by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith
Rothbert Spires, current Scholar of the Court, put on his ceremonial robes and strode to the workroom. After ten years of believing those cursed birds had become extinct, he now found himself having to perfom a Tallid reading; if the reading turned out to be a bad one, it was very likely he would be beheaded before the day was out. He wanted to make sure everything was set up properly. He would be presenting his findings in front of the most exalted of audiences for the first time. He had prepared for it as much as was possible, but some things were after all out of his control, and science alone could not be relied upon; he prayed for a little luck.
He walked straight to the heated tank and looked apprehensively at the large blue egg sitting in its centre. The birds had been extremely rare for years before they had been believed to be extinct; no one had seen a single bird for ten years so he was amazed when his assistant had walked into the workroom carrying the egg. He smiled ruefully as he remembered the scene: Amantia had entered at a snail's pace, carrying the large blue egg out in front of her as if it might explode at any moment, her eyes wide and her face pale with the fear of dropping it. He wished she had - then she would have been beheaded and he would have been spending this very hour enjoying a hearty breakfast.
He cast his mind back ten years - he had been the assistant, then. He smiled at the thought of Scholar Westly: a good man, a good teacher, and a fine Scholar. He must also have been a very lucky man, for Tallids had not been too rare in those days - Westly had had to report on hatchings a prodigious six times and had lived to tell the tale after all but the last one. Spires had taken over as Scholar after the old man's beheading, and had enjoyed a Tallid-less ten years of tenure. He had thought the land had finally been free of the ridiculous superstition - and now this! He didn't consider himself a lucky man: the chick that would hatch from this egg would most likely be his death knell.
His assistant snapped him out of his morbid reverie by bursting into the workroom, in that blustering way of hers, and announcing that the King's party was on its way. He took a last look at the examining table to make sure all the measuring equipment he needed was on there, glared at the egg and inwardly cursed Amantia for not tripping when she was carrying it. The clumsiest of women, she had managed to walk at least four miles with such a fragile cargo and had met with no mishap. He rued the day when he had selected her as his assistant. He had chosen her for her fine mind and natural skill at alchemy. He now wished he had gone with the oafish but malleable young fellow who would never have recognised a Tallid egg, let alone thought to go out looking for one.
Once the King and his generals had made themselves comfortable, the Scholar proceeded to stoke the fire that heated the tank. The egg started pulsating lightly, its beat increasing as the heat went up. A small crack appeared in the shell, was crossed by another, and finally a third served to expose the Scholar's nemesis to its eager audience. The creature made a few feeble cheeps as he lifted it out and gently placed it on the ceremonial tray. Now for the moment of truth: he used the Auspice Dagger to slit open the chick's stomach.
Then everything happened very fast. He handed the Dagger to Amantia and lifted the bird's entrails out of its stomach cavity. He found the blue intestine, separated it from the rest and laid it out on the tray as an underline to the eviscerated chick. Globules of sweat forming on his forehead, he reached for the measuring tool and worked out the length of the blue gut.
"It is under!" he declared, elated. "It is under four inches! Your Highness shall enjoy another year of good fortune in your reign over the land". He bowed, trying to disguise his nervousness and the sweat patches under his arms, but the King was too busy rejoicing to notice. There was much back-slapping exchanged between the generals and their king, and some of it even made its way to the Scholar and his assistant. The royal party walked out as quickly as they had come in and would now proceed to ignore the Scholar until harvest time, when they would want him to interpret the stars. This was how he preferred it.
Amantia congratulated him stiffly and left the room. Once he was sure she was not going to return, he sat down, trembling, and removed the scalpel he had attached to his wrist, which had been hidden by the voluminous sleeve of the ceremonial robe. Then he reached into the robe's pocket, picked out the small length of blue matter and threw it into the fire. One didn't spend ten years as a Scholar without developing some sleight-of-hand skills, and he was thankful for them. He would have to decide what to do about Amantia though - she was clearly after a promotion and he didn't want to have to go through this again the following year.
Not All The Time
3 weeks ago