(Link to Introduction)
“One by one, the enemies of mankind fell before the Ancients. Hunger, disease, war, suffering, all were defeated.
Finally only one enemy remained. The Ancients, flush with victory, bent all their energies to defeating the great enemy: death.
They labored for many generations. Finally their greatest physicians emerged with an elixir, the Elixir of Life. Taken in, it would banish death forever from the bodies of the ancients. It flowed unending from the fountain in the Great City, and a drop left overnight filled a bowl by morning.
The Ancients drank from the river of life, and crowned themselves victors over death.
And death at last saw their plan, and he laughed.”
–The Lexicon, Leviathans 3:3
Dalia was missing, and Alex didn’t know why.
It was early morning. The narrow, dusty exercise ground within the walls of Goodhollow’s small chapter house was filled with young men and women in Curate uniforms. Two dozen Charges—orphaned boys and girls younger than 11—were the back of the formation, behind a slightly smaller number of Acolytes. In front of them (in a row to themselves) were the chapter’s two full Knights, while Headmaster Barrius faced the entire group from a small raised platform at the foot of the keep. The flames in the ceremonial chalice in front of him outshone the pale gray and pink glow in the East.
And Dalia’s spot next to Alex remained stubbornly empty.
It was cold. Alex could feel the early autumn chill even through her wool hose and linen tunic. The past week had been the first truly cool week of fall, and soon the chapter quartermaster would be sizing and distributing winter gear. The heavy coats had been mended and re-sized so many times that it was hard to tell where the original fabric ended and the patches began, but they were warm. It was better gear than what most of the townspeople had.
Then again, thought Alex, the townspeople didn’t have to do the Morning Routine before daybreak in the middle of January.
The Charges, Acolytes, and Knights moved through the positions of the Morning Routine in unison as they did every morning of the year. It was the second thing that any new Charge learned and while the Routine had been complicated at first, the positions now felt as natural to her as breathing. It was the foundation of day-to-day life in the chapter house.
But even before the Morning Routine, Curate charges learned about the Cure. Itwas so omnipresent in her life that it was easy to forget that she’d had to learn it at all. If Alex thought back far enough (she didn’t do this often), she could remember a time before she knew about the Cure.
It had been her very first day at the chapter house in Goodhollow. Alex was 4; the two boys were 5. They were the last ones left on the “orphan wagon,” headed north with a party of Curate knights from the stinking slums of some Southern city. The others had all been let off the wagon in threes and fours at the larger houses; Goodhollow was the last stop.
A hot meal waited for them on the end of a long trestle table; Alex remembered that much. It had been saved from the leftovers of the chapter house’s supper and almost everyone else was asleep. The children were exhausted and starving, but they could not eat until they memorized the words repeated by a stern knight in front of them.
“There is but one cure.”
Alex was the last to memorize the phrase and repeat it back to the knight. She was smaller, younger, and not as hungry as the two boys. The words were strange to her, and she wanted to know what they meant before she said them. She had a sense even then that once she did, things would change, and Alex was old enough to know that changes were to be feared. Eventually potatoes and beef broth won her over. The next morning, she learned the Morning Routine.
“There is but one cure.”
Headmaster Barrius said the same words from behind the chalice now as the students moved through the Morning Routine. She knew now that these words were from the Lexicon, and that there was a large ornate copy of the Lexicon up in the Headmaster’s office (a gift from the Grand Master). It was still up in his study now, closed and dark, the words of the Morning Routine long since memorized by Headmaster Barrius, the Knights, and the Acolytes.
“One!” commanded Barrius.
Alex settled into the first position in unison with the others—one foot slightly forward, weight balanced, arms ready. The Morning Routine was as old as the Lexicon itself; the Founder had taught it to his first knights hundreds of years ago before the battles to retake Antioch and the Isla Sancta. The positions, movements, and forms of the routine laid the foundation for the Curate’s fighting style, but Alex was old enough now to wonder how much deeper it went than that.
“The constant repetition, the readings from the Lexicon, the ritual lighting of the chalice . . . when you look at it, the Morning Routine is really the foundation of a value system, and maybe a religion depending on how you look at it,” said Dalia once over dinner. “They’re doing a lot more than training our bodies.” Alex wasn’t sure how she felt about this, but Dalia always thought harder about these things than she did..
And Dalia was missing this morning. Roused by the keep’s bell, Alex had rolled over to see that Dalia’s bunk was empty. Assuming that her friend had woken early, Alex dressed quickly along with the others and formed up in the usual square on the practice ground. There were four rows of five acolytes each, and Alex and Dalia occupied two spots in the second row. But Dalia never appeared.
Barrius’s command took her by surprise, and Alex wobbled a little as she rotated too far in her backward, open-palmed strike. She blinked once to regain her focus, cursing herself inwardly for being careless, but the question of Dalia’s absence kept rattling around in her head.
Finally, after half an hour of work, the Routine was finished. Alex and the other students lay curled up on the ground, legs tucked underneath and arms stretched out on the dirt in front of them, palms down. Sweat was just beginning to bead up in the hollows of her armpits and down her spine; the sun was about to break the treeline. They waited for the headmaster’s dismissal.
“There is but one cure!” said Barrius, his voice rising for emphasis. His baritone dominated the small court.
“The flame!” they repeated in unison this time.
“The flame,” he repeated, satisfied and nodding. He surveyed the massed students for a second, then took a copper bowl and lowered it over the chalice, snuffing the flame and ending the ceremony. “Enjoy your breakfast,” he said, and the ritual was over.
The students rose and moved the hall where breakfast waited for them. The three oldest acolytes diverted to the steps of the keep with a canvas-wrapped bundle between them; a minute later a plain white flag with a single blood-red flame rising through the center of it flew from Goodhollow’s chapter house. Another day had begun.
The hall was the only enclosed space in Goodhollow’s chapter house large enough for everyone to gather at once. Two long tables filled most of the room for the Charges and the Acolytes to eat. A third, set crosswise the other two and raised on a small platform, was for headmaster Barrius and the two knights. Curate tradition dictated that a fourth table be provided for guests and others, but given limited space, they made do with a pair of extra spots laid at the head table instead. Usually these were for old Joseph, the apothecary and unofficial chapter house doctor (and Alex’s longtime friend), and for messengers on their way North to the frontier.
Dalia’s usual seat next to Alex stayed empty. Alex ate in silence, worrying, while the other acolytes roughhoused and joked among themselves. There was no trivial reason why any acolyte would miss the Morning Routine, and yet no one from the head table had commented on it. Did they already know? Were she and Dalia on the verge of getting in trouble? Alex didn’t think that anyone had followed them the day before, but she couldn’t be sure.
She tried to distract herself by watching the rest of the room. Dalia’s seat wasn’t the only empty one; Joseph was missing, too—although that was less unusual. His place hadn’t been set. Meanwhile, on the other side of Barrius and the knights was a man Alex didn’t recognize. He was gaunt and rangy, with sunken eyes and badly-trimmed beard. His boots were coated with mud from the road and he ate like a starving wolf, ripping apart his food with his hands. The knights were pretending that he wasn’t there, although Barrius was carrying on a halting conversation with the man in low tones. The man replied between stuffing crusts of torn bread into his cheeks.
Alex wondered who he could be. She didn’t like the looks of the shabby stranger..
As light began to filter in through the long, narrow windows near the ceiling, Joseph appeared in the opposite doorway. Alex waved; Joseph nodded at her but didn’t return the wave as he usually did. The feelings of unease in her stomach tightened into a hard knot of dread—the old apothecary looked worried and even more sleepworn than usual. He tottered up the center aisle to his seat at the head table next to Sir Roundtree.
Food forgotten and appetite quashed, Alex watched them. A quick handful of words between the two and suddenly Joseph had Sir Roundtree’s full attention; the knight in turn called Headmaster Barrius. The headmaster temporarily abandoned his conversation with the ragged stranger to join them. After a few sentences they agreed on something; Sir Roundtree started to rise.
He caught her looking at them.
Alex tried to glance away, embarrassed, but it was too late. Sir Roundtree was already motioning to her to the head table. She abandoned her breakfast and approached the table, bowing first toward Barrius before stepping up onto the platform. He nodded, acknowledging her, returned to his conversation with the stranger. Sir Roundtree called her closer.
“Joseph needs your services today, Acolyte.” Both men were looking at her. “He has an errand for you to run.”
“Yes, sir, but what about our work for today? And my watch shift?”
“The Headmaster has approved your absence today.” He looked at Joseph. “You’ll have her back by tomorrow?”
“Yes,” said Joseph, “it won’t take more than a day.”
“All right.” The knight turned back to Alex. “Finish your breakfast, Acolyte, and then go with Joseph. We’ll leave your name with the gate watch.”
“Sir Roundtree,” asked Alex, unable to restrain herself, “do you know where Acolyte Dalia is?”
He ignored her question. “Finish your breakfast, and go with Joseph. You’re expected back by tomorrow. Is that clear, Acolyte?”
She bowed. “Yes, Sir Roundtree.”
“Good. Now go.”
(continue: part 2)