Serial: An Heir to Thorns and Steel, 13

An Heir to Thorns and Steel is a serialized fantasy novel updating once a week for free on Tuesdays, and again on Thursdays and Saturdays if tips reach $15 and $20, respectively. Single reviews of existing stories posted to Amazon count for $5 toward the tip total.

An Heir to Thorns and Steel
Blood Ladders, Book 1
M.C.A. Hogarth

Episode 13


 

      They left—thank God, they left—in time for me to bow over my chamber pot and empty my stomach into it. Very little; had I forgotten to eat all day? The poppy stung on the way back up. When I was done I sat with my back to the wall and stared up at nothing in particular.
      They were good to me to be making such an effort on my behalf, better than I expected. Perhaps better than I deserved. But I was sour-mouthed and headache-ridden and feeling altogether sodden by reality and the poppy’s aching aftermath, and gripped by it I could only view their efforts as useless. They delayed the inevitable. I wasn’t normal, I would never be normal, and the chances that I’d be crippled completely by this… this whatever it was was… well, I wouldn’t bet against those odds anymore.
      I crawled to my desk. Tomorrow I would have to brave my capricious body to deliver my Notification of Intent to Retreat to Eyre. Perhaps if I read about his elves I could distract him from asking me why I was choosing to retreat now with the paper’s due date so far in the future. Perhaps this time, reading, I would remember the words instead of losing them to hallucination and hyper-sensitivity. I tasked myself to concentration and bent over the folio.
      The historian of this particular account did me the favor of being so obviously biased I did not have to search for its evidence to weigh against his scholarship. He disliked elves. Viciously. The manuscript was littered with his stinging observations: “This race, often hailed as so patently favored by nature and God… and yet, where they went demons followed. Perhaps it was not nature and God that endowed them with their supernal beauty.” Deviations from the history were frequent: “…magic, they claimed, which was born of the world and used only to fuel its heart, and yet before there were elves the world did not seem any worse. Speculation as to the use of this magic was rampant among the court… when it did not wonder if magic existed at all.”
      The more of this vitriol I read, the more perplexed I became. I flipped to the paintings and studied them. The artist had rendered these same wicked creatures with such beauty, such tender attention to detail. I couldn’t imagine him sharing the historian’s views. It made me wonder if the two had been commissioned simultaneously, or if they had been intended as a single folio at all.
      If ever I’d needed a demonstration of how differently history could be interpreted based on the bias of the observer, this folio was it. For the first time in days, I laughed.
      “So,” I said to the lilac-eyed woman recumbent by a willow, “which is it? Were you terrible sorcerers, demon-summoners and kingdom-destroyers, doomed to your dark fall after your betrayal of humanity? Or are you idyllic, heaven-sculpted nature-tenders, innocent prey of black forces drawn by your purity of purpose?”
      She didn’t answer, and since silence from inanimate objects was no longer a given I was relieved. But posing the question was answer enough. It was a rare, rare event that survived the crush of ages without the taint of horror, catastrophe or treachery. If someone had written a history about the elves, no doubt they’d earned it.

      I fell asleep praying for an easier day, and it had become a measure of my life that dealing only with nausea, clumsiness and a surge of the brassy hypersensitivity had become an answer to that prayer. I managed to dress myself and arrange passage to school and spent the ride there huddled in the back, hiding from the too-intimate caress of the warm spring breeze and bruising beneath the weight of my clothing and the air.
      On arrival, I found my limbs reluctant to answer me, and so I stood there, swaying and feeling ridiculous. Forcing my legs to move was an act of will equivalent to running a tournament. It raised a riptide of anger so strong I had drowned in it by the time I’d wobbled my way to the stairwell leading up to the library’s offices, and it was only on the wave of that anger that I was able to drag myself, step by agonizing step, up to the second floor and from there to Eyre’s office. My first knock was so weak it didn’t penetrate his single-minded focus. I restrained the wild urge to bang my head against the door frame instead.
      “Master Professor.”
      He looked up, then vaulted from behind his chair. “God, Locke! What carriage ran you over?”
      My smile was decidedly wan. “Why thank you, sir. A pleasant morning to you as well.”
      “This is no joke,” Eyre said, advancing on me. “You look half-dead.”
      “A little too much fun with my cohorts last night,” I said. Before he could accuse me of lying, I continued. “I’ve come to give my formal notice of intent to retreat.”
      “…retreat?” Eyre said, halting. I’d succeeded in knocking whatever thought he’d had completely off his tongue. “Already?”
      “It’s not a bad time for it,” I said. “The lectures this season are irrelevant to my studies, save yours… and I’ve already heard much of your syllabus from you personally. I want to put the work into it now, while the ideas are fresh.”
      “But what if there are more folios from Vigil?” he asked.
      My heart skipped. “Will there be?”
      “I’m not sure,” he said. “But I’d be shocked if not. And… I was hoping to introduce you to more of the history of other intelligences.”
      “There were more than the elves?” I asked.
      “Several,” he said. “But they are not commonly discussed.”
      “Several?” I asked, distracted. “How many more races can there possibly be?”
      “Others that looked somewhat like us… and some that didn’t,” he said.
      I laughed. “Soon you’ll be telling me there are demons and dragons in the world.”
      Eyre shrugged. “There were.”
      I lost a breath to that, a breath and all thought: my mind grew blank as new paper. Recovering, I said, “Several more races could turn my dissertation into a library of dissertations. I have to confine my focus somehow.”
      Eyre studied me. “And there’s no other reason you’ve chosen this particular time to vanish.”
      The morning had made me churlish… churlish and too proud to listen to veiled suggestions that I was too weak for what others did as a matter of course. “If I had other reason,” I said, “I would surely not bruit it to others in casual discussion. I would hope my betters would not either.”
      Eyre’s eyes narrowed, but I refused to look away. When he turned I read frustration in how much energy bled into the motion. Papers darted from his jerky excavation of his desk until he found a single sheet and handed it to me. “Sign, then.”
      —and be damned, I heard. I leaned past the precarious stacks of books and papers to set it on the nearest flat surface and used his pen to put my name to the letter of intent. I did not look away when I handed it to him, the ink still glistening.
      “I expect this to be the best damned dissertation that’s ever crossed my desk,” Eyre said.
      “If it’s not,” I said, “you have permission to throw me out on my coat-tails.”
      Eyre eyed me and sighed. “See me in a month with a partial draft.”
      “Yes,” I said and turned to go.
      “Locke,” he said.
      I paused.
      “You’re one of the best students I’ve had.”
      I cocked a brow at him. “Don’t go writing my epitaph. I’ll only be gone a few months.”
      He snorted and I left and wonder of ages I was actually smiling.

***

Just under the wire with the last donation! So here’s the serial. :D

Did I mention that Morgan is proud? Yeah, well. There’s that. Also, the tension between truth and history is a fun thing to explore.


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