“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Sabre felt as though she was being bought all over again. She fought to keep her expression blank as she cursed memories of faceless people milling around her, looking at her as something less than human--an object to be owned, used, and eventually discarded. She sat as quietly as she could on the edge of the cold table, fighting an irrational urge to run for the door and the relative safety of her room. Ashu had called it the Infirmary and she’d almost hit him as she growled, “I’m not infirm, I’m just tired.” But he had insisted and, this once at least, she gave in to him.
This tiny room seemed smaller than she had expected it to be and cold, almost as cold as the odd woman with the barely combed blonde hair who stood staring at her over the edge of a clipboard for what seemed like hours. Nervously, she crossed her arms across her chest and looked away from the strange woman, glancing around the room again. Unlike the rest of the Magic Guild, there hadn’t been much thought put into its décor. Not a single fancy picture or rug in sight. There was just the minimal furniture of the table, a chair, and a large cabinet on the wall. Then another chill swept through her and she shivered. The room was freezing--it had to be--or was it the frosty looks the blonde kept giving her?
Finally the other woman spoke to her, the tone dry and nearly irritated. “My name is Robin Mikasa, the Master of Healing Magic here at the Guild, and I admit its not every day I get a request from the Premier to examine some wandering Tribal girl. You and Master Nash must be…rather close.”
Trying to ignore the tone of Robin’s voice, Sabre gave a hesitant reply, “Well, old friends I guess you could say.”
“Quite, I’m sure,” Robin said dubiously. “Now, what is the problem, Say-ber…is it?”
“It’s Sah-braeh,” she corrected, more sharply than she had intended. Then, with a sigh, she continued; “Sorry. I haven’t been feeling well lately.”
Robin glared at her. “Master Nash implied it went beyond that. What kinds of symptoms have you had?”
She frowned, pondering a few unpleasant words to spout at Ashu for putting her through this ordeal. “I’m tired and I feel sick to my stomach now and then.” At the other’s raised eyebrow she confessed, “Okay, quite often. Sometimes I get bad headaches, too.”
Robin stepped up to her and reached out towards her, surprising Sabre at both the closeness and gesture. She felt a twitch of magic as the blonde held a hand over her stomach. “Thank heavens—at least you are not pregnant. We certainly wouldn’t want any sort of scandals here, now would we? In fact, I suggest you distance yourself from our new Premier. He has enough problems as it is, and your presence will distract him from his duties—friend or otherwise.”
Oh great Ashu, now they think I’m sleeping with you…
As though responding to the expression of exasperation on Sabre’s face, the other continued after a small, and irritated, sigh. “Okay, so you don’t like me. I’m used to that but I will tell you this, Sabre. Anything you disclose to me in this room will remain confidential, between you and me. On that I give you my word, so if you really wish for my help, please be completely honest and do not leave anything out.”
Sabre nodded at the woman. For a moment she thought it was strange that this brusque healer wanted to help her, but Ashu did have powerful friends.
“Very well, let us see what else we can find here. Now, how long as the sickness been with you?”
“Only the past few months. I’ve just been so tired, even after I rest.”
Robin seemed to ponder this and then closed her eyes, “I can sense that you are Gifted without even examining your aura.”
“Yes. I…I am.”
“Powerfully so, I believe. What is the nature of your Gift?”
“I can make people feel things.”
“Through your touch?”
“Fascinating. There have been few cases of such magic ever known. Are your parents Gifted?”
“No, they were not.”
The woman scribbled a note; only lifting a brow slightly at Sabre’s use of the past tense, and then asked another question. “Do you have any siblings or children?”
She bit her lip as she considered how to answer. She would leave Ashu out of this as much as she could by keeping his identity ambiguous, yet still give accurate information in the hopes that Robin would be able to help where the Prairie mages had failed. “I have a brother and a son.”
Robin looked up, as if expecting her to continue. So she supplied, “My brother is Gifted, and my son is showing signs of it.”
“Both of them in the same way as you?”
“No. My brother can command the sky. My son, well, I think he will turn out like me.”
The healer looked at her quizzically. “The sky?”
“He can make storms.”
“Where is he now?”
She took a moment before speaking, the answer more truth than lie. “I don’t know. We were separated as children.”
The blonde nodded as she continued to take notes and query. “Your husband?”
She held her breath as she forced herself to lie again, since changing Gravitt’s cover story would likely result his finding out, and ultimately in the death of her child. “Dead. And he wasn’t, Gifted I mean. He was immune to all kinds of magic.”
“I assume he was related to Gravitt?”
Sabre nodded solemnly, wondering how much this woman knew about Gravitt, and just how much she should say. “He was Gravitt’s brother.”
The mage tapped her chin with her pencil. “You know, Sabre, perhaps you can help me with something, and in turn help yourself. Yesterday at a meeting, Gravitt brought up something called Wild Magic. He claimed it was a phenomenon that ran rampant amongst your people, but didn’t quite explain it well enough for my liking. Perhaps you could elaborate for me?”
Sabre felt a lump form in her throat. She wasn’t sure what Gravitt was up to, but just having it confirmed that he was up to something was enough to increase her worries. “Well, I guess it works like your magic, but it’s incredibly potent and almost never passed from parent to child. It just seems random, for some reason. Some of the legends claim that the ‘Children of the Prairie’ who are chosen to be guardians of their Tribe are blessed with it. Or cursed.... sometimes.”
“So it is a legend?”
“Yes, but it exists.”
“I see. How many of these Children are there?”
She counted them off on her fingers. “My brother was The Storm Child, and Brinson is the Quake Child. I once met the Sea Child, the Fire Child and the Wind Child. Some say there’s an Illusion Child, too, but I’ve never known any that had seen him.” She hesitated for a moment before finishing. “They called me The Death Child.”
“The Death Child?” Robin asked incredulously.
“When I was little I didn’t have any real control—I still don’t, but I learned to be more careful as I got older.” She held her hands up, and glared at the thick leather gloves. “I’ve worn these ever since I can remember. The first time I hurt someone, it was my brother. We were playing, I got angry, and grabbed him. The next thing I knew, he was unconscious, and I didn’t feel too well. He got better, but it was enough to scare my parents.”
Robin nodded as her brow furrowed in understanding. “So they made you wear gloves. Did they seek any other treatment for you?”
“There was a man who traveled on the Prairie and who claimed to have been trained in Vane, but all he did was take their money. He didn’t offer any sort of solution.”
“Do you remember his name?”
The healer seemed annoyed at the name, but her expression softened again before she spoke. “Allow me to apologize on behalf of the Magic Guild. Rauchic was one of our members many years ago, but he was stripped of his title and rank because of matters involving debauchery. He should not be representing himself as a Master of Vane because he is nothing more than a fraud—and a rather abysmal one at that.”
Sabre just nodded, even if she didn’t understand all the words.
Robin tapped her clipboard with her pencil and returned to business. “So they call you the ‘Death Child’ because you hurt your brother?”
“Not just Ashu—I hurt many people.” She forced a gasp down her throat, realizing that she had just given his name. “I guess I scared so many people that they started calling me that. I didn’t like it then, and I still don’t, but I guess its what I am.”
Robin nodded as she looked over her recorded information. “I find it interesting that some of the ‘Children of the Prairie’ have Gifts that are linked to the four elements and the others are not.”
“The four elements?”
The blonde gave a rote response, clearly founded in years of study: “Fire, Water, Earth and Air. All types of elemental magic can be traced through those four groups. I wonder if we are missing an element we never considered before, Spirit, perhaps?””
Sabre nodded, and made a silent prayer of hope that the woman would stop quizzing her on this—after all, shouldn’t the mages of Vane know more about Wild Magic? They were supposed to know everything about all magic, weren’t they?
Robin wasn’t going to let it drop. “Brinson. He travels with you and Gravitt? What is his relation to the two of you?”
She wasn’t ready for that question, but did her best to flub it. “He’s just a friend of ours—of Gravitt and I.”
The healer had the wisdom to be skeptical, “Just friends?”
Sabre felt her face flush.
“Never mind,” Robin said flatly. “That’s really none of my business anyway. But I do need to know—is it true that he can level a town just by ‘calling’ the earth.”
Her blush was thankfully fading quickly. “Yes,” she replied.
“Can he control it?”
As perplexed as she was, she answered the question honestly. “No, not really. Little things he can direct and control, but only sometimes, and I think a lot of that depends on his mood. If he lets it last too long, or if he tries to summon too much at once, then, that’s the end of it. He can’t stop it.”
“Extremely fascinating. I think this information will prove quite useful, Sabre.”
Sabre lifted her head and looked at the woman, the small bit of hope she had been holding back finally surfacing in her eyes. “Does that mean you can tame my Gift? I want to be able to be normal. I don’t want to have to wear gloves all the time and I want to be able to touch people without being afraid of what I might do to them.”
“We’ll see. I’m going to look at your aura before I can make any promises. That should answer the last few questions I have, at least for the moment.”
Sabre nodded and watched as Robin set the clipboard down and slowly waved her hands over her, the woman’s fingers held in what must have been uncomfortable positions as a soft glow surrounded her hands. Slowly, the warmth of her essence filled her and she could feel it enfold her and become visible. She looked at it; the dark red, almost burgundy glow emanating from within and surrounding her. She gasped, seeing that within the glowing shell there were ragged, black holes through which nothing could be seen. She stared at these in a growing horror, knowing that they held death within their emptiness. A moment later, Robin stepped back and broke the spell.
The healer took a seat in the chair across from her and shook her head. “I assume that when you use your Gift, it makes you ill?”
“Yes, I usually feel sick for a few days or so. Sometimes more than others.”
“How do you use your Gift? To heal? To kill or injure?”
Sabre hesitated for a moment before replying. “Usually to defend myself. I have only healed with it a few times, and those were very small wounds.”
“Interesting. Is it easier to use magic when you are feeling positive emotions or wanting to help someone?”
“No. That takes more out of me.” She felt warmth fill her cheeks as she said, “Someone tried to kiss me once and I gave him a shock that set him reeling to the floor.”
“Probably because you are so untrained. Your talents, once mastered, would be wonderful to have in the infirmary. Tell me, do you plan to stay in Vane?”
“Why ever not?”
Even if she had wanted to stay, she knew she couldn’t. Again Gravitt was torturing her! Here, there was a tiny shred of hope, but the reality of the situation was simple—she would not be here in a week’s time, or less. Not able to explain it all for fear of her life, all she said was: “I really don’t like it here.”
“You don’t like Vane? For years people have come to us for help with magic and we turned them away. By our new laws we may no longer do that.” She gave a rueful grin before continuing, “After meeting you, and listening to all of the nonsense that comes out of Gregory’s mouth, I’m beginning to question whether or not we were wrong in the past.” Then, with something that almost resembled a true smile, the healer finished her thought: “You might be able to receive help and training in your Gift if you choose to stay with us, at least for awhile.”
Sabre didn’t even nod. She didn’t have a choice, and there was no point in raising false hopes now.
Robin put the clipboard down and touched her shoulder. “Very well. Back to your Gift—I believe that when you use it, you are actually giving some of your aura away. This is incredibly strange, and not at all how traditional magic works—otherwise, there’d be no mages! Regardless, this theory would account for the blackness in it, and your illness. You recover from your sickness as your body adjusts to your new, thinner aura.
“I’m not entirely sure you do. There is nothing I can do to reverse this, Sabre. It will continue to disintegrate as you use your Gift. And once your aura--your essence is gone-- you are, too. There is no way that I know of to force the aura to regenerate itself.”
Sabre froze, nearly feeling icicles form in her fire-hair.
Robin must have sensed her discomfort and said, “I promise that I will try to find a way to help you, but I can’t guarantee anything. This is something that I’ve never seen before, and I don’t know if any of our volumes in the library even touch upon it. So, in the meantime, all I can do is give you something to treat the symptoms, but again, there really is no cure. Your body will eventually adjust to your reduced, damaged aura--but only if you can abstain from using your gift.” She turned and opened the cabinet, and quickly located what she was looking for. Placing the item in Sabre’s hand, she just said, “These herbs should keep you from vomiting and at least let you feel stronger. When you feel sick to your stomach or weak, eat one, but don’t eat more than five in a day.”
Sabre nodded, still numb from the confirmation of her worst fears.
“Do you have any questions?”
Sabre ignored the twisting feeling in her gut, and asked hesitantly, “If you can’t help me, can you at least help my son? He’s still young enough.”
The corner of the stern Healer’s mouth twitched again into a gentle smile as she delivered the next dose of bad news. “I will be glad to examine him if you wish, but unless I also have the ability to study both his parents and their respective families, I may not be able to make an accurate prediction. Also, you said that most of the time Wild Magic is not hereditary. I don’t know if this will be of any comfort, but most of our skills develop or change as we get older. So whatever talents he may be showing now can be expected to transform as he grows into them. And… you will be there to guide and protect him. I have the feeling that you did not have that as you grew into your power, did you?”
Sabre shook her head, finding no words to speak.
Robin looked at her oddly for a moment. “I know I’m considered something of an ogre by everyone, and not just for the way I look.” She gave a very brief, but real, smile. “A reputation like that comes in handy when I’ve a reluctant patient to deal with, but I don’t like losing patients, and that now includes you. If anything happens, anything, I expect you to come here first thing. Understand?”
Sabre slowly picked her way back to the room she shared with her son. She was still absorbing the news that Robin had given her and trying to find some small peace with it. Oh, sure, she could live a long and healthy life provided she didn’t use her magic. That was the easy part! She hated using it or even thinking about it now. But it wasn’t her choice. Gravitt would latch onto her a few more times and that would be the end of it. He owned her and now he would kill her, just as he always promised—only this time he wouldn’t intend to do it. A sour smile crossed her face as the thought struck her, how angry Gravitt would be if she were to suddenly drop dead before he was finished with her! But even that smile faded as she realized that the animal would only take out his rage on Darian.
Infuriated at the sick twist of fate, she clutched her fists at her side and fought the tightness in her throat. What could be done? If the mages of Vane didn’t know the answers, who did? Would telling Gravitt help or hinder her situation? He might be more careful to protect his investment, or he might exterminate her then and there just for the fun of it. She decided against telling him, but that just brought up a more emotional issue: what about Darian, Ashu and Brinson?
She stopped in the hallway and leaned up against the wall as her stomach flipped. Her son was too young to understand any of this, and so she firmly decided that he would never know. Ashu had too much to worry about as it was, and certainly didn’t need to be burdened with her problems. He wasn’t even really Ashu anymore, and one way or another, as far as she knew, in a week’s time she would be dragged out of his life once again. And this time, she was certain, it would be forever.
But Brinson was another story, and right now she desperately needed some comfort. Being handed a death sentence by Gravitt was something she always expected, but certainly not like this. She could feel the tears filling her eyes, and, after looking carefully up and down the hall for her master, she lightly knocked on Brinson’s door. He opened it almost immediately and upon seeing her, so alone and distraught, he asked the two most obvious questions. “What’s wrong?! Where’s Darian?!”
She shook her head as he pulled her inside the room and then into a gentle embrace. She whispered. “He’s fine, but I need to talk to you.”
Brinson drew her closer, clearly sensing her grief. “Tell me. Whatever it is that has you so upset, tell me.”
In what seemed like one long breath she told him exactly what Robin had said—what her sickness was, how it could be controlled, and finally, how there was no real cure. She tried to be strong, and keep her voice from shaking and the tears from running down her face, but it was in vain. By the time she had finished surmising Robin’s prognosis, there was a spreading wet spot on his shirt.
She knew Brinson didn’t know what to say; she wouldn’t have either, had she been in his position. She didn’t even have to mention Gravitt—Brinson would reach that conclusion himself. He nuzzled her hair, obviously ignoring the warning tingles that even that distant touch generated, and futilely trying to give them both some comfort. When it didn’t work, he began to sing softly into her ear. It was a song he had written for her years ago, and even though his voice was strained at the moment, he still sang it beautifully, the delicately whispered words breaking the boundaries their touch could not.
A falcon soars through the midnight sky
Wings outstretched, she rides the wind
Dancing with stars to the twilight song
High above the world below
Fear is a stranger never known
Pain is a memory lost in time
All her world is the magic tune
And the dance that sets her free
Hers is a heart that none can claim
Though I’ve tried to win that prize
I follow her to the moon and back
High above the world below
Her laughter joins melodic words
Her eyes shine like the stars around us
Reminding me that her one true love
Is the dance that sets her free
My heart sings a song all of its own
As I chase her among the heavens
We fly as one through the ebon night
High above the world below
A child’s game I’m not meant to win
But I cannot surrender hope
So I wait as we soar through the sky
For the dance to set me free
Sabre didn’t acknowledge the end of his performance; she couldn’t as she was still weeping into his chest. The tighter he held her, the more she cried. Gravitt was one problem, and realizing that she could never be with Brinson the way she so wanted to be was another. But the most important thing in her mind at the moment was Darian. Even if she left him with Brinson, then what would happen? It would only be a matter of time before Gravitt killed the both of them, too. What could they do? In one word, one second, it came to her.
It had always been an unthinkable solution. If they did manage to get away, Gravitt would eventually find them, and if they didn’t, he’d find out their plan and kill the child. That was always the promise he held over his slaves’ heads, and it slashed through her mind with the same wrath Gravitt had displayed when he had said it. ‘Escape and fail, you die. Escape and succeed, and whatever family you leave behind will die… as will you once I track you down. And I always find my property no matter how far or fast they run.’
But now, things were different. Vane was different: Gravitt was preoccupied with whatever he was up to, Marcus and Phillip weren’t around, Vane was full of people, Brinson had some money, a port city was nearby, and Ashu probably knew his city and the land around it inside and out. So perhaps, just this once, it would be possible for all three of them to get away. Wouldn’t it? Neither of them had anyone left that Gravitt could touch, not if all three of them could escape him, here, now.
Brinson must have been thinking the same thing, because he whispered to her, “We need a plan. Even as sidetracked as he seems to be right now we will need a distraction, and most importantly, we need a direction. We’ll have to do some research.”
Lifting her head up she nodded, true optimism in her eyes for the first time in years. “Yes. And I think I can find help with that.”
He looked a bit surprised and he seemed to stiffen slightly in her grasp, his gentle words more cutting than she expected. “Yes, I’d heard you made a friend, Sabre.”
“Oh, no, Brinson. You’ve got that wrong. I mean, yes, Ashu will help us—“
He cut her off, in total surprise. “Ashu? He’s here?!”
Wiping her cheeks, she gave a small grin, “Yeah. You know him as Nash of Vane.”
He shook his head, the surprise from only a moment ago being swept aside by this still greater one, “Nash is…okay, now I understand. But the rumors going around—“
“Are just rumors,” she supplied. “Probably spread by Gravitt himself. Something big is going on—“
“Yes, it is. I’m not sure of everything though, he’s playing this one closer to his chest then he ever has before, and that scares me.”
Sabra nodded, a new worry on her face. “Now I fear putting my brother in the middle of this.”
“Does anyone else know who he is?”
“No. I asked him to keep it a secret, though I didn’t say why. He’s already suspicious of Gravitt, but I’m not sure of the details because I don’t know what’s going on.” She sighed, “I don’t think Ashu does either, because I as much as I hate to say it, he seems to have turned into an idiot savant.”
Brinson nodded, “Then he’d best be careful, though I’m sure he can take care of himself—provided he can stay sober.”
Sabre almost hit him for that, but couldn’t and for the first time that day she almost laughed and, carefully, she leaned against his side enjoying the first taste of hope she’d known in years.
Now armed with at least the start of a plan and knowing Brinson was with her in it, a refreshed Sabre walked down the long corridor to her own quarters. She slipped her key into her door and, with Brinson by her side, stepped into the room, looking around for Darian and Ashu. She was about to panic (and curse her brother) when one of her son’s soprano squeals called her attention above her head. As she looked up she saw the two of them floating in the air, almost touching the ceiling. She just glared at Ashu as Darian waved to her.
“Lookie! I can flip!”
She watched with a frightened cringe as her son pushed off the ceiling and did a somersault in the air a good three feet or so above her head. Her idiot brother just laughed. She decided she would kill him later, when she had a moment with nothing more important to do.
“Impressive!” Brinson said with a grin, but her glare silenced him.
Darian giggled louder and did another flip that caused her heart to sink.
Ashu sensed her distress but just cast it aside. “What are you afraid of Sabre? It’s perfectly safe. He’s not going to get hurt.”
“Is this what you do with your spare time? Put small children into mortal danger?”
He didn’t answer her though the disappointment was obvious in his expression. Instead he carefully broke the spell and the two of them landed gently on their feet.
Darian wasn’t happy and stomped as he hit the ground. “No! I wanna fly more!”
“Not now,” Sabre said, as she gave quite an irate glower at the very large child standing in front of her, rather than looking directly at her son. “Perhaps if I ever leave you with Nash again--”
Her brother cut her off as he winked at the boy. “We’ll do it. I promise.”
“Yay!” Darian shouted as he hugged as much of Ashu as he could reach.
No matter how irritated and distraught she was, Sabre just couldn’t stay mad at that moment when she saw her son latch onto her brother. She grinned at the two of them, and then glanced over at Brinson who was regarding the scene with very paternal eyes. Her best friend reached for her gloved hand and squeezed it, as if cueing her to introduce him. She smiled and did so in their language, a feeling of relief warming her as the two men shook hands and spoke words of friendship.
A ride was just what Sabre needed after her trying morning, and Ashu seemed to be the perfect company given the decent mood he was in. He led her out into the nearby forest, and for the first time that morning, a genuine, relaxed, smile crossed her face. It seemed it had been ages since she had smelled a true forest—and even longer since she felt this close to freedom, no matter how illusionary.
Freedom. Brinson’s encouragement had raised her hopes for the first time since Ziggurat’s death and she would do her part. Learning more about the surrounding area and the activities planned for the rest of the week were on the top of her agenda and critical to planning their escape. A pang of guilt tugged at her for doing so, as she would have to gather the necessary information from Ashu, and using him like this had begun to bother her the more she thought about it.
Ashu. Riding next to him again was the realization of a dream she’d had over and over since leaving him in the burning tent. And yet, having found him at last she felt more distant from him than when he had lived only in her dreams. Even the way he sat in the saddle seemed different. He carried himself like a man, and not like the little boy she had known. Sadly, the years had passed and there was nothing she could do to replace them. She so wanted to see him as a child again, with his ribbons in his hair and the laugh that always seemed to hide in his voice. But this too was foolish as neither of them were children any more. She shook her head as she realized she would have to accept him for what he was—and what she was—now. And, more bitterly, also accept the fact that they were on opposite ends of the world even if they now rode side by side.
He glanced at her and stopped his horse from the brisk walking pace the animals had chosen. She turned Matze back to face him. “What?”
“Then why did you stop?”
He gave her a small smile. “I was just looking at you and thinking how grown up you’ve become.”
She snorted. “Well we are both twenty one years old, Ashu.”
“Yeah, I know. But…but…”
“I don’t know. I was just remembering how when we were kids I used to call you all sorts of horrible names, and say that you were ugly, but that’s not true. You’re beautiful, Sabre. I really mean that. I’m also very sorry for the things I said. I wish I could take them all back.”
She grinned at him as her face flushed, “Such compliments and apologies aren’t needed, Ashu. Kids can be hateful to each other, especially when they’re related.”
He laughed, “I guess you’re right, but it still doesn’t make it okay.”
Sabre chuckled letting a smile burst over face. “I know I am, I always was, remember?” With a grin, she turned her horse to continue walking down the path.
He pushed his horse into a trot to catch her, “Wait! I have a question for you!”
She stopped Matze again, and the mare expressed her disgust with a nasty headshake. “What’s the question?”
“Brinson. Tell me about him.”
“That’s the question? What do you want to know?”
He shrugged and looked away, “Well, Darian likes him a lot.”
She sighed, “Yes, he does. And so do I.”
“He still holds to the traditions, you know.”
“Many of us do.”
Ashu rubbed his neck, but said nothing.
She lifted an annoyed eyebrow at him, secretly enjoying in the fact that she could still tell when he was hiding something. “What is it?”
Ashu took a breath and then looked away as he spoke, “When you went to get the horses and I was changing, he asked me for yurfui, which of course I gave him.”
Sabre blushed again. “He is stuck in the ways of our people. Of course we have discussed marriage before, but it was simply not possible. I guess he was just trying to be proper, now that he knows you and who you are.”
Ashu looked up at the sky, “Still Sabre, it doesn’t feel right for me to be filling in for Father in such matters.”
“I know,” was the simple response. “But, as you said, Brinson still lives by the traditions of the Tribes, and since he was not from our tribe, it is only proper that he ask the man responsible for me. With Father gone that leaves only you. Odd as that may feel for both of us.”
“Not that anyone needs to be responsible for you. It’s insane to even have to think like that. You have a child and you’ve been married before. I think you should be in charge of your own life—if you wish to remarry, then do it.”
She bit her lip as he reminded her of the lie she had told him. “You don’t think a remarriage would be sacrilegious?”
“It might go against some of our old laws, but given what you’ve told me about your first husband, I can’t see how anyone--even Althena--could see a second marriage as inappropriate. If anything, it would be the first true marriage for you.”
“Yeah,” she said hesitantly, a bitter taste of regret in her voice. “I guess.”
He glanced off, “People in Vane are allowed to remarry in situations like that—where one spouse has died.”
“Huh?” He sputtered, obviously a bit startled at the question.
“Would you remarry, Ashu? If your wife died?”
“I don’t have a wife,” came the response that sounded like he had just swallowed vinegar.
“But you will, someday, won’t you? Or will your new position keep you from marriage?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t know what?”
“I don’t know if I will marry or if I am even allowed to.”
“Was your predecessor married?”
“Only to his job.”
“I’m sorry, Ashu. This subject is difficult for you. If you don’t want to say any more on the topic, I understand. But if you do, I will listen.”
He dropped the reins on his horse’s neck to let it stretch down for some grass and sighed. “It was perfect, once, Sabre. The girl was perfect. We were really in love with each other; we had plans to make this place something really special. Even when our city was destroyed beyond any hope of repair, we pledged to work together until it was habitable again. And we did! Look at it! If you had seen it four years ago, you would have thought me insane. But for what it was worth, all the sacrifices we made, the two of us recreated this place—we worked day and night, and even when we didn’t think we’d get through it, we always had each other.
“And so, when things started to look like they were finally settling down, I thought I would ask her to marry me, but then she changed. I think it started after her mother died and it began to snowball until I couldn’t even recognize her. She became almost obsessive. I wasn’t as important as her city any more, and I accepted that. She had some things to work through, and I told her I’d do whatever she needed me to, even if it meant stepping back and letting her do whatever it was she felt she had to do. But still she remained distant.
“Finally she came to her senses, or seemed to at least. But then another disaster struck, or maybe reality was just colder than I had expected.” He forced a laugh, “Reality.” He shook his head ever so slightly and continued, his voice more acrid than before. “So I guess by then the perfection had faded and it just wasn’t meant to be. That’s the cruel reality of many things, Sabre. They just aren’t meant to be no matter how real the dreams may feel. Its not fate, its reality. Fate is just a name people give it so they can hate it. But there’s no point. Reality is crushing, all powerful, unforgiving. Wars will be fought, people will die, hearts will be broken, but the world will still go on. This may not be what you wanted to hear, Sabre, but happiness is just a figment of one’s imagination, and the son of two savages doesn’t sleep in the bed of Vane’s Guildmaster, no matter who or what he is pretending to be.”
She had been afraid to exhale during his entire lecture, but he was done now and waiting for a response. In a tiny voice, punctuated by despair all she said was: “I never took you for a cynic, Ashu.”
He shrugged, “I told you that people change, Sabre. Didn’t you believe me?”
“Yes, I know that, but there is something more to this story. You told me that night in your room that no one here knows who you really are. So then, what difference does it make where you sleep?”
“It makes a difference to me.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?!” She snapped.
“It means that while she may not know, I know, and my conscious is killing me. She shouldn’t be wasting her time with me, and if she knew she’d turn away from me even more than she has already.”
“That is the biggest load of horseshit that I’ve heard in awhile. From what you’ve said, she obviously cares about you, and from what I’ve seen, and heard, the feeling is mutual. I don’t see the problem. So what if you are not from this city. Who cares! You said yourself that you are changing the laws and welcoming everyone.”
He sighed, “It’s more complicated than that, Sabre. Besides, I think the last time we had this discussion, you were the one who asked me to wait until after you left to say anything.”
She coughed, he was right. “Fair enough, Ashu.”
He stared at her, “So Brinson. Will you marry him? Do you want to?”
“Maybe someday,” she whispered, and then took the opportunity to change the subject as she pointed out into the thick forest. “Where do these woods go? It seems like we’ve been going in circles.”
He pointed ahead of them, “Another six or seven hours that way at a gallop lies Meribia, the port city. We haven’t been going in circles, but the scenery all looks the same to anyone that hasn’t spent time in these woods. Someone could really get lost out here if they didn’t know what they were doing.”
She edged her horse into a gentle lope without even looking back to see if he was following. She tried to commit to memory the look of the trees—especially the way they bent along the road. When she reached a fork, she stopped, and moment later, Ashu pulled up alongside her. “A little warning would be appreciated, you know.”
She nodded in half-acknowledgement, and asked, “Which way to Meribia?”
“Either. The right is faster since it skirts the hill country and is fairly open and flat. Why? We can’t go there today.” He gave her a lopsided grin. “Besides, I don’t think it’s really your kind of place. Just a big, noisy city full of even more crazy people than Vane.”
She glared at him, “You’re probably right, but I’m just curious.” As he turned his horse around, she dismounted.
“What are you doing?”
“Leaving a sign.”
“Why not? We have been blessed with this beautiful day and a good, safe ride. It is only right to show some respect to the Goddess.”
He didn’t argue with her, but instead asked, “What’s with your brother in law lately?”
She drew the sign in the dirt near the right side of the tree. “Is he causing you trouble?”
“Not yet, but I can’t escape the feeling that’s its coming.”
She wasn’t sure how to answer, since the feeling that she was betraying Ashu was killing her. After a glance around, she said softly, “He is as dumb as a fox. Don’t trust him with anything or anyone you value.”
“So he is up to something?”
“I don’t know. All that I do know is that he is capable of horrible things.”
Ashu nodded and then asked, “What about those canisters? The ones they were putting up when we left?”
“I don’t know much about them. All I do know is that he got them from some smelly man in a town just outside of Vane. They didn’t travel with us all the way from the Stadius Zone. I know. I packed most of the bags.”
“Interesting. Can you describe the man?”
“No. I didn’t see his face, but when he walked past me, he reeked.”
“Steel and grease,” she said as she gave Matze a pat on the neck.
Ashu closed his eyes, and he seemed to say a silent prayer as he dismounted next to her. “Please, Sabre. Tell me anything you know. The man, what did he sound like?”
“I didn’t hear him speak.”
“Did Gravitt bring any fancy jewelry? Like a necklace with a large pendant?”
Her palms were sweating. “I don’t think so. Briggatt’s jewel mines closed years ago. I don’t know if he brought anything from the vault. I’m not allowed in there.”
“How about this--does Gravitt know any mages? Anyone who can manipulate magic to an object?”
“I don’t know.”
“Think, Sabre! Come on, you’ve got have some idea what he’s up to or at least know the people he’s associated with!” He was getting impatient, perhaps frightened, and wasn’t bothering to hide it anymore.
She looked around nervously. “I’m sorry, Ashu. I can’t.”
She felt a rush of magic around him—his temper had cracked, and while she knew he could control his Gift, it still scared her. “What do you mean you can’t? Can’t or won’t? Which is it, Sabre?!”
She shook her head, “Please don’t ask me anymore, Ashu. There are lives at stake here.”
“There are more lives at stake with those canisters, Sabre! A lot more than just yours or mine! Those damn things are going to kill countless innocent people! Gravitt may have sold his little ‘gift’ to the Council, but I know they are deadly! I found out myself just yesterday! If Artie hadn’t been as fast as she was, you’d be attending my funeral, not my inauguration!”
She felt her eyes begin to water as her loyalties ripped at her heart.
“But we have a chance to stop it. Don’t you see? Gregory will help, Robin and Artie, too. Then Mia will have to listen if you know where those things came from or what Gravitt wants with or from Vane.”
She put a hand to face, trying to hide the shame she was feeling, and then looked up, “Ashu, I swear, I don’t know anything else.”
Then his face showed a sudden realization of horror. “You’re involved, aren’t you? Your life is on the line here, isn’t it?”
She had forced the tears back, but still gave a strained answer. “My life is meaningless, Ashu. And no, I’m not involved. Not directly, anyway.”
“How are you involved?”
“I am here, and that’s all it takes,” she whispered as she turned to mount her horse.
Without warning he reached out, gently grabbed her covered wrist, and tried to turn her around. The sudden action took her by surprise and she shrieked in terror, raising her hands instinctively to defend herself. As quickly as it had begun, the paralyzed look on Ashu’s face told her she had been wrong. He was so shocked at her reaction that he dropped his soft grasp on her and just asked, “Sabre, are you all right?”
She shook her head. “I don’t like people grabbing me from behind.”
“All right. I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t know, its okay,” was the curt response.
He nodded, and watched silently as she swung herself back into the saddle. Following her lead, he did the same and turned his horse to start the ride back to Vane. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, Sabre looked over at him with a forced grin, trying anything to break this horrible moment “So, how about a bit of a race, brother? You never could keep up with me, on foot or horseback—especially on horseback. Let’s see if you’ve gotten any better in all the years you’ve been away.”
Wherever his thoughts were, they returned long enough to garner a response. “Hmm…sounds interesting, but let’s make a wager.”
“Oooh, you’re sounding confident,” she teased. “Okay, I’m game, what’s the bet?”
“If I win, you agree to accompany me to the reception tonight.”
“And if I win?”
“Name something, and I’ll do it.”
She smirked, “You’ll wear a traditional headdress to your inauguration!”
She laughed, “Your rules, I’m just following them.”
“Fine,” he said with a wink. “But now I can’t afford to lose!”
The party—or rather the reception, as Ashu had called it—was like nothing that Sabre had ever seen in her life. The large square in front of the Guild manor had been transformed into a magnificent banquet hall. Pike staves adorned with glowing balls formed a warm circle around the entire party while providing a mystic sort of light. People of all walks of life wandered amongst the party, finding their seats, socializing and just enjoying the hospitality of Vane.
She clung to her brother’s arm and they walked through the congregation, noticing that almost everyone seemed to be staring at them--at her. As insane as it was, she was convinced she could hear the whispered comments, feel the disapproving looks, and cringed at once again at being judged by hostile strangers. She knew this was a mistake—one that they would both pay dearly for. But a bet was a bet, and while Ashu wanted her at this reception for whatever reason, she knew it might give her a chance to learn what Gravitt was up to, and when they could hope to escape. Besides, while she would never admit it aloud, she wanted to be here, and had even had let her brother win the race, much to the dismay of her pride.
She smiled hesitantly as a guard positioned near the head table stood at attention, snapping his spear to his side as they passed him. It was an odd feeling to be with someone commanding such power from others—especially considering force or the promise of death was not involved in that demand.
Ashu gave her a wink as he pulled and slid the chair second from the end of the table out for her and then took his own seat to her right. Before she could even blink, two young ladies seemed to appear out of nowhere and swiftly filled the ornate goblets before them with equal measures of water and wine. She couldn’t help but notice that they both seemed to take a bit too long to serve her brother, and felt a smile forming on her lips as she watched them leave, giggling between themselves.
“Friends of yours?” She asked him playfully.
“Not quite. They’re apprentices--the blonde is Norma and the brunette is Danielle. Nice kids but still first year students.”
Sabre laughed as she followed his glance towards the departing pair, deliberately misinterpreting the look. “They are too young for you, Ashu. Although some much more important people here look very young and seem to dress like apprentices.”
He coughed, his expression a curious mix of embarrassment and frustration. “Let’s not discuss that, please.”
She dropped the subject out of respect, but was still embarrassed about the incident in his room. A piece of her was angry with the Guildmaster—why didn’t Mia say who she was? Why did the woman let her think she was just another student in the huge school? If she’d known, then perhaps she could have controlled her tongue a bit more. She regretted being rude almost as much as she did interrupting the two of them when she went back to look for her shirt. Before she could think of something to say, or to apologize for her brashness, she turned to her left and saw an older man with a kind face and salt and pepper hair sitting in the chair next to her. She hadn’t heard him approach—it was more like he just appeared out of nowhere—but sure as she was Tribal, he was sitting there, looking at her with a grin.
The man gave a smirk to Ashu. “Ah, so you’ve been demoted already? I would have guessed it to have taken a bit longer.”
Her brother just shrugged as he took a sip from his cup, wincing as he realized it was the goblet holding the wine and quickly exchanged it for the water. She wished that he would remember his manners and introduce this strange man. She sensed something from him. It wasn’t a bad feeling but it was very, very, odd. Before she could ask the man’s name (since Ashu wasn’t being much help) he raised his glass to the two of them and, with a wink, spoke in the Tribal language: “Miha faqi kinashua misha poori jenki selia.”
Sabre grinned and her brother tapped their glasses with the man’s—whoever he was, he at least knew her first language, and horrible accent or not, that was something. As she finished her sip of wine and started to respond, the blonde woman sitting next to the man leaned over. “Gregory, what nonsense are you spouting now?”
With an impish smile Gregory replied, “Something that sadly you cannot begin to comprehend, Master Robin. But to satisfy your curiosity, it roughly translates to: May hope and love guide your future.”
Robin snorted, and then, looking up towards the center seat of their table, spoke to Gregory quietly. “I don’t see much hope for us at the moment. Not as long as that cursed necklace is involved. Every day she--it becomes worse. And if steps aren’t taken soon it may become irreversible.”
Gregory took a sip of his wine and agreed, “Though there may be many things driving our Guildmaster at the moment, I’m confident that her current condition is rooted in that thing, though I’m convinced it goes much deeper than just the necklace.”
Nash smirked at all of them as he leaned over Sabre, speaking to the older man as though she wasn’t even present. “Of course it does, but it gives us a place to start. I’ve taken the liberty of handling that, but I’m going to your need help for it to work.”
“What kind of help?” Robin asked sharply.
“You’ll see tomorrow.”
“And who said I was going to help you anyway?”
“I did,” Gregory said with a wink. “You know how I love surprises. Especially when they’re on someone else.”
Sabre really wanted to hear the response to that, but Robin just gave the old man a glare that could raise the dead and then slay them again.
Apparently sensing the healer’s skepticism, the velvet-voiced man responded to her playfully, “Haven’t you learned by now not to doubt me, Robin? Show some faith for a change. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to practice a bit of my Tribal on this lovely young lady. It’s been many years since I had so pleasant an opportunity.”
The blonde glared at him as Ashu laughed.
Gregory feigned innocence as he teased her. “Don’t tell me you’re jealous, Robin?”
It was a clipped response that came: “Not in the slightest, Master Gregory.” And then the woman turned away to engage in other conversation though Sabre couldn’t help but see the occasional glances she gave the older man from moment to moment.
Sabre actually felt a giggle slip through her lips at the way the man handled the testy blonde. He gave her a wink and spoke to her again in the Tribal language. “I suppose your brother isn’t going to introduce me, eh, Nash?” He looked over to the now almost scandalized man with a smile. “Sad, how we have failed to properly educate our young men in proper manners and conduct.” The voice, though it wasn’t comfortable wrapping around the coarse gutturals of Tribal, held the unmistakable tone of a gentle tease.
How did the man know who she was! She looked at Ashu. He smiled hesitantly and then brought the conversation back into the common language. “Sabre, this is Gregory Telka, Master of Illusion Magic and…well…he knows everything.”
Despite her stunned expression, the Illusionist spoke again in Tribal, “Everything? I should be so lucky, or cursed. No, not everything, but I do know of you, your family, and your brother. Who, I might add, has become very special to me.”
Ashu turned away. Something was making him uncomfortable.
The man gave a proud, crow footed smile and hesitated before speaking again. “Your brother is also my son.” He paused as he allowed the statement to soak in but quickly spoke again before she could allow her response to fully form. “I know that among your people, leaving your family and choosing another is considered a sin, one of the greatest a person could commit. But I assure you that I am not trying to replace anyone or anything. I know that would be both impossible and horribly wrong. But I needed a family, just as Nash did. And I honor your parents in my own way, and have only asked that he accept my name along with theirs—not in place of theirs.”
She smiled at the man, even though by tradition she should hate him, he was right and seemed very kind. Somehow, she couldn’t even be angry with him. She wondered if he had put some sort of spell on her, but decided if anything, he just had an inordinate amount of charisma.
Her brother coughed, “You’re…okay with this, Sabre?”
She replied in the common language to him, sighing as she felt herself release a thousand years of tradition, praying she was making the right decision. “Yes. I know it does go against our beliefs, but you are lucky to have Gregory.”
“Ah,” the old man began, “I don’t know if I’d call it luck, but I do care a great deal about him, even when he is being unbearable.”
“Which I’m sure is quite often, knowing Ashu,” she teased.
“Well, he does have his moments, but they aren’t so bad, I guess.”
Her brother smiled at the two of them. “Sabre, I know you’ve said that you aren’t interested in staying here, but will you at least stay until Saturday? It would mean a lot to me if you were here for my inauguration.”
She hesitated. Would Gravitt be staying that long? She believed he would, but then another thought crossed her mind—such an event would certainly be enough of a distraction for her, Brinson and Darian to get away. And yet, she couldn’t refuse him. Even knowing that she might be dragged away, or should be on the run, this was something she had to be there for. So, with a smile she just nodded.
Gregory put a gentle hand on her shoulder, “I’ll be sure to find you a seat near the front.”
She smiled at the Illusionist again; his touch was different than any that she’d ever felt. She didn’t even notice her skin prickle like it normally did when someone like Brinson would give her a soft pat on the back. This man in not normal, and yet I feel very safe near him.
The food was served then, and Sabre nearly gasped as she saw it and smelled how delicious it had to be. Never in her life had she seen such an exquisite meal, and decided that come hell or high water she would enjoy it. The conversation was kept light, even when Robin interrupted with some sort of remark that yielded a sarcastic yet humorous reply from Gregory. The two of them were quite a pair, and she secretly wondered how they managed to work together without becoming totally hostile, or perhaps there was more between them than they let on?
The reception was still going on as Sabre excused herself from the festivities. Gregory had done his best to keep her there, and as much as she was tempted to learn more about the unusual man, it had been an emotionally exhausting day and all she really wanted to do was to tell Darian goodnight and go to bed.
As she entered the Guild Manor, her footsteps echoed in the vast atrium, but there seemed to be no one to hear them. She lifted the hem of the dress Ashu had bought for her and walked up the stairs, again cursing the inconvenience of her trappings. As she reached the third floor, the sound of hushed voices caught her ear. Knowing full well that whispers usually meant secrets and secrets usually meant problems, she slunk up against the nearest column and listened.
A man’s voice was the first she heard. “People are starting to notice the difference.”
And then a woman spoke--a very infuriated woman. “What, are you telling me to back off?”
“Yes. I think this has gone too far,” was the hesitating response.
The woman’s smirk carried to Sabre’s ears as she snipped, “Too far? It is just beginning.”
“Then it’s not too late to stop it!”
A snort came before the reply, “It’s years too late to stop it, and I take offense at even the suggestion. I will not stop it! This is our chance. Our best and only chance.”
The man seemed to find his courage, for his tone grew darker. “I don’t want it anymore. I don’t want you to hurt her.”
“A change of heart? It's far too late for that now--not that it would make any difference. Besides, had you been able to carry out your duties that none of this would have been necessary.” The female said flippantly.
The man was emphatic as he whispered, “I made a simple mistake, but I’m glad that I did. I can’t stand to see her like this—you’ve twisted her reality with that charm so much that she doesn’t even know who she is anymore!” He paused, and then admitted rather bleakly, “I’d rather see her with that jackass than turned into your puppet!”
She scolded him again, “We shouldn’t be having this discussion here! We shouldn’t be having this discussion at all! You are as weak as she is! I shouldn’t have wasted my power or the Amise drops on you! Perhaps then you wouldn’t have forgotten the necklace.”
Ashu asked about a necklace…
He growled, “You hexed her? You hexed me!?
There was a pause before the soft, yet arrogant reply came. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to accomplish the task on your own. You are as weak as your father, and twice as stupid! So yes, I had to give her to you.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Sabre saw a flash of light, and then heard a single set of footsteps quickly approaching the other side of her protective column. She held her breath and tried to hide, but it didn’t do any good. Suddenly standing before her was a tall, black haired man she didn’t know. He glared at her in fury for an instant, and then ran down the stairs without so much as saying a word.