Chapter 7: The Swaying Scales
„So you do leave us, Maroun? In this case I wish you the best for your journey. May you find your goal."
"I am looking positively towards this journey, Master." Maroun smiled honestly when he said this and apparently this attitude took Master Radu by surprise. The master was in charge of the travelling magicians arriving at the temple in Kelaven, hence he had known him since Maroun first came to the capital months ago. Consequently he had also experienced him mostly thoughtful and a little gloomy and he had most likely assumed that the current disappointments had only added to his misery.
One the one hand they definitely did, however his determination to find a trace of the Path of Spirits was stronger at the moment. Besides the prospect of seeing his home again made him more joyous than he liked to admit. No matter how much the city and the life here had impressed him, there had always been a little longing for the savannas.
Now he would be able to fulfil two wishes at once, although he was unsure what awaited him in the North. There was nothing left for him to do in Kelaven, though, and if he wanted to make a change he had to start somewhere else.
Probably it was as foolish to search for the Path of Spirit as Master Radu had indicated, but if he did not go on this journey he would never be able to find peace of mind. Should there truly be nothing more to the story than another myth about the magical net, then the experience would at least allow bring closure to the subject. Then he would openly admit to his failure as well. However, every legend had some real roots. A true core which might be waiting to be found. Even if neither Radu nor any of the other mages could relate to his enthusiasm, he would still go. Perhaps they simply lacked the necessary, most likely blind passion to face the unknown.
Anyway he had made his final decision and it could not have any worse consequences than the others he had made following his visit to Havaria. At least this thinking had been acknowledged by Master Radu.
"In spite of my doubts I do hope you succeed, Maroun. At least you certainly will not fail because of a lack of effort and if your research may truly bring results… well, I do not wish to hypothesize. Take care of yourself and maybe we will see each other again sooner than both of us expect."
Secretly Maroun was hoping for this very scenario, but he did not say it out loud as he said his farewell to Radu. "Once again, thank you for everything you have done for me, Master. You have always been a great help. May Sidian watch out for you."
Radu nodded as a sign of acknowledging his words and closed the gate of the monastery as Maroun had left. Now there was no turning back.
The temple of the Society of Sidian, where the Council of Eleven resided as well, and its monastery were located in the centre of the capital. It was a vast, fan-shaped estate made from white chalkstone and always visible from afar. The only building in the city which loomed higher than the temple was the royal palace directly opposite on the large plaza. This area which Maroun now walked across had once been the capital's marketplace until the king had begun to feel disturbed by the masses of people in front of his residence. Thus the marketplace had been relocated further south on the main road and was now a little smaller, but bustling with life. Here on top of the hill, which the city had been built on, one usually did not encounter anybody besides some magicians, city watchmen or the royal guard. Most of the time it was almost deathly quiet and Maroun had trouble to imagine what it must have been like when the market was still there, after all he had never known this place in any other way.
All roads in the city were spreading out from this plaza like a star down to the plains or the old, disused harbour respectively and the further one got from the centre, the more desolate the city became. Over the decades a clearly structured hierarchy had emerged, so that nowadays the wealthy people lived on the Western hillside with view of the mountains and the less lucky ones were huddling together near the old harbour. Even thought the view of the sea was rather beautiful as well, the insufferable smell from the harbour was enough to drive away most people. Only the magicians remained untouched by this hierarchical order.
While he had spent a lot of time in the city it was not a problem for Maroun to leave it behind. Kelaven was fascinating and beautiful, but only as long as one stayed within the upper areas. Master Radu had advised him on his first day to stay away from the harbour district and he had never felt the urge to go there afterwards.
Most of the poorer inhabitants here disliked the magicians just like the people in other parts of the island, despite the fact that the majority of them lived right among them. The city had been purged of the rebels as well as possible, but there would always be some people peacefully opposing the king's decisions.
The king was not very popular to begin with because he focused more on getting rid of his opposition than on solving the island's problems, among them the increasing poverty of his people. But most of those who were not directly affected by it just averted their eyes from these issues and Maroun had never acted any differently. He had his own problems to solve and wanted to stay out of both the conspiracies of the higher-ups and the hardships of other commoners. If it had been possible he would have simply ignored both conflicting groups, unfortunately as a magician it was not easy to keep out of those arguments. Usually one's profession was enough to make sure that one was categorized one way or another, and the magicians were generally affiliated with the king. This way most opinions were created and very hard to change after they had been established once.
He left the plaza and followed the western one of the four main roads down towards the city gates. Each of the four roads covered one direction and went all the way to the city wall and the harbour in the east. The western one was the most clean and had the nicest atmosphere in his opinion, as in contrast to the southern route only the travellers from the North were using it and it was thus less crowded.
In the mornings the Western gate was always very quiet and the two city guards which were posted at the side of the open gate were lazily leaning on their pikes and watching the people passing sporadically. They were clearly not interested in what was going on around them and thus they did not take any notice of Maroun as he went through the gate, either.
Not that he had expected them to behave otherwise. In general they only examined incoming travellers and not outgoing ones, as every person leaving the city meant one person less who could complain. And even among the arriving people most could pass undisturbed if they were not extraordinarily suspicious or merchants whose goods needed to be checked.
In the end he reached the country road and was happy to feel the earth back under his feet. He had become strangely attached to travelling over the last weeks and enjoyed the freedom it brought with it.
There were two roads travellers could take from the Western gate. The first led towards the mountains and the swamps to the West which separated the island into its two main regions, and the other one led northwest to the savannas and from there to the island's northernmost tip: The bay of Askir and the ancient village of Laaiùn. Determined he took the road leading north and sped up his pace a little. The journey would take him approximately three days, but he considered visiting his home village on the second evening and he had no time to waste.
The walk was usually uneventful and the landscape had nothing to offer but flat plains which would turn more and more barren the further he ventured. Other travellers were scarce as well. Those that sometimes took this route normally had a cart full of strange merchandise with them, which they hoped to sell in the capital at a good price. That was, if their merchandise was not confiscated right at the gate.
Exotic and valuable goods like Tobacco, fruit or carpentry were a privilege of the upper classes. The king had instructed his guards to seize such deliveries, gave their former owners a fraction of the money they deserved and afterwards only he and his officers saw these things ever again. The same happened to goods originating from the South and the common people had to live with what was left. Therefore Maroun did not really blame them for their negative attitude towards the king, and exactly this dissatisfaction was what the rebels made use of in their propaganda against the magicians.
Even if it was not visible at first sight, in reality Kelaven was a boiling pot which threatened to spill over anytime and the weaker the magic on the island became, the more the fragile balance shifted towards the rebels. Due to the gathering of so many magicians in one place the density of the taqah was already low and when it would inevitably collapse in the future the king would lose his greatest weapon. Then there would be nothing but open violence to prevent the people from joining the rebellion.
They feared magic because it was something they did not understand and hence could not handle themselves and so they trusted the rebels to take care of it. The city watchmen and the royal guard would not be enough to scare an angry mob away, though. Maroun would make sure not to be anywhere close to the capital when this time should come. At the same time he was confused that the royal magicians, whose existences depended on magic, were opposing further research. It simply did not make sense.
"Please excuse me, Sir! We hoped that you might be able to help us."
Maroun's thoughts were abruptly disrupted and he stopped in his tracks to turn around to the man who had just addressed him. Completely lost in his thoughts he had not even noticed when the two travellers had approached him. "If I am able to help I will be happy to do so."
The man smiled timidly and seemed relieved: "Thank you, Sir. We're from Kelaven, as you probably guessed already, and we're on our way north. But neither my wife nor I are familiar with this region and we fear that we're going to get lost. I don't want to sound rude, yet you do look as though…" He left the sentence unfinished and raised his hands in a silent apology, but Maroun only smiled.
Judging by his light bag and the nervous behaviour the man truly had but the faintest idea of what the savannas were like and thus did not know what to do. His wife behind him looked anxiously from her husband to Maroun and was evidently waiting for his answer. Both of them did not look as though they had left the city very often yet. They had the typically pale, hopeful faces of a lot of townspeople Maroun had seen. In addition, Maroun understood the reason for their nervousness very well. He himself would not have felt any different in their situation and he knew how difficult it was to tell someone politely that his mere appearance gave away his foreign origin. But Maroun had never been ashamed of his and did not mind that he could not hide it.
So he asked friendly: "What is your destination? You are right, I come from the North, however I do not know all the villages in the region, either."
"We are heading to Alaya. If my information is correct it's somewhere along the edges of the savannas."
Maroun nodded knowingly. Alaya was the last big settlement before one entered the really scarcely inhabited areas and it was also the only town in the North which did not shame this description. Therefore it was the one town even Southerners knew by name, but it did not make it any easier to find the way there.
So he tried to explain the way as simple as possible: "The road to Alaya runs alongside the mountains. A few miles further north this road separates into two; then you will have to follow the one leading west. It is the first crossroads if I remember correctly, hence it should be hard to miss. Said road will lead you straight to the swamps, where you have to take the route north again. From this point onwards there should be enough settlements so that you can ask the local people for more detailed directions. If I may point out, though: Your provisions seem a little sparse for such a distance."
The man's face lightened up in spite of Maroun's last remark. "Thank you, now we at least won't get lost right at the beginning. We had feared that we would never meet anyone to ask for help on this godforsaken road."
He indeed had a point. Except for them the road was completely empty at the moment and because Maroun had not paid any attention to the fact, the change seemed even more drastic.
"You do know that it takes about five days to reach Alaya and that there are only few settlements along the way until you are past the swamps?", he inquired with another look at their, certainly half empty, bags. But the other nodded fervently: "If we count your provisions in, then it should be more than enough."
Even if he had been able to register at once what these words meant and how to react, he would not have had the time to do so. The woman, who had been standing behind the man for most of the time, already held him at knifepoint by the time the man had finished speaking.
Irritated by his own carelessness he ground his teeth and cursed his naïveté silently. Travellers robbing other travellers were not such an uncommon happening, but he had never imagines that it could happen to him. He glared at the man whose smile had turned into a nasty grin, yet he did not object when he was told to hand over his back. Everything was better than getting himself injured or even killed.
To his astonishment the woman commanded him harshly to hold his hands behind his back, where she immediately grabbed his wrists uncomfortably tight. At least now she withdrew the knife from his throat. Instinctively he thought of his own knife he had hidden under his coat; but in his current situation he was not able to draw a weapon even if he wanted to.
In the meantime the man was rummaging through his bag and his frown grew deeper and deeper until he looked back to him: "For a magician from the temple I would have expected more. Where's the rest of the money?"
„I don't have any more than this, and how do you know…"
"Shut up, mage! We're the ones asking the questions!", the woman snapped and twisted his wrists further to emphasize her words. Maroun sighed quietly and followed the command. Even though she was not very strong she knew exactly how to hold his hands so that he could not slip from her grasp. Thus he assumed that they were not doing this for the first time.
Her companion had finished putting some of Maroun's things into his own bag and started filling hers as well. While doing this he explained: "We had an eye on you from Kelaven onwards, mage. It was just a lucky catch for us that you're also heading north. Since you mages are making life this hard for us rebels we have no choice but to get what you owe us by force."
With barely hidden pleasure he observed Maroun wince. He had not expected them to be rebels.
Even though his hands were still tightly held by the woman he could still move his fingers. Here outside of town the taqah was stronger and therefore easier to control. With a circular motion of his fingers he collected it and then closed his fists, all his thoughts solely focused on the ring of taqah which rapidly constricted.
Abruptly the woman yelp and let go while the knife clattered out of her hurting hand to the ground. Although he did not enjoy doing this he was aware that he did not have any other choice but to resort to violence. As soon as his hands were free he grabbed the woman's shirt, pulled her close and held his own knife determinedly to her throat. Only then did he look to her companion who had frozen in his movements the moment he had heard her scream. Their eyes met and he set his jaw defensively: "What do you plan to do, mage?"
"Actually I wanted to ask you the very same question. I doubt that you will watch me kill her and even if you do: Now that my hands are no longer bound I can easily take care of both of you. Hence I think it is your turn to decide."
"So you're trying to scare me with your magic? You're forgetting…"
Already much too irritated by the situation Maroun cut him off: "You are no rebels and I am not stupid enough to believe your lies. Her hands probably feel as though they were broken and hurt correspondingly, which proves that she definitely is not resistant. Besides, if you had nothing to fear from my magic, you would not have taken all the precautions you did and you would not wear those talismans, either."
He motioned with his head towards the charm the man was wearing around his neck.
"The term 'rebel' alone does not scare a magician, you should be aware of this. Now I would advise you to take your leave – after my things are back where they belong."
The man observed him for a moment, still he started to return his provisions and money visibly irritated. Presumably to vent his anger he threw the purse down in front of Maroun's feet instead of putting it back into his bag. However Maroun did not care, because he could clearly see that the man was afraid of him; and he was clearly more worried about himself than about his wife, if she was his wife to begin with. He probably feared that Maroun would not allow them to leave without consequences.
With a strained voice he murmured: "You mages will see where treating other people like this will get you. The rebels will take revenge on our behalf. So now, who can assure me that you won't hit me in the back with some flames of yours the moment I turn around?"
"First, you will be so busy to get away from here – in Southern direction, I might add – that I will not even have time to finish the spell. Second it would be a waste of energy for me to do this. Make sure to stay away from me and we will not have any more troubles."
He still did not seem convinced and was consequently rather confused when Maroun truly let the woman go as soon as he had his things back. Maroun himself put away the knife calmly and gestured with his free hand for them to get going.
One last hateful glare was thrown in his direction before they took off, while Maroun, genuinely relieved, turned to sort out the mess in and around his bag.
However, only when he was sure that they were far enough away, did he sigh audibly in relief. This kind of acting had not been easy for him and he doubted that he had been able to kill that woman in cold blood anyway. To threaten someone in order to defend himself was something entirely different from killing someone and he was not a scholar for any reason. In his opinion there should always be another way to raw violence, especially since he was not good at it.
At the same time he was glad that the man had taken his threat seriously, as he had had to count on the general public's lack of knowledge when it came to magic. Because only the high magicians or those who specialized in destructive magic could hit anyone with fire or something else. Maroun would not have been able to do so even if he had wanted to, just like the majority of ordinary magicians. Besides, spells like those required many years of study before they could be used safely.
The simple air-shackle he had used was one of the few ordinary self-defence spells every magician was taught. In fact it was not much more than a ring formed in the air, which could retract and even break bones if the pressure was strong enough.
Still a little troubled by the incident he looked down at the mess in front of him. He knew that these things usually did not happen twice in one day but nonetheless he could not chase away the memory of the knife at his throat. The sooner he reached his destination, the better.
He intuitively decided cut the journey short and take the direct way to Laaiùn. In case he did not find anything there he would have no choice but to return home anyway, and if he was successful than he would still have the possibility to visit his village on the way back to Kelaven. On the one hand he would then know enough about the problem with Rygia's magic that he could handle his spells more properly, and on the other hand his master and family would not get their hopes up for nothing.
One last time he looked back towards the capital. He did not like the hatred these people had just shown him, and he feared that it was only going to get worse. If nothing changed for the better he would, sooner rather than later, have to evaluate if admitting to his profession openly was worth the trouble it brought. Then again, he already knew the answer to this question.