Foreword 

 

Most of my side stories evolve out of a desire to expand my world in some way that's currently impossible while following the main plot. Sometimes it starts with an idea for a new environment. Other times it's to experiment with cultural tenets, different racial makeups, or a specific personality type. But if I was to suddenly pick a random character in a far-off corner of Lozaria to take the reins of the story, the reader would be rightfully confused. This isn't to say that Rebirth doesn't open by peering into the lives of various characters and disparate time periods, though these viewpoints are in service of establishing the novel's setting and plot.

Side Story Feyan takes place near the southernmost tip of the Lozarian continent at the World's End Monastery, a religious institution nominally associated with the vast Rabban Imperium. This dominion is briefly explored at the start of Rebirth but then falls to the wayside until later volumes. Thinking about how to flesh out this "dark" corner of the world, I chose to focus on two religious trainees, both with extenuating circumstances that landed them in a life they did not choose. One has embraced their new opportunities; the other still envisions lost dreams beyond the monastery's walls. Their friendly banter, covering a variety of topics such as magic, in-world politics, faith, charity, loss, censure, and library organization, brings to light a secret that's lain hidden since their Order's founding . . .

 

Best read alongside the wider Lozarian mythology established in Rebirth Chapter 16: Interlude Stories. 

 

Side Story

Dust Disturbed (Feyan)
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            Feyan hefted an auburn colored volume with strange, sigil adorned charts spilling from inside, and scanned the blocky gold lettering emblazoned on its spine.

            “Gerjunia Halsruf’s On the Classification of the Mystical Arts?”
            “Case five, shelf eleven, between ‘Hagoraz’ and ‘Hannemid,’” Meri directed. Her voice, along with the melodic titter of well-oiled trolley wheels, came from behind the first of two rows of bookshelves where she was herself filing away recently returned tomes.
            “And Mistilane’s Ranking of Sarconian Sovereigns Based on Contributions to the Literary Arts?” Feyan picked up the gaudily wrapped dissertation in his other hand, then found himself doing a double-take at the title he’d just read. “Wait, who even reads this stuff? That’s about the most useless classification system I’ve ever heard of.”
            The solid thunk of a heavy book ramming home on its rack sounded from Meri’s direction. “I am not at liberty to . . .”
            “. . . reveal the identities of previous readers,” Feyan huffed as he slid back his chair and rose from the library’s long central table. “Yeah, yeah, I know.”
            “Though I can say,” she continued, “That Mistilane’s categorization method is not the worst I have seen. That honor,” Meri said, next volume hitting the rear of the shelf perhaps a tad bit harder than necessary. “Goes to the previous head librarian who, for some Void-forsaken reason, decided to organize the entire repository according to the religious beliefs of the writer!”
            Feyan clicked his tongue in mock reproach. “Tut-tut, Meri. Watch your language.”
            A slight gasp escaped her lips, followed by a speedy rustling of fabric. Crossing herself with the seven-pointed star, was she? Feyan couldn’t help smiling. “If you’re going to be condemned to Oblivion for a single uncouth utterance, I’m damned a million times over.”
            “Anyway,” he said, glancing about the chamber. “This place is big, but not huge like some of the storage facilities in Rabban or Sarconia. How bad can an inefficient filing scheme be?”
            Like the hall outside, the windowless space was lit by dozens of candles, their bright flames kept contained by hinged glass panes affixed over their recessed alcoves. What their glare revealed was a tall, square room, with inner and outer rows of bookshelves stretching futilely toward the peaked ceiling far above. Since there was no second floor or iron gantries—like in bleak imperium factories—circling the upper perimeter, each lane of immense oak cases was serviced by a sliding ladder attached by hooks to a railing at their summit.
            Taking into account the area occupied by several isolated reading desks, for monks who would rather study here than in their meager billets, Feyan estimated they had some thirty shelves in total. If each had twelve levels, and there were an average of fifteen volumes squeezed onto them, then . . .

            Then I give up on doing that much math in my brain, he decided with a snort. The monks could make him learn arithmetic, but that didn’t mean he had to apply it on his own time. Respecting the Creator and obeying the whims of his ‘so-called’ servants didn’t necessarily have to coincide.
            Meri briefly appeared in the aisle between sections, shoulders bent, countenance stoic as she made her rounds. Laden with books though her cart was, the laborious nun-in-training didn’t seem troubled in the slightest.
            “Do you know how many forms of Lozarian spiritualism have been documented?” Meri asked.
            “I have no idea,” Feyan replied honestly. “Forty? Fifty?”

            Despite having his own, much smaller stack to sort through, he caught himself marveling at Meri’s industriousness. It was something that happened almost every instance they were together. No one was watching—except him, of course, and he didn’t count. And yet here the girl was, habit hitched up to her shins, clambering up a rickety ladder to deposit a volume on the top shelf, all while carrying on an esoteric conversation and telling him from memory precisely where things went. How capable—how gifted—was she?
            Dark clouds, remnants of Feyan’s not so buried former life, engulfed his thoughts. If only I was more like her—both Meri and . . . that other one—maybe my parents wouldn’t have banished me to this meaningless existence . . .
            He clenched Mistilane’s absurd publication until the ­ek-leather groaned beneath his palm, the cords binding it in danger of coming loose. Such self-deprecating introspections had been happening less and less frequently, but Feyan hadn’t banished them entirely. Surpassing the individual his mother and father had chosen instead of him was the only way to squash them for good.

            Ah, but they technically weren’t his family. Not anymore. If there was one positive about becoming an acolyte, pledging himself to the Creator, and wearing this absurd, half-shaved tonsure haircut, it was that he’d been required to abandon his former name and choose a new one. Supposedly the switch was symbolic of beginning anew, and if anyone needed a fresh start it was—
            As it often did, Meri’s sweet yet decisive tone dragged Feyan from his despairing reverie. “Ha! Try four hundred and nine!”
            “That many?”
            The genuine curiosity lurking beneath his surprise seemed to please her. Smile broad, Meri descended to the floor and approached him, arms gesticulating with passion. “Yes! At its core, a religion is simply a system of belief predicated on faith that a group of variable numbers subscribes to. The simplest examples scholars have recorded are ancient sects like the Hunai or Khalinikit who worshipped natural forces like the sun, moons, and environment.
            “Over time, these beliefs became more diverse and complex. The Bashte made sacrifices to avert terrible storms and other disasters. Their contemporaries, the Gomhorac, thought all life was sacred and therefore only made offerings of fruits and vegetables to their deities. Sadly, their pacifism in the face of open invasion by the Bashte led to their eventual annihilation.”
            “And us, The Church of Light?” Feyan asked. History was one of the few subjects that delighted him—particularly topics related to war and politics—but Meri was clearly going to overload him with information if he let her. “Where do we come in?”
            She giggled and made a dismissive gesture. “That’s centuries down the road. All of these faiths existed before ‘The Descent,’ when the Veneer came to dwell among mortals and the Creator blessed us with men’ar and magic. The Church also wasn’t cemented as an institution until after ‘The Covenant’ with the Void, so there’s a sizeable gap between when our saviors walked among us and when they ultimately departed.”

            Meri bowed her head reverently, then traced the seven-pointed star across her chest. Keeping any snide remarks to himself, Feyan perfunctorily did the same, his movements sloppy and swift. Left shoulder to right hip, the line of faith. Right shoulder to left hip, the line of penitence. Left flank to right flank, the line of servitude. And, lastly, forehead to sternum, the line of knowledge and truth, only half as long as the others. These arcs, drawn with two conjoined fingers of the right hand, gave honor to the seven Veneer and reminded believers of their duties to the heavenly sovereigns.
            They also looked utterly inane, but Feyan would never say that to another living soul, not even Meri.
            He finished the star sigil a few seconds before her and began searching for bookcase number five, Gerjunia Halsruf’s compendium of magic in hand. Rounding the end of the table, Feyan stopped at the nearest set of shelves which had a circular bronze plaque affixed near eye level. It read ‘14’ in expanded Imperium notation, a system that used letter combinations to represent various blocks of numerals. ‘15’ was next in line. Clearly he was going the wrong way.
            “You are completely hopeless,” Meri announced, prayerful contemplations completed. Feyan turned around to see her pointing at the side of the chamber directly opposite him. “Over there. I am surprised you can visit the library so often and still not know what order the shelves are in.”
            Unashamed, Feyan ambled in the direction she’d indicated. “Sojourners in a foreign land need assets neither mental nor physical to sustain them,” he quoted. “Reliance on the Creator shall be their understanding in ignorance, repast in hunger . . .”
            “. . . and guidance when all seems lost.” For once, Meri completed his statement instead of the reverse. Placing her hands on her hips, she frowned at him. “Must you use the holiest of holy books—The Tome of Testament itself—to make excuses for yourself?”
            “Are you implying that the Church’s wisdom can’t avail me in my current predicament? I am misguided in so very many ways, after all.” Mock distress plastered on his features, Feyan placed his free hand to his forehead, swooned backwards toward the shelf, and deftly slid Halsruf’s arcane volume into an opening on the proper case and level.
            “I hope that’s the correct spot,” Meri said, leaning to catch a glimpse of where he’d placed the book.
            “It is,” Feyan assured her. “I make it a point to do one thing correctly for every three I mess up.”
            Meri straightened and paused, her own work temporarily forgotten. Was she actually counting the mistakes he’d made since he’d run—tripped—into her?
            Candles flickered in their berths. Wax dripped, and shadows played among the towering racks. Whether to slay the silence, or because of the literal eons of dust trapped in the library, Feyan felt the sudden urge to sneeze. He stuck a finger below his nose, an old trick designed to briefly block airflow preceding a noisy expulsion. Hold it. Hold it . . .
            “I guess that is about the ratio of good to evil you create,” Meri acknowledged with a nod. She had been tallying his actions—and not just for today, in all likelihood! The tickling in his throat and sinuses dissipated, becoming a boisterous laugh.
            “Ha! Hahahahahaha!”
            Apparently the innocent maiden misunderstood his merriment, for she frantically began trying to explain herself, words stringing together in her haste to eject them. “I didn’t mean real evil, just problems, annoyances, minor irritations, really. Nothing irreversible! No! Wait! What am I doing, saying something like that? You help me so much, doing laundry, dishes, tending the vegetable garden . . . Not to mention covering for me at mealtimes when I cannot tear myself away from the library and—”
            “It’s okay, Meri.” Feyan walked toward her around the table, palms forward in an attempt at placation. “I’m amused, not mad. When have I ever really been upset with you?”
            Her unusual eyes glinted, worry or fear making them twinkle. “Just an hour or so ago when I punched you,” she said softly.
            “People generally don’t appreciate being punched.”
            “I . . . suppose that makes sense.”
            This girl was far too naive and pure for this rotten world. Which made relatively little sense, based on what Feyan knew of her upbringing. He distinctly remembered that stormy evening half a year ago when he’d learned of her past. The night her sunny mask came off and he saw the frightened girl beneath.
            Thunder roared, rain lashed the roof in torrents, and ebony waves pummeled the cliffs at the monastery’s base. The whole place was flooded; the recently harvested gardens washed clean of soil and the winding paths between buildings buried under a quarter-meter of water. No one should have been out. In fact, Senior Abbot Kalarian had expressly forbidden anyone from wandering about during the squall.
            But every denial was an invitation to Feyan. Remaining hair slicked to the sides of his scalp, he paraded about the dorm exterior, long branch in hand, mischievous grin on his damp, wrinkled lips. Austere monastery or not, there wasn’t a single old structure without a ghost story or two attached to it. Feyan intended to capitalize on those rumors to have a little fun.
            The yellow glow of candlelight betrayed which rooms were occupied and which weren’t. At the first two such windows, Feyan scratched at the panes, moaned hauntingly, then ducked against the slick stones to await the result. One gentleman shrieked most unbecomingly before racing into the adjoining hall, door slamming shut behind him. The other crept timidly to the latch, pushed open one of the panels, and immediately retreated when Feyan eased the crooked end of his stick back into view.   
            Stymieing his laughter, the young acolyte scrambled along the wall toward another illuminated chamber beyond a series of jutting triangular eaves, intending to repeat the process. That was when Feyan found Meri. Wrapped in a frayed blue blanket, knees tucked to her chin, shivering in the crevice between the building’s extended arches. Her pale skin was made practically translucent by the chill beads of water coursing across it.
            Ignoring her would’ve been the smart decision. Stay any longer and she might see his face, wrapped though it was in a stolen abbot’s sash. If that happened, he’d be on the hook for multiple rule violations. Feyan didn’t listen to his brain. His heart won out, and he quickly picked Meri up—she was lighter than he’d expected—and carried her to the empty main hall.
            Protestations such as, “What were you thinking?” or, “You could’ve frozen to death out there!” died in his throat. He’d been on the receiving end of tongue-lashings too many times to make the same mistake of yelling, cursing, and making the poor would-be nun shut down before she ever said a word. He pulled a crackling, half-eaten package of salted crackers from inside his drenched habit, set them on the table, then kicked back in a chair with his dripping boots planted firmly on the spot where the Senior Abbot usually dined.
            Feyan would wait. And, if Meri wanted him to, he would listen. Not until he was almost asleep, lulled into a drowsy state by the warmth of the large chamber’s hearth and the pitter-patter of innumerable droplets on the stained glass windows, did she elect to speak. Her voice was low, surreptitious, containing none of her trademark exuberance and joy. Who could be happy regaling another with such a sordid tale, let alone express delight at having lived through it?
            It soon became evident that family matters were a blight on both their lives. Whereas Feyan hadn’t been good enough to win his parents’ seal of approval, Meri had been their focus. Their hope. Sadly, it was attention that ultimately turned to obsession.
            Status was everything in the land of Meri’s birth, the Sarconian Empire. If you had it, you strove desperately to keep it. If you didn’t, there were few lengths to which people would not go to obtain it.
            So it was with her father. The sole son of successful merchants, he had inherited enough of a fortune and done well enough with his own investments to secure a comfortable, even luxurious, lifestyle for his family. Their house was sizeable and well-furnished. They had two servants, a husband and wife duo, who cared for their small estate and everything on it. Meri, their only child, wanted for nothing, be it clothes, tutors, toys, or delicacies.
            Yet things changed as Meri approached marriageable age.
            Beset by financial woes—resulting from funding shady projects overseen by individuals of questionable virtue—her father found himself on the brink of ruin. The servants left. Meri’s mother began dressing like a tramp, her jewelry and finery sold to pay the principal on their growing debt. Opulent furniture disappeared, piece by piece.

            But Meri’s own life was never affected. She still ate well, received the gifts she desired, and was waited upon by her own mother in the stead of their departed staff. Why?
            Through tears streaming down her cheeks, Meri explained that she would have seen what was coming if she hadn’t been so blind—dazzled by her own selfishness and conceit. ‘My father dotes on me because I’m beautiful. My father continues to care for me because I’m his pride and joy.’  Those conclusions of hers were not incorrect, merely misguided. Meri’s father cherished her, but not for the reasons she believed.   
            On her sixteenth birthday, she was taken from her bedroom in the middle of the night, stuffed into a sack, then carried downstairs. As she struggled frantically to break free, clawing at the bag, kicking with all her might, Meri heard her father’s voice.

            “Is this satisfactory?

            “Yes,” her captor responded gruffly. “Your debt to the young master is paid.
            No more words were exchanged. Meri screamed for her father, her mother, anyone. No one replied. Ignoring her continued cries, the burly assailant clomped to the road where he tossed her into a waiting carriage. After getting in, he tapped on the partition between him and the driver, who set the horses in motion with a crack of his whip.
            That was the last Meri saw of her home and family.
            The drenched girl managed to describe the journey to the countryside mansion where she was at last removed from the sack. Every detail was burned into her memory, from the rapid clattering of hooves on cobbles, to the bouncing of the inadequately cushioned vehicle, to the deep, belabored breathing of her captor. He lit a shag at one point or another, filling the carriage with suffocating smoke. Opening a window never occurred to him—or perhaps he’d been ordered not to—so Meri’s lungs were inflamed as she kept shrieking until her voice stopped working and she could merely whimper.
            What came after . . . she wouldn’t say, and Feyan didn’t ask. It was not his place to do so. He did, however, feel a budding kinship with her. There was no comparing their . . . tribulations, but they’d both been forsaken by those they loved. Him, for the supposed betterment of the imperium. Her, for her father’s greedy whims. Feyan yearned to have that man—a stranger to him an hour prior—here before him. All the monks in the monastery wouldn’t be able to restrain him from meting out divine punishment to the sorry waste of the Creator’s precious air.
            At length, after much sobbing and a single bite of flaky cracker, Meri talked about meeting Senior Abbot Kalarian on the Middenlane somewhere between Beiras and Rabban. Feyan noted that her story skipped a few years and over a thousand leagues of travel from her native Arhus. Had she walked that entire distance? Where had she gotten the money to survive, the food and garments to sustain her?

            Kalarian, on a missionary trip to their brothers in Darmatia, hadn’t forced the answers from her. Falling in the roadside dirt at her side, he’d swept her bony form up in his vast sleeves, cried hot tears of sorrow onto her cracked flesh, and immediately ordered his company—faithful pilgrims and guards alike—to turn around. His advisors protested the sudden change in itinerary, but he rebuked them harshly as he carried the malnourished girl to his hay-lined cart.
            “One of the Creator’s children,” he said, “Is worth more than all the exalted dignitaries in all the lands combined.
            By the time Meri neared the end of her tale, her eyelids were drooping. Exhaustion from hours of weeping and talking was at last taking its toll. Feyan let her nod off, after which he stole quietly into the nearby laundry room and appropriated as many thick, cozy blankets as he could. Careful not to wake his newfound friend, he wrapped her in each and every one. It wasn’t the cocoon of absolute safety she deserved, but it was the best he could do.
            Feyan left the main hall and took up station against one the pillars framing its entryway. Sliding down to its base, he settled in to await dawn’s first light.

            When it arrived, the young acolyte took off down the passageway in a huff until he ran into a suitably bleary eyed monk—the kind who was still waking up and wasn’t prepared to ask discerning questions about why a trainee who wasn’t on the duty roster for that morning was already out of his bunk. Feyan fibbed that he’d stumbled across Meri in the dining hall, blustered that he didn’t know what to do, and thanked the monk profusely as he agreed to take care of the matter for him. Better that a full brother take care of the young girl than an acolyte, a sentiment Feyan was only too happy to agree with.
            The results of the night were outstanding, if tempered by the melancholic nature of Meri’s history. Feyan had once again escaped the consequences of his wrongdoings. Meri had been saved from the darkness of her own mind, at least for the moment. And from that day on, the two of them were best friends and thick as thieves.

            Yet even now, the recollection of her cruel circumstances rankled him. Infuriated him. Feyan needed a distraction, both for her and himself. He reached for her interlaced hands, clasped at her waist, then thought better of it.
            “Soooo . . . you were telling me why the former librarian needed to have his head examined, right?”      
            Meri perked up instantly. “You do not know the half of it, Feyan.”

            Spinning to her cart, she sifted through the tallest pile until she held a tome whose cover displayed a horribly faded village scene, complete with farms, thatched huts, and scampering children. One man, his limbs out of proportion as some feudal era styles dictated, was missing his torso, the leather binding ripped clean away. The volume clearly needed a visit to the monastery art restorer.
            “Where do you think this book should go?” Meri asked, tapping the spine delicately.
            Feyan shrugged. “In a section on agriculture?”
            “Not a bad idea. Placing it with works on family life, agrarian society, feudalism, or with other publications from the same period would also have been adequate answers.”
            Adequate? Feyan’s smile returned. Give Meri something to organize, a problem to solve, or a wrong to right, and she became an irrepressible mass of zest and fervor. “And where did your predecessor put it?”
            “With all the ‘Totemic Practices’ annals!” Meri sighed, glancing heavenward as if begging the Creator for the strength to go on in an irrational world. “Can you believe that!?”
            “It . . . certainly seems a tad odd. Why did he do it?”
            “Because the author, Foisten Illimia, was a 2nd Age Totemist who believed that objects derived power from their history: How old they were, who touched them, what libations were offered to them, and so on. Yet he also professed that magic capability could be handed down from one generation to another via family symbols branded directly onto newborns. A barbaric practice, to be sure, but technically an extreme form of ancestor veneration. So couldn’t his book also go into the section on mystical arts? Or the Jolones writings, since they were the first to raise their forebears to demigod status?”
            Meri shook her head, stepped behind the nearest bookcase, and wedged the book into a space on the fourth shelf. Was she expecting an answer? Feyan barely knew the basics of his nominal religion, let alone the specifics of the 409 others she’d alluded to. Ask a question. Anything. Meri loves to talk about her work.
            His fumbling contemplations gradually brought him to something he’d been pondering for a long time. “You once mentioned that we have a section on the mystical arts,” Feyan commented absently, pacing around the inner ring. He could’ve sworn it was on case two or three. A-ha! There it was, displayed prominently just like all the other material, but with bold warnings in red letters on the forward edge of each level.
            DO NOT READ WITHOUT PERMISSION FROM SENIOR ABBOT.
            Ominous. Almost threatening, in Feyan’s humble opinion. He reached up and plucked out a book at random. Behind him, Meri gasped. A cute, sharp inhalation that he felt zero qualms about inducing.
            “What are you doing?” she hissed, her blue eye locked on the room’s solitary entrance. The girl obviously expected Kalarian to come bursting through the portal like a vengeful spirit.
            “Reading,” Feyan stated plainly.

            Years of dust spilled from inside as he cracked it open; while the outer edge had been kept pristine, it had sat in place long enough for grime to seep between the unopened pages. Coughing, he pretended to scan the indecipherable symbols before him, not understanding a single one. “Oh! Oh I see! Yes . . . Hmmm, so that’s how a binding spell works. Perhaps I can tie our overseers to their seats for a day and we can go have ourselves a picnic.”
            “That’s—” Meri drew herself up to her unimpressive full height, then deflated. “You are joking. There is no way you—with no magical training whatsoever—understand what that volume is saying.”
            Blast! She’d called his bluff, and so quickly too! “Of course I can!” Feyan retorted, jabbing at the squiggly, far too tight lines with his finger. “Right here it says ‘saying the words alana shivat jarun olox will unleash searing flames from your opposite hand!’“

            He raised his left hand toward Meri, who squealed plaintively and ducked behind the table and chairs. When nothing happened, and Feyan started chuckling—he couldn’t help himself—she rose with a scowl on her pretty face.
            “Should I punch you again?”
            “Please don’t.”   
            Eyes narrowed, Meri prowled toward him. Feyan danced away, moving around the table perimeter in the opposite direction, still pretending to peruse the forbidden book. His legs were longer; she’d never catch him going the same way. Thus when Meri abruptly reversed course, racing clockwise round the solid cherry barrier separating them, Feyan immediately pivoted and sped up as well.
            “At this rate, I will figure out what’s on this page before you stop me,” he mocked playfully. “Those short legs of yours are why you’re always chosen last for sport’s day.”
            Meri slammed her palms down on the table. Her uncharacteristic vehemence brought Feyan, directly across the tome cluttered surface from her, to a screeching halt.
            “Give me that book.”
            Feyan glanced at the couple meters of Cepyrus littered space between them, representative of centuries of history and worth more than their weight in geldars. “I hope you’re not planning to do anything unladylike . . . such as, say, leaping the table to get at me?”
            “Of course not!” Meri sputtered, folding her arms. “The very idea is ridiculous, considering how much work I would have to do to repair the damage caused. And what about you?” she accused, unfurling one hand to gesture at him. “Your pranks are normally harmless, but taking a book on magic without permission is one of the few ways you really could get expelled. Plus it is a violation for which my defense on your behalf would be meaningless.”
            Maybe getting kicked out would be for the best, Feyan muttered under his breath.

            Living on his own would be difficult. Most industries in the imperium were managed by its government—the group of corpulent, oafish men known as the Secretariat. Drifters therefore had two options: Join the labor pool willingly, or be pressganged into it as prisoners with even fewer rights. Going back to his family also wasn’t an option, since they’d be forced to turn him over to the civilian or military recruiters within a week or two anyway.
            But at least then I’ll be marching forward, not stagnating under the asinine rules of these stuffy hermits who act as if the rest of the world doesn’t—
            The tears swelling in the corners of Meri’s eyes brought Feyan’s world to a standstill. His mind went blank. Doubts and worries about his past, present, and future were suddenly far from his thoughts. All that mattered was Meri . . . and the promise he’d made to himself six months earlier.
            I swear to never make her weep for me.
            For a split second he considered vaulting the table to comfort her, but that would probably cause more harm than good. Instead, Feyan waved the book at her, pointed at the red outlined case, then trotted over to it as quickly as his habit would allow.
            Once the offensive volume was back where it belonged, he marched up to the sniffling Meri—droplets safely tucked inside her eyelids—and softly smacked the top of her head. “Geez, Meri. You know I’m not going anywhere.”
            As the juvenile nun wiped her eyes with her sleeve, she donned a faint smile. “I am not sure even the Creator knows what will become of you. Tempting fate is a daily occurrence in your life, it would seem.”
            “And why do I tempt fate so much?”
            Her entrancing eyes went wide. “Certainly not for me, I pray. I would have innumerably fewer headaches to deal with if your hijinks were curtailed.”
            “Ha!” Feyan knocked a second wrinkle in Meri’s previously immaculate coif before turning and stepping away. Hopefully she hadn’t seen his growing blush. “No, I push my boundaries out of simple curiosity.”
            “I hesitate to ask, but . . .” She paused, exhaled stiffly, then pressed forward anyway. “. . . What were you hoping to learn by exploring that section?”
            Spinning around in a swirl of brown robes, Feyan leveled a condemning finger at his friend. “Aha! I knew it! You want to know why that warning is there as well!”
            “Keep your voice down!” Meri whispered insistently, uneasy focus back on the firmly shut chamber door.

            Her protestation was a flimsy one, and both of them knew it. Afternoon prayer should be going on right now in the main chapel, an event that was mandatory for the entire order with the exception of those with previous duty assignments. Technically, Feyan was supposed be there, knees planted on the cold, harsh floor, neck bent reverentially. However, he’d use his classic ‘I was helping Meri!’ to escape with only a light scolding.
            Suffice to say that no one should disturb them. Even if they did, they’d hear the courtyard door slamming closed, as well as footsteps echoing in the hall confines, long before anyone reached the library itself.
            Feyan’s simpering smirk deepened. “I’m not hearing a ‘no.’”
            Rolling her eyes, Meri gave up as she so often did when he was involved. “Fine. You win. Hurry and tell me your elaborate theory so we can move on with our lives and sort the rest of these books before dinner.”
            Hmmm . . . do I really have anything to go on?
            To be honest, Feyan had expected a little more fight from the ethical nun, and therefore wasn’t sure how to begin. Like many of his deviant escapades, he’d started this one on a whim. It was nothing more than an attempt to tease and entertain Meri while whittling away the hours.  
            The corner of Meri’s mouth curled in amusement. “It would seem that, as usual, you have more gas in your bellows than—
            Not paying attention to her chastisement, he took off as quickly as he could without knocking over chairs and books. This time he found case five on his own. Take that, Meri! Even he could remember where things were after being told on twelve or so separate occasions!
            “This!” Feyan exclaimed, holding out Gerjunia Halsruf’s On the Classification of the Mystical Arts like an evil warding talisman. “It has Mystical Arts right there in the title, yet isn’t in the classified section. Explain that!”
            She shook her head, white coif tassels bouncing on her shoulders. “Must you undo the little work you have managed to accomplish? Do you know how many books I am able to check in and file in the same period you shelve one?” A bunch, certainly, but both of them let the rhetorical question pass unanswered.

            “Anyway,” Meri continued after a momentary pause, “I worry for your cognitive ability if I need to instruct you on how alphabetical organization works . . .” Gaze downcast, lips pursed, and brow furrowed, humor was totally absent from her dejected features. Was Feyan really that hopeless in her estimation?
            “No, no,” he countered, waving the dense volume as if clearing the choking smog of his failures from the air. “I get that much. But even you don’t replace books on that rack. Plus I’d wager my pocket change that there’s no record of who’s accessed those tomes.”
            Meri nodded tepidly. “True. However, I would prefer it if you avoided making allusions to gambling in the monastery. Also,” she said with a coy smile, “While it may be a tad pedantic, you have neither pocket change nor the pockets in which to store it.”
            Yet another drawback to the insufferable habit. Perhaps he should ask Meri to sew some pouches inside the vestment, where the prying eyes of their superiors couldn’t see. Carrying extra accessories would be a massive boon to his mischief making.
            Outwardly, Feyan barely resisted snorting at Meri’s clever riposte. Her verbal sparring was improving. “Focus, Meri,” he cautioned, fully aware of how bitter those words tasted coming from his own mouth. “So why does this book, which,” Feyan opened it to a random page, “is written in perfectly legible Common, get a ‘pass’ from Kalarian despite being on the same topic as the rest of the forbidden texts?”
            “Does it teach the reader how to use magic?” Meri suggested.
            Impossible. How could someone write a book on magic without explaining anything about it? To begin with, everyone knew the basics. Men’ar dwelled within the blood vessels of all sentient creatures. Some were gifted with the capacity to harness the latent prowess of this energy, becoming able to influence the ambient spiritual particles in nature as well as forces exceeding conventional understanding. Others . . . weren’t. Or, at the very least, were never tested to see if they could. It was ludicrous that a discussion on magic shouldn’t touch on even those basic concepts.

            Feyan started to tell Meri that her idea was preposterous, then glanced at the cramped, picture-less script in his hands.

 

             . . . One could easily make the argument that degenerative and necromantic magic are effectively two sides of the same geldar. The first erodes living tissue, accelerating its time, rotting away its substance. The latter seeks to rejuvenate the same, even if it struggles to reverse the effects of the original necrosis . . .
           

            Bleh! Could a writer possibly cover more inane material? Where was the excitement? The rush? Actual, practical knowledge was completely missing, replaced by a wall of text that sought to do little more than distinguish left from right. Desiring further confirmation, Feyan hurriedly flipped fifty or so pages toward the rear binding.

             . . . I submit that there is intrinsically no difference between light and dark magic. To say that one is ‘good’ and the other is ‘evil’ is the assertion of a close-minded zealot who seeks to retroactively eliminate an entire family of spells on the basis of religious ideology. Yet those same clerics insist that magic—and men’ar—is a gift from the Creator. What warped world do they live in where they can examine two applications of that ‘gift’ and laud one while deriding the other? Hypocrisy of the highest order! . . .

 

            That was enough of that. Feyan sidled up to the table, slipped into a partially askew chair, and slid the tome to Meri who was mirroring him on the opposite side. Taking it in her crystal pure fingers, she began reading at the same point he’d left off.
            Seconds later, Meri jerked back in her seat, gasping as her eyebrows shot into her barely exposed hairline. “What an uncouth gentleman. You were right; this book should be banned.”

            Four out of ten, Feyan concluded, rating her lackluster insult. Planting his right elbow on the lacquer sealed—but otherwise plain—surface, he leaned on the adjoining palm. His other hand rapped blankly on the tabletop to a rhythm he couldn’t quite place.
            “No, it’s in the right section. Just like you said, there’s not a single word in there that instructs the poor sap that picks it up on how to cast lightning from their fingertips.” His face took on a distant expression, thoughts drifting dangerously close to memories of the individual who’d stolen his birthright. “Or how to summon weapons from the ether. Wouldn’t that be nice . . .”
            Minutes passed slowly, defined by the tapping of Feyan’s stubby nails and the shuffling of dry Cepyrus as Meri pored through Halsruf’s encyclopedia chapter by chapter. Doing her own research was a fine thing, but was it really necessary to check after him so thoroughly? Where was the faith?
            Feyan’s elbow was beginning to go numb when Meri snapped the volume shut. “You are correct. Though the author launches constant diatribes against the Church, he does not once make mention of how an individual would go about becoming acquainted with the spiritual arts of which he speaks.”
            “Which is an insanely roundabout way of saying ‘you can’t learn magic reading this.’” Feyan stretched out his left hand and flicked the book’s spine.
            “Right,” Meri agreed. “Though I am unsure what that distinction proves. The only way to prove your theory is to read every forbidden tome, which I—”
            “—definitely won’t allow you to do,” Feyan completed, winking at her. Huffing and looking away, Meri leaned back in her seat. Feigned pouting was another of her specialties. She’d brighten up as soon as he piqued her interest. “Why don’t we operate under the assumption that all the classified volumes describe how to use magic? Why would they be restricted?”
            Three . . . two . . . one. Zero. When Feyan’s mental count reached zero, Meri was on the edge of her seat, completely revitalized. “Simple. Our division of the Church of Light believes magic is too sacred to be wielded by anyone other than the Creator, his Veneer, and their messengers, the Eliade. The Abbot therefore withholds books discussing it precisely because rogues like you would try to dabble in it.”
            There was no refuting that. If Feyan could read the archaic vernacular of the volume he’d held earlier, he would already be attempting to make a flame sword, or something equally fantastic, surrounded by masses of ‘dried tinder’ though he was. “Counterpoint. The sisters of The Way of the Will in Darmatia travel around the country healing the sick and injured with their magic. Is that blasphemy? Are they wrong?”
            Discomfited, Meri began chewing lightly on the edge of her lower lip. “I think that as long as the believer’s intent is pure, there can be multiple ways of serving the same deity.”
            “But then which is the true doctrine? Which of these two opposing viewpoints did the Creator actually intend?”
            “You are just attempting to trap me,” Meri accused. “I am not the Creator, nor one of his Veneer. Like you, I am not even a full member of this order. We are both wholly unqualified to offer judgment on this subject.” A reasonable position, one that was overshadowed by her ‘blink and you’d miss it’ ejection of her tongue from between her flush, pink lips. Maturity was sorely lacking in their relationship.
            Feyan sniggered at her display. “Fair. Neither of us have recently been deified, so we’ll revisit that topic another day. However, you must recognize that we could do far more good if we wielded magic.”

            “Look at the Sarconians,” he pressed, waving at the history section, which encompassed the entire left side of the library’s outer ring. Many of the bindings there were etched with the coat of arms and Illyriite-wielding angel combo found on the empire’s flag. “They’re using magic and magtech in an attempt to impose their will on the entire continent. Would it be wrong to use the same Creator bestowed power to stop them, or at least salve the wounds of those they brush aside?”
            “Battling an oppressor with his own methods is hardly an optimal solution.”
            “But it is a solution.”
            Noting Meri’s severe frown, Feyan redirected the conversation. “Sorry. That wasn’t our original topic. Things related to the empire get me riled up for . . . well . . . reasons.”
            He knew it wasn’t fair to keep his past from Meri when she had been so open about hers, but there would come a time and a place when he felt comfortable telling her. Letting the proverbial phalibit out of the bag at the monastery wouldn’t do either of them any favors in the imperium’s present political climate.
            “Anyway, Abbot Kalarian and his predecessors obviously have a difference of opinion with our western brethren on the subject of magic.” Feyan held up a palm to stave off an interruption by Meri, who was tilted forward, evidently prepared to issue the same rebuttal as before. “This implies that they consider their perspective to be correct. Why?”
            Another sigh. If Meri continued her exasperated exhaling, she was liable to displace all the musty, stagnant air in the room err the day ended. “I explained this not three minutes ago. Magic is sacred, mortals should not use it.”
            “See! You can be brief if you try!” That statement earned Feyan a dagger filled glare, but the jab was oh so worth it. “However—and pardon my paraphrasing—the Tome of Testament states, ‘The radiant Creator bequeathed mystical arts upon his progeny so that they might . . .' uhhh . . . err . . .”
            “‘ . . . tame the land, master the beasts, and overturn the harsh and undeserved punishment of death delivered them by the Void,’” Meri rattled off without stutter or stumble. “And that’s the exact quote from the Book of Deliverance, not a shortened version,” she said testily. “You may want to brush up on your scripture readings before utilizing them in an inane and foolish argument.”
            Feyan nodded diligently, fully intending to never follow through on her advice. “Be that as it may, the passage can only be interpreted as allowing all peoples to practice magic—not just those explicitly connected to divinity.”
            The lip biting began again. “Perhaps . . . I know!” Meri straightened in her seat. “Maybe we lost the privilege to do so because we perverted magic to the cause of violence?”
            “So who brought that empyrean edict to us? Remember, the Creator and Veneer disappeared, and right up to that point armies were using spells and incantations at the guidance of the Veneer themselves.”

            History of countries, wars, and great leaders was Feyan’s battleground. He’d spent years honing his understanding of strategy and statecraft using the books his father gave him, all in preparation for the day his preeminent role in society would be decided. And then . . . that life was given to another. At the time, he’d wanted to purge this information. Burn it away in a searing inferno that would erase that naive boy and the manacles of trust that had shackled him to a thinly veiled lie. Yet Feyan now knew that desire was wrong. Better to use everything—his memories, skills, and connections—to one day overturn the wrongs that had been committed against him.
            Winning this bout with Meri was just a minor stepping stone on that journey.
            “As you said before, only a being with divine authority could make that call. Only the Creator, his Veneer, or a misguided, delusional . . .”
            Electricity coursed through Feyan’s body, raising the hair on his arms, making his flesh pimple. The words he’d been speaking froze on his tongue. No. It couldn’t be.

            Meri’s face softened with concern. Standing, she reached across the table and shook his still, unmoving arm. “Feyan? Feyan, what’s wrong? Say something!”
            He glanced up at her with stunned, hollow eyes. Excitement bubbled in his gut, a geyser of euphoria that threatened to well over if he let it. But Feyan didn’t dare. Not if his deranged hunch proved true.
            His voice was hushed, somehow quieter and yet more insistent than a whisper, when he finally convinced his brain to operate his mouth again. “You have statistical ledgers here, right, Meri? Dates of important events, lifespans of prestigious figures, even records of the various Church of Light orders spread throughout Lozaria?”
            “Of course. The early Church leaders were exacting in their documentation, so we have data like that stretching back a millennia or more.”
            Unbidden, Feyan’s hand leapt out and snagged Meri’s wrist. Too hard. She whimpered at his touch, and he flinched back as though burned. Don’t obsess. Don’t over think things. That’s what got you into trouble the first time around. As Meri massaged the darkening flesh, Feyan bowed his head and pressed his palms together.
            “My bad, Meri. Forgive me. However, I need all that information brought out. It’s important.”
            “Alright, but . . . now?”
            “Yes.”
            She smiled faintly, flexed her wrist, and went to retrieve her cart. All the books still on it were immediately discarded. Left on ground as if they were no more important than the prolific, ineradicable dust that covered the stone slabs there. Then, cart wheels tittering to a hymn all their own, Meri set to work. She couldn’t be anything less than a goddess bound in Terran flesh.
            When Meri returned, the trolley was crammed to the point its wheels no longer squealed. In fact, they barely turned at all. Feyan grabbed the top book on the tallest pile and opened it to the first page. Across the table, Meri smiled sweetly at him—a gesture he barely noticed and didn’t truly comprehend—before sitting down with a tome of her own.
            The world shrunk to a space no larger than the span of Feyan’s arms. On one side was the stack of tomes he had yet to read, lofty and imposing. On the other was those he’d finished and discarded, not finding the knowledge he sought so desperately. This tower steadily rose in size, but not as quickly as he’d like . . . and certainly not as quickly as Meri’s did.    
            In between these boundaries was a land of scribbles, numbers, and incomprehensible notation. Handwriting varied from pristine to abysmal, from perfectly discernible to the scratchings of maddened farm animals. The numbers were far more useful than the names of people and places, but different nations sometimes used different calendars. 9/14/092 on the Jintilian calendar was 7/26/111 on the Phinicius calendar. A cipher—found in an entirely separate reference text—was therefore required to make the conversion to the system Feyan was used to. In addition, Darmatia used a 28 day month and a 7 day week while Rabban used a 32 day month and an 8 day week. Confusion and consternation abounded on almost every line!
            Eventually Feyan found the first of the two ledgers he was looking for: A list of all the Darmatian clergy—both nuns, monks, and Abbots—going back to the Church’s foundation a millennia prior. Much of the information was missing. A birth date that went unrecorded because the subject was an orphan. Death dates that were likewise incorrect because the individual disappeared while on a battleground or otherwise traveling far afield. However, there was enough present to draw the desired conclusion, which he noted in the margins using one of the library’s communal scrivles:

            Darmatian clergy (approximately three quarters of which were known magic users) have an overall average lifespan of 45-55 years. Adjusting for improved medicine and sanitary conditions in the modern era, that range should now be about 60-70 years.
           

            Groggy, his head feeling like it was clamped in the vice grips of an industrial crane, Feyan pawed for the next book without looking. Smack! His hand grasped nothing but bare table. Part of him was ecstatic that his drudgery was at an end; the rest was disappointed he hadn’t discovered a similar booklet on the monks dwelling at this monastery.
            Maybe Meri was having more luck. “Stumble across what we’re looking for yet?”
            “How do you spell ‘Hermack?’”
            An odd question, but . . . “H-e-r-m-a-c-k,” Feyan replied, surprised she didn’t already know that herself.
            “I thought so. Here, look at this.” Twisting her book around, she pushed it toward him while holding a delicate finger to the pertinent line.
            “Hermac, born 521 ABH, died 567 ABH. Friar.” Feyan read aloud. “Similar spelling, but probably not related to our own beloved tub of lard.”
            “Hey!”
            “I call them as I see them,” he said, raising a hand to stifle a long overdue yawn.
            Meri sighed and slid down to an entry at the bottom of the adjacent page. “And here?”
            “Hernack, born 567 ABH, died 614 ABH. Friar.” Feyan’s blood went cold. “Where’s the next one.”
            He flipped the page and waited impatiently for Meri to find the third related entry. Feyan breathed the words written there in flowing script before she could prompt him. “Ermack, born 614 ABH, died 669 ABH. Friar.”
            “Which brings us too . . .” If Meri’s finger were tracing a crimson trail down the still white Cepyrus page, Feyan wouldn’t be more focused on the motion. She reached one of the last twenty or so lines, their ink blotchy and reasonably fresh, and paused beside an all too familiar name.
            “. . . Hermack, born 669 ABH . . . Friar . . .”
            “This could just be a massive coincidence,” Meri announced hurriedly. She drew back her hand and started fidgeting with one of her coif tassels, a sign that she was far more agitated than normal.
            Yet this was no mere happenstance. Feyan could laugh away the names, but the dates? They lined up far too perfectly. Friar Hermack, the monastery’s jolly, fat, drunkard of a gardener, had been alive for nearly two centuries. Bleeding Void!
            “Kalarian!” Feyan said suddenly, startling the already unsettled Meri. “Kalarian,” he said again, softer this time. “Starting from here, let’s see if we can trace his name back as far as Hermack’s.”
            Meri hesitated, white knuckles tightening on the braided plait she held. Feyan tried to ooze reassurance. Grinning, he raised his hand toward her, inviting his best friend to have enough courage to see this through, wherever it ultimately led. “I need you to finish this with me, Meri. It will be our secret. I don’t plan on telling anyone, and I’m sure you don’t either. No one will ever know.”
            She bobbed her head slowly, took his hand in hers . . .
             . . . and in a completely unexpected move climbed onto the table and slid on her knees over to his side. “There!” Meri exclaimed, brushing off her habit. “A bit . . . unladylike . . . as you put it, but definitely easier to see.” Leaning against the back of Feyan’s chair, she pointed at the open ledger. “Shall we?”
            Feyan beamed in spite of the mystery they were in the midst of unraveling. The world could be coming apart at the seams around him, but he’d be fine so long as Meri was with him. That was a constant. An irrevocable fact, just like the existence of the sun, moons, and stars.
            “Kalarian. Four up from Hermack.” Feyan followed Meri’s directions, found the name, and began scrolling back from there.
            “Kalarian . . . Alarian . . . Kalarin . . . Alaran . . . Kalar . . . Kalarn . . . Larian . . . Kalan . . . Kaliran . . . Klarian . . . Kalrian . . . it . . . it just keeps going on and on . . .”
            And it did. Where Hermack had only gone through four noticeable iterations, variations on Kalarian’s name went all the way back through the beginning of the record, their birth and death dates synchronizing perfectly.
            “L-look at the title for each,” Meri said, her voice quivering as she pointed to the right margin of each page. “Senior Abbot, each and every one of them. I-I do not know what to . . .” She trailed off, collapsing fully against the crossbar of Feyan’s seat. Drowsiness long banished by their thrilling search, he leapt to her assistance, catching her with one arm and easing her into the neighboring chair.
            Her eyes were still open. Breaths came in short, hurried gasps. Meri hadn’t fainted, merely lost her balance in a moment of nausea and vertigo. Feyan could certainly relate. “He’s been running this monastery since it was built. But for what purpose? And why . . .”
            Feyan grasped the ledger with shaking hands. “. . . hold onto a document like this if your goal is to keep it all a secret?”
            There was a sudden rush of air behind them, a change in pressure as the room’s seal was broken. Feyan spun round, terrified, unable to move or speak or scream. The latch depressed. The rusty hinges creaked. And, with a shove of momentous inevitability, the door swung inward.
            Taking up most of the frame, the light from the hall lanterns blocked by his girth, was none other than Friar Hermack, blood dripping from an unseen object clasped in his left hand.

            It’s over. We’re found out. I have to save Meri, I have to . . .
            Hermack raised the object to his mouth . . . and took a bite, smearing scarlet fluid onto his pudgy chin and cheeks. “Waat arr yuu tooo dooingg,” he asked around clumps of gooey pastry.
            “S-studying?” Meri hedged, her voice rising a few pitches higher than usual.
            The Friar’s jowls expanded, then contracted as he swallowed. “Oh. Good work, especially you, Feyan. Nice to see you being proactive for once. Anyway, it’s time to pack it in for the night. Father Kalarian’s about to say the dinner grace.”
            Without waiting for further explanation, Friar Hermack pulled the door shut and waddled away toward the main hall, the sounds of his weighty footfalls steadily diminishing until they could no longer be heard at all. Then—and only then—did Feyan and Meri release their pent-up tension, exhaling mightily and dribbling down their seats. Dinner! He’d only stopped by to ask them to come to dinner! Relief surged from inside Feyan as an uncontrollable burst of hysterical laughter.
            “Hahahaha! Thank the blessed Creator, we aren’t dead!”
            “How did we not hear him?” Meri mused, slightly more introspective.
            “We were too engrossed in our discovery. Can you imagine him sneaking up on anyone?” Feyan staggered to his feet, clutching at the table edge for balance. When he was safely up, he held out a supporting arm to Meri.
            “I-I suppose not,” she admitted, rising. “However, that is not the real question we should be asking ourselves now. What we really need to ponder is . . .”
            “. . . what to do with this revelation,” Feyan finished. He stared into her captivating eyes, waiting for his best friend’s sign of amusement.
            On cue, Meri’s eyebrow quirked up, and both of them smiled together.   

            It was as sure an indicator as any that everything was still going to be alright, regardless of just who—or what—was living with them at the World’s End Monastery.

 

          Swish-swish. Swish-swish.
            The overlong hem of Feyan Alurec’s habit rustled on the dry stones, threatening to trip him with each step. Awkward garments, habits. While sturdy and useful for keeping out chills, their coarse fabric had a tendency to snag on . . . well, just about everything. Jagged, unpolished nubs jutting out from the World’s End Monastery’s narrow corridors. Garden fence-posts. Rugged, splinter infested chairs and tables. Even Feyan’s own elbows, knees, and feet often betrayed him. All it took was the tip of his sandal clipping the baggy garment and his lips would be having an entirely inappropriate rendezvous with the floor.  
            Feyan turned left, felt his knee go taut against the voluminous robe, and stopped mid-stride to avoid a tumble. “Infernal, blasted, bloody vestment!” he muttered irately.
            Quiet as he was, the curses still echoed once in the dim hall. Mortified, Feyan cast about, scanning for monks or other acolytes like himself. Had anyone heard him? Swearing would earn him ten raps on the wrist, and his left hand still stung from his last breach of convent protocol.          

            Fortunately, no one was in sight. The only motion was that of the anachronistic candles flickering atop their rusted sconces. Feyan let out a relieved sigh, spoke a word of silent thanks to the Creator, adjusted his grip on the stack of dusty tomes he was carrying . . .
             . . . and proceeded to immediately trip on his habit.   
            Books flew in all directions, crinkly pages flapping as they careened into walls and bounced end over end on the unforgiving floor. Each dark, leather bound volume was priceless. Their yellowed Cepyrus innards covered in handwritten script that could never be reproduced.         

            Feyan felt their tumbling like blades twisting in his gut. Own safety forgotten, he desperately lunged for an encyclopedia sliding off his sleeve, wrapped it in his arms, and landed hard on his unprotected shoulder.
            “Ow . . .” Feyan groaned.

            The blow ached like a punch from a world class Flagbrawl player, but he would live. Ironically, the hated habit had absorbed most of the damage. Yet of more immediate concern than his own wellbeing were the rest of tomes he’d been tasked with delivering. Rolling over, Feyan began crawling on hands and knees to the closest book, which lay face up displaying an old water-colored painting.
            Halfway down the passage, a thick oak door creaked open, spilling golden light in an arc across the floor. Feyan froze. It was the absolute worst thing he could do, since he was about to be caught red-handed. Would ink-handed be more appropriate? he thought, mind turning to jests instead of accepting reality. My fingers are covered in black smudges. When vocalized, his irreverent sense of humor was another reason Feyan was often brought before Senior Abbot Kalarian on disciplinary charges.    

            A head covered in a stiff white coif and sporting two piercing eyes—one mesmerizingly green, the other placidly blue—poked out to stare at him. The rotund headdress hid the girl’s short blonde hair, but Feyan recognized her even so. Relieved, he set aside the tome he held and leaned against the wall.
            “Thank the Veneer you’re on library duty, Meri. Guess this means I won’t be expelled today either.”
            The girl’s left eyebrow, the one above her green eye, quirked up in amusement. That was her tell. No matter how she pursed her lips or tried to make her tone sound stern, Feyan knew his best friend—his solitary sanctuary in this cloister of austerity—wasn’t really upset with him.   
            “I heard the noon-bell not a quarter-hour ago,” Meri said, leaving the portal ajar and walking to join him. “As I see it, there’s still plenty of day left for you to commit another bungle or two.”

            She wore a drab brown habit similar to his own, which, in addition to its tendency to unbalance its wearers, was designed to hide the prominent features of the fairer sex. Except for her coif and porcelain skin, Feyan would have difficulty distinguishing Meri from one of the younger male acolytes.
            Sadly, that was the entire purpose of the androgynous vestments. Those who came to the World’s End Monastery—which Feyan flippantly referred to as ‘The Reformatory’—did so to meditate on the Creator’s grace and benevolence in an environment devoid of distractions. This included the female form, though a third of the coastal convent’s population was comprised of nuns.
            Tucking her robe to her knees, Meri bent to pick up the anthology of paintings he’d been reaching for. “Etualian’s Catalog of Peninsular Botany, dated 291 ABH,” she announced, closing it and tucking it under her opposite arm without looking at it. “Three copies were produced. One is still in the possession of the artist’s family. One burned in the east wing fire of the Sarconian Compendus Archives in 420 ABH. And the last,” Meri pointed at the weighty tome, the corner of its outer binding now visibly bent, “Is in this monastery’s repository, available for any and all to see provided they’re willing to make the journey to the . . .”
            “ . . . literal end of the world,” Feyan finished dramatically, waving his arms for effect. “Perhaps you should explain that to Friar Hermack, who kept that book in his personal cell for two weeks before asking me of all people to return it. Does that seem wise to you?”
            Meri’s scowl lasted for three seconds before melting into a warm giggle. “No, no it doesn’t. However, his poor judgment does not excuse your own.” Pale, unadorned fingers flicked at the surrounding pile of discarded history, culture, and philosophy. “Would it have been so hard to make multiple trips? I thought you—who love studying the past—would understand the significance of what we have here.”
            “But I did make two trips!” Feyan protested. “One was from the dormitory, across the courtyard, and down this hall to the library. The other . . .” he grinned from ear to ear, unable to keep his mirth contained, “. . . was on my habit, which caused the mess that—”
            His sore shoulder blossomed with renewed pain as Meri punched him. Lightning had nothing on her! By the time Feyan registered the blow, the female acolyte was back to picking up books, acting as if she’d never touched him.
            “You hit me!” he exclaimed.
            “I did.”
            “Didn’t you take an oath of non-violence?”
            “I did.”
            Massaging the bruised spot helped Feyan calm down. He looked at Meri, then at the scattered volumes. Considering their intrinsic value, both to the monastery and the world at large, he was getting off easy with just a punch. Only walking through the library with a blazing torch or tossing the priceless volumes in the animals’ feeding trough might be worse.
            “I deserved that, didn’t I?”
            Meri kept grabbing tomes; smoothing out their pages, patting dirt from their bindings. Knowing their contents at a glance, she placed them into stacks beside her. Her touch was diligent, tender, loving. These were her children, and Feyan had woefully mistreated them.
            “You did,” she stated simply.

            For a moment, a crushing silence hung in the stuffy, unfiltered air. Then Meri’s eyebrow twitched ever so slightly. “Now, pick up that stack—carefully, mind you—and carry it to the library. It’s only another ten meters. Think you can make it without any further . . . mishaps?” She grinned at him, their faces barely a meter apart.
            Oh, that smile. It radiated on her snow bright face like the graciousness of the Mother Superior herself. In another life, in another place, Feyan may have fancied her. But here he was merely glad to be blessed with her company.
            Scooting along as quickly as his confounded habit would allow, Feyan hastened to comply.
            “To hear is to obey, Milady.”

                                                                                                               

 

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