In the previous chapter, Magdalena Draken, a Kaloreian representative from the Council of the Region of Icefall, purchased Calais Farran’s freedom at cost and with some violence from her Dromirian slave-owner. But Magdalena now suspects that Calais is really a Dromirian agent. (This excerpt is from a novel that mixes fantasy and science fiction elements: the technology is advanced, but the setting is largely feudal and agrarian).
Lazuli moved at a quick walk along the path in the forest. They were in the western portion of Mandilin, the land owned by Ethan and Eyleen a’Mandilin, far to the south of Asaeyaloht and due west of the city of Icefall. “I had to make an adjustment,” Magdalena said as she looked up at the crest of the hill. “We shall be there by mid-afternoon.” It was the last hill, in fact. The last hill before the land opened again and the forest petered out into the plains of northwestern Aissara.
Shortly thereafter, they reached the River Ellosan. The trees thinned for a moment as golden sand replaced rocky soil. The amber-gold banks of the narrow river masqueraded as a lovely place for a quick lunch. Magdalena let Lazuli and Snowfire drink from the unspoiled water, and then sat down with Calais in the shade of a few oaks, birches, and willow trees. Here the sunlight hallowed the tops of the branches and warmed the fine sand below. The sunlight thrust through the water as well—clear down to the bottom of the river, the whole river alight with gold.
After blessing the meal silently, Magdalena ate while looking around her. This section of the river looked much like the one on her parents’ land. The shining river with golden banks surrounded by verdant trees that gleamed with health—the river looked enchanted. Add to this fact that unicorns gathered at this river, and Magdalena was willing to believe that it was enchanted. It had better be, she thought to herself.
“This is a beautiful place,” Calais admitted, her eyes on the water as she ate. “Where are we?”
“When we crossed the mountains, we entered the Lainda Asaelindin—the Region of Icefall. This is the Alaiall Ellosan. If you look at the bridge,” she said, pointing over to the stone causeway, “you will see the device of the Mandilinálann, the land in which we are.” Magdalena felt her mood darken a little—she was uneasy feigning as if she suspected nothing of Calais and speaking to her as if she were a casual acquaintance.
Calais followed Magdalena’s gaze over to the bridge. “What is that? A hawk over wheat sheathes? And is that supposed to be a star at the very top of the circle?”
“Yes. That is the star-in-radiance, the symbol of the Loreianelya family,” Magdalena said, looking at the familiar device carved out in dark grey stone.
Calais nodded. “So why is the river named Ellosan—does that mean something in Kaloreian?”
“Not in Common Kaloreian, no, nor in any dialect of Aissara that I know,” Magdalena said, chewing while she thought. She was not about to tell a spy that ellosan meant amber in Ancient Kaloreian—the language that no one was supposed to know. Instead, she would tell Calais something a little more interesting. “But there is a story about why this river is called Ellosan.”
“Really?” Calais asked, turning her dark brown eyes on Magdalena expectantly. “What kind of story?”
“I suppose it is a myth.”
“I like myths,” Calais said with a smile.
“So do I,” Magdalena said, smiling in return. “It is said that there was once an Amaranthine-Lord in these parts many thousands of years ago when the world was younger and fewer things had been forgotten. His name was Ellosan lai’Celensura and he and the Lady Doralinda Liraleien ruled over all the land you see here, all along the Rivers Icefall and Ellosan. As the tale goes, Elo Sókan was so pleased that Ellosan chose to marry the Lady Doralinda—who was mortal—that she came down to Ellosan and told him that he could ask anything of her and she would give it to him. Lord Ellosan asked Elo Sókan to change the river so that the light of Sókan would never leave it. Elo Sókan agreed, and said that her light, her blessing, and her protection would ever be on the River. On that day the sands turned the color of gold and amber and sunlight and the river was hallowed and made a haven for all who come and go with the blessings of the Twin Suns, Safeian and Sókan.”
Calais was smiling, ruefully. “That is a sweet story,” she admitted. She then frowned. “Wait—Sókan is the name Kaloreians call one of the suns!”
Magdalena nodded. “The writers of myths had lively imaginations. But then again . . . they do say that the River Ellosan brings light in the dark. And I have never heard of anyone being drowned in it. And it never freezes.”
“And you think that one of the suns coming down and blessing it and an . . . ‘Amaranthine’ . . . a divine being . . . is a good explanation? Rather than say, hot springs from the earth?”
Magdalena laughed as she stood up. “Perhaps not—but it is an interesting explanation.”
“True,” Calais said dryly.
Magdalena shook her head, her smile fading away as she cleared away the remains of their meal and pretended to ready Lazuli. It was too bad Calais was a spy; she liked the girl.
While Calais was still leaning down over her pack, Magdalena—without speech or ceremony—grabbed Calais by her belt and collar and heaved her into the river. If the situation had been less serious, Magdalena would have been amused by the sight of Calais’s pinwheeling arms and legs, and the aborted shriek as her body made rude contact with the water. In seconds she surfaced—spluttering, gasping, and irate.
Magdalena stood at the edge of the bank saying nothing.
“Are you insane?” Calais choked out. “What’s going on with you?”
Magdalena cut her off. “I beseech you, Sókan, Lady of Light and Servant of Truth, hear my prayer and bless these waters. Let nothing but wholesome truth be spoken here that light may overcome the dark powers of the world and darkness may diminish.” She paused for the span of too many thudding heartbeats, feeling self-conscious. Calais swam over to the near side of the river and tried to hoist herself up from the bank. Her first attempt failed, and when the second would have succeeded, Magdalena drew her sword and pointed it at Calais. “Stay in the water,” she ordered, waiting.
“You’re crazy!” Calais hissed at her. “I am not staying in—”
“Be silent,” Magdalena said sternly. For what seemed like ages, nothing happened. Then the river began to glow a little more brightly. Sunlight blazed for a moment, dazzling both pairs of human eyes. Then it faded.
“Thank you, Elo Sókan,” Magdalena murmured. Louder, she said, “Tell me your name, spy.”
“I am Calanthia of Dysae, daughter of Lord Astor of Dysae, and I would really like to clap you in irons for this. Of all the insufferable—” Calais—or Calanthia—fell silent, her eyes widened, disturbed.
“Why are you here?”
“Are you kidding? I had a chance to spy on a councilor, maybe the goings on of an entire Council! No one gets into Aissara’s Councils, and I mean no one. The Elsdons are of little interest to us, however prudent it may be to watch them. I saw my chance to move up in the world and I took it.” Horrified, Calanthia of Dysae clapped both hands over her mouth. A moment later, she turned in a wild panic and began splashing madly for the far shore. When she got there, Lazuli stepped up to the bank and stared down at her with huge silver eyes. A strangled sob escaped Calanthia’s mouth, before she turned back to Magdalena. Her water-plastered hair and her wide, fearful eyes made her face wild.
“That’s it,” she said aloud, but it was clear she was talking to herself and not to Magdalena, “I’m dead. Are you at least going to let me out of here so I can fight you and die on my feet?!” The last few words were shouted—the courage born of panic and few options.
“What?” Magdalena scoffed. “And give you a chance to use that dagger of yours? Don’t you think I know what a Last Strike dagger looks like?” And with that, she lifted up the dagger she had taken from Calanthia/Calais as she tossed the girl into the river. Then she pitched the dagger far downstream, the flash of silver swiftly vanishing into golden waters. “But I’m not going to kill you. Or let you use that dagger on yourself or me.” She let that sink in. “So you may come out of the river now.”
This news seemed to unsettle her further. “Why shouldn’t you kill me?” Calanthia snarled at her, equal parts rage and fear. “Why should I believe you?”
“It may be a small thing for you to kill those you find inconvenient,” Magdalena said coolly. But then she changed her voice to something that may hopefully calm and persuade Calanthia. “But it is not so with us. We have executed murderers and rapists when your own government would not do its duty and apprehend dangerous criminals. There are few others that we have put to death on purpose. In a more spontaneous conflict—a riot or a brawl, perhaps, but not intentionally—many die in such chaotic environs. We would rather suffer certain kinds of losses than become killers ourselves. Further, I have no leave to assassinate spies—there are more convenient ways of making your chosen vocation impossible to you now.” She paused and shrugged. “ So, you may come out of the river now.”
With some verbal but unintelligible fussing, Calanthia hauled herself out of the river. She crouched at the water’s edge, resembling a half-drown wolf. Then, with a fluidity, skill, and speed—faster than Magdalena expected—Calanthia rushed her. Magdalena side-stepped easily. Using the girl’s momentum, she helped Calanthia somersault through the air and slam into an intervening tree. Calanthia fell to the ground, groaning, but with barely a pause, rolled and got to her feet—just in time for Magdalena to push-kick her back into the tree. A spin-hook-kick to the head sent Calanthia sprawling to the ground, quite unconscious and bleeding from multiple scratches on her face, hands, and back, where her shirt was torn.
Groaning in dismay, Magdalena knelt next to Calanthia, and reached to feel her pulse. Her own empathic senses would have sensed if Calanthia were dying—fading from the strictures of this world—but they wouldn’t tell her about a dangerous condition like a serious concussion. Her pulse seemed steady, if slowing. Magdalena got up and scrambled for her packs as Lazuli came trotting back towards them. She retrieved a couple of pieces of equipment—one of which was a device that could hack the nanotechnology that most Dromirians possessed in their persons. At least, the little device could hack some of the functions: Magdalena didn’t have the best one possessed by the Council and she would bet that Calanthia’s was a little better than average. But it would certainly be enough to ascertain Calanthia’s vitals and possibly help stabilize her if necessary.
Sinking to the ground again next to Calanthia, she sent the little machine whirring and set her pocket-AIH (Artificial Intelligence Host) to analyze the medical data she’d be receiving shortly. As she waited for the device to finish, she sent a quick message to Barak that told him their suspicions were confirmed. How? he replied, almost instantaneously. Water, she replied, hoping and fearing he would understand. A telling pause, then, Very good—additional instructions to follow.
A minute or two later, she ascertained that while Calanthia would have a painfully sore neck and shoulders for the next few days and some bruising on her back, there was no bleeding in the brain or other internal organs and no concussions or other broken bones.
“It’s perfect,” Magdalena said aloud to Lazuli. “Lots of pain, but no serious injuries.” She rolled Calanthia fully over on her stomach and did what she could to position her neck in a way that would least aggravate the muscles there. She went to the stream and refilled all the canteens with water, then left them close to Calanthia so Magdalena would be able to grab them quickly. Then she set to jury-rigging a kind of neck-brace for Calanthia—which largely involved a little measurement, whittling some sticks to the proper size, a piece of cloth ripped from a blanket, and a fair bit of sowing. Magdalena had a little mending material with her—as she always did on adventures—so things were not as impossible as they might have been.
When she was still in the middle of her work, Calanthia began to stir. Magdalena wasted no time, she cast aside her sowing and tossed the contents of her amassed canteens on the stirring girl.
“Stop it, I’m up already!” the girl groaned out. She lifted her head and stifled a gasp of pain—undoubtedly she had become stiff after lying on the ground for a couple of hours. The rolled over on her back, bit out a yelp of pain, then slowly levered herself to a seated position. She stared at Magdalena for a long moment, her face darkening. “I’m pretty sure I hate you right now.”
*I see you now remember what happened,* Lazuli interjected into both their minds.
Calanthia seemed startled—this was the first time Lazuli had spoken to her. Magdalena turned and arched her eyebrows at the equine-familiar. But she needn’t have questioned Lazuli’s decision to speak: Calanthia had clearly already reinterpreted the inexplicable event into more mundane terms. “No, I don’t remember what happened. You kicked my ass far too quickly for me to remember anything. But,” she said, closing her eyes and touching her head. “I’m pretty sure you hit me in the head after you hit me in other places. I thought you said you weren’t going to kill me.”
“Kicked you in other places—one other place to be exact. Though I think it is obvious that I wasn’t trying to kill you.”
“I suppose,” Calanthia muttered. Then, as if speaking to someone else entirely, she said: “Well, I had to try, but that sure was stupid.”
“Perhaps,” Magdalena said, “I do regret the violence of my actions, but the river water brings clarity where little else does. And I am afraid I’m going to be rude again.” Calanthia tensed up quickly, at first expecting another physical assault. But the next assault was entirely mental: Magdalena proceeded to question the girl for many minutes about what Calanthia knew of Dromirian spying operations in Aissara and Celestia. No matter Magdalena’s mode of inquiry, Calanthia could not reveal much about the activities of different agents, but she could reveal something of the Dromirians’ overall surveillance philosophy: including their inclination to spy on members of the Corolyn sect. It seemed that Calanthia had something of a taste for the big picture—more than anything, the girl’s ambition became increasingly obvious as the questioning went on. What was also made clear was the Dromirian desire to penetrate the households of the Aissarin nobility and influential persons, including their willingness to spy at universities in order to accomplish that goal. If their elders could not be targeted directly, the children would suffice as viable long-term targets.
During a moment of silence, Calanthia said, “I suppose I should never have had that dagger, but I thought I might have to kill that damned Geoffrey Elsdon. I just can’t abide rape, no matter what. I guess I would have had to kill him that night, if you hadn’t come.”
When Magdalena heard those freely proffered, if involuntarily truthful words, she couldn’t help but look on Calanthia with some admiration. Calanthia had risked a certain amount of exposure, fending for Siofra at all, and apparently she was willing to risk her placement and possibly her entire career to stop Geoffrey. That commanded Magdalena’s respect. She opened her mouth to say something, but stopped as light flared around Calanthia’s head.
For a moment, everything inside Calanthia seemed to light up in an impossibly glorious matrix of gold, silver, white light—yet Magdalena was acutely aware that this was not really something she was seeing with her eyes. Something intangible, invisible, extra-sensory was happening—and it was being represented to her conscious mind in terms of light and delicious waves of sound. For a moment, Magdalena understood Calanthia, not quite in the way that one understands a friend, but more in the way that a mathematician understands number theory or geometrical theorems, a philosopher understands time, or a botanist understands a flower. Only this was immeasurably more intimate and immediate, and terribly more loving.
A font of terrible, wondrous, riotous information opened before her and poured out its glory. Part of what she saw and heard was purely biological—and some of it was psychological or what she would call spiritual or philosophical. There were other aspects to which she could not put a name. The air in front of her burned in white across her entire field of vision. The light opened and divine words spilled out, a scroll’s metamorphosis into a waterfall—a seemingly endless cascade of words. Some she recognized and those were incredibly simple, other words were terrifically complex—as if she could try to spend her entire life trying to understand each one and never quite. Most of them, she could not read nor could she remember afterwards, and she later thought she wasn’t meant to. In the present, she could hardly endure the deluge: she screamed, scrambled away from Calanthia, and closed her eyes, hiding her head in her hands.
When she opened her eyes, there was still a fountain of light and words cascading out of Calanthia, but it was dimmer now, more bearable. But all around her, the entire world was dissolving, disintegrating into the base language out of which it was all formed, a volcano being eaten up by its internal fire. She looked down—her own flesh was dissolving into bright gold and deep azure and white—but all words. Feeling deeply unbalanced but somehow more right, she closed her eyes again.
The urgency in Lazuli’s voice jerked her back to the present and startled her out of silence and darkness. How much time had passed, she did not know. When she opened her eyes, their little corner of the forest had gone blissfully back to normal, except for one detail. Calanthia was asleep again, and there was a little ball of white light hovering over her head. “Do you see that?” Magdalena whispered, pointing at the light.
As if responding to her attentions, the little ball of light zoomed over to her and presented itself. The sphere opened when she frowned at it and inside, letters like jewels, written in ancient script, twinkled at her: S-L-E-E-P. Her own eyes felt droopy and heavy just looking at it. “Go away,” she whispered to it. It obliged her. She sat in silence for many minutes.
*Magdalena?* Lazuli asked after a long time. *What happened? What did you see?*
“Did you see any of that?” she asked unsteadily.
*See it? No, but I perceived a Great Magic going on—of which you were not the origin, but the recipient. I have not seen such Magic in all my life. But I did see the Word of Power just then.*
Calanthia stirred, managing to startle both Lazuli and Magdalena, although her movements were subtle. “What?!” the girl yelped as she jerked fully awake. Her brows furrowed with suspicion as she scowled across the little clearing at Magdalena, an accusation of some sort clearly on her lips. But something in Magdalena’s face stopped her. The young women gazed at each other in measuring silence, Calanthia uneasy and Magdalena uneasy and appraising.
A little ball of light slowly coalesced over Calanthia’s head. Calanthia noticed Magdalena staring at it and looked up as well, her eyebrows beating a fast retreat into her hairline as she gawked at it. When it was done forming, it began drifting toward Magdalena. When Magdalena frowned at it and opened her hand as if to catch hold of it, it zipped through the air and hovered over her outstretched palm. She squinted at it, and three words formed in the hazy sphere of pearly white. S-L-E-E-P again, F-O-R-G-E-T was a second, new word. The third word startled her: H-E-A-L.
When Magdalena saw that word, she lost interest in the other words and they promptly disappeared. The glittering jewelry that was H-E-A-L lay before her, temptingly.
“What is that?” Calanthia said, straightening up with a wince of pain. She seemed equal parts nervous and awed.
“It is divine language,” Magdalena responded, never taking her eyes off the letters. Refusing to deliberate further, she spoke the word and it broke into pieces and raced across the distance to Calanthia. Calanthia gasped as the light sparkled around her, and then was briefly alight again with the echoes of radiant silver, white, and gold. There was a noise almost like the crack of thunder—and a grunt of pain from Calanthia—at the same time golden light flared brilliantly and briefly out of her heart (which Magdalena could see as if her vision pierced flesh and bone–perhaps at that moment, it did).
Calanthia touched her head briefly, but rested a hand over her heart, her expression wondering and confused. “My head doesn’t hurt anymore,” Calanthia said finally. “And my heart . . . what did you do?”
Magdalena opened her mouth to answer, and then shut it, finding no explanations. She shook her head and met Calanthia’s eyes with a wry smile: “What makes you think I did anything?”
The look Calanthia gave her was one of pure scorn. “Oh, please. You know that isn’t going to work. I feel,” she shrugged her shoulders and tugged off the makeshift neck brace. “I feel like you haven’t beat the hell out of me and thrown me into a tree.” But no matter how much Calanthia pressed her, Magdalena wouldn’t say another word about what had happened.
It isn’t as if I know, anyway, Magdalena thought to herself, cheerfully excusing her lack of cooperation with Calanthia. She was totally ignoring Calanthia now, waiting until the other girl tired of probing questions. A message from Barak excused her further lack of attentions. She was to bring the girl to Vael-Halcyon that evening and decide on a proper course of action then. She herself was now too tired to think, and she was glad Barak had already settled on a plan.
When many minutes had passed and Calanthia had resorted to cursing Magdalena’s ancestors under her breath, Magdalena spoke up. “Calanthia of Dysae, I am going to bring you to meet the Council of Icefall, which I believe was your heart’s desire as of a few hours ago. I suggest you prepare yourself.”