The Aethyr Vox stood on Magister Linnaius's desk, collecting dust. It had stood there for many weeks, awaiting its inventor's return. And Rieuk Mordiern, Linnaius's apprentice, had been assigned to cleaning duties again. With a feather duster, he began to clean the delicate mechanism.
"Apprentice alchymist? Unpaid servant, more like," he muttered to the empty laboratory.
In his master's absence, Rieuk had been kept busy assisting Magister de Maunoir, but he was still charged with keeping Linnaius's laboratory spotless, in readiness for his return.
The Aethyr Vox had been developed by two alchymists, Linnaius and Hervé de Maunoir. The device was designed to convey the voice through the aethyr by setting up resonances, using crystals that had been alchymically charged. A second Vox had been installed in Magister de Maunoir's cottage beyond the college walls, and the two magisters had spent many long hours trying to communicate with each other. But to their frustration, it still did not work.
Next to the Vox stood a tray glittering with quartz crystals of varying shapes and types; each one had already been tested in the Vox as a conductor and discarded. Rieuk set down the duster and lifted one, balancing it in the palm of his hand.
He could sense a faint resonance emanating from the heart of the crystal. This natural connection between his flesh and blood and the rock was intoxicating. It was as if he were listening to the heartbeat of the earth itself. He had begun of late to realize that the other students did not share this ability. If he closed his eyes and let his mind become fully attuned to the pulse, he could sometimes glimpse the aethyr stream: a fast-flowing current moving between worlds and dimensions.
The crystal vibrations flowed through Rieuk's body. This one sang like a high, reedy flute, emitting little pulses of citrine light. Entranced by the purity of its cleansing tone, he stood there, his tasks forgotten, listening intently.
The door burst open. Startled, Rieuk almost dropped the crystal. But it was only Deniel, Magister de Rhuys's apprentice.
"Magister Gonery needs you. It's urgent."
Rieuk slipped the crystal into his jacket pocket for safekeeping. "What's so urgent it can't wait till I've done my chores?" he asked as he followed Deniel out into the corridor.
"Important visitors from the capital. Asking for your master. Hurry!"
The Vox. It must be about the Vox.
Rieuk ran all the way from Magister Linnaius's tower to the principal's study, almost sliding down the spiral stair. He arrived out of breath.
"Ah, here is Rieuk Mordiern, Magister Linnaius's apprentice," said Magister Gonery, beckoning him inside. "Close the door, Rieuk. We don't want to be interrupted."
Two strangers turned to stare at him. Both wore long and travel-stained coats, yet there was something about their haughty bearing that spoke of power and influence. These must be the government officials, come to check on the invention that they had funded. One had a grizzled, neatly trimmed beard; the other, smooth-shaven, hovered behind, holding a dispatch case.
"Well?" asked the elder of the two, seating himself opposite Magister Gonery. "Is the device ready?"
Rieuk shot an anguished look at the old alchymist.
"There have been a few . . . minor problems," said Gonery in level tones.
"Unfortunate for my masters . . . but rather more unfortunate for you and the college." The government official's voice was smooth and pleasantly modulated but Rieuk heard an unmistakable hint of warning and shivered. "Magister Linnaius made us a promise. He assured us that the Vox would be finished by early summer. And now, when Francia has its greatest need, you tell me that he's encountered a 'few problems'?"
"Where is he?" demanded the other. "Why is he not here, as we arranged? Does he intend to insult us by sending a mere apprentice in his stead? Or is he too ashamed to show his face?"
A mere apprentice. That stung.
"Rieuk, tell our visitors where your master has gone."
Rieuk felt as if a hand had tightened around his vocal cords. "My-my master has gone overseas to find a special kind of crystal for the Vox."
The elder of the two let out an impatient sigh. "This is unacceptable. The Ministry has paid the college a considerable sum of money to finance this project."
"Exactly when was your master planning on returning?" said the other, rounding on Rieuk. Rieuk took a step back.
"If the Admiralty could just grant us another week or so . . ." put in Magister Gonery. Rieuk had never heard Magister Gonery speak so deferentially before.
"In my opinion, too much is riding on the success of Magister Linnaius's invention," said the elder official to his colleague. He leaned on Magister Gonery's desk, confronting the old alchymist. "Have you any idea what's happening outside the peaceful confines of your little college, Magister?"
Gonery shook his head.
"Francia is under threat. War with Tielen is almost inevitable. We need the Vox now."
War? Rieuk's eyes widened at the thought. Were the Tielens about to launch an invasion?
"Heaven knows, it's been hard enough trying to keep the Inquisition away from your doors. And now there's a new Inquisitor, who is more than eager to prove himself to the king."
"A new Inquisitor?" Magister Gonery repeated slowly, as though digesting this information.
"Alois Visant. And he has his eye on this college. It seems that there have been complaints in the town. Accusations. At the first whisper of forbidden practices, he will shut you down and put you all on trial."
"We have nothing to hide," said Gonery mildly.
This news only increased Rieuk's apprehension; if the Admiralty officials went away empty-handed, they would withdraw their protection and the college would be in danger from the religious fanatics running the Inquisition. They were suspicious of alchymy, regarding it as little different from the forbidden Dark Arts.
"We're busy men, Magister. We can't waste any more time here," said the elder.
"If you were to return tomorrow, gentlemen, I'm sure that -"
"We're on our way to the naval dockyards at Fenez-Tyr. If there's a breakthrough, send word to us there, at the manager's house." The younger official placed a paper on Gonery's desk and snapped his case shut.
"If we hear nothing from you by the end of the week, then your funding will be stopped and the project canceled." The elder official stopped at the door, then turned back as if a thought had just occurred to him. "And if that happens, we can no longer protect you from investigation by the Inquisition."
Magister Gonery nodded.
"We'll show ourselves out. Good-day to you, Magister Gonery."
When the visitors had gone, Magister Gonery sank back down into his chair. Rieuk glanced at the elderly alchymist, uncertain what to do. The official's ominous last words kept repeating in his head. An Inquisition investigation.
"This is serious, isn't it, Magister?"
"What?" Gonery looked up, blinking, as if he had forgotten Rieuk was there. "Events have overtaken us, Rieuk. It seems that the Tielens have taken our ministers by surprise."
"But if we could make the Vox work, it would save the college from closure." Rieuk's hand slid into his pocket where the citrine crystal lay and felt a little tingle of energy tickle his fingertips. "Magister, let me try. You know I have some skill with crystals. If it's to save the college-"
"And has Magister Linnaius given you permission to work on his invention?"
Rieuk hesitated. "Well, not exactly . . ."
"If I were you, I would not attempt anything that would make Magister Linnaius angry," said Gonery, regarding him severely over the top of his spectacles.
"So what was all that about?" Deniel met Rieuk as he approached the laboratory. "Oh, come on, you can tell me. I won't blab. Was it about the Vox?"
Rieuk recovered enough to nod.
"Can't you ask to be transferred to Maistre de Rhuys? He's much more easygoing."
"But he already has you and Madoc."
"And we split the work between us. Which leaves time for fun." Deniel reached out and tousled Rieuk's hair. "When was the last time you came out into Karantec with us?"
Rieuk gave a little shrug.
"Madoc and I are off to the tavern after dinner. There's a new girl working there, Jenovefa." Deniel outlined a voluptuous silhouette with both hands.
"I've got to work."
"Poor Rieuk. Nearly eighteen and never been kissed. I'm getting worried about you."Rieuk winced and ducked out of Deniel's range. "Always studying. There's more to life than alchymy."
But Rieuk had sensed a breath of winter's wind shiver along the passageway. Deniel must have felt it too because he turned instinctively, just as Magister Linnaius appeared behind him.
"M-Magister!" stammered Rieuk. "You've just missed the Admiralty officials."
"Unfortunate." Linnaius loomed over Rieuk, his eyes burning cold as ice. "Where is Magister de Maunoir?"
"I-I heard that his wife was sick," offered Deniel. "He's looking after little Klervie."
Magister Linnaius let out a short sigh of exasperation. "I have urgent news for Maistre Gonery. Rieuk, take this down to Magister de Maunoir." He thrust a small wooden box into Rieuk's hands.
"N-now?" It was nearly six in the evening and the dinner bell would soon be ringing out over the college towers.
"Must I repeat myself?" Magister Linnaius gave him a look of such chill disdain that Rieuk abandoned any hope of eating. "And Deniel, what are you doing idling outside my laboratory? Magister de Rhuys is looking for you." With that, Magister Linnaius swept on down the passageway.
"So no dinner for you tonight?" Deniel called back over his shoulder. "Shall I ask the kitchen to save some for you? It's fish stew-with mussels."
"Why couldn't you have got back a quarter hour earlier?" Rieuk muttered. But at least he had the chance to put the citrine crystal back before Magister Linnaius noticed it was missing. He reached into his pocket and drew it out, feeling again the pulse of its crystalline heartbeat.
But now he could sense another faint pulsation nearby. The crystal that nestled in his cupped hands must have set off a sympathetic resonance in another. And wasn't that precisely what Magister Linnaius had been trying to do, find two crystals that were "in tune" with each other?
Rieuk cast around for the source of the answering vibrations. The sound grew stronger as he moved toward the plain wooden box that his master had told him to take to Magister de Maunoir. With shaking fingers, Rieuk undid the metal catch and opened the lid.
Inside, cushioned on midnight-black silk, lay a crystal. It was clear, except for a single vein of milky white at its heart. "So beautiful," Rieuk murmured, hardly daring to touch it for fear of sullying its purity. "Like a fallen star."
Surely it wouldn't hurt to try? He lifted the glass cover and carefully inserted the still-vibrating citrine quartz in the Vox on the desk and adjusted the voice receptor. Then he closed the box lid on the crystal and set out. He could just imagine the magister's astonished comments when the Vox Aethyria began to transmit his voice. "So young Rieuk Mordiern solved the problem that had you foxed, Kaspar!"
Clutching the box, Rieuk ran down the winding lane that led toward the river and Magister de Maunoir's cottage. A fair-haired little girl was teasing an indolent grey tabby cat on the doorstep, waving an aspen twig over its whiskers and giggling delightedly whenever the cat opened one sleepy eye to bat the twig away.
"Hallo, m'sieur Rieuk!"
The little girl was smiling up at him, her eyes blue as the summer sky. He recognized the sweet face of Klervie, Hervé's daughter.
"Klervie, is your father at home?"
Klervie banged on the front door. "Papa!"
Magister de Maunoir appeared on the step with one finger pressed to his lips. "Ssh, Klervie. Maman still has a bad headache. Play quietly with Mewen." The cat rolled off the step and made a sudden dash toward the back garden with Klervie dancing after it. "I'm sorry, Rieuk." Magister de Maunoir looked even more careworn and bemused than usual. "Have you brought a message from the college?"
"It's about the Vox," Rieuk said in a loud whisper. "I think I've found two crystals with a sympathetic resonance."
Hervé de Maunoir's tired expression vanished. "You'd better come in!"
He led Rieuk to his study which, unlike Magister Linnaius's spotless laboratory, was crammed with precariously piled stacks of books, jars of gruesome specimens pickled in cloudy alcohol, and cases of dried insects. On the desk, amid all the clutter, gleamed the second Vox, twin to the one in college.
"I don't recall ever seeing a stone like this before," said de Maunoir in puzzled tones. He picked it up and examined it. "Where did you find it?"
Rieuk hesitated a moment. "Magister Linnaius brought it back with him."
"So he's returned at last! And he told you to use it in the Vox?"
Rieuk made a vague gesture. "He told me to bring it to you . . ."
"Well, I don't suppose it can hurt to try."
"It worked in the laboratory." Rieuk refused to let himself be defeated. Yet the crystal remained silent, and every attempt to make it sing as it had before failed.
"Perhaps we should try again tomorrow."
"Hervé," called a woman's voice weakly. "Has Klervie had her supper?"
Hervé leaped up. "Is that the time already?" he called back. "I'm on my way, dear." He returned a minute or so later. "She's not in the garden. She must have gone to her friend Youna's." Rieuk did not miss the flustered look in his eyes. "I'll be back soon."
"Let me try once more, Magister." His future as an alchymist might rest on this one act. If he succeeded, the Admiralty would get their invention and the college would be saved from closure.
"By all means . . ." Hervé was already hurrying out of the door.
Rieuk took the crystal out of the Vox and pressed it to his forehead, seeking again for that elusive voice. For a second he felt a tremor of energy, like a distant flicker of lightning. Hastily, he replaced it, and waited.
Tired and dejected, Rieuk leaned forward on the desk beside the Vox and let his head rest on his outstretched arms. He closed his eyes. So close to success and yet still so far . . .
"So you really think this will lead to war?"
War? Who was talking of war? The voice had been faint, but utterly distinct.
"Francia laid claim to the islands first. Yet the Arkhan of Enhirre has just signed a trade treaty with Prince Karl of Tielen." That dry tone sounded just like his master's. But how could it be? "He's granted Tielen exclusive rights to the spice trade. And now it's stalemate . . ." The voice faded out. Rieuk raised his head, wondering if he had caught fragments of a conversation drifting in as people passed by the cottage.
"Are you being entirely frank with me, Kaspar?"
Rieuk sat bolt upright. Few people were permitted to call Magister Linnaius by his first name.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Tracing the Shadow by Sarah Ash. Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Ash. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.