Smoke & Skin:
I was old. I had lived longer than I had any right to, and the weight of my years pressed heavily against me, tiring me. Not that I looked it – as if my appearance really mattered. Still, there was little I could do. Acceptance of my fate had occurred hundreds of years before. I merely tried to exist.
Existence has a certain appeal, even to one who is nothing but ashes, the afterthought of true flame.
So it was that when I saw the little Scholar weaving her way through the stalls, stopping to smile and converse with other traders, I thought to have a little fun. Something to amuse myself.
In the end, perhaps there is nothing more left for me than that.
Either way, I was bored. As she approached my stall, I decided she would do well enough. It was not as if she could resist a face like mine.
Bitter humor spilled through me again.
A face like mine.
It was a lovely spring day and I’d decided to take a break from my newest project – translating moldering texts from the Castle’s restricted history chamber.
My back ached from hunching over my worktable, my eyes were blurry from straining to reading the faint lines, and my hands fatigued and trembling from delicately handling the near-to-dust scroll. Truth be told, I wasn’t quite sure how it was still in one piece. It felt as if it might disintegrate at any moment. And that was just one of hundreds of texts waiting to be re-copied.
And yet, I couldn’t rush. One sudden or imprecise move and the words written therein would forever be lost. This of course went completely counter to King Harol’s decree to save as many lost texts as possible. And, that was how I, a non-titled merchant’s daughter, managed to get hired as a Scholar-Librarian in the Castle. They might have taken me on as a commoner due to my work in translation, but my being a woman had precluded them giving me any sort of notice until the King himself decided that more Scholars were needed to finish the Great Task of Preservation in the Castle’s vast library.
After all, the kingdom of Beravia was renowned for its Scholars and Libraries. People came from the nine other kingdoms of the continent solely to study at one of the four prestigious Libraries in the capital: the Library of Law, the Library of Language, the Library of Science, and the Castle Library of Preservation – which contained all known histories ever written. This included firsthand battle accounts, personal journals of famous inventors, descriptions of different monarchies, and politics of the various nations.
I assume that is why King Harol did not immediately throw out my application for position in the Castle. Despite the twin handicaps of station and sex, I had managed to attain my Scholar’s pendant from the Library of Languages by the age of twenty-four, a feat nearly unheard of for one so young. But I had spent my entire youth traveling from one country to another, soaking up languages as easily as a bird might learn its mother’s song. I spoke the five southern countries’ languages perfectly, could read another two, and knew a smattering of trading phrases for the three kingdoms of the north. I could also use the hand-speak of the sailors from the Eastern Archipelago Confederacy and nod appropriately to their almost sing-song vocalizations.
At the age of nineteen, I’d taken the entrance exam at the Library of Languages, scoring the highest ever for an applicant under the age of twenty-five. During my five years there, I’d spent my time perfecting the eight written languages and learning the basic grammar for another two. At the age of twenty-four, my teachers declared me a Master Translator and awarded me the pendant of Scholarship. I’d left immediately and taken up traveling again, my Scholar’s pendant guaranteeing me work, food, and lodging wherever I traveled. Three years later, on one of my trips home to visit my parents, the King made his declaration. I surprised myself by applying, and was more astounded when I was grudgingly hired on by the Preservation Scholars – per order of the King. A year later, the grudging bit had been completely replaced by overwhelming dependence, and I was nearly drowning in a backload of work. Which is why, after working all morning, I declared a holiday for myself and left the cool stone halls of the Castle and made my way out to the central marketplace. It was where, despite my deep blue Scholar’s robes, I felt most comfortable. I could slip from stall to stall practicing the languages I’d mostly only heard in my head the past year.
As I wandered through the Eastern market, enjoying the brightly colored silks and heady streams of incense, an artist’s stall caught my attention. It was covered with vivid paintings, the colors capturing the images splashed across the canvases. I turned to walk towards it when a glint caught my eye. I turned to see a gorgeous vase across the crowded pathway. How had it even caught my gaze through the surrounding throng? Curious, I wandered over to the stall to look at it, the artist’s stall momentarily forgotten. As I approached, I saw that the vase was a true masterpiece, intricately carved and inlaid with a filigree of pale gold and decorated in swirling gemstone patterns of lapis lazuli, jade, tourmaline, amber, and garnet. Just as I reached out to touch it, a voice spoke in my ear, almost materializing out of nowhere.
“A true masterpiece, is it not?”
I turned and looked at the source of the voice. The vendor was a man, leaning against the counter and smirking at me in a rather inappropriate manner. I dismissed him as an over-zealous trader ready to convince me to buy his wares.
But then I forgot my indignation as I truly looked at him.
How can I describe him? He was tall, towering over me by at least a head, with broad shoulders that still didn’t overwhelm the rest of his body. In fact, as I took him in, I saw that his proportions were somewhat obscenely perfect: well-muscled thighs, sculpted biceps, flat, contoured abdomen. It all enhanced his wavy, shoulder-length hair, which was inky black. Not blue-black, or reddish-black, but true absence of color. His hair almost seemed to absorb light, and yet, it shone with a dark brilliance that could have mesmerized masses all on its own.
But then there was his face; fine, even lips, chiseled jaw and hollow cheekbones that all accentuated and were accentuated by slanted eyes that shone gold. Not just any gold, but molten gold. He had no pupils, no iris, and no sclera; just solid gold. They should have been disconcerting, or alien.
But they were beautiful.
Words died in my throat as I simply forgot the need to breathe. All I wanted to do was fall into those shimmering eyes, give in to the invitation I could so clearly see shining in those depths.
“Do you see something you like?”
The smug tone of his voice snapped me out of my paralysis and I took in a deep breath of air and turned away, lightheaded and embarrassed. My face felt flushed, but I strove to appear in control as I turned back to contemplate the vase that had first caught my attention.
My voice was thin and breathy, and I swallowed hastily in an effort to sound like my usual confident self.
“This one, here. Can you tell me about it?”
“Ah yes. Made from the depths of Erviba’an Valley, far to the south, where the sun never truly sets…”
He went on for a few more minutes, extolling the virtues of the vase, but I refused to look back at him. During that time I decided that it was best if I left the market altogether and returned to my work at the Castle. I’d already seen enough for one day.
The vendor’s voice changed pitch, those velvet tones turning deep and seductive. A shiver passed over my skin.
“I have another piece you might want to consider.”
Exasperated, I shook off the sensation and turned to him, ready to tell him I wasn’t interested in purchasing any of his wares. But before I could so much as open my mouth, he held out a bottle unlike any I’d ever seen before.
It was wide rather than long, made out of layered glass, each layer a different color that somehow blended together to make the glass appear thicker than it was. At the same time, the colors seemed to shift and swirl – ruby and emerald and amethyst and sapphire. They shone like a fire opal; capturing the light and sending it back out again covered in gold. For that was the most amazing part about the bottle. Its entire surface looked like it was embedded with liquid gold, its luminescence somehow shining through the jewel-toned colors.
“I think the lady is interested, no?”
I realized that I had been standing there, mouth agape, for several moments. My cheeks colored again as I hastily closed my lips, cursing my pale skin, which had lightened from its usual tanned bronze in the past year of being indoors.
A flash caught my attention as the vendor waved the bottle in my face. A smug smirk again hugged the corner of his perfect mouth, but somehow I found myself nodding in spite of it.
“Yes, I w-will take it.”
I didn’t have any money on me, but my Scholar’s pendant and robes guaranteed that I had the means to complete the purchase.
He leaned over the counter, his face coming closer to mine until I could almost feel his breath against my face. Unwilling to let him gain the upper hand again, I stood my ground and refused to back away.
“Shall I send it to your residence? Or would you like to take it now?”
My voice came out rather more breathless than businesslike.
He smiled at me and tossed his hair back. My mouth nearly dropped open again and warmth curled between my legs. I clenched my jaw and fought to keep my eyes distant.
He just continued to smirk as he wrapped the bottle in layers of silken scarves. I didn’t even bother protesting the extra expense, too afraid to open my mouth again.
“Here you are, little Scholar.”
I took it from him, expecting to struggle with the bottle’s heaviness. Instead, it nearly floated and I gasped at its insubstantial weight.
As I looked up I caught his eye.
“It is a special bottle… rather less and more than you are expecting, I believe.”
Unable to think of a reply, I gave him the Scholar’s signal for thanks – a closed fist at the chest quickly turned over into an open palm – and hurried away. His gaze lingered against my skin, but I refused to turn back. It was only when I reached the gates of the Castle that I realized the vendor had not asked me where to send the bill. Unwilling to face him – and his ridiculous beauty – I resolved to return to the marketplace the next day with my payment.
I made my way to the suite of rooms assigned to me. It was, unfortunately, on one of the inner halls of the Castle, so there was no window to light it. Instead, a series of sconces lined the wall, and they flickered with dull, reddish light.
Still, as I entered the chamber, I walked directly over to my writing desk and set my bundle down. After pulling up a chair, I perched on the edge and regarded the wrapped shape.
Surely it can’t be as beautiful as I remembered.
My hands came up and I slowly unwrapped each layer. The silk slithered out of my hands, somehow reminding me of the vendor’s lips. I shook my head, trying to clear it, when the last layer slipped away from the bottle.
It was gorgeous, its beauty nearly tripled in the time since I had last seen it. I pushed the scarves aside and set the bottle upright. It glinted at me, its allure only growing the longer I stared at it. Once again I picked it up and marveled at how light it was – the bundle of scarves felt heavier.
A smear caught my eye, surprising me with how out of place it was. I grabbed the edge of one of the scarves and rubbed at the spot, pleased with how easily it went away. I placed the bottle back on my desk, adjusting it so it caught the low light in such a way that it nearly glowed, its golden depths rich and warm.
A knock at the door startled me, pulling me out of my reverie. I went to answer it.
It was one of the Library assistants.
“Madam Scholar, we urgently need your help with a quick translation. The scroll is coming apart even as we speak!”
Without a second thought, I took off and headed straight to the Library.
Several hours later, my head was aching again. Ferum, the Royal Master Librarian, sat across from me in his cream-colored Preservationist robes, his hand scratching words onto a fresh piece of parchment. His stamina was near limitless, and I hated to admit that I needed to stop. But I had read the same line three times in a row, and the words still wouldn’t come into focus. It was already late into the night, but we still had so much to get through that I had kept working far longer than I should have. Again.
“Master Librarian, I’m sorry. I’m going to have to stop for the night. I will return at dawn.”
He peered over another scroll to look at me wearily.
“Very well. No sense in exhausting ourselves tonight and making careless errors tomorrow.”
I wanted to correct him, tell him that I never made careless errors, but my position was precarious enough without reminding him about the Library’s need of my skills.
Instead, I merely nodded, peeled myself out of the chair, and slowly trudged back to my room. The bed was already turned down, thanks to the palace servants. After slipping out of my robes, I climbed gratefully into bed and was asleep instantly.
Getting into places has always been a talent of mine. It was not hard with a whispered word here or there and a phantom brush of my lips. Doors opened for me, and I enjoyed the illusive sense of freedom they implied. In the last century, I had made an art out of choosing who would open the next set of doors for me.
It was the only freedom I had.
Entering the palace was certainly instructive. Since the last time I had been here, almost two centuries ago, the place had grown. It was no longer a simple keep on the outskirts of a city-state, but now the center of its own thriving kingdom, trading in knowledge rather than goods. Considering where it was located, I thought that was the greatest idea the country’s forebears had ever conceived.
The tour was short as I headed for the Scholar’s chamber. Unfortunately, it was disappointing. Utilitarian, small, and windowless, there was little furniture. A medium-sized bed was pushed into one corner, a writing desk in another, and an armoire and chest for her clothes in the third. When I opened the armoire, I saw it was full of boring robes, though there was a greater variety in material than I expected.
It was her clothes chest that intrigued me the most. Worn travel clothes lie within it. She did not appear the type.
All of which made my task more interesting.
When she finally entered her chamber, hours later than I expected, she looked exhausted. She quickly undressed, throwing her robe down on the floor and climbing into bed, affording me ample view of her lovely body. She was asleep in moments.
Anticipation filled me. Time to loosen my chains, to obey the bonds that wound throughout my soul.
Time for a little dream.