Word had come this morning of an army massing in Trellahn. The Trellish forts had been accumulating their strength for several weeks, and now an army waited at Lock’s western border. Rumor held that another army marched to join it from the Trellish capital. Soon, the two armies would march directly for Dekahn and it was all Null’s fault.
Knowing the letter was somewhere in this room, Null shuffled through the papers on her desk. She’d put it away weeks ago, for later study – in this very spot – but still, she could not find it. The contents of the letter had frightened her, but until now, she had suppressed this fear, unwilling to let herself admit the writer might be credible. At the time, she had been too awed by the format of the text and the sender’s hyperbolic threats to believe them. After all, Trin Cavahl had not been harmed – to be certain of her safety, Null had personally sent a guard to escort her – as the letter had promised. But the letter had promised this conflict as well, and it seemed that this threat had not been as empty as the others.
She remembered the day it had arrived, in the hands of the Trellish merchant, along with a gift – if it could be called a gift – sealed in a wooden box, marked with the strange circles known as the Alchemist’s Gasket that was the Trellish insignia. She recalled asking the merchant about the contents of the box before opening it, but Miss Cavahl had claimed ignorance. The woman had tried to leave once the delivery had been made, but Null had convinced her to stay. Apparently, she had not been told to wait for Null’s response, and had Null been a more observant woman, perhaps that would have given her some insight into what awaited her. At the time, she had taken the merchant’s desire to flee as further proof that the letter was a pernicious hoax. Now… Now she wasn’t as certain.
The seal, Null thought. What color? She tried to remember. Red. Red wax. Calmly, she swept all of the papers onto the floor then closed her eyes. A strange itch hummed in her retina as she focused on the desired color. That itch had once been maddening, but over the years, she had become accustomed to it. It took a moment after reopening her eyes for her mind to adjust. The world was different. Most hues had turned to gray and black, leaving only the shades of red which heightened into a rainbow unto themselves. She had learned this trick in her sleep, in a frighteningly powerful dream of a multi-colored world shifting and changing with each dart of her eyes. When she’d awoken, her vision had taken on the dream world’s characteristics, alternating from one color scheme to the next, from blues to greens to reds to blacks, and a melding of every color in between. Most of her discoveries came in her dreams. Mycah claimed that these dreams had been bestowed upon her by a god, but she did not believe his theory.
Null examined the papers on the floor. A few of them held red, but no circles. Kneeling, she spread the papers across the tile, looking for the Trellish seal. Finally, she found it beneath one of the incessant Chapter House manifestos that had a habit of appearing on her desk. Triumphant, she grabbed the note and shot to her feet. Returning to her sitting room, she plopped herself into a chair, the same chair in which she had first read the letter, and unfolded the pages.
To fully remember the letter’s message, she needed to recreate the scene, though that should not be difficult. The sender’s magic was far beyond Null’s abilities, and to know that there could be others out there more powerful than she, working against her king, had been a frightening realization. Mycah was stronger than her by far, but he had always been an honest friend. But the sender… She’d had nightmares about that reading every night since.
Folding back the pages of the letter, and seeing only black where there should be script, she clenched her eyelids together and returned her sight to normal. After the familiar itch faded, she opened her eyes to see the whites and yellows of the page returned to normal. Once again, the pages were covered by black ink scrawled in neat rows.
The letter was spaced oddly, a single paragraph at the top followed by a numbered list of sentences formatted like the lines of dialogue in a book of plays. Even stranger, many of the words had been scratched out, as if the writer had made mistakes, but did not care if Null could read them.
Retrieving a pen from the adjacent side table, Null unstoppered her ink and smoothed a stack of fresh paper. As she reread the letter, she tried to remember her initial thoughts and reactions, so she could jot them onto the blank pages. The memory returned easily.
“Dear… you? Not me, (I hope), the letter began.
I am writing this letter to formally requisition your copy of Dydal’s Teachings of a Whore. My own copy has been irreparably damaged by the carrier of this letter, the glorious wench, and it has come to my attention that King Erin of your pathetic country your glorious nation filled with barbarians wondrous monuments and a proud, noble people, has entrusted his library to you – who, unfortunately, is not me – including –”
She recalled stopping in the middle of this sentence out of indignation. Frustration, Null wrote in the margin. She remembered turning to the merchant, who sat on the couch across from her. She had told the woman to help herself to the brandy waiting on the center table. Miss Cavahl accepted happily, pouring herself a rather full glass, before propping her feet on the table.
“Who is this from?” Null had asked the merchant.
“The High Cleric of Trel, ma’am.” The merchant had said.
“Is he insane?” she’d asked.
“I don’t know ma’am… I’ve only met him once, and again when he gave me the letter, but… he’s an entertaining fellow to say the least, and a fair employer if he keeps his word. If you’re asking my honest opinion, I’d have to say anyone who thinks they can talk to the gods must be insane, but he’s been running things for as long as I’ve been alive, so he must have something going for him. If he pays me the way he told me he would, I’ll believe whatever he says and worship him to boot.”
“He’s that High Cleric?” Null had asked, shocked.
“Of course, ma’am. We’ve only got the one.”
“And this is not a joke? You haven’t been hired by one of Erin’s guards to make me look a fool, have you?”
Null remembered being skeptical of the letter’s authenticity. On the clean pages she wrote down what she remembered of her conversation with the merchant and what she’d been thinking. After their conversation, she remembered returning to the letter.
–including Dydal’s original manuscript. And I assure you, I am not insane.
Seeing this, she’d had to reread the sentence. A coincidence she’d thought at the time, surely. Disturbed, she had continued reading.
“Please send to me the original text. I will accept nothing less than the original, in a pristine and undamaged condition, as I require it for my most devious important and not at all devious studies. In exchange, please accept the damaged my own, loved and cherished copy that I received from my wonderful grandmother, make up a name Ivan! No, don’t write that. Of course, any name will do. At the age of three. I know that you will cherish it as much as I have, even in its worn and disparate state. As an extra incentive, please accept the beautifully carved wooden box in which the book is sealed, free of charge.”
Though the letter continued for several pages more, Null had stopped here to examine the box. Inscribed on the top was the same symbol that had sealed the letter. She’d opened the box to find an old book, bound in leather. The smell that greeted her had been atrocious; the smell of a latrine pit. Holding it by thumb and finger, she had lifted the text from the box in order to study it further. She recalled that several pages appeared to have been torn loose, and then stuffed back in and pressed between the pages. The merchant had burst into laughter upon seeing the monstrosity.
“I think I might love him,” Miss Cavahl had said, wiping tears from her eyes. “I wouldn’t open that if I were you.”
“And why not?” Null had asked, affronted.
“Well, from the smell I suspect he’s included the pages I tore out, ma’am.”
“And what’s on those pages?”
“What it smells like, ma’am.”
Null had immediately dropped the book. She remembered the merchant’s grin as she pronounced these words and the rude laugh that had followed Null’s response. For all their name-calling, the Trellish were the true savages.
Setting the box aside, she had returned to the letter and reread the Cleric’s request. As it was one of the oldest texts in the library, she knew the book he was referring to, a book written by the Whore’s first High Cleric, Dydal. Though most religious texts had been burned after the succession, their country’s first king and namesake, Lock, had personally preserved Dydal’s manuscript. It was the only text that Lock had chosen to save when the various factions split from Atherahn, so despite its religious content, it had become a cherished artifact among the Lockish people.
As a mage, Null was already hated by her fellows. If she gave the book away, the citizens of Dekahn would likely kill her – and destroy half the city besides – in the resulting riots. No, she’d thought. I will not give up the book. After this, she had returned to the letter. The lone paragraph had ended, but the letter continued with individually numbered lines.
(1) What do you mean “no,” the letter read. Confused, she had been forced to pause for a moment.
The High Cleric must truly be mad, Null had thought. She had rubbed her eyes and then read on.
(2) I am NOT mad, you vile witch. I am the great and esteemed High Cleric of the Holy City of Trel, Ruler of the chosen Trellish people, Voice of the Gods, and you will send me that book!
“What?” Null had said aloud. She recalled the chill that had run down her spine when she read that line. It was as if the High Cleric had been responding to her thoughts, which was an absurd theory. At the outburst, the merchant looked to Null, but remained quiet. Null remembered skipping ahead to the next page and reading a few lines. They did not make sense either.
“Yes you are,” read line fourteen. “No, no, no. That will not work. I must have Dydal’s original,” read the next. “You would refuse me?” read sixteen.
At this point, truly confused, she had set the letter down. “Are you sure he isn’t mad?” Null had asked the merchant. “The remaining pages are little more than a list of fragmented gibberish.”
Miss Cavahl shrugged. “I’m not sure, ma’am. He’s an odd one, but I don’t know if he’s insane. He sure is funny though. When I ruined the book, he told me that I’m supposed to pay a whore before defiling her. I’ve liked him ever since.”
“Perhaps it’s a code,” Null had said. “Did he give you any other instructions when he gave you the letter? Perhaps to do with the numbers in the margin?”
“No ma’am, he only told me who to give it to.”
“He named me specifically?”
“He said to give it to Entaras Null, priest of nothing – that is you, right?”
“I am Entaras Null, but I’m certainly not a priest,” she’d said. Considering the merchant’s words, Null had returned to the letter, resuming at line three.
(3) Read the letter IN ORDER, you foolish woman. Do you know what it’s like to hear your thoughts before you’ve thought them? Of course you don’t! It’s actually quite fun. The experience is quite harrowing and I will require Dydal’s text as compensation for your mistreatment of my defectively flawless mind.
Null was astonished. Could it be possible, she had wondered, that the High Cleric of Trel could have preempted her thoughts? It seemed miraculous. She had once heard the Trellish High Cleric was, like herself, capable of Mysticism, but most of the Trellish she had met in her years held an overly devout – approaching zealotrous – loyalty to their ruler. She had always thought the stories, and their loyalty, the usual religious arrogance most Trellish folk exhibited, but maybe there was a reason for it. Perhaps he was a mage, as powerful as the priests of lore, like Dydal or Rift. But no, she’d thought. Surely this is a cruel jest.
(4) Dydal is an upstart hack and Rift a screaming coward. The terror he felt as I sealed him within Mystic’s Tomb is nothing compared to the terror you shall feel if you do not send me the book!
It was line four that had finally convinced Null the letter was a joke concocted by a guard, some court rival, or likely Tyvan Dahl.
Who was I kidding? Null reflected. It’s always Tyvan. Knowing the spymaster’s influence, she did not write that particular thought on her pages.
Though magic was banned outside the royal court of Lock, mages, witches, warlocks, and other practitioners were rumored to be found in Dekahn’s seedier underground. Null had decided the mastermind behind this prank must have hired one of these scoundrels to harass her, and then found a Trellish merchant at one of the city’s inns willing to say anything for the right price. After all, what kind of ruler would defecate in a book and then send it to a representative of a foreign land?
Furthermore, it was impossible for the writer to know her mind or predict her thoughts weeks in advance. No, this had to be a glamour; one that made her see the manifestation of her thoughts upon the pages. Magic was capable of many things, but no priest or mystic or mage could foresee the future. Not even the gods had been able to predict what was going to happen, she had thought. If they could, they would still walk alongside mortals. Well, if they ever existed in the first place.
Curious, Null had continued with the letter, if only to learn more of the magic.
(5) If you continue to doubt me, I shall reopen the tomb for no other reason than to seal you in beside Rift! And when it weakens the seal, allowing Galina to break free, she will drink your blood and dance on your corpse. The heavens will roil above as the gods fail and she reclaims her throne, and all the while I shall laugh and sing and drink lemonade as the city of Dekahn burns before me, Teachings of a Whore, nestled upon my lap and King Erin’s skull resting beneath my feet. Now for the love of the gods, think as you would speak so we can move these negotiations along.
At this point, Null remembered letting her eyes return to the merchant. Perhaps this woman is a mage, she had thought. Maybe she can tell my thoughts from some spell I have not learned and she guides my sight on the page. But to what purpose? The threats were too emphatic, approaching the impossible. For one thing, the city of Dekahn could not burn. The magic which protected the city kept all wood from burning within its vicinity. Still… she’d had her doubts. So, she had decided to humor the letter from there on, telling herself that it was only in hopes of discovering the letter’s trick.
How are you doing this? she had thought.
(6) I am High Cleric to the gods, read the letter. I am capable of anything. If you bring me the book I will teach you all of my secrets.
No, she had thought, firmly.
(7) Yes, read the letter.
No, she had thought a third time.
(9) Reread line eight, read line nine.
I cannot give you the book, it is the closest thing to a holy artifact our nation has.
(10) Artifact? The text is worthless. It is nothing but the ramblings of a lecherous old fool.
Lock preserved it for a reason, Null had thought.
(11) Lock was a power-hungry wretch. He used a hatred he did not feel as his path to power, and all the while he secretly worshipped the Whore. That is why he preserved the book, because of his love and devotion to her. And in return, she used him to enflame the Butcher’s Cult. Lock was nothing more than her prized bitch.
You have no proof of this, she’d asserted.
(12) Ask your king, he knows the truth. But what do you care anyway? Your people despise you. In Trel you would be respected as a true priest to the gods. We do not fear the gods, nor their slaves servants.
You think me a slave? Null had asked.
(13) I think you a fool.
I am not a fool.
(14) Yes you are.
Even if I am a fool, I will not betray my king. Nor will I give away his possessions to satisfy the desires of a vagrant. If you wish, I will send you another copy of the text. She recalled thinking that she would have the merchant defecate in that copy as well.
(15) No, no, no. That will not work. I must have Dydal’s original.
No matter what you say, the book is sacred and it belongs to my king. You will not have it, so it is a copy or nothing. Decide now, for I grow tired of this prank.
(16) You would refuse me?
(17) Reread the final word of line eleven.
She had backtracked through the list to number eleven, and finding the designated word, read it aloud, “Bitch.”
Miss Cavahl, who had been about to pour herself another glass of the southern brandy, had given an embarrassed cough before returning the bottle to the table, her glass unfilled.
(18) I’m not a bitch, read the letter. You’re the bitch!
I didn’t say that.
(19) Liar! I will give you one final chance. If you do not agree, this moment, to bring me the book, I will kill Trin Cavahl!
Go right ahead. As of now, I’m convinced that she is the orchestrator of this ruse.
Line twenty was blank.
(21) Fine! The merchant lives, but I warn you, I will have that book. If I have to obtain it of my own volition, you will not like who I send to retrieve it.
The Esteemed High Cleric of the Holy City of Trel, Voice to the Gods, Envoy to the Heavens, Ruler of Men, and Champion of the Faith.
The letter ended there. Having had enough, Null had leapt to her feet. “Your empty threats are tiresome,” she had shouted at the merchant. “And this ruse has become stale. I am certain you must be one of Tyvan’s thugs to harass me so, and I will not tolerate it. Tell your employer to show himself in person if he wishes a confrontation. Otherwise, tell him to crawl back into the shadows and die there. Now, I would ask that you leave, and to take your ‘gift’ with you.”
Miss Cavahl had left without complaint, apologizing for any offense she may have caused, but saying little else. A few hours after the incident, Null had sent the merchant an apology as well as a guard to escort the woman out of the city. She had no proof the merchant was in on the scheme and she wanted to be sure the letter’s threat against her could not come true. Null had been certain the letter a jest, but it was still likely Miss Cavahl had been hired by the sender and completely innocent.
But now, with this morning’s call to war, Null was not so certain of herself. What if the letter had truly been written by the High Cleric of Trel? As she read the final lines, her throat began to constrict. The panic returned and she gasped air desperately, closing her eyes in an effort to calm herself. It felt as though a hole had opened at the bottom of her esophagus and now the air compressed itself into that hole, crushing like a vice inside her neck. Placing a hand against her chest, she fed air into her lungs. She paced the flow, trying to regulate both the breathing and her pounding heart. Finally regaining control, she dropped forward to place her face on her knees.
The letter had been true, but Null had been so consumed by her own insecurities that she had thought it a joke. From fear of becoming a laughingstock, she had not told anyone of the letter. Not even Mycah. Had she only done so, perhaps things would be different.
Running her hands through her hair, she collected herself. She may have made a mistake, but she could not fail her king. Even if the news was late, Erin needed to know of her failings so he could prepare for the Trellish onslaught. In her hands, she held proof of the High Cleric’s power and Erin needed to know of the threat this man presented should the Cleric march with his armies. She would not fail her king again.