Jewel ATerafin has never wanted to be a power. What she truly wants, she built in the streets of the poorer holdings. To protect what she built, to protect what she values above all else, she has accepted that power is necessary.
But with power comes responsibility.
Jewel has forced herself to do what would have once been unthinkable: She has surrendered her den-kin, Carver, to the wilderness, because she must if she is to have any hope of saving the rest of her family, and the city in which they dwell.
But she cannot leave him with nothing. Into his hands, she has placed the single, blue leaf that came from the wilderness and the dreaming combined. She doesn’t know what it does or what it was meant to do—but it is the most powerful item on her person, and it is the only thing she can leave him.
That leaf, however, was created to serve a purpose that Jewel does not understand. Nor does Carver, who now possesses it. With Ellerson by his side, Carver intends to traverse the wild Winter in an attempt to reach home—and the people who are waiting for him.
There are those who do understand the significance of Carver’s gift, and the disaster that will prevail if it remains in his hands. But time is of the essence. These lands are not unclaimed, and the Lord of these lands is waking from his ancient slumber.
Nor is the Lord the only threat. Firstborn, demons, and wild elementals are swirling around two mortal men in a storm that threatens to end the only chance the city of Averalaan has of surviving what is to follow.
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HE WAS OLD.
He had never denied his age, and if at times he resented the slow accretion of inefficiencies that were age’s legacy, he did not decry them; they were what they were. Nor did he dread death as some did; it held no fear for him. Death, like age, was an inevitability, a proof in some fashion of life’s progression.
He was aware that experience might, were its oft humiliating lessons absorbed, grant wisdom; wisdom was the minor victory that could be abstracted from disaster, if one survived.
He was not certain he would survive this.
The winter winds were bitterly cold; the sky, a ceaseless, perfect blue, seemed to mock the desire for warmth. The man who required that warmth huddled against whatever shelter he could find, shorn of the dignity or majesty of those who might once have lived among these ruins.
He could see the uneven edges of what had once been external walls; some of those walls retained height. One was at his back now. All else appeared to be covered in snow and ice, but the irregularities that implied buildings implied that these had been grand, majestic, large. White snow and ice obliterated color, texture. Time had done the rest.
And time was not his friend. He had never felt so cold, so exhausted, so old, at any other point in his life, and he had not been considered young for decades.
Service meant many things to many people. Each man, each woman, who chose a life of service did so for their own reasons. For some, it was employment, pure and simple. Of the hundreds of men and women who comprised the Household Staff of the Terafin manse, employment was the primary concern.
He did not fault them for it. They worked long hours, under the oversight of a woman who could, with a side-glance, reduce them to tears.
Had he made different choices, he might have been content to be one such servant; he had not, and even in this nightmare winter landscape, he did not regret it.
Ah, idle thoughts, idle, all. The cold was bitter here. Surrounded by forest, he nonetheless lacked wood for fire, and only the ruins of a half-wall protected him from the biting, stinging wind. He did not expect to survive the storm but did not—yet—have surrender in him.
Possibly the most defining lesson he had learned before youth had deserted him was to recognize power. To recognize the potential for power. It was not a simple task, this last big lesson. To the young, power was often mistaken for appearance, wealth, brutality. Many who sought power wore masks; many claimed power they did not, in the end, possess. Many claimed weakness and turned it on its edge, playing a binding, crippling game. In their weakness, they exerted influence on people who claimed none.
“I have told you before: we choose our service. What we choose defines us, Ellerson.” Akalia had not been, then, the guildmaster, inasmuch as the domicis had one—but she would rise to that responsibility in time. He remembered her clearly as she was on that day: forbidding, attractive, aloof. And disapproving.
“What you have not, clearly, understood is that what we choose defines those we serve as well.
“You think of service as a young man thinks. But you will not be of service if you do not lose that notion. You are not meant to be obedient and pliant; you are not meant to be mindless. There are many who choose service as a way of avoiding responsibility.”
“I am not—”
“No. Not entirely, or I would not have allowed you to cross our threshold.”
She rose from the chair behind a desk that was both worn and impressive and began to pace, the desk between them covered in inkstands and parchment.
“Ryan chose to serve Varile of House Demonde. You did not. It is the only thing that gives me hope.” This last was said in her dry, dry tone, the hint of a smile curving her lips. It was not a kind smile.
“Yet Ryan is one of your prized students, is he not?”
He found Akalia frustrating on the best of days. This was not one of them. On the worst of days she was an obstacle the like of which he had very seldom encountered.
“What is it you want from me?” he demanded. He had been a very tired man, on the other precipice of youth.
“You fail to understand— again— what you must understand. It is not what I want that will be definitional. It is what you want.” She stopped her pacing for a moment, meeting and holding his gaze. “I am not the master you have chosen to serve. Even were I, you would not be the domicis I would choose.”
“And who would you choose?” Yes, he’d been young. Young, angry, restless. He had hoped to find answers in this guildhall. He had hoped that those with the greater breadth of experience could provide them. Akalia had that experience, but none of it had made her genial, none had made her kind. If she was wiser than he— and he had bitterly begrudged acknowledgment of that difference— her wisdom was sharp, cutting, even dismissive. It made him feel callow.
She had been silent for long enough he thought she would not answer. And perhaps because it would have been kind if she had chosen to maintain her silence, she spoke.
“Service is not a contest, Ellerson. It is not merely a matter of worth, of being ‘worthy.’ You are not a child, to wait upon the approval of the nearest adult. If that is the total of your aspiration, you will not find the answers you seek here. What do you want, Ellerson?
“Before you attempt to answer, consider your audience with care.”
As if he had ever done anything else while standing in the shadow of this particular desk. The answer came to his lips but did not leave them. It was Akalia’s wont to poke holes in every sentence; to reveal the construction of each as faulty, the logic behind it untenable.
The wind was harsh; were his hands not tucked into his armpits, he was almost certain he would lose the use of his fingers. The trees— the shadows of trees— rose above him, cast into velvet and midnight by the light of a single moon. That moon was more disturbing than even the winter itself although, in the end, it was the winter that would kill him. He could not see the second moon.
He did not believe it was in the sky.
What did he want?
The question maddened him, the answer was so obvious. He wanted purpose.
He wanted a place. He wanted to be of use, of aid, of help. Thus did every applicant to the guildhall respond. It had been said well, said emphatically, said with fervent belief, and it had been enough to grant him small rooms within the student body. It had been enough to qualify him to take the lessons, many and varied, that were offered.
Choosing which had been difficult, of course. The choice itself was vetted, watched, commented on; it was questioned. Within a hall that was to give answers that might guide an entire life—or the remainder of one—questions were paramount.
The answers he offered to any other master were considered satisfactory.
And perhaps that was why, in this night in which his breath was so visible it was almost solid, he remembered none of them. He remembered Akalia—and at that, Akalia in a youth that he suspected she, too, had failed to appreciate for what it was at the time: strength, vitality.
She would have recognized his smile.
What had he wanted?
I want to serve a great man, a great woman.
Akalia had, predictably, been disappointed with the answer. She dismissed it out of hand. She did not, however, dismiss him. His only companions as he stood in the lee of her desk were frustration, anger, and exhaustion—but this was common; she seemed to invoke them by presence alone. She had allowed him to accept only two contracts, each of a length less than a year, and she was the choke point through which more permanent vocational work would come. Or not.
He had not disgraced the domicis; that much had been made clear at the outset of this interview—but it was made clear in a cool, casual way; there was no praise in it. Nor, he thought, should there be. If the lack stung, it was his to deal with. He wished merely that he could deal with it without also having to deal with Akalia.
“What does that mean?” she had asked, after several minutes of awkward, shuttered silence.
“You did not ask this of Ryan.”
“No. You are not Ryan. You feel, perhaps, that I favor him?”
He was not fool enough to say yes, although it was a close-run thing.
“You were offered House Demonde. Why did you not accept?”
He was underslept and hungry. This was not the state in which to confront—or be confronted with, rather, as he wasn’t a fool— Akalia. “Varile,” he replied, “is repulsive.”
One dark brow rose as the syllables echoed into stillness. “Varile is considered, by many, a man destined for greatness.”
Having stuck out his neck, he could not now withdraw. From another speaker, perhaps, but not Akalia.
Her lips twitched. “By many.”
“Then this mythical many may have the privilege of serving him.”
“Indeed. Do you feel that Ryan is a fool?”
Ellerson stilled. After a much more careful pause, he said, “No.”
“No, indeed. And yet he was willing to serve. He was willing to bind his life to a man you consider contemptible.”
He did not argue with the choice of word. It was not the one he had chosen, but in a pinch, it would do.
“If Ryan is not a fool, is he a mendicant? Do you think he seeks to somehow enrich himself?”
Ellerson turned toward the door. He did not answer her question; he was angry enough that he intended never to answer another.
He froze, his hand on the handle. “I have not always agreed with Ryan.” This was a gross understatement. “But I have never said he does not have his principles. He is a domicis. He understands service.”
“And he has chosen to serve a man you believe unworthy of that service.”
Ellerson turned; he kept the door at his back. “Yes. And that is, as we have been taught, his choice; it is not mine to judge.”
“And yet you do.”
“No, Akalia, I do not.” He spoke with force, with heat— and with truth, although he had not once said this out loud. Had not perhaps said this even in the quiet of his thoughts. “Were I to serve Demonde, I would judge myself, and judge myself harshly.”
He expected anger. Or contempt. She was very adept at both. But she offered silence instead, watching him, her hands by her sides, her eyes only slightly narrowed.
“And what can Ryan offer that you cannot?”
“Respect.” He bowed his head. Lifted it again. “Respect for Varile’s authority. Respect for his position. Respect for the responsibilities he has chosen to undertake— and in my opinion, to undermine. Varile does things by halves, and only by halves.”
“He is, surely, young.”
“Then he is too young to have the power he’s been granted. He does not know how to use it wisely.”
“And you would.” It was not a question.
Ellerson had never been humble; he had merely been silent. “Yes.”
“If that is the case— and I will not argue the point— why are you here?”
I do not know.
He had been young. He thought it perhaps the last month of his life in which he could truly say that. The single moon shed enough light that he could see the outline of ruined buildings. He was not, of course, dressed for the cold. Lighting a fire was not beyond his ability, but lighting a fire from nothing was. This landscape was, in all ways, magical. Wild.
The sound of hooves cut the wind; the sound of horns joined it, an odd blend of harmony and disharmony, as if wind and horn struggled for dominance of the aerial landscape, neither with any certainty of supremacy. He had managed to avoid those hooves; the snow here was thick and hard, not brittle. It carried his weight and left little evidence of his passing.
He was not certain he would survive.