Opals and Topazes

Preface: This is a work in progress, so I understand there are many errors in the following. Anything you find below is subject to change, as my editing process always comes after I complete the novel. Also be advised that this work is in relation with a project by fellow author Stephanie Mangum. Some of the characters and concepts are hers, as well as the world, which I had only a small hand in helping create.

Chapter 1: Mending

She counted her coins again. Sophe didn’t regret helping that family, but it meant tightening her budget for the rest of her pilgrimage. She would have to spend a couple nights sleeping outside in order to make it last.

But not tonight. Strangely enough, it wasn’t bandits that swayed her choice this time. No, she had seen no scrawled wanted posters across this town, which made it the first in her travels. That alone told her that something bigger and scarier roamed the surrounding meadows at night. Sophe was fine with it. She had enough silver for tonight.

A scuffle broke out somewhere behind her, accented by splashes of stale ale against the wooden floor. Sophe kept her head down, hair falling exclusively across the right side of her face, covering her hideous scar. Many of her order had a part or all of their heads shaved, revealing devotional tattoos underneath. Sophe only had a stripe missing on the left side of her skull, leaving the rest of her almost-blonde hair to cover the warped skin.

Repulsive as it was, the scar also made her unique. Magic stones were common enough, and when combined with someone who had sorcerer’s blood – someone like her – different kinds of magic were unlocked, depending on the type of stone. She couldn’t help but think it ironic that her stone was an opal, which healed people and fixed whatever she wanted. A mending stone, they called it.

If only it could fix her ugliness too.

No, the stone considered scars healed, and in this case, housing too. Opals tended to be more fragile than most magic stones. AS an infant, a fire broke out in her home, causing the moisture in her father’s magic opal to shatter it like popcorn. Flesh raw from the flames, it had adhered to Sophe, embedded into the side of her face. She, of course, didn’t remember any of it, but that was how her father told it, saying also that she was fortunate the complete stone had found her. Broken stones lost their magic until made complete again. Her skin connected with all the broken bits of stone in a way, despite her extensive research, she still didn’t fully understand.

Since she alone could control the stone that marred a quarter of her face, Sophe had devoted her life to helping as many people as she could. Leave a place better than she found it. The mending stone had limitations – so many limitations – but even more possibilities. And opportunities to help people with her magic were ever-present.

“I’ll kill him!” The declaration cut into her thoughts.

Sophe heard the argument over her bread and broth. The whole tavern probably could, except for those who pointedly continued their own conversations in spite of the noise.

Another voice gave a curt laugh. “I’d like to see you try. Then I’d be an only child.” Brothers?

A calm, quieter voice entered the conversation. “Only son, perhaps.” His tone was older, perhaps belonging to the father of the pair. Sophe chanced a peek their direction just to see if she was right. All the evidence supported her conclusion.

“I’m practically there already,” the second and lither brother taunted.

Another short scuffle and the room clatter started to return to normal.

“Something besides water for you, miss?”

Sophe looked up to the woman addressing her, then shook her head. As part of her order, she didn’t touch alcohol, and juice was too expensive. Then a thought occurred to her, so she figured there was no harm in asking. “What’s the story there?”

The barmaid proved herself all too happy to gossip. “Jaren’s the story. Took their sister not a month ago. Told them to forget she ever existed. Poor little thing, just turned thirteen. Pretty, too.”

Sophe’s heart went out to the family. No wonder they were so angry! Thinking back on the conversation, she recognized another emotion in the father’s words: resignation. Sophe needed to help them. She didn’t know how, though. Not with her stone anyway.

“Who’s Jaren?”

The tavernmaid looked surprised. Then, without prompting, she sat on the other side of the table, ready to confess all the gossip she could. “Jaren owns the estate up on the hill.” Sophe hadn’t noticed any estate in particular, but the woman went on, assuming she followed. “Spends most of his time up there doing gods know what. Comes down once a month or so for books and supplies. Best not be in his way when he does. Every once in a while he takes a kid back with him. I don’t mean a goat, neither. A human kid.”

Sophe found herself leaning forward. “Why doesn’t anybody stop him?”

“Hard to stop a man like that, especially one with two stones.”

Two? Having one was rare enough – about one in a hundred people capable of using them actually possessed a magic stone – but to own a pair, and for the world to recognize it was a rare thing. “How do you know?”

“Seen them myself. Always had the emerald –” a stone associated with elemental magic – “and got the amethyst just recently.” One Sophe knew to unlock arcane magic. “Rumor has it he has a pair of topazes too.” The last stone she mentioned was the most common by far, used mostly for communicating with others with a topaz over long distances. Sophe also knew from her research that one could be used to help blend magic from multiple other stones, but she had never seen it done or known someone who had. “But that’s just a rumor.” There was no way anyone could have four.

The idea of such a feared man having a topaz announced a terrifying thought to Sophe: he probably planned on collecting more. She shivered despite the nearby fire and fair night. Good thing he couldn’t take her opal from her.

The woman sitting across from her seemed to recognize the motion. “Best not be letting him know you have one too, miss.” How did she know? Probably because Sophe was not great at hiding her emotions or thoughts from perceptive people. And a gossip monger like the barmaid would be good at picking up on those kinds of details.

“He can’t take mine from me,” Sophe told her, sounding more confident than she felt.

“Wouldn’t tell him that neither. The man may take it as a challenge.”

Sophe smiled and thanked the woman for the story, wondering how she might be able to help the family. Perhaps this Jaren was simply misunderstood? Many of society’s outsiders – especially those who could wield a stone – had simply been outcasts, made that way by their talents. Sophe was in a unique position to help all of them, then.

Suddenly the light from the torches shifted, washing the room in a dark fuchsia. Sophe looked up in time to see Arcane bubbles encompass the flames, starting from the bottom and closing just above the flames of the torch with a pinch. A terrified hush swallowed the room as much as the darkness.

Ten seconds they waited in near-silence.

Then, just when Sophe was trying to figure out how to break the enchantment and restore the proper lighting, the front door opened, bringing with the action a gust of wind that almost revealed Sophe’s scar to the world. Still, she looked over her shoulder, knowing without needing further fanfare that the newcomer must be Jaren.

He was younger than she had first imagined, maybe early to mid thirties, with a pointed face and dark features. His movements were the only easy thing in the room, striding toward the father and sons as if they were old friends. Sophe shifted to watch over her other shoulder as the man passed, and in that second, the man had flicked out ropes of arcane light from his fingertips. They wound their way past the brothers, slashing the faces as they went, before wrapping around the father’s shoulders. The man’s jaw was moving, but Sophe couldn’t hear him say a word. The strands of magenta light continued to wrap around the man, lifting him out of his chair before nuzzling into the father’s open mouth. The silent begging stopped, choked by the newcomer’s magic.

“Didn’t I tell you not to try to stop me?” Jaren asked. Sophe didn’t know why she was surprised to hear his voice, despite the oppressive silence surrounding them. The man’s timbre may have once been a pleasant baritone, but now it cut through the room, gripping the attention of everyone within.

The broader-shouldered son managed to stand then, wiping blood from his cheek.

“You must be Rhea’s brother.”

The man addressed spat in Jaren’s direction. Sophe had to admire his audacity, though she wasn’t convinced there was enough wisdom behind the action to call it courage.

Jaren considered the young man for a moment before flinging a palm toward him. A bright orb soared the short distance through the air at the brother, landing with a concussive splash in the man’s chest. Sophe knew it to be a paralyzing spell, and watching every muscle freeze confirmed that its caster was a powerful one.

“I suppose funeral arrangements might keep you busy,” Jaren commented offhandedly at the father. The sorcerer left the ropes of light suspending the man half a foot off the ground, instead conjuring arcane blades from his fingertips and raking them across the stunned and helpless one. The attack broke the paralysis, but the bleeding – strangely colored in this light – kept him from attacking now. “Are we in agreement?”

Sophe knew she couldn’t begin to match the power of this Jaren. She could only watch, hoping the man left in time for her to save the brother now staining the wooden floor with the purple-black of his own blood.

The father glanced between his sons before nodding, mouth still full of the arcane magic.

“See?” Jaren clapped his hands once. “Isn’t that better?” Without waiting for an answer, he turned and swept out the door he had come through moments before, taking the suffocating air with him.

Sophe was finally able to think again. The younger man had rushed to his brother, hands patting on the gurgling chest in a futile attempt to stop the bleeding. Though the father was still suspended, the purple around the lights was beginning to melt away, dripping down the sides like candle wax and releasing normal-colored light again. Sophe added her own to the mix – a bluish-white – as she began to weave tendrils of magic even as she rushed to the bleeding man.

“Step aside,” she ordered as she skidded to her knees beside the prone man. The younger brother obeyed, and Sophe was able to place her mending across the wounds. Carefully, she willed it deeper, sending it like roots to repair the damage from the inside out. She only hoped that she wasn’t too late. She could only put the body back together. Once a person died, the body became a thing; she could not will a spirit to return to it.

“Help him,” the thin brother begged her in a whisper.

Sophe couldn’t do more than she already was. Slowly the gurgling stopped, but the man had lost a lot of blood.

Shock rocked through her at the sound of a heavy crumpling to her right. Jaren’s spell had finally expired, allowing the father to breathe and move freely once more. His younger son rushed to him, helping him from a heap to a kneeling position. He waited there, supported by his son, watching and seeming to understand why Sophe was interfering.

The room light had turned back to a normal shade by the time Sophe let up. There was nothing more she could do. The man was asleep, head lolling to one side in a deceptive rest, but his torn skin had become intact again. She sat back on her heels, sighing from the work. Using the magic had spent her after an already taxing day of travel. Still, she didn’t regret her good work. And in the end, her patient had survived.

“He’ll need water by his bedside once he wakes,” Sophe told the father.

Applause erupted around the tavern, and took Sophe too long to realize it was for her. She smiled her thanks at them, highly aware of the fact that she had drawn too much attention to herself. Her fears were highlighted by the father, who hugged her with such force Sophe worried her hair might bounce and reveal her true ugliness, turning them against her just as quickly.

Fortunately no one seemed to notice, instead turning to each other, apparently eager to discuss recent developments. The father held both her shoulders with his hands. “Thank you,” he breathed, barely audible above the sudden noise in the room. His words were hoarser than she remembered.

“Of course,” she answered him. It was her duty as part of the order – and life’s desire – to help as often as she was needed.

“What I have is yours,” He offered, looking back at his son affectionately. “Just name it.”

“That isn’t why –”

“Surely there must be something.” His family had gone through enough tragedy lately, and any gifts he bestowed on her would only burden Sophe in her travels.

Then an idea came to her, one that could answer his desires without compromising her ideals. “Well,” she confessed to him with a shy smile, “I could use a place to stay for the night.”

Because it was a house full of men, two of whom were Sophe’s age, she elected to sleep in the barn. It was a pleasant evening, comfortably warm but promising a crisp and clear morning. The hay was plentiful and even the animals were a sleepy kind of quiet. Feeling drained after saving the older brother’s life, it was easy to fall asleep.

A loud crack wrenched her from her slumber, quickly followed by crackling, quickly swelling to a thundering roar. Lightning, followed by fire? No, there was no rain on the wood above her head. Confused, Sophe decided it merited a look.

She was still wiping away the sleep from her eyes as she hopped down out of the loft. It took a second look at the packed dirt outside the barn doors before she recognized the ground was not lit by sunlight, but rather a massive blaze coming from the direction of the family’s home. No! She rushed as quickly as she could toward the evidence, hoping that the men that had sheltered her had been anywhere else at the time.

A single silhouette stood between her and the burning home, but even if the man had been facing her, the flames were too bright for her eyes to comprehend anything else. Still, a sigh of relief caught her throat – at least one had made it out safely.

“Are the others safe?” she called to him, knowing it was far too late to try and save the home.

The figure turned slowly, seeing her better than she could see him. He only studied her a moment, though, before speeding to her unnaturally quickly.

Magically quickly.

This man was not a victim of the fire, but his evil grin made it clear to Sophe he was the cause of it. Jaren. The moment he identified her, all the noise surrounding them stifled to a muted roar. She tried to scream – pure, unadulterated terror had taken over her at the sight – but if she succeeded in making a sound, she couldn’t hear it. His face was half-lit by the flames, which burned as brightly as a moment before, but at a tenth of the volume.

“You.”

He didn’t need the same spells he had used on the father – she was choking just fine on her own.

“You’re not from around here.”

His eyes were the purest blue she had ever seen, seeming to see straight into her soul, piercing moments before shredding it from the inside out.

“Answer me.”

Sophe wanted to break eye contact – to look anywhere else – but couldn’t. What had he asked? Right. Unable to speak, Sophe shook her head. No, she wasn’t from around there.

“Why are you here?” he asked, stepping closer and closing the last of the distance between them. “Are you involved with one of the sons here? Or both of them?” His question was as cold as his stare.

What? No! She had never met them before today!

“So then it doesn’t matter to you that they’re all dead.” Jaren nodded his head toward the fire without taking his gaze off her.

Sophe had no idea what compelled her to respond like she did, only that reflex preceded thought. Her palm reached up and slapped him. A part of her mind registered that there should have been a crack splitting the air as she made contact, but she gave it no more thought, instead livid at the man who had not only hurled such accusations at her, but had showed no remorse at destroying the family she had promised herself she’d protect.

Her hand hadn’t finished flying through the air when the man she had struck caught the wrist. Regret swallowed her as his nails dug into her tendons there. He torqued it painfully, bringing her to her knees. “You don’t have the right to touch me.”

This was it. She was going to die. No one was left to help her. The only people who even knew she had stayed in this barn were burning in the home that lit the night landscape. She was wholly at the mercy of this monster. She didn’t want to die. There were so many people out there who still needed her help. She was just helpless against this man’s will at that moment.

A movement to her right distracted them both. At first she thought it was just an animal charging, possibly panicked by the fire, but it was heading toward, not away from the blaze. Toward them.

Then she realized: it was a child. Her mind had a little more trouble comprehending the sudden appearance, but the boy landed between Sophe and Jaren, defiant and brave. Protecting her.

The boy was met with equal force. Jaren dropped Sophe’s wrist without a word, casting a spell with one hand to shred the side of the boy’s face as he sent him flying away again with the other.

Sophe’s heart caught in her throat at the sight. Who could be so callous to abuse a child like that? Hatred swelled in her even as she pitied the abuser. Either way, she would not stand for it.

Mimicking her movements at the tavern – had it really only been hours ago? – she bolted for the bleeding victim, casting her own spell as she went.

The worn dirt path was clear, but Sophe only got halfway before tripping, fumbling and losing her spell as her teeth dug into the bed rock. What –? It didn’t matter. It felt like a magical bola bound her feet, but she couldn’t ignore the wailing of the boy, stifled but audible this far from the spell caster. She could still crawl.

Sophe was vaguely aware of Jaren’s step following her, but he was slow enough that she recognized he was intentionally only keeping up to watch her progress. Sophe pushed the thought aside as she reached the child, cradling his head in her lap in an attempt to slow the bleeding. She tried to comfort him, to tell him that she would make him all better, but the stifling silence now encompassed all three of them. Never mind. She’d be good to her unspoken word and prove it.

Sophe wove her fingers through the air before pressing the light into the bleeding gashes. The boy’s cheek lit up from her magic, highlighting the flood of red. His panicked eyes looked her direction, silently begging her to help him. She was trying!

The moment the skin stitched back together, cold fingers laced through her hair. Sophe barely had enough time to put the boy down before she was yanked away. The locks on her feet had disappeared, but she still found herself dragging on her hands and knees to keep up. Her hair twisted painfully at the roots as she scrambled to right herself. They were practically in the barn when she realized that was Jaren was taking her. He wasn’t even close to the door when it slammed shut, instead using his efforts to toss Sophe face-first into the hoof-packed dirt again. An animal neighed somewhere deeper in the barn, but it was quickly silenced by a javelin of stone from Jaren’s hand. She didn’t have the muscle to protest, or even get up this time, so she settled for huffing up puffs of fine dust from her landing spot.

“Where is your stone?” he demanded from behind her. “Give it to me.”

She couldn’t. Even if she wanted to, it would mean tearing off a chunk of her face. With the unnatural silence still stifling her, she could only shake her head. What did he want with it anyway? Jaren was clearly a man of destruction, and Sophe’s stone of mending.

A foot landed on the peak of her cheekbone, stopping her movement short and grinding her good side deeper into the dust. “Now.”

It took folding her ear in on itself, but Sophe managed to yank her head backward before lifting it and looking the evil man straight in those intense eyes. I can’t, she tried to tell him. It was rare that Sophe was willing to expose her horrid scar to anyone, much less a stranger, but she pulled her hair back anyway.

Jaren knelt by her then, confusing Sophe in what could be interpreted as a familial act, almost kindness. Did he mean to help her up? Did he understand the sacrifice she had made in exposing to him her biggest secret? Jaren seemed to contemplate her a moment as a cat contemplated a mouse, then snapped his fingers.

At the gesture, the muted cacophony of the burning home suddenly burst to life again, filling her ears. Sophe almost preferred the silence, if the freedom to speak hadn’t come with the added noise.

“You mean to tell me that you don’t have a stone?” he asked, offering her a hand to help her stand.

“Not one that is easily given.” Or taken, more accurately. Sophe feared some trick from the man, yet didn’t dare risk offending him by refusing. So she placed her hand in his, and together they stood. She swallowed as she stared at him a moment longer, wondering how to begin to interpret this new politeness.

“I don’t believe you.”

Huh? Why not?

Before she could begin to formulate a response, Jaren wound his hands around each other, sending a splash of green light at her feet, then splinters of purple at her body. Sophe could only sink as the ground turned to soft clay, swallowing her up to her ankles before hardening again. The next moment the arcane magic made contact with her simple dress robe, slicing where it was attached from under each arm to the hip, and another narrowly missing her hair, instead targeting the back of her neck where the weight of entire dress was held together. Sophe tried to catch the cloth as it fell to shreds around her, leaving her entirely exposed to this new stranger. He could see every tattoo, every flaw, and everything she had ever kept for herself. Failing in keeping the dress, She was reduced to trying to cover herself with her arms. She couldn’t move her feet to even lift a knee that way.

Jaren didn’t stop there, but eyed her tattooed stomach. Pointing a single finger at it, he sent a narrow beam of magenta across her core. Somehow her mind registered the movement before her skin, recognizing with a kind of detachedness that he had disemboweled her. Then her nerve endings caught up.

She screamed; he smiled.

“That’s enough.” He snapped his fingers again, and the quiet that had been suspended came back in full again. Sophe couldn’t help it – she kept screaming anyway. He stepped forward, grabbing her by the chin and getting her full attention once more. “Fix it,” he demanded, “or die proving yourself a liar.” Another green bolt went her direction this time, landing with a splash of water in her face, descending to sting cuts and summon goosebumps on her exposed skin.

Sophe had healed many people in her time, ever since she first learned to control the stone, but never more than a scuffed knee or paper cut on herself. This, though, this was too much. She could barely breathe! How was she supposed to fix this when she couldn’t even keep her intestines on the right side of her skin? Clutching her left arm across her chest, Sophe could see blood starting to coat the lower half of her abdomen. An odd sort of instinct kicked in at the sight – the same drive that pushed her toward the injured instead of away from a fight. Reflexively she touched the edge of the wound with three fingers in her right hand, attaching threads of light there. The ends clung to her stomach like beautiful spider webs braiding to each other as she lifted away and across her own gut. As the weave completed, it drifted to her, sinking into the gash and starting its repairs. Pieces of herself found their homes again, but the agonizing pain still felt more intimate to her than any person had been.

She wasn’t strong enough for this. She could barely save her own life, and exhaustion was already threatening to steal consciousness away. Blood loss, compared with the magic required to save first the farmer’s son, then the boy outside, was simply too much for her to handle in such a short time.

Sophe crumpled, collapsing to her knees even as her locked ankles fought to keep her upright. It didn’t last, though, as she felt the ground crumble like stale bread, freeing her. Some part recognized that Jaren had released his spell, but the rest of her only knew a fresh wave of pain as all her weight slammed her bare shoulder into the ground. Even that was short-lived, however, as Sophe succumbed to the blackness before fully landing.

Chapter 2: Manners and Manor

When Sophe next opened her eyes, she wasn’t sure she hadn’t dreamed the whole thing. Straw had made its way into her hair and eyes, and she could hear chirping in the sunlight. Sophe blinked pointedly as she studied her surroundings. She was in a barn, yes, but not the same one from her most recent memories. This one was larger, with separate stalls for the horses and a pen for the goats. A whole herd of goats, she realized, not just the mother-kid pair that the farmer’s family owned. Even the straw she rested on was clean and crisp, without even a speck of mold after last week’s storms.

The first indicator that the terrors that haunted her memory had been real came when she sat up. Her dress had been placed over her, but not even loosely stitched. Her stomach churned at the thought of the man who had done it, and the mere concept of what he could have done to her while she was unconscious. No, she wasn’t sore. Not there, anyway. The rest of her ached, but that was to b e expected after spending the amount of power she had needed to cast yesterday.

“Papa!” A young shout from behind Sophe made her jump. “Papa!” Chickens fluttered as she turned to identify the child who shouted. She immediately spotted the source of the clamor as it ran away, long chestnut hair flowing freely in the air, but wearing pants and a loose shirt. Sophe couldn’t tell from this angle if the child was male or female, and the prepubescent voice didn’t help. Never mind. Sophe would learn soon enough, she imagined.

More troubling was this “Papa” being summoned. It was possible, she reasoned, that he was a rescuer – a good person who had seen her plight and stepped in to help. But she doubted it. No, defeating such a man as Jaren was unfathomable. He seemed to perfectly control everything in his little world, right down to the child scout he had placed on watch over her.

Rescuer or captor, it didn’t take Sophe long to decide that she wanted to be dressed when they came for her. She clutched the rough fabric to herself, almost wearing it even as she mended it together. It would be easy for it to go back together wrong, but that particular part of mending she had always been good at, at least.

Jaren swept into the barn before she finished, confirming her fears. She had gotten most of it, completing one side and the neck before starting at the top of the other side, under her arm. His robes had changed – now a muted charcoal with highlights of green to match his elemental magic. Definitely not something he would be doing hard labor in.

“You’re just in time for supper,” he commented. Sophe’s world spun with the new information, re-orienting to put the sun in the west. For whatever reason she had assumed it was still morning. Jaren turned to the child that had tagged along behind him, one Sophe could now identify as female. “Inform them.” Sophe was caught off guard when his attention shifted back to her. She had been considering if she could sneak finishing the hole in her dress. Better not. The open seam was under her arm, so she pulled her elbow in instead, pinching it in place as best she could.

They stared at each other for a moment as the girl’s feet patted away again. What was his plan? She had been spared for a reason – it must have taken a lot of deliberate work to bring her here. Did he have someone he wanted her to heal? She wasn’t sure she’d be up for it so soon, but if someone needed her help, she would do all she could to try. “Why am I here?” she finally ventured, cutting the silence with her question.

“When I found you, you were sleeping in a barn, so I thought maybe you’d like it here.” Was he serious?

Fear taught her better than to correct his interpretation of her question. “Thank you.” She watched him a moment before putting her head down, bowing in submission from the straw. Well, if he was answering questions, she had another. “How long was I out?” She had a habit of keeping track of how the magic affected her, trying to figure out the rules and see if she could stretch those muscles. Consequences were hand in hand with analysis, as she was taught.

“Almost two days.” Despite his violence toward her and the boy before, this Jaren seemed almost friendly now. “You must be hungry.” Her stomach rumbled in agreement. “Come.” He turned, robes sweeping the floor, and left without ever fully entering the barn.

Right. Sophe jumped to follow, trying to decide anything about this man. Was he her captor or host? A father or kidnapper? All of the above or someone else entirely?

Outside the barn was a much larger stone building with five spires, the centermost being the tallest by far – a manor befitting someone like Jaren. On her right grew a grassy field, more for grazing than for farming, and a forest on the other.

Jaren was already speaking as Sophe rushed to him. “Before we eat, I must ask: have you ever been a mother?”

Terror welled in Sophe anew as she hurried to keep up with the man’s long stride. Did he intend to make a mother of her? Why would he ask that? “I attempted to start a school once,” she answered honestly. Teacher was the closest she had ever come to being a parent. “It turns out parents don’t like giving up their children for hours a day just so the younger can learn a skill the older don’t have themselves.” Reading wasn’t really necessary for most professions, but it had been Sophe’s campaign back then to spread literacy. Trouble was, no one wanted to be taught.

“Well, most parents are idiots.” Jaren entered the stone building through a side door and swept to their right without waiting for anyone to welcome them. His place, his rules, she supposed. “You read then?”

They started ascending stairs, telling her that they were not headed toward some kitchen or dining hall, at least not yet. Those should always be on the bottom floor. The steps were narrow and unadorned but sturdy. “Every chance I get,” Sophe answered him, wondering what that meant to him. She had gotten her first tattoo – behind her temple under the hair – when she finished reading a book on her own. It was such a small accomplishment now, but at eight years old, she had taken a lot of pride in it.

“That’s refreshing.” He must read too, then. Their path opened up to a tall but narrow hall on her left, with an unrailed staircase winding in one smooth swoop around the core of the building. They reached the landing on the second story a moment later when he turned to her. “Don’t bother trying to stop me,” he warned. Stop him from what? Reading?

Before she could ask, he spun again and pushed open a door – simple and wooden, but she could tell in a moment that it held a secret majesty within. The room was adorned in every capacity, with dark green material hanging from a four-poster bed, complete with bright fox fur blankets to contrast. Matching rugs and elaborate tapestries decorated most other surfaces. One particular stood out to her: it was woven with gold thread and placed so it reflected the dying light venturing its way in through the far window, making the room glow softly.

A woman put something down behind her as she stood from the foot of the bed, dressed in a gown that made Sophe feel unworthy of being in her presence. It was a dark cobalt blue, almost purple, with silver vines embroidered gracefully around the bottom and coming up the center. It was also visible around the sides of her waist, complimenting her feminine figure. A pendant hung around her thin neck, and her dark hair had been swept into an elegant knot, held together by a matching silver pin. If Sophe didn’t know better, she’d say this woman could be royalty. Her outfit made her stand out from the decorations of the room without clashing. The pendant held a stone, which glinted in the sunlight as the woman faced Jaren. Topaz. Was it magical or simply decorative? She couldn’t tell from here. Still, Sophe felt tiny – completely out of place in her torn sackcloth dress – in comparison with these other two.

So she lingered at the doorway as Jaren went right in without even asking the lady’s permission to enter her room. Sophe kept her head down as she watched, not only supplicant but hiding her scar. She knew she wanted to make a friend from this woman, and that meant a good first impression.

The lady’s eyes glanced from Jaren to Sophe and back, fear-strangled unspoken words defending herself before he could even begin to hurl accusations at her. “Please,” she managed, “I’ve done everything you asked.” Sophe couldn’t help but pick up on some of the fear for herself.

“I know,” Jaren answered calmly, landing in front of the woman. Uncomfortably close, he stood over her as a wolf stood over a swan before devouring it. “It was fun, but your efforts weren’t nearly enough.”

“Please,” she begged again.

“See, that’s all I ever get from you: groveling. You may be pretty, but you’re equally useless. I’ve found better now.”

Sophe didn’t understand until the lady looked back at her. Wait – was Sophe to be this stranger’s replacement?

Jaren’s hand shimmered green before he backhanded the woman. The magic glove shattered, sending fire splashing over the woman. Within the span of a second, the beautiful gown and elegant hair were alight, consumed by unnatural flames in the center of the room. An unfettered scream tore through the air and Sophe’s heart. The lady started to run, unrecognizable now as she pushed past Jaren and toward the door. He let her go, simply extending a foot in her path and sending her down to the rug.

The sudden quiet caught Sophe’s breath in her throat, waking her from the audience of this nightmare. The flames didn’t spread to the carpet or anything else, but the woman only made one attempt to push herself up before falling prone again. Sophe had to help her.

Sophe only took two steps before Jaren whipped around, glaring, stopping her without needing magic. “Didn’t I tell you not to try to stop me?” he whispered dangerously, barely audible over the crackle of the woman burning between them.

Sophe nodded slowly. He had. But she didn’t know he had meant murder. She had barely met him, and Sophe still knew her healing was no match for his destructive power. The smell of burning hair finally reached her then, but the woman had stopped writing, at least.

Jaren seemed to soften then, shoulders relaxing as he smiled warmly in Sophe’s direction. “Come now. Supper’s nearly ready.”

They left the smoldering remains of the woman behind, instead following the hall deeper until their balcony met the spiraling stair. The new steps were three times as wide as the former hall she had taken, but Sophe still felt less safe due to the lack of railing protecting her from a fall. Their steps echoed from above, making the only sound in the massive hall. After witnessing what Jaren was so flippant about doing, Sophe couldn’t help but think loneliness might be a preferred lifestyle for the man, and this building’s architecture echoed that. He certainly didn’t seem bothered by it.

He reached the bottom of the stair first, lifting an arm for her to take as she finished her descent after him. It was a gentlemanly gesture, somehow fitting for him. Sophe didn’t dare refuse him either.

“Children,” he announced himself as they turned the corner to a long dining hall. It was warmly decorated – mostly wood with touches of red velvet and a fireplace at each end of the room. The table was the centerpiece, and slightly too long to be comfortable for a family to dine around. Food had been spread out along its center, and the smells reawakened that deep hunger in Sophe. Two children – the boy he had met outside the farm house and the girl who had summoned Jaren earlier – were seated side-by-side and waiting Jaren’s next words. “I want you to meet your new mother.”

Sophe looked around, surprised that she had missed someone else in the room. The children, however, nodded obediently in her direction. “Good evening, mother,” they chimed in unison.

All in a rush, the clarity of Jaren’s plan came to her. He didn’t want to be a father, only to have children love him. There was an unconditional affection and trust that could only come from a child, and he aimed to be the center of their worlds. But he didn’t like the work that came with the title, so he had searched, in his own way, for someone else to take that responsibility. A mother. And he had found that in the woman in blue, and now in Sophe.

She also knew that – if not for her sake, at least for theirs – she’d better play along. So she swallowed every combating emotion in her and smiled at the pair. “A pleasure to meet you both. What are your names?” she asked.

“That one’s Trast,” Jaren answered for them, pointing at the boy, “And that one’s Kuliere.” The girl wiggled her fingertips Sophe’s direction at the sound of her name. “Where is Rhea?” he asked the boy. Trast, Sophe reminded herself.

The last word Jaren spoke rang through Sophe’s skull. Rhea. The daughter of the farmer that had been kind enough to host her, and the ultimate source of the man’s demise. Though Sophe had never met the farmer’s daughter, her heart went out to the girl.

“Here.” The new voice came from Sophe’s left, where there had been little more than a wall and a door. Now, there stood a young girl, maybe early teens, but half again as old as the other two. She carried a platter topped with some kind of red meat. Her bowing head wasn’t as gentle or sincere as the other two, but it was obedient. She at least was old enough to understand how wrong this all was. Rhea scurried past them, setting the food down at the end of the table, passing three empty chairs before finding the one she was supposed to sit in.

Jaren’s arm dropped from under Sophe’s as he stepped away and toward the seat at the closer end of the table. He pulled it out and looked at Sophe expectantly, with the slightest hint of a challenge in his eye, as if daring her not to sit.

She had no intentions of disobeying. Only a handful of men had ever pushed her seat in for her before. This time, though, there was a weight of expectancy clouding the whole room. Silence reigned as Jaren made his way to the far end, last to be seated and first to start filling his plate as they all watched on. The moment he took the goblet from the tablecloth, the attention of all three children broke at once, and they dove into the food. Sophe watched Jaren a little longer, but he showed no anger or disapproval at their hunger, so she took her cue from them and reached for the bread closest to her. It was warm.

“What happened to our other mother?” Rhea dared to ask, breaking the silence first. Sophe couldn’t help but wish she had raised any other question.

“Glad you asked,” Jaren responded, cool as the water between them. “What’s left of her is in her room. Since you asked, you can be the one to clean it up.” Her, Sophe wanted to correct.

Anger was visible in the girl now. She must have grown attached. “May I be excused, then?” Rhea snapped, dropping her corn cob on her plate with a clang.

Silence gripped the room at her attitude. Would he kill the girl? Sophe was terrified to realize she didn’t know the answer.

Finally Jaren spoke. “No, you may not be excused. We are going to eat dinner first. As a family.” It was spoken like an order given by a general.

Sophe started chewing again.

She had to help them. Not just the children, or the unseen servants, or even herself, but Jaren too. They were all frightened – Sophe included as she looked at the odd assembly – just of different things. Mostly of Jaren, but also of being alone. She couldn’t do much, but she could at least be a friend.

“So, Trast, how long have you been part of this family?” Sophe asked, breaking the silence. He seemed the best adjusted to Jaren’s rule of order, and possibly the patriarch’s favorite. Was it possible the boy was Jaren’s by blood?

Trast glanced at Jaren and intentionally swallowed his food before answering. “Since before my last birthday.” At his answer, Sophe’s theory dashed away.

“About eighteen months,” Jaren corrected quietly.

“Oh,” Sophe did her best to smile. “Then you have another birthday coming soon?”

There was a quiet fear behind his answer. “Next month.” What kind of child wasn’t excited for his own birthday? One that had spent his last one with Jaren, and knew what to expect.

“Mine’s next month too!” The girl seemed more enthusiastic than her “brother”. Kuliere, Sophe reminded herself. Some part of her mind had recognized that they were about the same age, but she hadn’t really looked until now. Twins? No, he had curly sandy blonde hair and Kuliere’s was a smooth chestnut. But perhaps some part of Jaren’s mind wanted them to be twins. Sophe had to wonder if there was an actual family he was modeling this one after or if he was just making it up at random.

“And yours?” Sophe asked Rhea.

The girl was stubbornly glaring straight head, at an elaborate painting hung on the wall behind Kuliere. “Never,” she answered, obstinate.

“End of winter.” Jaren’s correction was casual, but judging by the glare Rhea shot his direction, he was also wrong. Still, no one argued.

“Near mine then.” Sophe smiled at her, trying desperately to keep the peace. She wondered too late if she should have waited to announce that fact until Jaren had approved it. At least he wasn’t objecting.

A quiet settled over the supper again as they all chewed, but – at least in Sophe’s estimation – it was slightly more comfortable. The conversation seemed to be thawing the group, and Sophe wanted to know more about these children. Then maybe she could help return them to their normal families. Assuming they still had families. Sophe remembered with a guilty pang that Rhea could not be counted among those. If Sophe hadn’t have saved the older brother, the other two might have been spared. It wasn’t a question she was about to ask at the dinner table, however.

“So, Kuliere, what was the most recent thing you learned?” Sophe asked. That was what parents did, right? Inquired to learn the lives of their children as they raised them? Sophe hoped that Jaren would let her teach them to read, she had hoped to do with her school. He didn’t seem opposed to it when she brought up the idea earlier. She would need an idea where to start if she was to help them.

“I sharpened the kitchen knives,” she answered proudly. Sophe’s eyebrows went up in surprise. She was what – eight years old? Almost nine? A little young to be playing with blades.

“Oh?” Sophe caught herself before voicing her thoughts, instead directing them elsewhere. “Did you use a whetstone? Or each other?”

“Each other,” the girl responded eagerly. Without prompting, she picked up her own steak knife as well as the one in Trast’s table setting, prepared to demonstrate. “It goes like this –”

“Kuliere.” Just her name from Jaren’s lips was enough to give her pause. Sophe understood; he didn’t want that sort of rudeness at the dinner table.

“Why don’t you show me after supper?” Sophe asked instead.

“Okay!” Her enthusiasm charmed Sophe.

Sophe turned her attention to the young teen on her right. “Rhea? What about you?”

“Enough questions,” Jaren intercepted, putting his goblet down definitively. “Let us just eat in peace, shall we?”

Quiet descended upon the table again, but to Sophe’s surprise no one seemed to think the silence unusual. The meal was delicious – the heartiest she had had since she started her pilgrimage – and not simply because of her extreme hunger. The only one who didn’t seem to enjoy their meal was Rhea, who instead insisted on glaring stubbornly across the table. Together the rest of them didn’t even come close to finishing the food on the table.

Everyone completed their meal only when Jaren decided that they were done. “Rhea,” ‘he announced suddenly, “you may leave and prepare your mother’s room for her.” Sophe recognized with a sinking feeling that she was meant to occupy the same bed that she had seen the beautiful lady in blue seated on not hours ago. “You two clear the table.” He gave the order to the youngest pair at the meal.

“I can help you,” Sophe offered, beginning to stack the plates around her to make the trip easier. It was common where she came from for everyone who ate to help clean. She wasn’t about to reinforce that custom with Jaren, but there was no reason for her to be doing nothing, not when she could ease the burdens on the children.

“You can come with me.” Jaren’s words said offer, but his tone said order.

Sophe had intended to use the time away from the man to steal some food on Rhea’s behalf, but she couldn’t openly defy him now. Maybe she could still find some after whatever he had planned. Assuming he didn’t lock her in her room or something similar. Sophe dropped her chin in obedience as she responded. “If that is what you wish.”

“It is,” he responded dryly. He was the first to stand, and in moment it was just the two of them left in the hall. “I wouldn’t have you doing servant’s work on your first night joining us,” he told her with a suddenly gentle smile. He offered his arm to her again, and she took it, letting him lead her back out and around the foyer.

“It’s no bother,” Sophe told him, wondering if she came across as courteous or argumentative. “Your children are very polite,” she commented, conscious that they weren’t actually his. She wasn’t sure polite was the most accurate word to use. It was more like they were well-trained, like hunting dogs.

“Not all of them.” Rhea.

“She’ll come around.”

He started guiding her – not to “her” room, but right, toward the giant heavy oak doors that marked the proper entrance to the manor.

“Where are we going?”

“Don’t you wish to know more about your new home?” he asked, sounding genuinely surprised.

Home. The word sank like a pit in her stomach. Her home was supposed to be the new temple being built at the end of her pilgrimage. Not these empty halls, beautiful as they were. Certainly not with him. “Of course,” she answered instead, letting him lead her where he wished. “It’s a lovely home.”

“Made all the more so with your presence.”

Really? Sophe, more than the stunning lady she had been brought here to replace? Hardly. “You flatter me, sir.”

“Call me Jaren.” He led her around the bottom floor by the arm. It contained the dining hall, the kitchen – which was pointed out but she was not invited to enter, the giant heavy oak doors, a social hall with music instruments, and access to an atrium.

“Jaren,” she amended as they went. He continued to vex her, encompassing both murderer and friend to her. “Do you have a bedtime routine with the children?” she asked as they finished the bottom floor and started to climb the terrifying winding staircase to the second story.

“No,” he answered simply. He pointed out doors as they ascended as he spoke of them. “The second story contains the bedrooms.” He started at the door farthest to their left, pointing and naming the occupants as he moved right. “Rhea’s room, connected to Trast and Kuliere, who share.” He swung his arm right, to the other side. “That one’s mine. No one is allowed without my express permission.” The sudden darkness in his tone lifted just as abruptly as he continued. “We share the bath room, and that one is yours.” Her own room. She’d never had one to herself before.

No. Not hers. The lady in blue. Or the woman before that, assuming there were others. There had to be. Ultimately it was Jaren’s room, as were all of them.

“Thank you.” That was what he wanted her to say, wasn’t it?

“I didn’t think you’d actually prefer the barn,” he told her with a laugh.

“No,” she agreed.

They continued upstairs, barely stopping as they passed only two doors on the third story. “This one is to be your study,” he said, pointing to the left. “You can teach the children there, or in the downstairs hall, if you’d rather. The books are there, though.”

Teach! So he would let her! Sophe’s sudden jubilation was quenched by the thought that he must be convinced of her absolute obedience if she was to be given that kind of power over the children.

He started to scale the stairs once more, continuing the narrowing stair up.

“What about the other room?” Sophe asked. The doors were too close together to belong to the same hall.

“My study.” His tone choked her, enough to caution her against going in or even inquiring further. Then he lightened as he started addressing the top story. “Most of these are just storage. I’ll make the kids clean them eventually. Sooner rather than later, if it bothers you. I think you’ll like this room.” He grinned at her as he opened the door at the end of the stair, allowing Sophe to step in first. “It was her favorite.”

The room was tiny compared to the others, presumably occupying the top of the centermost spire in the manor. Immediately her attention was drawn to the only light source in the room: the window. The full moon fell in, landing on a comfortable-looking chair. On the cushion was a rejected embroidery project. Sophe’s favorite object in her sight was behind the rest – a telescope for studying and measuring the stars. Sophe started a spell just to use the stored magic as a light source, illuminating the rest of the room.

Jaren must have been thinking something similar, as he created three bright purple orbs. They danced their way to the center of the room, lighting every corner but revealing nothing more of interest. An open chest, a desk without drawers, a couple dried wildflowers in a vase on top.

“Who is she?” Sophe asked, approaching the window and chair. The embroidery project was a half-finished lion’s head, embroidered with flowers more life-like than those atop the desk. Thorned roses, on closer inspection.

“Pardon?” he asked, hand still on the doorknob.

“You said this room was ‘her’ favorite.” The window pointed to the front of the manor. She could see all the way down the hill to the road in the full moon. “Who is she?” Sophe repeated her question.

A brief flash of anger splashed over his magic-lit features before washing away, replaced by a practiced calm underneath. Sophe knew she shouldn’t have asked. “Yours,” he responded. “Isn’t it?”

This room, her favorite? No, her interests lied closer to the study and potential academia within. She would probably teach from there. Sewing and window-gazing weren’t really Sophe’s style.

Still, she feared Jaren’s response if she disagreed, so she nodded. “It is lovely.”

He seemed satisfied with her response, holding the door open for her in an invitation to leave. As they made the long descent back to the bottom floor, Sophe couldn’t help but think that Jaren had been unnecessarily kind to her all evening, if a little… odd.

Chapter 3: Meeting

His attitude could swing back just as quickly, so Sophe almost didn’t ask her question. After weighing her options, though, she figured this mood was the best chance she would have at getting answers.

They were almost back to the second story when she finally gathered the courage to ask. “Am I allowed to leave when I wish?” The lady in blue had given the impression that Sophe’s future held only cages, if elegantly decorated ones. But Jaren seemed to genuinely want Sophe to be happy.

The rhythm of his walking faltered, so that he stopped before her. When she turned back to him, he was two stairs behind, putting his already powerful figure at an intimidating height above her. She shouldn’t have said anything. By the time her eyes met his, though, he only portrayed confusion. “Why would you ever want to leave? Everything you could need is here.”

Sophe smiled back at him to hide her gulp. She wasn’t allowed to leave, then. “You’re right, of course. It is a lovely home.”

“Yours now as much as mine.”

Dread saturated her at the thought.

“Papa?” Sophe could tell – more from the sarcasm than from familiarity with the timbre – that it was Rhea who interrupted them to address Jaren.

The man whipped around in anger at the interruption. “What is it?” he snarled at the young teen’s approaching figure.

Rhea seemed unimpressed. “I can just throw it away, if that’s what you want.” The girl shrugged, but Sophe could see the Rhea’s fist close around an object in her pocket.

Jaren turned icy, smiling at the young teen as he held out his hand. “May I see what it is?” It was very clear to Sophe that if she didn’t respond exactly how he wanted, he would not hesitate in forcing it from her.

Rhea seemed to recognize this too, and pulled it out from her pocket. Immediately apparent was a thin silver chain dangling from her fist. Sophe was the last to recognize the object when the girl opened her hand. The necklace the lady in blue had been wearing. The topaz seemed intact within the pendant, if a little dirtied with ash, but the silver encasing it had warped from the heat along the top right corner.

“Oh.” Jaren’s response was surprised yet simple. He snatched it easily from the girl’s hand, running his fingertips along the chain until he found the ends. He looked at Sophe as he did. “You dropped this.”

Her? She had only seen it the once. Definitely never owned something so expensive, even marred as this one was.

“Allow me.” Jaren approached Sophe then, taking the chain and tucking her hair over her shoulder before linking it behind her neck. With him so close, Sophe suddenly remembered that she had never finished mending the side of the dress.

In that moment, with Jaren over her shoulder, all Sophe could see was Rhea. The girl looked a strange mixture of distant and terrified, as if she knew what the necklace meant, even in her short time here. Sophe’s imagination went wild, the least of which was describing the pendant as a symbol of his ownership over her, like an elegant bridle on a horse.

“There. That’s better.” He wrapped his hand around the back of her hair, letting it run loosely over his fingers as he stepped back. Sophe’s hair fell where he wanted it: on the outside of the chain.

“Would you like me to mend it?” Sophe asked when they could see each other properly again.

At least this time he acknowledged that the pendant was new to her instead of pretending like she had had it the whole time. “If it bothers you. I kind of like this better.” He reached for her hair again, this time to tuck the bangs away from her forehead and behind her ear.

Without thinking, Sophe shied away, fearing he might expose her scar. It took her too long to realize she shouldn’t have resisted him so – that denying him anything might set his temper off – but it had long ago become instinct to protect herself from the world, and the reverse.

Tension lingered in the air as Jaren’s hand did. Everyone awaited his decree at her defiance.

It was mercy. This time. His hand drifted down to his side again and he took the next steps downward, toward the second floor. Rhea made eye contact with her as Jaren passed between them, and Sophe knew the girl understood the significance of what could have happened.

“Are you coming?” Jaren asked, turning back toward her with a smile and arm aloft.

Sophe broke from Rhea then, turning toward Jaren with a careful smile. “Of course.”

The children were the only ones in the kitchen when Sophe arrived. Jaren had left her when they passed his room and sending Rhea to hers, so that Sophe finished her walk alone. Sophe couldn’t help but think the girl had been punished enough, but the teen seemed content with her destination, so Sophe saw nothing to be gained by standing up for her.

When she entered the kitchen, Kuliere noticed her first, abandoning the plate she was drying on the counter and grabbing a pair of objects before bolting to Sophe excitedly. “It’s after supper!” she declared as she ran, long hair billowing behind her.

Right. The girl had promised to demonstrate her new skill of knife sharpening, but Jaren had taken Sophe before she had gotten the chance. The pair of steak knives in the girl’s hands confirmed Sophe’s theory.

“Don’t run with those!” Sophe cautioned, hand up before the girl could hurt herself.

Immediately Kuliere slowed, putting a blade in each hand and taking a breath before stopping her step and starting her work. She slid the blades slowly against each other at first, letting her mind remember how to do the work before her muscles took over.

“See?” Kuliere asked, all smiles.

“Very good!” Sophe was delighted to see the simple pleasure in the girl at her skill. It was an odd choice for her to learn at such a young age, but the lack of adult supervision in the kitchen before Sophe entered showed a deeper and more disturbing disregard for the young children’s safety.

“I already knew how to do that. I’m better,” Trast announced from his spot b y the tub of hot water and dishes. “You’re –” In his enthusiasm and turn toward his sister, Trast knocked one of the used ceramic cups off the counter.

It fell to the floor, shattering.

They all stared at the shards, watching them skid across the polished stone floor, some spinning in place before stopping.

Kuliere was the first to react. “Ooh, you’re in trouble now!”

“Me?” Trast asked, young eyes wide and fear clearly written across his reddening face. “This is your fault. You made me –”

“You’d better tell him soon!” Kuliere’s was almost a singing tone. “When he finds out, he’s going to be so mad!”

“But –” His terror had rooted him mid-turn.

“Soon!” she sang again.

“Hold on,” Sophe stepped forward, palms up between them. “It was just an accident.”

Kuliere shook her head. “Just because it’s an accident doesn’t mean there isn’t someone to blame.” Her voice, Jaren’s words, Sophe was sure.

Trast looked ready to cry.

“It’s okay,” Sophe reached for him.

Still, his lip quivered and sharp inhales were starting to squeak out from the boy.

“It’ll be okay,” she tried again, stepping to him and putting her hands on his shoulders. He shook at her touch.

“You’re going to be in so much trouble!” Kuliere repeated.

Sophe glared the girl’s direction a moment. “Why don’t you help me gather the pieces?” she requested, giving the girl something to do. A plan was beginning to form in Sophe’s mind. She did have a mending stone, after all.

“It’s his job to clean it up,” Kuliere protested. “After he tells Papa.”

Sophe let go of the trembling boy, picking up two of the biggest pieces within reach and holding them together with one hand, activating her magic with the other. She was highly aware of both children’s stares as she put her palm over the seam, warming it in small circles and willing the ceramic together. It didn’t take much, and soon she was ready for more.

“Quickly now.” The boy’s tears had dried up at the realization that Sophe could fix his problem. It didn’t take long until all the bits of ceramic were in a pile between them.

Kuliere proved better at puzzles than her brother, finding and fitting pieces together, handing them to Sophe as quickly as she could mend them. Sophe made them into larger pieces, handing those to Trast, who held onto the ceramic until he could give them back to his sister. Together the three of them reassembled the cup in no time.

“See?” Sophe asked, handing the complete vessel to Trast. “It should still be washed, though.”

Trast nodded, hurrying to return to his task.

“Thank you for your help, Kuliere,” Sophe addressed the other. “I was wondering if you might be up for another task?”

The girl nodded enthusiastically.

“I was wondering if you could show me where the leftover food is?”

“I fed it to the pigs and chickens.” The girl looked at Sophe for a moment. “Are you still hungry?”

The honest answer was no – there had been more than enough food at supper – but she didn’t want Kuliere to be complicit in her planned crimes, so she lied. “A little.”

Jaren hadn’t mentioned a cellar in his tour of the building, but it made sense that the kitchen had one. Most wealthy estates did. Kuliere was quick to drag Sophe by the arm to it, showing an abnormally full pantry for this time of year.

“Thank you, Kuliere. Help your brother finish up now. It’s almost bedtime.”

The girl nodded again, charming as ever, hair chasing her as she spun back to obey.

It didn’t take Sophe long to pick out an apple and some dried venison, tucking the items into her pockets as stealthily as possible before ducking out of the kitchen and heading up the stairs again to their rooms.

Reaching back into her memory, identifying which of the four rooms was Rhea’s was simple enough. More difficult would be the news she had to deliver to the already moody teen. Sophe took a deep breath, touched the apple in her pocket, and knocked.

There was a brief pause before footsteps on the other side rushed to meet the door. It swung open hurriedly, revealing puffy but confused eyes. Rhea had been crying.

“May I come in?” Sophe asked after a moment of watching each other.

“Why?”

Sophe pulled the apple from her pocket, offering it to the girl. “I’d like to talk.”

Rhea stared a moment longer before snatching the food and turning, leaving the door open behind her as she went back to sitting on her bed. That was enough of an invitation for Sophe.

The girl flopped back on the thick quilt, gnawing on the food as Sophe stood on the circular rug in the center of the room. She didn’t know how to breach the subject she had come to discuss – the girl’s family – with someone it could barely be said she had met. But any conversation would be welcome at this point.

“Why do you defy him?”

“Someone has to stand up to that tyrant.” Brave words. “She didn’t, and it looks like you’re not going to either. So it’s up to me.

She was going to get herself killed talking like that! “You’re better off not,” Sophe advised. She didn’t think she could bear to watch the same thing happen to Rhea as had the lady in blue. Not after Sophe had been forced to witness the girl’s family die, and the strange woman she had been brought here to replace.

“Who do you think you are,” Rhea sat up quickly, looking straight at Sophe. “You’re going to be gone soon, or I will. Don’t bother trying to become friends with me.” There was a deep pain there, one Sophe could only empathize without beginning to describe.

“Why do you say that?”

“Jaren killed her, and she didn’t even do anything wrong!” The girl was practically exploding with emotion. “You’d be an idiot not to assume you’re next.” After the lady in blue, Rhea must mean. Sophe’s stomach turned at the memory of witnessing the murder. She closed her eyes to push the image away, but Rhea wasn’t done ranting. “My family will come for me. My brothers – they’ll be here soon. Then Papa will see.” She spat the title for Jaren even as her speech showed a forlorn hope.

Sophe choked on her breath. How could she answer, knowing the truth? She forced herself to get the words out. “They’re not coming.” Fortunately the night was quiet, because Sophe couldn’t convince her vocal cords to give her more than a whisper. “I’m sorry, Rhea – so sorry. They wanted to, they really did –”

Rhea’s interruption was equally quiet. “What are you saying?” What else could she say?

“Jaren knew of their intentions to come rescue you, and put a stop to them.” They both understood what Sophe meant by that.

“You can’t know that.”

“They gave me shelter as I travelled through your town.” She didn’t need to explain further. The girl was sharp, and Sophe was under Jaren’s thumb now. Rhea could connect the dots. “I’m sorry.”

“Get out.” Sophe almost missed the order.

“Rhea –”

“Get out!” The second iteration came so loud it echoed off the stone walls.

There was nothing more Sophe could do for her. She would need time to herself to mourn. So Sophe obeyed, pausing only to put the dried meat on the table by the exit before closing the door behind her.

Suddenly free of an audience, Sophe couldn’t stop her own tears. Rhea’s were audible through the heavy wood behind her, punctuated by angry sobs and fists slamming into bedposts. But, alone in the hall, Sophe’s emotions undammed then, leaking as they passed silently down her face. Why? Why Sophe, why Rhea? Why any of them? Why was someone like Jaren – someone so bent on tearing families apart just so he could have his own – even allowed to exist? Even as she thought the question, Sophe knew the answer: because no one out there was powerful enough to stop him.

She didn’t know how long she stood there, feeling sorry for herself, only that a slow resolve was weaving its way into the mix. She had always determined to make anyplace she resided better by her presence. Now, she was facing the biggest challenge she’d ever faced. If not for her, these children would be hopelessly lost under Jaren’s rule, and such a gifted sorcerer would be lost in his own darkness forever. She had to help them all, or die trying. Eventually regular breathing started to return, steeling Sophe’s resolve.

Movement caught the corner of her eye then. A tiny face peeked out the door to her left, staring at her unabashedly. Trast. What was he up to?

“Isn’t it about your bedtime?” Sophe asked him, trying to smile. How much had he seen? Or heard?

At her question, the boy bolted inside his room again.

By the time Sophe made it to the door, both children had made it to their respective pillows. The beds were smaller than hers or Rhea’s by far, but no less elaborate. Each was on opposite sides of the room, separated by a window and pair of tables. Noses and foreheads peeked out from behind the bedding, both sets of eyes staring at her.

“Do you need to be tucked in?” Sophe asked the pair. Trast looked confused, but Kuliere nodded. So Sophe went to her first, sitting on the side of the bed. The girl’s hair was loose against the pillow, unbrushed. Had Jaren not taught her to comb it before she slept?

“Sit up, Kuliere.” When the girl looked confused, Sophe explained. “You can’t go to sleep with your hair like that.”

“But I don’t like brushing it,” she protested, sinking deeper into the covers. “It’s just going to get tangled again anyway.”

“I know how you feel. Still, it must be done.”

The girl threw the blanket over her head. “There. It’s brushed.”

Sophe smiled at the child’s logic. “Hidden doesn’t mean fixed, dear.”

Sounds of protest continued from the small lump under the quilt.

“Kuliere,” Sophe warned.

The forehead and nose popped back into view again.

“What if I brushed it for you?” Sophe offered in compromise.

That worked. The girl was slow to sit up and turn, but Sophe used the time to locate the comb on the table by the bedstand and pick it up. Kuliere’s hair was so smooth and flat that it didn’t take long to straighten, falling in a beautiful ripple across her soft pajamas. The girl tried to get back under the covers when she put the comb down.

“No you don’t.” Sophe put her hand on top of the girl’s head to stop her descent.

“But –”

“I’m almost done.” The girl waited impatiently for Sophe to braid it, tying the ribbon off herself before plopping back into bed. “Isn’t that better?” Sophe asked.

Kuliere shook her head.

“Well, it looks better.” Sophe leaned forward as the girl settled, tucking the blanket around the feet of the small child first and working her way up. Sophe considered kissing the girl on the forehead, as her father had done for her when she was that age, but decided against it. Not yet, anyway. She didn’t want the girl to get too attached in case Rhea was right.

“You too,” the young girl responded, the biggest smile on her face.

“Me too!” Trast begged from his spot across the room.

“Oh, so you do want to be tucked in too?” Sophe asked with a grin. Was it really possible the boy didn’t know what being tucked in was until Sophe had demonstrated it? Or did he fear it somehow, and now decide that Sophe was safe?

“Yes.”

“Well, okay.” Sophe stood from her place by Kuliere. “If you insist.”

Trast clapped as she approached.

“You have to sit still first.”

“Why doesn’t he have to brush his hair?” Kuliere voiced from her side of the room.

Sophe couldn’t help but laugh, also tucking in Trast. “Because he had short hair, and yours is long.”

“Can I cut mine then?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Because it was an easily distinguished feature on the young girl. It may be years before Sophe was able to return her to her family, but that hair would be the first thing they recognized when she did. “Because I said so.” She finished her work by gripping Trast’s shoulders. He gazed at her with wide but happy eyes, adorable.

“But –”

“Good night, both of you. I’ll see you in the morning.” Assuming Sophe survived the night. She had even less of an idea what to expect from Jaren that she did before this evening’s adventure. “Sleep well.”

“Can you read us a story?” Kuliere asked instead, still fidgety despite the young eyes visibly growing tired.

Sophe liked the idea, but couldn’t. “I don’t have a book with me.”

“There are books upstairs,” the girl insisted.

“Tomorrow,” Sophe compromised. That would give her time to pick one out and read it ahead of time, which she had found helpful when she had been asked to read aloud back at home.

“A song then?” Trast asked. He was far more stationary than his sister, eyes already drooping.

“I think I can do that.” Sophe sat back down on Trast’s bed, straightening his blankets and trying not to move and undo her work earlier.

It wasn’t hard to pick a song – she knew so many – and started singing one that had helped her learn about the change and order of the seasons when she was a child. Now the words came easily, naturally, so she didn’t need to think about them as they flowed out of her.

Was this what being a mother was like? Sophe had to admit, at least to herself, that she liked it. Well, not the arguing with Rhea, or the tears that it brought, but tucking in the twins, brushing Kuliere’s hair and singing Trast to sleep. She could get used to that.

Sophe had barely started her third song when she realized Kuliere had stopped her fidgeting. Both children had fallen still, eyes closed and mouths open. Sophe changed her words to a hum, finishing the song from the bed. The final punctuation to her tune was the puff of smoke as she blew out the candle.

Chapter 4: Midnight

Sophe wasn’t tired. She had been out for almost two days straight, and her body was ready to be doing something productive again. Still, the house was quiet, almost creepy in the dark as everyone else settled down for bed, so she went to her room.

The sight as she opened the door stopped her in her tracks. Everything was so eerily identical to when she had first entered, save for two differences. First, the lighting had shifted with the sunset, replaced by moonlight, washing the room in silver instead of gold. Second, the woman had been replaced by an ashen mark on the rug. Sophe did her best to ignore it as she stepped deeper into the room than she had yet been. The far door to the bath room was open, showing the closed door to Jaren’s room on the other side.

Unlike the children’s rooms, this one had a wardrobe and a desk with a shelf above it. The work on it still held a sewing project of the lady in blue, with the pins, ribbons and threads neatly placed across the shelf. Sophe had never been that organized.

She didn’t go to it, but instead flopped onto the bed, closing her eyes and letting the cool breeze of the open window blow across her. The bed was too comfortable to imagine none of this had happened, refusing to let her pretend she was still on the road. No, she was stuck here. Not stuck. Offered an opportunity to help in a way she had never imagined. A part of her teaching told her to blow the candle out before letting herself fall asleep, but it was down to a nub anyway. She left it to burn out on its own.

Sleep eluded her. Her mind seemed more keen on every sound around her, from the nocturnal critters awakening and beginning their pursuits to the candle’s final hiss as it gave up trying to provide light. One of the songs she had sung to the twins kept repeating itself on a loop in her head, maintaining just enough of her attention to be annoying.

She couldn’t tell how long it had been when a new sound entered her world. It was nothing more than a small click, like a door as it unlatched. Immediately Sophe’s eyes flung open, alert. She watched the ceiling as candle light spilled across it, coming from the bath room. Jaren? Probably. Even if not, it was definitely a person, and by the way the light curved as its carrier went another direction, definitely not headed for her.

She shouldn’t disturb them. The step was almost imperceptibly quiet despite her current sensitivity to noise, so they clearly didn’t mean to wake her. Probably wanted to be left alone. The line of light grew thinner as the candle went down the long and comparably thin room, to the window.

Not long after the light had stopped moving, a zap split the air. Sophe knew intellectually that the noise wasn’t actually loud, but compared to the rest of the night, it was hard to ignore. Still, Sophe closed her eyes and continued her futile attempt at sleep.

The second zap flung her eyelids open again. This was useless. Sophe flung her palms against the bedding and pushed herself up. Better to be awake and have company than this self-imposed torment. If the newcomer didn’t want to talk, she could at least inform them that they were keeping her awake.

The floor was cooler on her feet than she remembered, but it didn’t stall her as she headed toward the light. She made far less effort to keep her step silent than her visitor, but it wasn’t like she was trying to preserve her own ability to sleep. Anymore.

Zap.

Sophe turned the corner into the bathroom, part annoyed and part curious at the late night interruption. Putting a stone bath behind her, she faced the window and sink. The candle she had followed backlit the intruder, but she was quickly learning to recognize that silhouette.

Jaren.

At the sight of him, all Sophe’s annoyance vanished. Not only would expressing those emotions be a terrible idea for her safety, but this was his house, his rules. And he was free to move about it as he chose. She had no right to tell him off. And that was even if he hadn’t made an attempt to be quiet, which she could easily conclude he had.

He probably wanted his privacy. Sophe started to turn again, this time to leave back the way she had come.

“Why do you think they do it?” Jaren was making no effort to whisper.

Sophe froze mid-step. Was he talking to her, or to himself? Should she answer?

Jaren looked her direction, eyebrows up, making the answer to her questions plain.

“Do what?” she asked, trying to comprehend the question he posed. She put her foot down again, hoping to appear more comfortable than she felt.

The dark man turned his gaze back to the candle. “Follow the light.”

As if in anticipation of her next question, nature responded. A moth – larger than those Sophe was used to seeing in the city – flitted its way close to the candle. Together, Sophe and Jaren watched it in silence as the insect went up to the flame, circling it several times. Then it hovered a moment, flapping in place as if entranced by the flame.

“Watch.” Jaren’s voice surprised her. She glanced his way before comprehending his order and looking back.

The moth had drifted dangerously close to the wick. It waited there, and Sophe with it, equally fascinated. She knew what it was going to do, but she still couldn’t look away. It got closer and closer, until it touched the light.

The moth suddenly dropped several inches before recovering itself. It nearly touched the floor when flight returned to the burned wings. The insect changed elevation several times as it struggled, taking its time as it attempted to escape the candle’s wrath.

A green light rolled across Jaren’s knuckles. He ended the casual gesture by pointing at the moth just as the insect started to leave the warm glow. Lightning issued from the man’s fingertip, arcing across the short space to the moth. Zap. It fluttered to the ground, now more leaf than living creature.

Jaren continued to stare at the flame, casual but pensive.

She should go. Sophe had come to learn who had dared trespass at this time of night, and to figure out what the zapping was. The answer to both was Jaren.

Before she could continue her movement, the odd man spoke. “Stay.”

Was he talking to her? It was an order, clearly, not an offer. Yet the room was narrow, with no place to sit even if she disobeyed him and brought the desk chair in.

“Is there something I can do for you?” She didn’t dare get closer to him until he offered, and leaving was equally out of question, so she waited where she had landed when she entered the room. “Do you need anything?”

“Nothing you can give.”

Another moth started to make its way toward the candle. Sophe wanted to shout at it, to warn it away before the insect got itself killed, but she didn’t dare move.

“Who is coming for you?” Jaren asked as they watched the next insect start to make the same mistake as its brother. The speaker shifted in his seat slightly, but still didn’t look her direction.

“No one,” Sophe responded. She had already come to that conclusion before she had met the man.

Jaren finally faced her way, but it was a challenging glare, as if daring her to lie to him again.

“It’s the truth!” Sophe felt the need to defend herself even though he hadn’t accused her of anything. “I –” am – “was a traveler. There is to be a new healing temple along the coast, and I was going to help them there. A surprise gift from my home, so to speak. So the place I’ve come from thinks I’m headed there, and my destination doesn’t know to expect me.” Rescue was as out of reach for her as mercy was for him.

“What about friends? Lovers?”

Sophe had acquaintances, maybe, but had spent most of her time alone, often in study. Anyone who bothered to get to know her realized they could do better once they saw her scar. “No.”

Zap.

She had known the sound was coming, yet it still gave her a start.

“Family?”

She was a constant reminder to her father of her mother’s death. He wouldn’t come searching for her even if word got out that she was being held captive here. “Not really.”

Another glance from him.

“No,” she amended.

“You’re a rarity then, aren’t you?”

Sophe didn’t know how to answer the question. She didn’t feel like a rarity. Still, she was expected to say something. “Why have you brought me here?”

Jaren turned in his spot again, offering a rare but attractive smile. “To make my life easier.”

She chanced a step toward him. “How?”

“With the children.” He was back to looking at her like she was an idiot, a thing to be used for a time, than thrown away. She was more than used to that.

“Knowing their stories might help.”

Jaren turned his gaze back to the candle, casually zapping both moths that had bothered to dance in the window. “I rescued them. Rhea was a runaway.” The girl was still a prisoner, though, wanting but unable to get back to her family. When she still had one. “Found Kuliere on the streets. I gave her a home.”

“And Trast?” Sophe prompted when Jaren didn’t continue.

“His family didn’t deserve him.” Bitterness laced Jaren’s every word. There was more story there, but Sophe decided against prying, at least tonight. Perhaps she could ask Trast himself to fill in some of the gaps.

“Will you rescue others?” Sophe asked, choosing her words with intention.

“If I have to.” Jaren’s ominous tone sent chills through Sophe despite the warm night.

“What about you?” Sophe asked. If she was going to help all of them, she was very aware that included Jaren. What was his story?

His head snapped back her direction. “I don’t need rescuing,” he snarled.

That wasn’t what she meant! “Sorry –” She didn’t stop step backward this time.

Jaren stood, facing her, emanating terrifying but wondrous power. “Do you want to keep prying?” His hands sparkled in the dimly lit night. Fear rippled through her at the memory of his casual slaughter of the moths.

“No, I just meant –” Sophe tripped on her own feet in her sudden scurry backward. She went down, palms ringing with pain as she tried to break her fall on the cold stone floor.

“Meant what, Sahni?”

Sophe barely registered that he had called her someone else’s name as she scurried backward on the floor, flipping over to hasten her retreat. She had to leave – to get out of there by any means necessary. “I’m sorry –”

“Sorry for what?” The crackling behind her intensified, lighting up the corners of the narrow room.

Sophe reached the door and scrambled through it to the closest thing she knew to safety. Jaren could still pursue her, clearly, but his intentions were made plain when the door slammed, aided with magical force, behind her.

Sophe couldn’t breathe fast enough to keep up with the pounding in her heart.

Slowly she realized the door wasn’t opening again. Jaren was sated – at least for now – by her absence once again. She couldn’t help but feel like she had taunted a monster and somehow escaped its terrible wrath. Not its. His.

Was she safe in here? No. The burn scar on the rug at her feet was evidence enough of that. To think – it was so easy for him to come in and just sweep her life away. But she wasn’t safe anywhere, not really. Still, Sophe couldn’t be in that room any longer. She pushed herself up and just started running.

Sophe couldn’t explain why she ran where she did, only that she needed to a sanctuary as far from Jaren’s wrath as she could find. There were no footsteps pursuing her, but once she started, she didn’t want to stop. Past the study. Alluring as the tomes within might be, it was too close to him. Farther up, until she ran out of stairs to climb. Through the door, into that tiny room with the desk and the dead flowers and the chair looking out the window. With nowhere else to go but no desire to stop, Sophe darted behind the chair and telescope, hidden with her back to the wall in complete darkness. The rest of the room was still bathed in moonlight, but here, so close to the window without looking from it, she was save in the black.

Just when her breathing was beginning to return to normal, a voice – his voice – intruded on her thoughts. Come back.

Jaren.

He wasn’t in the room, nor anywhere in sight. No, the voice had come from inside her, like a creature strangling her from her chest so it could overtake her mind.

Sophe had only felt that kind of invasion of privacy once before: when she had to use a topaz as a communication stone. It had been her mentor’s voice then, and she decided then and there that she didn’t like the sensation. Using a communication stone overtook her sense of self – her identity – in a way she wasn’t prepared to sacrifice.

You’re being dramatic. Nothing happened. Come back to your room, where you belong.

But she shouldn’t be hearing him at all. She had an opal, not a topaz. One would have to be touching her skin – or be connected by certain precious metals – in order for her to use it.

The necklace. She had worn it in obedience to Jaren, but she realized now that the central stone in the pendant was more. Not only magical, but an open connection that Jaren could use to keep an eye on her. If she were more powerful, she could edge him out for control over it. As it was, he could see and speak through it into her world.

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