The Feather and the Lamp

Chapter 1

 

“Next!”

The strident voice echoed across the hall, instantly hushing the audience. It was the sort of voice that would emanate from a face endowed with horn-rimmed glasses, a long sharp nose and thin, humorless lips. The kind of impatient and quick-tempered voice that might cause adults to cry or babies to fill their nappies, and sometimes vice versa. A voice, indeed, which could etch worry wrinkles in the marble busts of senators and statues of heroes within the alcoves dotting the high walls. Even the sentries at the entrance stilled themselves to avoid drawing the attention of its owner should their swords or armor clank.

The voice belonged to the gatekeeper of The Adventurers’ Guild, a severe woman tasked with ensuring that only the best, the most worthy, the very crème de la crème would be permitted to join the esteemed society. She glared with disdain over her tall, narrow desk at the group of petitioners near the entrance.

Even before her exclamation had finished resonating across the stone chamber, another sound could be heard.

Pok. Pok. Pok.

The echoing footsteps crossed the marble floor towards the circle of light around the gatekeeper’s imposing desk. The footsteps slowed, faltering under the disapproval radiating through the glasses, and stopped with a final, nervous shuffle.

“Name?” the gatekeeper barked.

“Heron–” the wispy-bearded owner of the footsteps attempted, his voice dissolving into a croak. After a clearing of the throat, he tried again, in a more controlled, but still flustered, voice: “Heronicus Fizzlewick, Your Maj– er, Your High– er, ma’am.”

The gatekeeper stared at Heronicus as if mentally dissecting the young man organ by organ to decide whether he genuinely needed them all. After a painfully long moment, her gaze swivelled away, down to the large book on her desk. As he dared to breathe again, her quill could be heard making a precise tick mark on the page. The gatekeeper’s eyes flicked up to resume their inspection of the perspiring petitioner, who was perhaps regretting heavy brocade as his choice of clothing today.

“What treasure have you brought us today, Master Fizzlewick?” The curve of the bright red lips on her alabaster face was more threatening grimace than inviting smile.

Heronicus Fizzlewick swallowed, then gingerly opened a small, polished wooden box. He held it aloft in hands that were almost hidden within the wide lacy cuffs of his best shirt, taking care not to let the contents touch his bare flesh. “The p-poisonous tongue of the lesser-spotted Obstruvian c-calciferous newt,” he squeaked.

The gatekeeper riffled through her book, then slid her finger down to the relevant line and tapped on it.

Tap. “The Guild’s museum already has one.”

Heronicus’ face dropped.

Tap. “You are dismissed, Master Fizzlewick.”

His shoulders slumped.

Tap. “And, Master Fizzlewick, be glad you walk away with your life.”

Heronicus Fizzlewick gulped and bowed to the gatekeeper. Closing the box with a barely audible click, he took two trembling steps back before bowing again. Under the silent gaze of the audience in the hall, he turned and started his crestfallen walk out of The Adventurers’ Guild, undoubtedly wondering what he was going to do with a poisonous newt’s tongue now. He flinched as the scratch of the gatekeeper’s quill crossing out a line in the book of names cut through the sound of his shuffling footsteps.

“Next!”

***

It was a grey day of intermittent drizzling, typical of autumn weather this far north. A sharp wind made the flags atop the gate to The Adventurers’ Guild—or to give it its full title, The Imperial Guild of Adventurers, Explorers, Inventors, Scientists, and Sundry Seekers of Knowledge—crack and snap. Lower down, the wind heartlessly whistled through the clothes of the hopefuls awaiting an audience, as if urging those individuals to abandon all hope and leave.

Applicants for the Guild’s annual contest had been waiting in the damp chill since before dawn, clustered in front of the imposing bronze gates. Some huddled in solitary clouds of apprehension, staring blankly at the ground. Offerings that had looked so grand to their owners when setting out now seemed unworthy and inadequate in comparison with everyone else’s. Several candidates’ places in the queue were maintained by their serfs, while they relaxed in tents, attended by a further entourage of servants. All of this added to the misery of those unshielded from the dreary weather and the scrutiny of curious onlookers.

Dozens of inhabitants of Khaleshka, along with a good many visiting tourists, had assembled to spectate. Gawping at potential Adventurers of the Future, they gossiped in anticipation of stories of success or otherwise. Tales of failures, especially those resulting in executions, always elicited more generous offers of drink in the taverns. Bookies—speculative entrepreneurs, as they preferred to be called—took wagers on which of the waiting applicants would be accepted and who would be sentenced to death. While senior journalists from The Khaleshkan Times were comfortable inside the Guild’s chamber, junior members of the press shivered in the cold outside the gates, relegated to snatching interviews with applicants on their way in and out.

Among the spectators, several young ladies—and a few doe-eyed young lords—were neglecting their schooling for the promise of a glimpse of the handsome Prince Ollipher. The prince’s sumptuous gazebo shielded him from the hoi-polloi, while he calmly drank dainty cups of sweetened ginseng tea. His audience sighed in unison behind delicate folding fans when the wind fluttered the tent fabric, offering them a fleeting view of their heartthrob’s chiselled jaw and long-lashed, ice-blue eyes.

There was no ginseng tea for those waiting outside. They had to make do with the suspicious-looking brownish-grey beverages and equally questionable edibles available from street vendors. Such purveyors of debatable sustenance popped up anywhere people congregated, but the Guild’s annual Rare and Unique Objects contest was the pinnacle of their year.

Coincidentally, the city’s rodent population was at its lowest point annually in the days surrounding the contest.

Unlike most of the other contestants, Ollipher, son of Queen Agronetta of neighboring Plenipont, hadn’t actually traversed the world to seek his entrance gift to The Adventurers’ Guild. He—to be more precise, his mother—had sent teams of explorers in all directions to gather the most unusual items they could find. Often returning disease-ridden or with fewer limbs than they’d set out with (more limbs in one case, though he had made a satisfactory recovery and was carving a name for himself as a one-man orchestra), the dutiful searchers brought back rare gems, bizarre creatures, exquisite perfumes, intricately woven textiles, and ornate jewellery. One came back carrying a sugary substance called chok-lit by the locals of the region in which it was found. Prince Ollipher liked this peculiar brown, waxy confection so much he’d consumed all of it while waiting in his tent.

“Olly, you do want to be an Adventurer, don’t you?” the queen hissed, wary of being overheard by those outside the tent. “Did you really have to eat it all?”

“But, Mother…” the prince drawled. “It was soooo delish.”

She sighed. “Sometimes I just want to smack you. It being, as you put it, soooo delish is precisely why it would have been certain to get you in. Thanks to your mediocre self-control, now we have to choose among these.” The queen gestured towards the table. “What do you think of the dew-worm?” She held up a small glass specimen jar, peering at the rainbow-striped worm it contained.

“It’s not very exciting. It doesn’t do very much; just wriggles, and every now and then, burps clouds of colored dust.” Ollipher tapped the jar with an elegantly manicured fingernail. “At least, I think that’s the head end.”

“It doesn’t have to be exciting, you dullard; it only has to be unique. There are no more than five of these in the whole world.”

“I like the Amulet of Wallaberne, Mother. So many weapons hidden in a brooch—three blades, five spikes, and a poison capsule.” The prince picked up the somewhat plain-looking piece of jewellery and held it up to the light. “Soooo elegant and soooo deadly.”

“Yes, dear, but can we be certain the Guild’s museum hasn’t got one already? I’m sure I heard rumors of something very similar at last year’s event: four blades, poison, and a device that explodes. No, no, we have to rely on our wits for this one.” She paused to wipe a spot of chok-lit from her son’s chin. “My wits,” she corrected herself. “We’d be doomed if we were relying on yours.”

The queen took the amulet from the prince’s hand and placed it back on the table. She stared at the meager collection, tapping her finger against her lips. After a few moments, she said. “I think you should go with the shroud.”

Ollipher reached for the fragment of the death shroud of Amoncolata, last of the ancient Parathian god-kings. The queen and prince would have preferred a piece of the mummy itself, but loyal McKenzie had been lucky to return with his life, only just managing to snag the shroud and tear off a handkerchief-sized patch of cloth as he fled from temple guardians. The prince examined it skeptically. “I suppose…”

“We can hope that McKenzie’s difficulties in retrieving it are a sign that no one else has been able to find Amoncolata.”

Prince Ollipher turned the piece of grey fabric over and sniffed at it. He grunted, dropped it on the table, and slouched back in his chair, sipping tea and dozing until it was his turn.

***

The prince was called mid-afternoon, by which time the rain had stopped and the sky had brightened all the way to a middling grey. After a final look in the mirror to check that his cravat was symmetric and his waistcoat smooth, he picked up the frayed rag that had once covered a dead god and left the tent. Waving to his admirers, he entered the Guild building and strode confidently towards the gatekeeper. He stopped in front of her desk with a smart click of his heels.

“Madam, Charming Lady, Prince Ollipher of Pleniport at your service,” he oozed as he bowed low.

“Hmph. What have you brought, Master Ollipher?” Within The Adventurers’ Guild, all were equal, regardless of rank or title in the world beyond its walls. At least, all who were male, since adventurers were always men.

Ollipher flourished his ragged square of cloth. “A precious fragment of Amoncolata’s death shroud, thought lost seven centuries ago, and reputed to have powers of–”

“Yes, yes, we know what it is,” the gatekeeper snapped. “And I don’t have to look at the book to know that this is something not yet in our museum. Well done in ‘locating’ it.” The gatekeeper was clenching her jaw as she spoke—the prince’s questionable tactics were well known. She paused, then slyly asked, “Can I ask how you acquired this particular item?”

Ollipher swallowed and began to relay McKenzie’s story exactly as he’d rehearsed it with the queen. He described how he risked his life visiting well-protected, hidden libraries in far-flung ancient cities to uncover rare books and scrolls containing any reference to Amoncolata’s final resting place, no matter how tenuous. He explained how, after decoding maps and cryptic clues, he followed tortuous trails through burning deserts and ice-bound mountains.

The prince strode back and forth across the floor like an actor on a stage, gesticulating widely to demonstrate the complexity of negotiations with countless dangerous and dubious characters. Finally, he reached the prize in a temple deep in the sweltering rainforest of Queliqueliaq, only to be discovered by Amoncolata’s guardians. As the audience in the chamber gasped, the prince completed his story with a breathless description of a daring race through stone passages and escape under a hail of poisoned arrows.

“All for this.” He held his treasure aloft, and applause burst from the audience.

The only teeny-tiny difference between McKenzie’s story and this yarn was Ollipher’s portrayal of himself as the hero.

The gatekeeper narrowed her eyes and inspected Ollipher for a few moments. After writing something in her book, she looked back to the prince, smiled coldly and uttered a grudging, “Welcome, Master Ollipher, to The Adventurers’ Guild.”

***

Late in the evening, as the sun—not that anyone had seen much of it that day—began to set, the queue was finally gone, and all but a few spectators had dispersed to the warmth of homes or taverns. The Guild had accepted three new adventurers during the course of the day, and rejected forty-seven. This year, only one applicant had fled, pale-faced, from the hall the moment he laid eyes on the gatekeeper. These were better numbers than the speculative entrepreneurs predicted, so there was coin-jingling happiness within the pockets of a few lucky spectators and a measure of disconsolate scraping at the bottom of the bookies’ emptying purses. The junior Times journalists were pleased with the stories they’d be writing for the first print run the following day: two of the rejected had been locked up to await their executions for blatant foolishness and time-wasting.

One of those destined for capital punishment, a tall youth with gangling limbs and a wispy pencil mustache that looked like it really wanted to be an eyebrow, had brought a life-sized origami chariot model in which the horse’s head nodded and legs moved when the wheels were turned. Unfortunately, horse and chariot had disintegrated in the day’s rain and wind. The young man similarly wilted under the gatekeeper’s glare as he’d tried to describe the former magnificence of his model while holding up a sodden mass of paper-mâché. The other, a sleek-haired man who titled himself a micro-biologist, whatever one of those might be, presented a glass of water containing what he called back-teeriums. Some sort of invisible disease-makers, he’d claimed. More like non-existent disease-makers, everyone agreed, laughing at the very idea.

The journalists in the chamber packed away their notebooks and prepared to leave as the gatekeeper made her ceremonial last calls, the traditional signal to indicate the contest’s end.

“For the penultimate time. Next!”

Silence.

“For the final time. Next!” the gatekeeper bellowed louder than before.

More silence.

She harrumphed and looked around. “Well, that seems to be that.” She leaned back on her stool, looking forward to relaxing at the end of a long day. “Guards, close the gate.”

“Wait! Wait, please!”

The tik-tik-tik-tik of eager footsteps on the stone floor followed the breathless shout.

With a sigh, the gatekeeper sat up straight again and called, “Na–”

“Imperceptibility Happenstance, Your Gatekeeperiness. Itty Happenstance,” a panting but cheerful voice cried out. “I hope I’m not too late.”

The gatekeeper harrumphed again and peered over the edge of her desk. A brief frown of confusion appeared above her glasses, while the lips below pursed. She leaned across the desk and adjusted her gaze further downwards, to settle on a rather short young woman in her late teens, with a round, chubby-cheeked face split by a wide, confident grin.

The woman’s upper half was clothed in an eye-watering scarlet and gold striped waistcoat. Below, bright lemon pantaloons with turquoise polka dots assaulted the gatekeeper’s eyes. These two items of garish clothing met at a lime green sash where her waist would have been, had she tapered in the middle. As if to make certain she offended the entirety of the visual spectrum, a blue and orange checked handkerchief protruded from her breast pocket.

The gatekeeper sniffed. “You want to be an adventurer? But you appear to be female. Are you sure you’re not here for another position? Kitchen staff, or administration, or…”

“Yes, Madame Gatekeeper, I do indeed. Yes, I am a female. And yes, I’m sure; an adventurer is what I want to be. Is that a problem?”

There was a pause as the gatekeeper consulted another book on her desk, muttering to herself, “I suppose not. There’s nothing in the rules. But we’ve never… There are women working here, naturally, but there’s never been a female adventurer…”

While she waited for the gatekeeper to address her, Itty looked around the hall, eyes wide as she took in the numerous busts and portraits of adventurers she’d only seen in books back home. She was so absorbed by the images of the famous faces that she didn’t notice the chamber was designed to be intimidating—harsh stone walls, tall columns with crows nesting on top, and gloomy lighting.

The gatekeeper cleared her throat. “Never mind. Tradition exists to be challenged. What have you brought, young lady?”

Itty jumped as if she’d forgotten what she was doing here. She patted the pockets of her pantaloons before finding and extricating her treasure from inside her waistcoat. Smiling, she carefully smoothed and flourished what looked to all like a feather. Surely, the audience was thinking, it must be a very special feather, a uniquely remarkable piece of plumage…

“I have brought a feather from the underside of a Common Arcanian goose.”

As one, the remaining spectators in the hall gasped. Prince Ollipher, standing with the other two new adventurers, sniggered. One of the journalists withdrew her notebook from her satchel; this was going to be worth writing down.

The gatekeeper stared at the young woman in front of her. “A feather? From a common goose? You are aware that the penalty for time-wasting is execution?”

Itty gulped, and several expressions crossed her face as if she was trying then discarding appropriate responses. In the end, she simply nodded.

The gatekeeper riffled the pages of her ledger, then riffled some more. She sniffed, harrumphed, looked at her feather quill in its holder, and sniffed again. Finally, she removed her glasses and peered down the slope of her narrow nose at the nervously smiling, round face. “We don’t have one of those listed in our catalogue, that is true. However, the question is, Mast– er, Mistress Happenstance, why on Earth did you bring one to the Museum of Rare and Unique Objects?”

“Well, Honourable Gatekeeper, that’s an interesting story. It all started on my way to the library one morning…”

 

This excerpt is from a novel, The Feather and the Lamp, published 2022.
Edited by Marie Ginga

 

L.N. Hunter is an ex-software engineer who took far too long to realise that writing fiction for humans is much more satisfying than making up stuff for computers. His short stories have appeared in places such as Short Édition’s Short Circuit and the Horrifying Tales of Wonder podcast, as well as anthologies War and Trickster’s Treats 3, and The Feather and the Lamp is his first novel. There have also been papers in the IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks, which are probably somewhat less relevant and definitely less fun. When not writing, L.N. unwinds in a disorganised home in rural Cambridgeshire, UK, along with two cats and a soulmate.

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