“Obviously,” says the wizard Ulxurix. “Books are for tasting! But first, be a good boy and stay still.
“Deal,” says Fassn.
Abia opens Muthugran’s Runes with great trepidation. The heavy pages seem to resist her efforts, and only after a brief struggle is she able to glimpse within the book. The pages are the colour of clotted cream, the text a vibrant ochre that, she shudders to think, could once have been blood.
She’s surprised to find ledger lines and stroke diagrams, perfectly legible thanks to Ulxurix’s enchantment. The text and illustrations defined several rudimentary runes and magical squiggles. Abia finds herself tracing the shapes in the air with her forefinger.
Suddenly, an alarm blares. It’s a shrieking mechanical bird, on a perch of brass. It thrusts its long metal neck at Cang. All eyes follow it to him, where he is frozen mid-pace, with a crystalline object from Ulxurix’s writing desk in his hands.
Cang blinks, opens his mouth, closes it. He clears his throat, and begins, “Well, you see, the thing is…”
“Can’t read it,” Abia says. Everyone turns to her; even Fassn lifts his head to gape. “All symbols and swirls,” she adds.
“Nonsense!” says the wizard, leaving Fassn’s side. Slim tools jut from his lips like farming gear standing up in firm soil. Ulxurix pushes the book closer to Abia, then traces her forefinger over the largest shapes on its cover. At the tip, sparks fizz and crack, leaving a thin trail of smoke. As she traces, the wizard vocalizes phonemes for Abia, slowly working out their sounds aloud.
Abia worked her lips to follow along, the sound growing more and more resonant, the questioning looks from her compatriots receding further into a vague haze.
When the wizard had traced all of the shapes on the book’s cover, and the lighthouse smelled of fried sage, Abia came back to herself. She let her eyes run over the shapes, which now had an undeniable phonetic association.
“What is it, Abia?” Shyan asks.
“Muthugran’s Runes,” Abia says. “Edition one. In original Isi.”
Fassn perks up again. “Can I taste it?”
“Can I taste it?” Fassn asks, the sounds mangled by his wide-open mouth and the tools jutting from it.
“I’m afraid not, dear,” says the wizard.
“But I love tasting things,” he replies.
“I know,” she says, patting his hand in a patronizing, reassuring way. “I fear that bubbling goo is not for mortal lips.”
“I’m not mortal,” Fassn says. “I have wings, see?” He flaps the fragments of scapular.
“Very nice,” says the wizard, in a humouring tone. Cang rolls his eyes.
Abia moves slowly, though Ulxurix is not looking directly at her. She examines the bookshelf, squints at their spines. In an elaborately-decorated typeface, they declaim their contents in a language she doesn’t recognize. The volume given her by the wizard sits heavy in her hands. She replaces it on the shelf, but the wizard’s voice again arrests her. Though Ulxurix hunches over Fassn’s mouth, peering deeply into it and making tiny moves with her tools, she says, “What’s the matter, dear? Refusing a gift from an old lady?”
Fassn says “Ah.” Nubs of white show through his mottled pink gums. Ulxurix draws a slender implement with a tiny triangular head, and taps at the nubs. The contact makes a flat tkk.
Shyan and Cang lean in to watch, but Cang backs again. “Your breath, Fassn,” he says.
Fassn speaks with his mouth wide. “Maybe you can fix that, too, Madam Wizard?”
As she taps at the nubs with one hand, she rummages her robes with the other. She withdraws a long-handled tool with dense bristles at one end, and offers it to Fassn. He sticks it behind his ear.
Meanwhile, Abia slowly wanders the room. Her eyes fall upon the arcane implements of the wizard’s abode, and continue to fall upon the bookshelf’s empty space. With an effort to ignore it, she makes her way to the cookpot. By all indications, it’s the same one they brought on the wagon — in fact, the liquid appears to be the same, as well. Abia dips a pinky into the gold soup, and as she brings it to her lips, Ulxurix’s voice cuts across the room, saying, “Don’t taste that, please.”
The wizard Ulxurix’s lighthouse-top lair is a small, circular room, with a great pane of glass in one wall, looking out to the grey sea. At the room’s centre is a cookfire, with an iron cookpot atop it. It bubbles with a gold liquid that looks to Shyan for all the world like the same stuff they’d brought here in the first place. She self-consciously feels for the weight of the gold bar, before remembering that Cang’s carrying it. She hopes he still has it.
Lining the walls are machines of brass and wood, ungainly boxes stacked atop one another, connected by looping wires and threads.
Abia’s eyes dart to the bookshelf from which Ulxurix drew the volume she now carries. Its empty spot in the row of tomes glares out at Abia like an abyssal void.
Ulxurix brushes some linens and a small bronze device from a single chair on a low pole, and pats its seat, smiling at Fassn.
“Nice place you’ve got,” he says cheerily, and sits.
Ulxurix claps twice and a gadget recessed into the domed ceiling descends, then stops with a whir just above Fassn’s head. From it dangles a half-dozen drills, picks, hammers.
Ulxurix says, “Open wide.”
The construction ongoing outside my window sounds less like muscled men with beer bellies putting together semi-affordable housing in exchange for a regular paycheque (with the side effect of gentrifying a neighbourhood with an undeserved reputation for seediness) and more like the purposeful, spastic actions of a subterranean mammal building a nest of found objects, scratching, digging, scritching with delicate, fibrous materials, assembling a home in the wet of the earth to pass the cold seasons unharmed.
These men in their grey and green bear knives in gloved fists, in place of claws and sharp teeth. Their orange vests, reflective, a sort of camouflage for the job site. Terse conversation, even at meal times – only alarm calls sounded, warnings, the occasional ribald joke that sends a round of laughter skyward.