Athena tapped her foot nervously as she stood within the broad hall of Ironwood’s stone keep. Had the Baron called her here to congratulate her? They hadn’t spoken since the day she and Jacob had returned with the Shield of St. Thomas. Since then, Athena had enjoyed a new popularity in Ironwood, both on the streets and in the practice yard. She was one of the heroes who saved the town, no longer “that woman”. For a long time, she had been among the Guard’s better fighters, but what Brother Francis had taught her was fast making her one of the best. It felt good.
Jacob was preoccupied this week, trying to make up time with his fiance, though he did meet Thaddeus and her last night over a few rounds of ale. Thaddeus had still been sore he missed the tournament in Sarronen, and Jacob’s fight against Innoken. Athena, of course, took great pleasure in stringing out the tale. Jacob mostly listened, though he did correct a few of her embellishments, the spoilsport. The three might have overdone the drinking a bit, since training this morning was rougher than usual, but that and the headache were worth it. All in all, Athena was happier than she had been in a long time.
“Mrs. Arianna Black,” the guard called out, at the end of the hall. “The Baron is ready to see you.”
Baron Lord Sterik Ironwood waited patiently within his office as she stepped in. Just stepping in the room brought a vague anxiety. Somehow, the room was austere and fancy at once, with its shelf of foreign knick-knacks and unmatched display of polished Ironwood in perfect order. Even the dust on the aged parchment seemed perfectly arranged: it made her itch. She hadn’t seen the Baron in months, probably more, though he had no more gray in his beard than she remembered.
“Have a seat, Mrs. Black,” the Baron rumbled.
Something was wrong, Athena realized. The Baron was sometimes a bit dour, but he made a point to smile at guests. If he wasn’t smiling, she wasn’t a guest. That couldn’t be good. “Thank you, my Lord,” she responded carefully.
“Arianna,” the Baron continued stiffly, “do you remember when I first offered you a position in the Guard, and what the conditions were?”
A knot began to form in Athena’s stomach. Back when most people still called her Arianna, she had come before the Baron, desperate for any means of support. Lord Ironwood had been reluctant to hire a woman to watch either the keep or one of his storehouses, but the master-at-arms had vouched for her skill with the sword and bow, and so he’d been intrigued. His worry, then, had been that she might stir tensions among his men. Or maybe she’d misbehave and lower his reputation. In the end, he’d decided that if his men were happy to work with her, and no trouble came back to him, she would have a chance. She might not have perfect manners, but neither did most men who fought for a living. So long as she behaved with honor, the Baron would vouch for her, and not pry into her affairs. Unfortunately, something had drawn his attention, and Athena had no idea what. “My Lord, I swore to serve you, and I promised not to cause any trouble. I assumed you meant no trouble with men, and you wanted my honesty. I’ve kept my word, my Lord.”
The Baron’s face was unmoved, a stone. “You have been with no man among my guard? Or among my family?”
“No,” Athena replied, blinking against a beam of light entering from a window above. Why did he repeat the point? Who had spoken against her? “Of course not, my Lord. I might have kissed one or two, but no one was bothered by it. A widow is allowed to see an unmarried man, if she only does that. If I find a man good for more, I’ll marry him, and do it right. My Lord.”
“I have heard otherwise,” the Baron replied, unyielding. “Did you or did you not remove your dress alone in the presence of my son after being attacked by bandits?”
“Yes,” Athena replied unsteadily. “To clean off the blood, but he was turned the other way. Nothing happened, my Lord. I swear it.”
“I am told that that was only the beginning of the day’s events. Three separate men claim that you’ve been free with my other Guards too,” the Baron said. “They also tell me you and Jacob have been sneaking off for years.”
Athena’s throat dried. Ceann - it must be him. He’d hated her, ever since she turned him away, and he had friends, younger men who idolized him. What had he promised them, to get them to lie? Were they were glad to do it, in revenge for women who had rejected them? “Did Ceann tell you this, my Lord? He - well, he tried to court me when we traveled to Sarronen. At first, I was interested, but then he was cruel and stupid, especially to Jacob. I told him we were done, and he has hated me since. My Lord.”
Lord Sterik crossed his arms. “Ceann is a careful and honorable man, and I will not hear you slander him. Nor was he the only one to speak against you. I will not name the others, so do not ask. You admit falsely encouraging at least one of my Guardsman. Further, his word weighs heavier than yours regarding Jacob, especially given why you spurned him. A tryst between you both would explain much, including the Lady Anna’s concerns. My son is getting married soon, and you are a burden he cannot afford. Neither, it seems, can I.”
Athena’s heart sunk. She had feared this day for years, and had pushed away good young men in an effort to avoid it. She could almost feel the cloud of isolation engulfing her again, the one that had come when her husband died. There was no point even in being angry. Lord Sterik was the heart of Ironwood. If he had made up his mind, and he had, then her home was gone. She had loved this man for restoring her honor, for giving her a chance. She would have taken a knife for him or his son. How could he throw her out on her ear, on Ceann’s poisonous words alone? She had been so stupid to trust the bastard. But now it was too late. Now it was all over. The words came out anyway, taking the last of the pride from her body. “Didn’t you even ask Jacob about this? I swear I didn’t betray you, My Lord. Don’t make me go,” she pleaded.
“You cannot stay,” Lord Ironwood replied, heavily. “However, you served well enough once. If you leave Ironwood quietly, you may depart with your reputation intact, such as it is. You may have a letter of reference, and a generous price for your home. Twenty-five gold marks are yours, but no one can know why you go, including my son. Is this a bargain you can keep?”
The Baron actually held to her a heavy pouch with the Margon coins within, more than she had ever owned in her life, and Athena reached to take it. Twenty-five gold! That was generous, maybe five times what her little shack was worth: quite the reward for her silence. He probably even thought he was doing her a favor, because silence would also hide her supposed shame. She would lose her home, but she would leave a hero, or something like it. He probably expected her to be grateful for that. “Yes, my Lord. I will go,” Athena answered, with a broken cough. She reached forward reluctantly, and the heavy pouch fell into her palm.
“Very well,” Ironwood said briskly, relieved. “Where would you like to go? I can prepare letters to men in Pearl Bay, Marin, or even Attica if you wish.”
“You can make out your letter to the Earl of Northspire,” Athena replied. “I have friends there.”
Baron Ironwood frowned, but he could hardly take her to task for not using his title, not now. “Very well. You have the week to prepare. I will talk to Ceann, and my son. You can tell him you are leaving for Northspire, but make a proper excuse: restlessness to move on from your husband’s death, perhaps. I regret that it has come to this, but I will not shirk from what is necessary. I wish you the best of luck, and hope you take this chance to learn from your mistakes.”
She had learned a lesson, alright, if not the one the Baron meant. She was overwhelmed with the sudden need to leave - now - before the hot, leaden weight in her heart began to turn to something more dangerous. Lord Ironwood held out his hand, and Athena stood. She did not take it, but only bowed slightly, with every shred of pride she could gather to go with her pouch full of gold, and turned to leave. “Goodbye, Lord Ironwood.”
Margon’s southern wind was hot and humid, rank with the smell of death. The pikemen still held, crouched behind the wall of shields. Arrows clinked against them, and against the armored shock troops waiting in reserve. Few left any real damage. Marshal Corden’s trebuchets weathered the arrows too, as they rained stone and fire upon the small outpost. The hastily constructed palisade around it was in shambles, though it would still break a cavalry charge.
Meanwhile, the enemy’s cavalry waited in the distance, unwilling to commit themselves against his pikes. Their infantry had retreated to hide behind the remaining walls, unable to face his crossbows. The fight looked to be going well, but Corden’s face was grim. Nothing changed as quickly as the tides of war. Experience said the defenders should break, but if the Count himself was here, it was far from a given. The gray-bearded warrior prayed that was not the case. His own lord, Duke Charlienne, waited patiently behind him, arms crossed. Though he must be here, he was content to leave the administration to his Marshal.
When the pitch was half-spent, and even the enemy archers were no longer visible in the parapets, the Marshal motioned for the herald to lift the blue banner. It was time to find out just how exciting today would be. The pikeman advanced at a slow march, shock troops just behind, ready with their greatswords and polearms. They met no resistance at the palisade, and advanced to the keep without even the cover of arrows. Unarmored conscripts stumbled forward at his motion, heaving forward a great battering ram for use against the keep gates. They placed it quickly, with the lively motion of men who knew they had won, who need not die this day. Its great hammering shook the very ground, in time with the drums of war. The feeble gates splintered almost immediately. Marshal Corden hung at a distance, as the entrance to the keep was overwhelmed.
Yet behind the wood, something stirred within, a great dark-armored hulk with a hammer whose great war-head rivaled the battering ram before him. A voice, as hard as the earth and deep as the sea, called out in anger and contempt. “Insects! Lay down your arms and surrender, and your lives will be spared.”
No one moved as the hulk waited for their reply. None even breathed.
“So be it!” Count Dorman declared angrily, and charged.
The battering ram exploded as the hammer surged against it, impelling splinters of wood in a great circle. The peasants who had wielded it bolted in all directions, those who had not been thrown screaming to the reddening dirt. Immobile pikemen were helpless against the dark figure that waded through them, shattering bones and splattering blood with great sweeps of his hammer. The enemy cavalry, seeing the pikes scattered, began a slow run towards the Marshal and his surrounding infantry. The keep’s bowmen emerged from their hatches, and the infantry charged behind their “king”. The tide had turned, indeed. Corden turned to face his lord. “The Count has taken the field, my Duke. We cannot stand against him.”
Duke Charlienne sighed in frustration, then lifted his own great ax high. He charged forward, swelling in size as he ran, hurtling into the chaos. Cavalry slew infantry. Horses screamed as crossbowman downed the beasts, throwing their riders, and exposing them to swords and daggers. Archers peppered crossbowman. Shook troops charged into the keep, and up the stairs, to murder the archers, in turn. The two behemoth Sorcerers swung their great weapons against anyone nearby, anyone except each other. The Marshal fought not to bury his face in his hands.
In time, too much time, the chaos gave way to grotesque order. The moaning wounded began to still. Marshal Corden stood alone, propping himself on his feet only with the help of the ragged remains of his lord’s banner. All around were blood and gore, steel and excrement. Most of his comrades and enemies alike were dead. The rest had fled the wrath of the Sorcerers. Those two giants stood alone in the empty field, armor still glinting in the sun. The Marshal watched helplessly as Count Dorman approached, glaring, and swung his hammer. He ducked reflexively, uselessly, anticipating his death. Instead, Duke Charlienne stilled the hammerhead with a deft hand, then let it fall. “This one is mine.”
Count Dorman shook his head, but let the mortal be. He raised his hand to the other giant, pointing at his face. “You have accomplished nothing. Only death has won this day, and yet some of my people still live. You will pay for your useless cruelty.”
Corgan’s liege sniffed, and frowned down at the ruined red silk he still wore. “You have almost no one left. Do you think the men you failed, those who survived, will return to you now? If you continue to resist me, none will follow you at all. Submit to me, and your people will suffer no more. You can claim no new nation if all its people are dead.”
“Damn you, Charlienne. The Compact was not made for this,” the Count snarled.
“Whatever its intent, my dear Count, this is its fruit. I will kill as many as I have to, to defang you. If you cannot stomach that, all you need to do is surrender. No need to look so shocked about it, either. Considering your incompetence, I expect relieving you of your people is likely to save as many lives as it costs.”
“This is not over, you bastard,” the Count replied darkly, and stalked from the red-soaked field.
The Marshal stood still as death, eyes glazed with shock and sorrow. “What have we wrought, my Lord?”
“Come,” the Duke replied, wrinkling his nose. “This is why I did not allow you to bring more men. He lost more than he could afford to lose, and we did not. Still, it was wasteful. Next time, we will prepare better.”
“Next time?” the Marshal whispered in horror.
Lady Adelin of Northspire tugged the blankets closer against the morning chill, but it was no use. Her shoulder ached, her arm was already tingling from lack of circulation, and her bladder ached mercilessly. She sat slowly in the great bed, using both her right hand and her tingling left, taking a deep breath against the discomfort. That made it worse. In addition to the rest, Adelin’s feet ached, her back ached, and the queasiness in her stomach gave way to the drum roll of the life inside her. She shoved herself to the cold floor, trying vainly to get the slippers on to her feet without bending over. This was the point in her pregnancy where most women would give anything to have it finally end. Not Adelin: the day was coming too soon, already. The false contractions had begun.
“Up already?” Joranthan asked, and placed his hand comfortingly upon her back. “You should rest. You’re not sleeping enough for one, let alone two.”
“I can’t sleep,” Adelin complained, sinking back against the bed, and her husband’s warm hands. “There’s too much to do. I finally picked a nurse, though. You’ll like her; it’s Jeyne, the Holder’s daughter.”
Jeyne was a lovely girl, but young, roughly the age of her younger daughter. Adelin had taken the Holder’s daughter in almost a year and a half ago, when she found herself in a family way. The girl had grown a great deal since, and she was planning to wean her own young one soon, so the timing was perfect. She could be trusted to raise Adelin’s son, and she would get on with Joranthan too. That would be important in the years to come.
“I’m sure she’ll do fine,” her husband replied. “She’s a hard worker. In that, she’s far too much like yourself. You’re doing too much already! You know the physician would rather you stay in bed. You’ve been faint for weeks, and that’s not like you. Relax! Tomorrow’s work will wait until tomorrow, and nothing is more important to me than your health. If that doesn’t concern you, then at least consider our new son or daughter.”
The Lady Adelin laughed gently, placing a hand on his muscular shoulder, and running it slowly down his side. “I love you dearly, husband. You will have to trust me in this, though. The nursery is almost done, but I doubt I will be doing any paperwork once he is born. I’d like to have as much in order as possible, and fall is already beginning.”
“I know,” Joranthon replied sourly. “I have to ride out today to visit Holder Loren. He’s protesting about the taxes, and the Empress’s assessor has commanded I attend to him before he leaves tomorrow morning. The message came last night.”
Another contraction came, and Adelin’s stomach lurched in sympathy, but that wasn’t what suddenly brought her eyes wide. Suddenly, she knew. Today was the day, the day her son would be born. Only now did she realize, for all the foresight God had given her, that she still wasn’t ready. “Please, Joranthan, don’t go. I’m too close: it’s going to happen today.”
She knew how he would respond, but she couldn’t resist letting the words out. Adelin had dreamed this day, sleeping and waking, more times than she could count, enough that they all blended together, and it always went exactly the same way.
“Has it just started?” her husband asked.
“Yes, just now,” Adelin sighed. “I know! Before, it always took days, but every pregnancy is different, and it’s going to be today.”
Her husband stood, and began to pull on his pants. “Of all the days for the Empress’s stupid assessor to show off his importance,” he groaned. “But if I don’t attend, there will be consequences. You know that. On the other hand, if I ride now, I’ll be home before the sun falls. That’s the best I can do. I wouldn’t leave you for a moment, if I had the choice.”
“I love you,” Adelin said, hands clenched before her sore and swollen breasts. “Don’t go.”
“You’re breaking my heart, dear one,” Lord Northspire replied. “I love you too, more than flowers adore the rain, but I have to go. But I will see you tonight, I promise.”
“Goodbye, my heart,” she replied, voice soft.
“Goodbye, my dear. All will be well. Just wait for me here, and I will be as fast as I can.” Her husband pulled her close for a kiss, and then he left her.
That was how the Lady Adelin Northspire found herself, a few short hours later, wracked by pain, bleeding profusely, her heart racing as it never had before. The midwife was pale as a sheet, and the physician was cold and grim, his knuckles white. Laranna held her hand tightly, as if willing strength into her body. Jaselle switched between looking helplessly on, and fetching anything she could think of that might be of use. No one dared tell her that there was enough water, or blankets, or bowls, or pillows. Joranthan still hadn’t returned.
“Push again, my Lady,” the midwife urged. “You’re losing blood, and we need to get the baby out fast, if he’s going to live. Then we can take care of you. One more time, dear. Push!”
Adelin pushed, and screamed as something tore within her. But she also felt something move, a new life break free. When she opened her eyes, the midwife lifted something before her. It was a squirming mess; it was a wonderful, beautiful, baby boy, screaming at the cold and the quiet. She touched him, briefly, and smiled. The pain didn’t truly leave, but the fear and the urgency did. She felt light, and free. It was exactly like she remembered.
She turned her head to her firstborn, Laranna, who leaned forward to embrace her. “Mother, It’s a boy. I have a little brother.”
Laranna had never watched childbirth before, but Adelin saw her eyes darken, and saw the urgency in the physician’s motions as he leaned forward to try to stop the bleeding. The midwife rushed to change her blankets. Now that Adelin no longer exerted herself, it began to grow cold: the blood, her blankets, and ever her sweat. It was so cold.
Laranna raised a hand to her mouth, her expression beginning to crumble as she realized what was happening. She had been such a clever child: so serious, so inquisitive, and overflowing with life. Adelin’s heart was full of pride and love for the girl she had been, and the woman she had become. Jaselle, sweet Jaselle, held her baby brother, his cord already cut. She was so good, so pure, and she was growing so strong. She called now for Jeyne: that would be the wet nurse. It was getting hard to think.
“Mom,” Laranna called out softly, her grip fierce on her mother’s hand, “please, don’t leave me.”
“I’m sorry,” Lady Northpire replied weakly. “I love you both. Call him Joran, after his father.”
“Mother!” Laranna pleaded, “No! Don’t go!”
The pain in Adelin’s body begin to fade, along with every other sensation except a rising feeling of freedom. It was as if she floated above her own body, in a room suddenly full of light, and a circle of light and dark floated near the corner of the room, like a tunnel in the air. There was an invisible motion, like the wind, pulling her toward it. Only Laranna’s unrelenting grip kept her from flowing into the tunnel.
Somehow, the body’s lips moved with her words, “I am with you.” For a long moment, she held Laranna’s hand, and then the strange wind tore her away, into the circle of starlight and void. And then she was gone away into a place without form or sound, except for a small piece of her soul that Laranna refused to let go.
Queen Kaelynn smiled sympathetically, and sipped her tea. At her side, Dorgann sat, still as a stone. He was good at that. The recently anointed Prince of the Karim was across from them both, still swallowing the bitter taste of defeat. The Kharshe and Caerdann had moved so swiftly, and so decisively, that the fight was over almost before the conquered knew it had begun. The old King of the Karim, his bodyguard, and a small army had all been hewn like wheat. Kaelynn and Dorgann had slaughtered nearly half of them before the rest had had the sense to lay down their arms. Not Kaelynn and Dorgann’s army, but the two Sorcerers themselves. That, of course, was the point: none would dare rebel against a pair who had single-handedly taken a nation in an afternoon. The unpleasant part of the affair accomplished, there was nothing left but to do but discuss the terms of Karim’s surrender.
Thankfully, Karim was more prepared for that task than it had been to defend itself. From this point, it was all very civilized. Over the centuries, clans had split, rejoined, or been conquered countless times. There was an elegance to the ritual of surrender, and to the pledging of tribute that tradition demanded. Not all of the Kharshe cities had adopted those traditions, but trees and brush had overgrown the ashes of the exceptions. The great clans of Karim, who dated back to the Conquest, were well aware of their options. Nearly all of them had muted their pride and done what was necessary; the Queen spared no sympathy for the remains of the few families who had not. Foolishness was not to be rewarded, not among the sons of Kharshe.
Not that this city was pure Kharshe any longer. Kaelynn admitted, in her own mind, that Ironwood’s influence on the Karim only added to the sweetness of the moment. She, Dorgann, the Prince, and a few sycophants sat under a gazebo tent in the courtyard of a stone keep. Dahlias, lavender and sage dominated the nearby garden, giving fresh scent and color to the last days of summer. The great stone and ivy-covered keep was more defensible than a traditional Kharshe tent, which is why the Caerdann had also adopted them. The beautiful setting, and the courteous but unobtrusive service of the clan’s Kynzri spoke well for the new Prince Aelden.
The prince, a handsome man of middle years, spoke in carefully courteous tones, “I hope the refreshments are to your satisfaction, my Queen, but please do not hesitate to mention if there is anything else we can offer.”
The Queen demurred softly, the small shake of her head magnified by the crimson waves of her lowered hair. “The tea, and your tribute, are entirely acceptable. While Great Chieftain Dorgann and I can both be harsh at need, you may find us more forgiving than you expect, so long as you remain loyal.”
Dorgann offered a stone’s cracked smile, adding, “For myself, I hope you will find me demanding, but fair. You will see little of me, however. I leave the West to your Queen.”
The prince’s eyes strayed briefly to the Queen’s smoldering eyes and lustrous hair, as he smiled politically. It was too soon to develop camaraderie with those who so recently covered the field with his nation’s blood, but he was leader enough to understand what had happened, and play his role. The sons of Kharshe, of any Clan, were a proud people: as far as regime changes went, this was about as gentle as it got. Importantly, the Sorcerers had nearly wiped out the ruling family, but left most of the others untouched. The Prince had been a rival of the old King’s house, and was already looking for a way to take advantage of his Clan’s change in fortune. “As you say - Great Chieftain, my Queen. May you find pride in the glory of the Karim.”
The deed was done, but the conversation continued for nearly an hour before the prince was excused. “Neatly done, Kaelynn,” the Chieftain of the great Clan of the Kharshe offered. “You almost have him believing it is an honor to be conquered.”
“As it is,” Kaelynn shrugged. “Even without the rise of the Sorcerers, Karim has little to distinguish itself in the world, while Caerdann is a growing power, and those who remain loyal to the descendants of Khardum are more powerful than they have been in ages. If not for the threat of Travan, you would have the Free Cities by now. If not for the Travansils, Travan would be giving ground for the first time since the Conquest.”
Dogrann’s lips curled briefly apart in acknowledgment of her point. “That is how a flatterer speaks truth. I should not complain; it has worked for you so far. But the game we play, where I threaten and you embrace the conquered with a mother’s tenderness, has its limits. Do you still intend to use that to bring Jacob under your wing? It seems beneath you, for the sake of a single mortal.”
Kaelynn smiled crookedly. “I doubt he would see me as a mother. However, I know his type. He will do absolutely anything to save his people. If we explain ourselves the right way, he’ll even thank us for the privilege. There are few men and women of real power, but lesser Sorcerers are growing like weeds. Unless we leave the Compact, Jacob is the only tool available to cut them down. I would sacrifice a little dignity to secure that kind of power.”
Dorgann crossed his arms, and his tone was wry. “I have always considered you a woman of pride, and you and Atha are so close as to be nearly one. He is a young man; I hope he doesn’t ask more than you are willing to give.”
Kaelynn’s eyes burned, and she answered through clenched jaws. “This body is mine. Do not insinuate that I would offer it to a mortal in return for petty favors! I am an Ascended, and Atha is always with me: no man or woman may demand of me anything I do not desire to give. If I prefer to use words and sympathy to violence, it is because they cost me less, and gain me more. But if Lord Jacob thinks to take advantage of my temperament, he’ll be disabused of the notion, violently.”
The warrior’s eyes showed his approval. “Very good. Just remember that while your body is yours and Atha’s, your loyalty belongs to me.”
The Queen nodded curtly, meeting the older Sorcerer’s eyes. Alliances within Vallaton were not easily made, and less easily broken. Only together could Akhor and Atha maintain their part of the Vallaton Accord, the division of kingdoms among the Ascended. Shakath’s will still mattered, but his power was diminished until he could convince Innoken to return to Annaria, and Innoken had not much liked how Shakath had treated him in life. Kaelynn and Dorgann’s power hung by a thread in Vallaton, and their power in Annaria rested on their ability to enforce it, as they had done today.
Like it or not, Kaelynn needed Dorgann and the “god” Akhor. Worse, they were ranked higher than she and Atha, as Vallaton measured things. Unfortunately, they commanded a larger army in Annaria, as well. Dorgann might value her input, but there had never been any question of who would lead the pair - for now. “I will not forget, Great Chieftain of the Sons of Kharshe. My loyalty is yours.”
Her Majesty Celene Allesendara Whitestone the Unbroken, by grace of Heaven Empress of Travan, knocked lightly on the temple doors, then stood quietly, examining the great marble columns of the freshly anointed Temple of Heaven.
“Come in,” called a melodious voice from behind the thick oaken doors.
Her Majesty complied, slipping through the doors, and as agreed, left her two bodyguards behind. Within, dozens of young children from all walks of life stood scribbling on the temple’s pale marble walls with darkly colored chalk. Magister Francis watched serenely as the young ones defaced the former courthouse, standing with his hands clasped behind his back. Celene arched an eyebrow, then looked pointedly about the great hall.
“Isn’t it magnificent?” the Magister grinned as she approached. “This is almost too much, You Majesty. I don’t begin to know what to do with all the space.”
“Don’t mention it,” the Empress responded dryly, as a young street urchin stopped before her, to stare at her precious amfantha robes, her priceless jewelry, and her honey-blond hair. “I must say, I had not imagined having Emperor Travansil’s original courthouse restored so that it might be used as a school for children.”
“That, You Majesty, is because you have not seen what they can do,” Francis replied with a smile. “Rolan, show the Empress something you have learned.”
A dark-skinned young boy, likely with mixed blood from the Free Cities, used the nub of his darkened chalk to scribble against an ancient and magnificent smooth marble column. He marked several darkened circles of various sizes, then drew arcs between them. The Empress waited patiently as he added more detail to each, drawing rings around one, and then made a much large dark circle in the center. Just as she was about to ask what he was doing, some of the earlier marks began to take on new colors: greens and reds, blues and purple, and a fierce bright white with a faint yellow tinge. The orbs all began to circle about the great yellowed sphere, in the arcs drawn, and continued to grow in vibrancy and detail. Then, as she watched, astounded, they removed themselves from the column, and began to dance in the space before her: a great, brightly lit machine floating in the air, though its purpose Celene could not begin to guess. “What is this?”
“These are planets, yer Majesty,” a squeaky young voice replied. “We live on one of ’em. They spin round and round, and hold us up.” The “planets” continued to turn through the air for long moments, then slowly began to fade into the air, all evidence of the chalk fading into the breeze. She began to notice, in the distance, scribbles of other shapes doing similar dances.
“Well done, all of you,” the Magister announced in a gentle voice. “I have to speak to Her Majesty now, so all of you run home. Rolan, you may fetch some bread in the kitchen. I’ll be in later.”
“What manner of magic is this?” the Empress Celene asked, astounded, as girls and boys ran, laughing, for the door.
“Thanks to your gift, Celene, this building has become a province of Heaven on the world of Torvah. The rules of nature in this place are changing, becoming more flexible. Over time, as it grows accustomed to me, and my children, you will see much more wonderful things here.
Heaven is a refuge, a promise, a place of art and philosophy, and yes: a school. Those who have faith in its promise, and who dedicate themselves to serving Heaven, will be able to accomplish almost anything within these walls. For now, I find minor tricks of color a marvelous aid to learning. But you did not come for that. What troubles you?”
Empress Celene smiled faintly as she folded her arms. “Impressive - I wish I had come only to see such arts. Unfortunately, I have poor news. In the South, Tora and Isen have been taken, at the hands of those who call themselves Sons of Travansil. Though that is the name of their house, they do not speak of their father, who has denounced their rebellion. It seems they have imprisoned the old man, and declared a claim on Travan itself. No one knows how they could have conquered so much so quickly, or what army they could possibly have used to capture them. But both cities were taken even before they knew of any threat. I fear the rest of the South may already have followed. And so, I need you help.”
“You fear they are Sorcerers, then?” the Magister asked, taking a seat at an ornate wooden table. As she watched, he absently ran his hand over a scratch the children had presumably left in the wood. It disappeared without a trace.
“Yes,” Celene replied. “I do. Can you help me?”
Magister Francis shook his head regretfully, then cocked it to the side as if listening as he spoke. “I am afraid not. At least, I can’t protect Travan from them. St. Thomas says they are truly sons of the line of Travansil: physically and spiritually. The soul of the man who founded Travan returned during the Great Fall, inhabiting the Emperor Amarandor Travansil of that time. It was he who held the remnants of Travan against the Kharshe horde, and began to avenge himself on the Kharshe by reclaiming the land they stole. His two sons restored a great portion of the Kingdom centuries ago. Now, it seems those sons have returned, and the father has made Sorcerers of them.
“In theory, another Sorcerer could destroy them, since they have not signed the Compact. However, Heaven holds itself neutral in the wars of Sorcery overtaking not just Annaria, but all of Torvah. St. Michael apparently has promised exactly that to Amarandor, and I am bound to that promise. You are welcome to take refuge here, but I cannot help you fight him. Your Majesty, I fear the throne of Travan will fall to the Travansils.”
Celene shook her head, deep green eyes filled with horror. “You said nothing?! You would have me do nothing, as my Kingdom burns? After all I have done for you?”
Brother Francis, who had guarded her as she grew to womanhood, who had once saved her life, and all but lost his in return, regarded her with melancholy. “I’m sorry: I did not know. Even if I had, I could not have done much differently. As I told Jacob of Ironwood, and you, Heaven cannot stop the tidal wave sweeping the world. All we can do is provide a small refuge, and teach and shelter those who come to it. I wish I could do more, or even that I could have told you earlier. There would be far fewer lives lost if you simply let your Empire go. You should surrender, Celene.”
“I cannot do that, old friend,” Celene whispered.