Alissa crept up the stairway, her skirts gripped tightly in her fists. Gaze fixed upon the landing, she felt for the next step, easing herself up in what she hoped looked like a casual disinterest. This was not a good idea, she thought. She had been making Bailic’s meals all winter and knew risking his attention by finding out what he wanted for breakfast was asking for trouble. Taking a slow breath, she hesitated, the opposing feelings of curiosity and common sense teetering in her. Pulse quickening, she resumed her upward motion. Curiosity won. Not that was a surprise, she admitted.
She had woken as usual before dawn, pulled from her warm covers by a feeling of discontent. There was nothing different she could see about today than yesterday. The sparrows still pecked on the rooftops of the Hold, the ice mist rose as the sky brightened in a false dawn, the fires needed tending, and the mice ran when she turned corners.
But an unexplained restless, an itching to do something had filled her. Even worse, she was unable to tell what needed doing. It almost seemed she should have done it already, and the feeling of having been remiss tugged at her. This morning as her feet touched the floor, a need had filled her to find out what Bailic wanted for breakfast. It pulled her up the tower stairs when a healthy measure of caution urged her to go the other way, back down to the kitchen. Up until today, she didn’t care if the madman liked what she made for his breakfast or not. And she said mad, for anyone who claimed ownership of the Hold when it clearly wasn’t, had to be mad. The only reason she made Bailic’s meals was to keep him out of her kitchen. But now it seemed as if knowing what he wanted might end her discontent.
Alissa drew to a stop as she realized her fingertips were tingling. She dropped her gathered skirts and stared at her hands, her disquiet growing. “By the Hounds of the Navigator?” she whispered, opening and closing her hands. Her fingers only tingled when she was near a dangerous ward, and then it was painful, not this warm sensation. This felt more like . . .
“When I held my book of First Truth,” she whispered in dismay, leaning back against the stone of the stairwell as she finally understood. A sound of self-disgust slipped from her. “Burn it to ash,” she muttered. “Strell is going to have to pen me up like a nanny goat.”
It was her book that had been filling her with this intolerable restlessness, enticing her to come and steal it back, not caring if she were to be caught, Bailic would kill her. Last fall she had unknowingly followed its silent pull from her foothills farm across the mountains to the legendary Hold. Never would she have believed her papa’s stories about the Hold were true and that her papa, Keeper Meson, had been anything other than the foothills farmer he had pretended to be.
Though she had found the Hold empty but for Bailic, a fallen Keeper, it had once been the home of the Masters, a race of winged scholars skilled in magic, posing as savage beasts called rakus. In return for small services and loyalty, the Masters taught a select group of people they called Keepers how to use their, by comparison, stunted magical abilities. The book of First Truth held the Masters’ most powerful secrets. Now that all but one Master had been lured to their deaths by Bailic, the First Truth was possibly the only way to become a Keeper. And Bailic had taken it the moment she found it in the Hold’s well where her papa hid it fourteen years past.
She would sooner die than let Bailic keep it, but she wasn’t going to steal it back today, and not under the guise of finding out what Bailic wanted for breakfast. That the fallen Keeper was going to use her book to put the foothills and plains at war seemed far away and distant next to her simple desire to possess its knowledge for herself. Her book was now resting in Bailic’s chambers, as inaccessible as if it were at the bottom of the sea. But having touched it the once, its pull upon her seemed all the stronger.
Alissa impatiently pushed her hair out of her eyes as she looked up the stairway, torn between being angry for not realizing where her restlessness had stemmed from or upset that she was so vulnerable to its call. “Maybe,” she breathed, clenching her hands to try and drowned out the tingling, “I’ll ask Bailic what he wants for breakfast anyway, just to look at my book.” She gathered her skirts and took a step, unable to help herself. “I won’t go in. Just look at it through the doorway.” The First Truth was rightfully hers. How dare Bailic, Keeper or not, claim it for himself. He couldn’t even open it.
A muffled twittering came from the stairway below her. Heart pounding, she spun, embarrassed for having fallen victim to the book’s call again so easily. Her kestrel, Talon, landed against the rough wall, gripping it awkwardly as the tight turn was too much to make in flight. Alissa’s resolve faltered. Talon hated Bailic, often hissing and threatening violence when he was within earshot. Carrying on a conversation with Bailic, however stilted and contrived, would be impossible with her tiny defender near.
Her shoulders shifted, and she resolutely headed back to the kitchen. “Get off that wall,” she said sourly as she passed the robin-sized bird, hanging by her claws. “You look silly like that. . . .