First Mage Otha sat in her private greenhouse, chair oriented so the unbroken sunlight poured through the windows onto her face. The day was young. Though the dry wind carried a sharp edge as it blew down from the frosted peaks, here among the brillbane the air was warm.
Still, Otha had a woolen blanket spread across her lap. It seemed she was never quite warm anymore. She supposed such were the consequences of living for over 400 years.
There was a rustling near the entryway, and a murmur of voices. First Mage Otha suppressed a sigh. She had agreed, again, to meet with High Mage Agina, even though they both knew their conversation would doubtless play out in a manner no different from all the times before.
Otha composed herself. She sat a little straighter in her chair, trying to draw optimism and strength from the gentle warmth of the sunbeam. Grip, sensing her anxiety, fluttered over from his favorite brillbane perch to settle on his preferred spot on the back of her right hand. He glanced up, his black eyes shrewd and a little worried.
The tessila’s scales were still as brilliant a purple as ever, but he, too, was showing signs of age. Several scales along his brow ridge had shed out only to grow in flat black instead of incandescent purple. These days, Grip never ventured far from Otha’s side. Being apart made both of them anxious.
More murmuring drifted in from the hall. Willis appeared, looking flustered as usual. “High Mage Agina will see you now, if you’re ready, my lady.”
Otha waved a thin hand and the young man withdrew. Otha closed her eyes. Grip settled down, shifting his stiff joints so his soft belly was snugged up against her worn skin.
There was the tap of shoes and the rustle of fabric as Agina entered and settled into the chair opposite Otha. For a moment, Otha considered keeping her eyes closed – letting them think she’d drifted off to sleep. They all thought her half senile anyway. She wasn’t, of course. She just found it increasingly difficult to care about the mundane conflicts they so often brought to her to resolve.
But she knew why Agina had come today. She also knew the other woman wouldn’t leave until they’d spoken. With tired reluctance, she opened her eyes.
The High Mage sat upright and rigid in her chair. Her tessila, Fara, sat on her knee, wings tucked back and chin held aloft. They’d both always been a bit proud.
“Hello, Agina.” Although Otha’s skin was thin and her eyes watery, her voice was still strong. She was glad of that. It wouldn’t do for the First Mage to speak in wavering tones.
Agina didn’t waste time with pleasantries. She rarely did. “We have authorized a party to leave the valley. They will collect intelligence regarding the current state of affairs at Tessili Academy, and infiltrate the court. We need to know more about public sentiment in the current culture to make informed decisions.”
Otha said nothing. Grip settled a little lower on her hand, growing drowsy. Otha could remember a time he’d have bristled just at having another tessila in his territory. She supposed age had mellowed them both.
There was a long silence. Outside, a breeze was blowing the tops of the pine trees, making them wave and bend in fitful bobs. In the greenhouse, all was still.
Agina shifted, and continued. “It’s our hope there might be less fear in the populace now. So much time has passed, after all.”
Beyond the pine trees, the mountains reared. From her vantage, Otha could only see their snow-blanketed shoulders. The peaks, she knew, reached high into the bright sky – jagged tops raking at the heavens. At their base hung the mists, thick and heavy. Otha could feel the trickle of thought and energy that spell took from her. She’d been helping to hold the mists in place since the day they’d been summoned.
She understood the hope that drove the younger people to search for a way out. She couldn’t deny the Tessilari were slowly dying in this place. When they’d settled here, everyone had feared the population would outgrow this valley. Now, houses stood abandoned at the ends of streets. In the 384 years since the remnants of the Tessilari had found refuge in this place, the tessili they’d brought with them had thrived briefly, then begun to fail. And so the Tessilari failed as well.
Otha understood the hope, yes, but she didn’t share it. She closed her eyes again, feeling the vast loneliness that came with an unusually long life. She was the only living Tessilari who remembered – who had seen the people of Masidon go mad. She’d seen the men and women who’d fought beside her in the long, brutal War of the Diods turn the weapons the Tessilari had created for use against a common enemy back on those who’d made them. So much of her long life had faded in her mind—the faces of her loved ones, the tenor of her own mother’s voice—but she remembered those terrible days when man had fought man, brother had betrayed brother, and, at last, the Tessilari had fled.
So she understood High Mage Agina’s reasons for pushing. She even sympathized. But she couldn’t agree with the decision. She met the younger woman’s sharp gaze. It was the curse of the old, to know so much and be so little regarded. Oh, they pretended to respect her. But they no longer heeded what she said.
First Mage Otha did the only thing she could do. She repeated what she’d been saying for centuries. She spoke with the conviction only one granted the sight could claim when speaking about the future. “Our moment will come,” she said. “If we wait.”
High Mage Agina’s lips compressed in an expression of frustration. She didn’t understand. She didn’t truly believe in the sight, just as a man without hearing cannot believe in music. First Mage Otha was the last of the Tessilari who possessed this particular gift. There was no one left who understood her.
Agina let out a slow breath, and stood. She was disappointed. Well, so was Otha. The First Mage responded with only the barest of nods as the younger woman took her leave and walked out of the room.
Otha settled back onto her cushions. She closed her eyes. She wasn’t trying to see, but she did anyway. A face rose up behind her eyes. It was a face as familiar as even her own, so often she’d seen it. And it was not a nice face.
Eyes closed, sun warm on her skin, Otha saw what she’d seen so many times in her 403 years of life. She saw the man, face twisted into a scowl, walking with a pronounced limp, leading the thin, grubby child on a leash towards ….
She could never see what. She could never see why. She could never see when.
Such were the limitations of the sight. She only knew this man, whoever he was, would deliver their moment. If only the Tessilari would wait.
Jey swung her staff at Treyam’s head, keeping her balance distributed between her two feet. As she expected, Treyam stepped back. In the moment of his movement, she ducked, let go of one end of the staff, and sent a ferocious swipe towards his knees. Just for practice, she knit a quick active force spell and dropped it onto the staff. She felt the velocity of her swing increase.
The staff, carved all over in a filigree of ancient runes, hummed with magic. It was an ancient weapon, beautifully crafted. The stone it had been made from somehow altered to be hard as iron, light as bamboo, and very receptive to magic. She’d discovered how to make it burn in her hands, how to back it up with deadly force, and how to call it to her from as far away as she could get. The staff was the sort of thing Jey had hoped to find in the Valley of Mist when she’d first arrived.
Unfortunately, it was not hers. The staff belonged to Treyam. There were only six such weapons in the valley. Treyam had inherited his from his father, who had been given it by his father before him. It was a treasured and revered artifact of a time when the Tessilari had been a different sort of people.
Jey had no hope of getting one of her own. The art of making such things was lost.
The staff, fortunately, was also enchanted so it could not harm one of its own blood. Still, Jey had not learned to trust the thing entirely. Even while her heart beat a little faster and her blood pounded in her veins, adrenaline singing in her system as she imagined the blow that swing would have delivered had it been leveled against a true opponent, she pulled the staff at the last moment and only tapped lightly on Treyam’s knees.
The young man collapsed into the grass anyway, laughing in mock defeat. Jey straightened, setting the end of the staff on the ground. For a moment, irritation overtook all other emotion. She stared down at Treyam. His warm brown eyes were alight, his skin flushed with exertion. He’d dropped the weapon he’d been using – Jey’s staff, which was made of fine hardwood but no match for the one Treyam loaned her with increasing frequency. This is the problem, she thought as she stared down, feeling the frustrated tension in her shoulders, the tightness of her jaw. They don’t take it seriously.
If Treyam sensed her disapproval, he gave no sign. His laughter smoothed into his trademark half grin. He stretched to his full length on the smooth lawn. It was a fine day. Although the edge never seemed to leave the wind here in this high valley, today the sun was warm.
Jey found herself softening against her will. How could she blame them, really? She lifted her eyes to the jagged mountains that surrounded them, peaks reaching towards the sky like broken teeth, ringing them in on all sides. The fog lay at their base. For centuries, the Tessilari had lived with a twofold defense against reality.
In an absent gesture, Jey rubbed a hand over the inside of her elbow. Concealed there, beneath her sleeve, were the scars. There were hundreds of them – pale pricks in her skin where the needle had gone in, again and again. I will not forget. She made this promise to herself every day. She made it for the same reason she insisted Treyam spar with her every day. She made it because it would be so easy to let things slip. And Jey had already forgotten enough for a lifetime.
She shivered, the sweat on her brow cooling. She felt a brief stab of loneliness for Phril. He was fine, she knew. He was in one of the greenhouses, basking in the sun, stretched out on a brillbane leaf. It was too cold for the plants and tessili alike outside of the greenhouses. At first, Phril hadn’t liked to be separated from her. He’d refused to stay behind. But here in the Valley of Mist, his wings grew stiff in the knife-edged air. Slowly he’d become accustomed to letting her leave him. She could feel him growing more and more complacent by the day.
On the one hand, she was glad. It had alarmed her when she’d learned other tessili could be reasonable – that they could think rationally and adjust their behavior accordingly to logic. Phril had never possessed that skill. He’d always been volatile, often behaving in ways that could easily have led to his own death, and thus Jey’s as well. Seeing him change now that their lives were not in danger gave Jey hope for his sanity.
Still, she missed him a little.
Nine months, Jey had been here. She knew she’d lost her edge. Phril was going soft, Elle wasn’t even trying to maintain her combat skills. The restless frustration boiled up in Jey again as she turned to stare at the mouth of the valley, where a narrow gap in the mountains stood blocked by the heavy mist.
There was a rustle of fabric as Treyam rose. He took a moment to brush the clinging grass from his sleeves. He came to Jey and stood next to her, following her gaze.
As so often happened, Jey felt a little tug of … something … when Treyam came near. He stood beside her now, his body blocking the breeze. She was aware of how close he was, how easily he could reach out and touch her.
Jey took a small step away, as she always did when she felt that tug. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to respond, or that she wasn’t curious about where the pull might lead her. But she could see what falling in love with Lokim had done to Elle. It was another temptation Jey had to resist if she had any hope of doing what she’d promised.
The Academy still stood out there, far down in the valley of Deramor. And Jey would not let her attention be diverted until the men who had made those scars on her arm were brought to justice.
As if reading her thoughts, Treyam spoke. “Tomorrow.” His voice was smooth and rich. He spoke now in a low tone, barely loud enough to hear. “Tomorrow, at last,” he said, “they will let me fulfill my promise to you.”
Unlike some members of the party that threaded its way through the quiet woods, Treyam had left the Valley of Mist before. He walked behind Jey, following as the girl stepped lightly over a downed branch. They were on a road – or, rather, something that had once been a road. It was broad and paved, but the paving stones had shifted and gone tilted, moss creeping up between them. In places, trees had sprouted right in the center of the walkway and shouldered the stones aside.
The road, when it had been made, had connected Deramor to the distant coast, where merchants had conducted trade with the people of the Fog Isles. Treyam knew this from his history lessons. The party of Tessilari passed other ruins as they made their way through the forest. The cracked husks of estate houses hulked over mossy ponds. The remnants of grain silos stood, split apart by trees. It had been centuries since this part of the land had housed human inhabitants. Some of the others among them paused and stared at each moldering ruin, fascinated by these remnants of a different time. Treyam didn’t stare. He was used to this wood and its secrets.
Ahead of him, Jey stopped. Treyam halted as well, and those behind him did the same. They were moving single file. Jey, having the most dangerous tessila, went first.
Treyam strained to see ahead, trying to spot what had stopped Jey. He leaned to see around a tree, and understood.
Up ahead, several hundred yards off the old road, a clearing had been hacked out of the forest. It seemed a tiny space hollowed out amidst the towering trees. The house was made of timber, and a curl of smoke escaped the chimney.
“A house all the way out here.” Jey spoke in a murmur, sounding amazed. Along with her words came a prod of familiar magic. Treyam accepted the rim of Jey’s passive echo spell and passed it to the man in line behind him.
Their party was diminished. They’d been on the road for three days. Each day, small groups split off. The plan was to send out multiple small scouting parties, each of them bound for different settlements. Once there, they would integrate and begin to gather information about the people of Masidon.
Only Jey, Elle, Treyam, and Lokim were to continue all the way to Deramor. They would have daily contact with High Mage Agina, who would in turn report to the council. Some among the Tessilari had protested this choice, but most had conceded the point that Jey and Elle were the only two among their number who could hope to function in court society with any sort of grace.
Treyam and Lokim were along because Lokim and Elle were inseparable, and Treyam had a way of getting what he wanted. Given his lineage, there were few among the Tessilari who would directly oppose his will. High Mage Agina was one of those few, but she had conceded to his request to go to Deramor, no doubt for reasons of her own.
What Treyam wanted, more now than ever, was to be at the center of things. And, if he was being honest, it hadn’t hurt that Jey would be going to Deramor as well.
“Every month there are more people in the woods.” Treyam’s answer was equally quiet. Some of the older rovers spoke of a time when encountering a human anywhere beyond the outlying settlements that supplied Deramor with food was virtually unheard of.
Such was no longer the case. Deramor was full, and its inhabitants were spreading, bulging out of the valley that was the ancestral home of the Tessilari, beginning to gnaw away at the forest.
Passive echo spell in place, the group continued along the abandoned road. Two dogs lounged on the porch of the cabin, heads resting on paws. They didn’t stir as the company passed.
Treyam watched Jey’s pale ponytail bob and sway behind her shoulders. She walked with a fierce sort of determination. Treyam was certain he’d never met anyone as determined as Jey, not even High Mage Agina.
Dusk was falling by the time a low murmur rippled up the group, one of those behind asking for a halt. Treyam reached out and set a hand on Jey’s shoulder. He wasn’t sure why he did it. He knew she didn’t like to be touched. She turned, ducking her shoulder out from beneath his hand.
Miat came forward, his pack large and dark on his back, broader even than the thick man’s shoulders. “We go east here,” he said, nodding towards a tree marked with three slashes on the trunk.
Treyam nodded and offered his hand. The two men touched palms and Miat led his small party away. Each Tessilari nodded a farewell as they passed.
Jey waited until the other group had departed. Then she shifted her pack on her shoulders and began to walk again without looking back to make sure her three friends were following.
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