There were no mirrors or reflected metal permitted in the cave construct, yet Shyuul had long ago distinguished the differences between himself and the other residents. His hands seemed larger and longer but when he said so to his manservant, Amda said, "And my hands are thicker and my fingers shorter than Tylik's." Shyuul relented that was true, and so he posed his next observation to the head cook. The plump matron with her dusty apron but clean hands laughed when Shyuul said his skin was a lighter tone than hers. "Aye, and my son's is so dark as to be black. What of it?"
For a while this discouraged the boy from making any other comparisons. Shyuul had been raised in a world of black and white and gray, deep in underground caverns that the sun never blessed, and so had no concept of color. If he had, then he would have known for certain that he was not the same as the servants, maids, guards, and maesters that oversaw his upbringing. He was given no books, for books would have revealed as much to the boy as color would have.
"His questions come one after another," Amda had whispered to a hooded man that visited the solar one evening, when the manservant believed his charge abed. Shyuul had risen with a thirst, but halted outside the wooden door of his quarters when he heard the voices. "We cannot stave his curiosity for long. The lad is naive, but he is bright."
"His Lordship has not deemed the boy ready," the concealed visitor intoned in a bold, brass voice that left no room for argument. Although he was seated, the stranger was near as tall as Amda was standing. "Placate him, distract him, beat him for his insolence if you must to cur his curiosity, but by no means let him know the truth."
The truth of what? Shyuul had wondered, but his fear of being hit weaned his interest. So instead the boy spoke no more of height or large lands or long arms, and bent his mind to his studies. In the mornings he was tutored in etiquette over breakfast, then it was up the curving staircase to the topmost floor to learn the histories of the Gientunn with Maester Jaukiek. Shyuul really only had a vague idea of what the Gientunn were, and wondered at all why they needed a name.
"The Gientunn are us, and you, and our people," Maester Jaukiek explained. When he spoke his bulbous mouth hung wide and his jaw jerked wildly from side to side. Shyuul feared that one day the man's mouth would simply snap off.
After that there was words and runes, the instruction of religion and the keen difference between teachings and tales. Shyuul was fascinated by the stories the priest told him, both true and mythical. He enjoyed that hour far more than the four he spent every day in the lowermost floor, practicing with swords and hammers and axes with his master trainer Guyard. All other studies were much less enjoyable after Shyuul had received a sound thrashing. "Wouldn't it be better if I fought someone my own size?" the boy asked once when he was older, having been instructed how to handle larger opponents.
The only answer Shyuul had received was a smack to his shoulder with a wooden sword. By then Shyuul should have grown wise enough to know that questions were dangerous. Yet now and again he would persist, and when he did, be given a harsh reminder. Besides when Guyard struck him in combat though, none of his other overseers laid a hand on him. Had the boy lived amongst the Gientunn in their caverns and cities, seen the aftermath of their raiding, he would have been less sullen and more thankful.
Down in the depths of the Doyen Mountains, Shyuul had no real sense of time. The passing of time was measured by Inktrek-burning lanterns. He knew the words day and night and year, but none of that mattered down in the caverns. There was only sleep, study, and food. Shyuul had no judgment of how old he was, or at what age the Gientunn finished their training and joined their brethren out in the open air. He thought though that the robed stranger would be the one to decide that for Shyuul; not Amda or Guyard or Tylik.
On the day that the youth met the robed stranger face-to-face was also one of the rare occasions when Maester Tylik set his pupil to task instead of lecture. Most often Shyuul sat and listened attentively as Tylik demonstrated and informed on the properties of the Inktrek Arts, its various forms and uses. But the day the stranger came, Tylik had settled Shyuul on a stool to peruse a scroll on his own while the Maester set out his instruments.
He had been reading for about fifteen minutes when Shyuul noticed something odd in the scroll he had been given to memorize. The only documents he was ever permitted were those written by his overseers. Having learned to thoroughly think about his questions before asking them, Shyuul squinted down at the man's untidy scrawl as the words scratched at his brain.
"The intrinsic essence of all things, the Inktrek can reveal layers of Trueness, depending on the source of provided light. Because the sun's ruddy light is natural, it produces stronger results on that spectrum. Once it was thought to be the most compatible source with Inktrek, but ancient historical documents state that the sun has changed since the world's making."
"What's this word?" Shyuul asked, stabbing at the scroll. Words and runes frustrated him, and it took him much longer to read a scroll than to have someone just speak the words. Often Shyuul had to reread a sentence several times and still he would not be able to repeat it back word for word.
The Maester looked up from his table, where he had carefully arrayed a variety of tubes, microscopes, tools small and large, glass pieces, metals made of different thicknesses and sources, and vials of harnessed Inktrek. Tylik frowned and walked over to read the word Shyuul's finger underlined. The elderly Gientunn's silence was unnerving, but the angry look that came over his splotchy face was absolutely terrifying.
The Maester snatched up the scroll as he might a dangerous snake and threw it in the hearth fire without explanation. Instead, he beckoned Shyuul to drag his stool to the other side of the table. The boy settled himself wearily, having never seen his instructor quite so vexed. Shyuul sensed Tylik's anger was turned inwards rather than at him though.
"Recite the properties of Inktrek," he commanded.
Shyuul suppressed a heavy sigh. Every time the Maester had him work with Inktrek, Tylik started the lesson this way. "It is most important you do not forget the basics or you're more like to make a mistake," the elderly sorcerer would warn. "Inktrek may be the base of all things, but it is by no means a basic thing."
With the tone of a bored priest reciting prayers at Union, Shyuul said, "Inktrek is the essence and spirit that which the gods gave all living things, so that they may learn and grow and die. It binds us to the Omni-Ones and when harnessed in physical form, Inktrek can be given a man the gods' power."
Tylik gave him a long, knowing look and Shyuul knew that he had said something wrong. Rather than correct him, the Maester let his pupil reflect on his own words and find the error himself. "No, not the gods' power," Shyuul relented after a long pause. "The power that which the gods have granted mortals." When Tylik nodded, Shyuul persisted more carefully. "Harnessed Inktrek resonates with a person's spirit, allowing them to attune themselves to their natural capabilities."
"And what if a person has none? What are mortals capable of?" Tylik interrupted.
Shyuul shook his head, realizing he had misspoken again. "No, not capabilities. Their natural...natural..." He cut off, biting his lower lip.
"Natural Endowments," the elderly man finished after a minute. He swept back the sleeves of his spotted pelt robe as he explained, "Mortals can achieve greater heights with the aid of Inktrek. However, this does not mean that are capable of it. Or that they should. Most in fact, simply cannot due to mental barriers built from fear or distrust, and those that can, not always should. Inktrek used for Trueseeing poses no real threat, but use on one's person - in mutation - to unlock or use these Endowments, is very dangerous indeed. What are the side effects of misused Inktrek?"
"Depends on what it's being used for," Shyuul replied smartly with an insolent grin.
Tylik gave him a thin smile in turn from the deep crevices of his mottled, gray skin. Shyuul had always thought the black splotch on the Maester's neck resembled a featherless chicken. When he was younger, Shyuul had nicknamed his tutor Chicken-neck; for the mark there and for the sagging skin about his jowls. Tylik had not been amused.
"Come show me," the Maester bid now, the skin around his jaw flapping. Eagerly Shyuul rounded the table and joined his mentor. "Begin with the Trueseeing of an object."
Shyuul's eyes roved over the tray of materials before settling on a hunk of stone. He held it up, saying, "This is zircon. It comes from one of the Twin Peaks in the heart of Mevrule." He chose an appropriately sized tube capped with an outward curving glass top. The type of glass, its shape, and density determined what aspect of the object the person was seeing. In this case, Shyuul was using an outward-curving glass piece so the Inktrek would show him what the outermost layer of the stone was comprised of.
When Shyuul explained his choice to the Maester, the man nodded approvingly. Arms folded behind his back, Tylik hovered over his pupil's shoulder as he worked. Shyuul inspected the vials and found that this time none of them were labeled. The thicker and more pure the Inktrek, the more detailed the results. "Sometimes you don't want to delve so deeply or so detailed," Shyuul muttered, quoting the Maester. "Else your focus will be taken away from what you need to see."
Choosing a vial, Shyuul held it up against the lamp's light. Seeing that the light shone mutely through the substance, Shyuul set it aside carefully. A lever on the side of the tube flipped out a glass divider halfway down its length. He dropped the chunk of zircon in, then flipped the glass divider back into place. After yanking out the vial's stopper, Shyuul carefully counted five drops of Inkrek into the tube. The substance spread thinly over the glass' surface and the zircon became just a silhouette beneath it before Shyuul attached the vial to the bottom of a microscope.
"Describe what you see and what it means," Tylik instructed.
Shyuul only needed a quick glance to verify that he had chosen his materials correctly. "The Inktrek reveals that the zircon's outer surface is actually comprised of a mix of rare copper and steel. With a diamond-hard core, it makes it a valuable building material. When crushed, it can be heated and melted into a new blade to reinforce it, as well as give it a decorative sparkle."
Bowing his head respectfully, Tylik smiled. "Very good Shyuul. Tell me why this is dangerous."
Shyuul considered the question carefully. Using Inkrek for the Trueseeing of an item posed no physical threat to the person. Digested Inktrek could make a person sick, turning their insides black and causing a numbness in the hands and feet. He didn't see a reason to mention any of this though, since that was not what Tylik had asked.
"The danger is the person," Shyuul concluded boldly. The answer had come to him like a smack to the head; sudden and hard but clear. "If the person judges the Inktrek improperly, or it becomes contaminated, then that will change the material's properties. And if they aren't able to judge the type of item they're attempting to Truesee, they'll be prone to guess instead of calculate."
"So the danger is the mortal mind," Tylik summed up, nodding approvingly. "Quite true. This is the danger whenever using Inktrek, but this is more commonly a problem with Trueseeing. It is a difficult study for mos,t that requires years of dedicated instruction, and most people do not have the patience for it."
Smirking proudly, Shyuul set about to cleaning up the items and replacing them. They deferred for a lunch of three-meat stew and leftover bread from that morning. Amda sat and joined them, pouring each a cup of thin ale. As he sat spooning the soggy meat and carrots into his mouth, Shyuul studied his manservant. Amda and Tylik were lost in a debate over the tales about a gigantic wolf that may have been the Avatar Venriden.
Only a handful of the household were permitted outside the caverns, through a hidden door that Shyuul had never seen nor found. Days or even weeks later the band would return with food, supplies, and wondrous tales of the outside world. Shyuul anticipated their return with great excitement, eager for new tidings. This particular tale of a giant wolf resonated with an old legend, and Shyuul nor Tylik had ever seemed able to decide whether the creature had ever existed at all.
The two men still hadn't reached a decision when Amda bid them farewell, taking platters and bowls with him but leaving the ale. Shyuul was standing beside the table, already choosing the materials for his next example when Tylik closed the door. He came over to examine the objects heaped in Shyuul's arms. He had picked up a chisel, tweezers, and mortar and pestle to crush up one half of a chunk of copper. Shyuul's plan had been to amaze the Maester by explaining how crushing the metal into a powder would change its properties.
The door creaked open again as Shyuul was finishing his demonstration. "Quite impressive indeed," a deep voice resonated in the small chamber. It was the type of voice to make even a porcupine bristle, to command men and gods alike. It had driven many a soldier from a field when it bellowed war. And Shyuul recognized it.
The stranger was robed as he had been the first time the boy had seen him. His garments were simple, but his stature and bearing made him an impressive figure. This is a man to command kings, Shyuul thought, and then, Or perhaps he is a king. And that's how Shyuul thought of him after.
Tylik's normal composure had fallen under the weight of shock and the elderly Maester folded against the stone table. Shyuul thought that if it had been made of wood, Tylik would have capsized and not even attempted to catch it.
"M-M'lord!" the Maester gasped, bending low at the waist. He pinched Shyuul's arm between fat fingers, indicating he should do the same. "I-I had not thought...not been told-"
The King raised his hand for silence. "I came unexpectedly and apparently at the right time at that. Sometimes a man seeks discretion. Sometimes a man seeks friends and not rivals." Shyuul sensed the grin in the stranger's voice as he added, "And sometimes a man is just bloody sick of all the boot-licking and scraping."
Tylik blushed but Shyuul laughed. Suddenly this disguised figure was less threatening than before and he thought he caught a glimpse of white teeth beneath the hood.
"Sh-Should I send for Amda, M'lord?"
"Why, when the ale is here and that trick-turning monkey isn't?" This time Shyuul muffled his mirth under the Maester's cool stare.
"What then do we owe this pleasure? Shyuul, give the lord your seat and pour him a cup if you would. Did you leave your manners when you left the table this morning?" The boy gave him a sullen look, disliking the sharpness in his teacher's voice. He sensed the unease stirring in Tylik, but didn't recognize it for what it was; fear.
The visitor accepted the drink but waved away the stool. "It would just break and this lad would have to learn to sleep standing while listening to you my friend. Tell me boy, how long have you been learning the Arts?"
Shyuul considered the question carefully. None of his tutors and trainers kept a physical account of the days it seemed to him. Yet still punctual, he noted grimly. "The Maester lets me practice with the Inktrek once a fortnight," Shyuul replied after some thought. He was better with numbers than words. Mathematics was an essential element when dealing with the Arts. A slight miscalculation in Inktrek levels or the weight and density of an object, would produce unsatisfactory results. "So that would be...almost a eleven hundred days I think." The boy shrugged, adding, "I was studying for much longer before he even let me touch a vial, but I have no idea for how long that was." An eternity it seemed, Shyuul thought, remembering the impatient child that would always insist the Maester do a trick for him if his work was satisfactory. When he was older Shyuul had learned those same simple tricks and the wonder of them faded.
The robed man turned to the Maester. "About three years then, and he's still working with zircon and copper?" There was a hint of dissatisfaction in his voice.
Tylik licked his lips, tugging the sleeves of his robe down around his wrists nervously. He didn't look at the King as he fumbled through an explanation. "Shyuul is a bright lad, M'lord, but I have always found it prudent to return to the basics now and again; less a boy - or a man - forget their importance."
Taking a long sip from his tankard, the King considered the Maester's words. This is not a man to be rushed, Shyuul observed, thinking that Maester Tylik and the King had much in common. "Show me more," their visitor said, the levity gone.
So Shyuul showed the lord or the king or whatever he was, how the Inktrek lanterns worked. How the lit candle in the center had been coated with Inktrek, explaining that the wax never melted. The lantern was octagonal and each panel slid aside to change the strength and vibrancy of the light, depending on the type and thickness of the glass on each side. "Explain why the candle doesn't burn down," the Maester instructed. "Show him."
Shyuul retrieved a spare lantern and candle from a cabinet. From the stack of vials, he chose a thick, oily Inktrek that little light shown through. Bringing his items to the table, Shyuul carefully coated the bottom of the lantern and sides of the candle with the Inktrek. "It's best not to let the essence touch your skin because it's terribly hard to remove," he explained as he worked. "Its residue can effect other objects you touch and change the object's appearance or interaction when creating a sympathy link." Once he had filled the lantern with Inktrek to the candle's rim, Shyuul walked over to the hearth fire. Picking up a stick, he lit the end and used it to light the candle's wick. "The same source of the Inktrek coating the candle lines the hearth," he explained. Although confident in his capabilities, he was less certain in his aptitude to explain the process. "The candle's flame comes from the fire as well. As long as the hearth fire burns, so will the candle in the lantern. It's called sympathy; a connection between two similar objects."
Tossing rag and stick into a waste basket, Shyuul opened one of the panels and the room brightened intensely, making the three men's shadows dance against the walls. Tylik rested a hand on his pupil's shoulder, smiling proudly. "I made the lad figure this out himself. He had to put together the techniques, measure the amount of Inktrek needed, choose the right density and shape and type of glass to gain the different results, and calculate how diluted or pure the Inktrek had to be for the element of pure fire." Shyuul ducked his head, feeling the warmth creep into his cheeks. The most praise Shyuul had ever gotten from the Maester was a nod, an occasional smile, and a simple, "Good, do it again."
Throughout the demonstration the stranger studiously watched Shyuul. The man's intent gaze burned through his body like a fever. Let it run its course. Don't look at him directly. So Shyuul adopted a trick he had learned when facing punishment or rebuke from his teachers. He fixed his gaze upon the lord, but let his vision grow hazy and unfocused.
"You've quite sufficiently shown me you can repeat what you're told. If I was so easily impressed by a talking bird though, I would be sorely suited to my position. Tell me, do you like treats?"
Seeing the flush in his charge's cheeks deepen to fury, Tylik gave Shyuul's shoulder a cautionary squeeze. "The boy tells you this in his own words, not mine. It was he who chose and measured the amount of Inktrek for the sympathy, not I."
"Oh yes, he's quite clever," the man agreed, nodding. "But the same was said of the God-King and we know what that earned him. The man's cleverness brought the mobs to his doors, and when they didn't leave, he used the Inktrek Arts to open a path. He knew how much Inktrek he needed to create a sympathy link to burn them too. Enough of this. Show me something to astound me."
"Like what?" Shyuul asked sullenly and receiving a cuff for it. "That is, what would M'lord like to see?"
Now the robed individual turned to Tylik. "He knows of Shadowbending I take it?
"Yes," the Maester relented reluctantly. "But it is not one of his strongest Endowments to be sure. He struggles with the simplest of tasks."
"Let's try something new then," the King said, throwing back the hem of his robe. He wore loose-fitting breeches as plain as his cloak and raggedy at the knees, and sturdy boots patched at heel and toe. Shyuul caught a glimpse of a puckered scar on his chest as the man rifled in the pouches sewn into the lining of his cloak.
Maester and pupil exchanged uneasy glances. There was a tightness around Tylik's eyes that concerned Shyuul, but he sensed that questions would not serve here. He had learned that lesson. He's not trembling anymore, Shyuul noted. He almost seems...resigned.
"Get a needle and light a lamp if you would Ty." The Maester jerked as if struck, but he did as he was bid. He set a glass bowl over the gas flame as well. "Shyuul, take the needle and prick the good Maester's finger please."
A tightness grew in Shyuul's chest as he looked from the proffered needle up into the craggly face of his tutor. The smile was gone, as was the pride and the nervousness. The elderly man with the chicken neck kept his composure, but there was a furtiveness in his squinty eyes. Kind eyes in an honest face. Rather than take the needle, Shyuul stepped away. "What for?"
The visitor had found what he sought; a single, slim vial of Inktrek so dark that it swallowed all the light around it. The lord's robe faded into the darkness until he became just the barest outline of a person. No, a king. Or a god. "Are you always so insolent with your teachers?" he snapped, and suddenly Shyuul remembered that first time he had seen the man. "Placate him, distract him, beat him for his insolence if you must to cur his curiosity, but by no means let him know the truth." The words rang in his ears like someone had rang a gong inside his skull.
"Must it be now?" the Maester croaked. "I do not think he is ready. He is still young, still learning. His training is coming along well, yes, faster than I anticipated, but there is still so much left-"
"There is no time," the lord hissed, and his jaw jutted forward. A serpent had come to them in place of a man, and chosen the Maester as the mouse it would crush and swallow. "You agreed to this; you knew the day would come. It is so easy to accept a loan when you think payment a far-off thing. Five or ten years, or a century from now. You think age or disease may claim you first, that another path may be lit and your debt forgiven. That is the faulty thinking of Humans or Gnomte. Not Gientunn."
The harsh words swam in Shyuul's head, and he barely understood one word in five. Humans? Gnomte? Who were these people? And of what debt did the Maester owe? And what for? Shyuul wondered. He felt ill and dizzy; it was the same heady feeling the night he had drunk too much ale and the hallways had slithered beneath his feet like spilt Intrek.
There was a crackling in the air, the occasional spark. The lord's fist opened and closed at his waist, the other thrusting out the vial for Tylik to take. Say no, Shyuul urged silently, gripping the stone table for support. Call for help. Do something!
Something poked a hole though in the Maester's defiance and his shoulders slumped. "Very well. But let it be done with quickly." He reached out with a hand that was surprisingly calm and took the vial. When he did, the electricity in the air dissipated. Turning to his pupil, he offered up the needle. "Shyuul, do as he says." When the boy just stood there, the Maester gave him a sad, gentle smile. "It's okay. Trust me." Shyuul did as bid and quickly let the needle clatter to the floor after. "Now pour in the Inktrek." He did that too, just as quickly, and let the vial smash on the floor beside the needle.
Pushing his thumb against his forefinger the Maester dropped three beads of blood into the heated bowl. Each hissed as venomously as a kicked dog, and Tylik looked like an animal scorned.
"Good, the hard part is done now." The lord walked over and dropped something small and dark into the glass, before handing something else to the Maester. Tylik scoffed it without hesitation. "There is one last thing to do." He reached over to the tray of tools and plucked a second needle from a neat row. "Do the same Shyuul."
"I thought Bloodbending was considered a dark sorcery," Shyuul challenged. "That it was profane and condemned by the gods."
"If it were so vile, why would the gods gift it to mortals?" The boy had no answer for that, and did as he was commanded. Had he not lived his entire life subservient to others, Shyuul may have resisted harder. He may have taken the concoction and slammed it on the floor beside the needle and empty vial. I could have called the guards, Shyuul would think later. Or stabbed the lord with a fire poker, or...or...or died instead. He had no doubt that he would have had he attacked the King.
Trained to be obedient, Shyuul dropped his blood into the mix and watched it steam and darken. He thought he caught glimpses of strange faces and shapes in the steam, but they were gone in an eye blink. Without a word or a glance at either men, with no more regard for their secrets and their debts than the empty condolences they offered, Shyuul walked away. He shied from Tylik's touch and and would later regret it. When he as older, Shyuul would think that maybe Tylik sought comfort even as he offered it.
When Shyuul slunk back to the Maester's quarters three days later, it was Junkiek waiting for him instead. "Maester Tylik has taken to his bed with sickness," the historian explained. "Don't look sad now, he'll be well again soon. Just you wait."
Four days after that, six Gientunn carried a litter bearing the Maester's pale, emaciated corpse to the surface. Shyuul saw the secretive stone door, and a glimpse of the sky beyond. Ruddy, Shyuul thought as he stared in wonder at a world that wasn't gray or white or black. The sun is ruddy.