Authors: Jane Fletcher
Alana’s eyes were closed, so she could not see Reyna’s expression, but why should she have to? The two of them had been together for two years. How long did it take before you could predict what your lover was thinking?
In fact, could she even be sure they were Reyna’s emotions that she was aware of? Maybe she was projecting her own feelings and assuming Reyna felt the same. She was certainly bewildered enough on her own account. She did not need to be bewildered for Reyna as well.
Alana opened her eyes and lurched away from the door. She slumped down on the bed. Reyna sat beside her and hesitantly took hold of her hand.
“I don’t mean to upset you.”
Despite her irritation, Alana could not help smiling. Reyna would never mean to upset anyone. “It’s not you, darling.”
“But if you don’t have mind-mage powers now, do you still think Orrin might be right? That you could become one?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t sound happy about it.”
“But don’t you see what it could mean for us?”
“Pardon?” Alana stared at her lover in confusion.
“If you were a mind-mage. You could become Orrin’s assistant.”
The mere thought made Alana grimace. “I don’t want to.”
“I don’t trust him.”
“He’s the king’s high counselor.”
“Yes. I know that. So?”
“The king trusts him. He has to be all right.”
Alana rested her forehead on her hand. How did she even begin to explain the fallacy in that line of reasoning to someone so politically innocent?
Reyna clearly took the lack of argument as a sign to continue. “Please, Alana. I know it’s different for you. The Quintanillas have always been important. But coming from a minor house, like mine, especially since I’m not a very strong ice-mage, it’s not easy. If you could become Orrin’s deputy, then I wouldn’t have to be Cari’s nursemaid. We could spend more time together. I don’t want to be thought of as anything special, but it would be nice if people gave us more respect.”
Alana turned her head and looked at Reyna’s apologetic smile in surprise. So her lover did have some ambition after all, albeit on a very modest scale, and accompanied by feelings of guilt for not being happy with what she had.
Ice-mage ranked above beast-master, but not by much, and it was true that Reyna’s talent was very limited—just about adequate for stopping a three-year-old setting fire to herself. Alana was sure Reyna genuinely loved her, but was she equally sure that Reyna had not entered the relationship with one eye on the prospect of advancing her position, by allying herself with the powerful Quintanillas?
The thought was one that surfaced from time to time. Usually, Alana dismissed it as the normal sort of self-doubt that afflicted everyone, apart from the most narcissistic of egoists, but for the first time she felt genuine uncertainty. Was she picking it up from Reyna?
“Please, Alana. For me. For us. Promise that you’ll try.”
Thick curtains covered the windows. The ceiling, walls, and floor had been painted black, diminishing the light yet further. The overall effect, when combined with the red wax candles and chalk pentagram scrawled around the silver chair in the middle of the room, merely served to reinforce Alana’s opinion of Orrin. She would have been sure he was a complete charlatan were it not for the voice in her head when he had placed his finger on her lips. He was waiting for her now, wearing long white robes in counterpoint to the absurdly theatrical decor.
Orrin waved her to the chair. “Please, be seated.”
Alana tried to swallow her misgivings. Her attempt met with very limited success, but it was too late to start coming up with excuses. As Orrin shut the door, she turned her head for a last glimpse of Reyna and her mother, waiting in the antechamber outside.
Orrin walked in a circle, lighting each of the red candles in turn. Once the last candle was burning, the increased illumination allowed Alana to see the previously missed small table at one side of the room, also painted black. Candlelight glinted on several metallic objects arranged on it. The only item with a function she recognized was a silver goblet.
Orrin picked it up and handed it to her. “Drink this.”
Alana sniffed and took a cautious sip. “Kava?”
“Just a light concoction, to help you relax.”
“If you’d said, I could have prepared my own draft.”
“Oh yes, you do study herbalism, don’t you? I’d forgotten.” Orrin’s tone was too bland to be completely credible. “Never mind. The one I’ve produced will be fine.”
Alana swilled the kava around in the goblet and took another sniff, while toying with the idea of refusing to drink it. Was the drug really necessary? Yet Alana could hardly deny that she was tense and her choices were limited. Either she could comply with Orrin’s instructions, or she could give in to her distrust of the man and go. The latter option was by far the more appealing, except that it would leave her with a lot of explaining to do to her parents. For a moment, Alana’s decision hung in the balance, but then she raised the goblet to her lips and drained it.
As a herbalist, Alana was familiar with the effects of kava. Before long, the faint numbing of her lips and tongue became noticeable. She waited for the relaxed sense of well-being and clarity of thought to follow. Instead, her pulse began to race and her head spun. The tingling in her lips flowed away from her mouth, down her neck, and rippled over the entire surface of her skin.
“What else was in the potion?” Alana could hear the alarm in her own voice.
“A few minor trace elements, just to aid the process. Nothing significant.”
“You should have told me what it was before giving it to me to drink.”
Orrin smiled as he walked around the chair. “I’m sorry if I’ve been a little presumptuous, but you know I only have your best interests at heart. A great future awaits you, and I’m going to help you achieve it.”
He was lying. Suddenly, Alana was quite certain of it. She was in the process of rising when a noose dropped over her shoulders, binding her to the chair. Before she could manage more than a gasp of surprise, a band of cloth was wedged between her teeth, gagging her.
Orrin reappeared by her side. “Don’t be alarmed. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“This is going to be a delicate operation. If you were to move or shout at the wrong time, it might have unfortunate consequences. Please believe me. You need to be restrained for your own good.”
Lying. He was lying.
Orrin pulled a fresh length of cord from his sleeve and started binding her wrists to the armrest of the chair. Alana wanted to struggle, but her limbs were shaking and her muscles were seized with cramps. The kava had been little more than a disguise for whatever else had been in Orrin’s potion. Even if she were not tied, Alana did not think she would have had the strength to walk to the door. But she could have crawled. She would have done anything to get out of the room and away.
Abruptly, Orrin was standing before her, with one of the items from the table in his hands. Alana had not seen him move. Had she passed out briefly? She tried to focus on the candles, to see how far they had burned down, but her vision was distorted. Light and color were smeared. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears. Sweat trickled down her back and sides, soaking into the waistband of her pants.
Orrin came closer. Alana’s eyesight cleared briefly, enough for her to see that the item he held looked like a small steel club, no more than a foot in length. One end was engraved with cross-hatching, either as decoration or to provide a secure grip. Bands of green light danced up and down a flattened surface along the other end. What sort of weapon was it?
As if in answer to her thought, Orrin spoke. “This device was brought back from the wastelands some years ago by a band of Iron Wolf mercenaries. It’s lain in the king’s armory since then. Nobody knew what it was. In fact, I still can’t give you a name for it, but I know what its purpose is. You can think of it as a sort of lens, if you like. It sharpens up thoughts, and it’s going to assist me in focusing my talent on you. It will give me the keen edge to cut through the barriers you’ve built around your mind.”
Wielding the metal bar as if it were indeed a carving knife, Orrin sliced through the air. The flattened section swept by Alana’s face, passing a scant inch from her cheek. She flinched although the device did not touch her, and despite the absence of physical contact, some part of Alana was severed. Like taking peel off an orange, a strip of the casing around her mind was cut away.
The universe flowed in. Had the gag not been in her mouth, Alana would have screamed, from shock rather than pain. An avalanche of emotion overwhelmed her. Anger, love, regret, pride, amusement, disgust. Any consciousness that she might have claimed as her own was lost in the torrent from outside.
Again the bar passed before Alana’s eyes. Another gap in her head opened up and more emotions flooded in. Orrin’s smug triumph. Her mother’s excited hopes. Reyna’s optimistic concern. The disappointment of the stable boy in the yard outside. The boredom of a guard on sentry duty. A courtier’s irritation. A lover’s desire. A thief’s greed. A widow’s grief. The whole of Ellaye was streaming into her head. Alana could not pick her own thoughts clear from the confusion.
Still Orrin sliced with his bar. How much more was there to the world? The arcane device was flaying her mind, laying her soul exposed and utterly vulnerable. She no longer knew herself. She no longer existed. The onslaught obliterated and overwrote everything that she could call Alana.
With relief, she embraced the dark jaws of unconsciousness that consumed her.
For the merest instant upon waking, Alana wondered what was going on, before the tumult of the world ripped all coherent thought to shreds. Stabs of anger and dismay filled her head, filtered through a choking web of terror. Further away, the thunderous roar of love and hate seethed around nodes of other emotions. Her identity was lost amid the chaos.
Desperately, Alana clawed at her senses, trying to use whatever they could tell her as building blocks to construct some self-awareness. Soft pressure along her back revealed that she was lying on a bed or couch. The acrid bite of smelling salts defined her nose. Sunlight glowed red through her closed eyelids. Someone was whimpering softly, while other voices talked in the background.
“He ought to have known.”
“But what are we going to do?”
“What can we do?”
Alana tried to concentrate on the words and ignore the way they sparked new bursts of irritation, but another emotion was strengthening. Anxious satisfaction was getting closer, and then Alana heard a door open. The bitter anger that had greeted her when she first woke flared to fresh heights.
“I’m sorry. It wasn’t where I thought it was.”
At the sound of the new voice, the terror erupted, obliterating everything else. The soft whimpering became a half-scream.
“Good. She needs to drink this.”
Alana’s eyes flew open. A barrage of faces surrounded her and nearest was Orrin’s. He was holding another goblet to her lips. Alana turned her head aside, ignoring the way sharp motion made the room reel.
“Hold her head steady.”
Alana tried to fight, but the panic was so strong it formed iron bands around her chest. Breathing was impossible, and with the resulting dizziness, the ability to resist left her. Honey-sweet liquid filled her mouth. She swallowed because it was less effort than spitting.
“And now this.” Orrin spoke again.
Alana felt the weight of cold metal on her throat, and suddenly the monster of emotions took a half-step back. The space was just sufficient to separate herself from the world. She knew who Alana was. She realized that the terrified whimpers had been hers.
Orrin patted her hand. “There you go. Have another mouthful and then lie down. Once the potion takes effect you’ll feel better.”
Some small voice warned her not to obey, but Alana could not concentrate enough to work out why. The chaos in her head had eased, and she would willingly do whatever was necessary to make it calm still further. Alana stretched out again on the bed and concentrated on breathing. Slowly, the sharp definition on the emotions in the room became blurred and the roar from the city outside faded to a buzz. The relief was so great it left Alana light-headed.
Orrin was still holding her hand. “I’m so sorry, my dear.”
“Na-yer-nor.” Alana’s tongue was too sluggish to move.
“Don’t try to talk.”
Alana closed her eyes. She might as well follow the advice, since nobody would understand a word she said. Orrin had done this to her. His presence made her feel ill and she wished he would stop holding her hand, but she lacked the strength to pull away. For now, all she could do was to try ignore him and concentrate on getting her head back together. When she felt better, she would be able to tell her side of things.
“You’re an empath, a very powerful one, stronger in the talent than has ever been recorded before. I have to admit, I’m amazed. If I’d have known, I would never have—” Orrin broke off with a sorrowful sigh.