Sorceress Star

( 2 )

Overview

The saga begun in Tyrant Moon and Heretic Sun continues... When the heretic wizard Thraxis fled to barbarian lands, he had hoped to live the rest of his life in peace. But the Black Council, now led by his old nemesis Melilandra, are still driven by their lust for power. They will not rest until they have hunted down not only Thraxis, but also his daughter Dawn, a child of prophecy whose magic has the power to reshape their world. As Melilandra's schemes spread death and destruction across the land, Thraxis and ...
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Overview

The saga begun in Tyrant Moon and Heretic Sun continues... When the heretic wizard Thraxis fled to barbarian lands, he had hoped to live the rest of his life in peace. But the Black Council, now led by his old nemesis Melilandra, are still driven by their lust for power. They will not rest until they have hunted down not only Thraxis, but also his daughter Dawn, a child of prophecy whose magic has the power to reshape their world. As Melilandra's schemes spread death and destruction across the land, Thraxis and his barbarian wife Arrow must somehow find a way to stop a foe who seems invincible. And their only hope for survival may rest with a man who has vowed to kill them both...
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594261367
  • Publisher: Mundania Press
  • Publication date: 5/24/2008
  • Pages: 244
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Joyful Dawn

"She's going to get them both killed," Thraxis muttered, clenching his hands into fists. The cool wind of autumn flapped his black robes about his legs and ruffled the hood around his shaved head. A handful of wind-borne seeds blew into his face, and he waved them away irritably.

His friend Viabold sat behind him, in the lee of the barn where the wind couldn't reach, grinding up dried herbs with a mortar and pestle. "Surely you don't mean Arrow," he said. "She's spent most of her life on horseback. She's about as likely to fall off--or let Dawn fall off--as a bird is likely to forget how to fly."

Although Viabold's voice was mild, Thraxis still got the feeling that the older wizard was laughing at him. Scowling, Thraxis tucked his hands into the sleeves of his robe and turned his attention back to the corral. Two horses cantered across the open field--going rather faster than necessary, in Thraxis' opinion--their bay coats gleaming in the sun that shone in flickers between fast-moving clouds. One rider was tall and rangy, her red hair a match for the bay coat of her horse. A broad blue tattoo across her face, centered about her brown eyes, marked her not only as a Skald barbarian, but as a Champion--a warrior. Despite the cold wind, she had neglected to put on her coat, wearing only a sleeveless vest that exposed a stag tattooed into one shoulder and a simple spiral on the other. A bronze sword hung at one hip, and a gorytus at the other; there was also a knife strapped to her left thigh. Gold glittered at her throat, ears, and wrists.

The other rider was much smaller--far too small, Thraxis thought grumpily, to begallivanting about on the back of a beast that large, particularly at anything faster than a walk. Her eyes were the bronze of an Athraskani child, but so pale that the color bordered on ivory, making a startling contrast to the thick, black hair held back in a novice's braid. Instead of the usual robe, however, she wore a long tunic slit for riding, along with a pair of soft trousers tucked into boots, all of them novice brown. Like her mother, she sported a golden torque, earrings, and armbands, all cast in the shapes of writhing animals.

The horses turned back towards the fence where he waited, slowing from a canter to a trot to a walk. At the expression of pride on the face of the woman, Thraxis felt his mood lighten despite his concerns. When he had first met the Arrow that Flies the Farthest, he had not imagined that she would prove to be the love of his life. Certainly he would never have thought to find himself here, a scant few years later, watching as she taught their young daughter the intricacies of horseback riding.

"Did you see that, Da?" Joyful Dawn demanded as soon as they were close enough to speak. The girl's face was flushed with excitement. "We were going really fast!"

"So I saw."

"Thraxis was behaving like an old woman again," Viabold reported.

"I was not." Hitching up his robe, Thraxis clambered over the fence. When the horses came abreast, Dawn enthusiastically flung herself off the back of her mount; used to this fearless maneuver, Thraxis caught her with a grunt. "Viabold said he'd like to take a turn on Wind."

Viabold snorted and stood up, wincing as his bones popped. The sunlight caught on his hair, which had gone almost entirely silver over the last few years, so that it matched his eyes. "Not likely. Tell Bird Bones to send an old nag next time, and I might think about it."

Shortly after Dawn's birth four and half years before, Arrow had sent word to her clan via a trader who wandered between Chok and Skald lands. In reply, her chief, Bird Bones Broken, had sent back the jewelry Dawn now wore, as well as two handsome Skald geldings. Arrow had been delighted about the horses, although Thraxis hadn't quite realized why until the day after Dawn had taken her first steps. Arrow had celebrated the accomplishment by putting the girl on the back of the more mild-tempered of the two horses, a bay with the ominous name of the Wind is Too Slow.

Arrow swung down from her horse, Nightwing, in a graceful move that bespoke a lifetime spent on horseback. "Come with us, next time," she suggested to Thraxis.

"Perhaps." In truth, Thraxis enjoyed riding, although he would never be any good at it by Skald standards. Unfortunately, as of late, other things had taken up much of his time.

His eyes strayed automatically to the semi-permanent encampment in one of the near pastures. When he and Arrow had fled to barbarian lands, they had been accompanied by a small group of young Athraskani who had become disillusioned with the Black Council. Arrow's sister Kestrel, who had married a Chok man, had been gracious enough to lend them space in one of the pastures for their tents.

Determined not to repeat the mistakes of the Black Council, who had viewed the humans around them with fear and mistrust, the Athraskani refugees had gradually woven themselves into the fabric of the barbarian community. They used their magic to heal both the Chok and their livestock, they set charms to keep mice and insects out of the granaries, and in general they tried to do good in whatever way they could. Over time, the original tents had been supplemented by more permanent structures, as they settled in for the long term.

As the official leader of the little group--the chief heretic, as the Black Council would have had it--Thraxis had found himself forced to devote more and more time to things other than his own pleasure. He taught, wrote, helped copy the few scrolls they possessed, settled disputes, traveled to the neighboring farms to lend a hand where it was needed, and joined in the three daily meditations all Athraskani engaged in. For the most part, he didn't regret it, although sometimes he thought it would have been nice to have a few days to do nothing but lie in the grass with his family and watch the clouds go by.

"Thiacene!" called Dawn, squirming suddenly in Thraxis' arms. He put her down, and a moment later she was off, running across the pasture towards the tall young woman approaching them. Beautiful Girl, a brindled hound with mismatched eyes, jumped up from her resting spot by the fence and chased after Dawn happily.

Of all the Athraskani who had come there, the only one who had not chosen to follow Thraxis' lead was his own sister, Thiacene. Although Thiacene still wore her long hair in the traditional Athraskani braids, she dressed barbarian-style in a tunic, coat, and trousers, and carried both sword and gorytus.

At one time, Thraxis would have raged at this. Truthfully, he still didn't like it. But, having once planned on the murder of the entire Black Council, he didn't feel as though he had any right to criticize Thiacene.

"Are you all right?" Arrow asked him.

He glanced up, startled out of his own thoughts, and saw a line of concern between her brows. "I'm fine, my love. Just thinking of things long past."

"Ah." She touched his arm lightly. "Thiacene and I are going to practice, probably until sundown."

"I'll keep an eye on Dawn." It was one of the compromises they had worked out when it came to raising their daughter. Arrow would refrain from teaching her how to use a sword, which had no purpose other than to kill, until the girl was old enough to decide for herself whose path she preferred to follow. In return, Thraxis would not complain if Arrow taught Dawn how to use the bow, so long as they were only ever aiming at targets. Thraxis suspected that Arrow had agreed to this arrangement so readily because she already knew that Dawn would someday be among the most powerful Athraskani ever to walk the earth, and as such would have far better ways of defending herself than the mere sword and bow.

"Dawn can help me prepare the herb garden for winter," Viabold put in. Arrow winced; that was another compromise. As a Skald, she abhorred agriculture and settled life as much as Thraxis abhorred violence. But bitter circumstances had forced them all here, to where the people built permanent houses and grew crops, and very few ever went more than two days travel from the place where they had been born.

For a moment, he almost expected her to object. But then her expression eased into a lopsided smile. "All right," she said, and walked quickly to where Thiacene waited, not looking back.

* * * *

Arrow and Thiacene moved through a slow kai'ten designed to warm and loosen their muscles before beginning their daily practice session. They had gone to one of the outer fields, well away from the disapproving sight of the other Athraskani. Sheep grazed idly around them, guarded by one of the many dogs trained to keep watch over the flock. Beautiful Girl lay with her head on her paws, staring disconsolately at the sheep, which she had learned were not to be chased all over the landscape.

The wind was brisk, although not cold, and still bore the scent of the previous night's thunderstorm. With the return of the rains after the searing heat of summer, the landscape almost seemed to be undergoing a second spring, but the departing birds and ripened fruits told another story. Winter would be upon them soon.

To the north, the Skald would already have moved their herds to winter pastures, seeking out river valleys that would give some protection against the punishing winds that howled across the open steppe.

It hurt, to be so close to home, yet unable to return. Arrow's heart ached for the open expanses of grass, for the felt yurts of her people, for the vast herds of their horses. As much as she loved her sister, she had begun to chafe at the sturdy walls and corrals that comprised Kestrel's home.

Perhaps I could go back, if only to visit. Perhaps it's been long enough for the wounds to heal. The clan would even be glad to see their new cousin.

But they wouldn't be glad to see Athraskani.

"Good afternoon!" called a cheery voice. Arrow glanced around to see Lathna, a young woman from the neighboring homestead. Somehow, Lathna's chores always managed to bring her by Kestrel's farm at about the time that Arrow and Thiacene began their daily practices. Today, Lathna was carrying a basket filled with the season's last wildflowers over her arm; her braided brown hair blew on the wind, and she brushed it absently back from her round face.

Thiacene straightened self-consciously. Like her brother Thraxis, she was tall and thin, with extraordinarily pale yellow eyes and an unfortunately prominent nose. "Good afternoon, Lathna. Come to watch Arrow beat me again?" she asked wryly.

Lathna smiled prettily. "If I might."

"Of course. Private defeat isn't nearly humiliating enough." Thiacene grinned to show that she was joking. Mostly, at least--short of employing magic, she had no chance of ever winning against Arrow.

Arrow and Thiacene practiced as the sun moved towards the west. Despite the cool edge to the air, sweat slicked both their faces, and before long Thiacene's breath was coming in short gasps. Even so, her endurance had improved greatly over the last few years. Her skill was not bad, either, for one come to it so late.

As for Arrow, she had to force herself to keep her movements slow and not use the inhuman speed and strength that the wizard Balthazar had gifted her with. Balthazar had been the first of the Athraskani she had ever met, when he had fled to the Skald after stealing an amulet from his people. The doyan'si had given him great power, but only at the cost of human lives.

Among the Skald, Balthazar had found the prestige he had always longed to have from his own people. He had also found a friend in Arrow, who had become his oath-sister. He had saved her life by turning her into a berserker, so fast and strong that no warrior could hope to stand against her.

And how had she thanked him? With a betrayal that had led to his downfall and the end of the war that he had helped begin.

When the two women were done with their practice, Lathna reluctantly said good-bye, after first inviting them both to dinner any time they wished at her family's homestead. Thiacene watched her go in silence for a moment, then glanced at Arrow. "She's the first human friend I've ever had. Not counting you."

"I hardly count," Arrow agreed with a wry smile.

"That isn't what I meant."

"I know. It's good for you to have a friend your own age. Lathna is a fine woman. I hear that she has many suitors hoping to marry her."

Thiacene scowled, her expression startlingly reminiscent of her brother, but said nothing. They started back towards Kestrel's homestead, walking side-by-side in silence. After a while, though, Thiacene's frown eased and she glanced at Arrow. "You're quiet today."

"Just doing a lot of thinking."

"About what?"

Arrow hesitated, then decided that it would be good to confide in Thiacene. Her sister-by-marriage would carry no tales. "I've been thinking about going home. To the steppes. I keep asking myself if it's been long enough."

"I don't understand why you've waited this long."

"The wounds my clan made on one another were bitter," Arrow said quietly, wondering how she could explain it so that any outsider could understand. "The war turned brother against brother, father against son, nephew against uncle. It was my skill as a Champion that gave Blood on the Wind the idea of starting the war in the first place."

"That wasn't your fault."

"Perhaps. Not all see it that way." Arrow shrugged. "I want to go back for Dawn's sake. She'll be five in the spring, old enough to get her permanent name, and I would like for her to have a proper ceremony with her clan around her. But I also want to go back for myself. I miss the steppes. I miss riding for days, having the open plains all around me. I miss my uncle, Leaf Dancing, and my cousins, and my friends, what few I had."

Thiacene glanced away, and her shoulders slumped. "I understand. I miss the Sanctum. But even more ... I miss mother and father. I wish I knew what happened to them after they were exiled. When we were traveling here, I kept hoping that we would run into them. Dumb, I know, but I couldn't help it. Ever since then, I've wondered if I ought to leave and go look for them. Only I don't even know where to start. They could be anywhere in the world now." She didn't add the obvious, that they could both easily be dead, as if not saying the words would somehow prevent them from coming true. "I wish ... I wish I knew what they would think of me, if they could see me now."

Given their horrified reaction to having a barbarian for a daughter-in-law, Arrow could easily guess what they would think. But saying it seemed cruel, so she instead she said, "You can quit any time. You don't have to continue this."

"And do what? Shave my head and join the others, pretend that I believe all the nonsense about love and a higher calling that Thraxis is always going on about? Go learn herb-lore with Viabold? Should I lie and say I'm sorry I killed Vilhardouin, that I wish I hadn't saved Thraxis' life by putting an arrow through her?"

"Those aren't the only paths open to you."

"But I'm good at this." Thiacene cast her a look that was equal parts pain and pride. "You said so yourself."

"You're a good mage as well."

Thiacene's lips quirked into a wry smile. "But not a very good Athraskani. If you return to the Skald, can I go with you?"

Arrow sighed. "Dreaming is nice, but the reality is that I don't think I'm going back any time soon. Thraxis would insist on coming along, and that would be a disaster."

"Because of Balthazar."

"Indeed. Thanks to him, the Skald have every reason to dread the sight of a wizard."

"Damn him."

"Indeed," Arrow agreed softly.

* * * *

Melilandra walked slowly into what had once been the meditation hall of the Sanctum Majoris. Three obsidian thrones now stood at one end, glittering in the magical light that cast a harsh glare over the hall. Gallinarches and Shatrevar, her fellows on the Black Council, already occupied two of the thrones. The one in the center belonged to the Prima--to her, since Vilhardouin had died.

Not died. Been murdered.

The huge hall was packed with men, women, and children, the rainbow hues of their robes brightening the somber place. Shortly after Thraxis' rebellion and the destruction of Xaqqara, the Black Council had closed all of the minor Sancta and gathered the remaining Athraskani into a single place. Ostensibly, it had been for their own protection--after all, if Thraxis and Thiacene, had wrought such destruction on the Black Council, what more damage might they do if they should attack a Sanctum full of lesser mages?

A few who had known Thraxis and his heretics had dared whisper that the Black Council had other, more sinister, motives. They said that Thraxis wasn't violent, that he would never condone anything that went against the Vow to do no harm. Although Gallinarches and Shatrevar had raged at the rumors, Melilandra had been pleased. Such gossip was clearly the work of traitors.

And traitors, as had already been established during Thraxis' trial, could have their magic taken from them, to be given to the more deserving. Specifically, to the Black Council.

Despite the great crowd gathered in the hall, no one spoke as Melilandra made her way to the front, where the condemned man waited. His hands were bound with cords from which hung small, lead plaques, each inscribed with a rune to bind a mage's power. Once he had been thus rendered helpless, her human servants had brought him here and bound him to a low, crudely-made chair. A wide, black circle had been inscribed on the floor around him, and the twisted shapes of ancient runes danced along its inner edge. Heady incense wafted from the low braziers set just outside the ritual circle.

As she approached, he began to struggle wildly, and she smelled sweat and fear on him. His blue robe was torn and stained with dirt, and his long hair had been yanked free of its binding braids. Golden eyes bright with terror stared up at her, begging for mercy.

It didn't matter. He was nothing to her--just one of the lower powers whose only use was as a source of magic to be tapped when needed.

She stepped into the ritual circle, ready to begin the spell. But there were formalities that had to be seen to first, to keep the rest of the Athraskani pliant.

"Kyarges," she said. "It saddens me to see you here."

"Please, I did nothing," he whimpered. "Meli, I beg you, have mercy!"

She frowned at the use of the nickname. She had a vague recollection of a younger version of Kyarges, a boy easily twisted about her finger, hardly worth her time except as an exercise when she had first been learning how to control others using her beauty. That was a skill she had honed to a fine point, until there was no one able to deny her anything.

Except Thraxis.

Something twisted low in her gut, and she tried to push the thought of her enemy aside. But wouldn't it be sweet if he sat in the chair...

He will be. Soon enough.

"So you deny the charges against you, even now?" Melilandra asked. "You were caught trying to sneak out of the Sanctum in the dead of night. The inescapable conclusion is that you were going to join the heretics who seek to destroy us."

When Kyarges started to argue, she cast a hurried spell, silencing him. The condemned man's mouth worked frantically, but no sound came forth. A look of horror crossed his face, and his jaws stretched wide, as if he tried to shout.

A waste of effort, but if it's how he chooses to spend his last moments, so be it.

Although the intricate incantation of the spell had become familiar over the last few years, she nevertheless performed it with exacting care, uncertain what might happen if it was cast incorrectly. The ancients who had discovered the spell had called it only the Forbidden, and had hidden it within an enchanted reliquary in the heart of their city. After rediscovering the spell, the Black Council had decided to rename it the Purification Spell, in an attempt to make its use more palatable to their followers.

Melilandra moved through the ritual steps, calling on the powers of the four quarters in the ancient tongue of her ancestors. A small knife with an obsidian blade sliced the inner skin of Kyarges' wrist; his thrashing caused the wound to go deeper than necessary, but it was his own fault, and Melilandra did not trouble herself. His hot blood splashed into a bowl set to catch it, and she used the blood to paint runes on her own skin. A warmth that came from more than body heat seemed to emanate from the runes, sending a flush of excitement through her. Blood was the key, the connection, for it was in their blood that magic lived, infusing flesh and brain.

The runes grew hotter as Melilandra half-spoke, half-sang the incantation. Kyarges' eyes grew wide, and his mouth moved again, but of course no words sounded. A golden mist rose from his skin, hovering around him like an aura.

Then, as Melilandra's chant reached its crescendo, the mist seemed to coalesce, until it seemed a living thing--before rushing forward and into her.

She felt the warmth of the magic pouring into her through the runes on her skin, and she gasped, her lips parting in ecstasy. A heady sense of her own power infused her, and she almost laughed aloud before remembering that this was a solemn occasion, that she must not seem to delight too much in the ritual.

Opening eyes that she didn't remember closing, Melilandra found herself staring at Kyarges' limp body. He slumped in the chair, his eyes glassy, his flesh growing cold even as hers flushed with heat.

"Justice has been done," she intoned, trying to sound sorrowful for the benefit of those watching. "So shall perish all those who seek to destroy us."

* * * *

After the ceremony, Gallinarches followed Melilandra back to her quarters.

His presence annoyed her on many levels. For one thing, he resembled his cousin Thraxis enough for her to find his features disturbing, and she tried her best not to look him full in the face. For another, she suspected that he might someday become the main threat to her power.

"You seem in high spirits," he said, following her into the outer chamber of her quarters without invitation. "But then you should be, given that Kyarges was a blue robe."

Melilandra frowned slightly. Crossing the spartan confines of the room, she poured a measure of water from a plain decanter and took a drink. The cool water eased the fever-heat of the new magic now flowing through her veins. "We agreed to take turns," she reminded him.

"True," he agreed sourly. "But you received most of the magic taken in the purge after the disaster at Xaqqara, whereas Shatrevar and I received none."

Melilandra tightened her grip on her cup and wondered what Gallinarches would do if she flung it at him. "That was so I could heal," she said, her voice quiet, deadly. "I almost sacrificed everything to open the reliquary, whereas you were unable to stop a single rogue mage. Without me, we wouldn't even have the Purification Spell."

There were nights when she still awoke screaming as her dreams forced her to relieve that terrible day in the ruins of Xaqqara. While Melilandra had performed the spell to open the reliquary, Gallinarches and Vilhardouin had been charged with a simple enough task: to stop the heretic Thraxis, who sought to hinder their great work.

They had failed, and bitterly so. Vilhardouin had died, and Gallinarches almost been murdered by Thraxis, a turn that none of them had foreseen. But Thraxis had been too late--the Reliquary had opened.

Melilandra's next memory was one of fire. There had been a booby-trap on the Reliquary, meant to annihilate anyone who dared touch it. Searing heat had burned away her hair and clothes in an instant, heating skin and fat until it bubbled, turning the very air in her lungs to flame...

A shiver went through her as she forced the memory aside. It had taken every bit of her considerable power to heal to the point that her heart continued to beat, her lungs to take breath. The beauty that had once been her hallmark had been destroyed, leaving behind a twisted, scarred wreck that would take great magic to restore.

Which, fortunately, the spell within the Reliquary had provided. Even with its help, though, it had taken Melilandra well over two years to fully heal, and that was with the magic gleaned through a full-scale purge of all the Athraskani present. Anyone who had even the most tenuous connection with Thraxis, or who appeared to sympathize with his views, had been declared a traitor and forced to undergo the purification ceremony.

"There will be magic enough for us all to share, soon enough," she said with a shrug. "I assume that is why you came here? To give me news, and not just to complain?"

Gallinarches scowled slightly. "The Gyptoan mercenaries you insisted on dragging back with us have proven somewhat useful," he allowed. "Their captain has secured appropriate vessels for us, and has made arrangements for provisioning. We will be ready to leave within the week."

"Excellent." Melilandra smiled. Almost five years had gone by, wasted while she healed and while the Black Council prepared for the coming confrontation. Five years, and Thraxis had been left to do as he pleased, no doubt secure in the illusion that she was either dead or incapacitated. If only she could see his face when he learned how very wrong he was. "When we take the magic from Thraxis and Thiacene, we will be the most powerful mages ever to have lived. The world will lie at our feet."

"Don't forget the girl." Gallinarches' golden eyes glowed with the inner fervor of a fanatic. "The Empress of the World, who will lead us to greatness."

My daughter. Or, rather the child who should have been hers, if Thraxis had done as he was told and mated with her instead of that barbarian woman.

"Was there anything else you needed?" Melilandra asked, a bit sharply.

Gallinarches lip curled slightly. "Shatrevar is worried, as usual. Even though we're only taking our handpicked people with us, he is afraid that they will falter when our plans for the humans come out."

"He was afraid of rebellion when we began the purifications," she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "But I told you how to present them, did I not?"

"That harm done to the Athraskani as a whole outweighs harm done to an individual, and so punishing individuals does not break the Vow," he said impatiently. "Yes, yes. Vilhardouin used the same excuse to condemn Thraxis at his trial."

"And it was accepted both times, was it not?"

"Because people were afraid of Thraxis," Gallinarches said flatly. "They are not afraid of a few humans who have only a thread of magic left in them after so many generations."

"Tell them ... tell them that all magic and all wizards come under the auspices of the Black Council," she said after a few moments' thought. "We are simply reclaiming the magic and returning it to where it belongs."

"And the fact that those we take it from die?"

"Ah, but our intent is only to take the magic, not to kill them. If they die as an unfortunate side effect ... well, that is sad, but nothing that we are accountable for."

A slow smile started on Gallinarches' lips. "Indeed. I will see you when we leave on the morrow, then."

"On the morrow," she replied automatically, and watched him walk away, the flap of his sandals on stone sending echoes to the ceiling.

* * * *

Melilandra walked through the stone corridors of the Sanctum Majoris. It was late at night, and she wasn't supposed to be out of bed, but she'd had a bad dream. Her mother said five was big enough to have her own chambers, but Melilandra didn't like being by herself at night. Even the things that had looked nice and friendly during the daytime got scary in the dark. The trunk she kept her spare robes in made a shadow like an animal, and even her doll seemed to get bigger and to move when she wasn't looking.

So now she padded down the cold corridor in her bare feet, the doll clutched to her chest. The other novices who were young enough to live with their parents--even though most of them were a lot older than five, now that she thought about it--went to their mothers when they had bad dreams. She didn't live with mother anymore, but Vilhardouin often worked late at night in the library. Maybe if Melilandra told her what had happened, her mother would read a story and help her get back to sleep.

The door to the library was ajar, and comforting amber light spilled out from it. Vilhardouin's voice seemed to float on the light, and Melilandra felt less scared just hearing it. Her mother was a powerful sorceress--there was nothing she couldn't take care of. Everything was going to be all right now.

"...may be past time that we took him directly into our care," Vilhardouin was saying when Melilandra peeked around the edge of the door. Her mother was sitting at one of the long tables, looking as regal as a queen in a story. Black beads glittered in her dark hair, which was just beginning to be touched with gray at the temples.

Old Toxeus sat across from Vilhardouin, and Melilandra felt the first shadow of uncertainty touch her heart. He frightened her, just a little, because when he got mad he could make even older novices cry during class. She hadn't disappointed him in her studies yet, but a part of her lived in fear of what he would do if she did.

"Thraxis is still very young," Toxeus said in his ancient voice, which sounded like two branches creaking together. "I don't see what the hurry is."

"He is five years old already. You know as well as I what a critical time this is for a child. Opinions that he will hold his entire life will be shaped in the coming months." Vilhardouin leaned across the table, as if she could make Toxeus understand just by getting closer. "You viewed his testing when he was born--his potential is greater than that of any child who has ever been tested. Ever. When he comes into his power, he will wear the black only because we have no higher rank to give him."

"I know all of this."

"And yet you would consider allowing his parents--mere red robes--to raise him, to guide him, to shape his thinking? You would risk having him form ideas and opinions not sanctioned by the Black Council?" Vilhardouin leaned back and shook her head, as if in disbelief. "Thraxis will be our greatest triumph--or our greatest failure. The very future of our people may rest on him, especially if his talent breeds true. That sort of potential cannot be wasted. Thraxis' loyalty must be to the Black Council, and to us alone."

Toxeus looked away for a moment, seeming deep in thought. Then he nodded. "You're right, of course. I assume you've already decided how to prevent his parents from having undue influence on him?"

"Anarete established a small Sanctum in Gypta to search for evidence of our ancestors. Jumica and Cyaraxes can go there."

Melilandra wasn't sure that she understood everything her mother and Toxeus had said, but she did know that they were talking about sending a boy's parents away. Thraxis was in her age group, but they hadn't played together enough to be friends. Even so, she felt sorry for him.

She must have made some sound, because Toxeus straightened suddenly in his chair. "Who's there?"

Melilandra pushed the door the rest of the way open, holding her doll closer for comfort. "Just me."

Vilhardouin frowned. "Listening at doors--I thought I taught you more subtlety, Melilandra."

Melilandra's heart began to pound. She was in trouble, although she wasn't sure what she'd done wrong. "I wasn't, Mother--"

"You are not to call me that!"

Melilandra swallowed hard, trying not to cry, because Toxeus would just make fun of her, the way he made fun of the other novices who cried. "I'm sorry, Vilhardouin. But I had a bad dream, and I--"

"A bad dream?" Instead of becoming more sympathetic, Vilhardouin seemed to be getting angrier. "You're far too old for such nonsense! If you're scared of the dark, use your light spell."

"B-but I--"

"Listen to me." Vilhardouin stood up and crossed the space between them, grabbing Melilandra by the upper arms so that the girl couldn't draw away. "I have far more important things to do than to waste my time on your childish fancies. Do you understand?"

"Y-yes, Vilhardouin. I'm sorry."

Vilhardouin let her go. "Go back to bed, and don't do this again."

"I won't."

Chastened, Melilandra hurried out the door, hiding her tears behind her lashes. As it swung shut behind her, she heard her mother saying, "Now, about Thraxis..."

Later on, as she lay in bed unable to sleep, Melilandra thought about what she had heard. Her mother had spoken harshly to her because she had something more important to deal with--someone more important.

Thraxis. The brief pity that Melilandra had felt for him vanished as if it had never been, replaced by a far uglier emotion.

Somehow, Thraxis had managed to steal Vilhardouin's love away and keep it all for himself. He was losing his parents because Vilhardouin wanted him ... wanted him more than she wanted Melilandra.

I hate him, Melilandra thought, biting her lip against more tears. I hope he dies.

I hate him.

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