For the curious, a chapter of the fantasy novel I’m going through edits on now, Of Rooks and Ravens, the first part of the Ravensgate Chronicles.
Chapter Two – Preston
I was dragged into an aching wakefulness by the creak of floorboards. It was a particular soreness, attributable to falling down stairs in pursuit of an elusive Lunar Warbler the night before, a pain echoed by the bone-deep dread of what I was hearing.
I opened my eyes to the morning dimness of the cold apartment, turned them towards the wooden partition which divided the large top floor into separate living & studying spaces. It was happening. Odgred was moving out.
“Are you sure about this?” I croaked, voice thick with lack of sleep. To my relief, my roommate of the past semester and a half paused near the top of the stairs rather than kept walking. “I’m sure if you stayed…”
Odgred swept a stray lock of her unkempt black hair out of her face. She looked like a frightened bird which made her leaving that much more poignant. The third year necromancy student bit her lip as if trying to hold back a curse that she had been caught sneaking out. “What. If I stay you’ll somehow not be his daughter? Like when he finds out I’m living with you he won’t somehow take it out on me? He’s the head of my department, Pres. Or I guess it’s actually Anna, right? You should have told me.”
I flinched at the use of my birth name. I stopped using “Anna” over six years ago. “No. It’s Preston. And my dad doesn’t need to find out,” I winced as I tried to prop myself up on one elbow. Sweet Aleph, I hurt. I might be bruised from shoulder to knees along my left side. If I was lucky, nothing was broken. It was little relief that the fall could have been worse.
Odgred scrunched up her brow, defiant but at least not still in flight. “No. He doesn’t need to find out. But if he does, what then? It could make a difference between a career track at the college or stirring the beetles at Bonepicker Hall.”
My mouth opened to protest but snapped closed just as quickly. Odgred was right. My father, Toumel Preston, known by most of Ravensgate as Toumel the Black, didn’t need to know. But that was no guarantee he wouldn’t find out. “See you around Little Crow Row, I guess.”
And at least rent’s paid up through the end of the month.
I watched Odgred haul away her oversized tapestry bag packed with clothes, surgical tools, and tins of smoky teas. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but Odgred could have grown to become one. I couldn’t blame her for leaving. My father poisoned everything he touched, even abstractly. This was no exception.
I waited until the footsteps faded into the echoes of echoes on the wood stairs of the four-story walk up. When I was certain she wasn’t coming back, I turned my gaze towards the crude table of wooden crates and planks, overladen with books and abstracts that had seemed a reasonable expense when I had irregular consulting income and a roommate to split rent. I forced myself into a sitting position on the edge of my bed, despite the aching protest of my injuries. Last night, when the fall was still so fresh that the bruising had not yet set in, the pain had been too much to bear. I resorted to several vile swallows of a potent herbal liqueur to facilitate sleep. Before slumber pulled me into its embrace and under the playful interrogation of Odgred, I let slip the truth about my birth name, the truth about father. And now, a quiet apartment I could not quite afford.
I scowled at the neck of the green glass bottle from last night, poking up behind a pile of cheap text books. I should know better now to avoid that poison Mac introduced me to. Nothing good ever comes of it.
Eventually, the pins in my eyes from the hangover would fade to be replaced with greater awareness of the bruising, which I was not looking forward to. But I couldn’t miss class. Tuition wasn’t cheap, and with the unforeseen shift in my fortunes I was painfully aware of getting the highest possible value from the investment now. With a groan, I managed to leverage out of bed.
The fire had gone to embers in the night and the floorboards were like ice beneath my bare feet. Odgred could have at least thrown another log on while she was packing up. That would have been the gracious thing to do. Whatever happened to the couple downstairs? Sure, I could practically tell time by their rituals of loud fights followed by louder sex, but at least they kept their apartment toasty, and the floorboards warm by default. I stirred the coals, but decided not to add another log. I wouldn’t be home long enough to enjoy it.
I hurriedly slipped out of my fleece bedclothes and into a long, heavy-weight green sweater and shapeless brown wool pants. Sitting on the bed, I pulled on heavy socks and wondered if my neighbors had actually moved out. I would have noticed that, certainly! Or did one of them die in a fit of passion, the other vanishing in the night? It was certainly cold enough that a corpse would not give up the stink, but there were other ways a corpse could turn bad in Ravensgate. Dangerous ways. I made a mental note to look into it before the temperatures started getting much warmer. And if I heard noises without the accompanying warmth of a hearth down below, it was time notify the watch.
My apartment was a spacious attic in one of college districts tall boarding houses. The lengthy stair climb was rewarded by a space that ran the entire length of the building. The high peak of the roof was heavy, covered with slabs of dark slate that warmed in thin, mountain sunlight, but keeping the space warm was a challenge. The only window was a heavy, leaded glass affair made of hand-sized panes in an alcove under the eaves. The bench I had placed there was stacked with a few blankets for contemplative moments where I could throw open the window and listen to the city below, but most of the time it just let in a bitter draft.
Having someone to share the apartment had been ideal. I managed to make it work fine for the three years I’d lived there. I didn’t require much space. Other than the carefully curated collection of books and papers purchased from scribes from the Scholar’s Tower in Anwat al-Masewi when flush with money, I had relatively few possessions. My only furniture was a narrow bed, a makeshift desk placed far enough from the fireplace to be safe while still keeping me reasonably warm on colder nights, and a huge wardrobe that was there when I moved in.
And damn but I loved the wardrobe. It had birch trees and butterflies carved into the door. The artisan had done such a masterful job that I could even identify the butterfly species cavorting around the trunks—the Feathered Duke, a butterfly native to the hills around Cambria. The wardrobe was a big factor in why I chose this apartment over several smaller, more suitably sized ones. If I had to move, I’d have no choice but to overcome my distaste for undead labor and hire several skeletons to lug it down the stairs.
The apartment was the closest I had to a home since escaping father’s shadow. Then I thought of Odgred, lugging her crap down the stairs and I wondered if I really had escaped. And it would only be home for as long as I could continue to make rent. I’d find a smaller place and wrestle the wardrobe into it if I had to. I’d even squat in one of the abandoned buildings in the Crypt neighborhood or live inside the wardrobe itself if I had to.
Both were preferable to moving back in with my necromancer father. If he had his way, I’d still be living in his grim, gray manor in the Highview district—a house he only purchased to frustrate the Seedwardens of Caccia living in the temple across the street. They found necromancers unsavory and had made the mistake of saying as such to Toumel the Black, the most renowned necromancer in the Vale Lands. After the insult, he placed half a dozen blackened skeletons upon the wrought iron gate surrounding his house, simply staring at the temple at all times of day or night.
Father had been most displeased when I chose to live close to the campus instead of with him. I wouldn’t even consent to a compromise and live as close as Darwing Square. His mood had soured even more, turned cold and distant, when I decided to pursue naturalism at the college, rather than follow in his footsteps. It had left me scrambling to pay tuition on my own as well as coming up with living expenses. A lifetime around father’s creations, watching him spend all his time in his lab at the expense of forming friendships with living, breathing people, was all the convincing I needed there was nothing in life I wanted less than becoming a necromancer. Ravensgate College offered other courses, after all. How many necromancers did the world really need, anyway?
As it was situated on the border between the Vale Lands and the Caliphate of Dust, the college offered an exceptional political education. The same was true of the courses on strategy and military history.
The naturalism program was neither the strongest, nor the most popular, with only two professors and under twenty students. It couldn’t be helped. The very environment around Ravensgate seemed to abhor nature, due to elevation above timberline and the lake. There weren’t many creatures who called these mountains home, just a small assortment of birds, rodents, and mountain goats. It meant field work was limited, and most learning came from expensively hand-transcribed folios, general texts printed on cheap rag paper in Cambria, or sketches of dubious veracity. But it was enough—enough to distance myself from her father’s dreams for me. It was enough to give me the training to catalog the natural world.
Then, when there was nothing left to learn here, I could go anywhere I wanted to on Zel Hazaj, be it the wild strangeness of the Bloodwood, the great, green hell of Yerba Kolo, or even the deep deserts of the Caliphate of Dust. Though I’ve never been on a ship in my life, there are even stranger, more exotic places to be seen, and creatures to be catalogued a few months voyage away. In other lands, if the books spoke true, I might even find dragons—something I would never see as long as I remained stuck here.
At not yet twenty harvests, there is a broad world to explore and a lifetime to do it. Every step of Ravensgate is one step away from father’s singular obsession with death and towards a new life.
It was still early enough to get something to eat before the morning avian studies lecture. I stretched out my sore muscles, wincing at the bruises yet again. There is enough time to detour up into Darwing Square. I smiled at the thought, and cinched her wide, leather belt over the green pullover, then un-tucked the woolen fabric so it was more shapeless. Odgred had accused me of dressing like a boy more than once, not that I much cared. Between that and my short shag of blonde hair, I was often mistaken for a boy at first blush. I was as tall as most men, and I had my mother’s wide shoulders which further confused the situation, which I was actually thankful for. People knew that head of the necromancy department had a daughter at the college. Those that mistook me for a boy would be quick to dismiss the family resemblance.
I could do without the distraction of foolish boy suitors from elsewhere in the Vale Lands looking to find prospective wives while away from home. Life was too short and I had no interest in their clumsy affections.
I pulled on my goatskin boots, and tossed my black student’s robe over my shoulders.
As I prepared to leave, I took a grim inventory of the few remaining coins in the earthenware dish on my desk. Six silver stags and five copper roses. It would last to the end of month if I was careful. It would even allow for breakfast and a good meal later, but I could forget about any new research materials until I found another fast job. I tucked a few chilly coins behind a flap on the inside of my belt and braced my bruised body for the walk down three steep flights of stairs.
The sun sliced through the mountains of the Iron Pass by the time I reached Darwing Square. The warmth of the sun on my face was invigorating, and I took a moment to enjoy it before darting into the claustrophobic side streets, following the tantalizing scents of freshly baked breads that drew me to the narrow café. The walk had loosened up my sore muscles, the cold air blunting the hangover from the night before.
The café owner’s young son Malik was tending the counter. He greeted me with a broken smile and a fig braid which he placed on a clay plate in anticipation of my order. It was all I had eaten there since stumbling upon the shop a month previous. Unlike his mother, Malik had yet to learn any Valen, and spoke only in his native Dust Tongue, but he knew enough to sell breads and his math was impeccable.
I pointed to one of the small, clay cups stacked neatly on the counter next to the stove. “Coffee?” I had only recently learned the word for the bitter but potent brew. That and haggling prices for books marked the sad limits of my Dust Tongue.
I watched the young Caliphate boy prepare drink like an alchemist, grinding the fine, bitter black powder with a brass mill into a tapered copper pot filled with a slurry of cold water and sugar. This he heated to a frothing boil, let cool, heated again. He repeated this ritual several times until he was satisfied and poured it carefully into the white cup. The result was a blend of bitter and sweet with a subtle floral aftertaste unlike anything else I’d ever tasted. It also helped keep me alert through long lectures, which made it well worth three copper from my dwindling reserves of cash.
With the coffee and pasty in hand, I withdrew to a small table near the front of the shop to pick apart my breakfast and consider those finances. Finding a roommate mid-semester would be next to impossible, which meant picking up side jobs which paid decently when I could find them—taxonomy or specimen collection, usually.
And I had a bit of money coming my way, but it had been coming for weeks now and still no coin weighted my purse. It had been promised by the city’s director of security, Johan Palfrei. Well, not promised by him directly, so much as promised by the two agents he sent my way for some taxonomy. White Star Rats, if memory served–vicious, and with a curiously enlarged lobe in their brain that seemed to support a communal intelligence. The information was worth five stags at least, which would cover rent for another month. Palfrei had a reputation for being notoriously tight with the purse strings, so it might be easier to talk his agents into putting up the money. I didn’t know them well, but one was a student at the college at least part-time, and the other was Mac who had hooked me on foul liquors. I didn’t know where they lived or worked, but I could find them at the Old Peculiar most nights, usually in the company of a Reaver, a mole-like Child of Ben’kono named Brunn.
The rich, liquid tones of Dust Tongue spoken nearby dragged me from my worried thoughts. I glimpsed Professor Vostov from over my shoulder, dressed in his distinctive black velvet. A silver owl embroidered upon the back shimmered in the early morning light that filtered into the bakery.
It had never occurred to me that Vostov would speak the language of their southern neighbors, let alone with such fluency, but then, Valen wasn’t his native tongue either. Hearing his competence with the language filled me with a moment of envy. I should consider in a language at the next enrollment. After all, I won’t be stuck in the Vale Lands forever.
He turned his expressionless hatchet of a face my way but didn’t act as if he recognized me. I’d never taken his classes; had never desired to learn anything he taught. But he’d been there long enough to have seen me at university functions with my father when I was younger. There was nothing physically impressive about him, shorter than me by at least a full hand’s length and with a dancer’s slight build, yet he still conveyed a commanding presence. His ash-blonde hair was swept back to emphasize a pronounced widow’s peak. He looked older than thirty, at least, but not quite as old as father, though I found it odd that I always thought of Vostov as an old man.
He approached holding a coffee and a flaky triangle of pastry layered with honey and nuts. His ice-blue eyes bored straight through me. “I have heard whispers that your father returned from sabbatical, but chose not to return to the bosom of the college. I trust this is just wild speculation?”
Professor Vostov never asked a question to which he didn’t already know the answer. It made me twist shrink uncomfortably in my seat as I truly had no answer for him. I had been too busy with my studies, too out of touch in regards to father’s standing with the college and his personal affairs. Since I rejected the pursuit of necromancy, conversations with him were strained at best. I even tried to avoid his tower at the college lest I run into him in the hallway. I hadn’t heard he was leaving the city on sabbatical until he had been gone for a week, and then only because I overheard one of his students talking about it. I counted the months off in my head. If father was back, he had returned early by at least a few weeks. I wonder if everything is alright. I almost kicked myself for the misplaced concern. Father could take care of himself. Anyway, if there was trouble, he would let me know, wouldn’t he?
I tried to be as nonchalant as possible, though Vostov’s icy stare set my teeth on edge. “I haven’t heard from him since he returned.”
The professor pursed his thin lips for a moment, considering me in much the same way I inspected a specimen pinned to a square of velvet. My left foot tapped nervously under the scrutiny. He took a sip while he stared, unblinking.
He isn’t blinking. Shouldn’t he be blinking?
“Very well,” he finally replied, breaking the chilled silence and blinking as if for my benefit alone. “My calendar is rather full, so if you should speak to him before I, let him know I wish to discuss a serious matter with him.”
“On behalf of the Aldermen? Or is this a personal matter?” I was surprised by his candor and was thankful I would never be in one of his classes.
“Perhaps both,” he answered as if he anticipated the question. Message delivered, he turned his attention to the pastry as if I were not there.
What a charmer. Suddenly, I remembered a rumor that Vostov could read minds, and regretted the internal burst of sarcasm. Whether that was true or not, he didn’t react. My opinion of him was either beneath notice, or his mental powers were a legend spread by superstitious pupils.
I finished my coffee with one final, wince-inducing swig, feeling the fine grit of the grounds against my tongue and inside of my cheek like bitter sand. I tucked the last of the fig braid into my mouth, unconcerned with appearing unladylike. I hurriedly stacked and dropped my dishes off at the counter on the way out.
My brain was spinning.
Dad is back in Ravensgate. It was an unsettling thought. I owed him a lot, though I would likely never admit that to his face. On a purely academic level I respected him. It wasn’t his fault he hadn’t been prepared to raise me alone after mom died in childbirth. Fortunately for him he had servants for that kind of thing. Dead, magically animated servants. I couldn’t have been the only child in Ravensgate with a skeleton for a nanny.
I know I let him down when I chose to study the natural world, the living rather than the reanimated. Sometimes, I managed to convince myself that he understood. That he was okay with the decision despite the initial hurt of rejection.
But no. Our fight that evening had been huge. His fingers had dug into the arm of the dining room chair as he resisted…I didn’t want to think what he might have been resisting. There were any number of unsavory undead in the home, but it was only the blacked skeletons, tasteful and sanitary, that he allowed in the dining room during meals. It was entirely possible he could have turned them against me had he chosen to do so. At the time, I was arrogantly confident in my perceived safety. But I would periodically revisit that confrontation in my memory and looking back I could not be so certain. The thought that, for at least a moment, father might have preferred my reanimated corpse rather than the real thing was chilling.
It terrified me that I’d never truly know how close my death could have been that night. And honestly, I wasn’t certain that I wanted to find out. That had been our last meal together, well over a year ago. And I never put myself at that kind of risk again.
Some nights, when I was sitting on my window bench, listening to the streets below, I leaned out and looked at one of the college’s three towers, a gnarled black finger silhouetted against the cold stars. I would look for the lighted windows at the top and think of father, Toumel the Black, and wonder if he was alone among his creations there in his lab. I wondered if I still loved him, and if so, if it was out of obligation. He might have shown, at some point, a fraction of fatherly affection that wasn’t overbearing or over-protective. If so, it was dimly remembered at best. The internal debate always came down to the same thing: when I thought of something bad happening to him, it made me feel physically ill. If that wasn’t love, I didn’t know what was.
The tower cast its shadow across the college district and into Lakeside. If he was back, Toumel the Black would likely be in his private laboratory and study in that tower. I caught herself, remembering Professor Vostov’s question from earlier. If he had returned to Ravensgate but not to the college, he wouldn’t be there at all. Where would he be, then, but home—the sprawling, cold house from where he mocked the supplicants of the goddess of harvests and fertility with his shambling abominations?
He is back in Ravensgate. My sadness at the thought he had returned and not let me know surprised me. After classes, after I’ve tracked down Mac and that monk associate of hers to collect my silver, maybe I should pay him a visit. It would be late, but father had always been more of a night person anyway.
In the meantime, there was a lecture, some lab work identifying small-beaked seed-eating birds, and a field study I had been putting off. Ignoring the renewed protest of my bruises, I picked up the pace, trying to avoid any tardiness. Fading family ties could wait until later.