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Marwyn held up the book for inspection. "Your arm was severed here." He gestured to an illustration of two forearm bones. "A clean cut through your ulna and radius."

Ciena nodded along as he spoke. She'd asked Marwyn for advice on her new project, and it looked far more complex than she’d imagined. Sure, arms were simple enough, but hands had twenty-something bones, and they fit together more tightly than bricks in a wall. Plus it seemed like the slightest error would muck up the whole thing.

Ciena would be lucky to draw something half that good, and Ethersmithing was a lot harder than drawing. She flexed the fingers on her remaining hand, marveling at their effortless movement.

Marwyn gestured further down the page to where the skeleton's forearm met the wrist. "Your father's hand was severed here. Same bones. Different spots.”

"So ... is it possible to make a metal hand like his?"

"Possible..." Marwyn set the book down on a nearby table and began pacing. The house was smaller than his old office in Whitecliff. A hanging curtain walled off the sleeping area, and books covered every surface including the floor.

"Not metal though," he muttered to himself. "No. Too dense. No leverage. Something else. Wood, maybe? Could attach behind the elbow for support."

Ciena already had her building material in mind, but she couldn't share that with Marwyn. They'd all agreed that Ethersmithing should be shared on a need-to-know basis, and no one was allowed to share it without consulting the others first. Elias had technically unveiled Bloodsong in Thornhaven, but that audience wouldn't live to gossip.

Marwyn was still muttering ideas to himself when Ciena interrupted, "Could this fake hand hold a sword?"

"Hm." Marwyn gave her a sideways glance and adjusted his spectacles. "No, no. Too heavy. Inefficient. Besides, structure would be too fragile for combat."

She frowned. "Even Steelbreaker? It's lighter than any other weapon."

"Quite sure." Then he muttered more science words to himself. At one point, he recommended strapping a small buckler to her forearm, but Ciena had already tried that. It was the only way to spar with Lucan now since he’d given her the ultimatum two days ago.

"What about a whip?" Ciena asked. "Could I hold that?" One of her latest projects involved turning Steelbreaker into a crystal chain whip. Unlike a regular whip, she could alter its direction midswing and surprise her opponents. She'd only been able to use it left-handed so far, which didn't meet Lucan's demands.

"Hold it?" Marwyn shrugged. "Maybe. Fight with it? No." He held up his own hand and began making several snapping and pivoting motions. "Hands do more than just hold things. Shouldn't need to tell you that. You know combat better than most."

True enough. The slightest twist or angle might mean the difference between life and death. The more she heard, the more she considered abandoning her plan. Even Lucan had been surprised at her ambition, calling it technically possible, but impractical.

Ciena leaned forward and met his eyes. "Let's say I wanted to try building something myself anyway. Because I'm stubborn, or crazy. Or both. Could I borrow some of those anatomy books?"

"Of course." Marwyn placed a small stack next to her bag. "Also—probably want to brush up on basic physics. And engineering..." He continued suggesting topics, removing books from his shelf as he spoke. By the time he'd finished, she'd amassed quite a pile.

Ciena raised an eyebrow. "You're letting me borrow all of these?" Marwyn was many things, but she'd never call him generous.

"They aren't my books," he said with a shrug. "Got them from the Raidenwood library. Meant to take them back sometime. Long walk to the palace."

"In other words," she deadpanned, "these are all mine, anyway."

She opened an anatomy textbook and leafed through the pages. The drawings were nice, but as always, the characters didn't stay still for her. Sometimes, they switched places with one another, making sentences unreadable. Either that or her eyes would gloss over entire words, changing the sentence's meaning.

Ciena didn't let this bother her back in Whitecliff. The academy had conducted its exams orally, so she’d avoided books and memorized the class lectures instead. If the Masters tried to make her read out loud, she'd refused. Better to have people think you're too stubborn than too slow. Besides, combat had always been her passion.

And yet...

Ciena stared down at the open book. In between those leather covers was a secret world—a trove of knowledge that had always been closed to her. Lucan talked about eliminating her weaknesses, and this felt like unfinished business.

Especially if this held her back the next time she fought Alexel.

She glanced at Marwyn who had begun polishing his spectacles.

"I still have trouble with reading," she said. "Something wrong with my eyes, maybe?"

"Hm." Marwyn put the spectacles back on his nose. "Unlikely. Vision was perfect last time I tested you. But I'll humor you anyway." He picked up one of the smaller books. "Cover your left eye with this."

Ciena covered her eye while Marwyn grabbed a blank piece of paper and wrote several characters of various sizes. He put some distance between them and held a finger below the top line.

"Alta," she said at once.

Marwyn nodded and moved his finger to the next character.

"Tacron," she said.

"And these?"

She had to squint this time. "Sida, orda, roe."

After that, Ciena covered her right eye, and they repeated the process with a new list. Marwyn also had her identify a few choice words from the book in front of her.

"Your vision is perfect," Marwyn said. "Up close and far away. Better than three-quarters of all patients."

So much for that idea. She'd heard of Justicars using their Ironblood to improve their senses as well as their physical strength. She'd hoped she could try something similar with her eyes.

"What's the trouble?" Marwyn asked. "Headaches? Eyestrain? Spontaneous blurring?"

She shook her head. "I mean—I do get headaches, but probably not the kind you can fix with fancy herbs."

"Oh? Basis for this probability?"

Ciena drew in a deep breath. She hadn’t shared this with anyone since she was a kid. Not even Elias. He'd tried bringing up her reading problems, but she'd avoided the topic. Over time, they'd settled into a rhythm of him reading for her without comment. That was all well and good for notes, but it wouldn't work for a stack of textbooks.

"When I try to read a block of text," she said, "the characters jump around on the page. I can focus on one word at a time, otherwise it's a rippling pond."

"Ah." Marwyn held up a finger. "Learning disorder. Mental, not physical. Probably born with it."

"What?" Ciena furrowed her brow. Hearing the words 'mental' and 'disorder' together sounded far worse than vision problems. "If I was born like this, then how come my brother can read just fine?"

"Hm." Marwyn scratched his beardless chin. "Can't say. Not identical twins. Still, he might have the same thing. What age did you talk? And read?"

"I don't remember. My parents always said we walked early, but talked late. We also didn't read that well until we were nine. That made our tutors want to jump off Highbridge."

Of course, Elias had read just fine by the time they started classes in Whitecliff. By then, no one could have guessed he ever had problems.

Marwyn nodded as if expecting this. "Extremely common. At least one in fifty students back in Whitecliff."

"Seriously?"

He nodded and began counting off fingers as he spoke. "Kalak Demeron, Zoran Vaulder, Sana Elidor. All had trouble."

Ciena brightened for a moment, then her thoughts turned darker when she remembered that all three of those people were dead. Bloody Templars. And now they'd joined forces with them against Trelidor, which made the Battle of Whitecliff feel more pointless than ever.

"I've seen all three of them read out loud in class," Ciena said after a short pause. "They didn’t seem to have any problems."

"Different levels of severity," he replied. "Worse for some than others. Practice helps."

That made sense, unfortunately. Those other students—including her brother—had all practiced reading when they were younger. Meanwhile, she'd refused. They'd gotten better over time, and she'd gotten worse.

True, her case might be more severe, but she'd never let a disadvantage hold her back in combat. Why should this be any different?

"Haven't done much research on the subject." Marwyn patted a thick tome in the nearby stack. "This book mentions more. Chapter Twelve. As for the other students—told them to slow down. Read one word at a time. Cover up the rest of the page if you need to. Cut small hole in paper, use it as a window."

"Great." Ciena rose to her feet and shouldered the bag. "So, in other words, I'll be done with these bloody books in ten more years."

Still, something felt right about this plan. And if she succeeded, then every second of work would pay off.

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David Musk

Bio: Hey everyone. I'm a web developer and fantasy writer from Grand Rapids, MI.

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