I woke in the pitch-black, my heart pounding, my body pressed from above by a hard, unforgiving panel.
“No,” I whispered. “No, no, no.”
I scraped my fingers along the length, scratching deep until my fingernails screamed in pain and bled. They’d buried me alive. Trapped me in a coffin. Wrapped in blankets with my pallet pressing into my side…
The clouds shifted, moonlight falling upon the hard surface, my body shadowed three times over in varying shades of black.
I watched the shadows for a moment, breathing hard and my heart pounding harder, then rolled onto my back.
I wasn’t in a coffin. I was in my room, higher than the neighbouring houses so the moon could stream in, and even higher above the canals below. My rough-hewn desk and chair pressed against the opposite wall, books stacked neatly along a shelf. The pallet bed I lay on, strangled by blankets, and the space where a second bed should have been. The wardrobe in the corner, a gift to the school from one of the local Consigliere, the inlaid wood and mother-of-pearl gleaming even in the dim light. A simple rug made from cloth scraps.
I lay there, trying to get my breathing under control, even as my arms and legs burned to take flight.
It must be the small hours of the morning, I realised as thoughts beyond my dreams of trap, trap, trap emerged. Only then could the Academy be so quiet, the city that rode the waves could be so silent. Even the most keen students had gone to bed, and so had the late-night revellers. Hours remained before the scullery servant crept around to light fires, or the rubbish collectors and fishers sailed through the canals.
I yanked off the blankets. The cool air nipped through my sweat-soaked linen nightclothes. The other students would probably crawl back into bed or ring for a servant for assistance, but I would never dare. I padded over to the washstand, a white ceramic wash bowl and matching pitcher with a simple design of roses on it.
The other students were the sons and daughters and children of Fallion nobles and merchants seeking to further their fortunes in the City of Merchants, but nonetheless wanted their offspring educated in Le Chasseur’s ways. They’d think nothing of calling for a servant, though it wasn’t strictly allowed, or in replacing the school furniture encrusted with gold or jewel or scenery. They’d probably refuse to wash their hands in something so simple as my pitcher and bowl. Just one more reason for them to despise me.
Master Leveque understood me. Pride at my austerity had threaded his voice when he’d insisted I keep the washstand and the wardrobe.
I almost smiled at the memory, but then the moon disappeared behind dense clouds, sending me into total darkness again, and I shuddered from the crown of my head to my toes.
Master Leveque wished to speak with me. Instead of inviting me into his office for a cup of tea, he’d sent a note through a page during dinner. Come see me first thing tomorrow.
I clenched my hands at my side. No wonder I had nightmares. Nothing good could come from that cold invitation.
I felt for the pitcher and tipped it into the washbowl, but the pitcher was dry. Giovanna usually refilled it, another luxury I would have gone without if she hadn’t insisted, but she must have forgotten in her haste to shed her servant’s uniform for an evening gown she’d somehow obtained.
My fingers tightened around the pitcher handle. I should go back to bed. And stare up at the darkness and shiver and worry…
The well was in the courtyard. I could sneak down the servant’s stairs. I ground my teeth. Leaving one’s room after curfew and before daybreak was a punishable offence. Master Leveque would suffer no student attempting to sneak out, doubly so if I were already in trouble. But it was only the courtyard.
Only some fresh air. And I needed air. I needed the chill. I needed to wipe the scent of fear off me so I could remember why I was in this school so very far away from the Foundling School I’d been raised in, preparing to do a god’s work.
At the moment, I didn’t feel blessed.
Buried underground, in a coffin, my hands pounding on the lid, but no one could hear me. Scraping my fingers against the wood, my nails torn bloody and still I couldn’t manage to so much as scratch it.
I set down the pitcher and sucked on my tender fingers. Back to bed would be the right thing to do—
I found myself throwing on a banyan robe and my shoes before I’d even made the decision. Well, why not? It was only down to the courtyard. Only to fetch a pitcher of water. Only to allow myself to sleep a little easier. That was important, right?
Soon, I’d never need to sleep again.
I tore open the door, only catching myself in time to keep it from smacking into the wall. Other student dorms lined the hall, and they’d just love to report me to Master Leveque.
I really should just stay in bed.
I crept down the corridor, my feet slipping silently over the marble floor. Another decadence I wasn’t used to. In the Foundling Hospital, only the reception rooms had stone floors, so that when the wealthy donors came to gawk at us and feel satisfied about themselves, their silk shoes needn’t snag on wood panels.
Beyond that hallowed ground, wood panels creaked beneath our feet, and we’d played games, trying to create songs until our caregivers threatened us with lashings if we did not cease. The floorboards certainly kept us in our beds at night, as the whole hospital would have heard us trying to sneak out.
In the academy, it was too easy to slip through the corridor and down the padded servants’ stairs. The padded walls and carpeted stairs kept any noise from disturbing their employers. Only the heavy oak door guarding the courtyard creaked as wood shifted against wood.
The night air was cold, and even with the banyan wrapped around me, the chill crept into the crevices and nestled into my sweat-sodden nightgown. I breathed in, the air bracing in my lungs. Somehow, though, out in the courtyard with the well, I didn’t mind the chill so much.
The water pump and a bucket waited for me a few feet from the courtyard’s centre. The handle would squeak a little, but the ring of symbols that one of Le Savant’s disciples had cast around it would keep the noise to only a little. I could pump my pitcher full of water and sneak up to my room with no one being the wiser.
If I’d brought the pitcher down.
Two ornate doors led into the school proper. An iron gate topped with more spellwork to guard against thieves and unwanted guests led to the street. I headed for the second gate, pulling up the bar and slipping through to the dock.
The canal water reeked, bringing tears to my eyes as I breathed in. That was the reason, the smell. I wasn’t sad. Was I? Of course not. Just the lingering effects of the nightmare. I had the opportunity to serve a god that others could only yearn for.
It wasn’t Le Chasseur, who I thought I might dedicate myself to when I was still at the Foundling Hospital. I’d wanted to be a paladin, a warrior who defended against evil, whether in the mind, body, or soul. Just like Master Leveque.
If Master Leveque had held the same hopes, he didn’t mourn them now. He was proud of me. He’d given up his post teaching at the Foundling Hospital to chaperon me in Venezia. To teach me and prepare me for my vocation. For when I finally took that last step.
No, it couldn’t be sadness. It was just another broken thing about me that the other students liked to pick at, as if my flaws were pimples. I sighed. Not that I hadn’t earned their contempt. I’d earned that and more.
The god Cain had seen something worthy in me. Or maybe from his dream, he just couldn’t see me well enough.
“Blasphemy.” I sank onto the dock. The canal water gently lapped at the wood pilings with a distinct stench of urine and feces and rot. Not everyone in the city could afford the rubbish collectors. Master Leveque had told me I’d get to used to it, so it must be true. Eventually.
I sighed again.
The water below me bubbled. Then a prominent figure shot up. Canal water splashed me. Two long tentacles reached for me. The creature roared.
It could only be one thing, the terror of the underwater world.
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