I was first called by a book long ago, before the thousand days of rain began.
As a child, I passed my days in the silence of my mother's house. She spent her time intent on her work, brushing fine-spun linen with swan feathers dipped in brilliant colors. When I showed no early talent with paint, she left me to my own devices, her sole instruction given in a voice like the rasp of a bellows.
"Do not speak unless it is of something important, Carreth." A flick of her wrist, crimson streaking the cream surface. "I've no need to know your every thought, and you've no need for mine."
We were well suited in that way. I had no desire for a mother whose interest lay in those things that brought tears and laughter to their daughters' faces. Instead, when we spoke it was of the settling of the pigments in her paints, or the necessity of a decisive hand when mixing color. Never more, not even when her death took root in her chest and stole away the space for her breath.
On her final day, she grasped my wrist with a raven-claw hand and tapped one skeletal finger against my flat childish chest. "Amount to something, little girl. Be more than bones and skin."
Her death came as a shock to her. I could see it in her face, as if she'd expected this illness to prove no more than a temporary setback, her atrophied flesh merely the result of too much time abed. Instead, she sighed a breath out and could not catch a new one back, her body going limp as the wet puddled beneath her in the sickbed sheets.
"I'll see to the body," the woman who tended the dying said to me when I fetched her to the room. I stayed on, curious, until she gave me a cold look and waved me toward the door. "You best run along to the Cor so's they'll know to do the rites."
I pulled on my wool cloak, my fingers stumbling over the buttons, and went out into the half light of a winter afternoon. The wind blew strong between the houses, the slush and dirt frozen hard into a choppy sea for my leather soles to slip upon. The scent of woodsmoke came in gusts from the chimneys, the houses as silent as if death had come for everyone.
High above it all stood the Cor. Its stones, or so they taught in school, had come from the villages spread across all the hills and valleys, a tithe to the Cor's service. No one could teach us when it began, however, for there had always been the books, just as always there had been the villages and the hills. As it was, I found it difficult to believe the tower's stony indifference had not also always been part of this place, its expanse of stone and glass as permanent as my mother was not.
I knocked on the door of the entrance hall. No response at first, and I studied the grain of the wood before me, the way the paint blistered along the edge. I reached to pluck a fleck free, and the door swung open.
Even then, so long ago, her head did not reach above mine. Within her cowl, her eyes shone bird-bright, her cheeks soft and lined with age. "Yes," she said, her voice sharp as the snap of a wet cloth.
"My mother has died." I felt I should do more, perhaps weep, perhaps fall to my knees and rend my hair, as once I'd seen a woman do as the body of her dead son was fed into the flames of the Burning House.
I did neither. I waited as she looked me up and down, tallying, considering. At last she stepped back. "Well, come with me then."
The hall I followed her down was gray as her robes, streaks of dim light falling from slitted windows high on the walls. She walked along quickly, not bothering to check whether I followed or not. It never occurred to me not to, such was the strength of her presence. "Mind your step," she said once, toeing the lip of a stone that rose slightly above its brethren on the floor.
Finally she paused at a door and looked at me once more. "You've clean hands, I'd hope."
I glowered at her. She paid me no mind, simply waited until I raised my palms up for her inspection.
"Very well, come in."
I'd understood the Cor to be filled with books in much the same way that one understands the sky to be filled with stars; they are there, they are many, one might glance at them from time to time.
Now though, now I understood. The Cor was filled with books. From the bottom steps of the staircase, one can see all the way to the top of the tower, the spiral stem of stairs opening out to rooms of shelves at each landing. Silence, but not quite, as if within each cover a single seed sprouted and grew, its secret strivings whispering in the pages.
For a moment I could not breathe. I was not Carreth, ten years old and freshly orphaned, my life to be bartered for by any tradesperson who might have need of an extra set of hands. Here. I was meant to be here.
"Walk about," the woman said. "Tell me if you find anything different."
Different. And how would different look, I thought, as I took a few steps up and looked about me. Different might well be the contents of an endless stone tower when seen by a girl who'd lived her life in a one-room cottage, mightn't it?
Soon I made my second discovery. The books all looked the same. Cream-colored leather bindings, uncreased spines just a little wider than I might comfortably grasp, a single white ribbon tied around each. No titles. No numbers. Nothing but shelf after shelf of sameness.
I continued on up the steps. I'd not heard of anyone being sent into the tower when asking for the death rites. None went there but the servants of the Cor, and I began to wonder if I'd been clumsy in my words, if perhaps the woman had mistaken me for someone else.
Still, I continued. The air warmed as I traveled upward. On every floor were banks of windows, the sunlight and the pale books and the whitewashed walls combining into brightness quite unlike the ruddy glow of candles and lanterns that sustained us through the winter. The bookcases, made of unstained wood, stood in rows, the walkways the width of my armspan. It lulled me, till I wandered without thought of my mother, or of the cold outside, or the baker's careful study of my hands and the hostler's of the span of my shoulders every time they'd asked how my mother fared.
When I came upon the changed book, I knew before my eyes even catalogued the difference. I reached for it, and it reached for me, or so it seemed, the deep blue of its binding, the black of the ribbon, the chapped skin of my fingers all rushing to meet.
The woman was waiting when I turned from the shelf. Her eyes went to the book, to my face, filled with satisfaction, certainty, and something more I could not name.
"You'd best call me Mother Maiden," she said.
So much exists that we cannot know. I know of the rain that has fallen for days upon days now; our streams becoming rivers, our rivers rushing over their banks, hesitantly at first, then spreading out over the land until ducks dabble where the cattle should roam. I know the walls of the Cor as I know the twists and turns of my own skin. I know more than I wish to of those who serve with me, of how Triste turns sullen when I scold her, and how Diadon sometimes lurks among the shelves I no longer frequent, and how Velue smells of ginger when he passes me close on the stairs.
But what of the books? Are they aware within their unmarked bindings? Do they smell the must that the rain brings, do they shiver a little as the water creeps higher, closer, until the stones of the lowest floor sweat beneath my feet?
Do the souls at work within the bindings feel the dangers that brush along their bodies outside the Cor, and long to bring them in, safe and dry?
Do they feel at all?
The temptation is always there. Every volume the same on the outside, tied with identical ribbons to protect them from accidental viewing, changing in thickness and color only after their body has died. Mine somewhere among them, Velue's, Triste's, Diadon's. Just a peek, one thinks. No one will know.
"It makes no difference whether anyone will know," Mother Maiden said during my training, as she led me upward. "And I do believe the individual would know. It must feel . . ." She paused, immersed in the thought. "I think it would feel as if someone were touching your heart, thrill and pain together. It does not matter. You are not to open a single book except when a completed volume chooses you for the death rites, or you are instructed to handle one uncompleted."
I nodded politely. A child. I was so young then, like a leaf just unfurled, soft and green. Now I am more like an oak leaf in autumn, its leathery skin clinging to life as the days darken around it.
Once, recently, as we carried books from the lowest floor up, Triste slipped. A single volume fell from her hands down the stairs. I stopped for it at the bottom. It lay there, slightly askew, its ribbon loosened, the fanned pages displaying a hint of color. Cerulean, crisp as a summer sky of the sort we hadn't seen since the rain began.
The others had gone ahead. I lingered, crouched to the floor. I drew one finger along the spine, over the silken tie so willing to be unbound.
One look. What would it matter?
Instead, I tied the ribbon with care and placed the book atop my own pile to carry upstairs.
Time, color, dreams—rain steals them all.
No, that's not quite fair. This rain is a thief, but it shares little with the warm mists that blow across the valleys in summer, the sudden downpours of spring, the spatter of not-quite-rain not-quite-snow that heralds the winter dark. This rain is a bureaucratic one, determined to continue its ceaseless patter against all reason, all right, the constant drip of water from the roof, the drumming against the courtyard, the persistent damp that curls sheets of vellum left out on a desk.
We had time to prepare. Day and night, the sound of the boat builders shaping wood, while within the walls of the Cor, Mother Maiden bustled about.
"The upper levels of the tower should be quite high enough," she said, one hand gone to her brow within the recesses of her cowl. "Even if the Upland Dam does not hold, the heights of the Cor should stand well above the flood."
The local builders agreed. The villages of the valley floor would likely vanish beneath the water, they said, but they believed the Cor could withstand the worst of any flood.
"We all must stay," she said.
We'd glanced at one another, the four of us. The boats, the weeping women storing their treasures in the rafters of their cottages, the anxious glances toward the hills and the thwarted river held between them—we were not part of any of it. Of course we would stay.
It was not the water that carried Mother Maiden away from us. One morning she refused breakfast with a grimace, went instead to consider again what must be moved and how. I found her among the stacks, a small crumpled mass, one bone-white leg jutting out from under her robes.
Triste cried when I led them to the body. I told her not to be foolish, and sent them all to find Mother Maiden's book. I believed it would choose Velue. He'd come from her village, his tongue rich with the words they shared, his mind quick and clever. Who a more likely candidate for her soul to pick as successor in the Cor? I so firmly believed the rites would be his that I all but missed the volume waiting for me, its binding turned red as my hair.
Opening a book, one can never be prepared for what one might see. It is only once complete that they take on individual color and size, but even that gives no clue as to their contents. I've found stories dry as ash in some, written in languages I barely remember from my lessons and spanning hundreds of pages, while in others I've read tales that I could have wept to see end. Some are of a length that makes their reading an act of endurance, while others are but a single page, or have no words, merely pictures. Once I opened the book of a child dead of a fall that crushed her skull, and found the pages joined into a ladder rising up out of a picture of darkness into the stars of night. Another time, in the book of a crone gone quiet in her sleep, were three paintings of a beautiful girl on the cusp of womanhood, unclothed, limbs splayed, rapt desire in her face as another naked girl twined about her.
I did not know what I'd find in Mother Maiden's book. The whole of the village turned out for the rites, fear plain in their faces, for all took her death as a portent. I'd cleaned her body myself, anointing her creased skin with almond oil scented with jasmine, and my hands smelled sweetly of death when I took my place before them at the dais in the House of Burning. Behind me I could hear the crackle of the flames awaiting her.
The ribbon holding her volume closed had turned red as well, and it relinquished its hold without struggle. I cleared my throat, prepared to read whatever lay within, but found no words. She who had never been at a loss for the precise thing to say, had no words between the covers of her book. A single image, a swallow's wing, no bird attached, spread for flight, every feather so exact that I ran my fingers over them, expecting to feel the fine texture of the quills.
I looked out upon the faces assembled before me, and found myself drawn to just three: Triste red-eyed in the front, Diadon to one side of her, Velue to the other, his eyes fixed on me. The people gathered desired a story, something to shield them from the rain falling thick and fast. I had none. I had the wing of a swallow in a book bound for flame, and while I could have constructed something of hope and sunlight for them, it would not have been truth.
And in the end, truth is all the Cor offers.
I've learned water can move fast or slow, like a living creature, deciding for itself how best to overtake us. The latest trespass moves slowly, licking its way across the stones with deliberation. It will rush at some point, so I've insisted we redouble our efforts to carry everything remaining on the lower shelves up before we rest.
We work quickly, arms grown strong from the ceaseless work, until Velue stops. He holds out a book, puzzlement in his eyes. The cover has gone the color of spring violets; the ribbon, butter-yellow. He looks at me, questioning. I have no answer for him. The villagers have dispersed completely, in great flotillas built of wood and prayer. We've no way of no knowing whose soul waits within.
"You must do something," Triste says. She has cat's eyes, tawny, but lacking calculation. Her skill is not in language; I'd been surprised Mother Maiden kept her on, so halting was her reading.
"We've no idea whose book it is," I say. "And the House of Burning is underwater. There's no way to stoke a fire there. What would you have us do?"
"It's someone's book," she says. Not crossly. Crossly I would have respected. No, she speaks with wilting softness, as if sorrow makes her correct. "It's what we're here for."
"Without the context of a life, what is this book? No more than leather and ribbon and paper."
Triste succumbs to moistness, her eyes welling up. I shake my head, look to Velue, who stands there, dark eyes staring out from within his cowl.
"She's right," Diadon says. "What's the point of us being here if we don't attend our work?"
I laugh. I can't help it, not with the steady noise of the rain falling all around us, with the piles of books without shelves above us, the stacks of books still needing to be carried up.
"I'll do it," Velue says. "Give me a moment to change." He strides away, up the stairs.
"Very well," I say. "Fetch me some dry vellum."
Triste hurries away on the errand, leaving me with Diadon.
"You could be kinder to her," he says. "She's more than you let her be."
"She's a damp rag I'm condemned to carry around in my pocket, Diadon, thanks to Mother Maiden's whimsy. Surely you see the same in her."
He says nothing, merely pushes the hood back from his head. His braid is the color of the sunlight when it falls on the rough white coverlet of my bed, his face shaped like the broad hills of the farmland he came from.
I have no doubt that Mother Maiden had remained a maiden for her entire tenure, but she had always been made of finer stuff than I. Cliche, yes, to say one thing leads to another, but so often they do. Diadon's studied friendliness, hours spent dusting the shelves together, a cowl pushed back further than decency allowed, silence held a moment longer than wise, minutes when skin met beneath robes, a hand on a thigh, balancing, my back against the corners of the books, my neck and his lips and the shudder of his body.
So it went between us, once upon a time.
I'd have been content to allow such pleasures to continue, but Diadon needed more, needed meaning, and eventually I chose to tend shelves alone. At first he resorted to casual bits of cruelty, but, finding me lacking in response, he gave way to indifference.
But Triste? "Don't tell me the little mouse has raised her robes for you. Is that it?"
Diadon comes close. I watch as he raises his hand, feel his touch on the side of my neck beneath the hood. We stand facing one another, eye to eye. He is the one to look away, his hand slipping back down to his side.
"Carreth, for a woman as intelligent as you are, you are woefully lacking in your ability to understand others. There are ways in which people care for one another beyond the obvious."
"I understand all too well," I say. "I understand the young mouse has her charms."
He is a study in subtlety, fine lines going taut in his face. "The gift of your maidenhood is one I treasured, and it cannot be returned. I've not accepted the same of Triste. I'm simply asking you to learn kindness as a step toward being a better person. Isn't it expected of a Mother Maiden, or do you think such things beneath you?"
As a student, I'd learned that while each language shares certain elements with others, it also holds mysteries unique to itself, passageways that open only when you have devoted yourself completely to its understanding. I expect human nature is similar, but it's never held my interest enough to find out.
Nor have I ever felt the desire to understand my own nature. I have blasphemed, I have fornicated, I've even dreamed of leaving the confines of the Cor behind. But I stayed. I've presided over the death rites of hundreds, held in my hands the contents of their souls and offered what I've witnessed to those who waited, their hearts filled with grief, or curiosity, or nothing more than piety.
Is that not enough? Isn't that work all that can be required of me?
I've no time to respond before Triste and Velue return. Triste hands me the creamy sheets of vellum, and I wonder whether they will be tinder enough, or if I will be left with a singed and damaged book, its tormented soul abandoned to wander the earth.
Velue takes his place before us. He's changed into his dress robes, the deep blue cowl framing the delicate oval of his face. He undoes the ribbon with deft hands, holds the volume in one and opens it with the other. I keep my eyes on his face, not what lies before him. It is his to tell, mine to listen.
"As a servant of the Cor, I stand before you to acknowledge the work of the completed soul of . . . this completed soul." He stumbles, finds his way in the unfamiliar territory. What he holds is essence without label.
"As witness, I speak with the awe of one uncompleted for the soul who has traveled its journey and now will return to the breath of the world. This is what we are meant to know."
He pauses, his forehead lined with concentration. When he begins, he speaks in Tralian, a language native to none of us here, one I am clumsy enough in that I must translate the words in my head.
"'Her ashes fall from the sky, now and forever more. They are in the rain upon my face, and the soil upon which I live. I breathe them in, and they shine within me, and I shall know her again, for she will be in every wind that blows. She will be in the wheat that grows on the winter fields, and the leaves that fall in the autumn. I will hear her voice in the rustle of leaves, and see the curve of her smile in the hills. Once separated, we will travel together again, forever.'"
Velue glances up from time to time as he continues. Finally he draws to a close. His eyes meet mine, do not turn away as he speaks the benediction, the lines we have all said so many times. "This completed soul has bestowed upon us a gift, and in return we shall free it now. May we bless it as it has blessed us, and send it forth until it sees fit to return."
I take the vellum from Triste's hands and crumple it lightly before dipping one corner into the flame of the lantern hung on the walls. The vellum singes, darkens, then burns steadily.
"Velue," I say, but he is already beside me. I lay the vellum on the floor and he opens the book over it. The pages catch and burn, albeit reluctantly. At one point the fire threatens to sputter out. Velue kneels down and blows on it, and the flames strengthen.
Eventually only a pile of ash remains. Velue sweeps it into his hand. I push the window open. The rain blows in at us, the water below bumping against the Cor in choppy waves. Velue leans out and allows the ash to blow from his hand, and the book is gone.
I cannot force them to work through the night, so we break for sleep. We've only one room between the four of us now that the books have taken our old ones. Triste and I share one mat, Velue and Diadon the other. For too many nights I have respected the wearing of the cowl in the shared space, but this night I can stand it no more. I shove mine back, feel the snap of static between my hair and the rough fabric.
"Carreth," Triste scolds.
"The rules were not meant for such a time as this, Triste. I cannot wear the cowl day and night. And it is just the cowl. I am not proposing we strip away robes as well."
Triste turns a pretty shade of pink. I bite against the hiss that rises.
Diadon lowers his cowl as well. Velue hesitates a moment, then emerges from his like a mole from his soil. Diadon's head I know all too well, but Velue's is a revelation to me. I've come to know him as hands, a face, a voice, a mind. Uncovered, his thick black braid and his large ears exposed, he becomes both more and less to me.
Triste tuts a little, then lowers her cowl as well. I've seen her uncovered many times. In the women's quarters of the Cor, dressing, undressing, her body softer than mine, smaller, and yet so much the same. Somewhere in the Cor, though, our souls do their work, and in their pages I wager we would find nothing in common.
"Your hair is startling." Velue watches me, direct.
"It is simply hair," I say.
"It is the color of holy fire," he says.
I look away. No one speaks for a moment, then Diadon shifts.
"Is there any reason to leave the lantern lit?"
"No," I say. "Please, put it out."
"Do you never miss your family?" Triste asks. We are once again moving books. The water has risen in the lower rooms to the point of washing over the bottom shelves. We slosh back and forth through the flood, our robes dragging heavy and wet against our legs.
"I've no family to miss." No father, sisters, brothers, none but a mother who I think of only in odd moments, when memory trips like a shadow round some corner of my mind.
"Oh, Carreth, how sad." She speaks in breathy pauses. I remind myself she is young, still given to flights of imagination. "That's just awful."
"You've family that causes you pain because you miss them. Mine provides me no grief. How can you pity me?"
"Because, it is sad." She stumbles in the water as she walks, and I grit my teeth and pray she doesn't drop the lot she holds in the slop.
"Let me take those upstairs for you," Velue says, back from carrying his load. He lifts the books from her arms, and she smiles, sweetly, shyly. Diadon watches, nothing to be gleaned from his gaze. I cannot help but wonder whether he was honest in saying he'd taken no pleasure with the girl, whether she'd muffled his cries with the inside of her wrist, his teeth leaving impressions there.
Velue and I leave great wet trails as we go up the stairs, like snails dragging themselves along the cold flagstones, while Diadon and Triste return to the bottom floor. "The weight of the wet cloth is worse than that of the books," Velue says, and I laugh.
"Do you suggest we divest ourselves of robes?" I ask, and he laughs in return.
Three-quarters of the way up, I hear something, a low rumble, a rush, a rapidly growing sound. Out the window I can see it coming, a great brown wall broken by sticks. Only they aren't sticks, they're trees, and Velue drops the books and grabs me away from the glass. We run, gaining only a few steps before the water hits. The Cor gives a great shudder. From below I hear groaning, crashing, my ears popping with the pressure.
It's over just as quickly. Down I run, only I've not far to go, the stairs vanished under a lake risen halfway up the Cor. Books float in the muddy wash, their open pages rippling as the water soaks in.
"Triste," Velue whispers. "Diadon."
A statement, a question, the reflex of hope.
They were far below us, both collecting new loads to carry. "We should . . . ," I say, only I've nothing more than that, for we can see nothing in the murky depths, cannot swim in search of what which I know to be gone—voice, strength, breath, shy smiles, braids the color of sunlight.
No room for what is gone, only for what remains. "Velue, the books. We must gather those we can."
"How can you—" he begins, but I've reached into the water, my hands intent on the heaviness of wet pages. I cannot stop to think, I cannot care, I must simply do.