Spring is here, and there is a hint of summer in the air, but it is not a hint of warmth and abundance. All that people expect these days is failed factories and heavy rains splashing over Mierber’s broken and filthy streets, newly spoiled grain, and famine.
Heartened by their Stratagem success and their new relationship, Rianor and Linden attempt to save themselves and their House through science. When they barely survive an encounter with the Bers, they start preparing for war.
Meanwhile, in one of Mierber’s less savory neighborhoods, Dominick is about to take the Order of the Mother to Balkaene despite his hatred towards the place. Besides, in old Darius’s tower and in the Firemind, Merley is making hard choices that she knows will change the whole world.
WARNING: If you have not read The Seekers of Fire and The Makers of Light, the excerpt below will contain spoilers.
Chapter 1: One World
Evening 43 of the First Quarter, Year of the Master 706
It was cold. Or, rather, Merley was cold herself, despite the fire burning behind the thick walls of the stove, and the naked little flame writhing abandoned in a metal plate on the table.
The little flame could not warm her. Not like this, severed, outside of her body and mind, a tiny flame inside metal but not strong enough to melt metal—so a flame inevitably confined. It was just a token she had made for herself, a reminder.
Merley turned a page of the book, yet another thin, almost transparent page packed with dense, miniature text. She blinked, then rubbed her eyes, but the words would not become more clear, either in appearance or in meaning. Her eyes felt as if they were filled with dust. They often did, these days, and not because of dust on the books themselves. No, Darius would never, ever let dust mar the large ancient tomes or their shelves. He had been carefully wiping all the dust every day, year after year.
Why was she doing this?
Merley tossed her head and stood, her feet weak from hours of stillness. She walked to the window, where the Sun had still managed to paint the clouds violet and pink, as if in challenge to the white snow that had been softly falling for hours. Like a blanket the snow was, gently but persistently enveloping the world.
The world, and the Sun itself.
Yet, she could feel the Sun, and she could hear the Sun, even though the eyes only saw a flash of color here and there amongst the blanket’s threads. She felt the Sun, its smile distant and yet there for her; it was a kind smile like Darius’s, and the thought of them both made her a bit warmer.
Darius was the most wonderful man in the world. Others made fun of Darius, for Darius might forget to eat for two days when playing with some little device of his, or he could go out with mismatched shoes. Yet, Darius was not careless. He took most painstaking care of his devices and his books, and in the days since Merley had become his student, Darius had also taken care of her.
And why did shoes have to match, anyway? Merley rubbed her eyes, then massaged her temples, this yet another fleeting thought inside a mind tense and restless. Did not shoes just have to be comfortable enough to walk? Did the Sun care for matching shoes? Did the snow? No, it was people, always people, who thought and said and did the little things, senseless, useless little things at first glance, and yet things that could cut and cut straight to the heart.
A knock sounded on the door, and at first Merley smiled, then suddenly froze still, for the sound was unlike Darius’s soft tapping. It was sharper, faster, more demanding, as if the person knocking was both in haste and used to doors being immediately opened.
This person was not welcome. Beyond the window, the pink of the setting Sun was now washing out, and the white and gray of a snowy day was flowing into the blue and black of a silent snowy night. It was peaceful, or had been, for these past thirty days. But, often nervous and lost in her own thoughts, perhaps Merley had not paid attention; she had not always noticed, the fool.
But the peace had been there, a certain slow quality of life, a certain silence breached only by the ticking of devices, Darius’s soft voice, the song of birds, and the winds that howled out up on the roof. Even that howling was peaceful in its own way, despite the songs of mountains that it sometimes brought, with their longing and their simultaneously quiet and stormy sadness.
At nights like this, Merley could not fall asleep, and sometimes tears flowed down her cheeks, for reasons she did not know clearly. She sang her own songs then, songs that came straight from a place in her that was truly hers and yet a place she could not reach always. Then, when in the mornings she tried to write the songs in a book, inevitably she could not. Instead, she wrote fragments of stories, her own fairytales that she did not show even to Darius.
This knocking now, this urgent harshness, did not belong to the tall, faraway tower where nothing was ever urgent and harsh, where even the songs and noises she had heard all her life did not come easily. The knocking belonged to the world of Bers and humans, to the world of softly-dressed sharpness, honey-coated poison, noise, and constant misdirected haste.
Seven strides, a hand on the latch, a door swung open—and this world stood before her just as outside the Sun went fully down.
“What do you want?” Merley whispered, against Adept Brighid’s smile.
“Why, to see how you are doing, my dear.”
Brighid pushed back the wet red hood of her cloak. Drops of melting snow trickled down the woman’s thick dark hair and down the garment, marring Darius’s—Merley’s—cleanly polished floor. Snow was usually clean so far from the center of the city with its loud, carriage-packed, filthy streets. But not snow brought in by Brighid. Everything Brighid touched, Brighid tainted, and Merley was going to personally clean the room after the woman was gone, to remove every little trace of her.
Old Slava back in Balkaene had believed that if you swept the floor after a visitor had left, you would banish her or him forever. Old Slava had seriously scolded a scullery girl who had swept the kitchen floor once after Merley had been there for Slava’s wondrous cookies. Merley had not believed you could truly chase away a person with a broom, and the girl probably had not wanted that, anyway—and Merley had gone back later. But could she go back again now? Had the broom perhaps not worked in her case, after all, and could it not work in Brighid’s? Could not wishing Brighid gone with all her heart work by itself?
“Won’t you perhaps offer me a glass of water and a bite, lady Merlevine?”
A bite. The word brought an image that was not that of the polite cake bites nobles offered to visitors, perhaps because Merley had been thinking of Slava just now. Slava’s cookies it brought, together with their taste, so strong that it made Merley’s mouth water, a taste of baked flaky dough full of freshly-churned butter, dressed with an exquisite layer of rose-petal jam.
Merley swallowed, both the taste and the tears, everything blending in a bitter lump inside her throat. But tears were never a good condiment, and she was not going to cry before that woman.
“No, I am not going to offer you anything,” Merley said with all the calm she could muster. “I am a noble lady no more, even though it was “lady” you called me, and I am not bound by silly noble rules of politeness to offer food and drink to even an unwelcome guest. Who made those rules and why, anyway? They make no more sense than the rule of matching shoes.”
“The rule of matching shoes, is it, now?”
If Merley could swallow back words, she would have swallowed back hers. She should have said nothing of shoes, or of her wonderings. She had just uttered what had been on her mind, like she had easily become used to with Darius, but this was not Darius. Brighid was smiling again, obviously undaunted, her smile almost mocking and yet not entirely—a knowing smile, as if she were a nosy but not necessarily ill-meaning friend whom Merley had just presented with a secret of hers. It was not a secret, it was nothing special, and yet she felt breached. Anything she told Brighid, any access to herself she gave Brighid, was one thing too much.
“I could tell you who invented these rules and why, Merley.” Brighid slipped inside, a hand reaching out to close the door. Her nails were long, carefully shaped and painted. “I can tell you many things.”
Could she? Could she really? For a moment, Merley’s curiosity was stronger than the repulsion she felt towards the woman. She had asked a question to which she expected no answer, a question to which she thought there were no answer, for she had learned to think that rarely were the rules of humans good or right, or made any sense. And good or right perhaps they were not, but were there explanations? Was there anything an Adept Humanist knew that could help Merley know this world herself, with its mingled paths and mingled lives, and noise and discord that permeated every breathing or non-breathing thing except perhaps fire? Was there anything Brighid could tell her that would make her understand why she could not find peace even here, amidst Darius’s kindness, in Darius’s peaceful home?
No. Merley did not shake her head at herself only because if she did, Brighid would see and would know that Merley wanted to believe her. Merley did not know what Brighid knew about human rules and the world, but she knew that Brighid knew about her, about the restiveness that for a year had been her constant companion, her enemy and her friend—and she knew that Brighid would not hesitate to use it. Had she been a Brighid, “I can tell you all you need to know,” would have been what she would have told a Merley, perhaps followed by “I can help you find your own place.”
“Why have you come, Adept Humanist Brighid?” Merley sat at her table, in front of her little confined flame, and Brighid sat across from her, the adept’s eyes lingering on the metal plate.
Both were silent for a while. Then, “Such a waste, my dear,” Brighid finally said. “A flame with no purpose, at a time when flames are born in pain and die easily.”
“How do you know it has no purpose!” Merley snapped, then wished to bite off her tongue. She had done it again, she had shown emotion to a person who could harvest emotions like grain, and like grain, turn them to something of her own making.
Strangely enough, Brighid did not immediately take the opportunity to do that. She just stared at the flame for a very long time, eyes half-closed, her long fingers clenched together on the table. She looked … vulnerable for a little while, but not like Merley’s mother, who wore vulnerability like she wore her beauty, like a garment carefully planned and sewn, constantly redesigned to fit her better throughout the years. Brighid, combed and manicured as she was, somehow did not seem to care for beauty in the same way Fallon or other noble women, young and old, did. And right now Brighid looked truly vulnerable—which for some reason made Merley afraid.
“You are right, of course.” Brighid sighed, her fingers carefully unclenching themselves. “All things that humans do have their purposes, I should know that. But not all purposes are equal, my child. Some are worthier than others.”
Merley remained silent. She refused to yet again ask why Brighid had come. As much as she wanted, she could not make her leave, either, for the room was not truly Merley’s, and Merley did not have the power to welcome others or bid them gone. This room, together with the other one at the end of the corridor, where Darius slept, was not even Darius’s. Neither was the study where the tiny devices buzzed and lived lives of their own.
Everything owned by Bers was owned collectively, and even though one may favor some places better than others, or live in a room or a tower all her life, no one owned the room or tower. The Master, long ago, had been vehement that it would be so, the books said. In reality, in the centuries after the Master the rooms where Bers lived had become private, so despite the old rules Merley could indeed throw Brighid out of the room itself. But not from the tower. Brighid could stay at Merley’s threshold forever if she so chose, trapping Merley inside, and Merley did not consider doing this to be beyond Brighid. She might as well hear what Brighid had to say.
“Darius is not too well, I hear. You must be so worried.” Brighid smiled again, a typical smile of hers, so motherly and concerned, and so devoid of vulnerability that Merley might have imagined it a moment ago.
“Stay away from him.” Rules be damned, she might be hesitant to throw that woman away from her own room, but she would throw her away from Darius’s—she would throw her from the top of the tower if she must.
“I am not going to intrude on dear Darius’s much needed rest, dear. I indeed came straight to you without talking to him first for that very reason. What are you thinking? I only mean Darius well. I even sent Darius our most skillful acolyte, even though I would have wished to keep her for myself.”
The smile yet again, that dirty fake smile that only looked fake if you watched very carefully—or if you felt it. Merley must have felt it, for she was not watching carefully. She was not careful at all. If she were, she would not have said yet another thing she should not have said, would not have made yet another mistake. Couldn’t she just have smiled and said that Darius had a slight cold, “nothing too serious, thanks for your concern?” Couldn’t she have brushed the question off, as if it did not matter much? Obviously not. Now Brighid knew that even a small cold could worry Merley when it was Darius who was affected, and she knew how much the old man meant to her. Merley clenched her fists, hiding the sweat that had suddenly surfaced on her palms. Brighid could use all she knew.
“I know what you are thinking. ‘A Humanist can use and abuse,‘ you are thinking, and you are worried about the dear old man. You are right to worry.”
Merley said nothing this time; this time she knew that whatever she said would only make things worse. Words were not her weapons. She could burn Brighid—that she could do. The fire had suddenly started kindling inside her, chasing away the cold for the first time in days, making her hot, almost too hot to bear. She tried to breathe slowly, so that Brighid would not notice, and to control her stomach, which seemed to want to turn inside out. She had killed a human once for her own sake. If need be, she would kill another for Darius’s.
She squeezed her hands together beneath the table, the trembling hopefully invisible to eyes that were not hers. No matter what else, if need be, she would do it. And even if Brighid did not mean Darius harm at this time and in this place, would she not mean harm later, and did she not mean harm to someone or another all the time? Knowing Brighid, would not the world be a better place without her?
Help the world. Kill her.
Suddenly the room was so quiet that Merley could hear the big clock in the study through the thick stone wall, which should in reality be impossible.
“Tick,” the clock said, and “tack,” and “tick” again, every sound in rhythm with the sudden wild thumping of her heart against her chest, and with the thumping of the fire confined inside her. Confined? Had her fire ever been confined? Merley blinked as if to chase the strange, confusing thought away. It was her fire, and inside her was its home. Inside her was where her fire always should be—except for those few flames she let out in the world. The flames she let out, the flames that warmed others, melted wolf chains or bench legs, the flames that maimed and killed—they were precious to her and always hurt a little, and yet they were never as strong, and never as painful or beloved, as the flames that never left her.
“Tick, tack,” the clock said once again, that dear, soothing sound suddenly sharp and pressing against her mind as if a fork had started scraping it from the inside. Merley shivered, unable to hide her body’s reaction this time. Perhaps it was all because the time was a minute to the hour, and soon the clock would strike. She could strike, too. Her head was suddenly free of ache and her stomach was stiff and stable. She could strike so easily.
But “do you control it, or does it control you?” Brighid had said before. Her hands now shaking wildly, Merley suddenly stared at the woman as if she were seeing her for the first time, and stared for a long time after the clock had finished striking.
“You have the right instincts, child.” Brighid’s voice startled her, even though it somehow sounded kinder than before. Merley jerked her eyes away, and suddenly the strength that had been keeping her still and staring drained away. She barely resisted dropping her head on her hands on the table. The flame in the metal plate faded.
Brighid watched the plate in silence, then her eyes bore into Merley’s, dark and deep, and hot themselves.
“You are right to worry, and to doubt my intentions, even though presently I truly mean your master no ill. I need him, you see. But if there is one thing you should know about humans, one thing that would never fail you in dealing with them, it is doubt. Doubt me, Merley. Doubt Darius. Doubt yourself, for she who watches herself constantly is apt to notice whenever she is about to fall, and apt to find a way to stay up or at least to choose where she falls—so that she can scrape back up again.”
“Is this what you did? Chose where you fell?” Perhaps Merley should not have said this, either, but right now her mind seemed too faint and distant to berate her.
“Perhaps.” Brighid’s voice was quiet. “Perhaps this is exactly what I did. But this is not a topic for today. Today, I have come to talk to you about Magic and mechanisms.”
“Why to me? And why you?”
Merley had talked about these things with two other people fourteen days ago, and this was the reason she had been cold ever since. This, and the fear for Dreadful, the nagging fear that seemed to always stay at the back of her mind. He had come to her when she had stood alone in the snow in that park where you could see the river, and he had been wounded once again, she did not know by what or whom. Then, while she had still been in shock and in fear for him, before she had decided what to do and where to take him, those two and their dog had come and helped both him and her.
A lady of Qynnsent, that woman was now. Was that truly not a joke? One House entangled in the Balkaene dirty games had lost a witch, while another House had gained one. Interesting what the Laurents themselves would lose or gain next. But what did Merley care? She should be glad that she was well rid of nobility and the pain and futility it brought. A Ber at least had the power and ability to do things that mattered to the world.
A Ber should not care that there had been a handsome, smart, and kind lord to embrace the water witch in the cold and snow, while no one but Dreadful had been beside Merley. But Dreadful—sweet, soft-coated, warm-breathed, loyal Dreadful—alive Dreadful—was enough. Every night since she had moved to Darius’s tower, he would come to the courtyard and lick her face while she buried her hands in his fur. He would listen to her tell him everything about her, his yellow eyes wells of wild wisdom that she felt closer to her heart than everything else in the world.
He would come tonight, too, and every night Merley wished he would stay, but he had not wanted to, so far. He was not a dog, and perhaps the wildness in him was far too strong. She only hoped he would be fine, for the wounds were still healing—healing properly, for those two had seemed to know what to do. For that, she loved them, even if she sometimes hated them for other things.
She was cold again. The warmth inside must have faded together with the little flame, and suddenly Merley dared not try to make another flame for fear that she would fail. It was a new feeling. She had never failed since that moment she had first discovered her fire, but too many others were failing nowadays, and right now she was cold and doubt had crept into her. Was it because of Brighid and the fire that Merley had not let out? Was it because of Brighid’s words about doubt? Or perhaps it was because that water witch had brought her own coldness to too deep a place inside Merley’s mind and heart.
The water witch had become hot, on the other hand. It had been her place where they had met, that place of blue, gray, snow, wind, and water flowing beneath sunset-bathed ice. Her place and her man. Fire and Merley’s touch had afflicted her just like the coldness of that same touch had afflicted Merley—just like the treacherously soft snow gathering along the window frame right now was pressing at Merley’s mind and squeezing her heart tightly.
About mechanisms the lady Linden and the High Lord Rianor had talked, and perhaps mechanisms they loved, but it was not mechanisms they wielded. It was coldness the two of them had inside, coldness so fierce that it burned, and it repelled Merley and drew her towards them at the same time.
Strangely enough, it seemed to be mechanisms on Brighid’s mind, too, but presently Brighid said nothing further, for there was a knock on the door. A soft knock, of a person used to peace, and yet, a knock in a way persistent.
“Adept Humanist Brighid must have come to you and not to someone else because she is very interested in your skills and perhaps even wants you to develop them well, Merley,” Darius said as he entered, having obviously heard the latest exchange. “Is that not so, Adept Humanist?” Beneath the pince-nez, the blue eyes were sharp, even if reddened by the cold.
“Of course I want her to develop them well, Adept Darius.” Brighid smiled sweetly at the old man, but he did not even seem to notice, adjusting his pince-nez to take a look at the book Merley had left on the shelf beside the table.
“Ah, A History of Metal Making, I have not read it in a long time. I should. That I should do …” He tsk-ed. “So many things to do and so little time to do them.” He gently took the book’s heavy bulk in his wizened hands, his eyes clouded, his mind traveling far, as it was apt to do. Merley smiled, then stood and started brewing a cup of tea for him, and then frowned, adding a double doze of honey as she heard him cough.
“Thank you, dear child.” Darius took the cup, seemingly oblivious that she had not offered a cup to Brighid.
“So, Adept Brighid, what does a Humanist want from my student?”
“The world is fading,” Brighid said in a soft voice with her eyes half-closed, and were this Temple Square and were there a crowd, the crowd would perhaps have stood in stupor, gawking at her mouth for the next words this voice would utter. But this was not Temple Square and there was no crowd, only Darius, who coughed and rummaged through his pockets, murmuring something like “Now, where did I put that handkerchief.”
Merley handed him hers. He started bringing it to his nose, then his eyes opened wider.
“Child, this is as thin and clean a piece of cloth as I have seen lately, and Little Sylvester lies in parts on the middle desk in the study even now, his cogwheels waiting to be cleaned very thoroughly. Do you have any more of these? Anyway, I am not going to waste this one.”
Darius coughed again, the handkerchief safe in his shirt’s pocket—the clean one, for Darius would never wipe Little Sylvester with anything that had been in the other pocket, the one that contained the melted dinner fork and the beeswax.
“Wait a bit, master.” Merley stood and went to ransack the topmost drawer of her desk, where things were admittedly in a disarray. She found two more handkerchiefs of the same kind as well as a coarser one, made of flax. She expected Darius to wipe his nose with that as she stacked all on his lap, but instead he unfolded it, a finger tracing the strong interweaving threads, his mind obviously solely occupied with their pattern.
Silently, Merley scribbled “Little Sylvester” on a piece of paper, took one of the thin handkerchiefs and folded the note inside it before she placed the whole package in Darius’s pocket. In this way, two hours from now Darius would not wonder what the things in his pocket were and why they were there. He smiled at her, stuffing the linen handkerchief in the pocket with the wax. Well, at least it would smell nice.
Before she had come to live here, Merley had thought herself disorganized. As a noble lady of Waltraud, her mother had expected her to learn things like planning menus for the Cooks to cook and the servants to serve, decorating halls with items to carefully demonstrate House Waltraud’s affluence, great history, and what not to those who came to Fallon’s balls, and to smile and look agreeable and beautiful. As if Slava could not very well plan the meals by herself, as if the Houses did not know each other’s stupid history, together with the details they did not really like each other to know, and as if she would ever be agreeable.
Who could ever agree with Fallon’s ways? Fallon always found faults, and Merley remembered her smiling, content, perhaps even proud of her daughter, only once in her life—when Merley had so easily learned to play the violin. Mother had made Father buy the violin, even though Father cared nothing for triflings of that sort. This particular violin was a perfect instrument not easy to find, and Merley had been entranced, thinking that this time her mother had truly done something for her. Fallon had even hired a Mister Saran, who was supposedly a most esteemed Master Musician and the most esteemed instructor, to teach Merley to play.
Yet, soon after Merley had learned how to use her fingers and the bow over the strings and made her mother content, she had played to Mister Saran a song of her own making. Then, when Mister Saran, tears running down his face, had run to Father to tell him that it was wonderful and that he had never heard anything like it, Mother had come to talk to her alone, and slapped her.
She had been only seven, and she cried while Mother stood above her, wind from the window rippling Mother’s long, white gown. The gown was a thin, almost transparent white that Merley longed to touch but never could, for Mother feared that Merley’s fingers would leave dingy spots on it.
“You shall never do that again! Never, do you hear me?”
“Never do what?” little Merley had sobbed, which had earned her another slap. So it was one of those questions—like the question how babies got inside the mother and did the father help at all. When questions like this were asked, the adults either grew silent, or snapped at her without telling her why, and she always got the feeling that there were things she was supposed to somehow know by herself, and that she should be ashamed both for not acting according to what she knew not, and for asking.
This time, however, Mother stared at her after the slap, a frown cutting through her forehead as if she were thinking about an answer.
“You shall never play improper music,” she finally said, and Merley only dared ask what “improper music” was after several moments had passed, and in a very small voice.
Mother looked as if she would slap her again, but at the last moment she let her hand drop, her white sleeve swishing through the air with a strange, eerie sound. Merley heard something more then, something distant that was not a song, and she turned her head to listen to it. Mother gripped her chin at that and turned her back, then sighed, stroking Merley’s cheek with light, exquisite fingers.
“Improper music is any music, my dear, that does not come written on a sheet of paper from your teachers or from me. Written music—checked, safe music—is the only music you should play, made by people who know better than you. Indeed, you should only play music written by men, for women are not to be trusted. Never trust a woman, have I told you that?”
She had, many times. Merley did not want to listen. If Mother was right, Mother being a woman meant that Merley should not trust Mother, either. But if Merley did not trust Mother, why should she follow Mother’s words, the ones that told her to not trust women? Thinking of that made the little girl’s head hurt, and that was nothing compared to the moments when she wondered if one day she should stop trusting herself—when she, too, had become a woman. Would it matter whom or what else she trusted then if the trust itself would come from an untrustworthy source?
In the present day, in Darius’s tower, the woman Merley shook her head to chase the memory away. Funny what thoughts a note inside a handkerchief could bring, and how the thoughts would bring other thoughts, all of them as if weaved together with an invisible thread in a pattern much more complex than the one Darius had been looking at.
Merley had been disorganized—perhaps because Fallon so much wanted to make her the opposite. That day, she had watched her mother wide-eyed, wondering about trust and other complex things, and instead of helping her answer all the “why” questions in her mind, her mother made her recite what gown was proper for what kind of ball, and how you should greet lords of friendly Houses.
“You shall marry one, one day,” she had said, “and you should learn how to look and how to act as his lady. You should study that very carefully. You shall marry a High Lord, I should say. Won’t that make you happy?”
“No,” Merley had said truthfully and received a glare, even if it was not a slap this time. Fallon rarely slapped, but her glares were in a way no less painful. “Mommy,” Merley sobbed, “why are you asking if you do not want me to tell?”
“I am asking for the right answer!” Fallon screamed, and that was the day Merley decided that “right answers” were something as slippery as her bathtub, and that everyone seemed to have her own. Of course, she was too young to know how to say anything but “I won’t marry any stupid High Lord, and I won’t ever be a proper lady!” and receive another slap, as well as a threat that Mother would tell Father about Merley’s outburst. And since proper ladies never had outbursts, Merley made sure to have many in the days to come.
She could not plan a single menu, and she knew about dresses less than the servants she had once had. The Bers’ plain robes had indeed come as a relief to her. And since a lady had to always know the everyday goings of her House intimately and control them with a subtle, confident, dainty hand, Merley had made sure to never learn how to keep control of even her own room.
If she ever knew what exact clothes to put on, she usually could not find them in her wardrobe at all—but she could sometimes find there books that had been lost for days, toys, or even food she had thought she had eaten long ago. Her thoughts, too, would often jump where they would and not where her teachers, Bers or others, said that they should. And like today with Brighid, Merley would sometimes talk or act on naught but an impulse.
Yet, in the last thirty days she had somehow slipped into organizing Darius’s tower and even Darius’s thoughts. Merley stared at the teacup. She had stood to once again fill it for Darius. Somehow, without even noticing, she had changed.
Merley handed the cup to her master and took one for herself. His eyes off the handkerchief now, Darius cast a brief look towards their uninvited guest and seemed for the first time to notice her cupless state. Merley tensed, as behind his pince-nez his eyes suddenly seemed as sharp as they had been the day Merley had first met him. However, he simply nodded, as if to himself, then sipped his tea.
“The world is fading, you say, Adept Brighid.” His voice was mild, but his eyes had not lost the sharpness. “I am afraid that it is not.”
The benevolent, even if slightly bored expression that had stayed fixed on Brighid’s face during the whole exchange between Merley and Darius flickered for the briefest moment—the only sign that it was perhaps fake.
No one ever liked to be ignored, and perhaps a woman used to swooning attention to both herself and her words, from Bers and crowds alike, liked it even less. She had taken care to not show it. Now she awarded a motherly, almost condescending smile to even Darius, despite his status and his age. Indeed, she acted as if the most the likes of him and Merley could do was amuse her, and yet she must have some important need for the likes of them, for she was here and enduring.
“Please continue, Adept Darius,” Brighid said quickly, smiling yet again.
“This is what I was going to do, had you not interrupted me.” His voice was still kind, with no trace of judgement or irritation, and still the eyes were like shards of blue glass. “Adept Humanist, look out the window and tell me what you see.”
To Merley’s surprise, Brighid, who was nothing like the newly-made acolyte who had been asked the same thing thirty days ago, did look through the window.
“Mountains,” she said in a voice that still sounded amused and yet not entirely.
“How about inside the room, right before you?”
“The table? Is that what you mean?”
Darius started adjusting his pince-nez, at the same time tracing a wizened finger along the table, itself one of his metalworks. “Does it look faded to you? Do the mountains? And is all of this not the world?”
“The world is still here,” he continued before Brighid could do more than half-raise her eyebrows, his voice both kind and instructive, as if talking to a problematic and yet beloved child. Merley remembered a nurse from her childhood who had talked like this, even though Merley’s own mother never had.
“The mountain is still there, and the table, made of metal from that very mountain, is still here, as are my clocks, which still work—and will, I dare say. None of these things have faded, Adept Brighid. What might have faded is the exact way of turning mountain into metal that we are used to, the method, or—do you remember this word from when you were an acolyte and studied Artificery yourself—the algorithm.” He finished with his pince-nez, which was now fastened higher up his nose but would slide back in a few minutes. “But an algorithm, Brighid, is not the world.”
“I remember the word. It meant ‘a set of rules describing how to solve a problem‘ according to Adept Zanador”—Brighid shaped a quick sign of benediction with her fingers—”may the Master bless his quintessence in its final rest. I have a very good memory, Adept Darius. You would be surprised at what things I can remember.”
The last might have been a threat to most humans.
“Ah, you should write all those things down while you are still young,” Darius said, wistfully. “I regret not having done that myself, for memory becomes fickle as the years pass.”
“An algorithm, you say.” Brighid’s eyes bore into Darius’s, his like clear ice, hers like a dark abyss made of black stone from the Sunset Lands, swallowing the light. Merley wondered which ones were more dangerous. “Isn’t it strange, Adept Darius, how the word seems to be associated with Artificery and other such fields claimed by their practitioners to be precise and factual, fields that often deal with non-living things—while it is Humanism and the so-called soft fields where we have to solve problems on a daily basis?”
Once again, Merley spoke before stopping to think if she should. “Why would you need the word, a word about rules? You acknowledge no rules—you ignore them all,” she snapped, even as Darius said mildly, “I have not taken possession of this word, Adept Brighid—or of any other. You are free to use it.”
“Unfortunately, there are rules that I do acknowledge, Merley.” Brighid sighed, and it was not an exaggerated sigh such as the ones she had demonstrated to the Temple Square crowd. “Rules that I cannot ignore. If I could, I would simply snap my fingers right now and have the world—or its algorithm, call it whatever you wish—be as it should be. But I cannot do that, so there must be rules that cannot be defied. At least, I have not yet learned how to defy them. As for the word ‘algorithm‘ itself, Adept Darius”—Brighid shook her head—”thanks, but I do not think I need it.”
Brighid stared outside the window. “The algorithms are changing, you say, and not the world itself, but then what is the world? A mountain and a table? What is a mountain—grass, and stone, and metal? Trees? Animals? All of those together? What is a table? I see four metal posts and a board, but if I use the words ‘four metal posts and a board‘ to describe what I see, the word ‘table‘ itself will be redundant. So, is there a table? Is there a mountain? Or is it not an algorithm in our minds that makes a table out of the posts and board, and is this not truly everything that there is to the world …”
“Do you want to learn an algorithm for making tables, then? Is metalwork the reason for your visit, Adept Brighid? If it is, please let me know what exactly you want. I tire of long, circumventing explanations.”
“No! This is not what I mean! I already have an algorithm inside me! We all do!” Darius’s mild question seemed to have interrupted Brighid’s flow of thought, and now she stared at him, shocked by her own uncontrolled shouts, all smiles and fakeness gone. “The concepts are inside us!”
Darius returned her gaze, his once again mild. “Imagination is a wonderful thing, but I am afraid it is not enough for working with metal, Adept Humanist. It might be possible that everyone has the potential to learn, and yet not everyone learns how to make things that work. For that, you need skill, and you need practice of both your mind and hands to acquire skill, and you need concentration—”
“Adept Darius, we, ourselves, are the algorithms that make the world. We humans, but especially we Bers. Our minds are what makes the world, and without them there is no world to speak of, only unconnected parts. True, it matters much that we know how to turn mountain into metal—but even more than that it matters how humans look at us, and how they look at the world, and what world they truly see.” Brighid was talking as if she had not even been listening to Darius but was responding to a few non-connected words of his that she had overheard. To be fair, Darius was doing the same thing with her.
Suddenly Merley understood. They had no common language, the Artificer and the Humanist. They might as well have lived in separate worlds—his a world of tiny building parts and clockwise precision where humans never mattered, hers of words and images that grew inside humans and needed humans to matter or even exist. His world needed only fire, Magic, and metal, and there were consistent rules of how to bend these things to an Artificer’s will. In her world, humans themselves were the materials, and the rules of how to bend them to her will must change with every individual, since humans had wills of their own.
About the world Darius and Brighid talked, and yet they did not see the world, for each of them had taken a part of the world and buried his or her self so deep in it that it seemed to be the whole world—and yet, it was not.
“You are both wrong,” Merley said, quietly, and were these other adepts, perhaps they would have both jumped at the presumptuous acolyte. These two only looked at her expectantly, and Merley suddenly knew that whatever their worlds were, there was something both of them shared. Whatever their reasons, they both had the clarity of thought needed to listen to one whom they were not obliged to listen to but who had something to say.
Such people were dangerous and only one of them was a friend, but the thought of that was just a small thought amongst many. It fled away when Merley suddenly jumped from her chair and rushed to the window. A tiny flickering light had risen where the Sun had set—a light that was not a star, for even now it was moving through the sky. Merley watched it until it was gone, just a little light above the many lights that had started glowing down in the city, and yet a light different from all else—and Merley did not know how she knew that, but it was very important that she could see both it and them.
“You are both wrong,” she whispered, almost to herself, as she slowly walked back to the table and took A History of Metal Making, its bulk suddenly solid and reassuring in her hands, even though it had been heavy and burdening earlier when it had not offered her the answers she had sought. Answers about how Magic worked, to questions asked by the Qynnsent lord and the water witch lady. Merley had told them that knowing how Magic worked did not matter; she had even shouted at them, and yet after that she had spent days amongst crumbling pages and imagined dust, seeking—seeking what? She had not known. Did she know, now?
“You are both wrong,” she said, once again, “because one world is not enough.“
Darius said nothing, and Merley could read nothing on his face, but Brighid laughed with the motherly laugh that she had forgotten to use during the last few moments. It was as if Merley’s words had just now jerked the woman out of the strange mood she had been in, that of showing true emotion by quarreling with Darius.
“My dear,” Brighid beamed at her. “Those words would have warranted a visit from the Bers if you were not a Ber yourself.”
“You are visiting, aren’t you,” Merley murmured.
Brighid smiled once again, with a hint of something like affection.
“But a Ber you are, and I say that you have the right to say such words if these are the words that would save us all. Yes, perhaps this is exactly it …” She was lost in thought for a moment, then smiled yet again.
“But I have not yet told you what I came for. Time has come for the world’s algorithms to change so that the world itself would not fade. What say you, Acolyte and Adept Artificer, of working on a device that no Artificer has ever worked on before?”
Chapter 2: Weaving
Excerpt from Introduction to Mierenthia, Fiftieth Edition, Year of the Master 680:
Day 60 of the First Quarter is Grandma Marta’s Day. Grandma Marta is of the Powers That Be, one of the Master’s assistants. She is good, kind, and watches over children especially. Many people, especially children, adorn themselves with red and white thread on her day. This thread is a symbol of spring and of the fire to come this year.
Night 59 of the First Quarter, Year of the Master 706
Linden dreamed of fire and falling. A part of her knew that she was safe in bed in Qynnsent, and yet that part could not help the rest of her, which was thrust down from a mountain top. All around her, the world glowed hot and red. She clutched at a protruding rock that the roots of a crooked tree were already clutching—tried to save herself like the tree had—but upon her touch both the tree and the mountain crumbled into black flakes.
She could almost see the flakes even now, as she jerked her eyes open. She could almost feel them on her hands, sticking to the sweat on her palms, itching, grating.
Rianor awoke at the same moment she did. His arms, already tight around her, tightened so much that she could barely breathe. “A bad dream, my love?”
“Yes—mountain tops and ashes, things that I have never seen in this world and yet see too often these days. And you?” She caressed his face, brushing aside wet strands of hair from his forehead and temples. He was drenched in sweat himself.
“You know that I do not dream.”
“I know that you do not remember dreaming, or that you chase away the dreams themselves but not necessarily what causes them. Here, my love, I will get you something to eat.”
She kept a plate of sandwiches on the nightstand for such moments exactly—for times when, after minutes of tossing himself in bed and grinding his teeth, he would suddenly wake up with his mind sharp but his body overtight, his left hand trembling, the Qynnsent symbol visible on his skin. Those were the only times Linden saw the symbol appear like this, without the wristwatch. She did not remember ever seeing it on his bare wrist before they had started sleeping together. And she had never seen it on anyone else’s wrist, even her own, except for that night in the Inner Sanctum.
It was not good. It was not good at all.
“Linde, there is no need to feed me like this every night. This has been happening—”
“—for a very long time, I know, and you have never bothered to eat before. But it helps. So do eat.” She placed a plate with a slice of bread topped with sausage and tomatoes by his pillow, then smiled and slowly caressed his arm. “Or, are you, like Jenne, worried that you would become fat? Do not worry, my love, I will—” She felt herself blush. “I will make you exercise.”
He had taken her hand from his arm and was kissing her palm long before she had finished the words; now he simply yanked her to himself, the next kisses on her lips and throat.
For the next half an hour she forgot all about food.
Later, however, she remembered it, and not only because it would help her loved one sleep better. Food was never far from their thoughts these days, even though the House itself still had enough.
The Mills were failing—many of them, not only those in Blessedber, Lightber, and Roseber. The first news had come both from Mathilda, who had once again come personally to Mierber, and from Marguerite of Laurent, who did not visit but sent her father in her stead.
Linden was glad that the High Lady had not come. She did not care to see one who would so ostentatiously flirt with Rianor—and, as time passed and the news did not improve, Linden started feeling that this was exactly why the woman had not come. Marguerite’s news were too dire for their reception to be muddled by the personal feelings her appearance would arise—or else this was what House Laurent intended House Qynnsent to think. They could never be certain. As with any noble Houses, there was not complete trust between these two, and information was shared tentatively and with many unsaid words.
Yet, it was shared. Laurent knew about Qynnsent’s fire failure, and Qynnsent knew about Laurent’s; they had exchanged information about the failing Mills and even hinted of some of their people having sighted Bessove. Linden sighed. She wished there was nothing to share.
“What is it this time?” Rianor kissed her brow, lightly. His own eyes were narrowed and steely. He, like herself, did not seem likely to sleep soon.
Linden bit into the piece of bread she had been fingering, then stopped and watched it for some time. The first news had come from Mathilda’s and Marguerite’s spies, but the second news came from the Bers themselves. The sending of Milled flour to Houses and city kitchens would be postponed, the Bers said, even though they did send the grain for the planting of the spring crops. Flour would be sent very soon, the Bers assured, but the days went past and no wagons left the Mills.
The food had been too little, ever since autumn, even though Noble Houses were only now starting to notice. The common citizens of Mierber, on the other hand, had felt the effect much earlier, with the coupon system and everything. These days many of them must starve.
“We have enough bread flour for our nobles and servants,” Linden said quietly. “It will last us for a quarter of the year, at least—and we do have some food for the peasants, too. By the time it is all gone, perhaps we will have figured out what to do with our own mills, or the Bers will have made their Mills run again. We have food now. Right?” She met his eyes, almost pleading. “We are fine now. Yet, that does not seem to matter at all, for all I can see—all I can feel—is the hanging shadow of what might come to be.” She sighed yet again. “‘Live only for today,‘ Clare’s grandmother used to teach her, and these days I am starting to see some merit in this, but I can’t do it, myself.”
“Live only for today?” Rianor stared at the symbol on his wrist, and then he, too, sighed. “Master Keitaro says that you must not. There were moments after my father died and my mother let go of life, when I wanted to forget them. To not remember them at all. And I must have seen the ‘live only for today‘ phrase somewhere, for one night I asked the old master about it. ‘How can you only live for today,’ he replied, ‘when today and tomorrow and yesterday are all weaved together, like a rug? You think you are only standing on the ‘today‘ part of it, that ‘yesterday‘ is behind you and ‘tomorrow‘ before you, nice and clean—but shift your feet slightly, or lean and touch the rug with your hands, and it might ripple or fold in weird shapes. The past might come above the present, or the future might push the past away—or the present might enfold both inside it so that at first glance only the present exists and yet its core is something else. And where will you be in this? Will you even know? Only if you have already watched the whole rug, you will. And only then will you know how to shift your legs so that you get the rug to shape in the way that you want.’ “
“So the old Master says that one who watches everything can control everything?”
“No.” Rianor thrust the slice he was eating back to its plate. She could feel his heartbeat where her arms had encircled his waist—thump, thump, it was so fast, so unstable yet again. Yet again, he was angry. “No, Linde, the old master says that one who watches can control how a ready-made past, ready-made present, and ready-made future fold and unfold. Is this really such an achievement? To choose your own place amidst someone else’s mess? Well, I say to the Lost Ones with it all. Let’s weave our own rug.“
“We know no more of weaving than we do of milling, unfortunately.”
If he had something else in his hand, he would have thrown it, too. “And do you think that weaving, normal and not metaphorical weaving, must be so hard? Think of it, we can build a simple loom ourselves. We need a frame, which we can get if we are willing to mutilate a picture, and we need some old clothes and a few sticks.” He had grabbed a sheet of paper from the nightstand and was already drawing by the light of the closest sleep candle. A moment later he had dropped the sheet of paper away and slipped out of bed. “I will simply do it, my love.” He was dressing without looking at his clothes at all, his eyes yet again narrowed, his gaze someplace else. “I will show you.”
She was up and dressed herself by the time he came back from his study with the materials, and she helped him with the project. First they pulled one of the threads hanging from an old, ragged sweater until most of the sweater was no more, then proceeded to wrap some of the resulting threads around the frame. After a few unsuccessful attempts to produce anything, they managed, with the help of the sticks and a common dinner fork, to start inserting additional thread between the already wrapped thread pieces in a consistent manner. The end result was skewed and rumpled, but it did look like a rug or cloth.
“There you are—Mistress Weaver. Without muttering over the rug, without performing rites, without—as our dear Master Millers are apt to do, and I am certain Master Weavers would, too—drawing symbols on paper or even in the air, and never sharing those with the world, for they are secrets of their damn Craft. Craft secrets indeed, if the Crafters themselves do not know what the rites do—if the rites do anything at all!”
“They do something, my love.” Linden’s own voice was quiet. Despite their mills and despite everything that had recently happened, she did not feel entirely comfortable with what they had just done.
“Rianor, I have seen a loom. A Master Weaver invited my class to his shop once; he was hoping for new apprentices. He was an old man, one of the very few not working in the Factories. His loom was too different from ours. It was bigger, of course, but that is not the most important thing. It—It looked like a mechanism, in a way, but was not. It would not really work as a mechanism, the way it was built. It must work with Magic—if it still works at all. But if it does work, the words and rites and so forth will be necessary.”
“Yes, I know. But why is it as it is? Because the Bers would like to rule us, control us, to throw dust in our eyes until we are blind enough to not see the world, and thus think that we could never manage without them? Mechanisms work. Yet, mechanisms are ridiculed or outright forbidden. Instead, we are all taught mindless words and rites since an early age, and our minds are filled with them until there is no place for anything else. And, of course, the words and rites are not the same for every craft and task.
Craft secrets.” He spat the phrase. “Secrets—so that whoever still tries to understand the world will find impenetrable walls on all sides. And when you finally convince a Crafter to tell you the words and rites—why, it does not matter. They do not work. You still know nothing.”
It was, unfortunately, true. Qynnsent had tried to build their own mills, after they had postponed sending their own grain to the Ber Mills as per Marguerite’s advice. Rianor and Linden had not even hesitated. Even something as aberrant and Ber-defying as mills had somehow seemed normal after the fire outage and the Stratagem night. They could solve their problems by themselves.
However, the real world was not a Stratagem game. Tools and an actual working end-result did matter—and tools were what they lacked, as well as an end-result that worked as it should.
“I had hoped that at least the older Master Millers would know what to do,” Linden said, not for the first time. “Do people truly not know anything?”
“Darling, that is not something that even surprises me any more.”
Yet, it had disappointed him. After the decisions made at Linden’s first Qynnsent Council, Qynnsent had very carefully found a few Master Millers willing to talk. The first two were young ones, even younger than Rianor; they had been the first to be laid off from Mills that did not need many Millers any more. It was indeed those two who had confirmed that the Mills were failing—but they could tell little else. There had been Factory Mills in the world for all their lives, and they had received all their training in those.
They knew the rites to, as they called it, remove the taint from raw grain after the porters had brought it to the Mill’s grain floor. They also knew the rites to complete the process after the grain had disappeared through the floor’s holes and newly-Milled flour had emerged through the holes of another floor. Besides those, they knew rites to periodically perform for the Mill itself, supposedly to help it work properly—but they never knew the Mill. Like Qynnsent’s fire system, a Mill’s workings were closed, unavailable. As with the Factories, only Bers and wretches went into a Mill’s Inner Sanctum, and that only sometimes.
The young Master Millers were useless—and, unfortunately, so were the old ones.
Oh, the old ones—those who had been trained more than fifty years ago, of whom Qynnsent found two—had seen the implementation of a mill closer. But they understood nothing of it. Yes, they knew that grain was turned into flour by being crushed by metal plates or stones, which was more than the young ones knew, but still they did not know the mechanisms that made that possible.
The system of a mill was complex, these old Millers said, convoluted—and why would they look at what made the mill work, anyway? It must be Magic, of course. And perhaps it was. The pieces of a mill that they did manage to describe to Linden and Rianor did not fully make sense, just like Master Parcal’s loom had not made sense to her earlier.
It was hard to work on an old mill, the old masters said; it was much, much harder than working on a newer Mill. The rituals were more complex, even though the mills were smaller, and many masters and apprentices were needed to perform them, many of whom were barely able to drag themselves home at night. Even animals were used in the old mills, sometimes—horses harnessed as if to pull a wagon but pulling something else, not traveling at all but going in a circle, almost staying at the same place.
A Master Miller had to know horse rites in those days, the old masters said—not those that Master Wagoners or Riders knew but horse rites nonetheless. Many of the apprentices did not even graduate. Some quit to train for other, easier Crafts, others were content to become porters or to take other simple and non-prestigious professions, and yet others … simply faded, day by day, doing nothing and becoming nothing, until they became no more than wretches, society’s leeches, useless and weak. The old masters were proud that they had been strong, that they had become Master Millers, after all.
The old masters were also alive, but perhaps they would not have been if the Factory Mills had not replaced the old mills soon enough. Master Millers rarely lived to an old age in those days.
“Bless the Bers, our Faithful Stewards of the Master, for what they did,” the old woman said to Linden and Rianor, “But it is hard on them these days. There are too many reprobates, too many who taint the rites themselves. People were better before, they were. People knew how to work hard and think properly. But the Bers will fix it all; they always do. They will take the reprobates away.” The old man had bobbed his head in agreement many times, his white beard rippling as he did so. Linden had clasped a hand to her mouth lest she uttered something too rash and too harsh, and she had also gripped Rianor’s hand in warning.
These were just old people. They were retired, powerless, and had been hungry before Rianor had given them food; they would soon be gone from this world. Let them think what they would. What harm could it do?
“Let us go back to trying to produce real flour, shall we? We are done with weaving for tonight, and I do not think we will sleep any more before morning.” Rianor slipped an arm around her waist. She wrapped her own arms around his neck, kissing him before she let him lead her to the study. He felt so tense.
He was even tenser when their little, hand-sized model of a mill produced naught but coarse, brownish semblance of flour yet again.
The little mill was an actual mechanism. If you rotated a handle, levers and cogwheels moved to cause the rotation of a stone with a hole in its middle around a spindle going through that hole, above another stone that stood still. The stones never quite touched each other, but the distance between them was only millimeters, almost nonexistent. The grain was poured between those stones while the upper stone was rotated on its spindle, and thus the grain was ground.
Linden and Rianor had built the mill, like they built other mechanisms, with their daggers and with scraps from other, Factory-produced products. The mechanism made it possible to grind the grain faster and more finely than simply grating the two stones against each other by hand—but the result was just finer, faster produced brownish semblance of flour (and, unlike the one ground by hand, where the stones touched each other, it did not have flakes of stone in it). But it was not real flour.
They had tried the rites, too—all the rites that either the young or old Millers had taught them, even though they felt uneasy in dabbling with what was unexplained and perhaps would never be, whose effects they could not even start to guess, let alone predict.
They should not have worried, for nothing happened.
Nothing but brownish grit happened at the mill they’d had built in Balkaene, too, even though the stones were human-sized there and housed in a whole cottage, and the levers and wheels and pulleys were large and strong. Rianor had hired Master Builders to supposedly build a new wing for Qynnsent’s estate in Balkaene—and then he had paid them tens of times more money than he normally would have and had offered them direct employment in the House together with the good feeding that brought. In this way, they would stay and let him use their materials and tools.
The Master Builders, like the Master Millers, had been uneasy, frightened of the aberration and especially frightened that the Bers themselves would punish them. However, these days the Bers were giving only fear and no food—it was Rianor and other nobles who could feed them, for some time at least. Last year, and for many years before that, Master Crafters had mostly worked for Noble Houses as contractors, their responsibilities clearly defined and their commoners’ freedoms retained. However, now more and more Master Crafters and other commoners were becoming Noble House servants and submitted to whatever treatment the corresponding House would give. Many were indeed fighting for the privilege.
Qynnsent, known for both High Lord Rianor’s and Mentor Octavian’s gentle treatment of servants, had never suffered from lack of Master Crafter servants—and now they were getting more applications than ever. Well, the consequences of lack of food were to be expected—
Consequences? Suddenly Linden gripped the bowl of brown flour in her hands, staring at it as if with new eyes. Consequences. Things happening only because other things had happened before them. Sequence. Order.
“Rianor, my love, we are approaching this wrongly.” She looked at him. “We expect to run the mill and immediately get fine white flour on the other end. Having built a mechanism, now we expect our product to just happen all at once—indeed, we expect everything to work the same way as with rites, the only difference being that we have replaced the rites with a mechanism. If we performed the rites for something and got the wrong product the project would be a failure, but—”
He returned her gaze. “But a mechanism is not the same as rites. Science is not Magic. Science works according to the rules of the world—and whatever we talk about rippling rugs, things do not happen all at once in the world.”
He had understood her, then. She smiled at him.
“If you throw a stone through the window, it will hit the ground at some point. You know because these are the rules. Yet, the stone will spend time in the air before that—and if you look at the stone in the air and say that it is a failed experiment because the stone is not on the ground, you would be a fool.”
“So.” Rianor ran a finger through the flour in her bowl, then took the bowl himself, rotating it in his hands. “We do not necessarily have the wrong product; what we have might be a way to our product. Do you want us to wait and see if this flour will become fine and white with time? Or do we have to do something more? Perhaps we cannot rely on the passage of time alone. If you want to throw a stone not just anywhere on the ground but from here to the end of the garden, you will still throw it in the air and it will still hit the ground—but since the end of the garden is far, it will hit the ground closer, at the wrong place. But if you walk to this wrong place, you can pick the stone and throw it again—and again, working sequentially like that until you succeed.”
Linden sighed. “Indeed, this is similar to what you had started with the can-opener mechanisms, that was a sequence itself … Well, do we have to do something more now? I wish that I knew. Since we do not know, let us think and do what makes most sense to us.”
Rianor’s eyes were narrowed again. “See these gritty bits in the brown flour? If we puncture many small holes in a can—similar to those on the shower heads—and pour the flour inside the can and shake it, what falls through the holes will be whiter as a whole, for the gritty bits will have remained in the can. The gritty bits are both larger and more colorful than the rest. After that, perhaps we have to throw the gritty bits away—”
Suddenly Rianor put the bowl on the table, very carefully, every motion full of the care and precision that he exhibited only when what he indeed wanted was to smash the thing into the wall. “Or we do not throw away anything.“
It was her turn to understand him before he had finished. She rested her hand on his on the table. “Because we do not know if white Ber-like flour is what we indeed want,” she said. “The rites remove Mierenthia’s taint from the grain, the Master Millers tell us, but what is Mierenthia’s taint? Mierenthia is the world—the same world whose rules we are following even now with the mechanism. Perhaps we want the taint, after all.”
“Reprobate.” Rianor drew her to himself. “I love you so much.”
“And I you.” She squeezed him, for a while content to only feel him and to not think of the grain at all. Then she smiled at him. “We’ll figure it all out. We are, both of us, thinking, and we are thinking together. How can we not figure it out?”
He kissed her again.
After that, it was only logical to decide to remove the gritty bits from half of the flour and see if it became white—and to have the Cooks try to bake actual bread loaves both with that whitish flour and with the other, uncleaned, brown half. One of these might work. One of these might be the new way of feeding people that they sought—and it was high time that they stopped trying to imitate Ber ways.
Yet, as the rays of the morning Sun caressed the window, casting a pink tint on both the bowl of flour and the little loom, Linden glanced at her beloved with uneasiness.
“Have you noticed that the old sweater’s thread is red-and-white? We are running from the Ber ways, we think. We are weaving our own cloth—but accidentally we weave it in the exact colors as if to celebrate Grandma Marta’s Day, the Ber holiday.”
“These were the only colors we had of a good, strong but otherwise useless thread, Linde—unless we wanted to unmake a more functional sweater, that is. It would have been different if weaving thread was sold to everyone in the stores, like embroidery thread is.”
” ‘Unmake,‘ you said.” She traced the rug that had been a sweater before with a finger. “Rianor, is this a right thing that we are doing—unmaking in order to make something else?”
He looked at her, then, and there was something in his eyes that made her very glad that they were both on the same side.
“Darling,” he said, “in this world ruled by Bers, this is the only right thing.”