A young apprentice, or perhaps a student, opened the door and ushered me into the receiving parlor. Everything was warm, inviting wood, much as Master Thorne’s home had been. Acacia wood flooring, Amaranth panneled walls, all manner of wooden chairs set around a matching table. Rather than being designed to look well together, it was arranged to make a woodcrafter feel at ease. They were old woods, long asleep, that gave off a subtle, pleasant hum. I had forgotten the feeling of contentment that such a room gave.
As directed, I sat in a chair of Sassafras. It was masterwork. The arms were exquisitely carved, reshaping themselves to fit me perfectly. The wood had chosen its shape and the master had obeyed, resulting in a chair that gave far more comfort than a cushion ever could.
I did not have to wait long before a journeyman came in to ask after my business.
I had both a missive written by the Captain and the drawing of the spoon. These I handed over while explaining Captain Winter’s request.
The journeyman examined both and listened silently, then called the student back and sent him off again with a few words. Then she smiled. “You are a woodcrafter?” Her tone implied a question, but her smiling countenance was knowing. Only a woodcrafter could admire this room.
I nodded, smiling sheepishly. I had intended to leave without arousing suspicion of that, but already I had failed. The magic of the room prevented me from feeling any worry or concern, but in the back of my mind I was aware of the possible danger. It was far easier to lie to those at the palace, even under pressure. To another woodcrafter it would be difficult to hide my training.
“Where are you from?”
“Atelis.” Perhaps it was the wood that allowed me to be clever. Atelis was big enough to have multiple woodcrafters, but it was notorious for being something of a worthless, dangerous city. The nearest guild to it was Sorya, which was far enough away that only journeyman from Atelis would be registered, and almost no one made it to journeyman in Atelis. If she asked, I could easily claim that my teacher had died, but she did not ask. Atelis was enough.
“How do you like the chair?” She asked with a conspiratorial smile.
Her smile infected me. “I like it very much. I wonder that the Captain does not commission his chairs from here.”
Her smile spoke of secret laughter. “He would not notice if he sat on cold stone,” she said emphatically. “I cannot help but wonder if he is even human at times.”
I was surprised, not that I disagreed with the sentiment. But she spoke as though she knew him personally, even intimately. It made me wonder, did the Captain actually leave the palace sometimes, besides on business? Did he have friends? It was a weird thought. The closest he had come to asking a personal question was when he commented, after seeing me gag at the roast duck one night at dinner, that I could request meatless meals. And even that was unimpressive, considering I had been at the palace several phases eating meat with him. I admitted to having had a pet duck, and he asked no questions. Though, I had not seen it on my plate since then.
Looking at the journeyman, I noticed that she was very beautiful. Her long red-gold hair curled gorgeously around her face, giving her an angelic appearance. Her face, though pale, glowed with health and warmth, and her red lips turned up easily into bright smiles. Even her amber eyes seemed to sparkle. She was clearly strong, a woodcrafter had to be, but she still managed to look pretty and sweet.
For a moment I let myself be a little jealous, but the chair was too comfortable to wallow in unpleasant emotions.
The student returned with a basic kit—hers. She stood, accepting it with an affectionate pat on the boy’s head. “Lead the way,” she told me.
I did not want to move. “Where..?” At her expression, I remembered the missive I had delivered. “That is, the item has not been located.” I felt embarrassed. Why was I even there?
She was unconcerned. “That was true when you left, perhaps,” she said, offering me a hand to pull me out of the chair. “But I am certain Eliot has found it by now, Avery.” She smiled. “He is very good at obtaining whatever he wills.” Was it my imagination, or was there a warning in her expression? But she turned and stepped out of the parlor before I could be sure. Reluctantly, I left the lovely room and followed her back to the entrance where a carriage was ready and waiting.
It had taken me over two hours to find the place, but the ride back to the palace was fifteen minutes. The whole way Journeyman Anna told me about the buildings we passed—their builders, their histories, and their scandals. I half-listened while trying to figure out how the Captain had time to tell this woman about me when he did not have time to eat or sleep. And what had he said? That I was working for him while he deliberated whether I should be permitted an audience with the King or hung for treason? Did he tell her where I was from? Did she think me a liar?
Well, I was. Even my name was half a lie. Mother had named us before we were born, Jaiden had said. Her fiery-spirited baby she named Avery and her placid baby she named Aevlin. I was both and neither, so who did that make me?
The journeyman climbed out and led the way straight through to the Captain’s office, after nodding at the gate guards and being cheerfully welcomed. It was obviously not her first visit to the palace.
“Eliot,” she greeted him warmly with a smile and reached out her hand, which he took and bowed over. Her smile lost strength.
“Contessa Annalize. It was kind of you to trouble yourself over so small a matter, and so promptly.” He was as formal as she was familiar and friendly.
Undeterred, she brightened and squeezed his hand. “It is never any trouble to help you, Eliot.”
“That is very kind of you to say, Contessa. I assure you that a journeyman of less prestige than yourself would suffice. My affairs are certainly beneath your talents.”
They continued to argue back and forth pleasantly, him almost chiding her for coming and her declaring her undying support and affection. She also took a few minutes to question the wisdom of his taking on an apprentice, and I could not be offended, much, because I could not help but agree with her arguments that he needed someone more suited to the work, with higher education, and with more influence among the people of Saliz. His, which I could almost appreciate but not quite believe, were to the effect that his apprentice was ideal for the position, intelligent, and, once trained, would lighten his workload. I wondered if he had another apprentice hidden somewhere.
Fearing I would never eat, I finally interjected when she started talking about how much her family missed having him around. “If that is all you needed..”
“Sit down, Avery.”
It had been worth a try. “Captain, how is a journeyman to verify the age of a spoon we do not have?”
I was hoping he would just kick me out. He seemed to be enjoying this backward friendship he shared with the Contessa. Meanwhile, I was bored and hungry. It was already past lunch, and while I was off running around the city using energy I did not have, he had probably eaten while laughing at my expense.
Captain Winter produced the spoon from a drawer in his desk. I recognized both it and the feeling of despair that welled up somewhere between my stomach and my heart. There would be no midday meal for me. He handed it to me and invited the Contessa to examine it as well, but she was too busy praising his intelligence and reminding me how very well she had predicted the Captain’s actions. I could not be sure, but she seemed to be intentionally annoying him as much as possible. For his part, the Captain responded mechanically, but I could not help but wonder if it came from embarrassment or timidity, rather than disinterest.
I did not need to examine the spoon. It gave off the familiar hum that I felt from all my work. Thorne had explained that it was because anything that I made was automatically Charmed. It did not make it magical, but it was a signature that each Charmer had and could use to recognize other Charmer’s work.
Rather belatedly, I realized that all the little spoons and other pieces I had made for the Padfoots would give off the same hum, detectable by any wood Charmer. Fortunately, no wood Charmer was likely to find their cellar lair, but I should have been more careful.
I passed the spoon to Contessa Annalize. She examined it thoughtfully. Was she a wood Charmer? The way she ran her fingers over the wood suggested that she was. It was not complex enough of a piece to warrant such attention otherwise.
The Captain probably suspected her of merely stalling. After waiting a few minutes he said, “You need not hesitate on account of Avery. She is, as you pointed out, my apprentice.”
It was the first time he had acknowledged me as an apprentice, rather than calling me a criminal living on his grace. I felt complimented until I noticed that his attention was entirely on her. I was just a means to irritate her, and it was working. He probably would have called the runner Mareditt his model student if the boy had been nearby.
“It matches perfectly with the work of Master Thorne’s journeyman.” She offered the spoon back to me.
I was confused until I remembered that Master Thorne would have brought several pieces of mine as proof of my qualification as a journeyman. I re-examined it and murmured, “So it is true, that he took an apprentice and made a journeyman.” The spoon vibrated lightly. Could she feel the resonance? I set it carefully on the desk and tried not to look like I wanted to chuck it out the nearest window. It helped that there were no windows in the Captain’s office.
She nodded. “He was quite proud of his student. He said he had never seen anyone so promising except when he looked in the mirror.”
I snorted and tried to cover it by pretending to sneeze.
Contessa Annalize smiled without suspicion. My teacher’s reputation was well-known. “Thorne will wish to see this,” she added.
I held completely still. Perhaps if I was very lucky, he was not currently in Saliz.
“May I bring it back to show him?”
I never had been very lucky.
“Not at present. It is evidence of the baker’s fallacy. By your words, I take it that he is returned.” I felt the Captain’s gaze on me as I looked at his contessa.
Breathe in. 3, 2, 1. Breathe out.
“So it would seem.” Contessa Annalize’s cheerful tone and brilliant smile belied her casual words. If she intended to make him jealous, though, she ought to have chosen someone more believable. The few times Master Thorne had brought me to Essel, he had not noticed a single woman, and several pretty ones had tried to talk to him. I had, however, seen him flirt with his own reflection on multiple occasions.
“Then he can be called upon to verify his student’s work.”
“Certainly, but it hardly seems necessary.”
“Contessa, it sounds as though there is something more to be said.” The Captain’s tone made me look at him. He was watching her, checking for signs of weakness.
“It is strictly guild business.” She glanced at me, a not-so-subtle hint at my inferiority. It was curious. She had not minded me before, but she suddenly wanted me to leave.
I was all for it, and made it two steps closer to the door before the Captain’s attention caught me and I faltered.
I looked back over my shoulder.
The Captain appeared to be running out of patience. Perhaps he had not eaten, either. “Contessa.”
She smiled, a self-conscious half-apology that felt sincere. “I will simply need to adjust. As I told you previously, Master Thorne returned after his ten year absence to present his apprentice’s work to the guild council. We were shocked that he had returned to woodcrafting at all, but to have trained an apprentice as well!”
“It was unexpected,” the Captain agreed, looking thoughtful.
Everyone seemed to know but me, but no one spoke of it. Why had he left the work he loved and the city he grew up in to live quietly in the middle of nowhere? He had not given up woodcrafting, like everyone believed. His house was a museum of priceless works that he had made during his time of exile. He never even let me go in, although Jaiden was allowed. I had to stay in a separate building that he designated for me and my lessons. Half of it was my work, though. That was my first project.
The journeyman contessa nodded. “If it had not been him, I doubt very much that the Guild council would have consented to evaluate the work and convey journeyman status to an apprentice no one had ever seen. Not only that, he need not have come to the Guild here. There are Woodcrafting Guild Houses in Sorya and Mistler, both unquestionably closer to wherever he was. His behavior was strange. For six moons he seemed to expect his student to arrive at any moment, and even lived at the guild. Then he left.”
The Captain nodded slowly. “I heard much of that. Thank you, Contessa, for confirming its veracity.”
Truth. I had looked that one up several times.
“What you may not have heard,” she paused and smiled, “but then, it is you. Master Thorne’s apprentice Charms wood. It may have only been coincidence, but it is possible that the baker in question was aware that the piece was not a real Thorne, but was special nonetheless.”
Even Charmed, a spoon was still just a spoon. Even if it did pass as a Thorne, it would only increase to the level of an average knife. Some people were sensitive to Charms, though, and liked to collect Charmed works. The baker could have been a collector, or sold to one.
The Captain smiled, a predatory expression. “I believe we shall pay a visit to our friend the baker.”
As with Thorne, I knew that my status as an apprentice meant that I had no real choice in anything. Captain Winter required, and expected, only my silent agreement.
He turned to the journeyman to say, “Contessa Annalize, I would appreciate if you be so kind as to accompany us. I believe we may require your assistance.”
“Of course, Eliot,” she smiled warmly, managing to accept the arm he had not offered without it looking forced. I trailed along behind them, casting one longing look in the direction of the kitchen and releasing one quiet sigh.
“Should you be visiting prior to the official hearing? Might that not appear awkward later?” she asked out of curiosity, or perhaps to encourage him to speak.
“Not at all. I expect there will be no need for a trial. As this is merely a social call, let us go in your carriage.”
At some point, the Captain had handed the spoon back to me. I flipped it over and studied my own mark, wondering if I could ditch it in a bush along the way.
“Miss Avery.” Captain Winter was prepared to help me into the carriage as well. For a moment, as he handed me up, I faltered, recalling the first and last time I had been so helped into a carriage. On my wedding day, the Count had charmingly done so. If not for the Captain’s left hand on my back, I might have fallen. I could feel him looking at me as he settled across from the journeyman and I.
I focused on the spoon to avoid his uncomfortably intelligent eyes, and fortunately the contessa quickly commanded his attention.
I confess I did not listen to their conversation. It was mostly gossip about various persons they both knew. Only when we arrived outside the bakery did the Captain turn his attention to me.
“Miss Avery, please recall as accurately as possible when you first laid eyes on that spoon.”
The contessa’s brow furrowed in puzzlement, and I was tempted to copy her expression.
The Captain’s knowing expression created chaos in my brain, and every passing second brought me closer to saying something foolish. But then he saved me by adding, “I already know that you first appeared in that establishment five moons ago. Try to remember if it was already there at that time.”
I nearly sighed in relief. He was asking to be polite, and to remind me of his omniscience. Undoubtedly he knew that I had recognized the spoon the moment he had first handed me the drawing. I thought chronologically backwards. The last thing I had done was create decorative pendants for each of the members. That had been a slow process. Before that, the table. Then the communal spoon. Individual spoons had been first, after the furniture for Bigfoot’s office, because I had not wanted to eat with my hands. “Maybe four moons ago?”
Three moons, three phases, and two days.
After gaining their trust and trust with the woodwork, it had only taken a phase and a half to find out what it would take to acquire their knowledge of the palace. Accomplishing that had been a night’s work, but then getting into the palace had proved unexpectedly difficult.
The Captain stepped out of the carriage without acknowledging my response and assisted the contessa. I felt my breathing return to normal. He offered his hand to me, but I jumped, managing to skillfully roll my ankle. I could feel Avery rolling her eyes.
The contessa took his arm again, but not before I noticed how alike their thoughtful expressions were.
Rather than entering the business entrance, The Captain rapped loudly on the front door of the attached house. A maid answered and let us into the front parlor before leaving to find the baker.
Evidently, the man was rich. His parlor was furnished with mahogany chairs carved by masters, glass lights blown by masters, velvet drapes sewn by masters… Looking around, I wished I had learned to whistle as well as Jaiden could. Instead, unable to not react, I whispered, “He’s obsessed!”
Captain Winter sent me a cautionary glance. I was not looking, but I felt it in my spine like a cold breeze. I straightened, but could not prevent my hand from flitting over the decorative wooden end table. Not a Thorne. Looking around, none of it was. None of the wood pieces were recent, and I suspected the rest were equally old. A family collection.
The baker entered almost as soon as we sat, forcing me to rise and stand behind the Captain. My ankle twinged, but it was superficial compared to injuries I had experienced on my journey to Saliz. The contessa remained seated, as was her right as a woman of rank, but Captain Winter stood to shake the baker’s hand.
As they sat, I examined the baker.
Mid to late forties. Miserable, and a miser.
He and the Captain exchanged basic pleasantries, this being their second or third meeting, and I observed that the lines of the baker’s face—a Mister Reynolds—suggested that he was more prone to furrows and frowns than anything. Even speaking to the Captain, his gracious smile did not have any affect on his ill-humoured eyes.
Perhaps that was why the Captain very quickly brought up the spoon, despite it being a social call. “I understand the Reynolds family has long been collectors of Masterwork.” He made such a bland statement sound both complimentary and vaguely threatening.
“Oh,” Reynolds flapped one hand dismissively with the air of the truly arrogant. “Certainly we have always preferred finely crafted work, but this is nothing, really. The heart, nay, the soul of my family has always been the kitchen. Perhaps you would like to see it?”
Much as the Woodcrafters Guild was a place only a woodcrafter could love, the Reynolds kitchen was such a bizarre mess of styles and ideas that I found myself wearing an unattractive expression at the sight of it. Even the Captain seemed at a loss.
The contessa recovered first, stepping forward to compliment the arrangement and give the Captain a chance to be polite. Not that he was rude, as his eyes only just barely betrayed his dismay at the hodgepodge before us.
The baker was unlikely to notice me, so I was free to observe in mute horror that the counter-tops were pine, showing off every scratch from years of service. The cabinets were maple maliciously painted over in dull brown to hide food stains. The baker’s oven was made of dull gray brick, clashing dreadfully with everything, and the fireplace was a motley mess of red, yellow, and gray bricks. The cooking utensils, excepting his knives, were splayed about in a rough clay bowl.
While the room was certainly well-used and well-loved, nothing in it was Masterwork.
I was amazed that anyone could stand in the room, let alone cook. With all those woods grumbling and complaining—even the walnut floor moaned of abuse—I was standing as close as I could to the door, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, I was still holding the stupid spoon that had gotten me into that dreadful place.
I approached cautiously, trying not to trip, hurt my ankle, or look offended at the general mistreatment of all the wood in the room.
“Miss Avery is my assistant, Mister Reynolds.”
The baker did not acknowledge me, so my expression did not matter after all.
“Miss Avery, please show Mister Reynolds what we found.”
I did, wondering what the Captain’s plan was.
“My spoon!” Mister Reynolds reached for it with a touch of madness in his eyes. I looked to the Captain in alarm, but he nodded at me to release it. With some visible reluctance, I let go. Even a spoon deserved better than the horrible way he cradled it.
“Remind me again, when it was that your family obtained this spoon.” The Captain sounded as mild as ever, but he was watching with a level of interest that would have alarmed even the baker, had he been smart enough to look up from his treasure.
“My father gave it to me on his deathbed. I do not know how long it has been in the family.” His statement was completely at odds with his written report.
“I am sorry for your loss,” the contessa remained a capable courtier in the face of a possible madman and the most dreadful room a woodcrafter could behold. The poor pine was crying. Could she hear it? She set her hand on the counter and it softened into a whimper.
“How did he die?”
“It was a rough winter. He contracted pneumonia.”
“His spoon did not save him.”
The baker finally noticed Captain Eliot Winter was looking at him with the patient, condescending expression of a man who is only patronizing his prey before he devours it. He chuckled nervously. “I suppose it is not any wonder to exaggerate a little about a family legacy…” he licked his lips.
“You admit that you lied as to the properties of the spoon.”
“No, sir, not me! I only said that it made healing soup, for colds and the like..”
“And are you aware that this spoon was created by Journeyman Avery, student of Master Thorne, and therefore could not be more than a few years, at most.”
I twitched at hearing my name, but not nearly as much as the baker did. “I—”
“But is likely less than five moons.”
“Journeyman,” the Captain turned smoothly to the Contessa, “please verify the properties of the spoon.”
“Certainly.” Out of nowhere she pulled a lighter and actually lit the spoon clutched in the baker’s hands on fire. As he dropped it, she said calmly, “The spoon’s only magical property is its ability to withstand and create heat.” The spoon on the floor was not even singed.
The Captain retrieved it and resumed. “This spoon has been examined by the Guild of Mages, according to whom it could only have been enchanted by an chaotic mage. But if you still wish to claim it as your own, I am certain we can discuss the matter further.”
“N-n-no, sir, I—”
“It matches the description you gave and was found in the location you suggested.”
“N-no, sir, a mistake, it was. Sir,” the baker was sweating profusely and appeared quite distressed, but not half so distressed as I felt. An chaotic mage? What did that even mean?
Way to go, idiot.
“I trust, then, that you will be dropping the charges you made against the establishment you claimed stole from you. After all,” he added, when the man hesitated, “it was your own sister’s son whom you caught in your store.”
Baker Reynolds was willing to agree to anything so long as we left.