You exist in a cool bubble at the bottom of a hot ocean, sitting hunched over Marcus’s desk. Prodigious candle light bathes your surroundings in golden calm. The walls of your refuge are broken in two places, opposite each other, leading to an atrium and a garden. They are sealed now with rich curtains. Their fabric is all that keeps out the killing world beyond.
Your head has been bowed in supplication for hours. Leaves of vellum pass fluttering under your eyes, back and forth, again and again. They have a plain meaning, written on their face. They have a hidden meaning, implied in the spaces between words and letters. And, you suspect, they have a True Meaning, embedded within the skin and ink itself. Perhaps the gods can see the True Meaning, but their mangled ravings are unintelligible to you. You hope Marcus didn’t want you to divine these letters’ True Meaning.
You focus on the hidden meaning instead. You suspect this is a test. You can see the outlines of something beckoning to you, teasing you with promises of forbidden knowledge.
The more you pore over these communications, the more they seed a deep chill within you. The image of a malevolent presence lies within them, watching unseen.
The night wears on. Your eyes never blur. You become convinced you must warn someone, but you don’t know what you would say. There is something very wrong in Germania. You start over from the beginning.
Later. Something clicks in your brain. It’s Titus.
You wouldn’t have believed it a few days ago. You would have dismissed the intuitions. But having seen just how easily Titus can slide from one skin to another has whet your attention. It fits. The murky fear you’ve dredged from the unwritten words feels just like the flesh-crawling unease Titus inspires when his eyes smile. Whatever happened in Germania, Titus was behind it.
Yet you still don’t know what you would say, specifically. There is no foundation here, only an image made of negative space. You are missing key elements. You need more.
You stand, straightening your back for the first time in hours. You scan your sanctuary. The office brims with documents, sealed under wax. Dozens of lockboxes promise further catalogs. You have Marcus’s keys, your own determination, and an abundance of time. You will pass this test. The answers are here somewhere.
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First line of next week’s chapter: I sat for many hours under that hill, my eyes on the stars above.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: I apologize for the brevity of this chapter.
Word-count of chapter 36 deleted content: 0