Rori: A Desperate Friend
She sank down further into the blankets and curled her feet up in order to escape the cold. Sunstone, despite its name, was always freezing. It was especially freezing in the early morning. Keir always teased her about not wearing socks to bed but she hated the way they made her feet sweaty during the night.
“Rori...” Keir must have been standing by her bed. He sounded close as he whispered.
Rori huffed, gripping the blanket tighter. “I know... Winifred needs me or something.”
Then she sucked down a gasp and sat up sharply in bed. The night before... Had she truly passed her final trial? She remembered the screaming and the disgusting taste in her mouth. Every time she thought about it, her stomach turned a bit more inside of her. But afterwards, she felt as if she had been cleansed. She felt slightly reborn.
“No, actually...” Keir mused, “Winifred already left to help the King’s army... Well, drafted, more the like...”
Rori snapped her attention to him. “She what?”
Keir was kneeling down beside her bed, face crumpled up with worry. He gave a firm nod. “She was drafted almost a week ago... didn’t she tell you?”
She slowly shook her head.
“Never mind that!” His voice suddenly dropped into a harsh whisper, “They took you for your trial a few nights ago. Do you remember anything?”
“A few nights ago?” Rori strangled the edge of her blanket.
Keir answered her but her thoughts were swimming. Winifred was gone. She left the spire and didn’t even bother saying goodbye. Why hadn’t she? Was Merrick’s death and the trial stressful enough and Winifrd didn’t want her to worry?
It wasn’t fair. Hadn’t she already lost enough that she didn’t have to lose Winifred too?
Keir grabbed her arm. “Rori?”
A cold sweat rolled over her. “What?”
“Do you... remember anything?”
“Nothing. I don’t remember anything.” She shoved the covers away and kicked her feet free. She fought to get her slippers onto her feet. “How could Winifred just leave?” She marched out of the dormitory with Keir at her heels.
“You don’t remember anything? Rumors say you completed your final test in record time... You have to remember something!”
Rori slowed her pace and peeked over at him. “Keir...” She wanted to tell him about the demon because she did in fact remember. She remembered how painful it was, the searing agony that lit her bones on fire. She also knew Keir wasn’t ready to take it. He wouldn’t survive such dark magic.
He heaved a sigh and walked down the hall. “It’s fine. Secrecy and all that! C’mon, then, we’ve got--” He jolted at the abrupt remembrance. His lips thinned bitterly. “Well. I’ve got studying to do. You can do whatever you want now.”
Rori jumped towards him and hooked her arm with his. “I could help out, you know.”
Keir snorted. “Don’t you always?” His shoulders hunched up and he lowered his head. “Probably why I can’t pass any of my tests.”
She smirked and rolled her eyes, giving an over dramatic sigh to pull a smile from him. “If someone would make the attempt to study, he wouldn’t need his friend to do his work for him.”
“I study!” he squealed, voice rising in pitch every time he was distraught. “If half the tomes weren’t in an ancient language!”
Rori laughed, as hard as she could because it seemed like she hadn’t laughed in months. It felt suddenly strange to laugh and carry on as if Merrick hadn’t died and Winifred hadn’t left to fight a war. A war Rori knew little about. And it seemed stupid fighting for a king that she never met in a war that had nothing to do with them. Drafted? Hadn’t the king done enough damage to Mages?
“I’m being serious,” Keir chuckled, not at all able to keep his expression stern. “How do they expect any of us to survive their stupid trials if they can’t even put the lessons in a language people can understand.”
Rori teasingly jabbed him in the side. “You have to translate it yourself! We have this thing full of books called a library--”
Keir slowed in his steps, the humor completely washing from his features. A sudden gloom hung in the corners of his crooked mouth. “I know you can’t tell me but... What happens... if we don’t pass our final test? If I can’t do it will they--”
“Keir,” she muttered.
“I’m not like you, Rori. I’m not skilled. I’m not even that smart.”
“You’re always too hard on yourself, that’s all. If you didn’t stress so much, I’m sure you’d control your magic better.”
“Ms. Serana.” One of the Elder Mages called from the other end of the hallway, chin raised and eyes scrutinizing. “Chancellor Nicaise needs to speak with you in his study.”
Rori quickly whispered to Keir, “I’ll meet you in the library to study, okay?”
Keir raised a shoulder but he didn’t seem too satisfied with their talk.
She watched him amble off down the hall then turned her attention to the Elder Mage. She half expected the old woman to escort her along the way but she just walked off scowling, her gaze lingering on Keir with distaste.
It was true that Keir wasn’t talented, not in the least. He still struggled with basic spells. But he was a good soul and a kind heart who didn’t deserve the stares he got. To be honest, Rori never realized Keir was even under such attention until he brought it to her attention.
She descended the steps to the sixth floor where all the graduate Mages resided. She always knew that one day she would live there in a room with a spacious bed and private bathtub.
“Rori,” he greeted, his voice low and nervous but she recognized it right away.
She spun around to face him as he removed his helmet. Her heart was racing as her gaze met the pale blue of his eyes. It was brief before his attention averted downwards. “Ser Ruslan.”
He bowed his head. “I’m glad to see you’re awake. I mean,” he chucked, shifting nervously as his post. “I was worried that they, er.” He glanced up at her, his cheeks flushing in a shade of red.
She wanted to tell him how cute he was when he was nervous. She wanted to whisper that the red in his cheeks, the way his gripped at his neck, made her heart clench.
Rori shuffled closer but she tucked her hands behind her back. “It was easier than I thought it would be. I’m glad you didn’t have to kill me.” She laughed when he jolted.
He took down a sharp breath, “Yes, as am I.”
She added teasingly, “You wouldn’t have killed me, would you, Ser Ruslan?”
“No,” he blurted. “Well, yes, if you were dangerous. What I mean is...”
“It’s alright.” Her voice lowered and she swallowed back the knot in her throat. “If a demon possesses my mind, I hope it’s you that does it. You’ll be gentle, won’t you?”
His brows arched under the weight of worry. “Please, believe me when I say that I am truly glad you are well.” His gaze jolted both ways down the hall in case someone might see them together.
Her teeth scraped across her bottom lip. She wanted more than anything to run her fingertip across the tension in the corner of his mouth. “Thank you, Ser Ruslan. Perhaps, we can talk about it some more later?”
His lips parted, words caught in his throat. He watched her slowly back away before continuing her stroll towards the chancellor’s study.
Rori looked back at him, smiling tenderly to see that his gaze was still locked on her. She averted her attention forward, swallowing down the scream of excitement that knotted in her throat. She knew she shouldn’t have flirted so openly with him. He was a Paladin. It would distract him from his duty.
When she reached chancellor’s study, he greeted her quite happily, motioning her into the spacious room. It was filled with walls of bookshelves. The desks were cluttered with artifacts and tomes. The room was lit rather brightly with candles and glowing orbs. And upon the dark blue ceiling were clusters of lights like stardust.
“Ms. Serana. Ser Merrick would be proud to see you here like this.”
Her smile began to fade. She forced a grin and nodded her head. “Thank you, Chancellor Nicaise.”
“He always hoped for this day and he told me himself he thought you would be the next Grand Chancellor.” He rounded his desk, not at all guilty to be talking about the recently deceased.
Rori tucked her hands behind her back and buried her nails into the softness of her palm. “He never mentioned it to me.”
“Didn’t want to put pressure on you, I’m sure.” He hobbled across the room and motioned her to follow behind him. They trailed out into the hallway but Rori didn’t pay much attention to where they were headed. She was too busy trying to find the words to reply with. None of them sounded any good.
She finally fumbled out a hollow reply, “He was a good man.”
“Winifred also felt some guilt in leaving without saying goodbye. Sadly the war called for her assistance before you woke. Drafted.” His voice trailed away from him in a slight somber sort of way. “Another nonsensicle war, I’m sure.”
Rori tried digging her nails deeper. Her chest felt heavy and her eyes burned and any moment she might have cried about it all. She didn’t want to keep talking about it.
“Listen to me rambling on.” He chuckled under his breath. “Ms. Serana, you have great promise.”
She followed him through the halls, past various lavish dorm rooms and expensive looking bookshelves. It was then she realized where they were. It was her first time stepping onto the graduate’s floor. It wasn’t entirely forbidden but it was frowned upon. And she broke enough rules that she didn’t need to add this one to the list.
“I hope to take you under my wing and I ask you to begin your studies as an administrator.” Chancellor Nicaise stopped in front of one of the dorm rooms and she could see Winifred’s staff leaning against the wall beside her new bed, a bed that was at least three times as big as her old one. Hanging from the posts above were expensive looking drapes that were tied back to reveal the countless pillows. And in the corner was a gorgeous bath that no one else would use but her.
The chancellor chuckled. “I’ll leave you to consider my proposal.”
“Thank you, Chancellor Nicaise.” She forced a smile and lightened her tone. “I’m honored.”
He smiled in reply then headed back down the hall where they had come. Perhaps he didn’t believe her smile just as much as she didn’t feel the smile. She might have been delighted once to be offered such a position. She had been working hard to reach a higher promotion but now that Merrick was gone, now that he wasn’t there to see it, she didn’t care as much.
The moment he was gone she shuffled into the room, glancing about to see if her new roommates might be in. The two other space were completely empty, their beds neatly made and their desks clutterfree.
Rori raced over to her new bed and gathered up the countless pillows and squeezed them. She fell back onto the plump mattress, nearly swallowed by it. She squealed in delight but her excitement began to fade. For the first time in her life she was alone. Keir would still sleep in the dorms upstairs and whoever her roommates were she imagined they would keep to themselves.
She let the pillows roll away and sat up. No, she had to focus on the positive.
She had her own bathtub. She had privacy. She’d seen the other apprentices naked a dozen times over. She had to share a room with thirty to forty apprentices. Now she had a room to herself with no one snoring in her ear. It was a thin wall between her bed and her roommates but at least it was a wall.
As she sat there, the silence was almost deafening. She’d spent her whole life among the loud rabble of other young Mages in training. Some nights they even stayed up telling ghost stories. Some nights they talked about life outside the spire, their lives before being taken in for study.
She raced out of the room and through the numerous hallways, up the spiraling stone steps to the upper floor’s library where she hoped Keir would be waiting for her. When she couldn’t find the squirrelly Mage, she looked for him in his usual spot in the kitchen. He was carefully and finely chopping vegetables for the apprentices’ dinner.
“Of course you’re hiding with the food.” Rori strolled in and grabbed a knife from the counter. She snatched up a sweet potato and looked it over. “Maybe since you cook so well, they’ll let you stay on as a chef.”
Keir looked up at her for a moment with a hard glare then finished cutting up the carrots. His tone darkened, “They’re testing me tonight. I overheard some of the older Mages talking about it.”
Rori had grown up with Keir. They had studied together for most of their lives. She had spent most of her time trying to better his skills rather than her own. All that she learned about magic was mostly from teaching Keir. His mistakes were enlightening for her and she admittedly learned tricks trying to make spells easier for him.
She knew more than anyone that Keir wasn’t ready for The Travail. He always struggled no matter how much he trained. He lacked confidence. He could barely summon a spark of fire and keep it contained. He once set his own eyebrows on fire. He had to live with that humiliation for nearly a month.
“It’ll be fine,” she lied.
His mousy brown hair was messily in his face as he rolled his eyes at her. “You don’t really believe that.”
She set aside the knife and potato. “I could talk with the chancellor about waiting.”
Keir glanced about the kitchen and moved closer, dropping his voice to a harsh whisper, “I need your help. I wouldn’t ask if I weren’t so desperate.”
“What are you talking about? Of course I’ll help you.” Even Rori started looking over her shoulder. “What’s this about?”
“I know you don’t believe me but they are testing me tonight and they will kill me.”
“Where do you get these ideas?” She crossed her arms and buried her fingers into the plump flesh of her arms. “They can’t kill you without a probable reason.”
Keir’ slips pulled inward with sour impatience. “They do have a reason. They consider me a danger.” He grumbled and put his hands flat against the counter. “A Paladin warned me. He sympathizes with our cause.”
Our cause, Rori thought. What cause?
Keir must have seen her disinterest because he darted quickly, “You wouldn’t know because you’re their shining heir. You’re in line to become the next grand chancellor while the rest of us have to keep our heads down.” He huffed in exasperation and marched towards the door.
“Wait.” Rori snatched his hand and pulled him back into the kitchen. “Fine. Fine. If you think-”
“Okay.” She squeezed his hand gently. “If they-” She sucked in a breath and tried to word her thoughts carefully, “I’ll help you. What’s your plan?”
“I have to get out of the tower.”
“How could we possibly get you out of Sunstone without anyone seeing?” She felt her stomach twist just saying it out loud. They were discussing treason against the Mage Federation and the entire Amitran Kingdom.
“We have to get to the first floor. There’s a tunnel they use to... dispose of the dead and escort prisoners.”
Rori’s skin felt cold as a chill ran through her. “What? What are you talking about?”
“Anyone they think is a problem.” His lips curled into a bitter grimace. “How have you not noticed?”
“People come and go all the time. How could I?” She raked fingers through her hair and tugged at the ends. “I never talked to anyone but you really. I had studies to do and...”
Keir exhaled a loud groan.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered.
“We need access to the lower levels. There’s two keys. One a Paladin carries and one a Magistrate carries. Winifred may have left hers in her desk or something.”
“You want me to steal it?”
“Yes,” he said flatly. “You can access the lower levels that I can’t. Our lives--My life depends on it. Or you could try and steal it off Enchanter Muta. He’s always drunk off his ass. He might not even notice.”
Rori squeezed her sleeves between her palms. “Okay. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Hurry. We only have until tonight.”
Rori left the kitchen as quickly as possible. But the kitchen’s warmth vanished and she was suddenly shaking as she stumbled down the hallway. She buried her hands in the long sleeves of her robes then raked nervously at her hair.
Had Keir really asked her to help him break the rules and escape Sunstone? If the Paladins caught them, they’d be dead for sure. But she also knew that her best friend’s life was in danger. He wouldn’t survive The Travail. She had to help him somehow.
She almost felt tempted to talk to the chancellor. But after her own trial, after seeing how dead his eyes had been, she didn’t trust the old man.
She couldn’t steal from Winifred, either. Her whole life Rori looked up to her like a mother. She nagged, of course, but wasn’t that what mothers did? Before she left she had given her the staff that she had received from her own mentor. The focus crystal was said to have been mined by the Dwarves.
If Winifred were there she could talk to her, ask for advice in a subtle sort of way. Or Merrick. He always had the best advice in tough situations.
Ser Ruslan, she thought, rolling the Paladin’s name around her mind. He was kind. He would be understanding of the young Mage’s situation. Or rather, she hoped he would be. She wouldn’t involve him, not entirely, but asking for his advice certainly couldn’t hurt.
Rori found his standing guard in the hallway, his helmet curled in one arm and his other arm rested over the hilt of his sword. A sword that might have killed her had things gone horribly wrong. But then she knew, she was certain, that he wouldn’t have been able to kil her.
She grinned and snuck closer towards him. “Ser Ruslan.”
His eyes jolted wide for at the sight of her. He smoothed out his features and lowered his voice,“Ms. Serana.”
“I need to ask for your advice. Can we meet somewhere?”
He darted a glance down either end of the hall, the same heated blush coloring his cheeks. “Of course. Meet me at the temple in a few minutes. We can talk there.”
She chuckled and whispered a sheepish “thanks” before rushing off down the hall. She didn’t want to risk anyone catching sight of them. No one would think too much of it, after all, they had both known Merrick quite well. But in the back of her mind, the fear that they’d be arrested began to surface.
After all, they were flirting. She was flirting.
Her face burned from thinking about it.
She gripped the collar of her robes as she slipped into the temple’s quiet chambers. She sauntered past columns and unfamiliar statues of gods. Merrick had been devout. He would often reference them, small little mutterings. Her favorite phrase was, “Guardian’s Mercy, I hope not.”
She smiled a little remembering the way he would blurt it out.
Winifred never attended a service and certainly never made her student. But as Rori looked upon the statues, she wondered what Merrick had seen in them. They were statues of normal looking people, draped in robes, and surrounded in holy elements; clouds, fire, water, trees.
They weren’t Mages, she knew that much. The priestesses always gave Mages a look of disdain as if they were a contagious plague.
She sat down on one of the pews, her hands tucked beneath her legs to hold back the shivers that rattled through her. The temple was oddly quiet but she supposed the whole tower was always like that. Keir would remark that it was out of fear from the Paladin’s glowering at everyone. But didn’t it just make sense for scholars to be focused on their work rather than... talking?
Maybe she was wrong about everything? Why hadn’t she listened to him sooner? Had she really been so caught up in her books and grimoires that she was completely oblivious of the world around her?
The knight’s armor clattered and echoed as he approached. He tried to be as quiet as possible, each of his steps painfully slow until he could gently sit down next to her. He was so large and bulky compared to Rori’s smaller elven frame. The armor certainly didn’t help, she thought while biting back a smile.
He cleared his throat. “You needed advice?”
“I...” She peered over at him then averted her eyes quickly to the closest statue. “Ser Merrick always had faith that things would work out in the end.”
Ser Ruslan kept his attention forward but he nodded his head in understanding. “He believed strongly that our paths have purpose. The Guide of Ethereal Light always ensures we never lose our way even in dark times.”
Her voice softened, throat tightening around her words, “But what if... the path isn’t so clear?”
The metal and leather of his glove carefully enveloped her hand, as if he were afraid to crush her with its weight. “You can always confide in me. Whatever it is...”
She gripped the edge of the pew and leaned forward, taking down a deep breath. “Someone needs my help but... in order to help them I might have to do something bad.” She finally dared to look over at his expression, his narrowed and averted eyes. “I might have to break the rules.”
Ser Ruslan finally darted his attention to her. He studied her for a moment before asking, “What sort of rules do you have to break?”
She wasn’t sure how much she wanted to tell him. The more he knew, the more involved he would be. “I’d rather not say.”
“Whatever it is that they’re asking of you, if they cared about you, they would consider your opinion on the matter.” He just barely brushed the metal gauntlet across her hand, an attempt to be comforting. “As a Paladin and as your friend, I ask you not to do anything that might get you into trouble.”
“What if his life were in danger?”
“He’s done something treasonous, hasn’t he?” He shifted uneasily in his seat. The Paladin didn’t need her to reply. He already knew. “If he’s practicing the dark arts, Ms. Serana, he’s dangerous. The Knight Commander won’t go easy on you just because you were trying to help your friend.”
She couldn’t believe that. He was incapable of doing anything powerful even with dark magic. Keir was a nervous, mousy youth who simply wanted to live without being afraid.
“Thank you. Cyrus.”
His breath startled to a halt.
She nervously nudged her shoulder into his, her heart jolting at the somewhat intimate gesture. “I always enjoy talking with you. Enjoy the rest of your day.” She jumped up onto her feet and made sure to rush out of the temple before he could get too embarrassed. And before she could get embarrassed as well.
His advice had helped in a sense. She knew now that The Knight Commander would execute her for her involvement. But she simply couldn’t stand by and watch Keir be murdered during his Travail. It was the few rare times she wished Winifred was there to give one of her lectures. But her lecture was likely the same as Ser Ruslan’s.
Rori strolled through the halls, making her way to the fourth floor until she stood before Winifred’s bedroom door. She was a Magistrate and had her own personal quarters. She pushed the bedroom door open and slunk into the dark room. With a snap of her fingers the candles flickered into life.
It was a simple room with a study and private bathroom. Everything was decorated in lavish lilac colors. It even smelled like Winifred, sweet and floral. She gathered one of the pillows and hugged it to her chest. For a moment, she didn’t want to think about her task. She took in the calming scent of her motherly mentor then regathered her thoughts.
She shuffled through the space, running her fingers along the cluttered shelves with its odd vials and pressed flowers. Parchment was scattered on the shelf with Winifred’s delicate penmanship. When she reached the desk, Winifred’s keys hung on a leather strap in plainview.
Rori parted her lips and let the anxious sigh whistle through them. She wasn’t stealing, she reasoned. She was helping someone. She would return the key and no one would be the wiser about it. She just had to get the key and hand it over to Keir. Then he could do with it whatever he wanted.
She set down the pillow and grabbed the keys.
She snuck out of the room with a few quick glances then rushed through the halls and up the stairs where she found Keir pacing around the entrance.
She snorted at the sight of him. “Try not to look so guilty,” she mused then presented the metal key.
He snatched the key from her and tucked it into his robes. “I knew you could do it.” He sighed heavily and slumped his shoulders as if fear had been holding him upright. “They would never expect their best Mage.”
“Keir,” she added meekly. “I’ve got to know.” She folded her arms and curled her fingers into their plumpness. “Why would they test you knowing that you can’t cast any spells?”
“How would I know?” His voice rose in nervousness and to avoid the discussion entirely he walked into the stairwell. “We should check to see if the way is clear.”
She followed quickly at his heels. Rori whispered as close to him as possible, “Your voice did that shrill-y thing it does when you lie.”
He ignored her and quickened his speed, nearly leaping down the stairs two at a time. They went down a few floors before he finally muttered, “I’ve been... sneaking around lately. They think I’m studying dark magic but that’s not it. Why would I practice dark magicc when I can’t even light a candle.”
Rori raked back her hair and twisted it over one shoulder. “So, what’s really going on? Can’t you explain it to them?”
Keir shook his head and his hair tossed wildly. He raced off without another word.