By mid-afternoon the back courtyard of the gentles’ wing of the inn lay quiet. The last of the customers departed, having lingered over a fine midday meal in sumptuously decorated dining chambers. While the kitchen staff prepared for suppers that would be served by Lamplight, the boss was either out flattering well-connected suppliers or sequestered in her chamber with a glass of wine and a comfortable couch for a nap.
This interlude made mid-afternoon the best time to clean the fancy privies, according to the boss. That suited Fellian just fine once she’d realized how she could take advantage of the only time no one was directly overseeing her.
She had finished her upstairs chores scrubbing the private dining chambers. Now she carried two buckets from the inn’s well into the empty courtyard with its painted walls and flagstone pavement. Three fancy tiled steps led up to the fancy tiled porch with three separate privy doors, each fancifully painted with visions of floral extravagance. After setting down the buckets, one with soapy and one with clear water, she checked the pocket of her faded canvas apron. She had just enough charcoal for today.
She set to sweeping the flagstones, trying to calm her fretful thoughts with the steady scrape of bristles against pavement. Her gaze drifted across the elaborate murals that adorned the courtyard’s walls, but she didn’t really see them. Would Nish come? Servants never knew when they would be assigned elsewhere, when scraps of freedom would get revoked at the whim of a boss, when new restrictions would be levied by the council so virtuous people need not fear the corrupting power of mages.
The rattle hung on the alley side of the back gate rustled as someone shook it. She hurried over, swung up the crossbar, and cracked open the gate. When a pleasant scent assailed her, she opened the gate a bit more.
Nish’s round face greeted her but her usual cheerful smile was creased down into an anxious frown. She clutched a basket against her chest, fragrant bundles of herbs tied and stacked inside.
“I brought someone,” she whispered. “You said you could manage a second person now Karry got transferred away.”
Fellian took a step outside to look both ways down the alley, a restricted corridor between high, blank walls. To the left the lane bent out of sight around a corner. To the right it ran straight for some ways. No one was in sight in either direction, but a servant on an errand could come along at any moment. “You know what will happen if we’re caught.”
“I promise he won’t rat on us. It’s my uncle.”
Caution warred with a fierce, reckless desire to poke a defiant pin into the underbelly of the oblivious beast that had destroyed her life. “All right. I trust you.”
Nish’s frown brightened into a smile. She whistled a phrase from one of the council-approved songs sung nightly by maudlin drinkers in shabby vulgars’ common rooms. About twenty strides to the right, an alcove had been built into the wall. Its lintel was carved with a bundle of five arrows set between two curved cattle horns. Such alcoves appeared at regular intervals along straight paths but were long abandoned to dust. Fellian had no idea what they’d been used for before the revolution. Nish’s uncle had used this one to stand out of sight of anyone looking down the straight stretch. He stepped into view and hurried to the gate.
His steps slowed as he looked her over with his one good eye.
“You’re just a girl, and a mage too,” he said as accusingly as if he’d been assured he’d be meeting with a loyal Liberationist only to be presented with a criminal cabal of Monarchists.
“Uncle!” Nish cast an apologetic glance at Fellian.
“It’s all right. I know my letters. I can teach them to you if you wish.”
His suspicion wavered as he chewed on his lower lip. “You can teach me to read? Truly?”
“I can. But you have to come inside quick.”
Nish tapped the man’s arm to bestir him. With a skeptical frown, he came in. His gaze flickered as he took in the porch’s tile work, but mostly he gaped at the murals.
The scene spread across three walls depicted the final battle when the forces of reform under the leadership of the August Protector had overthrown the disgraced and corrupt monarchy. Such murals were to be found anywhere people might have to wait their turn and thus have a chance to contemplate the Great Liberation, even in an inn’s back courtyard where monied folks took to the privy. The artist had portrayed both sides in vivid colors and stirring emotion: the last dragon queen in her moment of death at the hands of a humble foot soldier whose ditchdigger’s shovel hung at his back; the courageous Liberationist troops who fought with purity and righteousness; the stalwart but doomed Monarchist warriors and their legendary champion, the straw-haired barbarian known as Jojen the Wolf, who chose death over dishonor.
Nish’s uncle closed his big hands into fists. “This is no schoolroom.”
“That’s right, it’s the courtyard to a privy.” Back home, Fellian would have called him “uncle” too, but people didn’t appreciate that courtesy here. Still, it grated to have no respectful way to acknowledge his age and whatever accident had scarred his face and ruined his left eye. “We use the steps as a writing board. Do you have your charcoal, Nish? You can show him the letters.”
“I know my letters,” he said stiffly. “Got them when I was a boy. Then the revolution happened. Recruiters came through town and took us to the army.”
He paused, as if waiting for her to ask about his injuries, but she’d learned never to ask. It was better to wait for people to tell you what they wanted you to know.
“Then afterward the councils put us to work. Lost a lot of people to famine. There wasn’t time for anything else. Anyway, the August Protector says it is selfishness for hungry folk to ask for luxuries like school. But I never forgot my letters.”
“Of course you didn’t.” Fellian smiled encouragingly. “To start with why don’t you write all the letters out for me on the bottom step while I replace the herbs in the privies?”
He glanced toward the courtyard’s entrance porch, shaded beneath wide eaves. Closed doors led into the inn. “I can do that. But what if someone comes? If we’re caught we’ll be thrown in prison.”
“There are no customers this time of day. Only customers are allowed to use these privies. I clean, so it’s no surprise if people find me here. Nish delivers herbs. After the lesson I scrub off the steps.”
He nodded. “That’s clever.”
Nish fished a rolled-up leaf from her basket and unwrapped it to display three new charcoal sticks. “I roasted these two days ago. Do you want one, Fellian?”
She wanted one so hard it burned, remembering how her mother and fathers had taught her to make charcoal in bulk for writing. But she choked down the sting of tears. “No. You’ll need them to practice at home.”
Nish handed one of the sticks to her uncle.
Fellian said, “Write out your name first. That’s always a good way to begin.”
A flash of panic widened his eyes.
As Mother had always said, people learn best when they don’t feel ashamed.
“I’m sorry, I forgot your name even though Nish has mentioned you before,” Fellian lied.
“That’s right!” he said with a sigh of relief, lips mouthing the four letters as he repeated them twice under his breath.
“Can you start with that?”
“Yes, yes. I can start with that.” He took a charcoal stick from Nish and knelt at the bottom of the steps, staring at the flat surface as if it were a poisonous toad. He sucked in a breath, then laboriously began to write in distorted but recognizable strokes, first the letters of his name and then the parade of letters that was the staple of every schoolroom.
“You watch over him, Nish. Teaching others is the best way to learn.”
Fellian took the basket from Nish and went to the first privy door. Inside, a polished wooden seat with a lid kept the worst of the stench down, but to keep up the high ranking of her establishment the boss had a deal with Nish’s herbalist boss for a fresh delivery of strong-smelling herbs every other day.
At each stall Fellian crumbled the withered previous bundle into the lime-whitened pit before placing a vibrant new bundle into a wire basket. Afterward she swept the courtyard and scrubbed the porch, all the while keeping up an exchange with Nish: new words to spell, long phrases she wrote out for Nish to read aloud. Oran doggedly worked on writing out a parade of letters, over and over, with the tenacity of a man who has fought his way back from the cliff of despair.
Nish was wiping off words to give herself space to write again when Oran went still. His hand, scratching out a letter, halted. He looked toward the doors that led into the inn.
“Someone is coming,” he said in a low, frightened voice. “More than one person.”
Fellian heard nothing except distant street traffic: the grind of wheels, the clop of hooves, a wagoner’s shout.
He got to his feet with some trouble; his left leg didn’t straighten easily. “Nish, we best go. Hustle up.”
Nish grabbed the charcoal out of his hand and the basket off the porch. “He’s never wrong.” Her drawn expression shouted its own message as her gaze dropped to the mage’s badge Fellian wore.
Oran flushed. “It’s not like that,” he said in the tone of a man who’s been caught out.
“No, of course not,” said Fellian, knowing exactly what he was hiding and why he didn’t want a servant mage indentured to the government to know. All those born with mage gifts owed them to the liberation. They weren’t to be selfishly hoarded for private gain. Any who tried to hide their gift would see their families imprisoned as punishment for not reporting to the authorities. Afterward, of course, the discovered mage would be bound into service anyway.
“Hurry,” she added, abruptly out of breath as she considered what would happen to her if it was ever discovered she’d known and hadn’t reported him.
She followed them to the gate, let them out, barred it, and ran back to the steps. Cheeks hot, hands shaking, she dropped to her knees and began scrubbing away the damning letters that had been so methodically written onto the lowest step.
A door into the inn slid open.
A young man stepped onto the portico. When his gaze settled on her he tensed, but as he took her measure his shoulders relaxed.
He sauntered into the courtyard. His spotless blue tunic with interlocking winged snakes embroidered down the sleeves marked him as an Adept, a mage whose gift was not commonplace as most were but superior and thus laudable and demanding of the highest respect. She knew better than to test the patience of such a man, especially when he set a polished boot on the first step, close enough to kick her.
After running a cloth over the damp steps to wipe away any last trace of charcoal, she sat back on her heels to get out of his way.
He examined her with the same look she imagined he would give a stain on the floor of any chamber he was required to frequent. But he didn’t climb the steps to the privy. Instead he ostentatiously turned his head to study the murals. He had all the time in the worlds and nothing urgent to be bothered about. She, of course, was required to get the cleaning done before dusk, when her Lamplighting duties started.
“These are strikingly good murals.” Since there was no one else in the courtyard it seemed the Adept was addressing her. “Better than the official ones at the government offices in Exculpation Square, don’t you think?”
No one who was wise answered such a question. Anyway, she was struck by the way he had taken exactly the stance of one of the Monarchist soldiers, chin lifted, shoulders square. He might have been the actual model for the figure except his glossy raven-black hair was cut in the short liberator style rather than grown long and woven into a five-strand Monarchist braid.
“Or do you think at all? Regardless of their artistic merit they are certainly considerably cleaner than the murals in Exculpation Square.” He looked at the brush in her hands. “That’s a lot of time spent scrubbing that might be better used for more productively liberating chores.”
Good-looking men in particular annoyed her, so she said, in her most innocent tone, “If the gentles’ privy is too clean for your comfort, there’s a vulgars’ latrine in the commons courtyard. It’s only scrubbed once a month instead of daily, if that suits your preferences.”
He smiled with what was surely malicious glee. “I was searching for something I’ve been told was eliminated last year from the servants’ asylum in Alabaster City and assigned here. I think that would be … you.”
A sick fear crashed through her heart. Air curdled in her lungs. Head down, she dipped the brush into the soapy bucket and set to vigorously scrubbing the side of the stairs.
“I just work here, Your Eminence. The boss takes all questions of that kind.”
“Now you are all politeness.”
“I have to finish cleaning before twilight, if you don’t mind, Your Eminence.”
“I have a job for a servant mage named Fellian who I am told is a creditable Lamplighter. Young and attractive, although why my informant would bother to note that detail I couldn’t tell you.”
Her head came up sharply. His crooked smile was back. She wondered if she could scour it off his face with the brush’s stiff bristles.
“Although maybe you could tell me,” he added.
She was tempted to put a hand on his beautiful boot and scorch it. “How could I tell you since I have no idea who your informant is?”
His smile widened. “That’s not important. I need a Lamplighter. I’ll pay well, and arrange for all necessary clearances from your boss.”
Don’t do it, whispered a murmur of caution in her soul while another part of her thrilled like a bird opening its wings at long last.
“It’s an impressive offer,” she temporized. Her traitorous heart raced with possibility, with chance. With terrible, painful, cursed hope.
“So you are Fellian?”
“It might be worth my while to be, if you offer a big enough payment.”
He took his handsome boot off the step and snapped his fingers. Four soldiers wearing dull green Liberationist uniforms emerged from the inn.
She glanced toward the back gate, gauging how fast she could get there and out, then looked at the sky to estimate how soon it would be dark. She had an advantage at night they didn’t know about.
“There was a third quality the headmaster mentioned: the distinctive aroma of fever grass. Night can’t hide you from me now I’ve taken a taste of that strong smell. Do you want to tell me what your obsession with fever grass is?”
She set the brush upside down on the ground and stood. He wasn’t much taller than she was, and not physically intimidating. In another life she would have shoved him to the ground and bolted. But he was an Adept, not a mere servant mage. To assault him would land her in a viler prison than the indenture she suffered now. Worse, since he was an Air Adept, his threat to track her down if she tried to run wasn’t bombast.
Anyway, she couldn’t run. That was just the dream she plagued herself with: that she would escape indenture and return home across half the country without a travel license, money, or supplies.
“What’s the pay?” Rumor whispered it was possible to buy a travel license on the black market. She’d learned to be ruthlessly pragmatic. It was how she’d survived the last five years.
“That these dutiful soldiers don’t throw you in prison for being the daughter of executed criminals.”
She clenched her hands into fists to choke a rush of panic. “You and I both know whatever an Adept like you accuses me of, the council will back you up. Does it ever bother you that your lies are treated better than the truth?”
Copyright © 2021 by Katrina Elliott