Soul of the Scribe
By Ryan K. Stansifer
Part 1: The Delivery
Between the damp heat and the rustle of parchment, it was everything I could do not to throw my inkpot across the Library of Light with disgust. Nothing would make this story come to me. In the space of three bells, not a single spark of imagination had come to me, leaving me waiting for the Dreamscape to flow through me. I was tired of waiting.
My brain ached as I glared down at the paper, trying to will the words into being by force of will. Of course, nothing happened.
With a sigh, I tossed my quill back into the inkpot. A bit of black ink splattered across the parchment. The only thing that kept me from banging my head against the ornate desk was the Arbiter.
Arbiter Cakla hated noise. All noise. Any noise. Her feline ears could hear every turn of a page from the reading room overlooking the western canals on the opposite side of the library. To the Arbiter, the Librarian’s Code was absolute. She had once thrown the Master of Rosan City out of her library.
Trying to stay as quiet as possible, I started to pull out my notes on Jalla and Kenstar’s marriage for the eighth time.
“Master Scribe?” The whispered words startled me. I nearly knocked over my inkpot.
I glared at the still-blank page and looked up to source of the tiny whisper. A small Tak’tak was studying me from the other side of the desk. Her glistening golden fur reflected the light from the oil lamps on the pillars around me. She was half my height, small even for Tak’tak standards. The circlet of a high courier arced through her long mane of silver hair, perched precisely below her flickering pointed ears.
“Yes?” I forced my voice into a measure of civility. “What can I do for you?”
The Tak’tak removed a parcel from her messenger pouch, her silver eyes flickering between the label upon the package and me. “You are Master Scribe Ak, are you not, sir?”
She paused and the Tak’tak’s ears flicked again. I recognized the telltale twitch. This Tak’tak had been trained in the study of words of truth. This was no ordinary courier.
The moment passed and handed me the parcel, wrapped in brown paper. I turned it over and almost squeaked in surprise, dropping it onto the blank parchment. I almost felt Cakla’s ears focus on me, but I didn’t care.
Atop the brown wrapped parcel was a typewritten label.
I had heard of them. Everyone had these days. I’d even see a few of the typewritten books. But seeing a label with my name on it was…disturbing. My name, printed in dark black ink. I repressed a shudder.
It took me several seconds to muster the courage to pick it up again. I studied the typed label for any sign of identification, but I had no doubt that a machine had crafted the text. There was no soul in the blocky writing.
“If you would sign upon the register, Master Scribe…” The Tak’tak conjured a scroll from the holding gem on her left bracelet and a pre-inked quill from her right.
After signing, the Tak’tak gave me a small smile, bowed and made to leave.
“Who sent this?” My voice rose to the border of the Librarian’s Code.
This time, I actually saw the Arbiter lurking behind one of the book stacks, peering at me with those pale blue eyes.
“I am but a simple courier, Master Scribe. Though I have never before met such colors in a human soul as the one who gave me this.”
She moved like a wraith before I could say anything further, vanishing in a blur of motion toward the heat and sun of the exit. I was left watching the place where she had been and pondering her words.
For the Tak’tak to say she had never seen ‘such’ colors meant that whoever had commissioned this delivery was someone unique indeed. And while Tak’tak couriers were nothing new in Rosan City, the one who visited me was something different. High couriers were not one used for common assignments, but for the nobility. I was intrigued.
I stared between the parcel and the blank parchment. I groaned. With this mystery, I would never be able to focus on this commission. It was not due for another two weeks, so a short delay shouldn’t hurt.
I threw my equipment into my leather satchel and stood, careful not to scrape my chair more than necessary. A change of scenery might inspire me. And I knew better than to open a package with a typewritten label in public. Some individuals weren’t as…open-minded as I was.
I nodded politely to the Arbiter as I passed her desk. She simply watched me go without a blink. Her eyes burned into my skull as I passed through the four-story archway. The moment I was outside, I finally felt her gaze leave me.
Squinting against the brilliant sunlight, I shaded my eyes and the whiteness resolved into the familiar shapes of gleaming domes and sweeping towers. The sounds of the midday city washed over me, mixed the steady lapping of the canals from the library boat dock.
The parcel itched in my hands, as if begging me to open it, but caution won out. I needed privacy for this. It was too hot to use one of the parks, so I resigned myself to head back to the Enclave.
I leaned over the canal railing and glanced down, but there was no one at the dock, only the blue water flowing around the small wooden pier. I sighed. Water taxies were never where they were needed. And the Enclave was halfway across the city. Grumbling, I shoved the parcel into my satchel and headed for the Way of Art.
As the clock tower above the trading distract struck three bells, I turned onto the Way of Art and crossed the bridge over the canal. The water looked tempting today. I passed several children laughing and splashing in one of the small lagoon parks. I tried to put aside my jealousy.
The Way of Art was mostly deserted, save for a few shaded carriages. The only sound was the echoing of my shoes through the quiet streets and the lapping of the canals. I tried to figure out who would have sent me a parcel with a typewritten label—
The echoing blast of a trumpet rudely broke my thoughts. I looked up and froze at the sight of the crowd at the intersection of Rain Avenue and the Way of Art.
“What now?” I grumbled, annoyed at the interruption.
Curiosity over the hubbub overrode the curiosity over the parcel. I didn’t care for large crowds though, so I slipped past the main crowd and moved a bit further down Rain Avenue. I stopped at a curving bridge that gave me a slightly better view of the street. The moment I took my place along the side of the street, a dozen people appeared around me, looking south toward the Ivory Gate and murmuring to each other.
“Did you hear about the Master’s last meeting with the Arquellians?” whispered a callous-handed woodcarver beside me with a conspiratorial air.
I blinked at him a few times. The man’s eyes nearly glowed with the gossip, so I humored him and shook my head.
“Heard it my brother. He’s one of the livery servants t the Palace. Said he overheard the Master talking about an attack on the rebels. Said they were wiped out!”
I stiffened. Ice filled my veins, despite the heat. I forced the bad thoughts away and tried to smile.
“The rebels have been there for a long time, friend,” I replied. “I doubt a single attack would destroy them.”
He laughed. “Those idiots couldn’t use a bladeless if their lives depended on it!”
I had no desire to continue this conversation, so I changed the subject. “So what’s this then? The Fearless are coming back?”
“Better. It’s the Master and the Princess.”
The ice returned, punctuated with fear.
“What?” I whirled on him. “What did you say?”
The woodcarver took a step back with a frown. He ran a callused hand through his wiry black hair. “The Master and the Princess. Coming down in a carriage—“
I turned to leave, but the crowd had already filled the streets to overflowing. They were as impassible as the Abyss Mountains. I swore and tried to move through them anyway, but it was too late.
The first of the honor guard marched over the bridge to the cheers of the crowds. Their sparkling armor shone in the bright sun, the purple and crimson highlights almost blinding. Trumpets heralded the arrival of the Master of Rosan City, barely audible over the roar of the crowd for this impromptu parade.
Despite myself, I turned to watch. The open-air coach was hauled by two six-legged cattorgs, their coats groomed to glowing silver perfection. The beasts peered at the people with almost amused expressions. The coachman was smirking just a little bit beneath his wide-brimmed black cap. I had just a few seconds to throw up my hood before she came into view.
Hair flowed like a waterfall of golden wheat around her head. Her brilliant smile lit up the population. She looked so young, yet so old at the same time. Despite everything, I couldn’t help but stare at the beautiful woman Rasquella had become.
Beside her, the avuncular face of the Master of Rosan City bellowed out greetings to those he recognized in the crowd, waving and grinning like a madman. A perfect counterpoint to his graceful daughter, the Master was stocky with the build of a man who had once led men into battle. He still carried the presence of a military hero as he ruled the population of Rosan City.
Rasquella’s brilliant azure eyes wandered toward me, but I ducked my head and hid my face beneath the shadows of my hood. I tried to look inconspicuous as possible, squeezing behind several of the cheering crowd. But I couldn’t stop watching the princess. A brief frown marred her beauty as she studied my area of the crowd, but it was only a moment. The smile returned.
Then the carriage moved on, followed by capering children and laughing palace retainers.
I stood there for a moment, watching as the procession moved toward the palace. Once, I thought Rasquella looked back at me. It was enough to kick me out of my stupor.
My heart didn’t stop pounding until I was several blocks away. By then, the parcel in my satchel was one more clamoring for my attention. It had been drowned by the sudden appearance of the Master of Rosan City and his daughter. I tried to push thoughts of Rasquella out of my head and focus on anything other than the memories.
It was nearly four bells when I reached the shade of the tall towers flanking the entrance to the Scribe Enclave. An Illustrator had set up shop in the shade above one of the canals and was studiously working over a massive painting of the gold and ivory Grand Palace atop the hill in the center of Rosan City.
I was tempted to step over and see the work the young lady was doing, but after the unexpected encounter, I craved the safety of the Enclave. And the parcel was practically screaming at me now.
A massive stone archway spanned the length of entrance, the ancient runic symbols of the Crafters emblazoned upon the stone. I hurried underneath it and breathed easy again.
The sprawling courtyard of the Enclave lay before me, dotted with sprawling green trees, enchanted streams, stone benches and lounging Scribes. The shade of the two massive willowrorks immediately welcomed me like an old childhood friend. I started for my quarters so I could open the parcel in safety.
The shout echoed through the courtyard. I groaned.
I turned and Pauline came barreling toward me like a feral habbern. There was no time to react. I staggered when she slammed into me, knocking the breath from my lungs. She buried her head in my chest and I could only see a swirl of brown hair below my chin.
“Pauline!” I cried as I tried to pry the apprentice off me. “Pauline! Please!”
“I missed you!” she squealed in muffled tones. “I was sad that you weren’t here when I got in! I just got in this morning. You should have seen it! I did some commissions for the children and it was amazing! They thought up such beautiful things! Magical wonderful creatures! All fairies and tambaris and…”
There were at least twenty other people standing under the trees. Most of them were looking at us. And most of them were either smiling or laughing. I glared a dire warning, but they only laughed harder.
“…and I got to see three Illustrators! We talked for hours until the second bell of the morning! They wanted to hear all the amazing things the children had done down in Albright. My Mentor wasn’t nearly as fun as you though. She never let me do anything on my own except for read and read and read. But I really didn’t mind because of the imagination that lived there…”
“Pauline!” I cried. “I need to breathe!”
The apprentice finally detached from me, but didn’t stop talking. She rarely did.
“And do you think I’ll end up being a good Reader? I think I want to be a Reader! Though I love Scribe work too! Don’t think I don’t! But my favorite thing is to get…”
She stopped and her eyes went wide. “You got me a present!”
I blinked and looked down. Pauline had knocked the parcel out of my satchel. Before I could stop her, she scooped the package off the courtyard stones and rattled it like a girl inspecting her gift on Solstice.
“You shouldn’t have! I’m sure it’s beautiful! I can’t wait to see it! Can I open it right now?”
She made to tear open the brown paper, but I intercepted her before she could strike. “That’s not for you, Pauline. That’s mine. Look at the label.”
Pauline glanced once at the label and instantly dropped it as if it was a spitting snarlnip.
“Typed!” She took a couple steps back. “Those letters are typed!”
I picked up the small box and dusted it off. “Pauline, we’ve had this discussion before. Just because it’s typed doesn’t mean it’s unclean.”
“But it’s soulless!” She glared at the package as if its very existence offended her. “Janie and Opal said if you read a typed book, you’d never touch the Dreamscape again!”
I slipped the package back into my satchel and knelt before my little apprentice. I smiled into her worried blue eyes and patted her on the shoulder. “I’ve seen a few of these typed books. I’ve even read through a couple of them. They won’t break your power in the Dreamscape, they simply make you imagine it yourself.”
She glanced at my satchel distrustfully. “I don’t know…”
I lifted her chin with my ink-stained hands, returning her focus to me. “I’ve heard much the same rumors. But it doesn’t matter, because that package is for me. Your present is in my quarters.”
The encounter with the typed print vanished from her expression and her freckled face exploded in glee. “Really? Can I have it now? What is it? Is it pretty? Can I have it now and open it? I really want to see…”
“Not just yet, Pauline,” I chided her. “I have to take care of my own work first.”
Her face dropped into a pout. I was somewhat concerned her lower lip might attempt to escape her face. I smirked. Her act didn’t alter my resolve.
“I will find you later after my own work is completed. I promise it will be no later than five bells.”
“But that’s forever!” she wailed, her pout increasing in severity.
“Pauline, you know there is much you should be doing after a Wander. And I suspect you have done none of it.”
The deflection worked. She still pouted, but the reminder had been enough. With a single petulant stomp, she whirled and marched toward her own quarters in the north wing.
I watched her go. I had no illusions that she would immediately begin her journaling, but at least I’d have a chance to finally open the box.
I ignored the still-chuckling onlookers and made my way to the Elder’s wing. The air beneath the white archways was cooler than the blazing heat of the courtyard. I only gave brief nods to those who greeted me.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I finally arrived at my chambers. Bolting the thick wooden door, I took just a moment to enjoy the silence before I threw off my tan Master’s robes and reached into my satchel.
Clad only in my linen tunic and breeches, I sat upon my sturdy bed, surrounded by scrolls and bound books. In the gentle glow of the whiteflames set in the walls, I stared at the box.
The typed text still gave me pause. It was strange to feel no soul imprint over text. Despite my assurances to Pauline, I didn’t trust such things. I was sure not to tear the label as I unwrapped the mystery.
Within lay a thin sheet of parchment, though it was bleached and too smooth. It reminded me of the print itself, without soul, too perfect. When I turned it over, I almost threw it into one of the whiteflames.
It was something I hadn’t expected, something I’d never seen.
A letter. A typewritten letter.
I considered myself open-minded. I believed Scribes must be open to new ideas of stories and characters. There must always be innovation and change, or the Dreamscape will stagnate. The Dreamscape must be replenished and renewed. Pauline had heard dozens of lectures on the subject by me alone.
Granted, not all of my fellow Scribes feel this way. There were many in the Enclave who felt this new typing style was something dangerous and unnatural. There were even some who believed strong action had to be taken against it.
Despite my “progressive notions,” I wasn’t prepared for something like this. The panicked warnings of Pauline snuck into my mind unbidden, warning that someone who read a typed story would have their soul sucked out of them. It was a childish notion, but so was being afraid of the dark. I admit that on occasion, I was still afraid of the dark.
Then again, I knew what lurked in the dark.
I pushed away the silly preconceptions and forced myself to take the piece of paper out of the box and lift it to the light. In an effort to make it seem less threatening, I read it aloud to myself, to give some personality to the cold dead words.
“Master Scribe Ak,” I read. “I thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I understand you likely consider this somewhat unnerving, but I find myself in a position that requires an individual with your skills and this is my only means to communicate at present.”
Only means to communicate? I wondered.
“I am intimately familiar with your work, both young and old. I have a unique commission for you, one that will challenge you greatly. And I suspect you will have to draw on much to grant me this request. I am prepared to pay a substantial sum for your services in this matter.”
When I read the next words aloud, I could scarcely believe it. “Forty thousand lord-sovereigns, fifty times your current Epic rate.”
“I find myself with no one else to turn to, Master Scribe. I beg you to meet me tonight after the tenth bell at Jasper Street bridge. Until we meet, I would also ask you speak of this to no one. Sincerely, the Reader.”
I stared at the page. Forty thousand lord-sovereigns. Easily twenty years wages for any Master Scribe. I knew no one who could afford such a price. Only emperors and kings commissioned Epics, which were designed to be years of stories compressed in time. Epics were written by a dozen Scribes working together, never by a single Scribe. And this…for someone to offer fifty times my Epic rate? It was impossible. It was unheard of.
To be fair, I didn’t know if I was the only one who received such a letter. Perhaps there was something else going on. Even something sinister. A clandestine meeting near the technic district after the shops were closed was odd. I usually met clients in their homes, as it allowed me to gather the knowledge I needed. But out on the bridge?
Perhaps it was story gone wrong.
I long ago learned stories often have a will of their own, Readers might get something other than what they wanted out of a tale. And those around the readers might find themselves affected in unexpected ways.
But this was a rather bizarre way to lure me out. And an ambush near the technic district made no sense. It would be far easier in the harbor district.
I drummed my fingers along the empty box. Though the text and paper were soulless, crafted by machine rather than man, the language implied this was likely not anything nefarious. The individual who wrote this meant me no harm. Probably.
I believed myself more than capable of handling any disgruntled former customers. However, It would not hurt to be properly prepared.
I made sure to place Pauline’s gift on the credenza. Then I began to gather my equipment.