Sins of the Poet (Excerpt)
Sixteen minutes before the mark was scheduled to arrive. Why had she agreed to take on this ill-conceived fiasco of a job?
The money: a thousand silver drachms divided three ways.
She needed the money. She always needed the money.
“Deyva, what are you doing?”
Sami dropped her fabricator’s wands and grabbed Deyva’s fingers to stop them from completing the character string he was in the middle of composing. The concentrated source magick swirling through the embroidered characters on his control gloves crackled against her skin with the bite of an angry snake, and she yanked her hands back, doing her best to only swear under her breath in case anyone heard them.
“I told you, the prosody’s all wrong,” she whispered. “Find a steady rhythm. Short stanzas, no mimesis. You nearly depleted the reservoir.”
“Sorry, sorry,” he whispered back. “Let me try again.”
Sami picked up her wands off the sawdust-covered floor of the lean-to behind Turarimas’s hut and peered at the small, palm-sized wooden box it had taken her, Deyva, and Turarimas every waking hour for the past week to construct. Made of banyan wood from southern Orsin, its interior was divided into six compartments made with interlocked sheets of reed-pulp paper laced with gold wire and inscribed with complex grids of characters that, when Deyva finally got the stanzas right, would thrum with a stable reservoir of source magick.
“It’s beautiful, Turarimas,” she said.
The forger held her own pair of wands between fingers and thumbs, moving the tips delicately in the air above the box lid with all the finesse of the seamstresses in the workshop down the street who made ceremonial robes for the poets of the Conservatory. Under her ministrations, the unadorned banyan wood they had bought off the back of a cart the previous week reconfigured itself into the rich, carved and varnished wood of Second Reformation antiques from eight hundred years ago. Sami was far better qualified than Turarimas, having graduated with high honors from the Tenth Academy. Turarimas had only narrowly passed her finals, but her fabrications were always a thing of beauty. Sami’s did the job better than anyone else’s, but never looked more than functional.
“Girl,” said the older fabricator, “I told you, call me Tura. Unless this fails. Then forget my name completely, especially if the Constabulary comes knocking. There. Finished.”
Above them, the sky darkened for an instant, and Deyva glanced up nervously. Unlike Tura and Sami, Deyva hadn’t grown up under the watchful eye of Tiantur, Guardian Dragon of the Western Font, and still worried about its vengeful wrath. People born in Junktown and Moair new better. If some idiot poet were to do the wrong thing and bring flames down upon them, they would all be dead. What was the point in worrying?
She crossed her wands and angled the tips over the forged lid and felt the pull of source magick as the inscriptions on her tools awakened. Curing the lid was a simple task for her, as was preparing the rest of the box for Tura to make look old and Deyva to animate with source magick, though what the mark was asking for, no fabricator or poet, and no amount of money, could make happen. What they were preparing was a fake that would work perhaps twice, and, if Sami had done her job right, would fail in such a way that the mark would think it his own fault.
Fabrication and poetry were very different skills. Always a practical girl, the flights of fancy and imagination necessary to master the poetic arts were beyond Sami. But she understood the grammar and syntax of source magick like no one else, at a fundamental level that enabled her to cure materials, to prepare them to receive and enhance the source magick of poetry, with a skill that had seen her awarded the highest qualifications when she graduated from the Tenth Academy. She could have been the finest fabricator in all of Orsin by now, with her own atelier and an army of apprentices.
Sami put the thought out of her head. The only daydreaming she could afford right now was the open mind necessary to complete this forgery. At her side, Deyva waved his hands making signs with his fingers as Tura sat back, her part of the job done.
“Better, Deyva.” Sami nodded her approval. “Simpler. Sturdier.”
Under normal circumstances, a poet would approach a fabricator before beginning to compose. The fabricator would help them select the medium, stylus, and pigments that would enable the poem, when finally complete and cast, to come to life with source magick.
The coming trials for the exalted position of High Poet of the Great Conservatory required a contestant to obtain license to use an artifact of power from one of the ten academies’ archives and compose with it an epic opus that the deans of the Conservatory judged worthy of the next leader of Orsin. Their mark had decided to cheat, to put rhyme before theme, and compose a mind-numbingly derivative epic cantata that only an artifact with a laundry list of specific qualities had any hope of bringing to life. Tura, a procurer of ancient relics, was also one of the best forgers in Junktown. When an artifact with the required specifications proved not to exist in all recorded history, Tura had enlisted Sami and Deyva to forge it instead.
Deyva spun up the poem they would use to animate the little box with signs and gestures. The characters embroidered into his control gloves glowed and faded as he matched them together to complete lines and couplets. With Sami’s wands and the poetic characters inscribed upon them, she made a composition of her own. The shifting glow of their work illuminated the fur on their faces in the gloom of the lean-to and twinkled in Deyva’s eyes. Together they transformed the essence of the box so that the source magick flowing from the Eastern Font high up in the mountain above them pooled in the box’s subtle crevices, turning it into something more than banyan wood, reed pulp, gold wire, and squid ink, something that might plausibly have survived the twelve hundred years since the Second Reformation unharmed and undiscovered.
A loud hammering came from within Tura’s hut, followed by the thin croak of the mark’s voice.
“Madame Jeritha! Madame Jeritha, where are you!”
“We need five minutes,” whispered Sami, sweat beading in the fur on her scalp.
Tura brushed her hands off on her skirts and ducked inside.
“Master Quentiro, what a delight to see you again. May I offer you tea?”
Tura left the back door ajar so Sami and Deyva could hand off the box when they were done.
“Though I have found the refinement of your company a surprising delight in this Source-forsaken district,” said the old poet, “The time of the trials is nigh upon us. If I am to complete my great work in time, I must have the artifact this very day.”
Silence fell, and Sami could imagine Tura drawing herself up to her full, diminutive height, her expression becoming stern as she adjusted her strings of honor beads. Sami had seen her use the technique before to command the attention of everyone in a room, no matter that she was usually a head shorter than everyone else. Even though Sami had worked with Tura before, she still found her intimidating. To be allowed to call her by the affectionate form of her name was a significant milestone in their relationship.
“My establishment may be humble, dear Master Quentiro, but I insist all my transactions be conducted with the respect my honor beads accord me.”
Tura’s three strings of honor beads were a testament to her ability as a forger. Only a third of the beads she carried had been awarded her thanks to her legitimate skills as an appraiser of the creative arts.
“Yes, yes of course,” said the mark, no doubt cowed by Tura’s imperious gaze.
“I choose to make my home in Junktown,”—Sami imagined Tura getting out her impressive fifth century tea urn and its accompanying china set. Making tea with that thing would buy her and Deyva a good ten minutes more—“because it enables me to be close to the ebb and flow of trade through the entirety of Orsin. It’s what makes me excellent at my job as a procurer of rare artifacts.”
“Of course, of course. Please forgive my rudeness.”
“It is forgotten. Have a seat and tell me of the trials. I have been working so hard to find what you require, I am quite unaware of the rankings.”
“Oh, it’s all the usual suspects. Sattineras Sariya, Kalenderath Berosto, Melinetti Purofli. Oh, the mediocrity of privilege! This is why I must succeed, Madame Jeritha. My ascension to the lectern of High Poet will be a triumph for the truly gifted.”
Sami rolled her eyes. Master Quentiro’s poetry was utterly atrocious. A scion of the twelfth-most-wealthy family in Orsin, he was far from underprivileged.
Sami felt in her essence the ripples of source magick Tura used inside to heat up the tea.
“Let’s wrap this up,” she whispered to Deyva.
“Just one more thing.”
He interlaced his fingers in a complex pattern and created a final stanza that stabilized the flow of source magick inside the box and contained it in an elegant envelope.
She was genuinely impressed. He’d improved so much in the year since they started working together.
She picked the lid up with the tips of her wands and placed it delicately on the box. Three simple gestures sealed the box and began the final curing process.
“There.” She sat back on her heels and took a deep breath. “If he waits for a couple of hours before he starts fiddling with it, it should cure enough to last until his trial.”
“If it doesn’t, will we get in trouble? Will he know it’s a forgery?”
“No. See this?”
Taking care not to touch his control gloves, she held his wrist to guide his hand over the box and waved a wand above it with a flourish like a hack street poet. The box glowed briefly, the radiant magick igniting the characters on her wands and Deyva’s gloves for an instant before falling dark.
Deyva’s eyes widened.
“Ohhhh. That’s beautiful. It’ll rip apart as if the old codger overtaxed it. You’re brilliant!”
He beamed at her, his smile crinkling the light brown fur at the corner of his eyes, and she suddenly felt awkward holding his wrist in such an oddly intimate gesture. A flush of heat spread across the back of her neck beneath her fur. She pulled her hand away and slipped her wands into the inner pocket of her jacket.
“We’d better hand it over.”
She untied the silk scarf around her neck and scooped the box up in it. She had treated the silk to be an insulator so she could wrap it around her head and walk incognito through the city. No one from her former life at the Academy would ever set foot in Junktown, but walking the streets of Moair, she’d had one difficult conversation with fellow graduates too many. With the scarf on, no sneaky rhymes would give her identity away. And it was a useful tool in times like these when she needed to transport an artifact that hadn’t yet cured.
Peering through the sliver of opening into the hut, she caught Tura’s eye. Tura had seated the old man with his back to the door so he couldn’t see. Sami held up the box to show Tura it was finished, wrapped it in her scarf, reached through the doorway to place it on a nearby shelf, and closed the door.