"And you're sure Saldon did not mention where he was going?" Lox inquired. He and Arak strolled through the grove outside the sanctuary. The sun shone directly down from a cloudless sky. Lilac warblers whistled in the trees, interrupted by the hum of cicadas.
"Yes," repeated Arak, restraining mild frustration. "He just said he had been wanting to leave Cati'nok for a while. That's it."
Lox puffed out his cheeks and ran a hand through his cropped hair. Arak had seen that very same reaction from him a half dozen times since his arrival. He understood Lox cared deeply about Saldon, but he had asked him, Talun, and Gia the same questions several times over.
Arak ducked under a low, sappy tree branch and paused. "Lox, before you ask again, Saldon told us nothing of his plans, other than that he wanted to leave." He read Lox's face before he continued. "You know both him and the Roruadan better than anyone else."
"Yes, yes, I understand," he answered, rubbing his stubbly beard and gazing at the ground. "I am the only one who can find him—unless he returns."
Arak nodded and nudged a pine cone with his foot as Lox pondered. "I suppose I'll have to do some thinking." He sighed, and then turned to Arak. His disposition brightened. "How are you, Arak? How is your power developing?"
"It's going well," he replied flatly. Lox peered at him, his grey eyes skeptical. Arak bit his cheek and frowned. "It's beyond frustrating," he admitted. "Ilynia gave me this incredible description of this gift, and I imagined being able to do amazing things with my ability, but…" He scoffed, and lifted a twig off the ground by raising his hand upward. "All I can do is move twigs."
Lox laughed, booming. "You didn't expect to immediately be uprooting trees, did you?"
Arak wanted to say no, but the truth was he did, and he twisted his lips. Reading his face, Lox laughed again. "I know little of magic," he said, "but learning these things takes time and patience."
"This isn't magic," Arak replied. He was certain of that.
"Then what would you call it?"
He frowned ponderously, and then shrugged. Lox opened his hands and dipped his head.
"So until we have a term for this power, magic will suffice."
"I've been patient. I spent the entire journey back practicing, but nothing has changed."
"I imagine you used small sticks and twigs the entire time?" When Arak nodded, Lox dipped his head again. "Again, Arak, time and patience. Perhaps a little instruction would not hurt either, although mages are not very accessible here in the West." He patted Arak's shoulder. "I'll speak with Telu. I'm sure he can find someone in Ma'lousk."
Arak smiled meekly and balanced on a narrow root arching from the trunk of an Algabar oak. He heard Gia calling for him, and he glanced up. She walked with Talun on the opposite side of the grove. They were laughing. She beckoned for him to follow. Lox bade Arak goodbye and strolled away.
"We're heading into town," she said, looking at Talun. "Come with us."
Arak stepped up beside them and the trio strolled into a narrow gulch funneling toward Lakehold. "What's this talk of returning to Lanor?" Arak asked, hesitant.
"Talun propose the idea," began Gia. "But we were in town the other day when we stopped and listened to a reporter, from the guild. He spoke of how a sprawling fort has been erected just outside Algabar Pass, to keep Darthmûr soldiers from getting through. The entire region is cut off from Lanor."
"But Norduī still has access," interjected Talun. "He said rumors of a resistance both within Lanor and outside in Algabar have come from Norduan merchants." He paused, his eyes filling with a gallant pride. "I figured we could try to help them."
"And you plan to go through Norduī?" inquired Arak, raising a brow. Although the kingdom was scarcely further than Lanor itself, the idea of heading to another country was off-putting.
"Duror, no," responded Talun, shaking his head. "As of now our only plan is to get close to the batholith and see what we can find out."
Gia nodded, her blonde hair bobbing. "It can't hurt, just to be close again. Who knows what we could find out?"
As they came out on the ledge overlooking Lake Thessa, Arak paused to consider. The idea was perilous and brazen, but Gia supported it, and Gia hardly ever agreed with Talun's antics. That much mollified him, but the plan was not yet free of flaws.
"When do you want to leave?" he asked.
"Tomorrow." She indicated the approaching gates. "We're heading to buy some supplies. Food is really all we need. Everything else is ready to go."
"And the Society? Have you told them?"
Talun laughed dismissively. "They can't stop us from leaving," he said.
"But that hardly means they want us to go to Lanor," responded Arak, arching his brows. "Going there will be dangerous—I'm not even sure it's the best idea." He blinked, then chuckled. "In fact, it's an awful idea."
Talun shrugged. They passed through the gate, nodded at the guards, and entered Lakehold. The streets near the walls were quiet, empty save for a few children that went running by.
"We'll tell them we're heading to Ma'lousk early," suggested Gia. "Then we can hurry there, and hopefully, we'll make it into Algabar."
"What has gotten into you two?" Arak exclaimed, aghast, as he peered at his friends. "Lying to Telu and the others?"
They exchanged a glance, and then Talun spoke. "It's boring here. You're always off with Rylon throwing twigs and sticks while Gia and I get stuck with Telu. He keeps trying to make me study Vondrarian."
Gia laughed. "It's not that bad, Talun. Vondrarian is a rather beautiful language."
"Maybe to you," he retorted. "But I might as well be trying to speak with an Unkezhalese slave." He turned back to Arak. "I've tried to spend time with Davard," he continued, "but that's like talking to a rock." Gia gasped and chastised him with a swat on the shoulder.
Arak laughed, but felt sorry for the poor Roruan boy. "You can hardly blame him. Look at all he's been through." Arak's smile faded quickly as he recalled the night at the Vatra Curaht, all those months ago. Semantically, he knew what Davard had experienced, and he could guess at the emotional aspect. The Roruan boy had lost his brother and left his homeland after scarcely surviving a greycloak raid. It did not shock Arak that he was struggling to adjust to life in the West.
They ambled into the town square and peered about. Few of the market stalls were open and they had to hop from store to store to gather supplies. After half an hour of browsing, they regrouped in the center of the square, each laden with various dried foodstuffs. Talun spotted a pastry stall on the opposite end, and they helped themselves to powdered sweetbread and sat on the rim of the fountain.
As they finished their treats, Arak heard a familiar voice call his name from across the plaza. Palla, her hair bobbing, hurried toward him, waving an arm. Gia and Talun threw Arak puzzled looks, but he ignored them, smiled, and rose.
"Arak!" she greeted, breathless. "I wasn't expecting to see you here." The leather satchel that hung from a long shoulder strap bounced against her hip.
"Palla, these are my friends, Talun, and Gia," he introduced. They both smiled politely at the girl, but appeared confused.
She waved at them, simpering, and then turned to Arak. "What brings you here?" Before he could answer, she gestured toward her own lips and said, "It seems you hastily devoured something."
Talun and Gia both snorted, although subtly wiped at their own mouths, while Arak blushed. "The mess couldn't be avoided…" he responded, chuckling forcefully.
Palla laughed, and then glanced at Talun and Gia as they rose.
"We're going to head back, Arak," Gia said, clutching her sack of food in one hand. "We'll see you later. It was nice to meet you, Palla!"
"Likewise." She watched them for a moment as they left, and then returned her gaze to Arak. "Where are they going?"
Arak glanced after them. "They're just going to our place," he answered. "We came into town to get some supplies."
She nodded, puffing out her lips. "Are you not staying in town?"
"Oh, no, we're not...We just have a little place, outside the walls." He smiled and pointed vaguely in the direction of the mountains.
She peered at him, squinting. "You're quite determined to hide as much about yourself as you possibly can, aren't you?"
He did not know how to reply, so he chortled once. He did not know why he was so secretive with her—with anyone, really—but it just felt right to protect the Society's anonymity.
"I suppose I can surmise most of it anyway," she continued. "I already know you use magic, which is interesting in of itself, but that was—"
Arak spluttered and looked at her, his brows furrowed. "How do you know that?" he asked rapidly. "It's not magic!" he added, just as she began to speak.
"Twigs don't just wrap around someone's finger of their own accord," she explained. Arak remembered their collision yesterday with a start. "Don't worry," she assured playfully, "I'm not going to tell anybody. In fact, part of me is jealous."
He raised an eyebrow, and smiled at her. "As you should be. But, like I said, it's not magic."
"What is it then? Some celestial power?" She paused, cocking her head. "Are you some sort of spirit?"
He nodded boastfully. "A lost one. Could you point me in the direction of Bola Mona?"
They both laughed and, without indication, began to stroll about the square. Arak ran his hand along the damp rim of the fountain as Palla continues, "I still want to hear the story of this…power you have." She hesitated to find the right word, but her shrug did not suggest she was content with calling it a power.
Arak exhaled and raised his brows. "That's a long story," he deterred.
Palla glanced at him and grinned, her grey eyes shining. "I can always find time for stories. Particularly when I'm working. Tell me a story and I will paint for you a picture." She spoke with pride and passion, her chest projecting.
"What kind of picture?"
"A gorgeous mountain," she replied, panning her hands before her with mock zeal, "illuminated by the most splendid sunset you will ever see."
"I think I would like a painting like that," he responded.
She rolled her eyes and groaned. "If I have to paint one more landscape of a craggy mountain, I swear to the Duror that I won't stand for it." She shook her head and glanced at the cobble. "All my professors do is encourage mountain paintings, claiming they are challenging and rigorous. Over and over again, I paint the same thing—mountains, sunsets, maybe throw in a small dragon or a flock of birds. It's exhausting and…purposeless." She sighed. Arak watched her, waiting for her to continue, but when she caught his gaze, her face reddened and she said, "I'm sure you don't want to hear me complain about my art."
"Despite the complaining, I still want to see you work," he said. "May I?"
"Are the Acaro Mountains not enough for you?" she countered, gesturing outward. "Would you rather look at them on a canvas?"
"I've seen enough of the Acaro," he affirmed, although his voice faltered as he glanced at the sunlight shedding through the valley, illuminating the slopes in a spectacular radiance.
"Really?" she responded, her brows curved. "As much as I hate painting them, I love these mountains." A smile touched her lips and she swiveled her head, soaking in the scenery.
"You should see the Kauvorae Mountains," Arak answered, recalling the enormity of those escarpments, and how as he rode through them, his breath was both taken away and fuller than ever.
She stopped a few paces ahead of him and gaped, her hair bobbing. "You've seen the Kauvorae Mountains?"
"I've ridden through them. And traveled through the Rift."
Her eyes widened, flickering longingly. "When did you do this?"
"Recently," he responded. His tone fell flat and his gaze unfocused. "I returned to Aërlarow a few weeks ago."
"But the Rift is war torn," Palla remarked. "The Dragon People have all turned against one another, out of nowhere. Just yesterday I heard a reporter speaking of how armies clash along the roads and dragons incinerate the mountainsides."
Arak nodded. "I've seen that." Her words brought forth a wave of terror in Arak. Nothing, not even his flight from the greycloaks through the Far North, had been as terrifying as traveling through the Rift. For weeks, as he and his companions hurried through, they faced stress and challenges he could never have imagined. What had once been a bustling, verdant valley was now decimated, pocketed with swaths of charred land, streaming with hopeless refugees, and ruled by men chain-linked steel. Dragons barreled through the skies, burning what they pleased at the vague requests of the petty kings and rulers across the valley.
Palla said nothing for several long moments as they wandered deeper into Lakehold. She led him down side streets, winding toward a part of the town he had never been to. "Why were you there, in the Rift?"
"Passed through it on my way to Darthmûr and the Roruadan." He spoke with a lighter tone.
She spluttered and glanced at him, shaking her head. "So casual," she observed. "As if it's no big deal to be traveling to the other side of the world."
He grinned and held out a hand. "I went north of the Roruadan as well, toward the Far North."
Palla chortled and stopped, paused, and looked at him, one brow furrowed and the other raised. "I'm not sure I believe you anymore." He responded only by shrugging and spreading his hands. She put a hand on her hip, tilted her head, smirked, and asked, "Who are you, Arak?"
"I'm telling the truth," he responded, burrowing his hands into his pockets. He was treading in dangerous waters with what he told Palla, but he did not feel uncomfortable. Telu's insisting on keeping their journey secret seemed foolish. Palla was an art student—she hardly posed a threat to the Society, and a little sharing could not hurt.
Swerving around a barrel of rice that spilled into the street, she eyed him. "A magic-wielding boy from Aërlarow that's traveled through the Rift, traipsed across the Roruadan, and ventured beyond? That's a little hard to believe."
He grinned. "But you still believe me, don't you?"
Her cheeks flushed and she stepped ahead of Arak, peering ahead as the road led toward a mountain face. "The University is this way," she said, pointing at the stepped path winding up and around the mountain. "Do you want to come see it?"
"Sure," Arak responded. "I've heard plenty about it."
She smiled, and then, as they strode toward the path, started to beleaguer him with questions about the Kauvorae Mountains and the Roruadan. Her questions were initially general, but in a few minutes it became clear her interests lay in the cultures and politics of the lands he had passed through. Shamefully, Arak knew little of that topic, but described his stay with Narta Horad as best as he could. Palla engaged him with fervor. She knew of Narta Horad by reputation, and she admitted her jealousy with every few steps they took on the path up the mountain.
On a flat stretch that curved around the mountainside, Arak and Palla rose high over Lakehold. The castle's highest towers stood nobly on the cliffside, their flags and banners stirring in the highland breeze, as the midafternoon sun dazzled the amber slated roofs of the stone buildings bordered by the walls and mountains.
"You're a noblewoman," Arak said, holding his breath to steady his panting. He had not dwelled on it too much, but her station intimidated him, despite having grown up in a castle. "Don't you have political connections?"
"You must understand, Arak, I am the second daughter and third child of my father. I am several years younger than both my siblings, and my father wants to cultivate my artistic skills before marrying me off." Her lips tightened. "I do not have the opportunity to explore the noble society of the Upper Bay as well as I would like to." Her tone grew sullen for a moment, but she quickly returned to her inquisitive self and asked, "How did you have the opportunity to stay with Narta Horad?"
Arak scratched the back of his neck. "Mutual friends—the man that we ran into yesterday. Since we were traveling near Rolaeyn, Lord Narta offered to let us stay for a few nights to rest from the journey."
"Talun and Gia," Arak answered. "The two you met earlier."
Passed by a half dozen gossiping University students heading into town, Arak and Palla started to walk again. "As you reveal more about yourself," she stated, "you only become more complicated." She blinked and brushed her hair off cheek, her lips parted. "That's impressive. Incredibly frustrating, but impressive."
"My two greatest attributes," Arak responded, his lips curved into a grin.
She laughed and gripped the strap across her body. "I suppose I need more time to pry and find out the stories behind what you've said." She locked eyes and added, "The real stories, without the subtle lies."
Incredulous, Arak threw out his arms and exclaimed, "I'm not lying!"
"You swear by Rochar's honor that you haven't told a single lie or left out some important information?" He did not reply immediately and she pursed her lips, smugly satisfied. "I won't judge. But I will figure you out, Arak. Just give me a few days." Adjusting her bag's placement, she skipped ahead a few feet, her cloak billowing in the unhindered breeze.
"I leave tomorrow," Arak said flatly.
She stopped and turned her head, her smile gone. Disappointed eyebrows arched upward for a heartbeat before her expression changed into one of glum curiosity. "Where are you going?" she asked, swallowing.
"Ma'lousk," Arak began. "Kind of."
Her eyes flickered. "Ma'lousk?" Her voice came soft.
"I have matters to attend to there," he said, trying to prevent questioning through vague formality.
"Do you have more nobles to meet?" she asked. "Don't even answer. I would die of jealousy if that were the case." Her gaze wandered, but then she thrust a finger outward and her wistful tone vanished. "There it is," she said. "The University of Lakehold."
The city almost entirely obscured by the curving mountain, the road flattened and broadened before reaching an aged staircase carved precisely from the stone. At the top, a dark stone wall ran from the mountainside to the precipice, broken by a curving, wrought-iron gateway. Beyond the gate rose stately, stone buildings. A tower, its golden cap gleaming in the sun, reached highest.
Arak scanned the inscription carved on the right pillar of the gateway, and then passed through it. A cobbled plaza sat beyond the gate, bordered by several buildings with articulate facades. At the opposite end of the square, a dignified building of dark stone sat, and from it sprouted the tower. The plaza funneled into its broad staircase, and its front was dotted with framed windows and columnar ridges.
"That's the largest building at the University," Palla said, catching Arak's gaze. "In the tower is the library. It's not as big as it seems. Most of the tower is an atrium. Not a lot of space for books, but it suffices."
"Do artists even need many books?" Arak asked.
She shook her head. "It's used mostly by the non-artists. This level is for the students of history, language, and literature." Pushing her billowing sleeves past her elbow, Palla swung an arm to her left. "The University is built on three terraces," she explained. "This one is the smallest, but it has the most buildings. It's used for more traditional studies."
Arak looked up the mountainside and saw the deliberate leveling of the face, where two terraces climbed up the mountain like a staircase for the gods. From the way they were shifted further along the side, curving more than the lowest terrace, Arak had not initially seen them. But now that he noticed them, the University of Lakehold became quite a bit more impressive.
"This terrace is like its own town," Palla continued. "There's a few shops, a tavern with an inn, even a few apartments for the wealthier students to rent. Every two weeks, vendors from Lakehold come up here and have a market so the students aren't always lugging goods up and down the path."
"This is incredible," he said, pacing around. Groups of students milled about, chatting with one another, while others hurried from building to building, their arms laden with books and parchment. "It looks like a town, quite a nice one, at that, but it feels so different."
"That would be the palpable overconfidence of privileged, wealthy young adults," Palla responded, grinning. "Come, let's go to the next terrace."
Following her across the plaza and down a winding street between two hulking buildings, Arak raised an eyebrow. "Doesn't that describe you?"
The road ran into the side of the next terrace, and a staircase hewn out of the fifteen foot high ledge led up to the second level. Palla looked back at him as she started up the steps. "Not entirely." She waited for him to catch up at the top of the stairs and continued. "I did not ask to come here. My father made me attend."
He stopped at the top and glanced around. To his back were the buildings of the first terrace, their third stories level with him, but he stood on a flagged path. It branched before him and cut through a field of trimmed grass. "But don't you love to paint?"
"Yes." Without a doubt, bitterness lurked beneath that simple, terse response. But Arak did not want to pry, so he simply nodded and followed Palla as she took the path leading straight.
When they reached the center of the lawn, Palla stopped and pointed to the right. A large U-shaped building, three stories high, sat at that end, wrapping around a courtyard that harbored a tall, twisting pine tree. "Those are the dormitories," she said. "Each student gets their own room, and on the center of each floor is a common room." She pivoted and faced the building on the opposite side. It rambled across its end of the lawn, holding sweeping balconies and dark stone rotundas. "Professor offices and lodgings, as well as the kitchens and dining halls." Barely concealed distaste leaked from her flat tone. Her brows were clenched.
Without another word, she swept across the remainder of the lawn and toward the third terrace. Arak stared after her for a moment, puzzled. He trailed behind as she reached the staircase. The staircase protruded from the terrace ledge, bordered by a low railing, and led to a stone trellis laden with crawling vines.
The stairs from the second terrace to the third brought Arak from a flat field into an elegant garden, with gravel trails snaking their way around copses of twisted trees, glittering fountains, and beds of flowers. "This is beautiful," Arak commented, admiring a sculpture of a slumbering dragon adorned by vibrant orange flowers, waving like flames.
"Everything here was created by students," Palla mentioned as she curved around a slanted pine. Arak stepped away from the dragon and followed, the gravel crunching at his feet. "The gardens house six buildings—one for each of the art studies here at the University." She began to count on her hands, listing as she went. "Painting, sculpting, architecture, horticulture, glassblowing, and pottery. We all collaborate on projects. It's an interesting dynamic, actually. The architects construct the buildings, the sculptors create garden decorations, the horticulturists grow the garden, the painters decorate the interiors, the glassblowers make the windows, and the potters…The potters do their best."
Arak laughed. "What's that supposed to mean?"
She beckoned him forward, leading him past two girls tending toward a bed of trampled flowers. One of them grumbled something about painters not respecting boundaries, throwing a glare in Palla's direction. Palla swiftly responded, referencing several people Arak did not know, and the girl turned back to her flowers with a steaming face.
"It means," Palla continued, once they had left the gardeners behind, "that pottery is hardly an art. It went out of style fifty years ago, but I suppose Heritar has not quite caught on to that trend yet, because they continue to send their aspiring artists here to develop their potting skills." She raised her eyebrows. "I pity them, really. They all come here thinking they will revolutionize pottery...It doesn't take them long to realize that nobody cares."
Arak laughed. "That seems a little harsh."
"That would be art," she said with a nonchalant shrug. "Every few months a few students are sent home. Sometimes it surprises me that I have not been among those students. My art style is pleasant, but it is nothing special, nothing unique. I do not try to make it so, either." She sighed and stopped by a sagging branch of grey pines.
He paused and examined her. As her fingers rolled over the delicate needles, her gaze hovered. "Why not?" Arak asked, plucking off one of the needles and flicking it into the air.
She jerked her eyes upward as the branch rattled, and then blinked. "It is not my passion." She spoke with resignation, hinting at the discord her consignment at the University brought her. "I am talented, but I see it as nothing more than a hobby. My father does not know that. And I do not know how to tell him."
Arak realized with widened eyes that she had been waiting a long time to say this out loud. When she spoke, her drifting eyes settled and her shoulders relaxed. Contentment passed over her face, if but briefly. She could hardly admit these things to her fellow students. They would see it as a reason to resent her. But she could tell Arak, and Arak found himself glad that she had confided in him.
"I am sorry," she said, shaking her head. Her hair bobbed. "I should not burden you with this."
"It's no problem," he responded, earnestly. He knew she needed someone to talk to, and to be that person did not bother him. She had been so forward, yet so amiable, to him. It was only right for him to return a friendly gesture. "I want to see some of your paintings."
A smile touched her lips, and she raised her arm down a path lined with arching trees. "The studio is just down there."
At the end of the path lay a broad yard, clear of foliage, around a graceful stone building that backed up against the mountainside. On the first floor, the windows facing away from the mountain were of various stained glass. Above, the clear windows stretched wide and high. Opening the brown door, tucked in an alcove between two arching windows, Palla led Arak into a broad chamber dappled with colored light. It stretched the length of the building, with a staircase at either end. Along the back wall hung paintings framed by polished wood. Arak strolled up to the nearest one, its frame nearly four feet long and three high, and inspected it with wide eyes. The glass lamp that hung above it poured light into the frame. An older man, kneeling on a cliff side, hung his head. His arms were raised before his face in denial of the crowned man forming out of the clouds, whose extended hands held a gleaming circlet. Illuminated gold by the sun, the king made of clouds wore an expression of utter shock. The image depicted the emotions of the two figures with startling clarity. Both their bodies, despite one being made of clouds, were spectacularly captured. The background, with its towering mountains, swirling skies, and barrage of colors, brightest around the king and darkest in the corners, accentuated the multitude of emotions the painting evoked in Arak, namely awe and disbelief.
"Thesson Danebar Spurns Rochar," Arak breathed, afraid his voice may damage the painting.
"Lyculia Ressam studied here," Palla said from behind. "His original painting hangs in Ma'lousk. Have you seen it?"
"No," responded Arak. "But I've heard of it." How could he not have? The painting was one of the most famous in the world. It depicted the legendary scene of Thesson Danebar rejecting the offered crown of Rochar himself, the King of the Duror. Had Thesson accepted it, he would have become king of not just Aërlarow, but of the entire West.
Palla stepped up beside him and leaned in, her lips drawn as her eyes glazed over the canvas. "It's a powerful image." Her eyes lingered on Thesson's hands, their fingers twisted. "It makes you wonder about his time. Discovering the West, settling it, creating history." Her face glowed with admiration, but her eyes burned with jealousy.
"He hardly discovered it," Arak countered. "The Bola Heron were already there, and had been a long time." He smirked at her face, glaring at him from under bristling brows. "But yes, I know what you mean. Thesson Danebar was incredible."
She nodded, and her gaze brushed over the painting once more before she said, "My workshop is upstairs."
Tearing his eyes away from the painting, Arak followed her up the staircase on the right and entered a dim hallway with a window at either end. More paintings, considerably smaller than those below, hung in the spaces between the doors on either wall. Palla led him past several doors before stopping at one on the right, which was engraved with her name and two others. At the end of the hall, a student carried a folded easel.
"This is my workshop," she said. "I share it with two other students, because there are more painters than rooms. Blame the architects, they take too long to build anything." Knocking on the door and then yanking it open, she jerked at the door directly across the hall. "That's where we store our materials and touch up our paintings once we finish them. There are no windows in there, so the sunlight can't damage any paintings."
He entered the workshop. Discarded canvases strewn the floors, and a half-dozen easels were placed about the room, some in use, others not. Cabinets hung on the walls, their doors flung open, and paintbrushes of all shapes and sizes littered the floors, cabinets, and even one was stuck to the ceiling. Arak surveyed the room with arched brows. He could not imagine painting in here with two other people.
A massive window, stretching from the floor to ceiling, gave a stunning view of the mountains opposite the University while also allowing light to flood in. He strolled to the window, splattered with crusted paint. "That's quite the view," he said.
"Yes, the inspiration for landscape paintings is endless," she replied, flashing a sardonic grin. He laughed and sidled past an easel, brushing with his thumb the coarse canvas propped against it. He wondered what it would be like to take the canvas from blankness to a vivid image.
Palla crossed the hall, opened the door, and beckoned Arak in. The room they entered was longer, but just as narrow. Toward the back lay cluttered cabinets, but all along the walls were paintings, some scrapped, some incomplete, some stunning. He strode to the cluster of paintings against one wall, where Palla stood, and inspected the paintings.
His eyes snapped to one image in particular, which was bordered by a heavy wooden frame carved like scales. The painting depicted a meadow beneath an imposing cliff, but in the center sat a gleaming white dragon. One wing was tucked, the other partially raised, and its neck was twisted so its head faced the shoulder. Sharp ridges spiked up from its eyebrows, and its serpentine tongue slithered through flawless fangs. Its tail lay in the grass, variant whiteness poking through the yellow and purple flowers. The dragon was gorgeous, and despite its vastly different appearance, it reminded Arak of Ilynia so strongly he felt chills run down his spine.
"This is…I-I'm speechless," Arak spluttered, looking back at Palla.
Her cheeks flushed faintly and she took a step toward the painting. "It was my most challenging work," she admitted. "I painted it in the meadow. The dragon posed there for…I don't even know how long." She spoke in a hushed tone.
"The dragon posed for you?"
"Of its own volition. It was the closest I have ever been to a dragon." She chuckled. "I still don't quite know how to speak about it." Arak rolled his tongue under his cheek and nodded, scrutinizing the detail of the painting. "Have you ever encountered a dragon?"
Arak straightened, considered what to say, and then responded in a soft voice, "Yes."
"It's a different experience." She chuckled again, but said nothing.
Neither spoke for several minutes. Arak drifted from painting to painting, but his eyes kept sneaking back to that of the dragon. Her paintings displayed great ability, he noted, but that of the dragon was different. It exuded energy and passion, and it became clear to Arak that when she had painted it, she had wanted to. It was not forced—it was genuine. And it was beautiful.
"You don't want to be here, do you?" Arak broke the silence.
"No." There was no hesitation. "I don't."
"Why don't you leave?"
She sighed and turned away, toward a crude painting of a child sitting on the steps to a stone building. "The solution is not that easy. My father wants me to be here. He thinks having artistic education will make me a more viable wife."
Arak felt a pang of pity. It was a shame for Palla to have to waste her time on an endeavor she did not wish for. While he had obligations, grand ones at that, he was not locked in one place. His responsibilities gave him freedom, but hers sat her before an easel, an easel she hated.
"I envy you," she said. Arak watched her as she tucked her hair behind her ear and ran her hand over a dry, smeared pallet. "Tomorrow, you leave for Ma'lousk. I stay here, and when the time comes I finally can leave, I return back to North Thorn until I am married off."
"Then leave," he replied, countering her previous reasoning. "Tell your father you don't belong here, and then go, to Ma'lousk, or wherever."
Their eyes met. Her typically vivacious grey eyes, although harboring a pained longing, now shone with an intense desire. But an instant later, the desire vanished, and her doleful gaze persisted. "Arak, you don't understand." Her fingers curled. "I can't just stand up and leave this all behind. I have obligations, responsibilities, reputations to maintain. It's not just about me. I have my family, my house, to consider as well. The choices I make cause ripples, and ripples can't be created. Not in my world." Her brows tightened, her eyes hardened, and her tense fist pressed against the counter against the wall.
Her intensity did not faze Arak. It only made him want to argue with her more, to convince her she was wrong, but he could not. She was right—he did not understand. Despite being raised in a castle, he was not a part of her world. Trying to pretend he was would only cause problems. He exhaled steadily and tilted his head, looking toward her. Although her steely eyes did not move, he knew she saw him. Slowly, her fist opened, her brows relaxed, and she glanced up.
"You probably need to head back, don't you?" she asked, throwing him a smile. Giving the room a quick visual sweep, she strode out of the room and into the hall. "I'll walk you to the gates."
Taking one last look at the painting of the dragon, Arak followed her out of the room and into the hallway. Several students shuffled down darted about, carrying rolls of canvas, wearing paint-splattered robes, and paying no attention to Arak. He and Palla moved down the staircase, exchanging humored glances as a frustrated cry echoed down the hall, and then reentered to the gardens.
"How long is the journey to Ma'lousk?" she asked, looking toward Arak with a curious simper.
"A week on horseback," he told her. "Hopefully less." He truly hoped for a quicker journey. At their fastest, it would take two weeks to reach Algabar. From then, they would not return to Ma'lousk for at least another two weeks. Arak was beginning to like the journey less and less. An entire month was quite some time to be gone, and they were heading toward a war zone. Traveling through the Rift on their return from the Far North had been stressful enough. He was not eager to experience something similar, even though Lanor was his home.
"You truly have no idea how jealous I am," she admitted as they strolled under a drooping pine. "To visit Ma'lousk is my utmost desire."
They traced their steps back through the garden and onto the next terrace, all the while engaged in a discussion of Ma'lousk. Arak told her all he could about the city, from its ingenious canal that cut through the heart of the city, connecting the River M'al with Thorn Bay, to the labyrinthine neighborhoods deeper in the city's core. Her face turned red with envy when he mentioned how he stayed a night in the castle. In part to maintain secrecy, but mostly to prevent her from exploding, he conveniently forgot to mention how he had met King Argnol by the dire pleads of Lord Elgard.
She, in turn, discussed all she knew of Ma'lousk, which consisted of a great deal of history and politics. Oozing excitement, she raved on about the Ennobled Court, the council of lords and ladies from throughout the kingdom who met to advise and discuss matters with the king. The amount of information about the Court she knew shocked Arak. With little effort, she could riddle of the names of dozens of members, as well their adherents, who were minor nobles that helped represent their liegelords in the Court. The words, articulate and coherent, tumbled out of her mouth. Despite her fervent dialogue, Arak could still discern the pained longing etched into her soul. Yet he could not decide if the longing was who she was, or merely part of her.
As they neared the gates, the two of them chortled as they regaled each other with memories of Sir Mursun the Misfortunate. The stories of the hapless knight had kept Talun and Arak from dying of boredom during their days sequestered in the library of Ma'lousk. He was surprised to learn that Palla had read the whole trilogy, several times. The ludicrous, often licentious, story did not strike Arak as something a noblewoman would read.
"Just because we act refined does not mean we think that way," she commented, straightening her shoulders, tilting her chin upward, and throwing out her chest. Her posture quickly broke with a breathy laughter. "Unfortunately, many of us nobles do have quite unadulterated mindsets."
They stood just before the archway. Sunlight poured through the gaps between the mountain peaks to the west, illuminating the lowest tier of the University in a swirling, golden light. Laughter echoed on both their faces.
"Safe travels, Arak," Palla said after a long moment of silence. "Maybe I'll see you in Ma'lousk someday."
Arak's stomach fluttered. "If you're ever there, go to Cala's Café. It may take some time, but you'll find me there. Eventually."
She raised an eyebrow and blinked. "I'll keep that in mind. Now go—you need rest for your journey." Her eyes stared with a playful demanding.
"Good luck here," he responded, and then hesitated. "Talk to your father. He'll understand."
She blinked again, her expression falling, and then nodded briefly. "Goodbye, Arak. I hope our paths cross again." She raised her hand and waved, taking the first, tentative step back.
"Goodbye, Palla." He shuffled toward the archway, watching as she backed away, pivoted, and then hastened across the courtyard. She bumped into a cluster of students, glanced at them, and then kept walking. She vanished down a side street.
His brows knitted together as he turned and passed through the entrance to the University, not paying heed to the students walking in all directions around him. A bittersweet pang stabbed at him and the feeling that he would see Palla again, coupled with a potent desire to, arose within him.