We had finally cleared the construction site of soil. It had been three days of hard work and we finally stood before the barren, rock cavern floor. The next phase of construction could begin and for it, the Professor and I would measure the dimension of the site as exactly as possible. Luckily, there were simple spells that could recreate a distance based on the properties of a regular piece of yarn. We were sure that a ball of yarn made from the Vrata vine’s fibrous husk would serve just accurately enough. It was not the exact same kind of yarn we used on the surface, but I made sure that a few fractions of an inch difference in the plan would do little to significantly influence the integrity of my design. Once done measuring, the Professor and I began cutting rectangular holes into the rock ground, levelling out their basis and finally, we would assume our posts.
The Professor would cut the stones at our quarry, Chrysita and the Urshog would take care of transport, I would give the rough-cut blocks their final shape so that they would stay on each other perfectly even without mortar, then suspend them from their own weight as to enable Sarita and Brad to put them in place in the rectangular holes and stack them up higher and higher while clinging on to a simple wooden scaffolding. Brad would maybe have been able to carry them without my magical help, but Sarita surely not.
The steward and his watchers would carefully take note of everything we did with distrust and misgiving. As with the village guards, these were barely more than old men with sharp sticks, the truly dangerous weapons were closer to Anne’s throat than to ours, that we knew; and the steward was equally aware of this fact.
Shaping the stones with magic tooling was not hard. I had the block to be shaped on my lap while my spellbook lay open next to me, in it all the necessary formulae. At first, this particular gabbro was unfamiliar yet but I quickly learned its unique attributes and modified the formulae accordingly. With all that, I could work the stone with my bare hands and the dull side of my knife, almost as if it was mere clay.
Yet exhaustion began to set in and soon, my hands hurt. If felt the many fine veins directly under my skin pulsate with hot pain, deeper in there was a soreness within my very blood that flowed up my arms and which even reached my heart. I had to give my veins some respite and excused myself. It was time for a break for everyone else either. I went to my public desk to make sure my calculations were correct.
I soon noticed my throat being dry and saw the sickly young woman pass by. She had already thrown an inquisitive glance my way when I beckoned her to ask for a jug of water, but before I could even open my mouth, she had turned to me and asked me in a sharp tone. “What do you want? More ink? Very well then, come with me!”
She had already turned around and walked towards the magus’ chambers before I’d decided to hurry after her; yelling after her in this open hall seemed like too much attention for me.
I caught up to her in the tunnel. “You know, I just wanted to ask for some water, not ink or any other writing implements.”
“Whatever it is, just come with me and you shall receive.” She hurried up her step. I ignored her remark that seemed rather ominous to me at the time and just made sure to stick close.
We arrived at the magus’ chamber and she unlocked it for me. “Enter, go ahead.” She beckoned me. A feeling of unease came over me, but I pushed it aside. We entered and she closed the door behind me.
“What is it you want in here?” She asked me in a voice more hushed than weak.
“I just wanted water, but I doubt the magus has his own well, does he?”
The woman shook her head. “No. I do not mean that. There is something in this room you wish to take from us. Extend your hand and we might strike a deal.”
I was taken by surprise by this remark. Was she offering to let me steal and get away? No, I would not give in to something like this. Or was it maybe even a trap to catch me red-handed? “I will not take anything, I told you.” I would not point it out to her, I would not tell her anything she could use against me. Yet the possibility of an actual deal did not leave me without tempation. In a moment of weakness, my eyes shot to the bolt of cloth.
She noticed. “The cloth? That what you want? You want to fake the robes of a cadre? They would show you mercy by executing you.”
The mask was off. “No, not steal it. We wish to make our own, maybe found a cadre, but we have to know how it is made. I will not steal I promise.” I had fallen into her trap still, I was taking her offer seriously.
She exhaled, as if preparing for a big revelation. “As I said, we can strike a deal. If you wish to leave you can do so.” She stepped away from the door. “Just please, do not tell anyone of this offer.”
There was remorse in her statement then. Did she regret having made that offer? Did she maybe not think it through properly herself? My thoughts and my eyes came back to the bolt. It would indeed help us to know at least the first step to having some sort of respect.
“If you really need to know more, there are some things I can tell you about how cadres organize and interact. I helped the old Magus quite a bit whenever his apprentice was away, writing letters and managing appointments.”
The offer had just become more enticing; had it been food, I had just then licked my lips. I decided to bite. “What is your demand?”
She hesitated again, she herself was not entirely sure she wanted to make this offer, but she did go ahead with that most bewildering of demands. “Put a child in me.”
A blink happened, maybe two, before I could reorient my mind for the sudden jerk the direction of this conversation had received.
“Put a child in me.” It flowed from her lips easier this time. “You know how to do that, do you?”
“Uhrm...yes.” I had allowed myself to be swept away in that sudden direction. “But I don’t understand exactly why-“
“No need to. It should not matter to you, I do not want love or marriage, just a child. I was told you men quite enjoy the process.”
“I... Well yes, we do, it is still an odd request for a deal.” Of course, a single thought would have told me even back then that a child with a mage is indeed a chance for a woman of lower standing to get into higher society. A silence appeared between the two of use. I tried to avert my eyes from her, but she was not yet willing to let the offer go.
“Would it be your first time? It would be mine too, I want you to know.”
“No, it wouldn’t, that’s not it.”
“Do you have a wife back home? Or a dear?”
“No, that’s not it either.”
It was not wife or my experience that held me back. In truth, before I first left port on a deployment, my comrades in the armed forces would convince me to visit one of the women by the docks, before I would die without ever knowing the touch of a woman. I refused, saying I would not put a child without a father into this world. They tried to assuage my worries by claiming the well-paid professionals knew to avoid that, but I did not trust them still. Then they told me that crolachan women could not conceive from humans.
I had then taken my heart and worries and stuffed them away for a night. Her fur was silky and she smelled of woodland berries. After I was done and had collapsed in peaceful exhaustion, she stroked my back and kissed me gently, humming sweet tunes. After then, each time I returned, I would visit another woman, human ones mostly. But each of them took care of herself and one told me women in the trade simply knew when she was able to conceive.
No, it would truly not have been my first time with a woman, but this one went directly against my principles.
“Then what’s the issue?” It seemed she expected this to go over more easily.
I threw another glance to the door. It would be no problem to simply walk out, physically, she couldn’t stop me, but she had already demonstrated that her words were stronger than her body.
“If you wish to leave, you can do so, but I will not make this offer a second time. No coming back, or else, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from repeatedly asking you.”
Another moment went by.
“Maybe this will help you decide.” She opened the laces of her dress and pulled it down, along with her undergarments. A bare chest of pale and two rosy perks, small but present. “I was told you would enjoy this.” She took a few steps backwards and let herself fall on the old magus’ bed. “Come on, I already can tell you will not say no. I even changed the sheets ahead of time.”
She was right. I did not say no. I came closer and sat down next to her. “And you promise I may look at these things as much as I need to?”
She nodded while inching closer to me, almost as reserved as I was. “And I will tell you all else you wish to know.” She opened her lacing further, then pulled her garments off over her head.
Her body was pale all over, her ribs were visible, her flesh thin and weak. “Is it to your liking?”
I dared not say no, she was beautiful although not like the other women I had sought services from. To demonstrate, I reached out to touch her chest, but before I could reach it, she leaned back and looked me in the eyes.
“My name is Valdessa.”
I felt shame, like a debauchee, primitive and vulgar. I nodded. “I am Havellan.”
She came back closer and I touched her. Then she lay down, almost as if expecting to be inspected by a healer. I tried to put myself in the act like that, but I had to tell her how it would usually happen.
I explained to her that the bodies of both man and woman had to be receptive to one another and moved my hands to demonstrate exactly that to her. She seemed adamant to retain some sort of false pride, but soon, blush and moan bloomed on her face as she came to know what this act should feel like. It was still off-putting; emotionless, mechanical, dutiful. Yet we both sank into enjoyment, even engrossment as it went on. Was this maybe how the women at the docks felt when doing their work? Engaging in this act purely for the gain of it, as service in return for payment? They at least made sure their customers did not feel it was that way. I did as she had asked me to and we lay naked next to each other only for a short while. I felt uncomfortable although the scent of her body and the look of her eyes drew me in nonetheless. It was a duty and not the only I had to fulfil.
She remained in bed, exhausted despite her passive part in it, I got up to inspect the bolt of cloth closer while her vigilant gaze remained on me, again cold.
“Do you know how these are made exactly?” I asked her while studying the pattern closer. It was of a reddish-brown speckled with green spots and silvery-white lines.
“About that I do not know very much, but I can tell you other things; tomorrow maybe.”
“What? I thought you’d tell me everything I wish to know.”
“When you put a child in me. I was told it takes more than one try and some time has to pass before I know for certain.”
I realized I had just taken up another duty in this place, maybe even a daily one. She got up from bed herself and started collecting the sheets, then piling them next to the door. “Tell me when you’re done.”
I nodded and turned my head back to the cloth, my attention remained on the woman putting on her clothes behind me. I knew the pattern had some underlying mathematic construction that would be recognized if done incorrectly, more my mind could not organize. I wanted to lay with her, rest by her side for a moment longer. I had to clear my head of the events of that day. I had just then been with a woman without love or romance or even erotic attraction, yet all of her still clung to me: her strong gaze when asking me, her soft voice during the act, the smell of her sweat from the short moment of still closeness afterwards. I stepped back from the bolt of cloth.
“I am done here, for today.”
She handed me a coal pencil. “Well then, take this and follow me back outside. And not a word.”
I was sure the task at hand – building the ramp that was – would distract me from any qualms I still had with myself.