She had been born into the master’s household, her mother having been already with child when purchased for her kitchen skills. Sayl herself did not stand out at all among the household: her colouring was not unusual; she was not particularly pretty or skilled; she had no character trait that made her stand out from the rest of the household; and she was neither particularly troublesome nor particularly eager to please. She had however always had an innate respect for the value of the master’s books and as she also had small, deft hands she was tasked to keep the library clean and dusted. The master was a scholar and he had enough books to line the walls of what would otherwise have been a sitting room. The books he used every day were in his study or his workshop but the library was where most of them were kept. There was never not a need to dust the books and library. The window was usually open to encourage the air to circulate and that brought all the dust of the city inside, so Sayl was always busy with her cloths, brushes, pans and wood polish. All day, every day, except when the master was using the room.
She had a vice of course. All the slaves had a vice. Some could be shared with others, some couldn’t. Sayl didn’t dare let her seniors know what hers was – she was reading her way through the master’s library.
When the overseer came and told her she was required in the master’s laboratory she thought she might have been found out, but the overseer wasn’t angry and she was given time to put her tools and apron away in their keeping spots. Nevertheless she was hurried along in doing those things and when they were standing outside the laboratory she realised that the overseer was nervous as he knocked on the door. They entered on a command from inside the room and the overseer almost thrust her inside in front of him. “Master, here she is.” It was an abrupt announcement and its tone was not like Occan at all. Sayl looked at him in concern.
“Thank you, Occan. You may leave us.” The master, dressed in a black work tunic, dismissed the overseer calmly. “Be sure to close the door firmly on the way out.” Occan went, bowing, silent, eager to leave.
Sayl was alone with the master and not expected to efface herself from the room for the first time in her life. He was taller than her, she would barely have reached his collar bone, and his dark, neatly trimmed beard supported his dignity. “Ah,” she realised as he spoke that both his expression and his tone held a tinge of regret, “You’re the one who’s reading her way through my books. Perhaps I should have been more specific.”
“You take good care of them,” he cut her off. “You return them in good order. I don’t see that as a problem. I could get Occan to fetch someone else, I suppose,” he paused for a moment, “But that would waste time. In a moment I will have you step into the middle of that circle.” He pointed at the ring of symbols written in something on the ground. “You will not,” he ordered, “Smudge or smear it when you move into it. Do you understand?”
“Yes, master.” She also understood that to try and run would earn her a flogging at Occan’s hands. She had never been flogged and didn’t want to be.
“Very good,” he nodded firmly, raised his hands out from his sides and did...something. The light changed and it seemed to Sayl that they were inside a bubble separate from the rest of the world. “Now we can begin. Step-“
“Master,” she interrupted, staring in fascination at the floor. “Are those symbols supposed to be changing?”
“What? No!” He stared in surprise and horror as the symbol marking the top of the circle changed into something else entirely. “This is not supposed to be happening. That symbol-.” The lesser symbols clockwise of that first anchoring symbol began to change.
“I’ve seen it before, in one of your books,” Sayl was looking at the changing markings with dread fascination, “Diabolum aum Ordnung. Master, what’s in the ink?”
“Mandrake and bear berry juices, frog’s blood and bone ash. You can read Diabolum?” He looked at her with surprise.
“With a dictionary,” she admitted, “But isn’t that a summoning ink? The one where the being on the other side writes the circle to come through?”
“What?” He looked at her in horror. “It’s supposed to be a transformation spell. I haven’t read Diabolum, I’m not allowed to read Diabolum. Do you remember how to stop the spell?”
“Dissolve the ink with water and add something that dissolves in water and isn’t already in the ink.” The second anchoring symbol had changed, the ink markings were now radiating a green-gold light and Sayl could feel the hairs rising on the back of her neck.
The master swirled a bucket of water across the floor. The ink dissolved then the changed symbols reformed on the water’s surface and the clockwise rewriting of the circle continued. With an imprecation the master plunged his hand into a crock on the work bench at and pulled out a handful of white crystal that he threw across the water. It wasn’t until the third handful that Sayl realised that he was using salt. The glowing symbols wavered, their light went out and the ink became just a smear in the water.
The master breathed a sigh of relief, then spoke to Sayl, “Turn around so I can get a good look at you.” She did so, suddenly very self conscious. “This may not be so bad.” She was facing him again and he spoke with a note of grudging consideration. “You do realise, don’t you, that you are the only person, other than me, who knows I’ve just inadvertently committed black magic?”
Black magic is punishable by death, its study by wizards strictly forbidden. A slave can be compelled to testify against its master, by force and under torture if considered necessary by the court. Its shade can even be made to come back from beyond the grave to tell what it knows. A wife, though, cannot be compelled to give evidence against her husband and in some instances is forbidden to offer testimony against him.
The master changed the emphasis of his research and surprised his peers by producing a tribe of sturdy, plump, and surprisingly intelligent children with his young wife. Sayl still spent a lot of time in the library, reading up on things her husband wasn’t allowed to so as to help him stay out of trouble. The new library cleaner simply wasn’t as good as the old one.