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Warrior and Witch
By Marie Brennan
WARNER BOOKSCopyright © 2006 Bryn Neuenschwander
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFOR EIGHT DAYS, Mirei thought she could relax.
Those days weren't empty of stress; her very presence at Starfall was a source of tension for the witches around her. Her life was no longer in danger, though. Her magic was under control and the Primes were no longer planning to execute her; on the whole, her situation had improved. And so Mirei began to relax.
But on the ninth day, a Cousin woke her with a message that she was needed in Satomi's office. That alone was a sign of trouble. Mirei had gone to that office every morning since coming back to Starfall, and given that she didn't sleep in, she was always there by First at the latest. If Satomi had sent a servant to wake her early, then there was trouble bad enough that it couldn't wait.
Mirei sent the Cousin away and dressed as quickly as she could, throwing on the first thing that came to hand. It was a lightweight blue dress, on loan from some witch, or perhaps another Cousin. Miryo's clothing, left behind when she went in search of Mirage, didn't fit her muscled shoulders, and the only clothing of Mirage's she had was her Hunter uniform. Wearing that only stirred people up even more. As did going armed; Mirei had to stop herself short of taking the sword that leaned against the wall by her bed. There might betrouble, but she sincerely hoped it wasn't bad enough that she would have to kill anyone.
And you'd look like an idiot, wearing a sword over a dress.
Unarmed, she left the New House, the residence for newly tested witches who had not yet established homes elsewhere. It was only a short walk from there to the main structure of Starfall, a rambling complex filled with offices, libraries, and classrooms. The hour was early enough that few people were about, for which she was grateful. They still stared at her, and it brought back surreal memories of her childhood as Mirage. People had stared at her then, too, for the fiery red hair that made her look like a witch. She'd snarled about it for years, only to find out that she was, in a sense, a witch-or rather, the other half of one. Getting over that revelation had taken a while.
Ruriko was waiting in the outer office, surrounded as always by piles of paper. She exchanged one look with Mirei; Ruriko could say more with one look than most women could with a speech. Then the secretary waved her through, into the Void Prime's office, and turned back to her work.
The interior room was one Mirei had never seen before eight days ago, yet it had become familiar with startling speed. As a witch-student who had not yet been tested, Miryo had never been summoned to this inner sanctum, with its elegantly tiled floor, shelves of books, and tidy sheaves of paper. She'd spoken instead with the unranked witches who taught her classes, or occasionally the Keys who served the Primes and ran much of Starfall's business. Since returning as Mirei, though, she'd spent much of every day here, sitting in one of the high-backed chairs, trying to help quell the trouble she'd caused.
Satomi was alone inside-another worrisome note. Usually other people were present for these meetings. The Void Prime stood next to the window, gazing out over the predawn landscape. She, too, was much more familiar than she had been-enough so that Mirei could read the tension in her body, even though she was trying to hide it. Satomi had the kind of face that registered age by acquiring more dignity, rather than lines, but today she looked old and tired.
The door closed softly behind Mirei; she waited, then ventured to speak. "Satomi-aken. What's happened?"
Satomi's voice was quiet, flat, despite its richly trained tones. "Shimi is gone."
"From Starfall. She left in the night." Satomi turned away from the window. The lamps in her office, lit against the early morning darkness of the sky, made her look even paler than usual, and painted her delicate features with shadows. The unrelieved black of her dress only accentuated it. Black was her Elemental color, and she'd always worn it on ceremonial occasions, but she hadn't put it off since Mirei came to Starfall. Mirei suspected it was in mourning for all the doppelgangers who had died. Or, perhaps, for her own.
The Void Prime crossed to her desk and picked up the single sheet of parchment that lay on it. She scanned it, not appearing to really read the words, and then handed it to Mirei.
I have left, and will not return. I refuse to remain in company with that abomination. The doppelganger is taken out of us for a reason; to bring it back in is rankest heresy. It must be destroyed. To state that it is the Warrior and the Void is no argument in its favor-on the contrary, that is exactly why we must get rid of it. It is the destruction of life, the destruction of magic, the antithesis of everything that is this world, and if we welcome it back in, we will have committed a terrible sin. It will not be enough for that monster to leave. We must destroy it, and remove this horror from the world.
Mirei shook her head in disbelief, putting the sheet back down. "She almost sounds like a Nalochkan."
"She was raised in Kalistyi," Satomi said grimly. "The Nalochkan sect was as strong in Kalistyi when Shimi was a child as they are now. Clergy never come into our halls, of course-Nalochkan or otherwise-but the influence still penetrates."
"You mean ..." Mirei fumbled for words. She wasn't awake enough yet to handle this rupture to the tenuous peace. "She can't actually share their beliefs-can she? To disavow the Warrior, to say she's not even part of the Goddess-" It would be radical enough in an unranked witch; though the witches didn't call themselves a sect, they had their own approach to religion, and rarely strayed from it. For no less a woman than the Air Prime, one of the five women who ruled Starfall and its people, to show such allegiance to an outside sect-
Satomi turned back to the window, placing her slender hands on the sill. When she spoke, her voice was low, betraying her tension. "No. I would not say she shares their beliefs, not to that extent. But the influence is there. And we of Starfall have never given as much attention to the Warrior as we do to the other four Aspects of the Goddess; the Void has, for us, been as much practical as theological. We neglect it, as we neglect the Warrior. And for someone like Shimi, who needs a reason to believe you are anathema ... it would be easy to magnify that divide. Especially when she grew up surrounded by Nalochkan beliefs."
Mirei sank into a chair. When other witches were there, she behaved more formally, but in private Satomi allowed her some liberties. "I don't get it. You had doubts, sure, but you killed your own doppelganger. I can understand why you didn't want to believe that I was right-it meant that you were wrong to kill her. But what's Shimi's reason? Why won't she believe?"
"Because she didn't kill her doppelganger." Satomi bowed her head. The two of them had never addressed this issue directly, not since the Void Prime told Miryo of her own doppelganger's death. Mirei had only come to understand it fully when she and Satomi fought in Star Hall. Then she had realized the cause of the Void Prime's reluctance to accept what Mirei had to say. "I remember looking at her, and I remember recognizing her as the other half of myself. In the end I convinced myself that she was a threat I must eliminate-a threat to all of us, not just myself-but that memory came back to me when you told us what you had done. Shimi has no such memory. It is easier for her to believe that doppelgangers are anathema, when the alternative is such a radical change."
"But what does leaving accomplish, except to openly declare her opposition? If she's so worried about what's going to happen, then she should stay and try to minimize the chaos. She's one of the five most powerful women here-"
Mirei stopped mid-sentence, because Satomi had turned around, and her pale green eyes were full of fear she had not shown before.
"Ashin sent us the list," the Void Prime said.
The words didn't register. "The list?"
"Of the other doppelgangers. Who they are. And where."
Mirei's heart skipped a beat, painfully. The list. The Void-damned list. There were other doppelgangers out there, alive-the nonmagical halves of witch-daughters. A group of conspirators among the witches had arranged in secret for them to survive the ritual where they were supposed to die, because the conspirators were convinced they shouldn't die. And they were right; Mirei had proved it. But prior to that, Starfall had branded those witches as heretics, had even assassinated their leader. One of Mirei's tasks in the last eight days had been to communicate with Ashin, the Key of the Air Hand, and the only one of the conspirators she knew personally. She had been trying to convince the woman that it was safe, finally, to admit where the doppelgangers were.
It seemed she'd finally succeeded.
"Shimi has it," Mirei said softly.
"Ashin wrote to us last night, after we sent you away. Shimi had no chance to make a copy of the list, but she wouldn't need to; we spent hours discussing it. She knows where they are."
Suddenly Mirei couldn't bear to be sitting; she rose to her feet and moved a few steps away with quick, tight strides that barely helped to ease her tension. Her boot heels clicked on the tiled floor with shocking loudness. "She'll go after them. But no-she can't kill them. Not without the other half of each pair, the witch-daughter. She'd have to kill both at once, for them both to stay dead." Her gaze snapped up to meet the Prime's. "You have to protect them."
"I've already taken steps," Satomi said. "And will take more, after I speak to the other Primes, which will be soon. As for the doppelgangers themselves, we'll write to the witches that are nearest to them, send them after the children. If they move quickly enough, we should be there ahead of Shimi, or whomever she has sent in her stead."
For a moment that seemed like an ideal solution, heading the Air Prime off at the pass. Then Mirei had a brief, vivid memory of standing on the balcony of a tower at the Hunter school of Silverfire, watching two young girls train below, listening to the Grandmaster of the school say, "There's another at Windblade, and one at Thornblood."
"Bad idea," she said.
Satomi paused on her way to her desk, shoulders stiff with affront. "I beg your pardon?"
"No way in the Void is that going to work. Not for all of them. You're going to send a witch into a Hunter school and have her say, 'Sorry, I need to walk off with some of your trainees'?" Mirei shook her head, knowing her fear was making her be rude. "They'll throw her out on her ear. If she's lucky."
"They will not have a choice," Satomi said crisply. "We will use magic if necessary."
"Oh, even better. You send witches into three different Hunter schools and have them throw spells about before they run off with trainees. Aken, you'll start a war."
The Void Prime raised her eyebrows in startlement. "They would be that angry?"
"We do not like witches interfering with us," Mirei said. The word "we" came out reflexively, and she saw Satomi notice it. But Mirei was as much a Hunter as she was a witch, the Mirage part of her had lived that life, as the Miryo part had lived here in Starfall. "They might not be able to stop you. But trainees belong to their schools, just as much as our daughters belong to Starfall. Stealing them away-you're talking about offending not one but several groups of trained assassins, mercenaries, and spies who already don't like you very much. You do not want them angry at you."
Satomi's hands clenched on empty air, a gesture of frustration and impotence. "Then what do you suggest? We can't just leave them there for Shimi to take."
The answer was obvious. "I'll go after them."
"No. It would take too long for you to get there."
"It would take me no time at all."
Mirei saw the heartbeat of incomprehension in the Void Prime's face, before Satomi realized what she meant. It was an understandable blindness; translocating living things was supposed to be impossible. And so it had been, until Mirei recreated herself out of Miryo and Mirage. That rejoining gave her access to the magic of the Void, believed untouchable until then. Satomi was not yet accustomed to allowing for that in her plans.
"You could bring them right back here!" the Prime said, hope lighting her eyes. "We wouldn't even have to wait!"
Mirei almost agreed. Then instinct murmured in the back of her head. She was still learning what she could and could not do with Void magic, but one thing she had learned was how exhausting it was, especially translocation.
She had to shake her head. "No. I don't think I can move more than just myself."
The hope in Satomi's eyes withered.
"Maybe I'll be able to someday," Mirei said. "But I'd rather not experiment with something that tricky yet. I can take myself to Silverfire now, though. There are two there, right?" Satomi nodded, not that Mirei needed the confirmation. "I need to talk to Jaguar anyway. He knows he's got two of them, and that they're like me-that is, like Mirage was. If he'd hand them over to anybody, it would be me. So I can get them to safety, and then go after the other ones." She thought it over, grimacing. "Windblade, I can probably manage; we're friendly with them. Thornblood will be a different story. Their people hate my people's guts. But I'll figure something out."
Satomi pulled herself up, spine straightening from its momentary slump. "The rest are fostered with farmers, tradesmen, the like. We can take care of those."
"Fine." Mirei's mind was already racing, thinking ahead to what she would need. Translocate to Silverfire, then ride to Angrim-that would take about four days. Fortunately, both Thornblood and Windblade were just outside of Angrim, so she could kill two birds with one stone. Then-assuming she found a way to steal a girl out of the hostile territory of Thornblood-the long ride back south to Starfall, where the doppelgangers could be protected. Once she got away from Angrim with the other pair, they could pick up an escort of Cousins, or even other witches. Just in case Shimi, or anyone else, tried something. There could well be Thornbloods on her tail at that point, and who knew how many witches out there might agree with the Air Prime about the new situation?
But her experiences as Mirage told her how well plans survived actual testing. Better to stay adaptable. "Give me a sheet to communicate with you," Mirei said. The written word was slower, but on the road, it would be an easier spell to manage than bringing Satomi's image up in a mirror. "I may have to play things by ear. And you can get in touch with me if anything else happens here."
Satomi nodded. "Very well. Bring them back to us, as quickly as you can."
PACKING DIDN'T TAKE LONG, once it dawned on her that she didn't need supplies for a ride. She would have to get a horse from Silverfire anyway, and she could get food at the same time. Assuming Jaguar let her kidnap two trainees in the first place.
Well, if he didn't, she could translocate back to Starfall. No food necessary.
She changed into uniform: the loose pants, shirt, short jacket, and sash that identified her not just as a Hunter, but as a Silverfire. The silver pendant she wore, the triskele knot that was the witches' symbol, she tucked out of sight inside the shirt. Then, putting on the jacket, she froze in the act of flipping her hair out from under the collar.
Excerpted from Warrior and Witch by Marie Brennan Copyright © 2006 by Bryn Neuenschwander. Excerpted by permission.
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