Chapter 1

 

JORGET WAS bored.

In a sense, that was actually a good thing. When he was busy, bad things happened around him. When he was bored, at least the king wasn’t trying to kill someone.

Unfortunately, when he was bored, he tended to get into trouble. At that moment, for instance, he was trying to figure out how he’d managed to stick himself to the ceiling. His face was pressed against the rough plaster, and he couldn’t seem to figure out how to move without his skin being scraped raw. He’d just about decided to try to cast a spell to get himself down when he heard a knock on his door. Panic rose to his throat, but it was immediately quelled when the knock was followed with “Jorget? Are you awake?”

Oh thank the Maker, it was Denekk. “Yes,” he called out. Hopefully Denekk could get him down.

He heard the door open and someone step inside before the door closed again. “Jorget?”

“Lock the door,” Jorget said as quietly as he could and still be heard. “I’m up here.”

He heard a gasp, followed by the bolt being thrown on the door, and then an irritated growl of words. “Disay Onis!”

He hit the heavy rug on the floor with a painful thump, and the blow knocked the wind out of him. When he was finally able to breathe again, he opened his eyes to see Denekk, the royal priest and his mentor, standing over him, his eyes alight with understandable fury. “What have I told you?” Denekk snarled angrily in a low voice. “Do you want to get caught? Do you want to die, either by the king’s hand or by your own curiosity?”

“I won’t learn if I can’t practice,” Jorget protested as he struggled to sit up. “How can I control what I do if you won’t let me learn?”

Denekk sighed and dropped gracefully onto a nearby chair. “I teach you every chance it’s safe,” he said, and Jorget felt a pinch of guilt at the exhaustion and sorrow etched on the older man’s face. “The king….”

“I’m sorry,” Jorget whispered when Denekk’s words trailed off. He knew he shouldn’t have been messing about with magic on his own, but he hadn’t been able to help himself. It was the only thing that made him special. Without it he was merely another orphan who had been shoved into priesthood because there were no other options.

“I understand your need to learn more about your abilities,” the priest told him. “I do. But I can’t jeopardize your safety in the process.” He sighed and rubbed at his face before looking at Jorget again. “And it may not be safe for a while. I was coming to fetch you to my rooms. I have something I need to discuss with some… friends. And I need you there.”

Jorget shot up from the floor, suddenly excited. This had to mean he was finally going to get to see the man who had single-handedly resurrected the Mages’ Guild. Denekk had spoken of him many times, but Jorget had not yet been allowed to attend one of the conversations via magic mirror. He hadn’t even been allowed to see the mirror, though he supposed he couldn’t blame Denekk for that. After all, Jorget was the one accidentally sticking himself to the ceiling.

“Calm yourself,” Denekk warned him with a hiss before they entered the hallway. “We don’t want anyone wondering what’s got you so excited.”

Jorget managed—barely—to contain his enthusiasm as he followed Denekk to the suite of rooms that were his. He even took the time to help his mentor secure the curtains in his rooms and make sure no one could see in. By the time Denekk retrieved a locked box from a hidden space underneath the wood planks making up the floor, Jorget was nearly bouncing in place as he sat where the priest had directed him.

Really, the thing Denekk pulled out was a letdown. It was a normal round mirror, small enough to be held in one hand. Jorget had imagined that a magic device would look a bit more splendid than a simple hand mirror. The disappointment must have shown on his face, because Denekk gave him a withering look. “Did you actually expect it to be something that would give itself away as a magic item? You’re smarter than that.”

Jorget’s face heated in embarrassment, and he stopped fidgeting. Hoping to stay in Denekk’s good graces, he tried to concentrate on what the priest was doing, and was again disappointed to see Denekk only mumbled a couple of words Jorget didn’t understand and waited as the mirror fogged.

“That means it’s waiting for someone on the other side to answer,” Denekk informed him. “It shouldn’t take long. Someone usually has an eye on the mirror on their side.”

Before Jorget could answer, the mirror cleared, and he could see… a cat. It looked oddly purple, and he wondered if there was something wrong with the mirror to make the color off like that.

“K’yerin,” Denekk said, his voice brimming with respect. For a cat. Jorget began to worry for his mentor’s mental state. “I need to speak to Tasis. It’s vital.”

The cat, amazingly, seemed to nod in understanding before turning his gaze right at Jorget and narrowing his eyes. Jorget could have sworn the thing looked suspicious.

“He’s part of this,” Denekk said, much to Jorget’s surprise. “He’s training under me. Please, K’yerin.”

K’yerin let out a low growl, making Jorget lean away from the mirror despite the fact the cat couldn’t hurt him through the piece of glass. Or could it? Then the feline was out of view, and Jorget turned all his attention on Denekk. “What do you mean I’m part of this? Part of what?”

“Wait,” Denekk told him. “I don’t want to have to say this more than once. We’ll wait for K’yerin to fetch Tasis.”

“The cat,” Jorget said, giving Denekk a look of disbelief. “Seriously?”

Denekk gave him another stern look. “K’yerin is not merely a cat,” he said, his tone firm. “As you’ll find out.”

“But—”

Before Jorget could finish, there was a sound from the direction of the mirror, and he turned to see someone moving into view. The girl was pretty enough with her long red hair, and obviously an elf with her pointed ears, but Denekk had clearly mentioned Tasis being a he, not a she. This couldn’t be the leader. Maybe he was busy.

“Tasis,” Denekk said fondly, proving Jorget wrong.

“Wait a second,” Jorget interrupted, pointing at the mirror as he turned to the priest. “Tasis is a girl?”

Denekk gave him a horrified look and began to stutter an apology to the person in the mirror, but the redhead groaned.

“Seriously?” Tasis exclaimed, and Jorget felt like curling up and dying at the obviously male voice. “I swear on the Ancient Grendir’s left testicle I’m going to grow a damn beard.”

“You’re an elf, love,” another voice said. There was obviously someone in the room with Tasis, out of line of sight. “You’ll have a few hundred years before you have to worry about a beard.”

Tasis gave the unseen person a look of disgust and made a short gesture toward the mirror.

There was a chuckle, and another elf—this one actually looked male—stepped into the line of view. “Hello, Denekk,” he said before turning his attention to Jorget. “Trust me, Tasis is not female. I’ve checked.” He grinned at Tasis’s groan of embarrassment and, much to Jorget’s shock, pressed a kiss to Tasis’s temple before moving out of view again.

Jorget opened his mouth to say something, but Denekk growled. “Don’t,” he warned. “You’ve embarrassed me enough for one night.”

“Try not to be too hard on him,” Tasis said, looking less peeved at being mistaken for a girl. “It’s not like it’s the first time someone’s made that mistake, and he’s not used to cultures that accept all pairings.” He focused on Jorget and gave him a short nod. “Yes, Kelwin and I are a couple. That’s perfectly acceptable in elven society, though it should be acceptable in every society. As a magic user, you’ll need an open mind, so you might want to work on that.”

“I’m sorry, Tasis,” Denekk said with a sigh. “I’ll talk with him about it.”

Tasis waved a hand. “He’ll learn. What’s going on? Rin said you had something urgent to tell me.”

Denekk rubbed his face before letting his hand drop to the table. “The king called me in to see him this afternoon. He’s apparently heard of something that he’s convinced could be used against magic users. It sounded like some type of ancient weapon that’s said to be locked away in the mountains to the east. He’s tasked Reikos with getting a group of his best guards together to go hunt for it. And he’s informed me that it’s important that my student go with him.”

“What?” Jorget exclaimed.

“He seemed to think whatever it was he’s hoping to find is an unholy artifact, and he required someone who’s had spiritual training to go. And since I’m too important, that leaves Jorget.”

“But the furnaces….”

“Reikos has chosen a replacement he can trust for the duration,” Denekk assured him. “It’s not optimal, but I assure you no one will be burned alive in Reikos’s absence.”

Tasis looked at Denekk for a long, silent moment before letting out a heavy sigh that seemed to carry the weight of the world, and it occurred to Jorget that being Tasis might not be as exciting as he’d imagined. “The king knows about the guild.” It wasn’t a question.

Denekk nodded. “I don’t know that he’s aware of what you’ve done. He may simply be trying to prevent it from being reborn into the world, though he’s obviously too late for that. But I don’t think he’d bother trying to find this thing if there wasn’t a bigger goal in mind.”

“Damn it all,” Tasis swore. “When does he plan on the guards setting out?”

“Two weeks,” Denekk said. “Reikos needs time to prepare his guards.”

“Well, that gives us a little time. The Gyrn are scheduled to be back here tomorrow. We can leave for Inafain the next day.”

“Inafain?” Jorget asked, his facing screwing into a perplexed look. Inafain was some small village to the south, a place with nothing to mark it as special. Surely there was nothing of use to someone like Tasis there. “Why on earth would you go to Inafain?”

“You have no idea how many times I’ve asked myself that,” Tasis said dryly, earning a laugh from what sounded like Kelwin, who was obviously still in the room. “But my mother’s library is still there, and there’s something I need to do. Denekk, is there a way he could meet us there without raising suspicion?”

“We can tell the king he’s gone into seclusion to pray at the temple outside of Inafain before setting off on the journey,” Denekk said immediately. “We can use that as an excuse for him to meet the guards there. Will you sail directly to Inafain?”

“Close enough to it that it’ll save us a walk, far enough away that I won’t get lynched,” Tasis said with a wry smile. “I’ll contact Arin and let him know to expect a guest. Have Jorget meet us at my mother’s house in four days. Be careful. And please tell Reikos my sister sends her regards.”

“He’ll be delighted to hear it,” Denekk said with a smile. Then the image in the mirror faded.

“I thought the punishment for magic use was to be poisoned and cremated,” Jorget said, looking at his master with confusion. “If that’s the case, why would he be lynched?”

“Because he’s an elf,” Denekk said sadly. “He’s an elf, and he dares to prefer the company of men. The people of Inafain wanted him dead long before his magic manifested. Never mind that he’s also supposed to be dead, remember? Executed by the king himself.”

“Oh.” That all sounded fairly horrible, and there wasn’t anything else Jorget could say to that. “Then why would he stay there?”

“That’s a story you should probably ask him yourself, but I gather that his mother didn’t want to leave the house his father had built for them. Love and mourning can often make people do things that make little sense to those around them.”

“Well that’s stupid,” Jorget said as he considered his mentor’s words. “It’s just a house.”

Denekk let out a long sigh, making Jorget wince a little as he wondered what he’d said wrong this time. “You’ll understand someday,” the older priest told him. “Let’s say his mother had her reasons, and they’re not for us to question.” He sighed again, rubbing his face for a moment before returning his attention to Jorget. “You’ve got to learn to curb that mouth of yours. You’re lucky Tasis has a sense of humor. What would you do if he declined your request to join the guild because he felt he’d been insulted?”

Jorget felt his blood run cold. “He wouldn’t, would he? I haven’t even asked yet. I mean, don’t misunderstand, you’re a good teacher, but….” He waved a hand at Denekk’s room ineffectively.

“I know,” Denekk reassured him. “You have no interest in priesthood, or serving the king. You want to learn and experiment freely. Of course I understand that, child. I’d want the same if I were younger and didn’t have my duty to the people of this kingdom.” He smiled a little then, and Jorget felt some tension disappear. Maybe he hadn’t completely ruined his chances. “I’ll talk to Tasis. But for the Maker’s sake, don’t mistake him for a girl again.”

“Well, he looked like one to me,” Jorget said defensively. “I didn’t do it on purpose. I really thought he was.” Something occurred to him then, and he forged ahead without thinking. As per usual. “Is he one of those? One of those people who start off as one thing and eventually end up the other?”

Denekk’s face went stormy, and Jorget winced again. He definitely needed to learn to curb his tongue. “If he was, it would be none of your business,” Denekk growled. “That goes for anyone, not only Tasis. I know you can’t stop yourself from running at the mouth half the time, but I’ve taught you better in the five years you’ve been under my care. Someday you’re going to ask a question like that, and the answer you receive will be a bloody nose. And that’s if you’re lucky.” He stood, brushing off his robes harder than was necessary in his pique. “Your assignment from me during your travels is to open your eyes, your mind, and your heart. Observe before you speak. Pay attention to what those who are different have to say. Learn, don’t judge.”

Jorget somehow managed to stop himself from rolling his eyes. It wasn’t like he did it on purpose. It was just that his mouth sometimes worked faster than his brain did. Regardless, he nodded. “Yes, Priest Denekk.”

Denekk stared at him for several heartbeats before nodding. “This trip won’t be fun,” he cautioned. “It will test you. But despite how you can’t control your mouth, I know you’re a smart lad. I have faith that you’ll succeed.” He paused, giving Jorget a once-over before nodding, as if he’d been pondering something and was satisfied with the answer. “I suggest you go back to your room and start thinking about what you feel is necessary to take with you. I can probably get permission for you to take one of those old donkeys, but don’t count on being given anything young or with any sort of speed. Which means you’ll need to leave the day after tomorrow.”

Jorget nearly fell out of his chair. “What? So soon?”

“On a sturdy horse, it would be a half-day’s ride to Til’anu,” Denekk informed him. “On what you’re likely to end up with, it will be a full day at the very least, likely pushing toward a day and a half. Arin will take you in for the night once you reach him, and I’m guessing he’ll let you borrow his horse to get to Inafain, knowing him. This is a good thing, as it’s a day’s journey on a decent horse. You’d never get there in time on one of the donkeys. Chances are, you’ll show up the same time Tasis and his entourage do.”

“Entourage?” That sounded intimidating, and Jorget had sudden visions of the slender elf showing up with a bunch of massive bodyguards. Which he supposed would make sense, actually.

“Kelwin will go with him, I’m certain. As will his sister. And K’yerin.”

“The cat,” Jorget said in a flat voice. The priest had clearly lost his mind.

“The cat who happens to be Tasis’s familiar,” Denekk ground out. “What did I tell you about opening your mind? If you continue to pass judgment like you’ve been doing today, you’re going to drive off people who are willing to be your friends and allies. Do you want that?”

Jorget took a deep breath and sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said, meaning it. “I don’t understand how a cat could be that important.”

“Sometimes the smallest details are the most important of all,” Denekk said cryptically. Jorget was used to that. He was fairly certain Denekk knew everything but had too much fun watching everyone around him flounder about to say anything specific that might actually be helpful. “You’ll understand when you meet him. Try to remember that he understands every word you say. Otherwise you’ll find yourself regretting it.”

Jorget nodded and stood. “If you say so. I’ll go back to my room, then.” His brow wrinkled, and he gave Denekk a confused look. “Do Reikos and Tasis’s sister know each other? He said something about his sister sending her regards.”

Denekk grinned then, and he suddenly looked about ten years younger. “They’ve met,” he acknowledged. “When Tasis was captured, she and Kelwin made quite a ruckus when they were trying to rescue him. Reikos and Zaree have developed rather a crush on each other, but they pretend it’s not there. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.”

“Ah,” Jorget answered, not understanding why Denekk was so gleeful about the whole thing. There was nothing against guards falling in love and having families. In fact, several of them had families with them in the palace. But Denekk was a little strange that way. “I’ll be going, then,” he said and headed for the door.

“Jorget?”

Jorget paused, hand on the latch. “Yes, sir?”

“Don’t try the levitation spell again.”