OCCASIONALLY, AS SHE MOVED from one table of exhibits to another, Ellen picked up an item and gently blew it clean of dust before carefully replacing it. No one disturbed her slow appraisal of the small museum and its evidence of the interwoven history of Skyseekers, Crystalmakers and Cryptals.
She stopped at an open-topped cabinet, reached in and stroked her fingers over a space, reading the label of what should have been on display:
Virigin: Replica of the Guild Sceptre.
The original is said to repeat more than ten words of authority.
One rumour had it that her former English tutor had stolen the replica; another rumour had it that Redel had sold the replica to finance one of his extravagant hobbies.
Fingers still lingering over the replica’s space, Ellen turned her head to look out of the library’s picture window. Clouds swirled and swooped before the sun, causing patches of early spring snow on Si’Empra’s rocky, steep, treeless landscape to glow and fade. In the distance, the white tops of mountains ducked in and out of the same cloud-dance. Ellen dropped her gaze to a more immediate scene far below: a large, green SUV, almost as wide as the bridge that spanned the frothing, ice-laden, surging waters of the Si’Em River, was forcing its way slowly through a crowd of pedestrians and goats. Goats were bucking and rearing in panic, tipping the carts they pulled; some people were dashing around picking up spilled goods, others were trying to calm the goats, and others again were trying to push a passage to one or other side of the bridge and out of the way of the motor vehicle.
The SUV belonged to her half-brother, Ülrügh Redel. It and a yellow convertible sports car had arrived a few days ago on the first cargo ship to make it through the melting Antarctic Sea ice. Elbows leaning on top of the wall enclosing her private garden high up on Si’Em Bluff and overlooking the harbour, Ellen had watched the vehicles being offloaded. Her childhood nursemaid, Katherina, had been standing next to her, sunglasses over her pale eyes and wide-brimmed hat pulled low on her forehead. “The colour of the big one is called titanium green,” Katherina had said enthusiastically. “It has an Arizona-beige interior, a three-litre engine, ABS brakes and four-wheel drive. It can make the journey from Baltha to Sinthén much faster than the bus!”
Amused, Ellen had not been able to resist a little teasing. She knew that her devoted carer had little understanding of why any such details were significant; doubtless she had heard them from others. “Why do you think it’s necessary to get to Sinthén more quickly?”
Katherina, who barely ever left the confines of Si’Em City and had certainly never been to Sinthén, frowned. “I’m told Sinthén is smelly,” she murmured.
Ellen had almost added: “And Sinthén Road is too badly rutted for the low chassis of a sports car,” but then Katherina would have puzzled over the words “chassis” and “ruts”.
Ellen turned her attention from the growing chaos on the bridge back to the museum. She had seen a similar scene an hour ago when the car had forced its way across in the other direction. It was likely that Redel was driving the car. Ellen had fallen into the habit of limiting her movements around the Serai when there was a chance she might meet her half-brother. Sure of his absence now, she had taken the opportunity to visit the museum to do as Pedro asked.
She picked up a slim book with a plain leather cover embossed in child-like lettering: “The Book of Rhymes”.
“Could you please substitute this book for the one that looks like it,” Pedro had said in his quiet way. “I will copy its contents and then you can return it to the museum. I have been asked by the Crystalmakers to make a copy.”
She had not asked Pedro why the Crystalmakers wanted the book. She knew that her mother and Pedro had a clandestine association with the belowground peoples. In secret, they had even taught her the Crystalmakers’ language. They promised – “one day when it is safe” – to share the details of their bond with Crystalmakers. Doubtless it had to do with the fact that her mother’s pale features signified a certain amount of Crystalmaker blood.
As Ellen held the copy of the book in her hands, her curiosity about the association piqued in a way it had not for some years. In fact, in these last three years, very little had stirred her usually enquiring nature; she sometimes felt like a disembodied avatar of herself, tracking through the motions of being first lady among Skyseekers while her thoughts and emotions battled to find some meaning to her life.
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