Mordove, Mordove the call was made,
they came in flocks and cast their shade,
sit there among every high windowsill,
oh sing of peace while blood is spilled,
Mordove, Moredove oh sprawling mother state,
gave place to common folk, till it was too late,
such inhumble artisans will not be stilled,
even street cleaners wears fancy frills,
Mordove, Mordove great city of learned mages,
theatrical performances, not restrained to stages,
blind eyes turned to the world’s sickly ills,
till king and popper have had their fill.
– More Doves, circa 500 E.R.
City of Mages
Rhaeus 42nd, 655 E.R.
Wren lay on his back, staring at a ceiling, Etore half asleep beside him. She had curled up around blankets rather than under them, or to him. It was an unreasonably warm evening, and on some levels he was glad of the tendency just that moment.
“I won’t hold it against you,” he started, “if you are thinking of changing your mind.”
“You think I’ve gone sensible on you?” Etore murmured not wanting wake fully.
“You were hardly yourself that night,” Wren offered.
“Self is overrated.”
“Eh?” Wren said shaking his head, and rolled over to stare at her in the dark.
She sighed, shifted, and glared back at him, rubbing her face and wanting to go back to sleep. “Pride, and rules. A bunch of things other people told you, praised you for, and scars that never healed. Self… I’ve had that cursed stuff a few times. It’s good, for about two things; what we did that night, and thinking far too much. If prefer getting drunk, makes you think less. Still, I’ve never found it makes me anyone else. Just care a lot less about what other people think, and I rarely give a shit about that to start with.”
Wren laughed, and reached out to brush her cheek.
“You just have to realize, this means you get to put up with me now, and I’m right awful beast. You screw me over, I will kill you. Oh, no, don’t you smile at me, boy. I will stick a mage-iron blade, right through that pretty chest of yours. You got me?”
Wren pulled himself close, and smiled. “Oh, I’ve got you.”
Etore groaned. “In the morning, I’m tired.” She rolled over, but didn’t complain for the warmth of him curling up behind her.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Jovan 1st, 655 E.R.
Etore straightened her scabbards outside her room. She tried to ignore that Sasha was leaned on a wall several doors down, and moved to walk past. She cringed at the woman’s voice.
“You take good care of him,” Sasha intoned. “You take very good care of him. He’s not only more powerful than you can imagine, but far more vulnerable as well.”
“I don’t answer to you,” Etore said not even looking back.
“No, but you will answer my wrath, if you betray these people. Your little smile with my father. I don’t trust it, your explanation of just playing along. You found your way here by the gold. Gold, tainted by something dark.”
“Clarions would say the same of you,” Etore challenged, but did not walk away.
“Mirrors,” Sasha answered.
“Am I making the wrong choice? Is staying with these fools going to destroy me?”
“Yes,” Sasha answered. “As much as every choice you make, destroys who you were. I paid greatly for the freedom I have, and yet I could almost give it all up, to stay. There isn’t a right choice, just a choice. The one you want to be. I’m done, but I will avenge, if I have misjudged you to take my place.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” Etore answered.
“Maybe you should be,” Sasha said calmly. “For I have seen what I was meant to be, and walked away. Become something new, and very old. I am the heir to autumn, in world gone backwards. Refused a greater path, to walk one wiser.”
“How nice for you,” Etore snidely, and walked away.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Jovan 4th, 655 E.R.
A wagon bumped and swayed along a more tended northern road. Though the towns grew slowly more prosperous, it gave little comfort. It was so much of the same as the rest of western Corinthia, and so felt like nothing but the calm before the next storm. It was early morning, and only one or two from the night watch were asleep in the entire caravan. Two sisters shared a wagon alone, packed tight with cargo.
Katrisha flipped through the pages of an old book, and pinched her brow as she slammed it shut.
“Careful,” Kiannae said with annoyance. “The enchantment on that thing is not very good, if the condition wasn’t a clue. I’ve been meaning to put new load-stones in the binding and restore it.”
Katrisha shot her sister wounded look. “I’m sorry, but…” She grimaced. “I haven’t told you everything. I started, and then there were the bandits, and their offers, and I’ve just been angry ever since. What Sasha did, was the most absurdly innocuous thing. She caught me not reading. I guess I never really did, or did so rarely. It’s so strange to know it’s true, but not remember it that way. I still can read, but it takes…effort.”
“What?” Kiannae pinched her own brow. “Moriel said you were better at it than me.” A more worried struck her, as she remembered what Cadith had implied. That her sister only pretended to read.
“Oh, better at remembering, really. Fates. Who knows how many times I read those books before. Countless lives we’ve lived. I remember reading things, but that doesn’t mean I did. It bothered me when you said the mythology didn’t mention a silver tree, a mirror to Thaea. Like I said, I finished your book, just, apparently not in this life.”
Katrisha opened it again, and flipped only a dozen odd pages in. She closed her eyes, and read aloud.
Oh silver shone her crown,
oh little sister of mother tree,
oh in her shade she stood,
before the sun could not be,
there alighted first great Rhan,
withered her mighty silver bough,
roots like great stalks held high,
the mother of proud pale sows.
Katrisha handed the book to her sister. “Read it.”
Oh silver where her crown,
oh daughter of mother born,
pale as shining satin grown,
before the morningstar torn,
a lone child she bore to the sun,
of great mother gave her name,
when mighty stag she refused,
good mother Thae did remain.
“What you said, is what you remember?” Kiannae asked suspiciously.
“I almost corrected you in front of that old prat. Glad I didn’t. Would have made a fool of us both.”
“Fates,” Kiannae muttered, and closed the book rather hard herself. She glared at it, and tossed it onto the bed beside her. “You, said Cadith was just a poison, but he knew.”
“Poisons are real,” Katrisha said with a sneer. “Doesn’t mean you drink them knowingly. Also, fairly sure that deflection, planned. There is a gap in my memory, of the fight, or rather, was a gap in my staff’s record of when Wren held it.”
“You don’t think…” Kiannae said shaken by the implication.
“Who knows how many outcomes he’s really seen. Now he’s, what I was, or more, and you… I interrupted you taking the shard, if that wasn’t clear. What that makes you in all this now, who knows. I have it from one source this is all in play. That anyone could take it.”
“Clearly, not anyone”.
“Don’t be so literal. Either about who, or how. All practices can be understood, they all have rules, and I doubt very much they say who wins.”
“Then why tell me?”
Katrisha smiled. “Because when I die in your place, or whatever this cycle truly promises the victor. I want you to know, it was fair and square.”
“If you’re wrong?”
“Then, it is what it is.” Katrisha closed her eyes. “I think, I’ve done something very dangerous. Can you even imagine what seven to the seventh power actually is?”
“I can calculate it.” Kiannae did some quick scratches of notation in the air. “Might take me a bit. I think somewhere up near a million, at an estimate.”
“Close enough. Now, imagine counting to that number. The first few hundred are easy, but as the numbers get longer, just counting the next takes seconds, and as you get tired… It would take, what, days? Longer probably. If Tock is right, and I am all but certain he was, it wasn’t in seconds. It was in decades. Just, my iterations would amount to tens of millions of years, at the very least. Even then, that’s assuming they only accounted for my lifetime… or that this all ends any time soon. It only gets longer from there. This prophecy put our faces in visions at the dawn of recorded history. So, throw in at least the occasional thousand or more year iteration. Then, how many came before? How many times did they try? It boggles the mind, and surely approaches eternity.”
“What are you trying to get at?” Kiannae demanded, though her face belied a suspicion.
“I said it myself, and I’m an idiot.” Katrisha put her head in her hands. “The difference between a game, and reality. No take backs. I think…” She shook her head, and looked up stricken. “I think this is it. I think I made a move that seals this fate, however it plays out. No more stalemate. Because if it’s taken this long, then there isn’t a right answer. Not, some solution that solves everything.”
Kiannae took a breath. “Like everything was spinning. Cycles within cycles, and one wrong step would destroy…everything, but no step at all surely would.”
“Yes,” Katrisha said. “Like that.”
There was a shuffling sound, and a tiny fox squeezed out from between two crates the rear of the wagon. Tock stretched, glanced their way, and sat. He stared at the two, who looked to each other with equal suspicion.
“Not all deals are two-sided?” Katrisha finally asked the fox.
“Did I make a deal?” Katrisha pressed.
Tock tilted and lowered his head. “Cannot say. Secrets are key. To know all, is to not exist.”
Kiannae cringed. “You can’t even tell those you have made a deal with?”
Tock tilted his head again indecisively.
Katrisha stood up, and stepped towards the little fox. His eyes glance to his hidey hole, but he stayed put. She knelt down before him. Stared at him, and then swept him up in her arms. She held him to her chest, and his little head rested on her shoulder.
“It is, as it is,” Tock said. “Is long to tread to Dust. Short legs. I can has treat?”
Katrisha laughed, and tried not to cry. “Can you tell me anything?”
“A darkness has risen,” Tock whispered in her ear. “A thing to eat the sun, and shatter Laeune. Hate and regret, has learned to think, and turned a heart once kind, cold. You has seen this. It is, as it is. There is not another try. Is three, to one, or so. Is good odds. I think.”
“Thank you,” Katrisha whispered in kind, and knew in only the vaguest terms what he spoke was true. For Tock had never lied. Their creator had made a devious creature that used the truth to good advantage. “You can has all the treats, until you’re a fat little fox that can’t move.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Jovan 12th, 655 E.R.
To ungifted eyes, Mordove was not visible at any great distance. Hidden within a maze of high hills, between three great lands. That said there was no mistaking the way. All roads lead to Mordove. The hub around which the lands of a former Empire turned. At the heart of a civilization that had outlived any given name, the roads were wide, proud, and grand. Suburbs and well tended farms occupying every nook, and cranny.
To those with the gift, one could feel the direction of the city miles away. Beacons of magic shining above distant hills that a great city had long since subsumed. One was inside the borders of Mordove long before one could really see it. Dense buildings stood perched above cliffs, and off their faces. These were the not quite slums of the city. Where the most powerful, sometimes kept grand second homes. Living like kings among the poor and ungifted, where they clung to the edges.
Then a bend came, and the great heart of the city rose before their eyes. A mountain of weathered stone, and ancient walls. A great city state nestled at the heart of high hills. Lofty spires, and grand domes standing definitely above deep meandering streets. Hollows that could be mistaken for ravines cut by ancient rivers. So much of the city stood in one vast tone of pale granite. A landscape dotted with green, and other monuments to fads of epochs come and gone. Architectural rebellion against the sameness that came from passing ages of tradition.
To gifted eyes, the rivers still flowed. There was magic everywhere. Surging along the ley lines that converged on the city. A method emerged to the madness, or perhaps it was the other way around. A city built by mages over a millennium, her foundations set centuries before the dawn of the Empire. It had grown roots along the natural grooves of potential. Aqueducts flowed uphill. Magic on a grand industrious scale, and purpose. Magic giving a faint rippling shimmer even from miles away.
Yet a tree well over a thousand feet tall, almost made that vast sprawling city look small. Immense boughs cast a looming shadow over a forested park in the late afternoon sun. To Kiannae, that great tree had a pull. A tug that she could feel through her staff. That legend and fact agreed had created that great wonder amidst so many others. An unnatural echo of a natural world. That could almost make those lands torn by the order and chaos of mortal endeavor, seem humble. If not for the way the city itself in turn consumed every hill, or other place the eye could turn.
Beyond this distraction, atop the mount of the city stood a grand black dome. The center of it all, from which spokes radiated in every direction. The spider in that great web.
“Wow.” Katrisha’s offered in almost underwhelming response, and cut the silence.
“Told you it would be worth it,” Etore said with a smirk.
“I can see a history written in this place,” Kiannae chimed in. “Why, every street came to be. It’s unnerving. Like the seasons that shaped an old tree. Harsh winters and summers, rich harvests and poor. I’ve never felt such…” She drew a breath. “I’ve never felt such life, from cold stone.”
“Fates, don’t go all weepy on us,” Katrisha chided.
Kiannae laughed. “How, could I. It’s so beautiful. Even nature has found a place here. Look, it’s not just the great tree and its park. There are trees, and gardens everywhere. That grassy hill.” She pointed. “It’s over another dome, where people argue, orate, and put on plays. I just, know that, looking at it. The structure on top, it leads down to an extra balcony hung above it all.”
“Yes, and the Council Dome, and the walls between the three lands. We read about it all, when we were ten,” Katrisha chided her. “One of Moriel’s assignments.”
Kiannae shrugged. “Yes, I remember, but I feel it more. Don’t you? You say Charles followed you here. That you’ve seen it.”
“He claimed. I, don’t remember, just know it was true.”
Etore shook her head. “I shouldn’t have let either of you ride with me.”
“It’s not your wagon,” Katrisha said thin lipped.
“Nor is it yours,” Etore countered. “I’m on duty. Guarding that damn staff. Official orders, and all.” She seemed quite amused to have that over them. She made no mention of overhearing Darrin muse they should be order to be nowhere near it, since he hadn’t made it official.
The road the Caravan followed cut a gray line through the city to the base of the great tree that. Then only the third largest in all the world. It soon hung over head like an oppressive green cloud. They rolled in and out of a valley, and up again toward the base of the tree. It became clear that another caravan, or maybe three were present around the great loop. They rolled past dozens of wagons till an opening presented itself. Temporary shops were being pulled out, and guards were waving people on.
Kiannae almost couldn’t bare to look up, and see the vast tree above. Its presence cast a shadow both literal, and figurative, from a dream. It made her feel incredibly small. Looming over buildings that lined the lane. The park had grown greatly over the past century, since the tree had risen. Still, a popular place to walk, and relax. A forest of safe living splendor within a secure city. Claimed mostly by druids of the council, and others drawn to nature. Those comfortable to live in the path of an ever expanding root system.
A large contingent of mages and well armed city guards stood in wait off the main road towards the city’s heart. “Is this the Peregrine Caravan?” one of the men asked.
“Aye, it is,” Samantha called out her window. “You hear for the shard I found on Eastroad. I’ve expenses to report for its transport, damages, and risk to my caravan, made in good faith. Several destroyed wagons, one, half disassembled by a magical anomaly. Combat pay for facing foreign armies, and rogue princes you aren’t restraining.”
“The Council, is not responsible for losses of a caravan. Least of all one paying wanted bandits, for security,” another man snapped.
Katrisha and Kiannae jumped down, and looked ready to speak.
The first man held up his hand. “Show us, what you have brought, and we will consider.”
“Name yourself,” Kiannae challenged.
“Highmage Orestes,” the man declared. “Enchanters Seat of the Council.”
Wren stepped out from behind the wagon, and threw his staff before the mages. Half stepped back suspiciously. “Three times now, I have asked,” he said and looked annoyed. “Someone, take this. Someone, take the burden if you can. For I leave it here, and I lay no claim.”
“Attache’s, deal with this,” Orestes called out. “These, representatives of Avrale will accompany me to Council chambers. Their, Representative is waiting.” He turned, and marched up the lane, two guards at his sides. Two more stepped around the three siblings, and gestured after the man.
They did not travel far before coming to a line of open elaborately styled wagons. Each was set in a chain along a glowing groove in the road up the main city mount. They were lead into an open carriage, and the whole thing jerked with a slight start to accelerate up the lane. It came to speed just a bit short of a run. People jumped off in places from other cars looking annoyed the vehicle wasn’t stopping. Some managed to jump on cars, but others looked annoyed as the carriages passed.
“We do try not disrupt the main lines often,” Orestes said. “Causes people such inconvenience. The Council has demanded you lot be delivered to chambers promptly. We’ve been holding the line for twenty minutes. It’ll still take at least ten to reach the Council complex, get comfortable if you like.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Avery Anders was a reasonably tall man, though a bit pale for those of the northern region his name implied. He sat at a large desk in a very small room, as three sibling were urged in. The door was closed behind his visitors.
The man’s hands were folded before him, and he shook his head. “You lot have caused me a great deal of fuss over the years. Perpetual official decrees I am asked co-sign as your representative. Announcements that two mages, have been knighted, on the fringes of legal precedent. One of you, though, also a druid, yes? Knighted under such title, before that in Niven. Now some whelp of a brother, leaving learned mages running around like chickens without heads. All over some staff, reportedly only he can move. What, in the fates, am I supposed to do with you all?”
“Councilman Avery,” Katrisha said. “I fear we’ve barely spoken before, by stone. I’m, sorry we are meeting under these circumstances.”
“Yes. We should have spoken a great deal, in your many years of service, but nothing, seems to have gone according to plans. Even that such years in the roll came to pass. That your stone was somehow sabotaged. You particularly, have done nothing to make my life easy.”
“Did you take the job, because it was easy?” Katrisha asked.
The man grimaced, and then smiled. “You have taken well, after Laurel. I only knew him little before he left the academy. The Rogue Astronomer, some called him. Our correspondence over the years left me familiar with his dry sense of humor. No, I took it, because it is an honor to sit, and you, by some more charitable accounts, took your role out of duty. So for the moment, I shall oblige the idea that all you may have done, has been in good faith.”
He glanced to Kiannae, and shook his head. “You, however I know less of. Just stories. Blightsbane, and East Wash. Clearing flooded fields with mixtures of magic and druidic practice. Refusing a spot at the Court of Storms. Knightings, and quarrels with inhuman spirits. Your sister’s, penchant for heroic deeds in the nude, have given me fewer headaches than your interventions. That is, once they were all tied together. Some, are blaming you for the Council being kicked out of Napir. Others, would not dream to give you such credit.”
He shook his head again, and looked between the two, to the young man just inside his door. “Now, I have some Lycian boy from Highvale, making Darrin of all people loose his nerve. Oh, he put on a brave line around your sisters making allusions to prophecy. Analyzing their strange magic and gifts, but your staff, truly had him worried. Such… dramatic words, I have never known him to use. Not in ten years of tutelage under the man, or decades of correspondence.”
Wren shrugged awkwardly.
“We have all, only acted in good faith,” Katrisha answered. “I have only claimed, to a few bandits, to be a goddess, and I will attest there is no truth in it. Just a convenient point of leverage, in a dangerous situation.”
“I must say, I found some accounts of that amusing.” Avery pursed his lips. “Claims that you created a massive healing field with magic. One that was… far too pleasant to be touched by, however, beneficial.”
Katrisha shrugged, but her smile was coy.
“That’s Ezik’s staff, isn’t it?” he said turning back to Kiannae. “Did you know it has a name? Same the tree in Napir has been given. If you listen to the old stage play about his duel over creating this city’s great tree, you might hear reference. I don’t think he ever used the name himself, just a popular part of legend. Something that poets like to build up around any prominent story. That mentor of yours was trouble too.”
“He wasn’t really,” Kiannae said. “My mentor that is. I was more pupil to his second in the circle, she was with me at Blightsroot.”
“Whatever.” Avrey stood, and looked back and forth across them.
“The Council had initially voted to have you presented immediately. Then devolved into quarrels over Lycia, Corinthia, and Palentine. I was called away to greet you, and thankful for it. It’s an endless loop of intractable inaction. Three camps. Those who want to hand western Corinthian to Southern Palentine. The ones who support Lycia’s historic claim. Then of course those who are calling for the Green Fight to take action. To route these bandits that by some reports are members of the cult of Alara. Even that coalition is fractured. Torn between those who want Lycia and the Flight sanctioned, and those actually seeking action by dragons. That would at minimum skirt the bounds of treaties.”
“Cult of Alara?” Katrisha asked.
“Splinter of the Lycian Order, more specifically of the Red Sisterhood,” Avery said with a sneer. “Numbers unknown. The Order does not openly claim them. What few, unofficial spokeswomen the cult maintains, disavow this Red Mage Rebellion nonsense. Quite a mess really, more tangled politics than usual, and that says a lot.”
“So what now?” Kiannae pressed.
“Your interviews before the Council have been rescheduled.” Avery checked a calendar on the wall, marked with many little notations, some crossed out. “Day of the Moon, sixteenth of Jovan. Till then, I will have a junior attache introduce you to quarters, and facilities. Any questions?”
“Where’s the best place to get lunch?” Kiannae asked.
The man shook his head.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Anice was a somewhat officious young woman, with auburn hair and a complexion of some mixed heritage. She had indicated points of interest on the way back out of the lower Council complex. Things that had been a rushed past on the way in. On the outside, she gestured down the hill.
“Short term quarters for special guests are below, but I believe you asked about food?”
“Most fancy meal we’ve had in weeks was as captives,” Katrisha offered. “Dustwatch was a bit, primitive. Even caravan fair tends to be better, and that says something.”
“Palentian food across the main road here,” she said and lead the way down the steps. “A bit pricey normally but, guests of interest often eat free the first few times. Of course the Council will be billed, just above cost, usually paid. Risk there is if the Council opts not to pay. Can get you blacklisted from most of the nicer inner city establishment, unless you want to pay even more. Good odds though, for a group like you. It’s a very unofficial arrangement, so, always a gamble. Just don’t order anything too expensive.”
Kiannae stopped, and glanced some distance down a side path. Zale was sitting on a short stone wall looking out over the city. She tapped their guide on the shoulder, gestured that way, and got an annoyed shrug. She walked over to check in on him.
“What are you doing all the way up here already?”
“Caught the second line back up, found out the registrar’s office closed early this afternoon. I need to renew my citizenship. Shouldn’t be a big deal, given I had papers a few years back. Still could take a couple weeks, and it helps to get on stipend quickly while setting up residence. Learned that the hard way. Not a lot pays quite a living wage by itself, unless you are high up in the guilds, or very senior in some service jobs. I’m only skilled enough for apprenticeships, and enchanting didn’t work out last time. Rather not get stuck in with the druids just to make ends meet.”
“Join us for lunch then.”
Zale glanced up at the looming domed above them. Something plainly bothering him. “Alright.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
It was late afternoon, and the sun was setting. Lunch had indeed been free, but as with such arrangements there were other prices. Introductions, questions, prodding patrons. Some kept at bay, others let preferentially through by hovering servers. The sun was threatening to set over a high western hill, though it was hours from any true nightfall.
“This is the suit that was offered up when your arrival was certain.” Anice gestured off the stair they had climbed, and into an open westward facing lounge area.
“There are seven rooms,” Kiannae said dubiously.
“The Council asks, and we get what we get. This is usually reserved for dignitary entourages. There are three floors like it, and only the top is currently occupied, by a Nohlend delegation.”
“Nicer than I’ve seen,” Zale said, “and while I was here, and I managed invites to a few of the nicer parties. Grandfather’s name was worth something,” he added a bit dryly, and met an accusatory look from Kiannae with defiance.
“How you use the extra space,” Anice offered, “is up to you. Just bear in mind, damages are billable, and the Council is not known for patience.” She glanced to Katrisha. “Now, I’m sure Avery forgot, he’s never been good with details. The stones. The old one from Avrale, and Oradin’s. Where are they?”
“In our possessions last I saw,” Katrisha answered. “Which have been shuffled, and repacked, and moved around the caravan a few times. I expect it may take a while to sort out where the crate got to.”
“Of course.” Anice sighed. “Get it to me soon, because once someone realizes they haven’t been delivered… Again, patience, not a strong suit of many around here.”
“Of course,” Kiannae offered.
“Good, good,” Anice intoned. “What else? If you go wandering, be very careful. It can be hard to tell a good neighborhood from a bad one in Mordove. In part because there isn’t always much difference. Most of the time there won’t be a lot of risk. Of course by all accounts, you lot can take care of yourselves, but do consider, more trouble is not something any of you need just now. Stick to the inner blocks of the hill, and you should be fine. As, family of a registered Council mage, and former sitting Court mage. Known gifted, you will have stipend, and credit, but try not to go over. Becomes a bad habit, and not many merchants or proprietors will hold you to account till you are very well in their debt. I’ll see all proper papers are delivered by morning. The house kitchen will come by within the hour to take requests for dinner. If you are going to seek a red district, seek the west one, strictly Lycian, very discrete and well tempered. The local Matron keeps things well in line. Please avoid the one in the north city, lots of trouble. Have to break up a brawl of one sort or another three, four times a year.”
“We won’t,” Kiannae assured her, then gave Katrisha look.
She just shrugged.
“Not my business, just, again, please, no more trouble. Cousin Avery does not handle the stress well.”
“You two are related?” Katrisha asked curiously.
“Grandfather, on my father’s side. Bastard twice, gamble by my grandmother, getting pregnant. Barely any gift herself, but oh, how quickly a woman can move up with a more gifted child in this city. Names Easthill. Charming, isn’t it? The path to power here.”
“Charming,” Kiannae said with measured agreement to the woman’s own disapproval. “Better than some ways things are managed,” she said leadingly.
“You testing us to see what attitudes we might have picked up from our recent captors?” Katrisha challenged.
“I am,” Anice said plainly. “I’ve had my offer, while returning from assignment out west. They can be very, convincing.”
“And refused?” Katrisha asked.
“Yes,” Anice said sharply.
“What everyone, who has ever returned from an ‘invitation’ has claimed,” Kiannae noted. “So, we will claim the same.”
Anice smiled a bit thinly. “Of course they claim to have spies everywhere. Who to trust?”
“No one,” Kiannae answered. Taloe formed at her side.
Anice restrained her surprise. “So, the fabled spirit.”
“I am bound to her at the soul, and she barely trusts me. Don’t think you’ll get what you want easily out of her. What ever it is you want.”
“We refused,” Wren added. “Though each of us have listened to their claims. What is your opinion. Is Amendment Two being violated in Palentine?”
“The fact, is traditions are being carried out, and technically there is no evidence the Amendment is being violated. Sticky point that. Opinion only enters into what to be done about it, and how much the law is worth. Most here, value law, rather highly. It keeps this city stable, and prosperous. This world, from devolving into a war, those people want.”
“So, do nothing, status quo?” Kiannae pressed.
“The Ascension coalition is losing seats, and sway over this. It’s not as though the harm done is permanent. Even this so called rebellion, has claimed to heal the scars.”
“Yet, if it does eventually come to a war,” Katrisha intoned. “They have been doing a very good job of breeding, and training a gifted army. Enchanters, in their ranks, but not mages. Skilled at fighting them by all accounts. Met a knight of the Empire who trained under one, she was quite capable with even parts of the full technique.”
“Ah, I had heard Alindra had taken up with some man in Avrale,” Anice said with a knowing smile. “Prince, I believe. Politically complicated that, but not, forbidden. Much like you lot. Half Sylvan orphans, who should have been brought to the Council as children. Oh, but there was a great-grandmother, and a Court Mage, who moved swiftly to circumvent the spirit of the law.”
“I’ve learned the laws thoroughly,” Katrisha said. “They manage some good, often enough in spite of their true intentions. Spirit of the law must always be taken with a grain of salt, and the Council does prefer the letter of it, when it suits them.”
“Indeed,” Anice said, and walked to the door. “You’ve your quarters. Check with the front desk if you have needs. You’ll have your own funds to work with by late morning. I can be reached by messenger, as can Avery. If you wish to check in with your caravan, who I understand you have some personal connection with, by all means. I expect they will be here a few days.”
She moved to open the door, and jumped back with a start to find it open, and a tall Osyraen woman standing next to it. “How long have you been there?”
“The whole time,” Etore said with a smirk.
Anice looked dubious. “So, you are the famous Shadow Rose, Etore, what was it, Laen?”
“Bastard name, just like yours,” Etore chided her insinuation.
“More shame in some societies than others,” Anice countered.
“Indeed.” Etore leaned closer, and then whispered, “I believe your friend Elise would agree.”
Anice sneered, stepped out, and slammed the door.
“What was that about?” Kiannae asked suspiciously.
“Oh, nothing much. I may not have taken my offer, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn a few things.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Jovan 13th, 655 E.R.
“Hard woman to find,” Mallory said behind Katrisha, who turned from staring out across the city on a high wall.
“I doubt much harder than anyone else,” Katrisha offered in lieu of any form apology.
“Not properly registered with a residence yet, so a bit harder,” Mallory said. “Had to follow the breadcrumbs of rumor and gossip. I doubt if you weren’t so singular I’d have found you at all.”
“I’m guessing you wanted to say goodbye?” Katrisha asked a bit awkwardly.
“We are leaving on good terms aren’t we?”
“Are we?” Katrisha asked, and leaned back against the crenelation of the wall.
“I’ve nothing to hold against you,” Mallory offered. “I hope you can say the same of me.”
“I’m sorry.” Katrisha shook her head. “I hate goodbyes. Even the stupidest ones hurt more than they should.”
“So on the scale of stupid, how hard is this one?”
“Utterly,” Katrisha tried, but looked a bit bashful about the joke. “I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean it that way. I, thought maybe I could be coy, and play this by the letter of our agreement. To, Mordove, and then just disappear. It was dumb. I’m glad you found me, for what that’s worth.”
Mallory stepped closer, and put his hand on her cheek. She gave him a crooked half smile, and looked up. He was a handsome enough man, once she’d patched up the scar from Eastroad. Still, just the faintest mark off his natural tone. She’d never gotten perfect at that. “You really should get yourself a helmet, and that enchanted mail you were talking about. This has to be the cheapest place to get it.”
“You’d be surprised.” Mallory laughed.
“You take care of yourself,” Katrisha said, and kissed him. “I mean that, but don’t let anyone tell you how to live, or who to be.”
“I suppose I should say goodbye to Samantha too, shouldn’t I?”
“Who am I to say?”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
“Lycia, Eastern Palentine, High City, then along the coast. Calm trip down through Nohlend, Helm, Western Thebes, Niven, and Napir. Guaranteed. Six months of the safest roads, ten percent profits, or twenty gold, whichever is higher.” Samantha was in fine form, making her case to three weathered old traders. “Even if the roads prove just a little challenging, three skilled and Council trained mages. A company of seven mercenaries under three veterans of the East Road incursion.”
“Don’t have room for one more?” Katrisha asked, hands behind her back.
“Consider, you won’t find a better route this year,” Samantha finished. She turned, and gave Katrisha an appraising glance. “Ready to leave already?”
“Almost, the way they are being about things. Two more days before the Council – that demanded my presence – is even seeing us.”
“I’ll probably be in the middle of pulling out that day,” Samantha said with a half frown. “Eh, well, you are staying here, safe and sound, and I’m taking my… payment for services rendered. Damages, plus some pressure that got me a sweetheart run on which – even if you were coming with – I don’t imagine anything going wrong.”
“Well, fortunate we won’t be tempting fate with that, then,” Katrisha nodded.
Samantha stepped up, and hugged Katrisha hard. “You and I, are going for a drink somewhere tonight.”
“I’ll be glad to keep you company, but I’ve decided I don’t care for it.” Katrisha hugged her back.
“I’ll make you a bargain,” Samantha said with a smirk. “I’ll buy you something utterly sweet, every stop we go. I know the best taverns, and drinks in this city. If I can’t find the one, perfect drink for you, the whole night is on me.”
“And if you do?”
“Well, then it’s on you, isn’t it?”
“I’ll ask if anyone else wants to come,” Katrisha offered.
“Oh, everyone on one tab?”
“You’ll have to find a drink I actually like. Tall bet.”
Samantha stepped back, considered Katrisha, and held out her hand. They shook, just as Sasha sauntered up, and threw her arms around the woman, and her chin on her shoulder. “What mischief are you two up to?”
Katrisha laughed with a bit of a snort, and covered her mouth. Samantha shrugged the woman off, and gave her a reproving look for her familiarity, though it lacked much fire.
“I swear, everyone, always thinks I’m the one with a dirty mind,” Sasha said with a sigh, but smiled.
“Samantha is hosting a tour of all the finest taverns of Mordove tonight. Her tab, if she can’t find a drink I like.”
“Sounds like fun,” Sasha said. “You drinking everything she doesn’t finish?”
“If I do?” Samantha challenged.
“Then I’ll sober you up, exactly as much as you want to be, but you’ll owe me if for every little bit.”
Samantha bit her lip, and held out her hand. Sasha grabbed it, and kissed the knuckles rather than shake, and the two exchanged a very intent glare.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Jovan 14th, 655 E.R.
Katrisha danced up the lane, partly lost her balance, and caught a lamppost. She leaned against it a bit, getting her feet back under her. At a sip a piece she’d not found a single drink she liked of the alcoholic variety, and gotten quite overly tipsy any way. She stared up at the moon, and stars overhead. They were so pale, with all the lights of the city below. Made her rather sad.
She sighed, and pushed off the lamppost, took several steps with her eyes closed just trying to feel her balance. It was one of the safest parts of the city, and she wasn’t worried getting back to the apartments. Etore had been the only other to join the expedition on account of free drinks, but had wandered off halfway through the evening.
Samantha had offered to walk Katrisha home to be sure, along with Sasha, but had been far too drunk, and unwilling to be sobered to walk that far. Katrisha opened her eyes as she felt a presence, and stopped just short of colliding with a woman walking the other way. She had blond hair that was almost white in the moon light, and golden eyes, set in a stern face.
“Sorry,” Katrisha said with a start, stepped aside, tripped on a loose stone, and fell into the woman.
She caught her, though with a far from pleased expression.
“Oh, thank you,” Katrisha said looking up, bit her lip and giggled, but the woman did not look the least amused. “Have I met you somewhere before?”
“I doubt it very much,” the woman said. She helped Katrisha upright, and moved to walk past.
“It’s a lovely light, I…” Katrisha coughed. “I mean night, though not half so lovely as you madam. Thank you for catching me.” She put her fingers lightly to her chest, and toyed with the trim of her robe.
The woman turned back, and considered Katrisha reprovingly. She seemed to get distracted by her hair glinting in moonlight. “It is what a proper Clarion does. Catch those, on the verge of falling. You should abstain from letting yourself become so inebriated. It’s not good for you.”
“I agree,” Katrisha said. “Don’t even like the stuff, just a stupid bet.” She hiccuped, and covered her mouth. “Sorry, sorry, so embarrassing.”
“Gambling, is also a vice of little merit. Perhaps, consider giving that up as well. Good night to you,” the woman said without much warmth, and turned back down the hill.
“To you as well,” Katrisha called out, “my lovely golden haired savior.” She laughed, and continued her previous dance up the hill. She didn’t like the taste, but she supposed there was something to feeling light and stupid, and forgetting every horrible thing. Even the woman’s cold Clarion attitude had not bothered her. She stopped, and glanced back down the hill. She could not shake the feeling she had met that woman somewhere before.