Chapter XIV: Orha’s Eye

“Riu alahar,” I whispered. The way forward became clear.

What Mal had called a wayfinding my peers called passage. I took three careful steps over the path made clear to me and emerged on the other side of the back wall of the guest room: a candlelit interior walkway. A violet rug ran down the center of the freshly polished marble flooring, and closed, black-painted doors leered at me from both walls. To my right, the hall terminated in a door. To my left, it cornered out of sight.

It was neither the best case nor the worst case. Being not particularly skilled in the delicate divination magic that would allow me to know better the floorplan of the estate prior to making my escape, I had made my guess that the back wall of the guest room was my best bet. Unfortunately, it had not been an exterior wall, and I found myself still within the building. Fortunately, I had not stepped into the crowd of still-carousing aristocrats (at this time of night! I had never felt older) whose voices I could hear reverberating from some other corner of the house.

I stepped onto the rug to muffle my footsteps and followed it to the corner. I peered around it and grinned. The hall continued around this corner, but it plunged immediately into darkness, bereft of any candle or torch. I stepped in and ran my hand over the walls to confirm my suspicions: glass. This hallway would be a kaleidoscope of cheery colors in the daytime, lit by the sun’s rays dancing through the long, stained-glass windows on one or both sides of the hall. I had seen it from the outside, this beautiful walkway leading out to a drum tower on the east side of the estate. At the time, I had regarded it as another expression of Épineuil’s wealth and history of peace: the estate had its tower, which was necessary for appearances and to reassure the occasional paranoid ruler, but absent any real threats, the main access hall to it was free to be both beautiful and terribly indefensible.

Now, these windows meant that I was one simple wayfinding away from the freedom of the night.

But escape would not prove so simple.

“Good evening, my friend.”

Valthan seems to have shared my affinity for towers, and in the lonely darkness before dawn, he had probably been conducting his studies cooped up in a laboratory at the top of it. Standing in the entryway to the tower, it occurred to me that I had accidentally made my escape directly toward the gravest threat to my freedom.

“Morning, by my reckoning,” I chattered, stalling for time. “I fear I have overstayed my welcome, and I shall be…”

Valthan lit a candle, and I could see him now, a face floating ominously in the darkness just above a little point of yellow-orange light. He stood about forty feet opposite me, near where the hall would open up into the tower’s ground floor.

“No, you are quite welcome.” He shook his head. “Confound it, I don’t have the patience for this. Give that spellbook back to me, and if you try to take it again, I shall burn it.”

I felt my blood heating up. I inched closer. “A grave threat. A deep shame to your station, I should say, to let such knowledge…”

“Don’t speak of SHAME to me, fugitive,” he bellowed. I winced, realizing that I was the only who was desperate for this conversation to remain hushed. “I will sooner burn ten thousand years of research than break my oath to my King and my countrymen.”

I continued to pad closer. I let my rage run raw. Anything to distract him from my closing of the distance. “This is petty and ignorant. Beneath you, my friend. You are a man of knowledge. Do you know what you do even now? What work you keep me from? To whom you intend to deliver me?”

He scoffed. “Full well. I received a message from Henri just a few hours ago. He shall have a contingent here to take you home by the morning, and then we shall see what you have been up to. I need no proof now; the proof revealed at your trial shall suffice. Do you think me a child?”

I exploded with furious excitement. No need to keep my voice down now. “YOU IDIOT. I AM HENRI’S COURT WIZARD. WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE EXCHANGING MESSAGES WITH?”

His eyes narrowed. Calculating. He had a good poker face, but I knew exactly what this meant. He didn’t know. It now troubled him. He didn’t want to admit it.

By now, I was close enough to him and his dim, lone candle to make out his clothes. The robe of his station and an apron. No sword, no cane, no tools. But more importantly…

My mind reached to the stars and pulled them down to the world around me, and in the darkness their meaning swirled. This was not my most complicated spell by any means. But it was my mightiest. Similar spells, in the past, had crushed armies and toppled empires. One such spell had raised the most powerful wizard in history to the heights of their achievement and then laid them low.

It was a spell to see things as they are.

As you might have noticed, astronomy is my favorite field of study. It’s central to several different fields of magic, and besides that, it’s full of beauty, from the moment you first behold the night sky through the most advanced studies of cometary arcs. This spell was one of those reasons why. All meaning relates to the stars. Any spell may be seen in the constellations and nebulae. All of our mortal struggles, our long lives full of achievements and failures and fear and love, could ultimately be charted in the heavens.

It is a simple thing to see the stars around you. It can be a great deal harder to interpret them.

Unless, of course, a spell has been cast in the vicinity. Active spells tend to show readily in the Starfield. Which was just the reason I had prepared it: I had known there would be a strong chance that Valthan would notice my escape and try to prevent it, and I had decided it would be best if I knew what tools he intended to wield.

Nothing. Valthan had nothing. The fool was bluffing. Having failed to keep my spellbook apart from me, he had detected that I had left my room and descended from his tower to try to bluff me back into my prison, having prepared no wards and no armor, manifested no tools. Perhaps he had spells ready to be cast, yet to release… but…

But someone was watching us. The eastern peak of the constellation Orha, her eye, glared menacingly at us.

“Valthan. We’re in grave danger.”

“Is that a threat?” my counterpart growled. I stared through the Starfield at him. One hand was swimming for something in the pocket of his apron.

I lofted my right hand toward him. Fool. Incompetent. Patsy. I had him in a corner, I had elevated myself to my seat of power in the heavens, and he had the gall to try to swing at me, decades his senior, instead of hearkening to me. I would swat his spell out of the sky like a lobbed pebble.

Orha’s Eye dimmed. The Tower of Beshan shone with blinding light. It reflected off the southern field, at a right angle to the eighth medial arc…

She was here.

Valthan responded to my silence with his gambit. I was unfamiliar with the pattern of stars it called, but the intended effect was plain enough. Intoxication of some sort, to be inflicted on my person. Clever, but pathetic. I cast a simple counterspell for a simple spell. His spell broke like a mild wave across an ancient jetty. He grimaced.

“A malign practitioner has projected herself here. We are in danger,” I declared.

I heard shouting from behind me. My pulse quickened.

Valthan’s expression remained sour and flat. He suspected this to be a lie, but he was unsure what to make of so specific a lie.

The floor rumbled and some deep, catastrophic sound from the main estate pounded our bodies. A man screamed the unmistakable scream of a man dying in horrific pain, and then he was cut short.

My colleague’s eyes widened, and I’m sure mine did, too. A nightmare had made itself manifest in the house, and it had already claimed one victim. My time was running out, and I tried the only thing that made sense.

“Riu al…” my words died in my throat. Valthan stood with his hand between two stars, having severed the connection. He had cast a counterspell.

“You dimwit! You want us both to get killed?” I screamed.

“Liar! I will bring you to justice for this!”

Many things happened very quickly. In the memoirs I never got a chance to write, I would have described it thusly: “I made a plan, and I put it into action.”

The reality was I was scared and angry, and I was immersed in the knowledge of the Starfield… and the power fed my ego and contempt. I hated the man in front of me for his idiocy, and I nearly lost control.

I bounded the last few paces at him and punched him as hard as I could in the jaw. It was poorly placed and I hurt my hand nearly as badly as I hurt his jaw, but it got the job done. Valthan toppled backward and I fell on him. I am ashamed to recall that I hammered him again in the nose in my rage, breaking it and staining my sleeve scarlet.

That was when the White Magus turned the corner. In the dim light of the hallway behind me, she shone bright with white cloth and steel, as before. She wasted no time initiating her spell, striding confidently toward me, her otherworldly, evil gaze fixed on the bridge of my nose.

Smoke curled at her feet, and her left greave was strewn with flecks of blood. Fear seized my mind. Whose blood was that, and why? Would mine be next? The Starfield faded from my view as my mind, unbidden, raced through the possibilities, past and future.

I peeled my mind away from the icy terror and forced it back to task. Still kneeling astraddle Valthan, I flattened myself, smothering him with my body. I called into my mind for fire and for force, and I jabbed an index finger at the darkened windowpane above me.

The fireball exploded just thirty-six inches from my face.