EIGHT HUNDRED YEARS.
His rule had lasted for eight centuries, countless generations. Never could he have imagined such success, especially after such a difficult beginning. The others would have laughed at him if he had told them his plans, and now he had far exceeded even those audacious hopes.
Unlike many in previous ages and other lands, he had learned the true secret to holding on to power. Stay invisible, stay in the background, draw no attention to yourself, do nothing to give those over whom you rule cause to resent your power and want to take it from you. Following this principle had allowed him to claim the prize that so many others had sought and lost: absolute, unchallenged supremacy.
No matter how careful he was, though, all would be lost if his secret was ever discovered. He had done his best to erase all trace of who he had once been and what he had done to gain his position, but after all these years he no longer remembered if he had been thorough enough, if the right books had been destroyed and if the accounts he had given of himself were consistent with each other.
Still, after eight hundred years, how much of the truth could be left? Books decayed, questions were forgotten, and fact evolved into half-remembered legend and was replaced by the truth as taught by trusted authorities — who had, of course, been taught by him.
Most importantly, because his rule was so benign and because he drew no attention to himself, no one had any reason to question what was taught or to turn against the order he had established. He would remain safe, undiscovered, in power, alive.
Life, in short, was good.
PERARRE STOOD OUTSIDE the door to Professor Roric Rossony’s apartment, nervously straightening the sleeves of her black dress as she prepared herself to knock. Her fellow Assistants had been torn between envy and pity when she told them she was being given the chance to work as a translator for the eminent Professor Rossony. He was the most respected scholar of Balance Theory in the Vorunne Dominion, and working for him would be the opportunity of a lifetime for her. A good reference from Professor Rossony would open any door that could be opened to a woman, and maybe even some that would normally remain firmly closed.
On the other hand, the Professor was as famous for his picky, prudish, and generally difficult disposition as he was for his scholarship. Perarre had never taken any of his courses or seminars, had never done more than glimpse him from a distance, so she had no way to judge for herself whether the envy or the pity was more appropriate.
She would find out soon enough, she told herself. She took a deep breath and knocked. A low voice responded, “Enter.”
She opened the door and walked into the apartment. “Professor Rossony? I’m Perarre Tabrano. I’ve been sent to apply for the position of translator.”
The Professor was sitting at a big cherrywood desk in the back corner of the apartment’s large main room. The desk was angled to face the door as well as the rest of the room. Perarre paused, struck by the Professor’s appearance. His black hair and fair skin were an unusual combination in the Vorunne Dominion, and there was something faintly exotic about his dark eyes, strong nose, and broad sweep of cheekbones. Broad-shouldered and apparently in fit condition, no longer youthful but still untouched by middle age, he was a perfect example of a man in his prime. The overall effect was quite striking. At least the view would be nice as she worked, Perarre thought.
“I don’t recall telling the Assignment Office that a female would be acceptable for this position,” the Professor said.
So much for the pleasant view. Perarre stalked over to the desk and dropped her dossier onto it. “If you’ll review my qualifications, Professor, you’ll see that I have earned Superior rankings in Ancient, Middle, and Modern Languages and that I am also a Superior-ranked Reader.”
“I have no doubt that your qualifications are adequate, Miss Tabrano,” the Professor said, glancing at the paper. “But the research I plan to pursue will require long hours of working together, very likely well into the night. I have doubts as to whether the feminine disposition is equal to such demands, and in any case such extensive fraternization between Professors and female Assistants is highly inappropriate and disruptive.”
What a prig. No wonder he had such a bad reputation. “Professor Rossony, do you or do you not want an Assistant qualified in Early and High Middle Lazivanic languages and Reading? Because if you do, I’m the best there is. If you don’t, then I won’t waste any more of your time or mine.”
He picked up the paper she had dropped on his desk, frowned at it for a moment, and set it down with a sigh. “Very well, Miss Tabrano. I will consider you for the position, provided you understand two things. First, I expect you to keep our work in strictest confidence. Is that clear?”
A trace of an accent that she couldn’t identify teased Perarre’s ear, but there were more important things to think about right now. She set the puzzle aside for later. “Of course, Professor. If you’ll inquire of the other Professors I’ve worked for, they will tell you that I’ve always strictly observed confidentiality.” Not that Professor Rossony’s work was likely to make interesting gossip, anyway. While his work in Balance Theory was considered brilliant, essential to the continued improvement of the practice of magic, and even, on occasion, controversial, it was also likely to be extremely dry.
“Very good,” he said. “Now, as to the other matter. I expect of myself and of anyone who might work under my supervision that the utmost care be taken with every detail of dress, grooming, and deportment. Carelessness in one area of one’s life is inevitably reflected in all other areas. Therefore, Miss Tabrano, when you come in tomorrow morning, I will expect to see your hair neatly arranged, your collar bleached, starched, and mended, and your fingernails filed. Do I make myself clear?”
Perarre thought of her knot of thick auburn hair that never wanted to stay in its pins, her frayed and dingy white collar, and her ragged fingernails, which she had a habit of chewing when she was concentrating. In contrast, the Professor’s high white collar looked starched enough to withstand the Dominion Executioner’s axe, his face was shaved to smooth perfection despite the late hour of the day, and every hair on his head lay neatly in place with no apparent use of oils or balms. There wasn’t a speck of lint or a misplaced crease anywhere on his black cravat and suitcoat, and his fingernails looked like perfect polished seashells.
Perarre reminded herself that with a good reference from Professor Roric Rossony on her dossier, she could have her choice of any position she wanted and would never have to take any work she didn’t want. Taking extra care with her hair, her collars, and her fingernails was a small price to pay to secure her future. “Yes, Professor.”
“Very good. The position is yours, then, pending my satisfaction with your first assignment and the results of my inquiries to your previous employers. Since this task is not of a confidential nature, you may work on it in your room tonight.” He handed Perarre a small book bound in crumbling black leather and several sheets of closely-written manuscript. “This book has been translated but not indexed. Its organization is so chaotic that without an index it is impossible to find what one is looking for. Several Professors, including myself, have been waiting turns to use this book. When I told the others of my intent to engage a full-time translator, it was agreed that if my translator would index the book, I would have the first turn to use it. I will expect to see your work tomorrow morning, immediately after Lecture.” He picked up a stack of papers and began thumbing through them.
Perarre smiled to herself. She was the best, whether he was willing to admit it or not. And she could index blindfolded with her writing hand tied behind her back. The job was hers. “Yes, Professor.” She waited for the Professor to say something else, or at least dismiss her, but he seemed to have forgotten she was there. After a moment she asked, prompting him, “Is there anything else, Professor Rossony?”
Without looking up from his papers, he said, “This is not the army, Miss Tabrano. You need not wait for a formal dismissal.”
No “good afternoon” or “I will see you in the morning” or “Thank you for your interest in the position.” Perarre bristled with irritation at being brushed off like that. “I’m most grateful for the opportunity to work for you, Professor Rossony,” she said, “even though I’ve been told that the famous Professor Rossony is a sanctimonious prig with a broomstick permanently stuck up his —”
“That will do for today, Miss Tabrano. You may be excused. I will see you at Lecture in the morning.”
“Good day, Professor.” Perarre curtsied, gave him her brightest smile while barely stifling a laugh, and left the room.
* * *
RORIC STARED AT the door after it closed behind Miss Tabrano, wondering if he had just made a terrible mistake. Never mind who had been saying uncomplimentary things about him; he had no illusions that he was popular. He was more concerned about his new assistant.
According to her dossier, she was a native of one of the farming provinces north of Vorunne City, and her olive-toned skin, untidy hair, and generous curves — not that he was normally one to notice that sort of thing — made her look more like a farm girl than the kind of scholar who would possess the impressive — extremely impressive — credentials detailed on the paper on his desk. Firsts in both Ancient Languages and Middle Languages five years in a row; three Superior rankings, the highest ranking possible, from the College of Scholarship; a Superior ranking in Reading from the College of Magecraft. Very few people earned Superior rankings from both colleges of the University of Vorunne City, the Vorunne Dominion’s oldest, largest, and most prestigious institution of learning. Not even Roric had achieved this.
Still, he wasn’t sure about her. Besides the drawback of her sex, the state of her appearance suggested a carelessness that he could not tolerate. However, qualifications like hers couldn’t be dismissed out of hand. He would see whether or not she heeded his warning to pay attention to the details of her dress and grooming, and would make the standard inquiries into her background and character. And tomorrow morning he would have a sample of her work, to see what she could do under severe time constraints and high expectations.
Despite his misgivings, he found himself hoping that she wouldn’t give him a reason to turn her down for the position. It was sheer good luck that someone with her qualifications was available when he found himself in need of an assistant for the first time in his twelve-year career. The truth, much as he hated to admit it, was that he wouldn’t be doing her a favor by giving her the job; she would be doing him a favor by accepting it.
* * *
PERARRE RETURNED TO her room to find two letters in the letterbox on her door. One was from her sister Samale, the other was from her former roommate Laydra, who had a position as an assistant to an assistant under-secretary in the Internal Affairs Service. Laydra’s letter had been sent from one of the little northeastern protectorates that were constantly fighting each other over boundaries and trying to claim independence from the Dominion. Perarre hoped to get a similar position with the Foreign Affairs Service when her three-year Assistantship was over, so she was always interested in what Laydra had to say about her work. She put Laydra’s letter aside to enjoy later and, after setting Professor Rossony’s book and its translation on her desk, opened the letter from Samale.
Their mother was well, Samale wrote, and still successfully running the Golden Hare Inn. Samale was pregnant with her eighth baby. Perarre smiled as she read that; if any woman was meant to have a lot of children, it was capable, good-natured Samale. Her sister also reported that Edro was still waiting for Perarre to come home and marry him. Well, Perarre thought, he could just wait. It was thanks to Edro that she had no intention of ever marrying or going home again.
Perarre finished reading the letter and tucked it away in the ribbon-bound bundle with the rest of Samale’s letters, then pulled the rope of the service bell. While she waited for an orderly to arrive, she undressed and put on the emerald silk dressing gown that Laydra had sent her last year, when she was posted on the southern peninsula. Perarre dumped her four black dresses into a heap on the floor, added her collars and underclothes to the pile, then counted her coins.
The orderly who appeared at the door was a round-faced blonde girl named Nida, a regular on Perarre’s floor. “I want bath water and a cold supper,” Perarre said, “and my dresses all cleaned and pressed. Extra whitening and starch on the collars, please, for tomorrow I begin working for the esteemed Professor Rossony.” Perarre dropped her coins into the girl’s hand. “Is that enough?”
Nida counted the money and smiled. Perarre had intended the amount to include a tip. “Yes, Miss Perarre. I’ve heard from the laundry-girls that Professor Rossony has his own special treatment for his collars. I’ll tell them to do the same for yours. And I’ll tell them to mend the frayed ones.”
“Oh, good. Thank you, Nida.”
“My sweetheart’s an orderly in the Professors’ Hall. He says Professor Rossony will drive you over the edge, but he’s really a decent sort at heart. He’s a good tipper, anyway.”
“I suppose anything is possible,” Perarre said. “Now, I need my clothes back first thing in the morning, so please hurry.”
“Yes, Miss.” Still smiling, Nida scooped up the pile of clothing and left.
After her bath and supper, Perarre sat down at her desk, still wearing her dressing gown. A glance at the translation the Professor had given her told her that it was so poor it would be no use at all. She would have to make her own translation while she indexed. Fortunately, the book itself was brief, and since this was the original copy, she could Read the author’s intent as well as translating his words, which would make the work go more quickly. Still, it was going to be a long night.
* * *
AT PRECISELY FIVE-THIRTY in the afternoon, Roric set aside the lecture he was revising for inclusion in a new book and went for supper at the Professors’ Club. There, he sat alone at his usual table and ate roast beef, potato soufflé, and green beans, accompanied by a single glass of wine. Then he returned to his apartment, where he resumed the task he had been working on earlier. At nine-thirty, following his usual habit, he poured himself a finger’s-width of brandy, and sipped it slowly while he looked over the day’s work, making a correction here and there. He always strove to do his work as perfectly as possible the first time, but a few errors inevitably crept in despite his best efforts.
When the clock on the wall chimed ten, he set the brandy glass on the sideboard for the maid to wash when she came in the next morning and locked his door. With a touch to a metal plate on the wall, he turned off the magical flameless lamps, devices of his own invention, much safer than candles or oil lamps, which lit the apartment’s main room.
In his bedroom, he tended to his evening ablutions, then changed into a freshly laundered and crisply pressed nightshirt. He made sure the chime on his bedside clock was set to ring at six in the morning, got into bed, and turned off the flameless lamp which sat on the bedside table.
As happened most nights, disturbing half-dreams teased at his mind whenever he started to fall asleep. He tried counting backwards from one hundred, his usual method for willing himself to sleep, but it didn’t work. Finally, he got up, put his trousers and shirt back on, and left the bedroom. He sat in his reading chair, touched the flameless lamp on the table next to the chair to turn it on, and picked up the book he kept for these nights when he couldn’t sleep.
The book had its usual effect; he soon began to doze off. But then another half-dream, completely different from any he had ever had before, popped into his mind. He saw and heard, as vividly as if she stood before him again, the smile and half-laugh with which Miss Tabrano had left him that afternoon.
He started awake. As soon as he assured himself that there was no one else in the room, he picked up his book and started reading again. Enough things disturbed his sleep already; he had no intention of letting his new assistant become one of them.
He read another half a page, then the lines of print began to blur together and he finally fell asleep.
Copyright 2013 Kyra Halland. All Rights Reserved.
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