Chapter One: Old City
In the late afternoon, when the sun had started its descent toward the sea and golden light bathed the plains, a great dark blot of civilization, the walled city of Eyren, grew out of the horizon and cast its unwieldy shadow on the grasslands. The high stone walls wound their way from the twin fortresses at the mouth of the harbor at city center, along the rocky coast, and in a sinuous arc around the entire city. Like the giant scaly dragon they were designed to imitate, the walls crouched around their precious hoard, belligerently challenging any who brought trouble with them down the northern road.
Amara thought little of such an empty threat. One had but to step foot behind those walls to realize it was only that: a show of force the tired port could no longer back up. Beyond the new fortifications and watchful eyes of the few city guards patrolling the battlements, the city itself was a decaying jumble of eras long gone, a patchwork quilt of city blocks thrown together from whatever hadn't been destroyed in the dozens of sieges since its birth uncounted generations before.
By no means a gem, Eyren had still always been an important port town to whatever forces could hold it the longest. Situated around a natural harbor halfway between the northern and southern kingdoms of the mainland, it was a major trade hub to which all the great roads led. Such potential for power led many men to fight wars over its control, besieging the city in the name of this kingdom or that, raising and razing a half dozen fortifications, burning and pillaging whatever got in the way. Sometimes the new holder had a chance to repair or add to the city before it was destroyed again and switched hands, sometimes not. There were few who could make a lasting change.
Whenever she passed through the city, Amara had to wonder if the Empire's contributions would withstand hardship any better than past defenses.
Journeying south as she did on this occasion, Amara approached the northern bulge of the city, the most recent attempt to change the great port. She made her way through the imposing gatehouse, weaving through the crowds of people coming and going, and emerged into the outer ring of The Steps. Here the streets were laid out in wide arcs, seven terraced boulevards that led upward and inward to the citadel like an enormous staircase. Each upper street was fortified to slow an invading army's capture of the governor's palace and military barracks that controlled power in these parts.
The entire area looked solid and imposing, meant to inspire faith from the upper classes that this time the city would not fall. This was the Empire's architecture: pretentious and untested. She paid the showy landscape no mind; her business lay elsewhere, beyond the neat paving stones and brick rowhouses of the upper and middle classes.
Amara ascended The Steps deliberately, up to the last terrace where the streets snapped to a rigid, no-nonsense grid, the only indication that she had entered an older part of the city. This was the Trade Quarter. Along the north road, it was a straight shot from the new walls, through The Steps and the Trade Quarter, to the rough remains of an older fortification that still stood as a gateway into the Yards.
The streets of the Yards, the boardwalk-lined alleys and paths of the city docks, shipyards, and warehouses, were less organized than the outer city. Depending on their age, some followed the landscape, and others met at odd angles, telling stories of forgotten occupations to those who looked closely enough.
But Amara had no time for such trivialities today and her destination was not in the Yards. She turned down a newer lane, a diagonal path that brought her across another of the main thoroughfares of the empire, the wide, paved boulevard that merged with the northeast road, which one could follow all the way to the opposite coast. Two streets later she stepped off the creaking boardwalk and onto the dirty cobblestone of Old City, the oldest section of Eyren that still stood. The streets grew cramped and the buildings musty and sagging, all seeming to huddle low to the ground feeling sorry for themselves.
It was at one such building that Amara stopped. Like most of Old City, the three-story half-timbered structure had a mossy thatched roof and simple wooden door, making it unremarkable from its neighbors save for a painted sign hanging on a post over the doorway to mark it as an inn. Her grey eyes ran over the familiar place as she paused to adjust her pack and prepare herself to deal with the man within. Sighing even as she forced her lips into an agreeable smile, Amara went inside.
The stench of wood- and tobacco smoke greeted her nostrils the moment she stepped across the threshold, as it always did in this place. On this occasion, however, it brought an undercurrent of rotten fish along as well. Her smile slipped just a touch as she adjusted to this unpleasant surprise, waving a hand to acknowledge the small group of fishermen drinking at a nearby table from whence the smell emanated, and quickly looking away for an excuse not to strike up a conversation. Fortunately, an excuse quickly presented itself, as the man she was looking for, a rotund bearded fellow named Dom, eagerly stepped into the room when the door creaked open and promptly froze in his tracks upon realizing who it was.
An uncomfortable silence followed, as the fishermen set down their mugs to stare at the innkeeper like he was a madman, then turned their gazes to the small, dark-haired woman who had caused the disturbance. Amara ignored them, and stepped closer to whisper loudly in Dom's ear, "You have a customer, good sir." That brought him out of his horrified silence.
"Ah, um, Ms. Reyi!" he spluttered, bowing as though for an honored guest, "Back so soon?" His tone was pleasant, light, but Amara knew this was just for the sake of their audience. "I am always…shocked…and…grateful that a fine lady such as yourself comes back to my humble establishment. We have been expecting you, of course, and your room has had no other guests in it, as always." Dom snatched his keys off a nearby hook and hurriedly walked down the corridor to the stairs, calling over his shoulder, "I could take you there now, if you'd like." He was halfway up the stairs before Amara had a chance to follow.
"That would be lovely," she called in return, winking at the bemused fishermen before ducking into the dimly lit halls of the inn.
Even in the semi-darkness, she knew where to go. She had walked these halls on a dozen separate occasions, always to the same room. Up the first and second staircase, and then to the right, up a ladder into the attic, Amara climbed until she saw Dom shifting nervously at the foot of her cot. Already, he had taken the time to light a lamp on the stool that served as her table, and he deliberately smoothed the clean bedding, looking to her for approval. "Nothing has changed since you were last here, my lady," he sniveled, dipping his head in an awkward bow, "and no one has come up here but myself, to check that things would be ready for your return." He hesitated. "You're sure you would not prefer a regular room, Ms. Reyi? …I can always make room for you. It would be no problem-"
She shook her head, cutting off his objections. "This is fine, Dom. I will not damage your business. Our…arrangement…doesn't mean I should take advantage of you on a whim." Her eyes met his, but only for a moment before he turned his gaze to the rough plank floor. Amara smiled to herself as she dropped her bags in the corner of the attic and unlatched the small window to let in the sea breeze; Dom's fingers twitched. "Though I would appreciate if you could draw a bath for me in one of your vacant rooms."
Dom bowed hastily and scrambled for the ladder. "Of course, my lady," he mumbled as he disappeared from sight. Amara listened to his quick footsteps as he retreated down the corridor, yelling for his servant girl to start heating water. She chuckled and sat down in front of the open window. As she stripped off the dusty outer layers of her travel clothes in preparation for her bath, she took in the sights and sounds of Old City.
It had been early summer when she'd last passed through, with the strong odor of fish on the breeze and the sun high in the sky. Now, with the late-autumn winds churning the ocean into long breakers that crashed on the piers, and boats straining at their moorings even on an evening with hardly a cloud in the sky, she could sense the city and its people bracing themselves for the brutal winter storms those winds promised. There was a nervous atmosphere to the crowds passing by in the streets below, a manic undercurrent to everyone's actions that intrigued her. Here and there, a housewife called to her husband to repair the shutters so the children wouldn't freeze, and a man muttered to himself about needing to buy supplies for his family to get through the long, cold winter. It seemed everyone had something needing attending to before the next great calamity befell their city.
As always, Amara came into Eyren during a time of transition. It made her wonder how the people fared in the middle of a season. Did they settle into their routines, embrace the steady weather, and live life as it came to them? Or were they always looking to the next season, wondering and worrying what would happen in the weeks and months to come? Were they all so used to disorder that that passed for normal here? Would a steady, safe life throw everyone into a panic? In four years of traveling the empire, wandering in and out of Eyren when her route brought her that way, she'd never had a chance to stay and find the answers to her musings.
Whatever the case might be, she had long ago realized that to understand Eyren and its people, one only had to look to the harbor and observe the sea. If the ocean was placid, so were the people, calmly going about their days with the steadiness of the waves lapping at the shore. But when great storms shook the very foundations of the docklands, every citizen shook with them, quaking in fear at the waters that roared their imminent destruction. There was no escaping the sea there, and the ocean grew restless again. Amara wondered what those waves might bring ashore.
Light footsteps padded down the hall, and a woman cleared her throat at the base of the ladder, jolting her from her thoughts. "Your bath is ready, Ms. Reyi. I can take you there now."
"Thank you, Ryn, but that won't be necessary." Amara had spent so much time staring out the window, she'd forgotten to prepare her fresh set of clothes. "If you would please tell me which room-"
"First floor," Ryn interrupted, walking away before Amara had a chance to ask for anything else. "Second door on the right of the stairs. There should be a towel on the door and if there's not, at least the door's open."
Amara laughed. "That's very helpful of you, Ryn." The serving girl vanished from sight and Amara unpacked with a small smile on her face.
She loved staying in Dom Gannon's inn because it afforded her a wide variety of entertaining reactions. Years before, when she'd arrived in Eyren for the first time, she'd brought Dom back from death when he'd drowned near the Yards. Like many who knew she was a necromancer, he was terrified, and almost didn't want to be rescued. As much as she tried, she could not convince the poor man that she meant him no harm; he'd offered her money and gifts, anything he could think of that night on the docks to get rid of any debt to her. She'd accepted a room at his inn, to be kept available to her exclusively for whenever she passed through the city and he agreed. At the time, she took the offer only to calm him down, and in the hope he would eventually trust her. Even after six years, he still feared her.
But his staff, who she'd made sure he'd never tell, were none the wiser. To Ryn and the others, she was just another traveler, mageborn and well-educated but no more important than other guests.
It was best if things stayed that way. It did no good to call attention to herself.
Amara gathered her things and descended into the dim corridor to search for her much-needed bath.
The next morning, when the joy of a good bath had worn off and she could no longer ignore her growling stomach, Amara left the refuge of the inn with purse in hand and an empty pack on her shoulders, making her way to the nearest marketplace. Usca Bemiar market had once been a small block of homes that burned down in a lightning strike a number of years before. Instead of rebuilding, the locals had cleared the debris and turned the area into a market square for the people of Old City, who had few shops and no established market of their own.
It was a modest affair, which rarely boasted livestock other than chickens, and could not be relied upon to offer the same items each time she passed through. But Amara preferred the smaller crowds and knew that the vendors of Usca Bemiar maintained prices befitting the lower-class incomes of Old City residents. Prices befitting her own minuscule income.
Amara wandered the marketplace with a vague idea where she needed to go, trying to find the best food available for what little she could afford to part with. The smell of fresh bread caught her attention more than anything else she saw or smelled, emanating from a large bake-cart on the corner of the square that seemed to be doing quite well for itself. She strolled over and waited her turn.
A little boy stared at her while she stood in line, a toddler with unruly brown curls all over his head, who had perhaps just seen his second birthday. His mother bought a large bag of hard rolls, no doubt for a small army of other children at home, then they left, the little boy still watching her with a shy smile on his face.
As the pair left the vendor, the boy pulled away from his mother to turn and wave at Amara, as if to an old friend. Far from amused, the weary mother grabbed her son's hand and they disappeared into a group of women chattering near a fabric vendor. Amara chuckled to herself as she waited in line. The boy had a not-insubstantial gift for magic. No doubt he sensed the same in her. He probably didn't understand the ability, not yet, but at least he knew they were kindred spirits, of a sort.
Amara purchased a small but heavy loaf of braided bread from the cart and tore pieces off as she wandered the market looking for something a little more substantial to bring on the next leg of her wanderings. She checked the usual places for salted meats and hard cheeses, picking up food and supplies that would prove useful on the road. She was just tucking a good size sack of dried beans into her bag when she heard a commotion nearby.
A woman screamed and the crowd noise grew to a loud angry buzz as people at the other end of the square crowded around someone on the ground. Amara hesitated, torn between wanting to help but knowing it did her no good to use her magic in a public place. Mind made up, she turned to walk the other way as though nothing had happened.
A man on horseback made a hasty retreat from the area, followed immediately after by the little boy from before, toddling quickly past her. No one else seemed to notice the boy, so focused were they on whatever had just happened, but Amara did a double take at the sight. The boy she saw chasing the rider was not a living boy but a runaway soul; a quick glance at the center of the crowd told her this was true, revealing the woman holding her limp son and blood soaking the soft brown curls on his head. All sense of caution dissipated in an instant as she chased after the boy's spirit.
She found him standing on a street corner a little way away, watching passersby with the wide-eyed interest of a child who didn't know he was very much lost. When Amara rounded the corner, he turned to her, waving and smiling with recognition. There was a touch of confusion in those little brown eyes but he had not yet realized he had no body; Amara hoped he wouldn't have to. She beckoned him to follow her and he grabbed onto her coat sleeve.
Together they ran back to the marketplace and his body.
Back in Usca Bemiar, a man now knelt beside the mother and child, his hand covering the boy's head to heal him. He shook his head and told her there was nothing he could do; she sobbed harder. Amara pushed her way to the front of the crowd and touched the woman on the shoulder. When the mother turned to her, she whispered urgently, "Please give him to me. I am a healer. Perhaps I can help."
The man stared at her as if she were insane since the boy was so obviously dead. "I already tried, miss. It's not use. He is already gone."
"Then there is no harm in me trying," Amara replied, crouching beside the boy's body with a firm hand on the woman's arm. The mother handed the boy over, wet brown eyes cautiously hopeful, and Amara closed her eyes.
She put one hand over the boy's bloodied head and the other surreptitiously guided his soul back into his body. As she secured it there with practiced ease and made a show of healing his body, the little boy opened his brown eyes and stared up at her. He blinked, she removed her hands from him, he screamed for his mother, and the onlookers erupted in relieved murmurs. All those assembled were glad for the miracle they'd just witnessed.
All save for one: the healer who had failed before Amara showed up.
She saw the aura around his soul flare up with shock, then anger and repulsion the moment he realized she had been successful. Under his hate-filled gaze she made a hasty exit from the crowd and walked away from Usca Bemiar.
The man followed closely behind; she could feel the hot energy of his furious aura and the prickle of the magic he drew then. It touched the edge of her senses around every corner, disappearing for a moment when she passed through a dense group of people and surging forward soon after. She ducked down a few alleyways but could not lose the tail. Knowing she couldn't risk leading the man back to Dom's inn, she picked a familiar alley right off the main boulevard in case she needed to incite a mob to make him back off, and she stood her ground. Sure enough, he rounded the corner not a minute later.
The man's dark eyes glared at her from beneath heavy eyebrows. He approached her cautiously, summoning and holding a good amount of magic and Amara grew wary. The man was a healer by profession because, like many who chose the path, his moderate magical ability made him unsuited to work as a full-time defensive or infrastructural mage. But while he might not be able to work the more complex spells she had been trained to do since childhood, he had enough power to incapacitate her if she didn't keep her guard up. She needed to end this.
"Is there a reason you're following me, sir?" she asked, trying to seem calm.
"No healer could do what you just did," he growled as he drew menacingly close, forcing her back up against the rough wall. "That boy was dead. I know he was; I tried to heal him myself and could not revive him."
Amara shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant even as she resisted the urge to blink in case he chose that moment to make his move. "His case required more power than the usual healing, yes, and perhaps that is why you failed."
As if in sudden realization of her potential power, he backed off a step. He was still seething inside, his aura flickering with anger, but he was not as sure of himself. She was by far the more powerful mage. If only that would be deterrant enough to make him back down. "You may just dismiss me as lower than you, but I know what I felt and that was not the work of a healer."
"You're right," she said, edging along the wall until she was between him and the street. "It was the work of a full mage." She turned to merge into the crowds on the street.
"No, it was not that either," he hissed at her back. The man lunged after her, grabbed her from behind and shoved her against the wall, his hand over her mouth to silence her startled shriek. No one on the street even glanced their way.
"I've seen the likes of you before. Necromancer." He spat the word like even speaking it left a foul taste in his mouth. "I'd never forget your evil magic."
Amara struggled to escape his grasp, reaching for her magic though she knew she would be too late. He mustered all his power to bind her powers, holding her magic close to her so she could not wield it against him. It would only hold her for a moment…but the knife he plunged into her side was all he needed to still her body. "It's time you go back to the fires of the underworld where you belong."
She stiffened with shock and stared into his triumphant eyes as the blade slid out of her abdomen with sickening ease. He stabbed again and again, taking great pleasure in the pain she could do nothing to stop. As the blood trickled down from uncounted wounds and her world grew comfortably dim, Amara felt him pull away.
Through heavy eyes, she watched with a sort of disconnected interest as two large men from the street charged over and threw him off of her. One man caught her as she collapsed and gently lowered her to the cobblestones, yelling to the passersby for a healer to come right away.
Amara's attacker wrestled away from the other man and bolted down the alley, her rescuer in pursuit. Amara watched, barely conscious, until the men disappeared around the corner, and continued to stare in that direction for some time after.
The world seemed to slow down around her, moving with a deliberate lassitude that fascinated her clouded mind. She could not feel pain from the half dozen stab wounds or understand the words of the man crouching over her; she fell into a comfortable lack of feeling. She knew she was dying but could do nothing about it.
Amara thought about giving up the fight, of succumbing and going on to the sun god Domie's palace in the sky to await her rebirth. But then she remembered Vodeg's pact and the real fate she would find. She struggled to regain focus. The man's gruff voice cut through the fog, telling her help was coming.
A brown-haired woman hurried to her side and knelt beside her, laying her hands on Amara's wounds. Amara adored the heat of the magic the woman directed into her, felt it returning the strength to her body. It cauterized the damaged flesh, mended the holes, smoothed her skin back to the way it had been…
When the healer finished, Amara still felt incredibly drained. But, with the gruff man's help, she sat up and rested her head in her hands. Amara closed her eyes and sighed, relishing the sensations that told her she was alive. Her wounds were still tender but she knew that would pass. The skin was unbroken and there would be no scars, save the ones on her memory.
She'd been given a second chance.