To Mistress Anna Darvin,
I have had the pleasure of seeing your sketches for the proposed Shandorian pavilion at the Nations’ Exhibition in Levour, and must confess myself impressed by a number of points in your design. Sadly, Master Marwright, the head of the planning committee, wants a new overhaul of your plans based on the last list of revisions requested by the meeting of yesterday’s committee. Please find those notes enclosed. Might I also assist in suggesting a few changes to your proposal that may better suit the preferences of the committee?
Yours, in as much as you’ll bear me,
I regret to say I do not have the honor of your acquaintance. While making inquiries as to whether you were perhaps yet another newly appointed member of the planning committee, I have been told that you are something of an assistant to the foreign minister. While I appreciate your desire to assist me, I feel you should know that I have eight times in the past month revised my proposal at the request of the members of this and the previous committees, and it is now so far from my original designs in fact that I hardly recognize the thing. I was honored and surprised be asked to submit a proposal last year, and I have put a year’s worth of work and consideration into the plans previously submitted. I will remind you that they were chosen out of twelve other invited proposals. I’m afraid that if none of my drafts thus far are sufficient to move the committee, then further revisions will likely be a waste of both my and the committee’s time and they should revisit one of the other eleven proposals, all submitted by people with greater experience than I, and perhaps with more inclination toward the committee’s tastes.
Miss A. Darvin
Anna resisted stabbing her pen through the paper at the end of her signature. It took effort. She shook the paper dry and did not crumple it. Instead, she folded it neatly and brutally, and addressed the envelope in a tight, professional script. She cleaned her pens and practiced serene breathing, an exercise taught by meditative Elders. After a few deep breaths of the cedar-laden mountain air, taking in the silent serenity of the ancient bluffs of clan Stone Guardians, she’d mostly calmed her spirit and nerves back down.
How had it all gone wrong? She’d been so excited when they’d picked her plans, pleased and proud, brimming with ideas about making a tiny Shandor to nestle in the Levour exhibition grounds. It was to have been a proud jewel, wild and beautiful and unbowing among the best works of the artists and architects of the other nations of the world. Now it was to be a dull and muddled nightmare, created by committee.
At a concerned whine, and a muzzle-nudge from one of the elegant silver wolves who guarded the clan, Anna rose from her seat in the old ruined stone chair she’d been using as a desk. She gently scratched behind the animal’s ears. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to pitch myself off the edge.” Some committee members maybe, she mused. The creature trotted along at her side as she walked from the visitors’ camp, past campfires, hanging hides being scraped clean, outdoor tallow-rendering operations, traditional seed-bread making, all the usual things that looked and smelled of life at home in Shandor.
“Shandor must look modern and strong,” the early notes had read. Another had said, “We mustn’t reveal too much of Shandor’s real strength.” Remembering, Anna threw her hands heavenward, drawing the notice of the girls practicing knife-strokes with their clan mothers in a clearing. Anna amended her flailing to a wave, which was returned, flashing, by a half dozen hands. “We must share Shandor’s rich and unique culture,” she told the wolf. “But no! Shandor must not look too old-fashioned or savage.”
The young men cleaning up from making butcher-work of a large elk waved hopefully at her as well, with bloody fingers.
Anna smiled thinly. “I thought,” she told the sympathetic-eyed wolf, “perhaps something to do with our music. But they said no drums or mountain flutes. Those may make us look savage. No K’shay tanna music with scandalously rhythmic beats that could incite people to dance.”
Anna paused before the carved, ivy-draped archway to the tunnels of the Stone Guardians’ halls. “ ‘It should feel like a festival,’ they said. And then, ‘It should be very dignified, and show how serious and up to date Shandorians can be.’ ”
The wolf nodded her into the tunnel, but did not follow, as Anna passed out of daylight and into the soft blue glow of the orbs in their niches, which shed soft light on old carvings. Deeper in, more halls and rooms branched away, some wide and high, others small, curling like the turns of a nautilus shell. She stepped carefully around a clump of prentices piled near one alcove. “You see,” Master Daethas was saying, “these runes respond to different musical progressions. Like so.” He sang a string of three notes, and a sequence of Ancient lit up in green on one wall. “I posit that some other things we’ve unearthed here may respond to sound, or be sung into their function.”
In the next room, the glass blowers were talking with the chemistry prentices about making some new apparatus to fit a new grand experiment. They all stood back and pointed at a set of diagrams that would have given Djaren fits of excitement. “Cleansing impurities of the blood and returning it to the subject,” a medical prentice was explaining.
“And of course everything really amazing is a secret,” Anna said aloud, to herself.
“Everything good is,” Ellea said, suddenly at her elbow, pale and ghostly in the blue lights. “This is where gods live like savages, and those with power use it to hide away treasure and doom that could burn the world. Again.”
“How are you, Ellea? How much longer do you think the council of Elders will take?”
“I don’t know. I can’t spy on any of them. They’ll probably be ever so long. And they won’t let me even watch and listen.”
“That sounds like a council of Elders. It’s probably very boring.”
“Only to boring people,” Ellea sniffed. “I’ll be on it someday. They all know it. Why not now? I know things. I see things. I may not have my full power yet, but that will come. All I get to do are baby exercises, nothing exciting or dangerous.”
“They probably want to protect you,” Anna comforted.
“I think maybe–” Ellea paused.
“Do you think they’re afraid of me?”
Anna considered it. “I should hope they’d know better than to fear you. We who know you, like your parents, trust you.” She knelt down to be at Ellea’s eye level. “Everyone knows how special you are, and how talented. They probably just want you to be able to be a child, to be happy, and learn what you will, for as long as you can.”
“There are things no one will let me learn,” Ellea said quietly.
“Maybe because other people learned them the hard way, or the wrong way, and they don’t want that to happen for you.”
“You really aren’t dull. I like that about you.” Ellea took her hand, and they walked down the halls together, past rooms full of secrets and marvels.
“Promise me that if in a fit of weakness, I ask you to crush the minds of the next committee members who write to me, you won’t do it?” Anna asked.
“You can trust me,” Ellea said amiably.
“So how have your studies been?”
“I’ve been doing chemistry,” Ellea said. “I know most of it now. Did you know one of the dead Elders wrote all his notes out backward, in this odd language? I worked it out, though. He had some interesting ideas, and some very stupid ones. He’s lucky he didn’t blow himself up.”
“How did he die, then?”
“I think he might have been exiled to live out his days among the honorless. His books were in the forbidden section.”
“The forbidden section?”
“Yes, everyone’s forgotten about it. It was very well hidden. You forget about it yourself unless you tuck that bit of your mind in a corner when you go in and out.”
“Oh,” said Anna. “I do hope the council ends soon, so we can move on.”