The last thing I remember is opening the book.
You would think I’d remember more than that. The first line. The first word even. But it isn’t that kind of book. You don’t notice what it says. Only that it pulls you in and takes you away from yourself. Like a dream you can’t resist. A dream you can’t quite wake up from.
Not long ago, I thought it was a sign from God. It didn’t turn out like I expected, though, which just goes to show I don’t understand stories.
But this is no way to begin, if you are hearing me. Considering where I am, I should be able to do better. Let me try again.
♦ ♦ ♦
I thought I saw my sign in the hands of a dead man.
His name was Vuric and, even though he wasn’t recently dead, not by the stink wafting off him, he was recently discovered to be dead. His landlady, Malthea, found him a few hours before I poked my head into the little taproom she kept on the ground floor of the moldering house she owned in Elsabar Street, just south of the Tengral River.
She, a rotund woman with rusty-iron curls barely contained by the bleached kerchief she wore, was wiping down the polished plank on barrels that served as the bar with much more vigour than the task demanded, regularly pausing to glare at a trio of older men sitting at the only occupied table. They, in turn, were determinedly ignoring her, even though it was obvious from the way each of them would pick up his mug, go to drink from it, and then set it down with a hard thud, that they were out of ale and not pleased about it.
I knew right then I’d stepped into the middle of something, and I was just about to step back out when the landlady spotted me. “You there, young sir, you’ll help a poor widow, won’t you?”
I wasn’t so young that I didn’t see the shrewdness in her eyes beyond the pleading tone, but I also saw that those eyes were faintly red from weeping, as if she was in genuine distress. I was curious enough to listen to her because I knew I could use the goodwill of someone who rented rooms.
“If I can, good lady,” I answered with polite evasion but a charming smile. She invited me in to sit down on a stool at the bar and drew a drink for both of us. Now, I’m sure she saw through my smile but was in so worrisome a situation that she hoped she could use me. Since I meant to use her too, I had no hard feelings.
She told me one of her lodgers had died, an old man called Vuric, and he had no family or friends to see to his burial. “I’d be very grateful to anyone who’d make the arrangements for me,” she explained in a throaty whisper, and I expected her bosom to begin heaving with dramatic sobs at any moment, but I misjudged her. That wasn’t how she meant to lure me in. “I’d be willing to let you have his rooms and their contents, minus the cost of the funeral, of course.”
“Of course,” I murmured back noncommitally. I wanted to see the rooms first, to decide if there was anything in them worth selling, before I agreed to anything.
Malthea nodded, as if she expected that, and led me up two flights of wobbly stairs to the top floor, but not, however, before she shouted a warning at her sullen customers. “Don’t you three even think about refilling your mugs while I’m gone!” The whole trio, I swear, flinched as if she’d read their minds, and I knew right then not to underestimate her.
“So who was this Vuric?” I asked conversationally as we ascended the steps.
She was in front of me, which kept me from seeing her face, but she did hesitate, which made me suspect she wasn’t going to tell me the whole truth. “He was a scholar. Once worked at the University, I think. But I don’t know for sure. He was very private.”
I took that to mean she didn’t pry into the lives of her lodgers. I was grateful for that. Had she asked me, I’d have said I was a peddler and it would even have been true, as I always had a few things in my pack to sell. But, like her explanation of Vuric, it wouldn’t be the whole truth.
She didn’t ask me anything, though, and that gave me a good feeling about her, which likely made me more trusting than I should have been. I was running through possibilities of what she might have left out of Vuric’s story—that he was her secret lover, that he was interested in banned books—when we came to the landing. She turned to the only door and took out a key.
Despite the stench of decay that rolled over us, I’m certain that my eyes gleamed when I saw the first room. I shouldn’t have been so obvious, but I couldn’t help it. It was laid out like a study with worktable and chair, inkwells and pen box, but what drew my eyes were the books. Three shelves of them and a wooden chest that might have held more.
I know how valuable books are. When I was young, my father apprenticed me to a papermaker. He was a butcher by trade, but he said he wanted something better for me. “Something cleaner” were his very words. I don’t think he realized how messy a paper mill could be, but I was often out of there, making deliveries to the shops in Stationers’ Row. That was where I was introduced to books, new and old, bound and unbound, and where I learned to read when I paid an apprentice scrivener all my meagre allowance for months to teach me.
Outside those shops, I’d never seen so many books as in Vuric’s study. They were too expensive for most people to own more than a few. Paper made them less expensive than they’d been a century ago when they were still routinely copied on parchment, but they still cost a lot because they had to be copied by hand. I was looking at years of work.
I went inside without thinking, to take a closer look at the shelves and the chest, but then I noticed the second room beyond the first, a bedroom separated from the study by a wooden partition. There was a bed against the wall and, on the bed, a body clutching a book. And, through the thin clenched fingers, I could just make out the title on the cover. It said Hope.
It was such an unexpected title, so apt in its simplicity, that it struck me hard. I was used to long, convoluted titles that told me exactly what was in the books. I carried a few of the most popular in my pack. A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Inns along the Route to Saint Eleos’ Shrine. Meditations on the Death and Miracles of Saint Calynn. The Marvelous Tales of a Traveler among the Chain Islands. But none excited me the way the one in Vuric’s hands did. I think I would have pried it out of his fingers if Malthea hadn’t been with me.
Reminded of the landlady, I looked for her and saw she was still hovering in the doorway, as if reluctant to enter. She wasn’t pinching her nose so the odour couldn’t have been bothering her. In fact, she looked like she was sniffing the air. That puzzled me until I remembered she might have been Vuric’s lover, so maybe she was checking to see if there was any lingering scent of her perfume. I hadn’t noticed her wearing any, but it was hard to smell anything over the smell of Vuric.
He was certainly nothing to look at now. Wispy white hair did little to cover a narrow skull that was already becoming more pronounced as the rotting sallow skin sank into it. His teeth, yellow and crooked, at least the ones that remained, formed a parody of a smile as the shriveled lips pulled back. I was glad his eyes were closed so I couldn’t see what death was doing to them. He seemed too old and decrepit for Malthea, but there was no accounting for some women’s tastes.
“What killed him, do you think?” I called back to her. It sounded unfeeling, especially if he had been her lover, but I wanted to see my prospective landlady’s reaction. There were no signs of violence, so I was pretty sure it had been old age that got him. Still, I needed to reassure myself I wasn’t getting into a situation the Watch might take an interest in. I had good reason not to want to get mixed up with them.
Again there was a slight hesitation before she answered, but what she said sounded plausible enough. “He had a bad heart. He had medicine from the apothecary for it. It could have killed him in his sleep.”
Then, as she went on to explain how she usually left his meals for him on a tray outside his door, how she got worried after a couple of days when he didn’t appear to have eaten anything, and how she failed to rouse him no matter how hard she knocked, all to justify to me why she’d finally opened his door, I let my eyes roam and noticed, on a little stand by the bed, a small, earthenware pot with a picture of a spiky, purple flower painted on it. I recognized the foxglove, which I knew was a treatment for a weak heart. My former master had taken it. I also knew too much foxglove was poisonous. But the pot was more than three-quarters full, which made it unlikely Vuric had swallowed too large a dose.
I was happy to be able to confirm that much of Malthea’s story about the dead man, but, even if I hadn’t, I knew I wanted these rooms. These books. Especially the book in Vuric’s hands. It felt like a sign to me. I’d returned to Senest, the city of my birth, because I had nowhere else to go. I’d been hoping for a new start and it seemed I’d found one. Maybe the book could even tell me what I should do next.
I walked back out to the landlady, and she broke off her long-winded explanation when she saw my face. She smiled like she knew what I was going to say, but I, feeling expansive, said it anyway. “I think, good lady, I’ll be able to help you after all.”
♦ ♦ ♦
That was how I inherited the dead man’s rooms.
Malthea and I haggled all the way down the stairs over the details and, when she finally agreed to let me have the rooms, keep the contents, and not have to pay rent for the first two months in exchange for disposing of Vuric’s body, I was sure I’d got the better part of the bargain.
Arranging the funeral was easy. A big city like Senest has a lot of jaedanals and it was simple to find a jaedan—a jaedana, actually, by the name of Sister Alassa, who, thankfully, I’d never met before—who wouldn’t ask too many questions. I told her I wanted the death rites said for poor departed Vuric, making sure she knew I wasn’t kin and didn’t want to attend the service. I could see from her expression she thought that a little odd, but she didn’t comment. Probably just relieved someone was paying for Vuric’s funeral and the parish didn’t have to.
What took a lot more time, a few days in fact, was going through Vuric’s book collection. For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, I put off looking at the book he’d been holding when he died. I told myself inventorying the rest for what could be sold was more important. I took a few at a time to Stationers’ Row and walked into the shops I’d delivered paper to as a boy, but, for all the nervous pounding of my heart, I wasn’t recognized. More than ten years had passed and I’d grown from boy to man. Besides, I wore a heavy beard to further obscure my features and the blackness of it and my hair made my hazel eyes look brown.
Overall, I did very well for myself, earning a hefty pouch of coin and, aside from the funeral, I had only a few other expenses. One was replacing Vuric’s bed. I might be happy to take over the dead man’s rooms, but I wasn’t going to sleep on the straw mattress and sheets where he’d died and, more importantly, rotted before Malthea discovered him. Another was buying lye soap, a bucket and linen rags to give the rooms a thorough scrubbing and get the stink out. I could have hired some charwoman to do it, I suppose, but it was a way to make the rooms mine and, anyway, I entertained the idea Vuric might have had a hiding place or two and I wanted to be the one to find them.
Mainly what I found was Vuric had recently cleaned the place himself. There was barely any dust anywhere except in some of the cracks between the floorboards. I did pry loose a floorboard he might have secreted things under, but the space below held only mouse droppings now. I suspected he’d burned whatever he’d been hiding because there was a huge heap of cold ash in the mantled hearth. I stabbed at it with the poker and uncovered the remains of singed papers, two broken bowls, countless candles, and what I’d swear had been a white robe.
It made me wonder if the old man had had some inkling he was about to die and wanted to make sure no one else got their hands on his treasures, such as they were. Old people did get odd fancies sometimes. I gathered everything up and dumped it in Malthea’s midden out back. I only regretted the loss of the papers. I was curious what Vuric the scholar had written about.
But I was about to find out. I was pretty sure the book he’d died with was one he’d written himself. It wasn’t professionally bound, for one thing, its holes punched rather crudely with an awl and threaded with twine instead of leather thonging. The covers were leather, but they were plain brown, not dyed a more impressive color, and they bore no evidence of tooling or embossing. Instead, the strange title—Hope—looked like it had been burned in with the metal nib of a pen heated in the fire.
For all its amateurishness, I’d been anticipating reading the book from the first instant I saw it. Something about it just made my blood tingle. It was the same feeling that’d drawn me back to Senest when, for years, I’d wisely refused to come anywhere near the great city. Maybe, I thought in wonder, this is what it feels like when God talks to you.
I put off the moment until, three days after I wandered into Malthea’s taproom, I got a message from Sister Alassa telling me Vuric had received all the rites and been decently buried. I didn’t realize that was what I’d been waiting for, but it was as though I needed to make sure the book was really mine and somehow Vuric wasn’t going to come back to snatch it away from me. Irrational, I know, but I’ve had a lot of disappointment in my life.
That evening, with my landlady’ fine supper in my belly and a new fire crackling in the clean hearth, I finally took the book in my hands, settled down in a cushioned box chair in the corner of the bedroom and opened it for the first time.
♦ ♦ ♦
I came back to myself with a profound need to piss.
I staggered to my feet and almost collapsed from the throbbing in my head. Suddenly I felt an even more urgent need and, when I hauled the chamberpot out from under the bed, I threw up. There was a wicked burning in my throat along with a worse dryness in my mouth. I recognized the symptoms all too well. I was very hungover.
There was no room left in the pot for what had originally woken me, so, opening my eyes to the merest slits, I went in search of the privy. At the bottom of the second flight of stairs, I met Malthea, who looked all too cheery for so late at night.
She took one look at me and chuckled heartlessly. “Oh, my boy, anyone would think you and old Vuric had been friends from all the ale you drank last night!”
“Last night?” I croaked, not understanding.
Her chuckle turned into an outright laugh. “Don’t tell me you don’t remember celebrating his life? You paid for the feast. All that food and drink. Made yourself plenty of new friends, let me tell you.” She nodded toward the taproom where the three men I’d seen the first day and several others I didn’t know raised their mugs to me and cheered rather blearily.
“You and that lot were still drinking when I got up this morning,” added Malthea, her tone turning more serious when it came to business. “You owe me for another barrel. But you can pay me later. I can see you have a more pressing errand.”
She grinned when I remembered my aching bladder and ran past her to the privy. My mind was so thick with ale fumes and confusion that I didn’t shade my eyes and the brilliant sunshine struck me like a hail of daggers. I winced and, for the next few minutes, it was all I could do to take care of my own business and drag myself back up to my rooms.
Once there, I saw more proof of what Malthea had told me. My fire had long since burned out and my bed looked like it hadn’t been slept in. The book I’d been so eager to read was lying abandoned on the floor. I must have dropped it when I lurched out of the chair. I picked it up, unable to recall even one word, but just touching it evoked a bizarre feeling, first a soaring exhilaration that made me breathless and then a cold fear that left me numb.
I clung to the numbness for the next day or two. It was easier than trying to work out what had happened. It was the only part of the whole experience that felt real. Nothing else made any sense. I never drank to excess, not since I’d suffered a series of fevers years ago that left me with a low tolerance for it. So why would I now when I most needed my wits about me? And why should I have wasted my money on a funeral feast for Vuric? I didn’t even know the man except in death. Maybe I’d read something in his book that made me mourn him. But why, then, couldn’t I remember it?
I felt the answers were in the book. Or maybe that was just what I told myself so I’d pick it up again. It called me even more strongly than before. Almost like it was whispering in my head. I’d heard of men who said books talked to them. I’d met a few in my travels. If I happened to have a copy of a book they wanted, they’d beggar themselves to get it. Literally emptying out their purses on the ground and leaving themselves not enough even for their next meal.
I loved books, but I’d never been that mad. At least not before now. Now I thought I might spend every coin I had to read Vuric’s book again. I didn’t have to, obviously, since I owned it, but the compulsion to read it again was that strong. I couldn’t resist it for long.
♦ ♦ ♦
The second time it happened, I woke in my bed and didn’t realize anything was wrong until I touched my face.
I went to rub the sleep from my eyes and brushed my hand over my cheek. My smooth cheek. I panicked and sprang for Vuric’s mirror of polished steel that I had left hanging on the bedroom wall. I barely noticed the book falling to the floor when I stood up. My reflection was hazy but good enough to tell me that my beard was gone.
My beard was gone. I had to see it a second time to believe it. I had no memory of shaving it off. I wouldn’t have. It let me walk the familiar streets of my childhood and feel safe in my anonymity. I would not get rid of it. But I couldn’t deny the truth before my eyes.
I sank back down, my head in my hands. When I looked up again, I realized I’d lost more than my beard. I’d lost time too. It had been evening again when I settled down with the book and now it was morning again, sun glowing golden around the edges of the oiled parchment covering the window. It was possible I’d just fallen asleep reading, but I still had no memory of what the book said.
I shivered and rolled back into bed. I wanted nothing more than to pull the blankets over my head and hope it was all a some strange fit. I’d had enough of those in my years on the road. I’d hoped, coming back to Senest, I could lay my fears to rest. For a while, it had seemed to work. No one was looking for me. No one talked about me. I’d been forgotten.
I sighed and pulled the blankets up anyway. There was some comfort in just being in my own bed. If you haven’t been on the road, you don’t know what a pleasure that is. No innkeeper bellowing at you to get up and out with the dawn or, worse, no farmer with a pitchfork angry at finding you in his ditch or under his hedgerow.
I’d almost managed to relax when I smelled the perfume. It clung to the blankets. A cheap floral scent. Violets maybe. I kicked them off, but I could still smell it. I’d had a woman here. Probably a woman I paid. A whore. And I couldn’t remember that?
There was no one I could ask, not without sounding mad. That was the problem with being anonymous. Within a few days, though, I had to talk to Malthea when I developed itchy sores, down below, that I recognized all too well. It was the start of the redpox.
When I finished cursing God, the angels and all the saints I could think of, I cornered Malthea in the kitchen where she was cooking the midday meal for me and her other lodgers. She’d been cool toward me recently for reasons I didn’t understand, but I needed her to recommend a discreet apothecary. I couldn’t go back to the one who’d treated me before.
“Got more from that girl than you bargained for, did you?” she commented tartly. “It serves you right, you bringing her in off the street. There are places you can go for that.”
I realized then she was offended because I’d sullied her house with the whore’s presence. I was quick to apologize, using all my charm. She huffed for a while longer but relented in the end, patting me on my stubbly cheek. “I suppose I can’t blame you. You’re a handsome fellow without that beard. You shouldn’t grow it back.”
I tried to think of some way to reply to that which wouldn’t sound suspicious, but I didn’t need to. My landlady kept right on chattering, now that she’d decided she was speaking to me again. “I’m just not used to having a young man around. All of my lodgers are older and know my rules. And then there was Vuric—”
She stopped so suddenly that it made me curious. I still hadn’t settled the question if the dead man had been her lover. Doing my best to sound nonchalant, I probed, “Not interested in women, was he?”
I meant to needle her the way she had me, but she didn’t react. Instead, she pursed her lips, almost in distaste. “He had no time for them. Said he needed to keep himself pure.”
That was an odd remark, just like most of what she said about the dead man, but Vuric wouldn’t be the first scholar I’d heard of who saw women as a distraction from his studies. I was about to ask Malthea about the apothecary again when she, seemingly eager to change the subject, brought it up again herself and bustled me off.
The shop was much closer than the jaedanal had been and, when I walked through the door, I figured it must have been where Vuric got his heart medicine from because the shelves were lined with wooden boxes and earthenware pots with pictures painted on them that reminded me of the foxglove. The apothecary himself, a wiry man in spectacles, was busy making up pills behind the counter and glanced up when he heard me.
I described my symptoms and he, bobbing his head so much he almost knocked his spectacles off his nose, confirmed it was the redpox. He also confirmed what the previous apothecary had told me when I was warned about never getting re-infected, something I’d been paranoid about for years. The redpox was much harder to treat the second time around and, considering the vile herbal concoctions I’d had to drink the first time to stimulate the high fevers needed to burn the infection out, that was saying something.
I tried to keep my bitter rage to myself. It wasn’t the apothecary’s fault I’d been stupid enough to take up with a filthy whore. I couldn’t believe I had actually been that stupid, not when I couldn’t even remember the experience that might kill me. That terrified me even more than the redpox, and it reminded me of when I’d wake from the fevers, weak, sweaty and uncertain what day it was. It was the only other time in my life I’d ever had gaps in my memory, which made me wonder if it might somehow be related to what was happening now.
“No, no, no,” insisted the apothecary, now shaking his head almost convulsively. “That was the medicine that made you forget. You aren’t taking anything now, are you?” He eyed me very solemnly.
I assured him I wasn’t so he threw more questions at me. Had I been ill? Had I injured my head? Had I changed my diet or my habits? I denied everything very emphatically and he quivered with greater and greater concentration. He stopped quite suddenly when a thought flashed across his face. I could tell he wasn’t going to voice it, though, too wary maybe, so I scowled at him, quite fierce in my bitterness. “What? Tell me!”
To his credit, he did, although he had to swallow repeatedly to get the words out. “Have you... have you made... an enemy... of a... of a mage?”
I could only stare at him in shock. Talking about magic wasn’t illegal, not the same way practicing it was, but it wasn’t something you discussed with someone you barely knew. I must have really intimidated him. “No, it’s impossible. I just came to the city. I hardly know anyone. I’m staying at the house Malthea keeps—”
I knew I was babbling, saying more than I should, but my careful tongue had deserted me. I was almost grateful when he interrupted me. “Malthea’s house? Then maybe Vuric cursed you.”
“Vuric?” I blurted in bewilderment. “But he’s dead.”
“He could have done it before he died,” insisted the apothecary, in motion again, trembling now rather than quivering, twisting his hands around each other. “In which case, it’ll be much harder to undo. But I know someone—not a mage, mind you—who might be able to help. She works with angels, not demons, so you can’t call her a mage. She might know—”
I cut him off, needing a firm answer. “Vuric was a mage?”
He ducked my gaze, plucking at his spectacles and almost dropping them. “I don’t know for sure. That’s just what people said. No one ever saw anything. But he always made me uneasy when he came in. I’d swear I could smell brine on him.”
Right away, I thought of how Malthea had sniffed the air in Vuric’s rooms when she first showed them to me. She knew, just like most people did, that demons stank of seawater because their home, the underworld, was beneath the Chasm Sea far to the east. She must have suspected Vuric was summoning them and wanted to make sure no trace remained in his rooms, no trace I might detect.
I’d thought I was angry before, but it was nothing compared to the dark feelings burning in me now. I could barely be civil to the apothecary. I managed to thank him for his help and pay for a comfrey salve to give me some relief from the sores that’d brought me to him, but I stormed off while he was begging me to start treatment for the redpox before it got any worse. He was too cowed to call me back.
I was glad Malthea wasn’t in the taproom when I banged open the door to her house. I didn’t trust myself not to throttle her. Her three older lodgers and a couple of other regulars I’d apparently made friends with the night of Vuric’s funeral feast were there. They all started to greet me but shut up as soon as they saw the thunderous look on my face. They’d all known Vuric. They must have known what he was. But none of them had told me. I glared at them until they shrank in their seats, looking like they wanted to disappear.
I stomped up the stairs to my rooms and hesitated outside the door. They felt like Vuric’s rooms again. Full of his secrets. It didn’t matter that I’d got rid of most of his possessions. The most dangerous one remained. The book he’d held in his dead hands. All my troubles had started with that book.
A more pious man would have turned away then, gone straight to the nearest jaedanal and sought the advice of the jaedan. After all, demons were involved and jaedani were supposed to be the experts in fighting them. But, for all my desire for a sign, I’d never been a pious man. I was used to dealing with my own problems and this was no different.
I went inside and deliberately locked the door behind me. I didn’t want to be interrupted. If Malthea came out of the kitchen and her customers started gibbering, she might realize I’d learned the truth about Vuric and decide she should talk to me. I had the feeling she wasn’t someone who put off her problems. I’d provided her with a neat solution for how to deal with Vuric, someone she must have feared if she’d never denounced him to the jaedani and couldn’t even bear to bury his corpse. But I too could turn into a problem and she wouldn’t want to let me fester.
I meant to have my own talk with Malthea, but there was someone else I had to confront first. Who but a man who had no friends or family would pay for his own funeral feast? Who but a man who’d long denied himself any pleasure would take up with the first whore he found? I sat down in the box chair, balanced the book on my knees, opened it the tiniest crack and shouted, “Vuric!”
I could see a narrow strip of words down the page. Foreign words. Nonsense words. They blurred, seeming to change back into the ink they’d been, a deep ink black as night, black as moonless and starless night. I sank into that infinite darkness, as disoriented as if I’d fallen into a deep dream from being wide awake. Cold fear washed over me. I’d experienced this before and was terrified of it happening again. Soaring exhilaration reached for me. Someone else was waiting and eager to be free.
I’d have lost all sense of myself if I hadn’t had such a rigid grip on the book. I clung to it, the only thing that felt real, and shouted again, “Vuric, I want to talk to you!”
My fall slowed and then ceased. I could still feel myself grasping the book, but I was hovering too, bodiless, weightless, blind. Then I heard a dry rustling. It could have been the pages turning. I only knew it was a voice, sardonic and hoarse, when it said, “So you’ve figured it out, have you?”
“Only what you did,” I admitted freely, needing him to know I was sincere, “not how or why. Other people are going to get suspicious though. You don’t act like me.”
“What would you suggest?” the voice asked, sounding bland, but I could feel his tension, vibrating the darkness around us. For all I knew, he was the darkness.
“Let’s talk. Get to know each other. Make some kind of bargain.” I was distantly aware of my heart drumming hard. I could feel it in my fingertips. I was furious and frightened, but I was also practical. In the few days between when I awoke to find my beard gone and when I went to the apothecary, I almost hadn’t been able to keep myself from opening the book again. I knew it was dangerous, but I craved it, needing it like a hungry man needs food. I could only resist it by separating myself from it, fleeing my rooms, roaming the streets or walking along the Tengral River that flowed through southern Senest. I imagined throwing the book in the river, but it would’ve been as impossible as throwing away my hand. It’d become that much a part of me. Coming to terms with Vuric was the only way I was going to find some peace and keep myself safe.
I told him all this, speaking into the darkness, and I know he listened, because I felt his interest. Then he spoke to me, of what he’d done and how and why, slowly at first as if he wasn’t used to talking to anyone, then more animatedly as he realized what a captive audience I was. It seemed he did consort with demons. He was quite proud of it. It took him years, decades really, to work out the rituals that would protect him from the demons’ malice, and the price was high, forcing him to live like a chirin, chaste, abstemious and in perfectly clean surroundings. Demons could have used the smallest degree of taint against him.
The magic, though, put a strain on Vuric’s heart. He had realized he was dying. He attempted a final series of rituals, learning how to embed his soul in the words of a book so he could take over the body of whoever read it. The only snag was he could only inhabit another body for so long before he was drawn back to the book.
I was impressed and had no difficulty saying so. He warmed to me and I realized how arrogant he was. I was sure I could use that, but then I heard another sound, much further away, someone tapping on my door.
“That’s Malthea,” I informed him. “She’s come looking for me.”
“I’ll take care of her,” the voice said without undue concern, his exhilaration rising again, threatening to overwhelm me like a black wave of oblivion.
“Didn’t you listen to me?” I retorted. “You’ll make her suspicious. I know what she wants to talk to me about. As a sign of your good faith, let me go. You know I’ll come back.”
He couldn’t know that I didn’t believe in signs anymore. The first and only one I thought I’d ever seen had now betrayed me. He only felt that I was telling the truth. He gave his assent and I was propelled upward. The darkness flowed into ink and the ink transformed into words. Once I saw them, I slammed the book closed, threw it down, and strode to the door.
Malthea was there, her fist poised to strike again. She squared her shoulders when she saw me and said without hesitation, “So you’ve found out, young sir.”
There was no need to say what I’d found out, and I had no intention of telling her all I’d found out. I noted she was addressing me respectfully again. The casual friendliness between us was gone. I was surprised to realize I missed it. I remembered how red her eyes had been the first day I met her and how I’d felt rather sorry for her, wondering if Vuric had been her lover. I was sure that wasn’t the case now. She’d been crying out of anguish, not grief, not knowing how she was going to get rid of a man she was afraid of, still afraid of even after his death.
She had good reason to be afraid, I knew all too well, and suddenly I wasn’t angry at her anymore. “It’s all right, good lady. Everything’s going to be fine.”
I almost laughed because she blinked at me, astonished, and seeing my landlady at a loss was not something that happened very often. Then she looked cynically dubious and it took me several minutes to convince her I didn’t bear a grudge. We parted at last with her promising to make my favourite meal for supper and me promising I wouldn’t be late.
If only I could make Vuric trust me so easily. It was going to be hard, but I knew what the first step had to be. I returned to the book and opened it, showing my good faith and reminding myself to tell him about Malthea’s peace offering.
♦ ♦ ♦
We came to a bargain, Vuric and I, within the darkness of the book.
After that first time, conversing became easier and I could tell him what to expect when he took over my body. I also remembered more from when I was disembodied, floating as if in a dream, and it gave me time to plan.
I waited for Vuric to grow complacent, caught up in the joy of wearing my young body, able to spend days at a time in it as his control increased. When I did return, it felt less and less like mine, making what I had to do more acceptable.
I visited the apothecary every chance I could, getting more remedies to soothe the emerging symptoms of the redpox but always refusing to begin treatment. I also went back to Stationers’ Row, looking for a bookseller I’d met when I was selling Vuric’s books who’d told me he was in the market for new books to popularize an invention he’d imported from Grenaire on the continent. I offered to let him have Vuric’s book, telling him nothing about it except the intriguing title—Hope—but, as I knew it would be from my own experience, it was enough to make him curious. And then, shortly before I opened that book for the last time, I swallowed the contents of Vuric’s jar of heart medicine.
I’d seen from the outside how quickly a large dose of foxglove takes effect. I had poured it down my master’s throat, the papermaker I was apprenticed to, the night he discovered me stealing from his strongbox. The treatment for the redpox was expensive and I’d run out of my own money. My master didn’t know I had it and I was too embarrassed to tell him. He just knew I’d frequently been with fever, unable to do my work, and he wasn’t in a forgiving mood, not when he thought I’d already cost him coin by being so inconveniently ill.
Things might have turned out differently if I’d been able to come up with a convincing story. But I just stood there, mute and certainly looking very guilty. He roared and started to beat me, but I hit back and got in a lucky blow. I stunned him and, while he was passed out on the ground, I forced the medicine down his throat.
He died while I watched, so I knew Vuric would too once he was in my body. It would happen too quickly for him to trade places with me. He must have dropped the book because he didn’t even try to open it. I’d have sensed that.
As it is, I know time’s passed but not how much. It’s like my last few bouts of fever. After I killed my master, I took his money, bought the herbal concoctions I needed, fled the city, and didn’t stop until I came upon a farmhouse some distance away. I paid the farmer and his wife the rest of the money to look after me while I was sick, fighting off the last of the redpox, That felt much like now, a long dream broken up by moments of lucidity.
I think I’m so aware because someone has opened the book. You have, haven’t you? Maybe you’re the bookseller, come to collect it like I told you to. Maybe you’re Malthea, too curious for your own good, even though I left you a note just to hand the book over to the person who’d arrive asking for it.
It doesn’t matter. I’ll find out soon enough. Then I’ll be smarter than Vuric. He told me the power was in the words, not in the book. The bookseller has a new invention, a printing press he called it. I aim for this book to be the first thing that he prints. The first thing I print, once I’m in his body.
Just think what it’ll be like. Multiple copies. Cheaply and quickly produced. And I’ll be in all of them, ready to have a taste of all the readers’ lives once they open the books. It’ll be so exciting. I can hardly wait. I almost feel like I should thank old Vuric. I thought he’d stolen my hope. It turns out he just taught me I have to make my own.