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Lady in Red

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Akkarin stood in the familiar hall, staring up at the huge clock at the centre. It had finely ornamented hands made of pure gold, pointing at big ebony cyphers spaced evenly around the face of the clock. The numbers were framed by a golden halo that shone brilliantly in the light of the many candles illuminating the palace’s entrance.

Circular timekeepers like that were a relatively new invention and they required an excellent understanding of mechanics to set up properly. On its backside, hidden from view, a complicated mechanism made of several hundred cogwheels in all shapes and sizes worked tirelessly to keep the hands moving at a precisely calculated speed. A clock like this was able to give the time so accurately, it could rival the sun itself.

The High Lord watched as the bigger of the two hands slowly pushed past the number twelve at the top. The twentieth hour had just passed. Outside, he could hear the distant ringing of the bells.

Of course, Akkarin knew that the clock was in fact off by at least a quarter of an hour. Every night, the palace staff would rewind it by half a rotation, but that wouldn’t change the fact that it was simply running too fast.

Instead of trying to repair the clock, the City Guard had been instructed to ring the bells slightly earlier than usual in order to match the palace time. For all intents and purposes, it was now twenty-one hours in Imardin.

Akkarin glanced around, taking in the many people waiting for the ceremony to commence. Most of them were wearing red, purple, or green robes indicating their status as Guild Magicians. But many others wore formal longcoats or evening gowns made of expensive fabric embroidered with sparkling gemstones. Those were the members of the Houses – rich but ordinary citizens of Kyralia.

They had all been invited to the palace tonight to attend the novices’ graduation ball. Every year, the newly graduated Guild Magicians were asked to attend court to kneel before the King and speak the Magician’s vow. Afterwards, to celebrate their formal acceptance into the Guild, there was a large banquet, with music and dancing and all the usual flare of the court. As the High Lord of the Guild, Akkarin was expected to be present for the vow as well as the Bestowal of the Robes, a less glamorous ceremony that had taken place earlier this day at the Guild. The Bestowal of the Robes was held among all of the Guild Magicians and was remarkably similar to the acceptance ceremony for new novice intakes. It involved long and tedious speeches of Director Jerrik and some of the Higher Magicians, and the graduates were given their new, full-length magicians’ robes in the colour of their chosen discipline.

This year, for the first time since becoming High Lord, Akkarin had stood in the front of the Great Hall to award a set of robes to his own novice. Sonea was the first novice he had ever claimed guardianship for. At the time, it had been necessary to stop her from trying to expose his practise of black magic to the rest of the Guild. But now, almost four years later, he knew that choosing Sonea as his favourite had been the right decision. She was a brilliant young woman with an exceptional talent for magic and a great amount of raw power that might have rivalled his own. Moreover, she had become an important ally in his secret fight against the Ichani – powerful black magicians from the neighbouring country of Sachaka. Unbeknownst to the rest of the Guild, the Ichani had been sending spies to Imardin for many years now. These spies were meant to uncover information about the strength of the Guild, and more importantly, they were assassins meant to kill Akkarin, who, until about two years ago, had been the only magician in Kyralia to know and practise black magic. Without him, the Guild would not have been able to withstand the attack of even a single Ichani.

But let’s not forget that without me, the Guild would not be in danger in the first place, Akkarin thought grimly. It had been his own carelessness and arrogance that had led him to enter the wastelands of Sachaka by himself, only to be captured by an Ichani named Dakova. He had read Akkarin’s mind against his will – something that until then Akkarin had thought to be impossible – and kept him as his slave for five long years. Only by breaking his vows and learning black magic had Akkarin been able to kill Dakova and escape back to his own country.

Back at the Guild as newly elected High Lord, Akkarin had taken up the responsibility to defend Kyralia in secret. He cared little that he was using a forbidden art to kill the freed slaves that Kariko – Dakova’s brother – was sending to test him. To gain the necessary strength to fight Akkarin, the slaves were murdering innocent people in the slums of Imardin. It was Akkarin’s duty to stop them. If he should one day be discovered and exiled, or worse, killed, for breaking his vow, then he would only get what he deserved for bringing these dangerous enemies to Kyralia.

However, when one day he found out that he had been discovered by no other than the troublesome slum girl that had once thrown a rock at a magician before becoming a novice herself, he knew he had to act quickly and without consideration for the girl’s feelings. He blackmailed her, his best friend Lorlen and Sonea’s former guardian, Rothen, into accepting his new guardianship. With her living in the same house as him, he could keep an eye on her and ensure that neither she nor her friends would reveal his secrets to the Guild.

It hadn’t been easy for Akkarin to cause so much misery and fear in the girl, and worse, his own friend. But it had been necessary, so Akkarin didn’t dare doubt his choice.

The one thing he had not expected – that had not been accounted for in any of his plans – was that he developed feelings for the girl. He hadn’t noticed it at first. Sure, he kept watching her from his hiding places in the University tunnels, but that was only to keep an eye on her. And so what if he was awed by her magical abilities? Only a fool would fail to notice her talent, and as her guardian, he was expected to take an interest in her studies.

When he saw her fight a fellow novice in the Arena, Akkarin realised how valuable Sonea could be as an ally. Of course, he couldn’t possibly teach her black magic, but if he at least told her his secrets, she could help him strengthen his powers. And maybe there was the smallest possibility that if she knew, she would stop looking at him with fear and hate in her dark, beautiful eyes.

So one night, he took her with him to the slums and showed her how to read the mind of a spy he had captured. It took Sonea a while to trust him, but eventually, she believed him. She managed to persuade him to teach her black magic, a decision that even now, years later, still weighed heavily on his conscience. But he couldn’t deny that without her help, he would have died in the fight against the Ichani Parika.

A resounding gong echoed through the palace hall, and the voices chattering around him quietened instantly. Akkarin turned his attention to the set of staircases that wound up to the left and right of the big golden clock. He knew they led to the upper levels of the palace that contained both the living quarters of the royal family as well as several smaller audience chambers for officials such as himself. One of his duties as High Lord was to keep the King updated on all important – and often less important - Guild matters.

Tonight, a spare room on the second floor had been given to the freshly graduated novices to prepare for their great entrance.

A palace official called out for silence – a request that was practically unnecessary since the entire hall had fallen silent already. He cleared his throat with a dramatic flair.

‘Lords and Ladies of the Magician’s Guild, Nobles of the High Houses and honoured guests from the Allied Lands. In the name of King Merin of Kyralia, I welcome you all to the Royal Palace. I would now ask High Lord Akkarin, the Higher Magicians and Guardians to come to the front.’

Akkarin made his way towards the foot of the staircases. A handful of other magicians, including Administrator Lorlen and the Heads of Disciplines, Lady Vinara, Lord Balkan and Lord Sarin, stood next to him.

‘Are you nervous, old friend?’ a voice whispered into his left ear. Clad in the bright blue robes of the Administrator, Lorlen was as easily recognizable among all the red, purple and green as Akkarin himself in his stark black robes. Like him, Lorlen was tall and thin, with typical Kyralian features. They even wore their hair in a similar style, long and tied back at the neck, though Lorlen’s was a light brown while his was almost black.

‘Why would I be nervous?’ Akkarin whispered back. ‘This is hardly the first graduation I have to attend.’

‘No, but you usually don’t stay for the ball afterwards. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you dance,’ Lorlen said, chuckling quietly at the memory. Akkarin had never been fond of dancing.

‘What makes you think I will this year?’

‘Oh, we both know you will dance with her. Besides, it’s tradition. You’re her guardian.’

‘Perhaps I should have given her back to Rothen,’ Akkarin muttered. Of course, Lorlen knew as well as he did why he had chosen Sonea. At first, Lorlen had felt betrayed by his friend when he found out about the black magic. Akkarin’s solution had been to force him to wear a ring that would allow him to monitor Lorlen’s thoughts at all times. Akkarin knew that it would likely destroy their friendship forever, but he could not think of another way. Until Sonea had encouraged him to trust Lorlen with the truth. Over time, Lorlen had learned to forgive him, and they had regained their former friendship.

‘I now present this year’s graduates of the Magicians Guild!’ the palace guard announced. Akkarin and Lorlen turned their attention back towards the staircases.

‘Narron of the family Golar, House Arran,’ the guard said. A boy, not much older than twenty years, came down the stairs. He wore long green robes that opened at the front to reveal an expensive looking vest and matching trousers in the characteristic blues and whites of House Arran.

‘Seno of family Filor, Shipbuilder’s Guild.’ A Vindo boy clad in purple robes that marked him as an Alchemist began to walk down the other staircase on the right.

When they reached the bottom floor, they were received by Lady Vinara and Lord Sarrin, the Heads of Healing and Alchemy, respectively. They took their pupils by the arm and led them towards a set of double doors that connected to the large throne room, where King Merin and his court were waiting.

Akkarin counted eight graduates in total, slowly making their way down the stairs where they would be met with either a guardian or a high-ranking magician of their discipline.

Then, finally – ‘Sonea, favourite of the High Lord.’

Akkarin stared at the young woman that had appeared at the top of the stairs. Since he had first met her, she had grown her hair out. It was now falling in long, dark curls past her shoulders, reaching down to her mid-back. Underneath her new robes, she wore a simple but elegant black dress. Like most of the gowns worn by the ladies of the Houses, it was embroidered with an incal, a symbol that indicated one’s family. Sonea, being born outside of the Great Houses in the poor outskirts of the city, did not have a family incal. But as the High Lords favourite, she had worn his incal on the sleeves of her novices’ robes. Tonight, she had chosen to wear it on her dress, reminding everyone of her status.

Akkarin couldn’t deny that seeing her wear his incal awoke some feelings he had tried to bury deep inside him. However, what really caught his eye were the crimson robes that hung from her shoulders, still untied at the front, almost brushing the floor as she moved down the stairs. Sonea was very short.

Red robes. A Warrior’s uniform.

Despite her initial inclination towards Healing, in the end, Sonea had chosen Warrior Skills as her discipline, thereby defying the Guild’s expectations yet again. There had never been a female warrior before.

Akkarin, who had been a Warrior himself before becoming High Lord, had encouraged Sonea to choose whichever discipline she liked, regardless of social norms that expected her to become a Healer. But actually seeing her in her red robes, smiling at him when she spotted him waiting for her – Akkarin didn’t consider himself to be very romantic, but it nearly took his breath away.

 After what seemed like an eternity, Sonea finally came to stand beside him. Akkarin said nothing, mostly because he felt like his brain was still not functioning properly, but offered her his arm. She took it, still smiling, and they walked over to the line that had formed in front of the double doors.

‘The red suits you,’ he finally said when he felt the silence had become slightly awkward.

‘Thanks. Actually, that was the only reason why I chose Warrior Skills. Green washes me out,’ Sonea said. Despite her joking tone, Akkarin still imagined how she would have looked just as stunning in green.

At the front of the line, the doors swung open. From this far away, they couldn’t see inside the throne room yet, though Akkarin had been there many times. Being the main audience chamber of the King, it was even grander than the entrance hall, with dozens of little spiral staircases leading up to balconies so fragile that only magic could hold them together. It was illuminated by massive chandeliers, each made of thousands of glass shards reflecting the light in all possible directions.

‘You should have been the first to enter,’ Akkarin said, the anger clearly audible in his normally reserved voice. ‘As the High Lord’s novice – well, former novice I should say – you should have been first in line.’

‘I know. But they still see me as the slum girl. ‘Sonea, of no family of consequence’. If they had called me first, the Houses would have been outraged.’

‘You are a full magician now. Families and Houses shouldn’t matter anymore once you join the Guild.’

‘But they do.’

Akkarin said nothing. Sonea was right, of course. When he had first taken her in as his novice, he had received dozens of letters signed by concerned parents, demanding that he would take guardianship of one of their children instead. The other magicians had accepted his decision more easily, believing that he must have tested Sonea and found great potential in her. Which, in a way, was the truth.

When they entered the throne room at last, Akkarin heard Sonea exhale. For someone like her who grew up having to scavenge for food, not knowing if she would make it through the next winter, the splendour of the palace must border on obscenity. He remembered her reaction when they’d shared their first formal meal together. She had scorned at the opulence of it all – golden cutlery and plates, expensive wine, imported spices. He could only imagine how she would react to the banquet later this evening.

They walked down the long aisle leading up to an enormous throne where King Merin, and next to him in a slightly smaller chair, his wife, Queen Lyris, were seated. They were flanked on either side by Lords Mirken and Rolden, the King’s Advisors.

Queen Lyris was a young woman from House Dillan not much older than Sonea herself. She was very pretty with her pale red hair that indicated some Elyne heritage, and an ornate green dress embroidered with thousands of small Tanjin pearls. It wasn’t her beauty however that had secured her a marriage to the King – her family was one of the richest and most influential ones in Kyralia, and Merin had likely chosen her for the power and wealth her House could offer.

At last, Akkarin and Sonea came to stop in front of the King. They both gave a deep bow, and Sonea knelt down next to the other novices, forming a half-circle around the throne. Akkarin, like the other guardians and Higher Magicians, stood behind her.

 They remained there, quietly, until the rest of the guests had entered the hall. Lorlen, who had led the procession in Akkarin’s place, was standing to the side of the throne, half-hidden behind a pillar. When everyone had settled, he stepped up in the middle of the circle, slightly elevated as he was standing on one of the steps leading up to the throne. He was facing the King.

‘Your Majesty,’ he began, giving another bow. ‘In the name of the Magician’s Guild of Kyralia, I present you with the magicians that have been selected to enter our ranks as full members of the Guild. In their time as novices, they have proven themselves to be talented, hard-working, and trustworthy servants of the Allied Lands. Today, they came to swear loyalty to King Merin or the ruler of their land.’

A palace servant hurried over, handing Lorlen a box with different coloured sashes – red, purple and green.

‘Lord Narron of the family Golar, House Arran,’ Lorlen said, turning slightly to look at the Healer kneeling at one end of the circle. He spoke the ritual words of the magician’s vow, pausing between each segment to give Narron time to reply. When he finished, he rose to his feet and Lady Vinara stepped up, taking a green sash from the box and tying it around his waist in the customary fashion of the Guild.

They took a step back, and Lorlen continued with the next novice. Usually, it would be Akkarin who led the ceremony, as he was the Guild’s official leader and Lorlen’s job was the day-to-day administration. This year, however, with his duties as Sonea’s guardian, Lorlen had offered to step in for him. Akkarin was grateful for his aid. Reciting the vow always made him uneasy. It reminded him of the risk he was taking – and the consequences it would bring should he be discovered.

‘Lord Regin of the family Winar, House Paren,’ Lorlen announced. Akkarin watched with narrowed eyes as the boy spoke the vow. Like Sonea, he had chosen Warrior Skills as his discipline, a decision that surprised no one. During their first years in university, he and Sonea had been enemies, often duelling each other in the Arena. Regin loved nothing more than tormenting ‘the slum girl’, and Akkarin had let him. Back then, he had justified it by telling himself that it would help Sonea grow her powers - and he had been right. The frequent attacks of up to twenty novices had forced Sonea to expand her natural strength and develop increasingly creative strategies to defend herself. It had also been the catalyst for her interest in Warrior Skills. To rid herself of Regin and his gang, she challenged him to a formal battle. In beating him publicly, she not only ensured that he would leave her alone for the rest of their time at university, but she also impressed the entire Guild, including Lord Balkan, the head of Warriors. Akkarin had no doubt that her performance during the battle helped convince Balkan to let her join his ranks as the first woman to ever do so.

Yet, Akkarin had come to regret the way he had handled things back then. By allowing Regin to abuse and humiliate Sonea at every opportunity, he had needlessly added to her suffering. Suffering, that he himself had caused by separating her from Rothen, her first guardian. The knowledge of being the cause of so much pain in her life weighed heavily on his conscience.

Lorlen had finished with the vow, and Lord Garrel, Regin’s guardian and fellow Warrior, tied his robes with a red sash. They stepped back in line with the seven others. Only one remained kneeling.

‘Lady Sonea,’ Lorlen began, a soft smile appearing on his face as he got to address her with her new title. Akkarin felt a small pang of jealousy that his friend was the first to call her that. ‘Will you vow to never deliberately harm another man or woman unless in defense of the Allied Lands?’

‘I will,’ Sonea said with a firm and clear voice.

‘Will you swear to obey the rules of the Guild and the laws of your ruler, King Merin of Kyralia?’

‘I will.’

‘And, will you promise to never use evil forms of magic, to never learn or practise what we call black magic?’ Lorlen said without betraying any emotion on his face.

Akkarin thought he detected the faintest pause, before she said, with the same assurance as before, ‘I will.’

‘The punishment for breaking this vow is exile, or worse, death. Do you accept these terms?’

This time she really did hesitate slightly before her reply. ‘Yes, I do.’

‘Then rise, Lady Sonea of the Magician’s Guild.’

Sonea got up to her feet, knees wobbling slightly. Whether it was from kneeling for such a long time or from the fact that she just swore an oath she had already broken, Akkarin didn’t know.

In his concern, he almost forgot the box Lorlen was still holding. A single, red sash had remained inside. Akkarin took it, then turned around to face Sonea. He carefully wound the thin band of fabric around her waist. When his hands grazed her sides, he could feel her slight tremble. He met her eyes, and he could see the trepidation in her expression. He lightly brushed her waist again. This time the touch was deliberate. Her expression softened almost imperceptibly, and he smiled slightly as he tied the knot.

Their tender moment was soon over when the King rose from his chair, raising a hand as a gesture for them to remain standing.

‘I welcome the new members of the Guild. Those of you that came here from other countries to study magic, know that you are always welcome in Kyralia. All of you have proven that you are strong and capable magicians and I am sure some of you will accomplish much during your time in the Guild.’ At his last words, he looked directly at Sonea. A murmur spread through the hall. It was rare for the King to express such direct praise for a single magician, let alone the slum girl. Akkarin pondered the King’s intentions. Did he simply want to make it clear that Sonea was to be treated with the same respect that was due to any magician? Or was it more than that?

The King sat down again and began talking to Queen Lyris, a sign that the official part of the ceremony was over.

‘There will be a formal banquet in about half an hour,’ Lorlen told the newly made magicians and their guardians. ‘Followed by a ball. You will be expected to participate in the first dance, with either your guardian or another magician of the appropriate gender. After that, you may leave whenever you choose. A large number of carriages is waiting outside the palace to take you back to the Guild.’

The group of graduates scattered away, presumably to find their friends and family and show off their new robes. Only Lorlen, Sonea and Akkarin remained.

‘Congratulations Sonea!’ Lorlen said. ‘I always knew we could expect much from you.’

‘Thank you, Lorlen,’ Sonea replied. She still looked a little warry though. Akkarin knew how it felt to break a vow like that. He wanted to say something, anything, to reassure her, but he knew it wasn’t the right time or place.

‘Would you like to find Rothen so that he can properly welcome you to the Guild? I saw him earlier among the other guests,’ he said instead. Sonea understood that it wasn’t a dismissal, but rather an encouragement that he wouldn’t mind her talking to her former guardian. She gave him a smile, the kind that always seemed to make his stomach flip, before she dashed away in search of Rothen, leaving him alone with Lorlen.

They were still standing uncomfortably close to the throne, so Akkarin motioned for his friend to follow him up a spindly staircase where they walked along a narrow path connecting the many balconies.

‘What will you do now that she’s graduated?’ Lorlen asked when they were safely out of earshot from anyone. The question was simple, yet Akkarin suspected there was more to it than the simple practicalities of their arrangement.

‘We will continue as we have before. I can contact Sonea through the ring if I need her. We can still meet in the underground room through the passages in the University.’

‘That is not what I meant. How will you get along without her living with you?’

‘I have lived alone many years before I made her my novice. Things will simply go back to the way they were before.’

Lorlen said nothing, but from his expression, Akkarin could see that he didn’t believe him.

‘What do you expect me to say? What else is there I can do? She is no longer my novice, therefore she is no longer expected to stay with me. There is little either of us could do about it.’ Akkarin said, a bitterness creeping into his voice.

‘I can think of one thing.’ Lorlen said meaningfully.

‘Lorlen …’ Akkarin admonished.

‘It wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened. She isn’t a novice anymore, so there is nothing anyone could do about it,’ Lorlen reasoned.

‘Rothen would certainly try. He’d think I forced her. He —’

‘Lord Rothen is a reasonable man. Surely, he would understand if you and Sonea told him everything. And even if he didn’t, he wouldn’t dare expose Sonea. His hands would be tied.’

‘Still, there are many other things to consider. It wouldn’t be fair to Sonea.’

‘Isn’t that something that she has to decide for herself?’ Lorlen said. ‘Look, it is obvious even to me that you care about her. And she cares about you, too. Maybe … maybe it is that simple.’

Akkarin sighed. A small part of him wanted to agree with Lorlen, but the other, much larger part was reluctant to even consider the possibility. When he had chosen this path, he had known that it meant he would always be alone. He could never marry, let alone have a family. When Sonea had come into his life, she had opened a door to a whole new world of possibilities – and he was tempted.

They settled down on one of the balconies overlooking the throne room. Akkarin estimated around a hundred guests, magicians and non-magicians alike, who had stayed for the ball. It seemed strange to Akkarin that anyone who didn’t strictly have to attend would choose to come regardless. In the previous years, he had always left soon after the ceremony, only ever staying for the banquet, slipping out sometime during the first dance.

Even as a young boy, Akkarin had hated his dance lessons. It wasn’t that he was a bad dancer per se, although he certainly didn’t excel either. It simply never felt natural to him. He didn’t like the attention he drew, the feeling of being watched, his every movement under scrutiny. He could memorize the steps, but when it came to improvising, to letting himself go and just follow the music, something in him always held back.

At his own graduation, he had danced with Lady Vinara. She had been Head of Healing Studies then. Her predecessor, Lady Kamina, had danced with Lorlen since he was first in his class as a Healer. Lady Vinara was a skilful dancer, but Akkarin had still relished the moment their dance was over and he could return to his seat in the corner.

Many girls from his year, and even a few of the older magicians had approached him afterwards, but he had turned them all down. It wasn’t that he had no interest in them – in fact, his reputation had been quite the reverse – he simply didn’t want to dance.

Tonight, he had no choice in the matter. It was tradition, and if he refused to stand up with Sonea, it would only harm her reputation. He wouldn’t allow that to happen.

In truth, he even looked forward to it a little. Over the years as High Lord, he had gotten used to being watched constantly. Strangely, it made him feel more secure. He knew that the more they looked up to him, feared him even – the less they could see of his true self and what he did in the shadows. He created an aura of mysteriousness around himself, and he cultivated it by never allowing anyone to see his true emotions.

Dancing was just another exercise in aloofness. Listen to the rhythm, follow the steps. Never allow yourself to get carried away. He could do that.

‘We should get down again,’ said a voice to his left. He had almost forgotten that Lorlen was still with him. ‘The food will be served soon.’

They climbed down another spiral staircase and cleared the way through a set of double doors to a second, slightly smaller room. A long table sat in the middle. It was already set with the finest tableware the palace had to offer. Plates made of pure gold, chalices of the finest crystal that refracted the light in every direction. Five different forks, each with their own specific purpose, were neatly arranged beside each placement.

A few other guests had already taken their seats, so Akkarin and Lorlen went up the long row of chairs in search of their name cards. As high-ranking Guild officials, they were both placed near the top of the table, where the King sat. To his surprise, Akkarin found a card with Sonea’s name right next to the King. His own seat was just opposite hers.

Lorlen, who was seated a few chairs down from Sonea, looked at him questioningly. He too must have wondered about the peculiar arrangement.

Just as Akkarin sat down, a gong echoed through the hall, announcing that the food would be served momentarily. A large crowd entered the dining room, led by the royal couple. He saw Sonea enter with Rothen, looking a little lost in the jostling of people trying to find their seats.

— Sonea, he called out to her mentally.

— High Lord, came her polite reply. He felt the presence of other magicians slowly fading away. Mental communication without direct physical contact or a blood gem could be easily overheard by others. It used to be the main method of communication among the Guild, but after the killings in the slums, Akkarin and Lorlen made it a new rule to keep mental communication to a minimum and to never discuss anything important mind-to-mind. Not everyone strictly adhered to the rule – magicians were simply too lazy for that – but it had severely reduced the information the Ichani could glean from listening in on their conversations.

In this instance, Akkarin didn’t mind if anyone overheard, so he told her to come up to the end of the table where he was already seated.

It took her a while to push through the crowd before she finally fell down in her chair, only to jump up again barely a second later. The King and Queen had arrived.

Everyone else got up as well, waiting until the Royals had settled.

‘Please, be seated,’ Merin said with a benevolent flap of his hand.

Akkarin watched as Sonea nervously adjusted her chair, then began fidgeting with her napkin.

Once everybody was seated, palace staff brought out the first of what were to be seven courses. From his previous times attending these, Akkarin knew that the food was exquisite, although he liked to think that Takan’s meals were superior.

‘I hope you are enjoying your meal. I take it you have never attended a feast like this before?’ the King asked Sonea, who hastily swallowed her soup, almost gulping down the spoon along with it.

‘It is delicious, your Majesty. The High Lord kindly invited me for a formal dinner every Firstday since I became his novice. But he didn’t have quite as many forks,’ she added. Akkarin had to suppress a chuckle. Even someone like the King couldn’t intimidate Sonea for long.

‘Is it true that you threw a rock at a magician?’ the Queen asked. She was looking at Sonea with wide eyes, but they didn’t show judgement, only honest curiosity. Growing up as the only daughter of one of Imardin’s greatest Houses, she had probably never met anyone from the slums before, let alone a young woman her age.

Luckily, Sonea was already used to this particular question. ‘Yes, I did, although at the time I didn’t expect I would actually hit him.’

‘None of us did,’ Lord Balkan added dryly from Akkarin’s right.

‘But weren’t you frightened?’ the Queen inquired further. ‘They were magicians and you were only one girl. I don’t think I could have done it if I had been there.’

Interesting, Akkarin thought. She didn’t say that she wouldn’t have done it. Only that she doubted she could. A subtle difference that still surprised him. He made a mental note to pay a little more attention to Queen Lyris in the future.

‘Well,’ the King said, ‘how ever ill-advised that little stunt may have been, it was what brought you to the Guild in the end. And we can all be grateful for that. Who would have thought that there was magical potential like that in the slums?’

So that’s what he wants to discuss. Does he plan to take in even more recruits from the slums? Akkarin doubted the King’s intentions when it came to the inhabitants of the Outer Circle. Surely, he wouldn’t risk offending the Houses on account of a few dwells?

Sonea remained quiet, but from her expression, Akkarin could tell that she had come to the same conclusion as he had.

‘So, tell me Sonea, now that you have graduated, what are your plans for the future? A girl like you must have a lot of ambitions.’ Merin continued to look at Sonea, his own food barely touched.

Sonea glanced at Lord Balkan as if waiting for his input. Well, he is her direct superior now, Akkarin remembered.

However, Balkan did not do her the favour of answering for her, so she was forced to consider her own reply. ‘I will serve wherever I am needed,’ she said diplomatically. ‘Although …,’ she started, but didn’t finish the thought. She looked up and met his eyes, a question clearly visible in her own gaze. Akkarin nodded almost imperceptibly, knowing where this was going. More than two years ago now, he had told her she would have his full support in this, and he had meant it.

‘There is one part of my duties that I am not looking forward to.’

‘And what would that be?’ the King asked politely.

‘I believe she is talking about the Purge,’ said a voice to Sonea’s left. Lady Vinara, who had previously seemed deep in conversation with Lorlen, must have kept an ear on their conversation as well. ‘A sentiment that can be easily understood considering her background,’ she added.

It seems we have an unexpected ally to our cause, Akkarin noted.

‘That’s no matter!’ Balkan erupted before the King could react to her statement. ‘It’s a Warrior’s duty to serve in the Purge. There can be no exceptions. Sonea knew this when she chose her discipline, didn’t you?’ he said, glaring at Sonea.

Akkarin was prepared to defend her, but it seemed Lady Vinara had the situation under control. ‘If I may be so bold, your Majesty – perhaps it is time that we re-evaluated this practise. The Purge was first instated by the late King Terrel, to keep the streets of Imardin safe. He had very noble intentions, I am sure – but it has been over thirty years. Does the Purge still guarantee peace in the city or is it doing the exact opposite?’

Balkan seemed ready to argue back, so Akkarin decided it was time for him to intervene.

‘Your Majesty, you already know my opinion of the Purge,’ he said calmly. Vinara and Balkan turned their attention away from each other, staring at him instead. Even Sonea seemed surprised. ‘The last couple of years have proven its ineffectiveness in preventing crime inside and outside the city walls. The Thieves are the ones who remain – despite our best efforts – the least inconvenienced by the Purge. It is the rest of the population, the honest and hardworking people of Imardin, who suffer the consequences. Many of them starve or freeze to death during the winter. And let us not forget what happened during the incident with Lord Fergun.’

He could see the King’s expression darken at the mention of the events that had happened after Sonea threw the rock at Lord Fergun. In an effort to capture Sonea, several magicians had combined their strikes, accidentally killing an innocent bystander.

 ‘It is the Guild who takes responsibility for the death of the boy,’ Akkarin continued, taking care not to antagonize the King. If they wanted to convince him, they needed to acknowledge their own mistakes. ‘I believe this means that the Guild is responsible for all consequences of the Purge. But we cannot take responsibility for something that is beyond our control.’

The King considered his words for a while. It wasn’t the first time Akkarin had brought the issue up, but they had never had an audience this big when discussing it.

‘You make a fair point, both of you,’ the King acknowledged at last, referring to Lady Vinara and Akkarin. ‘Perhaps Sonea can give us some inside to how the commoners see the Purge.’

This continued interest in the opinions of his novice – former novice, he corrected himself – struck Akkarin as odd. However, he took it as a sign that the King was willing to listen, at least.

‘Well, I suppose you can imagine that they aren’t too happy about it,’ Sonea said. An understatement if he had ever heard one. ‘But they don’t just blame it on you, your Majesty. The dwells hate magicians. They fear them because of the Purge. Before I came to the Guild, I never knew what the magicians do to help the city, only that they helped with the Purge. It’s why I didn’t want to join them, at first,’ Sonea explained.

Akkarin marvelled at the shrewdness of her argument. Not only did she reaffirm his own position by emphasising the involvement of the Guild, but she also remembered the King’s previous interest in the magical potential in the slums. If the dwells feared magic, no one would join the Guild, no matter what the King tried to encourage it.

‘And do you suppose ending the Purge would change their minds?’ the King asked.

‘Maybe not immediately. It would help to show them the good that magic can do,’ Sonea said.

‘Such as?’

‘Opening a hospital in the slums,’ Sonea readily replied. ‘There are few healers in the Outer Circle, and none of them have magic or even proper training. By treating not only patients from the Houses but everyone in Imardin, the Guild could really improve their reputation.’

‘A noble pursuit. What do you think, Lady Vinara? Could it be done?’ the King inquired.

‘I’m not sure. We don’t have enough Healers as it is, with so few of the novices committing to the high demands of the discipline,’ Vinara said, glancing at Sonea disapprovingly. With Sonea’s early interest in Healing, Vinara had hoped she would choose her discipline. The Head of Healers did not have a very high opinion of the Warrior Skills, so her choice must have stung extra hard. ‘I still think it is worth the effort,’ Vinara added.

‘I will consider your suggestions,’ the King announced. ‘Perhaps we could meet again sometime to discuss the matter further. I would like the opinions of all the Higher Magicians. And Lady Sonea, as she has the most inside into the matter.’

Akkarin and Sonea exchanged a meaningful look. Neither of them had expected the King to be so open to their ideas. He likely had his own agenda that he hadn’t revealed to them yet. But Akkarin still considered this conversation an important step forward.

It will also provide a reason to spend more time with Sonea, he thought happily.

The next courses of their meal were served in relative silence, with only occasional small talk here and there. Lady Vinara had resumed talking to Lorlen, and the King asked a few questions about the running of the Guild. Even Balkan eventually warmed up to the company and began talking to Sonea about her new duties. It seemed that the King’s interest in her had increased Balkan’s as well.

All too soon the deserts had been eaten, and the first guests were already getting up from their seats, spreading throughout the dining hall and the ballroom next door.

‘Will you be opening the ball, High Lord?’ Queen Lyris asked him.

‘Yes, I will be dancing with Lady Sonea,’ he said. Across the table, Sonea smiled at him. She knew of the tradition of course, and she had even met with a dance instructor in the city a few times. But they hadn’t practised together before. Suddenly, Akkarin worried if he should have. It had been many years, and he might have forgotten all the steps.

‘I believe it’s time,’ Lorlen said, already getting up from his seat. ‘You and Sonea should go and wait with the others.’ He showed them to a small chamber that connected to the ballroom. The other graduates and their dance partners were already gathered there. Some of the young magicians looked a little pale, probably because of nerves. But none of them needed to worry. They were all brought up in the Houses and had likely attended many balls before, although maybe not with as much attention on them as there would be tonight.

Akkarin glanced around, but for once, nobody paid much attention to the High Lord or his former novice. He stood a little closer to her, carefully reaching out so that he could grasp her hand beneath the long sleeve of her robes.

— How are you feeling, Sonea? Akkarin sent.  

— A little nervous, she admitted. But also excited. I’ve never been to a ball before, but I always enjoyed the dances we had in the slums. They were much less formal though. No steps to memorize. We just sort of followed the flow of the music.

Akkarin was suddenly grateful for all the dance lessons he had to suffer through before joining the Guild. At least they provided him with a framework of what to do. He couldn’t imagine simply … moving, without any instructions or guidance.

— You don’t like dancing? Sonea asked. She must have heard some of his thoughts through their connection.

— No. But if I have to dance with anyone, I’m glad that it’s you. He hadn’t meant to say it, but it was the truth. He felt some of Sonea’s emotions at the unexpected compliment that made him glad he said it.

The door opened, and a servant came to fetch them. Once again, Akkarin took Sonea’s arm, and together they followed the servant and the other couples to the ballroom.

The King sat on his throne again with the Queen beside him. The other guests and the musicians stood around the dance floor, waiting patiently. Upon their entrance, music swelled up, drowning out the soft chatter of voices.

Akkarin and Sonea stood at the centre of the room, the other dancers surrounding them in a small circle. Akkarin counted the beats until the prelude concluded and the dance would start. He had never been good at following rhythms, so he had memorized the pieces that were commonly played at balls. This one he instantly recognized. It was the same song they played every year at the graduation ball. Normally, he would slip out sometime during the first dance, his role as High Lord fulfilled. Now he stood opposite Sonea, his left hand holding hers, the other lightly resting on her waist, right above the sash he had tied there only a few hours ago.

When the music changed, they started to spin. Akkarin was surprised how easily the steps came back to him as he tried to remember the sequence. Sonea followed his lead gracefully. Although it was clear that she knew the dance as well, she moved with ease and a lightness in her step that showed she was a natural dancer.

— You are good at this, Akkarin told her mentally.

— Thank you. You obviously know the steps as well. Why do you keep looking at your feet? Sonea asked.

Akkarin forced himself to look up, only to find her smiling at him. At that moment, he realised that he had never truly seen her smile. Not that she was unhappy around him – at least not anymore. He had simply never taken the time to fully take her in as he could now, with her in his arms.

In comparison to her smile, the rest of the room was dim and lifeless. The hundreds of candles and the chandeliers above them failed to illuminate the room in the same way Sonea’s smile could.

As she spun around, her red robes flared around her, showing glimpses of the dress underneath. Her dark hair shone almost golden in the candlelight, and Akkarin didn’t think he had ever seen anyone quite as beautiful as her. He must have been blind not to notice it at first.

But now that he had, he couldn’t imagine ever going back to how things were before. To never hold her like this again. Never dance with her. Never see her smile this brightly.

— You know that I love you, don’t you, Sonea?

Sonea’s eyes widened, and if he hadn’t been leading them, she would have stopped in the middle of the dance. Even now, he felt a few eyes on them, from people who must have noticed her step falter. He didn’t pay them any attention. Right now, it was just him and Sonea, everyone else faded away.

He was still clutching her hand, and she wasn’t holding back any of her emotions. It was almost overwhelming, and if he hadn’t experienced similar feelings for her, he might not have been able to remain as calm as he did. He squeezed her hand slightly, a small smile on his lips. I know. I feel the same way. He knew that she understood.

— I love you too, she sent, even though they both already knew. Still, Akkarin had needed her to say it.

— What happens now? Sonea asked.

— Now, we dance. We are at a ball after all, he said. Sonea laughed softly.

— I thought you didn’t like dancing?

— I do now. He smiled back at her. I will let you dance with Rothen, too, if you want. And I’m sure there are many others who would like a chance, he added.

— I will have to disappoint them, then.

— Good, Akkarin sent, trying not to let his satisfaction show. I don’t think I like sharing.

Sonea raised an eyebrow, and Akkarin chuckled again. By this point, people must have been starring at them, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

— And after tonight? she asked again. What are we going to do then? I only just graduated, there will be a scandal. And Rothen, he wouldn’t understand. He-

— We will find a way, Akkarin said, surprising even himself with his sudden optimism. But now that I finally have you in my arms, I’m not letting you go again.