The way forward was darker than Emma expected, and so she turned back to the brassiere, removed it from the wall, and listening once more for her father, continued on. Centuries-worn masonry hugged her shoulders, leading down another set of steps to a sharp turn. The swinging glow from the brassiere gave glimpses of unlit candelabras, rising like stalks of corn from many tables. Others came up from the floor, elaborate crowns of candles tall as a man. She proceeded to touch flame to wick, though much of the wax was short and fat with tears and would not last the hour. In due course, her father’s study emerged amid the flickering light in wisps of smoke. Whether grand as a ballroom or small as a war closet, Emma could not tell. Everywhere she looked, there were things in great heaping piles. Books stacked like twisting minarets above her head. Shelves lined every wall, buckling under the weight of countless pages, a few coming unchained from the mooring. Some shelves had collapsed upon others to form sloping hills of paper. If there was any passage behind the books, she could not have known it lest she tunnel through.
With fear induced caution, Emma made herself part of the mess, venturing deeper amid the tomes until she could no longer see her way out.
She was not only taken aback by the sheer volume of books in her father’s collection, but by the number of books in existence. Who could have penned so many pages? And could there truly be so many tales, so many subjects in the entire world to write about? How long would it take to read them all? Was that what Father was doing, trying to read every book ever written? To what end?
And why keep it all secret? No . . . this can’t be all there is. There must be something else.
But the secret, if one existed, she could not see, even as she stood in the midst of her father’s most private sanctuary. And it made her angry.
Her eyes began to crawl, by their own volition, along leather bound covers and spines, picking out words. Most were without titles, but many she found intriguing. She immediately recognized her favorite story, The Epic of Thangar and Sint, and wondered how it had left from under her bed. Two heroes crossed many lands in search of a princess, to do battle against the three-headed dragon, Polykefalos. When Sint died in Thangar’s arms, Emma mourned him for days. She did not, however, recognize any other title. On the Origin of Monsters. The Ancient Zo: Masters of the Universe, a History. The Great Cataclysm: Contemplations on Planetary Geology in Relation to the Decline of Giant Species. A History of the Great Aean Migration to the Founding of the Sea Kingdoms, a Translation of Eldin. Lost Expeditions: From Mythradanaiil to Baartook.
She tugged her eyes away. The words were befuddling her brain. What did contemplations on planetary geologymean? It sounded like gibberish. Nobody she knew, even those well-to-do aristocrats she loved to spy upon, talked like that. And she could not stretch her imagination enough to guess what sorts of tales those books might contain. Even still, she felt a longing to keep searching, to keep reading. If you only had more time!
Without warning, a monstrous, human shape jumped at her, and she nearly tripped over the hem of her robe with fright. It was snarling, with eyes glazed in fury, mouth agape, threatening her with its finger-length, pointed molars. But it was not moving. It never did. Her hand worked under her robes to still her mutinous heart. The other reached out with trepidation, to touch its eerily real, blood red fur.
“It isn’t alive, Emma,” she assured herself. Hearing her voice, her own name, had a calming effect. She stepped back to examine the figure in its entirety. Stuffed. Like the trophy kills in the tavern. What was the word? Taxonomy? Taxidermy? That’s it . . .
But Emma had never heard of such a creature. It was very clearly a beast, neither bogren nor horg, and yet, it was so remarkably human. She could almost read the expression of rage on its face. It could not have been native to the Pewter Mountains. What was it? A placard beside the creature gave the answer: Eastern Halfman, Forest of Narth.
Despite the halfman being dead and filled with sawdust, the very sight of it unnerved her. Surely, if she came across such a thing in the woods, she would die of fright. It made her appreciate the thick city walls which kept out the wild. But why would Father bother to keep such a dreadful thing in his study?
Segmenting the labyrinth of books, she came upon other, equally curious objects. There were collections of bones in varying stages of decay, some yellowed with age, others black as obsidian and just as hard. A fractured, humanoid cranium fit neatly in her hand. She pondered it a moment before replacing it, exactly as before, lest her father discover her snooping. One set of bones was arranged into the nearly complete skeleton of a saurian like creature, with branching, finger-like joints forming what looked like wings. Another skull dominated one corner of the room, serving as the base of a table.
Amid the clutter, there was an empty space, like a clearing in a forest of books. It was her father’s desk. His chair. She shuddered, suddenly remembering him in his most foul moments, even as she was drawn forward like a needle to a loadstone. It was not, as she came to expect, a clean work surface. There was more parchment, more lines of books, so much so that the underlying wood grain was impossible to make out. Beneath the loose pages was another layer of ink outlines, the dark eastern hemisphere and the bright western Dead Zones, the borders of kingdoms clustered about a solitary Sea—configurations she recognized from the tapestries hanging in wealthy peoples’ gardens. Her hands quivered from object to object. She considered opening the compass, which she recognized from one of her faerie tales, but thought better on it. Her fingerprints could mar the gold surface. There was also a quill and an inkwell, but she did not touch these either. And then she came across an open journal, freshly inked.
By Strom! It’s his writing . . .
She forgot her apprehension, leaning eagerly over the desk.
Should you be flogged for this, it’ll be worth it . . .
She thumbed through the pages, with great care not to tear the edges,
After considerable contemplation and research, considerable, I might add, and far beyond the scope of any detractors who might doubt me or call me mad, I am become determined, that my work, however misunderstood, however abominable it may be deemed, continue. Why should it be, after all, for a man, any man, of any society, to consider madness what I seek; why should it be thought insanity, to be unwilling to preserve that which we, as a species, hold, or declare to hold, most precious? If such a quest as mine be called folly, or madness, then it is only from doubting and fearful minded fools, who cow before remote and dispassionate gods and reject the reasoning that is the natural fruit of man’s brain, that which is man’s heritage . . .
She halted mid-sentence, thinking hard upon the words, but was left with only impressions. She was desperate to understand, to absorb as much as possible, but all she knew was that her father wanted something very badly, and was angry that others did not approve of it. Too many words. She thumbed forward through the years, pausing before a charcoal sketch of two skulls, one smaller than the other, with a heading that read:
BOGREN = HUMAN?
It is not beyond my comprehension how such an inference may be made, though blasphemous, some might even say, an abomination of reason. And yet, with reason and evidence as my guides, I have, inescapably, arrived at just such a conclusion. There is little difference between these two specimens, though we know with certainty that one is human and the other is not. What is the significance of this? This transmogrification over the aeons? What is the mechanism at work? And what natural purpose is served, by the one becoming the other? More importantly still, how then does “the theory” shed light on our most recent history, with regards to our endless struggle, which we find, myself included, as a native of Northendell, threatening us yearly at the very gates of our fair city, which, without the good graces and sacrifices of our men-at-arms, I would never chance to live enough to discover the objective of my research?
Emma wanted to scream. None of it made sense. None of his words could explain why he had chosen this room, these books, over her, or even more curiously, why he was unable to share with her these obsessions, however odd. One more try. . .
. . . we see them everywhere. Why are the people of this world so blind? Why can’t they see? Or do they not wish to see? Though I have not laid my own eyes upon them, men have testified to the mysteries abundant in this world, returning from long exploits with tales of things beyond our imagining. What is, for instance, the secret of the Golden Halo, which rises high as a hilltop in the midst of the Endless Plains? Or the Pyramid in Ossea, made entirely of glass, which men have sworn possesses no entrance, and yet is centered by a single, solitary seat (throne?). Who sits there, or sat therein, I wonder? And what of the stone golems that litter the countryside, from the mountains to the valleys? There is not a child in all Aenya that does not know of them, and yet the eldest among us are utterly ignorant as to their origin and purpose, despite my own theory. These wonders were left to us by the Ancients, which, I cannot refrain from repeating, is a misnomer, as the documents I have procured has revealed to me their true name, as that of the Zo.
What is it of these marvels, these Ancients, if you must, that my countrymen so fear? Why can we not speak of them plainly? And not be subjected to the torch, or imprisonment? Magic is a word spoken in ignorance. Magic is whatever is not understood. If we should banish magic, let us do so by demystifying it, by understanding it . . .
Emma abandoned the nonsensical script, drifting deeper into the study, as if digging to the core of her father’s brain. She felt oddly buoyant, as if her feet did not touch the floor. The amassed knowledge surrounding her was too overwhelming to process, though the potential for understanding was intoxicating. There were many more skeletons to be found, most incomplete, held together by pins; more stacks of books, and loose papers, and hurried charcoal sketches. Despite her care not to disturb anything, her arm bumped against some object, and it teetered to the edge of the table before her eyes could pick it out from the clutter. It was a rectangular box of fine wood, as smooth as brass. Her fingertips brushed over the flower pattern etched onto its surface. The dust made her eyes water. Years of neglect kept the box tightly closed, but with some effort the hinges cracked apart. A small paper floated free, its folded halves catching the air like the wings of a moth. It was a note, written in a hand different from her father’s,
My Dearest Mattathias,
You have always been a great contributor to our cause, and more importantly, I would like to think, a faithful friend to Ilsa and me. Do not torment yourself any further. You did all that could be done.
As for my gift, I pray you not refuse it. I considered safeguarding it for when the little one comes of age, but I am too stricken with grief and cannot bear the sight of it any longer. It never strayed far from Ilsa’s lips. You will find it possesses some remarkable qualities, as it is made from a rare, possibly extinct, Ilmarin oak.
Mattathias? She knew her father’s name as Mathias, but who was Mattathias? Could they be one and the same? Emma lowered the paper, folded it nervously and tucked it into her pocket. Dak’s gift was a long wooden tube pitted with holes, engraved with swirling lines, a short flute, or piccolo. It was fixed in a bed of silk, and though Emma feared to disturb anything, she figured her father would not notice its absence. Besides, it was beautifully made, and she possessed so few beautiful things. She propped the flute from its bed and slipped it under her sleeve, then proceeded to align the empty box to the dust-vacant rectangle on the table.
Emma continued to search, but was growing frustrated. Everything she came across left her with questions, and she was beginning to feel like a fool. What did you expect to find, a book clearly stating the reasons for Father’s neglect? Such an answer, she came to realize, she would not find, as no scholar would bother to make the necessary inquiry.
The back wall curved into a circular alcove. A series of glass spheres, stained in varying colors, were suspended from struts in the floor. Emma was mesmerized, never having seen a contraption so strange, ornaments so perfectly round. The central orb, about which every other emanated, was the circumference of their dinner table, and was composed of clusters of kerosene lamps. The outer spheres were smaller, their supporting struts linked to an intricate apparatus of toothed wheels which allowed the spheres to move about one another. It was a delicate arrangement that Father could not help but notice should it be moved, yet Emma was compelled to toy with it, her daring bolstered by what she had so far discovered. Stepping over cogs and ducking under struts, she slinked her way toward a triad of spheres. One was violet, no bigger than a drachma coin. Another was the size of a pumpkin and turquoise as the moon. But what caught her fancy was a ball of exceeding complexity, like a gaudy piece of jewelry. It was the size of a pomegranate, consisting of a transparent outer shell of silver dots—constellations. Looking deeper, in a plethora of earthy hues, she could make out the familiar outlines of mountain ranges, and a solitary Sea made of lapis lazuli, and a great rift—looking like someone had thrown the sphere and cracked it—marking the divide between the eastern hemisphere and middle Aenya . . .
“Step away from that!”
Emma was crippled. With moist palms, she caught onto the surrounding struts to keep from falling, turning on her kneecap, which still ached where the stone had hit her earlier that day. Now she was facing him. Fear and shame and doubt swallowed her whole.
His eyes were round and silver, like silver coins, staring so intently she could feel his pupils stabbing into her. Mathias was an unassuming man, with tufts of gray at the temples. He looked prematurely aged, as if he’d worn his young face too long. But when enraged, he only resembled her father, becoming something else entirely, the creature that lived beneath her father’s skin.
“What are you doing here?”
All she wanted was to confess the anger, to admit the hurt that lived within her, to let him know how lousy a father he had been and how much a daughter needed a parent’s love. But she could not bring herself to voice such honesty.
“Come here!” he barked. “What did you see?”
Her legs shook as she stepped away from the spheres, so dreading to damage anything that she had to hold herself from swooning.
“Stupid girl . . . Answer me!”
“. . . I don’t know . . .” she managed, in a barely audible whisper.
“What do you mean, ‘you don’t know’? How can you not know? Or are you afraid to tell me?”
She didn’t look at him. She couldn’t. Rather, she studied the cracks in the floor, so much like riverbeds; they could carry her to far distant lands, to better, freer places, where every parent loved and listened to his child. He snatched her arm and shook her violently. Robes fluttered like a sail in a storm. The silver key sprang from her pocket, ringing upon the stone floor.
“Please . . .,” she said, wincing, “don’t hurt me!”
“All this time . . . I thought I could trust you to obey me!”
He tugged her out of the room, knocking pages into the air, showing little concern for the position of his belongings. Passing from the astrolabes to his desk to the candles to the entryway, she was amazed by how short the distance was, by how vast curiosity and dread had made his study seem. Her arm contorted painfully in his grip, but she did not resist as he dragged her up the stairs.
“This will not go . . . unpunished!” he screamed, breathless with rage. “You’ll learn . . . I will teach you . . . I will teach you to respect your elders.”
She found herself facing her bed. The door slammed and a lock clicked into place.
He’s locking you in . . . Oh, God, no!
“You want to explore, do you? Wander all about, do you?” His voice sounded clearly through the timbers of the door. “Well, I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll not soon forget! You will learn your place, young one . . . or you’ll stay in your room forever!”
Her knees buckled at the doorframe, and she turned into a heap, a heap with a porcelain white face and raven hair that became indistinguishable from the layers of her clothing. Her entire body convulsed, ached with silent tears. When Emma wept, she made no sound. “No, Father, forgive me. Father . . .”
But he did not give her time for explanations, or plea bargains. She could already hear his footfalls falling stiffly against the steps below.
She waited, steadying her sobbing, until the silence came again, pervasive, cold, and much too familiar. Her bedchamber was sparse, lonely. The empty aching in her bosom continued anew.
Certain he was out of earshot, she reached for the shaft hidden under her sleeve, lifting it to her lips. A sharp stinging sensation reminded her of Bood and Deed, though it seemed ages ago. And then it occurred to her that he had not even noticed, that her father—no, she would never call him that again—that Mathias did not even notice her swollen lip. She brought the piccolo to the corner of her mouth, where the flesh was less tender, and forced her breath—her pain and despair—through the wood, until a single sad note floated from her window, carried in the wind like a raven’s feather.
Return to Book 3: Chapter 2
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