Dawn couldn’t come fast enough. He woke several times during the night. Each moment had him thinking the sun couldn’t be too far below the horizon and, after waiting for what felt like eternity, was proven wrong.
After the fifth such turn, he gave up on the very idea of sleep, opting to sneak down to the baths and make use of the tubs whilst almost everyone else remained in their beds.
No one stopped him as he slunk through the tower corridors. There was no one to stop him. Apparently, even the guardians sought their beds after a while. A fact he wished he’d known sooner. A lot of trouble could be made when it was certain that no one watched.
It was a strange experience, entering the bathing chamber without a horde of others at his side. Illuminated only by the single torch he dared to ignite, the ruddy light failed to reach the corners of the room. It made the already cavernous space seem even bigger, but it was more than enough to see by.
He stripped and knelt next to a tub—little more than a wooden half-barrel—to dip his hand into the frigid water. Heat, the prelude to a fireball, radiated from his palm. There were other ways to heat the water, and he was careful to use the more accepted methods when around impressionable children, but this was the quickest.
Only once steam rose from the tub did he withdraw his hand. He liked to bathe when the water was almost too hot to touch and… Well, whenever would he get another chance to cleanse himself like this if he won the competition?
Never. That was the whole point of being leashed. The collar would strip him of the ability to use his power unsanctioned. Those in the army would hardly let him be so frivolous with his magic.
Still kneeling, Dylan set about washing his hair. He bent over the barrel to lather the black locks and rinse them out with a carefully maintained funnel of water, ensuring every drop fell back into the barrel it had come from rather than the cold stone floor.
He stepped in the tub, the water lapping about his knees—it’d been several decades since the last time he could actually sit in these things without his legs scrunched up. The mute coldness of the room nipped at his extremities. He hastily scrubbed at his skin with cloth and soap, warding off the chill by subtly heating the air around him.
The chamber was usually full of sound. The yelling and splashing of boys trying to see who could make the biggest wave out of the meagre water the half-barrels contained, whilst the older ones, often himself included, yelled just as loudly for them to hurry up so they could also bathe. Alone, the gentle trickle of water running down his body and back into the tub seemed almost intrusive.
It didn’t take him long to be clean and dry, his hair helped along by the careful application of a little magical heat applied to the locks. He snuffed the torch and crept his way back up to his quarters to begin his usual grooming routine.
Dylan cracked open the door to find Sulin awake and partially dressed.
The alchemist swung about, hopping on one foot, the other leg half in a boot. “Dylan? I… I thought they’d called you to compete. Where’ve you been so early?” The elf flopped onto his bed and finished hauling his boot on. “Or did you creep out to make it a late one?”
Wrinkling his nose, Dylan picked up his razor, a gift from his guardian several decades back, and deftly began stropping the blade. It wouldn’t do to attend the arena looking scraggy. “Sneak out after being caught twice last night? Hardly.” His gaze slid to the room’s tiny window. The sky was still dark, but he could see a hint of light on the horizon. “I couldn’t sleep, so I made use of what’ll be the last time I bathe here.”
Sulin frowned as he bent to pull on his other boot. “Certain you’ll win, then?”
Dylan sat before his dresser and, after igniting the single candle with a click of his fingers, vigorously worked his shaving soap into a lather. “The overseers wouldn’t let me in if they didn’t believe I’ve a decent chance at winning.” There were several spellsters who could claim a similar level of power and combat talent as he. How many of them had made it through the bouts? He wished he knew.
“I suppose that’s true.”
“Besides,” Dylan mumbled as he slathered foam on his face, “the person I have to at least break even with at the end is the leashed one.” How hard could that be when she’d have to seek sanction to fight in the first place?
They both fell silent as he started to shave, him due to necessity and Sulin due to finishing his own morning routine. Usually, Dylan would do multiple passes with the razor, ensuring that the parts he shaved were smooth. But his hand kept shaking and his breath would not stay even. One pass would have to suffice for today, lest he do something foolish like accidentally cutting his jugular.
Still, there was one piece his pride wouldn’t let be with a quick onceover. Dylan drew the candle closer, intent on the little tuft of hair beneath his bottom lip. Was it even? He stared at the mirror, his eyes watering at the strain of keeping them focused. It certainly looked that way.
“I don’t know why you don’t just shave that thing off. Or grow a decent beard like other humans.”
Satisfied with his trimming, he lowered the razor and let his eyes adjust to take in Sulin’s grinning reflection. The elf didn’t share this particular daily routine. He didn’t need to, considering elves couldn’t grow beards. They had hair everywhere else, albeit finer than their human counterparts, just not on their lower faces.
It was a trait Dylan didn’t envy. He didn’t look his age now, shaving only served to make him look younger. As for growing a beard… he’d tried in his mid-twenties and gave up after seeing the scrappy thing that’d attached itself to his face. The little patch was all that remained, all he could reliably cultivate.
With his hands steadying, Dylan returned to ridding himself of the last few pesky hairs that’d surfaced overnight. Tiny black saplings poking out of a hillside that was a rather neutral colour. To call it a lighter shade of beige was being generous. It wasn’t the warm peachy tone of Nestria’s skin, and held not a single evidence of freckling like Mary’s bespeckled face. Although, he supposed spending more than a few moments in the garden could change the latter.
A lot of things about his face were neutral, from his soft jaw to his wide mouth, even the colour of his hooded eyes—so dark a brown, that they verged on black—screamed normal. Only his nose, a rather bold affair, deviated from the norm.
“You know, you won’t be able to preen like that in the army.”
He twisted atop the stool and glared at Sulin over his shoulder. “What would you know about what they do in the army?” he muttered as he patted the remaining flecks of foam from his face. His stomach made vague mumblings of breakfast. He tried to ignore it. The dining hall wouldn’t be ready to serve them for another half-hour or so.
“I talk to the guardians from time to time. And the last two leashed spellsters they brought in.” Sulin frowned. “You shouldn’t compete. It’s not an honour to have part of yourself accessible only at their say-so.”
The stool screeched as he stood. “It’s my only way out of here.” He’d spent years just existing, craving to see the land up close, to walk the streets he’d only read about. He couldn’t back out now just because his friend thought it was a bad idea. “Besides, the overseers practically gave me an order.” To fight. To protect those who couldn’t. It wasn’t a call he could blithely walk away from.
“What about your guardian’s words? Have you given them any thought?”
He had. They’d kept him awake for the other half of the night. Dylan shook his head. “They’re just words.” She wanted him to stay and had lied to the overseers to keep him here for years. Who could say if this was any different? What wouldn’t she do to ensure he remained within these walls?
They made their way through the corridors, following the gentle flow of the other early risers heading towards the dining hall. Several of their female peers muttered amongst themselves as they passed by, glancing over at them only to look back and chatter on.
Dylan frowned. There could be only one thing he knew of that’d set the women gossiping and that had to be the way the elven woman, Kaprina, turned down his advances last night. Great. Now if he won, everyone was going to think the overseers chose him purely to get him out of the tower. That had to be the worst way to leave.
Nestria stood at the entrance to the dining hall, along with another petite elven woman. The second woman’s skin was heavily tanned and freckled, her hair a sun-bleached brown and, sitting proudly upon her face, were a set of those strange wire frames. Launtil, the woman his roommate had attempted to see before they made their dash to the duelling arena.
“Tillie!” Sulin hastened to the woman’s side, losing an inch of his height as his shoulders drooped. So small was the woman that even Nestria’s relatively average elven stature looked tall. The alchemist, being taller than both by a half-foot, towered over her. “I am so sorry about last night, you see—”
Smiling, Launtil held up her hand to stall the rest of his explanation. “Nestria told me everything.” The woman had been born in the Udynea Empire—and into slavery, as was common with most of the elves there. Despite living here for a decade or so, she still carried a slight hint of their accent. It always brought a sort of niggling in the back of Dylan’s mind to check if the woman harboured an apricot stone in her mouth.
Sulin flinched. “Ness… told you?” His gaze flicked to the other elven woman. “Really?”
“Oh my, yes.” Launtil pushed the wire frames further up her nose. He heard they were a gift from her former owner. In the lenses, her eyes grew bigger. “The entire tower’s gossiping on how Mary almost blew up the arena last night and destroyed a huge chunk of infitialis in the process. They say she’s been given a week’s confinement for it.”
Dylan gnawed on his bottom lip. Solitary confinement wasn’t commonly longer than a day or two. He knew the now-useless piece of infitialis was large and difficult to mine, but he didn’t think it worth more than a half-week of solitary. What had the overseers seen in the woman that made them think a longer sentence was necessary?
“What, specifically, does all that have to do with me?” Sulin asked.
“Well, you’re the one who warned our dear hero here—” Dylan blinked as she turned her warm smile his way. “—how unstable her experiment was. I dare say that if you hadn’t convinced him to return, they’d both be very much dead.”
Hero? Was that what the women they’d passed been gossiping about? He wasn’t a hero. He’d just heard that it could’ve killed his friend and acted. “Tillie, I really—”
“And Ness tells me the overseers insisted you take part in today’s brawl. That’s going to stir up quite the hornet’s nest. I’d watch out for Sophie if I were you. Poor dear actually might’ve had a chance this time around. She’s going to completely lose her mind when she finds out.”
He shrugged. He’d crossed paths with Sophie before, although it’d been some years. If she was still as bad at fighting as he recalled, then she wouldn’t be much of an obstacle.
“I don’t know,” Sulin said. “Fredrick stands an equally good chance.”
“Fred?” Launtil made a vain attempt to smother her tiny giggle with a hand. “That silly boy only won the bouts so he could show off to his man. He won’t actually try to win.”
Dylan quietly tucked that piece of knowledge away. He’d never fought Fredrick, although he’d heard a great deal about the man’s technique. Still, it would be interesting facing a new opponent.
Launtil gasped. “Oh, but listen to me blathering when you’ve so little time! This could be your last morning in the tower, you shouldn’t be wasting it with gossip.” The woman’s slender fingers wrapped about Dylan’s wrist. If he wasn’t so used to the touch, the eerie length of elven digits would’ve been unsettling. Fortunately, this came with a smile. “I hope you get what you want.” She turned to Sulin, her smile growing warmer. “See you at the usual table?”
“Sure,” Sulin mumbled. Those dark eyes remained locked on her join the throng entering the dining hall, a little sigh escaping his lips as she went out of sight.
Nestria bumped her hip into their friend’s. “All right, lover boy, you can thank me later. I’ll take my payment in one of those sparkly brews you concoct.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sulin replied in an overloud voice as a pair of guardians strode by. “Alchemists aren’t allowed near strong alcohol, much less make it.” He drew her closer, whispering, “Give me a week and I’ll see what I can do.”
“Just remember.” She gently pinched at his side. “Even if it falls flat between you two, you still owe me.”
The alchemist bent to kiss her cheek. “You’re a treasure, Ness.”
Nestria giggled and lightly slapped his shoulder. “Oh, go on! Quick, before someone else tries out their charms on her.”
Smiling and shaking his head, Sulin disappeared through the doorway.
Dylan stood just out of sight of the people already in the dining hall. “Are they really talking about last night?”
“Of course they are. Mary was talking up a storm at dinner yesterday, babbling on about how much she’d perfected her shield and how the overseers were going to be so impressed.” Nestria crossed her arms and cocked a perfectly arched brow at him. “I’m surprised you didn’t notice.”
He remembered mumblings. “I was rather occupied.”
“I’ll bet. Too busy wondering whether you could tumble Kaprina, right?” She grinned. “The answer to which is apparently a very empathetic ‘no’.”
Dylan winced. “Heard about that, huh?”
“About how she turned you down flat? Or the din she made in doing so?”
He grimaced. “She does have quite a range. Especially in the high notes.”
Again, Nestria giggled. “Come on, hero.” She circled behind him and shoved him towards the dining hall entrance. “Let’s get you fed. Can’t beat the competition on an empty stomach.”
There were several dining halls around the tower; one for the guardians, one for the young and those who tended to them, and then there was this one, which held every spellster past their teens. The dining hall reserved for them was the biggest and, no matter how early he got here, was always packed.
Dylan meandered through the crowd with Nestria at his side. Finding the end of the serving line took some shuffling, and a little negotiating, but they at last managed to get a portion of today’s breakfast; bread and cheese, neither one the least bit mouldy, and watery ale.
Gathering their meal, they made a beeline for their usual spot near the far wall, a place they’d staked out as their own during their first years dining here. The wallward tables all sat a little higher than those in the middle, allowing them to see more of the room. They were the least draughty, too.
Someone was already seated there by the time they made it, always was, but the rather attractive elven man who occupied the spot wasn’t usually alone. Nor was his plate so strangely full.
Nestria plonked herself on the bench, sidling up to the man whilst Dylan took a seat opposite them. “Hey, half of a double H!” She beamed up at him, although ‘up’ required her to scrunch down until her chin touched the table. “Where’s Harriet?”
Henrie glanced up, the perfect bow of his lips stretched into a grim smile. There was a haunted look in those big brown eyes. A bone-deep sadness Dylan had witnessed take other couples.
All at once, he knew. “They discovered you two, didn’t they?” The guardians didn’t take kindly to spellsters fooling around and came down harshly on those they caught.
The man laughed. It wasn’t the light, tinkly sound he’d come to associate from the elf, but rather a soft, almost gasping, noise. Henrie nodded. “Not quite. But it was so close. We thought it better if we spent a few days apart. My guardian… He’s been so supportive of… Well—” He waved his hand, indicating himself. “You know.”
They did, although the memories Dylan had of a time when Henrie hadn’t been himself were rather dim. He nodded for the man to continue.
“Sometimes, I forget why he’s really there. I never thought that he would try to separate us, but last night, when they almost caught us…” The words faded. He clapped a long-fingered hand over his mouth as if fearing they’d escape.
“Oh, Hen.” Nestria threw her arms around the man’s slender shoulders.
“What’s the harm in it? It’s not like I can get her pregnant.”
I don’t think that’s the point. If it ever had been, there were rather permanent ways to ensure that all the men here couldn’t sire children. “You need a message taken to her or anything?”
Henrie shook his head. “It’s just for a week or so. Another couple will catch the guardians’ attention soon enough and we’ll be safe again.”
But not as safe as they were to begin with. And the risks only increased with every near miss. “Just… be careful. I’d hate to think you two wound up like Ben and Jenny.” The latter had once been a friend of his, but Ben had changed since his closeness to Jenny was discovered and he tolerated few men near his lover.
Dylan had nothing with which to compare, had never felt that deeply about someone, but it seemed that love could easily gnaw the light out of a person’s soul. He didn’t want to witness another pair of friends turn dark.
Henrie steepled his fingers before him. “That won’t happen to us. Harry’s smarter than either of them.” He tilted his head. Those brown eyes narrowed with a disturbing intensity. “What’s this I hear about you competing? You can’t actually want to join the army.”
“I do. If we manage to push Udynea back, then maybe we can convince the guardians to grant more freedoms.” He pointed to where a group of silver-haired men and women sat. “Some of them are in their ninth decade and they’ve never been out of this tower.”
“But we’re safe here,” Nestria said.
“I know.” They’d all grown up with the same tale. The people beyond the tower walls didn’t want spellsters in their midst, they were frightened of what magic could do. He didn’t blame them, not when they’d an all-too-real example of unleashed power bearing down on them from the western border.
“So why would you ever want to leave?”
It wasn’t the first time she’d asked. Sometimes, he’d pose the same question to himself and always came back with the same answer. “The easiest way to protect a book is to seal it behind glass, but keeping it safe and unobtainable also denies its true purpose.” The guardians stuffed their heads with knowledge of the outside world, the history of not only this kingdom, but all the others. What good was it if they were never allowed to set foot beyond the tower gates? He leant over the table, his gaze unwavering from the elf’s face. “I’m sick of doing nothing more than just existing.”
Henrie cupped his hands, pressing them to his lips. He stared at Dylan for a long time, before finally speaking. “Your talents—”
“—are wasted here,” Dylan finished.
Henrie smirked. “That’s what I was going to say. If the overseers think you’re strong enough to compete, then win this thing.”
Nestria glared at their friend over her mug of ale. She slammed the drink down, sloshing it everywhere. “But then he’ll be leashed, his magic useable only at the sanction of others.” She turned her glare on him. “Is that what you want?”
“You mean it’s not that way now?” True, for the most part, he could use his gift whenever he wished, but he rarely did nowadays outside of sparring and the occasional intimate moment. For most other times, it wasn’t worth the risk of being caught.
She opened her mouth to speak, then shut it as her gaze shifted to over his shoulder.
A tiny figure collided into his back. Strong fingers grabbed his robe, tugging it. “There he is,” a familiar voice said. “The hero of the day.”
“Jenny.” He twisted on the bench, careful to ensure his hands remained steepled on the table before him so that anyone could see he wasn’t initiating any contact with the woman clinging to his side. “Heard about that, have we?” He scanned the crowd. Somewhere in that throng was Ben. The pair could only mingle briefly even in public places. Dylan had no intentions of getting between Jenny and her overprotective lover.
The woman smiled up at him. Her lips had barely parted to speak before her eyes, so eerily similar to his in both shape and colour, darted to one side.
“Oh my, yes,” said a less-than-welcome voice at his back. “And rumour tells of how the overseers are letting you into the brawl, despite having already chosen the top twenty from the bouts.”
He risked a glance from the crowd to the rather severe-looking woman planting herself at Jenny’s side. “Sophie, how nice to see you again.”
The woman’s already narrow lips grew thinner. Her face, especially the large blue eyes, had a sort of etherealness to it that suggested elven ancestry somewhere in her blood even if those flushed pink ears lacked the points. “You better not think that, just because they let you skip the bouts, you’re going to win. I’ve entered the last five contests and—”
“Yet, you’re still here,” Henrie interjected. He’d rounded the table and now stood at Dylan’s shoulder. The man leant an arm on the table. “How embarrassing it must be for you to know the overseers haven’t sent their best and most powerful spellsters to stop the war.”
Sophie sneered at the man, then poked Dylan’s chest. “Don’t stand in my way. I am leaving this godsforsaken tower.”
He gave her his widest, most charming, smile. Even if she didn’t win, if the overseers truly thought she was of as much worth as she believed, they would’ve sent her ages ago. “Well, the brawl will decide that, won’t it?”
“That it will.” Squaring her fine-boned jaw, Sophie marched off, all but dragging poor Jenny with her.
Dylan leant back to watch them leave and froze. There was a small, slightly soft and globular, weight on his right shoulder. “Hen? Could you get your chest off me?”
The man chuckled long and low. “I could.” The elf put more of his weight on Dylan’s shoulder. “But I don’t think I will right now. I could do with a bit of relief; my back’s killing me.”
Dylan tipped his head to the side. He didn’t like reminding Henrie of his differences, but if the man’s monthly pains were troubling him… “You know, you’re free to ask me for help if it’s too much some months,” he whispered. “I do it for Ness all the time.” He’d been tending to his friend’s monthly pains since his first successful attempt in suppressing the pangs that had her blacking out. Of course, neither friend would no longer have that sort of assistance if he managed to come through the brawl as the victor.
A twinge of guilt hit him at the memory of Nestria lying on the floor in agony. Maybe he should fail.
He mentally waved the thought away. There were plenty of strong healers here to help her through those times. Just as they’d done before he mastered the ability. She’d be fine without him. Wouldn’t she?
Henrie grunted and gave Dylan a playful shove, breaking his musing. “I’m a big boy. I can handle a little pain.”
Dylan pursed his lips. Most men didn’t experience this particular type of pain. He’d learnt from Nestria how bad it could get, but he couldn’t imagine having to deal with it as a man. “If you’re sure.”
“Don’t give me that look. Just get on with stuffing your gob already.” He reached over the table and grabbed a slice of bread from his previously untouched plate. ”I am going to place a few wagers on how fast you can take Sophie out, because you know she’s already planning on taking you first.”
Nestria gave a muffled squeal. She leant across the table, knocking over the remainder of her drink. Her hand waved, holding up two fingers, whilst she visibly fought to swallow a mouthful of bread and cheese.
Finally, she was able to speak. “Put me down for two minutes. I’ve got a bottle of Sulin’s powerful stuff coming my way.”
“Are you sure you want to risk it?” Dylan asked. “Two minutes is a rather optimistic goal.” He hadn’t seen Sophie fight since they’d last sparred fifteen years ago. It could take far longer than a few minutes to suss out an opening in her attacks.
His old friend grinned, the candlelight playing along her teeth and making her rather blunt and altogether human-like canines seem longer and more… elven. She winked at him. “Hen’s right. If it’s truly what you want, then just remember: Soph always fights with fire.”