The docks were packed, full of curious people wanting to catch a glimpse of the foreign ship carrying mages from the southern continent. Michael stood beside his brother, the newly crowned King Oliver III, ready to welcome their newest residents. Christina, Michael's wife and originally from the southern continent herself, waited a few paces behind the brothers with Queen Nicola.
"Reckon you'll know any of them?" Oliver muttered in his brother's ear.
Michael returned a barely perceptible shrug. "I'll be surprised if I do. Most of them are from towns I didn't visit, going by what the letters said."
The ship in the distance, no bigger than a bottled model when the crowd had first started gathering, slowly grew as it approached the port. Michael could just make out the ripples of its bow wave when the harbour pilot set off to guide it in. It was an impressive sight, all sails and rigging like something from the long-gone days of intrepid explorers and dastardly pirates. He was glad that Solaris had kept the old style ports alongside the more modern one, otherwise the wooden galleon would have trouble coming in.
Once the ship was safely docked, one of the crew extended a gangplank and people started filing down. Oliver straightened slightly next to Michael, his eyes fixed on the slight, frizzy haired woman who led the passengers. This one, at least, Michael recognised. "That's Tironde, she was Vice-Chief of Astator but stepped down before making this journey," he whispered rapidly in his brother's ear.
Oliver nodded faintly, and stepped forward. They had decided to greet the new arrivals in person, rather than following the usual protocols, as Michael had explained that things in Slokos were done far less formally than in Oakshire. Since they needed these people's help, they wanted them to feel welcomed and comfortable from the start. "Hail, Vice-Chief," said Oliver, his uncertain grasp of the People's language making him sound stiff and halting. Michael had tried to teach him a little, but Oliver had never been good with languages.
Tironde smiled, and the hand that was not wrestling with her hair in the sea breeze raised in greeting. "A pleasure to meet you, sir. I appreciate your using our language, but it's not necessary. Naranya there," she pointed back to a middle-aged woman just coming ashore, "managed to figure out one of the lizard-folk's translation spells, and adapted it to work for your tongue. Prince Michael was kind enough to send us a few pronunciation guides to use, and this seemed easier than trying to get everybody fluent before we arrived."
"That certainly makes things simpler." A small sigh of relief escaped Oliver. "It looks like old Harper's skills won't be needed after all. I'm not sure if he'll be relieved at the lighter workload, or disappointed not to have the challenge," he winked at Michael.
Michael grinned back and moved forward to greet Tironde himself. "It's good to see you all arrived safely. You probably remember me, this is my brother Oliver – he's officially the King now, don't let him talk it down – and these two lovely ladies are our wives, Queen Nicola and Countess Christina." He waved the two women over, and took Christina's hand as they shared a loving smile. "Chris here is actually from Slokos herself, so if any of you need help adjusting I'm sure she'll be glad to assist."
"Of course I will. We've set up some temporary accommodation in the town of Three Corners, which is in easy reach of the rest of the kingdom. Michael and I will be staying there for a while too, so you'll be able to come talk to us about anything you need to." She shook Tironde's hand enthusiastically, obviously pleased to see someone from home again.
"Good to know. From what I hear there's a lot to get used to," said Tironde before turning to the small crowd of passengers who had congregated behind her. "Everyone, I've been told we have some temporary housing in a town called Three Corners. Captain, what will you and your crew be doing?" she called to the grizzled man who had remained on the ship's deck.
After some consultation with the rest of his crew, the captain nodded. "We'll be staying in port a while to restock before heading home. Best of luck, all."
"That makes things easier. We could only scramble enough cars for fifty people, but you said some of your mages can transport themselves?" Oliver sent an enquiring look towards Tironde.
She nodded, beckoning over an older woman who was so wispy-looking that Michael worried she'd blow away in the strong wind. "This is Fraldana, she'll be leading those who can transport magically. All she needs is an accurate map and a clear path," Tironde explained.
"I can provide those," Michael said, pulling a folded map of South Oakshire out of his pocket. He leant in to show the frail woman. "I'm not quite sure of how you'll go about things, but this here is the main road out of Port Solaris heading towards Three Corners, here."
Fraldana took the map and squinted at it for a moment. "So we're here and need to be there... and this leads..." She glanced up at the sky. "That way's north, so... roughly that way," she said to the nearest mages, pointing towards the north-west. "We'll need a clear view of a point in that direction. If we can get out of this town, we can make it there by line-of-sight fairly easily."
Oliver stepped forward. "You could probably see in any direction clearly from the top of the old bell tower, if that's any help, ma'am."
"Perfect. Everyone who's transporting, follow this young man!" A small gaggle of mages fell into step behind Fraldana and Oliver, heading towards the bell tower on the east side of town. Michael watched them go, the old woman's easy command of the situation reminding him irresistibly of Annabel.
Tironde waited until they had rounded a corner before speaking again. "We're ready whenever you are. You mentioned cars, are they the horseless carts you spoke of in one of your letters?"
Michael smiled. "They certainly are. This way, Vice-Chief," he said as he began leading the throng of mages towards the idling cars lined up on the road by the port. "Each car can take three passengers, one beside the driver and two on the back bench. Hop in and let's get going."
Everyone bundled into the cars, some of the more gregarious leaning out to wave at the watching crowd as they set off. Michael and Christina got back into their own, with Tironde and a slightly podgy middle-aged mage riding behind them, who introduced himself as Quindarious. They brought up the rear of the long convoy, and Michael waved to those lining the streets while Christina drove. He soon found himself answering questions about Oakshire from the two passengers, and hoped it wouldn't last the whole journey. The drive from Port Solaris to Three Corners took almost eight hours without a break, and he was sure he'd have no voice left if he had to explain things for that long.
Michael's eyes slipped out of focus again, the reams of paper in front of him blurring into one big, ink-splattered mess. He groaned softly and leant forwards until his head was resting sideways on top of it all. "This is taking forever. How are we even supposed to know what's going to be of any use in all this lot?"
"We take it one page at a time, and keep at it until something makes sense," Christina replied.
He rolled his head over to see that she had this serene, patient expression on her face as she read one of Tarworth's books, making the occasional scribble in her own notepad. "How can you keep going? You know how much of this stuff there is, and you know how hard it is to translate, or decode, or whatever we're calling it. How do you not just give up?"
She paused, her finger resting on the line she was reading. "I don't think about how much is left to do, how hard it is or how long it takes. I just work on what's in front of me, and do the best I can." She looked over at him with a faint smile. "I guess I'm just used to having never ending books and scrolls to work with. I find it cathartic, if I'm honest. After everything I've found confusing and strange since coming here, this is something familiar, something I know I can do."
Michael paused; he hadn't thought of it that way, and honestly kept forgetting that Christina wasn't from Oakshire. Having her in his life, being by her side, the two of them together felt so right that her being born on the other side of the world just didn't register with him most of the time. "You're definitely a better scholar than I ever was. If you weren't here to keep prodding me, I'd probably have chucked all this in the fire in frustration by now," he said as he lifted himself off the desk. "Shall I get Anne to bring us some tea? I think it's about time for a short break."
"That sounds like a good idea. She's probably in the kitchen downstairs," Christina pointed towards the short line of bells on the wall.
Michael stood. "I'll go down and just ask her in person. I could do with stretching my legs a bit." He left the room and made his way down to the ground floor. It was easier to do this here, in his own smallish town-house, than it would have been in the palace. Anne, Christina's maid, was indeed in the kitchen getting ready to make supper. "Anne, when you have a minute would you bring us some tea upstairs?" he asked, leaning on the door frame.
"Certainly, Your Highness," said the young girl, bobbing a curtsey that artfully hid her right hand. Anne had been born with a sixth, stunted finger on her right hand, something that had caused her a lot of difficulty finding permanent employment – few of the nobility would accept a 'freak' in their homes, despite her skill as a maid and cook. Christina, on the other hand, had gladly taken her on at a generous rate of pay, and her total lack of comments about the finger had earned her Anne's never-ending loyalty. "Shall I bring snacks as well?"
"Just tea will be fine, I'm sure we'll want to save room for supper," Michael replied with a smile. "I'll go and make sure Chris puts the books down for a few minutes." Anne curtseyed once more, and busied herself making tea as he left the kitchen. He had just reached the first stair when a sharp knocking sounded at the front door, closely followed by James' irate voice.
"Sir, you cannot simply walk up to the Prince's door and knock. There are protocols that must be followed..." James trailed off as Michael opened the door. "My apologies, sir, I tried to have this gentleman wait at the front gate while I announced his visit."
Michael nodded. "It's fine, James. This is one of our visitors from Slokos, I did say they could call on me for advice or information any time." He dismissed James before turning to the visitor. "Come on in, let's see what we can do for you. Quindarious, wasn't it? I recognise you from the drive here the other day."
"That's right. Sorry if I offended your man out there, I haven't got the hang of your local customs just yet," the mage said. "Back home I always just showed up when I wanted to visit the Vice-Chief. Then again, we did know each other fairly well at one point. Pity he went off the deep end with his ridiculous power trip, really, he was a fine mage until he turned his talents to that pursuit."
"Which Vice-Chief was that?" Michael asked as he led the man up the stairs.
"Satorus, although I suppose he was never officially the Vice-Chief, but everyone called him that. He led the Entamar council, and when that all fell to bits he became Chief outright. I'd left Entamar by then though, and shortly after the announcement came we set sail to come here. I'm glad I left when I did, from what I've heard about Entamar since."
Michael pushed open the study door. "We have a visitor, Chris. Anne's bringing tea up in a few minutes, too, so it's definitely time for a break."
She glanced up from her book and spotted the new arrival. "Oh, hello again. How are you settling in?"
"Fine, fine, I've been house sharing with a couple of the others and we're getting along surprisingly well. It's a lot busier here than back home, isn't it? Most people have been pleasant enough, though, save a few grumbling about more new arrivals. Still, you can't please everyone, right?" He settled into a chair while he spoke, moving a pile of scrolls onto the floor. "You know, this room in particular reminds me of my own study. I never could keep things in order, even with constant nagging from friends and colleagues."
Michael smiled. "I find there's a certain level of organisation in this kind of mess, though. My desk back at the palace looks like a whirlwind passed over it, but I can find exactly what I want in a matter of seconds. So, what can I do for you?" He had a feeling Quindarious was the kind of man who would spend hours chatting about nothing in particular, and wanted to get him back on topic as soon as possible.
"Well, it's more a matter of what we can do for you. Some of us have been talking, and we realise it's quite an imposition on you to have us all here, especially with how many extra people from your east you have to house, and all those cars sitting around here waiting for us that I'm sure you could use elsewhere. We're supposed to be dealing with some magical issue on your eastern border, yes? Wouldn't it be easier to have us stationed where the problem is, rather than back here? Not that I'm complaining, the accommodations here are splendid, but the sooner we can get this dealt with, the better, wouldn't you say?"
"It would, but we thought you might prefer a few weeks to settle in and start getting used to this place before we threw you into action," Michael explained. "If you're ready to get started now, I'm sure we can arrange to get you out to the border any time."
Quindarious nodded. "Excellent. What we think would make things easier for everyone is if you take Fraldana, and anyone capable of transporting themselves, out to where we'll be needed. Once they know the location they'll be able to take us all back and forth without occupying any more of your cars and drivers' time."
A knock at the door announced Anne's arrival. "I brought an extra cup, Your Highness, since I heard you have a guest." She found a clear spot on one of the side tables to put the tea tray. "Supper will be ready in about four hours, shall I make enough for three?"
They looked to their visitor, who shook his head. "Thank you, my dear, but I'll be returning to my own place in a short while. I do appreciate the tea, though."
Anne curtsied and left, closing the door with a soft click. "I'm sure we could arrange for Fraldana and the rest to be taken out to the border over the next couple of days," said Michael. "It might be better to give them a short trip along the entire length, that way perhaps they could reach any trouble immediately. The Shades have been scattering their attacks up and down the whole border, so quick defences are key at the moment."
"That sounds like a good plan. I'll relay it to everyone else, and..." He paused, eyes fixed on one of the books scattered over Michael's desk. "What in the world are you doing with that?"
Christina leant forward to see what he was looking at. "Do you know what that is? I haven't been able to make heads nor tails of it."
"That, my dear lady, is the basis of a resurrection technique used by necromancers for centuries. It's been refined and altered over the years, of course, but the original ritual is still recognisable. How did you come across such an old copy?" He pulled a pair of thin gloves out of a pocket and gently lifted the book off the table. "This is positively ancient. I do hope you're handling these old tomes with the proper care; it would be a shame for them to have survived as long as they have only to be ruined by careless hands."
Michael shifted slightly, trying not to think about the extra tears and smudges he'd inadvertently left in some of the books and scrolls despite trying to be careful. "We found them in the possession of one of the men behind this whole situation. We're currently working on the assumption that he was never what he seemed to be, and may have some magical talent."
"I'll need more to go on than that. These are some very unusual texts," Quindarious flitted from one open book to another as he spoke. "I don't recognise all of it, but what I do is rather suspect. Satorus and I used to have a copy of this one. It's supposedly a record of experiments done by some early mages, their attempts to force the returned soul of a deceased loved one into the body of a living victim. It was never quite clear what happened to the victim's soul." He frowned indignantly at the book he was holding. "This one has things scribbled on it."
Christina stood and stretched. "Blame the original owner for that. I don't think Tarworth was thinking about preserving these while he was using them."
"He seemed more concerned about breaking some blood bond with Sceadu. Sit down and have some tea, I'll give you the short version of the story," Michael said. Once the mage had settled back into his chair, he began. "I suppose I should start with my late uncle, Martyn Covingledge. He was always one for underhanded plots and manipulation, but he bit off a little more than he could chew with his last plan.
"I'm still not certain of all the details, but Martyn had this absurd scheme to bring his brother back from the dead and start a political revolution in Oakshire. He sent Henry Tarworth, one of his trusted advisers, into the mountains where he made contact with a rogue dragon called Sceadu. We found out about a deal they had made, a blood oath called isunga segasi… which you've heard of," Michael interrupted himself, seeing the shocked look on Quindarious' face.
"I have, though I'm surprised to hear it from anyone here. I'm only aware of it from passing mentions in old books, those covering old and lost magics. As I know it, the isunga segasi is part of a truly ancient branch of blood magic, one that was unstable, dangerous and, we thought, long since forgotten. If magic like that is involved in this situation, you may be in more trouble than you know. Please, continue."
After that ominous declaration, Michael felt a sudden need to add more sugar to his tea. "I spoke with an old friend of mine, who lives in a small village near the mountains. She said for that particular oath to work properly, each person involved had to keep one vial of blood. Since Tarworth had kept both, we realised he had never meant the oath to hold. I spent months trying to track the man down, to get some explanation out of him, and eventually found him hiding in a cave in the Snowy Wastes.
"I found out the hard way that he was a mage, after he trapped my guide and I. He flung my guide back through the cave system, and started monologuing at me. He said that he'd lived far longer than it appeared, and that he'd 'die' every seventy or eighty years and come back as a teenager. I'm not quite sure what all that meant, but he had this spell going while he talked," Michael said. "It looked like a whirling ball of light, flashing between different colours. He claimed to be over two thousand years old, though I'm not sure whether to believe that. My guide got himself out of the trap and came back to help me escape, and once we had reached safety, he gave me all this stuff he'd found in the caves." He gestured vaguely around the room at the piles of scattered books and loose pages.
Quindarious looked deep in thought, his brow furrowed and eyes focused in the distance. "I'll need to discuss this with some of the others. This Tarworth man is the one behind the Shades, yes? Along with the rogue dragon you've already told us about?"
Michael nodded. "I originally thought the dragon was the main culprit, but I'm not so sure anymore. It seems like Tarworth had at least an equal part in causing this. Either way, the dragon is beyond our reach now. He's been punished according to the laws of his own kind, stripped of his powers and banished."
"Are there any more details you can tell me? What kind of magic Tarworth was using, anything about the ball of light you mentioned?"
"When he was fighting with Emwyn – my guide – he seemed to conjure shadows, shaped like vicious creatures, and sent them to attack. He also shot bolts of black energy at us both. I'm not sure how useful that is, but I can't really tell one type of magic from another," Michael said. "Oh, I've just remembered. It could have been the lighting, I suppose, but towards the end of the confrontation, Tarworth looked more gaunt and skeletal than he had to begin with. I don't know if that's relevant."
Quindarious nodded, his mouth set in a grim line. "That could be very relevant. I'll speak to some of the others about this, if we can arrange a meeting soon? Preferably within a couple of days, I don't think we should leave this any longer than absolutely necessary."
"I'm available most every day, so if you just want to come and get hold of me when you're ready, that's fine." Michael could tell the mage's demeanour had shifted from jovial to deadly serious after his description of Tarworth's magic. "Should I expect bad news?"
"Expect worse. I don't want to run off with my own hypothesis before I've spoken with a couple who know more than myself on this subject, but I'll be frank with you. This will not be a simple fix; the magic you described Tarworth using is among the darkest known to me. Shadow mages are rare, powerful and highly unpredictable, and while that can be good, it is often extremely bad. I'll return tomorrow with a few of the others and we'll hash this out properly." He stood, drained what was left in his cup, and bowed to Christina. "I apologise for the unpleasant conversation, my dear."
Christina shrugged and smiled faintly. "I've heard far worse, believe me. Did you want to take a few of these with you?"
"That could be an idea. Perhaps some of us would be more use here, helping you to go through all of this, rather than fighting the Shades." He turned back to Michael. "Speaking of, I suspect that the Shades may not simply be conjured creatures. I'll have to do some research, but..."
"We already know," Michael interrupted. "The Weyr Mother told us that they're risen spirits of those who have died, which is why we're reluctant to just go out and destroy them."
The mage blinked in surprise. "That confirms at least some of what I was thinking. Hand me some blank parchment then, I'll take copies of a few pages and be on my way. I wouldn't want to spoil your whole evening."
Michael handed him a sheaf of blank paper. "We don't really use parchment, paper is much cheaper and easier to produce. Make as many copies as you like," he said, handing over a pen.
With a confused look at the pen, he set it aside. "It will be much quicker if I just do this." He spread the blank paper out on one side, took some books from the nearest piles and spread them on the other side, and held a hand over each collection.
Michael had no idea what he was doing, but Christina leapt out of her seat, shouting "Wait!" Seconds later, the light bulbs overhead and in their desk lamps exploded, leaving them in darkness, and a loud yelp came from Quindarious. "Hasn't anyone warned you not to use magic near anything electrical?" he heard her scolding as he picked his way across the cluttered room.
"It was mentioned that magic and electricity would react badly to each other, but I didn't realise you had anything electrical here."
A flickering glow slowly lit the room as Michael coaxed the rarely used gas fireplace into life. "I didn't think anything so dramatic would happen if anyone tried casting spells; I was under the impression that either the magic wouldn't work, or nearby electrics would switch off. We can always replace the lights, but if it's affected any of the appliances downstairs..." he trailed off.
"I'll go check on Anne. That spell you just tried wasn't extra powerful or anything, was it?" Christina asked.
"No, just a simple duplicating spell." The mage winced slightly as he flexed his fingers. "That's going to be sore for a while."
Michael shook his head. "How about you just take some books with you, instead of making copies? We've got plenty to go over, and I don't mind spreading the workload around a bit."
Quindarious nodded and gathered the books he'd tried to duplicate. "That might be safer, and quicker. I'll bring them back tomorrow when I come with the others. I do apologise for any damage."
"Don't worry about it. I'd be cautious about any more casting, though. You'd be surprised how much is electric-powered around here," Michael said with a smile, walking him back to the front door.
"I'll have to make sure everyone double checks that from now on," said the mage. "I should think we'll be here mid afternoon tomorrow, if you need to let your man at the gate know."
"I'll make sure to inform him I'm expecting visitors. Good evening," he replied, watching him make his way down the path with an armful of books. After shutting the door, he turned to see Anne heading upstairs with a dustpan and brush. At least the lights still seemed to work through the rest of the house, so with luck any damage would be limited to the study. He wondered if that was a normal reaction, or if the high concentration of magic users in the area was somehow magnifying things. Annabel would know, he thought, and decided to get in touch with her as soon as he found a spare minute to write to her. There were several questions now that he had a feeling she held the answers to.
Kester paused in the middle of the campus gate, amazed to find the place almost exactly as he'd left it. He felt as though he'd been away for years, rather than the few months he'd spent in the little mountain village. So much in his own life had changed in that short time, though, that he'd expected the rest of the world to be altered in some way too.
"Kes-teeerrrr!" The elongated double shout could only have come from the two people he knew would always be the same: Jonno and Alaric. Sure enough, when he turned towards the source of the yell, both the tall redhead and the stocky half-elf were barrelling towards him. "You took your sweet time coming back," said Jonno, flinging an arm around Kester's shoulders and ruffling his hair playfully.
"We'd started to think you'd dropped out. So, did you figure out what happened with that mirror?" Alaric had a massive grin on his face, the kind that clearly asked 'and what other mischief did you get up to without us?'
Kester smiled despite himself, his inner puzzlement and uncertainties pushed aside by happiness at seeing his friends again. "That and a lot more. Are the girls around? I can tell all of you at once, then," he said.
Jonno steered him towards the dorms. "Akemi's free, I think she's just hanging around with her roomies at the moment. I don't know what Elena's up to, though. She's been a bit cold with everyone since we came back without you. Did you two have a row or something?"
"Not that I'm aware of. Unless she's upset that I didn't write to her much." Or at all, Kester thought. With everything else he'd been doing, he'd honestly forgotten that he and Elena were supposed to be a couple. Then again, other than a couple of 'dates' that had been more like study sessions, they hadn't done much as boyfriend and girlfriend. He'd always got the impression Elena wasn't too fussed about that kind of thing, and just wanted to be able to say she had a boyfriend in case anyone started pestering her.
"Never mind. Just buy her something pretty and shiny, she'll forgive you," Alaric said.
Jonno threw him a look. "I don't think Elena's that shallow, mate."
Alaric shrugged. "Okay, buy her something unique and interesting. Most girls will be happy if you spend enough on them. First rule of dating," he said with a wink.
"No wonder you can't hang on to a girlfriend for more than a week," Jonno replied with a laugh.
"At least I've had girlfriends."
"So have I, I just don't broadcast it to the whole campus. A gentleman doesn't kiss and tell; that's my first rule of dating."
Kester was only half listening to their light-hearted bickering; most of his mind was trying to figure out how to explain what he'd found out about himself and his unexpected magic, without telling the biggest blabbermouth on campus about the secret settlement of mages in the mountains. A small part of him was also wondering how he was going to handle Elena, if she was in fact taking their relationship more seriously than he'd thought.
They reached the girls' dorm and, after some creative flirting from Alaric, managed to get in. Akemi was giggling with another girl in the common room, but stopped as soon as she spotted the three boys walk in. "Hey Kester! When did you get back?" She leapt up and ran over to hug him.
"Just now. Have you seen Elena? I was going to get everyone together and fill you in on what I've found out," he said.
Akemi bit her lip. "She went out to some political thing this morning, apparently, but she should have come back by now. I'm getting a bit worried about her, you know how these things can turn at the moment."
"What political thing?" Jonno asked. "I didn't think Elena was bothered about that stuff."
"Some rally, I wasn't really paying attention. She's been getting more into it lately, what with the election coming up, and that Nightbreeze guy making such a stir."
"Nightbreeze?" Kester vaguely remembered hearing the name before, but couldn't place it. He didn't really bother keeping up with elven politics, since he only planned to stay in Aglendale for his university course, but now he realised he maybe should have picked up a newspaper once in a while.
Alaric made a disgusted noise. "Did you have to bring that bastard up? I was in a good mood today," he said, folding his arms and flopping onto the nearest sofa.
The girl Akemi had been talking to left quietly, whispering something in her ear as she passed. "Okay, we'll catch up later, Niri. Sorry Al, I know you can't stand him but he's kinda... everywhere at the moment. Hopefully he'll disappear after he loses the election," Akemi said, perching next to him and stroking his arm gently.
"Remind me, who's Nightbreeze?" Kester muttered to Jonno. Something was nudging at him, but he couldn't remember what exactly.
Jonno shook his head, as though trying to get rid of an irritating fly. "Some old geezer on the elves' Council, Prostal Nightbreeze. I don't know much, but from what I've heard he's got a loud mouth and a rotten temper, and he's been trying to stir up trouble for a couple of years now. He's running for Archon this year."
"Oh, I remember reading some news article about him now. He's the one who went on about levying a huge tax on Oakshire for use of elven technology last year, right?" Kester paused as Jonno nodded. "Was he the one trying to make it so humans couldn't live in Aglendale as well?"
"That's the guy. Not pleasant by any count, but since he's started this push for the top office he's gotten even more radical. I think Elena's dad has been campaigning against him, along with Wysebreid and her supporters, but I don't know if they've made a lot of headway."
Akemi looked over, having calmed Alaric somewhat. "Not from what I've seen. There was a big rally this morning, something to do with the guy, that's what Elena went to. I guess it might have been something her dad organised, because I can't see why else she'd be skipping out on her study group. They usually meet up on Kingsday mornings, but Sharon said she wasn't there today and had left a message about this rally."
"Can we change the subject? Kester, you said you had a bunch of stuff to tell us about what you'd been up to," Alaric interrupted.
Kester could tell the whole issue surrounding Nightbreeze was a sensitive one for most people in the room, particularly Alaric, and happily jumped on the new topic. "Right, I have got a lot to tell you." He pulled over a chair, waited for the others to settle on the sofas, and launched into a pared down explanation of what he'd been doing in the unnamed Tsigansky village near the Dragon Valley all winter. He fluffed over, somewhat, the origin of Annabel's friends who had run the blood tests, making it sound like they had come from a neighbouring village. "So, when the results of that lot came back, it turns out I have some magical ability after all. That's how I could use the mirror we found in Henry's bag," he said.
Jonno and Alaric gave little impressed nods, and Akemi squealed, clapping her hands. "Did you learn any spells? Can you show us anything?"
"I don't really know any magic yet, it's more that a couple of weird things have happened and it turns out I have the capability," he explained carefully. "Even if I did know how to do anything, it probably wouldn't work here because of all the electrical stuff. Annabel suggested that I might go and spend some time up there once the exams are over, if I wanted to learn more about magic and how to use it."
Jonno gave a low whistle. "You think you'll go? It could be a pretty good opportunity," he said.
Kester smiled, an image of a cheerful, pink-haired girl popping into his head. "I'm leaning towards it."
"I know that look," Alaric piped up, waggling a finger at Kester. "You met a girl up there, didn't you?"
"Oooh, tell us!" Akemi bounced in her seat. "Is she one of Annabel's friends? What's she like?"
Kester buried his face in his hands with an embarrassed sort of huff. "It's not like that, we just talked about magic and stuff! She and her sister came to give me the test results, and help me get used to the idea of being able to do magic." He looked up to see Alaric's lascivious grin. "Don't even think about saying it, you."
Both Alaric and Jonno dissolved into laughter at that, and Akemi lightly smacked them with a nearby cushion. "Get your minds out of the gutter, boys. I meant was she friendly, did she help you out with things?"
"They both did," Kester replied as the other two began stifling their guffaws. "Levana was really understanding, she'd been through something similar when she was younger, so she knew how it felt to suddenly be thrown into this. She and her sister Caera are from Marali, but they've been living up in the... one of the villages for years now." He hoped none of them had picked up on his near slip.
"Sounds like you've got a good plan for what you're doing after the exams then," said Jonno, finally choking back his mirth. "I still haven't got a clue what I'm going to do with myself. Maybe I'll head back over to Oakshire and see if I can help out with the Shades at all. I hear the attacks are starting up again now the weather's improving."
Alaric flopped himself back into the sofa. "I'm going to take my Little Woody show on the road for a year. I think I've finally perfected the set, people are going to love it." Everyone groaned at the mention of his lewd puppet show. "What? There's a good market for risqué entertainment these days. Okay, it'll never play at the Royal Theatre, but there are hundreds of bars and clubs that'll love it."
"Maybe check who's in the audience before you do the 'no hands' part of the routine, though," Jonno suggested with a wink. "You wouldn't want to offend any delicate ladies or distinguished gentlemen."
Akemi shook her head, a red blush creeping up her face. "I'm planning to stick around for a while. Professor Nithercott has asked me to be his assistant next year, and I like the idea of working with him to organise that old collection of books he keeps talking about."
"Hey! You three boys shouldn't be in here!" someone shouted from the doorway. They turned to see one of the campus security lot standing there. "You know the dorms are single-sex only, no exceptions. Out."
"Doesn't that mean you're not allowed in here either? You're a guy as well," Jonno pointed out.
Akemi nudged him. "They're my classmates, and Kester just got back from a trip. I asked them in for a chat, but they're just about to leave. Can you give us a few minutes?"
The guard scowled. "Five minutes, if they're still here I'm tossing them out." He marched off.
Kester stood. "I suppose we'd better go, then. See you in class tomorrow?"
"Sure. Its good to have you back," Akemi said, pulling him in for a hug. Should I get Elena to find you when she gets back from whatever she's doing?"
"Don't worry about tracking down Elena, I'll catch her up with everything when I see her next."
"Catch me up with what?" Elena had finally arrived, and shrugged off her light coat to reveal a drastic change of style in her clothing. Where before, she had worn a mix of black leather and bright colours, she was now dressed in plain formal trousers and a drab green shirt with a curling insignia on the sleeve. It meant nothing to Kester, but Alaric scowled at the sight of it.
"Why the hell are you wearing that?" he demanded, visibly upset about something.
Elena tilted her head, clearly trying to project calm confidence. "Party uniform. Everyone has one," she said slowly. "That is, everyone who's a member of Nightbreeze's Elven Independence Movement has one."
Kester blinked rapidly, shocked that Elena would consider supporting such an apparently vitriolic figure as Nightbreeze. She'd always seemed mostly in agreement with her parents, at least when it came to the big things like the republic's close relationship with Oakshire or accepting people on their own actions rather than judging them on superficial details. Akemi looked confused and faintly hurt, and Jonno appeared slightly disgusted, but Alaric was practically spitting.
"You signed up with that lunatic?" Alaric exclaimed. "Please tell me you're spying on him for your dad, or something."
Elena twitched her eyebrows in a sort of facial shrug. "I think he's got a few good points, actually. Some of what he's saying is a bit extreme, but I think that's mostly to grab people's attention using shock value."
"Nightbreeze thinks 'half-breeds' like me are lesser citizens, Elena! He outright said several years ago that if he had his way, only true elves would be able to get higher education, hold decent jobs or own property! That was before he made any moves to run for Archon, so it can't have been just to get the papers' attention," Alaric yelled at her.
"Calm down, mate, shouting doesn't change anyone's minds." Jonno pulled Alaric back a couple of paces. "Elena, you've gotta have a reason for supporting a guy who wants to kick half your friends out of Aglendale. Thinking he's got a couple of good points about the economy or whatever wouldn't be enough for someone as sensible as you."
Elena, still putting on an air of calm that was fooling nobody, leant back against a desk. "Think about it from our side of things. Over the last few decades, we've made several technological leaps forward, then as soon as we hand something over to Oakshire it's turned into something damaging. We've been dragged into a massive war hundreds of miles away, just because Oakshire wanted our technology. Our forces suffered heavy casualties and we got very little in return. Then we were essentially ignored for fifteen years or so, until a group of scientists had to go and beg your King for a bit of land to run an experiment on. It went wrong through an honest mistake, and yet we've been coerced into paying over and over for it, as well as fixing things as best we can without any assistance from your side, all while we're blamed for destroying your kingdom."
"That's not true..." Akemi started, but her small voice was drowned out by Elena's continuing rant.
"Finally, when one of your Dukes decided to make some crazy deal with a rogue dragon, raising the dead with magic that your people can't understand or do anything against without calling in some random foreigners, we're expected to wade in yet again and fix all of your problems! Maybe I think we'd be better off without you humans around, commandeering our new inventions and using them to wreck everything!"
A horrible silence rang through the room. Alaric was glaring at Elena as though she'd sprouted venomous fangs and tried to bite him, Jonno was shaking his head at her, and Akemi had little rivers of tears running down her cheeks. "Is that really what you think of us?" she whispered, her voice quivering with emotion.
Elena turned to her, but seemed unable to look her in the eye. "Not you personally, just... if your nation and ours are supposed to be allies, both giving and taking more or less evenly, helping and supporting each other, then why does it seem like we're doing all the giving and getting nothing but blame and disdain in return?"
"So, you don't have a problem with humans personally, but human society as a whole?" Kester asked quietly, and Elena nodded. "Thing is, human society is made up of individual humans. Most are just like me, or Jonno, or Akemi; in fact I don't think I've met a single human who blames elves for anything, or has anything less than respect and admiration for your kind. How can you feel so resentful towards a group of people you like individually?"
"It's not so much a problem with regular people, more the human leaders. The royal family, the nobility who control everything. I know they're the ones making the decisions, I don't blame every human on the street for what Dukes and Kings choose to do." Elena crossed her arms, the insignia pointing directly at Alaric, who sneered and turned away. "I do wonder why the general populace doesn't stand up and tell their leaders they're in the wrong, though. If most humans are basically decent, then why do they sit back and watch the higher-ups crap all over things?"
"Because not all of the leaders are corrupt and selfish," Jonno said hotly. "Michael certainly isn't, nor is his brother Oliver. Or did you forget that one of your friends is the Prince of Oakshire?"
"Besides, things don't work like that in Oakshire. Here you have the Council, who are elected by the people, but the class system in Oakshire is so deeply ingrained in everyone that there's a reluctance to challenge those who are 'better'," Kester pointed out. "It's not as feudal as it was hundreds of years ago, and I think things are slowly changing, but there's still a hangover from the old days."
Alaric started towards the door. "C'mon, guys. We need to leave. The air's gotten really oppressive in here now." He wrenched the door open and stalked out.
"Yeah. That security guy'll be back soon anyway. See you, Akemi." Jonno left without another word to Elena.
Kester hesitated. "I think we need to talk this through properly..." he began.
"Oh, just go," Elena snapped before storming out of the other door, towards the dorm rooms.
An awkward silence hung for a moment, Akemi still wiping away silent tears as she stared at the door Elena had left through. Kester went to pat her gently on the shoulder and found himself with an armful of weeping woman. "Um... are you okay?" He knew it was a stupid question, but couldn't think of anything better to say.
Akemi sniffed into his shoulder. "No, not really. Maybe I should have seen this coming. I knew Elena was worried about what's been happening over the last few years, but I didn't think she'd go this far." She pushed herself back and rubbed her face vigorously on her sleeve. "Mind if I join you guys? I don't think I want to be here right now."
"Sure, come on. I don't know where we'll end up, but there'll probably be beer." The two left the dorms, and jogged to catch up with Alaric and Jonno. Whichever bar they wound up at, Kester hoped it would have enough alcohol to dull the horrible feelings the row had generated. He still thought they all needed to talk this thing out, but it would have to wait until tempers weren't so high.