Home > Uprooted(6)

Uprooted(6)
Author: Naomi Novik

He shoved me hard against the bed and bent low. “Don’t dare lie to me!” he hissed. “I will tear the truth out of your throat—”

His fingers were resting on my neck; his leg was on the bed, between mine. In a great gulp of terror I put my hands on his chest and shoved with all my body against the bed, and heaved us both off it. We fell heavily together to the ground, him beneath me, and I was up like a rabbit scrambling off him and running for the door. I fled for the stairs. I don’t know where I thought I was going: I couldn’t have gotten out the front door, and there was nowhere else to go. But I ran anyway: I scrambled down two flights, and as his steps pursuing me came on, I flung myself into the dim laboratory, with all its hissing fumes and smoke. I crawled away desperately under the tables into a dark corner behind a high cabinet, and pulled my legs in towards me.

I’d closed the door behind me, but that didn’t seem to keep him from knowing where I’d gone. He opened it and looked into the room, and I saw him over the edge of one table, his cold and angry eye between two beakers of glass, his face painted in shades of green by the fires. He came with a steady unhurried step around the table, and as he rounded the end I darted forward scrambling the other way, trying for the door—I had some thought of locking him in. But I jarred the narrow shelf against the wall. One of the stoppered jars struck my back, rolled off, and smashed on the floor at my feet.

Grey smoke billowed up around me and into my nose and mouth, choking me, stilling me. It stung in my eyes, and I couldn’t blink, I couldn’t reach up to rub them, my arms refusing to answer. The coughs caught in my throat and stopped; my whole body froze slowly into place, still in a crouch on the floor. But I didn’t feel afraid anymore, and after a moment not even uncomfortable. I was somehow at once endlessly heavy and weightless, distant. I heard the Dragon’s footsteps very faintly and far-off as he came and stood over me, and I didn’t care what he would do.

He stood there looking down at me with cold impatience. I didn’t try to guess what he would do; I could neither think nor wonder. The world was very grey and still.

“No,” he said after a moment, “—no, you can’t possibly be a spy.”

He turned and left me there, for some time—I couldn’t have told you how long, it could have been an hour or a week or a year, though later I learned it had been only half a day. Then at last he returned, with a displeased set look to his mouth. He held up a small raggedy thing that had once been a piglet, knitted of wool and stuffed with straw, before I had dragged it behind me through the woods for the first seven years of my life. “So,” he said, “no spy. Only a witling.”

Then he laid his hand on my head and said, “Tezavon tahozh, tezavon tahozh kivi, kanzon lihush.”

He didn’t so much recite the words as chant them, almost like a song, and as he spoke color and time and breath came back into the world; my head came free and I shied out from under his hand. The stone was slowly fading out of my flesh. My arms came loose, flailing for a grip on anything while my still-stone legs held me locked in place. He caught my wrists, so when I finally came loose all the way I was held by his hand, with no chance of flight.

I didn’t try to run, though. My suddenly free thoughts ran around in a dozen directions, as though they were catching up with lost time, but it seemed to me he might have just left me stone, if he’d wanted to do something terrible to me, and at least he had stopped thinking me some sort of spy. I didn’t understand why he thought anyone would have wanted to spy on him, much less the king; he was the king’s wizard, wasn’t he?

“And now you’ll tell me: what were you doing?” he said. His eyes were still suspicious and cold and glittering.

“I only wanted a book to read,” I said. “I didn’t—I didn’t think there was any harm—”

“And you happened to take Luthe’s Summoning off the shelf for a little reading,” he said, cuttingly sarcastic, “and merely by chance—” until perhaps my alarmed and blank look convinced him, and he halted and looked at me with unconcealed irritation. “What an unequaled gift for disaster you have.”

Then he scowled down, and I followed his look to the shards of the glass jar around our feet: he hissed his breath out between his teeth and said abruptly, “Clean that up, and then come to the library. And don’t touch anything else.”

He stalked away, leaving me to go hunt out some rags from the kitchens to pick up the glass with, and a bucket: I washed the floor as well, though there wasn’t a trace of anything spilled, as though the magic had burned off like the liquor on a pudding. I kept stopping and lifting my hand up from the stone floor to turn it over front and back, making sure the stone wasn’t creeping back up my fingertips. I couldn’t help but wonder why he had a jar of that on his shelf, and whether he’d ever used it on someone else—someone who had become a statue somewhere, standing with fixed eyes, time eddying past them; I shuddered.

I was very, very careful not to touch anything else in the room.

The book I’d taken was back upon the shelf when at last I girded myself and went into the library. He was pacing, his own book on its small table thrust aside and neglected, and when I came in he scowled at me again. I looked down: my skirt was marked with wet tracks from the mopping, and it had been too short to begin with, barely halfway down my calves. The sleeves of my shift were worse: I’d got some egg on the ends that morning, making his breakfast, and had singed the elbow a little getting the toast off before it burned.

“We’ll begin with that, then,” the Dragon said. “I needn’t be offended every time I have to look at you.”

I shut my mouth on apologies: if I began to apologize for being untidy, I’d be apologizing the rest of my life. I could tell from only a few days in the tower that he loved beautiful things. Even his legions of books were none of them exactly alike: their leather bindings in different colors, their clasps and hinges of gold and sometimes even dotted with small chips of jewels. Anything that anyone might rest their eyes on, whether a small blown-glass cup upon the window-sill here in the library, or the painting in my room, was beautiful, and set aside in its own place where it might shine without distractions. I was a glaring blot on the perfection. But I didn’t care: I didn’t feel I owed him beauty.

He beckoned me over, impatiently, and I took a wary step towards him; he took my hands and crossed them over my chest, fingertips on each opposite shoulder, and said, “Now: vanastalem.”

I stared at him in mute rebellion. The word when he said it rang in my ears just like the other spell he’d used me for. I could feel it wanting to come into my mouth, to drain away my strength.

He caught me by the shoulder, his fingers gripping painfully hard; I felt the heat of each one penetrating through my shirt. “I may have to put up with incompetence; I won’t tolerate spinelessness,” he said. “Say it.”

I remembered being stone; what else could he do to me? I trembled and said, very soft, as if whispering could keep it from taking hold of me, “Vanastalem.”

My strength welled up through my body and fountained out of my mouth, and where it left me, a trembling in the air began and went curling down around my body in a spiraling path. I sank to the ground gasping in strangely vast skirts of rustling silk, green and russet brown. They pooled around my waist and swamped my legs, endless. My head bowed forward on my neck under the weight of a curved headdress, a veil spilling down my back, lace picked out with flowers in gold thread. I stared dully at the Dragon’s boots, the tooled leather of them: there were curling vines embossed upon them.

“Look at you, and over a nothing of a spell again,” he said over me, sounding exasperated with his own handiwork. “At least your appearance is improved. See if you can keep yourself in a decent state from now on. Tomorrow, we’ll try another.”

The boots turned and walked away from me. He sat down in his chair, I think, and went back to his reading; I don’t know for certain. After a while I crawled out of the library on my hands and knees, in that beautiful dress, without ever lifting my head.

The next few weeks blurred into one another. Every morning I woke a little before dawn and lay in my bed while my window brightened, trying to think of some way to escape. Every morning, having failed, I carried his breakfast tray to the library, and he cast another spell with me. If I hadn’t been able to keep myself neat enough—usually I hadn’t—he used vanastalem upon me first, and then a second spell, too. All my homespun dresses were vanishing one after another, and the unwieldy elaborate dresses dotted my bedroom like small mountains, so heavy with brocade and embroidery that they half stood up without me inside them. I could barely writhe my way out from under the skirts at bedtime, and the awful boned stays beneath them squeezed in my breath.

The aching fog never left me. After each morning, I crept shattered back to my chamber. I suppose the Dragon got his own dinner, because I certainly did nothing for him. I lay on my bed until supper-time, when usually I was able to creep back downstairs and get a simple meal, driven more by my own hunger than any concern for his needs.

The worst of it was not understanding: why was he using me this way? At night, before drowning in sleep, I imagined all the worst out of tales and fairy-stories, vampyrs and incubi drinking the life out of maidens, and swore in terror that in the morning I would find a way out. Of course, I never did. My only comfort was that I wasn’t the first: I told myself he’d done this to all those other girls before me, and they had come through it. It wasn’t much comfort: ten years seemed to me forever. But I grasped at any thought that could ease my misery even a little.

He gave me no comfort himself. He was irritated with me every time I came into his library, even on the few days that I managed to keep myself in good order: as though I were coming to annoy and interrupt him, instead of him tormenting and using me. And when he had finished working his magic through me and left me crumpled on the floor, he would scowl down at me and call me useless.

   
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