Branded as traitors, Maea and her companions arrive in Sanore, the royal capital of Neaux. They’ve come seeking a way to save Johai from the spirit that has possessed him and instead find that the plots that nearly killed Maea are here in Neaux as well. Though she swore to find a way to save Johai, destiny is calling her to stop Adair –the man who betrayed her and would have had her killed– before lives are lost in this struggle for thrones.
I slipped into a table at the back of the dining room at a crowded inn. The raucous voices gave me adequate cover as did my cloak that I wore pulled forward to disguise my unique features. The day was early yet, and many of the inn’s patrons were breaking their fast. I sat down with my back facing the wall and looked out across the crowded room. Men in groups sat about conversing and eating. The foreign tongue they used fell harshly on my ears. I scanned the room, looking for my companions. Johai, Beau and I had been forced to separate upon entering the city of Sanore, the Neaux capital and home of the Neaux royal family—Sabine’s family. A homesick feeling welled up in me but was quickly tamped down. I could not let my guard down even for a moment.
The barmaid came around to my table. “Can I get you anything, miss?” she asked in Neaux, the common tongue in this country.
“Nothing for now… Thank you,” I replied, struggling to form the right syllables with their proper inflections. I had been practicing since before we crossed the Danhad-Neaux border, but I was no linguist, and though I understood the language well enough, my speech was accented and faltering.
“Wave for me if you want anything,” she said and walked over to a nearby table and talked with another patron.
They were exchanging friendly pleasantries about the weather and their loved ones’ well-being when the patron said something that sent a chill up my spine.
“I saw some trouble at the south gate when I was coming this way from the lower town.”
I did not turn to look at them, as to not reveal that I was eavesdropping, but I leaned my head a bit closer to make sure I heard him clearly.
“Oh, what happened?” the barmaid asked.
“It’s those Danhadine soldiers again.” The man spit onto the ground. “They were harassing the caravans going north, and a fight broke out between the caravan master and the soldiers. Who do they think they are, coming here and making trouble in this country?” he asked the barmaid.
I relaxed in my seat. They are safe, then, I thought. I had been surprised to see Danhadine soldiers at the city gate. Soldiers from my home country in a foreign land should not have power here in Neaux, yet they were guarding the gates alongside the Neaux soldiers. That unexpected complication was the reason we had split up. Did Adair pursue us still? As the king of Danhad, he had the power to send an entire army after us if he so wished. It had been my constant fear since we’d fled from Keisan. Had he anticipated we would journey this far?
If I was correct and Adair had sent these soldiers after us, that meant that he may have an ally within the Neaux palace. Perhaps I gave him too much credit, but I had underestimated him once—I had trusted him before he betrayed me and framed me for the murder of his uncle, the former king of Danhad— I would not make that same mistake again. I did not think if I was caught, Adair would let me get away alive.
Several minutes had passed, and I considered leaving, but we had promised to meet here once we were all inside the city. I drummed my fingers on the tabletop and glanced around the room once more.
The door to the inn opened, and light flooded the dimly lit room. I averted my gaze, my eyes having just adjusted to the interior light. A figure was silhouetted in the doorway for a moment before stepping inside and letting the door swing closed behind him. Johai scanned the room. I did not raise a hand to greet him, for fear of drawing attention upon myself from unfavorable eyes. He spotted me in short order and made his way to me, cutting across the crowded room. My stomach dropped seeing him alone. Where is Beau? I panicked.
His pace was agitated, and though no one looked at him, I felt like his forthrightness may draw attention to us. With Danhadine soldiers about, we were no safer here than we had been in Danhad. My fear for Beau, however, made me less rational than I should be. I half-rose from my seat as Johai approached.
“Where is Beau?” I asked.
“Shh. Do not speak names aloud,” he hissed, and I sank back down in my seat, my heart beating rapidly in my chest. Johai took a seat across from me and glanced once over his shoulder before meeting my gaze. “He was alive last I saw him. I think some Danhadine soldiers recognized him, and he went a different way to put them off our trail. We will meet later once things have calmed down.”
I exhaled and prayed to the goddess to keep him safe until we met again. I do not think Johai and I would have made it this far without Beau. Our flight across the Danhadine countryside had taken us nearly a month and had been mostly at night. Given that all three of us were considered traitors to the crown of Danhad, we were not free to purchase and trade freely. It was only by Beau’s skills at hunting that we were able to feed ourselves. Though I was not clear on his motives for joining us on our journey, Johai was, and in the mad dash for freedom, there was no time to question.
The barmaid came back around, her arms overladen with pewter mugs. She looked at us askance. We must have looked strange with our hooded visages. “Are you sure I cannot get you anything to eat or drink?” she said.
“Some ale for my wife and me,” Johai replied in flawless Neaux. I tried to wipe the surprise from my face. We had not discussed our disguise for the city, but it seemed he had decided for me.
“Coming right up.” She hustled away and stopped to talk to a few other patrons on her way, delivering the pints.
“I hope you do not mind my presumption, an unmarried man and woman travelling together would cause suspicion.”
My words were lodged in my throat. It was not that I found the idea of being Johai’s wife abhorrent; it had merely taken me by surprise. I had tried to avoid thinking about my feelings for him. At times, a glance in my direction from Johai would send my stomach twisting in knots, but I also felt a cold detachment from these feelings as if I were analyzing them outside myself. Before my self-inflicted memory loss, I had loved Johai and would have done anything for him. Now I was uncertain, damaged, and slow to trust. I was committed to saving Johai from the specter that dwelled inside him because he had saved me. I had decided that whatever had passed between us before was over now. After what had happened between Adair and me, I was soured to romance. He made me believe that he loved me, and for a time I thought my feelings for him might be something deeper than a simple infatuation. I had decided to give up on him when he married Sabine because I thought it was for the good of the kingdom. I was wrong. He had used me and my powers so he could marry Sabine and rule Danhad, and he had designs to rule Neaux as well. How he planned that, I did not know and I didn’t care—I was finished with court intrigue. I only wanted to save Johai.
“It is acceptable,” I whispered after an overlong pause. The barmaid brought around our drinks. I took a long draught to avoid further conversation.
After drinking in silence for some time, Johai spoke again. “We should head out soon, before it gets too late. The man may very well have moved on if the rumors are true.”
“Why do you think the Biski are attacking now after so many years of peace?” I asked, grateful for a change of subject.
“I cannot say. It is uncharacteristic of their people to be certain.”
I stared into the amber liquid in my pewter mug. Images flashed across the surface, wild men with fierce grins and feathers and beads braided into their hair. They carried crude weapons also decorated with bones and twine. I shoved the cup away, hesitant to look further. I feared my own powers. I hated them for what they were, an inept warning system that had failed to save anyone or anything.
“There were so many Biski on the roads. Do you think they are fleeing the cities for a reason?” I asked.
“Perhaps but they are a nomadic people, for them to settle is stranger,” Johai replied, and we both lapsed into pensive thought. We had both heard the rumors along the road. The Biski were moving in force, all of them heading south, for what I could not say, but it troubled me. Could this have anything to do with the specter?
We finished our drinks, left a gold coin for the barmaid, and exited the inn. Sunlight shone brightly on the late spring day. In Keisan, the first touches of heat would be in the air, but here in this high mountain country, the wind still whipped through me like a late winter day back home. I pulled my cloak tighter and hurried to follow Johai through the myriad of alleyways and cobblestone paths.
The streets were crowded, which made it difficult to maneuver. We fought to make our way through to a marketplace, where vendors shouted over one another, desperate to be heard. The smell of baked goods and incense perfumed the air, creating a cloying scent. Johai slid between a shopping couple who were walking with arms linked and a muscular man carrying a tray of fresh bread.
After he made it past, the couple stopped at a stand with fabric of many colors and chains of pearls dangling from long threads. I was trapped between them and a steady stream of foot traffic that pinned me against the stand. Something glimmered in the corner of my eye. A string of pinkish pearls hung from a hook on a pole to the stand’s canopy. The pearls gleamed in the late afternoon sun. How could they acquire such a thing this far from the ocean?
The vendor approached me as I admired the pearls.
“Ah, the lady has an excellent eye,” the merchant said in accented Neaux. He moved out of the shadows, which had previously been obscuring his features. “Those are from my home country, hundreds of miles away. Divers swim to the bottom of the ocean to retrieve them.” He unstrung a thread and walked towards me.
I stepped back and found an unrelenting mass of bodies continued to trap me with an impenetrable wall.
“Try them on.” He grabbed my hood and pulled it back.
I tried to get away, but the crush of bodies prevented it. I made a desperate attempt to put my hood back on. But it was too late. The man had seen my dark hair and my unusual violet eyes. I had no doubt Adair had informed the common folk of who I was and what I was accused of.
“You! I know you. You’re the woman who killed King Dallin!” he shouted in Danhadine.
“Sir, you are mistaken,” I replied in Danhadine, unthinking. I realized my mistake too late, and he pressed towards me.
I attempted to force my way into the crowd, but he grabbed my cloak, pulling me back into his stand. “Don’t you dare run away. I will take you to the Danhadine embassy. There is a hefty bounty on your head.”
“Please, my lord, let me go,” I pleaded. I had come so far; would this be how I was caught? By a street merchant?
“Let the woman go,” a commanding voice rumbled.
I glanced up at my savior and found Beau standing beside me with his arms folded over his chest. The merchant did not hurry to free me but instead looked Beau up and down. “What does her fate have to do with you? Unless you are one of her traitorous allies!” he spat.
Beau dropped his hand to his hip, where he rested it on the pommel of his sword. “I would suggest you listen to reason, my friend.”
The merchant looked to me and back to Beau as if sizing up his options. Beau was a soldier and one-time personal guard to Sabine. He was tall and broad of shoulder. He had thick arms corded with muscle. The merchant was not a small man. In fact, he had a few faded scars on his face and hands. He was gray at the temples, and a burgeoning waist spilled over his belt. People stopped and stared and whispered to one another at our exchange. Many may have not understood since we were speaking in Danhadine.
The merchant’s gaze flickered to the crowd, and then he released me. I ran to Beau’s side, grateful for his intimidating appearance. His expression was grim, and his wild dark beard combined with his towering stature made him seem formidable indeed. His dark eyes were narrowed at the merchant, and if looks could kill, I am certain Beau’s would have. We were fortunate the merchant was approaching middle age and we were in a crowded place, or I think it would have turned out for the worst for us. I had never been more grateful for Beau’s good timing.
“Do not think I will not go to the embassy with this news. King Adair will know you are here! You cannot escape justice.”
Fear gripped my heart. If we were caught, we would be taken back to Keisan for execution.
“Tell him what you like,” Beau said and grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me through the crowd. After that brief display of posturing, people parted for us like the tide from the shore. Beau dragged me along behind him, and I struggled to keep up. Once we were far enough away, he let me go, and we continued at a hurried pace through the crowd. Beau used his broad shoulders to his advantage, and we had no trouble getting to the end of the crowded market street. We found Johai in short order; he had extricated himself from the crowded streets and awaited us in a shadowy alley just beyond the marketplace.
When we reached him, he grabbed me by the shoulders as if he would shake me for my foolishness. “What were you thinking? We agreed we would come here only if we were careful.”
I lowered my gaze, too ashamed to look him in the eye. “I lost you in the crowd, and then I saw some pearls… they reminded me of home,” I said.
He dropped his hands to his sides. For a few moments nothing more was said. Someone shouted in the crowd, and I suspected the merchant had not waited to find reinforcements.
“We must hurry. If you were spotted, there is not much time to tarry,” Johai said, his tone clipped.
We cut down the alley that Johai had been standing in and emerged on the other side. The streets here were less crowded, though a steady stream of people walked by. I pulled up my hood and looked at the cobblestones beneath my feet. Beau walked behind us, and Johai and I walked abreast. I was glad to have Beau back. It put my mind at ease to know he was safe.
The street we took was in the opposite direction of the palace, which loomed on a hilltop in the distance. It was shrouded in low-hanging cloud cover. Turrets burst through the clouds like silent sentinels in the sky. Though the palace was magnificent, the path we walked was desolate. The farther we went, the shabbier the structures became. Doors hung loosely on their hinges; refuse was piled against walls. The crowds thinned significantly, and the occupants that meandered about were frailer, and their clothing more worn.
“Where is this mystic?” I asked. The man we had come to Sanore in search of was a renowned Biski mystic who I hoped held the answers to saving Johai.
We hurried down the street and turned down yet another alleyway before Johai replied, “Not much further.” He strode away at a quick pace, which I was hard-pressed to keep up with. I had angered him, I suspected. I hated that once again I had put him in danger. No matter how hard I tried, there did not seem to be a way to repay him for all he had done for me and continued to do. The least I can do is break this curse.
Two-storied buildings gave way to thatched cottages as we wended our way down a winding street that led to the outskirts of the city. The homes here were arranged in a mishmash along dirt streets as we descended a hill down into the lower district. The wind blew through, stirring the hood of my cloak. I pulled it closer, concerned more than ever about keeping my appearance discreet.
Johai stopped in front of a squat home. “We’re here.”
The domicile was nothing of real note: a small square cottage with a crumbling stone wall and chickens pecking about overgrown grasses. A bundle of herbs, drying beneath the eaves, swayed in the wind. The herbs reminded me of the Magiker, and once again I felt a pang of longing for home and the familiar I had left behind. I never thought I would consider Keisan home, but being exiled, fearing even to reveal my heritage, I felt more isolated than ever.
Johai stepped up to the wooden door, which had gaps large enough that I could see the dark shadows within and strips of light that illuminated a dirt floor.
Before he rapped on the door, a voice called out from within, “Come in, I’ve been expecting you.”
A chill rippled down my spine. We had not sent word. We had only heard rumors, and I had feared that we had risked coming to the city for naught. I hoped to be proved wrong.
Johai pushed open the door, which creaked and threatened to fall apart beneath his touch. A man with white hair sat bent over a pot boiling over a fire in the center of the room. He wore long breaches rolled up to the knees and had bare feet that were callused and brown. He looked up with rheumy eyes as we entered.
“Heit tho ba regla beranta,” he said and motioned to three pillows laid out on the ground across the pot from him.
The language in which he spoke was one I was not familiar with. Johai did not blink at it and replied in the same language.
“Aba, thyuy ka serthea.”
I leaned in to Johai and whispered, “What did he say?”
“If you have a question, ask me directly, illusino,” the old man said in Neaux, pinning me with his rheumy almond-shaped eyes. The skin on his face was leathery and a dark brown from the sun.
“Then you are him, the mystic, the du-toath from the tribes of the Biski?” I asked. At last something had gone right, we had found the man we had come to find. The du-toath were the mystics of the Biski tribes. They were rumored to know of ancient magics that connected them with the earth. As a girl, I had read stories of du-toath destroying entire villages by calling forth a storm or hiding their warriors with sudden mists. I hoped their people remembered something about the specter that we had forgotten.
He chuckled. “So you are more than a pretty face.” I blushed, wondering if he was not blind or merely patronizing me. He stirred the contents of his pot and revealed a tattoo on his inner wrist: it was a square with angular cross marks overlapping it, and each line was connected like a thread without beginning or end. He then said, “I once was a du-toath, many years ago. I hail from the Clan of the Fern.”
“Aba, I do not mean to trouble you, but we seek guidance,” Johai said with a desperate edge to his tone that I had not heard before. He was always so calm and in control of his emotions.
The du-toath set the spoon he was stirring with aside and folded his thin arms over his bare chest, which hosted a patch of white hair that contrasted against his nut-brown skin. “They do not come here if they do not seek.”
“What do you know of spirits?” I asked, taking the lead. I was impatient for answers.
The man directed his milky gaze away from us as if looking beyond and into time itself. “Your impatience will hinder your quest. You ask questions but do not wait long enough to hear the answers.”
His chastisement stung, and I bit back a retort. The old man exhaled and then let his gaze linger on each of us in turn. When his gaze fell on me, I squirmed beneath his regard. I felt as if he was peering into my very heart, and I feared what he would discover there.
“The boy with the white hair is touched. I could sense that upon your arrival. That is why you have come to me, looking for answers; am I correct?”
“Yes, Aba,” Johai replied. He shifted, and I wasn’t sure if it was the boy comment or the fact that the man had touched on the source so quickly. “I summoned an ancient spirit, one whose name has been lost to the sands of time.”
The man nodded. “I can feel him in this room. I know who you summoned. The question is, did you know what you unleashed when you performed the summoning?”
I had never seen Johai cowed, but he was by this old man. He looked at the flames in front of him and did not meet the du-toath’s gaze. “Yes.”
His words caught me off guard. I had thought it was a mistake made in his youth, something he had dabbled with when he was training as a magiker as a boy. I wanted desperately to interject and ask Johai why he had done this. If he knew what was in store for him, why subject himself to this fate?
The man chortled. “And you want me to help you? What’s to stop me from letting nature run its course and be done with you?”
Johai did not answer the du-toath right away. I held myself back from pressing the topic further, though I was dying to know more.
“I acquired the book from my father, who also sought the spirit’s power but never completed the ritual. I was young when I performed the summoning, a child and reckless. I knew what I summoned forth, but I was arrogant, and I thought I could control him.” Johai stared straight forward and did not meet the man’s gaze. Not that I am certain it would have been necessary; I still wasn’t sure if he was blind or not.
The old man nodded but did not respond, and I suspected he wanted Johai to continue.
“I have managed to contain him by limiting my use of magic. However, lately, my emotions seem to awaken him. I can feel my consciousness slipping. I have lost minutes, hours. I do not know how much longer I can maintain control.”
I reached over and laid my hand over Johai’s without thinking. Why had he not told me it was this serious? Of course, I suspected. At the back of my mind I knew that time was running short, but to hear it so bluntly in his own words was a different matter.
“You are strong to have held him off for this long, but a spirit of this strength will not be easily assuaged. There is only one way to prevent his rising, and that answer you already have,” the du-toath said.
I gripped Johai’s hand tight and felt him tense under my touch. “There must be something we can do!” I shouted. No matter who we spoke to, the answer was the same. There had to be a way to save him. I could not accept the fact that I had to kill Johai. He saved me; why could I not do the same?
The old man did not look at me but continued to gaze at Johai. “You know how to end this, but are you willing to make that sacrifice?”
Johai lowered his head, and I stared at his profile. The profound sadness in his eyes said it all. This was another dead end. I refused to give up, however. I had sworn to free him, and we had come this far; I would not give up.
“There has to be another way. I know that everything says I must kill Johai, but I cannot. I will not,” I shouted.
“And instead you would unleash the destruction of all things?” The du-toath’s words were like cold water splashed on me. “This is no mere trifle you play with. This spirit is ancient and vengeful, and you are kindling to his fire.”
I was not cowed; I refused to give up. “Then I will help him burn until the fires go out. A blaze cannot burn forever.”
The du-toath did not flinch but fixed me with a bland expression. His crabbed hands were flat upon his forearms. “That is not possible. Their souls were tangled the moment he took that spirit within himself. They cannot be separated. You, illusino, and women like you, are destined to be his destruction. If not, then he will be yours. And if you are destroyed, then the darkness wins, and all life will cease to exist.”
My hands shook from frustration.
“You cannot undo a century’s worth of hatred. It is in your blood and tied in with your very essence!”
“Why me? Why do I have to be the one?” I was ashamed of my own selfishness, but it had been weighing upon me for some time, and after the du-toath’s declaration, I could not hold it in any longer.
“It is the reason you have the abilities you do. You foretold the coming of his rising, and only you can thwart it!”
“And what if I do not want these powers? What if I would give it up just to save one life instead of standing aside while everyone I care about suffers?” The tears were flowing freely now.
“That is not your fate, illusino,” the du-toath said in a low voice.
Johai touched my hand, and I realized I had jumped to my feet. I unbunched my fists and found blood pooling in half-moons on my palms where my nails had dug into the skin. The du-toath tutted and reached for a rag in a bucket nearby. He gave it to me to wash my wounds, and it had a pungent odor that stung my nose.
“We all have destinies. Some are great, and some are small. But we cannot fight fate,” the du-toath said after settling back down behind the fire.
I lowered my gaze and did not comment further. Was this my fate, to forever look into the future and never be able to change anything? To kill the man who had saved my life? I felt as if the room swayed. It was ridiculous, not possible, but—I looked sidelong at Johai. Would I forever be burdened with the ability to see backwards and forwards and forever to walk alone?