Iellieth felt the tears coming fast and knew she couldn’t withstand her mother’s response, whether it was an offer of compassion or a harsh correction. She spun away and strode past the doorways of her half-siblings’ rooms. Hers had been beside theirs originally, when the four of them returned to live at court years ago. The duchess took pity on her heartbroken daughter and allowed her to move to what should have been a guest room. It was situated at the end of the family wing, but Iellieth couldn’t sleep without the sounds of the seaside that had been their home. From the isolated part of the hall, Iellieth could hear the Infinite Ocean pounding against the rocky coast beneath the castle, wave upon wave throwing itself against the cliffs.
As was only fitting for the nation’s richest and oldest still-surviving family, the Amastacias possessed a beautiful section of Io Keep, second only to the halls of the king and his family. Their portion stretched along the northwestern reaches of the cliffside, rounding out in the beautiful circular room, made almost entirely of windows, that Iellieth called her own. She didn’t have the en suite bath, separate visiting room, or dining quarters that the legitimate Amastacia offspring did in their suites. Despite what might otherwise be considered shortcomings in elegance and status, Iellieth’s room offered her, as unendingly as it could manage, a picture of the outside world.
The 270-degree circle of windows looked out on the coastline and the Infinite Ocean beyond, wrapping around to include vistas of the castle gardens. But if she climbed over her wooden desk—careful not to disturb the pages of notes and open books from her translations with Katarina—Iellieth could see ships pulling all the way in to port.
It had been several years since she regularly studied these arrivals, hoping for a sign of Teodric’s return with his parents or, even less likely, a delegation of elves making a tour of the Caldaran coast. Her hopes for a chance of escape or a new life dwindled slowly as time passed. She still enjoyed the exercise occasionally and was fascinated by the intricacies of the rigging and crews that she had read about but never been able to investigate in person. Almost everything in her home kingdom revolved around them, but she was forbidden from going to the docks.
Today, however, she would only be able to visit her windows and books briefly before she had to leave them behind forever, and she hurried down the hallway, eager to reach a sanctuary that wouldn’t be hers for much longer. Even if she were able to return to Linolynn when it was their turn to host the Festival of Renewal every other year, she would stay, she recalled with a shudder, in the guest suites reserved for foreigners and dignitaries.
Her door, bleached by the sunlight that caressed it each day, seemed more alive and welcoming than the polished, dark doorways of the other family bedchambers. Iellieth glanced over her shoulder before she turned the large iron handle, and the hinges swung open effortlessly to the airy expanse of her chamber. After a row, the duke liked to send the family guard to supervise her activity, and she was sure that one of his private soldiers would be along at any moment.
She gasped as the open door revealed a tall, gangly figure sitting on her desk, swinging his legs while consuming an apple. “Scad, what are you doing here? They’re quite serious about a punishment if you’re caught again.”
Scad’s easy, cocksure smile answered her concerns as he sprang off the desk. “And miss the chance to tell you good-bye? Hang their punishments and pronouncements—I couldn’t just let you go now, could I?”
“Shh,” Iellieth said as she checked that the door was shut behind her and carefully turned the lock. The emotions that had been building during her time with Katarina and her rage at the duke threatened again to overwhelm her in her friend’s presence. She rushed forward to Scad’s embrace and buried her face in his thin linen shirt. The warm scent of wood chips and the crisp whiff of an apple danced into her nostrils. “You know that I’m relieved to see you, right?”
Scad patted the back of her hair before he released her. “I wouldn’t have known that exactly, given your alarm.”
“I can’t bear the thought of something happening to you on my account, especially as I won’t be here to try and help.”
“No offense, Ellie, but in the past, your help has made things worse, not better.”
She felt a stab of pain at that reminder. Following her and Teodric’s attempted escape, Scad was implicated as an accomplice to the fallen nobleman’s schemes. After a week, when Iellieth was finally allowed to leave her room, she found out that Scad had faced a similar punishment, having been relegated to the servants’ quarters and threatened with imprisonment but given a heavy fine instead. When Iellieth tried to speak to the guard on his behalf, their suspicions of his involvement were confirmed, and they locked him away for several more days.
Katarina had helped, in that time of heartbreak. Many of the guards were smitten with her, so she used that leverage to check on Iellieth’s friend and bring him small treats from the kitchens. Iellieth had snuck the money for the fine to Scad’s mother, Celia. The Delarios were incredibly hard working, but they didn’t need unexpected expenses, especially ones that were no fault of their own.
“I am awfully sorry about that,” Iellieth said. “But, Scad, someone’s going to be down here any moment to fetch me for the Lyceum.”
“Alright, alright. Will you be needing”—he glanced around the room—“this in your new abode?” He cleared his throat and held up an alabaster wolf figurine that Iellieth kept on her dresser. She’d stumbled upon it when she was young on the grounds at Aurora and had kept it ever since. Something about the freedom of wolves spoke to her and, as a child, it had felt like destiny for her to find a pretty trinket that made her think of them and the closeness of their packs.
She blinked to clear her eyes before she answered him. “I would love for you to have it, Scad.”
“It’s not that I’m worried about forgetting you or anything. I just wanted a way to keep you nearby. This is the best I’ve come up with besides more involved schemes like we attempted before.”
The finality of their time together, the end of Scad’s forbidden visits to cheer her up or bring her news from around the castle, weighed down Iellieth’s heart and threatened to rip it from her chest. Living in a cage was difficult enough, but at least in this glass enclosure, there were people who loved her. “I . . . Scad, I don’t know what else to say. I’ll miss you so much.”
“I know you don’t believe me right now, but I think you’ll figure something out. There’s more for you than what they’ve planned, Ellie. You’ll see.”
She sniffed and looked up at him. “I hope you’re right, Scad. I’ll write to you as I can. Katarina will let you know how I am too. She’s already promised.”
“Now, that I wouldn’t mind at all,” Scad said with a wink. “As I’ve failed to win you over, perhaps in your absence, your scholar friend will fall for me.”
“Perhaps she will.” Iellieth smiled. She felt a light breeze of relief across her jagged internal landscape before the urgency of their present moment returned to her. She shook her head quickly. “Alright, now it’s really time.” She closed his fingers over the alabaster wolf.
“I have a parting gift for you too, Ellie.”
“I made this, to go with your dagger.” He nodded at her bag, well aware that it held the blade he’d brought to her room the night she and Teodric tried to escape. He withdrew a thin, angular piece of wood from his pocket. A sheath, cut in a botanical lace pattern and tied with two thin strips of leather. “These can weave through on the sides so you can wear it underneath a dress or keep in your boot. I was thinking about you, and I remembered a story Teodric told me of a woman who lived with a pack of wolves, and that was what she did just in case she lost them somehow and had to survive on her own.”
Iellieth traced a finger across the pattern of intertwined vines, marveling at the delicacy Scad had managed to achieve in the inflexible wood. “Scad, it’s beautiful, thank you. It’s so intricate. I don’t know how you kept it from falling apart.” She blinked back tears and smiled at him sadly. “That story was one of my favorites growing up, from those books. Lady of Canis was the title of the first one, I think. The girl’s name was Daphne.”
“He always had a better memory for those sorts of things than me,” Scad said, “but yes, I think I remember now.”
Iellieth pulled the dagger from her bag. The top of the blade resembled a root structure that grew into the Adhemar crest at the hilt, a sprawling golden oak tree with silver leaves.
Scad waited breathlessly as Iellieth slipped the dagger into its sheath. He sighed as it slid home. “Phew, I’m relieved that fit. I didn’t want you to think someone had stolen it, so I couldn’t come in and take it to measure and bring it back.” He grinned at her. “You really do like it, Ellie?”
“I love it, Scad.” It must have taken him ages to make in his little free time.
“Does it work with what you have on?”
Iellieth sat on the end of her bed and unlaced her boot before she tied the dagger’s hilt around her calf. The straps were long and thin; it would fit easily over her thigh as well. She retied the boot and stood for inspection. “What do you think?”
A glint of gold winked at her from the top of her boot. She tucked her sock over the exposed hilt tip.
Scad grinned. “It’s perfect.”
Heavy boots walked down the hall toward her room. “You have to go,” Iellieth whispered. She propelled Scad to the servants’ door hidden in the wainscoting. “I love you. Don’t forget me, and know that I’ll be thinking of you.”
He took her hand before they parted. “I love you too, Ellie. Be careful, now, and take care of yourself.”
Her lips pressed together and turned in a sad smile that mirrored his. “I will, and you too.” Scad nodded and ducked into the small opening.
Iellieth walked a slow circle around her room, running her fingers over the grainy surface of her wooden desk and taking in the velvet fur of the patterns on the couches. Halfway to the line of bookshelves that rounded out the circle otherwise made of windows, a solid knock banged against her door.
“Lady Amastacia,” the muffled voice of either Welton or Roswell called, “it’s time.”
Iellieth picked up her bag from the bench at the foot of her bed and draped her fur cloak over her arm. Since Hadvar was located so far to the north, she had the excuse of traveling in the leather breeches and corset Henri and Rikson had made specifically for her. They took great care in the pressed pattern of moonshade flowers and ivy that trickled delicately over the set of ladies’ armor. Iellieth had a jacket that matched as well, but she’d stashed it in her bag along with a few days’ supply of food and most of her gold coins. If the smallest opportunity of slipping away from her family and Lord Stravinske arose, she planned to take it.
Sir Welton, one of the family guard, waited at her doorway and followed as she joined her mother, half-siblings, and stepfather in the receiving room. “I believe we’re all accounted for, then,” said Sir Merud, the family steward, nodding to the duke. With his liege’s permission, he strode forward and opened the main door to begin the procession down to the Lyceum. He peered out for a moment and scowled.
“Are you really going to let her go like that, Mother?” Lucinda complained to the duchess with a snide look at Iellieth’s polished leather boots. “She makes us look quite common.”
“Lucinda, I don’t think it would be possible for anyone in our family to look common,” Bruden answered. Iellieth pretended not to hear them.
“I believe you’re both aware that it’s not unusual for women in Hadvar to clothe themselves in a wide variety of ways on account of the climate,” the duchess replied. She didn’t look at any of her children but kept observing Merud’s vigil.
“So it’s to impress her new husband then?” Lucinda gloated. Iellieth clenched her jaw, determined not to respond.
“That will do, both of you,” the duke snapped from beside his wife. “His Majesty’s guard will be here any moment, and I would have you represent the dignity of this family.”
The sound of marching feet rising and falling punctuated the duke’s proclamation and hushed any retort from his offspring. Iellieth knew better than to think the duke was coming to her aid, but she noticed, as the royal guard approached, that he seemed unusually fidgety. Calderon had become the right hand of the king thanks to his conniving nature and cool demeanor. He was anxious about something, which was far outside the norm.
The sight of the armor-clad dwarf proudly leading his troops interrupted Iellieth’s reflections. Stormguard Basha, the head of Linolynn’s military and the king’s security, strutted proudly in the center of the two lines. He raised a hand and called down the hallway, first to Sir Merud and second to the duke.
Their Graces Amastacia stepped forward once he arrived. Basha gave a short bow to the duke and bent to kiss the duchess’s proffered hand. “It is our great honor to escort your family to the Lyceum for your transmigration to the Festival of Renewal this fine morning,” Basha said with a smile.
“You bestow upon us great honor,” the duchess replied.
“Would you be so kind as to walk with me?” Calderon asked the stormguard.
“I’d be happy to, sir. If you’ll allow me just one moment. Troops,” he said with a glance to his front ranks, “proceed.” Basha waited at the doorway for the family to begin filing out. “Ellie, so good to see you,” he said as Iellieth stepped up beside him. They walked together out of the Amastacia hall. Basha was only a few inches shorter than she, and he held out his elbow gallantly for her to take hold of for the procession.
“Are you doing alright, miss?” He kept his voice low so as not to be overheard by the rest of her family. Basha was less than skilled at whispering, but the clanking of boots against the stone floors helped to mask their conversation.
“That’s so kind of you, Basha, thank you. I . . . I’m alright.”
“I asked the king for this assignment personally so you might have some friendly faces seeing you off.”
Iellieth grinned. “Well, that certainly makes me feel better. You’re very thoughtful. It’s one of the things I shall dearly miss.”
“Aye, and I shall miss you as well. The lads always did better in their training on days when you came to visit.”
“I am not sure about that, but I’ll take the compliment all the same.” She lowered her voice. “Thank you for all of your help. I’ll do my best to put it to use as I can.”
“See that you do,” Basha said with a wink. He patted her hand and stomped forward to catch up with her stepfather.
The duke’s nervousness didn’t seem to have eased with the stormguard’s arrival, and Iellieth watched the twitches of his shoulders as he and Basha spoke. She could only overhear pieces of their conversation at first, but as they reached the larger halls that descended into the old keep, she caught more.
“This change in His Majesty is . . . nothing to do with my station . . . Lord Nassarq is still so little informed of the larger . . . in the kingdom. He’s only recently returned from Nocturne . . . why has he advised that troops be made ready before we’ve even spoken to our allies?”
Basha’s voice was less subdued. “You heard his report on the regiments amassing outside the Nossik’s northern estate, same as I did,” Basha answered. “That’s within Linolynn’s regional borders. The king cannot simply sit by.”
“I only wish to suggest that we look into it further. These disappearances in the mountains, whole villages slaughtered, there could be . . . they’re not monsters.”
“I do as the king orders, Your Grace. My men are looking into it, and whatever evidence they find, they’ll be sure to send back.”
“Yes, very well,” the duke said. “Thank you, Stormguard.” Calderon stepped ahead to take his wife’s arm.
Iellieth couldn’t make sense of what she had overheard. The duke had been on edge since Lord Nassarq’s return a few weeks before. Was he suddenly out of favor with King Arontis, who had trusted him beyond reason for years? Surely he couldn’t be afraid of someone doing to him what he had done to Frederick Adhemar, Teodric’s father? Sending him against his wishes across the Infinite Ocean, never to be heard from again?
Groups of guards paraded about the castle center. They patrolled the keep’s ancient hallways as though they still operated in the time of war the stronghold must have been constructed for. On the lowest level above the dungeons, an elite group supervised the goings and comings of the transmigration circle. There were very few instances of this powerful ancient magic still functioning in Azuria. A century ago, Hadvar’s mages had been able to restore the function of their own circle. Linolynn’s was used only rarely and had yet to succumb to the unworkings of time.
No records remained of how the circle had been made or how, given enough of a magical charge and a precise inscribing of runes, it could transport a group of people from one place to another almost instantaneously. Several millennia ago, an advanced civilization had created the transmigration circle, one of many, it seemed, that allowed twenty people or more at a time to travel to the linked locations. Linolynn’s scholars, through careful study, had discovered how one might reach Hadvar from its southern neighbor, negating the need for a week’s travel across the cold roads that wove in and out of the Stormside Forest.
The Transmigration Guard, set apart by their pale-blue doublets emblazoned with a magic circle, found little to occupy themselves during the vast majority of a solar year, but the Festival of Renewal provided ample opportunity for vigilance and a show of their capabilities. In addition to bestowing honor upon Linolynn’s nobles, the only people allowed to utilize the transmigration circles, the military tasked these guards with protecting the castle from any unknown entities that might make their way into the castle through the ancient portal.
Katarina and a few of the other high-ranking castle residents stood waiting at the entrance to the ancient chamber that held the transmigration circle. Iellieth saw her friend’s eyes alight once they met hers, and Katarina waited until the first of the royal guard had passed before joining Iellieth to travel into the Lyceum.
The two linked elbows and stepped together through the large, arched doorway to begin their descent. The Lyceum was one of the grandest rooms in Linolynn and possibly all of Caldara. The ancients had carved the room from the cliffside bedrock, a feat made more impressive by the space’s enormous size. The ceiling extended more than seventy feet overhead in a series of interconnecting, pointed arches that met above the center of the transmigration circle.
On the far side of the chamber, elderly scholars in long robes flitted back and forth between the thick tomes of crackling parchment that explained how the circle might be manipulated to reach different destinations. “In the records,” Katarina said as she noticed Iellieth studying their movements, “there are references to dozens of other circles, only a few of which we understand. But it has to be true, as I saw inklings of in some of my older research, that at one time, the world was much closer, as well as, I believe, more populated, than we have any conception of it being today.”
“And why is it that you turned your attention elsewhere?” Iellieth asked. “We haven’t worked together on anything of the kind.”
“It’s true, we haven’t. I did this work before I moved to Io Keep. Most of the records I found were incomplete. I believe Aravar is still searching. Lost and destroyed tales of the past are a special interest of his.”
“Yes, I recall,” Iellieth said. It had been several years since Katarina’s brother had visited Linolynn, but he always had interesting news to report when he arrived.
“He may travel this way soon. His most recent excavations have him just south of Penshaw. He’ll be very sorry to have missed you.” Katarina’s brows knit together as she looked at Iellieth.
“Please let him know that I regret not being able to hear about his latest journeys. I hope the two of you enjoy your time together. It will be nice for you to have some company.” Iellieth cleared her throat and fluttered her eyelids to compose herself.
“That it shall. But come, let us have one final lesson before you go.” They stood together outside the circle and looked at the runes carved into the stone floor. “Do you recognize this script at all?”
“It’s one of the Arcane scripts, but I don’t believe it’s of Elvish origin.” Iellieth scrutinized the ancient symbols. “These here,” she said, pointing at the succession of glyphs in one of the smaller circles to their right, “they are the elements, are they not? Fire, water, air—”
“Light, darkness, and earth, very good. Now, why do you think they’re positioned inside the circle in this way?”
“Equally spaced from one another?”
“Yes, or why in this circle and its interlocking position with the larger one?”
“Iellieth,” the duchess called, “they are nearly ready for us.”
She tightened her grip on Katarina’s arm. “We also need to ask why a circle,” Iellieth added quickly. “Or I think that’s what you would say.”
Iellieth squinted up at the tiled ceiling and its sweeping arches. “There’s something about these circles, this room, that meant direction, or at least where one wanted to go.” The pale-blue runes along the outer edges began to glow. “We often think that the straight path is the one of progress, but circles represent completion and restoration. Maybe the ancients would see it as a different way forward that we too readily ignore or dismiss.”
“I think you are right about that,” Katarina said. The tears in her eyes danced in the runes’ pulsing light. “Take care, my friend. Write to me.”
“I will.” Iellieth couldn’t let herself say anything more, so she hugged Katarina a final time and went to stand beside her mother at the end of their family line. They faced the row of soldiers overseeing the sendoff. Iellieth glanced over her shoulder at her friend and felt the amulet’s warm glow against her chest. In moments like this, when her heart was racing, it seemed like the metal and gemstone absorbed some of her energy and sent it back to her.
But in this instance, it continued to grow warmer, almost uncomfortably so on her bare skin. Iellieth reached beneath her tunic and withdrew it. “Hold still, please,” one of the guards called from beyond the circle’s limits. The woman’s voice sounded as though she were shouting through water.
The duchess glanced down at Iellieth, a reprimand on the edge of her lips, but her mother’s eyes widened instead as she looked at the amulet. Iellieth turned from the red glow on her mother’s face to find its source at her fingertips, burning. Rays of light stretched glittering fingers out of the ruby, and the metal grew too hot for her to hold any longer.
She let go, and the necklace floated in front of her, raising parallel with her chest. “Wait,” Iellieth heard, impossibly elongated, tinged with worry and fear, drifting toward her from her mother. How did she sound so far away? The golden bands began to spin; the additional diamond in the center of the hourglass blinked in and out of existence as Iellieth stared, transfixed.
The runes on the stone floor around them throbbed in the same instant that a bright red flash erupted from her necklace. Iellieth’s ears filled with a disembodied, horrified scream. All the world around her turned black, and the intense compression of transmigration began.
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