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when mother is daughter ~ when father is son

one shall be all ~ all shall be one

Tabra Tal’s Writ of Time, Book of Mysteries, Canto 16::Verse 16


Sharpe – The Books of Ressor Fanion

Book One
Harona

Ressor Fanion said ::

Shall we begin then—but what of the ink? Do you find it to your liking?

Do tell me if you do not. It is barely a bother at all to get up another batch for

you.

That particular ink is a formulation that I have not prepared in an age of

ages. But I believe I have rediscovered the proper proportions. If indeed I have

you will find that the ink requires no blotting. Every stroke of the pen will dry

and fix onto the face of the paper the very instant it is applied. And yet the ink

will retain a near perfect fluidity on the nib of the pen and will not foul the point

even should the pen be laid aside many minutes at a time. Beyond better it never

clots in an unstoppered inkhorn. Exceedingly useful properties—I should think

you would agree—to combine in a single kind of ink.

The crux of the puzzle you see was striking upon a sufficiently energetic

evaporative for the solution. I must admit that in the end the perplexity was

unknotted by the bludgeon of tenacity and not by the blade of wit. Oh I just

bashed away at the problem with brute trial and error and I must have tried

four-times-forty different sorts of evaporatives before I hit upon the right one. Or

nearly right I should say. The hue of the dried ink has a dunnish cast that I find

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disagreeable. And then obviously there is the odor. A bit more than disagreeable

I think you would agree. But I could discover neither a method nor an admixture

that could eliminate it.

The offensive odor you see is an intrinsic of the evaporative—an essence—

and is therefore immune to the influences of a subtractive substance. When I

tried additives of adequate potency—by which I mean masking fragrances—I

found only a handful of aromatic oils up to the task. But experimentation soon

convinced me that the introduction of an oil even in trace proportions would

produce an imbalance in the solution that could not be compensated without

sacrificing the very properties I sought by which I mean the ink’s variable rates

of desiccation—

Oh no. No no no—certainly this is no way to begin. Variable rates of

desiccation indeed! This nonsense about the concoction of inks is as dry as tinder

and who could be so desperately dull to read it? It won’t do—it won’t do at all. I

beg your pardon.

So shall we begin again—though it is curious is it not? Quite strange how

the nose so keenly catalyzes the memory. How the slightest of scents will send

one’s nose plowing through the mounds of time to snuffle a particular perfume

or pungency. How the prodding snout—blind and deaf, dumb and numb—

rouses the other faculties and wakens their sensibilities to scenes past. How

otherwise slumbering memories are in this manner, of a sudden, made fully

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vivid and vital again. It is a phenomenon that I have had occasions in my life to

make great use of.

The odor of that ink transports me directly to my earliest days at the

Academy and deposits me back in my old lodgings in the Burrows. I shall tell

you what I see. I see the perpetual disorder—the toppled stacks of books, the

rumpled bed linens, the spatters of ink, the discarded stale crusts of ranzi, the

little scraps of paper scribbled with big thoughts. I see, in short, the studied

neglect which self-serious scholars are obliged to inflict upon their surroundings.

And my ears are filled with the old sounds once more. I shall tell you

what I hear. I hear the scratching of my pens, the bubbling of retorts, and the

crucibles’ hiss intermixing with the roister of the street passing below my

window.

It is surely a thing to be marveled at. That one can—that I can—return

again to my rooms in the Burrows of Athalan simply because this air is

transfused with the acridity of my ink that dries with a slightly dunnish tinge. I

can see that place, I can hear it, I can touch and taste it all now—that past made

present again. But enough of that for now. Though it is a most interesting subject

that merits a revisitation. Do remind me to return to it.

The Burrows, I should explain, had by time and tradition been given over

by the city of Athalan to serve as the students’ quarter, an enclave fully

deserving of whatever reputation that your imagination may entertain. The

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Burrows formed the ragged northern extent of Athalan proper, separating the

city from the emptiness of desert beyond—like the untidy tear one makes across

the grain of half-used paper for the sake of economy.

The Burrows were built on and from the salvaged bones of the original

old settlement. Its walks were still paved with rough flags of native stone. The

hoary hide of its stucco buildings were rubbed raw at the joints, exposing the old

white rock made seemingly whiter by the crazed veins of grey and blue. The

dear, decrepit place! Such a venerable confusion of narrow alleyways and stuffy

dormitories and crumbling courtyards.

Oh certainly, the courtyards. The heart of Athalan beats in its cherished

courts—and so on. It’s a verse from an ancient song that has been passed down

intact—and in parody I might add—through generations of students. Some claim

it was composed by Tabra Tal himself. Which is ridiculous, of course. There was

no Athalan, no Burrows, no Academy in the days of our Teacher.

But it is certainly true that life in Athalan was lived in its courtyards. I

myself passed many an hour—idle as well as industrious—in the multitude of

courtyards which punctuated every neighborhood in the Burrows. The courtyard

in the cluster of dormitories where the botanists lodged appealed particularly to

me. Botanists are a patient but stubborn lot. I suppose it is the nature of their

studies that inclines them to be so. The garden in their courtyard was well

tended, of course, despite the absence of sundry grasses, roots, and herbs whose

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medicinal and other utilitarian properties should have been sufficient incentive

for the cultivation of such species. And yet I must say that it was only after I

contrived a rather efficient system of irrigation from the ruins of a fountain there

that I was indulged with a small plot of necessary botanicals and its yield made

available to my mortar and pestle.

Such is the world. As Tabra Tal rightly says, an unopened gate prevents two

paths’ passing. So thus improved, the botanists’ courtyard became my preferred

retreat, particularly in the mild light of dawn before the combined rays of Pirsa

and Mirlu crested the mountaintops and turned the refreshing garden oppressive

with steam. I was able to make excellent progress in my studies there beneath the

green shade and the omnichromatic blossoms and my presence there became not

unwelcomed.

The overhead glare of the midday suns made the exposed courtyards

utterly unbearable places. Being accustomed to a much more temperate climate, I

could not tolerate such stifling heat. One would think that over the years I would

have become more acclimated but I admit that such was not the case. But even

the locals seemed unapologetic when they too abandoned the courtyards and the

other open spaces of Athalan to the meridian swelter and sought out the interiors

of the taverns, the shops, and the hantohouses that lined Tal’s Way and its side

streets. I, of course, generally took my refuge under the soaring dome of the

Library, a sanctuary of inherent pleasure compounded by the decision of its

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architect to pierce the apex of the dome with a great oculus to provide all of the

light one needed with the ventilation that one desired.

Where was I? Oh yes, the hours on either side of noontide were the only

times of the day when the courtyards approached a state of desertion. As I have

said, the clement light in the cool morning hours was wonderfully felicitous for

reading and reflection. It was the routine of most students and mentors alike to

start the day on a favorite bench in a favorite courtyard to pore over lecture notes

or enjoy the congenial company of friends or simply sit with hands wrapped

around a mug of hanto, with heads wrapped around some private riddle or

reverie.

It should really come as no surprise when I tell you that, even in the

deepest hours of the night, the courtyards were not unfrequented. For the

courtyards were coveted as haunts—of a different sort—even in those dark

hours. Would you not expect to find a huddle of inebriates passing a bottle

bartered from a yawning barkeeper in exchange for their quitting the premises?

Would it be unexpected to cross the desultory path of an exiled insomniac or

two? Where else would the furtive fumblings of fledgling love make a nest if not

in the covert courtyards, in the fluttering light of street lamps, under the silver

avian eyes of the moons?

I mistake myself for a poet at times. My apologies to you and to poets. I

intended to explain what exactly gave rise to the renown accorded the

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courtyards of Athalan. It was not for the quietude of dawn. It was not for the

intolerable torridity of noontide. Nor was it for the dark doings of midnight.

None of that. No, the fame—or infamy if you prefer—of the courtyards rose from

what happened in the early evening hours as dusk descended on the Burrows.

With the settings of the suns as shadows gathered, as students gathered, and as

mentors sometimes gathered, the courtyards exchanged one type of warmth for

another and became hotbeds of disputation and contention.

For you see, Athalan was—and always had been as far as can be

reckoned—absolutely polluted with debating societies. Astonishingly so. I

venture to say that if one tried to tally them up, the very attempt would have

spawned several new societies in its wake to thrash out the viability and value of

taking such a census.

Indeed, it could well be doubted whether any event could be said to have

actually transpired in Athalan unless the causes and circumstances of its

occurrence were duly debated. For with sufficient friction applied, anything and

everything that happened—no matter how frivolous—seemed to spark

incendiary dispute. Proposition: The portions and the geniality of the hantohouse

by South Gate have declined since the previous proprietor turned its

management over to the son-in-law. Yes! No! Proposition: The recent renovations

to the public baths were shoddily done at too great an expense. Without question!

An admirable improvement! Proposition: The pranks lately pulled by the students

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of law cannot be dismissed as mere high-spirited amusement. They’re ill-bred

scoundrels of no account and—mark my words—will get what’s coming to ‘em! You’re a

lot of precious talk, ain’t you, lackbrain!

I make my point overmuch perhaps. But the commonly held notion that

the courtyards of Athalan were elevated pulpits for enlightened erudition is only

true by half. I assure you that they likewise stooped to farce and bluster. The

fuller truth is that the courtyards were equally the podiums for burnished

tongues and the arenas for bloody fists—for insights and insults, for fellowship

and faction, for virtue and vanity—for all that is contradictory in humankind. In

those hours between the light of day and the dark of night, the best and worst of

our nature was in full voice.

Where was I? Evening, courtyards, infestation of debating clubs—oh

yes—it was usual for every field of study to be represented by at least one club.

Academic interests were best served when the topics were restricted to a

reexamination of the day’s lectures and a discussion of assigned readings.

Needless to say, the interests of those students who had had more pressing

business than to attend that day’s lectures or to read the assignments were best

served by this agenda as well. And to be fair about it, this was the customary

form for the nightly debates.

So in theory and mostly in practice, the debating clubs operated as

organized study groups and undoubtedly it would have been the policy of the

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Academy administration to encourage them even if the existence of these

societies were not already so inextricably entrenched by tradition. Mentors, as I

mentioned, would also attend the debates if they had a mind to but were under

no obligation by the Academy. When I became a mentor, however, I continued

the habit and attended one or more debates each evening whenever I was able.

Certainly my patience was sorely tested at times when a student would steer the

conversation to the injustice of marks received or when another would try to

curry favor through shameless flattery of my teaching methods. But on the

whole, I believe I benefited by taking part as much as my students.

I sense your disappointment in my description. It is hardly consonant

with my prologue to it. How, you may well wonder, does a study group rate as a

hotbed of contentiousness? Let me continue.

I said that in theory and mostly in practice, the debating clubs operated as

study groups. I turn now to those that did not. Unlike the clubs organized from

and by the students in a particular academic field, the debating societies that I

speak of now drew their membership from across disciplines. Or as some in the

Academy administration may say—without discipline. These societies engaged in

fiery oratory for its own sake and practiced rhetoric in its purest and most

perditious form. Thus, the topics of debate were always a combustible

combination—politics, religion, natural philosophy, ethics, poetics—all the more

volatile when agitated by the earnestness of youth.

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Many of these societies boasted an incorporation predating the founding

of the Academy itself. Thus, much to the chagrin and chronic consternation of

the administration, these societies maintained a defiant—insolent is the better

word—an insolent posture in their standing with the Academy. These are the

societies for which the courtyards of Athalan are known and, by some, loathed.

The battles—there is not a better word—among these societies were not

the nightly improvised affairs of the studying clubs. Indeed, on the scheduled

occasions that two of these societies mustered for elocutionary engagement, the

other clubs disbanded for the evening in order to be witnesses to the event.

There was the wonderful atmosphere of the theatre about it all. A crowd

would assemble in a tight, murmuring knot in the center of a courtyard,

respectfully reserving the periphery for the slate of the speakers who paced

apart, mouthing the address they had prepared in private, still seasoning their

speeches in the seconds before they took the stage in the hope that their words

would be received like dry wood pitched upon a bonfire.

For you see, these courtyards were the round pens for such students who

aspired to a public station in life. Here the eloquent and ambitious could exercise

and display their talents and, as they hoped, make names for themselves. I dare

say you could thumb through any history and find its pages decorated with

these names. Notable names. Notorious names. Names first publicly pronounced

on some long ago evening in the Burrows as the next speakers of the night

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nervously stepped from the shadows and the moderator hushed the crowd with

introductions. It has been said—indeed certain historians have convincingly

argued—that all great deeds and all great disasters can be traced back to a

remark once uttered from atop a stump or a stone bench in a dim courtyard of

Athalan. Speaking for myself, I cannot refute it.

I would be remiss if I did not make particular mention of two such clubs:

the Clarion Bridge Society and its rival the Barred Gate Society. Interestingly,

both clubs claimed as their namesake the same ancient rock formation that once

stood—it is said—in the open expanse of desert west of city. It is also said that

the curious monolithic arch would wail in a passing gale, that its shrill keening

could even be detected on the far side of Four Peaks. The great bridge was finally

silenced by the violence of a quake that collapsed the center span into a heap

between two standing columns. At some time after, this pair of columns in turn

succumbed—it is said—to a second quake which reduced the thing in its entirety

to so much rubble scattered over the desert floor. Then, so the story goes, the

thrifty inhabitants of early Athalan took good advantage of nature’s masonry

and carted the blocks of stone away for use in various reconstructions in the

shaken and presumably grieving village.

Now mind you, there is not a scrap of historical evidence for the first

quake. Not a mention. The subsequent upheaval would likewise exist only in

legend were it not for a much worn inscription on a single block of incongruent

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rock set in the courtyard of the theologians’ neighborhood of the Burrows. By

tradition the stone is a piece of that rubble and by appearances it is a memorial to

an unfortunate victim of the latter quake. The legible portion of the inscription

reads: to the blessed Hearth our lost brother repairs ~ the muted bridge breached, the

barred gate broken ~ now worldly tumults no longer he bears ~ with his departing, a

reunion betoken.

Well, perhaps the telling of a tale makes it so. But I cannot make roots or

twigs of it. By which I mean that it is beyond my feeble comprehension how one

constructs arches and columns from the fragments of these lines. I grant you that

lore and logic are most content when in least contact. And granted, the legend

has been handed down forty-forty years or more, from a time when what was,

was reason. Such rubbish! I talk as if times had changed.

At any rate, that is how the inscribed stone block came to be the joint

inheritance of the Clarion Bridge and the Barred Gate clubs, serving as their

speakers’ platform in The Court, the name—pretentious in its simplicity—given

to the theologians’ courtyard in which they debated. Entrance to both societies

was strictly by election or by connections and each administered their own

elaborate initiation rites—so solemn, so secret, and so silly.

But their reputation for rhetoric of the highest order was justly deserved.

It was a reputation their memberships staunchly and hotly defended for they

held it as a sacred legacy vouchsafed by a long line of celebrated orators. And the

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debates—without question or qualification—the debates between these rival

societies were the most impressive, the most impassioned, and the most

inflammatory in all of Athalan. And how we lit up the night! For we were

determined to leave no flame unfanned.

Do though consider our predicament. Surely we were the first generation

to be burdened with such an imperfect and needful world. The times were dire

and if not so ignorant would have desperately cried out for our fire and intrepid

chatter. We had no choice but to respond. We had to be, though uncalled for,

heroes all the same. So we galloped into Athalan and, with braying throats,

swung ourselves onto a pedestal to unseat the corrupted world and fling off all

of the false doctrine, dogma, and institutions that our witless ancestors had

saddled us with. We questioned everything but our brilliance. We were

spectacular. We were—

We were young. We were a spectacle. And we would have been

unquestionably brilliant if we had left the courtyards to the merry drunks and

callow lovers.

You see that I do not except myself. I was no different then. I too was all

afire, hotter and hungrier than the white desert itself. How shall I describe me? A

conflated bladder. All puffed up with grand plans and the smolder of reading

lamps. So full of myself and empty.

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I well remember my arrival in Athalan. Shall I tell you of my grand

entrance? I arrived—not at a gallop I assure you—but in the back of a busklor

cart. After four days and four nights plodding across the desert—the final leg of

a very long journey—the busklor and I were in seeming competition as to which

of us could reek of stale sweat more. By the snorting of the beast, I believe I won.

I entered the city through East Gate. With barely a glance toward the

Fount-in-the-Rock, I passed right by the shrine and drove straight up Tal’s Way,

traversing its entire length until I reached the foot of the steps of the Library

where I whistled the busklor to halt. I lowered myself from the cart and in an

odd sort of silence, for my ears still rang with the grating of the wheels and the

creaking of cart box, I strode—in my own fashion—up the stone steps and stood

at last under the great white dome. For the better part of an hour, I simply stood

there, encompassed by the concentric stacks of countless books and manuscripts,

encircled by the knowledge of the ages. In the shaft of light that shone down

from the oculus above, I stood there straddling two promises to myself—one

finally fulfilled and one finally within the reach of realization. I stood there until

I was convinced of the actuality of the moment—I stood in the Library of Athalan

at last and I would one day know everything under that dome.

Of course, the best books and manuscripts—the most ancient and

obscure—could not be taken from the Library. I would have to transcribe them.

So I devised an exceptionally efficient method of writing that allowed me to take

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advantage of having two hands. With a pen in each hand, I would make only the

vertical strokes of each character with my right hand and follow up with my left

hand which would complete the characters with the horizontal and oblique

strokes. Obviously I would need an ink that dried instantaneously so that my

trailing left hand would not smudge the marks made by the right.

But this is no way to begin. I must go farther back to where my memory

itself begins. Back to the little blue cottage in the yellow tuskwood forest.

Oh dear me! That sounds like the start of a child’s hearthtale. Well, so be

it. We would do well to remember the words of Tabra Tal: In the end, despite our

most determined designs, the tale tells itself.

[End of First Session]

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