Chapter One – Bloody Dawn
The day Alsha was betrayed started under a thick cover of fog. She rose at dawn nonetheless. The mist meant she would have a hard time relaying, thus threatening the Empire’s border.
Alsha wolfed down a bowl of porridge served by one of the Blotted and slid into her Blackmoon armor, feeling the customary jolt of pride for joining their elite ranks. As the castaway boy helped her adjust the black and white leather stripes, she looked at the smeared tattoo on his neck. She wondered briefly about what his parents had done to violate the holy laws. The thought sent a shiver down her spine and she instinctively rubbed the Trium mark she had borne since the age of three, to the condescending delight of her two older siblings. She left the mess hall with a smile on her lips and her head filled with childhood memories.
The haze had not relented as the young woman climbed the cold stony steps of the watch tower. She took over relay duty from Edwor, who was having trouble keeping their eyes open and left with a yawn and the report of an uneventful night: they had only seen the mist slowly clutching the keep as the horizon was preparing for sunrise. Now everything was gray. Alsha was disgruntled she had not ran into Kmar getting up. Her dear friend always had a way to lighten up her day, but he had probably been summoned with the other garrison’s Shamals to work on the fog issue. She realized the true scope of their predicament as she lumbered onto the platform on top of the keep, suddenly and strangely out of breath. Maybe I did not sleep as soundly as I thought.
A cursory glance showed her that the forest and meadows had all but disappeared from view and she could barely see the ground thirty feet below. She sighed deeply: the next watchtowers were ten kilometers both north and south, and no matter how strong her magic was, she could by no means relay this far through such a thick mist. To confirm her intuition, she sent a burst of green light in an arc above the tower. The fog diffused it into a greenish haze. So much for Magistan’s mighty warning system.
A sudden commotion below drove her out of her thoughts. She stumbled to the wall, strangely dizzy, and had to lean on the cold stones for fear her knees might give in. Below her, the Shamals were climbing on the parapet and aligning in formation. She saw Kmar among them, and winked at him. He gave her the boyish grin which sometimes threatened all her beliefs. She blinked and forced herself to make out the Trium mark on his neck, a constant reminder of how they should behave under the laws of the Aels.
Soon enough, the wind weavers were ready. The commander issued her orders and they set to work. As they started pushing the air, their eyes turned as black as bottomless pits, and a breeze rose in front of them, pushing against the fog. They intensified their effort and started breathing hard, tugging at the tendrils of mist, making the cold damp air whirl and twist, rise and spread until the thick grass reappeared, followed by the trees at the forest edge. In the middle of it all, without warning, Alsha’s vision began to fill with uncanny black dots. She had to close her eyes for a moment and lean against the wall. What has come over me? When she finally blinked the spots away, she saw that the brume was now only clinging to the treetops in the forest beyond. That’s when Alsha found out something was very wrong.
From her vantage point, she realized the fog had opportunely shrouded the immediate surroundings of the garrison. Once the sky cleared she suddenly had a circular vision. She saw two things then: to the north, the Flare of the next watch tower was frantically signaling an attack through short bursts of red light; to the east, a war band was approaching from the Velian border. For a few precious seconds, she hesitated between relaying the attack message to the forts further south or shouting to the soldiers below. She chose to do both. She would do neither. As she mustered her strength to weave the light, she started to call out to the troops but the words got stuck in her mouth. She gagged and reached for air. It took all her focus and mastery to sift the red from the rainbow, but all she managed was a squirt of crimson light that did not go higher than ten feet. Then a loud blast was heard on the inner side of the garrison. The world turned suddenly as black as her weaving eyes when she lost consciousness and crashed on the hard pavement.
She woke up to mayhem. Struggling to her feet, Alsha quickly assessed the situation. The war band had turned out to be a small army equipped with siege engines. Though their trebuchets and towers were not as dangerous as the Lauracian canons, they had used the element of surprise to mount an assault on the walls of the keep while everyone was looking at the explosion. Velian soldiers in blue and silver were climbing over the walls, swords at the ready. The garrison’s commander was rallying the Blackmoon to support the bulk of regular soldiers organizing the defense. She saw the Embers at work trying to set the siege engines on fire or to have the attackers drop their steaming swords lest they burned their hands; the Halos plunging enemy archers and artificers into pools of darkness; the Shamals hurling gales to fend off enemy arrows and unbalance the ladders. She did not see Kmar among them.
Still nauseous from whatever had come over her, Alsha reached deep inside her to bring forth her Aelic magic but found out it left her coughing and trembling. She was leaning against the wall, her concern slowly turning to panic, when she spotted Edwor as they came rushing to join her on top of the tower.
- What are you doing? It’s war out there!
- Edwor, I can’t…
But the older Flare had already seen her trembling figure and gaunt face and did the only thing they should, starting to send the red bursts upward, both arms reaching for the morning sky. Only one burst had made it to the clouds when a boulder smashed into the tower, wreaking havoc. Edwor stumbled over the parapet of the suddenly collapsing platform and crashed in an ugly thud on the ground below. Alsha, who was on the still-standing end of the tower, mustered her strength and dashed panting into the now precarious stairwell, among the rumbling sound of falling stones. She emerged from the tower a few precious moments before it finished crumbling to the ground in a cloud of dust that made her cough anew.
In the courtyard was more chaos. Bodies and debris were strewn over the ground while shouts, grunts and thuds were heard from all directions. The smells of burning wood and broken stone could not cover the metallic tingle of blood. A Flare without access to her abilities, Alsha wondered what she could do to help. She had been trained with a sword and a bow but the latter had disappeared among the ruins of the tower. And she was no killer. She had been offered to join the elite corps of the Blackmoon because of her natural talent and Trium dedication, yet she had embraced the path because she was a Flare and Flares were messengers, not fighters.
Setting her jaw and mentally reciting a prayer to the Beings of Light, she drew her sword and faced the front gate, not a moment too soon as the enemy’s battering ram breached it with a final knock, sending the doors crashing over the debris of the fallen tower. The commander called onto the ground troops to rally and Alsha joined ranks, feeling better by the minute… was it the battle frenzy coming over her? She knew that whatever had befallen her, she would never let down the Empress and all her family had always stood for.
She joined the fray with a yell and managed to wound two enemy soldiers before she was stabbed in her left shoulder. Reeling from the agony, she stumbled backward and was saved by a burly man with a Dayl tattoo on his neck. She bit her lips not to shout her suffering as he carried her to safety. There, panting, she realized that the gloom covering her thoughts had partly lifted, that the commander now lay dead under a screaming Velian soldier and that the garrison was falling.
Stepping further back, she wove a quick burst of orange light that reached through the broken gate and into the meadows beyond, signaling retreat to the troops. Trying to shut down the excruciating pain, she dashed toward the other tower, which was still standing. She reached the top faster than she would had thought and mustered her last strength to signal the debacle to whoever was watching. Panting and leaning against the last strip of crenelated wall, she started weaving. The pain in her head came back quickly and resonated with the agony in her shoulder. She reached to the sky, looking for the purple in the morning light. The sounds around her were now muffled, and her arms were trembling. She could not see much but focused on sending the bursts as high as she could. She did not know how many she managed to cast before a fist hit her and sent her back to a dreamless slumber.
Chapter Two – Company
A bitter laugh choked through Alsha’s pulsing lungs as she woke up. Knocked down twice in the same day… before she could warn anyone. What a pitiful Blackmoon she made. She was unworthy of the corps she represented, unworthy of the empire she stood for and the hopes her parents had placed in her. Then again, wasn’t Magistan supposed to be impregnable? While the thought was boring through her mind, she registered the creaking sound and realized the lurch she felt was unrelated to the queasiness in her stomach.
Painfully, she opened her eyes. She was in a rolling cage pulled by a team of four horses. Through the slightly rusty iron bars, she could see wild meadows and gently forested hills passing by. She recognized the surroundings of the wandering camp she had visited with Kmar a few days back. She still marveled at how he had seemed at ease among them, as he was with everyone. Alsha swiveled her head so as to avoid the pain in her back, noticed her shoulder had been bandaged and that the wound looked clean. A measure of relief came upon her, which changed to worry as she looked at her companions. There were three other people in the cage with her, all from the garrison. One of them was sprawled on the floor, clearly in pain. It was Kmar.
She rushed to his side and lifted his head, oblivious to the pain in her back. His face was pulped by a serious beating, but he managed to curl his lips as he recognized her, a jarring imitation of his usual mischievous grin. Then he passed out. As she lay there for endless minutes, his head on her lap, checking his breath and watching the hills grow taller, she was slowly lulled into her memories.
- We see you now, and welcome you into the community of the Aels. The next year will give you ample opportunities to test your mettle. Prove yourselves to us, be among the best, and you will join the Blackmoon and become the pride of Magistan.
The sun was high above the courtyard of the Imperial Palace, a warm summer morning in the city of Aelys Thent, and a teenage Alsha was goggling at all of it. This was so much bigger than anything she had seen in her life. Looking at the main temple’s ellipse topped by its spire, she felt the holiness of the city and the blessing of the Antecessors on Magistan’s proud jewel. Then her heart swelled even larger as she looked at the ranks of young people around her.
All of them had been corralled by dedicated sentries into the Aesyum of their province upon showing affinity to magic and being identified as Eyebreeds. There, they had been trained and tested, so that the best could join the ranks of the Aels and embrace one of the five callings. Those who failed would offer their freedom to the service of Magistan, being chained into positions where their talents could be used for the greater good. They would not be much more than slaves. This was the only way all magic bearers could bring prosperity to the thousand-year empire. She followed her train of thoughts until her wandering eyes locked with those of the boy.
He had been looking right at her and when she caught his gaze he started to make faces that seemed to be mocking the pomp of High Priestess Thirenza’s speech. Alsha tried to ignore him and focus.
- … Primes will obviously vie for the commanding positions, yet their younger siblings all have a role to play: Dayls will organize…
He was quite talented at faces, she had to give him that. She stifled a laugh and averted her eyes.
- … And while Triums will be the honed swords, pushing their mastery to unprecedented limits, Quarts will bring new ideas and spread the holy words in every town and village this side of…
This time she snickered, drawing curious and angry looks from her neighbors. Focus on the words…
- … the rules are simple and absolute: mingling with individuals strong in other callings is your sacred duty to keep the Aels’ blood potent and the empire deserving of the Antecessors’ blessing. Yet living with someone bearing the same progeny mark as you is an abomination…
That’s when she realized the boy had managed to sneak through a few rows and was now winking at her from a few meters away, shaking his head in parody. That allowed her to see the Trium tattoo on his neck, an exact match to the one she had borne since the age of three, the formidable barrier of ink that would be the forever boundary of their relationship.
Instinctively, she reached for the mark with her free hand and a pang of guilt. Kmar awoke and glanced at her. He tried to smile yet again. This was a serious smile. After a little while of exchanging silent words over that smile, she reluctantly and awkwardly broke eye contact, looking at the flocks of sheep they were now passing. She was intrigued to see one of the shepherds guide them by channeling the light from afar, showing an impressive level of skill.
- Remember Guymazh? came the croaking voice of Kmar.
How could she forget? She had barely been anointed a Blackmoon and was sent to the Lauracian border, in a sparsely peopled lighthouse where the biggest risk for her was walking on a crab during her morning stroll. She could not imagine a more peaceful place, save maybe for the renowned beaches of the Carmine Sea in the distant south.
Guymazh was an Ember: his calling was the one of cold and heat. He had been assigned by the garrison’s captain as cook, but he was also requested to keep him cool during scorching summer days and warm for most winter nights. Had his magic been stronger, he would have been an Ael and given responsibilities within the Empire, since he was a Prime, raised as a leader. But in Magistan his lot was to serve his betters, as the Antecessors had decreed.
One stormy day, while she was relaying important orders for the local legate, a lightning bolt struck and started a fire at the bottom of the lighthouse. Alsha dutifully finished relaying and then bolted for the staircase. The fire had already reached it and she had to stop midway through her descent, coughing in the rising smoke. She had no time to worry or turn around as she saw Guymazh rushing upward on the flaming stairs, eyes black, trying to fend the flames and the heat. He seized her hand and dragged her along the spiral staircase, weaving the cold. She felt the heat but it remained bearable, and somehow the flames magically avoided her feet, Ember magic. She burst through the fiery front doors coughing and covered in soot but barely singed. Guymazh was not so lucky and collapsed right behind her. As she looked at his burnt figure he croaked “Praise to the Aels”. He did not make it through the day.
The remembrance filled her heart with melancholia and she slowly shifted back to the present.
- He was faithful to the very end, she mused. The Empress herself commanded his courage and devotion.
- Yet did that bring solace to his husband and their two daughters? he said through a sneer.
- It pained me a lot to see him go, but thanks to his sacrifice I was there on the morrow to relay the threat of the Sundering Sea pirates. How many more would they have killed if the armada had not stopped them?
- I’m not saying he made the wrong call, he had no choice. He had no choice in death just like he had no choice in life. Now look around you… what do you see?
If there was one thing Flares were good at, it was identifying patterns. She thought of all the people she had seen in their hours of travel, feeling a slight unease settling in.
- People are different here. Eyebreeds mingle with the ordinary folk, working their fields regardless of the strength of their magic. Theneth’s eyes! A few of them could have been Aels back home.
- Precisely. I heard they have no such thing as the Aesyum in Velia. Kmar’s voice was stronger. Every Eyebreed is free to live the life they want provided they stay in line with their progeny marks. As a matter of fact, they don’t forbid people to be together when they wear the same mark.
The seriousness had reached his eyes and his hand reached for hers. She pulled it away, her eyes on his neck.
- Oh, that again? Do you really think disaster would strike Magistan should people be free to love whoever they wanted?
Alsha did not have an answer, and they continued in silence. She thought about the time they had shared as apprentices, precious months before the axe fell and Kmar did not make the cut of the Blackmoon. This brought her several years later and six months ago, when he showed up with a contingent of Ael soldiers, reinforcements for the border in the troubled times the Empire was facing. They had fallen back into their old habits as if they had never been apart. She had treasured every moment of it in these times when the future looked more ominous with each unhinged season. Yet never had she considered breaking her sacred vows.
What price blasphemy?
At nightfall, they made a stop in a small village. Someone gave them water and tended to their wounds. They were not fed. As their journey resumed under a starry sky, the prisoners tried to get some rest in the crowded space of the cage and under the cool blow of a northern wind. She did not sleep much, and what sleep she got was dreamless.
Come morning, they were given slices of an old but sound bread. Kmar made a joke about his keeping all his teeth through a bandaged face and their conversation resumed on easier topics while the cart started. They shared memories again, some years old and some from the previous days. There was a calm sense of security flowing between them and she eventually confided in Kmar like never before, about her feelings, her aspirations, about her life as a Blackmoon and the endless relaying of information from all around the empire.
They were now progressing on the outskirts of a bigger settlement and people were cheering the passing war band. She thought she would find hatred in the crowd looking at the cage, but all she saw was pity. Kmar noticed her puzzled look.
- They don’t understand our ways. For them, you decide what to do with the gifts you receive, as long as your allegiance is with the queen and king. There is no divine assignation organized by an empress or an emperor.
- That is precisely what makes them barbaric and war-prone. There is little order here, let alone the refinement we struggle so hard to maintain.
- You sure are an Ael who read her little black book thoroughly, he jeered. But you are also wrong… The freedom is what makes them proud, and why the empire never subjected them even at the peak of its glory. The passion in his voice surprised Alsha.
- Be careful with your choice of words, she giggled, or I will start coloring you a traitor.
- I’m not saying they are right, just that sometimes those rules sound ludicrous.
A sudden jolt in the carriage shook them out of their debate and Alsha out of her growing doubts. She looked to the front and realized they were now crossing a drawbridge into an old stone fortress. Soon enough, the carriage stopped and the door opened. She stepped out, helping Kmar walk by letting him lean on her valid shoulder. What a pair we make, she thought as she gazed at the surroundings. They were too battered to consider any escape after such a day. The fort was crude and sturdy, but well-kept. The Velian soldiers were busy around them, an organized ballet of efficiency. She noticed that several prisoner carriages were arrayed next to theirs, all empty. Late to the party, are we?
Suddenly, two guards tore Kmar from her and he winced from the pain. She protested and tried to reach him but was quickly caught in another guard’s vise-like grip, sending sharp jolts into her shoulder. She did not blink as she looked at her friend and he looked back. What passed between them then and there did not need words. It was a promise.
Alsha and the other prisoners were ushered into the keep and down a flight of stairs to the dungeon. Not a question was asked. As they entered a large and dark cell she recognized other people from the garrison. Among them was Chun, one of the Engravers. He looked like he had been tortured en route. Yet a grim determination was on his face as he looked at her, whispering:
- They got you too? I hoped that you had fled, or at worst that you had died. I’m not sure what they hoped to accomplish with this victory, their band was too small to make any real progress inland. I’m starting to think they were not after the fort.
- If it’s intelligence they were after, they will be disappointed. You know they won’t wrench anything out of me.
He smiled under a crooked nose and through loose teeth.
- You’re as tough as they get, eh? I just hope they have not already found what they wanted. I should have understood before it was too late…
As he said that, he snatched her face and locked gaze with her. In a matter of seconds, the older man’s eyes turned completely black and her own vision blurry and unreal. She recognized the Engraver at work. Soon enough, she was seeing an imprint in Chun’s memory, one she knew could not be faked. Though the smells were those of the sordid cell they were in and all she heard were the moans of the wounded, her eyes took her back to the previous morning, in the refectory.
There, from Chun’s perspective as he stood in the adjoining corridor, she saw the young Blotted who had served her breakfast. The porridge was still cooking and the boy was holding a vial in one hand, the other reaching toward a purse. Her world sank as she recognized who was holding it to him.
Chapter Three – Confrontation
A Blackmoon did not falter, she should have remembered. As anger and shame threatened to engulf her, Alsha drew a deep breath and plunged into her memory: what had she told Kmar in the soft confidence of his affection? What secret messages had she offered as tokens of her trust while she was trying to avail his pain during their journey? Had she gloated about the beauty of the assorted colors that formed the code of Magistan’s long-distance communication? Had she revealed troop locations or state secrets?
The Empire was facing several crises, at least that she knew off: rebellions along the southern borders, skirmishes with the Canhan riders of the frozen plains, rumors of conspiracies at the court, strange sicknesses traveling on the sails of traders from Sonaï-Res… And crops failing everywhere, to drought, to floods, to cold and hot spells alike.
Now would be a good time for neighboring kingdoms to try and carve out parts of Magistan.
Sorting through her memories, reviewing the main relays of the past days with Chun, she realized the well of compromission she had dug during these fleeting hours. Guilt and desperation were vying for her attention and clouding her thoughts. Yet she was a Blackmoon, and a Blackmoon did not falter. If they did, they found a way to redeem themselves.
So she sorted out her emotions to muster the strength she needed for the empire and all it stood for. She brooded, she thought and she plotted. She plunged in herself and lost track of time, so much so that the sudden opening of the prison door took her by surprise.
They had come for Chun. As he stood with dignity and difficulty to follow their captors, he turned to her with steel in his rasping voice:
- What is done is done. Never doubt and never waver, for we serve a cause so much more important than our broken lives. Magistan has stood for a thousand years and if we hold true to the Aels, it will still be here in a thousand more. Go in the light, sister.
The next time she heard his voice was the last. Chun’s screams filled the halls for an eternity but the quietness that followed was even more terrifying. She saw his body being dragged in front of the cold iron bars. He had been faithful to the end. The old Engraver had not faltered.
That night she slept poorly. Images of a burning empire filled her head, barbarians invading from the verdant shore of the Sundering Sea, pouring from the shadows of the Shield mountains, landing on the stormy coast of the Fiery Sea and crossing frozen plains and forests to reach Norwood. And in the middle of the rubbles of Aelys Thent, where Primes lay with Primes, all Alsha could do was stubbornly rebuilding a shrine to the Antecessors and mumbling prayers on parched lips that no one was listening to. She was pulled out of her nightmares by a noise that was none of the moaning and shuffling of feet she was getting used to.
Footsteps echoed around the stairwell and she saw a bubble of yellow light appear and close in on the cell she shared with the other prisoners. In the middle of it was a servant, her eyes deep black. She was probably the Halo creating the sphere. Two paces further, half of a lean individual’s figure was drowned in darkness. They wore a cloak clasped by a fancy-looking insignia.
Around them was a pair of guards, jaw set. As they reached the cell, a gloved finger pointed at her and the two guards escorted her out. She did not resist as she was driven to a secondary cell adorned with a pair of stools. The cloaked figure sat across from her and the guards withdrew a few paces. The Halo transformed the bubble of light into a diffuse overhead glow that provided a false sense of safety.
She did not need the figure to remove their hood to know them as Kmar. She would have recognized his gait anywhere. His face was still bruised, as he had clearly made a serious effort at being injured by his foreign friends to better trick her. All mischievousness had left his eyes, which were now leaning too much on the puppy side of sorry gazes.
- Look, I’m sorry. I can’t tell you how much sorry I am. I thought the sleeping drops would take you out of the front line during the assault, so that I could protect you.
- Oh, so you wanted to save me to better coax me into betraying my empress? Was that your long game? Did it start on the day we met?
- It’s not like… You have no idea where I come from, what I had to do…
- Well I guess whatever you told me about your life is one big pile of worthless lies sprouted from a worthless mouth. Why have you even bothered showing your traitorous face here?
The words had bursted out of her mouth. They pierced his composure like so many arrowheads. Kmar went full whining and patronizing declamations, retelling his growing up as an orphan Trium in Magistan, barely succeeding at his Aelic tests and being conscripted as a Shamal on an imperial warship. What he added next, she had never heard before.
“We lost two shambles in a series of skirmishes along the shores of the Fiery Sea. Our ship was lagging behind, as I was the only Shamal left to fill the sails, and we soon lost sight of the other vessels. Before long, we were ambushed by pirates who were mooring in the uninhabited islands of the craggy shore. Most of our crew died in the bloody battle, but I was captured. The pirates saw my potential and took me with them on a long series of short hops in the free ports of the Mosaic, there to be sold as a commodity for the noblepeople of the city states.
Eventually, a Velian ambassador purchased me and took me back across the mountains. What I witnessed in Velia made me realize the errors of our ways. There are no Aelic tests here, no sifting of Eyebreeds between the small elite and the other who work as slaves or get by on the fringes of society. You don’t have to trust my words on this, you saw it for yourself.”
Alsha did not flinch, hands clutched and knuckles white.
“Anyway, the ambassador thought my Magistan upbringing and my Aelic training would make me the perfect spy. They tutored me in the capitol and devised the plan for my comeback.
And so I was found by a border patrol in the wild, wounded and clothes torn. The Empire is so desperate for Aels that they did not question my story much, happy to have another Shamal to do the Empress’ bidding.”
The rambling about the politics of Magistan continued for a few minutes, then Kmar went back to his story.
“Finding you was easy, thanks to the Blackmoons’ dedication to archiving everything and some leverage I still had in Aelys Thent. I thought that I could build on our old friendship, gain your trust and offer you to come with me to Velia, to live free from the old imperial rules. Yet your faith in the Aels and the divine order of Magistan never relented. And the more stubborn you were, the more I realized I could not force you, I would not convince you, I should not try to sway you. It was then that we were moved to the border and I received my orders. This was the hardest decision in my life, and I can’t tell you enough how sorry I am, Alsha.”
He was slightly shaking. She remained silent. Barely.
“But now you have seen Velia, you have witnessed the freedom for Eyebreeds here and surely you understand? We must help king Imir spread the word of freedom across the border. Only when the empress faces invasion from the south will she relent her pressure on magic weavers the whole Empire through.”
Alsha bit her tongue lest another bitter comment slipped through. She had trouble looking Kmar in the eyes as she realized how he had lied to her all those months, how all of his smiles now looked fake, no matter what he said, no matter what he felt. She was also awed by how convoluted his worldview actually was. Yet, deep down, she could not deny there was a ring of truth in his depiction of the empire, which resounded with all she had seen during her caged trip, bringing echoes of all the little pieces of evidence she had shunned along the years.
Velia was a military state where everyone was conscripted to serve the kings and queens’ endless wars with their neighbors or throughout the mainland as a fearsome mercenary force. The fact that Eyebreeds were conscripted like the rest did not make their fate better, yet neither was it worse. And Velia was not the only kingdom in the Mosaic which did not discriminate people with magic. Could the Empire have been wrong with its rigid order and hundreds of years of separation between its inhabitants?
Treading more carefully, she looked at the pleading earnest in his slightly swollen face, forcing herself to keep eye contact:
- And for that flimsy dream you would betray friend and country? Weighing a slim chance that freedom lies at the end of the road against the lives and feelings of the people around you? Do you think the information you stole will be used for anything else than pillage and slaughter?
- Oh no, no, not at all… Don’t worry, I did not share what you told me. I couldn’t. Betraying you was the hardest choice of my life, one I regretted the moment I gave the poison to the Blotted boy.
- Do you mean you suddenly got cold feet?
- Please, Alsha… The reason you and I are talking right now, the reason we have relative privacy is because I convinced my captains that I could make you share your knowledge, that they did not have to do to you what they did to poor Chun. I wanted to see you face to face so you would understand… before it is too late.
- What I understand is that you are now in a bit of a conundrum, aren’t you? I won’t tell you more, you won’t repeat what you learned, you don’t want me to be tortured. Where does that leave us?
She saw through his shifting gaze the conflict that had reached the surface of his own thoughts. He was as upset as she was with the situation and the net of allegiances he had woven. It took but a few minutes for him to reach a decision:
- I will think of something, I have friends in the keep. Alsha. His traits changed yet again, still pleading but more earnest. Being with you these past two days, it connected everything. Neither the empress’ struggle of castes, nor the king’s thirst for plunder and soldiers. This should be you and me now. This is where I belong.
She was taken aback by the fervor in his voice and the bluntness of his words. Then again, this was the chance she had been waiting for. Silencing the turmoil that were her own feelings regarding Kmar and the situation, Alsha hatched her plan and shared it with him. She saw the flicker of doubt in his eyes, but this was the only out she could think of before he changed his mind or his commanders found him wanting and started using other methods to pry secrets out of her.They would have to be lucky. And she would have to trust Kmar completely.
Chapter Four – Ael Magic
So there she was, elite Flare, a full-fledged Blackmoon, prisoner of the enemy and possibly falling for a friend turned enemy turned ally. A Trium friend. Had her faith in the Aels guided her all those years? Or had it blindsided her on the straight track of careful obedience in an orderly society? What was she if she did not follow the godly edicts? A failure like her brother?
That night his memory did not leave Alsha.
Yarcis was as cocky a firstborn as there ever was. The Prime Pride ran strong in him and shone through his every word. She loved him. Everyone loved him. Their parents adored him. They placed all their hopes in him since his younger Dayl sister had died at age eight, when Alsha was only five. Yarcis had no affinity with magic but was a brilliant tanner, helping their mother with the business, sealing deals with merchants from all around the Empire and ensuring the family’s prominence in the city guild. Some even said he was Legate material and could one day represent the whole province before the imperial court. But that was without counting on Sebassian.
Yarcis committed to everything fully, and his relationship with their neighbor’s Prime was no exception. Sebassian was lively and light-headed, and he fell to Yarcis’s natural charm. In many ways they complemented each other and their differences kindled their passion. The trap closed quickly around them, the ardent and terrible price of an affection that could not blossom in Magistan. For Primes must not love Primes, and so it was for the four progeny ranks. Had Sebassian been but a Dayl, they would have become a beacon for their whole community and their children would have inherited an outstanding position among the tanners in the city and beyond. Yet they were both firstborns and had to live their love in secret, which was not something Yarcis was very good at.
Alsha would never forget the day they were caught inebriated during the yearly spring festival. She would never forget the sound of the drums and the shock she felt. She would forever see the swirl of colorful lanterns and the face of her parents, all love and admiration turned hatred and disgust as they realized what Yarcis had done. The lovers’ fate was quickly sealed. In short order, they were brought before the master tattoer and an angry crowd. She had sneaked her way into the halls, unbeknownst to her parents who could not bear the shame of the ceremony. The smearing crimson ink covered the progeny mark on their necks as they winced in pain: there was no soothing brew for the Blotted.
After walking through the jeers, Yarcis and his lover were thrown out of the city gates and into the wilderness, to find what life they could in a country that did not recognize them anymore. For no one should disobey the godly edicts.
Alsha woke up after having finally snatched a couple of hours of sleep from her memories and emotions. Thinking back on her cursed brother’s fate had put the final nail on the coffin of her commitment to an Empire that could be so cruel to Eyebreeds and so relentless to people whose only crime was to love. Dawn had just broken through the tiny overhead windows of the dungeon. Her shoulder ached and she checked the wound: it felt sound, even though she would not be wielding a bow anytime soon. Now to see if Kmar would come through in the end…
She did not have to wait for long. Her heart started pumping as she saw the bubble of light coming down the stairs again. It raced faster as she realized the little Velian party of four had been joined by another sterner figure who remained eerily quiet as the young woman was taken back to the tiny interrogation cell. There, the figure sat next to Kmar and remained motionless, arms crossed through the folds of a robe, thin lips pinched under a dark blue hood. It seemed that trust had already run short between the Shamal and his friends. This would make things harder.
The newcomer said nothing, but her eyes pierced Alsha’s relentlessly, as the Halo woman next to them turned the bubble of light into a cone directed at the young Flare’s face. She managed not to flinch, and kept her composure as Kmar started asking questions. He began in a friendly manner, appealing to their friendship, vaunting the lot of their kindred in Velia to sway her with honey on his tongue, and she did a solid job at feeding credible lies and remaining calm. Through it all, the stranger did not talk, and neither did she so much as raise an eyebrow.
So Kmar became more pressing, relying on threats for her and the other prisoners, and she started worrying about where his loyalties eventually laid. A cold sweat trickled down her back as she tried to navigate the tapestry of falseness she had woven for what seemed like hours when the silent figure suddenly rose, intimating the end of the session. She stifled a sigh of relief as she stood up to follow Kmar, then checked herself before she started shaking. At last, she would know. When their eyes met she hesitated for the longest part of a second, long enough for him to give her a curt nod. She skipped a heartbeat and stopped breathing. His fingers brushed hers.
As they walked side by side by the guards, they suddenly turned, blackness filling their eyes. The guard facing Alsha was dazzled by an intense burst of blue light to his face and started thrashing blindly; the one near Kmar was unbalanced by a gust of wind that projected her against the wall, making her drop her spear. As Alsha ducked the gauntleted fist of the other guard and dashed for the door, she realized the mistake they had made.
The silent woman gazed at her through two endless wells of darkness and a sudden heat embraced her feet. She stumbled, cursing herself for not thinking the woman could have been an Eyebreed, and an Ember beside that. Meanwhile, the guards were coming out of the initial shock of the onslaught and converging on them. Looking around wildly, she saw that the fallen spear was right next to her. Before she collapsed from the heat that was climbing her legs, she kicked it as hard as she could, making it fly in the air. She shouted Kmar’s name and he focused on the tilting weapon, weaving the damp air of the dungeon. The Shamal sent the spear flying through the cowled woman’s flank. The heat relented instantly.
Alsha sent twin blasts of red light at the guards, giving Kmar and her a few seconds to make good on their escape, forsaking all hope of freeing the other prisoners. Yet as they were closing in on the stairs, the world around her turned entirely black. The Halo had finally overcome her shock and was trapping them in a bubble of darkness. The young Flare tripped and crashed into the wall, but Kmar’s arm was suddenly around her shoulder. He knew the damp corridors and blindly guided them to the staircase. They slammed the dungeon door and rushed to the ground floor.
The guards there were startled to see Kmar with his prisoner, but he told them he was to escort the Blackmoon to the commander. They hesitated just long enough for the two Aels to cross the main hall, which was what they had hoped for, but they had also hoped to silently neutralize the dungeon party before coming up. The startling outcry of the Ember coming from below gave them away. As the guards, now on a mission, started to converge on Alsha and Kmar, the pair had no choice but to run to the staircase leading to the upper levels, bouncing up the spiraling steps. They found a little respite on the first floor, where no one was on duty, and dashed into an unused dining hall. Panting, they looked frantically for an exit among the old oaken tables, but there was none to be found. When they turned back to the door, a party of guards filled the threshold, while more shouts and the sound of running boots filled the stairs behind them. There was no hope of overcoming the whole garrison. They were trapped.
Kmar took her hand and a few steps back, pulling her toward the closest window. She came along. There was no balcony and a ten feet drop to a spiked moat below. So much for her brilliant plan. As she prepared to face the rushing guards, he suddenly embraced her.
- You trust me, don’t you?
This was not really a question. Before she could reply, he kicked them over the parapet. This was an impossible jump, even for a Shamal. Kmar used every last ounce of strength he had to blast them out of the way and slow their descent. It was nearly enough. They reached the edge of the moat and crashed in the earth. The jolt split them apart and Kmar slid back from the ledge toward the spiked ditch. She reached out and grasped his hand. With her right arm. The pain made her scream, but she clasped her second hand and held tight. There was no way she could lift him with her injured shoulder. As she was about to let go, he conjured some more blackness to his eyes, just enough to alleviate the load. She gave everything on a last tug and he came through.
After a few seconds of gasps and grunts, she got up and held out her left hand to him. She did not know if she should cry in pain or shout for joy. They had landed on open ground, not far from the horses Kmar had secured for them. The guards had reached the balcony and started shouting to anyone who could stop them, while a commotion was heard back down the stairs. The two fugitives crossed the field to the stables and untied the horses. They saddled up as soldiers started pouring out of the fort’s doors. They would have a slim head start.
Riding outside the fort and storming through the narrow city streets toward safety, Alsha let the exhilaration of chasing freedom take her. She glanced at the passersby they were streaking through, and they looked to her just like the inhabitants of her hometown or any other townsfolk she had seen during her various assignments: undisturbed by the whims of soldiers and people who thought their lives did not matter.
Eventually, they entered the forest, to the sound of bugles and thundering hooves in the distance. They pressed their horses hard, not saying a word, riding on the wave of the hunt. After a while, it became clear that the soldiers had lost their tail. The two fugitives gave the horses some slack but did not stop. A couple more hours brought them back to more familiar surroundings. This was the direction of Magistan. They dismounted near a brook to freshen the steeds and tend to their injuries. Even then, they worked in silence, focusing on making good on their escape and checking everything was alright. When Kmar held out his hand to help her climb back up, the boyish grin was back on his face. She knew then that she only had three things to do.
She kissed him.
Then she punched him in the guts.
Eventually, she helped him up so he could lead the way.
The rest of the plan unfolded uneventfully. They rode more slowly and in silence toward their destination. Alsha was still trying to process all that had happened and put a name on her conflicting feelings. She settled on putting a lid on them for the moment. She also spent a long time thinking about the other prisoners they had no choice but to leave behind. She hoped the Empire would find a way to free them. Not long before nightfall, they found the place they had been looking for: the nomad camp they had crossed on their way in. They dismounted and walked toward the colorful tents. The wanderers, recognizing Kmar, welcomed them like family, without asking questions. The Shamal felt immediately at ease among the seemingly carefree nomads. Alsha envied the quiet confidence with which he settled into the group. She felt like she didn’t belong here. They were served a royal dinner, a meal of welcome and laughter. They stayed late with the community, exchanging tales from afar around the campfire. They also discussed the tribe’s plan: they would soon pack to move south, deeper into the Mosaic and outside of Velia’s borders. When eventually the night was black and the throats tired, they were offered a couple of guest cots next to the embers. Kmar did not press her, but Alsha knew he wanted to settle things between them after the uncanny events of the past couple of days. She avoided talking and his offered arms, though part of her wanted nothing more than to hold him tight against her. She spent the night trying to come to terms with who she should become.
Epilogue – Paths
As the chill of dawn woke her up, Alsha rose silently and looked at the drowsing shape of Kmar. He looked almost innocent, sleeping off the excitement and emotions. It seemed that, at last, he had found a place where he could belong, free and unbridled, a fresh start far from the eyes of empresses and kings. She refrained from brushing his cheek. She had just broken the yoke of Magistan’s indoctrination and would not trade submission to the Empire for the ties of affection. Not yet. Not today.
She padded across the little clearing, a wraith among the closed tents. A woman roughly her size had offered her a change of clothes, seeing the state in which her raiment was. In swift, determined movements, she doffed her tattered and blood-stained Blackmoon armor to slip into the nondescript linen tunic. As she fastened the cloak around her shoulders, she gave a last look at the black and white testimony to a life committed to the Aels. Then she gathered some supplies from a young man who asked no questions, reached her horse and climbed on his back.
Questionless, too, were the sentinels as she left the safety of the camp. She hesitated as she reached the main road. To the west laid the comforting shell of the Empire she had trusted all her life. Yet what was left, when you shed the layers of all the rules and all the laws? What did her brother feel, when he was cast out of the tidy ordered society of Magistan?
Far to the east, along the main road running into Velia, the sun was ready to rise, casting purple and orange reflections in the clear sky like the calls of so many Flares. Alsha grinned. She spurred her horse onto a side track that crossed south through the meadows. Late spring was clement on the shores of the Carmine sea.