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The Braiding
Artwork by Emily Tolson
The Braiding
    by Pat Esden

"Maestro Oplontis, this is your glassblower?" The magus' voice sang with unexpected virility.

Iseau glanced up from her burn-scarred fingers. Magus Sharad was no older than she. Not only was he young, but he wore a leather doublet and had an exquisite sword hanging at his side. He looked more like one of the Doge's guard than the eastern magus he claimed to be.

Iseau's grandfather took her hand and placed it in Sharad's. "This is Iseau, my granddaughter, the finest master glassblower in the Venetian Republic. May her art braid with your magic to bring honor to both of our families."

Sharad's hand warmed hers and his gray eyes lit on every portion of her body.

She glared back, and as she did so she noticed the hint of a blue scarf around his neck. The same color as the ceremonial tunic she'd been given to wear for this endeavor.

A prickle ran up her spine. Did this silk bear some significance? By putting on this tunic was she somehow bonded to him? That was not the agreement. They were to travel to Venice and create a beating heart for the Doge's dying daughter -- nothing more.

Sharad's lips parted in a grin. "I was told of your skill, but not your beauty."

"I have been told very little about you." She jerked her hand from his.

Her grandfather swept between them. "Iseau has prepared examples of her work." He fluttered his fingers and two boys appeared bearing an open coffer lined with deep purple glass twinkling amid its folds.

Sharad and a crowd of onlookers pressed in around the coffer.

Iseau moved to join them, but her grandfather's fingers clamped her wrist and held her back.

His voice was low. "What do you mean by pulling your hand away from Sharad like that? Are you intent on embarrassing the family the way your parents did?"

It always came back to this -- her parents failed attempt at braiding. Her father, once a master glassblower, blinded; her alchemist mother left insane. Did what she risked mean nothing? She lowered her eyes. "Don't worry, I'll honor you."

Sharad faced the crowd and said in a loud voice, "The Doge did not lie when he said the house of Oplontis could provide me with glass as clear and pure as my magic requires, and the finest glassblower to shape it. Frankly, I did not expect to have those needs so thoroughly fulfilled."

He took Iseau's hand. "With Maestra Oplontis's talents the possibility of saving the Doge's daughter is real." He surveyed the crowd, his eyes narrowing on the village priest. "And if the church says what we do is unholy then I say: Would a benevolent God let a child die rather than use magic? Is that not a worse sin?"

Murmurs rippled through the crowd.

Iseau bit her lip. If Sharad was intent on speaking against the church, then perhaps it wasn't just honor and patronage her family needed from the Doge -- perhaps what they needed was his protection against the Pope's men.

Sharad addressed Iseau's grandfather. "In the near future I will make time to linger here in Carpus, but right now I must make haste." He turned to Iseau. "The physician-magus to the Doge sent his manservant with a message. It's not good -- the Doge's daughter is near death."

He snagged Iseau's arm and led her away from her grandfather and the crowd, across the piazza and toward the quay where his galley rose and fell beside a bevy of smaller ships.

What she wouldn't give to travel foreign lands like Sharad did. It didn't seem right. If she and Sharad succeeded, the Doge would grant her any favor she asked, except the one she most wanted. As long as the secrets of glassblowing were the foundation of the Republic's wealth, she would never be allowed to travel beyond its boundaries. It was an unbreakable law enforced by the blade of the Doge's assassin.

Sharad's hand tightened on Iseau's arm. A fierce trembling rushed through her body.

She sucked in her breath. She'd felt this way before. It was as if her blood quivered and her heart could rage no faster. Her mother would have babbled that such a stirring was the shudder of magic, risen from the wellspring of her ancestors in Tintagel. But this wasn't magic -- it was nerves.

He leaned close to her. "You seem tense. Don't you wish to be the first to succeed at braiding glass blowing and magic?"

Iseau stopped walking. "Any reluctance you sense is because I lack knowledge. The scrolls you sent for me to study were simplified -- incomplete. How is the braiding accomplished? Have you braided with any other art? Before we board the galley, I'd like answers to these questions."

Sharad's gray eyes darkened like the ocean at twilight. "We magi have secrets, just as you glassblowers do."

Without seeming to care if anyone noticed, he grabbed her shoulder with one hand, and fondled the clear glass beads she wore. "These beads shimmer like rain in moonlight. Tell me the secret. How do you clarify glass when no other house can?"

Iseau wrenched herself from his grip.

Sharad had made his point: Every art has its secrets.

"Fair enough," she said. "For now."

His tongue wet his lips. "I will tell you the most vital part of the braiding. Concentration. You must focus totally on the glassblowing and not on what I am doing -- that is the key." Sharad took a long breath. "When we're aboard ship, I will explain more." He glanced at his galley, to a gentleman who paced the deck, a man with the dress and bearing of a Venetian guild master.

"Is that the physician-magus's man?" she asked.

"Yes, his name is Alberto. He'll be traveling with us. And I need to speak with him before we depart." Sharad bowed to her. "My manservant will get you settled."

He called to an elderly man in Persian robes who stood scratching his hindside. "Baladji, see to Maestra Oplontis." Then Sharad strode away, toward the gangplank.

Thinking there was no reason for her to be relegated to a manservant's care, Iseau started after Sharad.

Baladji snagged her by her sleeve.

Iseau glared at him. But in the brief second Baladji held her back, Sharad had disappeared.

Baladji shifted his weight from leg to leg. "There is no need to run off. I can help you."

He gestured for her to follow him and chattered as he led the way along the dock. He spoke rapidly, but fell silent as his eyes followed a passing seagull.

The gull glided down onto the water. Baladji squinted at it, and then screeched like the bird. It seemed peculiar that Sharad would keep such an addlebrained manservant.

Iseau's apprentice, Petro, strode up from behind them with her toolbox balanced on his shoulder. "Is everything in order?" she asked Petro.

He nodded. The look in his eyes reassured her that the box contained not only her tools but also the ingredient she needed for clarifying the glass.

She turned back toward Baladji. He still stared at the bird. "Should my apprentice board with the sailors and go into the hold?" she suggested.

Baladji nodded his head. "That'll be good, yes," he said, grabbing a passing sailor and asking him to help Petro board. Then he led her across the gangplank and onto the galley's forward deck.

Once on board, Baladji motioned to a woven mat and some cushions set against the rail. "I'll fix tea. The others will join you in a moment."

She smiled at Baladji. "No need to serve tea on my account."

"Sharad insists." Baladji bowed, and then vanished into the hold.

Iseau choose a cushion and sat. All around her, the ship was alive with commotion: sailors throwing off lines, the galley master shouting to the oarsmen, the sails unfurling as the ship eased away from shore.

Iseau struggled to find a comfortable position. Surely below deck there were quarters that would afford more comfort and privacy.

A shiver jangled up her spine. Was it possible that Sharad wanted her ill at ease? She adjusted the tunic so it didn't bind her legs. He'd get no pleasure from her discomfort. She drew in a deep breath and looked for Sharad. He stood on the rear deck with Alberto and the galley's captain. Perhaps through their gestures she could understand what they were talking about.

Sharad reached inside his doublet and drew out something the size of a finger that glinted silver as the sunlight hit it.

The captain shook his head.

As if he wished he were somewhere else, the physician-magus's man, Alberto, looked away.

Sharad stepped closer to the captain . . .

Iseau's view was blocked by Baladji, coming up from the hold.

Baladji set down a kettle, squatted, and began to prepare tea. Finally he sat, and Iseau could see Sharad again.

Sharad had one hand on the captain's back, his other pointed at the ship's sail. As if in response, the sail billowed and the galley began to cut against the tide.

Iseau's shoulders tensed. Could it be that Sharad's powers were strong enough to change breeze to wind? It seemed unlikely. But the captain, who moments ago looked uncertain, now looked astonished.

Though she had not noticed him coming across the deck, Alberto was in front of her. Now that he was close, she recognized him. She had seen him at the Doge's functions, standing by himself, pursing his lips, looking uncomfortable.

Alberto crouched and placed a covered crock on the deck. "Sharad wanted me to tell you he'll join us in a minute," he said, removing the lid from the crock.

Baladji frowned at the crock. "What's in there? It smells putrid."

Alberto's voice faltered as he dipped his fingers into what looked like brine. "Something I hope is not too horrible for a lady to look at."

Iseau leaned forward. "I have a strong stomach," she lied, covering her nose with her hand.

Alberto fished out a gray lump.

"Ah, you brought it," Sharad's voice rang out as he strode across the deck and sat next to Iseau.

Using the lid of the crock as a plate, Alberto set the lump down.

Iseau's stomach lurched as she recognized it from the drawing in the scrolls Sharad had sent to her. It was a child's heart.

"Don't worry." Alberto's hands fidgeted in his lap. "She was an alchemist's child who died a natural death from the same red fever that weakened the heart of the Doge's daughter."

"Excellent. The physician-magus must have found this invaluable." Sharad took the heart in his fingers and examined it.

"It's disgusting," Baladji said, pushing a bowl of tea toward Iseau.

Sharad set the heart on the deck in front of her. "Iseau, you've seen the drawings. Now you need to study this -- commit the exact measurements to your mind."

Taking a deep breath Iseau reached out. "Interesting," she said, swallowing hard. "It is the same size across as the width of my palm." She struggled to remain impassive as she closed her hand around the heart.

"Would you like to cut it open, see the chambers?" Alberto asked Iseau, his thin lips parting in enthusiasm.

It seemed her façade had fooled him, at least. "No, the drawings were explicit enough," she said. Feeling braver, she turned to Sharad. "I do, however, wish to hear more details about the braiding."

Sharad smiled, showing perfect teeth. "I suppose there's no harm in telling you a little of the secret. But first we'll enjoy tea and perform a blessing."

The tea was strong and unpleasant, but the ritual seemed important to Sharad, so Iseau sipped it.

Sharad drank his in one gulp, thumped his bowl down and, while Iseau finished hers, he reached inside his doublet and pulled out a rolled piece of blue silk, half the size of a scroll.

Closing his eyes, Sharad held his hands over the silk roll and mouthed the word: Persia. He unfastened the copper band that bound the roll. Inside were delicate silver tools: nippers, a needle -- thin and long, yet etched with faint symbols -- a curved blade with a twisted handle, and delicate star-shaped forceps. Iseau had never seen such fine silver work.

Baladji and Alberto stared intently as Sharad picked up the nippers and palmed the needle. Alberto caught Iseau's eye. He shook his head at her as if in warning.

Not sure she had interpreted his nod correctly, Iseau glanced away and then back at him. Alberto cradled the heart in his hands, examining it. She must have been mistaken -- he had nothing on his mind besides the heart.

In a single motion, Sharad rose and stood behind Iseau.

Her pulse quickened, a foreboding slithering through her body.

"Stand for a moment." He reached down, helped her to her feet, and turned her so she faced toward him, away from the others.

"Is this necessary?" she asked.

"It's harmless -- a blessing, a bonding, that's all." He pushed the nippers into her hand.

From his doublet, Sharad produced a silver vial and uncorked it. "Would be prettier if it were made of glass." A smile creased his face and his voice uplifted. "Clip your nails into the bottle, starting with your thumb -- only your left, your heart hand."

Iseau hesitated.

Sharad nudged her hand with the bottle. He arched an eyebrow.

She took a deep breath. This blessing appeared similar to what Sharad and the captain had performed, and the captain seemed unharmed. And she had promised her grandfather she would cooperate.

The nippers were sharp and in a moment she had all five clippings inside the bottle.

Recorking the bottle, he slid it in his doublet, intoning the words "Explictum -- Sublicare -- Persia" as he did so.

Iseau's shoulders tightened. Those words did not have the ring of a blessing. They were like the chants her mother used to babble. What had her mother called incantations that ended in a place name: blood-magic?

All of a sudden, Iseau grew dizzy. Sharad grasped her by the elbow. "One more thing." His hand slid around her waist.

Sharad's face wavered in and out of focus. "What sort of tea was that?" she muttered.

"If you are seasick and don't have the strength to finish, we might as well turn around." Letting go of her, he scowled. "I really thought as independent as you seem, a master glassblower, educated, a free woman -- that you would be less . . . fragile."

She knew he had said those words on purpose, that despite her faintness, her boiling blood would compel her to prove she was more than he expected. "I'll do what you require," she said, trying to regain her bearings.

"Good, because now I'm going to show you one of those details you wanted." With a gesture, Sharad indicated her back. "I need to touch you, just there," he said.

She glanced at Alberto and Baladji.

Their eyes widened --

"Would you two give us a moment?" Sharad commanded.

Baladji muttered something in a foreign tongue. Alberto grabbed the older man by his arm, hauled him to his feet, and walked him to the rail.

Without warning, one of Sharad's hands tightened on her waist.

She pulled against his grip.

Sharad held her tighter. "You've never felt a man's touch?" His other hand brushed her buttocks.

"None so bold as you," she said, her voice a weak challenge.

She closed her eyes.

Sharad's fingers moved slowly, pressing gently against her lower spine. Numbness crept up her legs. Sparks swirled though the darkness of her mind. Inexplicably she found herself breathless and thinking about her lover: the tautness of his stomach, the eagerness of his hands, but her lover was nothing compared to the burn of this magus's touch.

Sharad's breath warmed her ear. "This is where the magic will enter you," he whispered, touching the small of her back.

As his words sank in, she felt a stabbing pain, and an inhuman sear encompassed her with viselike cramps.

Iseau yanked away from his grip. "For all the saints!" She swung around, and froze.

Sharad was dropping the etched needle he had palmed into the silver vial, its point red with her blood.

His smile twisted.

"You bastard!" she shouted, and even the oarsmen went silent.

Sharad lowered himself onto a cushion and sat splayed-legged, beaming at her. "Baladji, more tea," he called out.

Her jaw set, Iseau stood over Sharad. "Explain yourself." She stared into the steel of his eyes. "I am not stupid. There's no need to insult me with provocative trickery. Tell me what you just did, why you need my fingernails and blood. Explain the braiding. I know it's not simple or safe. It is no secret what happened to my parents."

He ran his finger around the edge of his tea bowl.

She struggled to control her fury. "What makes you so sure you can do it? That we won't end up like my parents? What makes you think your magic is stronger than my mother's was?"

"You know nothing of me." He rose, and stared at the billowing sail.

"Answer my questions." She seized his arm. "You never saw my parents: my father's talent useless without his eyesight, my mother gone mad."

Sharad's voice became low. "The source of my magic rises from the oldest blood and the deepest cisterns of Persia. I do not wish to insult your mother. But I suspect that the fountainhead of her alchemist's magic was some peat-infested quagmire."

The heat drained from her face. How he had said it infuriated her, yet it was what she had always suspected. Her mother's inborn art was slight, perhaps tainted.

Sharad continued. "Iseau, you must work the glass, pretend I am not in the room. When my magic enters you in the same place as the needle did, you must put the feeling from your thoughts. Separation of our actions and minds, until that last second when I will guide you -- that is how it must be."

Iseau listened as he went on explaining the details. The braiding would start just before she completed the heart, the infusion of magic plaiting with, and cooling and curing, the glass. He told her that, if the braiding was done correctly, the pain should be slight and her subsequent blindness short-lived . . . When he finished talking, other than being concerned about the blindness, she felt satisfied.

It was not until later, as she stood alone watching the outer islands of the Venetian lagoon waver into sight that she realized Sharad had told her nothing of importance.

She knew she should go find him and question him further. But the vertigo was just subsiding and she hadn't the strength to confront him. So she stood listening to the snap of the lowering sail and the grind of chain as the anchor was set.

Creeping into her mind, deeper than those ship-born sounds, came the memory of voices, which Sharad had unwittingly awakened.

She was a child of ten, standing on the northern tip of Carpus, looking out at the smooth sea. Her mother had set a basket of thorn apples on a rock. "Iseau, look at the horizon," her mother said.

Usually Iseau ignored her mother's babbling, but this time there was something in her mother's tone, something odd: sanity. And like the sun on the waves, her mother's eyes sparkled as she spoke. "That's where I came from -- out there beyond the reach of Venice, beyond the threats of the assassin's knife and the church's whim. Tintagel: it is the place of your ancestors and the word for strength, for freedom, for magic. Iseau, it is all I wish for you."

Until midday Iseau sat, while her mother gazed out over the sea, watching cormorants disappearing under the waves and then rising, flying from the water like phoenixes from ash.

"We should go home now," Iseau said.

Suddenly, her mother clasped her arm so tight Iseau was sure it would leave a bruise. "We did it, your father and I, because we wanted the glory, the mythic-power of clear glass infused with magic. But we failed and the magic humbled us. It tore and bonded us in so many ways; no human could ever understand it. How we live now, no human should have to."

Her mother released Iseau's arm, scrambled to her feet and fled toward the glassworks.

Not wanting to return without the thorn apples they had come for, Iseau retrieved the gathering basket, and with her mother's words swirling in her mind, she finished filling it.

A few moments later, she walked up to the doorway of the glassworks and hesitated. An apprentice brushed by her on his way out to get wood for the furnace. Her mother sat on a workbench fingering a string of beads and her father took a pouch from his apron. He opened it and sprinkled a black powder into the crucible -- into the fierce heat of the molten glass.

"What's that?" Iseau asked.

Her father's blank eyes glared in the direction of her voice. "Get out of here. Run, now!"

Then there was an explosion. Shards of glass. Bricks pushing her into the damp grass. And towers of endless flame.

Iseau stood motionless on the ship's sloped deck, drained by the memory of her parent's suicide and her own daylong pretense of strength. Was there nothing left in her but weariness? Perhaps a few more moments of calm and cool air and she'd feel like herself again.

"The city is alive tonight with celebration." Alberto came beside her. "I just pray the Doge's daughter is alive as well. No night could be more right than this -- every eye in Venice has turned to the consecration of the basilica of San Marcos. All the festivities make it easy for the Church to ignore this magic."

Iseau stared at the black water and the flicker of lanterns as the gondolas come toward the host of galleys. No matter how many times she had come to Venice, the sight of the city across the haze of the lagoon gave her pause.

Alberto put his hand on her arm. "Frightened?"

"Either we will succeed or fail," she said, trying to sound confident.

Although she said nothing to warrant it, Alberto laughed as if they were enthralled in light conversation. Then he spoke, barely audible. "My master, the physician-magus, is a wise and charitable man. That is why I willingly completed the braiding with him."

For a moment Iseau couldn't believe what she had heard. Other than her parents, she hadn't heard of anyone who had even attempted the braiding. She started to turn toward Alberto, but he put his hand on her arm, warning against any movement.

"Sharad does not tell half the truth. As I was not always a manservant, neither was Baladji. He was Sharad's own mentor, a gifted Persian magus -- until the student overpowered the master." Alberto paused, his hand trembling. "The Doge's daughter must have a heart, to that end I am sworn, but do not let Sharad do more than that. Once his powers have flowed through your hands to infuse the glass, do not let his magic remain within you a second longer. If you do, Sharad will plait his magic with your art so tight that when he withdraws his magic, your art will be withdrawn as well. Do not let him take the braiding to its fullest extent or even the Doge will be in danger."

Speechless, Iseau stared at Alberto. Then she managed to ask, "And you, before you were a manservant?"

"I was a physician. A man devoted to the Doge and to my sister, the Doge's wife." His head shook as he lowered it. "I do not regret that I am now incapable of being anything more than a simple servant, for at least the physician-magus left my memory intact. Sharad did not do the same for poor Baladji; neither did he do it for others whose arts he's stolen: the silversmith, the swordsman, the warrior, and who knows how many more talents he possesses. The Doge refuses to think ill of Sharad. But the physician-magus has had Sharad watched. He is dangerous, Iseau."

As the thin outline of a gondola pulled along side the galley, Iseau shuddered with apprehension.

"The physician-magus and I will help you if we can, but there is no guarantee. We have our own safety . . ." Alberto touched Iseau's hand.

From behind them came the solid steps of Sharad. "The Doge has been prompt in sending a boat for us."

"I was just saying the same thing myself," Alberto's lips twitched, as he bowed and stood aside so Sharad and Iseau could descend into the gondola first.

As they approached the city, Iseau tried to appear calm by letting herself be drawn into the excitement: the water undulating from the throngs of boats, the piazza flushed with the light of bonfires, and revelers laughing as they waited for the basilica doors to open and the consecration to begin.

But when they disembarked and entered the Doge's Palace, the contrast made it impossible for her not to shiver. Unlike the lively piazza, the dark palace seemed occupied only by the echoes of their footsteps and the unsettling shadows of the few remaining guards.

"It appears the Doge has declared a convenient evening holiday," Sharad grinned as he took Iseau's arm.

She thought about pulling away, but she didn't want Sharad to sense that her fear intensified with every step. So she forced a smile and matched his quick pace as Alberto led them down long hallways, past pots of citrus, up a wide staircase to the Doge's quarters, and into the girl's chamber.

As they entered the room, Iseau's eyes were drawn to the sparkle of a thousand glass ornaments hanging from the vaulted ceiling. Only as a second thought did she glance at the vast bed and notice the ashen-faced child lying motionless in the sea of yellow pillows.

The girl was frail, her face aged from battling disease. Iseau sucked in her breath. When had her desire to please her grandfather, and her fears of Sharad and the braiding pushed her concerns for the dying child so far aside that mere baubles of glass could distract her?

She stared at the child, only able to look away when the physician-magus shuffled in from the antechamber. His eyes widened when he saw them, then narrowed on Alberto. "You should not have wasted time bringing them here."

Sharad moved to touch the girl's wrist. "You're right," he said to the physician-magus. "We should have gone directly to the furnaces. She's barely alive."

Iseau's heart quickened. "Are the furnaces close by? My toolbox?" she asked.

"The furnaces are hidden within the palace -- close to the girl, yet discreet enough that the church can overlook them," Alberto replied. "Your tools and apprentice should have been brought from the galley by now." He motioned for Iseau and Sharad to follow him.

Alberto led them quickly through a maze of passageways and staircases to the cool dark wine cellar. Removing a torch from its wall-bracket he rushed inside a narrow tunnel, and in a moment they were ascending a steep set of stairs into what, on the exterior, must have looked like an out-building used for smoking fish.

As Iseau stepped into the chamber, the smell of the wood smoke and the crack of the fires filled her with a sudden flush of confidence. This was her world and all was ready for her: her tools laid in order on the workbench, Petro soaking cloths, and the heat from the furnaces dampening every brow.

In this realm of fire she wore sweat like crystal beads and her tunics clung to her as if she knelt before the hot mouth of the god Vesuvius. She'd had such fantasies as a child when she stood in the glassworks watching the artisans ply their magic. She had achieved her dreams and she vowed that the Doge's daughter would have a chance to live her dreams as well.

Honor and power were fine for her grandfather and Sharad, but for her, this heart-making was about the child.

Iseau drew a deep breath and cleared her mind.

She picked up a knife from the workbench and, starting at the hem, cut her tunic up and around so its length fell just below her knees. Next she took off her string of beads, placed them on the workbench, and put on her leather apron. She waited for Sharad to make a remark about the ruined tunic, perhaps a spoiled spell. But he was speaking with Alberto and it wasn't until she heard Alberto leave that she felt Sharad wordlessly turn his eyes on her.

It was time to put Sharad out of her mind, time to focus on her work. But that was difficult to do, especially now as she took the pouch from the toolbox. This was the part she had dreaded. This was the first time anyone outside her family would see the secret to clarifying glass. She was sure the man about to see it could not be trusted. Would he sell the secret? Had the Doge already paid him for it?

Iseau pulled the pouch's drawstring, slid her fingers in and took out a thorn apple. It had always amazed her how such a valuable secret as the clarification of glass could come down to such a simple ingredient as a thorn apple. But there was no time now to speculate what Sharad might do with what he was about to learn.

Letting out her breath, Iseau went to the furnace.

Petro had propped open the furnace door; inside, the molten glass waited in the crucible. Her pipes were also ready; she selected one, and twisted the apple onto its end. As she had done so many times, Iseau used the pipe to force the apple into the crucible full of molten glass. The glass roiled up, bringing the impurities to the surface and leaving the untainted glass below. Now Sharad had seen her family's secret -- all that remained was to make the heart.

Iseau took her pipe from the furnace. On the end where the apple had been, a ball of liquid glass glowed as orange as a torch. She crossed the room and rolled the pipe against the workbench. The hot glass cooled and the first hint of clarity showed.

In her mind, Iseau conjured the image of the heart lying on the galley's deck. She blew into the pipe, a subtle breath, then took her pipe back to the furnace and heated the glass again. She took it out, blew with gentle force, and compared the width of the orb to that of her palm.

Silently Petro held out a damp cloth, the glass hissed . . . . Again she heated the glass. Then she pinched the chambers to form the heart. Petro heated a second pipe. The heart passed from one pipe to the other. Now the mouth of the heart was open. Iseau heated the glass again, pinched again, wiped with water . . .

A door opened and closed, and Iseau knew Petro had gone. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Sharad standing like a statue, his arms raised. She pictured the little girl, the gray heart. Focus . . . She nipped the glass heart, forming two arteries. She moved like liquid from furnace to workbench. It was time now, she could feel it -- the magic was starting.

The first sensation felt as if her clothes vanished and a lover approached her from behind, lifting her off her feet, each fleck of her skin, each downy hair, ecstatic . . . She pushed the feeling from her mind, her hands working, moving, following the path she envisioned for them, swift and accurate.

The magic entered her, piercing her at the base of her spine. The shock girdled her. Concentrate . . . She nipped each artery in half, now there were four. A small pipe to shape them, more heat . . .

The magic prickled up her spine. It blazed in her skull. Its tendrils twisted from her eyes and scorched her nostrils as the magic braided with her breath. Her blood was heating, her skin a liquid shell, crystalline and shining, and her fingertips were rods of light.

Suddenly the light became flame. Sparks crackled the length of the pipe, then surged backwards, ramming her fingers and shattering her hold on the pipe.

The pipe fell, metal to stone, and the pliable glass buckled as it collapsed on the floor.

Iseau slumped to the ground, her shoulders quaking. It was over. The heart was ruined.

Turning, she looked up at Sharad.

His concentration had not flinched. His eyes were closed, his body tensed.

"It's over," Iseau cried. "Over!"

"Keep quiet," he growled.

His voice startled her, awakened her. He did not care about the heart. Alberto was right; Sharad was a thief of arts and nothing more.

She tried to get to her feet, but his magic threw her flat against the floor. Iseau screamed and tried to roll away. But the braid of his magic shackled her to him.

Sharad's eyes opened, white and flaming like opals. From deep in his throat came a sound like the rumbling of the sea.

The room chilled.

Sharad chanted louder and waves of pain consumed Iseau's strength. Darkness pulled in from the corners of the room. She groaned. If only she could drive Sharad's voice from her mind.

Iseau gulped air. She fought against the encroaching darkness. Within her chest her heart raged --


That was it.

The way to fight him was from within.

Sharad had instructed her to focus only on the making of the heart: on something outside of herself. But now, where she had so often felt a stirring in her blood, she felt a surge: her mother's blood, the magic from Tintagel.

Closing her eyes, Iseau pictured the heart floating in the crock of brine, then her own heart. She breathed deeply, in through her nose and out through her mouth. She breathed like the scrolls had said and turned her concentration within herself.

Inside her skull Sharad's chant rang as the tendrils of his magic entwined her mind.

She concentrated on her heart and, fought, and found the power of her mother's blood. Iseau raged, pushing Sarad's flames of magic back from her fingertips, her hands, her arms, her mind. With every ounce of her ancestor's magic she struggled to drive him from her body.

Sharad's braid was deeply rooted, his resistance fierce. He was much stronger than she, stronger than her mother's blood. She needed something more . . .

In front of her on the stone floor lay her pipe. In one motion she grabbed it and swung. The pipe connected solidly with Sharad's knees. He went down. For a second her pain flickered.

Sharad raised his fist and the magic surged back harder.

At that moment she saw it, the hint of blue satin between his fingers. Despite her anguish, she swung again, with all her fury, and hit her mark.

Sharad's knuckles cracked. He yowled in anger as his fingers spasmed, a blue bundle fell to the floor and a silver vial rolled out.

"You're too late. The spell is beyond need of fingernails and blood." Sharad struggled to his feet, his eyes like steel. He threw his head back and intoned, "Breiden -- Arti --"

Iseau lunged forward, her hands throttled Sharad's windpipe. In that second, from the deep cistern of her ancestor's magic, the answer rose into her blood. "Tintagel," she said, inches from his face.

He ripped her hands from his throat. Gasping he staggered back, his eyes widening.

From outside the room, from the basilica of San Marco came the singing of bells across the water of the Grand Canal.

"Tintagel!" Iseau screamed again and, like a changing of tides, she felt the magic sucking from her and raging toward him. Stunned, she watched it: a braid of sparks, flames, and darkness swirling at Sharad -- wave upon wave, tossing him in the air, flinging him against a wall, and then throwing him forward -- his head hitting the workbench and his steel eyes going white, then blank as he dropped to the floor.

At first Iseau thought Sharad was dead. Then he moaned as the dark undertow of magic shimmered silver and rippled away from him -- toward her. She froze, unable to move as it pooled around her legs, its coolness grasping her by the ankles and pulling itself up like a living creature. She shivered as a chill entered her at every pore. It felt as if a sheet of ice were smothering her heart, stifling its beat. This must be the grip of death.

Yet, her heart beat again, she warmed, and when she looked down the magic had disappeared. Her legs, however, trembled and her chest resounded with a powerful stirring.

The door opened and Alberto stood staring, not at her or the motionless Sharad, but at the fist-size lump of glass on the floor.

In her fury to save herself, Iseau had forgotten about the heart -- about the girl.

Tears filled Alberto's eyes. "We've kept the girl alive, but you've destroyed the heart," he said.

Iseau's stomach twisted. She had saved her own life, her memories and art, but in truth she had failed. Failed the girl, failed the Doge, failed her grandfather.

But, something more had happened deep inside of her, something greater than her mere survival. The stirring, the whispers in her blood, had magnified a hundred times. She knew many things she ought not: how to work silver, the feel of a sword as it slices flesh. "The magus . . ." She gestured toward the unconscious form of Sharad.

Alberto bowed his head and turned to leave.

"Wait, you don't understand. He isn't dead." Her heart raced, and despite the stiffness in every portion of her body, she moved quickly and took hold of Alberto's arm. "The magus lives, but has no power." She let go of him and crossed the room to the furnace. She stared back at Alberto. "We can still make the heart. The core of his magic, the arts he had stolen, did not just evaporate. His art, all the arts, are here -- within me."

Alberto paled.

Iseau's voice was firm. "Find my apprentice. I may fail again. I may run out of time. But I am going to try to braid the glass and magic, myself." Wildly she threw wood into the furnace and began to ready her pipes.

Alberto ran to find the apprentice.

Iseau rushed to the workbench, and took an apple from the pouch.

The molten glass roiled as the impurities surfaced. She rolled the glass against the workbench. Petro returned and handed her a damp cloth. Alberto fed the furnace. She rolled and pinched, heated, and cooled the glass. She transferred it from pipe to pipe and nipped arteries . . .

And the heart was made, from liquid shimmer to perfect form, and was ready for the magic. As the scrolls taught, she concentrated, focusing until all she could see was the sparkle of the heart, like rain in the morning sun. Then, as the scrolls did not teach, she focused deep inside herself to the stirring of her mother's blood, to Tintagel and the art that had once belonged to Baladji, a gifted Persian magus.

Without thought for the sear of hot glass against mortal skin, Iseau balanced the pipe on the table and took the molten heart in her hands. As if they were two halves of a shell, her hands enclosed the sparkling heart. She closed her eyes and saw the magic spinning a cocoon of light around the heart. The webbing drew inward, and her fingers felt the cooling, the curing and the writhing as the heart began to beat with life.

When Iseau opened her eyes she could see only shadows and mist. Petro appeared like a swirl of fog as he moved toward her and held out her string of beads. She lowered her head, and he clasped them around her neck. Then, as if in a dream, she followed him -- a glassblower-magus led by her apprentice. They passed Alberto, his head bowed. They traveled back down the tunnel, to the stairs, and the kitchen, into the chancery and through the revelers who had returned from San Marco's. The servants, nobles, guards and tradesmen, stared silently as Iseau passed, her hands glowing with the light as she walked in a trance between them and down the citrus scented hallway to the stairs and the Doge's quarters.

Once she entered the child's chamber, Iseau could make out the Doge, and she heard the sound of a woman weeping. The girl was no longer in her bed. She was lying on a white table in the antechamber. Next to her, Iseau saw the haze of a blue shadow that she knew to be the physician-magus. He was opening the girl's chest with a silver blade.

Iseau opened the white shell that was her hands, and the glass heart beat as she placed it into the girl.

Coolness wiped Iseau's brow. The air was heavy with the scent of the sea and the grind of oars filled her ears. Her body ached and her stomach churned from a lack of food. She wondered if there was enough fresh water for her to both drink and bathe.

There were voices of two men, Petro and Baladji. It seemed hours before she understood their words.

"She's awake. Get the captain," Petro said.

Slowly the dreamy fog lifted from her vision and the cramped cabin came into focus: walls lined with books and swords, crocks and orbs and strange silver chimes, tinkling.

Petro knelt by her, touching her forehead. "The Doge granted you the magus' galley." He paused. "They didn't think you'd recover. They wanted to send you home to Grandfather."

"The girl?" Her voice was hoarse and fractured.

"She's well." He grinned. "The Church is claiming it was a miracle of San Marco's. But everyone knows it was you."


"The Doge's dungeon is not far from the furnaces."

Boots clanked against the board floor. Baladji and a man in a captain's garb crouched by her bed.

"You have brought us luck. The winds are gentle and the sea calm." The captain pointed to the small window as he spoke, "Look on the horizon -- the island of Carpus."

Iseau looked out. She could not see well enough to focus on the horizon. But suddenly everything else clarified: the magus' cabin she lay in, the face of the captain, Baladji and Petro -- and what she was going to do.

There was a power inside of her, something she barely understood. However, she was certain of one thing: she could make clear-glass and braid it with magic. Legends spoke of where this power would lead: crystal spheres for scrying, wands of glass that could transmute . . .

As a glassblower she had respected and feared the Doge and the Venetian law that forbade any artisan from leaving the Republic. But now she had new concerns: what would the Doge command her to do? The Church -- how would they view this sort of magic? And her grandfather -- what would he require of her?

She pulled herself up on the pillows. "Captain, when we get close to Carpus, lower a boat so my apprentice may go ashore," she said.

"But . . ." Petro started to protest.

She turned her head toward him and raised her hand. "You question the wisdom of your master?" She glared at Petro. "Go to my grandfather, tell him I've returned honor to my father's name. Tell him I have gone to Tintagel to find my mother's family. Tell him I'm no longer his servant." She looked at Baladji and the captain. "Once we are beyond sight of Carpus, come and help me to the deck so that I might fill the sails with wind." She let out her breath. "The Doge was grateful when he thought I was dying, but he will be outraged when he learns that a glassblower-magus has fled beyond the boundaries of the Republic."

Iseau lay back on her pillow. Feeling the weight of the clear beads around her neck, she closed her eyes and asked for guidance.

A single word came to her: Tintagel.

The word for strength, for freedom . . .

for magic.

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