Chapter 1: Questions (Prologue)
The Healer turned on the spot and found Lord Rothen half-risen from his chair on the Healers’ Quarter’s corridor, a place he had not left for two days now. She recalled to have heard that his shoulder had been injured during the war but was unsure if it had been treated yet. It was, however, clear that he was not approaching her for that reason now. She had just left Sonea’s room.
“Lord Rothen. Shall we talk somewhere quiet?” she asked and led him to an unoccupied Treatment Room nearby. She offered him a chair, which he gladly accepted. She remained standing, as this conversation was guaranteed to make her uncomfortable. “I am guessing you want to know about Sonea?”
The Alchemist nodded briefly. Vinara sighed. “Of course. You have seen the last fight, haven’t you? Then you know that the energy blast of the dying Ichani threw her against the barrier of the Arena.” Another nod. “The impact mostly damaged her left side, fractured three ribs and cracked a fourth, her left hand and leg are broken. It appears that her shield failed under the strike and therefore left her exposed to the raw power. She’s also heavily concussed, covered in bruises and burns and has barely a spark of power or energy in her body, I don’t know when she’ll be physically able to wake up.”
Rothen considered her words for a moment. “Will she recover?”
“Her injuries will heal eventually, yes.”
He frowned. “But…?”
Vinara sighed again. “We’re not sure. The barriers of her mind are weak, almost nonexistent. If she wakes up, we don’t know in what condition.”
“What are you trying to tell me?” He tried to push himself out of the chair but fell back as he put too much weight on his injured arm. He winced and touched the spot reflexively.
“I am trying to tell you that Sonea has been through a lot, and we do not know how that will affect her. But for now, you should take care of yourself.” She gave him a stern look to underline her words. “I have to finish my round but I’ll send a Healer to do something about your shoulder. Afterwards, you will go home, have a proper meal and then go to bed. If I see you here before at least midday tomorrow, I will send you straight back. You, too, need rest.”
She waited until Rothen agreed, then rushed out of the room to find a free Healer. There were a lot of wounded to attend to, most of them magicians who were unable to heal themselves, either because of lack of skill or power. Only few civilians had been hurt, since the Houses had left Imardin as soon as the oncoming attack became public.
Of course, nobody knew about the people from outside the city. Large parts of the slums had been destroyed in the battle. But there was enough to do as things were, and Vinara tried to keep her thoughts occupied.
Turning around a corner, she instructed a young Healer to have a look at Rothen, and then continued to try and get a picture of the situation.
When she took her seat in the Administrator’s office a few hours later, Lady Vinara did her best to hide her weariness. Against her own advice, she had barely slept in the days since the Invasion; there had simply been too much work to do in the Healers’ Quarters. In her colleagues’ faces she saw similar exhaustion, and the dread of the topics they had to discuss today. The future of the Guild would likely be decided in the next hours, and it would not be an easy decision.
But there were only three of them tonight, Lord Balkan, Head of Warrior Skills, Lord Osen and Vinara herself. Sarrin, the former Head of Alchemy, had died in the War. While his death was a great loss to the Higher Magicians, for the time being, he was one of many. The period of mourning was to come later. For now, there were too many issues to be cleared up.
“Good evening, everybody,” Lord Osen began finally. Lorlen’s assistant had quietly taken over the duties of the Administrator until new elections had been held, but it was commonly assumed that he would remain in this position. The young man, too, seemed to have skipped too much sleep.
“Let us not waste any time, I think all of us will be glad to find some quiet as soon as we are finished here. We have gathered tonight to discuss how the Guild should be lead in the future. But first, I would like to ask Lady Vinara about Sonea’s condition?”
Vinara nodded and took a moment to find the right words. “She is stable for now, and we have her injuries under control. But she has lost a lot of energy and blood and we cannot imagine the impact the events must have had on her, she might not be herself anymore. At the moment, all we can do is keep her alive and hope that she will eventually recover.”
“When she does, what will we do?” Lord Balkan asked. There was nothing to be done about the fact that Sonea was a convicted criminal who had defied her sentence by returning to Kyralia, even although she had saved all of the Allied Lands from the threatening Ichani rule.
“We certainly cannot send her back to Sachaka. Even if she were in the condition to survive that, she is also our greatest chance against future threats. Besides, she told the truth,” Osen added, knowing that Sonea had still practised black magic, which was punishable by death.
“It will be difficult for the people to accept her again. If she stays and takes the position as a black magician, she will have a hard time making it a strong and respected one,” Vinara remarked. The two men nodded in agreement. But they could do nothing right now, and they were all too aware of it. For a moment, they sat in silence, then Balkan asked the question they had all expected and dreaded at the same time:
“What about Akkarin?”
Chapter 2: Panic
Sonea woke with a start. Her eyes flew open and stared at a white ceiling or possibly just into light, and her hands painfully gripped what seemed to be a bed sheet. Her whole body burned with pain, but more importantly, there was no air in her lungs. Gasping, she tried to catch her breath, desperately needing oxygen where there appeared to be none. Something heavy stopped her from inhaling, a weight on her chest that she couldn’t explain. She was going to suffocate right on the spot.
And then there were hands, many hands, seizing her arms and pulling her upright, into a sitting position, hands on her back keeping her up, hands on her forehead and one on her chest, pulling at something until suddenly, the weight disappeared. Suddenly, there was cool, wonderful air that tasted of something familiar that she could not name but inexplicably calmed her and suddenly there was the horrible realisation that something was very wrong.
Something was missing and she did not know what it was, but it scared her even more than the discovery of being unable to breathe.
Before she could think further, a voice ordered “Everybody out!” and the hands left her body, except for two that gently lowered her back to the pillows she had apparently been lying on. Her vision was blurred, but Sonea thought to see a green shape above her, and then she blinked and the shape turned into a young man in green Healer’s robes. He was not the one she had expected – had she not been with Dorrien? But when? The fight on the Pass! Hadn’t she won that? Yes, definitely, Parika was dead and they were safe…
“Hello, Sonea. You’ve given us quite a fright.”
She had no idea what he was talking about. His voice was soft, gentle, but unfamiliar, and it felt so difficult to listen and make out his words above the sound of panic in her head.
“Don’t worry,” he said, as if it were the easiest task in the world not to worry. “You’re safe.”
She did not feel safe. Pain throbbed through her body and made it hard to think, but even so she knew that whatever it was that seemed so horribly wrong was the reason that no matter what the Healer told her, she was not safe.
He held her head up and a cup with a warm, smooth liquid to her lips. She drank up although her throat was sore and swallowing hurt and she was eager for more but was disappointed. He lowered her head again, then he straightened the blankets with movements that betrayed a certain routine, and carefully opened her hands, which had been holding on to the sheets the whole time.
Over the blinding panic Sonea noticed tightly wound bandages around her left hand as the Healer moved it. His hands seemed cool against her burning skin.
“There, now,” he said with a tone that did not seem to fit his age. Could he be any older than twenty-five? “Listen, I know you are hurting, and that you want nothing else but quiet and sleep. But I have to ask you a few questions, yes? First of all, can you speak? If not, just shake your head.”
It cost more energy than it should, but she found that she could. She managed a “yes”, which seemed enough for now.
“Very good!” he exclaimed, apparently delighted at her success. “That is very good. Now, can you tell me how strong you are right now? Magically, of course. You exhausted yourself very thoroughly, and I have to know how much you have regained. If it’s not enough, I’ll help you to sleep some more.”
This was a far more difficult question, one she could not quite understand. When had she exhausted herself? The fight against Parika? But that had gone rather well, or not? Hard as she tried, she could not remember any further than the confrontation at the Pass, and even that was blurry and she was unsure if she could trust her memory if so much seemed to be wrong about it.
And to show him her strength required concentration she did not have right now. He was right, she wanted quiet, but she knew she could not sleep before she had found out what was so terrifyingly wrong, and that thought kept buzzing in her head, keeping any clear thought away.
She shook her head, faintly. She could hear her neck crack.
“It’s fine, alright, we can do this later. For now we’ll just let you sleep until you are a little stronger.” He smiled faintly, then left without another word.
His absence revealed how quiet it really was. Sonea heard nothing but her own heartbeat and the same sentence running through her head over and over again: This isn’t right.
She tried to assess the situation, check herself through to maybe find the cause for this throbbing pain and the reason for the bandage on her hand but of course failed. She did not have to fight for air anymore but inhaling hurt, and instinctively she had started to take only shallow breaths which left her slightly dizzy and even disorientated. And there was no way she would sleep.
So she lay for a while – minutes, hours? Who could tell? – unable to think or sleep, and that state felt just as horrible as the suffocating sensation she had had upon waking up. Finally, the light in the small room got dimmer, and a wave of exhaustion washed over her, mercifully allowing her to slowly slip away into a dream-like state that was at least very close to sleep.
It was only then, when it was too late to try and stay awake, that she realised what was wrong.
Akkarin was not there.
Chapter 3: Recovery
“What happened?” Sonea asked hoarsely, when the young Healer woke her up to a room bathed in bright sunlight. The horrible exhaustion and blind panic from the day before had gone although the pain had not, speaking now was far easier.
The Healer had told her his name, but she had already forgotten it. He had helped her sit up and now tried to coax some more of the warm liquid into her. She refused, too eager and anxious to get an answer to her question, which referred not only to her condition as he probably thought but also to the fact that she was alone although she should not be.
“You don’t have to worry,” he said now, with that soft voice that sounded too old for him. “You are recovering fast, you’ll be fine in no time.”
She wanted to protest, she wanted to tell him that she did not care about her recovery as long as she did not know why she had to recover in the first place, but he interrupted her before she could even start.
“Really, don’t worry. I’ll get you something against the pain as soon as you finished this,” he said, holding up the cup. Sighing, Sonea obeyed. She had no choice.
Over the next days, not much changed. Everything was repeated in regular patterns – she would ask the same questions over and over again, with more words as time passed, and he would ignore them and cover up with everlasting kindness and caring. In some other situation, she might have thought him sweet. Right now, she found his behaviour suffocating and frustrating.
With a lot of time and refusal of food until he told her, she made him list her injuries. After that, she had needed a moment to catch her breath.
How could she not remember an event that had left her this broken? She was only a pile of fragments, completely dependent on the Healer’s well-meaning and skill. They had had to remove the bandage that had kept her broken ribs in place so she could breathe freely, leaving her in constant danger that one of them might puncture her lungs, which was also the reason she was barely allowed to move a muscle even though the Healer had tried to convince her that the most dangerous part of that was over. Her leg was so badly broken that it might take months to fully heal. And that was only the worst of it.
Meanwhile, she was almost certain that Akkarin had to be dead. It was the only scenario she could imagine, painful as it was. They had lost a battle, and he had lost his life. Only that did not explain how she could be in the Healers’ Quarters in Imardin – could the Guild have defeated the Ichani on its own?
She spent hours pondering although her head hurt despite the medicines she had to take. She did not allow herself to grieve until she could be certain, not caring that she might never be. Day after day she lay still, sometimes until far into the night, trying to put together the puzzle she knew she would not be able to solve on her own. But her only contact was Healer Marin, whose name she finally remembered after he had told her every single time he came to check on her.
At some point she felt that she could breathe painlessly, and the constant throbbing of her head slowly subsided until she could follow her own thoughts again. Not that that was of any use to her, not if all she could think of was how she could possibly find out what in the world could have happened here and why Marin refused to explain anything to her.
She knew that she would never find out if she appeared as weak as she felt. Then nobody would ever take her seriously, but if she hid her pain and fear, she might, with a lot of luck, possibly get her questions answered. But right now, with all she was feeling either pain or fear, she did not stand a chance.
So Sonea learned to hide her fear, learned to bite back the grimaces that pulled at her face when she had to move, repress the wincing when Marin touched her. Her expression became a carefully constructed mask, and Marin did not seem to notice.
One day, almost two weeks after she had woken up for the first time, he came to her with a real, enthusiastic smile on his face. “I talked to Lady Vinara, and she agreed that we can move you over to the recovery rooms. You are healthy enough not to suffocate in your sleep, and strong enough to be transferred. Isn’t that good news?”
She took this information in as if through a veil and simply nodded, because her mind was unable to grasp what he had said just then. When she did understand, he had already left the room again to finish the necessary preparations, and she was alone with her thoughts once again.
It was a relief to know that she would not die just now, but did that mean that it had been a possibility until then? How close had she really been to Death’s doors all this time?
But the recovery rooms were a step closer to… to what exactly? Freedom? Certainly not, not after what she had done in the past. Injured as she might be, it could not be denied that she had broken the law multiple times with full intent. Or had the Guild forgiven her in the time she could not remember? No, that sounded too good to be true. And therefore, freedom was not an option for her. Possibly not ever. The only thing she could actually hope for was not to be executed, and with all the effort the Guild apparently put into her recovery, execution seemed thankfully unlikely.
Unfortunately, there were two and a half more days between announcing the transfer and actually moving her. Two and a half days of wondering what would eventually happen to her. Two and a half days of trying not to fall into the grief she wanted to fall into so desperately.
Her body was betraying her. Marin was watching her even more closely in these days to ensure that she really was healthy enough, and that observation almost cost her the success of her plan.
Her throat was too tight for food because the last real food she remembered she had gathered herself in the Sachakan wastelands, feeling Akkarin’s dark eyes watching her as she ran her fingers through the brown grass or carved a rock to a rough bowl. Sleep seemed to avoid her now because the mattress seemed to be too soft compared to the beds of rocks she had slept on. She had to fight tears every time he entered the room and she had to fight the urge to cringe away from his touch every time he changed her bandages. But she never allowed him to see what was going on inside her. Nobody must ever know about the pain she did not allow herself to feel.
Finally Marin came, accompanied by another young man in the tell-tale green robes, and together they told her how great it was that she could be moved, and how quickly she would now take the last steps to her recovery. Sonea did not believe what they said but could not speak because they were helping her to sit and it hurt as if she was hit by two dozen stunstrikes. When they swung her legs over the edge of the bed and her feet touched the ground, she could not stop the gasps from escaping her lips. Immediately she cursed that sign of her weakness.
The two men manoeuvred her into a chair with wheels instead of legs and carefully helped her to sit as comfortably as possible. Marin opened the door while the other Healer pushed the chair out on the corridor which was mercifully empty. If she had not known that she could on no account have managed to walk herself, she would have fought against this method of transportation. Now all she could do was hope that it would be over soon.
She tried to think of something other than what was happening right now, but just down the first corridor, something violently pulled her back into reality. A voice. A voice that seemed to grow louder and of course it was because she was getting closer to the source, a voice that was painfully familiar. A voice that sent shivers through her body and had her fighting for air like she had not fought ever since the moment she first woke up in the Healers’ Quarters.
But right before the corner behind which she would be able to see if her mind was not playing tricks on her Marin stopped and showed no intent of moving on anytime soon and then the voice moved away and she would not survive that.
In that one, frantic moment, she used all her willpower to force her arms to push her out of the chair, to tell her legs that it was all right, that the pain was not real and did not matter, at least not as much as getting up and walk and just walk around the corner. She heard Marin and the other man calling her name, shouting at her to stop and come back but she intentionally ignored them. For the first time since she had woken up, she had a real goal, a real purpose, and she was not going to let that pass.
Ten painful, torturous, limping steps later she had mastered the corner and what she saw there lightened her steps and sped up her heartbeats so much that her head almost seemed to explode but it did not matter because there he was. Standing tall and strong and alive and breathing and possibly a hallucination but she was not going to find out if she did not reach him so she forced more steps out of her protesting legs and tried to say his name but her mouth was too dry.
Somehow he must have heard her anyways, because he jumped, straightened and turned around. When their eyes met, a mask seemed to fall off his face and then he was coming towards her, not running but obviously as eager as she was.
And then they met in the middle of the corridor, their bodies as if crashing into each other but neither of them felt the impact. His hands cupped her face, traced her lips and jawline and grasped her shoulders. Hers ran over his chest, his arms, anything to make sure he was real and not just a dream. She could feel the warmth radiating from his body and his pulse on his wrist as she took his hand in hers. She wanted to rise to her tiptoes, but her body would not obey, and he noticed her efforts and leaned down to her. Her free hand found his neck and held on to him, their foreheads touching, breathing in each other’s scent and taking in as much as possible.
“I thought I’d lost you,” he said in such a rough voice that she knew he was fighting down just as much emotions as she was herself. She felt the tears she had refused herself to cry in sadness running over her face in relief and joy.
“I thought you were dead,” she breathed. She was aware of the other people standing around them but chose not to care. All that mattered was that right in this moment, she felt whole for the first time in weeks.
Chapter 4: Reunion
The next day, Sonea paid the price for the few moments of bliss she had barely been able to enjoy. Far too soon, they had separated Akkarin and her by force when shouting would not work, ignoring the couple’s angry voices just as they had been ignored before. Sonea had been lifted off the ground by either hands or magic, she could not tell, carried to a room, sat on a bed and then left alone with Marin. The Healer had had a look on his face as if he was only seconds away from strangling her.
“What were you thinking?” he had asked, his voice strained with the rage he was holding back. “Have you completely lost your mind? There will be consequences to this, and I promise you you will regret it.” Then he had slammed the door behind him and she could still feel the magical barrier on it.
It was not that powerful that she could not have destroyed it, but doing so would mean to blast the door to pieces and then she still would not be able to leave the bed. The broken leg throbbed with an intensity that almost took her breath away, and she doubted that she could endure even a single step.
But every part of her that did not hurt was floating. All her worries, all the grief she had not allowed herself to feel had been unnecessary. She had never been happier in her life. She felt as if she was not in her own body anymore but too light to stay attached to the earth. Even when Marin returned the next evening, still very much as disapproving as the day before, she could not make herself take the matter as serious as he did.
“Are you even listening, Sonea?”
She immediately snapped back into her body, and regretted it bitterly. “No, I’m not listening,” she admitted, and tried to hide the smile on her lips. “I didn’t hear a word of what you said.”
Marin shook his head. He seemed furious. “Sonea, you’ll need to have the bones set and there are a few splinters that have wandered off so far that we need to remove them. You are facing a hard way to recovery. I’ll have to talk to Lady Vinara before I can say how much we can do.”
A knock on the door interrupted her thoughts before they even came to her mind. Marin scowled, turned on his heel and rushed to the door, opening it a crack and at the same time blocking the visitor from view.
“What is it?” he hissed, but as he saw whoever stood outside on the corridor, he froze.
“You should not be here,” he said.
“Lady Vinara gave permission.” Sonea’s heart jumped. She knew that voice, she had longed to hear it ever since the day before.
She could see that Marin hesitated, and she hated him for that although she knew it was wrong. “Fine,” he finally said. “But against my advice.”
He had one last glance at Sonea, then left the room and let Akkarin enter. Within a few heartbeats he had pushed the chair to her bedside and grasped her hands. He looked grey, she thought, older than ever before. There was pain in his eyes, even as they rested on her and a smile spread on his face.
“I thought it was a dream until now,” he said quietly. “But I regret that you had to suffer for it…”
She waved it away. “It is not your fault. You are here, I don’t care about anything else.”
She tried to examine his face without him noticing and really did not like what she saw. Akkarin seemed to have aged at least ten years compared to her last memory of him on the Pass. His eyes were dull and she almost expected to see grey streaks in his dark hair that hung loosely on his shoulders. If he had not held on to her hands that tightly, she would have touched his face only to see if he had not died and returned to her as a ghost.
“I talked to Lady Vinara this morning. She told me… I am so sorry to have dragged you into this. I should have sent you away when I had the chance.”
“I would not have let you,” she said with a smile, trying to comfort him. “I never would have left you.”
He sighed. “I know. We are talking about you, after all. The most fearsome woman in all Kyralia.” The smile transformed his whole appearance and Sonea felt as if a weight was lifted off her shoulders.
“I am afraid I don’t feel very fearsome at the moment,” she said lightly, but at once the frown returned to Akkarin’s face. His fingertips traced the fresh red scar on her cheek without touching it, and his expression became dark with anger.
“If he weren’t already dead, I would kill him for what he did to you,” he said. “How ironic that you would be the end of him when he set out to kill me and you were nothing but a little disturbance in his plans.”
So Kariko did this, she thought, weirdly relieved that she knew at least something now. Then she had to force herself not to shudder as she thought, and I killed him.
“I never seem to be part of anybody’s plans, and yet I apparently have the unique ability to destroy them all.” She knew that the joking tone she forced on her voice sounded anything but natural but she wanted with all that was in her power stop this conversation from becoming what it was threatening to be – she wanted to see Akkarin smile again so she could believe that he was still the same man and that they had nothing to fear anymore. For a long time she had been afraid of him and never seen him as a person she would want to make happy, but now there was nothing else she could think of.
She felt the pain coursing through her body only as if from far away, and she knew that she could sit like this for hours and not feel any different. She felt the most alive she had in weeks.
But once again, their moment of reunion was cut off by others when somebody knocked on the door and entered only a heartbeat later. Although almost smiling, Lady Vinara seemed grim and stern as ever.
“Good evening to both of you,” she said as she stood by the door with her hands at her hips, then without hesitation moved on. “Akkarin, I am afraid you will have to give me some space so I can have a look at Sonea. And then you will excuse yourself,” she added firmly. “It is almost midnight and neither of you can do without sleep.”
She waited, her arms crossed before her chest, for Akkarin to whisper something in Sonea’s ear and then, still smiling, rise from his chair and step away from her bedside. He swayed for a moment before Vinara caught him by the arm and steadied him, pushing the chair aside for him to sit again.
It had only lasted for the blink of an eye, but to Sonea, it seemed to last an eternity, and something was suddenly so clear to her that she cursed herself for being so stupid. And as Akkarin sat there, just out of her reach, fighting for breath and pale as death, she could not gain control over her words long enough to say anything. It took all her willpower to school her expression so he would not suspect anything because for some reason she did not want him to.
He had been injured. Of course he had. She felt so guilty for not knowing and not asking how he felt. It must be a serious injury or he would not be suffering from it anymore, and she had not the slightest clue what might have happened.
Vinara now called out to the corridor for somebody to take Akkarin back to his room, then closed the door behind him and turned to Sonea.
“You haven’t told him,” she said matter-of-factly, and Sonea did not question how the Healer knew.
“I couldn’t,” she replied and looked at her hands, one of them still wrapped in bandages and the other now holding tightly to the bed sheets.
Vinara nodded absentmindedly. “What do you remember? You obviously haven’t lost all your memory.”
Sonea shrugged. “How long was I unconscious?” she asked, not because it would help her remember but because that information was something she had wanted to get ever since her head had been clear enough to think.
“About four days.”
That was longer than she had expected. She must have completely drained herself of power during whatever had happened before. She needed a moment to process that before she was able to answer Vinara’s original question. “I remember making our way to the South Pass. We were being followed… We met Dorrien on the other side of the mountains and he wanted to send us back, but we were confronted by the Ichani who had been following us. I think we killed him but I’m not sure and I really have no idea what happened after that.”
“You are missing about ten days, then. It’s not unusual,” Vinara said. “We have records of cases like yours. Sometimes the memory returns after some time, but sometimes it does not. You are lucky that you only lost ten days and not your entire past. Now to something different.”
She sighed and sat at Sonea’s bedside. Up close, she looked tired. “Lord Marin has given his reports to me, of course, but I’ll need to have a look at your leg before I make up my mind about what to do with you. But I can already tell you that what you did yesterday was completely unnecessary.”
Sonea wanted to answer, she highly doubted that it had been unnecessary, but the Healer had already closed her eyes and taken Sonea’s healthy hand. She felt Vinara’s presence more clearly than before, and she resigned to staring at the ceiling for a few moments until Vinara had finished her examination.
The Head of Healers frowned and shook her head. “This is not good. We can mend the bones, but it will be very painful. You will be dealing with this for a very long time.”
Without another word, she rose and left Sonea alone to chase sleep.
Chapter 5: Standing
“Who survived?” Sonea asked quietly. She had managed to convince Marin to allow Akkarin to come back to her bedside somehow, where he now sat and held her hands just like the day before. Later this day she would be taken to a treatment room where a team of Healers would try their best to mend her bones. She was not exactly looking forward to that procedure but something good had come from it – it had softened Marin enough to let Akkarin into the room.
She really did not want to ask that question, but she knew that she had to at some point. She could not remember the part of the past that had gotten people killed, who knew how many deaths she had already grieved and now had no memory of it.
“Why do you ask?” Akkarin replied with an edge to his voice that for some reason scared her. “Is it so important?”
“Listen, Akkarin.” She straightened her back a little just to feel more confident than she actually was. “I don’t remember it. At all. To me, we defeated Parika at the Pass and then I woke up with a body that might have been run over by a herd of Gorin. Marin won’t tell me what happened in between but I know that I miss the part that had people I know killed, so I beg you to tell me at least that.”
She took a deep breath, not daring to look at his eyes fearing what she might see there. She had spent half the night trying to figure out how to tell him what had to be explained, and the other half trying to decide whether or not to really do it. It must be so painful for him to revisit that part of the past.
He sighed and looked away. His gaze directed at the floor, he almost whispered, “Lorlen is dead.”
“No. Oh, Akkarin, I am so sorry. I am so sorry.” Sonea pulled him closer and embraced him tightly, unable to put what she needed to say into words. His hands found her hair and held on to it as if it were all that was keeping him where he was. She could feel his troubled breathing against her own body and knew that he would never say or show how he felt in that moment, and it broke her heart to know that.
“I am so very, very sorry,” she said and cursed herself for ripping open a wound that must barely have had time to heal. She could not imagine how Akkarin felt, but even trying brought stinging tears to her eyes. At the same time she grieved herself. She had liked the Administrator a lot, he had always been kind and helped her so many times. His death seemed like a criminal waste.
Akkarin recovered after a few minutes, straightening and gently lowering Sonea back to the pillows she was supposed to sit against. “You mustn’t exhaust yourself,” he said quietly.
“It’s not important,” she replied, waving it away with a gesture, all the while watching him closely. “I’ll rest enough later. But do you… want to talk?”
He shook his head. “Not now. I just can’t, Sonea, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologise. It’s fine. It’s your choice.”
“What about you?”, Akkarin suddenly asked, so suddenly that she needed a moment to understand what he might be talking about.
“No,” she finally said. “I am not going to ask you to think about it again. I can do without the memories for some time. If you could just tell me… is my family safe? My friends? Is Rothen alive?”
“Rothen is alive and well. The last I know is that your family is safe and everybody is unhurt, but I am afraid I cannot tell you for sure. I have received no more news than you did.” He frowned, and a look of frustration appeared on his face. “I do not know what will become of us, Sonea. I tried to ask Lady Vinara what the Higher Magicians have decided but she would not answer – we can only hope that they will be forgiving.”
“Is there anything we can do? Anything at all?” She sighed, knowing that their fate was not in their hands anymore. “Well, whatever they decide…”
They talked for hours, while the room lit up with the sun and then darkened again when it had risen too high to shine through the tiny window. Two Healers came to send Akkarin away and take Sonea on an endless, painful journey through the corridors. Although she sat in a wheelchair again, it was as if she felt Akkarin’s absence with every fibre of her body. She was given a drug that would put her in a state close to unconsciousness so she would not feel the procedure itself, but she recognised the smell from classes she had taken a lifetime ago and knew that she would probably wake up with either a blinding headache or muscles so limp she would not even be able to open her eyes. She drained the cup nonetheless.
The effect on her weakened system was immediate and powerful like a physical blow. She was vaguely aware of hands catching her and lowering her from her sitting position so that she lay flat upon the hard table, but her world drowned in darkness before she knew anything else.
A weight was crushing down on her when the light returned, glowing red behind her eyelids. She knew what was causing it but that knowledge was in no way making her feel better. She was weirdly light-headed, but she did not fool herself, the painful part was yet to come.
“She’s waking,” Akkarin said close to her, and she was suddenly aware of his cool fingers brushing her skin. “Finally.”
“Finally?” she repeated, forcing the sounds over her numbed lips. Her eyes fluttered open and she found Akkarin leaning over her, his dark eyes shining with concern and relief. “How long did I sleep?”
She managed to push herself up to her elbows although it cost her an enormous amount of energy. She was back in her room, or one just like it. Akkarin sat beside her, Lady Vinara stood in the open door with her back to the room and by the sound of it, she was very unhappy with somebody.
“I do not want to hear your excuses, Karem. This will have consequences. Now go and file the reports as I told you. Now, Karem.” The Healer sighed and turned around. “Good, you are awake. That fool. The dosage he gave you was strong enough for a healthy man twice your weight. You are lucky that it only lengthened the effect instead of simply killing you. How do you feel?”
Sonea considered for a moment before answering. “Horrible,” she decided. “And tired.” She fell back to the pillows and sighed. “Will I ever not be tired again?”
“Soon,” Vinara reassured her. “You were unconscious for almost two days, you need food and some real sleep. You will be fine.”
“Needs time and rest to heal. You will be left with scars but I am quite confident that you will have no further problems. Now, if you two will excuse me, there is a lot of work waiting for me.” She inclined her head to both of them and left the door open behind her.
Time passed cruelly slowly while Sonea was forced to wait for her wounds to heal. She developed a slight fever that gave her nightmares she could never remember, and which doomed her to stay in bed even longer. The inability to act sometimes felt worse than the fading pains of her healing injuries.
“Give it time,” Akkarin said again and again when she tried to use the fingers of her left hand and almost cried out in pain, when she laughed or even sneezed and the scar on her cheek threatened to break open again, when she accidentally moved her leg… She knew that her body needed time to heal but that did not stop the frustration from building up to a point when the only thing keeping her in bed was Akkarin’s firm will.
He was always there with her, and tried to distract her from her annoyance with every method he could imagine. He had started to tell her the stories that he had heard as a child, and that seemed so strange to her because they were so completely different from what she had listened to when she was little.
His own injuries, while significantly more severe, healed much more quickly. He had told Sonea that a knife had almost stabbed his heart, but not who had done it or how it had happened, and for the moment, she did not ask, just as she dared not ask about what had brought her into this situation she hated so intensely.
More weeks passed, hours at a time. Finally, almost two months after she had first opened her eyes after the invasion, even Marin could not find an excuse to keep her in bed any longer. She could almost feel his hesitation when he begrudgingly approved her “release”. Purely out of decency, she delayed her grin of success until he was out of the room. She celebrated this little victory as if she had just jumped off death’s list. And Akkarin celebrated with her, although she was very well aware of the amused glint in his eyes.
Sonea carefully moved her legs. Everything felt fine, and very slowly, one after the other, she placed her feet on the floor. No words could describe the joy she felt at the simply feeling of hard, solid ground under her feet after weeks of too-soft mattresses. A smile spread on her face.
Akkarin took her hands again, standing right in front of her, close enough that she could feel his breath on her face. “You’re smiling,” he said quietly. “It suits you.”
She laughed. “Would you help me stand?”
He stepped back without letting go of her hands, and gently pulled her up until she stood, with shaking legs and clenched teeth, but she stood. It hurt, and her muscles felt like they had been kneaded like dough. She knew that she had been lying flat for far too long and that she would need days and weeks of hard work and practice before she would be able to walk properly but for now, each little victory was important.
“How are you feeling?” Akkarin asked.
“Never better,” she said through gritted teeth and made him laugh at the contrast between her voice and her words. “Although…” She reached up to his neck and pulled his head down to kiss him, but just as he was close enough, the door burst open and sent both of them stumbling backwards in surprise.
“I’m sorry,” Lady Vinara said with a badly hidden smile. Behind her stood Lords Balkan and Osen, apparently who was left of the Higher Magicians. “Are we interrupting something?”
Chapter 6: Prisoners
“I take it you are aware of the problems we are facing?”
Sonea did not, but still she nodded. As she knew Balkan, he would probably explain them again anyway. They were sitting in a Healer’s office two doors down from Sonea’s patient room for the simple reason that they needed more space for five people than the small room had to offer. Sonea had somehow managed to cross the distance relying on Akkarin’s arm and the wall for support but now her leg throbbed painfully and she felt a little dizzy. Nevertheless she tried to follow Balkan’s words as closely as she could – if their future would be decided today, she at least wanted to have a say in it, although she suspected that her opinion would not actually make a difference.
Balkan did not disappoint her. “Turn it as you might, both of you have illegally entered Kyralian territory and also used Black Magic on several occasions. I know-“ he said and managed to stop Akkarin interrupting him. “That you had very good reasons to do so, and we are all very grateful that you did it, but that, unfortunately, does not change much. There will have to be a trial, at least a hearing to let the Guild decide over your fate. A Meet has been called for the Fourthday next week, and be assured that we are confident you will be forgiven your crimes. All of them,” he added, because this time Sonea had already opened her mouth to ask.
She did not remember the crimes they had apparently committed during the Invasion but she did remember very clearly that she and Akkarin had been banned and cast out for the practice of Black Magic only a few months ago - was it three? Or four? How was she supposed to keep the time straight? – and she was not exactly keen on experiencing that again. Although she could not deny that she had been so very happy in Sachaka…
“Until then,” Balkan continued with as much authority as he could muster because it seemed he was now coming to the bad news and did not want any interruptions. “It will be best if you two are seen closely guarded and watched. We must at least appear as if we obey our own laws. Rooms in the University have been prepared for you to stay in, that will have to suffice until after the Meet, when we will hopefully be able to try and find other living arrangements. The Warriors outside are going to escort you. Any questions? No? Very well. If you would now…”
“Actually, would you stay for a moment?” Lady Vinara, being one of those women with unquestioned authority, did not even pause. Of the people in the room, the only one who would have dared to contradict her had once been Akkarin, but it was obvious that he would not do so now. Even somebody who did not know him as well as she did would have seen that the former High Lord was no longer quite himself.
“I would like to talk to you about a few things. Alone,” she added, since neither Osen nor Balkan seemed inclined to leave the room in the nearer future. The Healer’s signature stern look had them out on the corridor within moments, and only when the door had clicked shut behind them, Vinara continued.
“I have declared both of you recovered but don’t you think that means you are healthy. You have put your bodies through much more than they can handle, so you will have to face a slow and potentially painful recovery. Akkarin, I have talked to you about this. As for you, Sonea,” she said and very badly tried to hide the pity in her eyes. “I am afraid you will have to be very patient with your leg.”
Sonea groaned. Patience had never been her greatest strength, and she felt she had been patient enough in the past two months.
“It will take some time, but we are confident that you should not have any permanent problems. Still.” Vinara accompanied the word with another stern glance at the dark-haired girl with one hand in a fist in her lap and the other clutching Akkarin’s so tightly that her knuckles were white against her pale skin. She, too, had changed.
“You will depend on crutches for possibly a few weeks during which you need to exercise very gently and slowly until your muscles have recovered their old strength. And both of you, sleep, rest, and for goodness’ sake, eat properly. You look like ghosts. Understood?”
They nodded. Nobody argued with Lady Vinara because usually nobody stood a chance to win.
“Good. Because if I find that you have not been doing as I say, I will not hesitate to have you dragged back here to the Healers’ Quarters, chained to your beds if necessary. Now go.”
Dismissed, Sonea and Akkarin went to meet a group of four Warriors who seemed to wear their grim expressions with pride. Sonea examined their faces and was sure that she had seen all of them before, but was unable to recall when and where, let alone their names. One of them might have been part of the group that had escorted her and Akkarin out of Kyralia but she would not have bet any money on it.
A young woman in servants’ clothes handed her the crutches and explained how to use them without ever raising her eyes from the floor. The Warriors took Sonea and Akkarin into their midst, and Sonea soon struggled to keep up with their pace. More than once, she had to force herself to ask for a break. She really did not want to show any weakness, but not only did her legs hurt because she had not used them for too long, she was also fighting her very own war with the crutches which seemed to have taken a particular dislike to her.
The walk between the Healers’ Quarters and the University had never been short but today it seemed to last forever.
The room was small, the walls painted a creamy white and the only furniture were a chair and a bed. Grey outlines on the paint showed that once, there had been at least three bookshelves and a cupboard, as well as a couple of paintings, but this room served as a prison cell now. Prisoners did not need comfort.
With a sigh of relief and pain alike, Sonea sank down on the bed. The crutches landed on the floor with a hollow sound, and she closed her eyes for a moment. She was exhausted. The walk had cost her far too much energy, and now every bone in her body hurt. With her fingertips she rubbed the aching muscles in her legs, trying to will them to feel normal again. She drew up the smallest spark of Healing power to at least numb the pain a little, but even that little spark felt weird. She had barely used magic in the last two months, mostly because there had been no reason to. Not daring to hamper with the Healers’ efforts, she had not tried to treat her own injuries, and if there had been one thing they had not denied her it had been painkillers.
The wall in her back was smooth and cool. Was Akkarin sitting on the other side? Maybe not sitting, pacing seemed much more likely. When their escort had commanded them into the rooms, he had said, “I’ll see you in the morning.” For some reason, she could not really believe that.
Chapter 7: Weakness
There was nothing to do except to sit and worry. Sonea did both in excess. She sat because she was unable to stand or walk, although she strongly suspected that pacing the room would help to distract her. And she worried because there was simply so much she could worry about.
Not for the first time, she wondered if Akkarin had been right when he had told her that her family, her aunt and uncle and two little cousins were safe and healthy, and whether they were worried that she had not contacted them. She worried about her other friends, Cery and Harrin and the other youths she had spent her childhood with, although she had not spoken to any of them except Cery since she had joined the Guild.
And last but not least, she was afraid of what the future might bring. It was Freeday, which meant that the Hearing was to take place in four days. Even though Osen had reassured them that they would almost certainly come out of it well there were just so many things that could go wrong. As far as Sonea knew, knowledge and practice of black magic was still punishable with execution and this time, there would be no way of denying being guilty of either.
Sonea was almost grateful when Marin came around midday to show her the exercises that would help to strengthen her muscles. She lost every concept of time while he told her to bend her knees, stretch her legs and execute a series of movements she was sure she would never manage without his help, and when he was finally satisfied with her, she was drenched in sweat and knew that tomorrow, every single muscle in her body would burn.
“If there is anything you need,” Marin said just before he left her again. “Do not hesitate to call for me.”
She nodded, glad that his care had apparently not stopped with her release from the Healers’ Quarters. But that could not change the fact that she was now alone again. She wished Akkarin was with her. Just like before, she almost physically felt his absence although he was probably less than ten steps away on the other side of the wall.
She smiled as she remembered earlier in the day, before Lady Vinara had interrupted them. In the weeks that had passed, she had often wondered whether her memory was playing tricks on her, that she had not only forgotten what had happened after Sachaka but that some of the memories she had were also not what had happened. Sometimes it seemed so ridiculous to think that Akkarin would have thought of her that way, touched her that way. But her own feelings at least felt as real as they could, and even the most doubtful part of her could not imagine a reason for Akkarin to treat her the way he had when she had been recovering. Today had been the first and until now only hint that he might, in fact, love her.
She shook her head. It was stupid to doubt that much, she was only ruining her own happiness. She had spent too much time alone today, even though it had only been a few hours, she had started worrying too much the instant the door had closed behind her.
She jumped when there was a knock on the door. Then she was angry at herself, it was not so unusual for people to knock before they entered, she really should be used to it instead of almost suffering a heart attack every time it happened.
A servant entered and brought a tray with what apparently should be her evening meal. He had barely set it on the chair a few feet away from Sonea when he had already hurried out of the room again. He had not even raised his gaze from the floorboards long enough to look at her. Sighing, Sonea sat up and quietly endured the pain it caused her to get to her feet and cross the tiny distance between the bed and the chair and back again. But her silence in no way meant she was not cursing; she had learnt a long time ago that she did not need to voice the words for which her aunt had scolded her and that Rothen had spent so much time on trying to erase them from her vocabulary to feel the relief a proper curse offered.
The soup was merely lukewarm when she tasted it, but she did not mind much. She took the opportunity to practice and gently heated the bowl until its contents steamed. It was strange how unfamiliar it felt to use her powers, she had barely gotten used to it when they had gone to Sachaka and now it seemed so uncomfortable again.
The water was laced with something bitter that she recognised only after the second mouthful. She grimaced as she remembered the last time she had tasted nemmin, Akkarin had had it brought to her every evening for the first two or three weeks after he had taken her as a novice because he knew that she would not sleep at all if he did not force her to. She had been desperate then, and she was very close to desperation now. She gulped down the sleeping drug without second thought.
In the morning – at least she thought it must be morning because the lamp had burned down but there was light under the door that looked like sunlight – she woke to the sound of soft knocking on the door. It took her a moment to understand that that was where the noise came from, her mind was still numbed by the aftereffects of the nemmin in her system. She awkwardly sat up and rubbed her face to get the sleep out of her eyes before she called the invitation.
The man who stepped into her prison cell was the last man she had expected but she probably should have known that he would come to see her sooner or later. He shut the door behind himself and then stayed where he was, looking at her as if he did not believe she was actually there and not just a ghost. For some reason, she thought the same when she looked at him.
“I think I thought you were dead,” she managed after inexplicably long moments of silence. “Why did I think that?”
Rothen smiled sadly. “The group I joined was defeated by the Ichani. I dared not contact the Guild openly. But I thought the same about you for some time because nobody would tell me what was going on. You do not look too alive yourself, if you ask me.”
In another life she might have laughed. Now the comment only made her self-conscious, her fingers instinctively touched the fresh scar on her cheek and suddenly the bandages on her leg seemed much heavier and thicker than before. “Nobody told me anything either,” she said to distract herself. “The world might have ended and I don’t think I would have known. It didn’t end, though, did it?”
“Almost. It might have but you saved it. You saved us. All of the Allied Lands should be grateful for that.”
Sonea had heard that before but it sounded so strange to hear it from Rothen. She still had no memory of what exactly she had done, and the notion of deserving gratitude had never been so weird.
Her former guardian moved the chair so he could sit opposite of her, and when he sat he let out a badly hidden sigh of relief. He was injured, Sonea realised. Injured and probably worried half to death. She felt a pang of affection for him; she could not even begin to understand how he must have felt. Rothen had probably spent about the last two years or so worrying about her and knowing that she had been at the centre of a war he had witnessed had probably not helped to lighten his burden.
“So,” Rothen began and watched her closely. “Do you have any plans?”
“Plans for what?”
He waved a hand. “The future. Anything. What are you going to do after the Hearing?”
She shrugged. “That all depends on the outcome, I suppose. We’ll have to do whatever the Guild decides, won’t we? If they decide to keep us here, we will stay. If they want to banish us again, or have us imprisoned, we will have to obey. The future is not in our hands.”
Sonea had known that before but saying it out loud raised it to a whole new level. The future is not in our hands. They can do what us whatever they wish, she thought, and for a moment, she was horrified. Then she felt incredibly weak. If there was no way she could win, what was the sense in joining the fight in the first place? Most magicians must have already made up their mind on how they thought about the two Black Magicians, and nothing she could say or do what persuade them otherwise.
Suddenly, her sight was blurred, she felt strangely light-headed. There was nothing she could do. Her future was written in stone.
The embrace came so unexpectedly that she stiffened for a moment before she buried her face in the soft, heavy fabric of Rothen’s robes. I will not cry, she told herself while the tears stung in her eyes. I still have that much strength left. It was for naught. The self-control she had built for herself as a child crumbled to pieces and sobs shook her body violently only a moment later.
As a girl child in the slums, Sonea had learned at a very young age that crying made nothing better and everything worse. Weeping meant weakness, and weakness would only get her hurt or killed. She had stopped weeping when she was, what, five years old? When her mother died a year later, she had not cried, neither when her father left her his wife’s sister to feed and raise. The Guild caught her when she was seventeen, and although they had taken her away from anything she had ever known, she had refused to show them how hard it had hit her and not shed a single tear. A year and a half later, Akkarin had taken her as his novice to ensure her and Rothen’s silence concerning his illegal activities as a Black Magician, and she had not cried although she had sometimes wished to.
Now she cried, and she did not even know why.
After a long time, the tears dried up, and Sonea stopped shaking. “I’m sorry,” she muttered but did not sit up. It felt too good in Rothen’s arms, too safe and familiar to just give it up.
“Don’t apologise. You have done nothing wrong. Do you feel better now?”
She did not. Never had she felt so weak, so tired and weary in her life. For years, she had been cramming her sadness and fears behind a wall, and that wall had been torn down and could not be rebuilt. The feelings just came flooding into her mind, and she was too worn-out to try and keep them at bay. She shook her head before she could stop herself. She did not want to show any more weakness.
Suddenly, she wanted nothing more than for Rothen to leave her alone. She had longed for company yesterday, and now she just longed for solitude. Nobody should see her this way, and she did not seem able to gather up the strength to talk to him for much longer.
He knew her too well. “Shall I go?”
Sonea did not answer, did not even meet his eyes but he understood anyway. He held her for just one more heartbeat, and then he was gone and the door closed behind him and Sonea was alone to collapse back on the bed and stare at the ceiling, without any more tears to spare.
It was the longest week of her life.
Chapter 8: Relief
“The vote is cast. Akkarin of the family Delvon, House Velan, and Sonea will remain as Black Magicians of the Magicians’ Guild to Kyralia and protectors of the Allied Lands. They will take their vows tomorrow morning in presence of the King. I hereby call this Meet ended.”
It took all of Sonea’s willpower not to faint then and there. She did not know exactly how long the Hearing had lasted but it must have been two hours at the very least, and all that time she had merely willed her body to function, forced her knees to support her and her back to stand straight. Her arms ached from carrying almost all of her weight on the crutches and if she used any more Healing energy she would barely have any power left. Her only goal had been to make it through this Meet, and now she had accomplished that goal, she felt her control over her muscles weaken.
“It’s over,” Akkarin whispered very close to her, closer than she had expected. Looking up, she found him standing right in front of her, his gaze so intense that she almost flinched. He was looking directly into her eyes, worried but trying very hard not to show it. “We will be fine.”
“I know,” she said and was for a moment proud of how little her voice shook but then there were tears of relief in her eyes and ruined the achievement. “I know.”
And then Akkarin wrapped his arms around and pulled her close, without a warning, in the middle of the Guildhall, as if they were the only people alive on earth, and Sonea did not care one bit. She buried her face in the fabric of his shirt and allowed a few of the tears to flow free, but then she composed herself. She straightened.
“What happens now?” she asked quietly and tried to ignore the magicians around them.
“To be honest, I do not have the slightest idea,” he replied, “But for a start, it might be a good idea to get us both somewhere we can sit down for a moment before we take on any new trouble.”
He was pale, she realised. His relaxed smile was just as forced as her calm self-possession. I never asked him how he felt, she thought with a pang of guilt. Although his injuries were worse than mine. Cursing herself, she shifted her weight to one side so she could take his hand into hers.
“Are you all right?”
“I am. Don’t worry about me.” He gently squeezed her hand. “Shall we try and find somebody in charge?”
There was barely a hint of bitterness in Akkarin’s voice, but Sonea understood perfectly. It must be so frustrating for a former High Lord to depend on other magicians’ decisions. She tried to think of something to say, something to take his mind to lighter matters, but they suddenly found themselves in the presence of Lord Osen.
Administrator, she corrected. Lorlen’s successor. The blue suited him, she thought, although he did look slightly lost faced with the chaos around them. Too late, she remembered to bow, and the movement ended up far less graceful than it used to. Beside her, Akkarin did the same even more clumsily.
Osen waved a hand dismissively. “I expect you will want to rest?”
“Very well. I have had an apartment prepared for you in the Magicians’ Quarters. All your belongings have been brought there; you will find them complete and undamaged. We decided to keep your living arrangements as they were before you left.”
Before you left. Sonea almost cringed at how that sounded. But then again, Osen could not very well say before we expelled you from the Allied Lands and carted you into the territory of the enemy. He was trying to stay away from topics he thought might be sensitive.
Interrupting her musings, Osen suddenly spoke to somebody behind her. “Lord Garrel. Would you please take Akkarin and Sonea to their rooms?”
The Warrior stepped into Sonea’s sight and nodded curtly. The Administrator sighed. “I will see you in the morning, then. A messenger will be sent when the King is ready for the ceremony.”
Sonea saw with one glance that the apartment was barely large enough to house the extensive book collection Akkarin had acquired over the years. There would barely be any wall left once they had unpacked. Also, they needed more shelves as soon as possible.
The moment Garrel had closed the door behind himself the two black magicians had almost simultaneously collapsed into chairs. They had not moved since.
Eyes closed, Sonea murmured, “I could sleep for weeks. I think if I don’t move very soon, that might just happen.”
She could hear the smile when he answered. “I advise against it. Tomorrow is a rather important event.”
“Oh well. One night will have to do, then.” She didn’t move, though, and neither did Akkarin. The silence that followed was exactly what she needed after this stressful afternoon, the constant buzz of low voices in the seats and Osen’s magically amplified above everything else. She could feel her muscles relax, and for the first time she realised what had actually happened today.
The list of things they had been accused of was incredibly long. Defying the Guild’s law, entering Kyralia without permission, the knowledge and practice of Black Magic, killing multiple times, cooperating with the Thieves… As Osen read the accusation out loud, Sonea’s heart had sunk. They could not have even the slightest chance.
But to her great surprise, not only Osen had urged the Guild to take into consideration the black magicians’ service to the Allied Lands, but several magicians had spoken in favour for them as well, including one of the King’s advisers. In the end, the so-called trial turned into more of a discussion about their future position in the Guild.
It had been decided that they would be allowed to rejoin and not be regarded as criminals, but their freedom would be limited nonetheless. They were not allowed to use Black Magic unless commanded by the Higher Magicians – which Sonea did not mind too much – nor teach anybody else. They would remain on the Guild grounds unless they were accompanied by a suitable escort the Higher Magicians would choose. If she was honest, Sonea had to admit that everything had turned out a lot better than she had thought it would. She had half-expected to be sent off to Sachaka again…
“They made Garrel Head of Warriors,” Akkarin said so suddenly that she jumped and opened her eyes. Akkarin still sat in the chair opposite her, but he was absentmindedly staring out of the window now, unaware that he had startled her. But apparently he sensed her looking at him, and turned to face her.
“I never liked him,” he continued. “He is far too ambitious. And after what he let his novice do to you…”
“Wait. You knew about that?”
He shrugged. “Of course I did. How many were they at the end, twenty?”
“Twenty-two,” she breathed, for the moment unable to think. She swallowed. “The whole time?”
“From the day it started. Sonea, when Lorlen found you in the Entrance Hall, he was wearing my bloodring. After that, I waited every night for you to come to the Residence, and when you were late, I used the passages to check on you.”
“You knew. You knew the whole time.” Sonea was aware that she was repeating herself but she couldn’t help it. She felt panic rising in her throat. Before she had defeated Regin in a formal challenge, he had used his influence over the other novices to ambush her in remote passages of the University late at night, leaving her drained of all strength more than only once.
She had thought she had done her best to avoid Akkarin knowing about it. This sudden revelation was kind of a shock.
“Sonea, are you…”
She threw up a hand to stop him. “Not now. A moment. I need…” What did she need? She had completely forgotten. The thought had been so clear only a moment ago.
She tried to calm herself. This panic was completely unnecessary. It didn’t matter now if Akkarin had or had not known. If anything, she should not be this surprised that he had; he had always found out more than she had expected or liked him to, and she had known about Lorlen’s ring as well.
Suddenly, she was floating. Drifting out of her chair and away into the distance and she could not come back down again. It might have been a pleasant sensation – for once, she felt no pain or even ache at all, which did act as a nice variation – had there not been this nagging feeling that she had left something on the ground that she really, really needed.
Then something violently crashed her back down again – Akkarin’s long fingers gently on her hand, barely touching her. He was on his knees by her feet. When her gaze focused, she stared directly into dark eyes full of worry.
“I’m sorry,” she said, suddenly her head was clear. “I don’t know what that was.”
Akkarin shook his head. “Don’t apologise. I should have known… I should have known how difficult this must be for you.”
She had no idea what he was talking about. “What do you mean?”
“Just think about it! For more than two years, I made your life a misery. You had every reason to believe I would kill you if I only had the chance. And I took you away from Rothen’s protection and forced you to stay under my roof.” He shook his head, as if hating every word he spoke. “I deliberately terrified you to keep my secret. And now…”
“Now I love you,” she whispered. Only when she said it she realised that it was really true, that it had been true the whole time. But she also understood what he had been trying to say – it was difficult. There were two images of Akkarin in her head that completely contradicted each other. And they were fighting, fighting so hard that the blow had thrown her completely out of balance.
Akkarin nodded. “And I would give my life to protect you. I’m so very sorry for all the nightmares I gave you. I swear I will do anything to make up for it.” His voice was so incredibly earnest and sincere, it was impossible to feel anything other than deep trust and affection.
The panic was gone, and all the bad memories with it. Suddenly, she felt perfectly at ease, except for the now familiar aching in her leg. In fact, she had not felt this comfortable at all since waking up in the Healers’ Quarters more than two months ago.
Akkarin was still kneeling by her side. Sonea could physically feel his presence although he was not touching her. He was so close…
When she kissed him, he tensed for the briefest of heartbeats before his hands came to hers, sliding up her arms until he reached her shoulders, holding tightly as if to never let her go. It was only a moment until their lips parted again, but it felt almost like a lifetime.
“Thank you,” Sonea whispered. “Thank you so much.”
Akkarin smiled, still holding onto her, their faces so close she could feel his breath on her skin. She had never felt so good. “Gods know I wanted to do this for a long time.”
He looked pale, though, and when she reached up to take his hand she could feel his pulse so much faster than normal. His heart must be racing.
“Are you alright? Here, sit down.” She rose, tried not to wince when she put weight on her feet, and ushered him to take her seat. He did not even try to object. It must be very bad.
“Do you need anything? I could…”
“Don’t worry about me, I’m fine,” Akkarin said, but considering how heavy he was breathing, she did not believe him. Reaching for those cursed crutches, she managed to get to the door and persuade a servant passing on the corridor to bring them water and something to eat. Back inside, she refused to let Akkarin stand up until he had eaten. He then in turn refused to sit down again until she had done the same, ignoring her when she told him how incredibly childish that was.
That night, she almost fell asleep in her chair, and barely noticed Akkarin gently guiding her to bed. They slept arm in arm, breathing in each other’s presence and secretly hoping the night would never end.
Chapter 9: Mystery
“Are you nervous?”
“Not at all.”
“Stop trying to lie to me, it won’t work.” Akkarin’s smile was audible as he spoke and Sonea almost turned her head to see it but she resisted. Because if she turned, he would be able to see her face just as clearly as she would see his and then he would read it like an open book with very large letters.
“Stop trying to interrogate me, then,” she replied instead and loosened her grip on the arms of the chair. Her fingers were starting to hurt and it had not had the desired effect to calm her nerves.
The corridor outside the Administrator’s office had never seemed so empty to her. She had been here often enough and there always had been the odd magician or servant around. She had never thought it possible for any place in the Guild to be so quiet. So quiet, even, that she dared not speak at a normal volume so as not to disturb the silence, while Akkarin obviously was immune to that sort of intimidation. But he had always had that aura of authority which she herself lacked.
They had been summoned that morning because the King had arrived and was ready to witness their vows. While they were waiting on the corridor the King and the Higher Magicians were refining the exact wording of the vows the black magicians were to speak to be readmitted to the Guild.
“I can see you are nervous, Sonea, I simply thought it would be polite to ask first. Is it the oath?”
She shook her head. “I’m not afraid of oaths any more. I’ve taken – and broken – too many. It’s the kneeling.” She stole a glance at him and immediately regretted it. “Stop laughing, it’s not funny!”
“You, of all people. Broke Guild law, went into exile, saved the Allied Lands, defeated by a formality. You’ll forgive me if I find that perfectly ironic.”
She poked him in the shoulder, which apparently did not impress him enough to stop grinning. “Are you serious? Look at these!” She pointed accusingly at the crutches leaning against the side of her chair. “I have to use these for a reason. Can you imagine me going down to one knee and getting up again without help? It’s going to be seriously painful, not to mention incredibly humiliating.”
His immediately sober expression almost fooled her. He said, “I’ll be there the whole time. If you need help, just shout for me.”
She gave him a look that was supposed to convey her annoyance but the door opened and they were called inside.
While she repeated the words Lord Balkan read out to them, sentence by sentence, Sonea took the chance to look around the room out of the corners of her eyes. The King sat in his chair by the window and had barely moved at all since the black magicians had entered, merely nodding his approval when Osen had told them to kneel, which had been even more painful than Sonea had expected.
The only surprise was that Rothen was here, standing in a corner with the other… were they the Heads of Studies? They must be. Did that mean that Rothen had been, well, promoted?
A part of her mind noticed and memorised the words of the vow but she was mostly not actually paying attention. So when Osen declared Akkarin and her members of the Magicians’ Guild of Kyralia, she was a little unprepared. In the last moment she managed to bow her head and mumble something about gratitude, then she was faced with a whole new challenge.
Hesitating, she considered her options. She could try to simply grit her teeth and endure the pain or she could ask Akkarin…
“May I help?”
At first, she was so relieved that she took the offered hand without thinking but then she recognised to whom it belonged. King Merin smiled down the length of his extended arm at her. He pulled her to her feet and steadied her with his free hand, waiting for her to regain her balance.
Before Sonea so much as managed to produce a “thank you” the King had already already leaned closer to her and said, very quietly: “Only a fragment of the debt I owe to you.”
She blinked and barely had the time to process what had just happened when Merin was gone and Akkarin had taken his place by her side. Sonea took his arm and pulled him down so he was closer to her height. “You will tell me what I missed. Tonight.”
He looked a little paler than usual but he nodded nonetheless. “Very well. I will. I promise.”
“Thank you.” She could tell that he did not want to give in but she decided that just this once she would not care. After this, she would do anything, anything to make him happy, anything to make it up to him. But tonight she had to be a little selfish for a change. Still, she regretted having to force him. She would probably regret it even more later.
“Sonea.” Rothen had left his place in the corner and was apparently trying hard not to stare at Akkarin, who had immediately edged closer to her.
“Hello, Rothen.” For some reason she felt guilty and almost apologised for whatever she might have done but she resisted the urge. Instead, she straightened her back and tried to look as if she was standing on her own feet.
Akkarin ever so gently placed a hand on her back for a moment. “Please excuse me; I have a few messages to send.”
Sonea could read his eyes well enough to know that he was tempted to plant a kiss on her cheek just to clarify his point. She managed to discourage that by giving him a look that was known to scare little children in the streets but only seemed to amuse him. Then she said, “Could you let my family know I’m alive? And Cery too - they haven’t heard from me in months.”
“Of course. I will see you tonight.” Try as he might, he could not make it sound as if he was looking forward to it.
Osen was shooing everybody out of the room now, so Sonea and Rothen found themselves on the other side of the closed door. Sonea was, very unsuccessfully, pretending she was not about to faint from exhaustion.
Unfortunately, her former guardian noticed. “Let’s sit outside for a moment,” he said and led her to a bench in the Courtyard where she sank down with such obvious relief that Rothen asked her twice if she was alright, not believing her when she tried to assure them she was.
“So,” he began finally after they had sat in silence for some time, which had given Sonea just enough time to catch her breath. “You are back then.”
She nodded. “I’m just glad we weren’t sent to Sachaka again. Neither of us would have survived that very long.”
“We couldn’t send you away. The Guild – and the Allied Lands – need you, no matter how little some of us like it. Besides, it would have been inhumanly cruel.”
“Maybe. But I would almost understand it. We are a threat.”
Rothen did not say anything against that, probably because there was nothing reassuring to say. Sonea was right, and they both knew it. The thought was not new to her, either, she had considered this over and over in the days before the Hearing. If just enough magicians had thought that way, she and Akkarin would have faced anything from being imprisoned for life to execution.
“Now, would you like to tell me what is going on here?” Rothen asked suddenly, so suddenly that Sonea jumped. The tone of his voice made her feel like a little child guilty of some mischief who is questioned by a parent knowing exactly what has happened but waiting for the child to admit it before scolding. Her aunt – and her mother before her, she remembered – had asked the same question often enough when Sonea had been little.
“What do you mean?” she asked back, although she was almost sure she knew. He had seen how Akkarin acted around her, had probably read her own behaviour as well. I surround myself with men who know me far too well, she thought. Maybe I should consider that the next time I try to hide something.
Of course, Rothen did not fall for that. He’d had a little son, too. He simply waited, and of course, Sonea gave up. She sighed and looked at the sky so she didn’t have to look at Rothen when she told him.
“There is no reason to be angry at anybody,” she said and hoped against better knowledge that it would make a difference. If she was honest, it took all her self-control not to raise her chin like a defiant child. “I am a grown woman and it was my decision.”
“Your decision,” Rothen echoed, sounding more than a little angry and disappointed, and unfortunately Sonea could not really blame him. There was quite a difference between her secretly being kissed by his son by the Spring and getting herself expelled from the Allied Lands with the man who had threatened to kill her once or twice.
“We couldn’t help it. There was too much time to think about… things.” Gods, this was turning out to be the worst explanation she had ever given, and would probably turn out to be the worst apology she had ever made, which certainly meant something because she had made a lot of terrible excuses in her time.
“I didn’t plan for this,” she added in a badly concealed attempt to turn this conversation around somehow. “It just sort of… happened.”
“Well,” Rothen said after some time, and something about his voice made her feel like she had been punched in the stomach. “I imagine you know that I do not approve, or you would have told me before. Still, there is no need to keep secrets. I am beyond glad that you’re back and I will not allow anything to keep you away from me again.”
Chapter 10: The Task Ahead
Akkarin had found a bottle of wine and two more or less suitable glasses somewhere, saying he was sure to need it. Sonea had cleared their two chairs of stacks of books and paper which had collected there during the day. They had not spoken much since the ceremony and Sonea had been tempted to call off this conversation more than once but she had somehow found the courage to resist.
Akkarin held a glass out to her and she took it, knowing she would not drink. She was too much on edge, she could feel her hand shaking to badly that she had to set the glass on the floor beside her chair.
He watched her, his face unreadable. “Are you sure that you want this?”
She raised her chin. “Yes. I’m sure.”
Sighing, he took a gulp of wine and leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was calm, flat, devoid of all emotion, almost as if he was reciting from a book he had not particularly cared about. Sonea listened intently, her fingernails digging into the skin of her knees because she had to feel that she was alive and the pain reminded her.
Sometimes she would think that something he said sounded familiar, it would give her goose bumps or make her stomach turn in ways that she took to be prove that what he was telling her was the truth. It seemed too harsh to be a lie, anyway.
Only when he described Lorlen’s death did his voice crack, and had she been able to move she would have said something, anything. But she was frozen in place, her mind too busy processing the flood of surreal information that should have been her memories.
“We confronted Kariko and his two surviving partners in front of the University.” He was struggling to regain control over his voice but failed. “They were weaker, and more exhausted, so they died quickly after it had begun. But he was still strong, and both of us worn out. He used a trick to make us advance and then shot his knife from the ground where he’d planted it before, that was how I was injured. You were not even shielding when he grabbed you and dragged you away from me, out of my sight.”
The anguish made him look and sound like a stranger.
“I could hear him talk but you did not say anything back. I thought he had already killed you until you screamed but I did not know what he’d done and I couldn’t move, I was half dead myself. I think now he must have cut your cheek and tried to take what power you had left. But, and I am as sure about it as I can be, when he touched your skin you stopped his heart and managed to shield in the heartbeat it took before his power consumed him. I felt the heat where I was lying, and I heard something – you – being thrown against the Arena, and then everything was silent. I was ready to die then and there but I couldn’t until I knew if you were alive.”
He cleared his throat, drank more wine. The numbness was draining out of her, leaving her limbs tingling and her head spinning. She loosened the grip of her hands on her knees, not daring to look up at his face. She was sure she could not bear it to look at him.
“I’m so sorry,” she finally said and watched the fingers of her right hand trace a pattern in the palm of her left. “I should not have asked you to…” She was unable to finish the sentence. She knew no words to describe her cruelty.
“It’s alright,” he replied but with that dead undertone that had already scared her earlier. “I understand why you had to know.”
Before she could stop herself, she was by his feet, not kneeling but sitting with her legs tugged to the side, and although she could still not look in his eyes, she reached up to take his hand in hers. His was still the same she remembered, smooth and elegant and barely hinting at his past, while hers had always been different, rougher, with pieces of her childhood and upbringing imprinted on her skin. There was a new scar, too, fresh enough that she still remembered the wound it now covered. At least now she could imagine how it had got there.
She traced the lines on his skin with a fingertip. His hand closed around hers, holding her tightly.
“I love you,” Sonea said quietly, trying not to sound as deeply troubled as she actually was. How could she ever repay him for this? How could he ever forgive her?
Akkarin did not reply, just kept holding on to her hand and staring at the floor. Sonea finally managed to look in his face and it almost broke her heart all again. “And I am so, so sorry.”
They sat, unmoving, for a long time, until Akkarin let go of her and Sonea decided to sleep in her own bed for the night.
She woke to the sound of glass breaking and a muffled curse.
When she had finally gotten to her feet and reached the guestroom, she found Akkarin bent over the remains of a wineglass and his bleeding hand. Noticing her and her bare feet, he waved for her to stay away. “There are shards everywhere,” he warned.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said and limped closer. She could see the pieces glittering in the morning light. Concentrating, she cleared a space wide enough for her to sit, then took Akkarin’s hand. “You’ve got glass in here. But it’s not too bad, I’d say.”
She closed her eyes and concentrated on his skin touching hers. She felt the cuts in his flesh and the blood flowing and the sharp pain travelling up his arm, and the cold pieces that didn’t belong there. It took her a moment to draw on her power then she worked silently for a few minutes until she was satisfied with the result.
“There. As if nothing ever happened.”
That was true; she had sealed the cuts so well that not the faintest line was visible. She almost regretted it. Akkarin’s eyes met hers. Not blank anymore but still not the same as they had been before last night.
“Thank you, Sonea.”
Quietly, she began gathering up the pieces of glass that had scattered all over the room. Lacking a pail or even a cloth to put them in she tipped her hands full of shards into the other wineglass, and protected her skin with the thinnest shield of power. She had to brace her weight on her good leg and still she could barely imagine a more uncomfortable position but she refused to acknowledge that she probably should not be crouching down like this.
Holding up the evidence of the incident, she asked, “How did you even do this?”
Akkarin shrugged in a movement that seemed far too careless for him. “I must have grasped too hard.”
Sonea studied his face. “Have you slept at all?” A look through the half-open door of the larger bedroom determined that he had not; the bed sheets were untouched. When she noticed the wine bottle that was considerably emptier than the night before she sighed, placed the glass on a box where it would hopefully not be knocked down and took Akkarin by the shoulders to lead him to the bed.
“I’ll be right here if you need anything,” she said, closed the door, and collapsed in a chair with her face buried in her hands. This was bad, worse than she had imagined. But what was she to do? At least, he had not been as unresponsive this… was it morning still? She couldn’t tell from the light.
She ran a hand through the tangles that had once been her hair. She had not caught too much sleep either, instead tossing and turning for hours, staring at the thin strip of light under her bedroom door. She should probably do something about her appearance, or she might be confused for a ghost.
Somehow, Sonea managed to change into the black robes without bursting into tears. They felt endlessly wrong. The fabric was heavy and soft against her skin but every movement reminded her of their full length and every time she spied a hint of black from the corners of her eyes she flinched because it was just so wrong. But this was apparently who she was supposed to be now, so she would have to get used to it eventually. Even so, she avoided seeing her reflection in any way lest she might break down entirely.
The guest room was a chaos. While the two bedrooms contained barely anything besides the beds and an (empty) chest of drawers each, the guestroom was filled with boxes stacked three or four high, the standard furnishings of a table and three chairs crammed in between with barely enough free space to move around. There was the door to the corridor on one side and a window to the gardens on the other; white, empty walls. At least she had something to do.
The first box she opened contained items she recognised from the one time she had entered Akkarin’s bedroom at the Residence, mostly the sort of trinkets one would place in a bookshelf and forget about but also several bundles of letters that Sonea left untouched. She found far too many books and finally, in a corner, her own belongings carelessly packed in together.
The first thing she took out was her folder of notes from the University. To her great horror, it had obviously been searched for evidence of black magic, and in the process the searcher had mixed her chemistry formulas with complicated diagrams of attack patterns for Warrior Skills and thrown in a list of medicines for good measure. She groaned. If her notes were any scale, unpacking the rest of their things would be an utter delight.
She willed a chair to move close enough to the table to act as a desk and began the long and painful process of making order out of chaos. Although her robes indicated that she would not have to finish her University education, she did not have the slightest inclination to just close that chapter. She had endured almost three years and she would not allow that to have been in vain. The least she could do was get her things in order.
When she was done with that, Sonea moved on to a pile of books and discovered that they, too, had been jumbled and mixed and with a sigh, she prepared herself for a very long day.
Suddenly, there were hands on her shoulders, their warmth penetrating the fabric of her robes and startling her so badly she almost dropped the inkwell she had been holding.
“How does our little household look?” Akkarin asked quietly, so close to her that she could feel his breath on her neck.
She decided to pretend nothing had happened and fought a little smile to her lips. “Terrible. I found A History of the Magicians Guild of Kyralia between two volumes of Elyne poetry.”
Strangely enough, a curse escaped him. “It’s worse than I thought.”
“Well,” she said lightly, “It seems we have found a way to pass the time for the next, I’d say two years.”
“I sincerely hope it will not take that long. But that is not what I wanted to talk about.”
Turning, she looked at him. He, too, had changed into his robes, and now resembled his past self to an almost scary extent. There still were shadows under his eyes but they were much less prominent now than they had been in the morning. Sonea did not know how much time had passed since then but it seemed to be around late afternoon.
“I want to apologise,” he continued and his eyes were fixed on hers so intently that she could not have looked away had she wanted to. “I cannot imagine anything I could say that would even start to excuse my behaviour.”
She sighed. “Then don’t say anything. It’s alright, really; if anything, it was my fault.”
“Don’t do that,” he said.
“Don’t blame yourself for my mistakes. I want to… make amends, so to say.”
Sonea resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Had he always been this ridiculous? “There’s nothing to make up for. I asked something of you although I knew it would be hard for you and if anything, I should be apologising for that. But if you insist, how about you go about and find us some food?”
Under different circumstances, he might have laughed. Now he only nodded, kept his grasp on her shoulders for just a moment longer, and left.
Chapter 11: Mending
The next week passed in a sort of formal informality. To any uninformed onlooker, the way Sonea and Akkarin interacted might have seemed casual especially compared to their behaviour before they had been expelled from the Guild but Sonea felt the difference and deeply resented it. At first, she had not dared approach him because there was something between them, like a wall that had not been there before and that kept them apart. And then she was not even sure if she could still take the first step or if Akkarin would push her away again, to keep the distance that was between them even when they stood side by side.
She did not leave their apartment very often; although she could handle the crutches well enough by now to navigate between the countless boxes in their guestroom without accidents she found that longer distances still defeated her. She was growing more frustrated and irritated by the hour and had no idea what to do against it.
They spent the largest part of their days trying to turn what at the moment looked like a warehouse into an actually inhabitable room, which meant they had to go through all their combined belongings sorting and stacking the books against the walls for lack of shelves, and very slowly turning the apartment into something that could have been a home had they not found this alien wall separating them from each other.
When Rothen asked her to dinner with him one night, Sonea was endlessly glad to have a chance to escape.
She mastered the stairs as well as she could – slowly, one step at a time, bracing all her weight on her good leg and the handrail – and very gratefully fell into a chair the very minute Tania had opened the door for her. The servant took one look at her and clicked her tongue disapprovingly.
“Now you don’t look too healthy, my lady.”
“Thank you, Tania, that is exactly what I wanted to hear.” Sonea was out of breath and already channelling Healing power to her aching leg, she was not exactly in the best of moods.
The servant just frowned, then said, “Rothen hasn’t returned from classes yet, but he will be here any minute. He’ll be very happy to see you.”
She hesitated before adding, “He misses you terribly, you know?”
Sonea sighed. “I know, but I’m afraid there’s not much I can do about it, at least not at the moment. I miss him too.”
Tania shook her head and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “magicians!” but to Sonea’s relief didn’t comment any further. Instead, she pressed a glass of raka into Sonea’s hand and distracted her with easy gossip from the servants’ quarters and didn’t seem to mind that she had to support the conversation almost by herself. For the first time in days, Sonea relaxed.
When Rothen finally came, she could feel his concern for her almost radiating from him but he did not say anything either. His warm smile came only a heartbeat too late but she forgave him for that – even without Tania’s earlier comment, she would have known that she looked far too much like a ghost. She returned the smile as well as she could and started to rise but he waved her off and took a seat opposite her.
“You barely look healthy enough to stand.”
“I’m fine, I promise. It was just the stairs.”
“If you want me to, I can accompany you down when you leave later.”
She shook her head. “Thank you, but I need to challenge myself every once in a while or it will never get any better. I can’t be stuck to my room forever, can I?” She had tried to sound light-hearted, even joking, but there was definitely an edge of resentment in her voice as she spoke.
“No, I don’t suppose you can,” Rothen agreed absentmindedly and suddenly Sonea was aware that they had barely seen and talked to each other for more than a year due to a wide range of complications. Both of their lives had progressed in one way or the other and, speaking for herself, she was sure this progress would not be too easy to explain or justify. She had made too many choices, too many decisions that Rothen would probably not agree with and she did not regret a single one. But there were bound to be arguments between her and her former guardian and, judging by the atmosphere right now, they would not wait much longer.
Tania had set out the meal on the table between them, quietly working as if not to disturb a conversation that did not exist. Now she waited for Rothen to dismiss her, or ask her to stay; she seemed to be trembling with things she wanted to say.
Sonea took the opportunity of silence lingering in the room like an unpleasant scent. “I fear I must apologise to both of you,” she said as lightly as she could. “I am a very quiet guest tonight. The last few months weren’t easy.”
“You have no apologies to make,” Rothen objected. “I should not have asked you to come so bluntly, surely you have not settled in yet.”
How like him to know that at once. Perhaps he did still know her, and it was she who had grown a stranger. She could smile and say yes, she was still getting used to being back in the Guild, or she could tell him truthfully that there was much more to her melancholy mood.
“It is strange,” she admitted. “There are a few differences between an apartment in the Guild and the Sachakan wastelands.”
He smiled at her joke, weak as it had been, and thankfully did not pursue the topic any further. Instead, he told Tania to retire for the night and waited for the servant to leave. “If you do not want to talk about what… happened in the last few months today, I understand. However, we must speak of it someday, for both our sakes.”
Relief flooded over her and she nodded in agreement even before a clear thought entered her mind. “Thank you. It’s very kind of you.”
“Nonsense. I suppose we must all come to terms with what happened before discussing it with others, and you have a lot more to think about than most.”
Only I do not remember most of it, she thought but she would not tell him that, at least not now. Although she now at least had an idea of what she didn’t remember, thinking about it too much made her feel almost dizzy.
For the rest of the evening, Rothen distracted her from her own, glum thoughts by sharing amusing anecdotes about novices he had taught, some of whom had become teachers themselves and had taught classes Sonea had attended. Before she knew what was happening, she found herself grinning and even laughing easily. She had not realised how much she had missed this.
When, a few hours later, she excused herself and assured Rothen that she really felt well enough to manage the stairs on her own, she was more at ease than she had expected. She had accepted maybe one more glass of wine than she should have but for once she did not regret it; the alcohol numbed the pain and somehow made the steps easier. She now knew exactly what she had to do as soon as she reached the apartment. It was almost as if Rothen’s distraction had cleared her mind.
As she had expected, she found Akkarin seated in the chair by the window with a glass of wine of his own and a book in his hands. It was obvious that he had not truly been reading, though, his eyes were fixed on a point far away from the pages. If it had not been for that look in his eyes, he might have been High Lord Akkarin once again, distant, aloof and intimidating.
He jumped when she spoke.
“This has to stop. Right now.” Her crutches landed on the floor without ceremony and she took the few steps towards him on her own despite her shaking knees.
“I have spent the last week trying to work out what I could do to see you be yourself again and I could not think of anything. I’m done with subtlety now,” she announced. “I think you know what I am talking about.”
He looked at her in a strange way as he rose and put book and glass aside, then relief spread across his face. “I did not realise you might feel this way, too – I thought I should give you space after what I said and did.”
“Well, this only proves that your senses cannot be as sharp as everyone assumes. I have definitely not needed space.” She felt so incredibly like herself again now that she had said it, almost as if all the weakness she had experienced in the last months had never existed. In this moment, she was strong. She held out a hand for him to take. “Rather the opposite.”
He ignored her hand and drew her completely into his arms, burying his face in her hair and holding her so tightly she feared she might suffocate but she did not protest. It felt too good. One of his hands found the small of her back and gently rested there as support while his other arm circled her shoulders.
Regrettably, she had to pull away at some point. “I’m sorry,” she said, and she really was. “But I’m afraid we both need to sit down.”
Her own breathing was not going easily and she thought she could almost hear his heart struggling to keep up.
He did not let go of her completely, though, not just yet. “We should have talked about this. We could have spared ourselves a week of torment.”
She nodded. “Let’s not let it happen again.”
“Good. Can I please sit down now? Or I might faint.” How easy it was to admit that with him although it was so difficult with others. She had not liked to show Rothen that she was even mildly uncomfortable after climbing the stairs, and here she stood telling Akkarin that she was thoroughly exhausted.
“Hmmm. We cannot have that. How bad is the pain?” he asked quietly, a question he would probably ask many times before this was over and done with.
“Very. But manageable.”
“Let’s get ourselves comfortable then.” He hesitated for the briefest of moments. “I would prefer you not to sleep alone tonight.”
“Well,” she said, trying to contain the joy that they were finally properly mending the shards of their relationship. “I was hoping you’d ask.”
Chapter 12: Caring
It was wonderful to wake up and not be alone. There was no cold space beside her but a warm body with his arm resting across her waist and his breath tickling her ear and she had not woken with that sense of terror that so often had greeted her first thing in the morning. Sonea was relaxed, well rested, and utterly content.
“Don’t move,” Akkarin murmured so quietly she almost didn’t hear. “It’s early still.”
She smiled. It could not be that early if her lack of tiredness meant anything. But she would not mind staying here for a few more moments, in this small bubble of comfort and happiness.
“It’s not as if we have to be anywhere.”
“Exactly. And I will not allow you out of my sight as long as I can manage. “
Turning her head, she looked at his face. He wore a dreamy smile that she had never seen before and she doubted he was aware of it; it did not seem to match the mask his face usually was. She flicked a strand of hair out of his eyes. He looked better, too, exactly like she felt – content and alive, not like the ghosts they had been yesterday.
They did not move for some time, savouring the rare moment of peace together. The sun crept through the gaps in the blinds and threw strange lines of light against walls and ceiling. She almost thought she could hear birds chirping outside. It was mid-summer by now, although the period of heat had not yet fully begun. The sun would be bearable for a few more days.
Finally, she said: “We have to get up.”
“Are you sure? We could just stay right here forever.”
“I’m afraid not.” She pushed herself to her elbows and nudged his arm out of the way so she could get up completely. He obliged, but not willingly.
“Why?” he asked with his voice still rough from sleeping. “Do we have to attend some ceremony I have forgotten?”
“Not quite. I’m just hungry.” Her stomach growled as if to agree with her. “Come on.”
Akkarin had the nerve to laugh. “We certainly can’t have you going hungry. Let’s find you something then.”
It was almost noon when they had eaten but neither of them cared much. The night had restored an intimacy between them that Sonea had so sorely missed in the last few days; they sat very closely together, somehow always touching in some way, be it deliberately or not. The warmth of Akkarin’s hand even through layers of fabric comforted her more than anything else. Knowing he was there for her and that she only had to reach out to feel his heartbeat filled her with a sense of calm she had not experienced in the past week. The fluttering unrest in her stomach had settled, replaced by a sensation of serenity.
Together, Sonea and Akkarin finished organising their belongings along the walls of the guestroom until Sonea could easily move everywhere without risking to knock over any boxes. Without them cluttered around on every bit of space not occupied by furniture, the room looked infinitely larger and lighter. Or maybe that impression was due to their new ease, palpable in the very air they breathed. In the few hours before sunset, Sonea smiled more than she had all week.
When Marin came to check on her, Akkarin did not excuse himself like he had before; he stood unmoving by the window and pretended to watch the gardens below. Sonea could tell that he was observing her in the reflection on the glass and had to suppress a smile.
The Healer’s gaze wandered from her feet to her face before he even said anything. “You look much better,” he stated by means of greeting. “Although you are still a little too pale for my taste. Are you sleeping enough?”
He narrowed his eyes at her, as if he knew she was lying. There had been many sleepless nights since he had last seen her and he could probably tell. “How is your leg doing? It should be healing quickly.”
It was her turn to frown. From the corner of her eye, she saw Akkarin shifting slightly so he could better see her, and for that reason, she played it down: “It’s improving.”
Which was only partly true. She was growing stronger, yes, and able to stand for longer periods of time without her knees buckling but the pain was always there, throbbing, pulsing through her whole body when she took a step too carelessly. But she did not want Akkarin to know that, or he would worry endlessly and try not to let her set her feet on the floor until he was sure she was all right, and she did not want him to do that.
Instead, she let Marin place a cool hand on her forehead and waited as he assessed his findings. Opening his eyes, he nodded to himself. “It seems to me you are well on the way to recovery. I will have to speak to Lady Vinara first but as far as I am concerned, you can start walking longer distances to build up your strength. Slowly, of course, but I expect you to be fully recovered by the end of summer.”
“Thank you, Marin.” She spoke quietly so her disbelief would not be so prominently audible but Akkarin’s eyes flickered to hers nonetheless. Not now, she mouthed at him.
The Healer acknowledged her with a slight nod, then turned to Akkarin. “Lady Vinara asked me to check on your condition as well; she asks you to excuse that she cannot come by herself.”
Maybe it was her imagination but Sonea thought to hear a hint of nervousness in Marin’s voice. The suspicion was confirmed when he jumped slightly as Akkarin turned and approached them, shooting Sonea a stern look when she tried to rise and offer him her seat. Her heart sank. He had noticed and he was fussing already.
He sat casually on their only other chair and watched patiently as Marin very hesitantly examined him, too. The verdict was much the same – he should start exercising with care, gradually increasing the strain on his wounded heart and he would be all right soon enough.
The Healer was eager to leave afterwards, and the door had barely shut behind him when Akkarin’s eyes found hers. She sighed and braced herself for the storm.
“What are you not telling me?” he asked.
“It’s nothing, really. Just a little more pain than I’m comfortable with.” She flashed a smile but without the desired effect; Akkarin just snorted.
“I have been keeping you on your feet all day! You should have said something. You should have told me you were in pain.”
He had gotten to his feet and come to stand in front of her, looming over her because she did not dare get up and he was so much taller than she was. She resisted the urge to glare at him; that would only lead to heated argument and she was too tired for that right now.
“I’m sorry,” she said instead. “But I promise you it is not as bad as you think. I’m sure I will be fine once I’ve built up some muscle again. And while we’re at it, what about you? I feel so terrible for not asking…”
That finally distracted him. He dismissed her concern with a wave of his hand and returned to his chair. “Let us not talk about this now.”
Eyebrows raised, she asked: “Please, don’t play it down when you’ve just told me off for doing the same thing. I have the same right to worry as you do.”
“And I’ll give you the same answer – I’ll be fine. Would you please do me the favour of speaking of something other than our health for a moment?”
She shrugged. If it meant he wouldn’t bother her anymore either, she certainly did not mind.
“What would you talk about, then?
He actually looked nervous now, running his hand through his hair in a gesture she had never seen from him before. “I’ve been meaning to ask you since last night,” he began and his eyes all but burned into hers. “I would not want you to stay with me out of a sense of obligation.”
She stared at him, unable to comprehend; the implication of what he had just said was too absurd. “I beg your pardon?”
“What I am saying is that I would hate to hold you back –“
“Is this about what you said in the mountains?” She couldn’t help herself; she sprang to her feet and somehow managed not to falter. “Because if it is, I will tell you now what I told you then: I don’t care. Yes, I’m young and yes, you were my guardian but I don’t care and unless everything I thought about you is wrong then you don’t care either.”
“Sonea, when we were in Sachaka I never expected to survive. I had planned for you to return to the Guild on your own, all sympathy on your side, just imagine what you could have done! But here I am and now you are keeping the criminal High Lord company, endangering every prospect you ever had…”
How could he sit there, so calm and apparently unmoved while saying such things? “I sincerely hope that you have lost your mind,” she told him with all the composure she could muster. There was no relief when she tried to inhale deeply; her existence was a horrible mixture of ragged breaths and thrumming pulse. Her throat was so tight she could barely speak. “There can’t be a different explanation. I love you, and I know that you have loved me for longer than you dared admit to yourself so why would you… You of all people should know that I do not stay with you out of obligation.”
Her body betrayed her, her knees gave in and she would have fallen if Akkarin had not suddenly caught her. He held her at arm’s length but she could feel his touch through the tears she was desperately trying to hold back. I will not cry. I will not cry.
“Do you want me to leave? Because I will if you say it. I’ll leave this room; I’ll leave the country if you say you want me to but please, Akkarin, please, think about this. Do you want me to leave?”
He looked as if she had struck him. “Gods, Sonea, no, I don’t. But – “
“Shut up.” Reaching out, her fingertips found his cheek, his jaw, his lips, tracing, sensing, reassuring her that he was real and not an evil spirit. “Just shut up then.”
Somehow she pulled him close, somehow she moulded her lips to his in an utterly insane attempt to keep him with her, and somehow Akkarin relented and encircled her in his arms.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered against her skin but she pinched his arm.
“Shut up. I don’t care.” Right now she really didn’t, his feelings were written clearly all across his face and she could sense every single one as if he’d shouted them from the rooftops.
“I’m going to fall over and take you with me any moment.”
She stared at him. “How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t care?”
Chapter 13: Acceptance
Sonea woke around midnight to patches of moonlight on the ceiling and Akkarin’s arm draped over her waist. She tried not to move so as not to disturb him but she must have failed, for he withdrew his arm and whispered: “Are you awake?”
“I’m sorry if I woke you.”
“You didn’t. I wasn’t asleep.”
She turned around so she could just make out his features in the darkness; she met his gaze and tried to find the right words for what she wanted to say. “About earlier…” she began and mentally winced at that poor opening. “I feel like we need to talk about it and now is as good a time as any.”
For a while, Akkarin did not say anything. Then: “All I want is for you to be happy.”
“I know.” Her hand sought his between the sheets and took it, her thumb tracing gentle circles on his palm. There were lines – scars – even there. “But, Akkarin, I wouldn’t be happy without you. And I think the real issue is that you think I deserve better than you – don’t deny it, I can tell it’s true. And it’s so silly to think that because if you look at it from the outside you are far too good for me.”
“Sonea. I am a criminal, a villain in the minds of half the Allied Lands.”
She shrugged. “So am I. I confessed, I was convicted just like you. But we were pardoned because we saved exactly the same people who condemned us before. Can’t we leave the past behind us and just take it as it comes? Unless something happened that I don’t remember – did I do something horrible? If I did – “
“Of course you didn’t,” Akkarin said quietly and reached up to cup her cheek with his free hand. His touch was ever so light on her skin but seemed to sink deep into her bones; she leaned closer without meaning to. “But it will not be that easy to leave the past behind us, as you say. There will be all sorts of… gossip.”
“Well,” she said, smiling, because she could feel that she had almost won. “If you want to avoid gossip, you should not have joined the Guild.”
He made a noise that conveyed only vague irritation. “I have learned that, if nothing else. But you are still far too young, and far too innocent – I all but seduced you to join me in my crimes.”
“I might be mistaken,” she said dryly, “but I remember that very differently. Unless my memory suffered more than I thought, I begged you to teach me. As for my age, we already talked about that. For you, nineteen might not be much but where I come from, if you live to be nineteen you have likely as not lived most of your life. Don’t say I’m young – relatively speaking, you could argue that I’m older than you.”
Never had she been more relieved than when a small laugh escaped him and he shifted to lightly kiss her forehead. “You might have a point there. But you’re no longer in the slums; if nothing goes wrong, you can expect a long life.”
“All the better, if I can spend it with you.” She paused, gathered his hand closer and pressed it to her lips. “I don’t want to leave, Akkarin.”
“If at any time you begin to regret…”
“I won’t.” She kissed his hand again. “I promise.”
Sonea knew that she had not entirely convinced him but at least he fell asleep after that; she watched his chest rise and fall slowly and dared not move a muscle lest she wake him. She did not know for how long he had not slept before tonight but she imagined it to be far too long. Staring at the ceiling, Sonea lay awake until early morning, when her thoughts finally settled enough to allow her to dose off for just a little while.
Therefore, when a servant came to give her a very official-looking letter, she was at first too tired to comprehend what she was looking at. Her name stood boldly on thick, heavy paper, and the seal on the back of the envelope had been pressed in gold wax. She broke it with clumsy fingers and then stared at the writing for such a long time that Akkarin had time to read his own correspondence, realise that Sonea had not said anything for a suspiciously extensive period and take the letter out of her hand to skim it himself. His eyebrows rose a little higher with every sentence.
“You have been invited to Court.”
“The King personally requests your attendance.”
“Yes. Why does he do that?”
Akkarin shrugged and handed the letter back to her. The King’s incal was embossed in the bottom right corner, just beside Merin’s simple, straightforward signature, which stood in stark contrast to the flowery words and ornate handwriting that comprised the rest of the letter. Sonea could not help but examine it closely, looking for something to indicate that this was either a misunderstanding or a well-done prank but found nothing.
“Maybe,” Akkarin suggested, “he wants to thank you for saving his life during the Invasion. Without you, he would surely be dead.”
“I don’t remember that,” she replied automatically, as she had done every time somebody had referenced the war around her. It was becoming a habit, one she would have to shed eventually if she did not want all of the Allied Lands to gossip about the Black Magician’s terrible memory.
“That doesn’t change the fact that it happened,” Akkarin said firmly. “And Merin would never let something like that go unacknowledged. I daresay he means to get you the recognition you deserve.”
“I don’t deserve anything,” she mumbled as she read the invitation a fiftieth time. She could hear Akkarin making an indistinct huffing noise but chose not to react; instead folding the parchment and stuffing it back into the envelope. The sun had found its way into their little, messy guestroom and she longed to feel it on her skin directly. “How about we start on that gentle exercising we were told to do?”
He hesitated, his gaze lingering on her legs. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. And if you won’t accompany me, I’ll go on my own, trip over a root and die of exhaustion somewhere on the grounds where nobody will ever find me. So, are you coming?”
For a heartbeat, Akkarin simply stared at her as if he could hardly believe that those words had just come out of her mouth. Then, slowly, he nodded, dropped his letters on the already rather overflowing table and held open the door for her as she scrambled through the room.
“We cannot go too far,” he demanded, watching her. “It would not do if we both die of exhaustion.”
She shot him a disapproving glance and headed for the stairs. “We’ll find a bench and sit down for a few minutes. Then we can go back inside, if you want. But I need to get out of that room.”
Despite her continuous assertions that she was not too tired and his own claims that he was perfectly fine they were both out of breath when they finally reached one of the stone benches scattered through the gardens. But the sun was shining, the wind was gently rustling the leaves in the nearby forest and the air smelled of summer flowers, they were together and Sonea felt as free as was possible under the circumstances. So she did not complain and turned her face up to soak up as much sunlight as she could and enjoyed a few moments of quiet.
“This was a good idea,” Akkarin said at some point and gingerly intertwined his fingers with hers. “It was beginning to feel somewhat… stuffy inside.”
“Breathing is nice, isn’t it?”
“Very much so. And we should enjoy the weather while we still can – the heat wave will arrive within just a few weeks, I would say.”
“Really?” Sonea frowned. “I didn’t know we’d been gone that long. But I suppose my sense of time is not what it used to be. I wouldn’t have thought that it’s this late in the year already.” She rested her head on Akkarin’s shoulder, closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. The calm out here reminded her that she had only slept for a few short hours and not particularly well at that, so she was finding herself growing continuously more tired. In fact, she was just about to fall asleep when Akkarin interrupted the silence.
“You will have to find an escort if you are to go to Court,” he said, and unfortunately he was right, so she straightened and regretted the fact that the invitation had reached her at all.
“Who do you think I should ask? Maybe I didn’t pay attention very well but I have no idea who is responsible for our… safekeeping. Guarding. Whatever it is they’re doing.” She frowned and stared at her hands. It was true, they were being guarded even if it was not obvious at all times. Sonea was sure that their leaving their apartment had been noted and reported to whoever was in charge, and that somebody was probably watching them at this very moment. Not that it would be difficult to observe them; the bench they had chosen was situated in plain view of both the Magicians’ Quarters and the University and any magician passing through the gardens would inevitably see them, whether they were actively looking or not.
Akkarin shrugged; they were sitting so closely together that she could feel the movement all over the side of her body. “I would assume Garrel to have the reigns in hand there but maybe you should ask somebody else. I would think him capable of not letting you go at all, royal invitation or no.”
As it turned out, Garrel did not get the chance to deny Sonea her escort. Lord Osen had received not only a summons to the same event but also notice that Sonea had been asked to attend as well; he sent her a message that evening, inviting her to go in the carriage with him. He was apparently willing to act as her chaperon himself and she did not have the slightest problem with that. She much preferred the calm, sensible man over any of those silent, brooding Warriors who had guarded her before.
She met the Administrator by the stables on the morning of her audience. He greeted her very nicely and inquired about her health, and she instantly felt a lot less tense than she had before. The unknown territory of the day seemed a lot less frightening faced with somebody she knew, however fleetingly. When it came to get in the carriage, though, she was confronted with a whole new problem.
“May I help you, my Lady?”
Surprised, she looked up at the coachman, who had climbed down from his seat to offer her his hand. She took it with a sigh of relief. “Yes, thank you very much.”
He handed her into the carriage with obvious experience, and asked her twice if she was alright despite her assurance that she was as fine as she could be. She could not stop smiling throughout the entire drive through the Inner Circle, and even more so when the man also helped her down when they had arrived.
She had seen the Palace before, from a distance. Its roofs and towers rose over every other building in Imardin and the golden glint of the tallest spire was ever-present to the city’s inhabitants. Sonea remembered hearing the older boys in the youth gang boasting how they would one day climb all the way up and steal the gold right off. She also remembered her aunt chiding them whenever she heard those talks and telling her not to listen to this nonsense. But right now, standing closer to it than any of those boys ever had, that adolescent boast somehow seemed possible.
“What are you thinking about?” Osen asked quietly. He watched her, waiting for her to return back to the present so they could proceed up the unfortunately very impressive stairs and into the building.
Sonea shook her head. “Nothing important. Let’s go.”
It spoke in the Administrator’s favour that he did not hurry her although she only made slow progress on the marble steps. She had practiced for the last three days, going up and down the stairs in the Magicians’ Quarters until she had received suspicious glances, but that did not mean that it was not exhausting. She could manage the crutches well enough by now that she did not have to concentrate on handling them with every step, although she still cursed the blasted things with every breath. When she reached the top, every last bit of air had vanished from her lungs and her legs were on fire. She drew on healing magic so she could keep going and hated that it was necessary.
If the Royal Palace appeared incredibly massive from the outside, the entrance hall was simply enormous. Until then, Sonea had thought nothing could surpass the breathtaking magnitude of the Guildhall but clearly, she had been very much mistaken. The polished marble tiles surrounded a small fountain in the middle of the hall, and the walls were entirely covered in a mosaic of swirling colours, giving the illusion that the space was even larger. The ceiling, on the other hand, was almost disappointingly normal despite being so high that Sonea wondered if there was any room for the sky above.
A young man in uniform came hurried up to them and bowed very deeply. He was carrying a roll of paper which he quickly opened and skimmed, finally making a mark somewhere and giving a satisfied nod.
“Administrator Osen and Black Magician Sonea. Welcome to the Royal Palace. If you would please follow me; the King awaits you.” Beckoning for them to follow, he turned and led them through an archway and a series of smaller – though not in the least less grand – reception halls. People in richly ornamented clothes and heavy, jingling jewellery stood in clusters, close to windows and courtyards to catch a breeze, while servants took rounds with trays of refreshments and courtiers hurried along with slightly haunted expressions on their faces.
All this Sonea noticed only fleetingly. Their guide obviously had places to be and schedules to meet because he rushed at a pace that was all but impossible for her to keep up with. But she managed and before long they reached the doors to the throne room, where they were told to wait for a few moments.
Osen lightly touched Sonea’s arm. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she assured him. “I’m just a little out of breath, that’s all.”
“It is a little intimidating, isn’t it? When I first came here, I could barely believe it was real.”
She met his eyes. “That is what I thought about the Guildhall at first. I couldn’t imagine how something so delicate could even exist.”
Smiling, he nodded knowingly. “That is most visitors’ reaction. Did it change when you learned how it’s done?”
She laughed. “No, not at all. But I was never very good at that technique so I failed to believe that some people might actually have the skill. I have not tried it since, though; maybe things have changed.”
His eyebrows rose in surprise. “How so?”
She shrugged. “Black Magic… changes one’s perception. Don’t worry,” she added with a weak smile, “I won’t say more.”
The Administrator had gone visibly pale at her mention of the forbidden knowledge, mentioned so carelessly in passing. First, she wanted to think less of him for this fear. But he lost a friend to this war as well. And likely more. He wore the blue robes with more confidence than when she had last seen him, his posture overall straighter and less insecurity in his eyes but it was hard to forget why he held that office now.
He inclined his head to thank her, then swiftly changed the subject. “Have you thought about what you are going to do in the future? How you want to spend your time, I mean.”
It was her turn to be surprised. “I hadn’t, actually,” she confessed. “So far, we – I mean, Lord Akkarin and I – have been trying to get ourselves back to life, so to speak; I did not really –“ She trailed off as the magnificent double door before them began, with a screech, to open just wide enough to allow a glimpse of the room beyond.
The woman who beckoned them inside was almost as short as Sonea but carried herself with so much self-assurance that she might as well have been two heads taller. She wore uniform, too, but where their guide’s had been elegant, but practical, hers was covered in intricate embroidery and even the occasional gemstone, all of this leading Sonea to imagine her trying to disentangle the various cords and ribbons every night, vividly cursing. She stifled her laugh and allowed Osen to beckon her onwards.
The throne room was not nearly as enormous as the rest of the Palace. If anything, it was almost cozy, relatively speaking. King Merin was seated not on the actual throne, but in an armchair at the foot of the pedestal, and currently speaking quietly to a woman by his side. When he noticed the two magicians’ arrival, he gestured for them to step closer. Like almost everybody she had seen since the Invasion, Sonea thought he looked older.
The servant who had brought them in began to announce them but Merin cut her off.
“Thank you, Ella. You may go. Administrator”, he said, inclining his head while Osen sank to one knee. “Thank you for coming. Please,” he added, as Sonea moved to do the same, “don’t trouble yourself on my behalf; I can see you are not fully recovered.”
Sonea hesitated but settled for a very deep bow. She felt exposed here even though there were not many people with them in the room; every eye seemed to rest on her. “Thank you, Your Majesty,” she said with as much confidence as she could muster. And thankful she was; it was very considerate of Merin, after all, but at this moment she would have given the world for a chair.
It seemed that this wish was not to be fulfilled, though. While Osen and Merin exchanged further pleasantries, Sonea focused on the wall behind the throne to occupy her mind. It was painted with bright, vibrant colours, depicting a typical view of Kyralian countryside. But there was something off about the image, something that she could not put her finger on at first. And then she noticed the mountains on the horizon, and the smoke rising behind them, filling the sky.
She shuddered. She knew what it was, now: The day the Sachakan wastelands had been created. Why would anybody want a painting of this terrible, horrifying moment, let alone a painting that covered a whole wall? Maybe somebody who has not seen the effects for themselves, she thought. The wastelands were, in her opinion, rather the stuff of nightmares than the subject of art.
“… But I must not keep you any longer. Thank you, again, for coming today. Lady Sonea –“
She looked up just in time to meet the King’s eyes as he smiled at her, “I shall look forward to continuing our acquaintance.”
And with that, they were dismissed. The walk back through the Palace was a blur, and just a little more hasty than she would have liked. The coachman was expecting them and offered his arm to her before she could even say anything. When he handed her in he lifted her entire weight seemingly without effort, and she sank into the seat with an audible sigh.
The Administrator watched her for a moment before asking, “Are you alright?”
Sonea dismissed the question with a wave, unable to calm her breathing enough to speak. She sat, panting, for a few minutes, while the carriage jerked into motion and rattled along the cobbled streets of Imardin. “I’m fine,” she said finally, warding off his concern. “Really.”
“You look as if you are about to faint,” he noted, and held out his hand. “If I could help…?”
Smiling, she shook her head. “That’s very kind of you to offer but I’m really just a little exhausted. I haven’t been active this much for some time, I’ll get used to it.”
“If you say so.” He did not look as if he believed her, but thankfully dropped the subject. She was not in the mood to discuss her physical shortcomings right now, especially not since Osen was, all things considered, still virtually a stranger; she knew almost nothing about him and suspected he knew far too much about her to provide for casual conversation. Under these circumstances, she preferred to sit in silence.
So it was not until they had almost reached the Guild grounds that she said: “You asked me earlier what plans I had for the future.”
He nodded, beckoning for her to go on.
“When I first decided to become a magician – out of my own accord, of course – I did it because I wanted to help the people in the slums. I wanted to be a Healer for those who can’t afford to come to the Guild. Do you think I could still do that, even with… all things considered?”
The Administrator did not answer at first, only acknowledged her words and waited. Finally, when they had just passed the Gates, he shrugged. “I don’t see anything that would stop you, if you really wanted.”
Chapter 14: Nightmares
I think we're getting into my time at university around now, because this is roughly where I personally start enjoying it again! Which isn't to say everything before is bad, just that I've changed (and improved) and this is where I feel like I'm coming into my style. Honestly, if you're still here, thanks for sticking with it! Hopefully it only gets better from here.
“Oh, I’m sorry; I didn’t know you had a visitor.” Sonea had not really thought about the possibility when she had practically crashed through the door into their guestroom, too glad to be finally home. Now she stood in the doorframe, slightly embarrassed, and tried to school her features.
The man Akkarin had been talking to until she had interrupted them so suddenly didn’t hide his obvious interest in her but that was not what was so unsettling about the situation. It was rather that the two men were almost like mirror images of each other – Akkarin’s hair was longer, the visitor’s posture was a little less rigid, but otherwise they might have been identical.
“Sonea, meet my brother, Kiran.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Sonea. I have heard much about you.” Kiran had risen to his feet and now bowed very deeply, the hint of a smile on his lips.
“Only good things, I hope,” she replied, gaze flickering to Akkarin, who raised an eyebrow and did not reply. “Well, I won’t intrude any longer. Let me just sit down for a moment and I’ll be on my way again.”
“You don’t have to,” Akkarin said quietly and almost reached for her. “You must be tired –“
“Don’t. I’ll be fine.” She fell into a chair and suppressed the sigh of relief. Closing her eyes, she sent a stream of healing magic through her body, easing the ache wherever she could. She was using a lot of power today; at least tonight she would sleep deeply. Pushing herself back up proved more difficult than she had expected, as if her whole body had decided that it would rather not move again today, but she persevered, ignoring Akkarin’s disapproval as she did so.
“Don’t exhaust yourself,” he warned.
She pressed a kiss on his cheek. “I’ll be back in half an hour.”
Afternoon classes were long over, so the University corridors were mostly empty except for the occasional teacher locking their classrooms. Sonea found herself for the most part ignored or only vaguely acknowledged and she had to admit it was not exactly unpleasant. It was nice not to be the centre of attention after the events of the day so far. She could feel herself relaxing, unclenching her jaw and releasing the death grip on the crutches. When she reached the Novices’ Library, she was almost comfortable.
Lady Tya, the librarian, was nowhere in sight, so Sonea simply ducked between the shelves and began to collect what she needed. She could always leave a note on Tya’s desk when she left. It turned out the best way to proceed was to leave one of the crutches by a table and very carefully balance the books on top of each other, levitating them at about knee height.
Thankfully, most of the volumes she was looking for had not been taken out, possibly because examinations were already over for the year. She was after books about medicine tonight, for a simple reason. The conversation with the Administrator earlier had sparked her ambitions again, and he had correctly observed that she would not let anything stop her now that she knew it was possible. And if that meant that she had to spend the entire summer studying, then so be it.
When she was done, Sonea wrote the titles of the books onto a scrap of paper and left it for the librarian to find when she returned. The stack of books still floating in front of her, she started to make her way back to the Magicians’ Quarters – she knew she had already been gone for longer than the promised half hour and if she did not return soon Akkarin would probably send out a search party.
It turned out to be rather difficult to levitate something and concentrate on her own feet at the same time, so when she turned a corner and collided with somebody, she was not even surprised. When she had regained her balance, the books were scattered on the floor and her adversary was hurrying to collect them. Seeing brown robes and all too familiar blond hair, Sonea involuntarily took a step back.
But Regin did not seem to notice her reaction. Instead, when he had rebuilt her stack of books, he met her eyes and said: “I hope you’re alright.”
She was too surprised to answer and instead just nodded. Her memory must be even worse than she had thought, because she could think of absolutely no explanation for this.
“It’s my fault; I should have slowed down. Can I carry these for you?”
Swallowing, Sonea found her voice again. “You don’t have to.”
“Yes, I do. I ran into you.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
He shrugged. “Maybe I am. It doesn’t matter – I’m carrying your things. Lead the way.”
It was odd to walk with him this way, trailing behind her as if it was not strange at all. Only little more than a year ago, he had taken every opportunity to torment her, and now this. He even insisted on accompanying her up the stairs.
“Well,” she said as she stopped in front of her door. “Thank you, but I think I can handle the rest.”
“It’s fine, I don’t mind.”
She sighed, and knocked. There was no protest from inside, so she pushed the door open. “Just… put them down somewhere.”
Regin shuffled past her, found an empty spot, dropped his load and then, thankfully, left her alone. And she was alone; Akkarin was not here, and she could not help but hope that he had not started the search just yet. Then she saw the note propped against the back of her chair: “I’ll be right back”.
It was getting late by now; the sun was just barely clinging to the horizon and Sonea was tired. Tired enough that when she sat down and closed her eyes for only a moment, she fell asleep instead.
“So that is the famous Sonea. Really, from what I heard about her, I imagined her to be somewhat more… intimidating.” Kiran smiled, mockery in every syllable but Akkarin had grown up with him and was not so easily provoked.
“If you had either seen her fight or, alternatively, attempted to have a conversation with her when she was angry with you, you would not say that,” he replied matter-of-factly and poured his brother another glass of wine. “I assure you, she can be quite formidable. Now tell me, how is your wife?”
Kiran raised an eyebrow at the sudden change of topic but did not comment. “Very well, as far as I know. She has gone to Ferryrest with the girls to visit her parents; I am told they are being terribly spoiled.” Taking a long, slow drink from his glass, he studied his younger brother more closely than the person in question would have liked. A seemingly long time later, he shook his head. “Forgive me for saying this, little brother, but you do not look well.”
“I am fine.”
“It has been almost three months since the Invasion.”
“Only three months. The Ichani have inflicted a lot of damage on all of us, Kiran – we are still healing. It will take time.”
Kiran set down his wine and leaned forward. “I understand that you have gone through horrible things, Akkarin, and I will not attempt to degrade what you – and Sonea - have done but when I go back to our mother she will ask me about you and the way I see it I will feel compelled to lie to her.”
Akkarin shrugged. “Then do that; Mother seems to care little enough about my health.”
Hesitating, the older man voiced the question he had obviously been waiting to ask ever since he had entered the room: “Will you tell me what happened?”
“The Ichani invaded. We confronted them and I woke up when they removed a dagger from my heart.”
Taken aback, Kiran tried and failed to find words for several moments, a definite first since their childhood as far as Akkarin could remember. Under normal circumstances he would have taken pleasure in being able to shock his brother, now he only ran a hand through his hair to resist the temptation to touch his chest, to feel for the scar Kariko’s knife had left there.
“We did not know,” Kiran said finally, a distinct pale hue around his face. “Mother received a message that you had been injured but that was days after the actual Invasion so we thought it could not have been too serious.”
“The Ichani left the Guild and half of Imardin practically in ruins. I imagine the families of those who were killed were informed first but I should have contacted you nevertheless. Please convey my apologies to Mother; she must be positively sick with worry,” he added dryly, which almost physically resolved some of the tension building up in the room as his brother snorted.
“I am sorry to disappoint you there, brother mine – if anything, she is fuming; that she was not asked to visit you, that she did not receive details, that you did not write to her. She has followed the news, of course, of your case.” He sobered. “Have you any idea what consequences your actions might have had? As I understand, you could have been executed even now.”
“Ah, but that would never have happened. They will never admit it but the Guild needs us to stand as their line of defence in case this episode should be repeated someday.” Akkarin said this with as much conviction as he could muster. In truth, he was not quite convinced of this statement and had certainly not expected the magicians to be as forgiving as they had presented themselves. The best outcome he had dared hope for himself had been lifelong incarceration in some half-forgotten prison cell deep under the City, left to rot on his own unless his abilities were required. He shuddered – his mind had dutifully continued this thought and presented to him the vivid image of Sonea, skeletally thin and chained to a wall, alone in a room filled with blackness and the smell of blood. He shook it off, put it under lock and key in the back of his mind never to surface again if he had any say in the matter.
But it was impossible to carry on the conversation as lightly as he had before, and his brother noticed. Thankfully, however, Kiran did not remark on his sudden lack of enthusiasm and instead suggested that he should be starting his way home soon – “I’ll see you out, then.”
After leaving a note for Sonea, Akkarin accompanied his older brother to his carriage. He set a deliberately slow pace out of necessity; although he, too, had been exercising and improving his stamina he still tended to run out of breath very quickly, and did not want his brother to notice.
“I will see you again, I hope,” Kiran told him through the carriage window and added, “both of you.”
“Give my love to Mother,” Akkarin replied, and saw him off.
He found Sonea sprawled in her favoured chair, her hair loose on her shoulders and dark shadows under her closed eyes.
“If you sleep here all night you’re going to regret it in the morning,” he murmured into her ear, one hand cupping her cheek. “Come to bed.”
She obeyed without question, without even fully opening her eyes, and allowed him to guide her into their bedroom, half walking, half leaning on him for support. How she managed to strip off her robes and put on her nightclothes would remain a mystery to him. Drawing the sheets over both of them, Akkarin waited in the darkness until he could hear her breathing slowly and rhythmically and only then allowed himself to sleep.
He woke again only a few short hours later, to Sonea sobbing and whimpering next to him, curled up protectively and her fingers digging into the mattress. When he gingerly touched her shoulder, she cringed and drew away from him; he could not tell if she was awake or caught in a nightmare but decided that it didn’t really matter all that much because she was suffering regardless.
“Sonea,” he said as gently as he could, not daring to touch her again. He formed a small globe light, just enough to light her features, twisted as they were with fear, and watched helplessly as she stayed trapped in either memories or nightmares – or maybe both. At some point he began talking to her. He told her that she was safe, that it was all over (although it obviously was not over for her, she seemed to be still in the middle of whatever it was), and he said her name almost as if he thought it would call her back to him but in the end, all he could do was wait.
It was over an hour after it had begun. The sobbing subsided, the mask of terror dissolved and Sonea’s small frame relaxed. She turned to lie facing him, eyes closed and apparently sleeping, and he let out the breath he had been holding for half an eternity. She looked as if nothing had happened. There were a few tears still glistening in the faint light, and beads of sweat on her forehead but otherwise she looked as peaceful as ever.
He pulled her close and wished he could protect her from her own dreams.
“I didn’t know you had a brother,” Sonea said over breakfast, hours later. She had not given any indication that she remembered anything about last night’s terror; maybe she was a little wearier than she ought to be after sleeping for almost twelve hours. And she seemed to seek physical contact with him even though she might not notice it herself. Her fingers lingered whenever she touched his skin, brushing her knee against his under the table every once in a while. Akkarin chose not to comment on this for fear that it might bring the memories to the surface, so he simply watched her, closely, to recognise signs of change as soon as possible. He was not sure if there would be anything he could do but at least he wanted to know.
He shrugged. “I also have two sisters. They are a few years younger than me; I haven’t seen them in some time. When they were little they used to play tricks on Kiran and me.”
She laughed a little. “I’m trying to imagine you shouting and chasing two giggling girls through the house but I’m failing.”
“I must admit that it happened more than once.” He couldn’t help but smile. “Those two were devils and I was rather glad to be rid of them when I became a novice, but it turned out my classmates were not much better.”
He told her a couple of stories from his time at the University, pranks that had been played on both other novices and teachers, and the retaliation that always followed. Although most of these stories involved Lorlen – they really had been inseparable from almost the first day – he did not feel the sting of regret and guilt that had disturbed every memory of his friend since he had died. He realised he was enjoying himself, reminiscing the happier, carefree days of his youth, and Sonea sitting next to him listening and smiling.
“There is so much I don’t know about you,” she said when he had concluded his account of a particularly entertaining episode ending with a rather enraged Alchemy teacher.
“You know more than most,” he pointed out. “I have told you things about my past-”
“I know.” She took his hand again, carefully turning it so his palm was up and she could find his pulse with her fingertips. “But that is not what I meant. You know my family, my friends, everything about me. Don’t deny it, you’ve read my mind. And until yesterday I did not even know you had siblings.”
He curled his fingers to meet with hers, absently, as if his muscles were acting without consulting him. “You want to know more.”
“I want to know you. Who you are is more than what you went through in Sachaka, even though you don’t believe that. Just as I am more than my time at the University. And since I am planning to spend a considerable amount of time with you in the future, I think I ought to know who I am dealing with, don’t you think?” There was the hint of a grin on her lips, and Akkarin found himself unable to resist. He leaned closer, slowly at first to give her time to move away but when she didn’t, he kissed her without hesitation. His right hand was still holding hers but the other started to glide through her hair, across her shoulder and down her side, and finally came to rest on her waist so he could pull her closer to him, close enough to feel her warmth on his skin.
She whispered his name against his lips. She was not holding back, either, leaning into the caress, holding tightly onto his hand. Finally, when she had to draw away to breathe, she let out a breezy laugh that made him shiver.
“You still haven’t told me anything. Don’t think you can seduce your way out of this.”
“I could try,” he offered, and could not be brought to care that the smirk on his face should have been somewhat embarrassing.
Sonea shook her head with firm finality and, rising, moved away from him. “Later, maybe,” she said and went to get properly dressed. “I need to speak to Lady Vinara.”
Eyebrows raised, Akkarin just watched her. Her features had taken a distinctive, determined expression that he knew far too well.
“There might still be a chance for me to be a Healer.”
Chapter 15: Future
“I hope it’s not a bad time?” Sonea closed the door behind her – with magic, because she had still not properly regained her sense of balance and had to resolve to using her powers for a lot more than she was used to.
The Head of Healers sighed ever so slightly and put aside her pen. “It is always a bad time but nevermind that. What is it I can help you with? Are you feeling well?”
“I am, thank you, but that’s not what I wanted to ask.” She carefully lowered herself into a seat and didn’t bother to hide her relief. It was a long way from her apartment to the Healers’ Quarters, a fact which she had never realised until today.
Vinara observed her closely. “Lord Marin’s report tells me that your recovery is moving along nicely. Is that not the case?”
“I don’t think I am qualified to judge.”
“Hmm. I believe you had a question?”
“I do. I assume you know that I was invited to Court yesterday?” The invitation and the complications regarding her escort it involved must surely have come through the Higher Magicians, and Sonea imagined that Vinara had been involved in the positive outcome. The Healer nodded. “I had a conversation with the Administrator on the way back from the Palace. He asked if I had any plans for the future.”
“So you want to know if you can still become a Healer.”
Sonea inclined her head. “I wanted to ask you first before taking it to the Higher Magicians. If there is nothing to be done, I would like to spare everybody the inconvenience.”
“I am not sure what answer to give you. It would have to be considered thoroughly, and you will have to face the Higher Magicians immediately. However, it cannot do any harm to be prepared beforehand. You cannot join classes, of course, so you would have to work hard by yourself and find a trained Healer to teach you on top of that; there are some aspects of Healing that cannot be learned from books. Then there is the fact that your position comes with duties of its own.”
“Akkarin will be taking on most of these; he is better suited for politics than I am. There is research, of course, but I think I should be able to handle the workload.”
“Well, you’ve done it before; studying to advance a class in your first year. This would be even more, I’m afraid, but if you are determined to do it, you will most likely do as you please.” Lady Vinara sighed. “I can draw up a schedule and try to find you a teacher and then we can present the idea to the Higher Magicians. I dare say they will not refuse you if you are properly prepared and determined. Not if I have any say in the matter,” she added darkly, already reaching for a clean sheet of paper from the shelf behind her. Sonea took the scratching of her pen as a sign of dismissal, and rose to leave the office.
“I have Lord Marin’s assessment somewhere here, by the way,” Vinara called after her. “Your recovery is making good progress, better than I had hoped. You should be fine without the crutches soon.”
Sonea nodded and thanked her, even though she found that last statement hard to believe. She had not used her own powers to look inward and examine her own injuries because she knew that her knowledge of Healing was almost ridiculously limited compared to that of a fully trained – and, most importantly, graduated – Healer, but judging by the pain that still shot through her leg every time she put a little too much weight on it, she would have thought that it would be a long time until she was properly recovered. Tonight, she would have to take a moment to get at least an idea of what was going on in her body.
Before returning to the apartment, however, she turned towards the Arena. According to Akkarin, this was where the final confrontation with the Ichani had taken place, but so far she had managed to avoid actually looking at it. It was not as bad as she had expected. A fight of these proportions between magicians this powerful should, under normal circumstances, have left half the Guild grounds in ruins, but neither the Arena nor the University appeared to have been damaged. There was a large area of the gardens that had clearly been reconstructed; the soil was rough and only occasionally covered by grass where previously there had been flower beds and neatly groomed hedgerows. Maybe it would look like that again someday but that was far in the future.
There were no benches or even tree stumps close enough, so she somehow wrangled her limbs into position until she was sitting on the ground, her bad leg awkwardly sticking out. She did not bother protecting her robes. It was almost midsummer and it hadn’t rained in days, not to mention that on the ink-black fabric a few crumbs of dirt would never be noticed. Looking out over the scene, a shiver ran down her back. This was decidedly strange. She felt like this place should mean something to her, like she should have some kind of connection or at least the vaguest notion that it was important, but nothing happened. In the back of her mind, she had been hoping that being here might evoke her lost memories but that didn’t seem to be the case. Instead of helping her understand what was going on with her, it only felt eerie and strangely unfamiliar. The last time she had been here, the gardens had been intact and she had been a prisoner of the Guild. Her escort had led her from the Dome, where she had spent the night after her involvement with Black Magic had been discovered, to the Arena, where Akkarin had been held. They had been banished from the Allied Lands after that, and on their way out she had not thought to look around once more. Did she regret that now? They had returned more or less in one piece, and it would not really have been ‘a last look’ but maybe if they had had to stay in Sachaka – or died before they could return – she would have felt different. Back then, she had resented the Guild too much to be sentimental.
“You are going to catch your death if you stay here,” a familiar voice said behind her and she couldn’t help but smile.
“If that happened, I think I would go down in history as the first and only person to die of cold in the middle of summer.”
Rothen laughed and lowered himself to the ground with a groan. “I’m not as young as I used to be,” he complained and rubbed his shoulder. “But you’re right, and I am sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”
“You worry too much. I’m fine.”
He acknowledged that with a nod and followed her gaze out over the rough surface of fresh soil. “This is not a happy view.”
“That’s what I thought. But when I see it, I don’t feel sad, or scared; it’s only a patch of earth to me.” She could feel his eyes on her but she did not meet them. Thankfully, he did not say anything but waited for her to continue. “When I woke up after the Invasion I had no idea what had happened. My last memory is of the Pass just after Parika attacked us. After that, nothing until I open my eyes in the Healers’ Quarters feeling like I had been run over by a herd of gorin.”
There was a silence laden with shock, then: “You never said.”
“I couldn’t. I didn’t believe it myself. Memories don’t just disappear, normally. I thought I had gone mad. Maybe I have.”
“How do you know? How would I know that any of this is real? Maybe I’m still unconscious and imagining all of this.” With a sweeping motion of her hand she included the whole scene. “Maybe I’m dead. Of course,” she added dryly, “I had hoped Death would be a little less unpleasant.”
This, Rothen would not hear. “You are not dead,” he said firmly, “and you’re not mad. You are, however, going to come inside with me and have a strong cup of raka, because I won’t leave you sitting here like this. If nothing else, people will talk.”
She laughed. “I must be a happy sight for the gossipmongers. ‘Have you seen her? Huddling in the middle of the gardens bold as brass as if nothing bothered her!’”
“There’s little enough subject for gossip at the moment,” he reminded her, albeit with a small smile. “And you cannot blame them for wanting distraction.”
“You’re right. As usual. I don’t suppose you could help me up?” Somehow, they got themselves upright, neither of them without grimacing and clenching their teeth, and only a little while later Sonea sat in one of Rothen’s chairs by the window and held a steaming cup of raka in her hands while his servant Tania tutted and disapproved and asked her to stay for dinner half a dozen times.
“I’m sorry, Tania, not tonight. Another time, I promise.”
“You have to get a proper meal every once in a while,” Tania huffed and let go of the topic.
Midday had passed by now; Sonea had not realised how late she and Akkarin had gotten out of bed this morning. But then, yesterday had been rather exhausting, at least for her, and Akkarin had looked a little grey when his brother left, too. Of course, he always looked a little grey at the moment and she probably wasn’t much different. Tania was right, she needed a proper meal; she could hardly remember what she had eaten in the last few days, not to mention how much. But she was rather looking forward to dinner with Akkarin tonight, hoping they might perhaps pick up where they had left off earlier before she had interrupted to go and see Lady Vinara.
Embracing her old guardian as she left, she noticed him wince when he moved his shoulder to wrap his arms around her. “What happened?”
“Ah, an old wound by now. I was injured in the Invasion.” Even without reading his mind she could tell that there was much, much more than that, but she also knew that if he wanted to talk, he would; she did not ask any further. She could hardly resent him for it after she had barely told him anything that had happened since she had been convicted of Black Magic. She did not think he would take it easily when he learned about her and Akkarin.
“How about I meet you after your last class the tomorrow? I won’t be much help carrying things but I can still dismantle experiments, I think.”
The look he gave her was odd, and she quickly averted her eyes. She did not want to be pitied.
“I would like that,” he said quietly, and closed the door behind her.
Sonea stood on the corridor and did not find the will to move. Only the suspicious glances of the fourth magician who passed by her finally shook her out of her thoughts. Akkarin was just closing the door behind him as she came down the corridor; he carried a stack of letters in one hand and smiled when he saw her approaching.
“How did it go?” he asked, leaving the door halfway open.
A grin spread across her face. “I might just become a Healer after all. The Higher Magicians will have to approve, of course, but who knows, I might be lucky.”
“They can’t refuse; not without a very good reason. It will mean a lot of studying, I imagine.”
She nodded. “I can handle it.”
“I do not doubt that for a moment.” He held up the letters. “I was going to have these delivered, would you care to accompany me?”
For a moment, Sonea was tempted to accept. Then a muscle in her leg twitched and shot a sudden wave of pain through her, as if she had been stung by something very big and very vicious, and she shook her head even as she drew on her Healing powers. “I think I need a break. But if you’re sending messages, would you mind helping me get one to my family? I wrote my aunt from the Healers’ Quarters but I’d like to let them know that everything is alright with us.”
“Of course. I’ll wait.”
She handed him a quick note to the effect that she was much better than she had been and describing their new living situation, and sent him off with a kiss on the cheek. Akkarin squeezed her hand briefly. “Don’t go anywhere.”
“I wasn’t going to. Now go, the sooner you leave the sooner you’ll be back.”
“Tell me what Lady Vinara said.”
Sonea would have preferred not to, as they were currently alone with nothing to do for the rest of the day and she had a few things in mind they could use the hours for, but she complied: “I think she’s glad I asked. As I said we’ll have to get permission from the Higher Magicians but she promised to try and find someone to teach me. There’s a lot I don’t know yet but if there is even the smallest chance that I could be a Healer, I’ll take it.”
She had been half-asleep by the time he returned from his errand, sprawled across their bed with her robes half-undone. They were talking through the open bedroom door while she tried to unravel her hair from the birds’ nest it had turned into.
“Either way, you need something to do with your time. Although I’m afraid we will have to start practicing fighting again, if we don’t want the Guild questioning why they keep us. You will have a lot of work to do.”
She shrugged. “I’m used to hard work, and if anything I’ll be grateful for the distraction. One more week of doing nothing and I will start to truly go mad.”
His chair scraped across the floor as he rose and came into the room; he grinned and sat next to her. “We absolutely can’t have that.”
“Oh, and why would that be?” Wrapping her arms around his neck, she drew him down for an artless kiss. It wasn’t a comfortable position, with both of them twisting in ways that did not feel all that healthy and her tired muscles protested but she ignored it.
“I need you in full possession of your mental capacities.” His lips traced a path on her skin from her mouth to her neck.
Sonea laughed. “I hope that wasn’t meant to sound romantic because I remember you being better at that.”
“Hmm.” He had reached her collarbone. She couldn’t suppress the shiver that ran along her spine, and it was his turn to laugh while her hands sought his shoulders and held on. “Are you complaining?”
“I didn’t say that. Can you… I need to move.” She repositioned herself so she sat a little more upright and could reach him more easily. “Where were we?”
“You were not complaining.”
“Indeed, I wasn’t. Say it again.”
“I need you in full possession of your mental capacities,” he murmured, grinning.
“No, I’m afraid it doesn’t sound any better the second time.” She ran her hands up through his hair, still longer than her own, and twisted strands of it around her fingers. “But I appreciate the sentiment.”
He kissed the line of her jaw. “How very generous of you, my dear.”
They both hesitated for the length of a heartbeat, waiting, testing the waters for the other’s reaction. Then Sonea let her hands fall to rest on his shoulders, kissed him and decided to stop worrying for the rest of the night.
Chapter 16: Morning
Waking up like this definitely has its advantages, Sonea thought when she found herself held tight in Akkarin’s arms and the sunlight creeping through the blinds. She could feel his warmth on her skin and his pulse slow and steady under her fingertips. Her own hands were entwined with his somehow, in such a tangle that she could barely tell where she ended and he began. It was, quite simply, wonderful.
Glancing at the timekeeper on the nightstand she knew that she still had some time to spare; she had promised Rothen that she would meet him after his afternoon lesson. Although the examinations at the University were officially over, the summer break did not begin for another week. Still, the usual euphoria among the novices was missing this year, and nobody could blame them.
Rothen had told her that many of them had already returned to their families for the summer; those who had lost relatives in the Invasion had been allowed to leave early. A few families had announced they would not let their children continue their education at the University for fear that something like this might happen again. They had been firmly reminded that a magician whose powers had been released would not just stop being a magician if they did not attend the University and that, if anything, such novices would only be a danger to their surroundings because they had not fully mastered their abilities. Apparently there had been lots of clenched teeth and a few families had actually threatened to retract their support of the Guild but the matter had been settled without any major political scandals.
Sonea sighed and closed her eyes again, perfectly content. If every morning could be like this, she would gladly put up with all the rest. I’d bow and scrape in front of the Higher Magicians if I could get a morning like this every now and again, she thought but of course, she wouldn’t. She had too much pride still left for that, and either way it wasn’t as if it would make much difference. She fully expected the Guild to make her and Akkarin’s lives as complicated and annoying as possible no matter their behaviour, so she would not entertain them by playing the fearful novice again.
“Are you awake?”
She shifted so she could see him properly. “No.”
“Ah. I cannot say I that blame you.” Smiling, Akkarin freed one of his hands from hers only to pull their blankets a little higher and cover her shoulders. “If you were awake, we might have to get out of bed and be productive members of society.”
“Well, it’s not as if anyone is expecting us. I’m rather convinced that there are a lot of people who would prefer us to stay exactly where we are and not cause any fuss.”
“While I would have absolutely no issue with that, I have every intention of causing as much fuss as I possibly can.”
Raising an eyebrow, she pushed herself up to her elbows. “Oh?”
“I’m not going to let the Guild treat us like criminals for the rest of our lives. You can’t be a Healer and help the people in the slums if there’s an escort looming over you the entire time. I can’t appear at official events surrounded by a wall of Warriors. If they want us to be of any use at all, they will have to give us some freedom. Besides,” he said and a grin spread across his face. “Sooner or later, the two of us will cause a magnificent scandal.”
“I’m sure they’ll enjoy themselves immensely when that happens,” she said dryly, settling back into the pillow with a small ‘oof’.
“How do you feel?” Akkarin asked and reached for her hand again.
“I feel wonderful. Magnificent. I wish we’d done this earlier.” Her body felt marvellously soft, as if there was no resistance to her movements. She might have been floating and she doubted she would have noticed. “There are much worse ways to wake up in the morning.”
“I can only agree with you on that account. I’m glad you’re... happy.”
“I am. Very happy.” His pulse was beating against her skin again and this proof that she was alive - that they were both alive and together right here and right now – silenced the voice in the back of her head. “However, no matter how much I would love to stay here into all eternity, I do think we’ll have to eat something before long. And I promised Rothen I’d meet him after class.”
“Ah. Rothen. I have been thinking that maybe I should talk to him about a few things.”
She studied the fresh lines on his face, the scar over his heart that still hadn’t fully healed, the crisscrossing map of knife marks covering his arms and shoulders. “Yes, I think maybe you should.”
“He dislikes me.”
“Can you blame him, really?”
Akkarin winced. “Point taken.”
“Do us both a favour and be nice to him when you do talk. I could really do with a little less dramatics in my life.” She sat up and very carefully lowered her feet to the floor. The familiar stiffness in her muscles returned almost immediately and she could not quite suppress the groan.
“Are you alright? Did I hurt you?”
“You do think quite highly of your abilities, don’t you? It’s fine, it’s just my leg again. It’s nothing.”
“Nothing? Didn’t Marin say it was healing nicely? That doesn’t sound like you should still be in pain.”
“It’s fine, Akkarin, really. I’m used to it; it’s alright.”
“Have you talked to someone about this? And what do you mean that you’re used to it, you shouldn’t be used to pain-“
“I am not having this conversation while neither of us are dressed. Or on an empty stomach, for that matter. Let’s just – let’s find something to eat first. No, don’t even start, I am not having this conversation while I am naked.” She shrugged into a dressing gown and made her way out of the bedroom door, trying very hard not to limp.
There were two trays of breakfast balanced precariously on top of the mess on their guestroom table in what seemed to Sonea an unnecessarily passive-aggressive manner. One of them included a pot of cold sumi, which she could only wrinkle her nose at in dismay. She chose a small roll and bit into the crust with a satisfying crunching noise. Immediately, she felt less grumpy. “We’ll have to work something out regarding a servant,” she said around a bite of food. “I wouldn’t care either way but things would be so much easier if we knew who to talk to about missing dinner.”
“Hmmm.” Several letters had been tucked under their door and Akkarin was already deep in thought over one of them. He handed another one to Sonea; the paper was thin and tinted yellow.
Her aunt had already replied to the note Sonea had sent yesterday evening, which meant she must have found and paid a scribe almost as soon as she had received it. The letter was short by necessity, as hired scribes often charged by the line, but Jonna assured her that the family was safe and that they had found a place to stay after the destruction and confusion of the Invasion. Glad to hear you’re both well, hope to see you soon, she had ended, and signed her name herself. Sonea felt a pang of guilt at not having sent that note earlier; she didn’t say so in her letter but Sonea knew that her aunt had been worrying herself sick about her – and Akkarin, apparently. Would she be allowed to go and visit her family? She had no intention of spending the rest of her life on Guild grounds but while the Guild might not deny her an audience with the King, they might object to almost everything else. I suppose this is what Akkarin meant about making a fuss, she thought. I can accept almost anything but they won’t keep me away from my family.
On the other side of the table, Akkarin was frowning at the piece of paper in his hands. He had not touched the food.
“Bad news?” she asked.
Sighing, he folded the letter back into its envelope. “I don’t know. Is it? I had an agreement with Takan that he would leave Imardin as soon as the Ichani were dealt with. I know he only stayed here this long because of me, and I had no intention to… he could have left. After. I’d hoped he would be far away by now, wherever he decided to go.”
“You destroyed the blood gem?”
“It was too dangerous. Those gems can be horrible tools in the hands of the wrong person. Takan destroyed his just after we arrived in the Slums. Either way,” he said, waving the envelope, “it seems he didn’t hold up his part of the arrangement. This is from Ceryni. I wrote to him yesterday to ask after the general state of affairs in the City, and he says Takan has been staying in the Slums ever since the Invasion.”
She waited, her aunt’s note in one hand, the half-eaten roll in the other. Her dressing gown was tied very loosely around her waist, Akkarin wore a black shirt and trousers. She almost wished they hadn’t bothered getting out of bed.
“I don’t know what to do,” he finally admitted. “He deserves to go home. He only followed me out of Sachaka because he didn’t know what else to do. I’ve kept him here too long. I don’t know why he is still here.”
“He’s your friend,” she said gently. She slipped the letter into her pocket. “He must have heard you were injured.”
“He shouldn’t have stayed.”
“He probably wanted to make sure that you were alright.”
“I was supposed to die!”
The force of this statement took them both aback; Sonea winced and ducked her head, tried to choke back tears. “Please don’t say that. Please, please don’t say that.”
“No. I don’t want to hear it. You didn’t die. You’re alive. We’re both alive.”
He reached for her, his expression unreadable, his dark eyes blank, and she drew back. She had to sit down anyway, before her legs gave in and betrayed her. The bliss of the morning was gone, a dull ache had spread through her body and the muscles in her injured leg had begun to twitch painfully. She sent impulses of soothing magic to control the pain, as she had been doing continuously for weeks.
After long minutes of silence, she said: “You didn’t want to survive. You were going to sacrifice yourself and you very nearly succeeded. I don’t know if you were afraid of what would come after or if you are just tired of being alive. I can’t begin to understand whatever it is but I need you to live. I need you because I absolutely cannot do any of this alone. I need you because every time I wake up at night and I can’t feel your pulse I’m so scared I forget to breathe. I’m falling apart and the fact that you’re alive is the only thing that’s still holding me together. And if that means I’m being terribly selfish then so be it. Please. I need you.”
She ran her fingers through the tangles of her hair and closed her eyes for a moment. He was still standing there, three steps away on the other side of a table, but his hand had dropped to his side and he was staring at his feet. He looked lost in the mess of boxes and books and breakfast trays. Maybe that was how he always felt.
“I don’t want this either,” he said very quietly. “I don’t want it to be like this but I don’t know what to do to stop it.”
Sonea took a deep breath, exhaled slowly although her throat was so tight she felt like choking. She pushed herself to her feet and stood, shaking and unsure. “I’ll get dressed,” she said. “Then we’ll figure something out.”
She was definitely limping on her way back to the bedroom but she was not inclined to concern herself with that. There was a puddle of black silk on the floor that took her a few puzzled minutes to take apart until she had found her own clothes. They looked quite rumpled, having spent the night in a careless heap; she would have to do something about that before she went to meet Rothen. She had to use the doorframe and various pieces of furniture as support to reach her chair, and sank down cursing through her teeth. She sent another particularly expressive profanity to follow simply because it felt extremely satisfying.
Akkarin’s eyes widened ever so slightly, but whether with amusement or disapproval Sonea couldn’t tell.
“Now.” She took a deep breath. “Talk to me.”
“You said you didn’t want to hear it.”
“I did. I changed my mind. Talk to me.” She watched him sway on his feet, colour drained from his face. She bit her lip. “And sit down, for goodness sake, before you faint.”
“You’re one to talk. You can barely walk five steps without support, I don’t think you’re in any position to –“
“This is not about me.” Pulling up her good leg to sit on it, she fixed his gaze with what she hoped was determination. “I’m fine. I’ll talk to Marin. Anything you want. Now talk to me.”
“Is this an interrogation?”
Sonea shrugged. “It’ll turn into one if you don’t talk to me. Come on, I’m trying to help you and I cannot do that unless you tell me what’s going on. You want to die, is that it?”
She could have screamed. Akkarin wasn’t looking at her; he had twisted his hands in his lap as soon as he had reluctantly but with visible relief sunk into his own chair and now appeared to be studying his fingers with intensity. She considered walking over to him but given the throbbing in her muscles and the way his shoulders seemed to ward off any kind of sympathy, she stayed where she was. There was a narrow table between them, just a little too much distance.
“I don’t want to die,” he said finally. “But I would not have objected to it. I had no – I didn’t plan to survive.”
“This isn’t the war anymore. We’ve won. We’re safe.”
“I know. And I’m glad we are. I would not give this“ - he encompassed the room and her in a wide-swept motion - “for anything. I know what I’m alive for now.”
She nodded. “Promise to tell me when you forget.”
“I will.” He was still looking at his hands but the tension was gone from his body; he didn’t look ready to snap any longer. She decided to take that as a good sign. “Before the Invasion,” he began, after a while, and so quiet she could barely hear him, “before I even began teaching you, my purpose in life was to keep Kyralia safe from the Ichani, who were only a threat because of me, because of my mistakes.” Akkarin paused and Sonea held her breath, waiting. “I wouldn’t have had a purpose after we’d won. If we’d won. Why would I stay alive? I still don’t know.” Now, thankfully, his eyes met hers again. “But I think maybe I don’t need to know.”
“No,” she said softly, “we don’t. Why is anyone alive? I could have died a hundred times in my life, and who knows what things might have turned out like if I had.” She ran a hand through her hair. Her fingers got stuck in last night’s knots she hadn’t had time to brush out yet. “I trust you if you say you’re alright now but please don’t ignore it. Talk to me when you need to. Please?”
“Good. Now you’re going to send a message to Takan and somehow arrange that the two of you can discuss matters. And after classes end you are going to meet Rothen in the University and talk to him. I’ll join you for dinner.”
“I thought you promised to see him?”
“I did but I think it’s much more important that you sort out your – well, let’s call them differences. It won’t do if you just stare and glower at each other every time you are in the same room. I won’t have it.” She shifted in her chair to stretch out her legs. She had been almost free of pain when she had woken up but apparently that had been a decidedly temporary state. For only the briefest of moments, she closed her eyes and sent a stream of soothing magic through her protesting muscles. When she opened them again, Akkarin was watching her.
She sighed. “Don’t.”
“You said you wouldn’t have this conversation until you were dressed, and, rather unfortunately, you are.” The joke was forced and his smile a shadow of its full potential but Sonea laughed nonetheless.
“I did say that, didn’t I? Very well.” She folded her hands. “Go on, then.”
“About you.” The way he looked at her managed to make her angry and set her heart fluttering at the same time. He was trying to protect her again, he was always trying to protect her; she liked to think she didn’t need his protection but it was strangely comforting to know she had it nonetheless. “I worry about you day and night. I want to know what I can do to make you safe and happy but I can’t do any of that unless you tell me when something is wrong.”
“There’s nothing really wrong,” she said, knowing he wouldn’t believe her because she didn’t even believe herself.
“You’re in pain,” he said.
“Not all the time.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“I’m not in a lot of pain all the time. I can usually manage it – it doesn’t take a lot of power.”
“You shouldn’t need to use any power on it at all. I am not a Healer but even I know that almost three months is too long for you to still be in pain – is it just your leg, or anything else? Your hand, your ribs?”
Sonea shook her head. Their victory over the Ichani had left her bent and broken in more ways than one, but most of her injuries had mended without much trouble. Her hand, maybe, remained a little stiffer than it had been but did not hurt at all when she moved it, unlike her offending leg. “I’m sure it’s nothing serious,” she said, then reconsidered. “At least, nothing to lose sleep over.”
“But you are losing sleep over it, aren’t you?”
Heavens damn him for knowing me so well, she thought, and an assortment of other, more unsavoury things. “I’m fine.”
“You need to talk to Marin,” he said firmly.
“He doesn’t think anything’s wrong, as you well know, since you were in the room the last time he looked at it.”
“Sonea, something must be wrong if you are in so much pain. If he can’t see it, maybe you should ask a different Healer.” Akkarin rose to his feet and came to stand beside her. She reached out for him without even thinking and he took her hand. “How bad is it? Be honest with me, please.”
Shrugging, she intertwined their fingers. “Most of the time it’s bearable, really. It’s not always this much of a problem.”
He waited, and she gave in.
“I can’t walk sometimes,” she admitted, her voice small. His hand tightened around hers and he frowned deeply.
“I’d rather not try,” she said, which, she supposed, answered his question. She took a deep breath and continued: “I should be fine in a couple of hours, and until then I’ll stay here and study and I’ll come meet you for dinner.”
Akkarin eased their hands apart. “You need to see a healer. Today. I’ll send someone to come here as soon as possible.”
“There is no need for that,” Sonea insisted. “I can make my own way to the Healers’ Quarters if it doesn’t get better.”
“Please, Sonea, don’t argue about this. I’m trying to help.”
“I know. I know, Akkarin, but I was studying healing before we, well, left, and I can’t find anything that is actually wrong. The bones have healed much better than I could have hoped for, there is nothing actually wrong.” She emphasized the last two words by drumming her closed hand on her thigh, grimacing at the impact. She was angry, now, she realised, even though she really didn’t want to be.
Akkarin shook his head. “That’s it. I’m fetching Vinara.” He straightened and walked back to the bedroom only to emerge again moments later, fully dressed and with his hair neatly tied back. “I’ll talk to Rothen today and arrange to meet Takan. After we know what’s wrong with your leg.”
Chapter 17: Transition
“I cannot understand why you have not talked to Lord Marin about this,” Lady Vinara said, having disregarded Sonea’s protests that her presence was wholly unnecessary. “If I remember correctly, your results in Healing studies were promising enough, and you should know better.”
Sonea did not reply. There was nothing to say; Vinara was right. Akkarin had all but dragged her to the unused bedroom, where she now sat with her injured leg freed of bandages and both hands digging into the mattress to distract from the deep ache in her bones. The scars on her calf, just healed and stiff, stood out raw against her skin.
Lady Vinara had taken a chair to sit by the side of the bed, and assessed the situation with her lips pressed tight. She shook her head. “If it is as bad as you say, this may be rather uncomfortable. I have to see if the bone has mended properly.”
It was not uncomfortable; it was worse. Every inch of her body protested against Vinara’s feather-light touch and it took all her willpower not to make a sound while the healer ran her hands up and down the bones of her lower leg. She was asked to bend her knee, move her toes, rotate her ankle, all of which she could do, albeit with some difficulty.
“There is nothing wrong that I can tell,” Vinara said, frowning. “You’ve recovered most of your muscle strength and everything has healed as well as we could have hoped. There are no bumps or splinters that I can feel or sense.”
“What are you saying?” Sonea asked through gritted teeth; it had taken her a few moments to catch her breath.
“I cannot tell you what causes the pain, and I cannot fix it if I do not know what is wrong.” She paused. “Of course, we do not understand everything about the human body, and it is possible that this is something I just cannot see.”
Sonea let out a shaky breath and uncurled her fingers from the sheets one by one. “But?”
“But I do not think that is the case. It is not impossible, after traumatic events such as you witnessed, to experience a something like miscommunication between the mind and the body –“
“I am not imagining this!” Sonea said. It came out louder than intended but she did not apologise. “I am not going mad, or –“
Vinara raised her hands with her palms open. “I am sure the pain is real. Here, give me your hand; do you feel how tight these muscles are? I believe that is what is causing some of the pain now, and a lot of discomfort even when it is not this bad. But there is no reason for them to be so tight. You have been exercising as you should, and there is nothing I can tell that is causing it.”
Sonea’s heart sank, the palm of her left hand still pressed to her calf. “So there is nothing you can do.” It was not a question.
Lady Vinara shrugged. “There are medicines that loosen muscles for a while and relieve pain, and of course you could use healing magic as well.”
“Of course,” Sonea echoed. Her heart drummed in her chest. “Thank you.”
The healer frowned at her. “We’ll leave off the bandages, now. Do you want me to speak to Marin for you?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“If there is anything else you need, come to me directly. I’ll see to it that those medicines I mentioned are provided to you as soon as possible.”
Sonea nodded. This was more or less what she had been expecting – glad as she was to know that she was not imagining the pain, some small part of her had hoped that she had simply missed something, and that there was a simple explanation for it all. But at least she knew, now, and she could tell Akkarin that there was nothing else she could do and that he could stop worrying, as if that would work.
It didn’t, of course. She could feel him watching her every movement over the next few days, keeping track of how often she had to sit down, how much she limped, figuring out the way her features changed when she was using magic on herself. At dinner, he would remind her to take the dry, bitter pills Vinara had given her, and refuse to eat until she had. It was infuriating and childish and she was just a little bit happy to see how much he cared.
It would have been easier if there had been any real improvement. She could tell that the medicines were doing their job; the muscles in her calf felt looser, less rigid, and she could move the leg more easily when there was no weight on it, but even standing still without some kind of support was often too painful to keep up for more than a handful of minutes.
Akkarin stopped asking, eventually. He saw her wince when she accidentally shifted her weight and heard her sigh whenever she got to sit down, and he knew without her telling him that it was not getting any better. Sensing, somehow, that she did not want to talk about it, he didn’t. But that did not stop him from worrying. He offered to carry things for her even after she abandoned the crutches and began to use a single cane instead, and Sonea could tell that even when he seemed to be engrossed in something else, part of him was focused entirely on her as she moved about the room, trying to find something in the chaos that was still their guestroom.
She wanted, very badly, to talk to her aunt and uncle. Ranel’s knee had never fully recovered from an accident back when Sonea was a small child, but even beyond that kind of advice she ached to see her family, to hug Jonna and the children and just be plain Sonea for a little while. Unfortunately, despite their relatively safe status at the Guild, she doubted she would be permitted to leave the grounds, even with an escort. Over time, they might grind down the magicians’ objections, but until then, all she could do was write to her family and hope they would understand.
In the meantime, she tried to take satisfaction from the little things. She did not know what Akkarin and Rothen had spoken of during their meeting, but when Sonea had joined them for dinner that day there had been a kind of truce between them. There had been no arguments since then, at least not in her hearing, and if Rothen was not exactly happy with her choices, at least he accepted and supported her now she had made them.
Takan, however, had been a different matter.
‘I told him to go home,’ Akkarin said after receiving a note in which the Sachakan had made it very clear that he had no intention of leaving the city. ‘He deserves better than to be tied to a criminal hundreds of miles from where he grew up.’
Sonea rather thought that Takan was capable of making his own decisions, but said nothing. She remained silent all through the colourful argument the two men had two days later, during which she ignored any and all requests to ‘please, make him see sense’ and ‘tell him he is being irrational’, and when Akkarin finally gave in and conceded that yes, he did miss his friend, and no, he would not send him away, she did not gloat. She did, however, exchange a private word with Takan to thank him, and apologise.
‘I tried,’ she told him. ‘But there was nothing I could do to protect him.’
Takan shook his head and squeezed her hands. ‘You did your best,’ he said. ‘And you are both still alive.’
There was a good deal of commotion about the Sachakan returning to the Guild in his position as Akkarin’s servant. Sonea could even understand why; of course the Higher Magicians were not exactly keen on providing Akkarin with an easy, willing source of magic. She did not know what Akkarin offered in exchange for this demonstration of trust, and seeing his face when he shut the door behind him that evening, she did not ask.
‘I think it is time we did something to earn our upkeep, don’t you think?’ Akkarin asked one evening after Takan had left and Sonea was half asleep in her chair.
‘What do you mean?’
‘”Protectors of the Allied Lands,”’ he said, grimacing at the grandiose title. ‘We need to prove we are worth keeping around, for lack of a better phrase. The Guild takes a risk by keeping us around, and it can only benefit our situation if we prove that we are worthy of that risk.’
Even in her drowsy state, Sonea agreed. She was all too aware that the decision to rehabilitate them had not been unanimous, and that their position in the Guild was fragile at best. What they needed was a reminder that they were not only a force to be reckoned with but one that would be essential to the Guild’s safety should another conflict arise, and they would not achieve that by failing to organise Akkarin’s library. A chill ran down her spine but she forced herself to ignore it.
‘Well,’ she said as cheerfully as she could, ‘we could both use the practice.’
It was bizarre to be back in the Arena. Her last practice bout felt like a lifetime ago, and yet nothing at all had changed. Lord Balkan had recruited two Warriors to provide inner shields for them and personally condescended to watch, but other than that they were on their own this early in the morning before classes began. Sonea was grateful for the lack of an audience. Takan had carried in a plain wooden chair for her because there was no way she could concentrate on a magical duel and stay on her feet at the same time. She sat with her back to the University, facing Akkarin at the other end of the Arena, and felt both foolish and terrified at the same time.
It took them several sessions to get to something like a natural rhythm. Warrior Skills had never come naturally to Sonea even in the stylised, safe constraints of University classes. Although her memories of the actual Invasion were nebulous at best, the prospect of a fight, however artificial, sent her heart racing in her throat and her hands shook so badly she had to twist her fingers in her lap to keep them still. Akkarin, with his back to Balkan and the two Warriors, was pale and breathing hard after their first cautious exchange of harmless blows, and several times they had to interrupt themselves to recover their composure.
After their first morning in the Arena, Sonea clung to Akkarin’s arm as they walked back, reminding herself as much as him that they were both still alive. In the privacy of their apartment, Akkarin buried his face in her hair and and held her close for long minutes. Sonea sank into him, grateful for the steady beat of his heart under her hands.
But by the end of the month, they had established a routine. They had a round or two of exchanges following the formal rules of the Arena, supervised by Lord Balkan and whomever he had bullied into providing their inner shields, enough to rouse them in the early mornings, but the real practice began afterwards. At first, they continued the curriculum Akkarin had drawn up for Sonea before they had been discovered, a series of exercises that forced her to think of strategies effective against a more powerful magician. Later, they spent some time developing scenarios that would challenge them both; intricate patterns of attack and defense, rounds where neither of them was allowed to open their eyes.
To Akkarin’s great bafflement, they began to attract an audience. A small group of novices in their final term took to bringing their breakfast to the Arena and eat while they watched, commenting on maneuvers and keeping score with stacks of discarded apricot stones.
‘I think they are taking bets,’ Sonea said, watching them chatter amongst themselves as they hurried off to their morning classes. ‘One of them got very excited when you botched that combination.’
Akkarin groaned and pulled her to her feet. ‘If they are, they are rather missing the point.’
But the group of spectators grew with each passing day. Other magicians started to make their way down to watch, most of them Warriors, and there was definitely a betting ring flourishing among the novices. In Akkarin’s opinion, it was a miracle it had not been disbanded yet.
‘There are certainly more sensible ways to spend their time and money,’ he pointed out as they watched the fourth boy attempt to discreetly hand over his starting bet.
Sonea gently poked his ribs with her elbow. ‘You are only saying that because the odds are shifting in my favour.’
He scowled but the expression did not survive her laughter. ‘We should repeat that last exercise tomorrow, with switched sides,’ he said, trying to contain his smile. ‘I would like to try it myself and see how you manage the offensive with the restrictions we put down.’
They continued to force themselves out of bed in the early mornings and spend a few hours chasing each other around the Arena, with varying levels of success. Sonea would still lose in a contest of sheer power, but it did not often come to that - they both knew that it was reckless to rely on power alone, so they tailored their sessions to give one or the other a greater advantage. It forced them both to find creative ways to get past the other’s guard, and gave the novices something interesting to bet on.
They were still attempting to gain control over the mass of boxes in their sitting room. Sonea had never possessed even a tenth of the number of books Akkarin had, but she had spent countless hours assisting Lady Tya in the Novice’s Library and had had the importance of consistent organisation drilled into her head. Akkarin, on the other hand, had been the sole tyrant of his own collection for well over a decade, and had his own views on the matter entirely. When Takan pointed out, after listening to their argument for well over half an hour, that there was no sense in deciding on a system unless they had the space to implement it, the two Black Magicians looked up from their respective lists in horror, and interrupted their debate only long enough to inform him of the vitality of planning and foresight.
The apartment gradually transformed into something less like a storage room and more like a space where people lived. Sonea abandoned all pretense of using the smaller bedroom to sleep, which meant they could use it to keep more books where they would not be in the way instead of stacking them haphazardly around the main room.
‘If you don’t mind me saying so,’ Lady Vinara said when Sonea went to see her in the Healers’ Quarters, ‘you are looking much better.’
Sonea inclined her head and said nothing. It was true that she felt less unsettled than she had a month ago, with a routine of practice and study and Takan’s sensible practicality bringing something like peace to their lives, but there was still a restless energy that her treacherous bad leg would not allow her to satisfy.
‘You’ll be happy to hear that I found you a teacher,’ Vinara said, dropping a stack of paper into a box. ‘Lady Luen is returning from Elyne in a few weeks and has agreed to take over your training in exchange for assistance with her records. She has spent the past decade as a country Healer and sorely needs somebody to help her bring some order to her notes.’
Sonea tried for all of half a heartbeat to suppress the smile spreading across her face. She had not dared hope - it had been six weeks since the first time she had talked to Vinara, and the Healer had made no further reference to it since then. ‘Thank you,’ she said and sounded breathless even to her own ears. ‘I know you did not have to -’
‘It would be a waste of talent and magic if you did not become a Healer,’ Vinara interrupted. ‘I expect you will be a valuable asset to the discipline.’
Akkarin didn’t look up from the list of books he was compiling when Sonea shut the door behind her. ‘What did she say?’ he asked, moving a volume from one stack to another and making a mark on his list. He sat, legs crossed, on the floor behind the dining table with the contents of yet another box spread out around him.
Sonea dropped to the floor next to him. ‘She’s found me a teacher.’
She grinned at him. She had been more or less successful in concealing her joy on the way from the Healers’ Quarters, but she could no longer contain herself. ‘Really!’ She reached for his hands and almost knocked over one of the towering stacks of books around them.
Akkarin dropped his list and pen and shifted to make more room for her. He squeezed her hands. ‘This is excellent news. Who is it?’
Sonea repeated what Vinara had told her and could not resist adding: ‘And maybe Lady Luen will appreciate a proper archiving system.’
She was gratified to hear him laugh at this admittedly poor joke. ‘It’ll be a lot of work,’ she said. ‘But I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything as much as I want to be a Healer.’
‘I know,’ Akkarin said softly and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. ‘I hope you can forgive me for complicating the process.’
Still smiling, she leaned forward to kiss him. ‘You’re forgiven,’ she told him, ‘and you will have to help me up when we’re done with this because there is no way I can get to my feet by myself.’
With Lady Luen’s arrival on the horizon, Sonea was even more determined than before to revise what she had already learned in her classes, on top of their early morning duelling in the Arena. Akkarin had to lure her away from her books on more than once, and on one memorable occasion resorted to simply lifting her chair away from the desk with magic and threatening to tip her into bed if she did not come voluntarily.
‘You were muttering anatomical terms in your sleep last night,’ he admonished her as she protested, and set her down only when she promised to come along to bed. ‘Not that I do not enjoy your company at night but it was a little disconcerting.’
She got her revenge in the Arena a few days after that, shutting her eyes trying to figure out what he was up to. She had constructed a pattern of attack that was rattling his shield from all sides, but Akkarin had not responded yet, only strengthened his shield and raised a teasing eyebrow in her direction. Even from where she sat in her chair she could see him furrowing his forehead and feel the hum of magic in the air around him, but she could not figure out what he was planning just by staring at him. With a deep breath, Sonea turned her awareness inwards, concentrating on the rush of air in her lungs and the pumping of blood in her veins until she knew nothing else. When she expanded her sense again, she pushed beyond the dual barriers of the two shields protecting her and the expanse of sand between her chair and where Akkarin stood, and… yes, there it was, slowly building up like an elaborate house of cards on the sticky table of a bol-house -
She took another deep breath, reached for her power, and pushed.
Later, she would explain to a spluttering Lord Balkan that it was a little like a puzzle box, or perhaps bringing down a building. Once you knew where the pieces fit, which wall held up the whole house, it was only a matter of applying suitable force until it all came crumbling down.
Now, Akkarin frowned at the sudden loss of control and the rattling impact of a concentrated force strike that hit his external shield, the Warrior who had been providing the inner shield gasped, and several of the novices jumped so suddenly from their seats that they stumbled and had to make a grab for their classmates to stay upright.
From where he stood in the ranks, Lord Balkan stared at her wide-eyed. ‘What did you do?’
Akkarin grinned. It was a proper, beaming grin that Sonea had never seen in public and made him look ten years younger; her heart gave a little jump that had nothing to do with her victory. ‘She won,’ he said. ‘That’s what she did.’ He raised an eyebrow. ‘Do you think you can do it again?’
They repeated the exercise three more times that morning. Once, Akkarin released his attack before Sonea found the opening, but by the end of it all she had defeated him twice more without expending even half of her power reserves, earning herself the reluctant respect of Lord Balkan, significantly better odds in the novices’ betting ring, and, Akkarin, as he confessed when they had made their way back to their sitting room, a persistent throbbing headache.
‘It feels as though you stuck a spoon through my eye and gave it a good stir,’ he told her, dropping onto the sofa next to her. He pressed the heel of his hand against his forehead. ‘Not that I am not very impressed, my love, but the next time you attempt this, please find an opponent who is not me.’
She laughed and drew him down to lie with his head in her lap. He came easily, rearranging his long limbs on the too-short sofa into relative comfort and dropping his hand away from his face. Sonea ran her fingers through his hair, still too long and old-fashioned, and sent a gentle stream of soothing magic through her fingertips. ‘You should teach me the pattern you were using so we can try the reverse,’ she said. ‘Although Balkan’s face would not be nearly as satisfying when you defeat me.’
He gave her that delightfully youthful grin again. ‘We should have it painted, so we can occasionally look at it and remind ourselves of the time you absolutely flabberghasted the future High Lord of the Magician’s Guild.’
Her hands stilled. ‘Do you think they’ll choose him?’
Akkarin shrugged, an awkward movement from his position. ‘I cannot see any alternative. They have to elect the most powerful magician available, but we both know it cannot be me. Or you, for that matter. Don’t look like that,’ he said, seeing her frown. ‘I used to make a point of staying informed on this matter, and if we had not gone ahead and needlessly complicated things, you would have been in an excellent position to be the Guild’s first High Lady when the time came. But no, it cannot be either of us, that Regin boy is too young, and Lord Verron would never leave his position in Lonmar. Which leaves Lord Balkan. If you ask me, it is only a question of time until it is officially confirmed.’
They were both quiet for a long moment. Here was another sign that everything had changed and would not, could never be the same. They had both known it, of course, but Sonea wondered what it must feel like to Akkarin to see another man in the position he had once held. She knew he had not sought to be chosen as High Lord because he was hungry for power, or out of an interest in politics, but still…
‘He will do an admirable job,’ Akkarin said abruptly. ‘Let him spend a few years dodging marriage proposals; it will be good for his character.’
And here's the most recent chapter! I posted this today on the ff.net version of this story as well. I won't move away from ff.net entirely simply because it's where I first started out and where the people who have been reading along from the beginning still are. I'm not making any sort of promises about updates, but unless I ever say otherwise, I'm still working on this story! Just... also got a lot of other stuff going on. Thank you for sticking around!
Chapter 19: Foreshadowing
The Higher Magicians officially convened about the matter before the week was out, and announced their decision two days later. Akkarin had been right - Balkan really was the only choice, and his oathtaking ceremony was set for two weeks after the announcement in order to give the rulers of the Allied Lands time to send their representatives to this momentous occasion.
Sonea sat next to Akkarin in the Great Hall, two rows under the Higher Magicians, and watched Lord Balkan recite his oaths to serve the Guild, the King, and the Allied Lands. Concealed by the sleeves of their robes she squeezed Akkarin’s hand and only breathed again when he returned the pressure and tapped his fingers on the back of her hand. Balkan was still speaking - it was a lengthy oath and there would be even more declarations and speeches afterwards - and she could feel the tension emanating from the man next to her. Akkarin had been very determined not to resent neither the process nor his successor and expressed this determination perhaps too vehemently to be quite believable, but she could only imagine how frustrated he must be.
Some thought had obviously been put into the symbolism of the occasion, for the robes that Balkan received to show his new rank were a pure, blinding white. The silk shone in the glow of a hundred globe lights and shifted in Balkan’s hands like frothing milk. Sonea leaned close and whispered in Akkarin’s ear: ‘Think of the stains,’ and was gratified to see the corner of his mouth quirk up.
There was to be a reception of sorts in the Night Room afterwards. Sonea remained in her chair until most of the audience had filtered out. She was much more practised at using her cane than she had been a few weeks ago, but it was still not a dignified process shuffling past the empty seats and down the stairs into the hall even with Akkarin’s help. They dawdled further on the path to the Seven Arches, neither of them very eager to throw themselves to the limek horde inside.
‘I am going to request an escort to visit my aunt and uncle,’ Sonea said. It had been on her mind for several days and she had finally decided to put the matter to rest. ‘I can only imagine the outrage if I even suggest I might like to leave the grounds, but I suppose it must be done sooner or later.’
‘I rather suppose it must be,’ Akkarin agreed, absently patting her hand in the crook of his arm.
She said nothing more until they stood before the open doors of the Night Room. ‘Into the fray, I suppose.’
‘We do not have to stay long, just long enough that people know we were there.’
Sonea rather thought that there were plenty of people inside who preferred to know as little of the Black Magicians as possible, but much of their strategy in this ridiculous game these days was based on spite. So although Sonea would have liked nothing more than to retreat back to their rooms, lock the doors, and not come out for a few days, she had to agree that they needed to put in an appearance, and at least it would let her sit down for a few minutes before walking back to the Magicians’ Quarters.
She had never been in the Night Room before, and she was not sure if she would have recognised it even if she had. Quite a crowd had gathered inside, magicians and members of the Houses both, as was apparently fitting when a new High Lord took office. They had been walking slowly enough that the awkward moments of confusion at the beginning of a gathering had passed, and everyone already held glasses of wine and stood about gossipping, so few people noticed the two Black Magicians entering the room. The usual arrangement of chairs in small groups was still vaguely recognisable, but it was clear at a glance that there were many more people in the room than would comfortably fit under normal circumstances.
In one corner, High Lord Balkan was besieged by guests waiting to congratulate him on his new position and, Sonea thought wryly, make sure he knew how much they approved of his promotion and how they had supported his appointment from the start. He looked distantly embarrassed, and Sonea could not blame him. He had never struck her as an arrogant man; sure of himself, yes, and perhaps a little overbearing, but not arrogant.
‘I’ll make excuses for you if you wish,’ Akkarin said quietly, ‘and we can find you a chair.’
She shook her head. ‘I’ll be fine. Let’s go and show our good will.’
They joined the informal and rather ineffective queue, and she conscientiously ignored the stares and pointed silence. She had reluctantly let go of Akkarin’s arm when they entered the room, and with every minute she grew more sure that she would pay for this in the morning. A steady trickle of magic had kept her on her feet so far and that would have to do until she was back in her own home, tucked up in bed with her leg on a pillow.
‘High Lord,’ Akkarin said suddenly next to her, bowing ever so slightly. ‘My congratulations on your well-deserved appointment.’
‘Lord Akkarin,’ Balkan replied and inclined his head in return. ‘I shall endeavour not to disappoint.’
‘No danger of that, I’m sure.’
Compared to his predecessor, Balkan’s tenure at the helm of the Guild would almost certainly be rather unspectacular, but she reckoned it would be uncharitable to say so. She added her own well-wishes to the choir and even gave Balkan a real smile, which he returned looking a little startled.
‘I was sorry to miss your practice this morning,’ he said stiffly; naturally, he had been too caught up in preparations to preside over what had turned out to be a wholly routine hour in the Arena. ‘I will make sure my successor is aware of the situation and makes the appropriate arrangements.’
‘Garrel will take over as Head of Warriors,’ Sonea said when they were out of earshot. ‘He won’t like having to supervise us chasing each other around the Arena every morning.’
Akkarin shrugged. ‘He won’t have much choice in the matter. Ah, there’s Rothen - or do you want to go straight back?’
She gritted her teeth. ‘Unless you are prepared to carry me, I’m not sure I’ll make it out the door.’
Rothen rose from his chair at the centre of a cluster when he saw them approach. ‘I tried to save seats,’ he said apologetically, moving aside to make room for Sonea. ‘One would think we had not just spent an hour sitting in the Great Hall.’
Akkarin, who had supported Sonea on the way down and now stood by her left shoulder with a menacing air, raised an eyebrow. ‘I am sure the ceremony did not take that long when I took my oaths. But then, I was only half myself at the time so it may have felt shorter.’
‘Unfortunately, our predecessors were very specific about how these things should be done, so I assure you, there is not much left up to interpretation.’ Rothen smiled wanly. ‘We can only hope that it will be many years until the next one.’
‘Hear hear,’ Sonea muttered darkly. She glanced up at Akkarin, trying to gauge his mood - he had been tense all day, although he hid it well. There was, though, that furrow between his dark brows, which she knew had not been there the night before. She wished she could reach up and smooth it out with her fingers, run her hands through his hair and kiss him until he forgot what he was angry about. Instead, she smiled and asked if he could find her some water, and when he had stalked off into the crowds, grimaced at Rothen.
‘This cannot be easy for him,’ the older magician conceded. ‘And there will be gossip, of course.’
‘It would have been worse gossip if he hadn’t come,’ Sonea said. Not that she had not thought about it, right up until the moment they had left their apartment. ‘We can’t spend the rest of our lives hidden away and only come out to fight each other in public, not if we want any kind of say in our future at all.’
‘I suppose you’re right. At least Akkarin is well-versed in the politics of it.’
Sonea nodded and tried to slowly stretch her leg out in front of her. ‘I just hope everyone decides he’s a much more interesting subject than I am, and I’ll be left well out of the whole game. I’m getting too old to learn new tricks like this.’
Unfortunately, her poor attempt at a joke was not enough to distract Rothen from the look on her face as her knee clicked uncomfortably and sent a shiver down her spine. He raised an eyebrow at her. ‘You told me it was getting better.’
She sighed. ‘Today is just a bad day, that’s all. It’s been fine all week. Who knows, maybe this means there’s a storm coming. Isn’t that what old men say? That they can feel storms in their bones?’
‘They do in stories.'
'Didn't I hear that one of the Alchemists was experimenting with ways to predict the weather? Maybe I should speak to him and save him some work.' This was not a very funny joke either, but it was enough at least that Rothen dropped the subject and asked how her revision was coming along instead. Lady Luen was due to arrive from Elyne within the next week or so, and Sonea had not quite decided whether she was excited or terrified.
'You will do fine,' Rothen assured her, finally smiling a little. 'If nothing else, your dedication ought to impress her.'
Privately, Sonea thought that she did not care about being impressive as long as the Healer did not regret agreeing to teach her as soon as she realised who and what she had taken on - she doubted there was any magician in the Allied Lands who was unaware of her and her role in the Invasion, and of course their banishment had been announced about as publically as was possible. They had been exonerated, both of them, and the King had made it very clear that he considered their crimes forgiven, but Sonea was neither blind nor deaf. She heard the whispers when she passed through the corridors, she saw the magicians who just ahppened to be standing ten steps from their apartment door at any given moment, and there were still the restrictions placed on them in the interest of safety. Whose safety, she would have liked to know. Certainly not her own - she was more than capable of protecting herself, as the Guild well knew.
She itched to get out. These days, if she was not stuck in the apartment, her world consisted of the Magicians' Library and the baths, and she was getting heartily sick of it. When she was young and living with her aunt and uncle and two other families in a single room, they had called it 'wall crazy', and Jonna had despaired of her adventurous niece who would slip out when she wasn't paying attention to run wild with a youth gang for days at a time rather than be stuck in the same four walls for a moment longer. Sonea understood now why Jonna had been so angry with her, of course. Even in the company of two dozen others, the Slums were not safe for children out by themselves, and it was a small miracle that she had never been seriously injured or worse.
'Has Akkarin gotten lost, do you think?' Rothen asked, interrupting her thoughts. It had been quite a while since he had left them, but the room really was crowded and of course Akkarin had been up to his neck in politics for over a decade and probably knew most of the people here. In all likelihood he had simply been held up by an acquaintance. It was another ten minutes before he returned, carrying a glass of wine each for her and Rothen, and there was a storm gathering in his eyes.
Something had happened, and Sonea could tell he would not say anything in front of Rothen. She was so tired of it all; if she'd thought anyone would listen, she would have asked the world to leave her alone for a few days at least so she could sleep.
Rothen invited them both to dinner; Akkarin declined but added, catching Sonea's reproachful eye: 'There is something Sonea and I need to discuss, but why don't you join us tomorrow evening instead?'
She was proud of him for that, and told him so when they had taken their leave and begun their walk back across the courtyard. He groaned. 'I do try to be personable, you know.'
'I do, and I'm grateful. It's reassuring to know that you could spend a few hours in the same room without jumping at each others' throats.'
'He is the one holding a grudge,' Akkarin pointed out, which was admittedly true.
'You didn't exactly make it easy for him,' she said as they - slowly, out of necessity - climbed the stairs to their floor of the Magicians' Quarters. 'You can't blame him.'
Akkarin made a non-committal noise in the back of this throat, and lengthened his stride so he could open the door for her. Sonea permitted herself ten breaths of respite before she asked what had happened; she did not like the look on his face. He grimaced at the question and dropped into the sofa next to her.
'The King received a message from Arvice,' he said. 'He caught me just as I left you and Rothen. Sachaka wants to negotiate.'
'Negotiate what? What do they want?'
He had picked up her hand and turned it over to draw circles in her palm. 'I don't know, and neither does Merin. The message came from the Sachakan King's household, if not the King himself, so it could be anything. Merin will make some inquiries, but I expect they will open talks within the next few months.'
Understanding dawned, accompanied by a cold weight in her stomach. 'He wants you involved.'
'I cannot see how they could do it without me. Or you, but since you're going to be a Healer I will do my damnedest to keep you out of it. If this is all tied to the Invasion and not a sudden, miraculous interest in diplomacy, it is more or less all my fault anyway and I do not see why you should have to be embroiled in it any more than you already have been.'
'Hai,' she said softly, 'it's not all your fault.'
His fingers tapped her palm three times in quick succession. 'You're right, of course,' he conceded, 'but I must take some responsibility. I do not trust those new advisers to know what they're doing in this. I'll do my bit, and hope it won't all go up in flames.'
Sonea rested her head on his shoulder. 'You said it'll be within the next few months?'
'It'll take some time for messages to go back and forth.'
'Very well. Until that happens, we are not going to worry about it.'
She felt him exhale. 'We are not?'
'Not in the slightest. I forbid it. There will be plenty of time to worry later, and frankly I'm tired of always being anxious about something.' That was an understatement, and they both knew it. There had been nothing but worry and anxiety for far too long and although her mind was yelling at her to be terrified, she would refuse to pay it any attention. She heaved herself to her feet and pulled him up after her. 'I'm going to bed,' she announced, even though it was the middle of the day and the birds were chirping their hearts out in the hedges below the windows. There was nothing suggestive in the statement at all - she was having an annoyingly bad pain day, she was exhausted, and she fully intended to get at least an hour of sleep before Takan came up with the midday meal. 'You can either come and join me or you can stay out here and mope.'
She could tell he was not in the mood to be teased, but he gave in, sighing with an air of exaggerated suffering, and followed.