The wicked heroine, p.26
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.26

           Jasmine Giacomo

  Chapter Nine

  Master Godric stood outside the Council Room, waiting with a pair of wide-eyed acolytes who had earned door duty. Sanych had returned to the Temple before her deadline, and Master Godric found himself in a situation without precedent. Over a year earlier, when the Magister had publicized his intent to quest for the Dire Tome, Sanych elTiera, at fourteen, had tried to gain special permission to seek this Shanallar of hers. She hadn’t even been proclaimed an Archivist yet, a title unavailable to anyone younger than fifteen. The Council of Masters put her off until she reached the minimum age, but after that they could not withhold her chosen quest from her any longer. They’d endorsed it on the Temple’s behalf, albeit with severe reservations.

  Two of the other four Masters had confided, in Sanych’s long absence, that they felt she was too young to handle such responsibility, even though Temple law allowed her to quest at this age. In the short time since her return, they had also voiced opinions that the woman in her company must surely be an impostor. The other two Masters were wisely withholding judgment, as he was.

  Yet, Sanych was his best student. No one else could have taken on a project of this magnitude and expected to succeed. She had made him believe her quest was achievable, with her unbridled enthusiasm and carefully detailed research. As her mentor, he was required to have a little more faith in her than others. This was usually easy; Sanych was the most precise journeyman Godric had ever seen. Her potential was nearly immeasurable. And yet, therein lay the seeds of failure; perhaps she had grown overconfident, perhaps even delusional about her own grandeur in the larger scheme. It had been known to happen, especially with the most gifted within the Temple.

  It was his duty, as mentor, to side with his former student, as far as reasonable doubt allowed. And in the end, if her quest was ruled a failure by the Council, which was entirely likely, Godric knew his star would fall with Sanych’s. She would be allowed a second Archivist quest, but not for another full turn of the seasons. The damage to their reputations would already be done.

  Just as he pondered this thought for the umpteenth time, Sanych and her guest rounded the corner at the far end of the hallway and walked purposefully in his direction. He stepped forward and greeted them warmly.

  “It has been too long, Master Godric,” said Sanych, smiling.

  “Indeed, Journeyman Sanych. I am well pleased to see you back safely. Come, the Council awaits within.” He gestured to the gilded doors beside him, and the acolytes leapt to open them. The Master ushered in the returned travelers, then followed behind them.

  Sanych thought she heard him murmur, “Even stars must fall sometime…”

  Sanych and Meena stepped to the two chairs in the center of the round chamber and sat. Godric gestured to the two acolytes, and they closed the doors, shutting themselves out of the momentous meeting. He ascended the two steps to the horseshoe-shaped council table that wrapped around the half of the room opposite the doors, and sat in the end chair next to the other four Masters.

  The man in the center, Master Heldael, spoke first. “Journeyman Sanych elTiera, you are called before this Council to provide proof of completion of your Quest of Knowledge, undertaken upon the thirty-ninth day after the Feast of Ravens. If proof of completion is presented, this council shall bestow the title of Archivist upon you.” His voice held a slight edge of self-importance. Second-youngest among the Masters, he was aware that his hair had not yet grayed, nor his body thinned to what so many in the Temple perceived as a properly knowledgeable weight. His bright blue eyes studiously ignored (and for a Master, that was studious indeed) the presence of the woman next to Sanych; her mere existence seemed yet to be proven. “You have returned to the Temple of Knowledge and have come before the Council of Masters. Do you claim completion of your quest?”

  “I do,” Sanych replied levelly. She noted the looks flicking between some of the Masters. She knew what it meant; they did not believe her quest complete, nor possible to be completed, and they were mildly surprised that she continued to believe so even in their august presence.

  “According to your Quest Definition, you sought…” Master Heldael reached for a leaf of paper and read from it, “…’to locate and bring back to Vint the woman or women known as, among other titles, the Shanallar, the Great Sage, and the Holy Witch, for the express purpose of having her, or them, advise the Magister and the Dictat, on the viability of undertaking the proposed quest of locating and returning to Vint with the book of legend known as the D–”

  “Don’t say its name!” Sanych blurted, holding up a forestalling hand. The Masters all drew back in surprise.

  Heldael blinked. “Why ever not?” he asked her, his tone gruff.

  Sanych gulped and lowered her arm. A quick glance at Meena saw a warning in the Shanallar’s eyes, and Sanych turned back to the panel of Masters. “The answer to your question is a delicate one, and only for the ears of the Magister and his quest,” she improvised, trying to project confidence.

  The men glanced among themselves. Godric gave a tiny shrug, and Heldael nodded and began again. “You sought the Shanallar in order to have her ‘advise the Magister and the Dictat on the viability of undertaking the proposed quest of locating and returning to Vint with the book of legend’, then? Is that correct as you recall it?”

  Smartcheeks, thought Sanych rudely. I don’t recall anything incorrectly! “It is, Master Heldael,” she said, refraining from adding anything she considered more appropriate.

  “Very well,” Master Heldael said, in a voice that clearly implied, It’s your funeral. “Then the Council is prepared to receive your proof of completion. You may present at this time.” He leaned back into his padded chair, giving Master Alii a disappointed look that was tinged with anticipation.

  Sanych stood. Looking each of the Masters in the eye before speaking, she easily gauged which could be reasoned with and which would have to be beaten over the head with the truth. Her ratio was three to two in her favor. She had grown up seeing these men lead the Temple and make important decisions; now she needed them to make this decision correctly. She needed to prove that she was right. Fortunately, she was good at that.

  “Honored Masters of the Council of the Temple of Knowledge. I present my proof in the person of the Shanallar, who is known in our age as Meena.” One of the Masters raised eyebrows at such a common name. “She has agreed to put up with your questions in order to prove herself to you. You—”

  “Put up with?” interjected Master Alii. He was not sure who to glare at–the young girl who was being impertinent, or the sitting woman whose existence had yet to be technically proven–so he shared it around. “Our questions are necessary in order to determine–”

  “How about we give Sanych as much rope as she wants, eh, Alii?” interrupted Godric loudly. “Let’s see what she does with it.”

  That quieted all objections. Sanych knew how the other Masters were taking Godric’s comment; they envisioned her fashioning a noose for herself. She saw it more as building a rope bridge out into a fogbank, where the other side lay hidden, yet safe. She would force these Masters out onto that rope bridge and to the far side, where they could no longer deny the truth that lay beneath their very feet. She smirked at the imagery and began speaking again.

  “As I was saying, you may ask her anything you like, anything at all. I am sure that you will find several questions of intricate detail that she can help you to unravel into a clear thread of understanding.”

  And she sat down. She had given them the key to a smooth interview, but she did not think most of them would see it. And she would enjoy, perhaps a little more than was necessary, seeing how their inflexible minds were prized open by the ungentle hands of the Shanallar and the truth she brought with her.

  The Masters seemed hesitant to speak to Meena, so Meena stood up and addressed them.

  “Great Masters, I greet you favorably. It is imperative that I speak with your Magister before the equinox; I want this i
nterview over with as quickly as possible. The lives of all those who go on that quest hang in the balance. Do not make the assumptive mistake that I am being overdramatic to impress you. You mean very little to me, and I am only suffering your presence and your delay as a means to my end.

  “Yes, I am sure your sensibilities are shocked at such an affront; don’t think you’re the first council who’s considered themselves knowledgeable until I came along. So, ask what you will and I will answer. Any fact that will prove to you that I am the woman known as the Shanallar, I will willingly give to you.”

  There was a slight pause as the Masters took in her speech.

  “If you are the Shanallar, why are you so youthful in appearance?” came the first question, from Master n’Gida; his voice was shot through with genuine curiosity.


  The Masters waited for a more lengthy reply. When none came, Master Haldael leaned forward. “‘Magic’? That’s the only explanation you have?”

  Meena looked at him skeptically. “Are you a magician?”

  “Certainly not. The existence of such people has not conclusively been proven. Indubitably, there are many unexplained phenomena in the world, and while it is our belief that all things can be explained with logic and time, magic is not something we have proven to exist yet.”

  Meena cocked her head, looking at Master Haldael with a little pity. “Ah, yes, the Vinten philosophy. Then, I’m afraid, if I were to speak to you of the method of this life extension, it would be lost on you. If I were to go into the details of the process by which it occurred, you would be unable to follow the unfamiliar terminology. I am trying to be efficient in the use of our time here, and you are wasting it with your childish demands for answers which you could not possibly comprehend.

  “Now,” she addressed them all, “do you have some competent questions, or do I need to rip out my eyeballs and have them grow back in order to convince you of my identity?”

  Though the Masters were taken aback at Meena’s barbaric suggestion, Sanych struggled not to smile. The Shanallar’s combination of rapid speech and sudden detours was strikingly similar to the techniques of the teachers here at the Temple.

  And yet, Sanych realized that Meena was not just fooling around; she really didn’t care whether this Council approved of her. She was here to see the Magister, to convince him not to send the quest off. Sanych hadn’t learned any more details regarding the Dire Tome in the nine weeks she had been traveling with Meena, so she didn’t know what exactly was so horrible about this book. But Meena was, for lack of a better word, terrified that the Magister’s quest would actually locate the Dire Tome. Sanych would not be surprised if Meena simply walked out of this meeting and headed over to the Grand Palace if it started to go too badly between her and the Masters.

  There had been a lull while Sanych mused; she wondered if the Masters’ hushed whispers meant they were about to ask for the eyeball trick.

  Master Godric spoke. “Meena, we have no need for such theatrics; we do not wish to waste anyone’s time, either. If you are who you say, we wish it even less. Please, can you confirm for us then, in what year and country you were born.”

  Sanych did manage a small grin. Master Godric had gotten her hint.

  Meena actually inclined her head a little in his direction as she replied, “I was born in the country of Shanal. It was the thirty-first cycle of the Dragon Epoch.”

  The Masters consulted papers on their tabletop; Sanych knew they were calendar conversions.

  “Thank you, Meena. Can you tell us when you left Shanal, and where you went next?”

  “I left Shanal thirty-six cycles later. You call them years. I headed east, to the island of Ha’Hril.”

  Master Hek scratched a few notes on his parchment with a quill.

  “And what prompted you to leave the country of your birth? Why did you begin traveling to so many other countries?” asked Master Godric.

  Meena hesitated before speaking. “My husband died, helping me to hide the evil book from the Cult of Dzur i’Oth, and I began searching for a way to destroy it forever.”

  Even Sanych was completely stunned. Her eyes could not decide whether to stare at Meena or to take in the poleaxed expressions of the five Masters behind their large curved desk. The Masters glanced at each other repeatedly as if to ask, Is she serious?

  “Shanallar,” began Master n’Gida hesitantly, “please, will you tell us why it was hidden? That information is what the Magister will need most.”

  The fact that Master n’Gida had just acknowledged his belief in Meena’s identity was not lost on Sanych. Meena did not even seem to notice.

  “The book contains powerful magic. It can turn anyone, even the most holy of men and women, into puppets of chaos. The spells in its pages twist even the purest of intentions. It can destroy lives. It can destroy entire nations. Because of this book, my country descended into civil war, and many thousands died, including our queen. We had to hide it where no one could ever use it again, because we could not find a way to destroy it. It was the only way to stop the madness.”

  “That’s all good to know, Meena,” said Master Heldael, adding just a touch of emphasis to her name, “but we still have more questions, if you please.”

  The Masters, seeing that Meena was not at all combative when she was treated politely, conceded the wisdom of asking all their questions in this manner, and the session continued calmly for another two hours before drawing to a close. No eyeballs were ripped out. Master Godric informed Sanych and Meena that they could await the Council’s decision in the reading room down the hall. The Masters rose from their seats, and Sanych led Meena out.

  “That went well, I think,” commented Sanych lightly.

  “Yes, I especially liked the part where you didn’t say anything,” said Meena, giving the girl a mock frown.

  “That was just a tactic. I could have blathered on all day, but they weren’t going to be convinced of the success of my quest unless you proved you were who I say you are.”

  “Yes; nicely done. Was I too ornery? Perhaps I could have been a little more, I don’t know, flighty, airy,” Meena said, affecting a courtier’s pose and waving her hand vaguely in the air. “Maybe that would have done a better job.”

  “Not as good as ripping out an eyeball. Would it really grow back?” Sanych asked.

  “It worked once, oh faithless doubter,” Meena said, sliding a finger into the corner of her eye as if to pluck it from its socket. Sanych’s own eyes widened, and Meena chuckled, lowering her hand. “You’re right; how thoughtless of me. Here in the hallway, it would leave such a mess.”

  “Does your orneriness grow at a steady rate, or does it just double up every Low Solstice?” countered Sanych, daring to glare at the older woman, who raised her chin with a smug look.

  “It operates on a complicated compounding equation.”

  Sanych sighed as they arrived at the public reading room, where a few acolytes and journeymen were making use of unrestricted access to certain books. She passed the time until the Masters completed their deliberation by sharing modern facts with Meena. The Shanallar proved a patient woman when it came to learning things she didn’t know. Sanych understood that with a history like hers, Meena must be used to learning about new cultures and developments.

  Sanych was showing her a favorite passage in a book about weather, illustrated with colored inks, when Ahni approached, grinning widely.

  “The Masters have reached a conclusion,” she said, indicating with a hand that they could return to the Council room. “Wisdom be with you, not that you need it.”

  Sanych thanked the older woman with a smile, then closed the little book with care before returning it to its place. She and Meena headed back along the stone hallways to the Council’s chamber.

  They entered the Council room once more; the five Masters were standing behind their curved desk. Sanych stood before it, and Meena copied her, waiting silently.

p; Master Godric spoke. “The Council of Masters for the Temple of Knowledge has found in your favor, and does formally bestow upon you the full rank, title and privileges of Archivist. Congratulations, Sanych. Your quarters have been arranged for you on the Archivists’ Wing.” He smiled down at her proudly, and she grinned. “However,” he continued, “the council remains divided upon the point of whether your quest has been completed. This fact will be reported to the Magister, at the time of the Shanallar’s appointment with him, tomorrow morning at the fourth hour. Have you any questions, Archivist Sanych?”

  “No, Master. I thank the Council for their decision.” Sanych gave the Masters a bow, then turned to leave.

  “I have one,” said Meena, not turning to follow.

  “Of course,” Master Godric said.

  “May I have the proof your Magister will require of your decision?”

  The Masters looked among themselves. Master Godric tipped his head toward Meena.

  “Of course you may,” Master Heldael spoke up, then added, “Shanallar.” He offered a slender object to Meena, and it quickly vanished up her sleeve.

  Sanych let slip a small bark of laughter, but quickly assumed a penitent pose. Master Heldael had been convinced, after all.

  “I thank the Council of Masters for their wisdom,” Meena said. She departed with Sanych after giving a pitying look to Master Alii, who would not meet her gaze as if she had again ceased to exist in his world.

  From the Council’s room, the pair made their way to Sanych’s new chambers. Sanych was nearly giddy to see her new rooms, and Meena teased her about her priorities. A welcoming message was tacked to her new door, and the young girl took the small scroll down and read it with pleasure before opening the wide door and stepping inside.

  Her eyes took in the furnishings: a thick mattress, raised well off the floor by dark wooden legs and draped with a thick blue quilt; a wide wardrobe whose brass trim gleamed in the light of several lamps; a writing desk, a round table and well-crafted chairs, and a glass-enclosed display shelf holding several ancient books. The walls were hung with tapestries of historic Vinten events. A small platter of dark brown treats sat on a small round table in the center of the room. “Master Godric didn’t waste any time. I have to wonder if he didn’t get this room prepared the second I got back.”

  “He sounds like a smart enough man,” Meena agreed. “The more pressing question is, are those sweets made of chocolate?” She flexed her fingers greedily. “I’d better go make sure.”

  Sanych grinned. Just then, a knock on the open door made them turn. A young servant boy stood in the doorway, bearing a load of carefully prepared clothing. A formal headpiece sat atop the pile.

  “Congratulations on your promotion, Sanych,” the boy said, smiling. “Here’s your formal Archivist attire for when you meet the Magister tomorrow.”

  Sanych thanked the lad and set the clothing down on the bed.

  Meena sampled the treats and found that they did indeed contain chocolate. Her sweet tooth sated, she began to rummage through the clothing selections in Sanych’s wardrobe, though it was clear that hardly anything in it would fit her; Meena had at least eight inches of height over Sanych.

  Sanych didn’t notice at first. She was too busy pacing. “Why are we being delayed a whole day? If we meet with the Magister tomorrow, he’ll likely be sending the expedition out the door already. Folly burn my birthday! Why couldn’t my mother have borne me in summer instead of nearly winter? I could have found you over a season earlier! And while I’m at it, Folly burn the Temple and their fifteen year questing rule! What are you doing with my formal headdress? I just got that!”

  Sanych had just caught sight of Meena holding the white silk contraption up as if she were going to put it on.

  “Just seeing if it’s my size.” Meena grinned and tossed the thing and its seven foot veil back onto Sanych’s bed. Sanych squawked and leaped after it.

  “Those seed pearls might come off, Meena. Don’t just toss my things around. What are you doing, besides emptying my closet of all my clothes?”

  Meena stopped with hosiery in one hand and a heavy white cape in the other, and turned to look at Sanych, cradling the headdress protectively in her arms atop the bed.

  “Sanych, the Council of Masters just proclaimed me the Shanallar. Do you really think the Shanallar is content to wait for the summons of a mere Magister at such a critical time as this? You’re right about his being ready by now. We need to see him immediately. Now, I’m looking for something dramatic in your closet, but I find I’m being sadly disappointed. You’re really too short, you know.”

  “You’re going now?”

  “Well, as soon as I find clothing to make a proper impression, yes.”

  “I’m coming with you then.”

  “As I suspected. You should wear your headdress,” Meena said, as if the accessory were hers to lend.

  “I, um…don’t know how it goes on my head. Which way is the front, I mean.”

  Meena smirked. “Well you’ve got fair odds for guessing right. And if you’re wrong, likely you’ll start a new fashion. Now please tell me you know someone here who has sufficiently impressive clothing.”

  Sanych did; soon Meena was outfitted properly, as she called it, in dark green wool trousers with a knee-length formal tunic over it, trimmed with gold piping and sporting long, dagged sleeves. On her head sat a conical hat with a green-and-gold leaf pattern, its flat top angled slightly toward the back of her head.

  “And this is suitably formal for meeting the Magister?” she asked.

  “Yes, Meena.”

  “Good. Although, in Bermah, they would have called me a cross-dresser and tried to burn me at the stake. Hm. Actually, they did try to burn me at the stake once.”

  “Er.” Sanych was caught off guard with the image of Meena tied to a stake in a burning pile of wood. “I’ll get dressed now, and then we can go over to the city.”

  Soon, Sanych had arrayed herself in her new formal white, with the headdress in place, as best as she could guess. She pulled its long silken train forward over her right shoulder and then tossed back across her left like a long scarf. It was not much protection against the cool air, but it kept the thing from dragging.

  Sanych had asked Ahni to call for a coach to take them to the palace before she began dressing, and the woman returned just as she had finished to tell her that it would be ready for departure in a few minutes. Then she paused, examining Sanych’s attire.

  “Archivist, are you…quite sure you wish to…wear your headdress so?” Ahni asked delicately.

  Sanych knew then that she probably had the thing on backward, but it was horribly uncomfortable in the other position, so she simply said, “Yes.”

  She received a few other odd looks through the halls to the front doors, but she studiously ignored them. Upon retrieving their footwear and walking outside to the stables where their coach awaited them, Sanych finally broke down and asked, “Meena, do you think this thing is on backward?”


  Sanych sighed in relief.

  “I think it’s on upside down.”

  “What?” squeaked Sanych, her hands flying to the headdress, feeling for evidence of this statement. Meena’s hoots of laughter could be heard all over the campus.

  Sanych’s indignation did not dissipate until they entered their coach.

  “Seriously, Sanych. It’s your headdress. There is tradition, and there is practicality. Since you don’t know what the traditional way to wear the headdress is, you might as well go with practicality. Being seen with the Shanallar in a new style will do wonders for your social influence.”

  Sanych guffawed at this suggestion.

  “Don’t laugh. It’s happened before.”

  “Yes, I’m sure you got all the courtly ladies of Upper Snobbery to wear daggers in their bosoms. Very tasteful.”

  “Snort if you will, child. But the merchant women of Gen Ka Bin now wear dagger-wands i
n their hair, and are robbed at their trading posts far less often.”

  “Really? You’re not teasing me?”

  “Shall I draw you a map to Gen Ka Bin? You can go see for yourself,” Meena offered.

  Sanych pursed her lips. “Maybe after we speak to the Magister. I’ve got some time then.”

  Meena grinned. “Then let’s go save the world.”

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