Episode One:

The Boy with Clouds for Eyes

It started, as all great things start, with a flash of light; and then his sister was on the ground, dead.

Four months later, Blaisius met me.

xXoOoXx

I won't say I remember that day like it was yesterday, because it wasn't and I don't—but I do remember thumbing through a couple of old books in the smallest book shop in the village-town of Sato Mura. For some reason it was the only shop that actually encouraged the company of esteemed—but spit shine poor—scholars such as myself . I was studying to be, of all things, a mage, even though I was in no possession of mage blood and mages themselves were a dying kind. So the way things were looking I would have to settle for being a mage's assistant, and I gradually resigned myself to the idea. All things considered, it was not a bad fate.

It could be worse, I thought, replacing one dusty volume and sliding another from the shelves, I could be like that scoundrel over there.

The scoundrel looked to be about my age of fifteen years old, with lanky hair that reminded me of obsidian in color but not sheen. Out of the corner of my eye I watched him finger a couple of trinkets that were sold in the book shop but weren't books, useless items like an inkwell and a silver feather. He set down a one-pieced cap-and-ball game, and reached for something in the back of the shelf annoyingly just out of my line of vision. But I saw when he lifted it to the light his dark eyes widen, and I managed to glimpse what it was that he held before it disappeared into his pockets.

He wasn't just a scoundrel. He was a thief.

I looked hard at him without even pretending to be absorbed in my book; I looked hard, willing him to steal it just to see what would happen. The wife of the owner of the book shop may have tolerated dirty-faced little boys, but he certainly didn't tolerate thieves. I'd seen the last boy who tried be dragged into the streets to the jail house and locked in the stocks for public humiliation. I'd thrown a tomato at him before I realized it was a waste of a tomato, so I went and fetched what was left of the fruit and then I fed it to him. He'd looked so hungry, after all. And he'd had the naïve, trusting eyes of a foreigner. I stared at this boy here, wondering whether I'd feed him a tomato too or if he wouldn't deserve my kindness.

The scoundrel didn't glance around to see if anyone had seen him, nor did he act at all like he'd done anything wrong. He simply observed a few other items on the shelf, but he didn't steal them, just turned them over in his hands and then set them down. The more I watched him, the more my collar grew hot.

I could feel the red in my face and wished it away, but the next second I was behind the boy anyway with my hand on his shoulder. We saw eye to eye, my intelligent ones to his clouded ones, and for a moment it occurred to me that he might be blind—but no, he was merely seeing something that wasn't there in my face, for the clouds departed at once from his gaze. I drew myself up taller.

"I could turn you in for stealing, you know," I said, and though I thought I wanted him to be caught, my voice was too soft for anyone but him to hear. He probably noticed, but for a while he did nothing. The color was fast coming back to my cheeks and heat blazed in my face. "So you might as well give me a name so I can turn you in properly. Maybe you'll be sentenced to the stocks with some dignity that way."

"Dignity. Stocks. Perhaps." The boy again faced the shelves, and spoke no more as he picked up a spinning top. I watched his eyes glow darkly as he moved it around and around in his hands. When he spoke again, the movement of his pale hands had so entranced me that my insides jumped, though I was not one to admit it. His voice, too, was soft. "I wonder if she would like to have this."

"She? Who is she? I'm the only one here and I'm sure not a girl—b-but if you're buying it for a relative I'll lend you the coin. But just don't take the thing. Here, I'll give you the money, if it's for your mother or—"

"My sister…" The boy set down the toy and drew the stolen object out of his pocket, in broad daylight when we were still in the shop and anyone could see for themselves that he'd stolen it. With thinly-masked smugness I watched him run the tiny silver bracelet through his fingers. "She adored shiny things. Things that glittered. No matter what they glittered with."

I looked at him, but he wasn't seeing me, or sensing me, and in fact it seemed that he'd forgotten about my presence completely—I considered whether they'd lock someone in the stocks for being a complete idiot. Somehow, though, not every part of me believed him to be an idiot. The part of me that watched his eyes take in every part of the necklace like it was something amazing knew that this scoundrel—this lad—had a story to tell and a story to unfold. And that part of me decided that I would be right there with him when he unfolded it.

"Your sister. Does she have a name?" My hand was on his shoulder. He flinched at the touch but did not move away.

"She did. But that's in the old life. It's not now; it's not ever. But it was." He took my hand gently from his shoulder and as he cupped it in his own I had the very odd thought that he had taken me to be a girl and would kiss me; he merely pressed the necklace into my palm and closed my fingers up around it like a flower before it blossoms. When we met eyes, it was again with clouds in his gaze. "You take it."

It sounded to me as if he was begging, the note in his voice, and I found myself with my heart pulsing around the metal, lowering my hand to my side. I would take it.

"Excuse me, sir, but did you pay for that?"

It was the owner's wife, come right up behind me. Damn.

My heartbeat pulse in my hand a thousand beats more a minute. The boy froze for a moment and then disappeared like a coward around the next set of shelves.

I don't know why I didn't explain to the owner's wife. I don't know why I didn't simply pay for the necklace and walk out. I don't know why I didn't handle the situation with a calm head and do something—anything—rational.

But I do know that I shoved the tiny woman out of the way, gripped the bracelet, and bolted. With a slam of the front door I was free of the dusty candle-lit shop and trapped at once within the crowd rushing about in the sun-streaked outdoors. The sun burned in the sky overhead as it started to sink, streaming the blanket of sky with colors; and all around me feet and carriages chattered by on the cobblestones, the air thick with the open market smell of food and the music of laughter. But I did not notice any of this until I spotted the boy sitting alone on an abandoned patch of yellow lawn in front of a boarded-up building. His rumpled peasant cloths, unwashed black hair and dirt-coated skin caught my careful eye.

Something inside of me softened a bit, and when I approached him I did not yell.

I did put my fists on my hips in the way I'd often seen the village mother do it, and I flicked my hair out of my face so he could see that I meant what I said, and what I said was, "Well, you could at least tell me your name."

The boy had been staring at his feet, at shoes that might have once been closed at the toe but were now sandals. He looked up into my face. "Blaisius. My name is Blaisius."

I didn't ask him for a last name, because this alone was great progress. I bowed low to him without expecting him to bow back, so I wasn't disappointed when he didn't. "Well, my name is Ciane, and you're going to talk to me."

For perhaps a silent minute I wondered if I'd gone too far, too fast, and now had silenced the scoundrel Blaisius forever to me; but it was not a big worry as soon he stretched himself out on the grass and I could sit beside him. The heat of the ground licked my skin through my pants, but he wore dark clothes because, I supposed, they were the best he had. With all the sun and heat, it was a wonder his skin was as pale as it was. As he took a while to answer, I figured that he probably didn't go out of doors often, and devised a lot of theories why—all of my theories, I later learned, were wrong.

Another moment passed. Blaisius did not turn his head towards me before he closed his eyes. "Well then Ciane. What do you want me to say?"

"Anything you fancy."

"That's not very much." He rolled onto his side to relish the heat, and I did the same even thought it burned me through my thin white scholar shirt. Perhaps he heard me move about in pain. "Do you attend school here?"

"Oh no, I left my home to study abroad and now I travel anywhere I can get the money. You see, there's a mage in my home village, just a small doctor mage who concocts tonics and remedies, but I want to be his assistant. That's why I study so hard." I laughed, but it was a serious laugh. "I imagine it to be a very taxing job."

Blaisius yawned, opening his mouth so wide that it reminded me of the cat I'd once done an impromptu autopsy on back in my village, more for my benefit than the cat's. Blaisius did so remind me of a cat. Even in the lazy, tired way he said, "I didn't actually care. I was just trying to make nice, like you wanted."

His words more interested than angered me, but before I could press further into his psyche a thought came to me. It ignited a smile on my lips. "You'd think the owner's psychotic wife would have come after me. I don't imagine we'd be hard to spot from the shop unless he looked in the wrong direction. We can't be more than a quarter mile from the shop."

It turned out that when I'd shoved the shop owner's wife the top had spun itself off the shelf; she'd stepped onto it, slipped, and broken some bone that apparently is needed for walking and now she may never walk again. I didn't learn this until later. In fact, perhaps I made that entirely up, but it is such a wonderful story about the shop owner's wife that I keep it as fact in my mind.

"Come." I stood and, looking over him, enjoyed the feeling of being above the scoundrel. He didn't open his eyes. Perhaps he was dead. "Come, Blaisius, we'll go around to the back of this house in case the woman-thing comes looking for my blood. Or worse, her schizophrenic alter-ego. I've heard she carries a knife with her always."

"A wife with a knife. What a wonderful way to die…" Blaisius opened his cloudy eyes to the sky for a second, then followed my lead to the back yard, and there we plunked ourselves down just the same as before. The back of the house was no more cheerful than the dilapidated front, the grass no less yellow. The sky was streaked with blood.

I looked across at Blaisius to see if this disturbed him, but it didn't seem to, though he had not already relaxed back into the grass. His gaze was far away, at the house. Something was sticking out of his pocket, and while he was defenseless and far off, I grabbed for it.

His hand clamped too late around my wrist, and though he was surprisingly strong I shook him off and examined my prize. His glare burned into my neck and I turned my prize over and over in my hands; we both knew that he could reach over and snatch it or overpower me easily if he really tried, for I am but a twig, but he kept still. Blaisius didn't really mind me seeing it. Perhaps he wanted me to.

It looked at first glance, like a locket, but far bigger and heavier than the stolen trinket now in my pocket. The front was streaked with dried patterns like blood, its carved designs twisting around each other and looking perhaps a hundred years old. It looked like something fancy enough to belong to a king if it wasn't so dirty.

"You should wash your necklace," I said stupidly without thinking any further—because the instant when I did think was the instant I knew exactly what it was. "Gods--wait! You have a Hold! You have a Hold!"

"A Hold? Surely that's not what it is." Blaisius peered over my shoulder and I turned it around and around in the light so he could see that that was exactly what it was. "It's…"

"Ornate, dangerous, wonderful and illegal!" The excitement of it all rushed at me with such passion, adrenaline in her finest. "Oh, I haven't seen one of these on someone so common. Tell me you are Master of it. Tell me you're Master of Bunraku Seirei Ghost Puppet!"

All of the excitement inside Blaisius dissolved at my words, and the clouded look descended over his face. "That's the game where you capture ghosts and make them fight for you against other captors. I've never done it. I don't think I can."

Inconceivable. Simply inconceivable and I couldn't believe that he'd be reluctant to try out something so legendary that it had been outlawed in half the villages and towns in the country. "You'll become Master of Bunraku Seirei, Blaisius. You have the look of the king. This is your Hold. This is where you'll capture your ghosts." I could see ghosts already, in his face, in his doubts, weighing him down and dragging him back. The ghost of something horrible was there, I could feel it. If only I knew what it was…

With a triumphant smile I turned all the way towards Blaisius and pushed the Hold into his chest. Our eyes locked. "You will master this, Blaisius--I just decided that. And you'll do it for your sister."

Like magic, the life flooded right into him.

Maybe I did have what it takes to be a mage.

xXoOoXx

"You make lots of plans," Blaisius said, looking at all the diagrams I'd sketched out and labeled in cramped writing, "for someone I've just met."

"And you have lots of doubts for someone I've just committed my studies to."

I didn't say it outright that I planned to use Blaisius, but the perfect way to prove that I was ready to be the assistant to the highest mage was to accompany and help train the future master of Bunraku Seirei. I had little idea how to play the game myself outside of what I'd learned from books and talk--but I knew that to some it was more than a game, and I knew that it would be the key for me and for Blaisius. Despite the small fact that I just met him, I chose right then and there to devote everything to him, and to my future. There was no way I would return to my village a failure.

It had fast grown too dark to see, so we'd moved somewhere where there was more light even if that meant more people. Plans were already being made in my head for the very next morning, so all the time in the world between now and sunrise would have to be stretched and used to the fullest, every second cherished. Unfortunately, because neither Blaisius nor I were old enough to legally enter the bar—the age limit was sixteen, and he was two years short of that—we were crouched under the bar window trying to soak up as much light as we could while remaining unseen by the spying eyes. There'd been a few dirty orphans already under the window for the warmth when we arrived, but I gave them some bread and then chased them off.

"I assume you stay in a barn, or a cave or something," I said to Blaisius, making a small mark on one of the papers, "so no one will miss you when you're gone tomorrow morning." He said nothing; I took this to be a sign of sullen surrender. "And since Bun—the game is outlawed here, we shall have to find somewhere else for you to train. Apparently you haven't trained at all." I shot him a look over the top of my glasses. No matter how scary the look was—and oh, it was scary, I'd spent many lonely nights perfecting it--Blaisius didn't flinch.

"What if I don't want to leave the village?"

"Oh, you do, Blaisius, you do."

He stared at me for a moment, and then moved his hands to his lap. "Okay, I do. I want this more than anything now, say, and I'm going to get it. I'm going to get the ghosts—"

"Actually, their proper name is Rhuagi." He stared at me. My shrug was small but proud. "Plural is Rhuagi too. I looked it up."

He looked at me blankly for a moment more, then turned his gaze just past my face so our eyes met no longer. "You have much time for free thinking," he said, the corners of his lips creasing a bit. "And I do too. It's not always… Do you never study at the university like the other scholars?"

I looked right at his face so he would turn his eyes back to me, but he never did; that did not keep me from remaining slightly pleased that he had asked about my personal life, as seldom do. The 'seldom' probably came from the fact that I was a scholar who moved around as much as my pockets would allow, I never attended any classes, the few people I talked to had found me somewhat a prick…and I hadn't any friends. With small hopes I said this aloud to Blaisius, hoping he would pick up some cue to say, "I'll be your friend, Ciane," or, "I've never had any friends before, until you." Many days I'd huddled myself up in the small flat that was my sometimes home, poring over books with characters that uttered these very same lines to each other, over and over, in every book. It had grown to sound dull and bland to me, at least until now when I hoped he would say it; I didn't know why exactly, but I hoped.

Blaisius didn't say it. He just kept staring off into the distance, the stupid boy.

For a while more I continued with my charts and lists a little less determined than I had been a few moments ago, but as soon as my mind was empty of friendship and the vigor had sped back, Blaisius spoke again.

"Do you really think I could learn Bunraku Seirei? Ghost puppet?"

He was holding his knees to his chest and looking much like a small child who's lost himself in the rain. When I looked at him, he turned his eyes straight back to mine. They were soft for only a second, then burned with such intensity that I felt it from where I was and raised a fist straight in the air to symbolize something; I don't know what. My knuckles lost a bit of their color. "If you get doubts, Blaisius, you'll never get it. Just stop thinking about it. Do it on instinct and that's how you'll get good, that's how all the masters do it." In my books.

Blaisius shifted his hair to one shoulder and didn't answer, for a time. I was beginning to expect pauses from him by now. "But," he said slowly, and I only half-listened, "I want to do it for my sister. She'd want me to, because then it might…"

I glanced up from the arrow I'd been drawing to switch two things around on the list. "Might what?"

"It might lift the curse."

Every trace of seriousness did dwell in every line in his young face, his eyes set and grim, his hands white as they clutched his knees. His thin lips were pale and drawn like a string into a taut line. If I was looking for any sign that the boy might have a sense of humor and a knack for practical jokes like this one, it eluded me, and I sunk back with a sigh. "Oh great," I said. "You're cursed."

"Not cursed, exactly—I think. I don't know what it is." His head tipped downward so his hair hid any trace of verging tears, by my guess. Far off, a clock chimed a lone, low note. "Would you like to hear how my sister died?"

"Not especially right now, no." I stifled a cringe as soon as I said it, for once it had escaped my lips it sounded far harsher than intended, but don't most things? A small smile seemed to do nothing to change the blank look on his face, a look I supposed was hiding any hurt. There was no chance of him giving me a friendship speech now. "Blaisius, I just meant that now there are plans to be made, and I have to find a place where you can find a Bunraku Seirei master that will teach you—Gods, you know you can't learn the game on your own—and there will be ample time to talk during our travels. You can tell me then."

"If we're together then."

"What?" I looked at him sharply. "Don't say you intend to desert me now."

"Things happen. I could be dead before sunrise."

"You do, and I'll kill you." The fact that that made no sense didn't matter. I narrowed my eyebrows without being completely sure where all this anger was coming from; but finally there'd come a chance for me to make something of myself—by making something of this naïve little boy—and he'd be damned if I was going to let it go without a fight. Or ever. "Blaisius, you obviously didn't come across your Hold by pure chance. Something in the universe was saying you will use this thing and make the best of it and be the best at it. You're not going to die before you accomplish that, I feel it and I swear it to you. I'd give someone else's life to save yours."

Something like a smile pulled at his lips. "You wouldn't give your own for mine?"

"If I did, how would I benefit?" I leaned back, but not before rapping him once on the head with my pen. "Think, Blaisius. You'll have to learn to do that for yourself."

I stood while he ran his fingers over the small bump I imagined my pen had made. "I shall go and fetch some bandages. Not for you, not yet, because you're not so fragile that I've done any real damage. But I might, so I think I shall go and pick up some other things while I'm at it. You stay here." I pointed straight down at him. "And guard this spot. Chase off anyone who even contemplates approaching you, because this is a prime spot under the window and I don't want to lose it."

Blaisius neither nodded nor refused, so I went to buy the bandages; and when I returned, a surprise waited for me.

xXoOoXx

"Who the fotch are they?" I dropped the bandages at Blaisius' feet—or rather, right on top of his feet, and I stepped back. He looked up at me with what I assumed was guilt in his eyes, but that didn't sway me: for there were two newcomers, one on either side of him, seeming to be quite companionable with the boy to whom I'd already laid claim. And they did not appear to be in want of moving anytime soon.

"Well, by your fotch I'm Duke." A blond bristle-haired boy unstuck himself from the wall against which he'd been leaning to bow to me. When he came up from his bow, I measured my head to his shoulder and found they were at the same height. This did not make me like him any more, but he did seem likable enough, and a very village-y sort of boy. He also had a crooked smile, but instead of making him look daft it afforded him an air of humor that arguably I'd never quite achieved, and for a second I envied him. One second, and even then I was still wary of Duke.

"Your teeth aren't quite straight, Duke, but I know of some dentists that can fix that. I never much liked dentists. I've only been to one, and she twisted a metal piece of wire around one tooth, and she yanked, and nightmares about the pain and blood have haunted me ever since." If he was at all offended by my comment about his teeth, the rest of my speech seemed to have distracted him from noticing. When he laughed, it lifted my spirits too.

"Oh, and say hello to my sister Henrie." Duke stepped out of the way so I could see the other intruder, but in the poor light I almost mistook her for a wall. A dark hood covered most of her face save for a few strands of limp brown hair that clung to her cheeks and forehead. Her sallow skin led me to deduce that she was either foreign, or incredibly ill. Duke made a little sound that snapped my attention back to him. "She doesn't say much," he said, as if I hadn't noticed, "but when she does people tend to listen."

"When you open your mouth, I bet people groan." I gave him a grin and received what I took to be a brotherly clap on the back and a guffaw from the friendliest person I'd met in weeks.

"You're right." Duke straightened himself, still with that lopsided grin on his face. I wanted to pinch it off of him just to hear him squeal. "You never did tell me your name, sir, though Blaisius mentioned… Ciane, is it?"

"You have a hint of an accent." I laughed. "Later you have to tell me stories of where you're from. I love stories—articles. Books."

"Of course, whenever you like." Duke waved his hand and leaned back against the wall, and I stood right in front of him and leaned against one of the beams that held up the roof of the bar. It was wooden and smelled like old ale, and my nose burned when I turned my head towards the stench. What a chore not to breathe it in. "But first," he said, distracting me, "you must tell me how you came to meet Blaisius. He seems to have a new passion for life in him."

Simultaneously we turned our heads to see the boy practically dropping off to sleep on his knees, his eyes half drooped. Simultaneously Duke and I looked back at each other. He held up what appeared to be a locket, but what I remembered at once was Blaisius' ornate Hold. "He had this, and he showed me. My parents own the inn where he's stayed for three months, and in all of that time he never mentioned anything."

I frowned and touched my pocket. "He can afford to stay in an inn for three months but he steals a tiny bracelet worth maybe three gold?" This was said more to myself and to the air than to Duke, and he waved it away.

"He paid for his keep by working in the manger. But here, you see? I have a Hold too." Duke pulled something out of the sash at his waist that appeared to serve as a giant snug pocket; the something found a light somewhere and glinted, and I saw that it looked not at all like Blaisius' Hold though the basic symbols were the same. The ends of it clasped together to form sort of an armband, and when he asked me how it looked I told him he modeled it beautifully, and how did he get to his to be so shiny, and would he please polish Blaisius' too? Duke just laughed. That wasn't much of an answer.

"The thing is," he said, unclasping the Hold and slipping it away, "I'm just about the worst Captor in the world at this, because it's against the law and I never get to practice. I bought my Hold off of a traveling man who was selling dozens of them before he was run out of town, only cost me six-hundred gold. Best life savings I ever spent."

"But you have played before, right?" I looked at him over the top of my glasses and wondered perhaps if I'd invested in the wrong boy. But that was no real matter; I could manage both.

"I'm weak. See, your Min is the number of points you begin each match with, depending on your strength and your skills at that time. They deplete with every new Rhuagi you summon onto the battle field, when a Rhuagi is obliterated, and then over time as you have to use your points to sustain each Rhuagi, yes? Most players have about two thousand, and I've heard of some with more than ten thousand." Duke paused to look down at me, his lips in one line.

"And how many do you have?" I asked, partly because it was the question he wanted to hear and mostly to judge his worth.

"Me? Well, I have ten."

He barked a laugh. I cringed.

A familiar but strange voice interjected, and I must admit I'd almost forgotten that Blaisius was still here, much less conscious. He stared at his feet, rotating his ankle around and around in ways just shy of unnatural, much like he'd done in the book shop, examining the toys. "It could be worse, Duke. I'm worse than you."

Duke bent over and patted Blaisius on the head until he saw that the boy was serious, and then he hesitated for a moment and patted him some more. Were he given fangs, I think Blaisius would have severed Duke's hand with his teeth, he was seething so much, and there was a thin line of red just around his neck. Soon, I knew, the color would rise.

"Cheer yourself, Blaisius." Duke pulled back his hand and crossed both arms over his chest, looking down at the boy. "From what I gather, Ciane has some sort of interest in making you into a real Captor. And me, too."

I gave Duke a very sharp look. Something inside of me twisted, that is the only way to describe the feeling.

"I'm going to become a great Captor." Blaisius' voice never wavered, his gaze never any less steady, and it was the first trace of real confidence I'd seen from him all day. His voice grew ever louder. "I don't care who trains me. I barely even know Ciane, but if he wants to make me into someone then I'm going to let him do it! I swear, if I don't get somewhere in this life when I have it…"

His speech broke off for a moment, and when he again parted his lips to pick it back up, the words that emerged were grave, his eyes cast down and low. "…Then I'll throw myself in a stream, and drown."

I immediately thought of his sister.

An uncomfortable silence blanketed us all, and I gathered that Duke and Henrie knew something of Blaisius that I did not, and also that I had best change the subject before the gloomy tension in the air killed us all. Thankfully Duke did before I. He raised one boot-covered foot attached to one lean leg in front of my face and sang, "Are not these boots wonderfully tasteful, do you think Ciane?"

"Wonderfully." I said this to appease him, and allowed myself an unnoticeable sigh of relief. Running my fingers over the smooth material and feeling few ridges beneath my thumb, I made a curious sound and looked up into his proud face. "What is this made of, say?"

Duke lifted the foot to his face in a very uncomfortable manner, then let it drop; he puffed himself up proudly. "The hide of an animal Henrie shot down for me, and it made tasty meat too. Henrie is an archer—the best one this side of anywhere worth mentioning."

Turning my head slightly to the side, I took in Henrie's unmoving form and limpness, and the way her eyes did not even meet mine as I stared. "I don't doubt it," I said.

"She'll be coming with us." Duke rested one elbow on my shoulder, and I snapped around to face him, knocking him off of me and feeling at once most proud of it; the pride bristled through my anger and shock so low that it was barely noticeable.

"Excuse me!" I lifted myself a bit on the ball of my foot so our heights would be more closely matched, but I could have jabbed my finger in his chest anyway. "Duke! Who says she's coming with us? Who says you're coming with us? Who says I have even the slightest idea where we're going?"

Duke had recovered himself while I spoke, and now his face was one smooth, fair mask. He waved his hand. "Oh, that's the simplest part of it. We're going to Lorden Ka."

"That...sounds familiar." I rapped my fingers along my crossed arms. "Lorden Ka. Is that where the Tournium is held? Yes, it is, I know it now."

Duke nodded and twirked my chin with a twist of his thumb, and at once I stumbled back, caught off guard and almost into Henrie. Well, if she wasn't so small I wouldn't have almost squashed her. Her eyes raised now for the first time to mine. Though quiet, her voice was steady and strong, every word sounding of the utmost importance.

"Were we to attempt it, we'd have two weeks to get to Lorden Ka and become masters capable of beating top-notch Captors who've been training since they were sucking thumb. There's no chance of us winning.." She looked sideways at Blaisius whose eyes were fixed on the ground in front of him, and then Henrie looked back at me. "Small chance. If we risk it there's a better chance that you'll be sorry you ever tried."

"No chance," I said, "of that." Subconsciously I'd lowered myself to her level, and now I straightened back up with most of my dignity intact. Who needed to listen to oracles from a girl, anyway? The only true oracles came from those with the right blood, and I made a mental note to question her on her bloodline later as it may be helpful later on. I turned to her brother. "This Sato Mura, do you know how to get there?"

"Do I know how to not get there? Of course, you just take a right at the sign that says, 'This is not the way to Lorden Ka,' and then like magic you're not there. It's amazing, really."

"That's a wonderful joke, I'll keep it for when my humor returns." The look I shot him was everything shy of a jester. "But do you know how to get there?"

Duke gave me a long look, and then looked at the others too. He lifted his head so his gaze was not quite on anyone, but off into the distance like the stares Blaisius sometimes adopted that made me want to ask what's on his mind. It was terribly distressing not to know what someone is thinking. I stared at his face trying to make out the smooth lines of what I guessed to be roughly sixteen years, the mold of his lips, the blankness of eyes, what it all meant was happening inside his head. My foot with a mind of its own was tapping by the time he came back to reality without a proper answer to my question.

"I have one Rhuagi, one ghost." He touched his Hold. "It's my dead grandfather, and I summon him every once in a while. It hurts, all the energy it takes. My Min is gone in seconds. So I have a new plan. I know how to get to Lorden Ka, if we go through the forest. The forest isn't a bad place, it's just not the road, but I have a strategy that could possibly give our merry little band a chance of winning the Tournium."

"Merry we're not very," said Henrie with a sigh, resting her cheek on one pale slender hand.

"But I'm going to do it anyway." Blaisius stood heroically, for some completely idiotic reason I made no attempt to understand, because at least he was willing. Henrie stood up behind him, her eyes dark. His chest swelled. "There's something in me that wants this, that wants to be Master, and I don't think I can ever live again unless I unlock it, and set it free, and—"

"So that's what it shall be." I looked around at the other three, memorizing them, studying their expressions, assessing their worth; a smile managed its way to my lips. "That's what it shall be. Find a way to arrange it for yourselves, and we'll all leave tomorrow for Lorden Ka."

My hand slipped to the small bracelet still tucked away in my pocket, the gift from Blaisius, and my smile gained warmth. I'd been dealt a hand by someone above, and if I played it like the most skillful game it could reward me with quite a bit more.

This, I knew, was the start of something great…or deadly.