“Matriarch Ady, can I check the Solaces for you?” said Wil, staring at the locked basalt door behind her. “Can I, please?”
Ady frowned at the quivering, cross-eyed youth, then laid her scribing tool beside the partly engraved sheet of spelter and flexed her aching fingers. “The Solaces are for the matriarchs’ eyes only. Go and polish the clangours.”
Wil, who was neither handsome nor clever, knew that Ady only kept him around because he worked hard. And because, years ago, he had revealed a gift for shillilar, morrow-sight. Having been robbed of their past, the matriarchs used even their weakest tools to protect Cython’s future.
Though Wil was so lowly that he might never earn a tattoo, he desperately wanted to be special, to matter. But he had another reason for wanting to look at the Solaces, one he dared not mention to anyone. A later shillilar had told him that there was something wrong, something the matriarchs weren’t telling them. Perhaps—heretical thought—something they didn’t know.
“You can see your face in the clangours,” he said, inflating his hollow chest. “I’ve also fed the fireflies and cleaned out the effluxor sump. Please can I check the Solaces?”
Ady studied her swollen knuckles, but did not reply.
“Why are the secret books called Solaces, anyway?” said Wil.
“Because they comfort us in our bitter exile.”
“I heard they order the matriarchs about like naughty children. ”
Ady slapped him, though not as hard as he deserved. “How dare you question the Solaces, idiot youth?”
Being used to blows, Wil merely rubbed his pockmarked cheek.
“If you’d just let me peek . . . ”
“We only check for new pages once a month.”
“But it’s been a month, look, look.” A shiny globule of quicksilver, freshly fallen from the coiled condenser of the wall clock, was rolling down its inclined planes towards today’s brazen bucket. “Today’s the ninth. You always check the Solaces on the ninth.”
“I dare say I’ll get around to it.”
“How can you bear to wait?” he said, jumping up and down.
“At my age, the only thing that excites me is soaking my aching feet. Besides, it’s three years since the last new page appeared.”
“The next page could come today. It might be there already.”
Though Wil’s eyes made reading a struggle, he loved books with a passion that shook his bones. The mere shapes of the letters sent him into ecstasies, but, ah! What stories the letters made. He had no words to express how he felt about the stories.
Wil did not own any book, not even the meanest little volume, and he longed to, desperately. Books were truth. Their stories were the world. And the Solaces were perfect books—the very soul of Cython, the matriarchs said. He ached to read one so badly that his whole body trembled and the breath clotted in his throat.
“I don’t think any more pages are coming, lad.” Ady pressed her fingertips against the blue triangle tattooed on her brow. “I doubt the thirteenth book will ever be finished.”
“Then it can’t hurt if I look, can it?” he cried, sensing victory.
“I—I suppose not.”
Ady rose painfully, selected three chymical phials from a rack and shook them. In the first, watery fluid took on a subtle jade glow. The contents of the second thickened and bubbled like black porridge and the third crystallised to a network of needles that radiated pinpricks of sulphur-yellow light.
A spiral on the basalt door was dotted with phial-sized holes. Ady inserted the light keys into the day’s pattern and waited for it to recognise the colours. The lock sighed; the door opened into the Chamber of the Solaces.
“Touch nothing,” she said to the gaping youth, and returned to her engraving.
Unlike every other part of Cython, this chamber was uncarved, unpainted stone. It was a small, cubic room, unfurnished save for a white quartzite table with a closed book on its far end and, on the wall to Wil’s right, a four-shelf bookcase etched out of solid rock. The third and fourth shelves were empty.
Tears formed as he gazed upon the mysterious books he had only ever glimpsed through the doorway. After much practice he could now read a page or two of a storybook before the pain in his eyes became blinding, but only the secret books could take him where he wanted to go—to a world and a life not walled-in in every direction.
“Who is the Scribe, Ady?”
Wil worshipped the unknown Scribe for the elegance of his calligraphy and his mastery of book making, but most of all for the stories he had given Cython. They were the purest truth of all.
He often asked that question but Ady never answered. Maybe she didn’t know, and it worried him, because Wil feared the Scribe was in danger. If I could save him, he thought, I’d be the greatest hero of all.
He smiled at that. Wil knew he was utterly insignificant.
The top shelf contained five ancient Solaces, all with worn brown covers, and each bore the main title, The Songs of Survival. These books, vital though they had once been, were of least interest to Wil, since the last had been completed one thousand, three hundred and seventy-seven years ago. Their stories had ended long before. It was the future that called to him, the unfinished stories.
On the second shelf stood the thick volumes entitled The Lore of Prosperity. There were nine of these and the last five formed a set called Industry. On Delven had covers of pale mica with topazes embedded down the spine, On Metallix was written in white-hot letters on sheets of beaten silver. Wil could not tell what On Smything, On Spagyric or On Catalyz were made from, for his eyes were aching now, his sight blurring.
He covered his eyes for a moment. Nine books. Why were there nine books on the second shelf ? The ninth, unfinished book, On Catalyz, should lie on the table, open at the last new page.
His heart bruised itself on his breastbone as he counted them again. Five books, plus nine. Could On Catalyz be finished? If it was, this was amazing news, and he would be the one to tell it. He would be really special then. Yes, the last book on the shelf definitely said, On Catalyz.
Then what was the book on the table?
A new book?
The first new book in three hundred and twelve years?
Magery was anathema to his people and Wil had never asked how the pages came to write themselves, nor how each new book could appear in a locked room in Cython, deep underground. Since magery had been forbidden to all save their long-lost kings, the self-writing pages were proof of instruction from a higher power. The Solaces were Cython’s comfort in their agonising exile, the only evidence that they still mattered.
We are not alone.
The cover of the new book was the dark, scaly grey of freshly cast iron. It was a thin volume, no more than thirty sheet-iron pages. He could not read the crimson, deeply etched title from this angle, though it was too long to be The Lore of Prosperity.
Wil choked and had to bend double, panting. Not just a new book, but the first of the third shelf, and no one else in Cython had seen it. His eyes were flooding, his heart pounding, his mouth full of saliva.
He swallowed painfully. Even from here, the book had a peculiar smell, oily-sweet then bitter underneath, yet strangely appealing. He took a deep sniff. The inside of his nose burnt, his head spun and he felt an instant’s bliss, then tendrils webbed across his inner eye. He shook his head, they disappeared and he sniffed again, wanting that bliss to take him away from his life of drudgery. But he wanted the iron book more. What story did it tell? Could it be the Scribe’s own?
He turned to call Ady, then hesitated. She would shoo him off and the three matriarchs would closet themselves with the new book for weeks. Afterwards they would meet with the leaders of the four levels of Cython, the master chymister, the heads of the other guilds and the overseer of the Pale slaves. Then the new book would be locked away and Wil would go back to scraping muck out of the effluxors for the rest of his life.
But his second shillilar had said the Scribe was in danger; Wil had to read his story. He glanced through the doorway. Ady’s old head was bent over her engraving but she would soon remember and order him back to work.
Shaking all over, Wil took a step towards the marble table, and the ache in his eyes came howling back. He closed his worst eye, the left, and when the throbbing eased he took another step. For the only time in his life, he did feel special. He slid a foot forwards, then another. Each movement sent a spear through his temples but he would have endured a lifetime of pain for one page of the story.
Finally he was standing over the book. From straight on, the etched writing was thickly crimson and ebbed in and out of focus. He sounded out the letters of the title.
The Consolation of Vengeance.
“Vengeance?” Wil breathed. But whose? The Scribe’s?
Even a nobody like himself could tell that this book was going to turn their world upside-down. The other Solaces set out stories about living underground: growing crops and farming fish, healing, teaching, mining, smything, chymie, arts and crafts, order and disorder, defence. They described an existence that allowed no dissent and had scarcely changed in centuries.
But their enemy did not live underground—they occupied the Cythonians’ ancestral land of Cythe, which they called Hightspall. To exact vengeance, Cython’s armies would have to venture up to the surface, and even an awkward, cross-eyed youth could dream of marching with them.
Wil knew not to touch the Solaces. He had been warned a hundred times, but, oh, the temptation to be first was irresistible. The book was perfection itself; he could have contemplated it for hours. He bent over it, pressing his lips to the cover. The iron was only blood-warm, yet his tears fizzed and steamed as they fell on the rough metal. He wanted to bawl. Wanted to slip the book inside his shirt, hug it to his skin and never let it go.
He shook off the fantasy. He was lowly Wil the Sump and he only had a minute. His trembling hand took hold of the cover. It was heavy, and as he heaved it open it shed scabrous grey flakes onto the white table.
The writing on the iron pages was the same sluggishly oozing crimson as on the cover, but his straining eye could not bring it into focus. Was it protected, like the other Solaces, against unauthorised use? On Metallix had to be heated to the right temperature before it could be read, while each completed chapter of On Catalyz required the light of a different chymical flame.
A mud-brain like himself would never decipher the protection. Frustrated, Wil flapped the front cover and a jagged edge tore his forefinger.
“Ow!” He shook his hand.
Half a dozen spots of blood spattered across the first page, where they set like flakes of rust. Then, as he stared, the glyphs snapped into words he could read. Such perfect calligraphy! It was the greatest book of all. Wil read the first page and his eyes did not hurt at all. He turned the page, flicked blood onto the book and read on.
“I can see.” His voice soared out of his small, skinny body, to freedom. “I can see.”
Ady let out a hoarse cry. “Wil, get out of there.”
He heard her shuffling across to the basalt door but Wil did not move. Though the crimson letters brightened until they hurt his eyes, he had to keep reading. “Ady, it’s a new book.”
“What does it say?” she panted from the doorway.
“We’re leaving Cython.” He put his nose on the page, inhaling the tantalising odour he could not get enough of. It was ecstasy. He turned the page. The rest of the book was blank, yet that did not matter—in his inner eye the future was unrolling all by itself. “It’s a new story,” Wil whispered. “The story of tomorrow.”
“Are you in shillilar?” Her voice was desperate with longing. “Where are the Solaces taking us? Are we finally going home?”
“We’re going—” In an instant the world turned crimson. “It’s the one!” Wil gasped, horror overwhelming him. “Stop her.”
Ady stumbled across and took him by the arm. “What are you seeing? Is it about me?”
Wil let out a cracked laugh. “She’s changing the story—bringing the Scribe to the brink—”
“Who are you seeing?” cried Ady. “Speak, lad!”
How could the one change the story written by the Scribe Wil worshipped? Surely she couldn’t, unless . . . unless the Scribe was fallible. No! That could not be. But if the one was going to challenge him, she must have free will. It was a shocking, heretical thought. Could the one be as worthy as the Scribe? Ah, what a story their contest would make. And the story was everything—he had to see how it ended.
Ady struck him so hard that his head went sideways. “Answer me!”
“It’s . . . it’s the one.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, boy. What one?”
“A Pale slave, but—”
“A slave is changing our future?” Ady choked. “Who?”
“A girl.” Wil tore his gaze away from the book for a second and gasped, “She’s still a child.”
“What’s her name?”
“I . . . don’t know.”
Wild-eyed and frantic, Ady shook him. “When does this happen?”
“Not for years and years.”
“When, boy? How long have we got to find her?”
Wil turned back to the last written page, tore open his finger on the rough edge and dribbled blood across the page. The story was terrible but he had to know who won. “Until . . . until she comes of age—”
“What are we to do?” said Ady, and he heard her hobbling around the table. “We don’t know how to contact the Scribe. We must obey The Consolation of Vengeance.”
The letters brightened until his eyes began to sting, to steam. Wil began to scream, but even as his vision blurred and his eyes bubbled and boiled into jelly that oozed out of his sockets, he could not tear his gaze away. He had longed to be special, and now he was.
She tottered back to him, wiped his face, and he heard her weeping. “Why didn’t you listen to me?”
He took another sniff and the pain was gone. “Stupid old woman,” sneered Wil. “Wil can see so much more clearly now. Wil free!”
“Wil, what does she look like?”
“She Pale. She the one.”
“Tell me!” she cried, shaking him. “How am I to find this slave child among eighty-five thousand Pale—and see her dead.”