The Golden Enclaves: A Novel (The Scholomance)
We thought it hadn’t worked,” Mum said. “We thought they’d just been lost or destroyed.”
I’d already sat back down on the bed by then. I was still clutching the sutras to me. Maybe the right reaction should have been to set them on fire, but at the moment they felt like the only thing in the universe that I could rely on.
I’m not sure if it was better or worse than Mum telling me that she had changed her mind about me and was now convinced I was in fact doomed to go mortally evil. I’ve been preparing myself to hear that my entire life. It would have smashed me into pieces, but I was braced for it. I wasn’t ready to be told that Mum had, that she and Dad had—I didn’t even know what to call it.
Summoning is like make-and-mend. There’s a basic version of it in any given language, which you then elaborate on, depending on what you’re asking for and what you’re offering up in return. You can use a summoning to get almost anything you want—including unwilling sacrificial victims—as long as the thing you want exists. But you have to pay for it—and more than what the average wizard would call its fair market value. If you do a summoning and you lowball the offer, don’t put enough mana in or make enough of a sacrifice, then you lose whatever you have put up, and the summoning doesn’t work anyway.
But there’s another way to cast a summoning. You don’t have to put in any mana or make an offering at all. If you don’t, if you just leave the payment wide open, you’re offering anything and everything you have, including your life. Or, in this case, offering to have one of you spend a dragged-out eternity screaming in the belly of a maw-mouth, and offering to have the other crawl out of the Scholomance gates alone and sobbing to bear and raise your child.
And you’re offering up the life of that child herself. That handful of cells so completely dependent on your body that you can offer her up without even realizing you’re doing it. Making her a burdened soul as my great-grandmother colorfully put it in her prophecy, signed onto the family mortgage from birth, a vessel to be filled up with terrible slaughtering power and a hideous destiny of murder and destruction, the balance for your pure idealism. All of you paying together, just so that one day that child will earn a chance, just a thin sliver of a chance, to jump up and grab a copy of the spellbook you’re after, off a library shelf at school, to accomplish your dream of generosity and freedom.
I still had my arms wrapped around the sutras, my fingers tracing the embossed pattern in the leather without thinking about it. I’d known that they were a windfall, luck beyond anything I’d earned; I had just held on to them all the tighter, and never asked questions. And now it turned out actually I’d been paying for them my whole life, without ever having agreed to it up front. I’d been paying in the single worst moment of my life: when I’d had to face the maw-mouth in the library, the one that had been waiting at the end of the stacks after I’d made that jump and got the sutras off the shelf. The last chunk of my parents’ debt.
I suppose I’d had a choice about that. I hadn’t had to fight the maw-mouth. I could have let it go and kill several dozen freshmen instead. I could have paid off the debt of my parents’ courage with that cowardice, sending a pack of children to go down screaming into ten thousand years of hell, and set the balance right that way. I’d paid with my own screaming instead. I didn’t want to remember, but I couldn’t help it, queasy and shivering on the cot, clammy-skinned with the memory. Some part of my brain would still be screaming, still in that maw-mouth, the rest of my life.
And that was why I’d told Orion we couldn’t fight Patience, why I hadn’t been able to imagine trying. So—maybe that was why he’d shoved me out. Because I’d told him we couldn’t do it, that I couldn’t do it, and so he’d thought he had to save me from it, too. From the horror he’d known I couldn’t bear to face. Maybe that meant he’d been part of the price, too.
I looked down at the sutras in my lap, paid off in full. I’d loved them, so much. I’d been ready to build my whole life upon them. Now even that—all my plans for the future, my own dream of golden enclaves—suddenly felt like something I’d inherited instead of something I’d chosen. I wanted to be angry about it; I felt I had a right to be angry.
Mum did too. She was standing in front of me like she was waiting for me to deliver a verdict. Intent doesn’t matter, she’d say, when you’ve really injured someone else. You need to be open to their pain and anger if you’re ever to make things whole between you. Only I couldn’t find any to give her. She and Dad hadn’t offered me up as a sacrifice in their place—they’d both paid worse than I had, and they hadn’t even known I was there to be offered in the first place.
But if I couldn’t be angry, I didn’t know what to be. I didn’t even quite believe it yet really, not in my gut. I don’t mean I thought she was lying or making it up; it just wasn’t something that I could fully believe that Mum had done. She could hurt me, could make me angry. I’d harangued her for half my childhood to take me to an enclave, and she’d refused: she hadn’t been willing to make that bargain even to save my life, although she’d have died to protect me. But she couldn’t have done this. She couldn’t have put me on the hook for a summoning without my full knowledge and consent. She’d have cut her own heart out first.
Which of course was still true, and she more or less had, but that didn’t help me organize my own feelings. Just because the brakes failed instead of the driver doesn’t mean the lorry hasn’t hit you, only in this case it felt more like a star had broken the laws of physics to collapse and destroy my planet.
“I need to think,” I said. I meant it literally. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t make sense of it in any way that would let me do or say or even feel anything. Precious crept up from the small nest she’d made herself next to my pillow and curled up on my shoulder, a tiny lump of comfort, but that wasn’t any use. I didn’t need comforting. I wasn’t unhappy. I was lost in the mountains without a compass.
Mum took it as instructions. She said, “I’ll go to the bathhouse,” and went at once. I didn’t know if I wanted her to go, but I also couldn’t decide to call after her to stay. So she went and left me in the yurt alone.
It was still raining. The roof hole cover needed mending; one of the seams was leaking a little bit. Mum usually kept things in good trim, but after all, she’d spent the last four years waiting to find out if her only child was going to live. I watched each fat drop slowly accumulating until it finally plinked down softly. Mum had spent roughly half my childhood trying to teach me to meditate, how to find peace. I’d never been very good at it. Now I managed a full half hour just blank and staring at the leaking rain, although I didn’t find any peace in the process; my head was full of white noise, not stillness.
The power of inertia would probably have kept me sitting there another month, trying to find some way to feel something. Only inertia wasn’t given the chance. “So you really are just sitting here in the middle of nowhere,” a voice said. “I almost didn’t believe her.”
It took me a moment even to register that someone was talking to me. No one ever came to the yurt to talk to me; if they looked in and Mum wasn’t here, they went away again without saying anything to me, unless they really wanted her urgently, and in that case, sometimes they asked me where she was, and I ignored them belligerently until they went away. It took me another moment to realize that I recognized the voice talking to me, and that it was Liesel, and another one after that to turn my head so I could stare at her blankly.
She was standing in the doorway of the yurt, looking in at me. The last time I’d seen her had been less than a week ago, at the Scholomance gates, in the same outgrown rags we’d all been wearing by graduation. Now she was wearing a slim knee-length dress that looked like she was on her way to a party, with sections curved in on the sides that were made of some scaled fabric that gleamed like pearl—amphisbaena scales, I realized distantly; the ones Orion had got her, in exchange for her doing all his remedial homework. They were edged in a thin crust of silver and malachite beads: almost certainly some kind of protective artifice. Her blond hair shone like polished metal, grown out by half a foot and sculpted into unnaturally perfect curves that spilled over her shoulders like a glamourous image from the 1940s. She’d earnt herself a spot in London enclave—you can do that when you’re the valedictorian—and they’d evidently given her enough power that she’d kitted herself out properly.
She grimaced as she knocked off the rim of mud valiantly trying to climb onto her pristine white shoes and came inside the yurt. She looked around with a faintly incredulous expression, which got substantially less faint when it reached the leak in the roof that was still dripping in rain. “This is where you live?” she demanded.
“What are you doing here?” I said, instead of responding to that. Over the last week, even in the depths of grief and confusion, I’d been rapidly remembering the many reasons why I hated the yurt. However, I didn’t feel like confiding them to Liesel. It’s not that I disliked her, exactly. You don’t dislike a steamroller, and in fact it’s fantastically useful in many circumstances, such as when you’re trying to organize the collective exodus of five thousand kids against an even larger incoming tide of maleficaria, which she’d taken charge of for us all. You just don’t particularly want to have an intimate heartfelt conversation with the steamroller, especially if you think it might turn round and come right over you.
“What do you think?” She sounded testy. “London is in trouble. We need you.”
I didn’t actually respond, but I suppose my expression conveyed several of my thoughts, primary among them the strong feeling that she should fuck right off, but also wondering how London was in trouble and what they needed me for—I’m powerful, but I’m not more powerful than one of the most powerful enclaves in the world—and why she imagined that I cared.
Liesel scowled a bit and deigned to explain. “Whoever took out Bangkok, they did it again. They hit both Salta and London, on graduation day, while we were in the middle of coming out. Salta’s been completely destroyed—two hundred wizards dead. And half the wards on London have come down. And here you sit in the rain,” she added, in deep disgust.
She really did an excellent job of making it seem perfectly ludicrous for me to be living quietly in my own home instead of keeping close tabs on the latest news from international wizarding circles. In case you were wondering if you’d missed something of significance yourself, the actual cities of Bangkok and Salta were both perfectly fine, and if I’d had a telly to turn on, there wouldn’t have been a word about any disaster in London. Enclaves generally go up and down without mundanes being any the wiser. Separating yourself from the mundane world is the point of building an enclave in the first place: opening up a nice safe sheltered space into the void makes it harder for reality to get at you, which means it’s easier to build artifice like spectacular armor-gowns and to avoid unpleasant things like mals that want to eat your children.
In justice to Liesel, however, enclaves getting attacked and destroyed left and right was highly significant news from the perspective of most wizards, even me. I had substantial objections to the whole enclave system, and I’d opted firmly out of joining one myself, but that didn’t mean I approved of some psychotic maleficer deliberately ripping them open all over the world and dumping a lot of otherwise innocent people into flaming ruin or out into the void.
However, that was some distance from trying to do something about it. Staying here in a nice quiet yurt in the woods seemed like a much better option than getting involved, even with the leaky roof. “Sorry, but London will have to look after itself,” I said.
“Why, so you can grow moss along with your house?” Liesel said, cuttingly. “This is no place for you.”
Chapter 1: The Yurt
Chapter 2: The Gardens of London
Chapter 3: The Old Walls
Chapter 4: The Upper Tier
Chapter 5: Unforgotten Places
Chapter 6: Heathrow
Chapter 7: New York, New York
Chapter 8: The Maleficer’s Den
Chapter 9: Sintra
Chapter 10: The Scholomance
Chapter 11: The Roundhouse
Chapter 12: The Woods
Chapter 13: Beijing
Chapter 14: Dubai
Chapter 15: Maharashtra
Chapter 16: Down the Well
Chapter 17: The Scholomance
By Naomi Novik
About the Author
|October 1, 2022
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