Chapter the Second
Adara looked out of the narrow window of her room and stared intently at the placid waters of Lake Behari. The waters were dark, nearly black, although pure to drink and wash in. Despite completing her first year at the University, she still was unable to tear her gaze away from the captivating expanse of the lake once it captured her regard. When she lived at the castle, her rooms never faced Lake Sehari, the twin to the lake she gazed at now. Both lakes were roughly circular in nature; Lake Behari lay at the western end of Southern continent, and at its widest point was nearly seventy five leagues across. Lake Sehari, the smaller of the two and the one that hosted the Castle of the South, was slightly more oval, but only sixty seven leagues across at its widest point. Between the two lay Gamlin’s Sound, a narrow, navigable channel of water built in what most scholars believed to be the Age of Ascension. Such magery was, alas, lost to the modern world, but Gamlin’s Sound stood as a monument to the advances in magic and engineering that were a hallmark of the South. The moments she shared with Lake Sehari were infrequent, although not for want of trying on her part. The city of Mahir’Saratis lay along the eastern bank of the lake, and rare were the moments that the only child of the Obverse King would be allowed to roam the streets of the capital city, alone or with her personal guard. The only instances with the lake were moments stolen from parades or city celebrations that she was expected to officiate, where she would escape to the soft white sands of the beach and feel the waves lap and nibble at her toes and make her wish that she was someplace else.
Here at the University, however, she was not tied to state functions or lighting the Dead God’s stake on Escantide. She did not have to keep company with a squad of CorpseMen, soldiers that had sworn oaths to give their own life in exchange for hers, if ever given the opportunity. She did not have to drink watered wine and feign interest when arrested by white haired earls and barons with enormous guts that talked of war and intrigue and their virile young sons during the parade of dinners she was forever attending, and then pretend not to notice as they stared at her breasts as if hoping she would miraculously disrobe for one of them. Not that she minded being looked it, but she would prefer a little more… circumspection. And someone less than three times her age, perhaps. She was not a tavern wench, after all. Yes, Adara thought that she did indeed like Lake Behari better. Even if she did have to keep one CorpseMen with her. At least it was just one.
“Adara! Open up! Hurry!”
An insistent knocking followed the insistent comments. The door behind her practically shook with the force of her visitor’s thumps. Nadine, no doubt, with another bit of gossip. Even though she was merely the second daughter of a minor noble, she had spent an inordinate amount of time at court, mostly because of her extensive understanding of Water-aspected Sihr. In that time, Adara had grown to know her well. Nadine was Aligned early, and spent many years under court tutelage before gaining admission at the University. It was rare for a person to Align before the teen years; usually you had to go through years of training to be able to determine what your affinity was. Or affinities, if you were an Adept, but those were so rare that it was scarcely worth considering. Had her promise of strength not been so great, or her father’s blood not been noble, Nadine would have been seconded to a midwife, or perhaps an alchemist if her father was a prosperous merchant. On occasion, some early Aligned were sent to the shipyards to help control Air or Water in order to move vessels through the sea more rapidly, but those wretches tended to be the luckless and the poor, essentially sold off to ease a family’s debt.
“Coming,” Adara responded, regretfully leaving her perch at the window and crossing the five short steps from the far wall to the door. Even though she was the first princess to enroll in the University in the last three hundred years, the only concessions they had granted her was a room for her CorpseMen in the men’s dormitory. She liked to think that she was lucky to get a room with a window, but no other first year mages had such luck. No second year mages either, come to think of it. Well, her luck had always been good.
“Hi Nadine,” she started, but was quickly cut off by her friend, who had pushed past a bored-looking Arron, her personal guard. Arron was always looking sort of bored, but Adara had seen him unsheathe his sword and draw blood from the cheek of an overly ardent if somewhat inebriated gentleman in less than two heartbeats. He had looked bored right before that happened as well, Adara recalled. Well, maybe it was part of his look. It was certainly ferocious enough. Like a cat, except one that could rip out your throat without thinking twice about it. Or even breaking a sweat. And his eyes were lovely to look at.
“The Dead God!” Nadine cursed excitedly. “Didn’t you hear?”
Adara frowned at Nadine’s comment. She was not partial to bad language, especially antiquated conceits in the name of an Elder God; particularly a conceit in the name of an Elder God that rejected magic and all other gods. They were mages, and although they did not worship the Younger God that aspected their primary Sihr, they at least gave that Younger God a healthy amount of respect. Well, habits could be hard to break. They grew up worshipping the Dead God, and the idioms of youth were sometimes harder to let go than a preference for sweets. “Really, there’s no need to be vulgar.”
“Vulgar? What? Oh, goodness, never mind that. They found him!” Nadine’s excitement was palpable; her dark eyes sparkled and her round face was rosy with a barely suppressed enthusiasm. Nadine flounced excitedly on Adara’s narrow cot, her deep yellow skirts flaring about her legs. Well-nourished legs, Adara added in her head, although Nadine was by no means portly. She was bit on the plump side, with a little extra padding around the hips and the thighs; not so much as to turn a man’s eye away, but enough padding to keep Nadine from taking a second serving of dessert. Usually. Nadine was no waif, but had a substance to her that despite Adara’s critical eye, more than one man had expressed interest in. Especially when Nadine flounced. Adara had seen Nadine show a scandalous amount of leg when flinging herself on a comfortable chair. Honestly, the girl had no sense of decorum. And those form fitting blouses did not help with modesty either. A couple of more bites of cake, and Nadine could kiss the one she was wearing goodbye. It already strained at the buttons.
Adara’s own dress was made of soft cotton, crisp white to go with the heat of summer. Lace embroidery at the hem and bodice in gold and green represented her family colors, and the crest on her left breast stood for her family; in fact, it illuminated her royalty, which was convenient since she couldn’t very well to go about her classes wearing her tiara. Well, she actually had the first week she was here until she was asked to leave it in her rooms by the Headmaster. Although the dress hugged her body, it certainly did not wrap itself against her every curve no matter which way she turned. Not much as Nadine’s, anyways. Today, Nadine’s dress expressed her preference for yellow; Adara saw her wear it at least two or three times a week. Small wonder, for it went well with her fair complexion and the soft auburn of her hair. Adara privately suspected that Nadine was a bit lazy when it came to the latest fashions; more than once she had caught Nadine repurposing dresses for an evening soirée on the University grounds. Yellow was a stress-free choice for Nadine; she knew that it matched her complexion, so it was an easy color to reach for from within her closet. Of course, that sort of foolery would never have been tolerated at court, but there Nadine had as many ladies-in-waiting as she could ever need in the halls of the Obverse King. More than one of them knew how to dress a careless employer.
Adara was puzzled by Nadine’s comments, which was not all that unusual, given how scatterbrained her friend could be. Nadine always seemed to assume that you would know what she was talking about. “They found whom?”
“What thief?” Adara demanded, genuinely puzzled and a more than just a bit aggravated at her friend’s cryptic comments. “Please start making some sense. You’re being very difficult!”
“The thief,” she stressed. “The only thief that anyone at the University has been talking about for the last five days. The one that broke into the House of Earth!” She tossed her auburn hair back in exasperation, the long tresses still finding a way to cascade over her shoulders. “Really, you need to start paying attention to something other than your hair. And stop biting your lip.”
Adara stopped chewing on her lower lip. “I was doing no such thing,” she snapped, annoyed. Hair this flawless took time to prepare. She couldn’t just braid hair this dark or this long; it would be a travesty.
“He’s a thief from the West, Adara! The West!” Adara could hear the eagerness in Nadine’s voice and despite herself she was intrigued. A little bit. Few people on this side of the Akryn Sea had seen a person from the West. That continent existed in the mists of myth and legend. Adara had heard tales of savage men from the West, tall and pale, with yellow hair and blue eyes that wielded Elder magic, or women that fought alongside their husbands, with sword as often as with animals that they could conjure at will. Others said that the West was a land where reading and writing were crimes, and where men traded women as often as they did gold for craft or horse, and that the fires of war had not ceased to rage there, not in the last thousand of thousand years. War against creatures of folklore. “Nobody knows what he stole, Adara. The House of Earth won’t talk about it, but this thief must have made off with something important. And if it was in the House of Earth, it must have been stolen from under the nose of some of the most powerful Earth magic around.”
Sensible skepticism crept into Adara’s thoughts. The West? No more than a tall tale, she was sure. She wondered where Nadine had picked up that tidbit. “How in the name of the blessed Dead God do you think that to be the case?”
Nadine eyed Adara with what she hoped was a look of exasperation. “Adara, no one knows anything about what was stolen or how valuable it was.” She shook her head, almost apologetically, infuriating Adara. “Why won’t the House of Earth talk about it, Adara? We all know it happened. Wards were tripped, and Aeyn have been hunting for the thief all week. They haven’t even brought up what wards were compromised or how. Whatever it was that was stolen, there must have been magical traps on it. You don’t keep something in one of the Houses unless it is extremely dangerous or extremely valuable. Or both. Can you imagine?” Adara could feel the hair on her neck rise at Nadine’s words. The girl was making sense. This was kind of chilling. “How could any man find a way around Earth wards?” Nadine continued. “Maybe he’s a rogue mage or something. Or maybe he used Elder sorcery, if he really is from the West. Do you think he could do that?”
Adara sighed. Trust Nadine to stab herself in the foot, particularly when she finally started making sense. Rogue mages. Elder magic, whatever that was supposed to be. Soon she would bring up the Traë and maybe some Chaos-spawned Jad’u for good measure. Nadine had an imagination that could give a five-year-old a run for his money. “The West, Nadine? He’s probably from the Westeral district or something. And if he stole anything from the House of Earth, it wasn’t more than a piece of coal. Nobody is stealing anything from a House, especially from the House of Earth. As well try and steal something from the palace of the Obverse King. Or from the bottom of Lake Behari. By the Dead God, Nadine. Please try to keep your head attached to your shoulders. Just this once!” Adara was annoyed at herself for using such coarse language, but Nadine did not notice, or at least deigned not to let on that she had. Maybe the girl did have a brain in that oversized head of hers. Adara wrinkled her nose. “Anyways, that’s enough of your nonsense, Nadine. We have other things to discuss. Please.” Adara reached out and grasped her friend’s hand and pulled her off the bed to soften her words. “I still need to find something to wear at the soiree tonight. You should come with me. I can’t imagine you are planning on wearing that sleeveless white dress with the green trimming again.”
Nadine’s blush confirmed Adara’s suspicions. “Are you crazy?” Nadine asked. “They are going to flay this man alive to find out where he hid whatever he stole. There’s not going to be any soiree tonight. That’s not going to happen, I am sure.”
Adar wrinkled her nose, annoyed but intrigued despite herself. “Are you sure about the soiree? So what is going to happen now? A trial? Maybe a hanging?”
“The thief-catchers caught him, but I hear he hasn’t given back… whatever it is that he stole,” she replied. “It’s still out there somewhere….” Nadine trailed off, looking introspective for a moment.
… for us to find! Adara could hear what Nadine wanted to say but did not. Thank the Younger Gods that she had the wherewithal not to say it, although it was written all over her face. Adara was in no mood for one of Nadine’s crazy ideas. At least they never got past the idea stage. Three months ago, Nadine was convinced that Magus Meridreth, a ranking member of the faculty of the House of Fire, was having an affair with not one but two of his students. She had nearly convinced Adara to approach a certain Sairah al-Vallehr and ask her about her sudden and meteoric rise in the class ranking. And her unusual midnight walks in the University gardens that could take an hour or more. The class gossip also found the sudden rush of concern Sairah developed for her person of note; overnight it seemed that sensible wool and cotton skirts were replaced with satin and silk dresses. Thankfully, Adara came to her senses before actually approaching Sairah and telling her what needed to needed to be said for her own good. Adara prided herself on her even temperament and her good sense. And her luck as well; only a day before they had plotted to confront the girl, she had run off with a very promising Fire mage, inordinately distressing Magus Meridreth, who demanded that the boy be hunted down and brought back, in chains if need be.
“Well, whatever it is, it’s not here, and we’re not going to find it before lunch is over. Let’s go get something to eat. I’m famished.” Lunch with Nadine was typically a predictable event; conspiracy theories interlacing torrid affairs, with a spectral assassin giving redress to a wronged spouse or a victimized legislator. Nadine, fool girl that she was, loved to gossip, despite her abilities with Sihr. Adara was constantly amazed at how much Nadine knew about the nuances of inverting Fire to remove heat from an object, and at the same time her ability to recall the romantic liaisons of the First Seat of the House of Water. Well, at least she would have Arron to look at. His eyes really were enchanting; inordinately so when they were cast in her direction.
Although Mahir’Saratis meant “Jewel of the South” in the Elder Tongue, Adara privately believed the real jewel of the southern kingdom to be the University. It was odd that it was just referred to as “the University,” although a number of kings and University administrations had tried to baptize it with a name. None of them ever stuck. It had been called “the University” for too long, and slowly the name had become an honorific for the only center of Sihr instruction in the known world. The University was simply amazing. Not amazing; breathtaking. It was more a city than just a campus, with dormitories for the students and temporary housing for travelers and visitors. Restaurants and shops lined the streets near the center of the metropolis, with buildings that housed various disciplines lay scattered throughout the acres of gardens and hundreds of statues that adorned the campus. She had always believed that her home at the castle in Mahir’Saratis to be the most beautiful building in the most beautiful city in the world, but that was before she had been Aligned and before her father had consented to let her study and train here. Two years after her first bleeding, she left the castle, the court, her studies, and her lonely father to come here and work to master magery, and her eyes had opened to an entirely new world.
In the first few weeks, Adara was almost bitter to think that she, a princess, knew next to nothing of the wonders of the University. Adara had never even heard of the bridges that arched over ravines or rivers made of what looked to be glass, without beams or arches or any other visible means of support. She could not begin to imagine the impossible beauty of the spires that graced eastern end of the campus; five in all, towering high above the dormitories and classrooms and the shops and businesses of the University. Or even the simple, subtle effects that magic had in a world that was dedicated to its study; balls of light that ignited at dusk that burned without oil or smoke, or heated water that ran into baths, or fruits and vegetables that could stay for months and longer, and never lose their sweetness or flavor. It was here at the University that Adara had found a world outside of partisan scheming, of an interminable array of suitors with political or other ulterior agendas, and of the other typical and endless accoutrements of court intrigue. It was here at the University where Adara found what she felt to be her true calling: Sihr.
The campus itself was built along the far western end of Lake Behari. The rolling hills and verdant farmland that surrounded the lake became inexplicable rocky and treacherous along the banks of where the University was situated. Perhaps not so inexplicably; during the Second Age of Reason, when the University was reputedly built, Earth Aeyn were said to know enough of Sihr to raise small mountains or part the earth if need be. Stripping hills of grass and shearing a side off of a hill in order to create cliffs may not have been a small task, but certainly not impossible for the generation of Aeyn that preceded the creators of Gamlin’s Sound. Each one of the towers was located right off of the cliffs, a stalwart and impressive display of strength and magical ability to any who might seek to approach the edifice with ill intent. The University had been attacked by foreign armies a dozen or so times in the last ten thousand years, but never from the lake. The sheer, two hundred foot cliffs extended in both directions for ten leagues, and the approach by ship was discouraged by aggressive currents, fierce winds, and rushing tidal flows, all of which had been magically enhanced by Sihr practitioners in an endeavor to safeguard their home from the malice of both man and Aeyn alike.
The five towers of Sihr sat in a well-spaced huddle along the edge of the cliffs. Spaced roughly every quarter league apart and built into the very bedrock of the precipice, the towers more resembled impossibly tall naval fortifications than actual buildings, albeit fortifications made of some strange, exotic black stone that was interlaced with an opaque, reflective glass. Each tower was as wide at the bottom as it was at the top, giving a viewer the impression of narrowness when seen from afar, but nothing could be further from the truth. The base was wide enough to house an entire battalion of soldiers and leave room for a baggage train besides. The only exception to this was the Tower of Pathos, which was the color of falling snow, reflecting the light of the sun like a beacon. At night, it would glow with an ethereal luminosity that was ghostlike in its appearance. No one had entered it in thousands of years, and where a door stood in the other towers, an unbroken wall of white confounded the occasional drunken student or curious tourist.
Adara had never been to one of the towers, not even the Tower of Fire to which she was Aligned. Each tower served as the seat of each one of the Houses; Aeyn congregated in force in their towers, where they always had a place to stay, a place to eat, and a place to confer with other Aeyn about their studies and their findings. Mages in training were rarely invited into one of the Towers; they were reserved for the Rite of Quickening that any aspiring mage had to experience, and for the study of advanced magic that was too dangerous to do in an uncontrolled environment. Students were relegated to the more mundane parts of the campus, if floating walkways could be called mundane. If buildings that stood despite impossible angles and spider-web columns could be called mundane.
Adara frowned as walked arm in arm with Nadine. This was not the way to the shopping district. They had walked west once they had exited the women’s dormitories, headed towards the shops and restaurants that lay artfully molded into the contours of the rolling plains and perfectly manicured gardens of the walled campus. “Where are we going, Nadine? This is not the way to the Garment Quarter. I am going to be late meeting the master tailor. The last time I was only five minutes late and he threatened to hold up my dress for another day so he could finish it up. I am not going to let that happen again. Can you imagine? You would think he would have a bit more sense when talking to royalty.” Adara snorted. “What an imbecile. He’s quite fortunate that he happens to be the only reputable tailor at the University, otherwise – “
“Hush Adara, I have to stop at the Three Queens for a moment. I told Orben I would meet him there. Now let me concentrate. I can never remember how to get there.”
Hush? Adara was so surprised that for a moment she forgot to get mad. Until she heard Arron chuckle from behind her. That fool soldier was always nearby. “What! We are doing no such thing. I would not be caught dead in a place like that!” She blushed furiously. “Wait, did you say Orben? Why do you want to meet with him?”
“Oh please, the Three Queens is a tavern, not a brothel. And I want to meet Orben because he knows what is going on with this thief. He mentioned that the thief is being held in the cells.”
She was of course referring to the holding cells built underneath the Tower of Earth, one of the five towers that housed the studies of magic. Well, the Tower of Pathos was empty, but it always had been. No one studied Pathos. It was too dangerous.
The cells were another relic of an era past. Little was known about them, other than what the few visitors and prisoners had related. The House of Earth Aeyn were jealous of their privileges, as were all Aeyn belonging to the various Houses. The cells were said to have been grown directly from the Earth, with counterbalanced Air craftily used to compress the Earth in order to make the space needed for the cells. The bars were said to be of a black, indeterminate mineral, harder than the strongest steel and resistant to magical interference. But what made these cells beyond the ordinary remarkable were the walls. They were said to absorb the ability to use Sihr. It did not eliminate the ability of an Aeyn to use Sihr; rather, the effect of the Sihr was dampened to the point of uselessness. Try to ignite a raging fireball to consume the room and you might see a spark. Outside of the House of Earth, no one knew how extensive the cells were, or how the walls deadened Sihr. Probably the Earth Aeyn did not know either; otherwise it would have been expressed in some of the Earth-aspected Sihr-infused tools and weapons that the House produced every year.
“Orben’s a fourth year mage, Nadine,” Adara said pointedly. “He has probably never even been to the cells. Didn’t he just get rooms at the Tower of Earth sometime this year?” Adara bit off a curse as her foot slipped. One of the straps on her shoe was coming loose.
“As if that mattered. He knows more about what is going on in the House of Earth than the First Seat, Adara. You know what he’s like.”
Adara grimaced. She did indeed. Orben was of noble blood, belonging to a High Family that was raised ten generations ago by a grateful king that fought to construct the South as a kingdom during the Wars of Unification. High Family Harraken made its fortune in the movement and supply of armies during the hundred years of conflict that wracked the East. The High Family had continued to amass wealth during interludes of peace punctuated by a more or less continual state of war for the next few hundred years, solidifying their place as one of the wealthiest and most powerful families of noble blood. They were frequently seen in the royal council chambers, advising the King and the royal household. They were a very well connected family. “How much can he know? It just happened. I cannot abide that man, Nadine. He smiles too much.”
“What?” Nadine sounded offended. “Just because he does not bow and scrape – “
“Oh please,” Adara cut it. “He’s the son of an Archduke. His nobility runs generations deep. And he’s a mage.” She stopped walking, adjusting her shoe as people continued to bump and push against her. “You seriously cannot expect him to be what he purports to be. You better than anyone else should know how the game is played. He is handsome, yes, and those eyes are anything if not beguiling, but the threads of court politics were woven into him from his naming day.” She nearly tripped as her shoe slipped yet again. “Damn this shoe!” She stooped for a moment to struggle with a strap that refused to wrap around her ankle. “Nadine, can you help me with this? I can’t get this thing to tie properly!” She yanked on the strap in frustration, nearly pulling the shoe off of her foot.
“Best hurry, Princess,” she heard a male voice say.
Adara looked up at Arron, finally getting the shoe strap correct. Arron gestured with his head at where Nadine had once stood. Adara looked ahead and saw that Nadine had picked up her pace, glowering as she walked quickly through the crowd of people that stretched in all directions. Adara chased after her, lifting the hem of her dress with a free hand as she walked with what she hoped was a quick buy stately pace. The usually pacific crowd felt oppressive and hot as Nadine pulled ahead of her, ducking and weaving abruptly through the throng of shoppers. Although Adara did not turn around to look, she knew that Arron had stepped closer to her, his roving eye watching for any signs of danger or deceit. Shoulders bumped Adara, and curses followed suit as she dashed off after her friend. “Nadine!” She saw her friend turn a corner ahead and duck into a side street. “Slow down!” She felt the brush of fingers against her arm and her name called out in alarm; Arron, by that voice, worried that she might escape him. She paid no attention and raced to the corner where she saw Nadine turn.
The Three Queens was an older establishment, nestled inside an alleyway and somewhat displaced from the din of the swollen sea of bodies outside. It was favored by bourgeois pretenders seeking to rub shoulders with their more sophisticated and wealthier neighbors, and it did not fail to deliver. Many wealthy sons of nobles with a penchant for being fawned over enjoyed the overpriced drinks, the expensive cheeses, and the unusually attractive service staff, any of which were available for those who had the coin and a tolerance for smaller families seeking to find favor with flattery and grovel. A few steps inside and the bland brick exterior was forgotten as the thirsty patron found himself surrounded in dark oak-paneled rooms, oiled and shined over generations. Sumptuous sofas of leather and suede and other exotic materials huddled around low tables, with service staff hovering around guests dripping in silks and satin. The air was lightly treated with the musky smell of wood, and perfumes mingled in the air from the persons of each noble that sat and talked and drank. Pungent tumbaco burned in pipes from a dozen hands; a new affectation imported from the North some few years ago. Its rarity and its cost had quickly converted the nobility, and purveyors of the various strains of tumbaco were in constant demand. The compendium of smells made Adara feel dizzy. She put her hand out and rested it lightly on Arron’s arm, steadying herself.
Nadine stood next to a tall, youthful man seated in a very ornate chair of red leather and gold trim. A short, perfectly trimmed beard grazed the outlines of his strong jaw and lips, adding a touch of statesmanship to features not yet matured by time and the distress it can wreak. Adara did not care for the preening cast of Orben’s dark, smoky eyes as he looked at the half dozen sycophants that hung at his every word, many of them nodding their heads in rapt agreement as he spoke. White satin cascaded down the front of his shirt like a waterfall, and was complemented by matching bolts at the cuffs of his sleeves and the tail of his shirt, untucked and dangling lazily behind him in the latest faux indolent court fashion. Black slacks with a close fit completed the ensemble, contouring Orben’s slim and lithe form, kept taut and honed by years of whatever military training the Harrakens provided to their sons and daughters. A sheathed dagger was tied into a red cloth belt that hung loosely about his waist, a complex harmony knot betraying the promise of violence held by the unseen blade.
“You do your family a disservice when you speak on that which you know nothing about,” Adara heard him say. He was speaking to an older gentleman, at least three times the age of Orben. “Without knowledge of what was taken, without knowledge of how it was taken, and without knowledge of Sihr and the Aeyn within the House of Earth, you purport to defend punishments and describe the political import of these last few days and weeks. I am surprised.” The man who stood before him turned red, despite his dark and weathered skin. Adara could almost smell the shame and confusion radiating from him, that he was being spoken to thus by Orben. “Nonetheless, your greatest failing was not giving me these opinions, however flawed they might be. It was voicing them in the belief that I would discuss them with you.” Orben waved off the man’s attempts to speak or apologize. “No, no, that is enough. A lady has arrived and I must be in attendance. Leave me.” He stood up and turned to Nadine, whose fool face lit up with the warmth of the sun as his gaze fell upon her. Adara wanted to smack her. A honeyed smile and eyes that linger; this and nothing more to scatter a woman’s wit. Adara thought she might sick up.
Nadine tore her gaze away from Orben’s face. “Orben, we need to talk – “
“We always need to talk, Nadine,” he responded, teasing. The men around him smiled and chuckled. “Can’t you spare a moment with me for quiet reflection? Can’t I take a few moments to just look upon you, at those lips, at those flawless features? Must there always be something?”
“Today, that something is me,” Adara interrupted as she joined her friend, and all the eyes in the room turned to her. “We aren’t here to talk about your plans with Nadine’s lips this evening.” She saw smirks on some faces, but the room was full of astonishment. No doubt shocked that anyone, much less a woman, would have the effrontery to speak to Orben the way she just did. She inched her chin up slightly, knowing that every eye in the room was suddenly upon her. Adara bit back a smile and adjusted the way that she stood slightly, enhancing the classic lines of her body. She wondered how much envy she would inspire tonight. In any case, she was a princess. She spoke as she chose to.
Orben flushed. “Princess Adara. My apologies. I was captivated by my friend’s unexpected appearance here. That, and her smile that warms my heart. Please forgive me. I did not notice you and your guard.” He bowed formally, deeply, almost to the point of mocking her, but not quite.
“Indeed,” Adara responded dryly, not missing the implied slight. “I’ve had the same problem myself on occasion with her smile. Very captivating, yes. However, if you would be so kind as to have a private room prepared for us, I would be quite indebted to you. As Nadine just mentioned, we have some matters with you to discuss.” As soon as the words left her lips, two maids darted away.
Orben nearly scowled, no doubt put out by failing to demand such a room himself. “Consider it done, your Highness. In the meanwhile, might I tempt you with a glass of Nisiyan red? I’m sure you will find it remarkable.”
Nadine, who had been anxiously listening to the exchange, seemed like she could barely contain herself. “Orben, forget the red, this is serious. We need to speak about – “
Orben gently interrupted her with a hand to her cheek. “Patience, love. Not here.” Adara did not think it was possible for Nadine to turn any deeper shade of red, but she managed to. Adara sighed. She would have to have a talk with that girl. She was the one that should be chased, not the other way around.
It only took moments for the maids to prepare a private room. In a few short minutes, the formal dining room was opened and the three were led in by the proprietor of the establishment himself. Arron walked a few paces behind them, quiet and apparently indifferent to everything around him.
Like everything else at The Three Queens, the room was draped in wealth and excess. An oversized table that could have sat twenty men anchored the room. Cheeses and bread of variegated colors and textures were artfully arranged on small plates on the near side of the table. An immaculately kept chandelier of glass hung above it, cleverly lit in dozens of different places by what could only be Sihr. Adara recognized the reticulation of Fire and Air Sihr, welded together to emit a cold light. Different colors danced about the glass and steel ornamentation, chasing each other to some unknown purpose. The effect was more curious than bright, but Adara suspected that this was the intent of the fixture. Arron situated himself behind Adara and leaned against a wall. She looked at the proprietor, a tall, gaunt man with a severe look and immaculately tailored clothes. He smiled at her but the smile seemed sickly and ingratiating, and Adara felt revolted. She had spent far too much time away from court; these sorts of implied promises and obsequious behaviors had never bothered her before. She smiled back at him uneasily and turned her gaze once more to Orben.
“If you would provide us some privacy…” Orben said pointedly, and the proprietor snapped out of his reverie and clapped his hands at the two serving maids. “Come now, let us leave these good people be.” He turned to Adara. “Your Highness, my apologies for not recognizing you sooner.” He bowed deeply to her. “If there is anything you require, please let me know and it will be yours. A bottle of my finest red has been opened for you.” He gestured towards the table, where a bottle of wine sat in a bucket of ice. Ice! The man was shamelessly conveying his wealth. “Please accept it on behalf of my poor establishment.” His eyes lingered for a moment too long, well below eye level, and Adara was tempted to slap him. He bowed once more and left the room with his maids following closely behind him. Orben walked over and closed the door.
“Finally, some privacy!” he exclaimed, but Adara read the warning in his eyes. Be guarded with your words. She grabbed Nadine by the arm to warn her but Nadine spoke anyways.
“Orben! I heard that the thief was caught today by the Earth Aeyns. I need to know what is going on. We need to speak of this and of… what was stolen. I have been reading the Hellagean Prophecies and I think that this theft could be a primary indicator. You must believe me. No one has studied the prophecies as I have. This could be the dawn of a new era, the cusp between one age and the next.” The words tumbled out of her mouth, as though she had practiced them over and over and could only force them from her lips by sheer force of rote memory. “How many wards were broken? What kind were they? How was he found? Did he have the Chains upon his body? Have they been recovered? What is the – “
“Quiet!” Orben hissed. “Have you taken leave of the few senses you have left? Do you imagine we are in your private rooms, with wards against eavesdropping and prying eyes? Still your foolish tongue, woman!” Adara saw Nadine cringe and clamp her mouth shut, quivering with shame as Orben took a moment to collect himself. Such nerve! Adara had half a mind to remind him whose presence he was in, but Orben spoke before she did. “Now,” he said in a clipped, controlled voice, “listen to me very carefully. I have no idea what you are talking about, nor do I care a whit for what fantasies and romances you have been reading. Yes, there was a thief, but as expected, the Earth Aeyn found him. As to how he was able to bypass wards and the Earth Sihr that guarded whatever it is he stole, I know not.” He paused to pour a drink with a hand that yet trembled with annoyance. The first glass was handed to Adara, and Nadine refused a cup with a slight shake of her head, no doubt still stung by his words. Orben helped himself to a drink, not bothering to offer a cup to Arron. The glass touched his mouth and Adara saw his lips draw deep from the dark amber liquid in the glassware he held.
“I would invite both of you this evening to dine with me at the Tower of Earth,” Orben continued in a milder tone, “as it will allay your fears; many of the Earth Aeyn will be in attendance, as will the First Seats of the Houses of both Earth and Fire.” Orben took another sip of the red; this one milder, less anxious. “You have naught to be concerned for, Nadine. I am sorry to tell you that the thousand stories and fables that have erupted in the last few days over this theft are of little importance. This is a matter of some larceny, nothing more. What was stolen was of only small import; it had not been studied in three or four hundred years.” He picked up a small cube of cheese, a light orange in color, and sniffed it carefully. “Ah, a Tirose cheese. Excellent.” He popped it in his mouth.
“An invitation will not be necessary,” Adara responded archly, although her traitorous heart beat faster at the thought. A dinner at the Tower of Earth! They would be the envy of every student at the University. A first year student being summoned there for anything other than very dire circumstances was simply unheard of. And if anyone could assure their presence, it would be Orben. “There is no ‘concern’ on the part of Nadine or myself. Our interests are purely academic.” Did the man think he could speak to Nadine as he did and still expect them to dance to the tune of his flute? She took a tentative sip of the wine; it really was exceptional. Complex flavors adorned her tongue, and the cool wine went down smoothly, if a bit tart. “Although ‘larceny’ seems a bit mild, given that this topic has been on the lips of every student in the last week.”
“Indulge me in this evening, I beg of you,” Orben responded, although he hardly sounded like he was begging anyone for anything. Adara saw his fingers twitch, as if in irritation. She noted that his nails were perfectly manicured. “I assure you it will be worth your while. The dinner will be lavish, with many honored guests from distant lands in attendance. To have insulted the Princess of the South will put me in an early grave. I will perish of shame, your Highness.” The promise of a fete that a pair of first year students would be allowed to attend remained unspoken, but the import of his words hung heavily in the room.
“And the Chains of Khatam?” Nadine asked in nearly a whisper. “Are they returned to the House of Earth?” Adara looked at her. The chains of what?
Orben fixed here with a steely glare, but his voice was smoother than the wine Adara was drinking. “I have no idea of what you speak, my lady. But come this evening and perhaps you can speak to those that would know more of this than I.”
As if that was possible. Still, it seemed that Orben was suggesting that he had more to share with them, but in a more private venue. Nadine looked like she was about to cry. Well, she certainly would be after Adara was through with her. Nadine had not mentioned that she knew what was stolen. “Perhaps you will see us this evening, if we have your word that you will treat us with more kindness than you have so far.”
“You will have no cause for compliant, Highness,” he assured her, although his eyes were cold as he looked at her. “In fact, if you are free, I urge you to retire with me to my rooms now, where my attendants can help you dress and see to your needs.”
“We have dresses that need fitting,” Nadine ventured.
“Alas, you forget who I am,” he responded somewhat dramatically, as though anyone could possibly forget he was not just a mage but the son of an Archduke. He was one of the few high-ranking nobility that was also soon to be a graduate of the University, making him one of the most powerful nobles in the South. “I have a small army of tailors in my retinue, darling. I have attendants that will help you wash, that will dress you, that will assist with those beautiful curls. We will have your dresses brought to the Tower of Earth and prepared for you, fear not.” Orben favored her with a quick smile. “Or you may have new ones made when we arrive. It is of no import,” Orben said carelessly as he put down his glass and picked up another cube of cheese. “I insist. You are to be my guests this evening.”
Adara pulled Nadine’s arm and brought her friend closer to her, cold despite the warmth of the day. “Well then.” she said awkwardly. “I suppose we will, at that.”
In the end, Adara and Nadine went back to their own rooms to get dressed. Adara was not interested in the largesse of Orben, although Nadine had a different perspective that she argued vehemently before Adara finally told her to be quiet. In addition, Adara was interested in making a grand entrance; a vanity, to be sure, but she was a princess. These things should be expected. It was always refreshing to see heads turn and fasten on her; watching curiosity flare suddenly when her name was called, and the subsequent glares of envy from ladies as their consorts’ gaze loitered in her general direction. Refreshing indeed. Adara ran her hands over her hips, smoothing the silken folds of her dress. Men would spill blood just to rest their hands upon these hips, a simple thing that I do every day. Her hands strayed to the flat and taut expanse of her stomach. She wondered how it would feel to let a man touch her as intimately as she touched herself. A rush of heat to her face and she dropped her hands, glad that she was alone in her quarters.
The trip to the tailor was nothing short of a headache. They were late, and he was an unforgiving man. Two hours were spent standing upon a pedestal in a hot, closed room, as the maester found a thousand flaws in the work of his seamstresses. Adara must have changed into her dress half a hundred times, all the while victimized by innumerable pinches, pinpricks, and grunts of frustration from the maester. Nadine had fared even worse, as the maester had completely refused to alter what he referred to “that yellow monstrosity.” He had taken the liberty of bringing a number of alternatives, which Nadine was coerced into trying on. The maester was the one who picked her dress, overriding her concerns and attempted confutations regarding color, style, cut, and fall.
However, Adara had to admit that the effort expended was well worth it. She felt even more beautiful than usual. The dress was an alabaster white, embedded with pearls across the single shoulder and the bodice. It plunged uncomfortably deep, emphasizing her bust line, and the cut along the sides accentuated her narrow waist and the gentle rise of her hips. Adara could scarcely move her arms; the material that ran down to her wrists was as close as a second skin. The length of the dress was all the way to the ground, with a very short train to follow. Walking would be a bit tricky, given how closely the fabric clung to her; fortunately, the slit in the dress reached above the knee, giving her some mobility. Adara had decided to accentuate the dress with the royal tiara, cast in rare white gold and embedded with diamonds and rubies, which went well with the diamond and ruby earrings she had decided to wear. Her hair had been straightened and fell in a simple cascade down her back and shoulders. Tonight she would break the hearts of many a gentleman. And a few that were not, in all probability.
Nadine looked just as beautiful. Well, maybe not just as beautiful, but beautiful nonetheless. Her dress was a deep green color, off the shoulders and down to her ankles. The neck was cut high, and it was fastened in a series of pearl buttons that stretched from her shoulder down and across to her chest. Embroidery ran down both sides of the dress, tracing the contours of her silhouette. One sleeve was full length, and the other was capped. On that arm Nadine wore a black glove that extended above her elbow and was made of a delicate and airy embroidered netting. The effect was entrancing.
“Adara! The carriage is waiting for us outside!” Nadine’s voice echoed from her room down the hall. She had been right; the evening’s festivities had been canceled, much to the chagrin of most of the girls on her floor. Grumbling and the gnashing to teeth were heard when they learned that Nadine and Adara would be attending a private party at the Tower of Earth. Most of the grumbling was done behind closed doors, but Daynnette, a second year student from her floor, openly accused her of using her status as a princess to curry favor with the Aeyn. As though the dress on that flipskirt could get any shorter. Adara was surprised she had the courage to wear those sorts of clothes to a class on Fire. A few threads lost and Daynnette would be in danger of currying favor with the whole class.
Adara teased a few curls before feeling satisfied. She looked at herself in the mirror one last time. Will I set the blood of men on fire and inspire them to madness? A resounding “yes.” She could hardly look any more beautiful; not without a glamour or some other casting of Sihr. Adara would have tried anyways if the use of Pathos was not so dangerous and unpredictable. There were stories of girls that had tried to cloud the eyes of men using Sihr, and the Pathos aspect had left them gibbering simpletons, unhinged in the mind or somehow broken within. Adara might be a bit narcissistic, but not that narcissistic. She could make her way to the Tower of Earth as she was. It was more than enough to break a man’s heart. She was ready.
Adara collected Nadine and walked down with Arron, who had been waiting in his usual place outside her door; unusually, he was dressed in a silver doublet with an attached black kilt. Black sleeves and black hose complemented each other. His silver dress boots were just short of his knee, and Adara privately thought that the rapier that hung at his side went well with the steel points that fastened his doublet and the pewter clasps on the belt of his kilt. Dressed as he was, Arron was difficult not to look at, as evidenced by Nadine’s continual glances and efforts to engage the usually taciturn guard in a conversation. To no avail.
The carriage moved through the Sihr-enhanced streets of the University grounds quietly and without the usual jolting and battering that travelers were usually subjected to. Adara looked out of the window and watched the buildings and streets and people pass by, illuminated by the warm light of the commoners called glow bulbs; in fact, they were impossibly thin and lightly frosted balls of Sihr-enhanced glass that trapped sunlight during the day. At night they would release what they had spent the day catching. Gentlemen walked with ladies on their arm, and less savory sorts huddled in their cloaks and kept to the shadows as they darted from alley to alley. Every few blocks the red and gold colors of a city guard was visible, keeping the watch and holding the peace. Nadine kept up her incessant chatter about dancing with Orben and how dangerous Arron looked and exploring the Tower and even sneaking downstairs to see the reputedly Western thief. Stopping herself from rolling her eyes was a conscious act by Adara. The girl had no sense. How could she imagine such a thing would even be allowed? The Tower would have guards and wards everywhere. Although, in all fairness, Adara herself was excited about seeing the Tower. It was rare for a student to be invited, and even less so to a formal dinner, and that at the behest of an archduke. No matter that she was a princess; the honorifics and titles had been suspended at her admissions to the University, and in the last two years Adara had finally tasted some sort of facsimile of freedom. Even then, there were moments, such as this one, where she missed being the center of attention. Well, that could be changed. She ran her hands down her dress, smoothing the material and making sure it did not wrinkle. She hoped it was more than old men and bearded Aeyn at this evening’s festivities. Tonight, she wanted to break a dozen hearts or more. Tonight, every other woman in that room would burn with envy. Tonight -.
“Adara, are you even listening to me? I said I can hear water breaking against the rocks. We must be near.”
Arron’s voice, ever a rarity, made both of their heads turn to him in surprise. “Look to the west,” he said, nodding his head towards the window opposite Adara. Two heads turned, and both rewarded Arron with a gasp.
A needle of soft white light stretched impossibly from the unseen horizon into the air for an indeterminate height. It was not bright enough to alight the surrounding area, but clear enough to break the black darkness of a moonless night and the treeless crags that the Tower of Pathos was built upon. Adara could hear the roar and rage of Sihr – enhanced tides and currents breaking mercilessly against a wall of unseen rocks that towered hundreds of feet above the waterline. The beauty of the Tower of Pathos, although ethereal, felt precarious and oppressive, as though a dark hand reached out into the night to conceal all but what it deigned to be veracious. Adara repressed a shudder as she gazed upon it; a tantalizing desire to walk within those vacant halls tormented her, but certainly not at the cost of her life. Or her sanity. Whichever the price, the cost was too high.
The rest of the trip, measured in minutes, occurred in silence. Nadine gazed at the Tower of Pathos in rapt attendance, unable to tear her eyes away from the brilliant sight that burned cold in the distance. It did not just glow; something about it called to her. Its beauty was distant, cold, and evanescent if stared at too long. It escaped your sight as water might pass through a loosely cupped hand, finding gaps and paths of escape; slipping away and leaving only a wet memory of itself behind. The Tower’s otherworldly grace shifted somehow if observed too long, and became more menacing, more cruel. Adara shunned it; she fidgeted quietly with the pearls that ran across her dress, her gaze wandering to every point but the window to her left. Every few moments she would make an offhand comment or sigh noncommittally. Only Arron seemed unperturbed.
As the carriage pulled up to the Tower, Adara could help but be amazed at the raw display of Earth Sihr that surrounded them. The ride up to the Tower of Earth happened upon a simple bridge that made its way across yawning fissures so deep that Adara could not even hazard a guess. She did wonder what inconceivable amount of power must have gone to create it, although did she not care to consider what secret weapons and defenses the deep chasms held in their depths. The cropped sound of the horse’s hooves was sharp against the flat and narrow bridge, although it comfortably wide enough for a carriage to pass. Two, if one of the drivers was mad for want of a plunging death. The path they made their way past the bridge and soon wound through hills that stretched and narrowed with unnatural abandon, resembling the jagged spires that she knew carpeted the area around the Tower of Earth. Although Adara could not see, she knew that no grass grew on the twisted and Sihr-warped forest of jagged peaks that now surrounded them. No small animals made their way underfoot, subsisting on flora or fauna that would never grow. The only thing that lived in that unnatural forest were nightmares from dreamscapes, wrought by Earth Sihr to rise up and protect the Tower in times of need. If one could call that life. Adara shuddered and put her hand on Arron’s arm for reassurance. To her irritation, it felt more like holding on to a slab of rock than touching another person.
Their carriage, smooth as ever, pulled up to a wide expanse of grass in front of the Tower of Earth, and Adara got her first good look at it. As she was helped out of the carriage by the valet, it was all she could do to hold her mouth closed and not stare like an awestruck country bumpkin. The milling and humming of beautiful people around her faded from her view; the blazing of torches and the cold phosphorescence of Sihr illuminators dimmed, and even the two massive stone dragons guarding the door that rose from the ground as though climbing their way from a sea of earth receded as nothing more than background noise as she was struck by the entirety of all that was the Tower of Earth. In the darkness, the black tower’s heights were lost to her, fading into a night sky only as something so impossibly tall could. Nevertheless, the scale and grandeur and magnitude of the Tower were evident, despite the limitations of her close perspective and the cover of the night.
Before her was an arched wall of black that extended for a span of five hundred feet in either direction. It was perfectly smooth, unlined except where the two monstrous doors were situated. The lowest part of the building shone almost like a smoky glass, creating dim and foreboding doppelgängers of the people and images that floated before it. Adara’s eyes were drawn to the metaphors of reality that the black wall condescended to reproduce; dark and forbidding, they resembled a cage for shadows or an achromatic mockery of the life beyond the wall more than anything else. Adara blinked, and parts of the image somehow twisted, and broken shadows and their entrails flailed about a sudden violence that was visited upon the pictures. Adara opened her mouth to cry out, but in the next heartbeat the reflections returned to their benign if somewhat ominous state, and she could not be sure if it was a trick of the Tower or a fearful projection of her mind. It was so dim that she could not be certain. Nevertheless, there was a slight pause in the moment; a hush fell upon the hundreds that strolled about outside, and an uneasy susurration made its way through the crowd. A nervous joke and other instances of bravado broke some of the stillness, but the guests knew something was wrong. Wealth and indulgence cannot do away with that atavistic sensitivity to danger that each man walks with, Adara thought to herself. Terror is the shroud we use to hide from the Keeper, and terror is the beast with which he hunts us. Fearfully, she stepped closer to her Corpseman, who was also frowning as he looked upon the expanse of black before him.
“The Tower, she is not well tonight,” she heard Arron say. His hand was already resting lightly on the rapier at his side. “Damn that I have this toy instead of my sword.”
“Not well? What does that mean?” Nadine asked. Adara could hear the taint of fear in her voice as well. “What do you know about the Tower of Earth?”
Arron shook his head and his eyes hardened. “What does a soldier know of anything? I can taste violence. I can remember death. Do you pretend that naught is amiss? I can smell the blood that it yet to come. So too does the Tower of Earth.