Sigurne Mellifas stood in the parting of door and frame, her pale hair drawn back in a way that made her face reveal the truth that few accepted: she was aged, polite, politic— and ruthless in pursuit of her chosen goals. Her principles were among those valued goals. Were they not, many men would lie dead who might present a danger to her. He was keenly aware that he was one. The awareness made him prize her more highly, not less, and he wondered, as he often did, why beauty was defined as youth in the eyes of so many. She was beautiful, scarred as she was by experience.
She was also angry.
His hand left the rail. He bowed, aware of the mollifying effect of manners.
"Did you think I wouldn't find out before you departed?"
He raised a brow. Then he turned briefly to the cloudless sky. She did not look at the fire that burned in the heart of the Common.
"No, Sigurne. You would never disappoint me in such a fashion."
"When you offer flattery in that grave a voice, I know I won't be happy with what you intend. You have summoned—your students."
She was silent.
"Understand that they share two traits. For the mageborn, they are young."
"And powerful," she said softly. Only Sigurne could make those words an accusation.
"We face old enemies, and we are older ourselves; we must train the next generation," he said, surprising himself by the softness of his tone. "And while we have never spoken openly of it, you know better than any what the extent of that danger is; what the cost of failure will be."
"I know better than any save yourself."
"Save perhaps myself; I am less certain that it is your knowledge that is the inferior. But we speak of the city, Sigurne."
"And if we are to prove our ability to wage this war, if we are indeed to stand against the
, and the return of even worse danger, we must be prepared to wield power. We were not always so weak a people. The power is there if we are willing to use it." An old, old argument. No matter what their intent, they returned to it; it lay at the heart both of who they had once been and what it had made them.
"And at what cost? Were it not for the ambition of 'men of power', I am almost certain we would not need to train the young to death and death's arts."
"It is not to death's art that I train them," he said softly. "Men were the only mortal creatures who stood unbowed in the face of the gods, when they walked these lands. We have forgotten," he added quietly, "but the potential still resides within us."
"You will turn them into weapons."
"I will turn them into men who are
of wielding true weapons. It is not the same."
"And when we stood against the gods in these lands, when we stood shoulder to shoulder with the wild and ancient powers, what were we, Meralonne?" Her eyes were wide, unblinking, but the shadows cast by the door's frame robbed them of color. "Did the Twin Kings stand as well? Did they demand justice for those too weak, or too insignificant, to be counted among the great?"
His smile was brittle. He did not answer.
"I would not see them turned from the path the Twin Kings have carved for the Empire. I will not see them judge worth by power alone. They
power, but I do not wish them to become that power, and nothing more."
"Then make a spell, Sigurne Mellifas, that will somehow ascertain ambition at birth and kill all those who possess it."
She did not move or flinch at the heat of his tone, and the anger deserted him. He was left with the knowledge that truth, like an oily merchant, had two faces, two edges. "But understand that some ambitions are born of fire." The streets were now burning with the fire of which he spoke. "What is forged in that fire will endure in a way that youthful intention seldom does. These men are not boys, Sigurne. They are not born of the streets; they have never struggled for their own survival above all else. That much you have taught them. And I…" His smile was odd, almost devoid of amusement. "Against my better judgment, I have chosen to uphold what
"What I value, Member APhaniel? Surely you mean what
Her gaze broke. "I would not have chosen this life."
He understood exactly what she meant. "No one chooses the course of their life. You have risen from painful obscurity to the mastery of the First Circle of the Magi, yet I believe that if you had more faith in the competence of the Council of the Magi, you would return to obscurity. That is the miracle of you. Yet you have lived the life that you did not choose well, regardless." He raised his head to look beyond her shoulder. "They come."
She listened for the sound of footsteps; they were both distant and heavy. There was no mistaking their direction. "Have you ever questioned the value of what you've built?"
"I rarely question my decisions, once made."
She said, "They will die."
"Not all of them."
The first of the warrior-adepts came through the open arch. He marched past Sigurne Mellifas, hesitation marring the timing of his very military step. It was clear that he knew who she was; clear also that he knew that paying the respect due her station would compromise the efficiency of the unit's arrival; the tower was not designed for the comfortable gathering of large numbers of men. It had been one of the qualities Meralonne valued in a residence, and he was certain, circumstance aside, that it was a quality that he would continue to value.
The fledgling group of warrior-adepts assembled on this balcony would be winnowed; some would survive this first flight, and some would falter and perish.
Another tree fell.
"I have summoned you here," Meralonne said, into a calm he forced from the wind, "to fulfill your oath. Your sworn duty is to use the gifts granted you by the gods in defense of those less privileged. Across the bay, in the old city proper, the enemy waits, unaware of your existence. They destroy with ease those they feel cannot fight back.
"You have practiced and trained for this day; prove them wrong."
He turned his back, his simply robed back, upon them and lifted his arms. The men he had called students were silent, but one breath, short and sharp, was drawn; he did not look back; he knew whose. The elbows of his sleeves rippled; the edges of his cloak skittered above the stones. His hair was braided, but strands framed his face and rose, as if he had summoned lightning, and waited merely for its strike.
No lightning came.
Instead, infinitely more subtle, more dangerous, the elemental air, the wild wind.
"We cannot walk," he said, and added dryly, "and there are no horses within the Order's grounds that would carry us into that danger."
The few who had come from patrician homes chuckled. He let that noise ease those who had not before he spoke again.
"I have been your master and your teacher; I know your measure. I trust it. Now, I must ask a single question. You will know how to answer it.
"Do you trust me?" Without looking back, Meralonne APhaniel stepped up, onto the balcony's railing. The wind swept him off.
Now he heard their voices, the words muted and merged into a single noise. As they understood what they saw, the current driving those murmurs changed. Meralonne APhaniel stood, buffeted and untouched, a hundred feet— more—above the ground.
"Join me," he said.
A hundred years ago, a thousand, in lands held by different men, that hesitation would have been their death. But he expected it; he waited, refusing to turn toward them; refusing to see their indecision. He was not so kind a teacher that it would not have angered him or insulted him; the words were not, and could not be construed as, request.
Gyrrick reached the rail first. The wind carried the familiar sound of his step, coveting the momentary silence of drawn and held breath that was particular to Gyrrick. He was the boldest of the students, but also the man who best understood consequences: seldom did such an alliance of traits sit so easily in a person. His hair was short; Meralonne suffered no man the foolish grace of lengthy hair save himself. His shoulders, though slender, were strong, and his jaw was not weak; he was attractive in the way that men who wield power as if it were breath so often are; naturally, without artifice.
He stepped into air, and the air held him.
There were two approaches to training men such as these; the first was to break their natural leader and replace him; the second, to co-opt that leader, to become that leader's lord. He had chosen the latter course, the former being almost certain to draw Sigurne's wrath, but he was surprised at how well it had worked. It took more patience than the first option; it left one vulnerable.
After Gyrrick, they followed. He counted them by the scrambling uncertainty of their steps.
He turned only when the balcony was as it should be: occupied by one. He knelt, although the wind was howling in outrage at the burden he had placed upon it. "Magi," he said. "We are at your disposal."
What the students had not granted, the master did, in their full view: respect for the authority Sigurne Mellifas had chosen to accept; acknowledgment that she was the guild's ruler, inasmuch as an Order made of quirky men and women could have one.
She surveyed them all, the bowed man and his students. Then she nodded, grimly, accepting what he offered—both halves, the adepts and his respect—as the necessities they were. "Save our city," she said, her voice carrying without interference over the wind's current. "Only you can."
The words carried them, and they rose, the wind gathering behind and beneath them like a wild horse that would only—barely—tolerate what had been set upon its back.
Look, look there
— the magi told it, and the wind, in fury, did as bid.
The wind saw
Everything has its natural enemy.
Fire, earth, water, and air. Burn the world, bury it, drown it, tear it to pieces; each, in its natural dominion.
The common wisdom—in this tame world where wilderness was a dream's dream, buried so far beneath mortal knowledge it never came to light—pitted fire against water, and earth against air. But it was not so: they were, each of the four, powers, and in any world, only one power could claim dominance.
Torn between rage at the indignity of being a beast of burden and rage at the indignity of the presence of its natural enemy, the wind balanced a moment before turning, like a great dragon, to make its way toward the Common where the hearts of trees were cracking.
Gyrrick could not speak; he could barely breathe. But the difficulty of gasping for breath did not bother him in any visible fashion. Following his first step into the insubstantial air from the height of a tower he might one day hope to occupy, he readied himself for his second. Meralonne expected no less… but he was old enough now that the fulfillment of expectation was its own peculiar joy. The mage rode the wind, inches above the ground; the students tumbled into the streets like flotsam carried by unnatural tide. They would right themselves, or they would not.
It had become immaterial.
The last thing the mage was peripherally aware of before he drew his blade and spoke its name to the wind was Gyrrick's long shadow across the broken ground.
That and the enemies who turned, as a single creature, to face blue fire and elemental air.
"They told us," one said, rising as if ground were illusion, "that you were here." Red fire seeped out of his fingertips in lazy circles, becoming brighter and darker as Meralonne approached. "But I hardly credited the reports as truth. I did call your name when I arrived, but perhaps you failed to hear it."
"Perhaps I considered it inconsequential."
"Judge, then," the creature replied, its lips spreading in a smile that split its slender face.
"You did not come here for me."
"No. You are considered less of a concern than the Warlord." Fire became sword; sword became the symbol of all battles, past and present. This battle would become one of many to the victor. The loser would become memory.
But he wanted the experience that would form that memory, be it insignificant or not. Because this creature was a creature he understood. He asked for no quarter; he offered none. He had spent his existence fighting for survival and supremacy, and clearer proof of his success could not be found than this: his sword was his own. Red light and fire, grace and death.
The clarity of combat was a joy Meralonne APhaniel had dutifully ordered his students to be wary of seeking. Proof, if needed, that observation was a substitute for personal experience in the classroom—and only there.
Sigurne's face wore the shadows well. She took comfort in them.
The city was burning.
She watched in silence as the light and the fire of Meralonne's students burned themselves into the unblinking field of her vision. The men who lay dead in the Common had done the demons no harm.
She wondered how many of her own would join them.
The demons were fast.
The mages expected speed. They had not been given leave to summon demons in order to hone their craft—
Sigurne would have had them all killed had they attempted it, and if rumors were true, slowly—and what they had been left to study did no justice to the truth of this first meeting.
But Meralonne had taught them. No summoned enemy? It mattered little. Their lack of knowledge was matched only by their pathetic skill. Had Sigurne taken sudden leave of her senses—or come into them, depending on who one asked—and allowed them the use of demonology, they would all be dead. Sigurne aside, they would all be dead when they eventually encountered the enemy in something other than song, story, or faded, crumbling book, and
would be an embarrassment that he would not tolerate; it had been costly to gain the Council's permission to create their small division within the Order's more peaceful fold.