The Mountain City of Drok Moran was afraid.
The Nadians once suffered a siege before, and the kingdom all but fell to ruin because of it. Now, they feared a new one, and the force outside their walls was led by the daughters of men who conquered Drok Moran in the past.
It was early evening. Reyn walked the winding streets, rising in switchbacks up the slope of the mountain. The roads were narrow, sometimes barely wide enough for a wagon to pass through. Confining and just shy of claustrophobic, and the grade was steep enough that the stone streets would often have stairs carved into them.
Black stone darkened the streets and alleyways. So high up the mountain, and yet it felt as if the sun was unable to reach the capital of Nadia. The tall buildings all around, forbidding and looming, were built up from natural stonework or rough masonry. Each structure lacked any sort of color or brightness, every brick of it imbued with a sense of eternity. The city had always been here. Always would be. Immortal as the stones. Those that dwelled here were only tenants within something that felt far older than mere humanity.
Drok Moran was a large city, and that was only what was beneath the sky. The undercity, a vast warren of tunnels and cavernous chambers, bustled with its own life and energy beneath Reyn's feet.
She shared the streets with few others. Most of the city's residents were staying indoors or underground while the threat of Shan Alee hung over their heads. The Nadians weren't generally a nervous people, but they were cautious by nature. It must have come from working as miners and masons, sculptors and engineers. Reyn thought them to be short of stature, but Gaulatians such as her were taller on average than most races of humanity. The Nadians had bronze skin, ranging from copper to dark. Their hair came in shades of brown from sandy to almost black. Nadians were most easily recognized by their prominent noses, which were long and elegant, often approaching hawkish. They were a proud people, and deservedly so. In spite of a disastrous attempt to gain independence from Althandor twenty years ago, their kingdom stood among the five great kingdoms of the Continent, wealthiest of them all.
Reyn kept the hood of her cloak up. The longer she went before being recognized as a foreigner, the easier her task in the city would be. As it stood, she was drawing a few unwanted glances as she passed. Reyn walked with a slouch to disguise her height, but her long legs were more difficult to hide, even with her cloak folded around her. She took no pleasure from being leered at, and she walked with her fists clenched each time she felt some fool's eyes on her.
A skirt would make this simpler, Reyn thought, though the demands of her errand made more concealing garments less practical than her usual tight-fitting leggings. Just keep the hood up. Fair skin is common enough here, but not red hair.
Reyn had lived all her life hiding one thing about herself or another. Usually many things. This was no different. There wasn't a soul in the world who knew everything about her, and those who knew enough to be dangerous were few. There were three people Reyn trusted, two she never would. For the other four who knew some of her secrets, she reserved judgement.
One of those Reyn remained suspicious of finally arrived.
"Sorry I'm late," Starra said. She sidled next to Reyn and matched her pace. "You wouldn't believe the lengths this city is going to distract me."
"I can only imagine," Reyn murmured. She glanced at Starra sidelong.
Lady Starra Nolaas was similarly disguised with hood and cloak. Unfortunately, Starra didn't seem to realize that all this was for avoiding attention, and the neckline of her blouse went low enough to draw every eye within a league. Her colorless skin, a grayish white in the manner of the Irdish people, was as out-of-place in Drok Moran as an ogre at the opera. Starra also allowed her long white hair to spill out from underneath her hood, but she at least had the presence of mind to wear a dark veil to conceal her eyes.
Reyn looked forward and tried to keep blood from rushing to her cheeks. Starra was a little older than her, twenty-seven to Reyn's twenty-two. She could admit to herself that she found Starra attractive- devastatingly so, to be frank- but she'd rather be damned than let anyone know it. Reyn pulled her hood down lower to hide her reaction.
"We haven't much time before the gala begins, my lady. Her Majesty wishes the night to go smoothly, and..." She balked and took note of Starra's impish smile. "What?"
"I adore your accent," Starra said dreamily.
Reyn narrowed her eyes. "I beg your pardon?"
"Gaulatian accents. So sensual. So intoxicating."
There was no stopping Reyn's flushed cheeks this time. "There is some Gaulatian on your tongue also," she grumbled.
"Perhaps one or two."
"My lady!" Reyn gasped, scandalized.
"Not what you meant?" Starra asked with feigned innocence. "Oh, very well. I attended university in Parnaia and picked up a bit of the inflection, but it's nothing so lovely as yours. Tell me, dear one, did your household primarily speak Old Gaulatian?"
Reyn looked away and gave a curt nod.
"I thought so. Most everyone everywhere speaks in Althandi nowadays, but it's good to know the old tongues are still alive and well with the goodfolk. And I've always thought Old Gaulatian was an especially beautiful language. It leaves such a distinctive mark. The way your R's come off the back of your tongue. Each word passing your lips like poetry."
Reyn frowned. "You are making sport at my expense, my lady."
"Perish the thought," Starra exclaimed. "I wouldn't dream of mocking someone I share so much in common with."
Reyn raised an eyebrow. They might have both been Dekaam, colloquially known as mage slayers in the Five Kingdoms, but Reyn didn't see much else in common between her and Starra.
Lady Starra was noble, a sion of House Nolaas of Japax. Reyn had never held a title; she was the only child of horse breeders. Starra was magocracy educated, while Reyn only pretended to be. One a respected wizard, the other a self-taught scrivener. A noblewoman of lineage, and a village girl who didn't know the names of half her grandparents.
"We are nothing alike, my lady," Reyn said quietly.
"Alike in what matters," Starra sighed. "You still hide it? I hoped the acceptance I've found with the Aleesh would demonstrate to you there's no need."
Reyn didn't reply and kept moving onward up the street.
"I've not been in Her Majesty's service half so long as you," Starra pressed. "I'm little more than an advisor who fell uninvited into her lap. You're Empress Enfri's bloody handmaiden."
Reyn hissed softly through her teeth. "Say it louder. The goodfolk the next street over might not have heard."
Undeterred and smirking, Starra went on. "Is handmaiden inaccurate? Scribe, then? What precisely is your role now?"
"Whatever Her Majesty deems it to be," Reyn said, biting the words off as she spoke them.
The smirk faded from Starra's lips. She had a way of dropping her irreverent manner to make way for thoughtful consideration. It was seldom seen, but when it happened, it felt sincere. "You are a puzzle, Reyn of Rosewater. Dedication without devotion. Loyalty without affection. Trusted, but untrusting. Try as I might, I can't muddle out what makes you tick."
Reyn's frown became a scowl. "Can you not? Perhaps it is simpler being what we are while living in manors and attending galas."
Starra's voice softened. "Perhaps so."
Reyn swallowed what else she might have said. Fighting back a flush of shame, she clenched her jaw and determinedly kept her eyes on the path ahead.
In many ways, she imagined Lady Starra's life must have been more difficult than her own. Unlike Starra, Reyn didn't have physical evidence of her true heritage, at least none that couldn't be hidden by that same nature. Starra was a vampire, marked with the red eyes of a blood mage from her birth. She wore her veil and took great care to keep her fangs hidden, but one mistake could leave her revealed to the world. For the child of a noble house, it would condemn not only her, but her entire family.
For Reyn, a selkie, the signs of being a demon-spawned horror were more subtle.
Vampires and selkies. Skindancers and weres. Harpies, dopplers, and kits. The seven races of shifter kept themselves hidden from humanity. If there was one overriding truth that Reyn had known all her life, it was that exposure led to death. Shifters were descended from the proteurim, favored servants of the old masters. Though the vast majority of shifters in the modern age possessed more mortal blood than proteurim, it made no difference to humans.
Even a girl born and raised in Gaulatia would be a monster to be exterminated.
And yet, Starra no longer hid what she was. At least, when she wasn't infiltrating a hostile city, she didn't. She walked openly, unveiled and smiling. A vampire stood alongside humans, made no excuses, unashamedly petitioned her friends for donations of blood, and displayed her fangs when asked to the delighted amazement of the coarse soldiers she drank with. That was what Shan Alee meant to Lady Starra Nolaas. She no longer lived beneath the fear of discovery. Starra owned herself.
Gods, but Reyn envied her. Tempting. So very tempting. But secrets needed to be kept. Reyn couldn't let go of that fear so readily. She just couldn't.
The memory came unbidden. Old Ham lay on the floor of his office in the paperworks. The Althandi actor lounged at Ham's desk. The Aleesh woman rifled through his things. They'd interrogated Reyn. Beat her. Terrorized her. Dominated her. All of that had been Reyn's fault. Ham was dead because she couldn't keep a secret.
"I apologize, dear one," Starra said. "I didn't mean to offend."
Reyn blinked and came back to the present. She looked at Starra and was momentarily caught off-guard by how she was looking back with concern.
"I am not offended, my lady," Reyn said.
"It was I who spoke out of turn. You must have learned by now that I have a tendency for thoughtless comments."
Starra smiled wanly, as if trying to reassure her. "That's part of your charm, dear one."
Reyn scoffed and continued onward.
"To matters at hand, then," Starra said. "Here I am, complaining of the city's distractions while trying to do the same to you. I do so loathe hypocrisy, particularly my own."
"You have not delayed us. We are arrived, my lady."
Starra looked ahead and smiled broadly while giving an appreciative gasp. Most everyone had heard descriptions of the Summit Academy, possibly even seen artistic renditions. For Starra, seeing it in person for the first time, it must have been awe-inspiring.
During most of the approach to the academy, the looming buildings surrounding the campus obscured any sight of it. Once through the district and onto university grounds, everything opened up so suddenly that it was almost disorienting.
There were trees, all but forgotten elsewhere in Drok Moran. Flower beds and green shrubberies lined the paths through lush, tended lawns. Seeing natural beauty after the dreary urban landscape had a way of waking something up inside a person, something that had gone dormant without them realizing.
More than the sights, it was the sounds. The scents. Cascading from the peaks came a torrent of clear water like crystal. It roared downward in twin waterfalls flanking either side of the main tower. The falls lent the air a crisp coolness and a scent like purity.
The tower itself was as white as the rest of the city was black, a single spire of gleaming marble. It was spellwrought, each stone laid and fused to the others through magic as if the entire building had sprung fully formed from the mountain. Vaulted archways and glimmering glass in the windows made it seem an impossible structure, something found only in tales of ancient wonders lost to the world.
The grounds were all but deserted. Only a small number of young men and women scurried about the tower and the surrounding buildings. Students, Nadian for the most part, but one or two were Althandi. Not one of them seemed willing to be outside longer than necessary.
The open sky was the source of Drok Moran's fear. It no longer belonged to the Nadians, but to the mighty.
Starra came to a stop, gazing upwards to the highest point of the Summit Academy. "I think I need a moment. Bloody hell, but it's beautiful. No one told me it would be beautiful."
Reyn glanced up at it and continued on.
"Can't you appreciate it for one moment?" Starra asked as she trotted to catch up. "I realize you've seen it before, but even so."
"I do appreciate it," Reyn said, her words coming out fast to match her hurried pace. "I think it to be the loveliest tower outside of Parnaia. Unfortunately, we are not here to take in the sights, my lady. We have an appointment, and we are in danger of missing it."
"Yes, yes," Starra sighed. "This... Mistress Ardra, was it?"
"Headmistress Ardra," Reyn corrected. "I've spent the past two weeks arranging for this opportunity. Frequent infiltrations into the academy, breaking into offices, bribing faculty, and all of it to learn of a time when Ardra is not surrounded by Sentinels and minions of House Algara. We cannot squander this chance, not when Her Majesty is entering the lion's den in less than an hour."
"What?" Reyn demanded.
"I believe I just realized your role, dear one. Such a rare skill. I must say I couldn't be more pleased you have it."
Reyn felt a wry twist in her lip.
"You're a spy," Starra whispered conspiratorially. "A bloody good one, from what I can see. I'd ask where you acquired such skills, but..."
She left the sentence dangling in the air.
Reyn sighed. "But, you already know."
Starra smiled, and it somehow hung between endearing and predatory. She didn't need to speak the word, it was all but written on her face. A good thing, too, that she kept silent. Reyn doubted she would ever forgive anyone who let something like that slip between their lips, especially here in Nadia where the movement began.
Courtesan. Since the Nadian Rebellion, the word's meaning had changed. It no longer referred to a higher class of prostitute, but to dangerous revolutionaries.
"The Lord Krayson told you," Reyn guessed.
"As if anyone could get anything out of that boy he didn't want to say. Some around the war camp know one or two details about Her Majesty's handmaiden, but none of them held all the pieces. Suffice it to say that while you've been arranging meetings with headmistresses, I've been collecting."
"A lot of effort for one scribe," Reyn observed.
"Hardly," Starra said flippantly. "Besides, you might say I was inspired."
There was a lot about that statement Reyn wanted to get to the bottom of, but she'd run out of time. Her attention was drawn to a garden a short ways off from the main path of the academy grounds. No one loitered in its vicinity, and aside from a few remote vantage points, it was mostly hidden from view. Reyn nodded in indication and led Starra towards it.
"She's coming here?" Starra asked once they entered the garden.
Reyn nodded, turning her head from side to side to take her bearings. A pair of stone benches overlooked a small pond. A few orange and white fish swam lazily within the water and served as decoration more than any practical function. It was a shady corner, shielded from the bustle of the academy, and a quiet spot ideal for collecting one's thoughts.
Standing over the pond, Reyn paid extra attention for places that could conceal a bodyguard. Her practiced eye found nothing to suggest hidden security. "Headmistress Ardra receives little time to herself," she said. "On evenings she is not engaged by the Nadian court, she comes here to meditate. With the gala going on, I believe she will hold to that routine."
Starra let out a heavy breath. "That won't do. Now I feel guilty for intruding. What precisely is it that she does for Old King Fen?"
"An advisor to the court," Reyn explained. "When she is not managing the affairs of the Summit Academy, Ardra is frequently called upon by King Fen. Her experience has been in high demand since Her Majesty's arrival. Ardra is not only a respected expert in structural engineering and city defense, but she is a veteran of the Summit Guard. Ardra served House Teranor as a Sentinel during the Siege of Drok Moran twenty years ago. She was the one who raised the alarm at Althandor's final assault on the walls."
"Will that be a problem?" Starra asked. "I can imagine your headmistress might harbor ill will towards Her Majesty's father for leading that assault."
Reyn shook her head as she kept watch for anyone approaching the garden. "She now serves the house that deposed and executed her king and installed a new one. Regardless, history tends to remember the names of lords, not the soldiers who hand them victories." She glanced towards Starra. "I expect Ardra will have more ill will towards an apprentice of Ambrose the Merovech than the daughter of an Althandi armsman."
Starra shrugged. "My master had many enemies, dear one. Most are far more intimidating than a glorified school teacher."
Reyn raised an eyebrow and wondered how Starra's opinion might change in the next few moments. There were enough local legends of Ardra's infamous temper that Reyn had begun to build up some expectations.
There was a flicker of movement across the grounds in the direction of the academy tower. Reyn ducked her head to peer through the branches of a shrubbery. One person, unescorted. It was difficult to tell from this far away, but it could have been Ardra. Reyn had only caught glimpses of the headmistress before, and those had been at a distance.
"Is it time?" Starra asked.
"I believe so."
Starra's face grew serious. She was vivacious and something of a lush, but she could be relied upon when it mattered. Competent, and Reyn considered that the highest compliment she could give.
It was only a moment longer before they were joined in the garden. Headmistress Ardra was a compact woman nearing her fortieth year. The right side of her head was shaved down to the stubble in the Nadian fashion, and long bangs obscured her left eye. Her hair was graying prematurely, silver taking over the deep chestnut it used to be. Her face bore a few light wrinkles that accumulated at the corners of her mouth and brown eyes. Though she seemed small, her build suggested she hadn't allowed age to diminish her muscles since retiring from the Summit Guard.
Ardra stopped short and took Reyn and Starra in at a glance. "Stones," she swore quietly. Her coarse voice felt like gravel. "Which is it? Here to bring me bad news, or just here to annoy me?"
"A bit of both, I'm afraid," Starra said.
Reyn pursed her lips and shot Starra a brief glare. She then turned towards Ardra and bowed her head in respect. "Forgive the intrusion, Headmistress. We will be brief."
Ardra snorted and took a seat on one of the stone benches. "First time for everything. Just make it fast. Foreigners might not know, but there's something like a war coming. Sky Corps is hiding in the mooring towers, market prices are growing wings, and there's already talk of rationing before dragons burn down the farmlands."
"I doubt it will come to that, Headmistress," Reyn assured her.
Ardra waved her hand dismissively. She let out a soft groan of aching joints as she settled into her seat. "So, what brings you girls to my corner whilen I do what I can to avoid your type?"
"Our... type?" Reyn asked.
"Nobles," Ardra stated bluntly.
"Please," Ardra scoffed. She fixed Reyn with a steely glare. "I can smell privilege from a league off. Maybe not both of you. The pretty Irdish one with the silly veil might be your servant, but if you're not some head of house's favorite daughter, I'm a crawler."
Starra covered her mouth with a hand to fight back a laugh.
"Headmistress, I assure you..."
"When'd you last hear the goodfolk use words like 'assure', my lady?"
Starra turned her back to conceal the fit she was having.
Reyn grimaced as she prepared to do something she hadn't done in years. She used her natural dialect. "Ken whennah say I's no snottin' lady."
Ardra blinked. Starra might need a healer before much longer, the way she was having trouble breathing.
"Lady Nolaas, however," Reyn continued in more comfortable speech, "is here as an unofficial emissary."
Starra took three deep breaths before turning to face Ardra. "Yes. Yes I am. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Headmistress."
Ardra eyed the pair of them dubiously. "Is that so? Emissary from whom?"
Reyn still felt that thick drawl on her tongue and let Starra explain their purpose.
"From Her Majesty Enfri the Yora, Dragon Empress of Shan Alee."
Ardra leaned her elbows on her knees and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Shoulda known," she grumbled. "The husband told me the omens were bad this morning, but did I listen? One of these days, I'm gonna grab Colin by the ear and make him write down just what he sees in those rumbling bird signs."
Reyn could understand Ardra's predicament. Nadia had a dark history when it came to consorting with enemies of House Algara. "As I said, we will try to be brief. Her Majesty has no desire to bring you trouble."
"That so?" Ardra snapped. She sat up straight and curled her lip. "Then maybe she ought not've gone and dropkicked two armies just outside the walls. Maybe, she ought take her ogres and dragons somewhere else! The Mountain City's got enough problems without some upstart claiming to be queen of a mythical wonderland and chucking monsters our way."
Starra shrugged and spoke to Reyn in a stage whisper. "Well, she's not exactly wrong." She then addressed Ardra. "It was three armies, by the by. Half the dragons you saw a couple weeks ago weren't ours."
"Oh, well I stand corrected."
Reyn took a step closer. "Headmistress, you know as well as any that Shan Alee is not a myth. The Law of the Highest King forbids study into the deep past, but there is more than sufficient evidence that the Espalla Dunes were once home to an advanced society."
"Fair enough, but..."
"And the fact that Empress Enfri is served by more than fifty of the mighty should convince the most stubborn of skeptics that she is the Dragon Empress."
Ardra batted the words aside with a flick of her wrist. "Whatever you say. I've no interest in debating her claims. The fact is, she's got an army of fey sitting outside our gates, and that makes me nervous."
"You aren't being besieged," Starra said. "Shan Alee hasn't stopped so much as a cheese wagon from entering Drok Moran. You'll find that while your legions are hiding behind these walls, the dear girl has been taking it upon herself to keep the peace in your villages. An awful lot of bandits have been roving about to take advantage of the mess the Melcians started. The Dragon Lords and the Arcane Knights have their hands full keeping Nadia from plunging into anarchy. Meanwhile, King Fen is putting on galas."
Ardra sneered as she rose to her feet. A foot shy of either Reyn or Starra, yet she towered over them. "So you're just saving us from ourselves. Don't forget I was a Sentinel. I served under Sky Captain Ebrim Zan, the greatest aviator to ever ride the wind. I kept watch over Drok Moran for the eighty-two days the Althandi had us penned in here, and I watched my Colin waste into a skinny sack of bones. Trust me, I've heard that line from invaders before."
"You want us to leave," Starra said, unintimidated. "By all means, we have every intention of doing so. Empress Enfri has unfinished business with King Adeyemi of Melcia, and we'd rather not dawdle about longer than we need to."
"What's stopping you?" Ardra growled.
"An errand," Starra said.
"One item Her Majesty wants," Reyn added.
Ardra started shaking her head before Reyn finished speaking. "I'm no traitor. I fought for a free Nadia, but Fen Algara is my king now. I swore my fealty, and a Sentinel doesn't break their oaths."
Stubborn, Reyn thought. Worse than stubborn. Honorable.
Reyn caught Starra's eye. The look they exchanged spoke volumes, as a request and as a warning. Starra nodded and took a small step away from her and Ardra.
Reyn addressed Ardra. She spoke using her Voice. The cadence of her words grew long. Soft and inviting. Alluring. Bewitching. The Voice of a selkie was one of three gifts granted to Reyn by her demonic forebears.
"We ask for nothing that would bring harm to your city," Reyn said, near to a song. She locked eyes with Ardra and saw that she had the headmistress' undivided attention. The primal magic was washing into her. "We want the same things as you. We wish for peace between Shan Alee and Nadia. The empress asks for your help. Please, help her so that she may continue her quest to save her people."
Ardra blinked slowly. Her eyelids fluttered as if she'd begun to feel weary.
The Voice didn't command. It wasn't the purposeful theft of someone's will that domination magic was. The Voice instead pushed and pulled on emotions. Reyn used her Voice to dampen Ardra's suspicion, her anger, annoyance, and her fear. At the same time, Reyn inflamed Ardra's sympathy and compassion. Her hope.
"What could she want of me?" Ardra asked. "If she's looking for a secret way into the city, I won't give it. No true Nadian would ever."
"Only the means to save the life of the one she loves," Reyn said. "We came to you to find a mineral unique to your kingdom and the method to use it."
Ardra gasped. "You mean..."
"Yes," Reyn said. "The oren."