The Free Waters
Two Years Ago
When the trio of ships set anchor off the coast of a tiny coral island called Dulcimer, the atmosphere was even more festive than usual.
Dulcimer was nearly barren except for a veneer of scrubby plant life, flocks of seabirds, and less than a dozen small huts on stilts that were the only human habitation for hundreds of miles in any direction. But it was the second to last stop on what had been a months-long journey for most of the passengers.
After Dulcimer came the Archipelago.
Zevnie stood on deck with the rest of the delegation from Makeeran—her grandmother, her younger sister, and two male cousins a couple of years older than her—and watched as the three teenagers who’d come from Shulna’s Forge ran whooping toward the railing.
The girl in the lead stripped her tunic, and moment’s later, she plunged over the side of the ship in an elegant dive. Her companions dove after her, knifing into aqua water clear as crystal, scattering a school of rainbow-colored fish.
“May I take my shirt off and go swimming, Granna?” Zevnie’s sister, Vardnie, asked.
“You may swim, but leave your shirt on,” said their grandmother absently. She shielded her dark eyes with a hand and peered toward the huts. “Some folk have different customs, and I trust you remember—”
“I know,” sighed Vardnie. “We must gain respect on this trip, not lose it.”
She sounded like she’d much rather swim in the manner of her choice than earn respect. But a moment later she grinned, passed Zevnie the gold bracelets she usually wore, and plunged over the railing. She timed her jump perfectly to splash the girl from the Forge.
The older girl laughed, and before long, the two of them were racing each other to see who could swim to one of the neighboring ships the fastest.
Zevnie wished she could join them, but if she did, the mood would turn stiff. Vardnie was too young and inexperienced to be a serious threat to the other islander children on this journey. And even if she wasn’t, Granna had made it clear from the moment they boarded this ship that of the four candidates Makeeran had brought, Zevnie was the only serious one.
Zevnie hated it. And she understood it. The amphora clan of Makeeran was young. It had only become a proper clan a few decades ago under Granna’s influence. They were weak, even by islander standards. They needed friends as much as they needed a solution for their magic’s choke point.
So it was good that everyone knew Vardnie and the other two had no chance in the coming tournament. It made them harmless, and since most delegations had brought only their strongest candidates, it made Zevnie’s sister and cousins the most acceptable playmates for the other youngsters to socialize with.
No doubt Granna was hoping the boys would come out of this with their first marriage contracts arranged, if any of the other families were open to the unusually pragmatic way Zevnie’s clan handled such affairs.
“There he is.”
Zevnie turned to her grandmother. The old woman was still peering toward the huts. The bright reflection of the sunlight on the water made her squint.
“Who?” asked Zevnie.
“The one the Archipelago sent for. He is coming.”
Zevnie didn’t know any thrawnings that would improve her vision, so she’d have to trust her grandmother’s sight.
Everyone had been talking about it the whole trip. The Archipelago didn’t request the presence of islander candidates at their tournament. They didn't have to. But this year, a messenger bird had come and directed this trio of ships to Dulcimer, an island so small that Zevnie wouldn’t have known its name if she hadn’t been made to memorize maps as a child.
Her grandmother drew in a sharp breath.
“What is it?” Zevnie asked, leaning over the railing. She could make out an approaching boat—more of a pitiful raft than anything else—with two figures on it. One was tall, the other short.
Her grandmother wasn’t the one who answered.
“He’s half spirit. No wonder they want him.”
The words were said in a near-whisper. Zevnie turned to the boy who’d spoken, suppressing the urge to take a step back.
Rathe of the Subtle Isles had never said or done anything overtly frightening in her presence, but…
Well, Zevnie wasn’t the only person on board the ship who steered clear of the boy whenever possible. He claimed he was ten—just a couple of years older than Vardnie—but he had such an eerie, lethal, confidence about him.
It wasn’t normal. Even by practitioner standards. If someone on board disappeared one night, she would definitely suspect Rathe first of all.
“You always look at me like I’m about to gut you,” Rathe said in that soft voice of his. “It’s unfortunate.”
“I am sorry,” Zevnie replied, cupping her hands together in apology. But I can’t help it.
Rathe’s skin and his hair were pale as the moon. He wore a sleeveless, shapeless white garment that was almost indistinguishable from the short underdresses that a couple of the girls on the ship wore to sleep at night. Zevnie could see the blue of the veins on the underside of Rathe’s arms, running all the way up to his shoulders. Behind a pair of enchanted silver spectacles, the boy had one blue eye and one brown, and both of them were always watching.
For what, Zevnie didn’t know.
“True half spirits are rare as wyvern eggs,” said Rathe, looking out over the water. He didn’t need to squint in the brightness, Zevnie noticed. The elaborate enchanting patterns etched into the silver spectacle frames must have been very expensive work indeed. “I doubt there’s another one in the world right now. I’m surprised the Archipelago didn’t send someone to pick him up in person.”
“Three ships of practitioners ought to be enough to ferry one little monster boy,” said a voice that was jarringly loud compared to Rathe’s. “Gods, but I hope it’s not riding with us. Are we allowed to chain it up in the hold?”
Well, Rathe would not be the first person on this ship I suspected of murder, Zevnie amended.
She didn’t turn to look at Churl. Even with her grandmother standing here, the burly fifteen-year-old was likely to take any response from her as an excuse to bicker.
Rathe was silent, too, but Zevnie suspected he just didn’t care that Churl was speaking. His head was tilted in contemplation as he watched the approaching raft.
“The Archipelago really will let anyone enter the tournament,” Churl said, still talking too loudly. “My family would have burned a spirit’s bastard at the stake.”
The corner of Rathe’s blue eye twitched. His pale lips pressed into each other until they disappeared. Then, he sighed as if he was already terribly wearied by the conversation he was about to have. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but are you under the impression that a half spirit is the offspring of a spirit and a human?”
“Eh?” said Churl.
Unable to resist, Zevnie turned to look at the teenager. His chest was thrust out combatively, but he looked less certain now. He’d been tormenting Zevnie for weeks. But not Rathe. Nobody tormented Rathe.
No doubt Churl didn't know what to do now that the pale boy—five years his junior and almost undoubtedly his better in a magical fight—had responded to him.
Churl traveled with a delegation of four others, and Rathe was alone. But everyone knew folk from the Subtle Isles weren’t to be trifled with under certain conditions.
Zevnie found herself reaching out with her senses automatically, feeling the atmospheric magic.
It wasn’t high here. It was below continental levels, but Dulcimer was close enough to the rift that there was a constant erratic flow. She didn’t think that was enough for Rathe to cast anything, but she wasn’t sure.
And Churl obviously wasn't either, because he only glared and refused to answer the question.
Rathe blinked slowly. “You are very stupid,” he said, enunciating the words so clearly that they cut. “Spirits cannot breed with anything. They are incorporeal.”
“I dislike you,” said Rathe. “Go away.”
Zevnie’s opinion of the pale boy shot up even as she shivered. Beside her, her grandmother let a small smile tug at the corners of her mouth. She was obviously attentive to the conversation even if she pretended not to be.
Rathe was right. Spirits—at least the ones that were native to the first world—couldn’t breed. But they could possess. Usually, a successful possession resulted in the destruction of the victim’s mind and humanity. The legends said half spirits were what happened when a spirit tried to possess a newborn, and instead of the spirit taking over the child’s soul, their two combined magics locked together in a state of balance.
As for what the eventual results of that coming together were…well, the legends weren’t too clear on that.
With a lot of awkward blustering, Churl took his leave.
“He’s your main competition, isn’t he?” Rathe said to Zevnie. “You seek apprenticeship with Arlade Glimont, and he’s the one of us most likely to catch her eye apart from you?”
Zevnie nodded, trying not to grimace at the reminder.
“His family uses a unique body torsion magic that chokes out in the middle of the mage level,” she said. “Sorcerer Glimont is known to favor body magic users.”
Rathe gave her a wry smile. “The whole Archipelago is known to favor body magic users. It’s only natural given the prevalence of them there.”
“The high sorcerer has studied so many facets of body magic that I am sure she is ready to take a look at something fresh,” Granna said. Her voice turned proud. “An amphora has a good chance. After all, it has been sixty years since she trained me. And Zevnie’s talent is unsurpassed on Makeeran!”
Zevnie wished her grandmother would quit telling people that. Being an unsurpassed talent as an amphora was far less impressive than being a mediocre magician of almost any other branch. Their choke point—below the high magician level—was laughably low. And while their talent was very useful on an island that suffered from long and frequent mana shortages, it came with nearly insurmountable drawbacks.
Most of the sorcerers who would be choosing apprentices at the tournament wouldn’t give the amphora delegation a passing glance. The other islanders, even Churl, had a chance. But for Zevnie, there was only Arlade Glimont and the sorcerer’s famous obsession with magical anomalies. If Zevnie wasn't chosen, if Arlade didn’t use her skills as a researcher to help her find a way through the choke that had held her family back for decades, she would never become more than she was now.
Nor would any other member of her clan.
Zevnie could hear her little sister laughing and splashing in the distance. A dark and unwelcome thought came to her. “Will Sorcerer Arlade not want the half spirit?”
The raft was approaching relatively quickly, and Zevnie could now see the small boy sitting cross-legged on the front of it more clearly. Even from here, he looked ill-tempered for a child who’d been summoned to be an honored guest of some of the most powerful sorcerers in the world.
Rathe turned to Zevnie’s grandmother as well, obviously curious to hear her answer.
“She will,” Granna said. “But they all will. We island practitioners may be rarities in the wider world, but a half spirit is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. He will be an object of curiosity for the entire upper echelon of Archipelago society. Even Master Arlade won’t be able to run off with him, and she is not one to sit around with other parts of the world in need of exploration. You don't need to fear him taking your place. It is possible he won’t even be allowed to participate in the tournament.”
As the minutes passed, more and more people gathered on deck to look toward the raft. Zevnie realized it would reach their ship first. The captain—a seaman and a practitioner himself—was discussing matters with the first mate, perhaps trying to decide where the half spirt should stay when all three ships were so crowded.
Rathe drifted over to them and joined the discussion as if it wasn’t at all a strange thing for a child to do.
Not long after that, the half spirit was brought aboard along with his companion.
Zevnie could scarcely imagine a more unexpected pair. The boy couldn’t have been more than eight or nine. He had warm, golden skin and an apple-cheeked face that would have been childish and sweet if not for his angry expression and the alarming slashes of reddish-orange light that shone below his eyes.
There were six of them. They looked like jagged claw marks, and the light undulated ceaselessly under his skin.
Zevnie had no idea what kind of magic it was. No clue what sort of spirit. And she resolved herself at once not to ask.
Slapping away the helping hands of a sailor, the half spirit boy clambered over the ship’s railing.
“Well, what are ya waitin’ for?” he snapped at the gathered onlookers. “I hope ya don’t expect Dulcimer to fill your big rafts with food and water. Cisterns are near dry at this season. And there’s not food to go around unless ya’ve brought somethin’ to barter. We can leave. Sooner the better!”
“Mayna, there’s no reason for rudeness. The ship’s captain will leave when time and sea are on his side.” Behind him, the boy’s companion had just thrown a long leg over the railing. His appearance was no less surprising than the half spirit’s.
The man wore tailored trousers and an embroidered silk shirt with strangely ugly shell buttons. His clothes were rumpled and ragged despite his obvious efforts to keep himself looking sharp in other ways. His straight hair was glossy and black, neatly trimmed and combed. His face—though a bit thin and severe—was clean-shaven.
The fellow was tall enough to tower over almost everyone aboard, and he dropped an elegant bow in the captain’s direction even as he grabbed the back of Mayna’s shirt to keep him from stomping off.
“I would be grateful if you would grant us both passage to the Archipelago, Captain,” he said. “I understand from a missive we received some time ago that Mayna is expected.”
“Ya don’t have to grant him passage,” said Mayna. “He’s not a relative of mine. He’s just some majuh from the continent who fell out the sky six months ago. Dropped right through the lid of my cistern and decided to live in my house. The others stole everything he has but his clothes.”
“They even stole some of those,” the man said, glancing down at his ugly buttons.
“His name’s Lan Ornen,” said Mayna, struggling to escape from the man’s grip. “Ya shouldn’t let him stay on board. Just look how big he is. He eats as much as a fookin graffe. I almost starved tryin’ to fish for the both of us.”
Zevnie doubted this last part was true, since Mayna was noticeably plump.
“You mean Lan Orellen,” said the man, glaring as he lifted the half spirit boy by the back of his shirt until his bare, calloused feet dangled above the decking. “I am a mage. And I do not eat as much as a fucking giraffe. And you wouldn’t even know any of those words if I hadn't been teaching you in every spare moment.”
“What…what’s a giraffe?” a girl whispered.
She spoke very quietly, obviously unnerved by the strange duo, but Mayna heard her. The half spirit’s head turned, and for the first time, he had an expression other than anger on his face. “It’s like a horse with a long neck!” he said, obviously delighted by the notion. “And a horse is like a rat the size of house that you can ride on with a seat made of dried skin!”
Everyone shared startled glances.
It wasn’t unusual for a boy from such a tiny, remote place not to have seen a horse before. Dulcimer probably didn’t have many animals other than the seabirds and rats, and lots of islanders had never seen a horse in person. But everyone had had certain expectations for the child they’d been sent to fetch, based solely on the fact that the Archipelago wanted him.
They’d all thought he would be highly educated, as most of the practitioner children who traveled across the world for the tournament were.
Churl gave an ugly laugh, and Mayna’s eyes snapped to him in an instant. Something beneath his rough shirt began to give off the same orange light as the slashes on his face.
The magic around the ship moved.
It wasn’t anything like a spell. At least not one Zevnie had ever felt. It was purposeless. Directionless. And angry.
Later, her grandmother would tell her that she’d been truly frightened then. Mayna had no control, she said, and therefore anything might have happened to anyone in that moment. “He was as likely to rip a random bystander to shreds as that unpleasant young man, and few of us present would have been quick enough to stop it.”
Few of them. But not none of them.
As the magic around the boat turned hostile, Lan Orellen bowed placidly to all present again, and then, with a casual and well-practiced ease, he chucked Mayna over the side of the ship.
There was an outraged yell and a loud splash. The magic stabilized in an instant.
“Mayna has trouble with his emotions,” the man from the continent told the captain. “He’s been very isolated. The few others who live here—his family, I guess, though none of them will confess to being such—gave him a hut to himself, and until I came along nobody was allowed to enter. I’ve been staying with him these past few months. He’s really a very talented boy. Reminds me of my own son when he was that age.”
Looking unnerved, the captain scratched his head. “You’re…ah…Orellen. Aren’t you that family that’s…having some trouble in a lot of places on the continent?”
“He is a portalist,” said Zevnie’s grandmother. She was always a little too eager to show off her knowledge of the continental families. Probably because it was something she’d gained during her apprenticeship with Arlade. “Most of the Orellens are. And he’s one with a devil’s luck if he fell out of the sky and landed on this small patch of land when there’s naught but sea for tens of leagues.”
“As you say, madame,” said the portalist, bowing a third time. “My family was trying to send me on to the Archipelago. We are having…difficulties in various countries…and we hope to make sanctuary arrangements at the Archipelago for some of our more talented members. But as you no doubt know, spatial travel around the rift is far from simple. I am fortunate not to have died when the sending missed. And even more fortunate to have landed here, where I had only a few months to wait until your ship arrived.”
Talk about a devil’s luck. Everyone knew you couldn’t port to the Archipelago. You could barely get there by ship with an experienced pilot. And not only had this continental mage tried the impossible, he’d actually succeeded.
Albeit not in the way he’d intended.
Zevnie knew the captain wouldn’t leave Lan Orellen behind on Dulcimer now. There was a real chance he might’ve done it if he were a certain kind of man. There were some islanders who’d stroll out of their way just to spite a continental practitioner, and though the portalist was a mage, he was very outnumbered.
But Mayna had to be taken to the Archipelago, and after that uncomfortable display, nobody on board would want to be responsible for keeping him in check. If the Orellen man was used to it, then let him do it.
“Ah,” said the captain. “Shouldn’t you fish your charge out of the water?”
Your charge. The bargain was clear to all.
Lan’s smile turned wry. “Let’s give him a moment to collect himself. It’s really for the best.”’
Zevnie didn't see much of the half spirit after that. He and the tall man were sharing a room with Rathe, and they appeared among the other passengers infrequently.
But a few nights after they left Dulcimer, Zevnie stepped out on deck to take in some fresh air and heard noisy vomiting sounds.
“He pukes up every single thing he puts in his mouth,” a voice whispered. Rathe had appeared out of the darkness like a ghost, his hair and skin nearly glowing in the moonlight.
Zevnie jumped. “The continental mage?”
It only made sense, she guessed. Being a portalist from the continent, perhaps he’d never done much traveling by sea.
“No. He’s sailed with his family’s merchant fleet before. It’s Mayna heaving up his guts. He’s never left Dulcimer. Never traveled farther on the water than he did on that little raft to come out to our ship.”
“He is not…dangerous when he’s ill, is he?”
“Are you afraid of him?”
“Yes,” Zevnie said, peering through the darkness to the place where a small figure leaned over the side of the ship.
Rathe fell silent for a moment. When he spoke again, his voice was stronger than usual. “I meant to ask that question differently. I meant to say, ‘Do you think he’s less than human?’”
He was watching Zevnie so closely that she could feel his eyes like a touch on her skin. When, and why, had he become so protective of Mayna?
She shook her head. Then, in case Rathe couldn’t see her well in the darkness, she added. “I have not put a lot of thought into half spirits before, but he looks like a human and he talks like a human and he feels emotions like a human. That is close enough for me, but I hope he does not sink our ship.”
Rathe smiled at her. It made him look almost like a normal child for a breath. “Good. I agree. Mayna has had a hard life. He was very lonely before that mage fell into his house. And I don’t like the way Churl speaks of him.”
“Churl does not speak well of anyone but himself.”
“Yes. That’s true. And he’s too talented for my comfort. He might well be chosen as an apprentice, either by your Arlade Glimont or another. He will take your position. Or he’ll gain one on the Archipelago, and Mayna will have to deal with him for years to come. I’ve decided to destroy his future if I get the chance.”
He said all of this so quickly, and so matter-of-factly, that it took a moment for Zevnie to register the meaning of the words.
“What?” she said, startled. "What do you mean, you'll...?"
“Churl and I will probably advance far in the combat round of the tournament. If we meet, I’ll win more thoroughly than I need to. Then your way to an apprenticeship in the showcase round will be clearer.”
Was the wind so cold a moment ago?
“Don’t do that,” Zevnie said quickly. She tried to sound outraged, but in truth, she was only mildly disturbed that the idea had occurred to Rathe. “I want to earn my apprenticeship.”
“You’ll still earn it. You’ll just earn it easier after I humiliate and injure him.”
Zevnie's stomach clenched. So maybe she was more disturbed than she'd thought. “But—”
“I like the people from your delegation,” Rathe murmured. “Your grandmother isn’t afraid of me. And she cares for her family. Beyond that, our magics could possibly be complementary if only you amphoras didn’t suffer from such an early choke and that strange magical paralysis. It would be good for me if you had a future as a practitioner. It would be bad for me if Churl did, since I plan to win the combat tournament and gain citizenship on the Archipelago. I don’t want to see him too often.”
Complementary magics? Zevnie hadn’t realized Rathe thought of it that way. Was that why he always seemed to be watching?
It was true. But only theoretically.
Every island had its own magical quirks, depending on how—and how often—the rift magic flowed around it. And those who found a way to practice despite those quirks all had their own unique specialties.
Zevnie’s family called themselves amphoras. The word had even become a surname for them in some places. Their pathways were specialized for drawing mana in slowly and constantly, and holding it indefinitely.
They could hold lots of it. More than any other type of practitioner.
But once collected, the vast majority of those wonderful mana reserves sat within them, frozen solid and unwilling to be directed into magic.
It was a constant effort to keep even a small amount of the large mana reserve mobile. Lazy amphoras who didn’t keep up with their gyring couldn’t even cast the simplest of spells. Dedicated amphoras who did everything precisely right could perform a wide variety of basic workings as well as any other magician.
And they could never achieve more than that.
Amphoras had no natural affinity. The shape of their pathways lent itself to storage and nothing else. And there was a hard limit to how much of their stored power they could keep flowing through them even if they gyred all day long.
That small, mobile portion was the only useable portion, so running out of it was the same as being entirely out of power. At least until you sat for hours, gyring at the edges of your internal supply again to loosen it up.
The benefit to being an amphora was that during the long magical droughts on Makeeran, Zevnie’s family could mobilize their internal stores to cast for months.
The ability had made them powerful on their island.
Beyond it, they were only a novelty.
Within a year or two, Zevnie would reach her peak as a practitioner. It was the same peak her grandmother and every other adult in her family had reached before her. If anyone wanted to see beyond that point, they would have to make a breakthrough.
Arlade Glimont, a sorcerer who’d broken through her own natural choke point nearly a century ago, specialized in those.
Zevnie frowned at Rathe. “Are you not at all interested in Sorcerer Arlade’s apprenticeship?”
“She’s not interested in me,” he corrected. “She took on an apprentice form the Subtle Isles a few years ago. She doesn’t need another one. Our magic isn’t as mysterious as people think. And our…limitations…aren’t something that can be fixed.”
On the Subtle Isles, practitioners studied a kind of magic that relied on extremely heavy concentrations of atmospheric mana. Zevnie had never heard anyone say what type of magic it was. It was supposed to be a secret. But the effects of it were well known.
In places where atmospheric magic were high, Rathe and others like him could cast strong offensive spells quickly.
When Rathe had boarded the ship, some of the others had whispered that at the past tournament, the representative from the Subtle Isles had defeated every opponent in only a couple of breaths.
But in places where the atmospheric magic was low, or even at normal levels, the Subtle Islanders could do next to nothing. In exchange for their extraordinary speed in battle, they had almost entirely sacrificed the ability to store power internally.
This was problematic, since magical workings were almost without exception designed with the understanding that the practitioner would hold and shape their own magic, not instantaneously channel it from the atmosphere. But at least Rathe’s people could achieve something approximating a sorcerer’s skill level in combat, as long as their combat took place during rift auroras or in the Archipelago.
They were nearly the opposite of an amphora.
“Are you really hoping to win citizenship?” Zevnie asked. “It’s only granted to an islander if they're the overall winner. And the winner is usually someone from the Archipelago.”
The apprenticeship tournament was conducted every fifth year. Practitioners under the age of twenty were allowed to enter. There were three categories—combat, showcase, and lore—so that candidates could show off their skills whatever their chosen discipline might be. The overall winner was the person who achieved the highest average score across all three categories.
Zevnie had never heard of a ten-year-old winning. As far as she knew, the youngest overall winner had been fourteen.
Rathe’s smile grew a little embarrased. The expression was strange on his face. “Perhaps I’m speaking with too much certainty,” he admitted. “I’d like to be the overall winner this year. But I expect only to win the combat round. I should do well enough in the other two categories to earn a good apprenticeship. Five years from now, when the apprenticeship ends, I should be in a better position to win the overall.”
Zevnie was surprised and unnerved by how confident he was. What if the other candidates on the Archipelago were like Rathe?
Her clan would be doomed.
“So…are you counting on a five-year contract?”
He shrugged. “Most of the masters offer three or five years, from what I’ve heard. If I have my choice, I’ll take five. I don’t want to waste precious time returning home only to have to turn right back around for the next tournament.”
“Arlade Glimont only offers single-year contracts. She does not like to be tied to her apprentice for too long.”
“That’s hard,” said Rathe. “A year isn’t long at all. Especially given her reputation for extensive travel.”
“I will take that year,” Zevnie said firmly. She couldn’t be so thoroughly outdone in confidence by a boy younger than her. Not with the weight of her whole family on her shoulders. “I will take that year. And I will achieve something with it.”
“Could ya both shut your mouths?” a voice moaned. “I’m tryin’ to die over here.”
“I’ll ask my Granna if she has any ginger tea left,” Zevnie said loudly for Mayna’s benefit. “It helps with seasickness.”
“That’s kind of you,” said Rathe.
Zevnie shrugged. It was only tea.
“We might both be counting our duck eggs too soon,” she pointed out. “After all, Mayna may be in the tournament. I imagine none of us will compare if he is.”
She was trying to make the question as subtle as she could.
Rathe obviously heard it. “I doubt he’ll be asked to participate. And if he is, he will lose abysmally.”
More retching noises came from the half spirit’s direction.
“But isn’t he powerful?” Zevnie asked. “Isn’t that why they want him?”
“He’d never even met another practitioner before that Orellen mage arrived on Dulcimer. He has magic, but he doesn’t use it. From what I’ve seen, it’s more like it uses him.” He paused, then whispered. “I think Lan Orellen is using him, too.”
“How?” said Zevnie. “He didn't even mean to end up on Dulcimer, did he?”
She would be surprised if anyone ever meant to end up on that island.
Rathe frowned. “I don’t know. I can’t understand it at all. He couldn’t have known about the half spirit if the Archipelago sorcerers only just found out about him themselves. And even if he did intend to end up on Dulcimer, why wouldn't he have brought supplies with him? He's been wearing the same clothes for months. No rich mage would do that by choice. Would they?”
“No. So he can’t have planned it,” Zevnie said. “It’s only coincidence.”
“But what he wants is Archipelago citizenship for himself and some of his family,” said Rathe, muttering so low Zevnie wasn’t sure if he was even talking to her any more. “And they won’t give that to him. They wouldn’t even discuss it with him, under normal circumstances. Wouldn’t even let him visit. But now they want Mayna, and he’s practically made himself Mayna’s only friend.”
Zevnie shrugged. “Luck?”
“Luck never kneels to the same man twice.”
The saying had the feeling of a quote about it, though it was one Zevnie hadn’t heard before.
A few minutes later, she said her goodnights to Rathe and Mayna. It was the last real conversation they would have.
Two days after that, the ships arrived at the wall of mist that marked the edge of the Archipelago’s territory. A pilot mage, waiting alone in the sea in a small rowboat, met them.
The pilot’s magic, which had been tuned to the wild variance of the rift in this place from the moment of his birth, led them safely through over the course of the next few hours. Finally, after years of anticipation and study, Zevnie caught her first glimpse of the Archipelago.
She could see the three main islands, glimmering with light through the mist. Buildings towered over the green canopies of trees, and an elegantly arched white stone bridge larger than Zevnie’s imagination spanned the ocean between two of the islands.
It was a stunningly beautiful place. But it was the view beyond those islands that took Zevnie’s breath away. Her magic, even locked in the sort of frozen stability that only an amphora could achieve, felt like it was about to crack open under an immense pressure.
Beyond the Archipelago, where the ocean and the sky should have met at the curve of the horizon, there was an endless blackness.
“Welcome to the Archipelago,” the pilot said, strengthening his voice with magic so that he could be heard on the ships that followed behind them. “Welcome to the end of the first world.”
“You’ve got a grim look on your face for a person who can finally breathe free,” said Nanu, eyeing Kalen curiously. “Has your new friend grown on you so much that you can't bear to part from her?”
The two of them stood on the steep hill that overlooked the beach, watching Arlade and Zevnie’s boat depart. It was a clear, breezy day. Very unlike the one the sorcerer and her apprentice had arrived on, and very at odds with Kalen’s mood.
“Not really,” he said. “Zevnie and I talked about a lot of things over the past few days. But I’m still not sure we’re friends.”
In his pocket, his hand tightened around the carved crystal skull token Zevnie had given him. It was full of Arlade’s power. The sorcerer would be furious when her apprentice had to tell her that she’d left it behind.
After several long arguments, they had finally agreed Zevnie wouldn’t tell the sorcerer why she’d done it. Not in one year when her oath expired. Not even in two.
Zevnie thought Kalen was a hopeless moron. And…he wasn’t sure she was wrong.
But Zevnie didn’t know Kalen was an Orellen. And he still didn’t know exactly what it meant to be one.
It’s something bigger than I realized.
For Zevnie, Lan Orellen had only been worthy of a passing mention in a tale full of wonders. Practitioners from many islands traveling to a grand tournament on the edge of the rift itself, a boy who was half spirit, and another one who’d gone on to defeat men twice his age in magical combat to earn his five-year apprenticeship—Kalen had felt small and ignorant just hearing about it all secondhand.
Which had been Zevnie's point. The world was wide, and if Kalen wanted to really learn magic, he needed to leave Hemarland and join a family on the continent or get a proper master from the Archipelago. As soon as possible.
But that was advice for Kalen, son of Jorn. And Kalen had suddenly come to the understanding that if he left this place, that wider world would recognize him as someone very different.
Kalen had been bold enough to ask Zevnie why a whole family of practitioners were in trouble with the other families on the continent. But not much more than that. A little curiosity was normal, surely, but he was afraid a lot of it might be dangerous.
There was a prophecy, the apprentice had said. Something about the most powerful Magus in the world. The Orellens were gradually disappearing because of it. They were running to their remaining allies or going into hiding or…dying at the hands of their enemies.
Did that mean Kalen had enemies? Ones that would want him dead?
He couldn't know for sure. He thought the answer might be a chilling yes.
Zevnie had heard a rumor right before she and Arlade left the continent. One she said was just beginning to spread. She’d shared it with Kalen two nights before while they built a fire together on top of the rock. She said it was a tradition to share scary stories at night in her clan. And this was one of the scariest she knew.
The Orellens had done something forbidden before they abandoned their enclave. And it was only now coming to light.
“What do you mean they raised the dead?”
“Just what I said,” she breathed, leaning in toward him. Orange sparks were reflected in her dark gray eyes. “When other practitioners try to scry for members of the family, or they use bloodline tracking spells, they get poor results. I guess you probably don’t know how easy it is to confuse that kind of spell. But when the casters do get results, those results usually lead them to children who know nothing about the Orellen family at all. They have all been changed by some kind of blood magic, so that they’re related to the Orellen line and the prophecy child everyone wants to find. But they have no idea.”
“W-what does that have to do with raising the dead?”
Kalen heard the thinness of his own voice. He felt light headed. He wondered if he was about to faint. He wondered if he could pass off the fainting as a delayed concussion from their fight instead of sudden, barely-suppressed panic.
Zevnie was still leaning toward him, eyes wide. “The rumor is that the children were not born, but somehow made using the bodies of the dead. I do not think I believe it. But how else could they have gotten so many of them? The rumors say that nearly forty of them have been found so far. There must be more. And I doubt some important continental clan just decided to mind wipe and abandon so many of their real children.”
Kalen dug his hands into the stone and stared into the flames, trying to ground himself in the present. I am Kalen, son of Jorn. A boy from Hemarland.
A fraction of his memory of Tomas Orellen swam to the surface. It was something he hadn’t put much thought into. Tomas had said that none of his other siblings wanted to meet Kalen and the others like him. Had he said why?
Kalen couldn't recall.
“Lizards,” said Zevnie, her voice turning thoughtful.
Kalen realized she’d been speaking for a while, and he'd missed most of it. “What?”
“Ha! I scared you so badly you were not even listening anymore!" She grinned at him. "That is the mark of a good scary story.”
“Ha,” Kalen said weakly.
“I was thinking it is like lizards. Do you know what lizards are?”
“Of course I know what lizards are," Kalen said.
She nodded. “We have very big ones on Makeeran. Some people eat them. But it is difficult to catch them. Everyone tries to grab them by the tail at first, but the lizards can shed them. The tail is a sacrifice for the hunters, you see? It gives the lizard time to escape. The Orellen family needed time to escape. And since they didn’t have tails to sacrifice, they made some of their own."
Kalen wished Zevnie hadn't thought of the clever metaphor. The image of the lizards shedding their tails sank into him like an anchor burying itself in the seabed. He suddenly knew he would never, ever forget it.
Kalen hadn’t slept since that night.
Now, standing with Nanu and watching the ship disappear into the distance, he wondered if Zevnie’s information was a gift or a curse.
On the one hand, Kalen would be much happier if he didn’t have it. On the other, he might not be able to keep his secret forever without fully understanding it.
And Zevnie had told him how to begin to sort out his magic. She’d even made a list of things he needed to do if he was going to be ready when the time came.
First, discover your affinity. Second, obtain the proper novice and low magician manuscripts for it. Third, practice until you wish you’d never been born.
Kalen felt himself grimace.
Maybe I never was born.
He’d examined himself for ages in Aunt Jayne’s mirror yesterday, trying to find any evidence that he might really be some kind of enchanted corpse. But he was just the same person he’d always been.
“Teacher Nanu,” said Kalen, “do we have lizards on Hemarland?”
Nanu glanced at him. “You mean the little snakey animals with feet? No. I have seen a picture of one in a book before, though.”
“I’ve never seen one,” said Kalen. “I haven’t read about them either.”
But he knew exactly what one was. The flesh of the shine lizards is deadly poisonous.
Zevnie said the lizards on her island were green and brown. She said many people ate their meat. Why were the ones in Kalen's mind silver and poisonous?
A reckless part of him wanted to tell Nanu everything. Everything. So that she could help him.
Instead, he asked, “Do you think the potions Sorcerer Arlade gave my mother will work?”
“Mayhap. Probably. The work of a high sorcerer shouldn’t be doubted by the likes of me.”
“I hope they do.”
Kalen touched the skull token in his pocket again. If he left to attend the next tournament, as Zevnie had strongly encouraged him to, he didn’t want his parents to be lonely.
“Almost forgot,” said Nanu suddenly, pulling something out of her own apron pocket. “Here, small man. Your coin.”
Kalen took the heavy coin from her and stared at the bone case. For the first time ever, he had the urge to destroy the thing. Tomas had said it would break if you asked it the same question twice. Kalen had always been very cautious not to, even going so far as to avoid asking it about the same general subject.
Should I break you? Kalen asked in his head. He tossed the coin into the air, caught it, and slapped it against his opposite hand with unnecessary force. His palm stung.
But Kalen ignored the coin’s advice and stuffed it into the pocket with Arlade’s token.
Skull and bone coin. Side by side.
Maybe I am a corpse.
“Small man, are you all right?” Nanu said, looking at him closely. “I don’t like this new mood of yours.”
“I’m okay, Teacher Nanu,” said Kalen. “I just haven’t been sleeping much with Zevnie around. Something she said made me think I can figure out my affinity now, though. So that's good news.”
“Well, that is good news!” said Nanu, patting him on the shoulder. “How are you going to go about it?”
Kalen let the conversation turn. He let himself smile. That night, he would even let himself sleep.
But though he didn't intend it or even really take note of it, that was the last time he ever called Nanu “Teacher.”
Ten months later, when his sister was born, Kalen would ask his parents if they could name her Fanna. He didn't know why he'd chosen it. It just sounded like the perfect name for a little girl.
From the moment she was born, Kalen loved Fanna slightly more than everything else in the world combined. So it was confusing during those first few days--when he was so very happy admiring and snuggling the fat, gurgly new baby--that Kalen kept waking up to find his pillow soaked in tears.