An awkward meeting with quasi-stalkers
An awkward meeting with quasi-stalkers
Needless to say, breakfast suddenly became a lot more awkward. I kept back from the trio as they walked up to the house. Why were the mages here? I thought they would have turned back after the first night. It had been a week since I ran—enough time to make it to the Wayfinder’s at a more leisurely pace. Not that any pace was really leisurely in the Wilderness.
Even before Daedalus had told me about it, I had heard of the safe house. Oftentimes, a mage’s first mission was to survive the trip. But these were both veterans. There was no way this was merely a coincidence.
The kitchen door was a simple hinge with no handle, and it swung wide when the group pushed inside, rusty hinges creating a cacophony of irks and sheers. I timed the oscillations and slipped past without a sound. Morag was nowhere to be seen. Across the room, the party faced the living room. A turn to the right and they would see me.
“I can’t believe how much you’ve grown, Kai,” Yechiel said to the younger mage who seemed unsure whether to be embarrassed or preen at the attention.
None of them noticed me as I walked closer, but not too close. I still didn’t know what their intentions were.
The scarred one spoke up. “It is nice to see you again, Yechiel.” His features softened for a moment. “But we came to see if a Nameless made it to the Wayfinder?”
I tensed, his voice was soft but resolved. This was a man used to seeing the worst. He came into the woods to find a body and an imperium. The faster these men left, the better. I couldn’t afford them staying and finding out about why I’d come looking for the Wayfinder.
“Tobin,” she started, hesitating. Maybe out of guest confidentiality?
My mind was already made up. I opened one of the cabinets and let it close with a loud wooden clap.
That fast, the mages’ swords were out as they spun toward the sound. Even upon recognizing me, neither fully relaxed as they put away their weapons.
The older mage, Tobin, was very pale, his scar standing out like a lightning bolt. To these men, I was as good as a ghost.
It was Kai who spoke first, his brown, laughing eyes serious. “Want to come back?” He studied me, taking in my bandaged feet.
I gritted my teeth. Was he really asking me that?
Tobin must have thought the same thing, as he gave his partner a light tuff on the head. “What is wrong with you? She ran to the limits of human endurance, probably has seen who knows what horrors, and you ask her if she wants to do it again?”
Kai scratched his fluffy blond hair, two red imperium rings on his hand. “When you put it like that…”
“Excuse my associate.” Tobin gave me a soft smile like I was a small child he’d just given a sweet. “I’m glad you are alive. I heard the master archivist tell you about the Wayfinder— clever way around the oath, speaking between the palisade and gate like that by the way— so we knew you’d be headed here. We were supposed to escort you so when you met trouble we could offer to protect you if you wanted to return. But you just ran so fast.” He left the other side unspoken. Or return with my imperium if I refused their offer and died.
Kai jumped in, “The judge was furious with himself when you blazed into those trees like a mad rabbit. ‘Stay with her! Catch up to her!’ he told us. We jogged well into that first night trying to reach you before some nasty flyers forced us to find shelter. Tobin was so upset. He was positive you couldn’t make it before nightfall. But I saw how you moved on the bridge. I bet a gold crown against him.” He turned smugly to Tobin, who rolled his eyes and rummaged in a pouch at his belt.
Yechiel interrupted, her face animated. “Actually, she arrived here late, several hours after dusk. Ran smack dab into the ward. I thought she’d killed herself on impact until she finally came around last night.”
Tobin enjoyed his victory quietly, continuing, “You must have been exhausted if you didn’t see the barrier. It’s practically a beacon. Were you being chased by something?”
I glanced between the men. They were waiting for me to jump into the conversation. But Daedalus was the only one who knew the full extent of my signs.
“Asha,” Yechiel said, “They will understand, just as I did. Remember what I told you?”
“Understand what?” Tobin asked.
“I can hear her—she’s deaf!” Kai’s mouth was wide enough to catch flies. “I knew about the gift of tongues, but wow. That is incredible magic.”
I wasn’t deaf, actually, just mute. When I was born, my body was missing some important components, most of which Daedalus had been able to repair with my imperium. My vocal cords were not one of them. But I didn’t bother to correct Kai’s assumption.
I’m right here, I said, frowning.
But the mages were caught up in conversation. “Do you know what this means?” Kai continued.
“What were you charged with?” Tobin turned to me. “Keenan thought Daedalus was trying to use you for some sort of political orchestration to get another chance at being elected to the council. He was hoping the threat of Vashire would spark a further confession. No one imagined you would actually choose banishment.”
Confession? Daedalus hated politics. He practically raised me in the archives. Everything he did was to give me my best chance.
Hesitantly, Kai added, “Why did you run? If Daedalus set this up, you would be immune to whatever your crime was.”
There really wasn’t a choice.
I immediately hated the implications of my phrase, but was as close to the truth as I could say.
I felt sick. Daedalus was under investigation because of me. If I had just left through Anador... but that would have meant accepting my curse would never allow me to go to the Golden Realm when I died. When everyone else would have rejected me, my master guarded my secret, gave me hope by coming up with a plan, and prepared me for this journey.
Now more than ever, I needed a cure. Last night, Yechiel had been fumbling for words. She knew something. I just needed an opportunity to pressure her. And if the hostess wouldn’t talk, my next best chance was the library, but I’d have to play my cards very carefully. Looking into places I wasn’t supposed to could get me thrown out—as could revealing the extent of my curse.
And if the mages found out about that, it would all be over. I might be protected here, but if these mages knew about my curse, they would prevent me from ever returning to Society by the most permanent means possible. Daedalus might even be punished.
Tobin shifted his weight, readjusting the large pack he carried. I hadn’t noticed it before. Had he been carrying it on the bridge? “If it is fine with you, hostess, we’d like to head upstairs to freshen up and relax. My partner and I have gone a week without proper rest.”
“Of course. Once a guest, always a guest.” Yechiel had resumed her detached expression. I tried to remember the point in the conversation where she closed herself off. “I promised you a tour,” she said, opening the door with a squeal and a blast of warm earthy air.
She led me along a cobblestone path, but I walked shoeless in the long grass, enjoying the cool soil through the bandages. Where did M-O-R-A-G go? I asked. I hadn’t developed a shortcut for the enki’s name yet.
“Asleep, I’d wager. He was up late this morning—probably wanted to make sure you ate.” She snorted, like motherly behavior was typical for the monster, before saying, “Oh, word to the wise: stay out of his flower beds. Mess with Morag’s roses and you’ll wish you didn’t have to sleep at night. One time he sewed my dress sleeves shut when I forgot to ward them from the frost.”
Noted. I had enough problems without having my face eaten off by an enki. A chill ran down my spine as I realized the doors didn’t have locks.
Yechiel walked with me, moving onto well-worn grassy paths that led around a number of large gardens and a chicken coop, the sharp scent of fertilizer hanging heavy in the air courtesy to the latter. Away from the house was a small field of some kind of grain, stalks beginning to turn brittle as the end of summer approached. Currents along the coast of Society made winters cold but dry. Here in just beyond the foothills, I imagined snow could bury the house.
Have you ever had to turn away a guest?
“Once, but not for lack of resources. With the energy wellspring here, it would theoretically be possible to survive from that alone for a period. Besides, most of our guests come only for the short term, bringing their own provisions.”
You can eat energy? Why bother with food then? That couldn’t be right.
“Not exactly. Energy exists everywhere in many forms. Life itself is a form of energy. It is that energy we give to imperiums to store, that can be used and directed for magic and healing. In this case, the energy keeps our bodies functioning and whole. But it is only energy. Unless your body is designed, as a few rare creatures are, to convert energy into fiber and nutrients, after a while you would simply wither away. But for short periods it works as a stopgap for starvation. I’m assuming you did not feel very hungry at breakfast?”
That was weird, but it made sense, I hadn’t felt hungry this morning, despite it being nearly a week since I had eaten anything. No, I wasn’t hungry. I confirmed.
You said earlier that filling that imperium took two weeks. Why not use the wellspring?
“I did. But that was a large imperium.” At my quizzical look, she continued. “The stones can come in different sizes—not always relating to their physical mass. For most mages, it’s hard to measure energy other than by an intuition for how much they can safely pull from their own bodies, and how much energy a spell takes. But because of my generator, I have a system to tell how much energy an imperium absorbs from the wellspring. Over the years, I’ve learned to use my intuition to tell how “big” an imperium is based on my system.”
She’d had a strong reaction to seeing my imperium last night. I knew practically nothing about how magic worked, other than what I’d overheard. The archives were mostly journals and scripture from men who liked to write a lot about nothing interesting. There were a lot of day-to-day gossips on the morality of social situations and studies on how agricultural crops could be rotated to provide the best yield. I preferred the illustrated appendices documenting the maps of mages’ pilgrimages to cities beyond the palisade. Understanding how my imperium’s magic worked might give me a clue to how someone might have cursed me.
Can you tell me anything about this? I fingered my necklace, its internal gravity keeping it pressed against my skin.
Yechiel hesitated. She either knew or suspected something. “I need to touch it to read the stone. Is that okay?”
Yes. Maybe I could finally get some answers.
We sat underneath a tree in the orchard that lined the south edge of the property. An old sweet smell hung in the air, like rotting fruit. I could see the deep woods from here, evergreen boughs and thick undergrowth pressing firmly up against the invisible wards.
Yechiel’s fingers were cold against my skin as she lifted my imperium, just slightly. She seemed oblivious to the weight I felt in my own hand when I touched the stone.
Suddenly, she flinched back, shaking her fingers as if they had been burned.
What? What happened?
The hostess looked at me in a way that made me aware of the empty quiet around us and the crickets chirping amongst the shadows I was trying very hard not to notice.
“This is not an imperium.” Her voice was shaking. “What you have is called a siphon, which is monumentally bigger. These can take decades to fill from the wellspring. You cannot let any mage take your necklace,” she whispered.
Well, obviously not. It would kill me. But I didn’t understand what had alarmed her. Before I could ask why, Yechiel’s head snapped up toward a rustle in the grass behind me.
“Hello, all,” said Kai. “Just checking in to see where I’m needed.”
How long had he been there?
His expression revealed nothing. I realized that most of what I thought was dirt on his face were actually freckles as he danced from foot to foot. Without his Society emblem, he looked young. Not that much older than I was. What drove him to such a dangerous line of work?
Yechiel dusted off her dress in a number of sweeping patters, regaining her neutral expression. “Nothing much this time of year. Just laundry and weeding. Plus the chickens, but that’s already been taken care of today. The training ground is all yours if you want it.”