“Announcing His Lordship, Admiral of the Cold Seas, Keeper of the Northern Realm, the Duke of Dargon, Lord Clifton Dargon!”
The room filled with the rustle of rising bodies and moving fabric as the occupants all arose, the men doffing their caps or helms or hats or whatever formal headgear they had chosen for the event. The doors to the hall opened and the ducal guards entered, pikes aloft. Lord Clifton Dargon strode in amongst them, accompanied by another man in rich robes. From the back of the hall, in the ranks closest to the door, Auberg watched, a thrill dancing up his spine. He could feel the pressure as Sophigia, his betrothed, tightened her grip on his arm in her own excitement. Neither had ever been this close to the ruler of Dargon. Even through the thrill, though, Auberg didn’t forget himself. As the party passed, Auberg noted that a slight man joined himself to the pair of doormen who were preparing to close the doors. The two men locked eyes for a moment. Auberg hesitated, then nodded before turning his gaze back to the duke.
“Oh, his poor arm!” Sophigia whispered to him as the great doors closed, sealing out the heat of the day. “It must pain him so!”
“I expect it has healed by now,” Auberg whispered back as they both watched the duke and his guest take their place onstage beside Thornson, Auberg’s master and teacher. “But yes, he must miss it greatly.” Auberg noted the strained expression on Thornson’s face. He knew this event was very, very important to the old man. Auberg looked over the furnishings and flourishes onstage and around the hall one more time, checking for anything amiss. Nothing was. There had been plenty of time to prepare for this event, and Auberg had relished the chance to do something different for a change. Much of his time of late had been spent in the minutia of his master’s business, and the variety had left Auberg feeling temporarily reinvigorated.
“They say his wife treats his wound every night to ease his pain, so he can sleep,” she said as they watched the Duke’s party arrange itself onstage.
“I expect she treats something of his for his pains,” Auberg muttered, and received a gentle slap on his arm for his effort.
” … His Lordship’s Particular Inspector, Master of the Weights and Measures, Special Inspector for Ices and Preserves, the Honorable Master Hornbogle Eastbridge,” intoned the master of ceremonies from the head of the room. In a wave the assembled crowd sat down, the ranks in the rear landing on their seats last. Auberg patted Sophigia’s hands gently then detached himself from her, moving to the back of the room to join the servants and guards by the door. He tapped two servers and pointed at the drapes drawn back from the windows at the rear. The two obediently went and released the heavy curtains, dimming the rear of the room and drawing attention to the ceremony at the front, where Eastbridge was standing before small table laden with various metal and glass devices. He lifted a scroll, unrolling it, and the crowd hushed.
“As his Lordship’s Particular Inspector, Master of the Weights and Measures, and Special Inspector for Ices and Preserves, I have come here today to inspect this ice, to examine and taste it, and to determine officially its suitability and quality.” Eastbridge closed the scroll and turned to an aide. “Bring me some ice.” The aide gestured, and the doors opened again. In strode a trio of the Duke’s guard, a man and two women, with the man carrying a great silver bucket. Auberg watched the crowd, which in turn watched the trio as they moved up the aisle to the stage. They passed the bucket to the higher ranking aide, who presented it to Eastbridge.
“Do you certify this ice?” Eastbridge asked the aide.
“Yes,” the man replied simply.
Auberg watched as Eastbridge chipped some samples from the bucket. He could see that Thornson was also watching, his lips tight and his brow knit. His anxiety was understandable — as master of Dargon’s only ice house and owner of the ducal monopoly on ice in the city, Thornson was personally responsible for all the ice served in the city, as little as there had been of that.
Auberg remembered the first time he had set foot in the great ice house of Dargon. It resembled nothing more than a giant brick barn, with great doors and a huge loft of hay. He had been a small lad, short for his age of fifteen, and the barn had seemed cavernous. It was largely empty at that time, almost abandoned. It had echoed his own feelings, still in great turmoil after hearing of his apprenticeship to a man and a house he had never even heard of. The ice trade in Dargon had been in shambles for years by the time Thornson had taken him on. His family, bereft of funds and status after years of declining fortunes, had not been able to afford any better placement for him, despite their noble status, and he had felt abandoned, cast out and cast off. He knew better now, as an adult of twenty, but the feelings still echoed in his head and heart.
Up on the stage Eastbridge was holding a clear glass flask over an oil lamp, melting a scoop of shaved ice inside. He lifted it and swirled it occasionally, holding it up to the light and making a great show of examining it while stroking his gray beard theatrically. Auberg knew this event had been staged for the nobles of Dargon, at Thornson’s request. Auberg still almost couldn’t believe that Thornson had finally gotten the Duke to agree to come out personally for the event. Still, after almost a decade of ill repute it would take a figure of Dargon’s stature to declare an end to the vile infestation. A slight shudder of revulsion shook Auberg’s shoulders as he recalled his first experience with the ice worms. He pushed the memory from his mind.
Auberg rejoined his waiting fiance at their seat. She smiled excitedly as she took his arm. A familiar, happy thrill rippled through his loins at the feel of the warm skin on his hand. He kissed her, inhaling her fragrance. She patted his hand and watched the ceremony, enraptured. He felt both joy and sadness at her excitement. For her this was also a big day. Theirs had been a long and rapturous courtship since they had been betrothed at sixteen, and they had been very happy to keep each other’s company. Still, he was a poor man from a poor house apprenticed to a disgraced trade, something that he knew weighed on her mind, particularly as the end of his apprenticeship drew near. To see the trade elevated back to its old glory was filling her heart with hope, even as it was filling his heart with dread.
“… see no foreign bodies, no visible impurities, and no sign of pest or vermin,” Eastbridge was saying. The crowd was mostly silent. This outcome was entirely expected. After weeks of rumors deliberately spread by Thornson about the cure found for the infestation, no one in the audience had been terribly surprised to receive an invitation to the official re-opening of the ice house. It would have been surprising if the inspector had actually seen something in the melted ice. It would have been bad showmanship as well. While the ice being tested was truly drawn from the great barn by Eastbridge’s own men, Auberg had made sure that those same men had no access to any ice save that he had personally inspected. Auberg would have had to have been completely incompetent for there to be even a trace of the dreaded ice worms in there.
Auberg felt a small stirring of pride as he watched Eastbridge pour the melted ice through a silk filter. Auberg had worked for days making that filter, just as he had labored extensively to find the glassware, contract out the special table, find the small oil lamp, and even borrow the strange glass and brass device for examining the water sample. He had even suggested the use of the larger glass flask, rather than the smaller glass vials requested by Eastbridge, under the idea that the larger flask would be more visible to the audience. It had been a welcome diversion from the endless drudgery of maintaining the stockpile of ice stored in the ice house, although not so much a diversion that Auberg had not been able to work a few other important matters of his own. His gut clenched a bit at the thought. He was still his master’s apprentice, not a journeyman. To venture beyond that was to risk much.
Eastbridge was now gathering scoops of shaved ice from the bucket and packing them carefully into a gold chalice. Auberg watched carefully. He had not had a part in preparing this section of the event, as it related directly to the Duke. He had not even been told what exactly would take place, on the theory that he did not need to know. Once the snowball-like mass was properly shaped, a dark red syrup was poured over it. Auberg was suddenly hungry for just such a treat, one that he had tasted for the first time just ten months ago with Sophigia, just after the ice worm infestation had been cured. One of the few perks of being apprentice to the Master of the ice house was the opportunity to eat all the ice he wanted, whenever he wanted it. Of course, it turned out that ice wasn’t something one wanted all that often, even if it was certified to be clean.
“Lord Dargon,” Eastbridge said, holding the gold chalice high over his head, “I do hereby certify that this ice, as produced in this ice house, managed by the house of Thorn under ducal monopoly, for the sole employ and convenience of your court, your house, and your realm, is pure and unsullied by any contaminant, trace of pestilence, or mark of vermin.” A servant in the Duke’s livery stepped forward and took the chalice. She withdrew a small spoon from her sleeve and took a sample of the confection, and ate it. She stood there a moment, an expression of careful consideration on her face, then knelt before Dargon and presented him with the chalice. Dargon stood, raised the chalice over his head. There was a hush of expectation. Dargon then shoved the mass in his mouth and took a huge bite of it. He again raised the chalice to the applause of the crowd, and Auberg surprised even himself by bursting into tears of joy and relief as he clapped along with the others. This ended when Sophigia wrapped herself around him with a squeal of delight, an embrace he was very happy to return.
Auberg quickly slipped outside the moment it became apparent that the Duke and his party were getting ready to move on. A banquet had been prepared outside for the nobles and he wanted to be sure it was ready. He also had a matter of his own to tend to. He hurried over to the head table, where the Duke’s own cooks and wait staff were waiting. He conferred quickly with the lead chef, making sure both that they were ready and that they had been supplied with a good quantity of ice. Once that was done, he quickly checked with the hired caterers, to be sure they were ready. Seeing that all that was in order, he grabbed Thornson’s own steward and together they once again inspected the ice as it was distributed. He watched the Duke’s party nervously as they moved out of the hall onto the lawn, followed by the remainder of the crowd. Sophigia passed with Auberg’s parents, followed by her own parents, the wealthy merchant Jahn Mote and his second wife. He smiled and waved at her, feeling a tug at his stomach as she passed, smiling. He could not join them, however, as there was much work to be done still.
The sun was lower in the sky when Auberg finally joined Sophigia and had a chance to eat. His parents had left and her parents were talking to another couple. She had made a plate for him and he ate while she talked.
“Did it all go well?” she inquired as he dug into some roast oyster and turnip pie. “Was Thornson pleased?”
“I think so,” Auberg replied between bites. “Most every noble house has either put in orders or made inquiry, and we already have a supplier for this fall’s hay.”
“That’s wonderful!” She clapped her hands quietly. “Perhaps you won’t have to spend so much time this summer cutting hay! I know how much you hated that last year.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he replied, “I have some very pleasant memories from time spent in the loft with someone …”
“Sssshhh-shush!” she whispered, putting her hand over his mouth and giggling quietly while looking around. “Do you want my father to hear?”
“No. If I did I would tell my mother.” She just laughed at that. “I’m afraid I can’t linger, darling. I must have this all cleared by sundown, and I still have not balanced the books for today.”
“I would love to stay with you, but mother needs me to go back tonight so I can be fitted for a dress.”
“A dress?” He stiffened.
“Not that kind of dress,” she replied, smiling. When he relaxed she added, “although we have discussed that kind, just a bit.”
He looked into her eyes and took her hands. He wanted to say something encouraging and fill her heart with joy, but somehow the words couldn’t quite come out. Somehow she read his thoughts anyway. Her smile dimmed a bit, but didn’t fade.
“I know,” she said softly. “You’re still not sure.”
“It’s not you,” he replied. “If all I had to do was say the word I would have done the deed already.”
She smiled and leaned forward, whispering in his ear, ” … and you nearly have already.”
He felt his ears burn as she squeezed his hands tight. “Mmmmmm …. yes.”
“But I know how you feel about, you know, down there …”
He smiled a sudden, mischievous smile, but resisted the urge to follow the thought any lower. “The last few weeks were exciting, fun even. I still can’t believe Lord Dargon was actually here!” She smiled back, her deep, dark eyes sparkling. “But from now on the real work starts. Master told me what it was like before the infestation. Thornson had three apprentices and a journeyman and they were all busy, all day long, down in the cellar. I can’t say I always enjoyed doing nothing but running errands, but at least I got out and saw the city.” He looked out across the lawn at the short stone wall that marked the edge of the property, then across the Coldwell at the new city below. “It made me realize just how much else there was out there.” His gaze swept across the property, encompassing the hall and the great house, finally coming to rest where Anton Street abutted the property. His thoughts weren’t resting there, though. “As business grows I will have to spend more and more time in the house and down in the cellar. If I’m not shoving ice around or running in the rat wheel I will be in the hall balancing the books.” He sighed. “I don’t want to sound lazy. Everyone works for their supper — even Lord Dargon. I just …”
“You just didn’t choose to be an ice farmer,” she finished for him. Her eyes were sad, but gentle. “And I didn’t choose to be the wife of an ice farmer. But I would be, if you were one.”
“I’m a fool,” he said. “How many men are betrothed to their best friend, who also happens to be the most beautiful woman in the world?”
“But I will follow you, wherever you go.” She threw a quick glance over at her parents. “I spoke to Captain Lar, just briefly. He says that there may be a berth on one of Percantlin’s ships soon.”
“Percantlin …” He straightened up at the mention of the man, a quick smile flickering across his lips. He started to shake his head, then changed it to a nod. “Thank you,” he said. “I … I still haven’t decided, but I appreciate the help.” He looked back at the ice house. “I don’t want to leave, but I do know that I don’t want to be an ice farmer all my life.”
“Then I will wait for you,” she said, “for your decision, and for whatever else comes after that.”
He smiled and kissed her. Then he arose. “I can’t stay. I must get back to work.”
“And I must go also.”
“Be well, love.”
He left her and headed back towards the hall. He threw a glance over his shoulder at her, but she was already moving away. He stopped just outside the doors and looked up at the great seal of the house of Thorn, which had become synonymous with the business of the ice house. It was a compass overlying an ice saw. He had always thought it had a certain pleasant symmetry. Of late he had begun to feel more ambivalent about it, like it was a symbol of his dimming future. He stared at it for a moment longer, then stepped inside. Auberg passed straight through the hall to a side door. He left the hall and headed down towards the road.
Auberg’s gait was practiced and steady. He hoped that to anyone watching he would appear nonchalant. Inside he felt confident and only a bit afraid. He had done this any number of times before, and this would be no different. He could already make out the form of a man standing at the gate, the same man who earlier had stepped in to help close the great doors behind Lord Dargon. It was Blosden, the butcher’s apprentice. He was well-known to the estate and all on it. Auberg stepped outside the gate and shook his hand.
“Do you have it?” Blosden asked.
“Yes,” Auberg replied and extended his hand. The two men clasped hands, and Blosden handed Auberg a cloth sack. Inside the cloth sack was an earthen pot filled with lard, rendered by the apprentice himself and used by Auberg to grease the rat wheel. This transaction had happened every other day for many years. In addition, however, there was also a flat box. Auberg tried to act casual as he opened it. Inside was a thin circlet of some odd material resting on a thin cloth.
“It came today,” Blosden said. “And it’s special.”
“Special?” Auberg asked.
“Blessed,” Blosden replied.
Resisting the urge to look around, Auberg picked it up and examined it. It looked and felt like it was made of tiny, interlocking plates of stone, each one about half the size of his pinky fingernail. The plates had very simple geometric decorations, and there were three very small, pale blue stones, one at the front and one on each side, next to the temples.
“It’s actually a bit plain,” Auberg said.
“It’s not the look that matters in this case,” Blosden replied. “I tried it on, for a lark. I … ” His voice faltered and trailed off for a moment. His eyes unfocused and his gaze drifted off for a moment. “I just … well, it was like nothing else. Believe me. This will sell.”
Auberg carefully slid the item back into the package, his heart a-flutter. He resisted the urge to wipe his hand compulsively on his tunic. Magic. He had not bargained for this. He set his brow to hide his alarm. “It had better. This is a huge risk for me.”
Blosden patted Auberg’s shoulder. “I know how much you are risking for this venture. Your faith and your gold are well placed. Trust me.”
With no more words the two parted, and Auberg returned to the house. He met no one, and passed through to the living quarters. Stopping in his bedroom, he set the small flat box in a drawer. Taking the lard pot with him he went to the barn, passing a worker or two before going inside.
The sun had been down for two bells before Auberg caught up with Thornson inside the ice house. Anticipation of the upcoming conversation was twisting Auberg’s insides into knots, but he was determined to get it over with. He found Thornson in the small receiving office on the first floor.
“Ah! There you are!” Thornson said when he saw Auberg. He held up a hand to pause Auberg’s response, then turned back to the deliveryman he was talking with. “Lord An’derin will be expecting this tomorrow, as payment for his services. I don’t want the ice worms back, so be sure he gets this on time! Now, Auberg,” he said as the man took the package and left, “I have been meaning to talk to you. I have some important things to say.”
“And I you, Master,” Auberg replied, dismayed. He had hoped to make his decision to leave the central point of the conversation, but now Thornson wanted to talk of something else. Still, what was there to do? “What do you have to tell me?”
Thornson locked the wooden bureau and stood. “Walk with me.” He led the way to the stairs that wound down into the cellar. “Today went well. Lord Dargon’s blessing meant a lot. We have our work cut out for us. I have sold half our ice already, and I expect to sell the rest by the end of the sennight.” He lit up an oil lamp from a wall sconce and held it up as they descended into the cold, dark cellar. “That’s good news. I opened a number of new accounts, many from merchants with good cash flows. We have enough coming in to hire a new apprentice.”
Auberg’s heart lifted. It would have been hard to leave Thornson short-handed, maybe even impossible. But with a new apprentice Thornson would not need Auberg as much. “That’s wonderful!” he said.
“I owe much of this to your help, Auberg.” Thornson paused on the landing to look back at his apprentice and smile, the light from the lamp outlining his face. “I could never have done this if you had left with Ronn and Jornan.” Auberg felt his heart skip a beat at the mention of the other workers who left when the infestation started. Thornson continued lower. “You have really grown in your role. You are no longer the skinny boy who started working here five years ago.”
They reached the floor of the cellar, where blocks of ice were stacked in rows, separated by layers of straw. From here and there throughout the room glints of light came back where crystals of ice threw back the orange light of the lamp. To Auberg’s eye the ice represented an entire winter’s worth of work, as he and Thornson had carefully frozen and stored the ice for the warmer months.
“It is a great responsibility, working for the house of Thorn as you do. I need a man who I can trust,” Thornson said, stopping by the small desk kept below for storing records. Auberg’s heart dropped. Sitting square in the middle of the desk was the small flat box. Thornson picked it up.
“That’s why I became concerned when you began acting a bit odd of late.” Thornson took the seat at the desk, leaving Auberg standing. “Your errands seemed to take a bit longer than necessary, and your habits outside the house seemed to shift a bit. I decided I needed to know more. I have my resources, of course. Today I noticed that you were taking quite a while with the deliveryman … Blosden I believe? I wondered what sort of things you might have been discussing. I know that you have been having some dealings with this Blosden, and I know that today he gave you this. I was hoping you would be willing to tell me what it is.”
Auberg took a deep breath.
“It’s jewelry, Master, and … it is also my hope, sir.”
“Explain.” Thornson’s eyes bored in Auberg’s face, and Auberg did his best to return the gaze.
“I have served you faithfully for many years, sir. And I am happy that the business is going well now. But my heart is not in it. I want out. I need out. And I had hoped … well, I had hoped to start a trade business, trading outside Dargon, starting in jewelry, perhaps.”
Thornson stared at him. “Jewelry.”
“To start, sir, perhaps,” Auberg replied, his nerve on the edge of breaking. He had a horrible thought – had Thornson tried it on? Blosden had described euphoria; what if the magic was different for everyone? He pushed that idea away and continued. “But trading. Something …” Auberg glanced around. “Something …”
“Something more interesting than ice,” Thornson replied slowly, a tiny smile on his lips. He nodded. “It’s just as well we had this talk now, then. I feel it is finally time to show you some of the deeper secrets of the house of Thorn. Come.” He stood, took the lamp, and began to walk. Auberg followed, trying to anticipate what Thornson might say next, unwilling to be talked into staying. Thornson turned away from the rows of ice and headed for a door set into the brick wall that sealed the natural cavern off and made it into a cellar. He set a great key into the lock, turned it, and opened the door. “There are only three keys to this door, Auberg. Today I want to give you one.” He handed Auberg the key, setting it on his palm. It felt cold and heavy, solid and unmoving. Auberg stood with it in his hand, unsure of what to say or what to do with it. Thornson watched him.
“Thank you, sir,” Auberg said finally. He took out his own meager set of keys and carefully attached the new one, feeling Thornson’s eyes on him. He was grateful that the older man started moving just before Auberg finished the minor task. Together they both went inside the room, and Auberg closed the door. Thornson held the lamp high, illuminating many cases and crates and boxes and cabinets.
“Have you ever been in this room, Auberg?” Thornson asked.
“A few times, sir.”
“Really?” Thornson seemed surprised. “That often?”
“Yes sir. I helped you move a few boxes in — that one, and that one,” he replied, pointing.
“Do you know what is in them?”
“People come to me with boxes filled with — things.” Thornson uncovered one of the boxes. Auberg saw a crest on the side, one he recognized as that of a noble house in Dargon. “Often they are mundane things — bottles of particularly good wine, furs, special objects that need to be kept cool.” He lifted the lid and drew out a bottle. He wiped the dust off it and showed it to Auberg, who read the date scrawled on the side. It predated his own birth by almost one hundred years.
“And furs?” Auberg asked.
“Yes.” Thornson walked down the long rows of tall cabinets. holding the lamp high. “The secret in this room, mostly, is that the secrets are mostly about money. Wealthy people buy fine things that need to be kept cool and they bring them to me to store. Even when the ice worms were destroying the ice, you noticed that I kept some still stacked against the northern wall, yes?”
“That ice was keeping this room cool.”
“So that’s why we stored ice in skins in the well house!”
“Yes — This room had to be kept cool.”
“That makes sense, then, master,” Auberg said carefully. “I suspected as much, from the visitors you brought into the cellar, even when the ice was still infected. And the entries on the books.”
“Ah ha!” cried Thornson in delight. “Smart boy! You figured that out yourself!” He nodded as he paused near a door set in the far wall. “I’m glad, really. This sort of work really does require a smart person.” He opened the door, revealing a long set of stairs. “Well, here is a secret I bet you did not figure out.” He beckoned, and led Auberg down a flight of stairs. After a flight they reached a small wooden landing and a heavy door bound in iron. Set in the door was a copy of the seal that was above the door of the hall. Thornson set his hand on the seal and slowly rotated it upside down. He stood for a long moment in the silence before turning to Auberg. “I asked Lord Dargon today if I might reveal this to my faithful apprentice Auberg, and I was very pleased when he said yes.”
Auberg stood, stunned, unsure of what was going on. The mention of his name in the same sentence as Lord Dargon’s had confused him. He actually jumped when the seal slowly turned itself aright. Thornson then knocked on the door — three times slow, three times fast, then twice slow. The door rumbled, and then Thornson seized the handled and pulled. It opened to reveal a guard in the livery of Dargon.
“Well met, Master Thornson,” the guard said. “And this is?” He looked at Auberg.
“This is Apprentice Auberg,” Thornson replied.
“Apprentice?” the guard said, one eyebrow rising.
“For now,” he replied. He handed the bottle to the guard. “For his grace, with my sincere thanks.”
“Very good. Anything else?”
“Nothing. Long live the duke!” The guard nodded and, as Thornson stepped back, pushed closed the door.
“So you see, Auberg, there are secrets still you did not know,” Thornson said, looking at Auberg.
“Yes, master. What was that?”
“As you know,” Thornson said, “the cellar was originally a cavern. Long ago it was bricked in to keep the cold in. Later the secret room was added, and joined to a secret tunnel,” he pointed at the door, “that joins to the keep. In the event of a siege, the Duke — not Clifton, an earlier one — wanted access to the ice as a possible source of water. It is also used to transport … things … that the Duke does not want seen coming from the keep. That door never opens without the Duke himself knowing it.”
Thornson continued walking down the stairs, Auberg following behind silently, his mind awhirl. His entire world was tipping, and he walked carefully to be sure it didn’t overturn. After a flight they reached a rocky landing with yet another door, this one set in a brick wall opposite the other door. This one had a lock also.
“This door only has two keys,” Thornson explained. He extended his copy. “Lord Dargon has the other.” He opened the door. Inside were a set of long boxes, set in a rack. “There are some secrets that are so secret, that the fact that they are a secret cannot itself be known. These are such secrets.” He lifted the lid on one box. Auberg gasped. Inside lay the body of a man.
“W-who … ” Auberg stammered, ashamed of his fear.
“I may not say,” Thornson said. “Suffice it to say that there are some events that can only be explained by a corpse, and so we keep it.” He replaced the lid, then lifted another. It too held a body. “There are a number of these. Most are older than you. Some are older than I.”
“W-what — what do we do …”
“We do nothing, really, save ensure that this room never thaws. And keep the secret.” He turned to Auberg. “You see, I really am an important man.” He looked at Auberg meaningfully, and Auberg realized then that Thornson knew his feelings, and that this was the reason for the revelations. “Much of what I do is mundane, tedious, even boring. This much I have to offer you. Some of what I do is very necessary. That I also can offer. And some of what I do …” With that he turned and moved deeper into the room, until he reached the very end. There stood a very large cylinder covered with a cloth. “I sometimes wonder if this even needs to be in here.” He pulled the cloth away, and, even after all he had seen, Auberg gasped. “It really is astounding, is it not?”
The cylinder was made of clear glass, or so it seemed. Auberg had never seen glass like that before, for in it the light moved and shimmered. Waves and veils of color moved throughout it as if it stood beside the seashore and reflected the waves. The patterns of the light seemed purposeful, intelligent, almost alive. But they weren’t what made Auberg gasp. It was the woman.
She was asleep. He knew this, somehow. Not dead — asleep. She was beautiful. Auberg would not say that she was young, but perhaps ageless. Her hair was silver, or white, perhaps. She wore no clothes, but he could not say that she was naked, or even nude, for somehow she was not vulnerable. Indeed, the light loved her, embracing and caressing her. She was utterly breathtaking.
“Who is she?”
Thornson stood silent and watched her for a long moment before he spoke. “She is possibly the oldest person in the city. No one knows when she was found. For as long as we have records, she was here. There is an inscription, on the bottom,” he pointed at a metal plate on the bottom of the cylinder, “but no one can read or translate it. No one has ever been able to say anything about her.”
Auberg watched her, waiting for her to open her eyes, or move her lips, or just to breathe. She seemed forever on the verge of awaking, as if awaiting the dawn, or her love, to arouse her. Suddenly it occurred to him — she was alone, forever alone. No husband, no parent, no friend would ever come to claim her, to save her, to take her home. Anyone she had ever known was long dead, buried, decayed to dust. It was better if she never awoke, but just slept, dreaming of her life long gone. For a long moment he stood staring at her before Thornson laid the cover back over her, returning her to ageless slumber. Wordlessly they unwound their journey, returning eventually back to the surface. Auberg stood and stared at the stars while Thornson locked the ice house.
“You have a big day tomorrow,” Thornson said as he stepped away from the great building and moved towards the hall. “You should get some sleep.” Without waiting he walked off into the darkness. Auberg did not move, but continued to stare at the stars. In his mind’s eye the image of the woman, suspended in space, hung before his eyes, but with Sophigia’s sweet face, soft and asleep, waiting — waiting for him.
The next morning found Jahn Mote seated, as usual, at his desk with his accounts, tallying up his debits and credits. He looked up at the knock on the door. “Enter”, he said. The door opened to reveal the man Mote employed to manage the house.
“The young master Auberg has arrived to see you, m’lord. I left him in the entranceway.”
Mote thanked the man, then finished writing his last few entries. This done, he dusted the document with sand to blot any remaining ink. Setting the book aside, Mote arose and walked out into the hall. There he met his daughter, Sophigia. He noted that she was sporting a new bit of jewelry, a diadem, and a particularly dreamy expression.
“I see you have already seen Auberg?” he asked wryly.
“Oh, yes, father,” she replied absently. “I was just coming to get you …” her words trailed off. He shook his head indulgently and continued downstairs to where Auberg waited.
Auberg stood as Mote walked in. “Good to see you, young sir,” Mote said. “I take it you to wish to spend some time with Sophigia today?”
“I’ve seen her already, sir,” Auberg said. “My business today is actually with you.”
“With me?” said Mote, motioning for a chair and sitting himself down. “What is the nature of this visit?”
Auberg drew the chair close to the older man and sat down. His right hand steadied the new medallion hanging around his neck, the one embossed with the compass and the ice saw. It was heavy, but not as heavy as he had feared it would be. He looked Mote directly in the eyes and drew a deep breath.
“Master Mote, I would like to marry your daughter.”