6a First

“Has the working happened?”

Silence is the response. No answer. I am Lord of my domain, all that I survey is beholden to me, my vassals shrink in terror at my presence, afraid of answering a simple question.

“If failure is happening, vanquishing you is in the not.”

“Happening is partial, my God,” comes the hesitant reply.

Progress, finally. “Further the detail.”

“Only a thin slice, Lord God, lasting barely seconds. Fractional meaning. Incomplete presence. Insufficient to sustain.”

How long will it take? How many attempts by these insects?

Intensification of presence not because of magnitude or force but proximity. Two minds… two people…? Voices, not heard, but certainly communication between these two entities. Sensing an internal mentality to one of them — the one I can sense the inside of — has more force to it than the other. It moves closer, intensifies.

Singular attenuation manifests internal implosion, instant psychic decompression. Gone.

5a Mage

“I don’t want to see him,” said Celeste, afraid.

Lady Yidran shook her head, her thin mouth, narrow eyes and pronounced cheekbones the most recent style of masq. “You must,” she said sternly, her hawk-like features accentuating her stern instruction.

“After what he did!” Celeste said. “No!” she barked adamantly and turned her back to Yidran. Celeste took in a deep breath and raised her head to look out through the window. Yidran had done nothing. None of them had. She had been violated in front of her people, and not one had stepped forward in her defence. She did not fear Yidran’s rebuke, or any of them.

The door opened and Celeste whirled round suddenly afraid. A tall, thin man walked solemnly into her chambers, tidy white beard and white short hair, wearing the usual grey garb of the Magestry. Celeste had several personal lessons from the mage Xala over the years, a kindly man deliberate in speech and thought. He was the first to draw her attention to the very fact that she thought at all, then how to arrange her thinking, and the primary exercises to control her attention. Teachers would drill her in grammar, logic and rhetoric but Xala’s visits were always to introduce a whole new area she hadn’t been aware of. It was Xala who introduced the distinction between rax and real, what commoners understood as magic. He occupied a fond place in her heart, but she felt nothing for him. She felt nothing but relief it wasn’t that dispicable fiend, her Mage. She spat the thought out of her mind: her Mage.

The old man bowed to Celeste who turned around indignantly and then to Lady Yidran in turn.

“She is being obstinant. Persuade her of her best course,” remarked Lady Yidran who swept out of the chamber leaving only Celeste and the old man.

What did he have to say? What could he possibly say to make up for his passivity during the ritual? Nothing. He could say nothing. Nobody could.

“The ways of the Magestry are inscrutible,” remarked the old man.

Platitudes, she thought. Where was the wisdom of old men now? The old maid Yidran was no longer required. Celeste was no longer a child to be instructed or corrected. Neither was she an innocent to fall for the old man’s magic.

“You did nothing,” she said coldly. “You stood and watched and did nothing.”

She seethed within. It was not a burning heat, it was not anger. It was cold, void of emotion, where her love had been. Yet the feeling had form, something she could shape. She directed it at him, like the point of a knife. Even with her back to him, she felt it piercing him. Whatever he had wanted to say was transfixed and he stood silently.

After a time she turned to face him. He withered in her cold stare, seemed to age. What he had worn well before, now sagged, his shoulders drooped, his face lined, his eyes which once sparkled, darkened. “Well?” she asked.

“You are learning,” he said calmly. “It is a hard lesson to bear. For all of us.”

He paused as she drew a quick breath through her nose, a reminder of the sharpness of the horrid experience. Xala’s spirit had in fact wavered when he witnessed the Mage’s assault. It had not manifested as movement, not because of fear of retribution nor the paralysis of confusion. It was awe, awe at the action of this young man to have done such a thing. It was beyond the old man’s conception, beyond anything anyone could have thought. Xala now stood before her, witnessing its effect on his student, no longer the girl Celeste he had known. Now, imperious in her demeanour, the Princess-Elect, how she looked down upon him with such disdain. But he knew this transformation was temporary, and born from weakness. It was not a thing to last.

“It is only half the lesson,” he continued. “You must complete it. And before seeing others, else you do them harm.”

“Did you know what he was going to do?” demanded Celeste. “Was it arranged? Was it a thing staged by the Magestry?”

The old man looked down apologetically. He lifted up his eyes and the Princess-Elect was ice. There was a danger that the intervention had caused more harm than good. That it had excised the best part of her, her sensitivity, her love for those around her.

“No,” he said.

She whirled away unsatisfied with his simple answer. 

“If you choose not to see him, you shall experience his unwanted presence as another violation. As Princess-Elect, remain resolute in your new-found poise.”

She snorted. Advice. Words. That is all the old man had for her. “Will you remain here in the room with us?”

“He has asked for a private audience,” replied Xala.

What power did her Mage possess to have this effect on Xala? He was respected in court, the highest standing Mage in the province, reduced to a messenger: an old, wrinkled messenger boy.

“Send him in,” she commanded before reason or fear could take over. Fear followed quickly, but at the time she uttered it, the coldness was directed at Xala, dismissing him. As she heard the door close behind him, she felt alone once again. She began the silencing technique, ironically taught to her by Xala himself. She closed here eyes and breathed out, halfing her feelings. She held the moment of silence at the bottom of her third outbreath, the emptiness of her lungs, resisting the willingness to breath. It had a different quality now, colder, at the hard edge of death. No thought whisped her away to the concern of others, no warmth. Only tight, cold, emptiness.

The door opened and though her heart rate increased, the blood thumped in her ear, she breathed in slowly before halving halving halving and retaining her empty state, nothing but cold isolation once again.

The Mage stood behind her, just as he had when she was on stage. She could not remember anything that had happened between that moment and being here in this chamber. The faces of all her people before her, frozen as if in glass. It was as if nothing had happened in the intervening period.

“Why did you do it?” she said. Her wording broke the emptiness and cold feelings rose suddenly, hatred. After a while, she calmed herself and awaited the answer.

It did not happen. None of it did.

Celeste spun around and glared at the Mage, his thin-lidded eyes and bone-dry skin, he was abhorrent to her. She collected herself and with steel in her voice, pressed the question: “Why did you do it!”

The Mage deflected her hard intent with a respectful nod and proceeded, apparently without any sense of the turmoil she was going through. “I am a tool in your hands. What you do with me, will determine the fate of all worlds.”

Celeste shook her head. He didn’t make sense. Who was he even talking to? Certainly not her! He had violated her! In front of everyone! What kind of tool does that?

“The learning of the knife,” said the Mage. “Before the cut, a child. After the cut, an adult.”

Celeste stood motionless, midbreath. Her mind still.

“Explanation serves little purpose, before the fact. Return to what happened to you when I bowed and you touched the back of my head. Before my action.”

Celeste felt through the cloud of shame, the horror of her exposure in front of court, the violence of his act. It was so unexpected. What had happened? She had felt alone, isolated. And she vaguely recollected her response to Mbolo, her embarrassment of her costume, had felt the urge to tear it off herself… was the Mage referring to this…?

“I am a tool. I reflect the moment of your mind. It was made real through me. It was not my action. It was my re-action. I am a tool, for your presence. You in turn must learn to be a tool, a channel, a mirror for a presence greater than ourselves. The effect will continue to ring out, like the reverberations of a bell struck. Where others hear noise, we hear music. Where others make hate, we make love.”

Celeste coughed, felt released suddenly, taking a step back she swallowed hard then laughed in disbelief. “It’s not…” she couldn’t speak. “Love!” She could not believe what she was hearing. She was incredulous. What was this man thinking…?

“In my action is reflected their inaction. Was it my reaction which hit you, or their inaction? Relive the experience fully, or others like it in your life. The answer you derive determines your suitability for the task ahead of us.”

Celeste stepped forward and controlled herself. She wanted none of his magicks. He was serious. What task was he referring to? Her role as Princess-Elect? It was all happening too quickly, the experience, this wording…

“We will have this conversation only once. Never again for the first time. Even when you return here, relive what is said, never the same the first time. Never with this future-intention.”

Celeste felt her state of presence intensifying. However many times she returned to this moment, it could not be repeated. She imagined herself that night pondering over the day’s events, tomorrow, years ahead, all of her selves stacked in the future looking back at today’s events, yet never like now. She would never forget the events of the reception, but would she recall this conversation as easily? Celeste returned to the sallow-skinned man before her. What was he?

“We  experienced an intervention,” said the Mage. “The natural flow of things was interrupted, as I sense it is even now.”

“What do you mean, intervention?” Celeste asked. “By what?”

Her question had a peculiar effect on the Mage. He closed his eyes and remained standing there, without breath. She recognised it as part of a technique, she had just performed it: halven. It was strange to observe it in another. Celeste realised she should have used the technique at the reception, to control her feelings. That was exactly the time to use it, when she was overwhelmed, or before the stress had mounted. It had happened so quickly, unexpectedly. However, what was the Mage feeling now that he was invoking the halven practice?

“You may think of it as angels,” was his considered reply, wording accurately. “They are assembling from the future to be with us now.”

Angels! Could Celestsel really know about the old ways? She stared at him in disbelief: that a servant of the God-Emperor would say such a thing, and yet something within her sang as if a chime struck. The private prayers only she and her mother shared — could they be heard? She involuntarily brought her hands together, felt the pendent beneath the chemise and within her breast, her spirit alight.

“There is much intervention at this time.” He paused, aware of things unsaid, unthought. “Three ordeals will follow,” he warned, “not of my hand. Far more dangerous than a broken costume, a social death before your subjects.”

What dangers lied ahead? She had dreaded the evening’s event, feared the shame she would re-experience before all the important people of state. They had seen her defiled earlier that day, how could she face them again? Is this what the Mage meant?

“By accepting me at your side, you overcome your fear. That is how people will fear you. Like a sword at the Guard’s side, sheathed, so I shall be at your side. Use me well.”

For all their ceremony and declarations of loyalty, they had done nothing. How dare they face her? The Mage was right: there had been an intervention. Something had touched her that day just as she touched the Mage’s self-seal. A fearful thing. And though her fearful shrunken state had ebbed, she was left with an unsettled feeling, an object within a field of vision far greater than herself, and yet equal to. It was as if her life, everything that led up to that moment, was a shadow. A brightness infused her that was not her own.

You are not your costume. You are not the Princess-Elect.

She felt that she was missing so much. She felt the moment slipping past her, like she was running on water. Between the past and the future, the enquickening presence of her Mage. What could be mistaken as fear, was alertness. The presence of an angel perhaps? Had she been courageous, perhaps its presence would reveal something different? An insight…? What was clear was that she was not to be afraid of the Mage, nor his reactions to her. In fact, in the coolness of her mind’s eye, she could see that he had made her a weapon, just as the Guard was made a weapon by carrying a sword.

“In the interest of efficiency,” the Mage Celestsel continued, “in order to accelerate our trust, it is imperative that you share the threads unseen which are being sewn together in today’s events. The social fabric between us strengthens as a result.”

Celeste shook her head, closing her eyes and trying to retain a sense of what she had just felt. Her fear was gone, but an anger towards the Mage remained. Resentment: it just wasn’t fair.

“You do not have my trust yet!” she said, glaring suddenly at him. Whatever magic the Mage had caste upon her, on all of them, she would not so easily let it pass. He had not even apologised!

“You and your brother are kept like pets by the Adukwe,” began the Mage. Celeste was taken aback. She could not help but be drawn into the Mage’s wording. He put words to thoughts unspoken. That they were pets to the Adukwe was true, it matched her experience of being a manequin to be dressed up and paraded, instructed on how to walk, talk, which hand to use when eating, when to look down and appear demure and when to stand one’s ground. She was loved, but as any well trained pet was. Her blood was Gal, after all, not Solozo. She was not one of the Adukwe. And to hear this… so bluntly put… almost as an aside… she should have taken offence, but now she felt there was nothing the Mage could say that could cause her more offence than she had already experienced at his hand. She cupped her ears; not as effective as the halven procedure, but effective in its own way.

“…however spurious the claim that your lineage extends to the Gal bloodline Adrienne of old.”

The Mage had stopped talking and was quietly waiting for her.

“I can not repeat myself, my Princess-Elect,” said the mage.

There was no admonishment, no reprimand. Just flatly said, as everything was. Clean of any emotion. Did he ever feel anything…?

“I understand,” said Celeste, collecting herself in a deep breath. “I am not a child. I am well aware of the politics around my position.” The mage waited. He was paying attention to her, actually listening to what she was saying, as if interested in what she was thinking, where she wanted to take them.

“Tell me,” instructed Celeste in Solozo, “while travelling with him, what have you learned about Lord Mbolo?” She was exploring how to be with him, how to engage him. The Mage was like a servant she could instruct, but he was different to most servants because he was powerful. As servant, as advisor, she couldn’t tell. He seemed boundaryless.

“Mbolo is not what he seems. Since the death of his Lady, he remains awkwardly unpaired in the Toloese Ring. No Inner Ring Lord has ever visited the mines this far to the west. Why now? I suspect his intention is not aligned to the Father of the Toloese. I suspect he plans to compromise the relationship between Rings Toloese and Adukwe for the benefit of the Beredin. Subverting the role of Princess-Elect may be part of his plans.”

Celeste was aware of politic, described to her by Shef Aclimas and Lady Yidran as pieces in a game of xadres. To think of politic within the Toloese Ring was like thinking of competition amongst pieces of the same side. The Mage had just enlarged the board and suddenly she felt part of it, a piece moved by others. There were moves being played she didn’t understand, and glimpses of moves she hadn’t known existed. Was this the life she was to enter? The life her child would be born into? He would not even have the eight years of innocence she had experienced. She promised herself she would redoubled her efforts in her lessons with Aclimas, to learn the game and play it well. 

“Whatever the long-distant future holds, it is determined by our present actions,” continued the Mage. “There are levels of current play which significantly impact the outcome of the Princes-Elect’s lineage to be and the future of Urb itself.”

It was unsettling how the Mage verbalised what she had been thinking, answering questions she had barely begun. Here was the test, she thought. What harm could it do? If the Mage’s information and advice proved actionable, and it effected positive outcomes, then they would have a basis for a real relationship, not his erratic actions and inhuman manner. It was a risk to trust him this early, against the persistent advice of Lady Yidran and her Adukwe family, given she didn’t know the Mage or his motives. The Magestry were mysterious indeed, in this world and all the worlds in which their magic penetrated.

“And it does not bother you that I don’t like you?” asked Celeste pointedly.

“I am my Princes-Elect’s tool,” replied the mage selflessly. “I am as sharp or blunt as my use.”

“And you prefer sharp?” queried Celeste.

“The Solozo are familiar with Mage allocations. I understand the challenge this represents to your race, my Princes-Elect. When doubt rises in you, ask that I may assure you. There are many risks around this evening’s encounter. The future presses close. We must work quickly, my Princes-Elect, that you make courageous decisions which run against both your nature and your trusted counsel.”

“So the fact it does not feel right for me, is part of it?” said Celeste.

“Feelings pass. You have been misguided by inferior minds operating with limited perception of the truth.”

“And you know better, is that it?” Celeste gouded him to see if her rudeness would unsettle his confidence and reveal it as arrogance. It didn’t.

“I operate with more unknowns. And what I do know is accurate. Your sense of like or dislike is coloured by your misappreciation of the truth. This will fade as you enter into the truth of our place in the world, and the place of this world in all the worlds magicked by the minds of men.”

Celeste’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “That I must ignore my own feelings, my intuition…?”

“You must inhibit some of them, yes, especially those regarding me and my role. I am no mere conjurer or court magician. I will introduce you to a world which you are barely aware. I am Meherim, and I am your Advisor.”

The Mage watched Celeste flute air from her mouth, a soft whistle, a gesture he already understood. She wanted to make a decision. She didn’t feel right, she didn’t like him, but in order to play this bigger game she needed to make a conscious decision. He saw this quality in her and bowed, the blue triangular tattoo glistening like snakeskin. It was why he had chosen to become her advisor: she had the ability to decide her own fate.

Celeste nodded. It was done.

Seeing her decide, there and then before his very eyes, brought a rise to his spirit, like a note that had never before been played in his soul. He immediately acknowledged the vitality of it, which redoubled his rise of spirit. He noticed its formal similarity to the mathix of blessing, and lodged intent to teach her after the day’s events; it would help her during her tests. He made a decision too. “You have witnessed my self-seal, my Princess-Elect. My word and deed match.” He brought his hands together before him and spoke calmly, factually. “And I say, my life is in your hands.”

Despite how she had felt at the start of their conversation, she felt empowered now. That he had so much power over her in such a short time. Through his actions, he had distilled all the social capital amassed at today’s reception, something she had felt as a thickening mist throughout her life, and handed it to her like a glass of water. She felt a strain within her relieved. “Let us continue when I am rested,” she said, suddenly tired.

“There is much to prepare before this evening’s events,” said the Mage Celestsel, bowing. “Factors beyond our vision to contemplate,” he added enigmatically before taking his leave.

As the door closed, she collapsed upon a padded bench. How could she consider things she did not even know? She rubbed her eyes. It was already impossible to keep track of what had been done and said to her. The day was half done and she was exhausted.

Slowly she began to cry. Softly, for the girl she no longer was, and the woman she was to be. 

3d Burax

“Why don’t you go with your father?” said mother. “You used to enjoy birding.”

Father wrapped the bread and cheese and tucked it into his leather satchel, saying nothing. It was not his place to tell his son what to do. Times had changed. Gone were the days that son followed father’s profession. It was hard work rising before the sun, leaving the city, best part of a day to the Edges, then spending a few days kiting and netting. He gruffly gathered up a bottle of wine and tucked it into the satchel. Manual labour, his son had called it. It wasn’t for him, he had said.

The young man yawned and smiled. “Next time,” he said.

“How are you going to eat?” mother asked. “What are you going to do for food?”

“Do I not bring in food for the family?” responded her son.

Mother shrugged and turned away. “That’s not proper food. Only grain.”

The son snorted. It was never going to be enough. She was right, it was mostly grain, but his work brought in a steady supply for his parents, siblings, and other family members. He made more with his work than his father ever had. That’s what stuck in their graw. He yawned and let it pass.

“All you do is lie there, for hours, every day,” said mother, bustling around her son, and tending the pot over the fire. “What do you do, Aric?”

Aric burred through his lips. It had been a long night, and he did not want to enter into this again.

“Leave him, mother,” said father as he paused before the door. Both wife and son looked at him and for a moment he held their gaze, first one then the other. There was acceptance there, for both of them. This was his path, the same as his father’s and his father before him. “He will live with his choices.”

He turned, pulled the latch and ducked under the lintel, his left hand ritually tapping the ward carved into the door jamb. He had carved that when the family had moved to the city, decades past. “Soaring” or “easy flight”, a sign his father had taught him. It had held him in good stead, and hoped it would his son wherever his journey took him.

Mother returned to her pot, preparing the morning porridge. The children would wake soon. The son sat with his head in his hands, his elbows on the tabletop.

“Work is going well,” he said. “There’s a festival approaching and I’ve been called to the Fort.”

Mother continued stirring the pot. She was listening. She didn’t like to needle her son, and so she castigated herself silently. However, there was always a little tension when father embarked on one of his trips alone.

“The family eats well because the roads and walls I maintain,” said the son and receiving no reaction from his mother, added “and the Tower.” Again seeing no reaction, he sighed. “But things are changing. One day they won’t need us.”

Mother stopped stirring for a moment, then continued. Father’s weekly catch was shrinking, he’d been forced to travel further, the flocks had retreated deeper into the mountains. There was always a market for them. People would pay. If their son fell on hard times, he could return to birding, help his father, and they would get by.

Aric sighed and continued to ruminate alone. It was in his nature to work alone, much like his father. The work brought in food, but it was menial. He was one of a dozen burax workers who closed their eyes and invoked mathix to enforce the silver-laid pavements and inlayed walls of the Fortress. Every time a heel hit the ground, the feedback loops of contact had to be maintained accurately. The Royals were used to it, their regular passage around the Fortress reinforced the beautiful walkways and intricately mosaiced walls, the overarching walkways. However, there were always perturbations, new people visiting for the festivities, and a declension of workers laboured tirelessly to ensure the effect persisted consistently, seemlessly. There was a problem, however, one Aric could see though his fellows could not. He had heard rumours from Bizasbuk that the automata were beginning to replace their burax constructists. If burax was automated, the Mages would have no need for them. He needed to specialise. And so, although his job was done for the night, he would rise early in the afternoon and pursue his own interest, clothing overlays, specifically armour inspired, for he had heard a rumour that an Arena was to be established at Bizapul, just like the fabled Arena which existed in Bizagul. Aric didn’t want to do grunt work, he didn’t want to do more rax overlays for buildings. He had only once worked on the famous Glass Tower. His friend had given him an idea, or rather what he was worked on had sparked it: the masqs which the Royals used to beautify themselves. Unlike building burax, masqs were much more refined, the mathix more demanding. He needed to refine his skills.

Mother dropped a bowl of porridge before him, before swaying up the narrow wooden stairs to the upper room. Aric took up a spoon and instead of dipping it into the porridge, he cupped the rising steam and watched the thin swirls dance. Delicate, refined. The masqs were definitely where the money was, currently, but it was a crowded market. He had to differentiate himself, and he believed that his knowledge of feathers would help him stand out from the crowd. Aric had to thank his father for his knowledge of feathers. His father could tell not only a bird’s species from a single feather, but which part of its plummage. He had shown him as a boy how each feather had its unique colour and pattern: the curvature of the central shaft, the vane comprised of barbs, which subdivided into finer barbules, and down to miniscule hairs. This early education was why Aric had been chosen by the Mages. High sensitivity of mind was required even for basic rax work, though he harboured a dream that his intricate feather designs could embellish armour design. Of course the Mages would dominate the Arena with their full-combat displays, but by referencing the Averini Guard, his feathered inlays was a perfect fit. That was the idea, that’s how he could make his money. If he could refine his rax. The mathix was very demanding though. It was like listening to a fine violinist. And just now, Aric was a common day fiddler, his mind suited for the burax of stonework.

He sighed and dipped his wooden spoon into the bowl and pulled out some thick softened oats. The armour was mostly for looks, seeing no active wear. However, with his experience of burax, his armour could be entirely functional in a battle. Although he knew it was wrong for him to hope it, he privately wished that the troubles to the west might increase, for he secretly hoped that it would accelerate the formation of a rax army. It was a private hope, shared by him and a few his more imaginative friends. They had predicted it when they were children, but as yet it had not happened. Nevertheless, if the rumours turned out to be true, and the troubles in the west were unnatural monsters from Everdark, their best defence would be rax warriors. And they would need armour like his.

A child’s piercing cry knifed through the ceiling planks, his youngest brother no doubt. The place was due for an upgrade too. If his parents saw what he built in the Fortress, perhaps they would pay him a little more respect. It would mean everything to them, but to the Royals it meant next to nothing. The Royals walked the silver-laid streets, below the elegant golden archways, the flower scented roads, and they paid no mind. Their children grew up not knowing what lay beneath Aric’s overlays. They did not see or smell or touch the rancid streets Aric had grown up in, his parents had grown up in, and their parents before them. His parents would not escape from this brutish world. This reality was deeply sunk into their bones.

He was halfway through the porridge. One day he would eat what the Royals ate. It was no doubt the same gruel, but it tasted like ambrosia. He knew the burax chefs. Like him, they were the sons of bakers and pastry chefs, who had been trained in basic mathix to provide rax more delightful than anything they could fashion out of raw grains, course vegetables, and carcasses of animals. Perhaps when they are living in a palace, completely surrounded by luxurious rax, might their parents accept what they did. Every citizen of Bizapul living in a palace. It’s why he had devoted nearly a decade of his life to it, ever since he was a boy. He had only been in the Fortress a handful of times, so why call for him today? What special event would they be wanting for the festivities?

As he licked his spoon clean, Aric heard the clatter from above as children gamboled heavily down the stairs. His brothers and sisters would only have a distant memory of the poor conditions of their upbringing, while his own children would grow up in a world where they wouldn’t know any different. They would be Royals. All of them, Ashitland Royals.

1a Reprise

“I give you my word,” said Celeste. “As Princess-Elect, Haradan to the Pharohim, the city of Bizapul shall be returned to its rightful owner, the Adukwe, their Royal Guard reinstated.”

Ubarak nodded as he rose from his couch. He circled the table fixed in the center of the room, probably the largest on the landship, while his Mage remained implacable in the corner, his three grey-garbed attendents discretely behind. He stopped before Celeste and began to raise his face as  she realised that they had not actually had eye-contact. They looked into one another’s eyes.

“Why this sudden change of heart?” he asked, and began to admire the movement of her mind in response.

She felt his presence, calm like a great mountain lake, deep in repose. She felt like an insect buzzing over its surface, a faint reflection of her self in his eyes.

“And why the change of apparel?” he asked, appraising her well-worn leathers, suitable more for a barab than a Royal Lady.

Celeste felt the beating of her heart, her breath in her lungs and she returned to herself, here in his mobile palace, talking with His Lord Ubarak of Ring Toloese.

“There is much to explain, My Lord,” she said and presented herself. From the moment their eyes had met, an answer had been drawn from his first question and then she had returned to herself. It had been the best part of a year since Celeste had felt the subtle and seductive immersion in the magic of the Solozo presence. And yet she was predisposed to politely ignore the invitation of his second question and return to the cause of her being before him. Having collected herself, she presented her own intent.

Ubarak admired her sensitivity and courage, but considered the possibility that Celeste was slavishly following her own will, that she was in fact behaving mindlessly. Was she ignoring a level of sensitivity between them and merely being bullish with her own concerns? It was expected, after all, she was Gal. So he waited, standing before her, his steady gaze upon her eyes.

Only now did she feel she met him. He was actually waiting on her. It was like she had delivered a message, something written, something externalised, and he had received it. And rather than read the message, the receiver, this Lord whoever-he-was, was ignoring it! He was looking at the messenger, looking back at Celeste. Ubarak remained gazing into her eyes, not in an invasive way, just awaiting at the edge of her self. Attending to her patiently.

This all happened in a flash. Their gaze lingered in this way for a couple of seconds at most, and she knew without it dawning in her consciousness: in this direction, love.

Ubarak confered with his Mage silently, then: “I can see you are here, naked of pretence, dressed in your true colours,” he said, a smile playing on his lips. “Then let us meet as equals,” and he gestured with his hand: his visage fazed before her, his face now showing its age, his hair thinning to grey and his eyes softening as his masq dissipated.

“I believe the conflict between us is misplaced,” began Celeste. She admired his grace as he offered her wine then resumed his seat, the elegance in how he moved his head and laid eyes upon her once again as he rested into the chair. Everything calculated yet natural, an exceedingly well cultivated Solozo Lord. “A greater threat faces us all, and it is not the barab. If my son and the heir of the Pharohim is to inherit anything, then my first priority is to my people, that all Gal may survive this threat. We are not our enemy. Our annihilation at your hands will serve little purpose.”

“Well said,” said Ubarak softly. “However, if you are here to tell me of the monsterous enemies gathering at the edges of Everdark, I already know.” He smiled, and with a magesterial apologetic air never witnessed in a Solozo Lord, he added: “I know, for I started it.”