Chapter 6 of Gravity’s RevengePosted by in Uncategorized
Hiresha was walking down a wall when she thought she heard someone whisper her name. An itching sensation ran over her back to her chest, and she kneaded the fingers of one hand through her gloves, feeling the concealed jewels there that she had imbedded into her skin.
A pool of blue light surrounded Hiresha, her earrings shining with the soul of a dreaming enchantress. With no one visible beyond her circle of light, Hiresha took another step. The vertical pathway alternated between bands of black tile and those of lighter marble, granting some sense of depth and a pattern of steps on a smooth surface.
“Hiresha.” The whisper came again, and a woman’s ghost drifted into the corner of Hiresha’s vision. Teal strips of cloth wound around arms and legs, and the apparition wore a skirt of thick cotton.
The enchantress took another glance, and the sight of an unfortunately broad chin but soft eyes reassured her. This was not a specter of the night after all.
“Alyla? What are you doing awake? You should be practicing your lucid dreaming.”
Hiresha spoke faster than she had intended. The girl had surprised her, and the enchantress did not know what she would say if the novice asked why Provost Hiresha—the legendary sleeper—was also awake.
Hiresha could not very well mention that she intended to slip down to confront the Lord of the Feast.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Alyla said.
The enchantress wondered if Lord Tethiel’s presence alone could cause nightmares.
The tall novice clomped, even as she tiptoed, up a striped ramp onto the wall. She stood beside the enchantress, gazing down a window of hundreds of glass panes, all blue and silvery. The window swayed inward in a crystal bubble, its facets designed to flex under the pressure of the gusts outside. An enchantment contracted the window back to its original shape.
“Couldn’t stop thinking of my brother out there. I wanted to bring him an extra cloak.” She folded and refolded a swath of linen around her hands. Lifting the bundle, she covered her face with it. “But I couldn’t get myself to go outside. What use am I?”
Hiresha’s gowns encircled Alyla as the enchantress leaned close to hug the girl. “You’re a thoughtful woman, Alyla. I’ll take Fos the cloak. The door out would’ve been locked to you anyway at this hour.”
“I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t.”
“Yes, go to bed. Here, take a yawn for inspiration.” Hiresha’s jaw stretched in a triumphant expression of drowsiness.
“I shouldn’t be at the Academy at all.”
Alyla faced away, into the darkness. “I know what it costs you to keep me here, and I don’t want it.”
“Never mind the cost. You—”
Alyla gasped a breath then spoke a gallop of words, more than Hiresha had ever heard from her at a stretch.
“I don’t belong here. I’m not a princess, no lord’s daughter. Not one of those women who can do anything she sets herself to. The chancellor doesn’t like me. I want to go back home to Morimound, where it’s warm. But I think Fos will be heartbroken if I go so maybe I should stay as a maid then no one would have to notice me except I worry you’ll be mad at me but don’t know what else I’d do, so could I please go?”
Hiresha coaxed Alyla back into a closer embrace. The enchantress had to admit to herself she had worried the young woman’s timid nature would make dream exploration difficult, but Hiresha believed that internal adventures could help the woman overcome her shyness.
“You learned the names of the gemstones faster than any novice in years….”
Hiresha stopped, not sure what else to say. She did not like to think the chancellor was right, that Alyla did not belong here. To Hiresha, the Academy was home, and she only wanted a few people there she could think of as family. Is that selfish of me?
“Alyla, if you feel that way we’ll have to discuss it. Yet not now. Not on a night like this.”
The wind thudded against the window as if trying to get in. It sounded both harsh and desperate.
Hiresha held Alyla for a few moments. Long enough for the provost to fall asleep in the taller woman’s arms. Alyla woke her. They parted ways in front of the novice’s room.
The enchantress walked away down a hall covered with paintings of birds. Larks and songbirds of all colors cluttered together, one standing atop another, wingtips touching. Each novice painted a bird by tradition. If Hiresha searched long enough she might find her own, with purple wings and less than perfectly drawn feet.
Most days the profusion of birds added color to the stone and relief from the stark absence of wildlife in the mountain heights. Tonight, as shadows played over the murals, the wings seemed to writhe. Beaks that once gave the impression of opening in song now appeared angled toward their feathery neighbors, ready to peck and gouge. Mistakes in drawing appeared to be broken limbs, weaker birds hobbled and soon to be devoured. Hiresha had a sense the feathered swarm was but one creature with a thousand razor-sharp beaks.
Before the enchantress could retreat from the hall, she heard a knocking behind her. Another woman was in front of Alyla’s door. She carried a naked candle. In the other hand she grasped a flashing knife.
No, not a knife, Hiresha realized. A hand mirror. What am I thinking?
The girl had not seen the enchantress, but it would only take a glance over the shoulder. A sudden pressure built in Hiresha’s chest, and she had a sense she must not allow this girl to see her.
The Provost of Applied Enchantment ignored the feeling. There is no logical reason for me to be frightened.
Across the hall, Alyla opened the door. “Minna?”
“I wasn’t sure I should, but I came,” the girl said. Hot wax leaked over pale fingers.
“You could get in trouble being out this late in Lark’s Hall,” Alyla said. “You left your veil.”
It was an obvious thing to say, but Hiresha too found herself staring at the girl’s perfect features. By some trick of the candlelight, the birthmark was no longer visible. From sculpted chin to graceful brow, the girl’s skin shone whiter than ivory.
Minna lifted her mirror, and a beam of reflected light slashed through the gloom. The girl gazed at herself. She grinned. Then she turned the mirror toward Alyla, and an unforgiving light fell over the novice’s face. Minna’s voice throbbed with emotion.
“I—I wanted to show you something.”
“There I am. Oh! Wherever did you get a mirror so clear?”
“My…father gave it to me.” Minna licked her lips in a strange manner. “Is that something on your face?”
Alyla jerked a hand up to touch a welt on her cheek. “Didn’t know I had this. It itches.”
Hiresha had not noticed the red spot either, though it would have seemed darker in her blue light. Something about the nightly meeting seemed wrong, but Hiresha dismissed it and began stepping around her train of gowns to leave.
“What is it?” Alyla asked. “Ow! It’s stinging.”
Minna said, “Could it be a spider bite?”
“Oh, no! Oh, no!”
Hiresha stumbled back around to see Alyla clutching her face. Minna shoved the mirror closer. Fuzzy dots skittered across Alyla’s cheek. The black specks were crawling from an open wound. Hiresha strode forward and saw they were spiderlings.
Alyla’s throat convulsed in a silent scream. She stood transfixed in front of the mirror, seemed unable to turn away or speak. Beside her, Minna sucked in a long breath as if savoring a delicious smell. The girl grew taller, her own face sharpening to a greater beauty, her eyes more bright, her lips more red.
A needle of recognition pricked the back of Hiresha’s neck. The girl is Feasting on Alyla. I brought a Feaster into the Academy.
“Alyla, it’s illusion.”
Hiresha grabbed Minna and shoved her away. A thought jarred Hiresha. This is Janny’s daughter. I don’t want to have to hurt her.
Minna looked down at Hiresha. The girl now appeared to be a tall woman, unblemished in features, voluptuous and full of deadly assurance. Minna swept a hand adorned with red nails to the weeping Alyla. Only Minna’s voice was less than magnificent.
“Won’t you help her? I shouldn’t be here. I’ll go back to my room now.”
“No.” Hiresha forced herself to meet the Feaster’s gaze. “I know what you are, Minna.”
Panic flickered over the Feaster’s face. Then her expression hardened, and she showed all her teeth in her smile. “My name is Minara. And something’s wrong with your face.”
The mirror swung upward. A flash of light. Hiresha blinked and saw herself. Cracks lined her face. She was far older looking than she thought, her skin sagging, dripping downward in creasing jowls and flaps of greying skin.
It’s illusion, Hiresha told herself. Though she could not look away from the sight of her face disintegrating into old age, her hands fumbled within the folds of her gowns. Her fingers caught on a sash lined with small pockets. I have to stop Minna, stop the Feaster from casting.
The sash held jewels. Gems holding impact enchantments of which the chancellor did not in any form approve. As Hiresha scrounged for a diamond, she wondered if the magic inside would be enough. Her Attraction enchantments had immobilized packs of men trying to strangle her. But a Feaster?
Hiresha’s face shriveled against her cheek bones and pointed jaw. She was a corpse, fit to be buried. Her fingers trembled, a numbness spreading from them and up her arms so she felt nothing.
The darkness behind Minna parted around a man. He rested a hand on the Feaster’s shoulder, his fingers crooked, one locked in the position of a hook, another stuck out straight. Yet they all cast curved shadows that ended in wicked points like fangs.
“My daughter,” the Lord of the Feast said, “what did I tell you about minding your appetite?”
The woman shrank, dropped her mirror in fright. The glass shattered then dissolved into slithering blackness. Minna was a girl again, cowering with arms around knees, her nose dribbling. Her birthmark had returned, a blotch on her quivering face.
“I didn’t…I didn’t….”
“Know I was here? None of your brothers or sisters do either.” The Lord of the Feast released the girl from his grasp. “Yet I’m always watching. Now go.”
She ran down the hall.
Hiresha touched her own cheek to reassure herself that her skin was supple and healthy. Alyla’s face too no longer showed a trace of spiders.
“To bed, my young dainty,” he said to Alyla. “No shadows will harm you, as long as you never open your door at night.”
Alyla’s mouth opened as if to answer. Her eyes unfocused, and her head rolled to the side as she slumped. The Lord of the Feast caught her before she could smack against the tiles in her faint.
The enchantress helped drag Alyla into her room. Hiresha tucked the girl into her bed, smoothed the hair from her brow, then shut her away safe.
In the hall, Hiresha glanced in the direction that Minna had retreated. “I must have her locked in her room as well.”
“To her room she goes, and her own fear will lock her in.” The Lord of the Feast bowed to Hiresha. He clasped her gloved hand as best as his stiff fingers allowed and brushed her gloved knuckles against his lips. “The time away from you is ever too long, my heart, the time with you ever too short.”
His touch sent jangling pulses of heat and chill up her arm. All at once her stomach felt hollow and achy. She had to swallow twice before she could speak through her dry mouth. “Being locked in a room seems to have done you no good.”
“Oh, did the spellswords mean to lock me up? They must have made the critical mistake of believing what they saw.” The illusionist grinned.
The Lord of the Feast inhaled a long breath. Hiresha tried to think calm thoughts, despite the quick pace of her heart, because she knew Feasters could scent fears.
“You wonder the reason why I’m here,” he said. “My heart, do you still insist everything has a purpose?”
“Earlier today I saw something on the Skyway….” This close to him, Hiresha was more aware. Her senses had sharpened. Everything seemed too loud and bright, and for the first time that day she felt awake and sharp of mind. “…But then I was leaning against Minna…Minara…a Feaster. Might she have made me see something not there?”
“Perhaps. A touch would’ve made her power greater over you. The day would’ve made it less.” He offered her his arm.
She took it, leaning close to press a green and red jewel between his eyes, where a black triangle was tattooed. “The touch of this tourmaline will trap you in sleep, unless you swear to me you haven’t harmed any in the Academy and won’t for the duration of your visit.”
Hiresha had only to release her grip on the tourmaline to activate its enchantment, immobilizing him. He would then be at the mercy of her and the Academy’s spellswords.
“Nothing is more intimate than a threat,” the Lord of the Feast said. “You wrong me, Hiresha. I know well enough that you would destroy anyone who harmed the Mindvault by so much as carving his name in the side of a tower.”
“The vandal’s chisel would break on the enchanted rock,” she said, “and I’ve yet to hear your promise.”
“I swear it, if it’ll please you, by the darkest depths of the crypt Stillness Resounding.”
“What a pretentious place to be buried.”
The enchantress wished to trust the Lord of the Feast. She had wanted to for years. Hiresha knew that his ravenous magic drove him to kill. Once, he had murdered a man to save her life. He had also helped protect Alyla, tonight and when she and the other women of Hiresha’s homeland had been attacked by his rival.
She preferred not to imagine Tethiel frightening an enchantress into leaping, though it left her with an unpleasant question of what had happened to her. Hiresha thought she might ask him about it. If anyone would understand her fears, it would be this connoisseur of terror. She removed the enchanted jewel from his brow, slipping it back into her sash pocket.
“You have much to excuse and explain,” Hiresha said. “But not here. The novices are sleep studying.”
“Nothing disappoints people more than answering their questions,” Tethiel said, “but perhaps you have a secluded place in mind?”
“You may escort me to the Ballroom, Tethiel.”
They walked together in silence, onto the walls and down stairs between windows. He wore a sleek black wig with red coral beads. The sleeves of his jacket ended in triangular notches at the wrist. In the blue light of her earrings, his red gloves and vest should have been tinted dark. Yet they shone an unapologetic crimson.
Standing on a pattern of concentric circles to the right of the tower entrance caused Hiresha’s amulet to shimmer. Its enchantment Lightened a massive stone door, and the slab slid upward into the ceiling. Hiresha and the Lord of the Feast strode outside into a brilliant blast of cold air and starlight.
How many women, Hiresha wondered, would venture out on a winter’s night with the Lord of the Feast?
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