27 September A.D. 1107
‘Were you surprised?’
Salome was sitting across the desk from Perus, in his rooms. The oil lamp behind him shed its small, warm light and its long dark shadows onto his face like it always did, making him seem almost insubstantial in the blackness that surrounded him. Perus took long, before responding.
‘By the choice itself, or the fact that a choice was made at all?’
She smiled. ‘Either and both.’
Once more, Perus allowed himself time to contemplate his answer, and his own mind in the matter. Without doubt, when he had first been informed that he was to expect Kyrus with another, a new one, he had been surprised. But then, it was always to some extent a surprise when one of them decided to pass on the gift to another. It happened so rarely, after all.
‘Yes,’ he said in the end. ‘Mildly so.’
Surprise was always mild, with him. He had outgrown it centuries ago.
‘Have you told Gordian?’
‘Will you do so?’
‘I imagine he would expect me to.’
‘I imagine he would,’ Salome agreed, and smiled again.
* * *
The Sanctuary in Mainz housed eight; with the addition of Amarante to their ranks, they numbered nine. Nine of the Genus Kishar that is. There was Rufus, of the same blood as Atreus, the youngest of his siblings, though, to judge by his appearance one may have thought otherwise. Rufus had short, well-groomed, snow-white hair, shrewd hazel eyes, and was clean-shaven. One might have thought him to be early in his sixth decade of life. In truth, he was older than Christ by some decades and had not aged a day in all this time, or changed in any discernible manner, save for the style of this garments. He had a gentle demeanour, and his eyes always seemed to glint kindly when he spoke.
Then there was Seth, also of Atreus’s House. He was a quiet man of few words, and this might have given the false impression of austerity, to those that knew him little. Yet it was merely that he saw no cause to waste his words and spoke eloquently and openly enough, when there was anything of consequence to be said. He was not a tall man, and was dark, with slender, aquiline features, his head clean-shaven.
There was Admetus and Theophilus of the House of Gordian, whilst Amosis and Hieronymous were of the House of Meresankh.
Amarante received instruction from both Rufus and Seth, though it was Kyrus and Atreus who undertook the greatest part of her training. Rufus, who had no offspring of his own, took it upon himself to educate her in history, mortal politics and jurisdiction. He also instructed her in the French language. Seth had been, and still was, a physician. With him she continued to pursue and expanded her study of medicine, and learnt many wondrous things, for he seemed glad for the occasion to share his knowledge and instruct another in a discipline he held sacred.
‘I understand your father was a physician,’ he said, the first night they met for this purpose, ‘and that he instructed you in the art. He must have been a great and wise man to have not scorned to pass on his knowledge to a daughter, rather than a son or any which other disciple, and he is to be thanked for helping shape one who shall doubtless be an asset to the Genus. That you already possess a knowledge and understanding of human physic will greatly facilitate our endeavours here for, though we are in many ways different, yet we also remain in many ways the same, and there is naught more valuable than having an already conquered point of reference.
‘Let us begin with the most significant points in which we are different, before we move on to those in which we remain the same – for these are many, and often subtle, though yet vital, and, like all living things, though hardy and with more life in us than most, there is a limit to what we are able to endure.
‘We shall first discuss then the peculiarities of our heart; that state which some call slumber, a sleep deep and enduring not unlike a hibernation; and the manner in which, with age, we grow not weaker, but ever stronger, and how, should we decide to make another, this strength and potency garnered with time is passed on to our children.’
* * *
Soon after her arrival in Mainz, Amarante sorted through the books they had brought with them all the way from Toledo, put aside the ones that were particularly dear to her and the rest she handed over to their librarian, Hieronymous, to be kept in the Sanctuary’s library where all had access to them.
The library was housed in the stone tower, over two entire floors above ground, and two further floors below ground. Specially-fashioned metal cabinets lined all the walls, and stood free in great metal rows, line after line of them, allowing between them only space enough for one person to walk through their ranks, and in these cabinets, all the books were kept. The edges of the cabinet doors were lined with lead and, when closed, formed a perfect seal. The locks on their doors, however, were no intricate affair. They but served to keep the doors firmly shut; theft was not what these cabinets had been made to protect the books from. There was no thief that could ever enter the Sanctuary; let alone depart again with any of the books. The cabinets had been made to protect the books from the elements, and the ravages of time, from man’s clumsiness, and the sharp little teeth and voracious appetites of those many small beasts to whom paper, papyrus and parchment are a delectable delicacy; but most of all, to protect them from fire.
Each day of the week, Hieronymous would open all the doors of all the cabinets in one of the rooms of the library, each room each day in turn, for the entire evening, to allow the ancient, trapped creatures to breathe. Parchment, vellum, paper and papyrus needed the air to survive, just as the living creatures they had been created from.
In two great metal chests, standing in one small corner of the first floor of the library beside Hieronymous’s writing desk, were kept the ledgers in which all the contents of the library were catalogued. It was in these ledgers that Hieronymous also catalogued the books that Amarante had decided to keep in her rooms with her, so that if others wished to consult them, they knew whom to address.
But before Amarante even began on this, her first task, she retrieved Kyrus’s book, the book he had sent to her so many months earlier and, with it in hand, sought him out in his rooms. He was standing behind his desk, rifling through a sheaf of parchment.
She laid the book down on the desk, and gently pushed it by a few inches towards him. His eyes travelled from the documents he had been reading to the book, stared at it for a few moments, then looked up at her. He laid his hand on the book and pushed it back towards her.
‘It is yours,’ he said.
Amarante stared back at him. ‘Kyrus… it’s the autograph…’ she said quietly in the end.
‘You said you wished to read the original, did you not?’
‘…I did… but…’
‘Were you merely being courteous?’
‘Of course not!’
‘And neither was I, when I said in my letter that it is yours.’
‘You mean to say that it served no other purpose, other than what you said in your letter...’
‘No, it is true, the book did also serve another purpose,’ he shrugged. ‘But I would have devised some other manner of suggesting to you the truth, had you not first suggested to me this one. …In any case, it is customary for the sire to make a gift to his descendants – or for the dam to her descendants… Something of personal value. This is my gift to you. …And I do hope you will accept it, else I shall have to start looking for something else appropriate, and admittedly I can think of few things that you are likely to appreciate any more than this one.’
‘Kyrus!’ Amarante exclaimed chidingly. He smiled. It touched his eyes more than anything, a glint of amusement, more noticeable than the suggestion of a smile on his lips. ‘You know perfectly well that there is naught I could ever hold more dear!’ she said in the same, mildly reproving tone, yet also with a smile, and she picked up the book. ‘But… you were ready to part with this, whether I said yes, or no, to you?’
‘That is what my letter said, was it not?’
‘…Yes, it was. …And for this, then, I thank you all the more for it.’ Amarante turned to leave, but then hesitated, and turned back once more. ‘Atreus made you a gift also? Something of personal value to him?’
‘May I ask what it was?’
Kyrus fished inside the neck of his cotte and drew out a delicate gold chain of such pure gold it was almost orange in colour, with a similarly coloured, small object dangling from its end. He pulled the whole thing off, over his head, and laid it down on the desk in front of her. She could see now that the object hanging from the chain was an oval-shaped signet ring, one made of equally pure gold as the chain itself. She picked it up and peered at it closely.
The craftsmanship was one of the best she had ever seen, the representation on the seal of extraordinary detail. It depicted a woman, bare-breasted, in either raised hand grasping a snake. There was some manner of crown on her head, she wore a tight-fitting, short-sleeved bodice that left the breasts exposed, and the skirt of her dress fell in horizontal layers in a full, wide shape to the ground. The image was unlike anything Amarante had ever seen, and she knew in that moment that it was unfathomably old. As old as Atreus at least, though likely older.
Some hitherto unknown instinct rendered her certain that she was gazing at an image of a goddess; perhaps the goddess Atreus had worshipped in his youth, before his transformation, or even after it.
She had no way of knowing how many possessions of those long-gone days Atreus may have succeeded in salvaging but suspected that these could not be many, and she understood then the importance, inestimable as it was, of such a gift.
Gently, she laid the chain and ring back down on the desk.
‘Thank you,’ she said, and picked up the book once more. ‘I shall treasure it.’
* * *
Guntfried, son Hildr, of the Genus Kingu, of the Family of Anhuke, seemed a man that had yet to reach his thirtieth year – a man still young, at the prime of life. Guntfried’s charge and command was over those few members of other Genera that the Sanctuary employed, in much the same manner that Darya and Hafiz were employed in Barcelona. Yet, whereas in Barcelona there was but Darya and Hafiz, in Mainz there was Guntfried, Thomas, Hjalmarr, Valeria and Fyren. At least, Fyren was there during Amarante’s first two years at the Sanctuary; then he had left to go his own way and, some few years later, had been replaced by Konrad.
Fyren and Konrad both were of the Genus Kingu, of Asase’s Line, shapeshifters the both of them. Yet Amarante’s first ever encounter with Konrad was a great deal less extraordinary and memorable than her first ever encounter with Fyren.
It was one night, no more than a month or two after Amarante’s arrival in Mainz, that movement caught her eye as she walked down the corridor with Kyrus, and she turned to look, realising at that moment that a very large crow had just flown past them. It landed a few yards ahead, cocked one black, beady eye in their direction, waddled round to face them, blurring briefly round the edges as it moved, and then seemed to grow, expanding within the blink of an eye, like a spring released, into a full-grown man. An entirely naked man, standing casual and tall, in the middle of the hallway.
His dark brown eyes glinted mischievously, most likely at the look of astonishment on Amarante’s face, and he grinned broadly. He was a striking man and comely, at the absolute zenith of his life, with pale skin and black hair, long and unruly tumbling down to his shoulders. Despite her inevitable surprise, she felt no embarrassment, and the thought of looking away did not even occur to her. She simply stared at him in wonderment.
‘I have been away but a few months, and look what happens!’ he said in the Latin tongue, addressing Kyrus in a pleasant, jocular tone and a faint accent Amarante could not place. ‘I return to discover that the Sanctuary has a new member. And I had never thought that you, of all people, would have been able to surprise me. I stand corrected! I was just on my way to see you, in the hope that I would be introduced to this extraordinary woman.’
‘Fyren…’ Kyrus sighed in a tone of voice that hovered between the weary and the threatening.
‘I am being far too familiar, I know. And I have not even introduced myself,’ Fyren interrupted him and strode towards Amarante, extending his hand. ‘My lady, my name is Fyren, of the Genus Kingu, of the Family of Asase. It is a pleasure and an honour to make your acquaintance.’ He took her hand and kissed it.
It was a moment or two before Amarante had sufficiently recovered to be able to respond.
‘Likewise. My name is Amarante,’ she said, shooting a sideways glance at Kyrus, who was wearing the expression of a man whose infinite patience was yet being sorely tried.
‘I am certain that you are both busy, and I also have an appointment to keep with the Prelate, so I shall not keep you any longer, but I am certain that we shall have the opportunity to become better acquainted in the near future,’ Fyren said with another impish smile, which turned into a grin as he glanced at Kyrus again. ‘Congratulations!’ he said. Then he spun on his heel and strode down the corridor away from them, in the direction of Atreus’s study.
They both remained quite still for a few moments, gazing after him as he retreated. Then Kyrus, as though in response to a question that had not been asked, said, ‘He happens to be exceptionally able at his charge,’ and he began walking again.
‘…and despite appearances, a good man, deserving of the deepest regard… ’t is only a shame about the appearances… Still, I suspect that now you will have occasion to determine the truth of the matter for yourself – whether you wish to or not…’ he added, as an afterthought. ‘So long as Fyren wishes it… A man may as well attempt to discourage the rain from making him wet, for all the good it would do him,’ he concluded.
Kyrus knew Fyren well, it appeared, for the meaning of his enigmatic comment became perfectly clear to Amarante but a short while later. Fyren took an interest in her, and whether she had taken an interest in him, or not, was immaterial. He was determined to get to know her, and that was the end of that. Fyren took an interest in all things new.
So he imposed his presence on her with a finality as inescapable as any force of nature, and as capricious. He would suddenly flutter down next to her as she walked down a corridor, or up a flight of steps, become a man, and idly begin chatting to her, about everything and nothing, or asking her questions – there were always many questions – until she reached whatever her destination was at the time, then he would amble, or flutter, off again.
She would step out of her rooms for a few moments and return to find him there, examining whatever new thing he had not before seen happened to be lying topmost on anything, upon which time he would begin talking again, as though he had always been there and they had left a conversation unfinished when she had stepped out just moments earlier.
He would come to her workshop and poke about, and scrutinise the vials, flasks, crucibles, alembics and cucurbits, and want to know what each one of them was for, and then, what it was she was doing, and then why she was doing it. And all this without any kind of detectable regularity, save to be able to say: increasingly more frequently as time went by.
It appeared he liked her. And enjoyed her company. And Amarante swiftly came to like him also. She liked his unreserved, unabashed openness, and his curiosity about all things, and the swiftness of his wits. And his banter. He made her laugh. And he too laughed with the same ease at her ripostes. Though he complained that her quips were dry; dry like Kyrus’s – not that that was any wonder, he amended. At least she laughed more frequently and with greater ease, and he did not have to make such an effort as with that sour churl.
It saddened her, when he left. But he said he had been in Mainz a long time and that it was time he moved on and, at any rate, he had a promise to someone he had not seen in over fifty years to keep. She made him swear that he would come again to Mainz, and visit, and that she hoped it would not be fifty years hence. Though he swore on the bones of every saint he could think of, including some that Amarante felt sure did not exist, that he would return, and visit, and it would certainly not be fifty years before he did so, she suspected that it likely would be a long time indeed before they met again.