Claude didn’t expect two carriages to still be parked outside his house when he returned late that night. It seemed a few guests hadn’t left yet.
“It can’t be… Why are they still here?”
He was met with an empty dining hall when he stepped in through the front door. His mother was busy wiping the floor, and the air smelled of alcohol and vomit.
In a time when there were no air fresheners, the best his mother could do was leave the windows open.
His mother straightened up when she noticed him.
“Why d’you come back so late? Have you eaten?”
“I have,” Claude nodded, “I was over at Eyke’s. He said Father was hosting a dinner, so I didn’t come back early.’
He put his bag down and took the mop from his mother.
“Let me do it. Are some of the guests still here?”
“Yes,” his mother said, pointing at the stairs, “They’re in the study. Your father is discussing something about investments with them. It got really heated. You don’t have to mop that side.”
“Where are Anna and Blowk?”
“Blowk was dozing, so I had Anna take him upstairs. We had quite a lot of guests and Blowk get a little too excited and made a fuss.”
Madam Ferd sat. The night had worn her out a lot, too.
“Want something to eat? Pjard cooked for us tonight and he made a lot nice things. I left something for you in the kitchen.”
“I’m fine, thanks, Mother. Do you know when they’ll be done?”
“You have something to talk to him about?”
“No. I just wanted to get a Hezian dictionary from the study. I need one for class tomorrow.”
“Just wait a little. He should be finishing up. Why don’t you go upstairs and see the guests off?”
“Okay, I’m done with the mopping, too.”
He went to his attic room and breathed deeply a number of times as his lips, eyes, and fingers twitched in excitement. He leapt for his bag as soon as he finished calming himself enough to not squeal.
The pirate figurines and hairpin could wait until the next morning, so he took them out of his bag and put them aside. He removed the cookbook, shivering and breathing heavily as sweat precipitated on his brow and wet his hair. He flipped it open and focused on the yellow pages. The pages soon changed again and the blue lines of Hezian text climbed out of the ivory pages.
He felt the urge to chase the guests away with a knife. He only needed the dictionary… He could crack what felt like a secret code and figure out what it said. He didn’t care too much about grammar, he was fine reading barely more than gobbledy-gook, but he just had to get the words.
It took all of his teenage will to restrain himself and wait for the guests to leave on their own. The wait wasn’t wasted idle time either. Claude suddenly remembered that he had only seen one page. Were the other pages the same too?
The book had 17 pages. A recipe was written on each. He flipped through the pages slowly. Each page had its own, unique arrangement of text. Claude started hopping on his bed as his body involuntarily vibrated. The recipes were just a camouflage! The magic text was its real content! Seventeen pages of magic. This was a tome disguised as a cookbook!
Claude’s jitteriness turned into outright, uncontrollable shaking.
Eyke, Boa, and Wero really couldn’t see anything special about this, besides maybe that it had somewhat luxurious recipes. As far as they were concerned, this really was just a half-decent cookbook… That would have been how it was for Claude as well, had he not been forced to focus very carefully to make out the text in the bad light.
He flipped through the book again and again before turning to the front page again. He concentrated and the browning on the page disappeared again, revealing ivory beneath, an ivory criss-crossed by veins of blue. He passed out and collapsed onto his bed, nothing but eternal abyss all around his mind.
Panic overcame him and he tried to stand up, but he could not move any part of his body, even his breathing felt involuntary. His sight was gone, his self-control was gone — in more way than one — and now his hearing was gone as well. He heard nothing, not even his own heartbeat. He felt his body slowly use up the oxygen in his blood and begin demanding more, but his lungs wouldn’t move. He opened his mouth as wide as he could in a desperate attempt to gulp in air, but nothing worked.
His mind and body began to ache as his thoughts raced like a rabbit struck with fear, it darted from one thought to another frantically. Was this really evil magic? Was the cookbook cursed? Had he been cursed? Was this his second death? Or had he just been made blind, deaf, and dumb?
He told himself to calm down, even as his lungs started screaming at him, even as his panic slowly started turning into terror at the edges of his mind. The burning in his lungs slowly faded. At first he thought this was him losing feeling as his body shut down, and indeed, he slowly lost sensation in his body, but his mind remained clear, though panicked.
Slowly, Claude knew not how slow, his ears started throbbing, softly at first, as if a deer was trotting closer slowly through thick fog. A rhythmic <i>thump-thump, thump-thump</i> slowly revealed itself to him. The sound closed in slowly, but the beating was rapid, panicked, like the vibrato in the voice of a soprano singing a particularly high note. Not long after the sound of the frantically rushing blood in his earlobes came to him, Then came sounds from the outside world: his father talking to the guests in particular.
He realised his breathing was returning as well and sensation slowly returned to his body. Then the darkness around him slowly began to dim. The abyssal black turned into a midnight black, then a dark grey, then to stormcloud navy, then overcast grey, afterward came the off-white of a misty morning, and, like the receded mist as the sun beat down on the world, the inside of his room came to him through the fog.
The last thing to return to him was control of his body. It came like the slow recovery of a limb deadened by anaesthetics for an operation. At first he could only barely twitch his fingertips, then lift a finger, then his hand and twitch his feet, and slowly his arms and legs. They felt extremely heavy and clumsy at first as well, like his muscles had been shut down and were only now rebooting bit by bit. Eventually, however, he was back to normal.
He stumbled, still somewhat clumsy, from his bed. The moment his knees left his bed, however, a sudden burst of pain accompanied the pulse of his heart in his temples. Despite what felt like hours to him, the hourglass on his table told him only a few minutes had passed since he’d collapsed.
He waddled over to the table, clasping whatever he could for support along the way, dropped the book onto the table, and sat down in the chair awkward before focuses on the book again.
He stared for half a moment, but just as the moment arrived he expected the page to change again, his eyes shut off and everything was black again. Luckily, this time, he didn’t fall into that hellish abyss again. His head did complain more vehemently though.
<i>So that’s what it was.</i> His descent into that abyss was as a result of all his mental energy having been drained from him. He had focused on the book too much for too long and exhausted his mind. Physical exhaustion assailed him as he thought about things and he got in bed and blew out the lamp to sleep. There was no point in staying up to look at the book since he couldn’t read the text, and there was no point in staying up to get a dictionary from his father since he’d already exhausted his strength for the time being.
He lay in actual darkness now, the moon’s silver light dancing on his body through the window. <i>Ah, the moon truly is beautiful. It–</i>
His thoughts halted. Was, was he feeling a tingling sensation where the moonlight touched him? His skin felt cool, refreshed, like summer rain was dripping on him. Even his pulsing headache was quickly fading. No, he wasn’t imagining things. Was it that the moonlight healed exhausted consciousnesses? Or could it replenish his mental energy?
He stared as intently as he could through the rapidly fading yet still painfully present throbbing in his temples at the moon that hung pregnantly in the night sky. Perhaps he should try it out… Yes, he should definitely give it a go.
Claude got out of bed, removed his socks, and clambered through the small attic window onto the roof.
He scampered around on the roof looking for the spot least obstructed by either the roof itself or nearby buildings or trees. The place found, he lay down between two attic window outlets. The roof was a panoply of slightly bent shingles, but it wasn’t too steep for an agile child. That said, the ridges created by the shingles made it an uncomfortable lie, but he was half-thankful for it since it would make it harder for him to simply fade into sleep.
As he lay there, he felt his mind recover at a noticeable pace. It took half an hour for him to feel like he’d recovered completely, at least from the headache. The moonlight calmed him as well. His father’s conversation drifted up to him through the study’s windows. He couldn’t make out the words themselves, but his father’s tone told him his father was seeing the guests off.
Hold on, was Arbeit speaking with a woman? Had his father invited a woman to dinner? That didn’t sound right. Even if he had, surely he wouldn’t have taken her to the study and chatted until this late into the night.
Wait, the woman’s voice wasn’t coming from the study. Claude listened attentively for a few more seconds before determining where the woman’s voice was coming from. It came from one of the attics. The tenant was a youngish woman about ten to twelve years his senior. His mother had gossiped that Miss Christina, had loose morals. He had heard from his father that she was assistant to an accountant of one of the town’s companies. He couldn’t remember which one — if his father had indeed mentioned a name. He did remember she had been allowed to rent the attic because her boss vouched for her with his father.
Gossip about what she really did in her spare time was of less interest to Claude than why his brother was there at this time at night, and apparently getting along with her so swimmingly.