Witchy Winter – Snippet 13

Sarah caught the other woman’s hand. The Ophidian priestess shuddered as if she’d been poked, but didn’t pull away.

“It ain’t a command,” Sarah said.

“I understand, Your Majesty.”

“You and I are kin, Alzbieta. I know it. I see it. When I swore those beastkind out there into my service? I didn’t make any oath back to them, nothing. I swore an oath to you, and it’s just as binding as the one you swore to me.”

“Is it?” Alzbieta looked into Sarah’s mundane eye.

Sarah removed her eyepatch. “It is.”

Alzbieta, natural face and aura both, looked reassured. “Would you care to see the library now?”

“I would,” Sarah said. “I’m fairly itchin’.”

Alzbieta led the way into the smaller of the two stone buildings and Sarah followed. The slaves stayed outside, which Sarah found an improvement; the slaves never talked, and generally they followed Alzbieta around staring, watching for any indication that she wanted to be picked up.

It was a very non-Appalachee arrangement.

Was it a coincidence that Alzbieta’s slaves were all children of Eve? Or did her father’s people exclusively enslave her mother’s?

She tried not to dwell on that question.

“The other building was where we slept and ate, when I was a child,” Alzbieta explained. “This was the palace of life.”

There was no doorway or curtain in the entrance, but with her witchy eye Sarah saw very clearly a hex over the building. She stopped and examined it closely.

“Your Majesty?” Alzbieta asked.

Sarah squinted, examined the corners of the enchanted space, and finally laughed. “Let me guess. The palace of life held scrolls for hundreds of years. By a miracle of the goddess, those scrolls never rotted or got mildew.”

“The palace did hold scrolls for hundreds of years,” Alzbieta agreed. “By virtue of a spell cast hundreds of years ago, the scrolls never rotted or got mildew. Now, I have moved all the scrolls to my palace in the city.”

Sarah followed a thin line of pulsating green westward, and realized what could power a spell for hundreds of years. “This spell was cast by one of the Queens or Kings of Cahokia.” She didn’t say: using the Orb of Etyles. “It’s powered by the Mississippi River itself. I expect it still works.”

“That may well be,” Alzbieta said. “The carvings on the temple stones suggest that the great Onandagos built this place. The mound and the stone buildings, I mean. The rulers of Cahokia have always been magicians, and could have protected the shrine against rot.”

“Excellent.” Sarah stepped into the palace of life.

“Of course, what would be the source of that magic, but the goddess?” Alzbieta turned and walked down a narrow hall that seemed to be the axis of the building.

“Tricky little Handmaid.” Sarah followed. “So does Cahokia have many places like this?”

“Palaces of life?”

“Well, that’s an interesting question too, but I really meant . . . places that don’t count as earth, for purposes of your taboo.”

“The Greek word was a temenos. It meant a place marked apart from ordinary space.”

“You said you weren’t a wizard.”

“I’m a Handmaid of Lady Wisdom, a priestess. And as a priestess, there are many old books I want to read. The answers to your questions are, palaces of life: fairly common. Temples have them, and universities, and some monasteries and palaces. My own city home holds the scrolls that were once here, and is therefore a palace of life, of sorts. As to whether the others have magical protection like this one does, I don’t know. I have no gramarye myself.”

“So you told me before. And yet just now you said the rulers of Cahokia have always been magicians. How is it that you aspired to be queen?”

Alzbieta was briefly silent. “Your own native power as a magician certainly contributes to your claim. As for me, I had hoped that . . . some stage in the process of becoming the Queen of Cahokia would bestow magical power upon me.”

Enthronement? Coronation? The act of becoming queen might bestow magical power? But Alzbieta looked at her feet and said no more on the subject.

“I understand,” Sarah lied.

Alzbieta continued. “As to temenoi, to borrow from the Greeks: fewer all the time. We’ve lost the means of making them.”

“You as a priestess can’t make a . . . sacred place? A temenos?”

“I’ve simplified too much. There are holy places, and holier places. None in Cahokia can now make a holy place.” Alzbieta shook her head. “That is a royal power.”

“But with an empty throne, surely no one would mind if . . . .”

“You misunderstand me. I didn’t say it was a royal prerogative. I said it was a royal power. I cannot do it.”

Again Alzbieta looked at her feet.

“And a holier place?” Sarah asked.

Alzbieta said nothing.

“And if I press you, you’ll evade my questions, because here, and not for the first time, we have come up against that space where you have knowledge you aren’t willing to discuss with me. Some of it, that is, not unless in the right time and place, but some of it, in no time and in no place. Some of this being knowledge you aren’t supposed to have yourself, having learned it from my father, your beau.”

Alzbieta hesitated. “Here, I will tell you, I simply lack knowledge. But our holier places are all very, very old.”

Sarah sighed. “Show me the palace of life, then, cousin Alzbieta.”

Alzbieta led and Sarah followed.

The palace of life’s long central hallway, now that Sarah was inside and could see it better, passed through four rooms and ended in an open window, empty of glass or other covering. Opposite each other at regular intervals, three additional doorways pierced both sides of the hall. Sarah realized with a jolt that the air inside the palace of life was not only dry, but was significantly warmer than the autumn chill outside. She saw no sign of a fire; it must be the effect of the same magic.

The rooms to the side of the central hall connected with each other by doorways, and connected also diagonally with the rooms on the main passage. The whole thing felt like a honeycomb, or a lattice.

The honeycomb impression was strengthened by the interiors of the rooms. The walls of each room — and of all the hallways — where not cut into by doorways, were covered with diagonal wooden slabs crossing each other at regular intervals to create a lattice of diagonal cubbies, all painted white. Bookcases holding cubbies of the same diagonal lattice construction stood free in the middle of the floor of each room, running all the way up to the ceiling.

“These nooks,” Sarah asked the priestess. “They would have held scrolls?”

Alzbieta nodded.

Carved repeating knots decorated the outward-facing surface of the diagonal slabs, making them look vaguely Arab. Mashrabiya, wasn’t that what they called their wooden lattices? Only those were made to block the sun, not to hold writing.

Besides, these knots looked too repetitive to be writing. Sarah ran her finger along one line of knots.

There was, though, something familiar about them. Where had she seen them before? The knots were repeating circles of the same size, with a distinctive twist to the line running through them, first to one side and then to the other, the one side and then the other.

“Well, cousin,” Sarah said. “Now I really want to see your city home.”

Alzbieta bowed.

“Why on earth would you call this a palace of life?” Sarah asked. “Doesn’t that sound like a more fitting name for, say, a Harvite convent? I don’t see sick beds, there’s no food or water, in fact I don’t see even symbols of those things. I don’t see signs or writings of any kind, except what would have been on the scrolls. What does life have to do with it, or did our grandfathers just get tired of naming everything after wisdom?”

Alzbieta laughed. “That is such an excellent question.”

“And yet, your answer leaves so much to be desired.” Sarah snorted. “Ah, well. I tell you, though, it does my heart good to see a library, even if it’s an empty one. Maybe that’s why it’s a palace of life. It’s a metaphor for a great place to read.”