The heavy wooden doors of the chambers of the Council of Magi thumped solidly closed behind Aetria as she marched angrily out of the building. Her mind kept repeating the question she wanted to scream in the face of Headmaster Kelristo, but did not do so. It would be disrespectful and seriously startle the ancient Mage Healer. Why me?Why me?Why me?
Aetria strode by the black-robed figure sitting quietly on a bench near the path from the chambers. She was almost past before her ears managed to direct the sound of a voice around the anger in her mind. "Little One. Is something wrong?" it asked.
Halting abruptly, Aetria turned to glare at the source of the voice. In a forced civil voice, she asked, "What makes you think anything is wrong, Magess Trelana?"
"You were marching, Aetria. You only march when you are totally focused on one thing. I used to think it was your army training, but I have seen you deep in thought and still aware of your surroundings. You march when you focus. So what is it you are concentrating so hard about?"
"It is not one thing, it is everything. Everything is wrong. I have lost control of everything."
"Nonsense, Aetria." Patting the hard wooden bench next to her, Trelana continued, "Sit down here and take a long cleansing breath. Sit!"
Aetria did as requested. It is never wise to anger your mentor under any conditions. Refusing to sit would probably not have upset her teacher and friend, but it would definitely shift Trelana away from her counseling mode into the role of supervisor. Aetria did not want to be supervised right now.
"Another breath, Adept. Good. Now, I remember when you left for the army with your recruit company as sub-commander to Adept Pleates. You had a thousand details at work in your mind trying to get a score of disorganized students to act like soldiers. Your world had certainly been turned upside down. You were rejoining the army after your life as a student and teacher had abruptly ended, with your faith in yourself shattered and your confidence gone. But you didn't act then like you are acting now. Therefore, I will ask again, what one thing has disrupted your day so badly?"
The cleansing breaths had helped, but Aetria still let a little bitterness slip into her answer. "Headmaster Kelristo has assigned me to take over class sponsorship of the first year neophytes from Adept Entormis. He said Adept Entormis needed more time to work on his own Mage training. That is ridiculous, and I told him so. Entormis has been a Mage candidate for over eleven years. He has had all the time in the world. My research is far more important than the feeble attempts at magic that Entormis is working on. It is not fair."
"There are those who say it is truly fair."
"Fair? It wasn't my mishandling of the entering class of students that led to their--I can only say rioting--at the morning meal in the main hall yesterday."
As she said the word "rioting", Aetria's memory of the ugly scene flashed into her mind. She would not normally have been in the main hall where meals were served, because as a senior research student she had her own small instructor's quarters. She took her meals there in private. She came to the hall to find Norandor, her research subject. He was not a student at Inhestia but shared the facilities. As she scanned the tables and waiting line for him, she was distracted by a loud argument at the end of the line. The students there wore plain white robes with a plain white sash--the newest arrivals. The first year students, by tradition, ate last.
All students at Inhestia wore white robes, even the graduated sorcerers who returned to the training lodge for advanced training. Aside from the obvious difference in age shown in the faces of the student, the status of the sorcerer was given by the color of the sash and the symbols present. Candidates for the first level of magic users, the Novice rank, wore a white sash. The first year they wore only their discipline symbol stitched into the sash. For the remaining three years, a star burst symbol, depicting a Power source, was added for each year completed. If they had been awarded any honors, they were also displayed on the sash. Candidates for Sorcerer wore a pale blue sash.
Annoyed by the rude behavior of such junior students, she looked to see if the more senior students in the hall would do something about the commotion. She certainly didn't have time to deal with any level of neophytes. She saw several third year neophytes moving toward the noise and resumed her search for Norandor. Spotting the young man sitting on the very edge of the room, she started to make her way through the crowded floor when a chair flew by and crashed into the table she was walking around. Pandemonium broke out. As she turned to look for the chair's thrower, she was shoved from behind and knocked down by an angry charge of students from the ruined table as they rushed to join the melee at the serving line.
The indignity she felt as a senior instructor crawling on hands and knees to find a clear spot to stand up intensified her anger. She released it in a spectacular storm illusion on the hall's ceiling, complete with lightning and horrendous thunderclaps. The subsequent deathly quiet was broken by the entrance doors slamming against the walls as Sorcerer Guards ran into the hall, weapons drawn. Everyone turned and looked at her.
She pointed at the Guard sergeant. "Take charge and get this mess cleaned up. Find out who started it, get their class advisor, and report this sorry incident to Headmaster Kelristo." She then stormed out of the hall.
Refocusing her mind on the present, Aetria found she was breathing harder, and her hands were clenched. Magess Trelana was watching her. "The riot started because one group of first year neophytes decided to get in line ahead of another group of their class. Adept Entormis is the advisor of the entering class. He should have made sure they knew the rules. The man is incompetent."
Trelana looked at Aetria disapprovingly. Aetria knew she was pushing Trelana's personal limit on rudeness. Trelana smoothed the fabric of her pure black Mage's robe with a hand that had begun to show her age. "Are we talking about the same Adept who has been honored six times as the best sponsor at Inhestia--including your own fifth year neophyte class six years ago--at your behest as I remember?"
Ashamed, Aetria lowered her eyes and stared at her own white student's robe. The deep purple sash running from left shoulder to right hip told all that she was a sorcerer of rank Adept, a very senior sorcerer, a Mage Candidate, but a student still. Would she never learn to think before she spoke?
"I am sorry, Mentor, Adept Entormis is not an incompetent instructor and leader. I have overstated in my anger."
Trelana reached over and gently slapped Aetria's right hand. "Adept Entormis is a superb administrator, a surprisingly gentle man who is an excellent listener, an instructor with almost no peer, but he is not gifted with your imagination or drive. He is a little slow in his magical abilities."
Aetria looked up into her mentor's eye, acknowledging her reproof. "You said, 'There are those who say it is fair.' Does the Council of Magi think I need to be punished for something? Have I been judged?"
Shaking her head, Trelana spoke quietly, forcing Aetria to focus on her words. "The Council knows Entormis is a man who is very set in his ways and in his thinking. We now see that he is not the best one to deal with this entering class. They are--different. We believe you are the better choice for sponsor, as you helped create the difference."
Startled by Trelana's word, Aetria rocked back in surprise. "They think I caused the riot?"
"No, of course not. We're not sure what caused that unfortunate occurrence--which will be your first task, to find out. We know that this year's entering students are not the same as the last several hundred years' have been. There are nearly twice as many, for a start. Many are older, many of them are ex-soldiers, and many are not--how shall I say this without sounding judgmental--as qualified as in the past."
A sudden insight flashed into Aetria's mind. "The Council blames me for pushing to admit more students from the army because for the past six years we have harvested our country's youth to fight in the Hermanian War. Most of these kids were not given the chance to take the test in many circumstances--they were denied their rights for entry into the training lodges!"
"Blame is a poor choice of words, Aetria. It was you who argued before the Council last fall for increased enrollment. If you remember, I supported you on this. The increased enrollment of ex-soldiers is only part of the problem as I see it. You also argued to admit candidates who had not scored the required minimum on the test."
Standing abruptly, Aetria began to pace back and forth in front of her mentor. That was another trait of Aetria's that Trelana knew only too well.
"That...that is only a result of Magess Corerilla's treachery. It was her use of non-sorcerers, who had failed the test, to control the Power in the projector weapons created by Pleates. She created the neo-Aggressors. She let the non-sorcerers know they could control the Power, if taught the rudiments. The Council knew they had to admit those non-sorcerers who presented themselves for training, or risk the wrath of the populace. I only argued that in line with my experiments and study, we could serve the Order better by taking on those whose test scores, albeit not high enough by the old standards, at least gave promise of some success in completing the training."
"And you convinced enough of the Council to have that happen. So you see, it is natural for them--I should say us, as I am a member of the Council--to believe your willingness to work with the new students far exceeds Entormis', who is very old-fashioned."
Stopping in mid-pace, Aetria turned toward Trelana. "But my experiment, I can't leave my work! I am so close, I'm--"
"Failing badly. Your experiment is getting nowhere."
"You're wrong, Magess. I am close."
"You are taking chances."
"Who told you that? That is not true!"
Trelana sternly pointed at the bench next to her and waited until her student had settled back down. "Aetria, Mage Kelristo told me you had a non-sorcerer subject standing for a long period of time so close to an exposed source that it would have caused a Novice sorcerer to go insane. Do you think you can make someone who knows nothing of power grids Powered up with no training?"
"Norandor was willing to take the risk. He wanted to do it. He--"
"Would probably have eaten the source if you asked. The young man is so hopelessly in love with you that he would do anything you asked. You risked his life foolishly."
"I don't think so, Magess."
"Neither did Adept Ulana and her fellow experimenter, then Adept Kelristo. Kelristo sees that same growing desperation in you that he saw in Ulana forty years ago. You know that she forced her experiment in grid burnout, and it caused her to go insane, nearly killing the both of them. He is concerned about you, Aetria."
Fidgeting, Aetria felt like rabbit under the watch of a lion. "But I am not Ulana."
"That is true. She was a highly experienced Adept Healer, well on her way to Magess--an acknowledged expert in the health of the mind. You are not a Healer; you are an Illusionist working well outside her field. Listen, Little One. Engineer Aristes once told me that when he has worked long and hard trying to solve one of his mining problems, it helps him to walk away from it for a while and do something else. He says he gets too close to the problem and cannot see the answer. While he is away, often doing unrelated things, the answer seems to jump into his mind. This task of being sponsor is good for you. You need a break from your work. When does Mage Kelristo want you to take over from Adept Entormis?"
Aetria mentally groaned, the reminder of having to take on the added responsibility of the first year neophytes a burden on her mind. If taking over wasn't bad enough, she would be expected to sit down with every one of the candidates and reinforce what they were supposed to have thought about during their extended ten days in solitary meditation--five days longer than the period normally planned for their end of orientation, extended by Mage Kelristo as part of their punishment for the disgraceful behavior they had shown. She knew in her heart that each neophyte would think he or she was singled out and punished unjustly. That made over a hundred upset and angry students to deal with. She couldn't help sounding irritated as she answered Trelana, "When they return from their forced meditations in ten days."
"Then I suggest you take the remaining days before the first year students return and visit your parents. They didn't have much time with you on your return journey to Inhestia from the mine in Hermania. You have much to share with them."
Sighing, Aetria nodded. Trelana was right, as one would expect one's sponsor and mentor to be.
* * *
"But I'll try harder, Mistress. I know I can do it if I apply myself."
The distress in his voice struck to Aetria's heart, and she almost relented. Norandor had found Aetria at her instructor's cottage, packing a few things into her long unused saddlebags. The youth had rushed to find her when he had overheard neophytes talking about her assignment as their mentor. He had figured out their work together would end and came to plead with her not to stop. She tried to explain to him she would not have time to work with him. Her neophytes would require every moment until she could complete the counseling demanded for their welfare. He started wailing "what about his welfare" and Aetria realized how correctly Trelana had judged Norandor. She firmly insisted that he return to his parents' farm and wait until she was given leave to continue her studies.
"Norandor, sit with me and listen carefully to what I say."
The tall youth slumped into the nearest chair and fixed his sad blue eyes on her face. The adoration was plainly evident; how had she missed it?
Pulling a chair over next to him, she sat down and took his right hand into hers. He had such large hands, roughened by years of assisting his father with hard work, very strong but gentle in her grasp. She had picked him as her subject because his scores on the test were average, beneath even those of the neophytes accepted for the first time this year. He had a quick mind and had impressed his village Healer with his skills with machinery. He had wanted to become an engineer. Aetria had offered to help him, after she was finished with her experiment.
"I am not abandoning you, Norandor. I can't use your services until probably the fall and think it best if you return to help your father with the spring plowing."
Covering her hand with his left, he trapped it between his hands and started massaging it. His eyes stayed fixed on his hands as he muttered, "He doesn't need my help, he has my brother to help. He told me so last month when they visited. Sending me home now will look like I failed you. I can't bear that."
Using a thumb pressure technique, Aetria released her trapped hand and closed his hands upon each other. He was not trying to hurt her, but she did not want him to symbolically hold onto her. His head sank even lower.
"Is it true your father doesn't need you, Norandor?"
"No, Mistress." He looked up in despair.
"Then you must go home. I could not justify keeping you here when your father struggles with the planting, but as soon as it is done, you can return to Inhestia."
He jumped up from his chair, towering over her. The joy in the cheer he gave made her smile. She made the smile disappear and spoke sternly, "But you cannot spend your time hanging around me. I will talk with Engineer Aristes and arrange for him to take you on as a temporary apprentice. He will work you very hard."
Norandor must have heard the seriousness of her tone, for he stopped his little dance and looked at her with a sly grin that kept trying to burst into a smile.
"And I will fill your non-working hours with study scrolls on Power storage in grids, and grid burnout, and every other subject I can think of that will stimulate your ability to store Power. Any moment you spend away from study will cost you when we can start our experiment again! Do you understand me?"
Nothing she said could discourage the happy man. She wondered if she had just made a mistake.
* * *
Aetria stopped her horse for a moment by the entry road to her parents' holding. The main road she had traveled these last few days stretched northward toward her home village of Torrelon, a scant hour's ride away. Her father would have preferred to live closer to the village, but this was the only land he could purchase from the village elders. They did not want her Tierian foster father living any closer to their people than was necessary. The road leading toward her home was heavily rutted from the wagons her father's trading business depended on and was usually very busy, but there was no movement this late in the day. She gazed up the road and caught the sight of her home in the distance, tucked quietly under the tall trees that covered the entire property. She concentrated on the two-story, stone building and confirmed once again that a sorcerer was present. She had sensed the presence of stored Power a few miles back, and the worry that had plagued her then now doubled in strength. The only reason a sorcerer ever came into her father's home was because a Healer was needed.
Who is ailing? She spurred her mount gently forward toward the waiting house.
Her father came out of the house, calling loudly for one of his workers to take her horse to the stables. He walked with eager slowness to meet her, love radiating like an aura. She knew he wanted to run, but his status as a man of business prevented that. She returned his dignity by not racing her mount to shorten the distance. She had not been home since the previous fall when the general and the rescue party returning from Hermania had stopped at her foster parents' home. There was so much to talk about and share.
"Tresparni, Tierii Aetria, Sorcerii Hitalno!" her father said in Tierian, his voice low and strong in greeting. She translated in her mind, "Warmest returning to your home, Daughter of Tieri, Aetria, Sorceress of high class."
"Begradia noches, Tieri Chanta Grelnes," Aetria replied, the Tierian coming with difficulty. She hoped she had said it properly, intending to say, "I return with value, Son of Tieri, Sire of the Family Grelnes." His smile hinted otherwise.
Switching to his heavily accented Delmathian, her father said, "I have not sired anyone, at least to my knowledge, my daughter, but I thank you for the title. Chantos is the correct word, meaning head of the family."
Aetria dismounted quickly and stepped into her father's embrace. "Chantos could be applied to an uncle, Father, but I will honor your wish if you insist."
He steered her to the front door, hugging her across her shoulders, laughing gently. "I will take any honor the famous Aetria, Captain of Cavalry and savior of Delmathia, bestows upon me."
Stopping, Aetria looked at the tall man beside her. "I am your daughter, Father, no matter how I came into this world. There is a sorcerer here. What is wrong?"
A flash of surprise crossed his face, but her father recovered quickly. "Verdilan is here, looking in on your mother. She has been feeling weak and tired, but would not seek any help. I asked him to come and heal her. She was most unhappy with me, but I can tell she is relieved to share her troubles with him. We will go straight to her room. How did you know he was here? More secret spells from your studies?"
"I'll explain later, Father. Mother must be beside herself with anxiety for not being here to greet me."
"You are correct there, Aetria. Let us hurry."
* * *
The fire crackled brightly in the den's hearth, knocking the chill of the spring evening off the air and causing shadows to shift along the far wall. Aetria stretched out her legs and allowed her sandals to slip off her feet. The fur of the rug felt wonderfully soft on her toes. She was too used to the hard wooden floors of Inhestia. Her father entered the room and took the only other seat in the den, sitting down so quietly she almost didn't hear him. Her mother had threatened on many an occasion to put a bell on him, as he frequently startled her with the silent movement learned through his Tierian training.
"She is resting very nicely now. I think your presence has as much calming effect as our young Healer's spells. Did he say what ails her?"
"She is coming out of her breeding years, Father."
Frowning, her father settled back into his chair. "I thought she was too young for that."
"Perhaps she is earlier than most because she was barren. This is a blessing, Father. It will be much better for her when she gets past it."
"Are you sure this is the cause, Little One? She has been feeling poorly since your return from Hermania last year. Having the Sorcerer Guard roust us up in the middle of the night looking for our 'traitorous daughter' severely unnerved her. And when she found out you had nearly been killed, and your twin sister Coleni, whom neither of us knew anything about, had been killed, and was resurrected..."
Aetria smiled at her father. The concern in his voice showed his intense love for her, and she knew the hardship she had caused them over the past year. "It could be a contributing cause, Father. One of the reasons I came home was to tell you the entire story, because your letters were filled with more questions than I could easily answer in mine. Tomorrow I'll tell that story, but tonight I have a question for you that I don't want to bother Mother with."
His deep-set eyes half closed at her last words.
"Your question must be about Tierian business."
"You are right, Father. Who is Tieri Delnos Pathla m'Lothur?"
Opening his eyes slightly at the sound of the name, her father took a moment before answering. "He is a long-time friend."
Aetria's disappointment in the vagueness of his answer sharpened her response. "A friend you never mentioned before, and who has never visited our home?"
Her father slowly put his hands into his lap, lifting them from where he had rested them on the arms of the chair. Aetria felt a chill of warning flash down her spine. He is angry, she thought.
"Brathe anprin kiles demarl, Aetria."
"I'm sorry, Father, but I translate that as 'Be cautious of many-faced kin.' Are you saying the man is a relative of ours?"
His eyes held no anger, but there was no love there at the moment, either. "Your Tieri has not deserted you, my daughter, but your knowledge of our culture has caused the mistranslation. The kin refers to you. Why are you questioning me about my business or questioning my answers? Are you talking as the chief advisor of the Delmathian Commanding General, or a member of the Council of Magi, or as the disrespectful daughter of a simple Tierian merchant?"
Oh, dear, she thought, I have upset him. "As the adoptive daughter of Tieri who was nursed back to health by a Tierian wanderer who knew more about her life than she did. Who possessed magical skills that Tierians do not normally have, and who just happened to be at a point in her journey where without his help, she could not have gone on to defeat the evil Magess Corerilla. I am no longer the chief advisor to Sonja Borlock, Father, Coleni is. And I am not a member of the Council of Magi, just a Mage Candidate at Inhestia. If I have been disrespectful, I beg your forgiveness."
Her father's face softened. "You are forgiven, Little One, but I know your advice is highly regarded by General Borlock, who thinks of you as her real advisor. The Council of Magi has accepted your reforms and takes very seriously your counsel, knowing your influence with the commanding general of all Delmathia's armies. Whether you think you are powerless or not does not negate the truth of the situation."
"Then if I can't stop having all of those faces, all of those faces need to know the answer to my questions."
"I agree, Aetria, and that is why I feel my answer is sufficient for your needs. He is a friend. As to what he knows or possesses, that is for him to tell you, not I. His being there--well, that is his trade territory; he belongs there."
He knows more, but this is not the time to ask, Aetria cautioned herself. Getting up quickly, she bent over and gave her father a hug, wishing him a restful night. She could feel his eyes on her as she left the den.
* * *
Aetria sat cross-legged at the head of her bed, her back resting against the wall. It was the same bed she had grown up with, the only one she had known until her student cot at Inhestia. She was sitting up because she couldn't sleep--the worries of her assignment as advisor, her failing research, and now the conversation with her father. She absentmindedly looked around the room, noting the chest where she had kept her clothes as a child, the table still holding her combs and brushes, and the shelving that once had an array of dolls displayed. Now, it held the medallions she'd won at Inhestia in the spring and fall games, several scrolls which she assumed were her diplomas of graduation, and a long-bladed knife, the one she had pulled from Coleni's heart.
Pleates' knife had not deprived her of her twin but had cut Coleni off from her just as cruelly as if she had died. Aetria banished that thought as quickly as it had surfaced in her mind. It was a product of her failed research guilt, because she couldn't find a way to reset Coleni's path into Rajii's glade.
Rajii, she thought. Are you still there? She got up and padded quietly over to the chest. Her parents' room was only across the hall from hers, and she did not want to disturb her resting mother. She skillfully avoided the loose board she had pried up slightly years ago, her feet remembering the path so frequently trod, and felt on the right side of the chest for the hidden latch that opened her secret hiding place.
Some secret, she mused, when your parents knew it was there, your father building it for you. She pressed the tiny stud, and the panel clicked open. Inside was Rajii. With trembling fingers she pulled out the replica of her lifetime friend and held it up to her face to see him better.
Her mother had made him, crafting the dragon with fine stitches and detail as minute as her skilled seamstress fingers could do. His claws were thorns from the rose bushes that grew around the house, lacquered black to stay hard and sharp. Valeria had not wanted to have the thorns there, but Aetria had insisted. His fangs were also thorns, but dyed white. She traced a finger down his long body, marveling how the texture of the cloth felt so much like scales.
Her mother would be disappointed to see the colors slightly faded. I was so demanding, Aetria thought. "Funny, isn't it, Rajii? Coleni's remembrance of you is slightly different, and the color we ended up agreeing on is the color you faded to," she said, choking back a sob. Her tears came from a sudden pang of regret that Coleni would never visit Rajii again because her path was gone. "Maybe finding you was not a good idea," she whispered.
She tucked the dragon between her breasts, careful to position the thorny fangs and claws away from her skin, and lay down on her bed to cry into her pillow.
* * *
"I can't go home," she cried in her weepy, childish voice.
"You can never go back, but you can return home, Little One," Rajii said softly back to her, his razor-sharp, taloned hand stroking her hair protectively.
"You're talking in riddles again, Dragon. Why do you say I can never go back, but can return? I'm confused."
"You always are when you visit me of late. You can come when all is well, Aetria, you don't have to come just because you are afraid."
The little girl turned to look up at her protector and friend. The sadness in his eyes told her he knew what she was going to say before she did, but she said it anyway.
"When I am not afraid, I don't need you."
The dragon laughed gently, his fangs opening up into a fierce grin that the little girl loved so dearly. "I would rather you come out of love than out of need, but I will welcome you for any reason."
Aetria struggled out of the crook of Rajii's huge left arm and tugged her dress back into place. She marched purposely away from him toward the edge of the clearing and stood looking at her shining path. Rajii lowered his massive head onto his arms and watched as she turned and marched around the clearing, passing out of view behind him but easily tracked by his swiveling ears. When she had returned to her path, Aetria faced the dragon, her arms crossed sternly across her chest. In a serious voice, she asked, "Where is Coleni's path, Rajii?"
Stamping her right foot in frustration, the little girl fussed, "I know that, Dragon. I can see it's not here! But it used to be--so where is it?"
Rajii shifted his long tail carefully forward, lifting its spiked end over his ward's head and around in front of his face, looping his body. He lifted his head up and tightened the coil until he could rest his chin on the scale-covered skin of his tail. Aetria waited, her red curls wafting in the breeze as her dragon shifted his wings more comfortably on his back. She knew he was taking his time in answering--he always did this. It made her so mad sometimes.
"Her path died when she did, Little One."
"She is not dead, Rajii--I brought her back to life."
"She is dead to me."
"Then accept her living and let her come back."
The dragon sighed deeply, smoke puffing out in a long stream from his flared nostrils, a tiny flame popping out at the very end of the breath. She had once seen a raging fire erupt from the dragon, incinerating a deadly serpent that had threatened them years before. This sigh was his way of showing frustration.
Aetria stamped her foot again. "You can't? You know she is alive."
"I know. I can't make her path appear. I tried. Someone is blocking the path. I don't know who. It could be Coleni. Maybe she doesn't want to come to me." Tears formed in the huge black eyes of the dragon and streamed slowly down away from the corners. "Maybe she no longer needs me, nor loves me."
Aetria's heart ached for her saddened dragon. She ran to wipe the tears from his eyes with her dress hem, soaking herself in the process.
"She loves you, Rajii. She told me so. She doesn't know why she can't come. She asked me to find out."
Rajii worried about his little girl, afraid she might catch a chill in her soaked condition. He breathed warm air over her, drying the wet clothes. Aetria marveled that his breath was so sweet, like the scent of the clearing's flowers. She patiently stood there as her dress fluttered in the warm breeze. When he had finished, she sat back down into the crook of his arm, her most favorite place.
"It's a puzzle, Dragon. Just like your never returning but going back."
"That's never going back but returning, Little One. I know the answer to that puzzle, but I don't know the answer to this one."
"Well, what is the answer?"
"You can never go back to the home of your earliest days, Aetria, but you can always return home to where your home is now. You want to go back to the time when you were a little girl and played so peacefully in the woods of your father's land. You cannot do that, Little One."
"But I am here with you?"
"Here is now, Adept Aetria."
* * *
Finishing the last of her mother's breakfast, a minor feast in and by itself, Aetria luxuriated in the warmth of the kitchen. While she sat in her favorite place at the table, which stood in its own nook on the morning sun side of the room, memories from her childhood flooded into her mind. Secure and comfortable in this room, her parents sitting opposite her, close to one another and holding hands. They were a loving couple, touching and communicating secret thoughts to each other via gesture and facial expressions. This morning Grelnes and Valeria were smiling, but their eyes mirrored the concern they now voiced to her. "We had heard of your trial. News like that spreads very quickly. The next thing we knew, sorcerer guards were banging on our door in the middle of the night looking for you. They called you traitorous, threatening us with death if we didn't tell them where you were. They said you were a wielder of wild magic and extremely dangerous. We knew you could never be what they called you, but with your trial going on..."
"The real traitor was Magess Corerilla, Mama. My trial found me innocent of treachery to the King, but to prove I was not a traitor to Delmathia, General Borlock had to reveal my wild magic and the presence of Coleni, my sister. While demonstrating the truth of our story, it became clear that Corerilla's son, Adept Pleates, was planning to support Hermania in their war on us if they would provide him with a certain piece of territory in their mountains."
Her mother's look of puzzlement stopped Aetria. "You have a question, Mama?"
"Wasn't Adept Pleates your commander in the war? Your letters home said he was a hard man, but I don't remember you saying he was doing anything that could harm the war's effort."
Aetria was tempted to tell her mother that Pleates had tried to kill her on at least two occasions, but she feared it would alarm her too much. Valeria was an overly kind and loving woman who looked for good in everything she saw. She had accepted the years of abuse by her friends and neighbors for marrying a Tierian wanderer, not finding fault with them for their unwillingness to accept her husband, but accepting their abuse as payment for loving an outsider.
Aetria decided not to tell Valeria of Pleates' attempts, nor of her own responsibility in killing him "twice". "He was very clever in hiding his plans. Over the course of the war, he had developed a weapon that would change the outcome of any battle and was going to give it to Hermania. There was a problem with the weapon--it exploded if used wrong. Until he could solve the problem, he could not complete his traitorous act. His death caused the development of the weapon to be delayed, and General Borlock defeated the Hermanians before the weapon could be finished."
"Then why did you say Magess Corerilla was the real traitor, if it was her son who walked the wrong path?" Valeria said in her puzzled tone. Aetria looked at her father, his face void of any expression. He knows all of this and more! He must not even talk to his own wife about his business. He supplied the king's armies for those six long years.
Seeing that Aetria had looked to Grelnes, Valeria glanced at him as well. He met her inquisitive look with a soft, genuine smile. "Let Aetria finish her story, my love."
"Of course, I should not be interrupting, please continue, dear."
"Corerilla's involvement began shortly before the war with Hermania started. As adamant as she was against the use of wild magic, which is what she so vehemently accused me of, her own son was using it to his own purposes. During his solitary research time as an Adept candidate, Pleates suffered the same kind of damage to his head as I had in the war. It is called grid burnout, caused by losing control of the Power we use to cast spells. He was extremely fortunate that he survived, because it almost always kills sorcerers of his Aggressor discipline. As with me, one result of having suffered a grid burnout was the ability to sense the core material that our Power sources come from."
"I don't understand these sources you talk about, dear. Your father tried to explain them to me long ago. How can anyone get strength from a rock? Why do you need this strength to do magic?"
Aetria knew Valeria was more intelligent than she talked, but her mother had been raised to run a household, and her experiences were limited to the simple life in a country village. Magic to her was something to be feared, warded against, and left to those trained to wield it. Aetria knew it had been a matter of great pride, and in her mother's own way, a quiet source of revenge that Aetria had tested so high and been selected to go to Inhestia. The other women in Torrelon had been quite miffed that the child of the Tierian had succeeded where theirs had not.
"If my father could not make you understand, Mama, then I will not have much better luck than he, for he is the master of words that he is."
Valeria glanced at her lifemate and smiled her beautiful smile. "He does have a way with words, Little One, even with that accent of his."
They all shared a laugh.
Aetria said, "Please, back to my story. Pleates was supposed to be off alone, meditating and developing a new way to use magic. Instead, he spent months using his new ability to sense core material to find a deposit of the ore. He found a very rich vein of it in the Logathian mountains in Hermania. The Hermanians didn't know it was there because their engineers had searched in the area decades before and had not discovered it. Mining the source would have made him rich beyond belief, except it was not in Delmathia. The Hermanians would not tolerate a Delmathian sorcerer buying land for any purpose, let alone if it resulted in losing access to a source mine. He had to find a way to get possession of the land."
"But I thought sorcerers disavowed wealth?" Valeria asked, now with an almost ever-present questioning frown on her face.
"We do, but I think he was after power, which could be acquired by that wealth. He returned to Inhestia and told his mother what he had found. The two of them began to make plans. He met with the leader of the Hermanian Sorcerer Army, Magess Chalinee, and made his traitorous pact--a new weapon for a supposedly worthless tract of land in the Hermanian mountains to build his own lodge. She got the Hermanian Supreme Ruler to agree."
"Why his own lodge?" Valeria asked.
"Because Inhestia would throw him out when they discovered his treachery, and he knew Hermania would not accept him into theirs, for the same reason. Their Council of Magi, which they call the Coven, reasoned that Pleates would fail in his attempt and they would eventually take back the land. They did not know the depth of his plan."
Valeria poured more tea for the three of them, then sat back down and said, "From what I heard of Magess Chalinee, I am surprised she didn't know of his plans."
Her father glanced at Aetria, a look that she translated as "the Tierian Magess had known". It was extremely rare for Tierians to become sorcerers, let alone the leader of another people's sorcerer army, but Chalinee had. There was a very long story in that tale of accomplishment. Aetria did not want to begin to relate that to her mother.
"Well, he was viewed as a very ambitious Sorcerer. Now, in order for him to achieve Adept status, as an Adept Candidate he had to demonstrate a new spell or use of Power. Pleates demonstrated to our Council of Magi that he could detonate a Power source. The fact that he cheated during the test, making it appear only he had that skill, was lost of the Council. They granted him Adept status. He then received permission to develop that weapon I mentioned earlier. What the Council didn't know was his intention to use the weapon for his own army. He had the source material he needed to make hundreds of weapons. What he didn't have were the sorcerers to make the weapons work."
Her mother was having trouble following the story, but she smiled at Aetria to continue.
"Corerilla, as Counselor of Inhestia, ran the testing for sorcerer candidates for all of Delmathia. She knew exactly who passed the test and more importantly, who didn't--but were close. Her master plan was to select carefully from the people who failed the test those candidates who would be willing to join the secret army. She promised to make them sorcerers in their own right. We call them neo-Aggressors. They only had to have the most rudimentary knowledge to make the weapons work, so they could be trained very quickly." Valeria nodded her understanding, so Aetria continued.
"Their plan was to arm the Hermanian sorcerers with some of the weapons. The Hermanians would win the war. The Hermanians, who had been severely weakened by the war, would be stretched to keep peace throughout the captured Delmathian lands, and being so occupied, leave Pleates alone. The traitors would withdraw to the stronghold they would have built near their mine and continue to grow their army. When ready, they would strike from their stronghold and destroy the Hermanian army and take control of the rest of the world."
"How dreadful," Valeria gasped. "She would bring back the days of the Sorcerer Wars!"
"Now you understand, Mother. The frightening part of this story is that her plan is still being executed by whoever is now leading the neo-Aggressors. That person has the people to man the weapons, and probably the weapons themselves, since the projectors are very simple to make. What they don't have is the source material to make the projectors work. That is why Coleni is out searching Delmathia for undiscovered source mines to prevent the Neos from getting enough source material to arm their weapons."
"But what about Hermania, dear? I hear they are very unhappy with the King, and they have this new mine they can get source material from. Why wouldn't they sell it to these Neos? I just don't trust those people--after all, they started the war."
Aetria was surprised at the animosity in her mother's voice, and the fact she held a grudge against any people.
"The Hermanians were poorly led, Mother, but they have very strong beliefs about the improper use of magic. Coleni was thrown out of their lodge for her use of wild magic, so I doubt if they would accept working with the Neos. They view them as not worthy of being sorcerers. Besides, if they gave the Neos the source material, they would end up having to fight the Neos to save their own country. Corerilla did not plan on sharing her rule of the world."
Valeria looked at her husband, a frown on her beautiful face. "I don't understand this political maneuvering that countries do. Why can't they just do what is right for their people?"
"They do, but the people they do right for are themselves, my love. It has always been that way."
Including your own people's rulers, Father.
"How sad, husband. So Delmathia must once again face her enemies alone?"
Aetria nodded, drawing her mother's eyes back to her. "That is also why Inhestia has admitted candidates from among those who failed the test--we need to train and develop these potential sorcerers in the right and proper way of using Power, before they are lured away by the Neos."
"And that is why, my sorcerer daughter, you have been made the class leader for this special class of students--am I right?" Grelnes said softly.
Startled by his question, Aetria looked in surprise at Grelnes and said, "How did you know that, Father? It has not been announced."
He gave a slight shrug of his shoulders and smiled gently, "I didn't. I know you served for six years in the army; you are the wild sorceress--the one who uses new Power. You think differently from the rest of the training lodge instructors, and you know and understand these older students who have arrived at Inhestia. Mage Kelristo is a very wise and thoughtful man. If I were him, I would select you to be the leader."
Crestfallen, Aetria had to accept in her heart that not only was Magess Trelana right, her father could see the wisdom of the Headmaster's decision.