This is my last Bitterwood Post – I’m a little sad now.
The title for this story came when I was visiting an Ancient Egyptian exhibition at the Queensland Museum with my mother and sister. One of the guide notes on the wall talked about The Book of the Dead and how an alternative name for it was The Book of Coming Forth to Daylight, and speaks of ‘spells for coming forth by daylight’. So I loved the phrase and the idea of books containing spells – as you might well pick up from the number of magical books in this tome!
I wanted to bring the book full circle, back to dear screwed up old Hepsibah Ballantyne, who’d lived well beyond her span by fair means and foul, and also to wrap up the tale of the blond man who, as Sister Goda wrote in “Terrible As An Army with Banners”, ‘ghosts through our folios like a virulent breeze’. They had a tenuous connection is their early lives, and they’ve both moved through the world of Bitterwood seeking their own ends and leaving ruin behind. I wanted to clear up a few mysteries and create a few more, coz that’s how these books roll.
But I also needed someone to tell this story, and I wanted it to be a first person narrator for this last tale: who better to hear from than Nel? A new girl, changed by the magic left on her dead sister’s skin, made more than she had been, yet with her oldest protection, her invisibility, removed. How might she cope, what might she think? She’s travelled so far for revenge, to fulfil the promise she made to herself and her family. She’s the perfect person to be there and witness the final collision of Hepsibah and the Viceroy.
The other thing I wanted to do with Bitterwood was bring the narrative to Lodellan. Sourdough is all about the cathedral-city and its environs, but Bitterwood begins elsewhere and ends in Lodellan. In The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales, the book starts in the city and then moves away. When the three books stand together, there will be a distinct sense of shift. No one else will notice; it’s just me amusing myself.
Spells for Coming Forth by Daylight
Four years, I think, refusing to believe it and so speak out loud: ‘Four years.’
The folk milling around me in Half-moon Lane’s broad expanse barely notice and those who do are adept at looking elsewhere. Steady, Nel, I think. This is the area of Lodellan where people know how to mind their own business ? if they know what’s good for them ? which is in part why I sought it out. Also, it’s cheaper to find a bed here, to eat once a day ? should I so desire I can feel my ribs, count them with ease ? and to go unremarked unless I fail to pay my bills.
Alas, that’s becoming an all-too-likely event. Four years and the money, the valuables, have just about run out. I sold the last of the tiara gems almost twelve months ago and have been living frugally on the proceeds since. I bartered away the clothing, too, all those lovely travelling dresses, even Asha’s favourite dove grey; now the only thing between me and public indecency is a well-worn pair of trews, an equally lived-in shirt, boots with emaciated soles (enchanted to keep my footsteps quiet), and a cloak grown thin with age ? I’ll be in trouble by the time winter comes. All in varied shades of brown, for brown turns aside the eye, excites no attention, and since my face changed, became more pleasing, I have been so anxious not to be noticed. The camouflage does seem to work, although crowds part when I walk through them even if no one seems to see me. Sometimes I wonder about this, but mostly I simply accept it as bonus of whatever magic rubbed itself on my skin. After the second year of fruitless searching, I sent the driver and coach back to Breakwater, and began walking the length and breadth of whichever land, county, country, the bloodstained pin directed. I’ve crossed mountains and oceans, marshlands and forests, borders and boundaries, followed faithfully to where it led, and look what it’s gotten me: permanently calloused feet, a tan that will never fade, wrinkles like canyons at the corners of my eyes, and hip joints that grind with every step. Perversely, I never thought I’d bewail the loss of what Asha passed on, never thought I’d be concerned for my looks, but it’s strange: when suddenly you get something you never thought to have, never thought you’d care about, it becomes so stupidly precious. I never thought I would be that way. I never thought I would miss the smell of the sea, the stink of the port, the heady sweet miasma of home. I never thought I would miss the house by the Weeping Gate.
This city is landlocked, although there is a river running through and around it ? it does not seem to have a name, just “the river” ? and in the weeks since I’ve been here I have sat by its banks with my eyes closed, trying to persuade myself that the sounds of its rushing waters are like the gentle splash of waves breaking against the pylons of the wharves in Breakwater’s harbour. Some days I am almost convinced; mostly I’m not.
This city is both old and new, its foundations deeply embedded in the past, its encompassing walls thick and ancient, built to house a smaller community in more generous surroundings, but the population has grown as populations are wont to do, and begun to fill the space. Not fully, no, but everything fits more snugly within the series of squares that make up the burg, will become more snug still as time passes. The palace of the local prince and his most recent bride is being extended, extra wings added to house who-knows-what, gardens improved upon and expanded, planted with ever-more exotic foliage that require ever-more gardeners to ensure they do not die in alien soil. And there is a magnificent cathedral being build to replace the tiny church that once was sufficient for the needs of the worshipful, but now no longer meets the requirements of either size or prestige. The Archbishop is apparently anxious for his holy accommodations to reflect his status. I passed by the building site last week, looked down into the great abyss they’d hollowed out, saw all the tunnels that will form catacombs and secret places, and shuddered.
This city, I fear, is the last place I have any hope of finding the Viceroy.
I seemed always to arrive too late. Sometimes it would be obvious he had been there before me ? talk in the hostelries and marketplaces would be of a sudden abundance of murders in locales barely touched by such events, or of items of esoteric value disappeared or stolen. Yet when I described the man I sought no one would, or indeed could, tell me they had seen him. It made me wonder what new magic he had learned, to wipe people’s minds so clear. Then again, perhaps he simply has not shown himself for whatever reason, perhaps his peculiar golems have been carrying his will into the world?
At any rate, I have not found him, have not caught up with him ? at least until now. The bloodstained pin from Asha’s wedding tiara ? just the pin itself, mind you, the diamond at its apex was the last thing to go ? did something it had not done before when I wandered into Lodellan: it stood straight up, balancing vertically in the palm of my hand. It has spun madly, spun slowly, lain dormant, but it has never done this ? indeed it stands to attention still, on the rickety desk in my room in the boarding house ? and I choose to see in this novelty a sign. That the end is here, that my road will be done, that Asha and Iskha and all the others will be avenged, that the danger of the Viceroy will be gone from the world, and that I will be free. I am unsure what I will do then ? the threat of liberty has always seemed so far away.
I make my way along Myrtledove Walk, a tiny byway that leads, as if by magic, to the better part of town. It seems that I step across an enchanted threshold into Busynothings Alley. While the street is a little narrower than its downmarket, more criminally-inclined counterpart, the stores here are fancier, tidier, their signs freshly and artistically painted, emblazed not merely with a drawing of the service offered, but also with the written description beneath. I would feel out of place if I thought myself more conspicuous; as it is I am a brown smudge of a woman, with a hood pulled low over my face, and a heavy satchel concealed under my cloak.
I think what it would be like to be here with the weight of excess coins in my purse, wearing a pretty dress ? not a hand-me-down, but something made just for me ? and wandering about with little else to do. No burden of obligation on my shoulders, no thoughts of home and my sisters and Dalita, no thoughts of last chances and all the tiny failures that have dotted my past forty-eight months. I think about all that and shake my head for such thoughts gain me nothing. I see the sign for Gisborne Street and hurry down it until it intersects with Whortleberry Lane, my destination.
Ermingard, the proprietress of the Loathly Lady, the boarding house of which I am currently a well-tolerated patron, is a source of valuable information if one can but get her to open her mouth. She knows more useful secrets and is in charge of more nefarious things than she will ever admit, but after I rendered her a small service ? Lil’bit would be pleased to know I have not lost my touch with a lockpick ? she has seen fit to answer my queries about the best place to try and sell a book of rare sort (ancient, black-covered, and smelling of badger). The purveyors of fine tomes to which I’ve been directed are, Ermingard assures me, both trustworthy and discreet.
Carabhilles’ Fine Books is located halfway down the lane, a gem even among so many other finely appointed bookstores. The shingle depicts a book with legs, which makes me laugh aloud for the first time in an age. The windows of the shop are clean and sparkle brightly in the afternoon sun. Through them I can see shelves and shelves, rows of tables and desks, piles of volumes neatly stacked awaiting inventory and placement. Well-dressed men, women and children moved about inside with the polite greed of bibliophiles.
I take a deep breath and push the door, which makes the bell on the lintel give a genteel cry of alarm. Heads turn and take me in ever so briefly, then, having summed up my worth and found it wanting, they all return their attention to the things most deserving: the books. Or rather all but one: a youngish woman, not quite twenty, with light brown hair and angry amber eyes, is still staring at me as if that will send me back to whence I came. I shake off my hood and give her a bright smile in answer and nod to say I’ve seen her and yes, I will speak with her. I peel away the edge of my cloak so she can see the satchel beneath, see its size and estimate its heft. So she can imagine what might lie therein and her curiosity is caught, outweighing her annoyance. I was once not this manipulative, this set on getting my own way; I wonder what I would have been like had Asha’s death never happened. A mouse, I suspect, a shadow all my life.
The woman moves towards me, her saffron gown flouncing with each step, and I towards her so we meet in the centre of the front room. Behind the counter from which she’s just come stands another girl, younger still and wide-eyed, this one with white-blonde hair, a green gaze and a dress of amethyst hue that speaks to the prosperity of this establishment. I’d have thought they would look alike, for they are supposed to be sisters, but there is nothing to show a shared blood ? I wonder which one takes after their mother?
‘How may I assist?’ Amber-eyes asks tightly.
‘I wish to discuss the sale of a book.’
‘You wish to buy a book?’ Her expression says quite clearly I cannot afford even a bowl of soup.
‘No, I wish to sell one to you.’
‘What makes you think we’re interested?’
‘We’ll neither of us know until you look at it, but Ermingard at the Loathly Lady said you might be. She said the Carabhilles could be trusted ? I do hope her faith has not been misplaced.’
She doesn’t bother to answer but waves a hand in a gesture that might mean follow me or something less polite. I am an optimist after all, so I choose the former and trail her further into the room, to a narrow polished table with a purple velvet runner down its middle. I open the satchel and extract the big black book, careful not to disturb the other item in there, and place it on the velvet, where it looks like a magnificent rock of a thing. The woman’s eyes widen as she reads the front cover ? Murcianus – Magica: A Book of Craft ? then tries to hide her shock by turning away and rifling through a drawer to find a pair of white cotton gloves. When she faces me again she is mostly composed. If I had not watched her so closely, I’d think the gloves were to stop the musky badger scent from getting on her dainty hands.
‘This is old,’ she says, voice husky. She carefully opens it, gingerly leafing through each page, then pauses ? she thinks I don’t notice how her right hand slides beneath the back cover looking for the indentation, the M I already know is there. Her fingers rest on it, caressing the relief lovingly. How can she think I don’t notice? What is this thing that all her caution, all her sangfroid evaporates like morning dew in the sun? I can only hope it means I will get a good price for it ? I have no interest in keeping it, I cannot read the language in which it’s written. It is a means to an end for me, to finance the final leg of this journey. Or at least to get enough to pay Ermingard for a bed for the next few weeks and to ensure a meal or two a day for that long. Perhaps enough for a new pair of stout boots and a new cloak that will see me survive winter. The more I think about it the more my list of needs grows, so I put the expectant anticipation from my mind.
‘I will need to value this before we can discuss any sale,’ she says. ‘My mother and sister will need to be consulted, too, so we might reach an agreement. Will you be so kind as to leave the book with me and return this afternoon?’
I snort. ‘I’m sorry, have I given the impression that I’m some sort of lackwit? I will not leave this volume here, no. I will wait for you and yours to do a valuation under my watchful eye, or I shall take the tome with me and see what other merchants in this street of books will offer for it.’
She looks as if I’ve slapped her. I take the heavy item from her seemingly nerveless hands and put it back into the satchel, then draw my cloak around it and myself and make to leave. Her fingers grab at me, hard into the flesh of my upper arm.
‘No!’ she almost shouts, then realises that her well-heeled clientele are staring. She lowers her voice and loosens her grip. ‘No, please. Come in and wait.’
I pause for a long moment before nodding. I follow her through the stacks of polished oak, the beautifully bounded books all lined up like pretty maids, until we come to the back wall, which seems to be simply more book-lined shelves, or so I think. She touches a bright red spine with Beata Beatrix in gold lettering and there is a stealthy click. The wall swings back a little. She pushes it open and stands aside, showing I should go first.
And I do for, after all this time, I am apparently an idiot.
As soon as I step into what appears to be a dining room of moderate extravagance, arms snake around me and sharp steel is cold against my throat.
‘Is this how you do business?’ I say, trying to keep my voice steady. I can feel her hand shaking and the knife with it. She may well cut me through sheer nerves rather than intent, and that would be contrary to my desires. I have a dagger, too, slim and slender, and concealed at my hip, but I’m in no doubt that brandishing it will be counterproductive.
‘You wanted to wait,’ she hisses. ‘So you will wait until Mother returns.’
There is a medium sized table and she pushes me into a chair at one end, then takes up position at the head. Not exactly the best means of controlling me ? and if the shoe had been on the other foot, I’d have tied me up ? but then I’ve just shown myself stupid enough to give her the advantage, so what do I know? We sit in silence for a good few minutes, I rubbing my neck where it feels as if the cold of her blade has seared me.
‘Where’s your mother and when might she grace us with her presence?’ I ask and she remains silent. ‘Only, I’ve got somewhere else to be this afternoon …’
Still she does not answer, but glares at me as if she might be able to ignite my hair or eyebrows. The door in the wall opens and the other girl enters.
‘Where are you, Cassia, leaving me with all those customers …’ she trails off and stares at us. ‘What are you doing?’
‘She has the book, Flavia ? Murciana’s great book!’ Her amber eyes are bright as fire. The younger girl turns sceptical eyes on me, and Cassia raises her voice, ‘In the bag! Under her cloak. Get it, examine it!’
The other girl appears doubtful and I feel it’s time to establish some boundaries, crossing my arms over my chest. ‘If you come near me, I promise you broken fingers at the very least.’
That seems to decide matters ? no hardened criminals or standover merchants these, just angry frightened children at heart. What are they hiding that makes them so fearful? A professional would have cut me a little, taken off a slice of flesh to encourage me to talk ? and I would have! ? but neither of them are certain of themselves. They have no ruthless disregard for life.
‘Tell me where you got it?’ Cassia almost begs.
I give her a long look, compressing my lips and narrowing my eyes. ‘Since you were not polite enough to answer my questions, I will not answer yours. We shall wait for your mother to return ? oh, and I’d suggest at least one of you goes back out to the shop floor. I didn’t like the look of some of your customers for all their fancy attire, and books ? well, we’ve ample evidence that they make people crazy.’
And so we wait.