The Firemage’s Vengeance by Garrett Robinson
THE SNOW THAT FELL IN those middle days of Martis did nothing to chill the air—nothing, that is, when compared to the ice in Ebon’s heart. The frost inside him was made of fear and dread, and if asked, he would have called it more frigid than the winds and snow that blew in his face, for the winter within kept him from noticing the winter without.
He led Kalem and Theren through the streets of the High King’s Seat. His friends felt the same, he knew. Theren huddled deeper under her hood. She had not bothered to dye her hair in some time, and her dark roots showed through the blonde, though that hardly mattered since her head was rarely uncovered these days. Kalem wrapped his arms tight about himself, pale cheeks glowing red as his hair against winter’s gales, and his spindly limbs shook whenever he stayed in one place too long. Yet Ebon guessed that neither of them were any more aware of the weather than he was. They had greater troubles, ones that plagued them day and night. Their studies suffered, and in the midst of conversation their thoughts drifted away. They were left staring at nothing in the middle of the dining hall, and it kept them lying awake in their beds late into the night.
The first was Dasko, the instructor they held in bondage, though they did not wish to. The second was Erin, the Dean’s son who was captive or dead. And the third was his captor, Isra, who had vanished from all sight and knowledge, a trail of corpses in her wake.
“This is a fool’s errand,” said Theren, bringing Ebon’s mind back to the present.
“It is no errand at all,” said Ebon. “We are invited.”
“And why did we accept? What if something happens to Das—what if something happens back at the Academy while we are gone?”
“We cannot watch him every hour of every day, Theren.” Kalem’s voice held a note of careful reproach. “Indeed, we do not spend much time with him as it is.”
“Yet we are always near,” Theren insisted. “If our control should slip …”
“If we are discovered, we will be discovered,” said Ebon. “Kalem is right. We cannot spend our every hour sitting on our hands, half in hope and half in fear.”
“You say that more easily than I would,” Theren muttered. Ebon could not tell if she had meant for him to hear it or not, but he did not blame her either way. She had the most to fear in all this untenable situation.
At long last, the black iron gate of the Drayden family’s manor loomed before them. Once the guards spied the three Academy students making their way through the snow drifts, they hastened to draw the gate open. Ebon shook out his boots on the cobblestones of the courtyard, which was better swept than the streets had been. He had never spent winter in the northern lands; at home in Idris, winters were colder, but drier, and snow was an Elf-tale. To him, this type of winter seemed a deadly danger, though Theren assured him it was in fact very mild this year.
A happy shout preceded a short, plump figure bounding towards them, and Ebon recognized his sister, Albi, beneath a furred hood. She hugged him first, and he grinned as he hoisted her up off the ground. But then she embraced Kalem just as warmly, and Ebon’s mouth soured. Theren she gave a more customary greeting; both hands clasped at once, she bowed. Theren rolled her eyes, but returned the greeting without complaint.
“I thought the three of you would never come,” Albi said. Her voice seemed uncommonly loud after the dead quiet of the snow-covered streets, and after the anxious, hushed words Ebon had shared with his friends. “But then, it seems much later than it is, for the sky is so dark and grey. Come inside. Halab eagerly awaits you.”
“We will, and gladly,” said Ebon, forcing a smile. “Northern winters suit me ill.”
Albi laughed and led them in. Both hearths burned in the wide front hall, and Ebon sighed in relief at the warmth of them. He cast back his hood and bent to remove his boots. They were gifts Halab had sent only recently—black to follow the Academy’s rules, but lined with grey fur and laced up to just below the knee. Theren and Kalem, too, had received their own pairs, but Theren almost forgot to remove hers, and had to be reminded by a sharp word from Kalem.
Unshod, they climbed the stairs to the lounge where Halab awaited them. She rose at once and came forwards with a smile. Her dress was ochre and white, like fine-spun gold dusted with snow. Though all faces were paler now in the waning sunlight, Ebon thought she had never looked lovelier.
“Dearest nephew,” she said, reaching for him. He kissed her cheeks, and then she bowed to Kalem and Theren. Kalem flushed, and Ebon knew the boy was thinking of the first time they had met, when he had kissed Halab’s cheeks. Theren, for her part, did not roll her eyes so hard as she had with Albi. Ebon knew the high estimation in which she held his aunt.
“Our heartfelt thanks for your hospitality, especially in the depths of winter’s chill,” said Kalem.
“But that is when hospitality is needed the most,” said Halab with a smile.
Dinner had been prepared already, and was brought from the kitchens to be uncovered for them. They ate quickly, and ravenously, for all three of them felt their appetites could hardly be sated these days. Halab laughed as she saw them devour their meals, and quipped that the three of them must be growing. Ebon thought to himself that the likelier explanation was the oppressive cold. When snow made walking a chore, even after a small distance, he seemed to need thrice as much food just to remain upright.
After, she took them back to the lounge, where they sat and talked of small things—their classes, and their friends (only Kalem had any of these outside of present company), and the little bits of news Halab thought they might enjoy hearing. But, as happened so often in the Academy itself these days, Ebon often found his mind wandering, and he saw the same in his friends. Halab noticed it as well. Often he found her looking at the three of them, a question in her eyes, her lips pursed. At last he leaned forwards and grimaced in apology.
“I am sorry, dearest aunt. The three of us have made terrible guests, I fear.”
Halab shook her head at once. “It is I who should apologize. I have taken little consideration for the troubles the three of you bear. I have heard of the Academy’s rogue student, and the Dean’s son who she stole away. No doubt such dark thoughts are what trouble you.”
Ebon studied his fingernails, not wishing to meet her eyes. She was right about Isra, of course, but she did not know just how intimately the matter concerned Ebon, nor how often he heard Erin’s screams as the boy was dragged away. Mako, it seemed clear, had not told her of what transpired in Xain’s home.
Kalem spoke, as Ebon did not seem to wish to. “It is a dark time for the school indeed,” he said quietly. “In one sense, the danger that plagued us is gone, for everyone believes that Isra has fled the Seat. But the darkness she left behind her is not so easily cast aside.”
The room fell to silence as Ebon and his friends stared at the floor. When he glanced at Albi, Ebon was surprised to see that she looked bored. But Halab wore a vaguely mournful look. She sat straighter and put her wine goblet on a side table.
“If it is not too great a request, I should like a word alone with my nephew.”
Theren and Kalem straightened at once. “Not at all,” said Theren, ducking her head in a sort of sitting bow. “We have troubled you long enough as it is.”
“I have enjoyed your company,” said Halab with a smile. “This is only a little matter, and afterwards I must leave for the High King’s palace. Albi, will you please …?”
Albi looked burningly curious, but she sighed and lead Ebon’s friends away. “Come, young master Konnel,” she said, holding out her arm. “Our gardens are nearly frozen over, but you and I can keep each other warm regardless.” Ebon glowered as she took them towards the staircase down.
Halab gave a soft chuckle after they had gone from view. “Your sister seems very taken with young Kalem.”
“I have noticed,” said Ebon, mouth puckered.
Again Halab laughed, and heartier this time. “You should not worry. She is only having some amusement. Albi knows full well that Kalem’s parents will never accept her as a bride.”
The words came from nowhere, and Ebon sat a bit straighter in his seat. “Why not?”
“It is nothing to do with Albi herself. She will make a fine wife someday, if she meets someone who knows not to get in her way. But the royalty are … reluctant, shall we say, to allow us merchants any more power than they think we deserve.” She smirked, as though at some hidden joke just remembered.
Ebon frowned. “I am not sure I understand.”
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