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Eyes of the Alchemist
 

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Eyes of the Alchemist


  Eyes of the Alchemist

  Janet Woods

  Chapter One

  Had it not been for one of the guardians of the temple, Tiana would have missed the ceremonial start of her thirteenth season.

  She was asleep, lying on a tree-shaded bank next to a stream. Exotic insects with delicate, gaudy wings fluttered overhead, the like of which hadn’t been seen in Truarc in living memory.

  That the stream and all surrounding it was of Tiana’s own creation didn’t escape the notice of the guardian, who frowned as she dispelled the image with a poke of her stick. The girl had obviously been in the temple library without permission again. The same stick struck the novice between the shoulder blades, bringing her scrambling to her feet.

  “Dreams are forbidden,” she reminded her. “You will recite the fiftieth rule.”

  Loath to part with her dream, Tiana felt a moment of claustrophobic panic follow as the walled garden closed in on her. The remnants of the image still clung to her mind, so she almost reached up to catch a butterfly before it vanished.

  The sound of the bells brought her back to reality. The fiftieth rule? Composing her features, she adjusted the coarse, linen bonnet on her head and sucked in a deep breath. Hands behind her back she went through the litany of rules in her head, counting them on her fingers.

  “Well?”

  “Now let me see ... a novice, whether awake or asleep, may not indulge in any fantasy which will improve her own comfort.” The rule dampened the rebellious spirit that had taken advantage of her sub-state, but not as much as it should have. She bowed her head. “I’m sorry, guardian. Forgive my transgression.”

  The guardian grunted. “You will chant strengthening mantras for one hour every day until your sub-state accepts self-discipline.”

  Tiana kept her head lowered. An hour on the mantras would encroach into her free meditation time, something she enjoyed even if it did get her into trouble. “And how long will that be, guardian?”

  “I will tell you when to stop.” A bony hand tilted up Tiana’s chin and the guardian examined her eyes for signs of contrition. There was an inbuilt rebellion in the green depths, the guardian thought, and more - a well-developed and rare high-sense.

  The guardian sighed. “I despair that your nature will ever be moulded to the required standard.”

  A pulse beat an alarm against Tiana’s skull. What was the guardian implying? That she might be sent away. That was not possible. She drew herself up. “The High One said the augur proclaimed my temple training.”

  “None witnessed the proclamation, you must try harder to be obedient.”

  “Not only will I try harder, I will succeed,” Tiana said, and clicked her fingers to bring Atarta to her side.

  The Pitilan came to sit beside the girl. It stared unblinkingly at the guardian, reminding her that Tiana was highborn - that Tiana’s sire was The High One himself. All Tiana had to do was order it and she, a guardian of the temple, would be ripped asunder – so much for standing on one’s dignity.

  Not that the girl would order her death unless directly attacked, but there had been a certain unconscious arrogance in the gesture, which stemmed from her bloodline. However badly Tiana performed the temple elders wouldn’t dare to reject her, the guardian realized.

  She kissed Tiana gently on the cheek, glad of the high born connection which kept the girl safe, for despite her failings she had many qualities to please. “Of course you will succeed. Now, go and bathe, and ready yourself for the life change ceremony.” She couldn’t help but hope that Tiana wasn’t assigned to her as a trainee. She didn’t have the patience to cope with such a one.

  Tiana stopped to turn and smile at her. “You need not worry, guardian. I would offer my own life to the Pitilan rather than harm one hair on your head. As for the other matter, there is one called Sybilla who will train me.”

  The guardian was so startled she forgot to remind Tiana of the tenth rule. A novice shall not seek entry into the thoughts of others. Strange, but that very morning a woman named Sybilla had turned up at the temple gate – a woman so ancient it was a wonder she still lived. She’d worn the badge of the Grand Alchemist upon her breast, the highest office a temple guardian could achieve, but only a handful ever did.

  That one of their novices was to be singled out for special training was a great honor for the temple . . . but Tiana? No, it must be one of the girl’s fantasies. All the same . . . ? The guardian slowly shook her head and hastened to inform the High Mother of what had occurred.

  * * * *

  Thirteen seasons was a life change, a time when Truarc maids put childhood aside. It passed with great fanfare. Each maid was dressed in a fine gown and paraded through the city. After much feasting some were handed over to the families of their chosen life mates – though it was three more seasons until mating took place.

  For those temple novices destined for further training, after the parade the rest of the day passed in merriment. It was a day when convention was relaxed a little, when feasting and dancing took place. After that, they would don simple white robes and assemble in the hall, where the augur would assign each novice to specialist guardians for training. Some would become teachers, some healers, some would be assigned to the children’s nurseries, and some would travel to the far edge towns to serve in the outer temples.

  The temple hall was vast, a place full of echoes. Tiana loved its sense of antiquity and could almost sense the ancients, as if each stone and tile was steeped in the sweat, blood and tears they’d shed.

  The floor was flagged with faded, cracked stone tiles, so it resembled a mosaic. Central was the fountain of knowledge, a covered pool in which the augur slept. Carved columns held up a domed roof and arches contained statuary - great and fearsome figures sculpted of metal and stone by some ancient artisan.

  Storytellers said they resembled Cabrilan warriors, who came through a door of swirling blackness that opened unexpectedly and without warning. The Cabrilan took the Truarc women, it was said. Tiana thought it odd that the Cabrilan warriors never appeared in the city, just the villages and far edge towns where the people were superstitious, and where a good tale sold to a storyteller would earn a reward.

  Tiana didn’t want to believe in such things. The High Mother said it was a fanciful tale repeated by those who had nothing better to do than spread rumor. She said if the Cabrilan had been so stupid that they’d split the planet asunder, then how did they acquire the skills to open doors in space and travel through them? Even the cultured and learned Truarc couldn’t do that, and they were descended from scientists and teachers, not common farmers and rough, fighting men.

  She had earned a frown when she’d said, “Perhaps such matters that are revealed to the Cabrilan are there for a purpose that is beyond Truarc understanding.”

  Even so, Tiana sometimes gazed up at the Cabrilan world with wondering eyes, and shivered. Had any of the savage-looking warriors survived? But how could they have, when most of the planet was covered in dense foliage that kept the sunlight from the surface? The foliage emitted clouds of poisonous gas to drift or swirl angrily about the atmosphere. Nobody could survive that, and if they had . . .

  Her gaze went to the nearest statue, a warrior painted in purple and black, who wore silver rings about his wrists. The diadem on his head denoted he was a lord of the highest order. He towered over her, his sword a fierce arc of silver. The hand shaft was studded with stones that shimmered colored light around the great hall.

  Handsome as he was, she’d show this Cabrilan lord what she thought of his race. Glancing about her at the dancing, chattering maids, she slid behind the statue, then hitched her skirt above her knees and tucked it into her belt.

  Thi
s warrior lord was her favorite, and was easy to climb. She scaled him on occasion, climbing from one smooth muscle to the next, especially when the augur was being consulted. With her feet inserted into the crook of one elbow she could comfortably clasp her arms around his neck and conceal her hands under the ornament on the cloak. His hair was fashioned with splits in the tresses, through which she could gaze upon her sire’s face when the High Council met. Although it was forbidden, she’d never been caught.

  She held her breath when, beneath her, two guardians came to stand.

  “We are doubly honored. The High One is coming for the choosing ceremony,” one of them said.

  Tiana thought she looked a little like her father with her silvery hair, though he was old and bent and walked with a stick. She’d heard his hair had been dark before her birth, and his eyes were blue and sad.

  She knew nothing of her mother, so her ears pricked up when the other guardian whispered, “The High One must have been exceedingly virile to have produced a daughter at such a great age.”

  “It’s said Tiana is the offspring of a goddess who stopped in her journeying to rest in the wilderness. The goddess cast a spell over The High One, filling his loins with an insatiable desire to cast his seed inside her. When she’d taken her fill of his potency he returned from the wilderness an old man, but full of wisdom and carrying their baby daughter in his arms. He had no knowledge of how he begat the child, though their genetics matched. It’s said that Tiana is cast in the image of the goddess, so when the time comes to fulfill her destiny all may recognize and know her. ”

  Tiana’s ears burned when the first guardian snorted. “More likely she’s the offspring of a mating between a rock goat and a gibber monkey. She’s as feisty as the first, as agile as the second and as untameable as both. She indulges in her fantasies to the point of manifestation, and practices the art of mesmer on her fellow novices.”

  “Perhaps that difference is why Sybilla has come for her.”

  “I can’t say that I envy the Grand Alchemist’s envoy. The child has a mind of her own, one that refuses to apply itself willingly to instruction.”

  “Perhaps that’s why Tiana has been singled out for honor. She thinks for herself and acts on it when necessary.”

  Ears burning, Tiana smiled with delight when her sire came into the temple hall to take his seat at the table, hugging to herself the knowledge that she might just be the daughter of a goddess. She tried to imagine her sire as a young man but could not. His face was too lined, his stoop too great, as if all of his energy had been sucked from his body . . . which if the guardian’s words were true, could well be the case. She colored again, because novices were not supposed to let their thoughts dwell on worldly matters.

  There was a disturbance in the corner of her eye. Her glance wandered towards it, but she saw nothing except a swirl of black dust in a corner, caused no doubt by the draught whistling through the cracks of the gigantic and solid wooden doors. Figures were carved upon the surface of the doors, of Cabrilan warriors on horseback and of Truarc scribes and storytellers in the days before the split.

  It was said the doors were carved from a single tree trunk, but no trees of such size existed on Truarc now, and each season the wilderness claimed more and more of the arable land, so the scientists had to find ways to supplement the available food.

  Her glance went back to the revelry and she laid her cheek against the cool, smooth surface of the warrior’s shoulder. When she looked down again the guardians had gone, but an old woman was standing below and staring up at her. The woman’s mind was open to her and Tiana knew without asking who she was and why she had come. She smiled in recognition of this kindred spirit as she whispered, “Sybilla, I was expecting you.”

  “And here I am.” They exchanged a smile and a silent bond formed between them. As agile as a gibber monkey Sybilla began to climb the statue to join her.

  She took her place on the other arm. “I used to perch here when I was a novice, too. Behind this ear I have carved my name.”

  “And I behind this ear.”

  The laughter they shared was a comfortable space.

  A swishing sound caught Tiana’s attention, and it seemed to be coming from the inside of the warrior. At the same time she noticed it was trembling. One of the under-ground tremors, no doubt. They were nothing to be frightened of because they didn’t come to anything.

  Her head turned automatically towards the disturbance in her vision, which had grown larger. The black swirl had become a column, the edge of which buffeted the statue she stood on. Her eyes widened, and she clung on for dear life as a streak of lightning licked from the disturbance to glance off a jewel in the sword hilt.

  The stone exploded into a thousand fragments that flew across the hall to rain upon the revelers like purple hailstones. Someone screamed. The High Mother rose to her feet, her hands raised as if to ward off a blow. “Let us remain calm.”

  Sybilla’s hand closed around Tiana’s, strangely comforting. “Whatever happens, try to show no fear,” she whispered.

  Novices and guardians alike were looking towards the wall, where a black hole had opened. Inside, a turbulence of darkness heaved and hissed amongst darting tongues of lightning. A warm sensation rippled over her skin, then it was gone leaving her with a dry throat. She swallowed, and tried not to gasp when two figures stepped out of the darkness and stood either side of it. “Cabrilan warriors,” she whispered when their swords were unsheathed.

  The High Mother stepped forward, hands still outstretched as more warriors poured through. They formed a guard of honor, swords touching above in an archway.

  Through it strode a Cabrilan lord so magnificent that this time she did gasp. Purple eyes flicked her way, touched on hers, then without acknowledgement moved on. She felt as if she’d been stung, and her eyes sought out her sire. He was standing at the back of the crowd making no move to intervene. The High One lost stature when measured against the Cabrilan warriors.

  The Cabrilan lord advanced through the warriors and stood in front of the High Mother, his muscular, black-clad legs slightly apart. “I am Lord Kavan,” he said, a cloak of a midnight hue swirling all about him. A beard of tangled curls fell upon his chest, above which his purple eyes were all seeing. “My troopers will chose the maids they want. Resistance will bring punishment.”

  The novices huddled together and cried out with fright when the troopers advanced and began to seize them. The High Mother stepped forward. “You cannot have the temple novices unless you kill me first.”

  Her outstretched hands were sliced from her body by one of the troopers. It was done with such unbelievable speed that the deed didn’t register on anyone’s brain for a few seconds, then a pandemonium of cries and protests broke out. The High Mother sank to the floor, blood pumping from her arms.

  Gathering her wits Tiana placed a whistle to her lips and blew a long, silent note. Seconds later her Pitilan was amongst the warriors, its slavering jaws tearing and ripping at the intruders.

  “Withdraw,” Lord Kavan shouted to his troops. His gaze swiveled towards her hiding place. “Call off the Truarc abomination, girl.”

  Atarta tore the throat from one of his troopers before she could comply. It was the first time she’d been forced to put the animal to the test and she shuddered at the carnage. “Only if you call off the savages you command.”

  “They are already called off,” he said, his voice tight with anger.

  She clicked her fingers, placing the Pitilan on guard. It fixed its unblinking eyes on the Cabrilan Lord. Suddenly, its tongue curled from its mouth to delicately lick the gelling blood from its snout. She had forgotten its appetite for blood, something it had been deprived of lately, as its pale color demonstrated.

  Lord Kavan looked amused when she shuddered. Tiana slid from her perch on the statue to land lightly on her feet. She experienced no fear. Sybilla had mind-joined with her to guide her though the situation. She glanced at the High Mo
ther and bit her lip. “That was an act of unwarranted barbarism.”

  “It was necessary to maintain order.” His breath hissed in his throat when their eyes met. “By my beard, you are fair. Such eyes are not mortal, though the bonnet you wear is unflattering.”

  With that she agreed. It was worn as a punishment for her misdeeds and seemed to be a permanent fixture.

  “It is written that one such as you is to be taken as my mate.”

  “I would die rather than become the mate of a Cabrilan savage.”

  His cloak flared around him when he turned slightly from the hip. “Do not anger me further, child. I am a lord, born of the gods.”

  “My Pitilan has the advantage,” she warned. “Tell your troopers to unhand the temple maidens, or Lord Kavan, whether born of Gods or mortal will be minus the appendage required to mate with anyone.” Her ears burned crimson. Had she uttered such a crudity? No, it was Sybilla who had put the words in her mouth. Silently, she begged her to stop.

  Lord Kavan’s eyes filled with amusement when his troopers began to laugh. They might be rough and menacing, but were not averse to the humor of the situation.

  “And if I don’t comply, how do you intend to go about carrying out such a punishment?”

  She chose not to be specific, even if she knew how. Instead, she said, “The Pitilan’s saliva is venomous. Those of you who have been bitten will die in agony if the wounds are not dressed and the antidote not administered. That includes you.”

  He gazed down at the mark on his hand and shrugged. “I have received worse ... ” His troopers had cupped their hands over their crotches in a crude, defensive gesture, and he grinned at them “... but I have never been threatened with such dire punishment.” The troopers laughed again, a mocking sound that angered her.

  Atarta threatened him with a savage snarl when she gave the signal. “On your own head be it. My Pitilan will make short work of you and your troopers.”

  She detected a spark of admiration in his eyes. “You are brave for one so young. Any of my troopers would sacrifice himself to save his lord. The beast is pale. He’s been deprived, and could not withstand a massed assault whilst he concentrated on the sacrifice. Javros step forward.”

 
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