Shadow's Pursuit

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Chapter Nine

DAMIEN DISAGREED WITH the noble’s next choice of play, but he kept his face impassive as the man’s fingers moved away from the piece and the two men sat there for a moment, considering the move.

“I can almost guarantee that your properties are no longer under any kind of threat.” King Thomas said quietly, continuing the conversation that had been going for some time. He rubbed his chin, deep in thought.

“I hope so, Your Majesty.” the nobleman said truthfully. Sporting ash-brown hair and an open, honest face that had become familiar to Damien long ago, Isaac la Barre sat opposite King Thomas and watched the man decide his next move. “The business concerning Treston was most disturbing.”

“I agree,” King Thomas replied, moving his knave to a position that Damien did approve of. “And I assure you, such an open act of conflict will not be allowed to happen again.”

“Does that mean that you will respond to their challenge?” la Barre asked, eyes on the board.

“Not in such a direct manner, at this current time.” Thomas said quietly. “I have increased the security along the Severin, so any attempts of building bridges across will be observed and eliminated.”

Damien felt his interest rise at the information, but remained straight-faced.

“I am glad to hear that then, Your Majesty.” la Barre said, smiling.

Damien kept his gaze past the men and around at the room, although the chances of the king being attacked in his private quarters were very slim. Keraan was looking around with an equally bland expression, leaning against the wall behind the noble, and every now and then he looked at the board as they continued. I wonder if he knows how to play; I doubt that they have chess in Kreshna.

“Oh, which reminds me, Isaac!” King Thomas said with a chuckle, “I cannot believe I almost forgot. I shall be holding a celebratory feast next week in honour of those who fought both in Kreshna and at the river. I would be delighted if you could attend as my personal guest.”

“I would be honoured, Your Majesty.” Isaac said, his face glowing with pleasure at the idea. “Have you any other plans for the celebration?”

The king laughed. “Your face is as readable as an open book, my friend. You must mean the street festivities. Yes, I have planned something for the citizens as well.” he said. la Barre smiled, nodding.

“I will admit that I have heard my housemaids discussing such events with excitement,” he said. “It will be a fine way to boost your peoples’ spirits.”

“Quite,” said King Thomas, taking his turn on the chess board, “I hope that it will be a joyous occasion for all.”

At that, he turned and looked at Damien, standing quite still and vigilant behind him. “What of you, Swordsmaster Delamere? Will you be attending the festivities?”

“I will be at the feast, as it is my duty to serve you that night, Your Majesty,” Damien said smoothly.

King Thomas chuckled, eyes twinkling. “Would you have not attended otherwise, Damien?”

“Only if you had wished me to, Your Majesty,” Damien said, “Celebrations and festivals are not events I commonly attend.” Or see much of a point in, either.

“Yes, you are definitely a man of a serious nature.” Thomas said. “May I be so bold as to ask what you would be doing instead?”

“I would be training, my liege,” Damien said, voice flat. “I see enhancing my skills and abilities far more beneficial to myself and others than being at a festival.”

He quickly bowed, cursing his quick tongue. “Not that I think that this celebration is lacking in benefit, Your Majesty.”

The king chuckled and Damien gave an inward sigh, knowing that he was safe.

“It’s quite alright Damien, I understand your meaning. Though perhaps you should consider enjoying some leisurely activities when you are not performing your duties? It may do you well.”

“I shall take that into consideration, Your Majesty.” he said, already dismissing it as a pointless endeavour. The king nodded and turned back to his game.

HE SAT ALONE on the grass, leaning against a tree. His eyes were closed, his hands in his lap, legs crossed. His breathing was calm and controlled, his mental state perfect.

With an intake of breath he reached out tentatively with his mind, stretching himself far, sensing hundreds upon hundreds of shadows around him. There were so many that it was almost staggering, almost too much for him to handle. He pushed away the overwhelming feeling and focused, beginning with the shadow of the tree closest to him. His own eyes still closed, he then entered the grey haze that was Shadowsight, and watched as three other children played nearby, kicking a ball to each other. He could tell from their shape and movement that they were all male, one slightly taller and larger than the others and probably older too, although they were all around his age. The ball itself was harder to track; it moved much faster than they, but he watched that too as it skittered past the trees shadow and to near his own body.

They stopped and looked in his direction and after a moment’s pause, the largest of the three came near him. Damien continued watching through Shadowsight, keeping his breathing calm even as the boy stopped and openly stared at him.

“Hey, what are ya doing?” the boy called.

“Meditating.” Damien said, his vision fading for a moment as he spoke, his voice seeming to come from far away.

“Why?” asked the boy. “It’s not like its training time or anythin’.”

“Because I want to.” Damien said, irritation rising as his focus slipped.

“Why don’t you play? It’s funner.” the boy said. His Shadowsight vision lurched horribly and he almost lost his grip on it.

“Because I don’t want to.” he snapped. The boy shrugged and kicked the ball back to the others. As he returned, he looked over at him once more, unaware that Damien could see them through his newfound technique, and they talked in hushed voices for a moment before moving away. He was unbothered by their behaviour and continued to scour the shadows, ignoring the aching headache that started to grow at the front of his skull.

“YOU’RE IMPROVING,” SAID a sudden voice, so loud and close that he couldn’t help himself and jumped in surprise, Shadowsight lost. He blinked for a moment as colours and clarity returned, and immediately leapt from his spot, pulling a dagger from his belt.

“Master Arron.” he said, recognising the man as he strode out from behind a tree. He gave a quick bow, sheathing his dagger. “I couldn’t see you with my Shadowsight.”

“You’re not that good yet, boy,” said the Shadowmaster, not unkindly. He was clad in simple black clothing, a black bandana wrapped around his head that covered most of his short brown hair. Damien only reached his waist in height. “Once you can detect Shadows in Shadowsight, well, then you’ve got something.”

“Right.” Damien said, committing the words to memory. A slight frown appeared on his Shadowmasters’ face. “I mean, yes Master.” he added, bowing again. The man nodded, accepting the respectful gesture.

There was a pause.

“You have visitors, Damien.” Shadowmaster Arron said, watching him. Damien felt the familiar sensation that he was being tested again, so he kept his face as impassive as he possibly could and nodded.

“Thankyou, Master. I will go and see to them.” he said. The man said nothing as Damien walked past him and moved quickly through the grounds until he reached the area kept especially for visitors. There were large wooden benches, grass and numerous trees, and Damien knew that many of the other kids played with their siblings here.

He looked over at one bench where two adults sat, talking to each other. He could tell by their body language that they were tense. The thought made him feel better as he approached them quietly, until they finally looked up at him.

“Damien!” his mother said, smiling as they both stood up and she moved to embrace him. He stood still as she knelt down and wrapped her arms around him, her curly brown hair in his face. She smelt of flowers.

She let go after a moment, and looked up as his father moved forward. He was tall, with dark hair and dark eyes. Damien looked up at him, forcing himself to meet his gaze.

“Damien. Well met.” said his father, his voice tight.

“Father.” he said, trying to keep his voice as emotionless as his face. He was the best in his class at doing it, but he wasn’t as good at it against his parents, as much as that frustrated him.

A face suddenly appeared from behind the man’s legs and a boy peered out to look at him with poorly concealed interest. He was about the same height as he, but his face was younger. His hair was dark, his eyes a vibrant amber colour, the same as his own. He watched him for a moment but said nothing.

“How are you, boy? You’ve grown.” said the man. “How old are you now, eight, nine?”

“Seven.” Damien said. He knew that he was still one of the smallest of his age group.

“Really; it seems longer.” his father said, an edge to his voice.

“How have you been, my darling?” his mother said, her lips curled into a genuine smile. “How has school been going?”

“It’s not school.” Damien said. “School is where all the other normal kids go. This is Shadow training. It’s completely different.”

His mother nodded, her smile faulting for a moment. “I know; I’m sorry. How has Shadow training been, then?” she asked. Damien shrugged, putting his hands into his pockets. The younger boy was still watching him, and it irked him. He wished he would just go away.

“Fine.” he said.

“I can do Shadowsight now.” he added as an afterthought.

“And what’s Shadowsight?” she asked.

“It’s when you look through the shadows to see things.” Damien said. “Body shapes. You can figure out what they are based on what their shape is.”

She nodded, but he knew by the look in her eyes that she had no idea what he was talking about. Frustration rose.

“Do you get time to play games, and have fun?” she asked.

“We do, but I don’t use it.” Damien said. He thought about the boy with the ball, and his brother, peering at him from behind their father’s legs like a coward, and his anger grew. “I train, and get better at my techniques. It’s the only way I’ll be better than everyone else.”

“You should have some fun sometime, sweetie.” she said and his eyes snapped back to look at her. His hands curled into fists.

“I won’t be any good if all I do is play,” he snapped. “Playing is for normal kids who live at home. I’m not a normal kid. I’m here. I’ve always been here.”

“Watch your tone, boy.” said his father, his own anger flowing from him. Damien took a step back, feeling his irritation.

“Anyway, I have to go.” he said, not looking at his mother. He knew that she would be looking sad, with her big, blue eyes, and he didn’t want to see it. He didn’t want to feel sorry for her. It just made him angrier at himself. “I’ve got important stuff to do.”

He turned and walked away before they could say anything.

HE BLINKED AT the force of the memory, the successful cheer of King Thomas snapping him from his thoughts. The two men rose from their seats, shaking hands fervently and thanking each other for the pleasant game.

“I will see you next Friday then, Your Majesty,” la Barre said with a smile, bowing low. King Thomas nodded.

“Yes, hopefully nothing untoward will force an earlier meeting, Isaac.” he said. The nobleman gave Damien the slightest of nods and he bowed in response, watching the man as he disappeared down the long, finely decorated hall. He turned back to King Thomas.

“I believe that I have much paperwork to do regarding this feast.” the king said with a sigh. “I suppose we should go do that then.”

“Of course, my liege.” Damien said, falling into step behind him.

“GOOD MORNING RAINE,” Hayato said with a warm smile as he approached her. Raine stopped stretching her limbs and returned the greeting pleasantly, ignoring the cool morning breeze that suddenly swept past them. Her boots were wet, soaked by the dew on the grass leading up to the training grounds, and the basic armour she had donned was still cold on her skin.

Despite that, she knew that she needed the distraction- her mind had been replaying the events concerning Hammond and Preston for a few days now. She also had not seen the Fire Mage again since and although Hammond had a tendency to not attend training, his absence still concerned her. The Lieutenant Sage seemed as stern and emotionless as ever, and had not mentioned it to her at all. Raine had decided to do the same.

“It’s been a while since we last met.” Hayato continued, following her lead and stretching his arms out before him. “How have you been?”

“Well, thankyou.” she said, watching him politely as he adjusted his armour. I wish I could wear my Shadow armour, she thought with longing. It would actually fit me properly and let me move around easier.

“You should get some armour made for you.” Hayato said suddenly, almost as if reading her thoughts. “Even if you are a mage, it would be useful in actual battle, as well as during training. I could teach you some endurance techniques as well, to help you get used to the weight.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Raine said, deciding not to mention that she was well-used to training in armour, “I will have to think about it.”

Hayato nodded smoothly, his long black horsetail of hair flicking with the movement. He smiled and unsheathed his sword. “Shall we begin with some techniques then?” he said.

THEY TRAINED FOR many hours as the chill of the morning broke and the temperature started to rise. Some others joined them on the grounds, but Raine was far too busy blocking and avoiding the graceful but deadly strokes of Hayato’s blade to pay them any attention. His long, curved sword was an extension of his arm and almost twice as long, the blade created in such a way that had produced an intricate silvery pattern along its body. The hilt was plain, wrapped in black cloth, the guard round and of elegant design. Raine tried to get through the extensive reach of the weapon, bringing herself and her own shortsword as close to Hayato as she could, but the man was incredibly skilled.

“That’s more of a cavalry kind of sword, isn’t it?” she asked at one point as they broke away from a flurry of parries and strikes. Hayato looked at his blade fondly for a moment, nodding.

“Yes. It is more suited to such purposes, I will admit, but I prefer it over a regular length blade.” he said. His lips curled into a slight smile. “Sometimes I am ordered to keep it in my quarters, but I use it and train with it as often as I can.”

“The blade has an unusual pattern on it,” she continued, intrigued. “Did you bring it from your homeland?”

Hayato raised an eyebrow, despite smiling politely. “I did.” he said. “You seem to know a lot about blades, Raine, seeing as you are a mage.”

“Oh, I read a lot.” she said quickly, cursing her curiosity.

“I see.” Hayato said, still smiling. He moved his feet gracefully into a defensive position, preparing himself for the next burst of combat. “It is a traditional blade of the Hanaka Guard, which is the islands equivalent of what you would call an army.”

“Were you a soldier in the Guard, then?” Raine asked. A strange, dark look flittered over Hayato’s face for but a moment, so quickly that she wondered if she had imagined it.

“We have talked long enough, I believe.” he said lightly. “Unless you are trying to distract me?”

Raine grinned at his banter and they continued to practice.

“I AM AFRAID that I have some bad news, Raine.” Hayato said at the end of their session. Raine was in the middle of loosening her leather vambraces, the material old, faded and smelling of male perspiration. She could feel the ache of exercise in her muscles, her clothes damp with her own sweat, but it was a satisfying feeling. She looked up at him.

“What do you mean?” she asked curiously. He had an apologetic smile on his face.

“My platoon has been ordered to patrol the Severin as part of Avendan’s response to the bridge incident with Treston.” he said softly. “It means that I won’t be able to train with you for some time.”

“That’s a shame,” Raine said sincerely. “I’ve been enjoying these sessions with you.”

“As have I, greatly,” said Hayato, “Although some of my peers often tease me for feeling the need to train with a mage.”

Raine grinned. “I can’t be that bad, surely.” she said and his smile grew.

“Of course not. They just do not understand that I am also benefitting from such an arrangement. I am now much more confident against magic wielders.” he said, shaking his head slightly.

“Well, there isn’t much we can do about it. Your orders are orders, after all.” she said, and Hayato nodded in agreement.

“I am glad that you understand. Shall we?” he said, gesturing back to the barracks.

“Does that mean that you cannot attend the king’s festivities?” she asked as they started their return walk. Hayato sighed.

“That is unfortunately correct.” he said heavily, “We will be along the river by that point, keeping watch for outsiders. It’s a shame; I was looking forward to it.”

“Could you do something based on your traditions when you get back, or maybe even while you’re over there?” Raine asked. He looked at her.

“Not really, but I appreciate your thoughts.” he said with a soft smile that she couldn’t help but return.

AFTER A WHILE, they reached their designated crossroad point and Hayato turned to face her.

“Keep well,” he said. “I will contact you once we return, so as to arrange our next training session.”

“Look after yourself,” Raine said. “I doubt that you’ll have any problems but still, take care.”

“You too,” he said and with a short bow, he turned and walked away. Raine found herself hoping that his absence would not last too long.

SHE WAS ON her way back to her room to clean herself up when a familiar person entered her peripheral vision. It was early afternoon, the temperature reaching its greatest and causing an unpleasant heat inside her ill-fitting armour that even the breeze could not soften.

She turned her head casually and her eyes widened as she watched Hammond leave the Dining Hall, his face set in its usual unreadable expression, eyes staring unfocused before him.

She rushed over to see him and he looked over in her direction, as if sensing her approach. He looked away again and continued to walk. Raine quickened her step.

“Hammond!” she called, now a few paces behind him. She heard a loud, heavy sigh, and the Fire Mage turned to look at her. His face was healed, free from any of the cuts and bruises he bore during the fight with Preston, but his expression was tired, new wrinkles sitting beneath his green eyes. She couldn’t see any visible injuries, but he was wearing a long-sleeved open robe over his tunic that covered his arms. His hands were tucked into his pant pockets.

He looked at her, waiting, inscrutable. There was silence for a moment.

“Are you here to just stare at me?” he said, deadpan.

“No, I…” Raine found herself lost for words. “I just wanted to know how you were. I haven’t seen you in days.”

He considered her. “I’m fine.” he said.

“That’s…that’s good.” she said. She felt her heartbeat race in her chest.

“Anything else?” Hammond said.

“No…No, that was it.” she said quietly. He didn’t say anything, merely watching her expectantly.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you later.” she said clumsily, turning away. She stopped as a hand gripped her arm.

“Raine.” Hammond said and she turned back to look at him. His expression was serious, intense energy burning in his eyes. “Don’t worry about me. Forget it happened.”

She looked at him for a moment, stunned. “It was between me and Preston,” he continued, “and you have nothing to do with it. Let it go.”

Her thoughts suddenly rushed to the forefront of her mind. “I’m sorry that I grabbed you with the water-whip like that,” she said, the words spilling from her mouth, “I didn’t mean to interfere. I didn’t even mean to be watching like that; I wasn’t spying, I was just looking for you.”

There was another pause and slowly his expression softened slightly. He released her arm.

“It’s fine.” he said. “And I’m fine. So forget all about it, alright?”

“Alright, I guess.” she said slowly and uncertainly. He nodded.

“But- aren’t you in any trouble?” she asked, unable to help herself. Hammond looked away.

“It’s fine, I told you. It’s all sorted.” he said.

“Are you still in Third Platoon?” she asked. Another strange look flittered across his face.

“Yes, I am,” he said. “So you’ll see me around, as per usual.”

“Is he not making you train with us then?” she asked.

“He doesn’t make me do anything.” he said flatly. “I show up because I want to show up. Now stop harassing me.”

“Sorry.” Raine said quickly and he nodded. He looked away for a moment and when he looked back, the fierceness had returned in his gaze with startling ferocity.

“Which reminds me, you better not have told that pretty-boy Troy and Chelstra about that.” he growled. “Last thing I need is that damned Life Mage annoying me any more than she already does.”

“I haven’t,” Raine said, shaking her head. “They don’t know anything apart from what they saw when you got into trouble with him during training.”

“And it better stay that way.” he said, crossing his arms. She nodded, unable to find words.

“See you later then,” he said, turning on his heel and walking away. She watched him go, unsure what to think or feel.

He doesn’t seem too angry at me, I think. He just seems…angry in general. What happened between those two?

USUALLY, LLOYD WETHERDON would appreciate such an event, simply because it rarely occurred. He wished that he could feel the joy that came with such a rarity, but he could not find it today. He could only feel confusion, suspicion and unease, and they were emotions that he did not feel often. All he could do was suppress the unpleasant feelings as best he could, and look about at his colleagues with an interest that was not as positive as it should have been.

The problem was, trying to hide one’s emotions was difficult to do in the presence of ten other Death Magi.

They were all sitting around a long, rectangular table, one that stretched nearly the entirety of the room. All of the sconces had been lit, casting a bright, ambient light across the walls, revealing various pieces of tapestries and artwork that had been previously concealed behind thick layers of dust. The table itself was laden with plates of food and jugs of drink, but Lloyd Wetherdon did not feel like dining. He merely moved his fingers up and down the goblet in his hand, trying to stabilise his thoughts as he sat in the corner of the room, watching. Occasionally one of his colleagues would look over at him and nod or smile in greeting and he would return the gesture, and that seemed to suit them well enough. He had never been known as an overly sociable man.

“Let’s get down to it, shall we?” a man said eventually, his voice cutting over the soft conversations in the room. “I’m sure we all have much work to do, especially with this damned war creeping up upon us.”

“Positive as ever, Thorton.” an older woman retorted, and they all took their seats. The man sitting beside Wetherdon gave him a nod, reaching out for a quick handshake.

“Glad to see you, Lloyd,” he said, and Wetherdon allowed a genuine smile to grow across his face.

“Nathan, hello. You seem well.” he said casually. “How is your research faring?”

The Death Mage gave a shrug. “As well as expected, Lloyd. You know how these things go.”

“That I do.” Wetherdon retorted pleasantly. That much was true- he and Nathan Hemingsworth had often researched together, delving deeper into the endless abyss that was Death Magic.

“Greetings, everyone,” Thorton started, rubbing his hands together despite the heat that was pouring over them from an open fireplace at the end of the room. His open black robe rustled around him with the gesture. “It is enlightening and inspiring to see all of us here today. We are all aware of how difficult it is for us Death Magi to join together at the same time.”

There were some murmurs of agreement and Wetherdon settled back into his chair, finding it increasingly uncomfortable. He wished that he could just simply reach out with his mana vital and sense each and every mage in the room, but such a thing was incredibly impolite.

Not only that, but it would arouse the suspicion and awareness of the one he was searching for.

Could it be one of my own? he wondered idly, the speaker’s voice fading away to the back of his mind. Thorton was the Head of the Death Guild and was not a man he was overly fond of, so he felt no guilt in disregarding absolutely everything he had to say. He was only going to give the usual Death Guild updates anyway- where they stood in various research projects, upcoming events, finances; nothing that concerned or interested him.

He looked around the table carefully, staring at each and every Death Mage as they watched Thorton with mild interest. He knew all of their names, and a few their backgrounds, but no one in particular came to the forefront of his attention. They all seemed like generic Death Magi- not the kind that could and would place a Mind Curse upon a Sage Captain.

But why? Wetherdon had not had the time to further investigate the curse surrounding Sedley’s mind when he had first seen it- he had been too surprised to even consider the reasons. Now, he knew that being direct would not work either- it would probably only alert the one who had created it in the first place. No, he would have to be careful, and very discreet. Who knew which Death Magi were involved? Or which superior officers?

He resisted the urge to frown as he continued to look around, but he could detect nothing from the mild auras surrounding him. Not that he had expected such a thing, but still…

AN HOUR PASSED and Thorton finally concluded with his discussion of sorts, an end that Wetherdon had been greatly looking forward to. Some of the Death Magi remained in the room to converse with one another, whilst many others decided to leave straight away. As the man had stated earlier, Death Magi were often incredibly busy individuals.

Wetherdon decided to busy himself by pouring a drink, continuing to reach out with his mind as discreetly as he could, focusing on those that were readying to leave. A few Transportation Runes had been set up outside the room, in the long underground corridor. They also required minor Death Magic to activate- and that was what he would focus his concentration on.

The Death Magi slowly left, many of them using the Runes to send them to faraway locations that would otherwise be impossible to access in a short time. Wetherdon sensed them all, feeling their heightened mana vital as it spiked for the spell- it was a brief moment that allowed him access to the magical signature that each individual held.

But none of them felt even remotely like the trace he had picked up in Sedley’s mind, and he knew with strong confidence that none of those magi were responsible for the curse. Some were leaving by foot, of course, and he remembered each of their names fiercely. He would still need to investigate them somehow.

“You’re even quieter than usual, Lloyd,” Hemingsworth said from beside him, tearing him from his thoughts. “Not only that, but you’re usually the first to leave these meetings.”

Wetherdon turned to look at him, smiling slightly. “The aura of one’s kind can sometimes be an enjoyable sensation, Nathan.” he said. “It is also one that I have not experienced for some time.”

“Well, you know how it works,” the mage agreed, nodding his head, “We’re a rare bunch.”

Wetherdon looked about the room again. “That we are.” he said.

THE DAYS SWEPT by in a blur for Raine, each hour filled with magic training, eating or sleeping. She thanked Rendeis that the Death Mage Lloyd Wetherdon had not harassed her again regarding Death Magic lessons, for it was something that she still wasn’t sure about. She had come to the general conclusion that perhaps she did have the Bridge of Death, but that was as far as her considerations went. Where to go from there was something she did not want to contemplate.

She also found herself missing her sparring sessions with Hayato Kimura, the infantryman from the Kayoki Archipelago, and constantly wondered how he was faring with his tasks along the Severin. He always seemed willing to listen to her thoughts, regardless of what they were, and considered her with respect and politeness. He looked at her with attention and interest, his eyes always glowing softly, his words spoken gently. The contrast between him and Damien as instructors was fiercely prominent.

She also missed the sessions themselves- training alone was never exciting or interesting, and poor Troy did not have the level of skill that she had. Raine often wished to turn down his invitations purely out of fear of offending him with constant defeats.

ON THE DAY of the king’s feast, time all but vanished, like sand drifting through a breeze. Preston cancelled their training sessions for the day to allow the magi to attend to their ceremonial uniforms, a task Raine approached with serious, methodical calm. She polished her boots to as close to a shine as they possibly could be, her face blurry but recognisable in its reflections, and ensured that her clothes were clean and crease-free.

The ceremonial uniform of a mage composed of a long-sleeved tunic of blue and gold, the large emblem of Avendan embroidered into the chest in gold, the smaller emblem of Athos beside it over the heart. Its high collar was lined in elaborate gold weavings, the same patterns along the edges of the sleeves. The brassard of status was another intricate piece, black and bearing a small emblem of Athos above the rank and element. They wore the same white pants and boots of the regular uniform, just immaculately clean. The usual black cape was replaced by a black, sleeveless open robe that reached down to the knee, the back decorated intricately with Athos’ crest in gold.

“ABSOLUTELY STUNNING, THE both of you,” Troy said as she left the female quarters later that day. He and Chelstra were standing near the entrance, waiting for her as the sun slowly started to set and night descended upon them. Dressed in the same outfit as they, Raine realised that the uniform was certainly made to flatter males more than females, highlighting Troy’s broad shoulders and flat chest.

“You look good, Troy,” Raine said as she approached them. She patted her hair down again, praying that no loose strands had broken free from the tight horsetail she had put it in.

Troy grinned and lowered into an exuberant bow.

“You are too kind, Miss Raine,” he said. “Although I must admit, it is a fine uniform. I’ve been looking forward to wearing it for some time.”

“You just like showing off.” Chelstra teased, a nervous look on her face. Raine smiled at the Life Mage, thanking the Gods yet again that she could not sense her Death Bridge. It was a discussion that she still refused to think about.

“Shall we?” Troy said, offering her his arm. Raine gave a small laugh and waved the gesture away.

“How are we getting there, anyway?” she asked. “It’s at the castle, isn’t it?”

“It’s not too far a walk,” Troy answered, “And besides, it’s much easier than messing around with carriages- I’m just about certain that traffic will be a nightmare tonight.”

“Well you are the expert,” Raine said, drawing another grin from him.

TROY LED THE way as they strolled through the area designated to the Magic Companies, the high guard-towers of Avendan Castle slowly looming into view. After a short while, they approached a long line of people standing along the street before the huge iron gates of the castle outer walls. Most were dressed in either ceremonial uniforms or expensive outfits that gave away their nobility and wealth. The security was intense, the Royal Guard watching them with sharp, severe expressions. They all carried long glaives that glinted in the low light.

“Do we have to wait at the end of this line?” Chelstra asked, scowling, and Raine was about to warn her about her tone but Troy got in first.

“Keep your voice down.” he hissed, eyes narrowing. “You’re in the presence of nobility. Trust me; you want to be as polite and respectful as you can. Some of these people can end our careers just with a click of their fingers. So yes, we wait until they have entered first.”

Chelstra’s frown deepened but she said nothing as they slowed their pace. Raine avoided looking directly at anyone, keeping her eyes on the ground and following Troy, who seemed to know exactly what to do.

“WHAT ARE YOU thinking, Raine?” Aloyce asked, sitting opposite her and watching her. She continued to look out of the carriage window, amazed by the press of people on the streets around them.

“How long do you think these people have been here?” she asked, finally tearing her eyes from the sight and looking back at her brother. He was clad in his impressive black and red armour, his ceremonial sword resting in between his knees, his hands on its pommel. She herself was dressed in a simple but elegant black dress that signified their moderate wealth. The knight gave a small sigh.

“Too long, I would imagine.” he said, his expression as serious as always. “But that is the way of things.”

“I suppose so,” she said slowly as the carriage drew to a stop before the gates of the large Treston castle. “It’s strange- the only reason we’re getting in before the other nobility is because you’re a knight.”

“I know.” Aloyce picked up his sword and shuffled over to the door as the handle turned and the coachman let them out, holding the door open with a small bow of his head. Aloyce stepped out first and then turned to assist her, murmuring his thanks to the coachman. Raine took his hand and slowly exited, unused to the delicate shoes and dress that she was wearing.

“Enjoy your evening, Lady Evernest,” the coachman said. Raine turned and smiled at him gratefully.

“Thankyou; I will try.” she said graciously, taking Aloyce’s armoured arm as he offered it to her. They strolled past lines of waiting people, some soldiers and others of lesser noble standing as they, and went through the open gates and into the courtyard.

YOUR STATUS DOESN’T reach me here, brother, Raine thought wryly as she looked at the long line of people before her.

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