The wicked heroine, p.25
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.25

           Jasmine Giacomo


  Meena got her first look at the city Sanych called home in the late afternoon as they rode up from the south, through a wide break in the hills. The weather was positively balmy here. Away from the coastline, it was not muggy at all. The first insects of the year danced on warm sun rays. As they passed through the man-made canyon through the low hills, Meena commented approvingly on the heavily armed outposts atop the cliffs.

  Coming through into the bowl-like valley on the far side of the hills, she saw the city of Highnave spreading across the valley floor and up the western hillside, and was disappointed not to see much other than the sun’s glare.

  “Highnave is also called the City of the Morning,” said Sanych. “When the sun hits the city then, it’s beautiful. You’ll see it tomorrow as it’s meant to be seen.” She squinted over at Meena in the direct sunlight, and paused, staring. “Meena?”

  “What?” The older woman looked at her strangely.

  “Your hair…” Sanych began.

  “Like you should talk,” Meena retorted.

  “No, it looks like some of it’s gone red, with the sun behind it. There’s nothing about hair changing color in any of your legends.”

  Meena inhaled slowly through her nose and looked up at the arching blue sky for several seconds before speaking. “If there was something about hair color at all in any of those legends, wouldn’t you have mentioned it to me at the beginning with all the other nonsense?”

  Sanych blushed in remembrance of her naïve proclamations. “I guess it took the backlighting of the sun to make it stand out; it’s really dark like the brown, otherwise. Does that happen often, your hair changing color?”

  “Often enough that I don’t worry about it. It started this time when I decided to come here with you. Life-changing events trigger the color change. I never know what color will be next, though, so it makes it hard to coordinate with my wardrobe.” Meena gazed peaceably ahead down the road.

  Sanych wrinkled her brows in puzzlement for a moment, until she realized Meena was joking. “I guess it would. Does it grow in the new color until something else triggers a change, then?”

  “Depends. Sometimes taking care of business is enough to revert the color back.”

  Sanych widened her light blue eyes in realization. “So your hair’s natural color must be dark brown! Does your skin change too? Or your eyes?”

  Meena cut her a dark look. She distracted her young companion by pointing to a large area approaching on the left side of the road. They could easily see the milling chaos that was the expedition caravan; they passed within a stone’s throw from it. Sanych was relieved beyond measure to see that it had not left yet; there was still time. Not much time, but hopefully enough to prevent disaster.

  They approached a large fork in the road. Sanych turned east, away from the city proper.

  “And we’re going where?” Meena asked.

  “The Temple of Knowledge is still within the limits of Highnave; this whole valley is Highnave. But we’re going to that unassuming cluster of buildings over there by the rocky hill.”

  Meena looked; as they gradually drew nearer, she could see the finely constructed stone buildings. They were unlike any other temple she’d encountered. None of the buildings was over two stories tall, though they did have well-formed porticos and stairs of whitest marble. Giant marble pots, overflowing with variegated flowers of all sorts, sat on the wide walks between buildings. The trees growing here and there had been purposely planted for optimal shade in summer heat, though many had only the tiniest of new leaves, if any.

  It was a small campus, pushed right up against a hill of smooth bare rock. It amused her to contemplate a girl like Sanych coming out of this, as the journeyman had put it, unassuming cluster of buildings.

  Sanych noticed her expression. “When the Temple was first begun, the city was much smaller over there on the other side of the valley. They didn’t want this side. But the founders of the Temple saw it as an ideal location; close to the city, yet not surrounded by it, and best of all, it’s a solid chunk of granite over here.”

  Meena looked around as if hunting for the solid granite. Her eyes flicked down to the well-tended grounds. “You store your records underground,” she stated.

  “Yes. The constant temperature and dryness is perfect for preserving our records.”

  Meena grinned. “Tends to make others underestimate you, then, doesn’t it?” she said, gesturing to the small campus that was visible to any passing by.

  “That too. The stables are over this way.”

  Meena followed Sanych’s lead; soon they pulled up to a stop in a small courtyard, surrounded on three sides by the stables. A young lad and an older stable hand trotted smartly out to take their horses for them.

  “Welcome to the Temple of Knowledge, travelers. May I—” began the lad holding Sanych’s horse for her to dismount; then he recognized her face as she turned toward him. “Journeyman Sanych! You’re back!” He seemed truly surprised to see her.

  “Yes, Borrin, I was unkilled by the wicked, barbaric foreigners. I’m sure you owe someone some money for a failed bet.” Sanych grinned at Borrin’s protestations, then turned her attention to the older man, somewhere in his twenties. “Ildan, you may send word that this woman is my guest and will be staying in my quarters with me.”

  “Aye, Journeyman.” The older man showed no irritation at taking orders from a girl ten years younger than himself.

  “And please let the Masters know I have returned and will need to speak with them as soon as it is convenient for them.”

  “As you say.”

  Only then did Sanych dismount her horse. Meena dismounted also, and followed behind the journeyman as she crossed the grounds and entered what seemed to be the largest building on the campus. Few people were outside; the only ones visible were actively working outdoors. There was not a book nor a manuscript to be seen.

  Sanych pushed open one of the two large front doors at the top of a wide set of marble steps; the door panels were of hammered brass and shone brilliantly in the fading sunlight. Meena was temporarily blinded, between the flashing light outside and the dim coolness inside.

  They walked down a tall, wide corridor decorated here and there with tapestries and porcelain pieces. On the way they passed several young people, apparently acolytes by the way they all bowed respectfully to Sanych.

  Sanych led Meena down a wide hallway with a plaque up on the lintel that read Journeymen’s Wing. With a wistful look overhead, she said, “I hope I’ll be moving to the Archivists’ wing soon. They’re always bragging about their rooms.”

  She opened a wooden door in the marble hallway and led Meena into a room neither cramped nor dark, leaving Meena to wonder how much of the Temple of Knowledge had been given over to the Archivists’ rooms. Sanych’s bed, nearly wide enough for two people and heaped with finely made quilts, dominated one half of the room. Several narrow bookshelves bracketed small doorways that led to other rooms. A wardrobe, trunk, small desk filled out the room.

  “Sanych!” came an excited voice. A mature woman with graying light brown hair pulled back into a bun stepped through one of the doorways, a lit lamp in her hands. “They told me you’d returned–” Her dark eyes turned to Meena, and she stared, her face showing a remarkable range of emotions. “Er, forgive me. I’ve not gotten the cot for your guest yet. I thought you might like to bathe first?” She set the lamp down.

  “Ah, baths. A sign of civilization,” Meena commented, grinning in anticipation.

  Sanych grinned and gave the woman a greeting hug. She turned and said, “Ahni, my friend Meena. Just where I thought she’d be. Meena, this is Ahni, my assistant.”

  “Lowly journeymen get assistants?” Meena asked. “This is quite the place.”

  “They also don’t have to put up with snide remarks,” Sanych retorted. “Any position at the Temple is considered favorable employment in Vint. Not just anyone is let in the door here.”<
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  “Ladies, if you’re ready, I believe the baths await you at the end of the hall,” Ahni interrupted, smiling.

  Meena’s snide remarks turned to bone-deep pleasure as she slipped into a copper tub up to her neck in stinging hot water. Sanych occupied the tub next to her in the communal bathing room. After luxuriating for nearly an hour and scrubbing herself pink with a sponge imported from Kirth, Meena was so relaxed that her voice slurred as she said, “Sanych, all is forgiven. I love you. I love your Temple. I love books, and…things. Can I stay here forever?”

  “You mean in the tub? No. You’ll get all wrinkly, and the steam would get into the fabrics and start four different kinds of mold.” Sanych waved a wet hand at the stack of towels that awaited use by clean journeymen. “Shall I recite their life cycles for you?”

  Meena was thus encouraged to hurry up and get out. They had a light supper in the journeymen’s dining commons, where Sanych greeted her fellow journeymen and received their congratulations for returning safely. Many wished her well with the Masters, or teased her that she’d fail and be stuck with them another year. Sanych held no doubt, though, and tossed joking remarks back just as easily as she received them. Meena noted that many of the Temple journeymen were older than Sanych, some by quite a few years.

  Back in Sanych’s room for the night, Meena snuggled under the comfortable, clean sheets on her sturdy cot. Sanych had tried to offer her the use of the bed, but Meena had refused. “You never know when you’ll get a nice soft bed,” she’d said. “Sleep in them when you can.”

  Sanych thought it odd that Meena wasn’t taking her own advice.

  “I love hot water,” sighed Meena happily, as Sanych blew out the last lamp and clambered atop her bed. “I don’t even remember the last time I was in hot water.”

  Sanych snorted with laughter.

  “So to speak.”

  “You and the bath, you and the freezing rain. What is it with you and water?” chortled Sanych.

  “Water and I have a love-hate relationship. I love it hot. I hate it cold.” Meena’s voice cooled so quickly Sanych swore she felt the room freeze.

  “I can’t imagine that letting yourself freeze is fun,” said Sanych, not sure if she should comment.

  “The rain was not so bad. It’s cold bodies of water that I hate. Maybe my next home will be a cave in a warm desert. There can’t be many more people in a desert than there are on my mountain.” A pause. “I’m going to sleep now. Rest well, Sanych.”

  “And you, Meena,” Sanych responded automatically, but now she was troubled. It was starting to dawn on her that, once Meena spoke to the Magister and convinced him not to seek the Dire Tome, she would likely return to her cave, or maybe she would really move to a desert. In any case, Sanych wouldn’t have the chance to learn her history, hear her stories, and write them down. Meena did seem to have some sort of odd relationship with cold water. Sanych thought that would make another good story; she hoped to hear it all one day.

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