The Colours of Light

By Ticklish

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There was a war in Heaven. Or perhaps it was beneath the ocean, or underground. It could have waged across the three, either in turn or all at once. What is certain is that it ended.

And even then, some Orders would say that the war continues. For though its warriors have retreated, they carelessly litterered their materiel across the world. Fragments of their fearsome weapons, impossible vehicles, fabulous workshops and improbable texts are everywhere, with as many names to them as there are to birds.

Though scattered and diminished, these remnants still retain great potential. A mechanism from an unknowable engine may fit around a finger, a cartridge of demonic ammunition could be fashioned into the heel of a boot. A boiler stove for a god might make a handsome set of armour for a person. And so, as people learned how to repurpose these scraps and leftovers to their advantage, they played a part in almost every history of almost all peoples. Nations rose because they possessed them, and empires fell when they lost them. Some were the stuff of legend, some were known in every language, some were worshipped, forgotten, stolen, hidden, studied, hated and destroyed. Some were amusing toys, little follies.

One such folly became a decoration for a baby’s crib. It was a ring of thin wire tied above a crib with a piece of fishing line. Light that passed through the ring was split into rainbows that danced on the walls. The crib was in a nursery, and the nursery was in a cottage of the town of Schtasspez which made up the majority of the House of the mammoth that coiled the tree. The town was in the Realm of Spezlaas, in the half-frozen cap of the world. Nobody recorded its discovery or speculated as to its original purpose. It had found long and good use on that piece of wire, amusing babies.

One of the last babies to use it for that purpose would become a fearsome mage who would use the ring, among other things, to bring a great many changes to the world. She did not have a name when she was in the crib, for the time in which she lay there was before the traditional naming ceremony of her House. But when she had it, her name would be Spezlaasin Thint Sayadaw. ‘Spezlaasin’ was a name common to almost everyone in her home realm, ‘Thint’ was her House name and ‘Sayadaw’ was the name she was to give to outsiders. But she decided at an early age that she would refuse to give her House name to anyone and would not respond to it. Being such a wilful girl, this game became reality and so Sayadaw, a declaration of otherness, became her entire name.

So Sayadaw cooed and gargled at the chaotic fluttering patterns of light slowly rotating around her nursery. If her younger sisters had not been visited by cot death in that very same crib, the ring would have remained there on its wire to distract all its successive occupants, as it had for all the decades in which her family had made a home there.

But after her second sister had fallen asleep and not awoken, Sayadaw’s mother had packed up the nursery in a rare burst of activity that came between her long fallow periods. The crib was turned into firewood and replaced with a loom that would seldom be used. The little ring had been taken off its wire and put in a drawer, where it was found by the young and lonely Sayadaw. She developed a habit of lying on her back on the floor, one eye screwed tightly shut, peering through the ring as she held it aloft to a sunbeam in her stubby fingers. She would spend hours like this, quite content, re-enacting those blissful times when someone would respond to her laughter and cries.

She quickly learned to experiment. When the sun went down she held the small annulus up to the light of candles, the moon and the stars. She realised that the colour of almost everything was altered when seen through it. Some stars changed colour in different ways to others. She knew that dead things shone differently to living things, that salt water was different to fresh water, and that hen eggs were different to duck eggs. As these were differences that everyone knew, the people of her House treated her with patience and good humour. This child who kept snails in a box, who hoarded jars of water and scraps of metal, who fancied herself a fortune-teller but told fortunes that were patently false and absurd, became an unofficial House mascot. She was welcome to come and go as she pleased into every home and workshop, to visit the chicken coops so long as she treated the hens well; to rifle through the bins and the cesspits so long as she washed afterwards. She endeared herself to the furnacemen at the Smiths when she declared that she knew they had changed the source of the fuel. She knew because the fire blazed a different colour through her ring. They made a deal with the girl: that if she agreed to be quiet and not yell fortunes at them, that they would make her a small tube for the ring which she could fasten to her head with a strap and wear like a long, protruding eyepatch. Sayadaw strutted around with the ridiculous brass tube on her face with the greatest pride, demanding that people admire it.

Once, when her father suffered a fit, as he did from time to time, Sayadaw stood in the doorway and watched him through her tube while her mother held him down. The patterns of light running through his neck and head were like an entirely new form of music. She was growing, and what had been a delightful eccentricity was becoming worrisome to her family. Shortly after witnessing the fit, she wandered into the kitchen of a neighbouring farmhouse and solemnly told the farmwife that the crops in her field would not grow that year. She said she had been looking at the soil and the colours of it were wrong, and quite unlike the colours of all the other fields she had seen this season. This was the first fortune Sayadaw told that became true, because she had learned that the patterns of colour that swam over fertile soil was distinct to that of waterlogged, barren or dry soil.

Discussions were had on Sayadaw’s behalf. Her mother was unapproachable or quarrelsome with most people in their House, and did not speak to anyone at all in the neighbouring Houses. Her father was too sick most of the time and spent half of each year or more in the refuge in Spozschpezh. But the nuns from the Scrollhouse in Kezkiisch had heard of this bright child and took it upon themselves to enrol Sayadaw for classes. The Scrollhouse was aligned to the Dark Order of Vitriol, as were all organised efforts of society in Spezlaas. The Order of Vitriol had begun as a group of people obsessed with the acquisition and study of the remnants from the War in Heaven. By the time Sayadaw was ordained into Vitriol, it functioned as a de facto municipal government for much of the Northern Continent. The nuns came again and again to their home and told Sayadaw’s mother that the Mother Superior herself had asked for Sayadaw’s attendance, that she recognised that the girl had been studying a rare and useful relic since she was born. After some frustrating and confused resistance, Sayadaw’s mother relented and finally the nuns from the Scrollhouse came to remove Sayadaw and leave her to stare at a dusty loom.

Sayadaw had met nuns and monks and scribes and masters from the Order on several fleeting occasions during her explorations of the village had not been cognisant of there being other Orders in the world, even though she had enjoyed the travelling clown acts from the Order of The Twins and been thrilled by the stories of the daring sheriff of the Order of Fury. People from the Order were simply adults, who were not her parents, that had useless jobs. Her mother made a half-hearted attempt to explain to her that she would be taught by the nuns of Vitriol how to read and write and to study the remnants they held, which sounded all well and good, but then the transport came to take her away to Kezkiisch and for the rest of her life she would only spend a handful of nights in her own bed, in her own home.

Tears were expected for new arrivals at the school and the nuns were experts in turning them to steam by way of scolding. But Sayadaw’s tears were of a flavour that took the nuns by surprise. There was an outrage to them that set the girl apart right away. Though Kezkiisch was one day’s easy journey away from Sayadaw’s home in Schtasspez, to the young girl it might as well have been as remote and alien as a city on the Moon. When she cried on her first day at the Scrollhouse, it was because she was so angry that no one had thought to bring her here before, to see all the people and machines and wires and horses and coal-fires. Her tears were appreciated and quelled by Spezlaasin Wioleta Ozige, a young research assistant of the Mother Superior, who took the furious little girl under her wing from that first day until the end of her life.

Several of the girls at the school had arrived there with an attachment to a powerful item already formed. Sayadaw was able to negotiate with the nuns for the right to wear her eyepiece during classes twice a week. She was silently admitted to the elite clique of girls that had such trinkets, but rarely invoked this honour. She didn’t think much of the hand-me-down wands and magical hats the other girls had. She was only interested in the new insights she could uncover with the help of Ozige and the Scrollhouse’s resources.and quietly reminded of the girl’s circumstances.

The nuns were more concerned with her more mundane studies - scribing and languages and the ways of the Order. She had to learn the ciphers that adherents of the Order used to communicate with each other, and the way to update them after the appropriate feast days passed on the calendar. She was taught of the Order’s severe philosophy of improvement. Every adherent of the Order was perpetually heated in the crucible of sharp words and precise scorn. She learned to accept the criticisms of others and how to hone the blade of her words. This idea extended beyond the sphere of the self to encompass the world, for nothing was infinite or divine to the Order of Vitriol. Everything on Earth or in the Heavens could be reduced if one had the right kind of crucible.

Sayadaw knew all this already, for where others saw plain light or dull dirt, she saw patterns and had learned their meanings. It was natural to her to believe that nothing was as it first seemed, and that the process of discovery was necessary, sometimes ecstatic and always disquieting. She became interested in the geological specimens held in the large Library just opposite the Scrollhouse. With Ozige’s help she fashioned a hinged box of ivory, small enough to fit in her fist. The box could hold a chunk of quartz crystal and, when shaken, would ripple out colours visible only through her eyepiece. She got into the unsettling habit of shaking this ivory rattle at mundane objects, which maddened her teachers and alienated her from the few girls brave enough to be her friends. But when she brought a tea tray into her class and said that she could use her rattle to identify a cup of poison among six cups of mint tea, a change occurred. Her teacher decided that a poisoning was as good as a beating to an impossible child and had Sayadaw and a volunteer blindfolded while the cups were shuffled, and placed Sayadaw in the crucible of her own experiment. She was allowed to use the rattle and the eyepiece to assess the cups. She said that the poisoned cup shone differently in the presence of the rattle, on account of the tiny pieces of metal in the water, and drank six cups in as many gulps. Sayadaw was certainly being honed - now she could tell her own fortune. She was rewarded by being sent to spend the rest of the day in Ozige’s cell. There she giggled to herself until Ozige returned from work and fed her honey and carob gum in an unregulated burst of pride.

One of Saydaw’s favourite hobbies was to crack an egg over a patch of bare soil. She could see the immediate response through her eyepiece - a rippling of faint, razor-thin lightning bolts crackling out from the eggy epicentre to beyond the edge of her vision. It delighted her to know that the spilling of an egg, which was a trivial thing to everyone she had ever met, was an event of grave importance to the world of the soil. Sayadaw’s trick with the cups of tea in class was its own kind of spilled egg. Another kind of lens behind another kind of eye, watching from high above, would see the news of Sayadaw’s feat spread across the gossip grapevines of the Houses, amplified by the intelligence networks of the Orders, to reach distant shores.

Much of her early schooling was intended to arm her with knowledge of the other Orders, so when she met someone who belonged to the Order of Power she was much better prepared than she had been when she first met someone from the Order of Vitriol. In a way, everyone was better prepared for an encounter with the Order of Power because, unlike the Order of Vitriol, the Order of Power operated brazenly, out in the open. Theirs was not the way of ciphers and secrets, of cloistered chapters whispering in attics, but of a marching band with an exhaustive repertoire. An old joke - how do you tell if someone is ordained into the Order of Power? Easy, it will be the first, second and third thing they will tell you. To walk among the Realm of Vitriol was to meet ordinary people who did extraordinary things behind closed doors. In the Realm of Order, the division of labour was clear, and its adherents wore its symbol plainly on their chests.

Sayadaw was approached by a Wanderer from the Order of Power shortly after her graduation. She was a young woman, taller than most of her classmates, with few friends and no need for more. Most of all she wanted to put the world in a crucible so she could see what it was made of. The Wanderer suggested that the Order of Power could help her with that.

The magnificent shambling man knocked politely on the door of her old home. She had returned there, to the House of Mammoth Snake Tree, to attend to the matters surrounding her mother’s funeral. Her father had not left the refuge and his own funeral was likely to come soon. She had swapped her old bed with the dusty loom so that she could lie in a sun beam like she had when she was small. She had been lying just so when the knock came.

The Wanderer from the Order of Power was very tall, with skin much darker than Sayadaw’s own. He had large, saucer-like eyes beaming from underneath the hood of his cloak. The cloak itself was another remnant from a lost time, a lush mane of broad-bladed grass that hung down the considerable distance to the Wanderer’s ankles. Two woven reeds hung across his shoulders, the ends of which were unseen for they sat in his mouth. Consequently, he was unable to speak, so handed Sayadaw a written message instead.

It was a flax envelope bearing the seal of the Order of Power. So it had been the first thing he had said. She broke the seal and read the message on vellum. It had no cipher and was written in the most commonly used language of the North. It was a summons to continue her education in the South East, on the distant fjords circling the Tides of Tears. She thanked the Wanderer and asked him for time to consider the decision. He produced a small scrap of paper, much rougher than the one that had been in the envelope, and scratched a response with a stick of burned willow.You may take all the time you do require. With your permission, I will remain here outside of your dwelling until such time you need me,” it read.

She went to see Ozige, leaving the man standing on the grass with his back to the sun, slurping on his tubes. She presented the note to her teacher and surrogate mother.“You can refuse,” said Ozige. “We do need you here. The Library has centuries of research you could shed new light on. You would be made a Curator before the end of the year.”“Everything that is here came from out there,” said Sayadaw, folding the message back into its envelope. “I could fill the Library from floor to ceiling with monographs of miracles but they would be written down in code. The knowing of them would not leak out beyond the walls.” Ozige knew then that Sayadaw could not be contained, and that the things she could see were things of the Light, not of the Dark. If she worked for the Library or the Archive she could discover such wonderful things, but they would be secret, hoarded. Ozige conceded the point and, though she was trained to never allow her heart to break, she did feel a small crack within her chest.

Sayadaw left with the Wanderer the following day. The journey to the Realms of Power would be an education in itself. Ozige was the only one to witness the leaving of Spezlaas’ most talented student, to see someone take that unusual step across the chasm of the Original Schism, that scar that marked the division between the Light Orders and the Dark. If Sayadaw returned, she would return changed, and only the keenest eye would be able to tell the difference.