Has it really been as long as all this!? I apologise, dear readers, for leaving you for such a long time. It’s been a whirlwind. I’ve missed you! Have you missed me?
Well, for your delectation, today, I have a quick extract of writing, and a book review. But which should come first? Well, my lovely ones, read on for a peek into what I’ve been doing all this time!
However, she knew there would be one last task she needed to complete before leaving Aquene. She donned her cloak again, this time leaving by the front door. She noted a castleguard lingering on the corner of the street, but she ignored him, and strode on by, not looking up as she passed the gates to the King’s Court, past the statue of the King of the First Dynasty and down the King’s Road. King’s Road was the direct path between The Towers and the King’s Court, and was lined with the wealthiest of the shops and taverns. The pennants of high-powered Houses and Guilds hung from windows that glittered in the sunshine.
Sanoh smiled and greeted faces she recognised, careful to seem as normal as she could manage, but not enough to stop and talk. She knew the castleguard would be following her. But her business wasn’t on King’s Road. It was on one of the lesser streets – past the square courtyard of eateries, and beyond the alley of jewellers. It was in the healing area of Aquene that Sanoh needed. There was an apothecary, a respectable member of the Guild, that the House of Ember had been using for years for all remedies – common and uncommon.
She entered the cool dark of the shop and smiled at the woman behind the table there.
“How good to see you Fronia, and looking so well.”
“Duchess, what a pleasant surprise,” the woman stood and curtseyed.
She was a Yenni – skin a pale blue with curlicues of dark-blue across it. She had bright, almond-shaped blue eyes and dark hair tied back in Vaxen fashion. Sanoh knew Fronia from when she was a child – she was the apothecary’s apprentice, and now his third wife.
“Illaris is upstairs,” Fronia added. “I will call him.” She darted through a doorway at the back, and Sanoh looked at the contents of the glass jars that lined the walls. Every apothecary looked the same, ultimately. Dark wood, with poorly-lit candelabrum, and shelves upon shelves of equipment and ingredients. Sanoh didn’t even pretend to know what half of it was for, but the table at the back was scored and marked from many years of putting the contents of the jars to good use.
Sanoh trusted Illaris above any other apothecary – not just for his skill but for his discretion. And it was his discretion that she needed most then. When Illaris appeared, Sanoh gave him her widest, happiest smile. The tall Escenian returned it in kind. Illaris was of the Nomi tribe, with pale blonde hair and grey eyes, his tall golden skin seeming to glow even in the gloom. Illaris was older than Sanoh could imagine – she remembered him from when she was a small child and he had never seemed to age.
“Illaris!” she cried with genuine warmth.
“Duchess! What an unexpected honour,” Illaris replied, bowing to her with the correct amount of respect. “What can I do for you today?”
Sanoh pulled a bag of coins from a hidden pocket. “I’m afraid, my dear friend, that this will be the greatest favour you could do for me.”
Illaris paled. “So… so it’s true?”
“It’s true.” Sanoh pushed the purse across the desk, and it quickly disappeared into the folds of Illaris’ tunic. “Vionalar is come.”
Illaris beckoned her up the stairs at the back, and she followed hastily. The room above was bare and unremarkable. Another table, marked with the signatures of the trade, and two wooden chairs. Illaris waved her to sit in one, and sat across from her, steepling his fingers in front of him and observing her from across the table.
“So,” he said quietly. “Vionalar.”
“I have treated your family for five generations. I had hoped to treat your children in turn.”
“But, I feel, you will not return to Aquene.”
“Not for a long time,” Sanoh nodded.
“And I will be long gone.”
Sanoh opened her mouth to argue, but he waved her down impatiently.
“Please don’t argue, Sanoh,” he said in a tone that brooked no argument – one she remembered from childhood. “Tell me, what is it you need?”
“I need to pass unseen.”
“And… and I need a key.”
Illaris cleared his throat uncomfortably. “The first request is a simple thing… the other…”
“I know you have it… I have the coin –”
“Not all the keqam in the world is worth the key you ask for.” He shook his head. “I cannot give it to you.” He rubbed his face with his finger tips as if he were exhausted.
“I know what I ask,” Sanoh whispered. “But, Illaris, you must understand…”
“I understand, Sanoh. Do not take me for a half-hearted fool who supports a campaign until it gets too difficult. But, if I give you this key…”
Sanoh knew when to answer and when to stay silent when talking to Illaris. She had known him too long not to recognise when he was thinking.
“It is Vionalar, Illaris,” she eventually said, when she could no longer stand the silence. It came out in a hoarse plea, which surprised the noble blood in her – no one of the House of Ember should have to beg.
“It is Vionalar,” Illaris repeated, nodding. “If I give you this key, if, I said. Then I ask you one thing.” He pointed a finger at her.
Sanoh nodded hastily.
“Once you are done with it, I want you to be rid of it. This key has caused me nothing but pain since it came into my keeping. I would not wish its burden on you any longer than it needs to be… it is not the blessing you wish it were.”
He didn’t wait for her response – he knew she would promise him anything – and instead, walked into a back room, closing the door behind him to keep prying eyes away, and retrieved the key from the hidden cupboard where it had stayed for many years. When he returned, he held it with a strange, disgusted reverence, as if its touch astounded and repulsed him all at once.
Sanoh took it from him, and felt a cold tingling up her fingers, that all at once froze her blood and excited her. She gazed at it – an iron key, with one ornate loop at one end, and the unassuming teeth at the other.
“A Skeleton Key,” she murmured. “I have never seen one before…”
“And I hope you have no reason to again,” Illaris snapped. “Put it away, quickly. And I will bring you what else you need.”
Sanoh obeyed, as Illaris went downstairs and returned with several vials of different coloured liquids. Sanoh had always loved to watch Illaris at work – his alchemy was renowned in Aquene to be some of the finest. He proceeded to pour varying amounts of the liquids back and forth into one another, before stirring the concoction until it went a pale purple. He poured this into a new, empty vial, and stoppered it with cork.
“This will allow you to be unseen until you touch another living thing,” Illaris explained. “Until then, no one will even know you are there.”
Sanoh rose, casting more coins on the table amongst the glass bottles. “Thank you, Illaris,” she said. “I can never repay you for all you have done for me and my family over the years.”
Illaris put up his hands. “Repay me by coming back alive, Sanoh, and I will see it from the next world and be glad.”
“We will see each other again, before the Shroud takes you,” Sanoh insisted, but Illaris simply smiled and led her downstairs and out the shop.