Feb 10 2011 5:39pm
The Last Page (Excerpt)
Caliph Howl carried a thin paper-wrapped package across the well-tended lawns of the High College. Today was the day of his revenge.
Tattered shadows slid back and forth under a canopy of danson trees. The old stone buildings of Desdae warmed themselves in the sun like ancient mythic things, encrusted with gargoyles and piled with crippling tons of angled slate. Thirty of the buildings belonged to the township. The other eighteen belonged to the college. Two camps with an uneasy truce watched each other across the lake that separated them; collectively known by one name, Desdae: the gray hamlet of higher learning that crouched at the foothills of the mighty Healean Range.
Behind the campus’ thick walls, Caliph knew theory-haunted professors wasted away, frisking books for answers, winnowing grains of truth, pulling secrets like teeth from deep esoteric sockets. This was a quiet war zone where holomorphs and panomancers cast desperately for new ideas, compiling research with frenetic precision.
Desdae might be far away from the mechanized grit of cities like Isca, it might be quiet and sullen, but it wasn’t simple. It had small-town villains and small-town gossip and, he thought, small-town skullduggery as well.
Caliph tugged the library’s massive door and cracked the seal on the tomb-like aromas: dust, buttery wood polish and ancient books.
Caliph scanned for the librarian and slunk smoothly into the aisles.
The system that organized the library was like most other products of northern bureaucracy: a premeditated torture inflicted by the personal preferences of the man in charge. The system required students to memorize the stone busts of dead scholars, thereby reinforcing the school motto, “Truth, Light, Chastity and [especially] Hard Work.” The busts marked ogive-shaped burrows into labyrinthine stacks where freshmen soon learned to associate topic and location with the scholar representing a given area of study. Those who didn’t, doomed themselves to hours of wandering.
Caliph knew almost all two hundred sixty-three stone heads’ names and birth dates as if they had been kin.
Freshmen who became hopelessly lost had two choices: browse endlessly or pay the expedition fee senior students demanded in exchange for a path to wisdom.
Senior students typically charged one bek for two books. Caliph had quickly become one of the profiteers.
Four more years and he would graduate. Halfway to the embossed vellum that would list the three foci of his degree: economics, diplomacy and holomorphy. He turned down an aisle marked with the bust of Timmon Barbas, born Century of Wind, Year of the Wolverine. Timmon Barbas had been one of the most brilliant military strategists to see siege engines roar.
Caliph ran his finger across the leather spines gently as he walked. Anticipation swelled his stomach and a faint smile marked his still boyish lips.
Roric Feldman would come to the library after lunch today, looking for Timmon Barbas’ book, The Fall of Bendain. Though only forty-seven pages in length, Caliph knew every word in it from beginning to end. He knew every stitch in the binding, every scuff in the cover, every worn and dog-eared page.
He had written it himself.
Not a bad bit of forgery. Every page had been individually aged and penned in the old tactician’s handwriting. The cover and binding Caliph felt particularly proud of, embossed and tooled and edged with metal just like the real thing. Even the rust was authentic.
The Fall of Bendain had not yet been reprinted. Though the new press from Pandragor, dripping with grease and possibilities, would eventually churn out copies, other textbooks had taken priority: Ợlisgữl’s Physics Compendium for instance and Blood: A Holomorph’s Guide, which for any student of the discipline was an absolute must.
In another year or two or five, Caliph’s careful forgery might not have been feasible. Today, however, the window of opportunity swung wide open.
Morgan Gullows, Caliph’s tutor in the Unknown Tongue, had almost caught him aging treated paper over a gas flue. With first draft in hand, Caliph’s plan had nearly been discovered. Thankfully, Gullows was a recluse and rarely looked at anyone directly. He had muttered something unintelligible and shambled off, leaving Caliph to watch his paper catch fire.
The whole test had gone up in a mushroom of smoke and shriveled ash.
From then on, Caliph had exercised every precaution he could think of, stowing his drafts and materials behind the massive radiator in Nasril Hall. He wheedled his way into a job organizing the whirring ticking office of Silas Culden where he graded midterms.
Silas loathed every minute taken up by class-related chores. Twice a week he dumped a slippery pile of paperwork into Caliph’s lap and headed back to his research—the only thing that would secure his tenure; therefore the only thing that mattered.
He paid Caliph, of course, and thanked him for assigning an illicit but reasonable ratio of passing grades by way of a weekly pair of tickets to the Minstrel’s Stage.
Alone in Silas’ office, Caliph had pawed methodically through the wooden cabinets until he found the senior exam Roric would be taking, the one that meant the difference between an eight-year degree and a shameful return to his father’s house in the Duchy of Stonehold.
With test in hand, Caliph had begun plotting his revenge, justice for what had happened three and a half years ago on a chilly cloudless night.
He could still remember the articulation of Roric’s lips and the perverse smile that framed his abrupt violation of social grace.
* * *
“You a virgin?” Roric’s eyes gleam through the dormitory shadows.
Caliph’s pretense, studying the dead language propped against his thighs, doesn’t seem to convince Roric.
“We’ve got some sugar doughnuts coming up from the village tonight, Caph. Haven’t we, Brody?”
Brody is stout but muscular and grows hair on his face faster than a Pplarian Yak. He nods silently and flips a gold gryph across his knuckles.
Caliph smirks, “I’ll believe that when I see –”
“You’re such a fuck, Caph. You probably say the motto in your sleep. Dean’s list…oh shit! My grades slipped a tenth of a point. Eaton’s assworm. That has a ring to it.”
“Maybe you’d like old Luney’s flock better than our thoroughbreds.” Roric picks up a pillow from the stiff dormitory bed and humps it with both hands.
Caliph simpers, “Where are they going to be then?”
“Why would I tell you? You wouldn’t know where to stick it in anyway.”
Caliph’s gaze falls out the window where rain distorted shapes are making the dash between buildings.
“Suppose they was on Ilnfarne-lascue?”
“How would they get out there?”
“Just suppose they was? Would you chip in? It cost us a bit more than three week’s tutoring to get them up here, right Brody? We could use another man to bring the cost down for all of us.”
Brody’s lower lip projects like a ledge as he watches his coin dance.
“How many are there?”
“Three—but plenty to go around, eh?”
“I might chip in,” Caliph says slowly, “just to talk.” He feels embarrassed thinking about the possibilities.
Roric and Brody snicker, “Sure, just talk, Caph—whatever you say.”
That night, Caliph and Roric swim the cold dark water of the college lake. The tiny island barely conceals the ruined steeple of a shrine the student body refers to as Ilnfarne-lascue, a Hinter phrase meaning the place of the act.
Rumors of expulsion and unsubstantiated trysts wrap the island in a localized fog of notoriety, but this is the first time Caliph believes such a scenario might actually unfold. Picking their way over the graffiti-covered rocks of the shore, the two of them crouch at the edge of the trees and listen.
“Vanon and the others must already be here,” says Roric. Voices and firelight vacillate through the limbs. “I’ll meet you at the shrine. Better make sure no one followed us.”
Caliph shakes with excitement. The cold, cloying lake smell, wet and fungal; the cry of a night bird; they crystallize suddenly and unexpectedly, associated from that moment on with young lust.
As he makes his way, he catches sight of the shrine and a notion that he has been overcharged passes through him. He counts not five freshmen but seven. They are wet and shivering around a fire, whispering emphatically.
Caliph stops. Where is Brody? He waits in the darkness, suspicions growing.
Roric has not come back from the shore. Where are the women?
Caliph turns and looks out across the lake. On the lawns, the green flicker of a chemiostatic lantern bobs. Several figures are putting a boat in. Not the women. They would have oared from the village.
Caliph scrambles back to the water. He eases himself in, fearful of splashing, and begins pulling slowly and quietly for shore. When he is within range of the lantern, he slips beneath the water’s skin and kicks out, submarining until his lungs burn.
On the far side, he finds his clothing gone. His key to the dormitory is gone. Fooled after all!
He darts up the hill toward the unsympathetic edifice of Nasril Hall, looking for available windows. Half way up one of the metholinate pipes that siphons gas into the boy’s dormitory, the pallid cast of a lantern strikes his nakedness and a commanding voice bellows for him to get down.
In the morning, Caliph is locked in the pillory with the other seven, each of them bearing bright red welts that run horizontally across their backsides. Expulsion could have been the penalty, but seeing as how no felonies had been committed, the chancellor’s cane and a dose of public humiliation have sufficed.
Roric Feldman, master of the deception, gathers with the rest of the student body in front of the Woodmarsh Building to stand and sit and watch and laugh.
Of course, the chancellor knows there has been treachery. Nothing of consequence that transpires on Desdae’s lawns escapes Darsey Eaton.
He hears the boys’ complaints individually in his office. But the initiation serves his purpose—so he allows it to pass. These freshman have learned a code behind the code: violators will be caught and they will be punished.
* * *
Caliph’s painful memory of the event was offset by knowledge that Roric’s exam was comprised entirely of essay. Caliph had taken it upon himself to rewrite all the tactics and all of the figures and many of the names and dates in The Fall of Bendain. It remained a very readable book, he mused smugly. Very official sounding.
Quietly, he unwrapped the package he had carried into the library and looked briefly at his handiwork. So much effort had gone into it that it pained him to leave it here. The exchange took place quickly. A book sliding off a shelf, a book sliding onto a shelf—a completely normal occurrence that would destroy Roric Feldman.
When the book came back, as they all must the night before final exams, the exchange would take place again and there would be no trace and no proof to support Roric’s distressed complaint.
Caliph stiffened suddenly and turned around. Someone had been watching.
She had just started up the spiral staircase that rose to the balconies. Caliph had only a vague notion of how her body moved as she went up the steps one at a time, carrying a small leather pack over her shoulder. Her jaw line bowed, smooth and proud, tracing from gem-studded lobes; her curls were short for the helmets she wore in fencing class. She passed through a stray lance of window light and her eyes flared molten blue. She looked directly at him, lips flickering with a wry vanishing smile, face perfectly illuminated. Then she was gone, radiant head disappearing above the second story floor, soft booted feet lifting her out of sight.
The crocus-blue glare had etched itself into Caliph’s mind. For a moment he felt like he had stared straight into the sun. Then he cursed. He knew her. She was in her sixth year but shared some of his classes, probably as audits.
“Byữn, byữn, byữn,” he whispered the Old Speech vulgarity for excrement.
Carefully, he wrapped The Fall of Bendain in the paper his forgery had been in and slid it into his pack.
Odds were she had not understood what he was doing. Still, Desdae was a tiny campus; if Roric complained loudly enough, she might remember seeing him here and put the two together. He walked quickly to the wrought iron stairs and spun up them, looking both ways down the third story balcony.
Dark curls and skin that stayed tan regardless of weather, Caliph felt confident despite his size. His torso had hardened from swordplay and his face was already chiseled with the pessimism of higher learning. He might be quiet but he wasn’t shy. A subtle nuance that had often worked in his favor.
He saw her down the right, hand on the balcony railing, headed for the holomorph shelves. He caught up with her and followed her into an ogive marked with the bust of Tanara Mae.
When he cleared his throat, her eyes turned toward him more than her body.
“Hello.” He kept it simple and upbeat.
“Are you seeing anyone?”
“Quite direct, are you?” She sauntered down the aisle, slender as an aerialist, fingertips running over unread names. “Yes, I am…he doesn’t go to school at Desdae though.”
Her smell amid the dust was warm and creamy like some whipped confection, sweet as Tebeshian coffee. In the ascetic setting of the library it made him stumble.
“So if we went to Grume’s…or a play?”
“I like plays.” Her eyes seized him. Bright. Not friendly. Caliph had to remind himself that he had no personal interest in her. “There’s a new play in town,” she was saying. “Some urban gauche piece out of Bablemum. Probably atrocious.”
Caliph tapped his lower lip, “I heard about it. What’s the writer’s name?”
“I don’t know. It’s called Rape the Heart.” She drifted farther down the aisle.
“Tragedy?” Caliph pressed after, trying to corner her in a casuistic way.
She slipped between the shelves like liquid. “Depends on your point of view I suppose.”
“And you’d like to see it?”
“I’m seeing a boy,” she murmured, twisting the knife.
“But he doesn’t go to school here…” Caliph whispered.
“No. He doesn’t.”
“And I don’t mind.” His voice couched what he hoped was a satisfactory blend of confidence and innuendo.
“Final exams?” She seemed to maintain a constant distance as though the air were slippery between them. “Aren’t you busy or worried—or both?”
“I don’t study much.” It was a blatant lie.
She frowned, “And you have money for a play?”
“I don’t pay anyone for notes. Actually I charge—expedition fees—you know?” His slender fingers gestured to the books all around. “I come into a good deal of money this time of year, but I usually get my tickets for free.”
“Rape the Heart then?” She didn’t ask how he managed free tickets. “Tomorrow. I’ll meet you here before evening bells.”
Caliph tossed her a wan smile. This was not a date of passion, “I’ll be here. What’s your name?”
She shook her head derisively, “It matters to you?”
“I’m not like other men.”
“Boys,” she suggested. “If I were you and didn’t want to sound pretentious, I’d say, I’m not like other boys.”
“Right,” Caliph’s eyes narrowed, then he feigned a sudden recollection. “It’s Sena, isn’t it?”
Her lips curled at one corner.
He tipped his head. “Tomorrow evening…”
She stopped him just as he turned to go. “I’ll see you then…Caliph Howl.”
Caliph smirked and disappeared.
* * *
Sena stood in the dark alcove looking where he had vanished into the white glare of the balcony.
“Caliph Howl,” she mused with mild asperity. “Why now? Why here, after four years, do you suddenly decide to give me the time of day?”
Tynan Brakest was the other boy. He was sweet. He had been the one to pay her way at college. His father’s money ensured their relationship slipped easily from one moment to the next. The coins had purchased Tynan hours, weeks and months until the accumulated stockpile of familiarity had evolved into a kind of watered down love.
But Caliph Howl? Her stomach warmed. This could be exactly what I am looking for.
Copyright 2010 by Anthony Huso