The next chapter.

Since I am no native speaker, I would be very happy if you could point out mistakes I make, in grammar as well as in style.

Please enjoy reading.

Edit: IceQueen69 mentioned that reviews do not show up. I hope I have solved the problem now.


Chapter 4: Wherein Thallia Receives an Offer She Cannot Refuse

Post Scriptum, ad 24. July, Saturday

Everyone is talking about the six-element doctrine these days, praying to their respective elements, carrying all those amulets. Every child chants them down. Entire armies march under their symbols. But is anyone questioning it? Does nobody asked him or herself what magic is? Where it comes from?

All Is One, And One Is All, so they say: Wind brings rain, water nourishes wood, wood turns into stone (or earth), in stone, you'll find metal and liquid metal sparks fire whose smoke is wind again; The Kohnonian Hexagon of the Elements. Every child knows that including all the relations of creation and destruction between the elements. It's what they call science and it seems to have worked well so far.

Everyone thinks that this really is what holds the world together.

The Kohnonian dragon, symbol of the Archives of Heresy, accrues from the Hexagon if one connects the elements from weakest to strongest; wind and fire, water and wood, metal and stone. Those pairs form the tips of the all powerful Imperial Triangle.

That's everything we've been taught at school. But have you ever asked yourself why exactly the Archives are symbolised by the dragon and not the Empire? Why there's that white circle within the blood-orange Imperial Triangle? Why this simple theory is so important to the state that doubting it will unleash the Archive's dragons on you?

Simple.

We've also been taught that at school:

The Kohnon Hexagon is assembled from the triangle of the three `female' elements (wind, wood and metal) and the three `male' elements (fire, water and stone). As you might have noticed, a combination of each element with the other will result in the tips of the Imperial Triangle. Just as the combination of all colours leads to white light, the combination of all elements leads to the creation of the one, perfect being. The Shield.

That six-element doctrine is the justification for our government.

Maybe it's all true and the world can indeed be fully explained by the six elements. But if that were the case, I don't think they'd be executing people for heresy. Do you?

\\

Far down below, the dark sea was stretching to the purple horizon, billowing in unseen mountains of water. Then engines were humming steadily, the cabin below the huge bulk of the rigid dirigible was filled with the steady vibration of the steam motor. The last rays of sun, almost swallowed by the horizon, were the only light that fell into the tiny room. What little of the hull could be seen above was painted in a deep purple red and Thallia could see the first stars appearing at the dark firmament.

Through the windows, she had seen the desert passing below them. She had seen first towns timidly rising from sand and stones, the green groping to life along the sides of the mountains and the small streams that ran dry not far into the desert. Snow covered peaks had risen to each side of the dirigible, dwarfing it to almost insignificance when it had followed the train's snake light route over the passes. She had seen the many villages and green woods on the other side of the mountains, the metal roads of the trains, their clouds that diluted before they could rise up to the cabin. She had seen the debris of the old civilisation, build over, their mysterious, half covered paths, the sharp ruins of their monuments at the broad streams that sprang from the mountains.

After a bit more than six hours, past the heat of noon already, they had landed, for not more than an hour, at a settlement which she only recognized as Guanin when she saw her own barracks rising and recognised the dirigible lads that had strapped the ropes to the poles that marked the edges of the vast training ground. In the harsh wind from the inland, the dirigible had torn at its ropes, the poles had bent under the strain, and Thallia was sure that it was this wind that was carrying them so fast forward now.

After they had left Guanin, as far as Thallia could tell, the dirigible had not changed direction for hours but moved into north eastern direction, over land and over sea, crossed the Bay of Urazil, then over land again and after that over the vast blue of the ocean. She assumed that they had stopped in Guanin so that Kohn Colonel could verify her statements. Which was good. Then, at least, Colonel Neon Perdew knew where she was. On the other hand, her Colonel had not gotten her out of here, either. But if Colonel Kohn had said the truth - which she was almost certain of; there was no reason she had been able to figure, yet, why the man should lie - she was going to go to Inner Kohnonia and into one of the programs for highly talented magicians. Even her own Colonel Perdew's influence could not have taken her that far and Colonel Perdew surely would not have stopped her in face of such a chance. Most likely, Kohn had come to their village because had heard of her older brother Xenon (not Ferrus, of course. Who would ever look for Ferrus?) or someone else powerful of her relatives - but, well, Xenon was a rebel same as everyone else. Not likely to come, not likely to be persuaded to react up on such an opportunity. It was good to have come along. She would never get a similar chance in her life.

Right after they had left the village, the Kohnons had led her to this tiny room in the front part of the dirigible. They had not talked to her since, but they had given her enough to drink and served her supper shortly after the sun had started sinking. She had not expected them to talk much to her, anyway. Soldiers were not expected to be talked to, they were expected to follow and to defend the Kohnonian empire. She was comfortable with that. It meant she could observe what was going on and think. So, she had used the opportunity to conclude from the passing landscape below into which direction they were roughly going and thought she had a good idea of where they were now. She had listened into the vehicle, tried to distinguish the noises and was certain by now that her door was not locked. There were also no guards in front of it, as it seemed, although from time to time, people passed. Not regularly, so it did not sound like a patrol, either. But with the small bathroom behind the other door, she had seen no reasonable excuse to leave her room, either. Judging from the people she had seen so far and the steps outside of her door, she estimated that about twenty people were on board of the dirigible

Everything she had heard and observed so far confirmed her impression that the Kohn Colonel had said the truth about the purpose of his visit. As unlikely that might seem in a village as theirs.

A knock startled Thallia from her position at the window. The sun was nothing more than just a red glimmer behind the coast line in the west now.

The door to the tiny room opened a moment later to admit Colonel Kohn. He was accompanied by the young fire mage who had stormed into her grandmother's house in the morning. Watching the fire mage's movements now, Thallia doubted that he was as badly trained as she had still thought earlier. He moved with the precision of someone who knew exactly what he was doing when he took up position next to the door. She felt her mouth go dry watching his amulet almost extinguish as the Kohn Colonel crossed over to her. How much training did a fire mage need to be able to do that?! And if they could teach a fire mage that, what could they possibly teach her?!

"Good evening," the Kohn Colonel interrupted her staring and placed a lantern on the table. "I hope you enjoyed your supper?" He nodded at the empty bowl on the table, his voice sharp with the accent of Inner Kohnonia.

"Good evening, Colonel Kohn," Thallia replied, feeling awkward, anticipation hammering in her chest. She placed her right fist into the left palm and performed the customary bow to a superior over it, eager to leave a good impression. "It was very good."

"I'm sorry to have kept you waiting for so long. There were important matters that required my attention. - Please, do take a seat." He pointed at one of the chairs around the table. Darkness had fallen completely now and the chair was only just within the warm circle of light the lantern spread. The rest of the room laid in dark shadows.

"Yes, Sir." Thallia replied but felt awkward to be sitting down in front of someone of so much higher in rank.

The Kohn Colonel waited until she had taken a seat before he, too, pulled a chair back. At the door, the fire mage moved into a slightly more comfortable position, the fire in his amulet not more than an idea in the darkness. Thallia felt her heart throbbing against her chest, taking the sight in with open eyes. She wanted to know magic like that, wanted to control it that perfectly, too.

The leather creaked when the Colonel sat down. He was not wearing his helmet anymore and at the back of his head, his hair was tied up into the the imperial knot which put Thallia even more in awe. To wear such a decoration, he had to be a closer relative of the present Shield - or a son of a very deserving but more distant relative. Someone important.

"I am sorry to have taken you from your family on such a short notice and in such an impolite way," the Colonel started.

Thallia did not know what to reply and just looked at the Colonel. It made her feel awkward that the man apologised after all he seemed to offer, even if it was perhaps due.

"I would very much like to talk to you about your brother. Do you think he might be persuaded to come and visit us willingly? - I am well aware that people in your village resents our rule greatly which is very unfortunate; you have quite a few talents."

Thallia felt a sudden stab, the shade of panic that they might not be happy with just her but that they had really heard about Xenon and that they wanted him. That they had just taken her with them for information. "I haven't seen Xenon in years," she hurried to shake her head. "And after all I heard, I don't think he can be persuaded..."

Colonel Kohn smiled. "I'm not talking about your older brother. I know well enough where he is and you are perfectly right; he doesn't want to join us."

Thallia blinked, very much in surprise. She had not heard from her family in years, had no idea where they could possibly be - if they were even still alive - and this Colonel sounded as if he had even talked to Xenon. As if he had possibly made the same offer to him. She licked her lips, head swirling. How had even been able to talk to Xenon?

The Colonel seemed to have read the astonishment on her face: "Your brother Xenon is in one of our prisons in Mesityl." He reached out to turn the flame in the lantern up a notch, "Well, was until a few hours ago. Seems he made a neat escape from one of our prisons shortly after I spoke to him a few days ago. But I hope you don't feel too close to him; he's been waiting for his trial in connection with terrorism and after all I have heard you have so far been a loyal citizen?"

Thallia hesitated with the answer, feeling herself growing hot when she thought about her grandmother's look into the direction of he secret entrance. Of how she had stepped towards the Kohnons to stop them from looking for that very entrance. Yet, however she turned it, the answer she had to give tasted bitter on her tongue. As little as she owed to her family, they were still her family and she did not want to abnegate them. "I haven't seen Xenon in more than fifteen years. Haven't heard from him, either," she mumbled, shook her head, hoped that was enough of an answer.

The Kohn's face was almost sympathetic. "It must be difficult to have traitors in one's family. No, I'm not interested in your older brother. I am more interested in your younger brother Ferrus."

Thallia frowned, feeling unsettled, out of her depth. "It's true what I said; he's never been able to do more than sparks, not even lit a fire. He's an apprentice in engineering and is working on mechanical animals. His Master is very satisfied with him. But - He can't even ignite a candle and I haven't even seen him do any magic within the last years."

Colonel Kohn nodded and leaned back in his chair, his armour creaking, the night dark behind him. The position lights from the dirigible were spreading only a faint light into the room and the man in the shadows shifted. The steam engines were pounding deeply. "That's what I'm looking for. He hasn't shown any magical powers in, say, the last ten years?"

Thallia shook her head, anxiously. "You are mistaking, Sir. He isn't one of those who hide their talent so the military won't find them. He has no talent."

There was a small smile on the man's face, triumph Thallia recognised only minutes after the expression had passed. It made her feel cold. "They do exist, then." He crossed his arms in front of his chest. "No, I'm not talking about people who hide it. I'm talking about people who truly lost their magical talent. - " He stopped himself, studied her, smiled. "Might you be willing to work for me? There is much I can offer in return. You are special, Thallia. There aren't many people who discover a talent for elements higher than their native one. I can offer you schooling beyond anything that Colonel Perdew could ever secure you. A purpose. A career in the Inner Kohnonian army. A place at the Magician's Academy in Myristicin."

The last words drifted over the lantern's light, hung heavily between them, Sulfur's smile engaging. Which Sulfur, on earth, was he to offer her something like that?!

Thallia's heart was hammering, exulting, her mouth completely dry. Myristicin's Magic Academy! Without influence, without money, without birth, even with every talent in the world, it was impossible to go there. Who - what kind of magician - could dream of more? There was no place in Kohnonia where magicians received a better education, where chances of career were greater for the graduates, where more renown magicians taught. Had she not trained for that, hoped her entire life long? The Kohn Colonel was right. Even for her own Colonel Perdew, it would have been impossible to secure her a place there. And working with a Kohn, judging by his hair dress an important one - she would be stupid to refuse! Nothing would advance her quicker! A chance like that came only once in a lifetime.

Yet, the question was what she would pay in return. The Kohn Colonel had treated her nicely so far, if one omitted that he had threatened to take whomever from the village if her brother would not come. She would have preferred to have Colonel Perdew as her advocate, she trusted him, she knew he had chosen to be her advocate because of her talents, also other than pure magic, and she had been proud of that. This Colonel Kohn, he knew nothing about her and he was offering so much more than Colonel Perdew could ever give. Her Colonel would call her a fool if she refused.

Her eyes travelled to the fire mage at the door, his amulet that was barely gleaming in the dark. This was all she had ever wanted, everything she had ever wished for.

"Who are you?" She forced herself to ask, had to before she committed herself, even if she knew she could not be a greater fool to refuse, whatever he said. But she had to know whom she would be obliged to, which part of the political spectrum. She wished she had paid better attention when they had been taught about the royal family.

He smirked, slightly. "Oh, you're thinking before leaping. I like you already. - I'm Sulfur Kohn. The nephew."

Stupid and untalented, that was what she had heard of the Kohn nephew Sulfur and she could not come up with anything else. She tried not to let any unease show on her face. The Colonel was young, he was rich, he was the nephew of the Shield and with being known in the entire empire as `stupid', he had something to prove. It would not do to slight him.

Sulfur must have read something from her face nonetheless and did not seem to be pleased, frowning slightly. "I don't think I'm quite as stupid as they say. Otherwise, the princess certainly wouldn't have left this task to me." There was something like smugness around his lips, only for the doubt of a second and just long enough for Thallia to catch it. He had reached into his uniform and pulled something out, placing it into the warm light of the lantern. "Yes. I'm working for the princess and so will you - if you accept, that is?"

At the end of silvery chain, as part of a seal, the princess's imperial coat of arms was scattering the light, unassuming as if its existence within an arm length to Thallia was the most natural thing in the world. Thallia could not take her eyes off the seal, her head completely empty, blood roaring in her ears and her stomach feeling as if the floor had opened right below her. She did not dare to blink, not even to breathe, fearing that every movement from her side would destroy the scene, would wake her from what could only be a dream. The princess. The Shield of the next generation who would inherit the throne once her father was dead. Never in life - never in her wildest fantasies - had it crossed her mind that someone from the court could ask her to join them. Not to mention the princess. No wondered the Colonel had needed less than an hour with Colonel Perdew - Colonel Perdew would have only needed time to assure the nephew that she was the right choice. Staring at the dull surface of the seal, she felt pride hammering through her entire body. Colonel Perdew must have praised her, would have done his uttermost that she would receive such an offer.

She felt her face burning when she looked up at the Kohn Colonel, blood roaring, could not believe her luck. She gulped. This was more than she could have ever wished for. "I... I... It would be the greatest honour to me!"

The Colonel gave a nod. Just a nod, nothing more. A pull at the chain, the slight rattle of silver chain links and the seal disappeared into his uniform again. "Good. The princess will be glad to hear that. We will sign you in at the Academy as a nominal apprentice of the Archives of Heresy; don't worry, it won't mean that you have to join the Archives. It's a mere formality. By the time you will have finished, the princess will be head to much more than just the Archives."

Thallia could only nod, even the mentioning of the Archives of Heresy rolled off her. Her head was humming, ears roaring with happiness. The Magician's Academy in Myristicin.

"Apart from that, since you'll spent much time around me, I would prefer if you were to call me Sulfur. Kohn, there are too many of us, and most of them are really not worth remembering."

Thallia felt herself nodding, completely overrun. She had never before heard anyone criticise the Kohn family openly. But she could relate to his desire for being called by his given name than by a name which weighed as heavily as the Shield's.

"Yes, Sir."

"Good." He folded his fingers into each other and leaned a little closer, the metal on the uniform and the braces blinking in the light. "Now. Before we land for the night, I still have a question concerning your brother: Have you ever seen him using magic since the start of his puberty?"

Numbly, Thallia tried to remember, staring at the place where the seal that had marked Sulfur out as the princess's Intimate. For Ferrus, the Academy meant nothing. For Ferrus, the idea to be working for the princess personally meant nothing. It would not harm him if she told the truth. There was no way she could lie to her new boss, anyway. So, she shook her head. "No, I haven't."

Sulfur Kohn smiled, slightly. Satisfied as it seemed. "Good. Very good indeed. Welcome to the Archives of Heresy and the Princess's loyal servants, then. Niob here will answer all your questions over the next few days." He nodded behind him at the fire mage's shadow at the door and got up. "Good evening."

Thallia hurried to get up, too, nearly falling over her chair as she answered the Colonel's bow. "Good evening, Sir!"

The fire mage - Niob - gave her a short nod from the door and then, almost at the same time, both of them had left the room.

Staring at the door after them, Thallia still could not believe her luck. She had only expected bad things from them when they had arrived in the morning and they had offered her the world.


Next chapter: Ferrus: Wherein Ferrus Does Some Research.

I'm not sure if I'll find time to post the next chapter next week. It might take another week or two.

Please do review.