The Sanctuary Duet
Dust and Light - Excerpt
by Carol Berg
ucian de Remeni-Masson, you've met Curator Pons-Laterus and Curator Albin, the Overseer of Contracts?"
My stomach knotted as I faced three senior administrators, attired not just in customary pureblood formality, but in their official gowns of black and wine-red stripes. I felt half naked in undertunic, shirt, belt, and hose. Stupid, stupid, stupid, not to take the time to present myself respectably.
Guilian de Albin, Gilles's uncle, looked like a sculpted idealization of a pureblood - long straight nose, his raven hair oiled and pulled back severely from a noble brow, thick-muscled body - and he fulfilled every expectation of such a figure. The Albins were not only the wealthiest but one of the most powerful, and definitely the most traditional, of families. I'd once heard Albin reprimand a fellow curator for allowing his own daughter to address him first.
And Pons, of all people. I'd had dealings with Pons. She knew the worst of me. Her black eyes, so like the pits of olives, had been pinned to my back every day for nigh on five years. Why was she here?
Summoning composure, I touched fingertips to forehead and bowed deeply to each. "I do have that privilege, Master Pluvius. Doma Pons. Domé Albin. Pardon my rude attire. My...uh...current occupations delayed the delivery of your summons."
I would not lie. Yet neither would I excuse my delay by blaming Gilles, even if his uncle weren't sitting in front of me.
"Sit, Lucian." Pluvius, the white-bearded Master of Archives, the robust, hearty historian who directed my work, motioned me to a stool in the center of the room facing the U-shaped table where he joined the other two. His sober expression told me nothing. Pluvius could dither like a nursemaid and bellow like a guard commander, all in the same hour over the same incident.
Natural apprehension at sudden formal meetings warred with rising hopes. Rumor said my commissioned portraits of the six Registry curators had won high favor. While following the formal style of previous official portraits, I had distinguished each with a more naturalistic background. Every instinct in me said the paintings marked a major step forward in my skills. They were pleasing in balance and form and the likenesses excellent as well as true.
Though the portraits were not yet hung in the Tower rotunda, Pluvius had quietly set me to preparations for a portrait of my grandsire, hinting a second senior commission might be involved. I'd been working late on preliminary sketches every night for a tenday, reaching deep into power and memory and grief to touch the truth of a man I had known better than any other living person. Without question, the sketches were the best work I'd ever done. It was time for me to move up.
Curator Albin inclined his head in my direction. "Your family's loss these three months since was a blow to all pureblood society."
Body and spirit grew rigid. His cool reference shuttered excitement and rising hopes as spilled ink blots a sketch.
"The Remeni have been elite for generations. And the Massoni were already so few. Both bloodlines nearly wiped out in a single night. Dreadful, tragic..."
Dreadful? Tragic? The words were entirely, grotesquely insufficient. No distance of time would ever ease the horror, its image embedded more deeply than any portrait my magic could create. The cool late summer night in the rolling hills outside Pontia, moonlight bathing our beauteous vineyards, still healthy amid the land's failure. Music and laughter bursting from the great hall of our family estate, as my grandsire, my mother, father, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins celebrate my youngest brother's first contract. Someone - my father? one of my uncles? - queries the first hint of smoke that was not candles or hearthfires. And celebration transforms to panicked horror as they realize the hall is ablaze and the doors barricaded.
Rampaging Harrowers had drowned my family's dying screams with their nonsensical chants about purity, repentance, and corrupt magic, or so the local magistrate had reported. Gleefully, I'd thought. The leering ordinary had worn a telltale of Harrower orange inside his jupon. Madmen were everywhere these days.
"...and, of course, it has left you in a difficult position - only six-and-twenty, lacking four years until you can be named Head of Family, yet serving a contract that expires in the spring. You will need a negotiator. Second Registrar Pons-Laterus" - he motioned to the woman beside him - "has graciously taken on that commission."
My chest near caved. My worst imagining come true.
In the past months I had pursued every remote family connection, hoping to enlist a competent advocate before the Registry appointed a random official to negotiate my next contract. But the war and the dreadful weather had made the great families wary of entanglements. And now, of all of them, the Registry had given me Pons. Goddess Mother...
The Second Registrar, a hard, sour woman as gray and blockish as the Tower itself, had served as Registry investigator for the city of Montesard during my years at the University, the years when my youthful indiscretion had brought disgrace upon my family and altered my future.
I exhaled smoothly. Do not let them see. Albin will think you an undisciplined child, as Pons does already.
"I am honored by this most generous gesture by the Second Registrar," I said, bowing in Pons's direction even as my gut churned. "But, perhaps...Master Pluvius once offered..."
"It is entirely inappropriate for your current Master to negotiate your next contract," snapped Albin, who'd had the final say on every pureblood contract for twenty years. "He cannot be objective."
Yet one could say the same about any Registry-selected negotiator. Pons would be strictly honest, no doubt, but she made no secret of her disdain. She believed family influence had unduly mitigated the consequences of my unseemly involvement with ordinaries in Montesard.
"But I'm sure the Second Registrar's duties demand her undivided attention," I said. "As my contract does not expire until almost mid-year, I've other avenues - "
"Alas, not so," said Albin. "All next year's contract expirations for Registry positions have been advanced. The stipends already paid will not be reclaimed for the unfulfilled months - an expensive sacrifice on our part. But our attention must be directed toward the new king, affirming our traditional cooperation and prerogatives. Your contract expires at midnight tonight."
Tonight! I could scarce squeeze out the necessary response. "Yes, of course, domé, that sounds wise."
Negotiations without preparation...altogether unwise. I needed to study my current contract, gather comparisons from other portraitists, convince the Registry to cede a more appropriate income for my skill level and perhaps shorter hours. Tutelage for Juli came dear and I needed to be available to chaperone her lessons. Then, too, this was likely my last chance to shape my future.
For almost thirty years, my father's father had served King Eodward as Navronne's Royal Historian, using his magic to read battlefields or borderlands, for delving into ruins or deciphering ancient texts to extract the sweeping truths of war, migration, and civilization. The king had credited my grandsire with helping him grow Navronne into a healthy, prosperous kingdom, renowned in the world - one with some chance to withstand this abrupt decline in the weather. I had longed to follow in his footsteps.
The gods had gifted me in exceptional ways, both with power for magic and with a family that indulged and nurtured it. My grandsire - our Head of Family - had been willing to challenge Registry tradition for me. And in a youthful lapse of discipline I had thrown it all away.
Disappointment and grief would never leave me when considering my grandsire. My determination to cleanse the stain I'd brought to his name had rested in the hope of more serious, substantial service than anniversary portraiture. But one did not display emotions, especially such private ones, outside the family.
"I suppose Curator Pons and I must finalize a proposal right away and set a contract meeting for this evening," I said.
Curator Albin crossed his arms and sat back in his chair, waiting.
Master Pluvius studied the table in front of his folded hands.
Pons planted her forearms on the table and leaned forward. Plain silver rings gleamed from her thick fingers as she tapped a sheaf of documents. "In truth, Remeni, the Registry has made no new offer for your service. As we've no time to solicit any other offers from outside, I've gathered together what open bids for portraitists we have already. Perhaps one of these will suit."
No new contract offer... My mind stuttered and reeled. Of course the Registry wanted me back. My work here had been exemplary. A senior commission while in my first contract. The promise of a second with my grandfather's portrait. Never a reprimand. My every moment since my disgrace had been given to improving both my art and the self-discipline my role in life demanded - to becoming a man worthy of the Remeni name. Master Pluvius had long said I could wrestle out details that made my subjects near step out of the canvas, allowing Registry investigators to identify any pureblood inerrantly. Lord of Fire and Magic, what had happened?
"I don't understand." My voice - properly calm and detached - might have belonged to someone else. "Have I somehow failed in my work, in my deportment? Master Pluvius?"
"Certainly not, lad. It is just an unfortunate rearrangement of the Archives. Unique circumstances. Unsettled times."
"First Curator Gramphier knows of this?" To invoke my personal connection with the highest ranking official of the Registry galled, but Gramphier had been my grandsire's longtime colleague. He had encouraged my Registry contract as a way for me to demonstrate my worth.
Pons settled back in her chair, her face impassive save for the touch of scorn on her thin lips. "Naturally Gramphier knows. But if you wish to let your contract lapse as we solicit new offers for your service, we can halt this right now. You could contact me when your intellect is functioning at some useful level."
Bitter truth quenched my hapless protests. My service must be sold. Juli and I had no other income. Our Ardran vineyards had frozen two winters running; who knew if they would ever come back? And, along with every person in the world we loved, our family's treasury had been lost in the Harrower raid. We were nearing the end of the funds my father had provided for my maintenance in Palinur. Juli had brought my last stipend on a visit to the royal city. A sudden overload of work had prevented me from escorting her home in time for our brother's celebration, else we would have burned alongside the rest of them. I needed a contract. And the curators knew it.
"No, no, Doma Pons. Certainly I'll hear these bids."
Registrar Pons read through each application in her stack.
A Karish abbot sought a pureblood artist to travel alongside, illustrating prayer cards to enlighten unlettered villagers.
A customs official on the eastern borders needed charts of goods carried through the border station for taxing purposes.
"...and your skills at reflecting the inner person would suit this Trimori mine," she said, waving an age-yellowed parchment. "The governor wishes to ferret out spies from common felons sent to labor in the pits."
"A traveling position is out of the question," I said, "as are those in remote or military outposts. My sister is a maiden of fifteen without other family. I must see to her education."
And the stipends these offered were pitiful. None would support a pureblood household, much less allow me to accumulate the wherewithal to rebuild our family. These bids had gathered dust in the Registry vaults because they were insults.
Swelling anger threatened my composure. Purebloods bound themselves and their children into service on the assurance that they would be provided every dignity and comfort they had at home, as well as the means to grow their families' resources to withstand such troubles as war and famine. We held the power of magic, the greatest gift of the gods to a troubled world. Wealth kept us independent of ordinary life, enabling us in turn to preserve, nurture, and enhance that life for all.
"Well, then..." Frowning, Registrar Pons thumbed through the stack and pulled out one. "I see only one that might suit. One Bastien de Caton offers a position here in Palinur. He requires line drawings for purposes of identification. Compensation left to negotiation. But it is only a one-year contract. Do you wish to interview the master?"
I leapt at the offer before an angry outburst could disgrace me further.
"No need to interview him." Identification portraits were exactly what I was doing already. And for only the year. In the interim I could find a better advocate and search more thoroughly. "An offer in Palinur suits best. If I am required to live in, I'll at least be able to look in on my sister. As long as the contract meets Registry standards..."
Registry contracts were quite strict about personal security, respectful address, comfortable accommodation and sustenance, and permissible penalties for unsatisfactory work. My age left me no standing to disapprove contract terms - only the Registry and the Head of Family, or in my case, Pons, had a say. But even Pons would not undermine pureblood prerogatives with a poor contract. Only recondeurs - renegades who had forsworn Registry, family, and the compact with the crown that kept us independent - were subject to unrestricted contracts.
"I shall sit down with this Bastien and negotiate the best terms possible, given the unsettled times," said Pons. She dipped a pen and scratched a few notes on the page. "I shall stipulate that you will live in your own home, though I'm sure he will insist on appropriate hours. I foresee no difficulty in coming to a suitable agreement."
"Come here, Lucian," said Master Pluvius. Before I could think, I was signing my name where his finger pointed. Curator Albin snatched the paper from under my hand and applied his seal to the bottom. As if the terms were already settled.
Pons rose briskly, her formidable bulk blocking the gray light from the casements behind her. "We shall provide the usual escort party to deliver you to your new master tomorrow...if all goes well in the negotiation, of course. If not, we shall look again at the other offers."
"Yes, certainly. My gratitude for your consideration, Doma Pons, Domé Albin, Master Pluvius."
The three curators had already reached the doorway as the necessary politenesses stumbled from my tongue. The gray light blurred, and ceilings and walls tumbled over themselves. I felt as if I had been trampled by wild horses.
"Go home, Lucian. Whatever you're working on will have to be finished by someone else." Master Pluvius's farewell threatened to explode my skull. He lingered in the doorway. "I'm sorry about all this. Be sure I shall give you good recommendations."
"I appreciate that, Master."
Yet why would I expect differently? The Registry required every pureblood to sit for a portrait each year until age twelve, every two years until age thirty, and every ten years thereafter. Each small artwork was magically linked to its subject, and our signatures irrevocably bound the artist and the work. The accuracy imposed by our bent ensured that no ordinary could pass for a pureblood, and no pureblood could pass for another. Gilles and I could scarce keep up with the load. How could they not renew my contract?
"Master, why - ?" The doorway was empty.
If this Bastien de Caton was a person of influence, his request would never have been left unfulfilled long enough to gather dust. If he represented a town, a market fair, a temple, or another institution, the offer would have borne that name as well as his. And Caton. The man took his name, not from a noble seat or reputable family, but from some nearby settlement or crossroads so insignificant the name scarce shifted the dust of recollection. He was no one.
I raced after Pluvius, only to see him vanishing down the stair. "Master," I called, "who is this Bastien de Caton?"
The old man looked up, the torchlight reflecting a profound sadness that shook me to the marrow. "He's Palinur's coroner, Lucian. Your portraits will be used to identify the dead."
Copyright © Carol Berg 2017
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