Elena looked out from the balcony of the upper tier of her spire. Hers was not the tallest, but that was simply because Androl wanted to protect her.
“Let them think the Empress stays in the tallest spire. When they come for you, I will hack them to bits.” He had said.
Reaching the top of any of the spires was beyond any human feat. But the world had changed and the people had changed too. She was living proof of that.
The sun glinted off the prism of Trianna’s spire. Hers was the only spire visible from this balcony. Elena marveled at her creation.
Raising an entire city from the earth was a magnificent feat in itself. But what made her truly proud was that she took in everyone shunted out of their homes because of magic. Her father had died trying to protect the ideal that everyone deserved a chance, even when he hadn’t fully understood magic. She would raise Ianthine as a beacon of hope to all those who were touched by magic and make them feel part of a single kingdom, one where they would not be treated like outcasts.
People milled about in the streets, carrying on with their chores, but every now and then she could make out the use of magic. Her skin tingled with excitement. These are my people and I have finally provided them a home.
A light tap sounded on the door in her chambers. Elena strode in. It was time for the Empress to wake up.
Adaline walked in wearing a red dress which revealed a bit too much of her cleavage. Elena opened her mouth to reprimand her but remembered Androl’s advice about allowing every one to exercise their own will.
Adaline prostrated before her. Elena blushed and picked her up. “You should not bow when we are alone.”
The freckled girl smiled brightly. “I apologise for bringing city problems to your attention so early in the morning.”
Elena returned the smile. “You’re up early taking stock of these problems. It is my duty as the Empress to help our city as much as possible.”
“Building the city is still taking too much time. Although the southern gate was finished yesterday, we are way behind on schedules with the buildings. We do not have enough magic-wielders and those we have are too weak at the moment, Empress. They haven’t recovered yet.” Adaline spoke. She sat at the foot of the bed, sipping freshly squeezed juice, brought in by a servant.
Elena knew it would soon be time to go down to the council hall and take stock of the day’s agenda and problems but the regular morning talks with Adaline helped her prepare. The girl had a keen mind for knowing what merited attention.
“I know that, Adaline. But raising the city is imperative for establishing a foothold. Cycle the teams if possible.”
“We are already doing that, Empress.”
Elena rubbed her temples. She had never woken up with a headache but these days it was a daily occurrence. “Then, we will have to better our training and hope we get more Jaduaars.”
Adaline cleared her voice. “Empress…I have been mulling over something…” She looked at her and then shied away.
“Fear not, Adaline, even stupid ideas are welcome. Some may actually work.”
The young girl sat up straight. “I have been thinking why one person can’t wield all types of magic. I mean finding the right combination of people is turning out to be nigh impossible and finding teams with equal strength in all the members even more so. If we could somehow learn to channel all kinds of magic, maybe each of us could do what entire teams could do.”
Elena opened her mouth to rebut the proposition. It sounded ridiculous. “You…are right. It’s definitely something worth looking into. Developing our own abilities should also be a priority. There is much I don’t know about magic…we don’t know about magic yet.” Elena stood up in front of the dresser. “We need a research school of some kind, where methods of enhancing abilities are developed. And you will head it, Adaline.”
The young brunette squealed in joy and bowed. “I shall not disappoint you, Empress.”
“We shall put the proposition to vote in front of the council this very morning.”
Fabius rode hard. He had been riding hard for the past two weeks. He had one goal – to get an army and launch an offensive on the bandits.
Ragnasary rode up beside him. “Fabius, we cannot keep this pace up forever. We will soon be running low on rations. And all the villages on this road seem to be empty, or the folk barricade themselves in.”
Fabius spoke without looking. “Then we better ride till we find a town where we can get provisions. We are no closer to an army than when we left Katak.” He noticed the cook’s slumped shoulders as he fell back. He knew he was being unreasonable to the company but none of them had lost their brother. Besides riding kept his mind from thinking about Darius which caused him unbearable pain. He also hoped that the pace he set would have thrown off the old Lord as well, but Tremane seemed more equipped in the saddle than any of them. Being from the north does make you better riders, I guess. Ainsley had claimed such.
The Lord though had tried cosying up to him many times but he had brushed off the attempts. He wanted nothing to do with the former showman and his normally, but keep your weapons at the ready.”
He surveyed the scene as they approached. Two men lay on the ground unmoving with blood around them. Three carts with a horse each stood at odd angles with one man dressed in a fine but oversized cloak trying to keep the beasts calm. Three other men, all clean shaven, had stepped forward on the road. Strangely, none of them held any weapons in their hand. They passed smiling glances to each other at the company’s advent.
Fabius tapped Bretun to take a few steps ahead of the ranks. “Why this holdup, friends?” His hand itched towards the pommel but it would alert the men.
“You must pay to use this road, my friend. Nothing more.” The man to right spoke, scratching his neck. He was garbed in a loose blue silk shirt with well fitted trousers and sturdy boots. While the others wore fine clothes as well, this man looked like he was comfortable in them.
“These are free roads. You do not have the authority to charge taxes.” Fabius spoke curtly.
The man laughed. “These southerners…” He looked towards the others who grinned in response. Actually, I do. By the orders of the Empress. And unless you want to die terrible deaths like these men, I suggest you do as you are told. Although, these poor fools were trying to leave the Empress’ lands. But you lot seem wise. Besides you seem like wealthy travelers. What’s a few gold flowers to you?”
“They are worth more than your lives, actually.” Fabius leaned in slightly on Bretun. A clubbing blow on the leader would scatter them. Bretun flicked his left ear before launching towards the man. The man in the centre fell over, as Fabius pulled out his sword from the scabbard in an instant and brought down the pommel on the man’s head. But even though he connected flush with the man’s skull, there was no crack he anticipated nor did the man go down. Bretun neighed and halted before they crashed into one of the carts. Fabius swung himself around on the saddle, ready to pounce on the man again. He then realized why the man was grinning. The sword in his hand was no longer made of steel but a dummy stuffed with cotton.
His company attacked. But the men had to dismount in such close range and before they could advance, all of them cried out in pain. “My clothes, they burn…” He heard Leonton cry before a punch to the chest knocked him off horseback and onto the metalled road. He landed hard on his side but sprang back to his feet. But none of the robbers were even close enough to punch him.
The leader laughed as Fabius saw all his men wrestling with their clothes, some of which had begun to smoke. He clutched his side, which had started bleeding.
The man raised his hand with a smile. Fabius winced. What was he to do?
A bright flash of white blinded him and he staggered back and hit a cart. He dragged himself upright but his eyes pained even while blinking. What in Sucellok’s name is happening?
He heard thuds nearby and a scream as if a man was stabbed. He rubbed his eyes furiously to get back vision.
“Be at ease, Fabius. We are safe. The men are dead.” Lord Tremane’s voice hit his ears. “All of you, just wait a minute. Your vision will return to normal.”
Fabius stopped rubbing his eyes. “But what happened?”
His hands felt the moist touch of a water-skin. “Here, splash some water in your eyes. I will go help the others.”
The cool water eased the pain but it still took over a minute before his eyes could discern the view before them. A barechested Lord Tremane was splashing water on Ardagh’s eyes. His company had all stripped down to their smallclothes and their clothes lay around, some of them smoldering. Two of the robbers including the leader lay beheaded. The third had been stabbed through the heart.
“These were not showman tricks, were they Lord Tremane?” Fabius asked, breathing hard, while clutching his left side.
“If they are, they are well beyond my understanding and capabilities. I fear this is something entirely something else.”
Lord Tremane moved on to Ainsley who grumbled. “They burnt my favourite breeches.” He held them up sporting a gaping hole on the thighs.
“But how did they do it?” Ragnasary pulled out a shirt from his pack.
The Lord sighed. “It’s magic. Real magic.”
Fabius tore the sleeve of Ardagh’s burnt shirt and wiped the bruise on his ribs. “What do you mean real magic? Isn’t what you do magic as well?”
“No. What I do, what all showmen do, is sleight of hands and tricks.”
“And that’s what saved us?”
The Lord nodded. “It was flash powder. We use it for vanishing tricks. I wish I could’ve kept one of these men alive but may have been too dangerous.”
“I take it you knew about all of this as usual.”
The company gathered around the old Lord.
“So this is the gratitude I get?” The old Lord grinned.
Fabius held his gaze. “I want the truth.”
Lord Tremane sighed. “I may seem like a crackpot for giving up ruling a state and wandering around as a showman. And while I enjoyed my life as a showman, it only came about because your fathers decided that they needed to understand the strange occurrences happening in Quindor.”
“What strange occurrences?” Ainsley asked before he could.
“It started with innocuous things like blue sheep being born, crops growing in a week, small accidents here and there. But we knew that these were all connected once I met the runner.”
“The runner?” three of the company chorused.
“A messenger boy who travelled over twenty leagues a day.”
Fabius shrugged. “The northern horses can do that. What’s so alarming about that?”
“On foot,” Lord Tremane added. The revelation drew gasps.
“What? That’s impossible.”
“No it wasn’t. We tracked the boy down and we kept a watch. The incidents have been increasing with every passing year. The land is changing. As are the people, the animals and the trees.”
Fabius slapped his forehead. “Do you mean the weed in Awad was a product of …magic?”
“I’m not sure about that one, but it very well could be.”
“Arbok’s foot, when were you planning to tell us all of this?”
“I was trying to tell you for the past few days. You weren’t ready to listen. And I don’t blame you. I have been secretive. That’s been my role for as long as I can remember. You can forgive an old man, right?”
Fabius cocked his eyebrow. “The mighty Lord Tremane is apologizing and asking for forgiveness. Lads, this is a night to celebrate.” The company joined in with guffaws.
The blue eyes of Lord Tremane twinkled with mirth. “But in all seriousness Fabius, I implore you to put your thoughts of vengeance to rest for now. You see what magic is doing to the Empire. To these lands, to its people, to our people.”
Fabius’ first instinct was to turn away but he realized that the Lord was right. He cursed himself. How is a freaking noble playing me? I am supposed to stay away from all this manipulation. Curses on Arbok. “Fine, what do you want me to do? Confront this Empress, I suppose.”
“Yes, but we should first find out as much as we can about what has been happening in the north. Alliances may have shifted already.”
“I thought you knew everything about the nobles.”
“I used to. But for the last decade or so I spent time finding out as much as I could about these happenings, travelling across the lands as a showman.”
“So that no one would question you if you acted weirdly or asked strange questions.” Fabius mused.
Lord Tremane smiled. “Yes. But as you see, things have progressed faster than we anticipated. We must head to this new city of the magic-wielders and make sure they do not pose a threat to all we know. Powers such as these can corrupt quite easily, as you just saw.”
Fabius nodded. “The messenger that came to you, the one that was frozen by the barricade, he had some form of this magic, didn’t he? You said they were mute, yet they could communicate with each other.”
The old lord nodded. “Not much slips by you, does it? The Way of the Voices. That’s what they call themselves. They are born with it. They have a mark on the upper blade of their right shoulder. The child will be born mute but they can communicate with each other. No one suspects a mute as a messenger and obviously even if they do catch the, no one can make them talk. Secrets remain safe.”
“No more secrets, Lord Tremane. You are part of our company and we keep nothing from each other.”
“Except beer and women.” Ainsley chimed in.
Fabius laughed and was joined in by the others. He still wasn’t sure of the man but he had just saved the lives of the entire company. And magic gave him goosebumps.
The old showman nodded. “I promise. Just like I promised your father that I would guide you towards being a king.”
“I will not be king.” Fabius replied instinctively before realizing that with Darius gone he had no choice.