“Who passed away?” Riss Al’adon asked. She didn’t pay the black sash tied around her colleague Paray’s waist another glance.
Her attention remained on the circular obsidian tablet on her desk. Markings had been engraved in it, presumably the usual cosmological stuff the ancients ascribed so much significance to. If so, where were the familiar celestial bodies?
Riss had brought rubbings of the tablet to scholars all over the floating city of Anidem. She’d seen more of the sky, above and below, than she had in years. As a member of the Sihr caste, Riss expected answers when she asked questions. Her power came from knowledge, and all the Dominion bent to give it to her.
To no avail. No one in Anidem knew more about the tablet than Riss.
She supposed she shouldn't be surprised. She thought herself the city's second-greatest authority in arcane archeology, and if she could consult with the greatest she would not have been so desperate to puzzle out the tablet.
Gradually, she realized that Paray remained standing opposite her desk. Riss looked above her colleague’s white robes, gold equipage and—of course—that damnable black mourning sash, up and up, for Paray was a tall woman, coltish still at twenty-five but coming into the elegance that was her birthright. In that respect she was a better representative of their Sihr caste than Riss, who, shorter and darker, could have passed for a commoner. Paray’s upper lip poked above her high collar, looking darker than its natural brown as it contrasted the white silk. Her expression looked darker still.
Riss raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“You know the answer to that question.” Paray had hidden the rawness around her eyes with subtle cosmetics, but she couldn’t hide it in her voice.
“Oh.” Riss rubbed the back of her neck. “You’ve given up as well.”
“It has been eight weeks without word.”
“Until the day we invent a written calendar, you will always have your place.” Riss supposed Paray flinched at that, and rightly so, but Riss’s gaze had returned to the tablet. Riss took a deep breath and exhaled her tension. “Speaking of which, does this look like a record of time to you?”
“Riss, you have to stop.” Paray reached across the desk to touch the sleeve of Riss’s robe.
Riss opened her mouth to snap at her.
Always careful about touching, was Paray. Always conscious of formality, propriety. Born to the Sihr caste but without a dram of magical talent, she clung desperately to the forms of the function she could not perform. Her garb, her diction, and her movements were always impeccable. Above all, she did not touch. Even though that taboo came from the spells most Sihr could discharge with their hands, or perhaps especially because it did, Paray obeyed it stringently. The brush of her fingers on Riss’s arm was like an embrace, or perhaps a grapple, from someone else.
“She’s my mentor.” Riss’s voice softened. Gently, she touched Paray’s hand and waited for her to remove it. “And your mother.”
Paray did not remove her hand. She squeezed. “That is why I believe Mother is gone. She would have sent word if she could.”
Her mother, Hadassi Al’meram, was the head of their department. She had taught Riss everything she knew, and Paray everything she was capable of learning. If there was a finer scholar in the Dominion, Riss did not know her.
Eight weeks ago Hadassi led an expedition into the Wildlands of Bal, seeking a city claimed by the jungle. Those she left behind had heard nothing since.
Riss refused to trade her red Sihr sash for mourning black. In the face of death, all the Dominion’s castes were equally attired—but they were not equally equipped to avoid it. Riss didn’t believe Hadassi would die in a place like that.
Until today, Paray had agreed.
“Even if Hadassi is dead,” Riss said, “there is still hope if her body can be recovered. She had a strong spirit.” Priests of the Sanguine Covenant could sometimes reverse death, given an intact body, a powerful soul, and a generous donation.
Paray looked down. “They have searched for her. They cannot even find the ruin she was looking for.”
“The Reis Confederacy has no reason to find a Dominion mage. I have little faith in their motivation and less in their skill.” Riss lifted her colleague’s chin and summoned a grin more confident than she felt. “I have skill and reason both.” The tips of Paray’s mouth quirked above her robe’s high collar, but she forced the smile from her face. “You speak of reason. These past weeks, when hope and reason could coexist, you gave me the former. But neither persists beyond life, and I would not have yours end, too.”
“You think I have taken leave of my reason?” Riss jerked her hand away.
The trace of a smile vanished from Paray's face. “I think you are not allowing it to rule you.”
“Scholar Tehya would agree.”
Kynon Tehya, a prymidian, was the only other remaining member of their department. He had eyes on Hadassi’s seat, but no grasp. It would go to Riss when it was confirmed vacated. Paray had the blood and the knowledge; Kynon, the knowledge and the power; but in Riss were mixed all three, and more of all of them.
Of course, it would not be vacated any time soon.
Paray’s hands fidgeted. “Kynon has little to say to me.”
“Little is not nothing.”
“This is not a departmental fight! I have lost my mother. I don’t want to lose you, too. Is that so much?”
“If I were missing, and there were any chance I could be found, or even that what I was looking for could be found, would she even think to do ought but come after me?”
“Then neither can I.”
“It would be Mother’s responsibility as your instructor. It is not your responsibility as her student.”
“It’s my responsibility as her friend.” Riss held her hand out to Paray. “And yours.”
Paray took neither the hand nor the words. “Instead of asking what she would do, have you considered what she would want?”
“Of course I have.” Riss touched the obsidian tablet. “The find this led her to was important enough for her to risk her life for.”
“But not ours,” Paray said. Hadassi had refused to let her senior students accompany her to Bal. “Even if my fear won’t sway you, maybe this will:
“The department needs you, Riss. Now more than ever. I am a theorist, but I do not have the gift. Kynon has the gift, but his grasp of theory is unsound. With Mother missing you are the only one of us who has both.”
“All the more reason for me to bring Hadassi back,” Riss said.
Paray massaged the bridge of her nose. “Will you at least admit that you do not have to do this?”
Paray blinked in surprise.
“You’re right,” Riss said. “This is not something I must do.” Riss’s equipage jangled as she drew herself up to her full height, less impressive than Paray’s but still the stature of a Sihr. “It’s something I choose to do. As Hadassi’s student, as her friend, as yours, as a member of this department. And above all, because I am the only one who can.”
“Riss...” Paray’s hands dropped to her heart. A little smile crept onto her face. “Please be careful.”
Riss tapped one of the wands at her belt. “When am I not?”
As a girl, Riss had played in Anidem’s hanging gardens, climbing over open air where none of the other children dared. More than once she’d dangled from a vine thinner than her fingers while Paray wailed for her to climb back up. Riss had never listened. She lost her taste for such games as she grew, not because her dignity as a Sihr demanded it, but because she learned to fly and they ceased to be dangerous.
Striding through the gardens now, she couldn’t help but remember. It made her smile. She knew it shouldn’t.
Riss had never fallen.
Paray had been wrong.
Fear is the only thing I have to shy from, she told herself as she came to a stop under a tree—one that could never have grown naturally in Anidem’s hot, thin, dry air. Watered and shaped by clever gardening, sorcery, or both, it formed a living gazebo over the platform where Kynon Tehya waited for her.
He stood by the railing, his big crimson hands clasped behind his back. He wore traditional prymidian robes, complete with uncovered head and a ponytail of coarse black hair hung down his back. His attire was faintly scandalous in the Dominion, where the sun and tradition alike demanded full wrappings, but that was the least of the reasons Riss disliked him.
“Scholar Al’adon.” He didn’t turn to address her.
Riss inclined her head, determined to show politeness for once, if only to show up her rival. “Scholar Tehya.”
“You have come to request funding for an expedition to the Wildlands of Bal,” Kynon said.
“You’re well informed.”
“I should say rather determined,” Riss said. She joined Kynon at the railing. A thousand feet below, dunes gleamed in the desert sun. “Have you reconsidered?”
“I have not.” Kynon glanced at her. Apart from his crimson skin he might have passed for a large human, but his features were subtly off—oversharp bones beneath rubbery flesh.
“Then we are at an impasse,” Riss said.
“Are we?” He chuckled. “It seems to me that you have nothing I want. Only you are at an impasse, Scholar Al’adon.”
“Do you want me to go to the Seven Scholars with my plea? I could have your hands pried off the department’s purse strings. They might just decide to take a hand as well, if they were to conclude you had misused the contents of the purse.”
“Scholar Al’meram left me charge of our finances,” Kynon snapped. He mean Hadassi, of course, not Paray. “You know that.”This fact was a more important reason Riss disliked Kynon. “Is that why you don’t want her found?”
“I told her not go, just as I tell you.”
Riss expelled her anger with her breath. She needed this man’s aid. Even if she won an appeal to the Seven Scholars who controlled Anidem’s university, it would take months. Hadassi might not have months.“What is it about this expedition that frightens you so much?” Riss said.
“The disappearance without a trace of the head of our department is not reason enough?”
“No,” Riss said, “because you warned Hadassi off as well.”
Kynon clicked his tongue in annoyance.
Riss leaned sideways over the railing so she could meet his eyes, dark and deepset. “If you know something, tell me.”
“Know?” He tugged at his beard. “That tablet you’ve had your hands on these months, have you seen its like before?”
“No. Neither had Hadassi.”
“Mm. And did you note the depth and angle of the incisions?”
“Deep,” Riss said. “Angular, cut almost straight into the stone.”
“Yes...” Kynon straightened up and beckoned Riss follow. “There’s something you must see.”
It rankled to obey him, but she needed to know.
She followed him through the gardens, under the boughs of magically shaped trees and archways decorated with looping designs in gold and lapis, and finally the wide blue dome of his study. He strode to one of the glass cases within and spread his hands on it.
Riss peered around his broad frame to a block of obsidian. It was about the same size as the tablet on her desk. Instead of having an elaborate pattern flecked with the remains of gold inlay, this one was unmarked but for roughly chipped fissures. “Tell me, have you ever tried sculpture?” Kynon said.
“My work and my hobbies are one.”
“Some would say that is unhealthy.”
“Some would say you should get to your point,” Riss said, “but allow me to preempt you. You weren’t able to duplicate the carvings.”
“The most expensive sculptor in Anidem was not able to duplicate the carvings,” Kynon said. “He said it was within the realm of natural craft, if the craftsman were very strong, very skilled, and very lucky. Absent any of those, obsidian will chip. What’s more, the angle of the incision used, though possible, was uncomfortable for a human wrist.”
“It was carved with magic?”
“Or by inhuman hands.”
Riss waved at Kynon’s, overlarge for his frame and covered with crimson skin.
The prymidian drew them into his sleeves. “If my people dwelt in Bal two thousand years ago, it would be news to me.”
“Why two thousand years?”
“The humans of Bal do not carve that way,” Kynon said. “The enuka do not carve at all.”
“You believe this is a relic of the First Ones.”
“I believe,” Kynon said, “there are some things better left undiscovered. Ignorance can be a shield.”
Riss hesitated. Prymidians valued knowledge no less than the Sihr of the Dominion. Kynon had not come by his position or the respect of his peers—prymidian and human alike—by embracing ignorance. She knew he wouldn’t say so lightly.
Riss set her jaw. “It is not a shield I intend to hide behind.”
Kynon sighed. “You are young. Too young yet to have tasted failure.”
“Do not patronize me, Scholar Tehya,” Riss said. “I am old enough to know there is no wisdom in ignorance. If I am wrong, on my head be it.”
“There are worse things to lose than a head.”
“Including self-respect—which I would sacrifice if I did not try.”
“Then try, Scholar Al’adon,” Kynon said. “I can’t stop you.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You agree to the expedition?”
Kynon shook his head. “No. You’ll drag no more students to their deaths, nor even servants. If you go to Bal, you go alone.”
Riss took a long, deep breath of Anidem air. The atmosphere was thin so high above the ground, but it was rich with the scent of sand and spices and sweat. Men and beasts and stranger things flowed around her, giving her just enough distance to keep with propriety without impeding their progress. Silk awnings broke up the sun shining on her face. Wind whistled up through elaborate grates in the ground, showing the wide-open skies below. Merchants and mummers called to her—her motionlessness an invitation. It was not an invitation to the thieves, though; none were bold enough to approach a member of the Sihr caste. Ahead shone the silver of the Nexus Gateway to Awenasa, capital of the Reis Confederacy. Hints of jungle air from a thousand miles away teased her nose.
Riss closed her eyes and smiled.
She missed her city already, and she hadn’t even left yet.
She would soon, though.
“Alone.” She laughed. She ought to thank Kynon. Riss never liked being responsible for anyone but herself.
Paray might have said Riss never liked being responsible at all.
She laughed again.
She opened her eyes and swept one more gaze over the grand bazaar of Anidem, then another over her equipage. One gold chain from it could have bought her half the bazaar, but when she planned to go into danger, she would not have sold it for the world. With defensive spells woven into every piece of her equipage, no thief would dare chance her pocket.
Riss almost pitied anything that made itself her enemy.
Hadassi’s defenses were stronger still.
Her laughter died. She rubbed her temple. As true as that reminder might be, something about it felt wrong. Alien.
Had Kynon planted a magical suggestion in her head? Riss chanted a spell against enchantment just in case, but her doubts remained.
Perhaps they were her own, and she just wasn’t used to having them.
They would not stop her.
She swept forward into the Nexus Gateway.