“Hello, Auri. I am glad to see you are awake.”
Auri had not opened her eyes yet, nor even stirred from where she lay. All she could think about was the blinding pain in her arm, and the sinking realization that she had not been dreaming. She had killed her father, killed her brother, murdered the king’s men. She had died in searing fire.
Except that couldn’t be right. She was still here, still hearing that intense calling toward the west. Too afraid to open her eyes, and dreading the dungeon she must surely be in. That was where they kept monsters, until they could be sent to the front. The calling was stronger than ever, and she reached for it, seeking refuge from the searing that raced up and down her arm. Still too vast to comprehend, an endless something far away, it accepted her attention without judgement and filled her mind completely. It drowned out the memories, the misery, the dreadful guilt, but it could not stifle the voice that was talking to her.
“You are not a monster. You and your brother are both still alive. I am afraid the rest is true.” The voice was smooth and calm. It belonged to someone young, and reminded her of her brother.
Thinking about Iri made her stomach twist painfully even though it should have relieved her, and set her arm in ablaze with imagined fire. She forced her eyes open, trying to get her bearing. Her eyelids were leaden, stuck together with tears and grime, so the cell came out bleary. A cell with clean, warm walls, with wooden furniture and a window. Not a cell, then, but a room. She had almost made out the figure sitting at the foot of her bed, when the calling overcame her again. It was a primordial throb, pulling at her with waves made of time and weight, and she thought it would tear her apart until that gentle voice cut through it again.
“I know you hurt, but you have to fight through it.”
She opened her eyes again to get another look at him, and disappointment welled inside her. It wasn’t Iri after all. The thought made her sag, even though she had already known. Whoever it was had kempt white hair where Iri’s was unruly and black with a red tint, and his skin was far too pale. Her mouth opened to try and speak, but the sound scraped its way out of her dry throat and came out an unintelligible groan.
“I need you to focus for me, Auri. We need to talk.”
No matter how hard she tried, that unrelenting pull refused to let her think properly. Every plan she could come up with was one of escape. Every time her eyes moved, it was toward the window or the door. She could feel that other presence staring at her as if it were the searing sun. It was the same instinct that made it impossible not to fidget a chipped tooth with one’s tongue, that caused gutted soldiers to gather their bowels in their hand. A certainty that lay somewhere beyond sense, and said that something was missing, and made it impossible to let the matter lie. Perhaps not so much a chipped tooth, as of being the chip. She wanted to fall back into it, to be immersed and lose herself. Yet that mellow voice sheared through each attempt at surrender, its taciturn meter a rope that drew her back to reality.
“It is called the Aliud. That pressure you are feeling. It will pass, but for now you must resist.”
How could she resist something that tugged on every part of her at the same time? It was like telling her to resist gravity, to fly. Yet knowing its name gave it substance, and turned it into something she could fight. When she tried to block the presence from her mind, her wound bloomed back into her consciousness, suddenly overwhelming in its intensity. Perhaps, she thought, that burning could work like a pinch in her arm, allow her to find her center. To drown out one sensation with another, just as she had sought to dull the pain a moment ago. Holding onto it, she was amazed at its intensity, how absolute it was. Enough of it to fill her mind completely, and drown out the longing toward that other presence.
She attempted to scream, but still all that would come were wretched croaks. Agony pulsed through her as she turned her head, trying to see what had happened to it to make it burn so badly. What she saw made let her throat catch her voice, and she wailed miserably. There was no arm there, just a bandaged stump that stopped halfway down to where her elbow should have been. Yet she could still feel the whole of it, and it felt like it was boiling in hot water.
“Calm, now. This too will pass.”
It did not seem like it ever would. She lay there howling and wailing for what felt like hours, and the figure did not move at all. He did not stir when she shrieked or when she moaned, nor when she cried and sobbed. It was as if he were a statue, placid and patient. Too patient for a child to bear. Patient enough for her to become exhausted, and when her suffering had quieted, to carry on talking as if nothing had happened.
“There we are. This is a very important conversation, Auri. One that will stay with you until the end of your days.”
Every time he spoke, she could feel the tugging of the presence – the aliud – grow a little weaker, as if his soft hushes bore some weight of authority, even unto that permeating awareness. She rubbed across her face with her right arm, blinking and wincing until the tears were gone from her eyes, trying and get a proper look at him. He was slender and beautiful, inhumanly so. As if he were not merely a young boy, but the very idea of what boyish youth ought to look like made flesh. His was an image of serenity, with a light tan on smooth skin that spoke of rare days in the sun, and a cascade of shoulder-long silvery hair that fell around his head in silky curls. Dark, almost black eyes that spoke of long decades of sorrow placed in a face that could not be more than ten years old. He wore a simple tunic of all but opalescent purple, emblazoned on its fringes with silvery needlework.
Who was he? Where were they? Where was Iri? The questions bombarded her mind in an endless procession, but her mouth and chest were still quivering too hard to form even simple words. What would happen, she wondered, if they could not have their talk?
“Do not worry about that. You do not need to speak for me to hear you, Auri. I already know you very well.”
That did not answer any of her questions. If anything, it simply raised more.
“You are at the palace, where you have been for several weeks. Your brother is being tended at the royal academy. I suspect you already know who I am.”
Iri was alive, but he was being tended. She did not know what that meant. The memory struck her like a blow to the chest, made her wheeze. She could remember that look on her brother’s face. A look of shock turning into fright as he stared at the silvery spear rammed through his chest and into the guardsman behind him. There had been so much shouting outside before it happened. Fear had taken her over, and she had hidden when the king’s men came to find her. Iri had been shouting too, trying to get them to stand down, begging them to be careful and not provoke her. He had been afraid of her, then, and although his reasoning had been sound the idea stung her.
As they spotted her she had reacted, and the metal in the shop had reacted with her. The room had suddenly been criss-crossed with metal lances, spanning its open spaces and shearing through the men there like spits. She had not meant to hit Iri, but the spears of her power had not seen friend from foe.
The shame of the memory pulled on her as surely as the presence now, even moreso, it drowned out even that immense awareness, until it was all she could think about. In the end, the final beating he had taken in her name had been by her own hands. She could not bear the thought, and tried to wail again, but there was no cooperation to be found in her body. Instead, she simply shuddered and sobbed pathetically.
“He will live. If you make the right decision, he will live quite well.”
A man had come, as she had stood in the shop trying to pull her brother off the spear she had skewered him with. The metal had refused to cooperate with her in her horrified state, and so she was left pulling uselessly on it with her hands. It had taken him through the chest, going through him and a guard and finally the wall behind them. It held them upright, now. The guard was dead, but her brother had still been screaming when she had heard the footsteps behind her. Then as horror shifted to terror once again, the steel spear had let him go so it could flow around her in a whirl of mercurial ribbons.
The man who had entered did not look like a guard. He wore dark leather pants and boots, and a simple blue tunic with silver embroidery. Holding his hands over his head, he was trying to appear disarming. One look into his eyes had told her that was a lie. There was fire there, bright and hungry, waiting for her to let down her guard. As she pulled the whirling metal around her, that fire came alive and extended to cover the man’s hands in bright blue gyres. All she remembered after that was fear, trying to protect herself from the sudden inferno and to lash out at the thing that was hurting her. Metal flowed in streams through the air around her, then rapidly flattened out before her to intercept the incoming blast of fire. The shield was not up in time, and as she threw her arm up to cover her face, the gout that had made it past her metal screen enveloped it from hand to elbow. There was a short moment of agony and disbelief before darkness took her, and she remembered no more.
The boy on her bed sighed regretfully, his first display of anything even remotely resembling emotion.
“I have had a similar experience, a long time ago. I am sorry we could not save your arm. I wish it could have been avoided, but you are very powerful Auri. That is why I am here, speaking to you. As I have done with all those gifted with such power in my time.” The boy paused every so often when he spoke, and those silences hung ponderous with some meaning she could not quite grasp.
“I want you to work for me. But you must choose to do so of your own free will. Have you ever heard of the Kozan, or the Dordoron?”
Auri never had. She had heard the first word used once by her father, but at seven years old, no one had ever taken the time to explain it to her. It was something to do with the king, she knew, and a word spoken in hushed tones.
“The Kozan are my chosen deputies, my hands to act for me and voices to speak for me. Those who receive gifts and choose to yield them to the service of the kingdom. If you so choose, I would have you among them. I will have you schooled, and trained. You will want for nothing. I will even see to your brother, though he may not join us. In time, you may see him again.”
Once more he let the words hang in the air. She could discern no real emotion from his voice, it was as impassive and musical as the first words her had spoken to her. Nor did his face shift, no expressions flitted across his features. Just that same mild and dispassionate look, juxtaposed on a child’s face. Save for those eyes, still dark pools that seemed to shift without ever actually moving, they radiated a sense of earnest candor. She knew then that this was no meeting of peers – whatever lay behind those eyes was very, very old.
She understood what he was offering, however. A way to make amends. To help Iri, now that she had taken everything from him. Reparations for the men she had killed in her panic. The possibility of finding some kind of meaning in the senseless violence and loss she had experienced.
“There is another alternative, of course. You may go to Dordoron, where the wizards live. They will take care of you as well, and teach you more of your gift. Power is their worship. There you will live in exile for the rest of your days. You will be on your own, and so will your brother.”
The implied threat was not lost on her, but it was unnecessary. She had no wish to go join a cult of wizards somewhere far away, never to see her brother again. Not that she thought she could face him, after what she had done. That guilt was hers, and it was already crystallizing inside her, forming a tight knot in her stomach. Only that presence, far away gave her doubt. In service to the king, she would never be able to join it. However, that would be true for Dordoron too, and she had no wish to spend her life in exile there.
This would be her contrition, then. To be forever walking uphill, a moth doomed to circle the flame for all time. Never to know what it was that called her, never to feel the wholeness that it offered. It was an appropriate price for atonement. She would allow herself to be kept, until she had atoned for her actions and earned her forgiveness. For now, this was where they kept monsters, until they could be sent to the front.
“I am pleased to know you feel that way, Auri. I have seen true monsters, and you are not one. You will know I am right when you see them for yourself.”
Looking thoughtful, the boy raised a hand to his chin and studied her. Those eyes of his looked into hers, and for a moment she felt a connection to him that was not entirely unlike what she felt toward that strange other presence. It was lesser in scope, however, and it passed quickly. Despite its brevity, she felt very uncomfortable, as if he had seen something in her that should have been for her alone.
“As kozan may hold no title nor heritage, your family name is lost to you now. I have taken to giving my associates new names, to replace the one I take. I find that these given names often come to suit their owners.” His voice had become very friendly, as if he were speaking to an old companion. She did not feel she knew him any better, but the casual familiarity in his tone still relaxed her.
“In the far west, what was Muriad, once lived a creature called a ratel. It was a sort of badger, known for being very tenacious and resilient. I believe those same qualities will come to define you, Auri. In your mother’s tongue, it is called the Ateri.”
With that, he rose from the bed, smoothing his tunic out as he stood. He was not much taller than she was, and the large bed was tall enough that he almost had to hop out of it to touch the floor.
“There is one last thing I must ask of you before I go, Auri Ateri: That you never tell anyone of our meeting. Not even your brother.” Already at the other side of the rom, his back was to her yet his voice was as clear as if he were still sitting on the bed. Only then did she realize that she had never seen his lips move when he spoke.
“After all,” he started, then turned toward her and gave her a small smile as he moved backwards through the door. “No one sees the king.”