The 19th day of early summer, 530 A.E./A.F.
Azosh-ek trembled as the first sacrifice toppled over, face first, onto packed earth.
He tried not to breathe, but it did no good. The after-echoes of the heathen’s death surrounded him like flames. Hundreds of tiny, purple-edged wisps of gold licked at his bloodied robe, squeezing through the needle holes and seams of the fabric to curl around his skin.
Bile burned in his throat at the sight. He ought to weep—no, he needed to flee! While this city of unbelievers did not keep a proper starwatch, there were regular patrols, and the next one was due to arrive any moment. But a wild laugh escaped his lips, one that made him want to embrace the night and dance.
Azosh-ek did none of those things.
He turned the body over instead and frantically hacked away at the corpse with the sacred blade Iweth-na had left behind—like some hog butcher using a common knife.
This was all wrong.
Even reclaiming his anchor from the heathen’s neck—feeling the weight of its black chain settle across his collarbones, its cool crystalline bite, and the familiar drain on his emotions—failed to comfort him. Iweth-na’s absence from his mind was a yawning void. It gaped open like the dead man’s chest, ragged edges alternating with neat incisions. Nothing like his usual delicate knifework; without Iweth-na to rule over his conflicting compulsions, his shaking hands had made a mockery of the holy rite.
Stars were not supposed to be alone. Not unless they were damned.
He carefully arranged the limbs, then opened a vein in his left arm to add an offering of his own. That was not part of his instructions, merely ritual tradition. Uvesht-mo said the forms did not matter, but the forms were all he had left.
May the Starfather look past his transgressions and judge him on faith alone.
His work complete, Azosh-ek stood stiffly, sacred blade in one hand, lumpy crystal in the other, and turned away from the mouth of the courtyard, towards the street. The moon was high now, a silver blaze that burned away the deepnight shadows in the courtyard, and he could hear the distant tread of booted feet.
Time to be gone.
Chapter 1: Payment
Petition Day, the 22nd day of early summer, 530 A.E./A.F.
Propping open her ink-splattered parchment with her elbows, Rahelu regarded her only means of getting her family out of their miserable existence in the Lowdocks and wished she could start over. Her cramped letters were barely visible—she had diluted her squid ink with so much water it left her brush pen as a faint gray trail.
If only she could afford proper resonance ink! Then she could attach her memories as proof of her abilities instead of relying on mere words.
It doesn’t matter, she told herself as the dim light from the lamp flickered. By some miracle, the meager amount of fish oil had lasted all night. The Houses will read every word of every Petition, no matter how unpolished, as long as I submit it on time.
The very last essay question swam before her heavy eyes:
Enumerate the reasons why you would be an asset as a Supplicant. Provide specific examples of your mastery of the resonance disciplines.
Another one. Another question asking her to sell herself. The nonsense she’d written in response would make anyone laugh:
I am an experienced hunter (solo and group) with knife, spear, and rope-net, with over a thousand kills to my spear.
If fishing qualified. According to the Isonn trainees, it didn’t—even if you needed quite a lot of skill to spear a moving target underwater—because fish weren’t capable of spearing back.
I can hit a medium-sized target nine times in ten at a distance of twenty-five strides, or four times in five at thirty-five strides. My best verified throw is—
The lamp guttered out, plunging the interior of the hut into darkness. Thankfully, she could see just the faintest hint of the sky beginning to lighten, so she quietly gathered up her parchment, brush pen, the broken glass bottle that passed as her inkstand, and the half-splintered wooden stool she had been using as a desk.
She was not quiet enough and her mother stirred. “Nela?”
“Go back to sleep, anma,” Rahelu said. “There is still another half-span before dawn.”
Her mother sat up, and Rahelu braced herself for what was coming next.
“You did not sleep again.” Disapproval emanated from her mother’s figure in slow, rolling waves of resonance that filled their cramped living quarters like the rising tide.
Maybe she should ask her mother for help. Her mother could sell anything to anybody, even with only broken Aleznuaweithish and gestures.
But Petitioning was Rahelu’s responsibility, not her mother’s, so Rahelu only said, “It will be fine, anma. I am almost done,” and ducked past the thin cotton sheet.
Rahelu walked several hundred strides down the rocky hillside until distance softened those waves of resonance to gentle lapping. There, submerged in the shallows of her mother’s disapproval, she set up her makeshift study on a lonely patch of damp grass to review her Petition for the eighth time.
Was there anything, anything else she could possibly write, at all, to convince the Houses to accept her as a Petitioner?
Another quarter-span of hard thinking yielded no further ideas, though it did bring her father out, burdened with an assortment of nets, poles, traps, and her breakfast.
Rahelu leapt up to take the dented wooden bowl from him so he wouldn’t have to bend down. As he released his grip, she clipped the side of the stool with her knee, sending her inkstand and parchment sliding.
She lunged forward and saved her Petition—at the minor cost of several slices on three fingertips, one large ink stain, and her breakfast.
Her father kept his resonance aura muted, as always, but after her first year of Guild training, she’d gotten good enough to Seek out the emotions beneath his untrained Obfuscation. Right now, his aura was full of resignation, thoroughly tempered with love.
Her mother, however, her mother’s exasperation—if she discovered this—was such a virtual certainty that an echo of that possible future manifested at Rahelu’s mere thought:
‘How can you be so clumsy? Look at all this wasted food!’ Her mother waves the bowl in her face, with only a smattering of rice grains and smaller flakes of boiled fish still stuck to the inside. ‘Do you know how much this costs? A single grain of rice—’
Rahelu swiped her bleeding fingers through the ghostly vision and cut off the Augury. “Please don’t tell anma.”
Her father took out a bamboo-leaf-wrapped parcel of smoked fish from his tunic pocket and offered it to her; just as silently, she shook her head and sat back down, righting her fallen stool and parchment.
“See you at the pier at sundown,” her father said.
He did not add ‘with good news’; he only ruffled her hair—like she was still a child—and trudged down the hill towards the Lowdocks proper, leaving her to salvage what she could.
The damage to her Petition was contained to one unsightly splotch that had obliterated the rubbish she’d written about the number of kills to her spear, but putting her food back in the bowl was a lost cause.
Tears prickled at the corners of her eyes as she chewed on handfuls of cold rice, boiled fish, and grass.
Food was food.
And the Houses would not judge her Petition on something as trivial as penmanship.
When it came to recruiting Petitioners, the Houses cast a wide net on purpose. They didn’t want to miss any resonance talent. In the Dominion of Aleznuaweite, anyone could rise above their station if they worked hard and persevered.
That was the dream that had driven her parents to give up everything and move to the city of Ennuost Yrg. Rahelu shared that dream; she had sworn, with all the solemnity of a twelve-year-old child, to achieve it at all costs. It was the hope that sustained them through the bitter reality of scraping by in Lowdocks.
And finally, after seven long years, that dream was within reach.
If Rahelu’s Petition was good enough to be accepted.
Of no House and no family name.
And no sponsor.
Her Guild instructors had either given her blunt suggestions to invest in private tutoring (she’d nearly choked holding in her hysterical laughter at the notion) or had already reached their sponsorship limits.
Well, having a sponsor wasn’t a mandatory requirement. No sense in worrying about something she couldn’t control.
Guild rating: Graduate in good standing (accredited on the 15th day of early summer, 530 A.F.)
Rahelu’s parents had not attended the grand ceremony last week. She had not expected them to; truthfully, she had not wanted to attend either.
The Guild’s violet seal was stamped over the words; it shimmered faintly in the predawn light. She traced the lines with one nail, its edge catching on the tiny bumps of dried resonance crystal dust. Her fingertip tingled, and she was pulled back in time to the Guild Registrar’s office two days ago:
The Guild Registrar wrinkles his nose at the unkempt girl before him. The odor of fish is overpowering the potted starbloom he keeps in his office for this very purpose and his resonance aura shifts into a queasy green-brown.
Her aura flares an indignant red in response—poor emotional control—as he authenticates her rating. Not the worst he’s seen—actually a good deal better than some House-born—but not good enough for a sponsor.
No doubt he’d see her year after year, until she realizes her time would be better spent focusing on her family’s trade.
Stormbringer. Whoever reviewed her Petition would see that too. She wanted to dismiss the Guild Registrar’s opinions, just like he had dismissed her, but she couldn’t argue with his points.
She didn’t have any more time to agonize, though, because the sun was about to peek over the horizon.
Rahelu hurried back up the hill towards their cramped little hut, cursing. She’d idled for far too long, and now they would be late. There was still ink and blood to be washed off her hands and—
A hundred strides away, just outside their doorway, were two people wearing the forest-green-and-tan of House Isonn: a clerk brandishing a scroll and a heavily muscled bailiff who towered over her mother.
“Move!” Muscles said, her words carrying easily in the quiet of early dawn. “You had your final warning two days ago, and still you did not make your lease payment by sundown yesterday.”
That money had gone to the Guild. To pay the processing fee for authenticating Rahelu’s Petition.
Her mother bowed but stayed planted in their doorway. “We are sorry to be late,” she said in broken, heavily accented Aleznuaweithish. “We sell more fish today. Tomorrow. We pay tomorrow. Yes?”
Eighty strides to go.
Rahelu dropped the stool, her brush pen, and broken glass bottle and ran, rolling up her Petition and tucking it inside her tunic as her sandalled feet pounded up the rocky hillside.
“The House has given you lenient terms—well beyond the norm—and you have abused the House’s generosity for far too long,” the clerk said. “This is a lease with a defined schedule of installments, not an act of charity. Step aside so we can inventory and seize the assets you have in lieu of the overdue repayments.”
“Yes, I understand we need to make the repayment.” Her mother’s resonance aura was full of swirling gray confusion; she spread empty hands. “We pay some later today, after we sell more fish. And we pay more money tomorrow. Please.”
“Dumb Chanazian ghelik doesn’t understand,” Muscles said to the clerk and spat.
Rahelu’s face flushed. Familiar old anger seethed; out past her resonance ward, turning her aura a glowing red.
“There’ll be nothing inside worth hauling away. Just note that down so we can get out of this stinking slum. You can revoke the validity of the fishing license on that junk vessel back at headquarters, and I can go back to sleep. This is no decent span for respectable folks to be up.”
Twenty strides. Muscles was twenty strides away.
“I can’t do that without completing a physical inventory; it won’t pass an audit from the House Seekers—”
“—so just do what you need to do to move her out of the way.”
“Hey!” Rahelu shouted, trying to bury her anger. Anger wasn’t going to help; she needed something else. She drew on the swirling confusion around her mother, shaping the resonance into a fuzzy gray spear that vibrated with uncertainty.
The three figures at the top of the hill looked down in her direction. Pale gold relief broke through her mother’s aura as Rahelu pulled every last bit of confusion into her Projection, but her arrival made no difference to the pair representing House Isonn.
“Wait!” Rahelu cried.
The bailiff strode forward with both hands out, reaching for Rahelu’s mother, so Rahelu cast her Projection.
The spear of confusion shone a ghostly gray in her resonance sight—edges as clearly detailed as her real spear—and crashed into the Isonn bailiff’s unguarded back.
Muscles stumbled, hands falling to her sides, then she turned around and around on the spot, her eyes darting from one figure to the next until her gaze landed on the clerk.
“You. You’re…” The bailiff blinked. “I’m supposed to…” Blinked again. “I’m supposed to take you in, unless you can pay up.” She took three uncertain steps towards the clerk before she stood still, eyes unfocused.
The clerk had backed away from his colleague, but his eyes stayed on Rahelu. “You attacked a legally appointed representative of House Isonn,” he said. “You’ll go straight to the Tidelocks for this as soon as I report you.”
“You improperly authorized a physical assault on an unarmed citizen,” Rahelu said, brushing past the clerk and the confused bailiff to stand in front of her mother.
“She was obstructing us from performing our duties!”
“Is that a formal accusation?” Rahelu asked. “Then, as a blood relative of a Resonance Guild member, she’ll be exercising her rights to a public defense and an interpreter. I will register your accusation with the Hall of Judgment this eartharc, and then we’ll see whose testimony stands up to a direct Seeking.”
The clerk swallowed. “No need to complicate matters by involving the Adjudicators.” He waved his scroll at her mother. “Just get her to move so I can do my inventory. Or better yet, pay the damned overdue installment, and we’ll forget about this.”
“The only assets we’ve got that are worth anything are three baskets of smoked fish.” Rahelu stepped to one side, gently tugging on her mother’s elbow and lifting the curtain so the clerk could crane his neck to see inside their hut. “The market value—which I’m willing to swear to before an independent Seeker—is eighty-six copper kez. You’re welcome to take them with you and sell them yourself, or you can extend the payment deadline, as my mother requested, and we’ll get you the coin tomorrow.”
“What about that spear?” The clerk pointed at Rahelu’s primary weapon, which was propped up against the far wall of their hut. “That’s solid ash and quality steel.” He eyed the ring on her left hand. “And you’re wearing resonance crystal.”
Rahelu laughed. “Get in line. Those belong to the Guild. Now, are you going to save us the trouble of hauling these baskets to Market Square or not?”
“Half the coin by sundown today and the other half by sundown tomorrow,” the clerk said through gritted teeth. “And if you’re a heartbeat late on either payment, the House will exercise its rights with respect to the termination clauses in the lease and revoke your fishing license as my colleague has suggested.”
“Agreed,” Rahelu said as the bailiff finally recovered her wits.
Muscles scowled, fists balled up and ready to swing. “You little shit.”
Rahelu put her own fists up and smiled back as she shifted into a defensive hand-to-hand combat stance. The older woman stood a hand-and-a-half taller, so she would have the advantage of height and reach. No doubt the bailiff knew how to fight, but the sloppiness of her stance suggested that she’d spent far more time lifting weights and intimidating ordinary citizens than exchanging blows with someone else trained in combat.
Rahelu, on the other hand, had spent the last five years sparring on a daily basis—and most of her opponents, including Nheras of Ilyn in particular, had the same advantages of height and reach, as well as a privileged House-born’s access to private tutoring.
If it came down to a fair fight, Rahelu was reasonably certain she could hold her own.
She was reasonably certain the bailiff knew that too.
“Put your hackles down and let’s go,” the clerk said to the bailiff. “We’ve got another four visits to make before the first span.”
Muscles glowered, then spat in Rahelu’s face. The anger she’d suppressed so carefully boiled over, flooding the ambient resonance, and all she could see was red.
She was going to beat that muscle-bound bully until the bailiff was bruised and swollen beyond recognition and—
Her mother’s voice—and her mother’s vise-like grip on her elbow—cut through the bloody mists conjured by her anger.
“Thank you,” her mother said, dragging Rahelu down into a low bow. “House Isonn is kind. We will not be late.”
The two of them stayed like that, with their foreheads pressed to the ground, until the clerk and the bailiff were gone, and it was safe to get up.
Her mother immediately smacked Rahelu in the back of her head.
“Idiot girl! What have I told you about showing respect?”
“Those two bullies don’t deserve respect.”
“They represent House Isonn, and so they are entitled to respect. It is not your place to judge whether they deserve it.” Her mother shook her head. “Go wash your face and hands. If we hurry, we may still arrive before Hzin.”
Chapter 2: House-born
Rahelu and her mother raced the light of the rising sun westward through the terraced streets of Ennuost Yrg. By some miracle of the Starfather, they didn’t slip once on the treacherous stair to the Temple district, and not a soul accosted them along the way to demand tribute.
Even so, they could not catch up to the leading edge of the eartharc rays sweeping across the city. By the time they staggered into Market Square on shaky legs, breath rasping in their lungs, the Isonn live fish haulers had already come and gone. They’d put the leaky barrel with her father’s latest catch in a cursed inconvenient spot—between the southern entry to the pavilion and the east-west thoroughfare where there was no shade.
The barrel should have been waiting for them in their stall, next to a tank newly filled with seawater. Except Hzin and his son had got there first. Not only had they laid out reed mats and full baskets to claim the prime position, but they’d also parked their rickety handcart strategically to claim the second-best stall, bumping all five of the other seafood hawkers down one spot, leaving no room for Rahelu and her mother.
“Damn him to the seventh hell,” her mother said, muttering Chanazian curses under her breath. “May the Stormbringer cut off that rapacious devil’s grasping hands and shriveled testicles for bait and gulls peck out his covetous eyes.”
Hzin didn’t understand a word, but he and Rahelu’s mother were practiced partners in this dance. The rotund little man looked up from counting his coins and smirked, sky-blue satisfaction pouring out of his resonance aura. “You are very late, Jenura. I hope there was no trouble.”
“No trouble,” her mother said. “Just other things to do.” There was not the slightest hint of yellow in her mother’s resonance aura to betray the truth. “Today a very important day.”
“Ah, but of course.” Hzin’s eyes darted to Rahelu, and the ambient resonance in his double-sized stall was marred by a flicker of violet-green. “This year is a good year for Petitioning.”
Rumor held that more Petitioners would be accepted than usual, and Rahelu believed it. Earlier in the spring, the Exalted Dominance had proclaimed that Aleznuaweite would be expanding its terms of trade with its trading partners, which meant the Houses needed to see to the details of that expansion—and they didn’t have enough capable mages to fill all of those new posts. Some Houses had resorted to hiring mercenaries to cover their labor shortage.
“You are blessed by the Earthgiver to have such a clever daughter.”
“Only in some things,” her mother demurred, then looked at Hzin’s son, who sat by the stall’s saltwater tank with his legs crossed and eyes closed in meditation. “The Earthgiver has also favored you, Hzin, with such an obedient, hard-working son.”
Fourteen years old and slight for his age, Bzel had tried to pass the Guild’s entrance tests for three years running without success; today would be his fourth attempt. Rahelu felt the scratching of his untrained Seeking across her resonance aura like skittering cockroaches.
She poked his knee with the toe of her sandal, breaking his trance. “I told you not to practice today,” she said. “You’ll tire yourself out.”
“Sorry.” Bzel grimaced and rubbed both eyes. “I didn’t forget; I just…I’m just making sure I’m ready.”
He wasn’t remotely ready. Rahelu had tried coaching him from time to time in exchange for Hzin ceding the better stall position to her mother, but he lacked a certain instinct for the resonance disciplines that she didn’t know how to explain and the funds for a private tutor who was more qualified.
“Starfather bless you, Bzel,” her mother continued. “Your parents must be proud. You have worked very hard.”
But no matter how hard Hzin’s son tried, Rahelu doubted he would ever pass the Guild entrance tests—she herself had only succeeded due to a combination of natural aptitude and sheer luck.
“And may the Starfather bless you too, Rahelu.” The green in Hzin’s aura deepened until it was the same hue as the Aleituan sea. “You’ll remember old Hzin, won’t you, when you’re a Dedicate?”
There was no sincerity behind those words, but it was nice to hear them anyway, so she responded in kind: “Yes.”
“Please excuse us,” her mother said. “We still have many things to do.”
She turned south, away from the seafood stalls and their saltwater tanks, back bent underneath the weight of a full basket.
Hzin resumed counting his coins.
“Wait for me by the north entrance,” Rahelu said to Bzel. “And don’t even think about trying more Seeking, unless you want to faint from resonance backlash again. I won’t be there to carry you home this time.”
“But I will pass this time, just like the Houses will accept your Petition.” Bzel’s wide-eyed stare was full of hope; how he managed to hang on to that while growing up in the Lowdocks was one of the Starfather’s own mysteries. “Right?”
“Sure,” Rahelu said and followed her mother, thankful that nobody present had the ability to see past her Obfuscation of the truth.
Eventually, they found an unoccupied spot in a barely-trafficked corner, behind a spice merchant and a peddler hawking a dubious assortment of probably illegal potions, cures, and curios.
Rahelu helped her mother set out their baskets and drag their leaky barrel over. She couldn’t tell if the fish inside were lethargic because they needed a change of seawater or because there was no room for them to swim around.
The spice merchant glared. “Can’t you set up somewhere else? The stench of your rotten fish will scare away all of my customers!”
Rahelu opened her mouth to respond, but her mother smoothly elbowed her to one side and bowed.
“We are sorry to disturb you. Our usual place was not available. Perhaps you would like some fresh fish for your midday meal? We have many goldtrout, caught just three spans ago.”
“Anma!” Rahelu hissed under her breath in Chanazian. “He’ll take all the fresh goldtrout, maybe even a whole basket! And he won’t pay for it.”
“Better than to lose it all,” her mother muttered back.
“We don’t have enough silverbream or sweetcod to make up the difference.”
“Perhaps the Stormbringer will bless your aban today. And we still have tonight. I may be able to find some squid.”
“Tonight, I will go too,” Rahelu said.
“You will not,” her mother said. “Today, the Houses will accept your Petition. Tonight, you must stay home and rest, so you may do your best in the challenges tomorrow.”
Seeking or not, Rahelu couldn’t tell whether her mother’s statement was a vote of confidence in her capabilities or a command to do the impossible in spite of her deficiencies. “But—”
“Aban and I will take care of the repayment. We have sailed through more storms than you’ve baited hooks.”
Talking to her mother was no use, so Rahelu gritted her teeth, wiped her hands, and checked that her Petition scroll was tucked securely into her waistband.
“I will come back as soon as I can,” she said and went to collect Bzel, leaving her mother to haggle with the spice merchant.
* * *
The city of Ennuost Yrg was always crowded on Petition Day, but this—this was something else.
Would-be Petitioners lined up on the left side of the Guild’s great oaken gates. The queue stretched out into the street and wound past the Northroad, wrapping all the way around the city block until the end doubled back to meet its middle at the entrance to the Guild.
Rahelu’s heart sank as she assessed her competition: every single applicant in the line was common-born—those she knew on sight were outnumbered ten-to-one by unfamiliar faces. These strangers wore heavy travel packs and—as the line moved—shuffled with the weariness of people who had headed straight for the Guild as soon as the city gates had opened after a week of traveling from dawn to dusk. Most were already past their second decade, bearing well-worn weapons and resonance crystal pendants, and carried themselves with the confidence of independent mages.
She herded the gawking Bzel past the gates and inside the administrative building, where a much smaller line of applicants waited in front of the Guild Registrar’s office.
“Luck, Rahelu,” Bzel said, his voice tremulous as she deposited him at the end of his queue.
Rahelu tried not to notice how very ragged and small he looked in his rough homespun linen next to the others, who were all clad in the fine cotton dress tunics and trousers of House-born. Memory rose unbidden in her mind—a shining silver coin, a storm of foreign words, bruises all over her skin—and she pushed it away, before it could become an Evocation.
“Luck, Bzel.” She squeezed his shoulder, then turned away, marching back through the doors and out the gate.
She was in such a hurry that she nearly collided with a tall, red-headed youth and a tanned girl with sun-bleached hair climbing out of an elaborately carved palanquin painted pale green with shimmering sky-blue curtains.
The Ideth boy’s eyes widened as he started forward, reaching out a hand, and Rahelu immediately shied away.
“Sorry!” she said, raising both hands defensively and bowing as she backed away towards the line for common-born Petitions.
House-born, as a rule, were touchy about being disrespected.
She braced herself for pursuit—he looked determined to come after her. Fortunately, his companion caught him by the arm and dragged him away into the courtyard, hissing furiously in his ear the whole time, allowing Rahelu to escape to join her own queue.
It would be at least two spans, perhaps longer, before it was her turn. She passed the time balancing on one sandalled foot, idly scratching incomplete resonance wards into the dusty ground with the toe of her other sandal as she watched more House-born applicants arrive. They breezed through the right side of the gate with their sponsored Petitions, emerging not even a quarter-span later to be carried off to one idle amusement or another.
“I’ve half a mind to not go to the Ilyn party tonight,” said one applicant wearing the purple-and-black of House Isilc. “Not after I had to suffer through their pitiful excuse of a graduation banquet last month.”
“The food was an embarrassment,” said another. He wore a coiled whip on his belt. “Only a selection of fifty dishes and not a single one with crystal pear or even iced fruits. Hardly anybody ate anything—not even the dogs.”
Instead of a faint scratch that barely disturbed the gravel, the next line Rahelu drew was a deep gouge in the road.
These spoiled brats were so fucking rich that their dogs ate better than she did.
“What could you possibly expect from a new House? Gilt paint won’t change a sow into a mare. Be glad they’re throwing their daughter at Ideth and not us,” said the first House-born as she vanished inside an ebony palanquin covered in gold leaf.
“Small relief that.” The Isilc House-born with the whip snorted. “House Ilyn is spending kez like a dreamleaf addict in an apothecary, and now I’m saddled with her and the rest of those climbers for the first challenge. If she didn’t have the makings of a decent Harbinger…” He, too, disappeared behind the palanquin’s lilac gauze curtains.
One of the House-born rapped out a coded sequence, and the four bearers hoisted the lacquered affair onto their shoulders in one smooth, coordinated motion, trotting off towards the Sunset district.
The line ahead of her shuffled, and Rahelu abandoned the current ward she was sketching to practice another design: one that deflected resonance instead of suppressing it. She visualized the impractical form—a rough square surrounding the Guild complex (inefficient, but she couldn’t leave her place in line to make it circular), its uneven, jagged lines bristling outwards, like the spines on a sea urchin—and poured her concentration into reproducing the ward in rough gravel, a task complicated enough to force her to stop stewing over House-born privilege and focus.
She soon settled into a comfortable rhythm: move up the queue by two strides; extend the foundation line with her heel; carve out the ward’s extensions with the outside of her sandal; repeat. A span-and-a-half later, her position in the queue had looped most of the way around the block. Another quarter-span and she’d finally make it around the corner, through the Guild gates and into the courtyard beyond, to submit her Petition.
“Let’s get this farce over with,” said a reedy, nasal voice Rahelu would rather not recognize at all.
Rahelu looked up to see Nheras of Ilyn and her cousins stepping out of a red-and-cream palanquin. All three scions of House Ilyn wore their focus stones—twice the size of Rahelu’s Guild-issued training resonance crystal—on a silver chain around their necks.
“I’ve an appointment at Shuath’s,” Nheras said as she swaggered up the street, jeweled armbands and earrings jangling, with Bhemol and Kiran trailing in her wake like two starving alley mutts. Her disdainful eyes roved over the line of common-born applicants; she gave an audible sniff and a wrinkle of her nose when she saw Rahelu. “And I’d rather not arrive with my clothes stinking like this rabble.”
Rahelu scowled back. Over the years, Nheras had made thousands of snide little remarks like that. Every time Rahelu had given in to her desire to pummel the Ilyn girl in the face, things had ended badly.
She was not going to let Nheras get to her. Not today. If Rahelu gave insult for insult, Nheras would take it as an act of provocation (never mind that she’d done the insulting first), and none of them would leave with their dignity intact. Besides, Nheras never took well to being ignored, so ignoring Nheras was the best way to piss her off.
Rahelu went back to drawing the final lines of her ward.
“I don’t see why we need to show up and hand in these dumb Petitions personally,” Kiran said, hands in his pockets. “Any messenger could have done the same.”
“It’s the principle of equality.” Bhemol rolled his eyes. “As if anybody is stupid enough to believe in that.”
Rahelu’s foot jerked. One of her extension lines went too far, crossing past the ward’s foundation lines and rendering the construction useless. A bright red flare of red surged past her personal ward before she could suppress it, lighting up her resonance aura.
Rahelu breathed, repeating her mantra over and over in her head. I control my emotions; they do not control me. Bhemol was an entitled ass whose opinion was about as informed as Lowdocks gossip. The ward she’d been tracing on the ground was just something to pass the time; it didn’t matter.
She restrained herself, hurling one hard glare at the three House-born instead of a Projection.
Her eyes met Nheras’s and the Ilyn girl sneered. “Clearly, many are, including some who should know better. The Houses really ought to change this outdated practice of letting anybody submit a Petition. It’s hardly fair to take their coin when most of them don’t stand a chance.”
Rahelu abandoned her incomplete ward and her earlier resolution to stay silent and scoffed. Loudly.
“What are you doing?” someone behind her in line hissed. “Let it go.”
She ignored the admonition and the temptation to shape the anger rushing through her veins; kept her voice calm and steady as her eyes wandered over each of the Ilyn Petitioners. “Two in three House-born don’t either.”
“Nobody asked your opinion, fish guts,” Bhemol said. “Why don’t you crawl back to the Lowdocks instead of stinking up the place?”
“Nobody asked yours,” Rahelu said, clasping her hands behind her back. “Yet here you are, inflicting our ears with your idiocy.”
The girl ahead of her turned around and glared. “Will you shut up? Don’t make things worse for the rest of us.”
Kiran sauntered forward with one hand on his dueling cane. The other common-born applicants in the line melted away at his approach, leaving a space around Rahelu. “Bhemol asked you a question, fish guts. When a House speaks, you answer.”
Rahelu shaded her eyes and made a show of looking left, then right and back, then shrugged. “Well, let me know when somebody sworn to a House shows up, and I’ll answer to them. Last I checked, neither being spawned of your father’s seed nor crawling out of your mother’s womb guaranteed you a place in their Houses.”
Bhemol growled and stepped up beside Kiran. “You don’t belong here. Go back to the gutters, or better yet, to Chanaz. Don’t shame the Guild; no House will take someone like you.”
“House Isca took Tsenjhe. She’s a Dedicate now.”
Nheras arched one elegantly plucked brow. “Ideth’s harlot is your shining example?” Her resonance aura rippled, shimmering with orange-amusement as her two followers snorted and laughed.
“If that’s so, then you’ve been focusing on the wrong kind of petition,” Kiran said, strolling around Rahelu, so she had to choose between turning to keep him in view and exposing her back to Bhemol and Nheras, letting him get behind her, or stepping out of line altogether.
The last one wasn’t an option; not that the first two were real options either. Rahelu hedged and turned sideways so she could stay in line as Kiran circled her, keeping him to her left and the other two Ilyn Petitioners to her right.
But Nheras and Bhemol had also closed in, giving the rest of the common-born applicants other ideas: they reformed the line around her confrontation with Ilyn, cutting her out of the queue entirely.
Fuck! She should have kept her mouth shut.
Rahelu backed away slowly towards the opening of the next alley, keeping all three Ilyn Petitioners in front of her. Allowing them to chase her away would satisfy their pride; she could lose them in the back streets, hide for a quarter-span, then rejoin the back of the line after Nheras and her cousins were long gone.
They passed the northwest corner of the Guild’s outer wall. Rahelu spun around to duck into the alley, but Kiran had anticipated her. Before she could run, he grabbed her with both hands and shoved her into the wall. Rahelu cried out as she slammed into rough brick, though she managed to turn her head in time to take the impact on the right side of her face.
“If you’re so keen to follow in her footsteps, why don’t you get on your knees?” He had her pinned with a forearm across her shoulders. “I confess I don’t understand the Ideth obsession with Chanaz, but I’m an open-minded man.”
His resonance aura surged, suffocating her with its deep purple-red thirst. He liked how she squirmed, caught between him and the wall; liked the brittle feel of the ivory shards in her aura as it resisted his; liked how she clenched her free hands into fists and stopped short of beating them against his thighs because striking a House-born meant certain retribution.
“Petition me,” he said, his breath hot against her neck as he pressed his stiffened cock against her, his other hand fumbling at his belt buckle. “And if you are very skilled with your tongue, I might—”
Rahelu reached back, dug her nails into his crotch, then twisted viciously. Kiran screamed and collapsed to the ground behind her. She tried to run again, only to find her escape barred by the other two Ilyn Petitioners.
Nheras Projected a sorrowful air while Bhemol looked ready to tear Rahelu limb from limb.
“All these years, and you’ve never learned any better.” Gold-and-amethyst earrings, wrought in the sign of House Ilyn, chimed as Nheras shook her head. “If you’d simply apologized for your disrespect, I would have let it go. I have better things to do than to waste my time on you—you would never have made it to the challenges anyway. But I can’t allow a physical assault on a scion of House Ilyn to go unanswered.”
“Assault?” Rahelu quashed the dull red anger-spear before it could burst through her aura. “He assaulted me.”
Nheras waved off the truth as irrelevant. “Surrender your Petition,” she said, holding out her right hand and wiggling a set of perfectly painted nails in demand. “Before this gets ugly.”
A wall to her left.
A recovering Kiran in front, blocking the alley.
Bhemol to her right, with Nheras cutting off the way back to the main street.
Rahelu had no choice.
She sent Kiran to the ground with another kick between his legs, dashed past down the alleyway, and nearly strangled herself on a clothesline. Behind her, three pairs of booted feet tromped over cobblestone, and she cursed her flimsy sandals, which were a hazard all on their own.
She had to stay ahead, had to make it through to the Eastward, double back along Dedicate’s Way, lose Ilyn somewhere in Blackforge, before looping around to the Guild. She would be safe there, inside the courtyard: Nheras wouldn’t dare try anything under the watchful eyes of the Dedicates supervising the Petitions.
Rahelu ducked around another corner, then leapt, cat-footed, up a stack of empty crates, swinging herself over the gutter and onto the rooftops. Shucking her sandals for better grip, she crouched down close to the roof tiles to keep her profile low and squat-crawled to the next house over.
She paused in the shelter of a chimney that belched out the scent of roasting pork and closed her eyes for a quick Seeking:
A tall figure, haloed in lines of gold over a darker green, stalks away towards the Guild gate, two streets over.
Two figures mill around the streets below. They wear shrouds of swirling gray confusion, leaving wispy trails of resonance behind as they search the east side of the Blackforge.
Stormbringer be thanked. Bhemol and Kiran wouldn’t be catching up to her any time soon.
Rahelu clung to her Seeking and opened watering eyes.
Any Guild-trained mage could, of course, maintain a visualization of their resonance sense over the material world.
Usually though, they were doing so in the controlled environs of a dedicated meditation chamber, not while they were scrambling over five more rooftops and dropping down two stories.
She landed heavily, rolling to take the brunt of her fall on one shoulder. Bits of roof tiles cascaded to the ground around her; she groaned, winded, and didn’t bother with shielding her face.
Right on cue, Nheras swanned around the corner to stand over her. Rahelu tried to get up, but Nheras tsked and planted a booted foot in her stomach.
The trademark Ilyn smirk flashed across the taller girl’s face as she shook her head again. “Predictable.” She extended her right hand once more. “I’m asking nicely, one last time. Give me your Petition. Now.”
Rahelu coughed and prepared to spit out a mouthful of bile onto the expensive lambskin boot digging into her midsection. As she did, Nheras casually ground her toe into Rahelu’s belly. She wheezed; the whole mess dribbled down her own chin instead.
The other girl followed up with another stomp. Rahelu screamed and curled up on her right side in pain. She scrabbled around for something—anything!—but her left hand came up empty.
Her right hand, though. Her right hand dug around in the open sewer and came up with gold.
Of a sort.
Nheras leaned down close, red-painted lips parted and readied with a victory taunt—and Rahelu lobbed her handful of squelchy, stinking sewer dung straight into Ilyn’s open mouth.
Between the shrill screams of outrage, spluttered death threats, and wails of distress, Nheras sounded like three revenant shades from the sixth hell.
It was the sweetest music Rahelu had ever heard.
And the gate—oh, the gate!—it was only twenty strides away. She staggered to her feet and stumbled out of the alleyway. Her body nearly revolted; her intestines felt like Nheras had taken a warhammer to them instead of her boots.
“Hey! Watch where you’re going!” someone shouted as she cut through in the wake of an orange-and-white palanquin. (She wasn’t so far gone as to dare cut in front.) “What do you—”
The rest of the words were lost to the roar of blood in her ears and the more ominous sounds of close pursuit.
She tore down the road, thigh muscles burning, dodging a kitchen hand loaded down with two full pails of water, knocking a chandler onto his rear, bowing every which way in apology. She ran to the gate as if her life depended on it.
One glance back at Nheras’s rage-filled eyes, and Rahelu decided her life probably did depend on it. She stretched her legs, tried to force her lungs into the measured breathing of Onneja’s eartharc meditation, and swung her arms more quickly, as if that would help her flee more swiftly.
“Excuse me!” she yelled at the startled would-be Petitioners clustered around the entrance. “Please, excuse me! Coming through!”
“A bounty!” Nheras shrieked from behind. “A bounty! House Ilyn will pay a bounty of fifty silver kez to anyone who apprehends this ghelik. I will have her head to satisfy my honor!”
Oh no. No.
Nonononono. She was so close. The gate was right there!
But Nheras’s words had sparked a purple-greed conflagration that rippled through the crowd’s comingled aura.
The other common-born applicants closed ranks against her.
Before she could even think of another place to run to, another escape route, Nheras caught up. All pretense of House loftiness had vanished; the taller girl tackled her to the ground. Bits of gravel cut into her cheek as sharp nails dug into her back to snatch away her Petition.
Her Petition. Her family’s only way out.
She kept her forehead on the ground as she shuffled around, smearing road dust and gravel into the cuts on her face, and abased herself in front of Nheras’s lambskin boots. One, she noted with dim satisfaction (don’t think it don’t feel it or Nheras will see it), was caked with filth.
“Give it back, Nheras,” she whimpered. “Please. I beg of you.”
There was a crackle of parchment unrolling.
“Please, Nheras,” she said again. “I will owe you a favor. One favor, with no conditions. Just give me back my Petition.”
“I need no favors from a fish,” came the derisive retort.
Rahelu cringed as those lambskin boots walked around her in a deliberate circle until they stopped beside her left ear.
Nheras crouched down. “I tried to resolve this as pleasantly as I could, but you just couldn’t stay in your place, could you?” Her voice shook with fury. “No matter what I do or what I try, you always have to come along and ruin everything, and I am done with letting you get away with it.”
The Ilyn girl stood up and raised her voice, so everyone within a thirty-stride radius could hear her. “I can’t believe you wasted ink on this Petition. I knew you were a terrible mage, but this? This is just embarrassing.”
Rahelu’s hopes shriveled up and died, as Nheras read out her entire Petition to peals of laughter from the watching crowd. She remained face down in her obeisance, willing herself not to cry, knowing it was bad enough that everyone could see that she desperately wanted to anyway, just by looking at her aura.
“You don’t belong here,” Nheras said as she finished her mocking recitation.
The sound of valuable parchment tearing.
And again, until the small ivory pieces of Rahelu’s dreams fluttered down around her head, and she was five years old all over again, lost in the first snows of winter.
“Go back to Chanaz, fish guts.” Nheras wiped her filthy boot on Rahelu’s only tunic. “And stay out of my life.”
The Ilyn girl stalked away, shouting for someone to fetch her a washbasin with scented water, fresh towels, and a change of clothes, leaving Rahelu to painstakingly dig through the gravel and gather the scattered pieces of parchment.
She thanked the Starfather that Nheras had chosen to tear up her Petition instead of burning it.
As long as she could find every single scrap, she still had a chance.
End of sample.
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