The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear: Chapter Three

Hello, readers mine! This is the third of the five chapters I plan to post as free previews for The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear here on the blog. You may be aware that this is a change of plans. I know I did say that I intended to post all the same chapters here that will be available to preview on Smashwords, but I have a very good reason for changing my mind:

I want you to have an incentive to go to Smashwords because I do actually want you to buy and read the full book.

Terribly manipulative of me, I know.

It should go without saying by this point, but this chapter contains spoilers for The Necromancer and the Revenant–if you want to read that first, this is your cue to do so! You may find it on Smashwords here:

In this chapter, we see Syla and Len for the first time since the end of Revenant. Their task is a simple one, but onerous: enter the Lashing Rain school, find Gratai, and inform her of some most troubling news.

The school’s students, however, pose an altogether different trial for Syla…


Chapter Three

As On the First Day

(14th of Makye, 1295 V.R.)

“The human mind treasures cycles. It seeks to continue them. This is foolishness; all change begins with small differences. If you scorn them, you will never create large ones.” -Lei Tze, Philosopher, in his Paradigms and Virtues

Winter rains streamed down black bows and dribbled along emerald creepers. Somewhere downhill, through the storm-misted labyrinth of the bogs, a creature clucked and chirped from deep in its gullet. Syla wore a snug shirt in mauve linen and black pants. Her stiletto nestled against her hip, sheathed but ever-ready. Not that it helped against the rain. Syla went to such trouble to wrangle her obsidian mane this morning, with braided coils over each ear and one at her left temple. Divari had even smiled when she told Syla how pretty it looked—all this reduced to a wet dog’s coat.

A very regal wet dog, Syla thought, respected by all House Lin.

“It was sunny yesterday,” Uncle Len griped, scratching the burns across his deep brown face. His long black mustache dripped directly into his open coat-collar. “But oh, no, they had to camp at the waystation. The chaelins were tired. And here we are, walking in the rain again.”

“‘The willing embrace of hardship is an ornament to the warrior’s pride,'” Zhen-mi quoted, and Syla snickered. Zhen-mi, rich brown in complexion, wore a traditional mauve robe hemmed in white and stitched with golden vipers. Zhen-mi looked more girlish than Syla had come to expect from the northern Ton, and acted it too. Easy to forget she was a little older than Syla herself. It was refreshing.

“I’ll take my hardship on the battlefield, and much appreciated,” Len said. He raised a bushy black eyebrow at Syla. “Didn’t want to bring Divari along?”

At his left hip hung his venerable wedgepoint sword in a new scabbard: mauve inlaid with golden maze-patterns and secured by iron bands. A black-and-gold sash secured it to his waist and held his coat closed. “She could hold the rain off easily enough,” Len added suddenly, with the tone one used to explain something awkward.

Syla drew to a halt and pivoted to face him as she scrunched her brows with bemusement. “I’ll just cut under you before you grow too fond of a silly idea. There’s no blossoming romance here. Divari is pretty, and it would be politically useful if I seduced the future queen of Tresamer, but that’s not what it’s about.”

Zhen-mi squeaked. “Spoken so directly, my Lady Heir,” she said, with a telling dark cherry tint raising in her cheeks. Syla was equally as interested, but there were so many questions of power and hierarchy underlying that idea that she had no idea where to start.

“I didn’t mean to suggest…” Len began. Syla arched one brow higher and higher until he trailed off. “Can I be blamed for thinking it?” he amended.

“Yes!” Syla laughed, shaking her soggy head. “You can!” She sobered. “We both notice the whispers. No one in the Bastion is quite as subtle as they think. Divari… Divari would not be helped, I think, if I had taken an interest. She’s fighting herself often enough as it is.”  This was their code phrase for Divari’s periodic terrors. A measure to hide them from House Lin’s less compassionate members. A Tresar whelp scared of her own shadow, they would surely say. “You know how much of her it takes. And…” Syla continued, then went silent; Len understood her meaning well enough anyway.

At his right hung Corpsefire Clarion. The sword carried too many details to tally at a glance. A mauve silk grip, a black disc-guard, aged brass scabbard. Syla preferred seeing it only as blurred impressions, for it was a hateful masterpiece. Mei-la Sairo was imprisoned within it. Who could rest easy with the tormented ex-Revenant kept so close, kept in a longsword that bobbed with each splashing step?

“The nature of the news would not likely help,” Zhen-mi added, folding her hands.

“We won’t discuss that here, Zhen-mi,” Syla said. Of course, in her own mind, she’d done nothing but think about it since hearing it.

A hearthwoman had smuggled the message: amidst Tresamer’s worsening civil war, Chelar Sidra’s “Loar weapon” had resurfaced. Now the Inferno Matriarch must decide whether to seek it.

The ancient stonework beneath their booted feet squeaked and echoed as they took a turn. They entered what was once a fully-enclosed tunnel. Scaffolds and mason’s tools were littered about, abandoned for the moment in deference to the Ton-Ga’s deluge. The floor’s oranges and reds were stronger, once, to stand out against the grim black columns framing it and upholding the time-punctured roofing.  The path had faded under many storms like this, washed pale here, grimy there. Some of the stones were so worn through that they appeared like raw silicate upthrust from the bowels of Canno rather than proper masonry.

“‘Age brings nuance to the gaudiest smear,'” Syla quoted, nudging Zhen-mi. Her handmaiden giggled. They made an odd pair indeed: Syla with her smooth russet skin and wild obsidian hair, a triangle nose and amber eyes the main nods to her Firascan heritage.

Zhen-mi was short for north Ton warstock—”only” thirteen centimeters above Syla’s own one-hundred sixty. Intense training had long since filled out Zhen-mi’s shoulders and torso; bearing four children, three sons and a daughter, had done the same for her hips. She’d taken to arranging her hair more artfully, a stray lock here, pinned over the ear there. She wore it in a loose cascade at the back, rare among House Lin’s warriors.

Zhen-mi was blooded. She had served under General Shung during last year’s offensive. Five Sairo warriors slain, a banner taken, and appointment to Syla’s retinue as a reward. It was an unspoken oddity between them that Syla had more and grizzlier combat experience—in exterminating slavers, and in confronting the Revenant Mei-la three times.

“Ah, finally,” Len said. They now passed into a properly enclosed hallway padded by soft dark green moss. Purple blossoms poked up in a few places. Wooden ramparts finished in dark red with iron bolts and braces supported new stone, pale grey-blues with an occasional block in a marbled cerulean and silver pattern: dyestone salvaged from Moriah’s quarries at Birmel. Fronds hung down from the ceilings and had to be brushed aside.

When they came to a new, reinforced door with three violet runes glowing on its surface, Len delivered a heavy knock. Orange sparks flew and a horrible scraping sound echoed through the tunnels as the wards on Len’s amulet clashed with those on the door. He turned to Syla with a mortified grimace.

“Well, I’m sure they heard us, anyway,” he said.

“I think the whole world heard us,” Zhen-mi said. Len gave her a flat look.

“That’s something like Meyakind’s war-cry,” Syla said. ” ‘When we march, the world shakes.'” Len looked back and forth between them, increasingly adrift.

“Was it? Nothing about the world burning?” Zhen-mi asked.

“That would be much more poetic. They’d probably have ruled it for a while if it were so,” Syla said. “Perhaps on some other world it is so.”

“There’s a bit more to building an empire than that,” Len said.

“It’s banter, uncle,” Syla said. “You don’t need to take it too seriously. The only person with less to prove than you is, well, mother. Rest easy, hm?” She smiled at him. “You’re warstock as it comes. You’ve earned a little satisfaction in it.”

Len’s lips and brow drew inward towards his nose in sudden, deep concentration. Syla just had time to wonder why he wasn’t pleased. Then they heard a scuffling on the door’s other side. After another moment, a wiry Tonnish woman hauled it open. “Lord Lin,” she greeted him, and then added, “My Lady Heir. Be welcome in the Lashing Rain school.”

Syla elected to hold her peace. Azukai’s speech upon the day her mother ascended the Terase throne had settled most of the house in Syla’s favor. Yet it soon became clear that the warstock had layers within itself, and its elite held themselves as far above their peers as the wider warstock did above the peacestock. If Azukai’s elaborate storytelling had failed, then Syla hadn’t the first idea how else to make a bunch of two-meter tall killers born take her seriously. So silence it was, and meeting the martial artist’s cold gaze in kind.

The woman stepped aside and held the door ajar. Behind her stretched a hallway more overgrown even than the entryway, with only traces of black stonework and ancient copper alcoves visible through the green moss and roots.

“You didn’t make any effort to identify us before opening the door, warrior, as far as I could see,” Syla said.

“The Matriarch, generous and wise, undertook to enchant the inner side so that we can press a rune and see what lies without,” the Lashing Rain student said. “In this way we ensure that if we look upon an enemy, there is no slot in the door through which they might strike.” Her tone made it clear what kinds of enemies she might be referring to.

Len growled low in his throat. “It has been observed, warrior, that it is easier to call oneself subtle than actually be subtle. Careful you don’t become too prideful.”

The student bowed, shamefaced. “Of course, my lord. I will meditate on this.” She waited for them to enter the hall, sealed the door, and hurried ahead. A wash of smells wrapped around them: earthy stone and faintest mold, but so too oil, leather, and sweat.

“You could’ve done the same, Syla,” Len whispered.

“Could I?” Syla asked. “Both of us could’ve killed her, Len—I more easily in space this tight. It’s not what either of us can do that’s the difference. It’s how she sees us.”

“Then she is stupid and should be punished!” Zhen-mi hissed.

“I would just be seen as—” Syla started.

“That’ll only make them think—” Len said. They both halted.

At length, Syla cleared her throat and continued, “They would see me as a weakling using the rules to assert herself because she has no worthier way to do so. If I challenged her to fight over the insult she would refuse, with or without an excuse, or else choose dueling conditions under which she knew I’d have no chance of winning.” Syla was bitterly aware that these would be nearly any dueling conditions. Aloud, she concluded, “That leaves killing her without warning, which is illegal, would see me branded a psychopath, and is certainly evil, or having her assassinated, which either creates the same problem or looks like an accident and thus proves nothing.”

“Oh,” Zhen-mi said. It was true enough she was blooded. Yet she was used to honorable striving against worthy foes. Gory and frightful, more perilous in the moment, but clearly defined. And it had an end. Petty intrigue was an infinite nest of fangs.

“It’s hard to change others’ minds about me when they’re determined to see everything I do as wrong,” Syla said. She couldn’t help but chuckle, though with little humor. “Mother posed me just the same problem when first we met.”

“Then surely you will know best how to mend it!” Zhen-mi said, brimming enthusiasm.

“I should,” Syla agreed. “We’ll see if I actually do.”

On they walked through the halls of the Lashing Rain school. They entered a series of rooms where the walls curved to meet each other in odd convex corners and the ceilings all had a twisting, vaulted look. Rainwater dripped through occasional cracks, though many had been sealed with glossy metals—copper and brass, from the looks of it. They seemed to have merged with the stonework somehow. The metal’s colors spread out and diluted until the dark stone consumed them. Benches and racks of practice weapons occupied alcoves beneath merry torches. Syla heard a distant clattering sound and occasional shouts.

The door guard was speaking with another student directly ahead. This one nodded twice. The first woman whispered something and hurried back towards the main door. She brushed past without meeting Syla’s gaze.

“I must apologize for Lei-zhu,” the new student said. Her face was brightened along the temples, cheeks and jaws by many odd bright patterns. With another few steps, it became apparent they were scars. Syla recognized them from her childhood in Firasca.

Mensur scars, yes?” Syla asked. “You’ve been to Stoßdär?”

“On the Grandmaster’s most recent return visit,” the student agreed. She was more heavily built than her fellow student, with beefy arms and a respectable gut. She had a pleasant face and lively umber eyes. “She’s too stupid to realize that thinking ill of you is the same as thinking ill of your mother, My Lady Heir.”
            Syla raised an eyebrow. “And you wouldn’t think well of me if you hadn’t realized that, warrior…?”

“Shai of the Yixiao family,” Shai said, and bowed. “Specifically, we are a cadet branch—”

“—originally descended from Ten-zai’s third daughter, Min-wei, since having briefly joined House Huan somewhere between 73 and 122 V.R. in a failed attempt to seize the throne. You were nevertheless recognized by each Lin Matriarch since reintegration in 138 V.R. as family, and favored with a marriage when it’s deemed the bloodlines have grown too far apart,” Syla recited. “Mother says you are progressing very well, Shai.”

“I…” Shai stuttered to a halt.

“Please don’t assume I can do that with everyone,” Syla said. “It behooves us to keep your family close, and remember you well.”

“Of course, My Lady Heir,” Shai said. “I, er… thank you. Shall I bring you to the Matriarch, then, and the Grandmaster?”

“That would be appropriate,” Syla said. She waited a moment, allowing Shai to move further ahead so Len could whisper the quip she saw him fighting back.

“Syla, that was terrifying,” Len said. “Like a tiny Uru.”

“Only I’m not a tiny Uru,” Syla said. “I’m a statuesque Syla.” At Len’s raised eyebrow she grinned. “I swear to you, all the other Sylas in Firasca are much shorter than I.” She soured. “It was just some dusty lore, Len. It’s not as though I know who she is, really.”

“But you seemed like you did,” Len said. “If you can teach yourself to do that with the others, they’ll crumble just as quickly as young Shai did.”

“Hm,” Syla acknowledged, but she said nothing more. Then she frowned. “Len, you’re what, twenty-five semesters old? She’s at least as old as you are.” And older than I, she thought.

“In semesters, yes,” Len said. “In experience, no.”

Zhen-mi nodded. “There are many millions of women in the Ton-Ga, but only two who rushed Revenant Mei-la with a sword. Do not let the rest forget it.”

Syla took the time to contemplate this. Meanwhile they reached the school’s inner sanctum at last. Shai led them through a pair of all-steel doors which rippled occasionally with violet gleams. Mother’s certainly come to enjoy leaving her maker’s mark, Syla thought. Then, she smiled a little to herself. Of course she has. It’s both a calculated display of power and a way to keep the Lashing Rain school in her debt for decades to come.

“Do mind your step, My Lady Heir, Lord Lin,” Shai said, pulling Syla back to the present. “We are repairing the damaged areas as quickly as we can, but there’s so much work to do, and only so much we can address without losing some of our school’s training value.”

They emerged onto an unusual pronged terrace; a protrusion from each prong’s end flowed into walkways crafted entirely from a gleaming, reflective metal. It showed not a speck of rust even though the stonework around it had crumbled entirely in many places. A crevice broke through one of the school’s original walls. Though filled by new stonework now, it had allowed the bogs and their dour plantlife to claim a tiny valley. The wilderness siege-party came complete with vines, creepers, and algae-skinned water.

Muggy gusts laden with pollen and the musk of bog-blooms mingled with the scent of rain. These, and the downpour’s ambient pattern, wove around and into the senses as a cocoon against time and the violence of the world. Though aware of her companions beside her, Syla sank into that cocoon. Her own breath seemed at times to match the wind’s surges and sighs. The rain’s comings and goings echoed, almost, her beating heart’s cadence. A blanketing peacefulness grew. A thing outside explaining. Or perhaps it was simple: there was no fear of the future when cradled amid the magnetic unknown of the past.

Linking highest of all against the sky, the walkways formed spiraling arcs connecting seven cylindrical towers with empty channels and holes in their sides. Devices of some kind had clearly filled the crevices once. Time or scavengers stole them away. The towers were arranged around a heavy black-stone pentagon, a sprawling thing rising five stories above Syla and the others which jutted from the depths of a pit easily three times that in depth.

Once straight-sided, wind, rain, and human hands had etched every side of the pit into a different shape: pathways on the north side, collapsed material forming a jagged ramp on the south, caves on the east and west with a few ancient hovels rotting in their depths. The stone pentagon’s fifth point held the grandest tower of all. Five green copper beams connected some of the smaller towers to it. It looked to have been some sort of framework.

“What can all this be for, anyway?” Len wondered aloud. The clattering and shouts Syla had heard earlier were louder now, but their volume changed rapidly. Rather, she realized, the sources were moving quickly.

“Something to do with the Age of Splendors,” Syla said. “I recognize that stuff the walkways are made from. It’s some alloy they used to be able to make in huge amounts. Last I heard, some metallurgist had recovered the recipe and meant to start forging it again, but he had no idea how they got so much of it.”

“Magic?” Zhen-mi suggested.

“Industry, more likely,” Len said. “A mage is a mage. Always expensive, always risky.”

After a few seconds, Shai cleared her throat. “It seems they might be a little while. I would invite you along, but the Grandmaster is a great admirer of Helenenburg’s Scarlet Avenue and the grounds are therefore reserved for sparring.”

“Well, I’d certainly rather not take any blows to the head,” Syla said. “Best of luck, Shai.”

Shai nodded and hurried back into the hallway they’d come from. She soon emerged again carrying a practice spear. She threw it with practiced ease into a thick mossy mound below. She moved to a crude ladder cut into one of the unusual towers and started her descent. Syla watched Shai for a moment before speaking to Len without turning.

“It’s happening more often,” she said.

Len waited a moment before answering. “Syla, you don’t know that. It would make sense that Mou-chi…” he stopped himself and emphasized, “our mother helped a member of the Yixiao family attend the same school as Gratai. It’s a good way to keep them close, yes?”

“Well of course! If it were too absurd, it wouldn’t have happened. We want it to stop raining, but a storm doesn’t just cease to exist at a breath. But Shai? She was right here waiting,” Syla said. “Like she’d been summoned. When we needed her, we met Chendreth.” She continued and ticked off points on her fingers. Zhen-mi watched them argue, baffled. “But I think it goes back much earlier. Mother needed someone she could trust. She met Scutes. We needed not just allies, but allies who knew how to deal with evil spirits. I walked by Ilo at the exact moment he was speaking about how he and Kiresa needed more help anyway.”

“I don’t know that that turned out so well for them, Syla,” Len murmured.

“It didn’t,” Syla said. “But it turned out well for us. For mother. Or… better than it would have, otherwise.”

“Look, Syla, I’ve heard this kind of talk before,” Len said. “Soldiers look at coincidences over the weeks or months of a campaign, especially between battles. They see all these times they cheated death and others didn’t, and they say, ‘someone has to be looking out for me. There’s no way I could’ve survived that otherwise.’ But it’s just in their minds.”

“That’s not the same!” Syla persisted. “Those are times when something could happen, but doesn’t. I’m talking about times when the sort of things that effectively never happen, happen! I learned not to trust luck as a thief, Len—and don’t get me ranting about the ridiculous stories that say otherwise, insults and playwright’s self-pleasuring, the lot of them—and they keep happening more and more often around us.”

“Alright, so what if they do?” Len asked. “Why is it a problem?”

“I…” Syla pursed her lips and scrubbed her damp hair. “I don’t know, Len,” she said. “It’s not the way of things. I suppose maybe I am overreacting, a little, but mortals don’t have powers like that. Shouldn’t I be worried? Something happened at the Redoubt. While Divari and I were hidden by Usvana’s remnants. While you and all the others were unconscious or too delirious from blood loss to see. Whatever mother did, she frightened Morkui Bano.” Syla looked meaningfully at Corpsefire Clarion, and the arterial red of the blossoms which appeared on its bright-polished fittings after it ensnared Mei-la.

“The only other time we saw him close to thatterrified, it was after Azukai finished telling him he would rot alive without our help. And I don’t think Mei-la looks as wretched as she does when you draw that sword just because she’s trapped. And speaking of Azu, do I really need to mention how cocky she’s grown? She’s drunk on some monstrous secret. Has it not occurred to you to be concerned simply because Azukai, of all people, won’t tell us?”

“Hm,” Len said, and made no further arguments. The distant clatters and shouts grew closer, then more distant again. Wood retorts echoed through the school-depths without their source ever quite entering sight. Finally Len looked skyward. “That’s it, I’m going to look for them,” and even as he said it there came a tumult from an old cellar-tunnel now exposed by the boggy crevice cutting into the school’s grounds.

 A Tonnish man whirled out from the tunnel. He looked rather the worse for wear as he heaved for breath in his padded practice armor. He leveled his wooden spear at the tunnel entrance. He thrust back into the darkened tunnel, or tried to rather, for a downward flicker hammered his spear from his grasp. For but an eyeblink the opposing spear halted at that hammer-stroke’s end. It was just under three meters long with a wooden guard surmounted by a heavy “blade”: a practice reaping spear.

Before the student could grapple it in its pause, the other spear darted past him and then retracted. Its guard caught him behind the head and yanked him forward. Even as he stumbled a mauve blur swept past him and planted the reaping spear’s counterweight in his back. Wards sparked and he launched into the tunnel, causing shouts of startlement.

“Don’t you dare say ‘I warned you,'” Len muttered to Syla.

Gratai Lin, Matriarch of Her House, was unmistakable. Her ornate deep-mauve robe, this one broken up by broad white bands stitched with black eels, trimmed gold at the hems, swirled above blackened steel boots and imported Ceslonian sabatons. At two-hundred thirteen centimeters tall, Gratai was towering even by the Ton-Ga’s measure. She was heavily muscled from her shoulders to her calves, though less sharply defined than some of her people. Of her face naught could be seen from this angle. Her infamous shock-white skin and silken black hair created as stark a contrast as ever.

These were familiar features to Syla, yet she could no longer ignore the signs: the way the long bang-tresses her mother so treasured arced out as Gratai spun to a halt. The way her hair and robes and baggy black pants—untucked today—formed the most graceful lines possible. No single detail was impossible, even the bog-water forming a broad spray behind her. The impossibility emerged from their combined aesthetic perfection. The best of Canno’s painters might, barely, grasp lines of motion well enough to produce one such masterwork image of a warrior born.

Syla glanced sideways at Len; he pointedly avoided her gaze. For one might blink a hundred times whenever Gratai the Inferno Matriarch moved, and with each blink capture portraits just as immaculate.

Then there was stillness. Gratai waited. Syla’s eye was drawn to a pair of students moving above the boggy-crevice, quickly and quietly. They shifted their spears with ease to keep them from tangling in vines or upsetting branches. This must be what Shai meant about the school’s condition making it a better training ground. Here they could practice handling a spear despite the bogs’ impediments, but with safe haven and aid to hand if some poisonous threat caught them unawares. When the students reached the lip of the crevice, they vaulted downslope suddenly and loosed guttural war-cries.

“Is not ‘Je-rah’ our traditional war-cry?” Zhen-mi asked.

“It would be a little odd to shout the house’s war-cry when attacking the Matriarch, training or no,” Syla said.

“Oh. That is true, My Lady Heir,” Zhen-mi said, and laughed.

Gratai kept her attention on the tunnels, or seemed to. One of the flanking pair shifted his spear to throw it. It was a fine throw complete with a shift of his footing so his right foot stomped down even as the spear leapt from his hand. The long wooden shaft hurtled through the rain-misted air. Gratai simply leaned backward to avoid it, and in that instant the other Lashing Rain students attacked.

To see clearly what transpired in that instant would have required a mind as swift, in fact, as that of Gratai herself: the whole mess took about three seconds. Five more students in practice armor charged from the tunnel en masse. Gratai flashed into a blur of limbs and a uniform arc, brief as a lightning stroke, that ended with a crashing snarl of wood on wood. That thrown practice spear exploded sidelong at the charging students. It caused none of them to fall. But two did break ranks to dodge it and the others either leapt over it or tried to swat it away with their own spears.

At this point the flanking pair reached Gratai. The one who’d thrown his spear tried to grab hers as she turned to face him, even while his partner made a thrust with her own spear. Then Gratai was past the thrust. She must have made another move because the would-be grappler was on the other side of her with his helm ringing against an uppercut from one of the other students. A lateral band of glowing cracks opened on his wards, and a crater of the same on those of a third whose origin was shown only by a bloom of sparks on the rebounding counterweight of Gratai’s practice spear. She twisted around another thrust to retaliate with one of her own, and dealt “death” blows to the last three students with vast lunging steps that let her cut right around their guards and strike each in the head.

Len blew out a puff of air. “Brazen gods, sister, there’s no need to humiliate them like that.”

“Isn’t there?” Syla asked. “I’d hope Grandmaster Cho teaches his students well enough that they’d know if she took it easy on them.”

“There’s only so much you can learn by having someone crush you, Syla,” Len said.

Below, the Lashing Rain students hauled themselves upright. “That’ll do!” a burly man bellowed, stepping out from the tunnel. “Well done, all of you. Do not forget that our Matriarch has confronted the Vigil. She destroyed Mei-la Sairo. And, she has always been among my best students.”

“And though I cannot foresee all time’s wavers, my young warriors, I deem with another year’s training you’ll seize fiercer skill than I possessed at your age,” Gratai said, and bowed.

It was her voice that truly did it, of course: sonorous, deep, and feminine, with a ringing quality that made one hear her and yearn to obey. Gratai Lin’s words held something more than sound these days. Even Syla found it hard to hear her mother speak without wanting to believe in the reality her words suggested. It was entrancing, and deeply, deeply frightening. Hei Cho’s students didn’t know to be frightened. So if they were bruised they showed it little, swaggering and jostling each other on the way back to their quarters.

Even while Syla watched, Gratai chanced to turn and look up. “Syla dear!” she called immediately. With a quick swipe of her hand she opened a portal—a slash on the air streaming violet fire. She hurried through, and Syla couldn’t have avoided the coming embrace if she’d wanted to. Not that she did; Gratai was, after all, the mother she chose.

So she was enveloped in plush silks, aromas of sweet incense, and clove oil. In an instant that embrace conferred as much warmth and muzzying comfort as might be felt at the utmost end of a long evening spent curled up in bed with a good book and a well-spiced wine—so lulled and safe that it was a shock to wake the next morning and realize sleep had come.

Small murmurs within a stubborn fastness of Syla’s mind called this dangerous. There were supposed to be limits on the emotional power of a hug, no matter who gave it. 

Those murmurs were long silent by the time they stepped apart. The Matriarch’s visage was beautiful, of course, in its uncanny way: her skin clear and gossamer-smooth, cheeks full yet graceful, an elegant curving nose, full lips, radiant scarlet eyes beneath sharp brows with a proud arch at the outside, all set above a crisp jawline. Gratai had come to relish relying mainly on black pigments; she said they suited her “vaunted facade”.

Syla was not normally one to obsess over a face’s details. With her mother she could no longer do otherwise. There was no ignoring the way a single lock of hair had escaped the neat-combed ranks to dangle over one amethyst eye. Gratai looked so tender, so motherly, with that stray lock as if she’d hurried from her own bed to soothe Syla after a nightmare, that again the only fitting comparison was a painting or perhaps a fable’s prime character. No amount of effort would let a real human attain this.

Gratai’s reality could not be denied. It was the ‘human’ part of the quandary that posed silent strife. There are things in that woman’s mind you can’t know, Usvana had told Syla. It wasn’t that Syla didn’t trust her mother. It was that Syla couldn’t trust herself when her mother was present.

Hei Cho stepped through the portal a moment later. He was a massive man despite looking short next to Gratai at six foot three, with a bellows of a gut, broad chest and thick muscular arms. Bald, but with a magnificent black goatee and gleaming amber eyes, he looked poised to move mountains if they were stupid enough not to move on their own.

“If you had told me you were going to try half of the things you tried today, young one, I would have told you that you’d forgotten everything I taught you,” he said to Gratai. “Now, I’m beginning to think you always knew something I did not.” He spoke common, an obvious courtesy to Syla. Or is it a veiled reminder that I’m not my mother, again? Syla thought. Hei Cho must be better than that… mustn’t he?

“Your wisdom gleams the brighter for my tarnished years,” Gratai said, but Hei Cho was already shaking his head.

“I’ve been too long at rest in the Ton-Ga,” Hei Cho said. “When we went to Helenenburg I found there’s a new grandmaster of the halberd sweeping the Fechtschulen. Teisse Ringenmach. He is a reedy one—a reed with spring, yes, and sting in him too! I bested him, but not because I was better. I promise you he’d take the day if we sparred again. I’m just a bit too far behind now, Thinvine.”

“Thinvine?” Syla asked, unable to help herself.

Gratai chuckled. “Master weaved this title for me because I insisted on seizing new techniques and ideas every dawn, long before I mastered those I’d latched upon already. He said I invoked a greedy vine seeking to tangle a forest without setting roots in water—doomed to wither if I wandered much farther.”

“If she had waited to master the basics first, she’d have been my single best student without a doubt,” Hei Cho said. “Instead she kept having to relearn techniques because she’d ignored the concepts which drove them.” He shook his head and smiled fondly. “As I said, perhaps the Matriarch understood something I did not.”

“You always have something to teach me,” Gratai said, and preempted any response by turning back to Syla. “Now, heart, what brings you to our storm-wracked sanctum?”

Syla waited a moment, measuring her answer.

Syla nodded. “I agree. However,” she took several deepening breaths to combat her heart’s increasing gallop as she turned to Hei Cho. “Honored Grandmaster, I have a request to make of your students if they are willing.”

Hei Cho eyed her with a special kind of clarity she’d come to recognize as the mark of a teacher letting a student make a mistake for their own good. “Oh?” he asked.

“Can they spare the energy to meet a challenge?” Syla asked.

“My Lady Heir,” Zhen-mi interjected, “I must argue against this.”

“Proper retainers do not speak out turn,” Len said. Syla reached up to grasp his shoulder. She’d come to think of Len as immovable. It surprised her to feel him shift with the gesture, though only slightly.

“But good retainers do,” she said. She held his gaze until he twitched his lips into a brief, sullen scrunch and nodded assent. She turned to Zhen-mi. “Say what you would.”

“I understand what you intend to do, my Lady Heir, and I want to say that it is the right path, but through the lens of what his Lordship your uncle has said, and what I have observed of Hei Cho’s students, I think it is pointless. Those who would respect you for this challenge will show you respect already. Those who rebel will only take it as proof.”

Syla closed her eyes, pursed her lips, and nodded along with Zhen-mi’s words. “Grandmaster, if they hear the challenge, how many will accept?”

“How many of my students will you challenge? That is the number who will meet it,” he answered.

Syla nodded firmly. “Then it will be all of them,” she said.

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