I examined the neat pottery jars of herbs, each stoppered and labelled neatly. The wooden shelves they stood upon showed the passage of the jars over the thousands of years Healers had occupied these chambers, the wood worn smooth. Through the doorway to the left of these shelves, the various scents of the drying room permeated. Lavender and thyme were predominant.
I was preparing a tisane for an Arcana who was finding it hard to sleep. Spearmint, chamomile, saint john’s wort, nettle leaf, rosebuds and dried orange and lemon peel for taste. Combined with meditation and a touch of power, he would sleep better, and would be able to focus on controlling his ability.
One of the other healers had returned the nettle leaf to the incorrect spot. I located it, two jars to the left of where it should be and shook my head as I took it down and added it to my mixture. I returned it to its right spot. It was not unusual to have to correct a few mistakes when working the shift behind Joy; but it was accepted and understood. Joy was a new mother and would have had her babe with her during her shift in order to breastfeed. Joy had done her duty to the line.
I imbued the mixture with power and set it next to the notebook where each shift of healers recorded the work of the day. “Sleep tisane mixed for Fleet,” I wrote, and listed the ingredients and measurements, and the instructions he was to follow. I labelled the ceramic jar, tying the tag on with string.
I set it aside and wiped the work surface clean.
“Sorrow.” The Whisper of War stood in the doorway, her hip resting on the doorframe. Over her shoulder, I could see the bright silver head of her new mate, the Old Lord, Shadow. He stood back from the door, against the far wall, leaving a walk space in the hallway free for others. His face was turned away, watching something down the hall. He was somewhat reserved, still trying to find his place in the enclave and aware that his Old Lord origins did not make him easily welcomed.
“Whisper,” I brushed the crumbs of herbs from my fingers and turned to face her. “How can I help you?”
“I want you to go with Strike to Tialsien,” she said.
I angled my head. “The Old Lords are in residence there.”
“We are calling them New Lords,” Whisper corrected. “You were at the enclave meeting.”
“Yes,” I admitted. “But I confess, I wasn’t paying much attention.”
She laughed, delightedly. “Only you, Sorrow, wouldn’t pay attention to a historic meeting.”
“Was it historic?” I wondered, bemused. “It seemed run of the mill to me.”
“Do you ever pay attention?” she sat in one of the consulting chairs. I took her offered hand and let my power flow through her, correcting and redirecting as required. Our contact was frequent, and Arcana performed self-maintenance, so there was little to do.
She carried a zygote. She would, of course, be aware of that, so I did not mention it to her, but I examined it anyway. It was as one would expect to find at such an early stage. “Don’t leave your mate lingering in the hallway,” I said to her as I released her hand.
“He is worried he will scare people,” she told me.
“I am not easily scared,” I was amused.
“No, you’re not,” she smiled. “Shadow,” she leaned forward and called out to him. His head turned, his face lighting at her voice. “Come in,” she told him.
He entered, ducking slightly so as not to hit his head on the lintel of the door, and folded his large frame into the seat next to her, taking her hand with the delight of someone new to doing so. “Hello,” he smiled at me charmingly, a dimple appearing in his cheek. “I am Shadow. I like your room, it smells... delicious.”
“This is The Song of Sorrow,” Whisper introduced me. “We call her Sorrow.”
“Hello Sorrow,” he repeated.
“Hello Shadow,” I reached out my hand to him out of habit. He gave me the one that did not hold Whisper’s and I reached into him. “I am preparing a tisane for someone having trouble sleeping. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. You,” I considered him. “Have a lot of complex solutions in you.”
“I imagine so,” he agreed, amused.
“What would you like done about them?” I asked him. “I could remove, I could remove and reverse, or I could... leave things be.”
“Some of the enhancements I am quite fond of, such as night vision,” he confessed. “The nanites help healing. I am not sure what else you see.”
“Dental... intervention,” I used the less offensive word. Barbarism seemed unkind. “Mostly.”
“Ah,” he thought about it. “What alternatives do you offer?”
“Repairing the tooth, naturally,” I was amused.
“Is there anything wrong with what I have?” he wondered.
“No,” I considered, “just... different.”
“Well, maybe we’ll leave be what is,” he suggested.
“That is always an option,” I agreed, smiling. I could see the appeal he held to Whisper. It was surprising, but there was a disarming charm to him. I released his hand and returned my focus to Whisper. “So, what was so important about this meeting?”
She raised her eyebrows, and then drew them together in a frown as her thoughts processed. “The New Lords, who occupy the outposts on this planet, are about to enter into a war with the Old Lords from their home worlds. The New Lords want the Old Lords to recognise the denizens of this planet as equals and their Alliance as the world’s governing power. The Old Lords are refusing to grant these wishes but propose to move the entire population of another colony world to this one, in order to end a war between the two people’s residing there.”
I considered her. “I may have been more distracted than I had thought,” I admitted.
“Two of the New Lords tested gold for me,” she continued sliding a glance to Shadow out of the corner of her eye. “Which makes us wonder how many other Old Lords would test well.”
“Ah, yes,” that was a startling idea.
“I am holding the shield for the New Lords for thirty days from yesterday,” she added. “And the enclave has agreed that Arcana and sublines may look for matches amongst the New Lords, in order to refresh the lines.”
“And once thirty days have passed?” I wondered.
She shrugged. “They may have resolved their dispute by then, or we may be facing war.”
“We might be facing war?” that was an unwelcome, but not unexpected, thought. It had been foretold that war was coming.
“It is possible, the enclave has not decided what they will do,” Whisper admitted. “They are happy to incorporate any New Lords that are willing to enter the enclave but are not willing to commit to assisting the New Lords with their war, beyond the thirty days of shielding that I have offered. They wish us to withdraw until this war is fought and the outcome known.”
I considered. “And you want me to go to Tialsien now, because?”
“There is a Rogue Arcana in Transition there. She has been drawing on external power sources. We need to lead her through withdrawal, and re-educate her on her power, so that she can control the shield, by the time I surrender control of it, in thirty days.”
“From, yesterday,” I clarified. It was not a simple treatment, to take an Arcana through withdrawal. I had studied the process, of course, but had never had cause to use it. Arcana did not abuse their powers lightly. I mentally reviewed the treatment. The healer I had been trained by had given me the impression he had not approved of the therapy, but he had never disclosed why, and he had taught it to me regardless.
“Yes.” She hesitated. “You are our strongest healer, Sorrow... Only you can accomplish this.”
“Whisper...” I met her gaze. “You are asking a lot. The Light of Peace would be a better choice. He has performed the treatment, and I have not.”
“But you know it,” she replied. “I have asked him, and he will not come. I have consulted with Taria, and she has seen you doing this.”
“Taria?” I repeated and swore in two languages as it sank in that this was unavoidable. I rolled my head on my neck, stretching out muscles as I thought out the proposition.
She grinned. “It will give you and Strike the chance to get to know each other better,” she told me.
I curled a lip at her with sudden anger, and saw her mate react to the threat, moving forward in his chair, his arm pressing Whisper back in hers, his eyes focussing on me. She patted the arm that crossed her torso. “Sorrow is a healer,” she soothed him. “She would not harm me.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” he disagreed. “And healers know the body’s weak points.”
She met my eyes, hers bright with humour. “Yes, that’s true,” she confessed. “And Sorrow could... if she wished it. But, trust me, my mate, that she will not harm me. She is merely...”
“Pissed off?” I suggested.
“Resistant to her foretold future,” she retorted. “You cannot avoid your duty forever, Sorrow,” she said to me. “You will be an adult in a month.”
“Gah,” I wrinkled my nose at her. “You want me to detox an addicted Arcana within thirty days?” I turned the conversation back to its original topic. I might have reservations about the treatment, but it was a healer’s task to heal. I would go, and see what there was to see, and let that guide me. I could always consult with The Light of Peace about the areas I was less sure of.
“And for Strike to educate her sufficiently to take over the shield when the thirty days are done,” she explained.
“Because either of the two is achievable within that time period, let alone both,” I narrowed my eyes. “You are asking the impossible.”
“No,” she denied. “I don’t believe I am.”
We locked eyes, but she was an Arcana, and I was a subline. I sighed in resigned submission. “I will go.”
Her expression cleared. “Thank you, Sorrow. Strike is preparing to leave.”
“I will have to get someone to take over the rest of my shift,” I looked around the chamber, assessing what I might need to take with me. I twisted my bone rings thoughtfully before striding over to the locked cupboard. I pressed my finger to the lock, feeling the stab as it drew blood. The doors released, opening before me.
I selected quickly from the shelves, tying the pouches to my belt.
“I have Hawk coming,” Whisper informed me, rising and drawing her mate up with her. He towered above us, a gentle giant of a man, more interested in the herbs on my shelves than our conversation. “She should be here...”
Hawk rushed into the chamber, almost colliding with Shadow, who automatically caught her by the shoulders, quickly releasing her once she was steady. She gaped up at him, then closed her mouth. “I’m sorry, Arcana,” she inclined her head to Whisper. “I was in training.”
Hawk was very young, not yet fifty rotational years, and still learning control, but she was capable of finishing the shift for me. “It has been quiet today,” I told her, taking my baldric and cloak from the hook and fixing them around me. “You should have no troubles. The tisane is for Fleet, see that he gets it before night.”
“I will,” she grinned at me, delighted to be allowed on shift by herself.
“I will collect a change of clothes and meet Strike, then,” I said to Whisper. The small chamber was overcrowded now, with the four of us.
“I will meet you in the portal chamber,” she replied and led her mate into the hallway.
“The herbs in there are impressive,” he said to her as they walked away. “The kitchens...” his voice faded as they travelled beyond hearing.
I looked around the workspace. Hawk was already busy looking through the notes of the last two shifts. I had a feeling that I would not see this chamber again, for some time. “Joy’s shift starts in two turns,” I told her. “I will leave you to it then.”
“I will be fine,” she grinned at me. “May the ancestors walk with you.”
“We will meet again,” I replied.
“In one form or another,” she agreed.
I went to my own chamber and selected three changes of clothing which I rolled into a small sack. I added to it some herbs from my own supply. I made sure the room was neat and tidy, before leaving; closing the door seemed final.
I did not have farewells to make. My parents were at another stronghold with my siblings. I had no strong bonds at this stronghold, no family and few friends. I had not wanted to move here, but my wishes had not been heeded. I went straight to the portal room from my chamber.
Strike was waiting, sitting cross legged on the ground. He meditated. I did not interrupt him but sat where I could observe both him and the portal room entrance. Strike was a handsome man; tall for one of our people, though not as tall as Whisper’s new mate. His hair showed only half a hand of black at the roots; he was a man in the prime of his life.
He was also the reason I had been forced to move here. We had been tested, as was habitual amongst the Arcana, and we had tested green, a good match, so the enclave had arranged my transfer to this stronghold. I was four weeks short of reaching official adult status, and not in a hurry to do my duty to the lines; the transfer was made in the hopes I would become fond of Strike and agree to the match. But I found him... intimidating. I could not imagine doing my duty to the lines with him.
I still hoped for what Whisper had found... a mate. I wanted to be vital to someone. I wanted what I saw in Shadow’s eyes when he looked at Whisper. I would not be vital to Strike. To Strike I would be merely acceptable. I wanted... more.
He opened his eyes and met mine. “Greetings The Song of Sorrow,” he said, his voice deep and mild. “Does the day find you well?”
“It does, although I would prefer not to be leaving the stronghold,” I told him, honestly.
“The New Lords at Tialsien expect us. We will be safe there.” He rose gracefully to his feet, so I did likewise.
“I know,” I acknowledged. Strike would not understand my reluctance. Duty was paramount to him, always. Whisper had been blunt that we were being sent together to allow us the opportunity to get to know each other better, in the hopes that we would find each other acceptable to do our duty by the lines. By we, I meant me, I corrected myself. Strike would do his duty because he was Strike. I was the one, reluctant.
Strike took a step closer, looking down at me, his green eyes unreadable. “I - ” he started, but the door opening and Whisper and Shadow entering, interrupted him. He turned his head towards them.
“- lavender cake,” Shadow was saying.
“I don’t know,” she seemed dubious. “Lavender seems an unusual ingredient. Sorrow,” she greeted me. “Shadow is hoping to steal some of your drying lavender to make a cake.”
I raised my eyebrows. I was relieved we had been interrupted. “If he wishes it, he is welcome to that in the drying room. Lavender is in plentiful supply.”
The silver haired Old Lord beamed. “You’ll see,” he told his mate confidently. “Thank you,” he added to me.
“It belongs to all,” I demurred.
“I am prepared niece,” Strike inclined his head to Whisper. He was not a man to procrastinate. I had a fleeting moment where I wondered whether he would be equally industrious in his service to the lines... before I pushed it away. It was an uncharitable thought.
“You both understand the task at hand. Do you have any questions?” she asked, looking mainly to me, because she knew I had not paid attention to the meeting.
“Detox the Arcana,” I repeated the pertinent point. “What else is there to know?”
She met my eyes, and her lips curled at the corner. “Have fun,” she said.
I raised my eyebrows at her.
She smirked and drew the portal shard from her necklace, drawing blood. She blew to form the portal ring and cast the blood bubble out. The portal opened to a plateau. I could see a large vegetable garden, and a stately avenue of trees. There were no people in sight. Strike turned to Whisper. “We will meet again,” he said to her and inclined his head to her mate.
“In one form or another,” Shadow replied, apparently delighted with the opportunity to offer the ritual phrase. Whisper grinned at him, fondly.
I want that, I thought, feeling the spike to my heart sharply.
I followed Strike through the portal and felt the vacuum as it closed behind us.
I breathed deeply; the air smelt differently here. There was no mineral scent of rock; the vegetable garden had been recently watered, and the wet soil released its petrichor. I could smell water, a lot of it, and knew it came from the caves in the valley of the gorge. There was the scent of smoke, and cooking, as well.
From the valley, voices rose and fell, and light flickered. I could see the elaborately carved buildings of Tialsien on the opposite side of the valley. There were forty houses carved onto each side, each beautifully and intricately done, across four levels, with external walkways made safe with elaborate balustrades and stairs leading up at one end and down at the other. A bridge of woven grasses stretched across the gorge, a newer addition, creating a short cut to the other side, where construction of houses looked to be underway.
The plateau had been a barren windswept field, but now had a grand avenue of trees leading down to the staircase and dividing an extensive vegetable garden from a flat area where vehicles were parked. Someone was constructing buildings in which to house the vehicles, and rooved workspaces framing the vegetable gardens with guttering and barrels for catching runoff water.
Beyond this area was a field, knee high in growth. Some sort of grain, I speculated.
Tialsien was lived in.
“This is new,” I observed. “Only last year, this was...”
“Yes,” Strike agreed, meeting my eyes. “There is life now here. I don’t find it offensive. Tialsien was meant to be occupied.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “It was.”
He smiled at me, his eyes warming, glad that on this we aligned. He was trying, I knew, to forge a bond between us. I was... insane, stubborn, and pig headed. I had heard all three adjectives used describing me. There were many, many others who would be overjoyed to have any match with Strike. A green match was more than respectable.
The fact that I felt nothing for him... it did not seem to matter, or even be comprehensible, to others.
“They are expecting us?” I queried. “You would think that if it were so, there would be someone to meet us.”
“I do not think Whisper was specific as to when we would arrive,” Strike replied. “We should go below and announce ourselves.”
I wasn’t sure what our reception would be, if we just walked down the stairs. But if he wished to do so, I did not out-rank him. “If you think so,” I demurred to his authority.
He began down the stairs, and I followed behind, obedient and subservient.
No one else was abroad. The houses had fresh screens and shutters in the windows. Sound, light and smells spilled through the screens. It was time for the evening meal. On the valley floor, large fires had been built, and hoppers and other prey were being roasted. The smell of meat rose, sharp and tainted. “Not killed to ritual,” Strike observed.
“No,” it made the bile rise in my throat.
On the second level, someone walked out of a house and crossed our path. The woman hesitated, frowned, and then screamed, before running back inside. Strike and I exchanged wary looks. It was only a moment before people came from every direction, weapons pointed at us. Black blades, and projectile weapons unfamiliar. Strike and I knelt, placing our hands on the stone floor so they could see we held no weapons. “We are here to render assistance to the Arcana Briar,” he told the stone beneath us.
There was a ripple through the gathering. A path parted, and a small white-haired woman walked through. She was shadowed by a large silver haired man; I scrutinized him through my lashes. He was of a similar build to Whisper’s mate. I wondered what it was they fed these men, that they grew so tall and broad.
The white-haired woman was shockingly young. A stray subline Arcana, I noted. The white hair wasn’t natural, but the result of some terrible accident with power. Her eyes were grey; and unsure.
“You are Briar?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she seemed to find me easier to speak to than Strike. “I am Briar. Who are you?”
“Sorrow,” I raised my posture so I could face her but remained kneeling. “The Song of Sorrow.”
“I have met The Whisper of War.”
“It is she who sent us,” I verified.
“To help me,” she confirmed. “To learn how to use my power correctly.”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“And this is?” she looked at Strike.
“The Strike of the Honourable,” I introduced him. “The Whisper of Wars’ uncle.”
“Oh,” she seemed surprised by that. “You don’t look old enough...” she said to him.
He met her gaze. “The Arcana live long,” he told her, solemnly.
“Of course,” she said, although her tone was otherwise. “So, you are here to teach me,” she repeated. The crowd eased, withdrawing into the buildings around us. We were no longer alarming.
“I am here to help you through your withdrawal from external power sources,” I told her honestly. “I am a Healer.”
“You look like an Arcana,” she was confused.
“Strike is an Arcana,” I told her. “I am a subline.”
“The Song of Sorrow is the strongest Healer to be produced by the sublines in four generations,” Strike informed her. “Her power is comparable to the Arcanas, though more concentrated.”
“But she is not an Arcana,” she replied, dismissively, refocussing her attention on him. “I have not met a male Arcana.”
“The Song of Sorrow’s line throws up Arcana every generation,” he told her, tersely. “It is one degree off a pure line.”
“I did not mean to be insulting,” she was immediately apologetic. “It’s just I have met so few... like me.” She was wistful and lonely. I could understand that. It was hard to be alone.
“I understand,” he conceded. “You would benefit from some time in a stronghold. We cannot offer you that, but we can,” he glanced at me, “help you reduce your dependency on external power sources.”
“You are asking,” her mate was defensive, “a leap of faith from us. That Briar’s use of power is incorrect and addictive... destructive... She has exhibited no signs of imbalance that we have noted. For us to trust you that she needs your intervention... and to let you take control... you ask a lot of us.”
“We do not lie,” Strike met the silver Old Lord’s gaze evenly. “We have nothing to gain from lies.”
“Not all subterfuge is immediately visible,” the silver Old Lord replied evenly.
“No,” Strike agreed, grimly, “As I suspect we are about to learn.”
I felt the bite of a device against my neck. I identified the medication within as being meant to render me unconscious. I let my body collapse as if under its influence, even as I countered its effect, and noted that Strike did the same. We fell into waiting arms that protected us from harm. “The sedation still works,” the silver Old Lord who was mated to the Rogue Arcana Briar, observed.
“That is good,” a grey-haired Old Lord woman, the one who had approached from behind and administered the sedation, commented. “It is our only defence against them.”
“What do you think they mean to do to Briar?” he wondered, darkly. “I do not trust them.”
“No,” she agreed. “They claim she is tainted... wrong somehow. But I cannot see it. We should summon Nexus. Get him to... see what their intentions are.”
“Agreed,” he was hesitant, however. “Nexus... is playing another game at this time.”
“Nexus is always playing a game,” she replied unbothered. “If we know he’s playing a game... he’s not dangerous to us. It’s when we don’t know... that I worry.”
Strike and I were carried down to the cell on the third level of the houses. They placed him on a straw mattress on the floor and laid me onto the built-in bench seat. “The cell kept The Whisper of War contained,” the grey-haired woman commented. “Hopefully it will do likewise for these two.”
“I hope they’re as reasonable as The Whisper of War was,” he replied quietly, “and do not take this the wrong way.”
“Is there a right way to take this?” she replied.
They departed, locking the cell door behind them. The door was constructed of metal bars, so I was able to observe their departure to the end of the hallway and out onto the walkway beyond. I remained relaxed until Strike moved. “There is no guard,” he murmured quietly, standing and moving to the bars so he could look down the long hallway. “But we should keep our voices low anyway as sound carries.”
“Agreed.” I swung my legs off the bench.
“This is not as clear cut as Whisper would have us believe,” The Strike of the Honourable observed. “They do not understand the taint or believe that their Arcana is subject to it. I will meditate until they return,” he decided, taking a seat upon the straw mattress.
I made myself comfortable, standing guard. After about an hour, an aircraft passed overhead. Within the depths of the cliff, I could not track it visually, but audibly, I could follow it to landing, on the plateau. Moments passed, and then movement outside the hallway, someone crossed the opening. More time passed, and then two people crossed the opening again, heading into a house to the right.
“They may try to torture us,” Strike observed calmly from where he sat.
“The Whisper of War will be disappointed if our efforts here are not successful.”
“We will proceed as far as we can,” he met my gaze.
The grey-haired woman, a silver-haired woman and a black-haired man walked down the hall towards us. Strike stepped back from the bars. The grey-haired woman considered us; she did not seem surprised to find us awake and alert, so I determined she had used a mild dose of sedative. “We wish to speak to one of you,” she announced. “We will take the woman.”
Strike looked at me to ascertain my wishes, I shrugged and stood. “Very well.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Step back against the far wall, face it, and remain there,” she told him.
He did as she instructed. I stepped towards the bars, and, when she unlocked the door and opened, stepped out. The silver-haired woman kept her weapon trained on Strike as the grey-haired woman locked the door behind her. “Come then,” the silver-haired woman turned her weapon to me. “Down the hallway and turn right.”
“We are here to assist your Arcana,” I told them as I obeyed. “You were notified that we would be coming.”
“Yes, we were told,” the grey-haired woman agreed. “But we have no evidence that Briar requires aid, and no evidence that your people mean us well.”
“Our Arcana have taken over management of the shield,” I offered her as they directed me into a house to the right of the hallway. The black-haired man exchanged a look with the silver-haired woman and turned off to sit on the windowsill and wait. I wondered why he was not invited inside.
The grey-haired woman paid no notice to the non-verbal exchange. “Again, no evidence that was necessary, and now you have control of our defence system.”
Strike would have taken the trap door to the oubliette by now and would be making his way back up to this level using the internal staircase. He would follow us, and position himself to render aid, should it become necessary.
We entered a doorway into the kitchen and living area of this house. I vaguely recognised it. I had visited Tialsien a few times during my childhood, but it was not the closest relic to the stronghold of my family, and I had bathed in the waters of that relic in order to absorb the repository of history, rather than Tialsien’s waters.
Within the room, the Arcana Briar, her silver-haired mate, and another waited. The other caught my attention. His first-world grey hair hung loose and straight to his waist, and his grey eyes sat deep in a face too pretty for the scowl he wore. His features were balanced and regular; he was too handsome, without the natural flaws that made a face beautiful or not, as if his features had been manufactured for appeal, rather than made by nature. He was distracted by a device on his wrist that threw up colours into the air – a holo-projection that I could not read as the writing was reversed from my angle.
My guards stopped me in the centre of the room, and the silver-haired woman closed the door behind us. The window was shuttered. They wished the content of this meeting to be kept secret.
The Rogue Arcana looked to the grey-haired Old Lord her expression unreadable. Her silver-haired mate shifted slightly. “Do not hurt her, Nexus,” he cautioned in the Old Tongue.
“It’s no use using our language,” the grey-haired Old Lord, Nexus, replied in the Old Tongue, without lifting his eyes from his wrist. “They speak it as well as we do, don’t you?” he flicked the device off, and lifted his eyes to me. I saw something pass across his features, and for a moment he was still, colour rising in his cheeks, then he tilted his head to the side and frowned.
“This is The Song of Sorrow,” Briar said to him quietly. “This is Nexus,” she said to me, politely. “Behind you are Willow and Sky, and my mate is Thorn,” she lifted her eyes to her mate, and smiled slightly, before recalling herself. “We are sorry that we sedated you, but...”
“You suspect we intend you harm,” I supplied for her.
“We don’t know,” she replied honestly. “The Whisper of War did not harm us, and we trust Shadow, and he vouches for your good intentions. However, I have no reason to suspect there is anything wrong with my power.”
“That is a lie,” I observed.
She flinched. Her mate frowned. “There is nothing wrong with your power,” he said darkly. “It looks the same as it always has.” This was not a new conversation between them, I noted.
I considered her. “Have you used your power to take life? Have you used death to augment your power? Have you drawn deeply from the power reserves of relics or other power sources for any use other than to erect the shield?” I watched her expressions carefully and verified that she had done so. “These are known ways that Arcana can become addicted to external power sources or create a taint upon their power.”
The grey-haired Old Lord, Nexus, moved forward until he stood directly before me. I looked up at him, my heart pounding hard against my ribcage. He smelled of open plains, salt and sea winds, and the berries of dark wine. His eyes were the colour of the ocean during a storm, a deep grey. He had shaved that morning and had nicked his skin just below the point of his jaw. The wound was almost healed; there was a technology within him, small metallic devices that worked busily to replace old cells with new and they were healing the wound even as he stood before me. I could do so, much faster, if I touched him.
His eyes dilated as he looked down at me and he leaned forward, his nostrils flaring as he breathed me in, his eyes closing. Scenting behaviour. He moved closer, so I could feel his body heat, and leaned forward until his breath stirred my hair.
“Where is The Whisper of War?” he asked me, his lips against my ear, intimate and gravelly. His voice was laced with power, golden edged. Charmer, I noted. He wielded the power well, although it was not strong. None of the Old Lords in the room were strong in their power, but that was not unexpected.
“She is at our stronghold,” I replied honestly. “With her mate, Shadow.”
“Why did she not come?” he asked. He shifted, brushing his lips against my cheek and breathing me in. My heart picked up its beat to match his. The edges of his robe brushed my fingertips. The material was soft. A floral scent, unfamiliar, clung to his robes, subtly mixed with that of vanilla. If I turned my head, I could brush my lips along his, and I wondered what he would taste like.
“Why would she come?” I pondered. “She is not a healer, nor a teacher.”
That took him by surprise. “Because she is known to us?” he suggested.
“She is needed at the stronghold, and it would be incautious to risk two Arcana when the task requires only one,” I informed him. “The Strike of the Honourable is The Whisper of War’s uncle and is an experienced and highly valued teacher. You are honoured that he was sent to attend your Arcana.”
“Is that so?” he wondered aloud. “Is he your mate?”
“No. I am not in Transition.”
“What does that mean?” he asked me.
“I am not considered an adult. I will be considered an adult in one moon cycle, and then may take a mate.”
“So, not The Strike of the Honourable’s yet,” he observed.
I did not want to answer, for I knew that Strike would be observing. “No,” I replied.
“Good,” he said just loud enough that I heard him. I saw the silver-haired Old Lord, Thorn, shift slightly and cast Nexus’ a frowning glance. He had heard him, too. I wondered at his sharp hearing and suspected that he had a procedure to improve his hearing artificially, as Shadow had done to improve his night vision.
“Are you here to harm Briar?” Nexus asked, louder, so that the others could hear, moving back slightly so he could hold my gaze. He pressed with his power.
I could not answer that honestly. “My primary task is to assist Briar to detox,” I offered.
His eyes sharpened. “What is your secondary task?” he asked, pushing hard with the power.
“To observe and report,” that I could answer honestly.
“What else?” his fingers brushed mine, hidden by the folds of the sleeve of his robes from the others. I felt the energy spark up my arm. I breathed him in, closing my eyes, and healed the wound on his chin.
“To assist The Strike of the Honourable.”
“She’s telling the truth,” he turned his head to look at Briar. His hair brushed my shoulder. I reached up swiftly between us and pulled a few strands free. He did not notice the theft. I wound the strands around my finger and tucked them beneath a ring for safe keeping.
“What do you think?” Briar asked him.
He turned his gaze back to me. “Treat them as guests,” he suggested. “Let them proceed. We’ll keep a sharp eye on them. We want the Arcana as allies, The Whisper of War indicated she was inclined that way. This could be a genuine gesture of goodwill from them.”
“We?” Thorn was guarded.
“I will stay,” Nexus replied firmly. “I have more... experience with these Arcana than you do.”
“That is... unexpected,” the grey-haired woman behind me spoke. I was not sure if she was Willow or Sky, Briar’s introduction had not been that specific. “Can you spare the time?”
“I will work it out,” Nexus hadn’t looked away from me. I couldn’t avert my gaze. My chest felt tight, and I could feel my pulse fluttering in my throat. “Where are you keeping them?”
“In the cell at the moment,” the grey-haired woman behind me spoke.
“Relocate them to a house. I will take a room in the same space,” he instructed, his thumb stroked the skin on the back of my hand. “Soft,” he murmured, to himself.
“Nexus?” the woman behind me asked, quietly.
He shifted his gaze from me. I felt the release as if a string had tied us tightly and had been severed. I steadied my breath. “I will speak of this later, Willow,” he told her. “For now, relocate her and the other. Separate rooms, do not put them in together.”
“As you wish,” she agreed, but her tone was wary. “We will speak of this, soon.”
“Yes,” he looked back at me, and I felt a pull towards him. “Soon.”