to the security keepers about the spell that she had used and a senior assistant hurried forward to add the details to a report. Dion snagged one of the senior assistants near him for a quick discussion before leading them into the extensive system of connected caverns in the heart of the stone cliff that the village had been tunnelled into.
People still tinkered in their workshops and there were general stores that would remain open until well after sunset. The inns were opening their doors for the evening trade, but there were only three in this small remote mountain village. After making nearly a dozen turns, Dion stepped through an ornately carved archway. Inside there was a spacious grotto. A single foil in the high ceiling displayed a glorious multihued sunset that was too impossibly beautiful to be real. Delicate, almost transparent, deposits of limestone had been illuminated to make them into fascinating works of art. This wasn’t an average inn, it was a proper restaurant and Devesi halted outside the entrance.
‘What's wrong?’ Karda asked.
‘Um, I think this place is too expensive for me. I can wait out in the corridors until you're done.’ Devesi replied.
‘We’re not paying, Dion is.’
‘Why is Dion paying?’
‘It’s Archive Guild business. Dion pays and gets a receipt so that he can be reimbursed for his expenses.’
That sounded strange to Devesi, was she being treated as “guild business”? She wasn’t sure but she did know that she was hungry and certainly wasn’t in a position to refuse a free meal. The manager greeted Dion with a warm smile and showed them to a private alcove. Devesi chose the seat in the far corner and took off her windfoil. A server not much older than Devesi looked down her nose at her.
'May I take your backpack?' The server made her disdain clear.
Devesi shook her head, ignoring the server’s disapproving frown as she propped her windfoil in the corner behind her chair. Before she could take her coat off she unbuckled the wide straps around her forearms and the ones that secured the divided fabric of the bottom half of her coat around her legs. Devesi wrapped her coat around her windfoil as an extra precaution and Dion nodded his approval. The leather cover around her windfoil was an adequate barrier for a magical object but it was best to avoid temptation. Windfoils were very valuable, but extremely dangerous in the hands of amateurs. The patterns of runes could absorb energy from any person curious enough to make an attempt to master them and become uncontrollable.
‘I should have already asked you Devesi if there is anyone, perhaps a family member or friend, you want me to contact for your emotional support during this process?’ Dion asked.
‘No, thank you.’ Devesi replied.
‘Are you sure you don’t want at least one person with you?’ Taerys asked.
‘I don’t have any friends and I have no contact with any of Chaydo’s family.’
Karda frowned. ‘I don’t understand, isn’t Chaydo your mother? You don’t call her mum.’
‘She is not my mother, she is my foster aunt, as far as I know she is my father’s older sister, but she told me that he wasn’t my real father. I am not related to him by blood. I haven’t seen him since he left me with Chaydo after my mother died when I was five years old, but according to Chaydo she wasn’t my real mother either. I am a non-person.’
Taerys sat back, a thoughtful frown on her face as Dion asked for a privacy screen to keep their conversation from being overheard by the rest of the restaurant.
‘A non-person? What is going on here Dion? Why doesn’t Devesi have any family apart from that terrible woman we saw earlier?’ Taerys asked.
‘I think it sounds very odd.’ Karda said.
Dion pulled a thick folder from the leather case he had brought with him. ‘With Devesi's permission I will now let you see her personnel file and education records.’
‘Yes. May I have a look as well please?’ Devesi asked.
While they looked at the paperwork their first course was brought to them. Vegetable soup with cubes of pumpkin baked to sweetness scattered across the top. It was delicious and Devesi had two buttered rolls still warm from the oven, dipping torn pieces into her bowl to soak up the last of the soup. The adults had a crisp white wine and Devesi drank icy fruit juice. She read the documents, not knowing what she expected to see. These words trapped on the paper didn’t really define who she was, did they?
‘Is there any way to confirm what is written here?’ Taerys asked.
Devesi undid her grey belt to show them her buckles. ‘All I have is this.’
Karda smiled and shrugged at Taerys. ‘I guess that answers your question.’
‘I'm sorry dear. I wasn’t trying to be difficult.’ Taerys patted Devesi's hand.
‘Please, there is no need to apologise. I still have all the buckles I've earned.’ Devesi slid the metal buckles off the grey, thickly woven belt. ‘Here is the five pointed silver star for completing basic education. I got that just before I turned twelve. The two steel double bars are from the two years when I was an apprentice. The bronze flame is for making proficiency grade, qualified courier at fourteen and the Archive Guild emblem from when I made full service at fifteen. I've been working as a courier for almost three years now and been with the Archive Guild since I was a twelve year old apprentice.’
Taerys took each badge in stunned silence from Devesi as she explained what they meant.
‘You finished school when you were eleven?’ Taerys asked.
‘Yes. The dates on the paperwork here are correct, I think.’ Devesi checked again to be sure.
‘You must have wanted to be a courier really badly to work so hard, is that why you did it?’ Karda asked.
Devesi thought back, she couldn’t remember ever wanting to be a courier. She had been completely terrified, doing as she was told so that Chaydo wouldn’t – she shut off that thought. No, she had to remain calm, in control of herself.
‘I just did as I was told.’ Devesi said.
Taerys exchanged a glance with Karda.
‘I don’t think you realise the significance of what you have done.’ Dion said.
Devesi stiffened and took a sip of her drink to hide her reaction. She had to be careful of Dion because he had the power to do whatever he wanted to her. She quickly went back over everything she had said so far. Everything she had told them was true. Dion had no reason to reprimand her.
‘You are the first person in your age group to become a full service courier. That was how you came to our attention in the first place. A son of a current regional executive administrator for the Archive Guild found out that the prize had already been won and lodged a formal protest.’ Dion said.
‘I didn’t know, no one told me.’ Devesi said.
‘I find that difficult to believe, the prize included receiving ownership of a windfoil. Isn’t that why you worked so hard to become a full service courier?’ Dion asked.
Devesi felt sick and lowered her head. ‘I don’t know anything about a prize, I certainly never collected it.’
‘I believe her. She didn’t want to come into the restaurant. Someone who was accustomed to having large amounts of money wouldn’t have reacted that way.’ Karda said.
‘I agree with Karda. No offence Devesi, but your clothes aren’t exactly new.’ Taerys added.
Devesi stared down at her hands to hide how humiliated she felt. Painfully hot shame burned her and she concentrated on keeping her breathing calm to supress the growing ache in her chest.
‘That could just be a deception, she could have been warned by Chaydo that they were under investigation and been prepared to play her part in their plan for such an event.’ Dion said.
A feeling of helplessness overwhelmed Devesi and she knew there was no point in fighting back. Not against an adult. Dion had already made his mind up about her and there was nothing she could do about it. She sat rigid and silent in her chair as they discussed her, waiting for them to decide what was going to happen to her now.
‘Well Devesi, what do you have to say in your defence?’ Dion asked.
‘I don’t know what to say… I'm sorry for the trouble I caused.’ Devesi resigned herself to an imminent future of being locked in a prison cell and taking the blame for all the things that Chaydo had forced her to do.
‘Hey, wait a minute Dion! You can’t just pass judgement on her like that! This isn’t a formal hearing. Devesi can’t be blamed for doing as she was told, she is still a child.’ Taerys said.
‘Back off Dion! You're being too hard on the kid, didn’t you hear her? She said she didn’t know anything about the prize, I think Chaydo has used Devesi, taken advantage of her. The kid doesn’t deserve to be treated badly.’ Karda thumped the table.
‘She is hardly a child.’ Dion narrowed his eyes at Devesi. ‘You will be seventeen soon and by your own admission have held a position in the guild that comes with a lot of responsibility, you can hardly plead ignorance.’ Dion said.
Taerys leapt to her feet. ‘You go too far Dion.’
Devesi felt her blood turn to ice, she didn’t have any proof. No evidence that Chaydo had forced her to obey, except for… she tugged the laces on her tunic undone, pulling it off over her head as stood up and stepped back from the table.
‘What are you doing?’ Karda stood up to stop her.
Before he could reach her Devesi unbuttoned her heavily mended long sleeved shirt and took it off as well. It joined the tunic looped over her left arm. She was trembling harder now, her breathing uneven and she had to force herself to lift the hem of her faded old thermal undershirt up to her shoulders at the back and turn away from them. Showing them what she had kept hidden for far too long. The web of scar tissue that crisscrossed her flesh, the legacy of years of being whipped until she bled by her merciless tormentor.
‘I did as I was told.’ Devesi said quietly.
Her strained words fell into the terrible silence behind her.
Devesi pulled her undershirt down and began to put her clothes back on without turning around. She couldn’t bring herself to face them yet, couldn’t do anything but breathe slowly and try to ignore the shame burning in her cheeks. It was almost funny really, she ought to be used to being humiliated by now but somehow it never got any easier. A hand touched her shoulder gently and she turned her head slightly to see whose it was. For a moment Devesi didn’t recognise the expression on Taerys’ face, then she realised Taerys was sad. Sad? Why would Taerys be sad?
‘I'm so sorry for what happened to you.’ Taerys said.
There were tears in Taerys’ eyes and Devesi didn’t know what to do or say. She looked down at her trembling hands and focussed on buttoning her shirt.
‘I think you should leave, Dion.’ Karda said.
‘That wouldn’t be appropriate, there are legalities that must be observed–’ Dion protested.
‘The legalities aren’t a problem. We’ll both be Devesi's advocates, if that is agreeable to you Taerys?’ Karda moved to stand beside her.
‘Yes, if that is what Devesi wants.’ Taerys said.
Dion shook his head sternly and opened his mouth to speak.
Taerys fixed him with a steely glare. ‘An exception can be made in this case due to the fact that Devesi doesn’t have any family or friends to assist her at this time, isn’t that right Dion?’
The tight painful feeling in Devesi's throat and chest was difficult to master. She kept her gaze respectfully low as she turned to face the three adults who now knew far more than was comfortable about her. Dion gritted his teeth, furious that the case that he had started to construct was now falling apart. He reached into his leather case and pulled out some forms that he slapped down on the table.
‘Fill these in and bring them with the appropriate documentation tomorrow morning when the guild opens. Until the investigation is concluded you are suspended from active service.’ Dion said.
‘What does that mean? That I'm not allowed to work?’ The questions burst from Devesi, bypassing her brain. Stress had caused her carefully constructed defences to crumble and she was finding it impossible to control her expression.
Dion nodded. ‘That is precisely what it means.’
‘But how am I supposed to feed myself if I don’t work? Where am I going to live? I won’t be able to pay my rent!’ Devesi's voice was strangled by the panic gripping her.
From past experience she knew that she could go without food for maybe four or five days if she had to. But if she used magic she needed to eat to replace her energy or she risked slipping into a coma. Did these people want her to die?
The three adults stared at her in shock, stunned by her outburst.
‘Devesi you will still receive full pay while you're suspended from active service, you just can’t do the work you would usually do. Everything else will stay the same for now.’ Dion said.
She watched him leave, not reassured by his words at all. Maybe she could snag the last of the bread rolls from the table while no one was looking. Taerys urged her to sit back down so that they could finish their meal. Panicking was pointless and Devesi tried to calm herself so she could think rationally about her rapidly multiplying problems. Karda finished reading the copy of Devesi's full service contract.
‘According to these contracts you've been receiving the full service wage for the past two years.’ Karda flicked a puzzled glance at her shabby clothing.
‘No, I get paid the same as a first year apprentice. Chaydo said that was all I was allowed because of my age.’
Taerys frowned. ‘But you must have known, isn’t this your signature on the contract?’
‘Chaydo always made me sign blank forms that she filled out later. I've never seen the completed paperwork before.’
‘She had you sign blank forms? We’ll make sure that gets looked into as well.’ Karda said.
They went through the details of the forms that they had to fill out and tried to explain to Devesi what could happen during the investigation. Almost an hour later Karda leaned back in his chair and stretched. All the food was gone, including the after dinner sweets and there was no tea left in the pot when he tried to pour himself another cup.
‘We’ve eaten everything and there is nothing left to drink. I need a break if we’re going to continue this meeting. How about we go for a walk?’ Karda put the teapot back on its stand.
Taerys put down the sheet of paper in her hand and rubbed her neck. ‘It’s up to Devesi, it’s her meeting. What do you say? Should we take a short break to clear our heads and continue this somewhere else?’
‘Yes, we can take a break. How much longer do you think we’re going to need to finish this?’ Devesi put her coat back on and picked up her windfoil.
Karda chuckled and stood up. ‘This may take us weeks or even months to conclude. By rights we shouldn’t be having our first official meeting yet and we probably wouldn’t be, if it weren’t for the fact that you have no one else to support you through this process with your guild.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry for causing you both all this trouble. And I would like to thank you for the help that you are giving me.’ She made a formal salute, head bowed low with her right hand flat against her heart.
Karda smiled at Taerys and she gave him a slight shrug in response. ‘We are honoured to be of service.’ They said in unison and bowed back.
‘Come on, you can show us the main hall. We only had a quick look earlier.’ Taerys tucked the sheaf of paper she had collected back into the folder.
Karda pushed the privacy screen back and signalled that they were finished. The manager patted her grey streaked hair that was arranged in a cone shaped bun on the back of her head as she bustled over to finalise their business. Dion had paid the bill before he left so all Karda had to do was take a receipt. In return Karda thanked the manager for the excellent meal, complimented her on her beautiful restaurant and insisted on giving her a tip.
Taerys rolled her eyes at his performance. ‘He is a terrible flirt.’ She whispered to Devesi.
Karda caught up with them at the exit and they took their time walking back to the main hall through the almost empty corridors. From her answers to their questions, it was clear that Devesi hadn't spent much time in the village.
‘How long have you lived here, Devesi?’ Karda asked as they lingered at a display window for a weaver’s workshop.
The weaver was all smiles as he adjusted the arrangement of his work until he caught a glimpse of Devesi and hurried out of sight. Probably because something was on fire in the back of his workshop, it was possible, statistically. Best he should check, just in case.
‘Chaydo was transferred to the Narrost Bureau the summer when I was nine, that makes it roughly eight years.’ Devesi didn’t bother pretending to glance at the window display.
‘No one stops for a chat or says hello to you. Do you know any of these people?’ Taerys asked.
‘No and they would never speak to me. My presence is an outrage to them. It’s common knowledge that I'm of unknown parentage, that I'm a non-person.’ Devesi said.
‘I don’t understand. Surely you must shop here – they have to at least be polite to your face.’ Karda said.
‘I don’t shop here. I haven’t been to the ground floor since this time last year. If I need to buy something I go to Isle-Peak, where there are a lot more people and so many travellers passing through that no one notices me.’ And the prices were more affordable in the largest town in the region, but Devesi kept that to herself.
Karda saw how people hurried past with their gazes firmly fixed straight ahead or ducked down a different corridor to avoid getting too close. The coppery orange undertone to his dark brown skin flushed red with anger and his light brown eyes hardened into a fierce glare.
‘But what do you do when you have time off?’ Taerys asked.
‘I have none, I work all the time, have been for years.’
‘You don’t get any time off at all?’
‘No, Chaydo said that only adults get time off, children don’t get the same privileges and I'm the only courier posted here. If I don’t work the mail doesn’t get delivered.’
Karda shook his head. ‘Guild law requires a minimum of two people for courier duty at remote posts like Narrost, in case of illness, accidents or other circumstances. Chaydo is in a lot of trouble just for that. All guild employees have at least four weeks paid leave a year and children have plenty of holidays. Taerys can tell you, she has two children of her own.’
‘That’s true. My two are younger than you. Isobel is nine. She wants to join the Warrior Guild when she graduates to an apprenticeship and insists on following me to training with a little toy sword her grandfather made for her. Pearce is my youngest. He’s only a baby and still at the stage where everything must be investigated with his mouth, which is a bit of problem because he drools – a lot.’ Taerys chuckled. ‘They get plenty of holidays. Isobel only has lessons for three hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, four days a week. The rest of the time she’s with me or her father.’
What Taerys was describing sounded nothing like the childhood Devesi had endured. Chaydo had enrolled her in every class that was available and there had been a strict regime of enforced study with punishments when Chaydo thought she hadn't done well enough. Then there had been all the household drudgery on top of that – cleaning, cooking, washing, dusting, polishing and sewing. Until the exercises that she had to do for courier training had been almost relaxing by comparison.
‘Do you mean you take your children to work with you?’ Devesi asked in an attempt to distract herself from her gloomy thoughts.
‘Not really, no. Guild law allows parents of children under fifteen to choose their own hours, as long as we make our quotas it’s not a problem. That’s one of the reasons I took the escort job, it’s a good way to make my quota with the Warrior Guild because it counts as twenty-four hours a day active duty. I've also been a member of the Healer Guild.’ Taerys said.
‘Being on call works well too, animals don’t tend to keep to schedules and when the main birthing period starts in spring my quota fills up quickly. For the past eight years I've been a full service member of the Earth Guild, but I've also been a member of the Craft and Healer Guilds. I'm currently working as a driver.’ Karda said.
They reached the main hall, at first it looked darker but it was because the foils overhead were set to an evening sky. The constellations were correct as was the phase of the moon that was showing, but artistic license had clearly been taken. The moon was much larger than it should have been and the rich dark swirls of colours on display would never be seen in the actual sky.
Karda took a deep breath of the scent the night blooming flowers were releasing into the air as they opened. ‘I could almost believe it was the middle of spring and not the end of winter.’
‘I’d almost believe it if it wasn’t for the very cold journey that we had here, there was still snow at the lower passes.’ Taerys said to Devesi.
‘Yes, I know.’ Devesi replied.
The two adults paused at her response and then smiled sheepishly.
‘I forgot for a second.’ Taerys said.
‘So did I.’ Karda admitted.
‘Forgot?’ Devesi asked.
‘That you’re a courier, that you see everything when you fly.’ Karda said.
‘Yes, that’s odd isn’t it? I mean, most kids your age, if they were a full service anything they wouldn’t let anyone forget it. But you don’t do that. You don’t even call attention to it.’ Taerys said.
‘I have this windfoil on my back, it’s not as though it isn’t obvious.’ Devesi said.
Karda shrugged. ‘I don’t know how to explain it either. You're unobtrusive.’
‘People have ignored you, for years. No one seems to have taken any interest in you before, despite your remarkable achievements.’ Taerys said.
‘That could be largely due to Chaydo’s influence. She hasn’t wanted anyone to take notice of you because she had her own motives for keeping you to herself. Do you have any idea how much money she has made out of you over the years? I was doing a bit of a rough estimate earlier and came up with this.’ Karda handed Devesi a folded piece of paper.
She looked at what he had written. It was a column of figures with a large number at the bottom circled and underlined. She looked at it again and shook her head. ‘That can’t be right.’
Taerys held out her hand. ‘Can I take a look?’
Devesi handed it to her and watched her reaction. Taerys was as sceptical as she was.
‘You're not serious.’
‘And that is just a very rough estimate, based on the figures I saw earlier while we were having dinner.’ Karda said.
‘You know, that would explain why Dion was so angry. Do you think Chaydo is being investigated for embezzling from the Archive Guild?’ Taerys whispered.
‘Oh no, that would be very bad.’ Devesi muttered.
Stealing from the guild! That was a very serious offence. Taking money from a kid was one thing, but from the guild was far worse and Chaydo had dragged her into this mess.
‘We can’t speak about this here. We need to go somewhere private.’ Taerys looked around to make sure that no one was close enough to overhear them.
‘We can go to my den. It’s a bit of a walk to the fifth level.’ Devesi decided it was better to just get it over with and they would have to see it soon anyway.
They followed her up the central staircase. Past the third level it was too dark to see their hands in front of their faces. Taerys was especially horrified that there were no lights provided. Devesi thought to reassure them by casting her spell for her mage light, but for some reason that displeased them even more.
‘This is entirely unacceptable.’ Taerys said.
‘Taerys, I understand your concerns. We will add the unsuitable state of the residential levels to our report.’ Karda said.
‘Unsuitable!’ Taerys hissed furiously, brushing away a cobweb caught on her shoulder.
Karda rubbed his chin and grimaced. ‘I don’t know if there are words that can adequately describe what I have learned this evening, but I am trying to remain calm for her sake.’
Taerys grumbled but acknowledged that he had a point. They shouldn’t distract the child while she held what was a potentially dangerous spell above their heads. Devesi remained silent in an attempt to avoid upsetting them further as she unlocked the door to her den and touched the activation rune for the small crystal orb set in the ceiling. It began to glow with a soft light that gradually brightened. Her small bare den looked even worse than usual to her eyes as she terminated her spell for her mage light.
There was no place for her guests to sit. The bare stone floor matched the bare stone walls. It was as warm and welcoming as a prison cell and there was no sign that she had lived here for nearly two years. She was ashamed of the stark poverty of her surroundings. The only seat was a metal stool at the stone topped worktable in the middle of the room and she cringed at the thought of asking them to sit on the floor.
‘This is it.’ She waved them inside with an awkward movement of her arm.
‘This is where you live?’ Karda asked.
‘Well, yes and no. As I've said before, I'm hardly ever here because I work all the time. This is really just a regular stop on my delivery route. I guess you want to leave now…’
‘Where do people sit?’ asked Taerys.
‘I've never had anyone visit me before, so one of you could sit on the stool and…’ Devesi looked around the bare room, ‘there’s the bed shelf. We could probably sit there as well I guess.’
‘Bed shelf?’ Karda repeated.
‘That’s where I sleep.’ Devesi pointed to a long hollow section in the wall to the right, the thin futon she slept on didn’t look particularly comfortable. ‘This used to be a storage room. Chaydo rents it to me. It’s not much but I still prefer it to living with her.’
Taerys was wandering around the room, an appalled expression on her face. ‘You know, I thought it couldn’t get any worse after I saw the scars on your back. I actually thought that nothing could shock me after that, but I was wrong.’
Karda pressed his hands flat on the worktable and Devesi could see his throat moving as though he was trying to swallow something that he couldn’t keep down. A terrible sound erupted from him, like a laugh that was being choked to death by rage.
‘You’ve been kept in the dark.’ He lifted his head to look at Devesi. ‘You live surrounded by eternal darkness. How do you stand it? How have you not gone completely mad?’
‘I make my own light.’ Devesi summoned a mage light again and the glowing ball flickered briefly into existence above the palms of her hands. ‘And I am hardly ever here. I suppose I would go mad, if I actually lived here. But I don’t. Every morning I wake up in this den, I fly away.’
After a long moment of silence Taerys asked. ‘Why do you come back?’
‘If I didn’t, Chaydo would just make me return and punish me for trying to leave. My plan was to leave the moment I turn eighteen, but I don’t know what is going to happen to me now. I would have been free of Chaydo in another year, but if the Archive Guild decides I am guilty of conspiring with her then I will probably be imprisoned and things will only get worse.’ Devesi shrugged her windfoil off her back and hugged it to her chest.
Taerys grimaced as she put the folder of paperwork on the worktable and opened it. ‘I think we should be able to sue Chaydo for child abuse, neglect and coercion, but you're going to have to tell us everything about your life with her. That isn’t going to be pleasant, but we should be able to keep your name off the public record if you want.’
Devesi joined them at the worktable in the middle of the room where they were standing and propped her windfoil against the edge of the table beside her.
‘What do you mean, sue? What’s that?’ she asked.
‘Sue is a legal term, it means all of Chaydo’s assets and accounts will be seized by the guild and liquidated – turned into money – to give to you because of what she has done to you. She will also have to pay you the full amount of the wages that she has withheld from you.’ Taerys said.
The very idea of forcing Chaydo to do anything seemed absurd. Devesi clenched her hands into fists and shook her head. ‘How is that possible? Chaydo always said that I owed her for the cost of raising me, because I'm a non-person.’
Karda and Taerys stared at each other with matching grim expressions.
‘It doesn’t matter that you're of unknown parentage. What Chaydo has done to you is wrong. She has no right to treat you as though she owns you, slavery is damn well illegal–’ Karda said, his voice grating harshly.
‘What Karda means,’ Taerys interrupted him before his foul language deteriorated further, ‘is that as a minor you deserve to be treated with kindness, as are all children. If Chaydo had a drop of empathy or decency in her entire being she couldn’t have brought herself to do what she has done. But she clearly lacks the basic compassion that all living creatures are born with. We will never be able to undo all the suffering that you have experienced, but we can try our best to ensure that it never happens to you again or to any other children. That is why we have laws to protect those who do not have caring families to love and protect them.’
Karda and Taerys explained about writing something called a statement detailing everything that Chaydo had done to her, then filing charges. Devesi made notes of what they were telling her on a blank piece of paper. It was confusing and she was unsure how all of this was meant to benefit her. Questions jumbled themselves on her tongue but they vanished without a trace at the first heavy knock on the den door.
More knocks followed then a voice bellowed. ‘Open up! We have an arrest warrant for Courier Devesi, full service member of the Archive Guild! Open up at once!’
‘It’s not locked–’ Devesi glanced at Taerys and Karda to catch their reactions as she grabbed her windfoil and held it tightly to her chest.
Whoever was outside must have heard her because the door sprang open, hit the wall hard and nearly bounced shut again. Four young men rushed into the room, violently ramming the door back against the wall until metal grated on stone.
‘You must come with us or you will be charged with resisting arrest.’ One of the young men said, he cracked his knuckles menacingly for emphasis.
A sneer curled the lip of the young man holding a slender crystal wand with runes for a light spell that they must have used for illumination in the dark corridors. At first glance they appeared to be wearing what looked like keeper surcoats over their clothes. Heavy silk starkly patterned in black and white with small metal plates riveted in a scale pattern across their chests and shoulders with a band of all five guild colours around their upper arms. A closer look revealed the ruse. Their surcoats had been made by painting black patterns on white silk. Black smears of paint still stained their hands and the scales were cut from old sheets of tin, punched with holes and roughly stitched into place with thin strips of leather.
‘You're lying.’ Taerys said with a nasty grin that showed too many teeth. ‘You don’t have the authority to arrest anyone, so consider yourself under arrest for impersonating keepers.’
The four young men gaped and stammered out denials. Taerys took four coils of wire from her pocket that she used to bind their hands behind them.
Devesi huddled in the shadows behind Karda, she felt as though her body had turned to ice, numbing her against the hostility in the air. She trembled as Taerys searched the four young men and removed wands engraved with runes for various purposes. Long leather cords and knives were taken from them. The idea that those young men had malicious intentions, or possibly planned to murder her with all the cruelty they were capable of, made her flesh crawl with horror.
Karda was talking to Taerys and Devesi gulped down her fear to listen, to learn what they were going to do next. She couldn’t help but doubt them and she didn’t know them well enough to guess how they would react. If they decided it was in their best interest to get rid of her before she became a burden then she would have to take the first opportunity to escape.
‘We’ll take them to the main keeper office on the ground floor and we can’t leave Devesi here by herself. More thugs might turn up while we’re gone.’ Karda said.
‘Agreed, bring the paperwork as well. Devesi, can you get some things together so you can stay the night with us? You can have one of the spare rooms in our temporary quarters.’ Taerys said.
Devesi agreed quickly, the duffle bag that she used for her delivery route was still against the wall where she had left it. Within a minute she had it repacked with all the clothes that she owned. Her sewing kit with the fabric offcuts that she used for patches and the thin leather roll of tools for repairing her windfoil filled the small space that was left. The few coins that she had were wrapped tightly in a tattered old scrap of cloth and tucked in the inside pocket of her tunic.
Everyone filed out into the corridor and she followed them, tugging the straps of her windfoil over shoulders. Taerys didn’t allow the young men to speak as she prodded them to walk along in front of her and she used one of their wands to light the way. Karda’s iron grip on their shoulders made them wince when he forced them to move in the direction Taerys ordered them to walk. The journey to the keeper office was agonising for Devesi, but the end of it brought no relief. On either side of the wide double door to the keeper office the stone walls were deeply engraved with the stark keeper emblem of a harsh white lightning bolt cleaving a black boulder in two and releasing a torrent of water from it. A symbol of their power that was meant to instil respect and awe in everyone who saw it, but Devesi wasn’t so sure about that.
She reluctantly followed Karda inside the office. He helped Taerys with the young men by making sure that none of them spoke or even looked at each other while she was busy explaining the situation to the keeper on the duty desk. At Taerys’ insistence the keeper sent for Dion’s head of security at the Archive Guild office. When Dion strode into the keeper office with eight of his security personnel behind him a few minutes later Devesi wanted to duck out of sight behind Karda and Taerys but thought better of it. Hiding would only make her look guilty and she hadn't done anything wrong.
Dion held up his hand for silence. ‘Let the scribe get set up before you start to explain.’
A large man behind Dion unfolded a writing desk from the case he carried on his back. The scribe’s thick fingers looked like they were more suited to breaking rocks than writing but his pen moved in a blur across the page as he filled in the time, date and location at the top of the sheets of paper he clipped into place. As each page was filled the scribe was able to flick it over to hang out of the way while the ink dried and he could continue writing on a fresh sheet of paper. The scribe inserted a fresh ink cartridge made of glass into his pen and nodded when he was ready.
‘Begin.’ Dion said.
Taerys began at the beginning, that she and Karda had become Devesi's advocates that evening then everything that had happened after that. When she came to the part about the four young men impersonating keepers in their attempt to arrest Devesi for some nefarious purpose they began shaking their heads in denial. Unfortunately for them they were still wearing their poorly faked keeper surcoats.
Dion’s security personnel had matching grim expressions at the sight of the evidence that Taerys had removed from the young men’s pockets. Outside there was a confrontation that was growing louder as more voices joined the argument. Taerys finished her report and looked at the keepers who were bracing the door to keep it shut.
‘What is going on out there?’ Taerys asked.
The head keeper shot a glare over her shoulder. ‘Those boys that you arrested are underage, that noise is their parents trying to get in.’
Boys? Devesi looked at them again and was surprised by how young they seemed as they slouched in their seats, defeated by the accusations that had been levelled against them. They were probably about her age or not much older. What was going on?
‘We’ll get to the bottom of this.’ Dion said. He directed his security personnel to take the young men to separate interrogation rooms. The keepers insisted on supervising the procedure.
‘Excuse me, Karda? I have a question.’ Devesi said.
To her surprise everyone turned to look at her and she took a step back.
‘Don’t worry about them, what’s your question?’ Karda asked.
‘Um, those young men, if they're minors like me, shouldn’t their parents be with them while they're being questioned? Or be assigned advocates. Or something…’ A voice in the back of her head kept repeating the words: shut up, idiot. Maybe she should have kept quiet.
Karda scratched his beard thoughtfully. ‘Well, you see we know that they’ve done something wrong and they know that they’ve broken the law. At the moment they're just being arrested and had the charges read to them. But you're right, they should have someone with them who knows what their rights are and can advise them.’
‘Sure, why not? It’s not as though I don’t have enough difficulties already.’ Dion allowed the keepers to let the parents in and tell them what was happening. ‘Anything else I can do? Get them their blankies, cups of hot milk?’ Dion said with heavy sarcasm.
Devesi shrank back from him and shook her head, too scared to speak again.
‘That’s enough Dion.’ Karda loomed over him threateningly but Dion just dismissed him with a cold stare before turning away.
Dion’s assistants hovered impatiently, waiting for his instructions.
Taerys frowned as she watched Dion walk away, snapping out orders. ‘That one is quite possibly more trouble than he is worth.’
Karda rubbed his beard and grunted in agreement. ‘Did you get a copy?’
‘Fresh from the scribe’s hand. We’re good to go.’ Taerys held up a copy of the report she had dictated.
Karda flicked through it as they left the office to return to their temporary quarters. Devesi followed along close behind them, her hood pulled low so that her face was in shadow and wondered if she should have made her escape earlier outside her den. She could have slipped away into the dark maze of corridors while Karda and Taerys were distracted, but it was too late for that now. She shifted the strap of her duffle higher on her shoulder and pushed up her sleeve to glance at the chronometer strapped to her wrist. It was well after sunset and even if flying at night wasn’t incredibly dangerous she had nowhere to go and no money to stay anywhere. The prospect of being even slightly better off by suing Chaydo may be extremely slim but if nothing else came of it she might at least learn a few things to her benefit.