Ever since he’d been a boy, Lokim had wanted to leave the Valley of Mist.
As a child, he’d tested the boundaries. He would make forays into the gray, swirling fog that encircled the valley. He’d keep going as his vision went soft, until the air grew muffled and chill. As the world faded from view his heart would begin to pound with fear. He would turn back when he was one step away from losing his memory of which direction led home.
When he’d been older, he’d made a more serious attempt. One bright day he’d slipped into the fog and begun to walk. He’d moved ahead with determination, going further than he’d ever gone before. He’d walked and walked, certain with every step he’d make it, that the air would clear and he’d see … he’d see the world.
Except, he hadn’t. After marching forward for an hour, he’d thought the fog seemed thinner. He’d hurried ahead, eyes, straining, only to find himself emerging from the mists in the precise spot he’d entered them. High Mage Agina had been waiting for him, eyes flinty, firm mouth set in a hard line.
Lokim had known better than to try again.
For a time, he’d given up. He’d contented himself with watching for rovers. Every time a group came in from their travels, he would ask for stories. Most of them developed a sort of annoyed fondness for the boy. They would answer questions if they had nothing better to do. But the rovers never stayed for long.
When, years later, Lokim had his moment and succeeded in passing beyond the veil, he’d thought himself prepared. He’d mastered the skills the rovers said he would need to survive. He thought he understood the ways of the people he would find beyond the veil. Like all the Tessilari, he’d studied the histories. He knew about the Betrayal and all that had followed.
He’d been prepared to find monsters. What he’d discovered was people.
Shai was not happy. Jey could feel his rage, boiling out of the tessila’s small body like dull heat, filling her with the desire to let him go.
Jey was ignoring him. Or, at least, she was trying to. It wasn’t easy. The small creature lay within the grip of her left hand, delicate wings pinned to his small body, purple head protruding from between her index finger and thumb, tail lashing beyond her pinkie. Unlike Phril, Shai had a set of sharp spikes along the base of his skull. Jey’s hand now bled where he’d used these to stab her. It was tricky, holding him tight enough to prevent his escape, but not so tight as to do him any harm.
Phril was also not happy. He did not like Jey to have contact with any tessila other than himself. He crouched on her wrist a few inches away from Shai. He was coiled into an angry knot, wings flared, hissing at the other tessila every time he stabbed Jey with the spikes.
Jey was trying to read. Holdam had loaned her a text on the methods of preparing soft cheeses. It was an old book, well worn, with many of Holdam’s own notes written in the margins.
After her long day working in the cheesery, Jey was exhausted. It was well past midnight. She glanced with longing at the two tidy beds that stood on the other side of the small room. They were both neatly made, plain woolen blankets tucked in, down pillows fluffed. I could lie down for just a moment.
Jey squashed the thought. She knew better than to give in to fatigue. Her duty was to hold Shai. Shai did not want to be held. It would take only a moment of carelessness for him to escape her grasp. And that would be a disaster.
Jey rubbed her forehead with her free hand. She moved her small dish of oil with its wick and flame closer to the book. The spidery handwriting on the page seemed to swim before her eyes.
There was a tap on the chamber door.
Jey jerked in her seat, resisting the impulse to fling Shai from her hand, launch herself across the room, and draw the two long knives from where they lay hidden beneath her mattress. She spat out a quiet curse, cast two quick passive echo spells—one on Phril, one on Shai—instructed Phril to hold still so the spell would actually work, and said in a mild tone, “Come in.”
Jey turned in her chair. Her heart was pounding. Her desire to arm herself grew intolerably intense as the latch clicked and the door swung inward, spilling a little more light into the dim room.
Biala poked her head around the door. Her long braid, shot with gray, hung down before one shoulder. Her expression, lit by the candle she held, was friendly. She looked into the room. “I saw your light. I admire your thirst for knowledge, Jey, but you young people should not neglect your rest.”
Jey blinked in what she hoped looked like abstracted bemusement, gazing at the inky night outside the window. “I didn’t realize it had grown so late.”
But Biala’s brow had furrowed as she took in the rest of the room. Her mouth compressed into a small frown. “But where is Elle?”
Jey felt fatigue bloom through her as Shai increased his squirming in a sudden renewed bid for freedom. She was so tired. If she couldn’t talk her way out of this, she’d have to cast a passive persuasion spell on Biala. Passive persuasions were Elle’s specialty, not hers. It was the last thing she needed.
Jey stood, easing out of her chair and moving a few steps closer to the woman and her candle. She tried to do so in a way that suggested nothing more than a desire to stretch her legs. “She couldn’t sleep, so she went for a walk.” She made her tone mild and lazy, as if it was the most normal thing in the world for an 18 year old girl to wander outside, alone, at night, in the dead of winter.
Biala’s eyes narrowed further. “A walk?” she said. “At midnight?”
Jey was about the answer, but a sudden stab of pain in her hand caused her to almost cry out. Shai had flung his head against her hand with the greatest force he’d managed yet. The spikes on the back of his head bit into the base of her index finger. Phril, stirred to anger, leapt forward. He would have attacked the other tessila had Jey not cupped her free hand over Shai to protect him. Shai proceeded to pull his spikes free and drive them in again.
Something of her pain and distraction must have shown on Jey’s face, because Biala’s eyes softened. She let out a small chuckle, looking again at Jey, the oil light, the book, the two empty beds. She winked and turned, leaving the astonished Jey to stare at her back. “Delari knows, there’s nothing like a full moon to inspire a late night rendezvous. I wonder who the lucky young man is.”
Jey didn’t answer, and Biala withdrew behind the door. “See you both tomorrow,” the woman said. “But warn Elle there will be no lessening of duties for those who choose romance over sleep.”
Jey, heart pounding, stood still until the latch clicked. Then she dropped the passive echo spells and glared down at Phril, who was trying to claw his way past her protective hand to get at Shai. “Stop it,” she hissed. “Phril. That is enough.” She made no attempt to shield him from the frustration and annoyance she was feeling.
Phril, suddenly sulky, flew across the room to alight on the windowsill, seething with resentment. Jey removed her protective hand and looked down at Shai, who was glaring up at her, his sharp face smeared with her blood. Jey sank back into her chair. “Both of you need to calm down. You should know the drill by now.”
But they did not know the drill. Tessili were famous for their intractability, but it seemed to Jey both Shai and Phril had been increasingly volatile lately.
She knew Phril was, in part, reacting to her own stress. The truth was, Jey hated these nights – the nights Elle crept off through the darkness to break into Tessili Academy.
Lokim tracked the girl with relative ease. Though she moved through the night with the grace and silence of a hunting cat, Lokim had gotten used to her ways. He knew the way she walked, the places she stopped to watch for pursuit, even the signature of her magic. For the last six months, he’d followed her every time she left the cheesery.
For the last six months, time after time, he’d tried to gather the courage to approach her. But he never had.
The girl, Elle, she was called, paused before stepping into the shallow stream. She would now walk in it for a time, making it more difficult for the hounds to follow her scent. He winced as he watched her step into the cold water. The night was bitter. Shards of ice had formed along the edges of the stream. Elle waded along, her dark leathers soaking up the chill water. Lokim waited until she was all but lost in the darkness before hopping to the other side, keeping his own feet dry.
About a hundred yards down the stream an old, gnarled tree grew above the water. Elle paused and jumped, grabbing a long branch with her gloved hands. She dangled for a moment, then pulled herself up. She moved along the branch and down the trunk. Feet once more on the ground, she broke into a steady jog, heading towards the outskirts of Deramor and the cheesery where she now lived.
Lokim let out an admiring breath. He’d never seen anyone so graceful, so smooth, so slender and yet so strong. This was one of several spots Elle and Jey used the stream to confuse the dogs and throw them off the trail. So far, it had always worked.
Lokim waited until Elle was almost out of sight. He was about to move again, to follow, when he saw something. It was a faint blur, a shifting in the shadows at the corner of his eye.
He froze, listening. The flowing of the cold stream was a silver chuckle in the still night. He waited.
Another girl emerged from the darkness. She, too, moved with the intent grace of a predator. But unlike Elle, she was not familiar to him. Although Lokim had never seen her before, she wore the same dark leathers as Elle, the same twin knives strapped to her hips. She did not wet her feet, but hopped the stream and paused for a moment, listening.
Lokim’s hand flew to the knife on his belt, but the girl was intent on one thing. She continued, tracking Elle as surely as Lokim was.
As the girl disappeared into the dark woods, Bliz swept in a sudden, agitated loop around Lokim’s head. Lokim held out a hand and the orange tessila alighted. He ran a finger along the sharp edge of her chin. “Shush, brilliant one. It’s ok.” He said these words in the barest of whispers as he began to move, tracking the girl who tracked Elle.
What did it mean? Lokim had developed some theories in the last months, but he had no answers. He didn’t know why Jey and Elle returned to a place they appeared to loath, time after time, but he had his guesses. Now, it appeared, their visits had been noticed.
Around him, the woodland that stretched between the walled island and the outlying settlements of the country’s capital was empty and silent. For six months, Lokim had told himself he would make contact, he would talk to them. Tomorrow.
But now it seemed tomorrow might be too late.
As Lokim walked, tracking the ghost of the movement that was the second girl, he seemed to hear High Mage Agina’s voice, speaking in his head. Do not trust your ally. He will betray you. Allies are more dangerous than enemies, for they wear a false face. The only true bond is blood.
These words had held him immobile for six months. They’d held him back, kept him cowering in the shadows, waiting, watching, hoping for some way to know if it was safe to reveal himself. He didn’t know if these girls would turn out to be allies or enemies, or a little bit of both.
Now, he realized with a sudden sense of clarity, revealing himself would never be safe. Nothing he’d done since he’d left the Valley of the Mist was safe. But that did not mean it wasn’t worth doing.
In the darkness, Lokim drew his knife.
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