Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright October 9th, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
“Will you be at the ceremony?”
Azarelle sipped her coffee.
“I don’t think so.”
A tall carriage rolled by, loaded with passengers and luggage.
“You should go. Your students will be disappointed.”
Azarelle stared quietly across the road. The capital was vibrant. It was like this every year around this time as the family and friends of every student at the university arrived in Sylarea to take part in the celebration. The merchants and traders were quick to follow. The visitors gawked as they rumbled along the busy streets, eyes wide with wonder and excitement. The cafés were crowded, the restaurants were packed, and the shops stayed open all night. It was lively in its way.
She turned back to the man across the table and smiled. His name was Jyll Sareen. Formerly he was her pupil; soon he would be an associate professor. She liked him. He’d written his postgraduate thesis on inverted material harmonics. It was a substantive work, very unlike the mountain of recycled knowledge she’d graded alongside it. It would be a pleasure to work with him.
And of course there was the other thing.
She set down her coffee.
“You know the title isn’t necessary. You aren’t a student anymore.”
He gave her an apologetic look. It scrunched the ridges of his nose, a quirk she’d always found irresistibly endearing.
“Force of habit.”
“Besides, the ceremony isn’t until the morning. Technically, I am still a student.”
She gave him a wry smile.
He shrugged playfully.
“It can’t be helped.”
She leaned forward and reached across the table, taking his hand. It had been a difficult year for the two of them, ever since he’d arrived, a transfer from a smaller academy on the coast. Their discipline had lapsed only twice, during their annual fervours, which were thankfully out of sync. Heaven help them both when they eventually lined up.
Still, they’d waited this long. She gently squeezed his palm.
“I suppose another day couldn’t hurt.”
Azarelle shook her head. Lon sat across from her.
“I hope I’m not boring you.”
She snapped out of it.
“No, of course you’re not. I’m sorry. What were you saying?”
“I was actually going to say that lately it seems like you’ve had something on your mind.”
Azarelle suppressed a frown. She wasn’t trying to be rude. He’d been a perfect gentleman all evening, and he’d prepared a fine meal: roasted goat, wild mushrooms, and vegetables with real butter. She hadn’t eaten like this in…well, since she’d come here.
The memories were painful. That was all. She enjoyed his company, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was this place that motivated her. At the university she would never have dealt with someone who had their hands in such dirty business; yet here she was at the supper table, having dinner with a member of organized crime and honestly considering whether or not the two of them might have a future.
She couldn’t help but remember that lost afternoon at the café in the midmarket, before everything had gone awry.
Had it been so long?
Was this man simply the nearest warm blanket? Was that all that mattered anymore? Was that all she wanted now?
The frown emerged.
She hated this place.
Lon leaned forward.
“Azarelle, what’s wrong?”
She looked across the table. It was no good. There was no way she could be honest with him, and everything after that was tainted. In another world or another lifetime, perhaps there could have been something.
Here there would be only lies.
“I’m just worried about the long night. This will be my first. I don’t know what to expect, and with the threat of the invasion and the augury and all the stories…I’m just afraid that everything we’re doing will be for nothing, that it will all be swept away by what’s coming and the two of us along with it.”
There was a pause. Azarelle waited. She was never able to force herself to tears. Lon set down his napkin, stood up, and slowly came around the table, kneeling beside her chair. He took her hands gently.
“You don’t have to worry. My brothers and I have had plans in place for months. You can’t let yourself think this way. It’s not like you. It’s true there are dangers ahead, but you’re stronger than what we’re facing”
She tried to seem comforted.
He stood up. She felt absolutely terrible. Why did he have to be so reliably supportive? Was it too much to ask for him to reveal himself to be some kind of lascivious, maniacal villain?
He helped her out of her chair.
“I tell you what. Why don’t you have the rest of the evening to yourself? I’ll have some wine brought up to your apartment. You can relax and tinker with your project. I know you’ve been putting it off, and working on it always makes you feel better.”
She glanced at the table on impulse. Half her food was still on the plate. She couldn’t help but regress to her college days when leaving so much as a waffle half-eaten was a hell-worthy trespass.
“But what about dinner?”
“The roast was good, wasn’t it?”
She nodded reluctantly. He kissed her on the cheek.
“I’ll send it up with the wine.”
He walked her to the door and ushered her out. Even as her heart sank she fought a rising blush in her cheeks the whole way. Her moral compass was spinning in circles.
Stupid dinner. Stupid wine.
Lon crossed the room, fetching up the plates on his way to the kitchen in the back. He handed them off to a member of the staff.
“Warm these up and take them to the professor’s quarters with a bottle of wine.”
Someone chuckled from the corner.
Lon turned. Rias was there.
“She had a hard day.”
His brother answered darkly.
“You have no idea.”
Lon frowned. A moment passed in silence, lit only by the dim red glow of the stove. They weren’t burning candles. Too late in the year. It was best to save fuel.
“You had her followed.”
His brother nodded.
“One of the most powerful sorcerers in the city with a thousand ingots in her bag? Of course I had her followed.”
Rias came out of the corner as the server left with the wine. They were alone. Rias opened a second bottle and poured them both a glass.
“Never trust anyone who can hurt you. You taught me that. She knows too much to be left alone.”
Lon left his glass on the table.
“She wouldn’t hurt us.”
Rias sipped his wine and said nothing. Lon stood quietly. Rias always got like this with him. Smug. The older brother. He’d always been the most suspicious.
“Just tell me.”
Rias nodded and set down his glass.
“She met a man for lunch.”
Lon practically laughed, hiding a burst of relief.
“I knew that. She’s building us a stove for the long night. He’s one of her suppliers.”
His brother shook his head.
“The two of them spoke for over an hour. No goods changed hands. No ingots. She bought all she planned to on the way to the meeting. When they were finished she met with Polly von Toffel.”
“They went with him to the shipping district.”
“To pick up an order?”
He shook his head again.
“They didn’t come out with anything, although it’s hard to tell with the Halfling involved. I put some men on the place. They’ve already spotted some kind of telescope on the roof.”
He picked up his glass and finished it.
“I’ll give you one guess where it’s pointed.”
Lon’s stomach began to turn.
“You know I never approved of your interest in her, but that doesn’t mean I’m pleased.”
Lon glared at him.
“Yes you are.”
His brother shrugged.
“It’s always nice to be proven right. Still, I know you cared for her.”
“I still do.”
“Open your eyes. She’s using you. The man is a spy from Tormar and she is helping him. Probably has been from the beginning.
“You don’t know that. There are any number of other explanations.”
“Trust your instincts. Even you have some. Our plans are worth more than some piece of elven tail.”
“Don’t talk about her like that.”
“You know I’m right. You’re forcing yourself to be naïve.”
“I don’t want her harmed until we know for sure, and I will investigate.”
His brother moved to leave. Lon caught him by the shoulder.
“Not until we know.”
Rias was quiet for a moment. He nodded slowly.
“It’s on you, brother. Just don’t forget how we ended up here.”
He went out the door. Lon watched his tall, broad form retreat down the corridor.
“No more mistakes.”
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