The wicked heroine, p.27
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.27

           Jasmine Giacomo

  Chapter Ten

  The trip to Highnave proper seemed to happen in the blink of an eye. Sanych was not sure what Meena intended to do when she reached the palace, and her stomach would not stop churning at the realization that she was about to burst in on the ruler of her nation without his permission.

  They arrived in the palace’s carriageway. Sanych requested that the driver wait for them, as they did not intend to be overlong.

  “Rule number one,” stated Meena, as they exited the carriage, “always act as if you belong where you are, and know what you are doing. Where will the Magister be right now?”

  “With the Dictat, finalizing things for the quest.”

  “Then lead the way.”

  Sanych was about to attempt her first ever departure from The Rules, and she was going to do it in the Magister’s palace. The world began to feel surreal. Her feet moved, her eyes saw, but her mind was coolly detached. She watched herself stride up to the open doors, her long formal white skirt shushing about her ankles. She passed into the cavernous palace foyer, between two royal guards, with nary a hesitation. She bowed courteously to them, careful not to topple her probably-upside-down headdress, and they saluted her back, right thumbs to chests, palms facing left.

  Once inside the palace, Sanych was faced with enormous staircases to the three front wings of the building, as well as ground floor hallways in the same three directions. A handful of other visitors to the administrative offices nearby walked past her at cross angles, intent about their business.

  “Following you,” said Meena quietly, a step behind and to her right.

  Sanych’s eyes flicked as if reading, as she recalled the structural notations for the palace. Her mind’s eye saw the entirety of the floor plans, and she mentally scanned them for the location of the room the Masters had mentioned as the “Quest Room”. Soon, she must find it, or look like a fool stopping in the midst of the floor for no reason. There were several guards on duty in the main foyer of the palace’s front administrative wings, and they were all looking at her with mild interest.

  Then she had it. She smoothly angled toward the right staircase and ascended, Meena in her wake.

  “That’s my girl,” murmured Meena.

  Soon they came upon a wide, closed door at the end of the hall, guarded by an officious-looking female scribe who sat at a high wooden desk. Before her rested a large logbook and a single inkwell. She looked down as they approached.

  “We are summoned before the Magister and his Dictat,” pronounced Sanych, trying to get every bit of height out of her slight frame.

  “And what is the subject of your visit with the Magister today, Archivist?” asked the scribe, eyes and pen aimed at the logbook.

  “We are here to advise him in regards to the great quest,” Sanych said.

  The scribe merely nodded, jotting a few words in her log. Then she knocked on the door beside her with a long wooden wand that held a polished knob on the end. To the young page who answered, she said, “Take the Archivist and her guest to the Magister in the Quest Room. They are here to advise him.”

  Sanych and Meena trailed down the hallway after the page, to the other end. A pair of guards stood to either side of a set of double doors.

  Meena strode ahead of the short page boy. “I am the Shanallar, come to advise your Magister. Open the door.”

  The guards bowed in assent and opened the doors immediately, rather more in response to Meena’s authoritative tone than to any grasp of what a Shanallar was, and the two women stepped inside.

  Sanych first noticed how many people were in the room with them; there were nine, three of which were servants standing attentively out of the way. The remainder were all men. They gathered around a long table against the far wall, looking at and discussing some sort of checklist, though one of the younger ones, dark-braided, was fiddling with the nib on a pen. The rest of the room contained eleven other tables, stacked haphazardly with maps and books that she recognized as belonging to the Temple. Sanych was appalled at the treatment they had received.

  The man with the pen had noticed Sanych and Meena enter. He eyed them with a slight cock to his head, hazel eyes appraising them from across the room. Sanych let her eyes flick to Meena, then instantly regretted it; she was the Archivist, and so nominally in charge. She stepped forward, slightly ahead of Meena, and opened her mouth to speak.

  Naturally the man took that exact opportunity to say mildly, “It looks like we have guests, Magister.”

  Everyone else turned to look. Sanych recognized the Magister and three of the Dictat, but the two young men were unfamiliar.

  The Magister looked politely at his new guests. “Indeed, Salvor, thank you,” he replied.

  Runcan, head of the Dictat, cleared his throat and nodded respectfully to Sanych. “Archivist, be welcome. You were not expected until tomorrow. Did you misunderstand our appointment time?”

  “No,” said Sanych, trying to suppress the quaver in her voice.

  The other Dictat members were frowning at her. This was Not The Way Things Were Done. Even the other young man, with light brown hair and dark eyes, was staring at her, or rather her headdress, as if concerned she might have stolen it.

  Meena had paused so the men could gaze upon her, as one of the keys to being successful was being memorable. Sanych, more aware of Vinten custom, inadvertently ruined Meena’s moment by stepping forward yet again and speaking to the Magister.

  “This humble Archivist greets His Wisdom The Lord High Magister of Vint, and his esteemed Dictat, may their wisdom ever increase,” Sanych began, while Meena hid her irritation at being upstaged. “Please forgive our hasty arrival. The Shanallar must needs speak to the expedition council immediately upon a matter of urgent importance.”

  Meena handed her a paper scroll that was sealed with the white wax of the Temple of Knowledge and imprinted with Master Godric’s monkey seal.

  Sanych walked forward, offering the scroll to the Magister. The dark-eyed young man–who bore some resemblance to the Magister, she noted–stepped forward briskly and accepted it from her. Startled by his sudden action, she looked up, and up some more, to his face. He smiled and slipped the scroll from her fingers.

  “Geret Branbrey Valan, at your service, Archivist,” he murmured, dipping his head in a slight bow.

  The Magister’s nephew. Sanych murmured, “Thank you, my Lord Geret,” and stepped back as he handed the scroll to his uncle. To the room at large, she added, “That document is an official finding by the Council of Masters of the Temple of Knowledge, affirming their belief, after extensive questioning of this woman, that she is indeed the historical figure known, among other titles, as the Shanallar.”

  The Magister cracked the seal and unrolled the document, reading for several moments. “It says here the votes were cast at four in favor, one against,” he said, as he handed the paper to the Count on his right.

  “At least they’ve not all lost their minds,” Salvor commented.

  Meena could see that Sanych was not ready for such casual dismissiveness. Before the girl could ruin the opportunity Meena sensed before them both, the Shanallar took action. She stepped around Sanych and hopped up onto the round table map, to the quiet gasps of the servants standing in the background. Stepping easily around small orange flags, over vague continental outlines and across vast island-dotted seas, she made her way to the center of the table.

  Straddling the continent of Eirant, each foot in a different body of water, Meena looked positively legendary in her formal green garb. She raised her chin, and with arms akimbo she proclaimed, “I am the Shanallar. Whether you believe this or not is not my concern. What is of concern to me is this quest you’re planning. It is why I have traveled nonstop, dragging your precious Archivist through a veritable rainbow of hardships, to reach you before you leave.”

  Geret spoke up, his face splitting into a handsome, eager grin. “You wanted to make sure you got to come, didn’t you? What would a fantas
tical quest be like without a mythical heroine? Well, you’re very welcome to join us, Shanallar. I’m Geret, and I’m very honored to meet you.” Geret stepped forward as if to offer her a hand in greeting, but Meena’s voice halted him in his steps.

  “Impatient boy. Let me finish,” she said coolly, giving him only a short glance. Geret froze in his tracks, and Salvor smirked.

  Meena continued, “The book you seek was named ‘dire’ by its discoverers. Even they did not know who created it. It is a book of enormous, untamable power. In a word, it is chaos. I have seen its power, its immense capacity for destruction, with my own eyes. I hid the book away from the world to protect my people; even if you try to find it, you will fail. I advise you to never speak this book’s name again. Doing so may bring the worst sort of attention down on you. Stay home instead, grow wheat, find a nice wife and have fat babies. You’ll live longer.”

  “But we have the priest’s journal,” began Geret, “it’s full of all sorts of mystical information. It says the Dire Tome was given to a dragon who is supposed to guard it forever, and the priest speculates at what sort of tasks and enchantments might be necessary to retrieve the book from beneath its watchful eye. We think we can find it, based on his clues.”

  Sanych looked at the expression that appeared on Meena’s face as Geret said the book’s name. She had to resist wincing from the heat in the woman’s gaze.

  “Do you now, princeling? You are determined as well as deaf? If you want to see what sort of evil befalls its victims, by all means, keep speaking its name aloud. And don’t go getting all thrilled about dragons; the Green Dragon is just a small volcano in Shanal. Heads full of vanished myths and magical books…boy, you have no idea the depth of my hatred for that book and the monstrous evil that it unleashed on my world. I cannot let it see the light of day again.”

  “You cannot? What are you going to do, kill off the hundreds of people that are going on the expedition?” Geret scoffed, irritated. She was actually serious about not speaking the Dire Tome’s name. Though the prospect of seeking a dangerous artifact was more intriguing than seeking a quiescent one, Geret realized his dreams were being threatened by a rude, wicked, arrogant legend, which in itself should not be allowed. No one ever wrote about wicked heroines.

  Meena tapped her fingers against the handle of her long knife and regarded Geret. “It’s not my first choice, but it might do in a pinch,” she responded.

  “All right, let’s have a bit more civility in our discussion, if you please,” the Magister interrupted, seeing that Geret was getting angry. “Er, Shanallar,” he addressed Meena with a shade of hesitancy. “We have been planning this quest for nigh on two years now. Tens of thousands of gipp have been spent in preparation, and as Geret said, hundreds of individuals are fully prepared to leave two days from now. I’m afraid we made no provision for backing out at the last minute. Our expedition will leave in two days’ time, with or without you. You are still welcome to accompany us, of course, as we could benefit greatly from your expertise, not only in regards to the Di–to the book itself,” the Magister caught himself, “but in languages and cultures we may encounter along the way. We’ve prepared as well as we can with the generous help of the Temple of Knowledge, but, all pardon to the Archivist, books can only do so much for an expedition of this nature.”

  The other Dictat members nodded wisely at this, causing Sanych to flush angrily. These fools take my books and treat them like toys, then they say they aren’t good enough!

  Meena looked over at Sanych. “They’ll do more than you think, in the right hands,” she said, her voice devoid of anger.

  Sanych blinked in surprise; could Meena actually be paying her a compliment? But she didn’t have time to form a response before Meena spoke again.

  The Shanallar looked back at the quest’s planners and said, “You need me to go with you. By yourselves, you’re doomed to failure. But I’ll not even pretend to pay lip service to your quest’s stated goal. The book needs to be destroyed, not rescued, and I’m the only person who has discovered how it must be done. It took me centuries of searching: something not even your Archivists have managed to achieve. You’ve believed the Temple on its word that I am the Shanallar, yet you won’t believe my word that the book is evil?”

  She snorted, and Sanych’s eyes darted to the faces of the Dictat. Meena was pushing pretty far. Would they lash back?

  “We have no evidence in these writings,” a black-haired Dictat member said, waving a hand at the tables, “that the book has inherent evil, or good for that matter. What you say is simply not supported by our evidence.”

  Meena nodded to herself, her eyes drifting away to the windows. When her gaze returned to the men on the floor, she said, “You believe there’s a rule that says all evil books must identify themselves to you?” She shook her head, a pitying smile on her lips. “The tome is evil,” she continued. “It’s the foulest heap of twisted horror the world has ever known. And unless and until you’re willing to listen to me, you’re on your own. I’m not going to stand here and repeat myself in the face of your apathy and incomprehension. I’m sure your people will write properly mournful dirges to lament the loss of your fine expedition, when it finally dawns on them that you’re never coming home.”

  Meena sprang off the table and strode for the door, chin high, boots thumping across the wooden floor. The noise was enough for the guards outside to realize someone was exiting in a hurry, and they pulled open their respective doors in time for Meena to stride out the door.

  Sanych shot a hurried glance at her Magister, giving him a slight bow that was a bit rude in its brevity and murmuring, “By your leave, sire,” and then she trotted out the door in her formal white attire to catch up with Meena before the guards closed the door in her face.

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