Clovir: An Overture
Part XI: Inkwell I
Friedrich Nietzche wrote a story within Thus Spake Zarathustra. It was an allegory about the life of a human being: starting as a camel, becoming a lion, and then again a child. To be excessively simplistic, we take on the burdens of the world, have enough with what is heaped upon us, fight back against the illusion of bondage, and then are free to play in the garden again. This story arc draws a bit of inspiration from that idea. I hope you like it!
“Check again. Spence. Percival Spence.”
“Spence, Spence, Spence – no, I still don’t see you here, sirrah.”
Percy glared at the corpulent man, safely hidden behind the net of ornate iron metalwork of the University’s Registry Office. The clerk had a grand leather-bound notebook before him, its edge resting on his belly. He was returning Percy’s gaze over the top of the book, his face completely dispassionate.
“Perhaps your registration documents are behind in the post, sirrah,” the clerk added. “Are you certain you sent them along in time? They were due by the calends of the Julian Month.”
“They were in the postman’s hand well before the ides of Junius Month! And I live here in Isha, sirrah!”
“Now, now, no need to be testy, young master. Let me go and consult with the Registrar.” With a grunt, the clerk managed to get to his feet, close the Registry Book, place it on the desk before him, and shuffle out of view of the wicket.
For a brief moment, Percy tried to get his right hand through the narrow gap between an iron curlicue. He swore before giving up his clearly impossible task. If he could get his hands on the book, he was certain he could get to the bottom of the travesty that was manifesting before his eyes. Desperate, he dug around in his jacket pocket and winced when he found that for which he had been searching. Out of the pocket came his hand, bloody from a puncture wound and bearing the fishhook that assaulted him. It was attached to a bit string.
He slipped the hook through the bars. It was evident before he began that there was no way that his plan was going to work. Even if he managed to snag the Registry Book, it was an impossibility that he was going to be able to reopen it, much less get it out between the gaps in the grille. He gave up again.
Fuck, how could he have done it!? Buried in the satchel he had draped around his shoulder, the crumpled envelope with his registration papers was wedged underneath a trio of novels, completely forgotten. His father had reminded him no less than five times to ensure that the postman received it by the middle of Junius Month. If he did not register for his courses in Law at the University, his father warned him he would disown the erstwhile boy and eject him from his manor. Percy would lose his title as heir to House Spence and his weekly stipend would be cut off.
His nightmare scenario of his fall from grace began to play out in his mind again: ejected from Hightown by City Guard ruffians, without a trade to call his own, destitute and scrabbling for alms as a beggar in the Purple Run. It almost always ended with a senseless and violent death at the hands of a black shrouded assassin from the Thieves’ Guild.
“Hmm, perhaps it would be more believable if it was retribution. Maybe from a citizen living in the Purple Run. A cobbler? No, not sympathetic enough. A helpless child? No, what would a child own? A widow – yes, that is it. Stealing a widow’s inheritance and a stiletto in the neck-”
“Pardon me, sirrah?”
Percy looked up to see that the clerk had returned. His expression was of mild shock, no doubt caused by Percy’s articulated dark flight of fancy. He would have to write it down, before the idea left him. Perhaps he could use it in one of his stories.
“Nothing – just thinking out loud, sirrah.”
The concerned expression did not leave the clerk’s face, even after he sat down and reopened the Registry Book.
“I will look one more time, sirrah. If your name is not here, you will not be permitted entrance this semester. If you wish to appeal this decision, you will have to complete Form A.II. Volume III, and, of course, Form B.V. Section C. Oh, and, I almost forgot: Form A.I. Section A, Subsection K.”
The clerk began producing a series of crisp and flat sheets of parchment from rectangular pigeonholes in the wall behind him. A smell began to permeate the area. Had the clerk farted?
“No, no, no, sirrah,” Percy said, his shoulder slumping. He had no more energy for the charade, and the smell was getting so bad that his sole purpose became a hasty escape. “I will reapply for next semester. Perhaps you can just get me the registration forms again.”
The clerk stared blankly at him for a moment. Then, sighing, he turned back to the pigeonholes and began pulling out sheet after sheet of parchment. His ministrations did not cease until he had amassed a sheaf no fewer than thirty sheets thick.
“Please,” said Percy. “Do not tell me the names of all of them again. I had more than enough of that back in Maia Month. I will simply pay the five silver and we will call it a day.”
The clerk’s face hardened as Percy reached onto his belt and pulled off the coin purse. He waited until he had Percy’s full attention again.
“Young master,” said the clerk, grinning slightly. Was he enjoying this olfactory torture? Percy could not be sure. Perhaps he simply loved his job, though it did not appear that way from looking at the man. The clerk fed a single sheet out through the grille. “I have for you Form A.1. This is for information about your pedigree. After filling in all of your information, you will have your father affix his seal, here.” The clerk motioned with a swollen finger. He pushed another sheet through. “This is Form C.IV. Section IV. This is for information about your previous schooling…”
The Mole’s Burrow was one of the quietest pubs in all of Isha, and Percy loved it, just for that. It was a place he to which he could retreat, to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and work on his preferred avocation. His preference was to retire to one of the booths in back, where a misshapen tallow candle provided the requisite light for his labours. The windows, covered in grime and soot, emitted over decades of pipe use by the patrons of the Mole, could scarcely be relied upon to do the job.
“Pint of the black stuff, Percy?”
“Yes, thank you, Reid,” Percy said, nodding to the bartender as he entered.
“A bit early for that, eh? Not that I minds getting’ it for ye. I thought ye’d be in school, like the rest of da University lads.”
“Somewhat of a long story, my good man.” Percy looked to the booths in back. He should not have worried – there was not another soul in the entire establishment. “I will be back there.”
“Good enough,” nodded the lithe man behind the bar. “I’ll bring it down to ye when she’s poured.”
“Thank you, Reid.” Percy paused for a moment. “Erm-“
“Don’t ye worry, my boy. Ye just go and get set up. I’ll bring ye da inkwell along wit’ da beer.”
Crossing the worn planks of the tavern floor, Percy sat down in the booth and fished out a portfolio and a quill. He placed it on the table in front of him, carefully opening the distressed leather device and removing a bundle of blank parchment from one of the pockets. From the other, he retrieved the last page that he had completed. He began to read the flowing script that was his long hand, refamiliarizing himself with his location within the tale.
“One pint of Stout Eric, and one pot of ink.” Reid placed both on the table next to Percy. “I’ll put it on yer tab, eh?”
“Certainly, Reid. Certainly. And, thank you.”
“No trouble, Percy,” said the bartender with a smile. “Say, would ye mind reading me what ye finished the last time I was ‘ere? I gotta say, me buddy, ye’ve got some ‘ead fer a story. Some ‘ead indeed.”
Percy returned the smile. If only Father felt the same way that this kindly tavernkeeper did about his writing. Perhaps then his progenitor would not insist that he go to university and ‘make something of himself.’
“With pleasure,” Percy responded. “As you will recall from last time, Reid, our hero, General Klarity, sworn servant of the Emperor of Kuth, had been introduced to Igud, lily-livered goblin prisoner, by his lieutenant, a man by the name of Thomas Erd. Up to this moment, none of the torture devices have worked on Igud. General Klarity knows that he has the secret to the goblins’ invasion plans hidden somewhere in his ratty green skull.”
“’Vile spawn of Purth,’” intoned Percy, taking on an imperious tone, “’you shall tell us of your master’s plans, or you shall suffer beyond your wildest dreams.’ General Klarity produced an iridescent orb from a pouch on the side of his belt. It was the Tigris Key, secured from the Imperial Treasury. A jewel of incalculable worth, it was rumoured to be a device of great magick as well. It was said that whosoever wielded the Tigris Key would become the master of man and beast. None could resist the pull.”
Reid, grinning, took a seat across from his customer. Percy smiled even wider in turn.
“In order to invoke the Tigris Key, its master would have to make the ultimate sacrifice, using a ritual from years gone by, far before the times of Kuth…”
“You have been operating under a mistaken assumption, Percival.”
“And what is that, Father?” Percy let his slouch deepen, allowing the flowery upholstery of the living room chair engulf his body.
“You think that I am not a man of my word.”
Deckard Spence’s words were carved from pure ice. The coldness of his tone was contrasted with the enormous orange flames roaring from the hearth before him. He was resting a forearm on the mantle, his back to his son, staring past black iron curtain that hung before the fireplace, a protective device that caught the embers as the logs sizzled and spit. His eyes drank deep of the flickering blaze. And then, suddenly straightening, he turned and pointed at the boy.
“A gods-damned layabout and dreamer,” Lord Spence accused. “I suspect you never even submitted the papers, even though you were reminded several times to do so. Too busy writing your idiotic stories about monsters and magic. You have forgotten that there is no need for goblins and basilisks. Men themselves are the monsters. It is about time you have a reminder.” The elder Spence flipped his hand, opened his hand, and beckoned to the boy. “Your signet.” When Percy did not react with sufficient alacrity, he added in a roar: “Your fucking signet ring, Percival!”
Standing, shoulders slumped and chastened, he pulled off the ring from his right hand. A gryphon’s head, the crest of House Spence, was carved into the metal of the setting. Sighing, he dropped it into his father’s hand.
“There is no room under this roof for disappointments, Percival. Until you have entered into the University and commenced your study of law, you are banished from this house.” Deckard reached down and ripped Percy’s coinpurse from his belt, tearing the leather around the metal loop and sending silver and gold coins clattering and racing around the room. “No more softness, boy. How you spend the next three months is up to you. If you need some coin, there is work for you in the stables of our Estate. You will find the work hard and the coppers few. I will allow you to sleep with the beasts. But if you are not at the University within the next year, you will be cut off even from that. I will make your disownment complete.”
Percy stood dumbfounded before his father. Spittle from the enraged man had splattered upon his cheeks. Hot tears formed at the corners of Percy’s eyes.
“Your mother will not say a word about this nor offer you succour!” Deckard smacked the mantle to emphasize his point. “Your childishness was promoted by her, coddle you as she did. I cannot fault her. She is a woman, after all. But, you are a man. It is time you started to act like one!”
Percy’s denial of privilege was brutal. There is no other word for it, as Deckard was correct in his assessment of the young man’s life. It had been soft, and now it was suddenly hard. Cleaning horse dung, fetching food, and watering the unruly animals was work that had no end. Every time he emptied a stall, he would return minutes later to find it filthy again. Straw had to be cleaned and replaced, the bridles and bits needed washing, and the stablemaster had various small carpentry and other tasks for the young man. His rations were oatmeal gruel and a scattered slice of sausage and egg. It was barely enough nutrition to sustain him.
Nothing before in his life could have prepared Percy for those first nights. Percy would lay down on the straw of his bed, exhausted and blistered from his travails, crying and screaming into his smelly blanket and cursing his father for his cruelty. After a week or so of wallowing in this miasma of manure and self-pity, something within the soft young man hardened.
Percy had bent to his father’s will so many times over the years that he felt the sting of the metaphorical crick in his back with a vengeance. Sir Percival Spence would bend no more. He would prevail, break free of his father’s influence, and liberate himself using the very thing that his father hated most: his writing. Percy silently thanked Reid, the bartender, for his interest in his stories about General Klarity and goblins of Purth. It gave him hope that they were not all rubbish, as his father maintained.
Percy had many stories written, all swashbuckling tales of daring and adventure. They were short, not like the long novels that he liked to borrow from the Great Library in Isha. But, he had enough, now, perhaps for a collection. There was but one problem: they all seemed disjointed. Placed together, they were all hard angles and mismatched edges. No matter how he arranged them, they did not flow.
The cure, Percy decided, was something of an overarching story, a story to act as a container for all of these little tales, something that humanized General Klarity. It would be in the style of a memoir, written long after our hero and the Empire of Kuth prevailed against the goblins and peace came to the land. Klarity would have taken a wife, had children, and even grandchildren. Yes! That was it! The stories of his youth would be offered by the aging patriarch to the rambunctious grandchildren, and the connecting story would be about his life as a man in the winter of his years.
In tandem with his hard labours on his father’s Estate, the story came to life. Something on the wind told him that this was it: he would either succeed now or fail forever. But, he knew, failure simply was not an option. Bruised and beaten after his day’s work, he would light his candle, fetch out the inkwell he purchased with an extremely sizeable portion of his first week’s pay, and produce his old greasy brown quill, a personal effect he managed to hide from his father during his fall from grace. By light of a candle set precariously close to a pile of hay, Percy began to write.
The balance of Percy’s first week’s pay was spent on parchment, enough paper to craft the skeleton of his interstitial plotline. The second week’s coin was mostly spent on parchment that would provide the sinew. The third week’s salary was spent on skin and hair for his tale. With the stack of coppers offered to Percy for his fourth week of industry, the young man proved his command of that ancient and esoteric practice of alchemy: he turned the money into beauty.
One month into his sentence, Percy had completed his story. With a grin of satisfaction, he placed his quill back into his sack and the stopper into his inkwell. He collected all of his parchment, including the old stories, and painstakingly reread each page, putting them in order. A few pages in, bearing a furrowed brow, he reopened his inkwell and grabbed his quill again, realizing that he would have to make minor corrections as he read. He had to fetch two more tallow candles as they burned down to their nubs. Sleep called to him. Keeping his eyes open became the most monumental task he had ever undertaken. He nearly quit more times than he could count. But, he knew. More than anything else he had ever felt, he knew. Everything was hanging in the balance. So, he kept the faith, in spite of all of the doubt. Eventually, mercifully, with a measure of perseverance Percy truly did not know existed within him, he completed his labours.
Percy noticed with some measure of trepidation that the gloaming pink light that had invaded the stable meant that dawn was nigh and he had not slept. But that was of little consequence, given the majesty of his achievement. He allowed himself to bask in it before coming back to reality. Now faced with a stack of parchment several inches thick, he needed to figure out how he might sell his story and profit from it.
Thus it was that Sir Percival Spence’s true work began earnest.