Two wards are gone! Will the others stand a chance without them?
The Syntrea and Academy massacres were averted thanks to the wards, but they have suffered a serious setback. Rohen has fled the Academy with Galen to save her from Humo, leaving the others behind, stunned and struggling to deal with their loss. Humo's terrible plan has failed, but the evil Headmaster is unaware. He believes that Galen is dead. And now her brother Ben is his next target.
The dragons now watch closely, waiting for the opportunity to strike while the wards are apart and vulnerable. Rohen and Galen are gone. Megan must take on yet more training to defend herself against the drui. Jamu must complete his first year scouting assignment. And with Ben busy trying to wrest control of the mage's college Arcanum from the Academy, it is up to Princess Jania to find a way to keep her country safe and the Academy Headmaster under control, while also successfully completing her last year as a student mage. But how can she accomplish such a feat without her friends by her side?
Severed from her companions, Jania looks to the atral plane for a way to keep the wards united. But to reach it, she will have to defy her most important ally, and face the deadliest dragon she has ever encountered.
“She is dead!”
Humo wrung his bony hands, enjoying the feel of the soft stretchy skin covering his bones. “You have been avenged, Gravesco.”
He stood by the window of his bedchambers in the Academy Tower, peering down at the commotion below. The ornate decorations in his study and other personal chambers were absent here. A simple bed made of iron and stone, a side table, a washing up cart and a chair were the only objects in the room. This was his den. He needed no symbols or souvenirs here. There was no one to impress within these bare walls.
After all these years, he had accomplished the one task that should have been as simple as opening a book. Ever since she was seven, Humo had searched for a way to dispatch the child who had slain his beloved companion. But that little girl had been the bane of his entire mission for the past six years.
Galen had foiled every single plan he had created to dispose of her. He avoided her at first, wanting little fanfare over her demise. After all, legends of that tiny whelp routing the Eastern invasion of Syntrea’s forested province were now the basis of many contemporary songs and stories. He could not afford any uproar with her premature demise. She was barely a baby at the time, after all. But then she showed up at the Academy-his Academy-to become the first female Espies recruit.
It had been the perfect opportunity at the time. But his subtle directives had not been enough to keep her out of the scouting college, and she was accepted, thanks to that Surian bastard that his fellow dragon Obitus had grown to hate. Her presence at the Academy made any assassination attempts impossible without calling undue attention to his other plans. And so the brat trained at Espies with her blasted friend Rohen and troop leader Jamu, and she grew stronger and stronger. But to make things even worse, his attention was so focused on her that Humo had completely overlooked her brother. It took the foiling of his most promising attempt to coax war between two formidable countries for him to see the true threat that student mage posed.
But then one day a wonderful opportunity arose, the way opportunities inevitably do. His little she-human nemesis got in trouble with her schoolmate rival. A rival who hated her almost as much as Humo did. They both got in trouble, and they both needed punishment. A most perfect opportunity! Keran did not think twice about taking the knife from Humo’s hand and acknowledging his secret mission. Humo ordered them to complete a penance trek through dangerous territory back to the Academy. And in the midst of that dangerous territory, a most convenient trap lay in store for them both.
Keran had avoided the trap, but he returned alone. He seemed a bit shaken when he arrived with his notice. It must have been a tough trip, but he was an Espies scout after all. And the mission was a success. Galen was gone.
Of course her friends were still alive and a huge threat, but that would work itself out in time. Rohen was off to Age for his first year assignment. Jamu was ordered to Trader’s Pass. Princess Jania was saddled with school and diplomatic duties. With those three monsters apart, Humo could now focus his attention on Galen’s brother Ben.
Arcanum’s newest board member had unsettling plans for Arcanum, and he shared Galen’s hateful golden eyes. But Humo had to show restraint and not allow his recent victories to soften his guard. Disposing of Ben would be just as hard as it was to rid the world of his sister. But once again, an opportunity would eventually arise.
He heard the door to his bedroom open. He knew who it was. She had gloated not too long ago, when his schemes began unraveling at a time when he was powerless to do any damage control. Now it was his turn to gloat. He turned to face his old adversary with a smile. She had been subtle in her gloating, so he would be as well. But not as subtle as she had been. “Good morning.”
She stood still at the doorway, looking up at him in her ageless human form. Snow white hair parted equally, spilling down to her waist. Milky white skin and glowing white eyes made for a ghostly figure. Her simple white frock was even belted with white silk. And yet she was barefoot. She stood quietly, waiting for Humo’s next words.
“The polite thing to do would be to return the greeting, Poli,” Humo said.
“Good morning,” Poli said. Her expression seemed disappointed, as if she had expected something else from him. “I am sure you have heard the news.”
Humo studied her. Unlike her Tueri counterparts, Poli preferred natural youth and slight symmetry to voluptuousness and earthy appeal. Everything about Poli was delicate and subtle. Humo admired this about the venerable celestial dragon. Her simple beauty concealed a magnificent power and cunning that Humo was little match for. Fortunately raw power and strength was not Poli’s way. And as with all Draca, her values reflected glaring weaknesses that Humo was more than happy to try and exploit.
“I expected you to be upset,” Humo said cheerfully. “You look like a sad little puppy with that gaze of yours.”
“I don’t throw temper tantrums like you do,” Poli said. “Anger is counterproductive. It leaves us open to manipulation. We can control our tempers, but many of us choose not to.”
“It is unhealthy to keep your emotions in constant rein,” Humo said. “But I must respect your grace in coming here and enduring my victorious taunts, just to gauge my reaction and try to deduce my next move.”
“Your taunts don’t move me, and I don’t care about your next move.”
“Ah, I see. You are here to warn me that you are stepping into the fray. You are free from Obitus, and you are sick of Animis and Terra’s ineptitude. Welcome to the game, Poli.”
“You see this as a game, Humo?” Poli tilted her head to the side. “Killing children and sowing war is a game?”
“They are only humans!” Humo snapped. “Why do you insist on seeing these animals as equal to us? You are better than this, Poli.”
Poli’s expression changed slightly. “Your love for Gravesco has stained your soul. Listen to yourself! Have you learned nothing from all that has happened in our lifetimes?”
“I have learned that we need to fight for our survival. We need this world, and we need the humans subjugated.”
“We need to coexist! We are all children of the Creator. The humans are not our fight!”
Humo bristled at her short-sightedness. “We are not our fight, celestial! We are the ones who should be coexisting instead of facing off the way we always do.”
“I won’t stand here and argue about who should fight with whom,” Poli growled, a most inhuman sound emanating from her throat.
“Then go and get ready to fight,” Humo said. “Keep in mind that you are at a disadvantage. One ward is dead, and Rohen and Jania are far away from each other. The wards will soon be separated. And divided as they are, they will fall.”
“You didn’t mention Ben,” Poli remarked.
“I will deal with him next. And no, I don’t plan to kill him. Unless I see an opening.” Humo smiled at Poli.
She didn’t smile back. “Then the game is afoot,” she said before blinking out of sight.
“Keran! Get out here and face me, you coward!”
Keran leaned against the cool marble wall that shielded him. He closed his eyes and tried his best to think clearly, but near panic kept throwing frantic thoughts into his mind.
“The longer you make me wait out here, the more painful your death is going to be!”
Keran’s eyes flew open as a hand grasped his wrist. The young acolyte that had let him in looked worried. “What is going on? Why are you here, Keran?”
Keran blinked. She knew his name. Where had he seen her before?
Father Cin’s voice floated back to him. “Keran has been granted Sanctuary. I do not know what is going on, but I...”
Keran moved to step around the wall, but the girl pulled him back. “You do not have to go to him. You are protected,” she said.
“No,” Keran replied. “Jamu is an Espies scout. If I don’t go to him, he will come to me. The Monastery walls will not keep him out, and neither will the tenet of Sanctuary.”
She let go of his wrist, and he stepped around the wall. He did not know if he would survive this confrontation, but he had to let Jamu know what really happened.
Jamu was shouting at Father Cin through the entrance gate. “Sanctuary means nothing to me! What he did, that is what matters!” Jamu noticed him approach and fixed his bright blue eyes on him.
Keran forced his knees not to shake. He could only imagine what Jamu was going through right then. Even through the hate in his eyes, he could see his grief, the wild uncontrolled despair that only Keran could dispel. “Father, I must talk to Jamu. Please let him in.”
“Keran, you do not need to do this. You are protected under Sanctuary edict,” Father Cin said.
Jamu shook the gate angrily. “Is your Sanctuary rule supposed to harbor murderers? He killed Galen! Did he tell you that when he asked to be taken in?”
Father Cin stiffened and he gave Keran a stunned, sad look. “Whatever he did, he is to answer to no one but me,” he said, but his eyes questioned Keran.
Keran heard the shake in his voice. Father Cin was fond of Galen. Everyone was. Keran cleared his throat. “This is why I must talk to him, Father.”
“Very well. Throw your weapons on the ground, Surian,” Father Cin said.
Jamu unbelted his knife and let it drop on the ground. Father Cin opened the gate, and Jamu stepped through.
A painful shock blinded Keran, and a hateful thought blazed in his mind. I need no blade to kill you, murderer!
If Keran could have laughed with joy right then, he would have. He could show Jamu what really happened. The only thing was, he did not know how.
The pain in his head flared. He could not see anything, but he knew Jamu was walking slowly towards him. “What happened, Keran? Why did you kill her?”
Jamu! Let me show you! Keran struggled frantically to gather his thoughts and relay his memories, but Jamu’s attack was burning all his control away, and he did not know how to defend himself from this kind of threat. The pain became excruciating.
“Why won’t you answer me?” Jamu sounded concerned. “Keran, what is wrong?”
Stop! You don’t know what really... The pain intensified, and Keran could no longer think. Only one clear thought remained. He was going to die for hurting Galen.
No! I cannot be punished for something I didn’t do!
The pain stopped, and his head cleared. Jamu stood before him, looking astonished.
“Jamu!” Princess Jania rode into the monastery and stopped her horse between Keran and Jamu. “Leave Keran alone. Come with me, please.”
Keran breathed easier. Jamu and the Princess were close friends. She could calm him down.
Jamu looked up at Jania. “I want him arrested.”
The Princess looked over at Father Cin, who shook his head gravely. “That is not within my power to do, Jamu. I am sorry.”
“That cannot be!” Jamu grabbed at her leg. “You are heir to this country. And you are in my debt!”
“Jamu, I will do nothing for you while you are in this state. Now get on and let’s go.”
“No! Galen is dead, and Keran must pay for it!” The look he gave Keran was an uncertain one, though.
“We don’t know what happened,” Jania said.
“Then arrest him so we can find out!”
“Jamu, for the last time, come with me!”
Jamu ignored her and stepped around her black horse. Jania cast a spell and reached for Jamu’s shoulder, but Jamu grabbed her arm and yanked her off her mount.
Keran gasped along with everyone else as she hit the ground. Jamu would never do such a thing to anyone, much less the Princess of Syntrea. He was out of control.
“What do you think you are doing?” Keran cried out, stepping between Jamu and Jania.
Jamu’s eyes had a strange glow to them. He grabbed Keran’s arms. “Tell me what happened,” he yelled.
A stone the size of an orange smashed into the side of Jamu’s head. Jamu reeled to the side and released Keran. Keran saw Galen’s brother Ben step around Jania’s horse. He cast the same spell Jania had, and Jamu fell to the ground, unconscious.
Keran stepped back as Ben rushed over to Jania. “Are you all right?” he asked her as he lifted her up.
“Yes. I guess I should have kicked him in the head before trying to put him to sleep,” she joked. “Don’t be angry, Ben. I attacked him first.”
Ben only shook his head as he lifted Jamu’s limp body onto Jania’s horse. “Take him to General Kuten’s house in Syntrea,” he said to her. “I will meet you both there.” His golden brown eyes gave Keran a knowing look. “Requesting Sanctuary is the best thing you could have done for yourself, Keran. Otherwise you would be dead right now.”
Keran lowered his gaze, but he felt better. Ben knew what really happened.
“Father Cin, my apologies,” Princess Jania said as she mounted. “But I promise you that Jamu will not be bothering the Monastery again.”
“Do not worry about that,” Father Cin replied. “The boy’s heart is wounded. Help him, Princess.”
Jania nodded and rode away. Ben bowed his head to Father Cin. “Father, I must talk with you about this.” He turned to Keran. “I will explain everything to him, Keran,” he said. “You should get some rest.”
“Taya will get you settled in,” Father Cin said. “Let us talk then. Follow me.” He led Ben away.
Keran turned around, and took a step back. The acolyte girl stared at him, her brown eyes filled with contempt. He suddenly remembered who she was. Taya. She was Galen’s friend.
“Taya, it’s not what you think,” he told her.
“Follow me.” Her voice dripped with hate, but her eyes were teary. She spun on her heel and marched into the monastery.
Keran followed, thinking of Megan. He would rather face a hundred Jamus than to see the look on her face when she found out that Galen and Rohen were gone.
v v v
The Surian page led Ben into a small room with giant cushions lining the walls. Jania sat on one of them, near a closed door in the back. She smiled when she saw him walk in.
He sat beside her and took her hand as she kissed him. “You are handling everything so well, Ben,” she told him. “How did you keep yourself from choking that Sevilan? I had a hard time restraining myself.” She looked at the door. “And Jamu, oh...” she covered her face with her hands.
Not too long ago, Ben would have seethed with jealousy at Jania’s concern for Jamu. Looking back, those feelings seemed so childish and silly. “You and Jamu do not know the entire story.”
“What do you mean?”
Ben looked at the closed door. He could not hear anything, but he knew Jamu was in there, probably surrounded by servants. “Jamu needs to hear this, too. What are they doing to him in there?”
Jania shrugged. “They said they would let me see him when he was ready. I don’t know what Surian nobles do when they are in mourning. Does Rohen know what has happened?”
The door opened before Ben could answer her. Jania stood up as four women stepped into the waiting room.
“Alone he wishes to be, Princess,” one of the women said in a heavy Surian accent.
“That is too bad, then,” Jania replied. “Come on, Ben.”
The women gave Jania disapproving looks, but did not try to stop her. Ben followed Jania inside the room quickly. They might not do anything to the Princess of Syntrea, but they might very well keep him from going in.
The room was much bigger than the waiting room in front, but also much more cluttered. Jamu lounged on a pile of cushions set against the far end of the wall. Ben maneuvered his way around several sword stands and waist-high tables holding food, drinks, and other strange things.
Jamu stared at Ben as he approached. He wore a white Surian robe. He lifted his hand, and a goblet floated over to him. He kept his eyes fixed on Ben as he drank.
“Jamu, are you all right?” Jania asked, sitting down.
“Isn’t it a bit early for drinking?” Ben asked him. “The sun is barely up.”
“It is only juice.” Jamu took Jania’s hand. He waited until Ben stood before him before saying anything else. “She is not dead, is she?”
Jania gasped and cast a quick warding spell. “Ben?” she asked.
“Unnecessary, that was,” Jamu said to Jania, but he still stared at Ben.
Ben looked at one of the cushions near Jamu, but decided to stay standing. He was still reeling over what happened himself. “No, she’s not.”
He might as well have not said anything from the lack of reaction he received from the both of them. He stared at the thick red carpet he stood on as he continued. “Humo ordered Keran to kill Galen while they were making their way back to the Academy from Verses Canyon. But Keran changed his mind about following the Headmaster’s orders when he and Gayly stumbled upon a hidden army preparing to attack the Academy.”
Jania and Jamu exchanged a horrified look. Ben frowned. It seemed there was something he did not know. “Where is Ro?” Jamu asked. He sounded urgent.
“I’m getting to that,” Ben replied. “They...dealt with the army. Rohen found Galen and Keran when they got back and snuck them into my room last night. When they told us what happened, Ro decided to leave and took Galen with him, to make Humo believe that Keran did kill Galen.”
“Rohen took Galen with him to Age Island?” Jania asked.
“I have no idea where he is headed. But he is not going on his first year assignment.”
Jamu’s blue eyes seemed to glow. “Why did you not let me say good bye to her?”
“We could not find you.” Ben frowned at Jamu angrily as he remembered how much Galen wanted to see Jamu. “Where the hell were you?”
Jamu finally looked away. Ben could see the flush on his face, even through his rich tanned complexion. “I was in Jai’s room,” he said quietly.
“Oh, no.” Jania lowered her head and shook it sadly. “Why?”
“Do you have to ask why?” Ben clenched his fists furiously. Jamu deserved whatever suffering he was going through. “Thank Heaven we did not find you. That was the one good thing that happened last night.” He dug his hand in his pocket. As much as he did not want to do it, he knew it would burn Jamu’s conscience every time he looked at it. “She wanted you to have this. Here.” He threw a pearl-studded ribbon onto Jamu’s lap. “Good luck on your first year assignment. Perhaps we will meet again someday.”
“Ben, don’t leave like this,” Jania said.
“I have said what I wanted to say,” Ben replied. He wished he hadn’t. Jamu did not deserve to know. But he had promised his sister. As he walked out of the room, he was grateful that Galen had run off with Rohen, and not Jamu. Rohen would never hurt her that way.
v v v
Megan brushed her hair slowly in front of her mirror, watching the bristles smooth out her dark red strands. She glanced at the hair tie in front of her, and blinked tears away from her eyes. Rohen always braided her hair for her. She was so terrible at it, and he made such beautiful braids. He wouldn’t be braiding her hair anymore. Which was fine, since she would never wear her hair in braids again. She was getting a bit old for that anyway.
She tied her hair back in a tail and threw her brush on her stand. She had to get breakfast ready for her father. The water should be ready for tea.
She moved about the kitchen numbly. The cottage was so gloomily quiet. For once, she missed Rohen’s incessant chattering, and the musical lilt of his Northern accent. She missed Galen’s baby-like voice interrupting Rohen’s spiels every once in a while. She even missed her father’s yelling for them to give him some peace and quiet. Who in the world would think silence was peaceful? Silence was loneliness, and despair, and illness. Silence was death.
She set a bowl of porridge, a mug of tea, and some bread on a tray and carried it over to her father’s room. Before she reached the door, it opened, and Bilin limped out.
“Daddy, go back to bed. You don’t need to be up,” Megan said.
He shook his head at her. “No. It is time for me to get better, and staying in bed is not going to help.”
“Daddy, you are recovering from a stroke. You might have another if you overexert yourself.”
“I am only walking to the table, Meggie. Come on, let’s have breakfast.”
Megan followed him to the table in the dining area and set his breakfast before him.
“Did Rohen come back to say good bye?” Bilin asked as Megan went to get her own breakfast. His speech was almost normal, with only a slight drawl remaining since that terrible day he stumbled into the cottage almost dead.
She waited until she was seated at the table before answering him. She had forgotten that he had dreamed of Rohen’s departure. “Yes.”
“He decided to go to Age early? Why?”
“I don’t think he is going to Age,” Megan replied. She told him what Rohen had told her the night before.
Bilin finished his breakfast, shaking his head sadly. “At least Galen is safe and well,” he finally said.
“Daddy, we can go with them. I’m sure I can find them if we leave today,” Megan said.
“I am not well enough for that kind of travel,” Bilin said. “Besides, you need to graduate from Somatica. You still have two years left.”
“But daddy, Master Humo...”
“He has nothing to do with your studies. Not only that, we must get you Confirmed, somehow.”
“I don’t want to be a druid anymore! The drui only want to hand me over to their stupid white angel!”
“All the more reason to make you one of them. I am no longer a druid, so there are things I cannot protect you from.”
Megan stared at her father. “Daddy, why did you renounce your druidic status?”
“That is a story for another time. Right now we need to figure out how to keep you safe from the white angel.”
“His name is Obitus. Do not call him that!”
Bilin gave her a searching look. “I thought his name was Caeles.”
“No. Caeles is the one who I thought was the white angel at first.”
“Caeles is not the white angel then?”
“No. That was why the Penta became so upset the day they questioned me.” Megan took a deep breath. “Obitus is the White Angel. He is really a dragon, and the Chosen is actually the ward he wants to find and mark. And it appears that I am the ward he has been waiting for. He tried to kidnap me the other night. I gave him a good enough fight where he decided it would be too much trouble to forcibly abduct me, but I don’t think he’s going to simply give up and leave me alone.” He had to know. It might scare him into having another stroke, but she knew that he had to be aware of Obitus.
He did not seem surprised. “Mage Terri told me about the dragons that day you and Rohen made cookies for her. I always thought that the Draca were only after Rohen. I had no idea that they had their eyes on you and Galen, too.
Bilin nodded. “Terra assured me Rohen would be safe, that he knew how to defend himself against them. You were the one I always worried about, especially when the druids began to show a suspicious interest in you. Now I see where it all ties in.”
“Daddy, what are we going to do?”
“I am going to get better, and you are going to get all the training you can get, from me, and from Somatica. And we are going to pray for Rohen and Galen.”
Megan nodded. That was all they could do.
There was a knock on the door. Megan went to the door and opened it. “Ben! Come in.”
He did. “I hope I’m not bothering you. I didn’t know where else to go.” His face was even paler than usual, and his light brown eyes looked haunted.
“You are always welcome here, Ben,” Bilin said.
“Ro came here last night,” Megan said, hugging him. “He told us what happened, and what he planned to do.”
“I feel helpless,” Ben said. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t bring myself to go back to the Academy. So many memories.” He looked at Bilin. “What do I do?”
“Classes are out for the summer. Why don’t you stay with us here?” Bilin asked. “It will be a healthy change for all of us, and help us recover from our loss.”
Megan noticed Ben’s hesitation. “Oh, Ben, please. You are as much family to us as Galen was, even if you didn’t live here. And you were here so much it was as if you did live with me and Gayly and Ro.”
“Galen and Rohen would have wanted it that way,” Bilin added. “And it’s only for the summer.”
Ben nodded. “All right, I’ll do it. Can you help me get some of my things, Megan?”
Megan was already starting to feel better. “Sure.”
v v v
Jania finished the breakfast General Kuten’s servants had brought for her and Jamu and wiped her mouth. Jamu only stared at the food before him.
“Jamu, you need to eat,” she said to him.
Jamu looked at her. “I am no longer your boyfriend, and still you insist on nagging me.” His joke was only half-hearted, though.
“You need your strength for your trip. You leave in a few days.”
Jamu only shrugged. “I will arrange for an escort for you. Are you going to the palace or the Academy?”
“I am not leaving you.”
“You do not have to stay. There is no need for me to grieve. I will be fine.”
“You still lost her, in a way.”
Jamu sat back and stared at the ceiling.
“Jamu, what made you think Galen was not really dead?”
“A few things. Keran was trying to tell me something when I tried to crush his mind. And his psychic defense showed me that he did not do anything to harm her.”
“What?” Jania gave herself a shake. “Keran’s psychic?”
“He is. We learn something new every day.”
“Yes. Just like we learned there was a second hidden army.”
Jamu kept staring up. “They encountered this army by accident while doing a penance trek. And they were able to neutralize it. Galen and Keran have always disliked each other. Even as powerful as Galen is, they would never had succeeded if they had not made peace with each other. So Keran’s psychic defense was actually the truth, and Galen is alive and well.”
“That army had to be tied to the forces we stopped at the bay, right?”
Jamu nodded slightly. “Of course. It is a classic two-prong type of move. A blow here, a blow there, and the enemy is stunned and demoralized. That strategy seems to suit our Headmaster. He likes layers of strength.”
“You are so intuitive and wise. How is it you know so much?”
Jamu simply shrugged and continued to stare.
Jania steeled herself. She had to know. “Jamu, what are you?”
His eyes never left the ceiling. “What are you talking about?”
“Who is your father?”
This time he did look at her. “I am the second son of Aoiyama,” he stated.
“I know, and Scouts do not lie. But just because you are the son of Aoiyama does not mean he is your father. Am I correct?”
“You do not understand our ways.”
“I am beginning to. I can even understand your backward speech.”
“You do not know what you are talking about.”
“I think I do. Surians do not have blue eyes and stiff blond hair like yours. I don’t think any human does. You told me once you got your eyes from your father. I know of at least one other with eyes similar to yours. And something happened to you the day of the earthquake. That is the only time I have ever seen you sick, except for the time Megan made you ill on purpose.” Jania leaned towards him. “Are you what I think you are?”
Jamu stared at her for a moment. “I do not know what the hell I am, myself. But if you can answer one question, I will tell you my story.”
“All right. Ask.”
“What is necare?”
“What is necare? What does it mean?”
“I have never heard of that word. But I can find out.”
“From your dragon tutor Animis?”
Jania gasped. “How do you know about him?”
“You said it yourself, you know of at least one other with eyes similar to mine.”
“So my suspicions are correct.”
Jamu drew back, as if he had said too much. “If you believe me to be a dragon, then you are wrong. Let us change the subject. We should talk about my assignment at Trader’s Pass. There has to be a reason why Humo is sending me there. And if he had two armies hidden in Syntrea, ready to attack, he may very well have some in Massea.”
Jania nodded. Whatever secret Jamu had, it was best to just let the subject go at that. She thought about the word he had said. Necare.
v v v
Late that evening, Jania walked up the steps leading to Arcanum Tower. She looked up at the huge black building before going in. It had been her home for the past six years, but now it seemed almost imposing. The tall narrow windows seemed to try to hide what went on inside the tower walls, and the very doors before her seemed to want to keep her out instead of welcoming her back. It was not the same Arcanum she had left a few evenings ago. Amazing how one’s entire world could change in one day.
She pushed open one of the doors and went inside. She was greeted by a large circular atrium, with arches leading to the tower’s insides. For the first time since she began classes at Arcanum, the high-domed ceiling made her feel small and insignificant.
She gave her head a quick shake and marched across the atrium, purposefully making her boots strike the marble floor loudly. There was no reason for her to feel that way. She was Princess-Heir to the most powerful country in the world, and a powerful mage to boot. She would be the first mage to ever rule a country in all known history. She had no reason to feel insignificant. She had no right to feel intimidated. She would not be worthy of Syntrea if she did.
She walked through the arch leading to the gathering rooms and quarters, easing up on her clomping. As she passed by one of the doors, she heard weeping. Curious, she stopped and peeked inside.
There was a winter room--what the mages called their common rooms--for every student level of Arcanum. Jania had not started her seventh year yet, but she and her classmates had inherited the room as soon as graduation was over. Jania had never been in the seventh year winter room, but she knew that whoever was in there had to be one of her classmates.
The room was twice the size of their previous room, which was quite large in itself. Magical lightglobes hung from the ceiling. There was not a candle or lamp in sight, although there were plenty of desks. Some were large enough for three people to share. There was only one fireplace, but Jania was sure that the room was kept warm by other means in the winter. The fireplace itself was large enough for her to walk into. Seated on one of the couches before the hearth were two of her classmates. Hedi hugged Jai as she cried on her shoulder. Jania stepped inside.
Hedi turned her head as Jania closed the door behind her. “Jania! Is it true?”
“I can’t believe it,” Jai sobbed. “Not Galen. If anyone could survive Verses, it would be her. How the hell did this happen?”
Jania could only stare at them. She could not tell them what was really going on.
“Ro came to me last night,” Hedi said. “He said he had to go. I don’t think he knows about Gayly.”
“Jamu must hate me,” Jai whimpered. She sat up straight and pushed her cropped hair away from her face. “Hell, I hate myself.”
“You had no idea, and neither did Jamu,” Jania replied. She had to make them feel better somehow. At least Hedi was able to say goodbye to her boyfriend. Jania wished she could have seen Rohen one last time. “Only Keran really knows everything, and he has taken sanctuary at the Monastery. So all we know is that Keran made it back, and Galen did not. As for Ro leaving, we have to believe that if he had known, he would have delayed his departure. He is...he was her scout partner, after all.” She was not an Espies scout. She could lie all she wanted.
“Do you think we should go see Ben?” Hedi asked. “He’s upstairs in his office.”
Jania had a sudden urge to go see him, but she shook her head. “I think tomorrow would be better. He is understandably upset.” She turned to go.
“How is Jamu?” Jai asked.
“He is as upset as Ben,” Jania said. “He’s taking it very hard, but I don’t think he blames you for anything, Jai. I’m going to bed. Good night.”
She fought back tears as she made her way to her room. Humo may have failed in his attacks against the Academy and the city of Syntrea, but he had managed to deal a crippling blow to her and her friends. It didn’t matter. She was not going to let him win.
She felt a ripple of magic play up her arms as she opened the door to her room. She hesitated, and smiled as she recognized the ward. Ben had set up a little signal to let him know when she got back.
She closed the door, hoping he would not take long to come down from his office. She wanted to hold him and hug him and have him assure her that they would make it through this.
She noticed some pieces of candy on her table. It took her a moment to realize what it meant. When she did, the tears she had managed to keep in check broke free. Crying hard, she picked up a piece of cocoa candy.
Despite all the scrambling he probably had to do, despite all he must have gone through the night before, Rohen had not forgotten her. He had still managed to find a way to say goodbye. It was so like him, to do this for her.
There was a light knock, and the door opened. “Jania,” Ben said, rushing over to her.
She dropped the candy as she put her arms around him. “Oh, Ben, I miss them already. I don’t think I can stand this.”
“We are going to get through this together,” Ben said, rubbing his cheek against hers. “If we don’t, Ro and Gayly will have left in vain.”
Jania nodded. Just having him close to her made her feel much better. She looked at the rest of the candy on the table. “Remember how we used to tease Ro about not having cocoa when he was little?”
Ben smiled. “There are so many things to remember.”
Jania clung to his duster. “I am frightened.”
“Don’t be afraid. I’m here.” He stroked her head and pulled her close against him.
“Ben...” She hesitated at the sharp pull from her hair clasp. Ben’s finger had caught on it. He tugged at it again with his finger, and the clasp fell to the floor with a clatter.
“It’s going to be all right, I promise,” Ben said as he pulled the second clasp out. He played with her hair, draping the long dark strands over her shoulders. “Humo has taken my sister from me. I won’t let him take you.”
“Losing Rohen is terrible enough. I wouldn’t be able to stand it if anything happened to you.” The way he fondled her hair made her heart race. She let go of his duster and ran her hands up and down his chest. “I don’t want you to fight Humo.”
“You will never be safe until Humo is defeated. I have to fight him. And I will. For you.”
For her. Not for revenge, not to prove anything to anyone, but for her. She stood still as his hands moved to push her own duster off her shoulders. Her hands fell away from his chest, and the sleeveless garment fell to the floor.
“Stay with me,” she whispered.
Amber eyes bored into hers. “I intend to.”
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