“When you go in through these doors, you will be judged for your crimes. Do you understand?”
Vie considered this. It had been an easy enough job—to not get caught while breaking into the tower. Sadly, it had not worked out that way, and she was now apprehended and facing a tribunal for her crimes. The tribunals of Sludge were fat overweight rats whose only interest was personal comfort. Anything less was met with contempt and indifference. Punishments were rote and, if bribes were paid, seldom very strict, though there were stories where in spite of the bribes, there was the occasional beheading or the removal of a limb. Most attributed such actions to political rivalries.
But that was Sludge—stinky, familiar, old Sludge, where scum lived like kings and indifference bred simplicity and the gods, whoever they be, ignored you as readily as everyone else. To even acknowledge a god or gods was a sign of weakness. Sludge had as little patience for weakness as the hoity-toity lords and ladies of Reservwyresport had for Sludge. For all of the trials it had put Vie through, for every night she had to fight for the food that she could put in her mouth, for every person she had bedded to raise the coin she needed for new clothing or a night’s shelter, it was familiar. She knew what would happen in Sludge.
“Welcome to de Innervein,” her other escort, Squite, had gummed at her as she landed in this strange place. Squite had to be the oldest person Vie had ever met. In Sludge people seldom lived past their fiftieth year, and those who did were the sort of survivor that would shove you into a coming wagon wheel or knife you in the back. Squite, with his rheumy eyes, age-freckled cheeks, toothless mouth, and long white beard, might have been a giant once, but age had stooped his shoulders and shrunken his bones to the point where he was nothing more than a street artist’s caricature of a giant. Despite this, she found herself thankful for the general kindness that he was showing her.
The gods knew she needed whatever support she could get.
She cursed herself for even acknowledging their very existence. The only reason she did now was because she was out of her league, with people best known in stories, in a place that she thought only existed in those same stories!
The Innervein. Home to the wizards who controlled arcana.
“Magi,” Dane Wunds had corrected her earlier, when she had first been brought to him upon arrival at the Innervein. “Six hundred years and the public still hasn’t forgotten. I’d love to bring Thermon the Tool back to life just so that I could strangle him. No way should we ever be called anything as lame as a wizard. Damned fools at conjuration, that’s what your ‘wizards’ are. It’s like calling a Lord ‘Luv.’”
Before this night Vie had only met one magus in her life. She had been visiting Yue in the pleasure house she lived in when the magus was brought before the pair. Since she was there, the mistress of the house had offered the pair of them as she had done a dozen times in the past. It took only a glance to know him for an arcana-user of the Order of the Vein. He wore a loose-fitting robe of exquisite silks and later on, once he had removed his clothing, she saw the tree tattooed on his right shoulder. He was clean-shaven and portly, thin of limb and smelled pleasantly of exotic smoke and warmth. When he spoke at all, it was quiet and self-conscious.
In the stories from her youth, magi froze water and burned air. It was said that they could control fire, move around the world in a moment, and enter people’s minds. These were dangerous men—never women, those were—who battled tiger-oxen and chased storms and could create food from air. They were smart and learned and they were powerful in skill, politics, and in wealth. It had been disconcerting being so close to that magus. Despite all Yue’s considerable efforts, Vie had not been able to relax properly, and she had taken the man dry and let Yue finish him. Despite his exhaustion, he was not done with the two of them yet. At his word, she and Yue entertained him by spreading pleasures upon one another as he watched. It was impossible to concentrate on Yue’s knowledgeable touch for fear that at any moment, he would find displeasure in their tryst and rain poison upon them. When their time together concluded, he grunted a simple compliment, paid his money like a regular man, and departed.
“They are regular people,” Yue had said after he had left. “Such as regular is.” As the two had slept together that night, filled by an atypical feast of a half chicken and rutabaga pie bought with the not-ungenerous money the magus had paid, Vie ran her fingertips across the thin golden velvet that coated Yue’s body and considered how varied “regular” was. Some, like Yue, had the obvious physical oddities of the blessed: fur, or horns, maybe wings or claws, that one man she had seen with the lower body of a horse. Others, like Vie, herself, had the gifts of the blessed in an ability. Someone had once said that as with the Sisters of the Heart, the magi were blessed who were able to play with the very arcana that created the blessed. To be perfectly honest, it terrified her.
“What will they do with me?” Vie asked her escorts as she stared at the intricately detailed carving of a spreading oak tree on the wide double doors. From the illness that had struck her upon her arrival at the Innervein, she was feeling weak—exhausted, really—something she had only experienced during a horrible illness that had almost killed her in her youth. Were it not for the two magi supporting her now, she was likely to collapse then and there.
The two magi looked at one another, concern and insecurity plain in their faces. Neither spoke.
“Am I going to be locked up for breaking into the Apocryptein? Please be honest. I need to know.”
The healer, Dane Wunds sighed. “We… don’t know. There are certain… protocols that are required in this type of situation. Also, we don’t know what you did or were responsible for.”
“We can tell ya dat yer our guest,” Squite added, giving her upper arm a gentle squeeze. “Ya’ll be charged fer breakin’ an’ enterin’; that’s nothin’ we can avoid. But…”
The two magi looked at one another again.
“We all felt it.”
“Somefing dat big…”
“I was suffering a headache of my own when Squite brought you in,” Dane Wunds said. “I was hoping to rest it out and avoid the gathering that would draw our brothers from all over the world. But you came in… I had to heal you.”
Heal me just to get what you want before killing me, she thought. When she first arrived, Vie was hit with a violent nausea that knocked her to the soft pine floor of the Innervein. After spreading a wide puddle of vomit across that same floor, Squite had hit her with a laughing spell that reduced the effect of the illness. She blamed the lingering effects of that spell for the cynical thought.
“Never felt somefing dat big. It hit us all, I warrant. For dat to be true, it means somefing bigger than theft or burglary or whatever it was you were doing—it’s bigger than you, me, and Wunds.”
Vie glanced around the corridor, looking for some escape. Huddled in the foyer beyond this, groups of young men openly stared at them, whispering to one another like schoolgirls. Some were grinning at her with a certain degree of lechery, but most wore no other expression than curiosity. No, there was no escape from these boys and men. She felt old and tired. Part of her wanted to give in to the pleasure that weaker women claimed to come with tears. Life was too damned rough for her to give in to this, though. Emotions were a refuge for the weak, not for someone who lived selflessly for the sake of others. No, come what may, she had to survive.
Even as she repeated these thoughts to herself, she felt her eyes betray her. She told herself that it was the wards squeezing the water from within her. It’s the loose ends unravelled that I cry for, she told herself. She could not help the image of her as a scorched corpse smoking before the feet of an almighty magi brothers. And home… she did not even want to think of them. Her imagination was running away with her. It was time to stop this nonsense.
Vie straightened her back against the pressures the Innervein imposed on her, sniffed once to collect herself and looked at each wizard in the eyes. “Whatever happens, promise me that you will take me back to Sludge before my punishment must be filled.”
The two wizards looked at each other again.
“We don’t know—” Dane Wunds began, but Vie cut him off.
“You will promise this to me.”
Squite stared at her before flashing her a grin that exposed the toothless gums of his mouth. “Yah, I’ll promise ya dat, little missy. Why not?”
She squeezed his hand in thanks, then turned toward the door.
At a wave of Dane Wunds’s hand, the mighty doors swung slowly inward. The domed room was enormous, circular, and dark. A strip of lights circled around at a level twice Vie’s height. Beneath this ring of lights, there were shadowed heads of two score people seated on an elevated dais. The circular quality of the room guided her eyes toward the middle of the room, where the image of Reservwyresport glowed. Off at the southwest end, wedged between the seedier piers of the wharves and the rolling hills set before the Western Gate, plain as day, was the slum of the city called Sludge. She would have been considerably fascinated by this unique look on her home were it not for the screaming ruckus of shouts and japes.
Vie backed off from the tempestuous clamor in the hall. Her two escorts were right there to lead her forward again. She felt herself pulling against their hold, struggling to break away. She heard a small protest come from her lips, their hands tight against her upper arms. They cajoled her forward but she refused, putting up with the bruises forming just in the hopes to escape.
As she was gaining ground and moving toward the door, a voice cut though her efforts and quieted her body’s motion. It caught her at her throat, where a thin chocker of arcana had been bound, forcing her to follow the disembodied voice’s commands. “Behave,” it told her. With her arms now limp at her sides, Dane Wunds and Squite guided her easily into the room. Though she could feel her face and body as limp as a dead fish, inside she was seething. This was not the first time tonight this had happened. The bastard who had captured her had commanded her to travel here to the Innervein with him. If this was happening to her again, it meant he was here as well. Since her outside was placid already, she forced herself to use the anger inside to make a peaceful shell through and through. I will be strong through this.
The magi brought her into the center of the room, beneath a pale golden light that rose up from the detailed mural of an oak on the floor. Her progress through the chamber brought the arguments to an end. Stopping dead over the branches of the mural triggered them to rise up menacingly toward her. As she backed away from the pale blue limbs, her foot bumped against the light and a blast of color rippled away from the contact. Within a moment, the limbs had created a fine mesh around her so bright that she could scarcely see through. Just as she feared she had been judged before the trial could even begin, the dark limbs began to crack, releasing a tower of heatless light around her. In this spotlight, Vie could feel every one of the two score eyes boring into her, cutting away her flesh to carve into her meat and remove the secrets from within. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. This was happening. Come what may, she would be brave.
“Hello,” a smoky voice called to her from across the hall. There sat a massive wooden chair whose tall back had been shaped to resemble a spreading oak. Its canopy was dotted with small lights that played like fireflies in darkness on the figure seated. From the shadowy half-light, the enshrouded figure spoke again in a voice as dark and murky as the room. He spoke softly, yet it felt to have come from directly next to her. “I am Hamza, 714th Skeleton Key to sit the High Seat of the Keyhall, Master of the Order of the Vein, and Protector of the Arcana. You may call me Skeleton Hamza.” When he tilted his face to the side some of the light fell over his face. Where his eyes would have been, empty sockets stared off away from her. By tilting his head like this, he moved one of his ears toward her—a human adaptation of what dogs and horses do to hear better. “What is your name?”
“Is that all?”
“I am Vie, Skeleton Hamza?”
“Indeed,” Skeleton Key Hamza replied, tilting his head the other way. “Dane Wunds. If my sources are correct, upon her arrival to the Innervein, this young woman was struck by the wards we had erected about our home. I was under the impression that your skill would be ample enough to prepare her for this inquiry. Based on your learned opinion, does this woman, in fact, have the lucidity to go ahead?”
“If it please you, Skeleton,” Dane Wunds replied from beside Vie. He stepped forward just a bit to address the master. “In my opinion, she is more than capable of standing for this inquiry. While the effects of the wards are concerning, indeed, I am endeavoring to dull the bulk of the pressures upon her. Short of dematerializing all the wards we have present, there is nothing we can do to totally alleviate her assault, but can I assume that is a route we choose not to take?”
“Indeed it is not.”
“While I am here, she should be strong enough for this.”
“If it please you, Skeleton,” Squite said to Hamza, his mouth working extra hard for the lack of teeth, “ya may not know what it’s like to be out and about in the world outside, but I’m from Reservwyresport an’ I know de peoples who live dere, from de rich who live out on de Twin Hills, to de merchants out on de different working streets, to de farmers across de river in Milltown, and even de sailors what come in offa de Singing Bay. I seen dem a-coming and going. And dis girl, I know girls like her from de rest of dem. She’s Sludge frough and frough.” Squite nodded proudly at his own wisdom.
“What is your point, Master Ventagist?” Skeleton Hamza asked.
“Dat in Sludge, dere are no titles, nor names oder dan what deir moders give ’em—if even dey get dat far. Everyfing you get in Sludge is all you have, and what you don’t have, you will never be given. De only fing dat Sludge gives you is a swift kick in the arse and maybe a cuff upon de ear. What I’m saying is dat girls like dis aren’t at fault for dat which dey done did. Dey are only de result of a system dat don’t care about dem. More importantly, dey aren’t idiots to be insulted or laughed at just because dey haven’t had de education we’ve been fortunate ta have. I’m an old man and prone to ramble, so excuse me and let me put it simply: keep your opinions outta dis and let’s just find out what happened tonight wifout prejudice.”
Vie looked over at the man beside her: the age-swelled nose, the enormous ears, balding head with long white wisps hanging loose from the spotted dome. Crooked and bent as he was, he radiated strength. She looked at the brown-and-white–feathered cloak he wore and, with this, she saw not a wizened corpse, but a fresh eagle, sharp-beaked and deadly. In that moment, she loved the old man both for coming to her defense and for his ability to drive this audience to utter silence.
“You speak well, Master Ventagist,” Hamza conceded with a tilt of his head. “Perhaps we of the Order have grown a tad accustomed to the titles we dispense to one another. I suppose that is the nature of a brotherhood such as ours. We reward accomplishment and assume that all in the world do so in similar fashion. Perhaps this is a question best addressed to our guest.
“Vie, do you feel capable of answering the questions that we have to ask tonight?”
“Yes,” she said, feeling a bit bolder from Squite’s words.
“Good. As far as our purposes are concerned, we only need you to confirm a few details from today. Because we are only interested in the facts, we must have you be ashonest as possible. We need these details to be as forthcoming as possible. We opt not to use threats or coercion, but you would do well to keep in mind that if you do not provide us with an accurate detail of tonight’s activities, our hand will be forced. Will you present your side of tonight’s activities to this august assembly?”
Vie glanced at Squite. He nodded back, his large watery green eyes encouraging and threatening at once. Unlike Hamza’s threat this was more preventative, like he was telling her that she did not want the less cooperative form of inquiry. “I will gladly do that.”
“Excellent. Allow me to formally welcome you to the Keyhall, where we, the Order of the Vein, conduct our most important and pressing business. Not many women have stood within its walls. Sadly, tonight, I must confess that this is no honor for what has occurred.”
“And just what did happen tonight, Skeleton Hamza?” a gruff voice called out from the assembled magi. “I was twenty leagues from the closest Vein, yet I felt it ripple.”
“It took weeks to get that whore’s time,” complained another.
“—could even cause such a thing to happen?”
“—jam and toast…”
“Brothers!” a short man with a bald head and tattoos down his cheeks roared, bringing the assembly to order. What had been discord and clamor became silence. The man, who was standing like a guard to Skeleton Hamza’s right, then nodded at the Skeleton.
“If you will still your tongues, perhaps we will learn how the Veins came to ripple in the first place. My girl, do you know what the Veins are?”
“They are giant pools of energy that are all over Traumanfang. They are also the things inside people’s bodies. Blood travels through it.”
“Just as Arcana courses through the Veins of Traumanfang,” Hamza said, nodding, his eyeless face creepily menacing in the cold light of the dancing tree chair. “Tonight, there was a rippling of the Veins. I don’t know if you can understand what that is, but any who embrace the Veins would have felt it, just as every single magus in this room has done. Some might describe it as an earthquake but done so through the aether rather than the ground. Just like an earthquake, it is extremely devastating. Indeed, some of our brothers are confirmed dead or missing. In order to figure out what has happened, you have been brought before us. What were you doing in the Apocryptein tonight?”
It had all come down to this, Vie realized. The pounding in her head worsened as she looked out of the branches of light at the assembly around her. What would they think of her decision to enter the silver tower? Would they think it a forgivable offense, or would they condemn her for what happened after? All she wanted was to leave these shadowy men to their enormous room and return home to Sludge, where she could sleep and forget this entire affair. With all that she had back there, was this entire situation truly as necessary as all that?
“To the hells with that,” she mumbled.
“Could you repeat that, please?”
Vie stared up at the dark holes in Skeleton Hamza’s face. “As Squite guessed, I’m from Sludge. I’ve lived there my whole life. An orphan with nothing going in my favor but what I picked up on the streets, I had to do what I had to get by. I’m telling you this now so that you understand why I went to the silver tower tonight.”
“Your history is noted and acknowledged,” Hamza’s guardsman said. “So why bother telling us this?”
Vie sighed. “I’m telling you this so you’ll understand that I hoped that with the money I made from selling treasure from the tower I could leave Sludge.” There. It was said. One of the many weights pressing down on her had been cast aside. If only everything else could be tossed so easily.
It was a moment before she recognized the sharp snort as a stifled laugh. She looked up into the audience. The shadows over the magi played with her eyes. There was no way she could identify the one who had spoken. It was fortunate for her that Hamza knew him at once.
“Do you have something to say, Lord Haphenasis?”
A globe of light glided down toward one of the shadowy men. As its light fell on him, Vie saw the well-fed form of a man dressed in a navy silken robe trimmed in pale orange. The close-cropped beard matched the close-cropped blonde hair on his head. He looked down his round nose at her through piggy little eyes that burned a colder teal than the ocean. Rage swirled in Vie’s head as the Lord scrutinized her.
“My pardons, Skeleton Hamza, my esteemed brothers,” he said in a voice tinged with aristocratic whine, “but I was merely chortling at the notion that the scrub of society could elevate themselves beyond the limitations of their own minds, as this thief had hoped to do.”
“Yet this ‘limited mind’ managed to get into your precious tower!” Vie’s outburst took herself by surprise. It could not be helped. The aristocratic sod was deserving of all the choler she could dredge up.
“Indeed,” Hamza said, holding up a hand to Lord Haphenasis. Though he did not turn his head, Vie knew he was talking to her. “That is a point well raised. The Apocryptein is a fortress in and of itself. How was it that you managed to penetrate its defenses?”
It was not that she wanted to show them, to show off what little magic she could do, but there was a sense that so long as they were all watching her anyway, doing anything less than show them would just not work. They had asked, after all.
Vie sucked in a breath and imagined herself small, compact, a tinier aspect of herself. There, in her mind, was the shape and size she desired. Reaching for it, she felt the change happening. Her body pulled itself not uncomfortably into itself—shrinking and consolidating, while spreading the dark hair on her head over the entirety of her body.
When all was done, Vie disappeared. In her stead was a small grey mouse.