Gods, it was pleasant out.
Just the right amount of humidity thickened the air, enough to turn Renato Cassi’s long walk from the library into a balmy stroll instead of an irritable, sunburnt trudge. A big, grey-bellied rainstorm had emptied itself down onto Medao for the last two days, and the city glistened with reflective puddles. He kept his sheaf of papers wrapped tightly in a sealskin folio, bundled to his side in case the rain wasn’t yet finished.
His house was among the more modest which lined the perimeter of the Quadrata Tafta, one of the city’s big parade squares. He hurried home past the rain-shiny windows of innumerable public servants, magistrates and advisors and professors of varying prestige. He himself lived on the quieter side of the square, in an early settler-era manor that had been remodeled into three generous apartments. And as luck would have it, the two apartments he shared walls with were both city residences of distant mayors, empty save for their servants and the occasional kept lover.
In short, his home was luxurious, modern, and quiet. Just as he liked things.
Upon letting himself in, he found that his staff had the oil lamps lit and the cookfires roaring on the bottom floor. Renato suspected he wouldn’t need to open the vents that night for warmth. The rain had been persistent but not all that cold.
He took two generous squares of pastry folded with layers of cured sausage and cheese from the batch in the oven, then sought out a spicy chutney from the pantry. The pastries were probably meant for breakfast, the base of something more elaborate, but they were ready now and the stacks of the Universitat’s library had beguiled him away from lunch.
Thanking his housekeeper and cook, he retired upstairs. At first he thought to read in his study, but he’d been trying to make a habit of eating there less often, lest the place absorb the odor of old bread and ham. He lived alone for the time being, but that was no excuse to backslide into a bachelor’s habits.
So he walked his meal and his reading into the smoking room. It hadn’t seen much use of late. The brocade curtains on the walls rustled as if to greet him when he opened the door, excited by the prospect of a visitor. He lit the lamps, then a cone of incense as well, then looked toward his writing desk.
The desk was a light, portable wooden thing, designed to be packed and carried in the field. He’d kept it as a trophy from a Selyek camp they’d raided back in the day. No telling how many of Zeyinade’s orders had been passed along and penned upon its surface. The sight of it lit a little flicker of pride in his stomach each time it caught his eye.
But gods, he’d had a long day. His feet hurt. His stomach growled for want of cheese and sausage. He gave the desk a fond smile, then trudged over to his chaise, spreading himself out like a painter’s model and sighing with relief. The cushions welcomed him and he propped his back up until everything felt just-so. Then he opened the flap of his folio, picking through the papers within before his evening snack got his fingers all greasy.
The Universitat’s archivists had graciously lent him a whole series of lecturers’ notes on Vasa history, covering a few hundred years prior to and including the era that Riss Chou’s books seemed to encompass. Renato had been careful not to ask about sorcery directly, touchy subject that it was. But he wondered if next time he might as well be so bold—as soon as he’d said it was penal system business, the archivists had been happy to comply. Nobody had asked him to justify his interests.
Life in city government was full of pleasant little surprises.
Patient and meticulous even as curiosity all but consumed him, he paused to cut his squares of pastry thrice crosswise each, making little bite-sized parcels of them. He balanced the thin porcelain plate upon his chest, pinched a tiny fork in hand, and forked the first bite of flaky, buttery pastry into his mouth while his other hand flipped the cover page over on his first batch of notes.
Steffensi’s Collected Vasa History:
Early City-State Years to the Formation of the Leycenate
… Oof, okay, he did not need to go back that far. Early Age of Exploration types had settled Vasile after a series of naff attempts at finding new trade routes, giving up and plunking down in the first safe harbor they found. Anti-monarchists to a man, they’d rattled around doing gods-knew-what and mined copper and ate fish for several hundred years until at some point they came to the conclusion that they missed having a stable government. And now a bunch of twats in big haughty chairs they insisted weren’t thrones sat in a big circle and voted on things.
Renato figured he knew enough about that. He leafed through the volume of notes until the first instance of the word magick caught his eye.
… was inevitable that a city built by magick would eventually turn against its architects. Vasile would be nothing without its sorcerers and its people resented that. The Leycenate, an ostensibly democratic institution, caved to this resentment wherever it could.
To preserve the veneer of impartiality, the Leycenate barred sorcerers from holding public office and insisted that magick users had little bearing on policy. This sounded as farcical back then as it does now, for everyone knows that in Vasile, the only thing that has bearing on policy is money. And the various sorcerous trades—magickal architects, memographers, navigators, artisans—wielded great wealth if not official political influence.
Renato skimmed through the years of unrest that fomented in Vasile for a few decades, one set of riots after another. The rise of anti-magick unionists and small artisan movements insisting on ‘human-made’ product, backed up by superstition that products or building materials touched by sorcery would lend horrible curses and side effects to those who used them. Those old wives’ tales were worldwide. He’d heard them growing up even in Medao, where a sorcerer had not been sighted for a good few hundred years.
This was all vaguely interesting, Renato supposed, but he’d never had a scholarly bent. History for history’s sake wasn’t his thing. What he wanted to know was why Riss felt she needed to know all this. He forked a square of pastry into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. Suppose it was naïve to think the answer would just leap off the page at me, he thought.
Perhaps he was still too far back in time. Riss’ books had focused on the Purge, hadn’t they? He flipped a few pages forward. Whoever had kept these notes, be it Professor Steffensi themselves or a dutiful student, had excellent indexing habits. He quickly found the years he was looking for.
The purging of Vasile’s sorcerers was a turning point for the city-state’s history, bringing an abrupt halt to years of accelerated technological development. It was not a move that made the Leycenate friends among the moneyed elite, but the pull of populism proved too strong, and the measure gained support from the ground up. While some of the Leycenate’s Landed Lords and Ladies campaigned openly for all sorcerers within the city’s bounds to be exiled or killed, a secret committee of the government’s most influential had a different plan altogether, one that had already been put in motion.
Meanwhile, as the tide of public opinion turned against them, sorcerers began to meet in secret. There was no consensus among them regarding what to do about the rising tide of anti-magicker sentiment in the city. Some suggested a coup—after all, they had the power. Others simply fled the city or went into hiding. An idealistic few believed that as long as they obeyed the Leycenate’s guidelines, democracy would protect them. Chief among the proponents of working within the system was the famed sorceress architect Carcelli. She became the de-facto voice of those who backed the City given that she was already a known entity who cooperated with the government on a frequent basis. Her primary opposition, though only in the magick-wielding circles as he was careful to avoid excess publicity, was a man known by many aliases. For ease of recordkeeping here, we shall use his birth name: Keril Boulter.
Little is known about Boulter’s early life. Memography was his first introduction to the sorcerous arts, and he graduated from an apprenticeship at Mircha Colrenay’s school. His memographer’s work brought him first to the outskirts and then to the inner circles of power within the city. He wrote the memoirs of several noteworthy clients up to and including lesser members of the Founding Families, and all records of his acquaintance hint at a man who was circumspect almost to an excessive degree.
Indeed, it is perhaps this willingness to abstain from power, to remain on its fringes right up until history’s moment required it of him, that lent Boulter the edge with which he eventually bested Carcelli’s influence.
Or perhaps, as one old historian supposes, rebellion was inevitable on the sorcerers’ part. They gave their labor, their sweat, their very lives for Vasile. They built the city up from nothing with their own blood. Such rebuke after such devotion! One can hardly blame them for looking down upon the city and finding it wanting for gratitude.
A wet, forgotten lumpy weight rested on Renato’s tongue. He’d taken a bite from his pastry several paragraphs ago and forgotten to even chew it. Once this Steffensi got going, they could spin a real yarn. Renato gulped down his sullen wad of egg and bread, grimacing at how wet it felt on the way down.
He read raptly, following the tale of Boulter as he recruited followers among the city’s spurned sorcerers. The more law-abiding sorcerers in turn then attempted to form an autonomous democratic council to elect representatives to interface with the Leycenate as public pressure built. A charismatic young revolutionary backed by Carcelli’s faction was elected to speak on the council’s behalf, the margin overwhelming. So naturally, the Leycenate responded by dissolving the council in its infancy and having him murdered. There were a lot of threads to follow, and way too many of those curly-wurly r-rolling Vasa names for Renato to keep fully separate in his mind.
Finally, he got to the good stuff.
After the council’s dissolution, Boulter set about recruiting something more resembling revolutionaries than mere allies.
One consequence of governments that reject the concept of ruling by birthright is that people still daydream about being king. Democracies and republics then convince these daydreamers that they have a shot at the big chair provided they kill the right people. Vasile is no stranger to would-be revolutionaries and attempts at coups. Indeed, scholars of Vasa history can draw parallels between Boulter’s movement and many which followed it, up to and including the present difficulties thrown at the Leycenate by Anvey Rill and his mad bombers. While Rill and his ilk use technology to threaten and terrify the masses, though, Boulter had the threat of sorcery behind him. And not just one man’s sorcery. His followers numbered over two dozen.
It’s fortunate for both the Leycenate and the civilians of Vasile that Boulter was a plant all along. By the time his would-be coup came to a head, he’d recruited all of the city’s bloodiest-minded sorcerous practitioners, and it was with his help that the Leycenate was able to slaughter or imprison every last one of them. Boulter cut their revolution off at the knees with zero losses to the city’s personnel and not a drop of blood shed. Next week’s lectures will cover what little is known about the specifics of Boulter’s betrayal, as the exact methods are shrouded in mystery. Vasile has worked hard to scrub the worst of the Purge and its sorcerous secrets from the written record, starting with the 103rd Sitting Literacy Act, which outlawed literacy to all commonborn citizens unless they bear a permit. Though the Act has had amendments and revisions since the 101st sitting, it remains in place to this day…
Renato’s eyes began to glaze over when Professor Steffensi drifted into a lengthy blow-by-blow of Vasile’s legislative crimes against literacy. He had to admit, though, the historical betrayals made for surprisingly riveting reading considering how many years everyone involved had been dead.
Finishing his snack, Renato considered Riss. He did not like thinking about her, and her reappearance in Medao had caused him to do far too much of it. If he dwelled on her too long, his thoughts strayed back to Gaspard, and that was a wound he’d rather not pick at.
At least the discovery of her strange new fascination with sorcery gave him a sort of side outlet for his frustrations. As long as he was trying to figure out her goals, he wasn’t thinking about their shared past, their shared pain. The pain she seemed to be flagrantly, disrespectfully getting over, with her new crew of misfits and jobs all over the Continent.
That he was acting like a spurned lover was not a fact that was lost on Renato. He sighed, beginning to loosen his scarf. He took pride in his appearance, in the complex knots of his uniform’s ascot and the polished hardware he got to tote on special occasions. That was Riss’ problem, he thought. The place where their leadership styles diverged. Riss had attached herself to Gaspard out of some sad hero worship, obliviously fanning the flames of her own daddy issues. Renato, he’d taken pride in the company. In their work.
He freed his scarf from the collar of his shirt, then shook the length of embroidered silk out, smoothing the wrinkles. Fine lines of smoky thread glimmered against the black background, a repeating pattern of subtle chevrons.
Work. That was the key. The thought occurred to him as he began to unbutton his waistcoat. Whatever the motivations behind Riss’ newfound scholarly interests, they’d have come from her work. She certainly hadn’t been exposed to the history of sorcery since coming to Medao; his whisperers would have fed that information straight to him.
Before bed that night, he’d write the Ambassador, he decided. Ambassador Ercun favored Riss for local jobs, which meant they had some history. He’d pose as an interested client, ask about her history. Somewhere between Gaspard’s funeral and Riss’ re-emergence from the Adelheim swamps, that’s where he’d find his answers.
<< Book 2, Chapter 29 | To Be Continued >>