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. Pinned to the stone wall beside it was an unsigned note.
- 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 least she didn’t have to worry about colliding with anyone here on the fifth level of the village. She dodged a cobweb and its large hairy occupant at the last intersection before she reached the central staircase and took the steps downward two at a time. 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.
At the base of the stairs the main hall was enormous, it was the largest cavern and popular with villagers. The vast open space had mature fruit trees in the gardens that resembled woodland glades and open air orchards. Bees like balls of black and gold fluff flew in nectar scented spirals from flower to flower. Deep 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 that. 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. The tailor made white and gold formal uniform was no longer impeccable. Ugly creases marred the heavy silk 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 abuse so vile that a few of the junior assistants flushed bright red.
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. Dion seemed to know where he was going and after making nearly a dozen turns, stepped through an ornately carved archway. Inside there was a spacious grotto. A single foil in the high ceiling was set to 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 she 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. To take her coat off Devesi 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 in the foyer?’ 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 flicked through 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. She couldn’t let anyone think she was weak, she was sure that they wouldn’t hesitate to tear her to pieces.
‘No, I never thought about it. 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, who had been working very hard, 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.
The air felt too thin to breathe and details of asphyxiation symptoms began to swirl around in her head as though she needed to counter the effects of being at a high altitude.
‘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 angrily.
‘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.’
There was nothing Devesi could say in response to that, it was true, she was unobtrusive. It was one of her survival traits along with staying silent, paying close attention to possible threats of violence and keeping track of her surroundings so she could make a quick escape.
‘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 said softly.
She looked around to make sure that no one was close enough to overhear them. Devesi watched the pair of them discussing where they could go.
‘We can go to my den. It’s a bit of a walk to the fifth level. But we can talk in private, no one else lives past the third 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 somehow being able to force Chaydo to pay her seemed absurd to Devesi. She 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 that rapidly increased in volume as though shouting would make their words true. 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 cotton 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.
Yesterday’s events were etched on the back of Devesi's brain in acid and she bit back the groan that tried to escape. She took a deep breath and stretched before opening her eyes. Things could be worse. Her imagination was all too ready to supply scenarios full of hideous detail.
No, that was the opposite of helpful and she forced herself to focus on something good that had happened recently. Chaydo being dragged away, bound by paralysing spells, was an image she wouldn’t forget in a hurry.
That had been an unexpected bonus.
The thought made her stomach feel like it was made of a hollow block of ice. Taking enjoyment in the suffering of others was something she had promised herself that she would never do, was she going to start now? Even if the person who was suffering didn’t know what the word integrity meant – not becoming a monster like Chaydo was important.
According to her chronometer dawn was only half an hour away. She crawled out from under the bed and rubbed her nose. Last night Devesi had felt safer under the bed, a remnant of a childhood habit that she thought she had outgrown years ago. Years of sleeping on hard surfaces had made soft beds uncomfortable. Four blankets folded together had been enough to create a makeshift futon to sleep on.
For a moment she considered getting on her windfoil and flying away, but it wouldn’t do her any good. Investigators for the Archive Guild would hunt her down and then she would end up in a prison cell.
A frown tried to form but she was too practised at keeping her expression neutral for it make the muscles around her mouth do more than twitch. While she remained in Narrost her safety was in doubt. She would have to tread carefully and keep her wits about her today. Devesi dragged the blankets out from under the bed, shook them and refolded them. They shouldn’t need washing, but she kept them separate from the stack of unused blankets just in case. Karda had insisted on piling a dozen blankets at the foot of the bed last night, worried that she might be suffering from delayed shock.
At this time of the morning the bathroom would be empty. She put on yesterday’s tunic and trousers over the undershirt and leggings she had slept in. With her windfoil slung over one shoulder and her duffel bag clutched to her chest, she hurried down the corridor in her bare feet. The crystal orbs in the ceiling had been set to a dim glow that provided just enough light to see by.
The shelves in the bathroom were fully stocked with jars of scented soaps and oils, stacks of large thick towels, washcloths of varying texture from smooth to coarse and long handled scrubbing brushes. Devesi locked the door behind her and turned the brass wheel that sent water pouring down a copper chute into the large stone bathtub. At the touch of her hand a rune carved in relief on the side of the bathtub began to heat the cold water to the right temperature. While she waited for the water to get warm enough she threw her dirty clothes in the laundry tub and wound the wash cycle mechanism. She washed herself thoroughly, rinsing away the lather before immersing herself to soak in the bath.
It wasn’t long after dawn when she left the bathroom in fresh work clothes with an armful of clean and damp laundry over her arm. Devesi returned to her room and hung her clothes on the clothing rack in front of the air vents to dry. She added a few new patches to her tattered old coat while she waited for Taerys or Karda to call her for breakfast. Over an hour later Taerys knocked on the door and was surprised to find Devesi working on her coat.
‘Morning, breakfast is in twenty minutes, I see you're already dressed.’ Taerys said.
‘Morning Taerys. Can I help with making breakfast?’ Devesi asked, she tied off the last stitch and put her needle back in her sewing kit.
‘Sure, if you like.’ Taerys said.
Devesi lifted her windfoil by the straps into its usual spot on her back.
‘You can leave that in your room if you like.’ Taerys said.
‘I keep it with me everywhere I go unless I have somewhere to lock it away safely.’
‘I see.’ Taerys led Devesi to the communal kitchen in their temporary quarters and introduced her to the four people whose turn it was to cook.
Two of them, Calder and Stanley, were members of Taerys’ guard that had escorted the group of investigators to Narrost. The other two, Morgan and Sigrid, were drivers like Karda. None of them were particularly friendly, but they weren’t openly hostile either. Devesi concentrated on the task she was given in a quiet corner. She cooked dozens of paper thin pancakes that she rolled and stacked on a platter for the middle of the table. More people gradually arrived, taking seats around the long table and chatting quietly. Karda came in with the last few drivers. They had obviously been working in the stables and were still damp from washing their hands and faces.
‘Good morning, kid. I hope you cooked them in lots of butter. I like mine crispy and golden.’ Karda said as he looked over her shoulder at the stack of pancakes.
‘I can do some for you now with the batter that’s left.’ Devesi said.
‘Great.’ He snagged a pancake off the platter to munch on.
Taerys shook her finger at him. ‘Watch your manners, stop being a bad influence.’
‘Hey, I've been working for the last two hours. I deserve a pancake.’ Karda protested.
Taerys lifted an eyebrow in disbelief. ‘Uh huh, you don’t fool me. I know this is your second breakfast this morning.’
He grinned, his full lips parting to reveal large white teeth that sparkled with almost as much glee as his eyes. Devesi slid the golden pancakes she had just finished making onto the side of the platter and cancelled the heat spell on the large flat stone she had been cooking on.
‘Thank you, the pancakes look and smell delicious.’ Taerys put the platter on the table.
Devesi cleaned up her mess and washed the utensils she had used in the sink. A messenger in an Archive Guild tabard came into the kitchen. He asked for Karda and Taerys and they were pointed out by the people sitting at the far end of the table.
Taerys watched him approach. ‘So much for breakfast,’ she murmured.
The message on the slip of paper she was handed was urgent, they were to leave Narrost today and return to Nuullien. Taerys took two of her guards with her to the Archive Guild offices to verify the message while Karda stayed behind. He introduced Devesi to his fellow drivers, Arun, Sigrid, Ellice, Morgan and Thorne. The guards Rhianne and Peigrin were full service warriors as were Calder and Fleur who had gone with Taerys to the Archive Guild offices. The last two members of the guard, Adalind and Stanley were just finishing their year of qualified service, the last level of training after completing their apprenticeships. Food was hastily eaten, the leisurely breakfast was over. Devesi started to do the washing up afterwards but Karda shook his head and told her to go pack along with the rest of the group that were preparing to leave. An order that made no sense but before she could tell him that she had nothing to pack, Taerys and her guards returned.
‘Karda!’ Taerys called to get his attention.
Sweat sheened her skin as though she had been running, but she was breathing normally. Those who were still in the kitchen lingered to hear what she had to say but she waved at them impatiently.
‘Get going, there’s no time to gossip, move!’
A moment later the kitchen was empty except for Calder and Fleur who stayed to eat a few bites of the breakfast that they had abandoned. Karda and Devesi sat with Taerys at her end of the table, remaining silent while she poured herself a cup of tea and drank half of it thirstily.
‘How bad is it?’ Karda asked.
‘Bad, very bad – those boys from last night are only seventeen years old and they had been seduced by Chaydo.’ Taerys said quietly.
‘You don’t mean–’ Karda said.
‘Yes, exactly, Chaydo was in intimate sexual relationships with all four boys to corrupt and control them. It has been going on for years apparently. Their parents are furious, the whole village is outraged which means–’ Taerys shook her head and looked at Devesi.
‘They’ll be looking for someone to blame, to take their anger out on.’
‘I didn’t know anything about what Chaydo was doing.’ Devesi said, but she knew she wouldn’t have reported it even if she had known. No one would have listened to her.
Taerys sighed and rubbed her ear. ‘The investigators asked me if we would consent to be your temporary foster parents, Devesi. In the current circumstances I decided to accept until we have time to talk about what would be best for you.’
Karda crossed his arms and shrugged. ‘Advocates, foster parents, it’s all the same to me.’
Devesi nodded in agreement, she didn’t know what else she could do.
‘I do have good news. That den you’ve been living in is property of the Archive Guild which means you get a full refund of your rent and I have your first month’s wages as well. The receipts are in the bag. I hope you don’t mind that I signed for them on your behalf, but it’s better if you stay out of sight right now. I'm sorry, but you'll have to buy yourself some new clothes in Nuullien. We don’t have time for you to go back to your den for your belongings.’ Taerys said.
The money pouch with the Archive Guild seal that Taerys handed Devesi was surprisingly heavy, but she didn’t open it to check the contents. Her Archive Guild uniform was the only thing that she had left behind, wrapped in a cloth to keep it from getting dusty on a shelf.
‘Thank you. I didn’t leave anything behind that can’t be replaced.’ Devesi tucked the pouch in a pocket of her windfoil cover.
She didn’t know quite yet what to make of her new situation. The possibility that Karda and Taerys might really want to help her was startling, but she would remain cautious. Taerys made sure that Devesi stayed close to her as they hurried with their bags to the extensively hollowed out series of caves that were the stables. Six flatbed wagons were already loaded with supplies for the journey. The drivers harnessed the draughthorses with a quick and methodical efficiency. Devesi found the bustle confusing and tried to keep out of the way. Her duffel bag was taken from her and loaded with the luggage that Karda put in his wagon behind the two rows of bench seats.
Karda was the first to start driving his wagon down to the gate in the inner wall and the other five followed quickly. He wore a green, brown and blue leather greatcoat with a scarf around his neck and a wide-brimmed hat on his head. Devesi joined Taerys and the guards who had already left the stables as they walked with their horses ahead of the wagons. Light misting rain was obscuring visibility. Combined with the melting snow, the rain would slow them down and Taerys was already revising her plan on a safe spot to stop overnight. The guards gathered around her to consult their map books. Their horses formed a loose outer ring around them, empty saddles glistening with rain. All of the guards wore similar hooded ankle-length coats and were armed with swords strapped across their backs. At a signal from Taerys they all mounted their horses. In the wet, their bows were left unstrung and kept in leather sleeves at the front of their saddles. Devesi stood off to one side to avoid getting any closer to the horses than she had to.
‘You can hop up on the seat behind Karda, there’s plenty of room.’ Taerys said.
Devesi looked at the wagon and pulled her hood lower to keep the rain off her face. ‘There is something you should know.’
‘Can you tell me later? We’re in a hurry.’
‘I suffer from motion sickness.’
Taerys stared at Devesi. ‘You're a courier, you can’t have motion sickness.’
‘The last time I rode in a wagon I was violently ill.’
‘You were violently ill. How long ago was this?’
‘About eight years ago. It happened during the move to Narrost.’
‘In that case you’ve probably outgrown it, we have to get going.’ Taerys said.
Devesi didn’t even consider arguing with Taerys. Huge metal wheels more than a metre in diameter and rimmed with small blunt spikes for added traction made it difficult for her see how to reach the seat. Karda indicated where she could climb up easily. She wedged her windfoil into the space on the seat beside her and held on tightly as the wagon began to move.
Already feeling uncomfortable, Devesi hunched her shoulders. If only she could crawl into her hood and stay there. The motion of the wagon felt unnatural as it rolled along the flat paving stones of the road. Every dip and imperfection in the road surface made the wagon rattle and the suspension shift to compensate. The wet smell of the horses wasn’t helping her queasy stomach.
She turned away, trying to find something else to focus her mind on.
Only one road led in and out of Narrost and there were no dwellings outside the cliff behind them. Terraces had been carved into the cliff face that towered above them. Devesi wondered when there would be new couriers using the platform high above the terraces. It felt very strange not to be flying her delivery route. For a moment Devesi allowed herself to imagine that whatever happened next she would never return to Narrost and the thought made her feel a little better. She tugged her collar up to cover her nose and mouth, shut her eyes and tried to focus her mind on a simple concentration exercise that she had learned years ago when she had begun her training as a courier. With a harsh groan of hinges the inner gate was shut behind them, the massive bars locking into place. A strong tang of magic wafted in the air and Devesi turned in her seat to see the wards carved into the stone around the inner gate glimmer as they activated.
The wagons didn’t pause at the middle or outer gates, but rolled straight through. Taerys had sent one of her guards ahead to warn the watch that they were coming. It was the first time in years that Devesi had passed through the walls rather than over and she felt small, insignificant beside the enormous structures. There was no other traffic on the road that sloped down into a causeway through a deep trench that ran the length of the outer wall that was lined with stones. They were polished smooth to make it difficult to climb out and up the outer wall.
The three defensive walls were more than twenty metres high and formed semicircles that protected the village behind solid impenetrable barriers. Made from huge blocks of stone and punctuated at regular intervals with watchtowers, they were kept operational at all hours of the day and night. It seemed excessive to put so much effort into guarding fields for pasture and farming, until the carefully cultivated ground was compared to the wilderness that lurked beyond the heavily fortified outer wall. Karda slowed the pace of his draughthorses and warned Devesi that they were coming to the ford across the river. Taerys and the guards on horseback went first before allowing the wagons to cross.
Ancient trees bordered the road, their bare branches meeting and tangling overhead as though they waited for music to play so that they could begin to dance. The dense undergrowth that was beginning to show the first signs of spring appeared to be innocuous but could be death on contact, or make a person wish for it. Insects and the small animals that fed on the toxic vegetation had poisonous bites and stings. Carnivores of all sizes inhabited the woods and were known to attack unwary travellers. Even the herbivores were vicious, probably driven mad by their hallucinogenic heavy diet. Devesi was accustomed to flying high above the danger that now surrounded her on all sides.
Three large wolves waited over the crest of the next hill, staring boldly at the wagons and Taerys signalled for the drivers to proceed slowly. Devesi clutched her windfoil close to her, sliding her hands to the worn bronze clasps that held the leather cover closed. To her surprise the wolves broke into a loping run away from the wagons, following the road to a cluster of boulders where they stopped. A hooded figure stood in the shadows, barely distinguishable from the rocks and trees until stepping out onto the road to speak to Taerys who waved in friendly greeting.
‘That’s Gwilym, he's our scout.’ Karda said.
‘A what?’ Devesi asked, not relaxing her grip on her windfoil.
‘Scout, he's our scout. He warns us of any danger on the road ahead and behind. Don’t worry, he knows what he's doing, he's been a full service ranger with the Earth Guild for almost ten years.’
Devesi swallowed and nodded, taking her hands away from the clasps but she kept her windfoil on her lap just in case. What Gwilym said to Taerys wasn’t heard by anyone else. She rode back down the road to talk to her guards. A piercing whistle split the damp air and a horse with a mottled dark grey and dull brown hide emerged from behind the boulders. It had no saddle or bridle but Gwilym swung easily onto its back and it ran swiftly, disappearing around the bend in the road. The wolves had already vanished and Devesi kept an eye out for them as the wagons sped up again.
At midday Taerys ordered a halt, the road was descending through a pass in the mountains. Gwilym and his three wolves kept watch while the drivers and guards tended to their horses before gathering to consult on the condition of the road ahead. Karda offered Devesi some strongly spiced sticks of preserved meat for a snack and she stumbled away from him to be noisily sick. Beneath her hood, her pale skin had taken on a sickly pallor.
‘Please don’t–’ Devesi mumbled as she heard steps approach her.
‘I brought you some mint tea to rinse your mouth.’ Karda said.
Devesi accepted the cup, grateful for this small kindness.
‘I'm sorry, I didn’t realise how serious your motion sickness was.’ Taerys said.
Devesi wiped her face on her damp coat sleeve. ‘I’ll be fine.’
Both of her foster parents seemed concerned and that unsettled Devesi more than the motion sickness. Surely they couldn’t care about her, could they?
‘I don’t think you should ride in the wagon again. Horseback might be better–’ Karda began.
‘No, please don’t make me ride a horse.’ Devesi blurted, unable to keep silent at his suggestion.
She felt her stomach clench at the thought of having to be so close to one of the huge smelly animals. Fleur was close enough to overhear their conversation. Her short, tightly curled hair glistened with beads of water.
‘Taerys, why don’t you just let her fly ahead? The poor kid is suffering.’ Fleur said.
‘We should be in Nuullien by tomorrow afternoon.’ Karda said, but it wasn’t clear who he was trying to reassure.
‘I'm not comfortable with letting you fend for yourself after what happened last night. We could be putting you in more danger.’ Taerys said.
Devesi pushed a loose strand of hair back from her face and tried to calm her roiling stomach. Taerys had a point. Chaydo could still have allies who were willing to follow whatever insane orders they were given. Staying with her new foster parents might be her safest option and they did seem truly concerned for her wellbeing.
‘I don’t have to fly on ahead. I can circle the wagons above the trees.’ Devesi said.
‘Sounds like a plan.’ Karda said.
‘I'm not sure, should you even be flying in the rain?’ Taerys asked.
‘I have hundreds of hours of flight time in worse weather than this.’ Devesi said.
She waited a few minutes until she felt better then pulled on her wool lined leather flying helmet and goggles. A flap on her helmet protected the lower half of her face, making it easier for her to breathe while she was flying. Once she was sure every millimetre of skin was covered she buckled the straps on her split tail coat around her legs. Wrapping the fabric tight enough to keep it from flapping in the wind, but still loose enough for her to move easily.
Everyone watched as she took the cover off her windfoil, the metal a bright silver flash in the sunlight. Devesi folded the leather cover up tightly into a flattened square and stuck it inside the large pocket made especially for it in the small of her back. Devesi ignored their interested stares as she gathered her energy. Seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, feeling the spell patterns that covered the metal skin of her windfoil. Her synaesthesia always intensified in the presence of magic, making it easier to manipulate the spell patterns. Panels no thicker than her fingernails slid along the telescoping framework of the wings, spreading in slightly overlapping layers until each shining silver wing was nearly two metres in length. Connecting the two wings was the body of the windfoil that contained the crystal drive that propelled it. The seat was little more than a curved tail section that extended above the exhaust of the crystal drive. It locked into place with a faint click. A light touch on the rune rings around the control handles made the crystal drive whir softly. Drawing air through the circular intake at the front of the windfoil and forcing it at high speed out the exhaust. Safety check complete, Devesi prepared to take-off.
‘Stay close enough to see this.’ Taerys held up a bright yellow and red flag. ‘When I wave it that means I need you to join us. And if you see anything you want to tell us about just land on the road ahead of us – far enough away to keep from spooking the horses.’
‘Yes, I will.’ Devesi said, her voice muffled by the flap covering her face.
The windfoil looked far too delicate to take her weight, as though it should either crumple at the lightest touch or rise into the air of its own accord. The glowing, shimmering patterns of runes delicately etched into every gleaming millimetre of metal in an intricate network of spells made the windfoil seem alive. Devesi held her windfoil upright, put her foot in the peg beneath the left wing and pressed down. It unfolded into a footrest that extended down past the seat to help her hold her body in a streamlined position on top of her windfoil. A vertical take-off was a difficult way to launch, but she didn’t have the luxury of dropping over the side of a platform to get airborne. Pale blue light flared out behind the crystal drive, trailing transparent rings that dissipated quickly behind the exhaust plume as she ascended in a spiralling twist. She levelled out above the clearing and the tops of the trees rustled in her wake. Devesi tried to match her speed to the wagons, testing how slow her windfoil could go. Hovering was an extremely difficult skill to master but she almost managed it a few times when she angled into the wind just right.
* * * * *
In the evening, half an hour before sunset, they stopped to make camp. Taerys stood at the side of the road and waved her flag, signalling for Devesi to land. She swooped in low, both wings flared out at full extension, kiting vertically almost to a standstill, auxiliary vents redirecting the exhaust flow beneath her windfoil. She dropped lightly to the ground, folded her windfoil and slid it back into the leather cover.
Taerys didn’t speak, but she had a worried frown. Maybe she considered Devesi's landing manoeuvre unnecessarily dangerous. Not that Taerys would have much knowledge on windfoils or flying to be able to make such a judgement. All information regarding windfoils was proprietary to the Archive Guild and they had developed a technical language that was incomprehensible to anyone who hadn't trained as a courier. Even the title of courier was unique to the Archive Guild.
Under Karda’s directions, the six wagons were drawn into a large hexagon. The loads in the back of the wagons were pulled out of the way by sliding the top tray out, metal support stands that were attached underneath the trays on hinges kept them high above the ground. In a compartment in the wagon beds underneath where the trays had been were hinged metal panels that unfolded upward around the sides of the wagons. In minutes small but cosy sleeping quarters were created, Devesi was relieved that they wouldn’t be sleeping on the ground.
The drivers removed the harnesses from their draughthorses and let them loose with the guards’ horses in the centre of the camp that was enclosed by the wagons. At the same time a few of the guards hauled dark coloured canvas sheets wound around metal poles from beneath the wagons. Each canvas was unrolled and the metal poles slotted into holders on the outside of the wagons to make a temporary wall that enclosed the camp. Mangers full of hay along with water troughs were set up to feed and water the horses.
Devesi offered to make up the bunks in Karda’s wagon. Simple metal frames unfolded into bunks and the futons were comfortable despite being thin. There were no sheets, just blankets. Taerys explained that the blankets were used as sheets for extra warmth. The night would be very cold.
While she had the wagon to herself, Devesi made use of the little washroom in the back. It was very basic and the beaten copper sink barely larger than a soup bowl, but it was better than nothing. She sat on the top wagon step outside the sleeping quarters to release her hair from her tight braids, her windfoil balanced upright between her knees. A section of the canvas wall near Devesi was raised and Gwilym let his horse and wolves through the gap, dropping it closed behind him. He glanced in her direction before undoing the straps that held bulging saddlebags and a tightly rolled blanket in place on its back. Once it was free of its burden it headed for the mangers full of hay in the centre of the camp.
‘Gwilym, where have you been? It’s nearly an hour past sunset.’ Taerys said.
‘I was checking the road behind us. It should be a peaceful night.’ Gwilym replied.
He didn’t look at Devesi and she said nothing about keeping an eye out for danger from the air. She knew how difficult it was to see anything through the trees, even if they had only a few hints of new green leaves. Gwilym was a far more reliable source of information.
‘Good, come and get warm and have some dinner before your turn on watch. What are you still doing up there Devesi? Come down and join us.’ Taerys said.
Devesi nodded and pulled the straps of her windfoil over her shoulders, putting it in its customary place on her back. One of the wagons was a mobile kitchen, inside was a long narrow table with bench seats. Everyone was there except for Fleur and Peigrin who were on watch. They sat with their backs to each other at the top of a temporary watchtower that looked too flimsy to support their combined weight. It was a tripod structure made up of three long metal poles five metres long, put together out of shorter poles and locked into place with a simple lattice structure on all three sides. Devesi had watched the guards put it together in less than twenty minutes.
Rhianne had put baskets of warm bread rolls on the table and handed out cups of tea that she filled from a large ceramic urn. Thorne and Adalind had made a stew using ingredients from the supplies. Karda made sure everyone got a baked potato with sour cream and chopped chives before they had a bowl of the delicious stew. Most of the conversation at the table was about the weather and how much everyone was looking forward to getting home.
‘We haven’t even been gone a week, nobody has had time to miss us. Did anyone even have a chance to write a letter?’ Calder asked.
‘And even if you did you wouldn’t have been able to send it.’ Morgan said.
Devesi felt the weight of their stares and shifted slightly so that she was hidden behind Karda in her spot beside him on the end of the bench seat.
‘That’s enough, Morgan. Devesi couldn’t make any deliveries because she was suspended through no fault of her own.’ Karda said.
Morgan shook her head. ‘I wasn’t blaming the kid, Karda.’
He smiled and relaxed. ‘Fair enough and you'd probably beat a letter home anyway.’
That prompted a lively discussion of whether or not they could beat a letter home if it had been sent that morning. Couriers flew quickly but deliveries could be delayed by bad weather if flying above it was impossible.
Sigrid leaned forward to get Devesi's attention. ‘Let’s hear from the expert. What do you think, Devesi? Bad weather could delay deliveries so that someone could beat a letter home, right?’
Devesi was surprised to be spoken to but was careful not to show it. ‘I'm not sure, but if the weather was severe enough to keep couriers from flying wouldn’t it also keep people off the roads?’
Karda grinned and nodded. ‘Exactly, good point. I agree with Devesi.’ he said.
That started everyone speculating on how severe the weather would have to be to keep people off the roads and couriers from flying at the same time. Gwilym and Taerys refused to be drawn in and the discussion only came to an end when the after dinner sweets were passed down the table. A delicious sticky date pudding with fresh black plums that were a perfect tart counterpoint to the sweet sauce. Devesi felt full and sleepy when she finished the last bite and struggled to hold back a burp. To her mortification a yawn caught her in an ambush and allowed the burp to escape.
‘I'm so sorry, please excuse me.’ Devesi said in the loud silence that followed.
Calder laughed and burped even louder than Devesi had. Thorne claimed that he could do better and opened his mouth wide.
‘Oh no, we don’t have time for this foolishness.’ Taerys said.
She reminded her fellow guards of the watch schedule, advising them to get their rest while they could. Anyone who fell asleep while on watch would be reprimanded. It was a pointed reminder more for Adalind and Stanley than the other guards. Karda and the other three who had made dinner stayed behind to clean up. Everyone else left the kitchen wagon to take care of various jobs before heading for their bunks. The drivers would be woken by the last watch an hour before dawn to start breaking camp. Taerys took Devesi back to Karda’s wagon.
‘If anything happens during the night I want you to fly to Nuullien immediately. Do you understand? No matter what you see or hear I want you to stay out of danger.’ Taerys said.
Devesi sat on the side of her bunk, holding her windfoil across her lap and nodded. She didn’t tell Taerys that flying at night was extremely dangerous and assumed that the warrior already knew.
‘Good. Keep your windfoil close and get some sleep. Your boots go at the end of your bunk and this hook is for your coat. All of us sleep in our clothes in case of an emergency. You can get changed in the morning. You may hear me coming and going during the night, but that’s normal and nothing to be concerned about. That’s why I take the bunk closest to the door. Karda will be in as soon as he’s finished his jobs. Do you have any questions?’ Taerys asked.
‘No, I'm fine. Thank you.’ Devesi said.
‘Good. Stay warm and get some sleep. I’ll wake you for breakfast.’ Taerys said.
After she closed the door behind her, Devesi put her boots and coat away neatly and slid her windfoil under her narrow bunk. She lay down, pulling the blankets up under her chin. Sleep hovered out of reach, but she kept her eyes closed when she heard Karda come in.
‘Do you mind if I keep the light on for a bit while I fill in my logbook?’ Karda asked.
Devesi's eyes blinked open, surprised that he would ask. ‘No, I don’t mind.’
The bunks were set in a U-shape. Devesi's was the bottom of the U and Karda’s bunk was on the left, closest to the canvas wall that surrounded the camp. In the small space he looked even larger than usual. The slender metal frame of the bunk creaked beneath his weight as he sat on the edge of it. He used a battered old pen with a fresh ink cartridge to fill a fresh page with the details of the day’s journey in his logbook. The scratch of his pen across the paper was somehow soothing and Devesi fell asleep without realising it.
A few hours later she was woken by dull thuds, the ring of metal and horses panicking. The camp was under attack.