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Kassia is a thief and an orphan, barely scraping out a life in a back-alley of the market district of the Imperial city of Corium. When a stranger shows up at her market stall, offering her work for which she is utterly unqualified, Kassia cautiously takes him on. Very soon however, she finds herself embroiled in a mystery involving a usurped foreign throne and a vengeful nobleman. Most intriguing of all, she discovers clues to the disappearance of her father three years prior. When Kassia is forced to flee her home, suffering extreme hardship, danger and personal trauma along the way, she feels powerless to control what happens around her. Rewarding revelations concerning the mysteries of her family’s past are tempered by the reality of a future she doesn’t want. In the end, Kassia discovers an unyielding inner strength, and that contrary to her prior beliefs, she is not defined by external things -- she discovers that she is worthy to be loved.
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Copyright © 2017 by Stephanie Churchill
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About the Author
The Scribe’s Daughter
by Stephanie Churchill
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination. Any resemblances to persons, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.
Published by Stephanie Churchill
Cover design by Vila Design
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Copyright 2015 by Stephanie Churchill
For Sharon and Paula
This book wouldn’t exist without you.
Table of Contents
About the Author
Connect with Me
“It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt,
It lies behind stars and under hills,
And empty holes it fills,
It comes first and follows after,
Ends life, kills laughter.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
I NEVER IMAGINED MY LIFE would end this way. Not today. And certainly not in this place. Yet here I was. It was midday, and had I the ability to tilt my face toward the sky I would have been blinded by the early summer sun, a silent observer of my murder. As it was, I could do no such thing. The beefy arm around my throat immobilized me, and as I clawed at it ineffectively, I felt my life drain away bit by bit, with each unsuccessful gasp for air.
It had all started as a misunderstanding. Yes, I had stolen the apple, of that there was no doubt, but the fact that I stood in the middle of paradise, embraced in a powerful death grip by this clay-brained slab of meat, had come about only by mischance.
The merchant was a tawdry man, odious and duplicitous, with a false sense of his own appeal to those of the opposite sex. However unsavory these traits made the man, they served my purposes perfectly. I had come to the market, specifically to this sheltered niche between a crumbling stone wall and a wagon just a stone’s throw from the fruit seller’s stall, for breakfast. I knew full-well the man’s reputation for lewdness as well as the opportunities it had provided me in the past, and I was certain another chance at thievery would present itself if only I was patient. I wasn’t disappointed.
She was a very young and very unfortunate wife of a fishmonger from the quay. She didn’t know she was unfortunate, but I smiled to myself, knowing that her naiveté heralded my success. The merchant noticed her immediately, and this was my cue to act. Stepping out from the shadows, I snaked my way across the mud-packed alleyway and lightly brushed past a barrel filled to overflowing with apples, sending several cascading to the ground. It wasn’t enough of a commotion to distract the merchant away from the poor girl cornered behind a crate of berries, yet it was all I needed. Bending casually as I breezed past, I picked up one of the orphaned apples. It was as I did so that the man happened to look up, saw me take a bite. He was angry, yes, though not sufficiently so to warrant the loss of his prey to chase me. I smiled at the man over my shoulder and waved. My theft was successful. It was the next thing I did however, the afterthought, which got me into trouble.
It would have been wise to keep going, to be satisfied with the marginal deadening of my hunger pains, but I had to push matters, had to turn again and gesture towards the man with an insult clearly targeted at his salacious inclinations. I only wanted to anger him a little, perhaps just enough to give his wide-eyed young customer an opportunity to escape. Except that the merchant didn’t see me. A city guard did. To say he wasn’t impressed would be an understatement. I took off running.
It was morning, peak hours for the frenzied business of a market, and especially so today. A fleet of ships from Kavador had arrived only yesterday, bearing goods more exotic than the wares usually on offer even for a port city as large as Corium. The traders of that far away land came only a few times a year, and I hoped that the unusually large crowds would act as a screen to my flight. I also assumed the guard would easily give up the chase, thinking me not worth his effort. In both of these assumptions I was wrong.
As I vaulted the back end of a rickety hay cart, I chanced a brief glance over my shoulder only to be rewarded by the shocking sight of at least two hundred and seventy-five pounds of heaving, angry, solidly muscular guard no more than five or six strides behind me. I surged on.
Every good thing, including market districts, must eventually come to an end, and with it my best chance of escape. Like a doe that has stumbled beyond the forest edge, finding herself in an open meadow without tree, bush or underbrush for cover, I found myself on a deserted street lined with individual houses flanked by walls of finely cut marble. If I was to get myself out of what my impetuousness had started, it was time to give up on speed and agility and get clever.
Making a sharp right turn, I leapt over a low wall and landed hard, twisting my ankle and nearly falling. Ignoring the pain, I regained my footing and stride and continued on as before.
I was in a garden. And I was alone. Of the city guard there was no sign, and despite my dubious luck so far that day, I hoped I had finally eluded him. Taking a moment to catch my breath, I scanned my surroundings and bent to rub my throbbing ankle. A footpath passed just ahead of me and continued in a straight line for several meters before curving gently around an overgrown juniper tree. Neatly trimmed grasses nestled between each flagstone of the path, and for a precise meter on either side, unrelenting as objects of perfection, decisive and meticulous, likely a good representation of the qualities of the wealthy owners. Zinnias, coneflowers, daisies, hibiscus, begonias and dozens of other flowers in all the colors of the rainbow populated the beds in fragrant profusion, undulating in cascades throughout the garden.
I breathed in the potent fragrance, and for a moment relaxed. Unfortunately it was a day for miscalculations. A shadow loomed, and before I realized it, the guard came at me from behind, beginning his stranglehold. I was trapped, and I was dying in a beautiful garden.
“You think this is the end?” His breath reeked of moldy onions. “You think this is your penance?”
He tightened his hold and my vision dimmed, black spots forming before my eyes as the world spun and blurred even as it faded. It was only a matter of moments before I passed out.
With his free hand, he brought up a finger and traced it down my cheek. “No, this is not how you will die,” he hissed before releasing the pressure. I gulped in a lungful of sweet air before he continued, “I know a special place for boys like you. A place you will fetch a fair price. A place you will be valued...”
He licked his lips in anticipation, and I felt his excitement as he contemplated what his luck had brought him, that he would sell me for a hefty profit, would then be entitled to a first go at the new merchandise. The thought distracted him. It was all I needed.
I turned my body slightly, enough to put my left foot behind the man’s right leg. With my left elbow I jabbed at his midsection, pushing, tripping him backwards over my foot. It was meant to throw him off balance, and it did the trick nicely, distracting him enough that he released completely his grasp of my throat so I could slip away. While it was tempting to turn and kick the man savagely between the legs, wisdom took hold and I fled, finding a place to hide until I was absolutely certain the guard had given up his search and left.
I now took some time to walk the garden path, to appreciate the beauty around me, to see with my own eyes the things kept hidden away behind walls as a protection from me and others like me - the poor, filthy and worthless. The smell of the place was heady, almost sickly sweet with the syrupy smell of blossoms, a far cry from the refuse-infused scents of the streets and alleyways near my home in the heart of the poorest district of Corium, the city of my birth.
I was nearly to the far side of the garden when I came to a marble-edged pool. Having just run across what seemed like half the city, I was hot and very dirty. It looked like as good a place as any to wash myself, so I sat down on the edge and bent towards the water, discovering a face reflected back to me on the calm surface. I wasn’t impressed by what I saw. The eyes that met mine were green, and though they were framed by long lashes, they were entirely too close together. The lashes swept smudged cheeks displaying a smattering of unfashionable freckles. A stray wisp of equally unfashionable copper brown hair had escaped the confines of a felt cap and blew gently in the light wind. All in all there was nothing remarkable or noteworthy about the face staring back at me, and the fact that I owned it was not a matter that concerned me greatly. With a sniff, I cupped my hands and splashed them into the water, disturbing the reflection and sending out ripples across the placid pool. What was a reflection anyway? It mirrored the exterior of things only, and that darkly so. Depth and dimension of a thing was proved out by time, touch and exploration, by revelations that gave lie to the deceptions that the surface sought to make real.
After scrubbing my hands and face, I straightened and stood, and only then did I notice them watching me. Several young serving girls tended to the preparation of what appeared to be the makings of a garden party. The appearance of a bedraggled boy into their pampered midst had elicited their curious but wary attention.
“Hello,” I said to them. My smile was pleasant enough, but my very presence was an affront to them and my greeting wasn’t returned. Before long the girls returned to work, though the leader of the crew kept half an eye on me all the while, thinking I might cause trouble. That’s what my kind was good at, after all. Little did she know that I had no immediate plans to cause mischief, for whether they understood it or not, these servant girls and I were on the same side of the vast gulf that separated the haves from the have-nots. Though they worked in a wealthy household, they themselves were not a part of it and never would be.
My scalp itched, and as I reached up under the band of my cap to scratch, a gust of wind came up and whipped it from my head, blowing it towards the silk-draped pavilion the girls had just finished erecting. A cascade of long copper-brown hair fell from confinement, blowing freely about my face and neck. Six pairs of startled eyes opened in shock as the realization struck. This boy in bedraggled trousers and a patched shirt was no boy, but rather a young woman, skinny and dirty, but a woman nonetheless.
I retrieved my cap, but when I turned, I nearly collided with a woman blocking my path, staring down her long patrician nose at me. “Gutter rats in our haven,” she scoffed as she stepped closer. I stood my ground. “How dare you invade this place with your pestilence, you vermin infested son of a...” she paused then, considered my long hair and delicate facial features, and her mouth twisted into a sneer, “...or should I say daughter of a muddy street cur and a mongrel...”
Likely she would have continued on in this vein for some time, but I wasn’t about to let her. Without thinking what I did, I slapped her face. What happened next was unintentional, but I won’t pretend not to be pleased by the outcome. The slap so discombobulated her that she staggered backward, her momentum stopped only by the pool. With a startled cry, she tumbled into the water. I didn’t even bother to wait for a reaction; it had been two days since I’d eaten a meal, and despite the partial apple I’d nearly inhaled not long before, I was hungry. Let the old carp in the pool fend for herself. It was how the rest of us lived.
Our home was both a place to live and our place of business. It fronted a small side-street in the busy market district and was divided into two rooms: the front for the display of my sister’s wares and for each of us to conduct business, and a small back room out of which we lived and worked.
Upon my return, I found my sister Irisa engrossed in her newest project, an assortment of metal objects arranged in an intricate pattern on the floor before her. She sat there motionless, head cocked sideways, with one eye squeezed shut. She studied the metal pieces with her other eye, and her mouth was screwed up into a pucker as though she was sucking on a lemon. I knew better than to interrupt her bizarre meditation, for though I didn’t understand how, she found inspiration with this method. I danced around her, trying my best to sidestep the display.
It was early evening, the time most merchants closed their shops for the day, so I closed ours as well. If we had attracted any business during my absence today, likely we would never have known with my sister left in charge. She was so intent on her newest creation that most anyone could have walked off with the entirety of our earthly possessions, and she wouldn’t have noticed. It was probably best that we owned nothing worth stealing.
I placed a small sack of food on the back table, my newest theft since leaving the garden, then undressed. The cooler air of the darkened room pricked at my naked skin, a delightful contrast to the hot and dusty city streets I had just escaped. Taking a bucket of water from the corner, I washed more thoroughly than I had been able to do at the garden’s pool then pulled on a simple cotton chemise, choosing to neglect the rest of my attire and dripping wet hair in favor of eating. Rummaging through a small box in the corner, I found a knife and cut up the dried meat, cheese and bread I had retrieved from a neglectful merchant. Likely it was meant to be his evening meal, but I supposed I needed it more than he did based purely on my estimation of the circumference of his girth compared to mine.
When my portion of the food was gone, Irisa appeared beside me. She glanced at me briefly, taking in my transformation from thieving boy back to young woman of seventeen, flashed me a bright smile, then quickly ate her portion and returned to her work. We remained silent. There was nothing to say, for life rarely held any marvels worthy enough to warrant the waste of speech.
Next I intended to begin mending the handle of a bucket, for I was a tinker, and mending things was my trade; but before I did so, I wanted to make some tea, so set a pot to boil over the small fire. This task was interrupted by a familiar knock sounding on the back door. I flung it open to reveal a short, rotund and balding man whose only remaining hair clung to the sides of his head like a wooly mountain sheep. He strolled casually through the door as if his presence was expected, even eagerly anticipated.
“Swine.” I said the name flatly, though I couldn’t help that my mouth twitched at the corners. It was hard to suppress my amusement over his acceptance of my taunt. His real name was Sveine, but Swine was what I always called him. His face registered irritation, but he didn’t correct me. He never did.
He waltzed further into the tiny room with an air of importance, his eyes sweeping the shadowed corners out of habit. If he noticed my sister or the work she was doing, he made no indication. Irisa looked at him and went back to work. She knew she needn’t bother with his visit. While he made his usual survey of the room, I turned back to the small fire, stoking the burning coals to coax the paltry flame into a more vigorous blaze. The water was starting to steam, and, once it started to boil, I would add a handful of leaves to make tea. So far Swine had not spoken or made any indication as to the purpose of his visit, though I was pretty sure I knew why he was here.
“You have money you be owing me. It is most needful that you, ah...” He paused, searching for the right word. I kept my back turned to him, stoking the fire to hide my mirth. “...provide me with payment...” Another pause. How this man maintained a bustling trade I would never understand. “...at your quickliest... no, this is not right...” I think he was getting exasperated. I continued tending the fire so I wouldn’t have to turn around, revealing my face which was red from stifled laughter. He continued on a while longer in the same halting speech, words sputtering forth in fits and starts like a geyser. I had stopped paying attention. The water was finally boiling nicely, so I added a handful of leaves to brew.
I noticed the silence and realized that Swine had asked me a question.
“You listening? Do my talking you mind?”
I turned back to Swine, all the while considering the iron poker I held in my hand, considering the relative merits of poking him with it. Disregarding the notion as unnecessary even while wholly satisfying, I set it down and replied, “I don’t mind that you are talking so long as you don’t mind that I’m not listening.”
He sucked in his breath and stared at me, beady eyes flashing. “Monies due soon. You remember. I am not the fool to take your impudence.”
I was impressed. Impudence was a big word.
“I don’t think you are a fool. But then, what’s my own humble opinion against hundreds of others?” He was a filthy little man, and I was tired of the exchange. Somewhat to my surprise, rather than turn in disgust and leave me in peace, which was the way conversations like this typically ended, he moved towards me, his mouth turned up at the corners in a disgusting leer. I resisted the urge to retreat a step, held my ground instead.
He stood there for several moments, his eyes raking over my body, and I discerned calculation behind his leer. He made no move to touch me, but already my mind was racing, trying to remember where I had put the knife in case I needed it. I eyed the discarded poker and knew I couldn’t reach it. My hands were behind me, so I felt around until I found a newly sharpened quill resting on a small ledge. It wouldn’t kill, but it could inflict sufficient pain and permanent damage if used in strategic locations.
“Way of other kinds to provide payment. You consider...” He paused and flashed repellent yellowed teeth, took another half step towards me. This time I did involuntarily react, backing further against the wall. Putrid sack of pig dung that he was, he outweighed me considerably, and I had no delusions about who would be the loser if he forced himself on me. He reached out tentatively as if to touch me then reconsidered. I wretched away from him so violently that he startled.
I have no idea what he expected or how he thought I would react to his overture, but clearly my recoil was beyond his comprehension. He stood a little taller, puffing out his chest in annoyance. His face was red, rage filled. “Monies due!” he spat and swung about, charging through the open door into the alley.
I shouted after him, “Do you have to leave so soon? I was just about to poison the tea!” It was a great parting shot. Honestly, I was a little disappointed not to get even the smallest glance back.
I shut the door, then turned and rested my head against it for a moment. Noticing that my hands had started to shake, I closed my eyes, inhaling deeply then letting it out slowly again.
My mother died when I was eleven, leaving my father alone to care for me and my sister. Since Irisa and I were old enough to tend to all of the necessary household duties, our lives continued on in the usual way. Father earned a meager wage as a scribe-for-hire in the marketplace, selling his services to anyone who had both need and money. Correspondence and simple business contracts were the meat of his trade, though sometimes he took on a job that required travel outside the walls of Corium.
After my mother died, the frequency of these trips increased, though I thought little of it until one time, three years later, when he left on another journey. For all I knew, this occasion was no different than any other, except that this time he failed to return. He had always been extremely closed-lipped about his work, and Irisa and I knew better than to ask questions before his departure, so his disappearance was a mystery, and one which had no hope of being solved. It was easiest to presume him dead.
Between the two of us, Irisa and I managed to earn enough money from our individual trades to pay rent on the hovel where we worked and lived, and in a good month there was enough left over to buy a little food and a few other necessities, though more often than I wanted to admit, our food was acquired by thievery. My sister was the elder of the two of us, by two years. She made beautiful things from whatever scrap material she could find; bits of leather, rope, cloth pieces, etc. From small purses to shoes and jewelry, there was nothing that she had not tried. Her work was rather ahead of its time, so her clientele tended towards the eccentric or fashionably inept. Perhaps she was a visionary, but I cared little and would have been happier if she had crafted the practical over the imaginatively dramatic. We were born of the same parents, but two more different creatures would be difficult to find.
In the best of times we had not been close, being as dissimilar as oil and water. Irisa was quiet and easy to dismiss, while I was decisive, spoke my mind. Our father and mother had applauded Irisa’s unassuming nature, as her demureness was a model of what a well-bred lady was meant to be. But we were not well-bred ladies, and secretly I think our father was pleased with my spunk, though he never admitted it.
It was clear, even from our earliest years, while both of our parents still lived, that Irisa would always need someone to take care of her, provide for her, and the evidence of the years since our father’s disappearance bore this out. My sister was soft-hearted, concerned for those who had even less than us, always sharing what little she had with others. I admired her compassionate side but thought it more prudent to balance a giving nature with practicality — if we starved to death, we would be of no use to anyone. I was happy to share, but I would not starve myself in the process.
Despite our differences, we had managed quite well together. No matter what I thought about her work, it was Irisa who earned the largest share of our money, while my thieving fed and clothed us. My father would not have been proud of what I had become, and those few around me who knew what I did thought me a criminal. Yet when survival is at stake, which of my accusers would not be hard-pressed to do as I have done, to steal, to thieve, to act not as a lady but as a street rat, willing to do anything short of the unthinkable? Steal, yes — but I would rather die than whore myself. In this, Irisa and I were agreed.
My breathing calmed, I shook off my unease and retrieved my tea. I poured a measure for myself and took some to Irisa.
She studied me for a moment then said, “Kassia, you shouldn’t be so reckless.” It was something she told me all the time. Ever the cautious one, my sister. But cautious didn’t keep us fed. It was an old argument and I didn’t want to argue with her. Not now. I was too tired.
I gave her an empty look then took my tea to a spot near the fire and sat down on the hard-packed earth floor. The enormity of our situation hit me again, and I fought back desperately against overwhelming feelings of despair. Swine was a problem, and he would never leave us alone; at least not until he was paid one way or the other. Irisa and I had been very fortunate these last several years; we had always managed to pay our rent. Until now.But how to come up with the money this time? These thoughts consumed me long after the paltry fire had smoked itself out and the night crickets began their song. I pulled a blanket around my own shoulders and sat hunched before the barren hearth, attempting to divine answers from the ash. Late into the night I came to a decision. If I refused Swine’s offer, I was left with only one choice, no matter how unpalatable.
Seva the Smith stared at me from across the aged boards of the table. He flicked his hand and a young girl, no more than ten years old, skittered over to him with a wine vessel, filled his cup, then looked to her father for permission to refill mine. He nodded not unkindly, and she filled my cup then retreated once again into a shadowed corner. Seva’s eyes hadn’t left me the entire time. I dropped my gaze, thinking that a demure pose could only aid my cause. The enormity of what I had just offered pressed down heavily on me, and I needed to find courage from somewhere. The wine in my cup seemed as likely a source as any other, so I grasped it with both hands and took a long, deep drink, wishing instantly that I hadn’t. It was sour and watered more than necessary.
The long hours I spent before the dying embers of my fire the night before had clarified my thoughts, leading me to the decision that had brought me here early this morning. I hadn’t dared put it off, for once I decided the matter, the deed wouldn’t grow any sweeter for the waiting.
Shortly before my father left for his fateful last journey, Seva visited my family, offering my father a marriage contract for my sister. That my father was poor and couldn’t provide a dowry didn’t matter to him, he had said. He was a practical man and cared little for such things. Acquiring a mistress for his household was the most needful thing because his wife had recently died, and he needed someone to tend to domestic matters.
It was surprising to me that Seva cared nothing for a dowry, for who cared so little for such things? But it was possible that no one else would have him, and he was desperate. With a busy smithing trade and a young daughter yet at home, it was true that he needed domestic help. My sister could meet those needs in addition to his other less tangible needs; she was a very beautiful girl, and likely the thought of having her in his bed was dowry enough.
Though my father never discussed these matters with us, Irisa and I had both known that one day the subject of our marriages would come up, although neither of us relished the prospect since we knew we couldn’t set our hopes too high. It was because of this that I uttered an involuntary gasp of relief for my sister’s sake when my father respectfully but unequivocally refused Seva’s offer, stating that he had higher aspirations for his daughters. It seemed an odd reason, one that did not match our circumstances, but I was happy for Irisa’s sake nonetheless. Rather than appear humiliated, Seva took it with good grace and left without making a scene.
That was three years ago, this was now, and here I sat in Seva’s hall, waiting anxiously for his answer, trying to appear calm while under his pointed stare. He had not appeared to take open offense at my father’s refusal, but I had no reason to believe that he had not taken private offense, and that he would refuse me now because of it. I didn’t know how I would answer if he asked why the offer was for me rather than for Irisa, as it was Irisa he had wanted before.
I sat under his thoughtful gaze, thinking on what my next course of action would be should he refuse, how I would stand and thank him, turn and walk gracefully to the door without losing my composure, when he spoke. “When?”
I was caught off guard by the bluntness of his question. He had been staring at me, unspeaking, since I had finished presenting my offer, and I was not prepared for his instant acceptance. I blinked at him, scrambling for an answer. Even several months from now would be too soon, but I needed him, so stammered, “A few weeks, er....I can be ready in a few weeks.” Why it would take weeks instead of days was anyone’s guess, but he didn’t seem bothered by my excuse.
He nodded his chin brusquely. “So be it.” And it was done. I was to become the wife of Seva the Smith, a man who looked to be older than my own father. I gave him a wan smile as he rose from his stool and came around the table toward me. I wasn’t sure what he intended to do, and I admit that I stiffened a bit as he put his hand on my arm and kissed me lightly on the cheek.
At just that moment I heard a noise and looked across the room to see Issak, Seva’s oldest son, standing in the doorway. Issak was not much taller than me, broad shouldered and muscular. He wore his fair hair long but kept it neatly braided. His face was nothing to be remarked upon in general, but his eyes — they were the color of a storm tossed ocean, grey with flecks of blue and green, piercing and intense — drew my immediate attention. His expression was hard to read, and I couldn’t tell if he had overheard our conversation.
“The lady here has come with an offer of marriage, and we have reached an agreement,” said Seva. I swallowed deeply but did my best to hide my dismay. Seva stepped away from me and returned to his wine, took a deep drink before continuing. “Issak, this is Kassia...” Issak nodded as if this was already known to him. “...your newly betrothed.”
I blinked. “But I thought...” I didn’t know what to say. I looked to Seva, then to Issak, then back to Seva again. It was all rather confusing.
“Do you disapprove of my son?” His face was hard and scowling, eyes flashing as if in accusation that I would even consider backing out of our agreement.
“Not at all, it’s just,” I floundered, too dumbstruck to say more.
“You would rather have an old man like me? I have enough children,” he sniffed, “and enough help.” He waved at the young girl in the corner who still waited patiently, wine flagon in hand. That he had “enough help” was in direct disagreement with what he had told my father three years ago, but perhaps his situation had changed, and I was not about to question him on it. “Issak is a fine man, will make you a good husband.” Seva studied me up and down in the way a farmer would appraise livestock. I stood there self-consciously for several moments before he spoke again. “Yes, you will give him many children, I think.” I couldn’t decide whether to blush or be indignant. Issak had remained where he was during the entire exchange, and I wondered what he made of this new development in his life, but he had nothing to say on the subject. Instead he remained still and silent as a lump.
Golden flakey crusts shaped in nearly perfect ovals lined one shelf, and delicate pastries filled with fruit and sweet honey lined another. The baker’s booth was busy as usual this morning, and not surprisingly so. This particular baker had made a name for himself, not only by baking the best goods in all of Corium, but also by claiming to have come to the city after having worked in the palace of some distant king. If this truly was the case, I wondered what advantages he thought Corium gave him over the palace he previously knew, but it was never good to ask questions when you didn’t really want to know the answers.
This bakery was a favorite of mine, though I tried to space out my visits. Developing a pattern, to allow anyone to take notice of what days and times I visited, could only end in disaster for me. Thieving only worked if it was not anticipated. I lingered just around the corner from his bustling trade and quietly watched as a very round woman with her unruly brood of children approached the counter. Along with her money she brought sheer chaos, and it put a smile on my face. As the woman negotiated for her day’s supply of bread, her children played a game of chase, dodging and dancing around, heedless of the coming catastrophe. The woman herself was oblivious to her offspring, intent on getting a good price for the daily bread.
As if on cue, one of the little urchins knocked into a shelf of pastries, tipping the boards so that they began to tumble, rolling to the ground in a doughy avalanche. I cast a furtive look over my shoulder and made my move. My arm snaked out, and I snatched a handful of the baked delights in the space of a single intake of breath, stuffing the buns quickly into my bag. As if nothing had happened, I sauntered off with no one the wiser. Irisa and I would start the day with food in our bellies.
After making it a fair enough distance away, I pulled out a pastry and began to munch, sidestepping piles of kitchen scraps and other not so easily identifiable refuse. If one was not careful, it would be easy to step in the contents of night waste buckets that were continuously and recklessly emptied into the streets at various hours of the morning. It was wise to look both to your feet and your head when navigating the city in the early morning.
The city was alive and humming already at this early hour. Goodwives hung dripping laundry over the sills of top story windows, chattering to one another while they worked, carters hauled their goods, merchants called out to passersby in an attempt to drum up trade; these were the songs of Corium, and when an added voice joined the chorus, I nearly didn’t hear it.
I stuffed the last bit of pastry into my mouth then turned to locate the source of the familiar voice. A pair of bright blue eyes met mine from a height just below my chin. I instinctively reached out and ruffled the boy’s hair which was blond and softer than the coat of a mink. He was a petite little thing, smaller than most his age so that he appeared to be lighter than air; but I knew this to be a false impression, for I had first-hand knowledge of his strength and endurance, his courage and willingness to involve himself when injustice asserted itself against those he cared about.
Like me, Cai was an orphan, or at least in all the ways that mattered. He was the son of a temple prostitute, and though his mother still lived and was well fed, clothed in luxury, she had no use for this offspring conceived in her temple service. From all outward appearances, Cai did not seem to suffer for it, for like me, he was a survivor, and we were kindred spirits.
He was also a charmer, and now as I looked at the sweet face upturned towards mine, a smile lighting his eyes, I saw he wanted something. I knew it and he knew I knew it, and yet it worked every time. I reached into the sack I carried and freed a pastry. As I handed it to him, he snatched it before I could reconsider and scampered off.
“Cai,” I called before he could get too far. He stopped and turned long enough to hear me tell him not to let the guards see him with it. He winked and continued on. There was a recklessness about him which connected with me, and the reason that he and I bonded more than Irisa and I ever would.
I continued on towards home, but my progress was slowed as I neared the main avenue which led from the wharf district to the palace. Finally I could make no more progress, held up by a crowd of people watching the passage of several milky white stallions led by grooms in brilliant livery. Behind the horses came wagons loaded down with crates, barrels and other supplies.
As I looked around, trying to discover the purpose for this display, I spied Issak in the crowd watching the procession. I had no idea whether or not he had seen me, but I thought it would be rude not to acknowledge him. So I slowly approached him, unusually timid in my movements. It had been several days since I had agreed to the marriage contract with his father, and I had not seen Issak since.
“Good morning, um....” I said uncertainly. I wasn’t sure what to call him. He was to be my husband, but we knew nothing about one another.
“Call me Issak... please...” he added quickly, almost shyly. His gaze was fixed on me and I grew uncomfortable, looked quickly around, noting that the procession was gone, that the crowds had scattered and that no one paid us any heed. I nodded but had no idea what more to say to him, knew only that it would be awkward if we remained silent, merely staring at each other like the strangers we most assuredly were. Before I had time to come up with a topic of conversation, Issak spoke again. “Would you be free to visit again soon? If we are to be husband and wife, I would show you my trade, and there is much we should discuss.”
“Yes, that would be... yes...” I fumbled. Much we should discuss indeed. We exchanged a few other pleasantries then made excuses to part ways. I started out for my house again, realizing that I had never discovered the purpose of the small fortune in horseflesh and wagonloads of goods. Likely a visiting dignitary was here to see the Emperor and brought tribute. It happened often, so I put it from my mind, having plenty else to think about, not the least of which being how to adjust to living life as the wife of a blacksmith. I wondered how much different it would be from being the daughter of a scribe.
Two days later, I made good on my promise to Issak and was surprised to discover him to be an agreeable enough companion. Though I still viewed our upcoming marriage as a necessity only, it had become clear to me that my future was perhaps not as dismal as I had originally anticipated, and that perhaps my father wouldn’t have been displeased by my choice. Though plain in his interests and average in intelligence, Issak was a decent and hard working man, and there was no doubt that I could certainly do much worse. Life with him would likely not be exciting, but for someone in my position with few options, I counted myself lucky.
I had never considered myself to be anything but plain. My sister Irisa on the other hand, was anything but. In fact, she was beautiful. While my hair was copper-brown, hers was blonde. I had green eyes, she had blue. Her skin was porcelain and free of flaws. She was everything our culture believed to be ideal. But she was not interesting. Not even a little bit. In fact, she was rather dull. She preferred the company of my father’s books to the adventure of the market, another testament to her taste toward the introspective, the abstract, and things of no practical use. Despite my opinion regarding her abilities, or lack thereof, by all outward appearances she would naturally be considered a worthy marriage prize, despite her lack of dowry.
For this reason I found myself these last days, swimming in a morass of thoughts tinged with bitterness, that it was I, and not her, who had to marry in order to save our skins, and that not entirely figuratively, from the likes of Swine. But it would have been ignoble of me somehow, to offer my sister in marriage to another man when this plan was mine and not hers, though to my dismay she had readily agreed that it was a wonderful idea when I told her about it after the fact.
So wrapped up was I in these thoughts that I had not become immediately aware of the man standing before me, a man dressed in rich robes of brightly colored silk. Despite the garish colors, my eye was immediately drawn to a large golden sun medallion hanging by a delicate gold chain around his neck. His robes and jewelry taken together made quite an impression, and I wondered for a moment, if perhaps the man was a member of a traveling circus, for his fashion preference was not typical of Corium’s aristocratic circles. I would have asked him which one he was, a juggler or an acrobat, but decided that his build did not lend itself to acrobatics, and the wealth of his jewelry did not suggest a travelling troupe. So I kept these thoughts to myself and offered him a greeting, smiling pleasantly in my usual way, waiting for him to speak. For several moments he regarded me keenly but said nothing. Growing a bit unsettled, I decided to watch him back. It only seemed fair.
Heavy brows sheltered dark eyes, watchful and intense, hinting at a life of experience, eyes that saw much and noted all. I could only look at them for so long before I grew uncomfortable and had to look away. His black beard was medium-length and somewhat unkempt, hiding a protruding jaw. His nose was wide and flat and rested between cheekbones which were just as broad. In no way would I have considered him to be an attractive man, yet something about him kept me from fleeing his scrutiny to go about my business in some other place, anywhere else not here.
I was just about ready to ask him what he wanted when he spoke. “You are Kassia Monastero?” I was caught off guard by his voice which was higher in pitch than his heavy features would recommend, crisp, clipped and quite pleasant to listen to.
I nodded, imagining not for a moment that the confirmation of his query would satisfy him or send him away.
“I have work for you.” He looked quickly behind him, and satisfied by what he saw or didn’t see, he reached inside the voluminous satchel slung over his shoulder and pulled out a soft leather sack, placing it carefully on the counter between us. Loosening the strings, he emptied out two metal armbands onto the surface of the worn wood in front of him. He said nothing more, simply watched me, waiting for a reaction as though I was supposed to recognize the items in front of me. I could have feigned delight, but quite frankly I was confused. I had never seen anything of their like before. They were made of silver and were decorated with an elaborate filigree pattern on each end, but it meant nothing to me. Curious about them but having no idea about why he brought them to me, I began to inspect them, immediately noticing one thing. The band I had selected had once been broken in several locations. The breaks had been repaired with a poor weld to hold the pieces together, but it was shoddily done.
After finding nothing else of note and uncertain as to what else he expected of me, I set the band back on the counter and looked at him with raised eyebrows, inviting him to speak. Once again he made a quick inspection of the area immediately behind him before saying, “You will clean the bands and reset the joints so that they are smoothed and unseen.”
Bemused that he would think me capable of such a task, for my beggarly little shop was clearly no smithy, and anyone with eyes to see would know this, I shook my head in refusal and said, “I’m not a metal smith. I tinker and fix. Clean these, yes. I can do that. But fix these joints?” I shook my head again.
He wasn’t swayed, stating again that he wished me to do this for him. I re-explained my inadequacies, trying to hide my irritation all the while, but he would have none of it. When he pushed the bag and its contents towards me with an air of finality, I put my hand up in defeat, sighing. “Leave them. I will have to learn the skill first, so it will take time. And,” I added as a cunning afterthought, “it will cost you.” Yes, this would do nicely. “And...” I added yet again, “...you will pay me half up front.” He began to speak, but I held up my hand to silence him. “And I can’t...won’t...guarantee my work.” That last part was calculated to be the quietus, the end, the death knell of his plan. He would surely balk at paying the exorbitant price for potentially shoddy work. He was asking a non-metal-smith do his metal-smithing after all. I straightened my spine and crossed my arms, my eyes narrowing in smug satisfaction at my own brilliance. I was about to replace the metal bands into the leather bag to hand back to him, thinking he had finally seen sense, when he dropped a coin purse on the counter between us.
“This is more than enough to cover the entire fee.”
I couldn’t hide my shock. Through an opening in the top of the bag, I could see the glint of gold. Undoubtedly my mouth dropped open. Never before had I seen so much coin. I looked up at him, wondering if he was an idiot, but saw that he was in earnest.
As I stood there gaping, a sound came from behind me, from the back room where Irisa worked. “Kassia, do you know where... Oh!” Irisa appeared next to me, but startled by the man and the bag of coins before me froze, eyes wide with surprise. The man studied her for only an instant before a smile touched his lips and eyes in equal proportion. My sister had that effect on men.
“Your sister?” He asked in inquiry, clearly confirming what he already seemed to know.
I nodded with a nasty upturn of my lip.
He missed my sneer altogether, looked at my sister only, and nodded appreciatively, then dropped another small bag on the counter. Again I shook my head, slowly this time, but rather than in defiance it was in utter wonderment. Reckless it may have been to agree, but our problems were now over; I had just taken up a new trade.
“Kassia, come here.” My father always calls me Katava except when things are serious, and then he calls me Kassia. I know whatever he has to say to me is important, so I go to him.
My father is standing right in front of me, though my mind will not let me see his face. It is obscured as if blocked out by shadow. But I know it’s him. His voice lets me know this by its resonance and timbre, always touched with sadness.
He is kneeling down to meet me at eye level; still I cannot see his face. His fingers... they are long and slender, the nails neatly manicured. Ink stains his palms and fingertips, and as a young child, I think it strange. As he kneels there, he fumbles with a small object tied to a leather thong. He opens his hand and lets dangle a strange medallion made of silver. I reach out tentatively, but I do not touch it. My father smiles, and with this reassurance I give in and allow myself to feel it. Its shape is a maze of lines that make no sense, and its texture is cool to the touch. He lets me admire it for a moment before he reaches around behind my neck and ties the ends of the leather there, so that the metal hangs down the front of my dress.
He places his palm over it, and holding his warm hand there, he says, “Kassia, you must keep this safe. I give it to you to protect. Wear it always, and do not let anyone see it. Trust no one with it; it is very precious. Do you understand?”
He speaks with warmth and kindness, yet there is also urgency in his tone, a thinly veiled desperation, as though the importance of his instructions cannot be fully masked by fatherly love. I nod my understanding. I am only six, but his words are chiseled into my soul.
As I lay on my bed, my hand reflexively sought the metal disc hanging from my neck, an action so habitual that most of the time I didn’t even realize I was doing it. It was still too early for the city to be awake, and stillness reigned over the world outside my door. I startled a little when a cat howled on the other side of the boards and the thin layer of mud making up the back wall of our ramshackle house. The cat hissed and something toppled over, but the noise ended and everything faded into the silence of a city at rest once again. I had already been awake for several hours, my thoughts turning and spinning, wrestling with all that had transpired in the past several days, as well as all that was ahead, the task for which I had been hired, and the journey I was about to take.
After my mysterious customer left, I began to feel guilty for accepting such a ridiculous sum as payment for an undertaking so far outside my skill set. However, it was the solution to all my troubles, and having this newfound wealth provided a more appealing alternative to marriage — independence, and the chance to leave Corium, to start a new life where the memories of my parents wouldn’t haunt my dreams. My musings had led me to a decision: if I could do it without mortal offense, I would disavow my promise to marry Issak. He was likeable enough, but the need which drove me to his father’s door was now satisfied by the surfeit of coin tucked safely away.
I had also spent some time pondering how I would accomplish my chore. Issak was a smith, and I was not. Betrothal to him still had its uses, for a time at least. My guilty conscious gnawed at me, but I consigned the feelings to the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind and visited him daily to learn what I could of his trade, comforting myself with the notion that it was all in the name of survival. I barely knew Issak, so surely he wasn’t any more attached to me than I was to him? There were plenty of suitable young women in Corium; certainly his father would be able to find plenty of other candidates? In fact, it was probably a kindness to sever all ties with Issak before he became bound to me forever, considering my deplorable character.
Though Issak was initially surprised at my increased interest in the smithy, he very quickly took to my attentions, happy to tell me as much as I wanted to know. I was a quick-study, and he was a good teacher, so I picked up on the basics of smithing very quickly. The more I pressed him for information, the more comprehensive was his instruction.
Besides the process, I faced another problem: I needed a place to work, and I needed privacy. A smith used very specific tools for his trade, and I had none of them. Hammers, tongs and swages were easy enough to acquire in the market, and I planned to search them out in the coming days, but the forge itself wasn’t so easy to replicate. Using Seva’s smithy would have been the easiest solution, but no matter how deceitful I was behaving, I wasn’t so far gone that I could bring myself to let Issak do the very work which would enable me to free myself of him, not to mention the myriad of questions over why I needed the work done in the first place. Much to my surprise, Issak provided me with the solution to this problem over the course of our time together. Prior to moving to Corium, his father had lived in a small village near the mountains, working in a mine outside town. The mine had its own blast furnace where the ore was smelted, as well as a small smithy where Seva worked. Now, as far as Issak knew, the small mining camp, including the smithy, was abandoned.
I knew where to go, and I understood the basics of smithing, but so far everything Issak had taught me centered only on iron and steel. I needed to know how to work silver. “What makes a blacksmith different from a...” I pretended to grasp for an example. “...a silversmith, for instance?”
Issak looked up from his work and gave me a half smile. I was sitting on a stool in the corner where I wouldn’t be in the way, and had been watching him work, silently appraising the steps he took to fashion large chain links, painstakingly, one at a time. It was only the earliest weeks of summer, yet already the air was stifling. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like in the peak of summer, when the forge super-heated the already sweltering air, suffocating the inhabitants as if inside a tomb. Beads of sweat wet his forehead, though he didn’t seem to notice, wiping it away without thought.
Rather than answer my question immediately, he pulled me off my stool, took me by the hand and directed me to an anvil, placing himself squarely behind me. Drawing in close and reaching around my waist, he grasped one of my hands and moved it to pick up a small hammer, the other a pair of tongs. With slow, deliberate motions he mimicked the striking of hammer on metal, all the while turning the piece with the tongs. The metal had been set aside long before and was cold and rigid, but the demonstration was a useful answer to my question. Admittedly I didn’t catch much of what he said, for it took all of my focus to ignore his body pressing up against me and his breath tickling the loose strands of hair against my cheek.
In all the days spent in his shop, I had learned much about Issak’s work, but I had also learned much about Issak the man. He loved his trade, enjoyed following in his father’s footsteps to fashion useful things from metal. More than that, I had also discovered him to be an exceedingly honest man. With each passing day, I had to work harder to ignore the shame I felt over how I was using him, and now, as he stood behind me, it would take no more than for me to turn around to face him and my resolve would be gone completely. I determined not to succumb to this weakness, valuing my end goal above all. Summoning up images of my sister living far away from Corium in a small cottage surrounded by grazing sheep, I forced out all thoughts of Issak and the feelings stirring within.
“Issak, Rand has come for his buckles.” The spell was broken; it was Seva. Issak pulled back from me a little, and I turned to see Seva standing in the doorway, watching me as he spoke, his eyes alight with pride. Learn the trade, I told myself. Avoid entanglements. And so my lessons went.
Now in the early morning of my departure, I fingered my necklace one last time and tucked it away before rising from my bed and leaving quietly, stopping first to pick up the tools I had concealed in an alley not far from the city gate. The streets were fairly quiet at this hour, and I expected my going to be unnoticed. My thoughts drifted, therefore I was surprised to find, as I rounded the corner, a small figure huddled near the crates hiding my stash.
“Cai, what are you doing?” I was shocked and a little irritated. I thought I had done an excellent job shrouding my actions in secrecy.
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