• aka Trials and Tribulations

    Disclaimer: This story is an adaptation of Avatara's "The Trial" from Katerei's point of view. If you haven't read it, go do that first!


    Day 0 (Bells)

    I didn’t care about the commotion around me. I spoke, maybe once or twice, though I don’t recall what was said. I could smell the blood that stained the flagstone under my cheek, though I don’t know whose it was. I could feel the hint of a pulse where my hand rested on his arm, and I could see the slight rise and fall of his chest, and that was all that mattered.

    I didn’t care until they tried to take him away.

    “No,” I mumbled as they lifted him from the stone. I reached up, but caught only air with my outstretched fingers. “Where are you taking him?”

    “To the infirmary. You’d better come too,” a man’s voice said close to my head. Strong arms plucked me from the floor, and then we were moving. I cried out as my leg dangled in the air. Nausea rolled over me and I squeezed my eyes shut.

    “We have to fix him,” I said, once I could speak without retching.

    “Avatara? He’ll be fine. The healers will look after both of you,” the voice reassured me.

    I opened my eyes again and twisted to look at the man carrying me, blinking to try and focus. I could make out brown hair and brown eyes. “Who are you?”

    “My name is Shanadar.” I knew that name, from a place very far away, from a time I couldn’t recall, but I knew that it was good. My muscles relaxed infinitesimally, and I rested my forehead on Shanadar’s shoulder. There was nothing more I could do.

    Before long, I was set down on soft fabric in a bright room. Once I could lie still with my leg propped up, the nausea eased. “Go find Pheres, quickly,” another voice said. Shanadar nodded and then was gone.

    “Katerei.” I turned with surprise at hearing my own name. Wizard was standing next to me. Behind him, I could see Avatara laid out on a bed like my own. I propped myself up on my elbows, trying to see if he still breathed.

    “Katerei, listen to me,” Wizard said, bending over to speak low into my ear. His grey beard tickled my bare shoulder. “I do not fully understand what has happened here tonight. We may yet be in trouble. Answer no questions, and speak only to those whom you trust completely. Do you understand?”

    I nodded. A dim recollection of something important tugged at my mind. “You have to help us. Avatara – what’s going to happen–”

    “Answer no questions,” Wizard repeated firmly. “I’ll be back to see you as soon as I can.”

    “You’re leaving?”

    “There are many things I must attend to, and the healers will be here any moment.” Wizard straightened up and patted my arm. “In the meantime, get some rest.”

    How could I rest while just feet away from me, Avatara’s life balanced on a pinpoint? The rest of the night passed in a blur. My view was blocked by the bustle of people that streamed in and out. Only the snipping of shears made me aware of a healer as he cut away the fabric stuck around my wound.

    At some point, the pain in my leg faded to a dull throb, and I began to nod off. There was yelling once throughout the night. I jerked upright from my daze to see a mage pushed unceremoniously out the door.

    While the healers were preoccupied, I glimpsed Avatara. He was still motionless in the next bed over, deaf to the voices, his face turned unseeing to the ceiling. They’d cut away his shirt, exposing the wound. Silverfish’s hasty sutures didn’t hide everything.

    Thank the spirits someone had left a washbasin on the floor. I rolled over, stretching out my arm to grab the basin, and threw up into it. My damp hair straggled around my face as I lay half in, half out of the bed, until someone rushed over to pull me back up.

    Day 1

    He was gone in the morning.

    “Where is he?” I screamed at the startled healer. “Where did you take him?”

    The white linens of the empty bed mocked me with their dark brown stains. “Where is he? What did you do with him?” My screams echoed off the grey stone walls. I swung my legs over the bedside, ignoring the bandage around my thigh. The healer rushed over and pushed me back down into the mattress.

    “You let him die!” I struck my fist into the man’s elbow and he let go with a wince. “You let him die! You let him die!”

    “Pheres!” the man yelled at the doorway. To me, he said through gritted teeth, “He’s not dead!”

    “Where is he? Let me see him!” I demanded. This time, he caught my wrist and held fast. I couldn’t twist out of his grip. “You’re lying! I want to see him!”

    “He’s not dead!” the man said in exasperation. The door swung open and two more healers burst in. A light flashed across the room. I covered my eyes with my free hand – until suddenly I couldn’t hold my arm up anymore. Spots danced in my vision and I crumpled backward.

    A hand shook me into consciousness. I rubbed my bleary eyes. The glow crystals in the infirmary were dimmed, showing just the silhouette of a stooped figure seated next to me. “Katerei. You’re awake. Good,” Wizard whispered.

    I immediately looked past him toward the next bed, but it was still empty. “Avatara – is he–“ I said, panic rising in my voice.

    “Shh, shh. He is alive. I’ve seen him.” Wizard held a finger to his lips and cast a pointed look behind me. I followed his gaze. The infirmary was a long, narrow hall with two rows of beds against the walls. Several figures dozed at the far end, their faces hidden by shadow.

    “Is he awake?” I whispered back, trying to steady my breathing.

    “Not yet, but that may be for the best while he recovers.” The corners of his mouth twitched. “I hear you gave Protesilaus quite a shock this morning.”

    I flushed and stared at the brown flagstone. “They took him away during the night. I thought he–” I choked on the words. “Where is he?”

    “I made some inquiries. It seems after he stabilized, they placed him in a more… secure room.”

    “He’s a prisoner here.”

    “Yes. I know.” Wizard sighed and wrapped both hands around the staff on which he leaned. “Pnyx is a dangerous place to be as of late. Many innocent people have suffered.”

    “I’m not so sure Avatara is innocent.” I could barely hear my own words. “Wizard, what happened last night?”

    “Ah, that is a complicated story.” Wizard glanced across the infirmary again before recounting a tangle of events: the arrest of several traitorous guards, the subsequent clearing of Malis’ name, the mass funeral that morning, and the assassin’s apparent escape.

    “Which leaves us in a precarious position,” he continued. “Many deaths are still unresolved. And people will start asking questions. Such as how both you and Avatara became injured.”

    “A guard betrayed and attacked us. I… he fell from the roof. It was an accident.” A cold sense of dread began to grow in my stomach. “Am I going to be in trouble?”

    “Not for that. I suspect that, given the circumstances, you could claim self-defense. But there is another matter.” Wizard leaned in close and looked at me from under bushy grey eyebrows. “You were with an escaped prisoner.”

    “More than that. I broke him out of prison.” I grabbed his arm. “Wizard, you have to help me. What do I do?”

    “Keep your head down. Don’t give them any excuse to interrogate you.”

    “But they’ll know I was with Avatara–“

    Wizard shook his head. “I sent Silverfish back to clean up your bloody pawprints. Shanadar agreed to report that he found and brought you to the infirmary separately. With any luck, no one who saw you together is still present or alive. There is nothing to link you to any crime, and I suggest you keep it that way.”

    “But what about Av?” I pressed. “I can’t just leave him. They’ll lock him up again. Or worse.”

    “I can’t say what will happen to him. Lindus is a reasonable man, but he is in the midst of a political struggle right now. The mages are in an uproar.” Wizard suddenly sounded very tired. “This is why you must keep out of trouble. I suspect Avatara will need your help before long.”

    “I don’t understand.”

    “Neither do I. It is just a hunch. I think I am entitled to one in my old age.” Wizard smiled at me. “You may stay and look after Avatara, but you must keep quiet. Can you do that?”

    I nodded.

    “Good. Then I’m afraid I must take my leave. I still have unfinished business.” He stood up, resting his weight on his staff.

    “Wait–” I pushed myself upright and flung my arms around Wizard’s waist. “Thank you,” I said, my voice muffled by his heavy robes.

    Wizard returned my embrace. “Goodbye, Katerei. I hope to see you again in happier times.”

    I couldn’t fall back asleep after Wizard left. My wound pulsed with every heartbeat. I wished the healers would return and knock me out again, but no one came. The other patients were either lucky enough to sleep through the night or just pretending, but the faint snoring from the far end of the infirmary indicated the former.

    I counted the people that might have seen me in the company of Avatara. Most of the guards were dead. The assassin that freed us was a wildcard, but he couldn’t rat me out without incriminating himself. My companions from Cademia stuck by me. I exhaled slowly. Perhaps I was in the clear after all.

    In the dim light and the silence, I began to take stock of myself, running my hands from the top of my head down my body. Faint cuts, scrapes, and bruises on my face and arms, but nothing major. I pushed down the blanket that someone had laid over me. The healer had cut my dress away at an angle, so the skirt fell at knee length on the left but exposed the bandage around my right thigh. It was clean and white; someone had changed it. I left it alone.

    My hair was a mess. The braids I had pinned up for the ball were coming loose, thick locks of hair tumbling down my back. I pulled the pins out one by one and slipped them into my pocket, unwinding the loops of hair and tugging apart the braids with my fingers. They were matted with dried blood. There was probably a washbasin somewhere, but I didn’t fancy tripping over something in the dark.

    I flopped back down on the bed, resigning myself to hours of uninterrupted gazing at the ceiling. Somewhere in this building, Avatara was lying just like this. Was he still unconscious, his mind dead to the world around him? Or did he sleep peacefully, recovering his strength? What did he think of while his body clung to life?

    Day 2

    “–at least yours can’t try to beat you up.” A male voice drifted in as the door swung open.

    There was a derisive snort from outside. “I’d trade you in an instant if Lindus would allow it,” a woman responded.

    A young man with straight brown hair and the robes of a healer entered. He stopped when he saw me awake and crossed his arms over his chest. “Are you going to attack me today?”

    “No.” I suddenly became very interested in my fingernails. “I’m sorry.”

    “Just don’t do it again.” He came forward, opened a drawer in the bedside table and began pulling out supplies. “I’m Protesilaus. How are you feeling?”

    “My leg hurts.”

    “I’d be concerned if it didn’t. Here. Drink this.” He uncorked a small flask and tapped a bit of amber liquid into a glass vial.

    I took the vial and sipped, expecting something foul. I was pleasantly surprised. It was slightly sweet and warming. “Thank you.”

    Protesilaus gestured at my leg. “May I?”

    I folded down the blanket, forgetting how little of my skirt remained. Well, it was nothing he hadn’t seen already. I snuck a glance at Protesilaus while he unwrapped the bandages. The morning light from the window behind us turned his hair golden, but there were lines around his eyes and a hard set to his mouth.

    “Blade wound, correct? How did this happen?” he asked as he examined me. The wound was deep, but the flesh was already starting to seal.

    “I don’t remember.”

    He raised an eyebrow. “Where do you remember being last?”

    My mind raced to recall the last place I was seen in public. “In the main hall when Malis was arrested.”

    “Well, you were lucky. No permanent damage.” He began re-bandaging my leg. “You can try walking around the infirmary. Just take it easy.”

    “But there are people I need to see–”

    “Then they’ll have to come to you,” Protesilaus said. When I opened my mouth to protest, he said firmly, “I mean it. You lost a lot of blood. You haven’t eaten in over a day. The last thing I need is you fainting in some distant corner of the magisterium.”

    The day seemed to stretch on for a week. I dozed, only to be woken by the chatter of the other patients or the creak of the door whenever Protesilaus came or went. I tried walking, only to be dissuaded by the pain and relegated back to bed.

    A young woman, not yet twenty with a long blonde ponytail, brought up meals to the infirmary. When she came at midday, I was sitting on the edge of the bed with my bare feet on the floor, spinning a spiral of water around in lazy circles.

    “Tha’s pretty,” she said, pausing to watch. “The mages ‘ere never do anythin’ fun with magic.”

    I shrugged. “I just have nothing better to do.”

    “It’s lonely shut up in ‘ere, ain’t it?” she said wistfully. She set out a bowl of porridge and a mug of weak tea on the table, and then was gone again.

    I spent the afternoon staring out the window, balancing on my good leg with my elbows on the sill. There was a wide river to the north, backed by dense forest on the low slopes of mountains, not unlike my homeland. I traced my fingers over the iron rods that crisscrossed the glass, forming diamond shapes in the windowpane.

    That was the exchange I’d made. After wolflizard poison left me stranded and nearly dead in the forest not six months ago, I returned to Cademia. In Pnyx I was under the care of a healer, at the cost of access to the outside world. Is this so different from being alone? I slammed my fist into the window frame, causing the glass to rattle dangerously.

    When Protesilaus returned in the evening to give me another dose of the amber liquid, I asked about the other patients.

    “Three guards and two members of House Attis,” he said, and then muttered as if to himself, “Too many dead, too many in this room.”

    The warm liquid made me sleepy, but not enough. I clambered back under the blanket and counted bricks in the ceiling until the sunlight faded and the bricks were lost in the dim light of the glow crystals. Perhaps tomorrow I could try to find Avatara.

    Day 3

    I limped back and forth between the rows of beds, testing my balance. I was shaky and my leg ached, but I could manage if I went slowly.

    “All right,” Protesilaus said. “Just be back here this evening so I can check on you.”

    “Do you know where they moved Avatara to?” I asked, sitting back down on my bed to rest.

    “Far corner of this floor. Only room with guard duty. Can’t miss it.”

    I frowned. “Are they allowing people in to see him?”

    “Don’t know. Not my patient, not my problem.” Protesilaus crossed to a cupboard against the wall and removed a square of folded grey fabric, which he handed to me. “You might want something else to wear if you go traipsing around.”

    “Thank you,” I said, my cheeks turning hot.

    I was still seated barefoot in contemplation when the blonde girl arrived with the tureen of steaming porridge and pot of tea. I was struck by a sudden thought. “Do you take food to any patients outside the infirmary?”

    She shook her head as she ladled out porridge and set the bowl on my table. “There’s only one patient not ‘ere: the prisoner. Ain’t much point takin’ food to ‘im, seein’ as ‘e’s not awake to eat anything.”

    I ignored the pang of worry in my stomach. “But you have been in his room?” I pressed.

    “Sure,” she said with a shrug. “I bring supplies for Adriana sometimes. Bit of a pain tha’ they moved ‘im, makin’ me walk all over the pyramid.”

    “Could you get me in to see him?” Seeing her blank stare, I hastened to explain. “He’s a friend of mine, but I didn’t know he was a prisoner here until I came for the wedding. I just…”

    “Maybe I can. But you migh’ need ta clean up before they’ll let you in.” She covered her mouth and giggled. “You look like you jes’ rolled in from the forest. I’ll show you ta the baths after I finish servin’ this out.”

    “Wait–” I said as she picked up her wooden tray and turned to leave. “What’s your name?”

    She gave me a shy smile. “Niobe.”

    The student baths were by the dormitories, with shelves of clean towels lining the walls. In the women’s room, I took off the long, loose robe Protesilaus had given me. My tattered gown underneath was a lost cause. I undid the lacing at the neckline and let it fall to the ground before stepping into the warm water with a sigh of relief.

    My wound had healed to an angry red line midway up my thigh. I could already tell it would be a cleaner scar than the ugly jagged line on my ribcage. The water turned rust brown as I scrubbed dried blood from my hair and dirt from my skin with a bar of rough soap. Who knew Pnyx’s roof was so filthy? I drained the tub when I finished and magically refilled it with clean water, though the effort left me worn out.

    I’d retrieved my own clothing on the way to the baths. By the time I cinched my familiar violet dress in place with the sash and laced up my shoes, I almost felt normal again. Almost. I stepped outside to wait for Niobe, my damp hair chilling the back of my dress.

    Two armoured guards stood on either side of a door in the southwest corner of the upper floor. Niobe approached them without hesitation; she unfolded a bundled napkin to reveal two steaming pastries. “Mornin’ ta you, fellows. Brought somethin’ from the kitchens for you. Jes’ out o’ the oven.”

    “Your cooking or your mother’s?” the older guard, with sandy-coloured hair, said with a wink as he reached out to take one.

    “Mine,” Niobe said, with her infectious giggle. She nodded at me. “Got a visitor here. Won’t cause no trouble, I promise.”

    The guard glanced me up and down. I clasped my hands in front of me and made my best attempt at doe eyes. He shrugged. “Go on in.”

    I entered a brick room, not unlike a smaller version of the infirmary, with a narrow window. Avatara lay still and silent, a white sheet pulled up to his neck, his face almost as pale as the linen. There was a dark stain on the sheet over his stomach. Niobe placed a chair at his bedside and I sat down, forgetting to thank her.

    He hadn’t looked well the first night I found him, but sunlight cast shadows under his gaunt cheekbones and revealed the dark circles around his closed eyes. His hair had grown long during his time in the dungeon; I had never seen him with a beard before a few days ago.

    I placed my hand on his chest. I could just barely feel his pulse, hardly a proper beat, weak but steady. I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath.

    Among other medical supplies, there were clean cloths and a bowl of water set on a wide table. I wet the cloth, wrung it out, and pressed it to Avatara’s forehead. He didn’t stir as I washed the dirt off his face, taking special care around the small cuts and nicks on his skin.

    “How did things turn out like this?” I whispered. I leaned my forehead against my folded hands. “You were always running off on some adventure. What did you get yourself into this time?”

    Niobe roused me, maybe minutes, maybe hours later, and led me from the room and down the hall. She stopped in front of a marble staircase and gave my hand a gentle squeeze. “I have ta get back ta work. Are you goin’ ta be okay?”

    That depends. I nodded.

    She pointed through a set of doorways. “The infirmary is down tha’ way. Jes’ go roun’ the corner an’ follow the main hallway.” She waved and padded away downstairs.

    The corridor was strangely deserted. I peered up at the high ceiling and glow crystals set in wall brackets. The battle with Simon had happened somewhere in these upper halls. I kept glimpsing bodies through half-open doors, but when I turned to check, there was nothing there. I couldn’t breathe. Every limping step felt like blood stuck to the bottom of my shoes.

    Raised voices echoed down the corridor as I neared the infirmary. “I’m not going to back you up to Lindus,” I recognized Protesilaus saying.

    “It’s just a matter of time,” a female voice snapped. “That wound’s not going to heal without magic. He’s not going to awaken.”

    “You have your orders, Adriana,” Protesilaus said flatly. I heard the familiar creak of the infirmary door, and then footsteps approaching.

    I backed up and sidestepped into the nearest doorway. Thankfully, no bodies had emerged since I passed; the shelves on the wall were crammed with ordinary books. A woman stormed past in the corridor, her long brown ponytail swishing behind her.

    My heart threatened to pound through my dress. They had to be talking about Avatara. None of the other patients in the infirmary with me were unconscious.

    I suddenly couldn’t bear the thought of going back to the infirmary, being near that empty bed that spoke only of absence. Clinging to the rough stone walls, I stumbled back toward a staircase and left the upper halls.

    There was a garden downstairs. I’d seen it the night of the wedding, decorated with magical lights and scattered flower petals. My feet led me there, remembering the way better than my brain. It was still beautiful in daylight, smelling of freshly cut grass and echoing with the burble of a fountain. In the cover of the trees, I collapsed.

    What am I going to do? What am I going to do? I curled my fingers into the dirt. Last time I lay like this, you were with me.

    I could conceive of a dozen reasons they wouldn’t use healing magic. Maybe internal wounds couldn’t be fixed. Maybe it was too dangerous to interfere. Maybe Avatara’s own magic somehow repelled it. I only knew one thing.

    I wasn’t going to let him die.

    By the time I rose, there were indents on my face from rocks in the grass. The walk back upstairs seemed to take twice as long as the way down. I gritted my teeth on the staircase, ignoring the ache in my thigh.

    Protesilaus was putting items away in a cupboard when I banged open the door of the infirmary. “Why won’t you use magic on Avatara?” I demanded.

    He looked at me, then across the room at the other patients, who were staring at my outburst. Protesilaus sighed and gestured toward the corridor. “Let’s go outside.”

    I expected a scolding once we were alone, or maybe another knockout spell. Instead, Protesilaus sat down with his back against the wall and his elbows on his knees. For the first time, I saw his shoulders slump. “Lindus has forbidden the use of healing magic on him.”

    “You could use it though,” I pressed. “Safely, I mean.”

    “Yes. Of course. It’s only because of magic that he didn’t bleed out on the floor.”

    I threw my hands into the air. “How can you just let Lindus decide–”

    “I don’t like it either,” Protesilaus cut me off. “It’s our job as healers to save lives. Do you think I like them interfering in our work? Do you think I like watching people suffer because of some ridiculous political–” A flash of anger crossed his face.

    It was gone as quickly as it had come. He shook his head. “But if I break the rules for a criminal, they kick me out. Then who’s left to take over? Pheres is busy teaching. Adriana is skilled, but she’s not ready for that. Would you have me trade many lives to save one?”

    We were both silent for a long while. I eased down onto the floor and sat facing him. “Avatara’s dying, isn’t he?” I said softly.

    Protesilaus’ eyes met mine. “Yes.”

    I thought it would hurt more to hear. Instead, I just felt numb.

    Finally, my voice cracking, I asked, “Who did Avatara murder?” Seeing Protesilaus’ frown, I begged, “You must know. Please.”

    He rubbed the bridge of his nose and gave a long sigh. “A freemage named Menelaus. We were students here together. Didn’t like him much, to be honest. Bit of a weaselly fellow. But Pnyx mages tend to look out for their own.”

    I’d never heard of anyone named Menelaus. Avatara had never mentioned him once. How much have I missed?

    “I’m sorry. If I was allowed to do anything, I would.” Protesilaus stood up and offered me his hand. “Let’s get you back into the infirmary and have a look at that leg.”

  • Day 4

    I woke in my own private room. When the sky outside turned pink, I abandoned my fitful dozing and got dressed.

    Protesilaus had officially discharged me from the infirmary, but agreed there was no way I could make the trip to Catamarca. Instead, Niobe tracked down a person that tracked down a person that unlocked an empty guest room. Apparently most of the other guests had cleared out as soon as the lockdown was ended. “No one else comes ‘ere but the maids,” Niobe reassured me. It was a plain room with simple wooden furniture, but it was mine.

    It also wasn’t far from Avatara’s room. The guards from yesterday recognized me and waved me in without a word. That would be the easy part, Niobe warned me.

    Adriana was already there, leaning over Avatara as she rewound a clean bandage around his torso. “I’m busy,” she said without looking up.

    “Niobe sent me to see if you need anything.” I tried to keep my voice level and my eyes from straying to Avatara’s stomach.

    “Oh, I see how it is.” Adriana straightened up and crossed her arms over her chest. “She can get out of taking care of a murderer, but I can’t. How hard it must be on her delicate constitution.”

    Excuse me? ” I said in disbelief. “You might do well to treat your patients like people. You don’t know anything about him.”

    “And I suppose you do?” she scoffed, and glanced me up and down. “Who are you? Aren’t you a patient here?”

    “Not anymore. Protesilaus gave me permission to help care for Avatara. If you don’t like it, take it up with him.” I crossed my arms right back, daring her to argue.

    Adriana pursed her lips and appeared to deliberate at great length. “Fine,” she snapped. “Come back this afternoon. But let’s be clear about one thing: I am the healer and you do exactly what I tell you.”

    The “study hall” was easy to find as per Niobe’s directions; I could smell food and spiced wine as I approached. It was a large common room with several tables surrounded by stools, and comfortable armchairs around the perimeter. A woman with reddish hair and a worn apron puttered about, attending to the dozens of patrons there for breakfast. “Niobe, your friend the blue elf is ‘ere!” she called into a back room as soon as she spotted me.

    Niobe poked her head out from the doorway, looking as mortified as I felt, and gave a quick wave. “Sorry,” she mouthed

    As I waited, I was aware of the whispers and curious looks cast my way. I’d learned to ignore it since arriving in Cythera. People didn’t hold their tongues whether I was listening or not.

    A trio of girls in student robes approached me, bunched together and giggling. “What happened to your hair? Alchemy accident?” asked one.

    Ugh. I don’t have time for this drivel. “What happened to your face? Titan accident?” I said. She shot me a dirty look and flounced away, her friends close behind.

    I put my forehead in my palms. A stream of curse words went through my head. I was literally the only viirelei in the entire building; anyone would be able to identify me. Wizard’s efforts to hide my crimes would only get me so far.

    Shelves and shelves of books towered over me. I turned in a circle, mouth slightly agape, as I stared at dusty tomes that looked like they hadn’t been moved in centuries. I’d been in the library not so many days ago with Avatara and our cloaked companion, but I hadn’t fully realized how many books were here.

    In better times, I would have asked Selinus or any of the library pages for help, but I didn’t want to provoke questions. Yes, hello, I’m trying to learn illegal advanced magic to use on a convicted felon. I didn’t even know what kind of magic to use on severe internal wounds, let alone what might go undetected by an expert healer.

    I moved up and down the rows, sinking into rich red carpet, and squinted at embossed titles on leather-bound books. The letters swam before my eyes. I had to stop and consider every symbol before I could turn it all into words. Botany, anatomy, casting: I plucked all manner of books off the shelves until I could barely see around the stack in my arms. Balancing it with my chin and hoping the dust didn’t make me sneeze, I found a quiet corner of the library to curl up in.

    My research was aggravatingly unproductive. I could only read the most innocuous and useless books in case anyone decided to look over my shoulder. After hours of flipping through faded pages, my eyes ached and my mind protested. My stomach growled too, but recalling the incident that morning, I opted to skip lunch and check in with Adriana.

    “He’s dehydrated,” I said, touching Avatara’s cold, flaking skin. “How long can someone survive without food and water?”

    Adriana shrugged. “Food, a few weeks. Water, a few days.”

    “It’s been four days.” I frowned. “Isn’t there anything you can do?”

    “Sure. Have him choke to death on some water.” She smiled sweetly at me. “If you can figure out a way to get a comatose person to drink, be my guest.”

    I glared at her. “Aren’t healers supposed to care about patients?”

    “Not about criminals.” Adriana picked up a metal tray and balanced it on her arm. “I’ll be back in a couple hours. Come find me if anything changes.”

    The door clicked shut behind her. I seized two handfuls of my hair and uttered several choice words in my native language.

    I knelt down by the bed and rested my chin in my hands. Water was the one thing I knew intuitively; better, I suspected, than any other mage in Pnyx. I knew the answer to this without needing a book. Maybe it was stupid to try – but I couldn’t accept the alternative.

    So I took a risk that tested the limit of my magic control. I willed a tiny bit of water, smaller than I could even see, into Avatara’s throat. It was a slow, delicate process. Too much or too fast and he might choke. I could hardly be sure that I was moving any water, let alone that it would work. I had to pray that his body functioned well enough to do the rest.

    Day 5

    I rolled over in bed and made a face at the open books littering the floor. Even though I’d been able to hide more incriminating material in the privacy of my room, hours of searching yielded nothing. I pulled on my shoes and left for Avatara’s room, not bothering to wash my face or brush my hair.

    “He looks worse,” I said to Adriana as I gazed down at Avatara. His skin was stretched too tight over his cheeks; his collarbone protruded like a skeleton’s.

    “Of course he does.” She looked at me like I was an idiot.

    “And you’re just going to watch your patient starve to death?” I knotted my fingers into my skirt to keep my hands from shaking.

    Adriana brandished a pair of scissors at me. “What would you have me do? I can’t fix that without magic!”

    “You’re not even trying! You don’t care whether he dies or not! What is your problem?”

    “My problem is he murdered Menelaus!” she spat. “I cared about him, and that man took him away forever!”

    “What about the people that care about Avatara?” I stepped in close to Adriana, using the six inches I had on her to full advantage. “Would you have me suffer the same way? How is taking away Avatara’s life so different from anything he did?”

    She looked up at me with pure loathing. “He brought this on himself. If he hadn’t broken out of prison, he wouldn’t be here now. Menelaus didn’t get a choice.”

    I raised my hand – and crumpled my fingers into a fist. “You don’t know anything,” I said, and turned on my heel.

    The entire morning was a write-off. I paced up and down the hallways, warding off any unwanted attention with icy stares. When my leg began to throb, I went to the garden and decimated a small patch of grass by tearing the blades into tiny pieces.

    Niobe’s mother served me another forgettable lunch in the common room while I pored over a thick leather-bound tome. I tried to focus on the text in front of me, but the words were meaningless. Once the letters started shifting and rearranging themselves, I gave up and rested my face on the pages, my hair spilling onto the table around me.

    “All righ’ there?” Niobe’s voice said. I sat up to see her brushing her hands off on a flour-covered apron. She held a pastry, which she broke in two and handed half to me.

    “Adriana is the most singularly aggravating person I have ever met.” I took a bite out of the pastry. It was warm, sweet, and the first nice thing I’d experienced in days.

    Niobe grimaced. “I warned you when you offered ta take over for me.”

    “She’s not even trying to help Avatara.” My voice was flat. I’d burned off all my emotion.

    “Di’ you ask Protesilaus what ‘e thinks?”

    “He can’t do anything. But at least he’s not a complete–” I said a word that I hoped Niobe’s mother didn’t overhear – “like Adriana. He’s actually compassionate.”

    “Mmm.” Niobe chewed thoughtfully. “Among other things.” Her eyes widened and she clamped her hand over her mouth.

    “What? Oh. Oh!” I almost spat out my food as we both burst into a fit of giggles. My own laughter surprised me. “So that’s why you volunteered to take meals up to the infirmary!”

    Niobe’s cheeks turned bright pink. “I ‘ave no idea wha’ you’re talkin’ abou’. I’m goin’ back ta work.”

    The afternoon was an equal waste. I had to devote time and effort to not arousing suspicion, folding books into other books to hide their covers. When Selinus finally noticed me and asked if I needed help, I was forced to ask for completely unrelated topics. My life was not much improved by learning about the mating habits of harpies.

    By sunset, I had to admit the greater problem: I was mostly illiterate. My own people didn’t even have written language. I’d learned to read in bits and pieces since leaving my homeland, but not enough to navigate complicated texts. At best I could muddle my way through simple ones full of illustrations. I needed help.

    The common room was almost devoid of people, the dinner rush having come and gone. Niobe was stacking dishes onto a wooden tray and wiping down tables with a damp rag.

    I dropped a stack of books in front of her with a loud whump. A few breadcrumbs skittered off the table onto the floor. "Can you read?"

    Niobe looked from me to the stack and back up to me. “Di’ you rob the library?”

    “If I’m going to be stuck in a school, I may as well learn.”

    She grinned. “Actually, I can read. My paren’s thought I shoul’ learn if I was goin’ to live in a school. But my mother’ll be mad if I don’ finish my work firs’.”

    I grabbed some plates and started stacking. “I’ll help.”

    After Niobe’s mother bid us goodnight and the patrons trickled off entirely, we moved into the kitchen and sat with books propped up on the table, reading aloud while peeling vegetables. Niobe didn’t question my eclectic choice of literature. “Not this one,” I’d say after half an hour of frustration, and pull another one from the stack.

    “You’re lookin’ for somethin’ in particular, ain’t you?” Niobe finally asked.

    I pressed my fingers to my lips as I hesitated. Avatara looked worse every day. I was running out of time. The silence stretched on.

    “Let me show you something,” I said. I unwound the sash around my waist and pulled aside the loose fabric of my dress to show her the U-shaped scar left by the wolflizard’s jaws. “This is the best my people’s magic can do. I want to be able to do what Protesilaus can.”

    Niobe tapped her fingers on her knee. She mused, “You don’ wan’ the library then. You need a tex’book. Learn it like the studen’s do.”

    “A textbook?” I said, stunned. “Can I get one?”

    “There’s a storeroom ‘n the nor’east corner. Mos’ly furniture, but they migh’ keep books too.” She waved with a paring knife as I hurried out of the kitchen.

    The halls were nearly deserted at that hour, only a few frazzled students wandering about. I peered into doors, finding only dark classrooms at first, until I hit upon a room full of stacked desks and chairs. I slid my palm along the wall until I found a glow crystal. It hummed to life, illuminating a wall of haphazardly arranged books.

    I filed through them, shifting them around to read their titles. Runes, alchemy, runes, more runes. Don’t they teach anything else at this school? Then finally, pushed away in a corner, were the healing textbooks. I took the advanced one and clutched it to my chest, hiding the title with my arm until I was safely in my own room.

    I kicked off my shoes and got into bed, balancing the heavy book against my unscarred leg. Illness. Poisoning. I flipped through until I found diagrams of wounds. The pictures looked like openings to another world in the distorted purple light of the glow crystals. I settled in for a long night of reading.

    Day 6

    Rain pummeled the window of my room. I stood with my forehead pressed against the cool glass, a sheet of paper crumpled in my hand. Be brave. The textbook lay open on the desk, surrounded by medical supplies I’d pilfered from the infirmary.

    I took my foraging knife in one hand and my cloak in the other. I bit down on the hem and sliced the blade across my upper arm. Before the pain could set in, I made another gash just below it.

    “Ow ow ow…” My first impulse was to reach for my herbal pastes, but I couldn’t do things my way this time. I grabbed a clean rag and pressed it to the two bright lines of blood as I squinted down at the minute text and carefully inked diagrams.

    Okay. Concentrate, Kat. I bit my lip and took away the rag. One of the cuts began to seal up until it disappeared entirely, leaving behind a bit of blood that I wiped away. Good. Now the next. I only healed the second cut halfway, so that it stopped bleeding but still stung.

    I wrapped a bandage around my arm and pulled it tight with my teeth. “And now I wait.”

    The second cut disappeared as cleanly as the first when I completed the healing process that evening, but my mild success was little comfort. Internal wounds were beyond my experience, but I was loath to practice that on myself. I couldn’t even imagine the ways that improper magic might make them worse. On the other hand, Avatara couldn’t get much worse.

    I sat in the corridor outside Avatara’s room, arms wrapped around my knees, studying the flagstone so I wouldn’t accidentally make eye contact with the guards. Cold seeped through my dress, until I gave in and wrapped my shoulders with the spare blanket I’d found in my room. When Adriana left, I went in, neither of us exchanging a word.

    It was cool and dark inside, the last patter of rainfall running in rivulets down the windowpane. The same bloodstained sheet was still pulled over Avatara. Adriana refused to let me change it. I folded it down and took his icy hand in mine. It had been nearly a week since I woke screaming at Protesilaus. I wasn’t going to let Avatara die. Not then, not today.

    I carefully unwrapped the bandages over his wound. The sight made my stomach turn. I hadn’t seen it since the first night in the infirmary. I was tempted to try and heal it all at once, but I was too afraid of doing it wrong. The only way was to do a bit at a time. I closed my eyes and drew together my energy, concentrating it into Avatara’s stomach.

    Once I had replaced the bandages, I went to spread the blanket over top of him, but hesitated as the night air hit my bare arms. I compromised by sitting on the bed and spreading the end of the blanket over him, and there I sat until late into the night.

  • Day 7

    “You’re early,” the older guard commented when I padded up to Avatara’s room. I wondered if the other one ever talked.

    I was torn between hope and dread of what I might find inside, but there was no change. No flutter of an eyelid or twitch of a finger, just the slow, steady rise and fall of his chest. Not worse, but not better.

    I cupped my hand around Avatara’s jaw and rubbed my thumb back and forth over the rough bristles of his beard. “I’m trying,” I whispered. “I’m trying to save you. Please don’t give up yet.”

    My eyelids were heavy. I meant to leave before Adriana showed up for her morning routine, but instead I curled up in a chair, my knees tucked up close to my chest, and rested my head against the wall.

    “You’re early,” Adriana said when she arrived.

    I sighed inwardly. These people all say the same things. I stretched out and went to stand up, but my legs were shaky under me.

    “And you don’t have any shoes.” Adriana peered at me, and for the first time she sound unsure. “You don’t look so well. Go get some rest. I’ll take care of things today.”

    Well. There’s nothing else I can do for now. I glanced at Avatara. I did so badly want to sleep.

    A faint knock sounded at my door. I shoved the discarded bandage and the textbook into the dresser drawer before stumbling out of bed and opening the door. Niobe stood in the hallway.

    “What time is it? What are you doing here?” I squinted against the bright sunlight.

    “Noon. Adriana was worried abou’ you.”

    Huh. “I’m fine. I just didn’t sleep much last night.”

    “Come ou’side with me.” Niobe smiled “I ‘ave the af’ernoon off today.”

    Outside Pnyx, the air was crisp and fresh after the day of rain. We picked our way across a field, damp earth squishing under our shoes, until the river sprawled out wide and lazy in front of us. Seagulls circled overhead, squawking at each other like siblings.

    I stopped on a low rock outcropping at the bank and breathed in. A breeze rustled my skirt and brought the taste of salt in the air. When I closed my eyes, I could pretend I was on the eastern coast, back in Catamarca or Cademia.

    Niobe had packed a lunch basket for us, so we sat on the outcropping and ate with our feet dangling in the river. I tossed crumbs out to the seagulls and watched them snap at the surface of the water.

    “I wish I could cook somethin’ more interestin’,” Niobe lamented over the bread and cheese. “My mother doesn’ have anythin’ good in the kitchen to work with.”

    “Why? Trying to impress someone?” I teased. Niobe’s cheeks went pink and I laughed. “You are! It’s Protesilaus, isn’t it?”

    “It doesn’ matter,” she said primly and picked at a spot on her bread. “I don’ think ‘e even knows my name.”

    “Well he will when we’re through with him.” I took my foraging knife from its sheath and twirled it between my fingers.

    Niobe eyed the blade with a frown. “You are not allowed to stab ‘im.”

    “You can eat tha’?” Niobe asked as I carved the bark off a branch in long strips.

    “Not this part. The inside.” I laid the branch on a rock and beat it with the flat of my blade until the inner bark loosened. I pried off a curling strip and held it out to Niobe. “Smell that.”

    She took in a deep breath and smiled. “Wow.”

    We wandered throughout the forest to the east of Pnyx, filling our lunch basket with all manner of plant life. There were a few native to the Pnyx area that Niobe showed me how to find; I explained to her in turn how similar plants were used by my people.

    “Avatara liked these,” I said as I dug around in a clump of leaves to get at some small vibrant red berries. “I used to sell them at the marketplace in Cademia.”

    “You must’ve known ‘im pretty well,” Niobe said, though she sounded cautious.

    “Not really well. But enough.” I bit into a berry to test its ripeness. It was late in the season, but it was still good.

    “Is it true wha’ they say?” She sat down on a fallen log and tilted her head. “That ‘e’s in prison for killin’ a mage?”

    I sighed and leaned back, resting my head against a tree trunk. “Yes. I think it is true.”

    Niobe kicked at the dirt. “I’m sorry. It mus’ be hard for you.”

    We were silent for a moment. Then I said, “Avatara and I used to travel together sometimes. We were ambushed once by a couple of brigands. I got the upper hand on one, had my blade at his throat, when he just dropped dead.”

    “Avatara got there first. I told him I could have killed the brigand, and he said, ‘Yes, but you shouldn’t have to.’” I pressed my grimy fingers to my lips. It hurt to think of those days. “Death wasn’t something he took lightly.”

    “That doesn’t sound like a murderer,” Niobe murmured.

    “No. It doesn’t add up.” I looked upward through the foliage at the clear blue sky that belied the darkness waiting for me back in Pnyx. There’s something I don’t know. If you die, I’ll die never knowing.

    Niobe and I hung bundles of herbs from the kitchen ceiling where they’d dry from the heat of the clay ovens. I laid the cinnamon sticks out on a tray to cure for a few days.

    “You see Protesilaus all the time in the infirmary,” I said as I peeled the skin off a turnip. “You mean you never talk to him?”

    Niobe shrugged. “’E’s so focused on ‘is work. I never wan’ ta interrup’.”

    “He must eat sometime. Strike up a conversation when he comes to the common room. Force one of your pastries on him.”

    “Maybe.” She tucked a lock of blonde hair behind her ear. “I don’ know. S’not like I’m in love with ‘im or anythin’. I jes’ like seein’ ‘im.”

    “How can you be sure until you talk to him?” I stuck my tongue out at her.

    “You don’ know wha’ you’re talkin’ abou’,” Niobe said and pointed a carrot at me with a laugh.

    “No. I don’t.” I frowned. “How are you supposed to know if you’re in love with someone?”

    Niobe furrowed her brow in contemplation. “My mother says it’s when someone is the firs’ thing you think abou’ in the mornin’ and the las’ thing you think abou’ at night.”

    The paring knife slipped and I sliced open a gash on my thumb. “Ow!” I pressed it to my mouth and sucked away the blood.

    “You all righ’?” Niobe asked. “Maybe you need ta get some rest.”

    “Maybe.” I set down the knife, hands shaking, and leaned backward to stare up at the ceiling. I’m so stupid. How did I not realize? “I… I should go.”

    But instead of going to my room, I sprawled out in the garden and watched the leaves stir. When I finally curled up in bed well after midnight, I fell asleep thinking of red berry stains on white sheets.

    Day 8

    I waited until I was sure Adriana would be finished for the morning before I went to visit Avatara. Once I was alone with him, I couldn’t bring myself to look at his face. I repeated my healing spell, but my hands were shaking and I could only pray to the spirits that it didn’t reflect on my magic.

    It was unusually warm in the room, but Avatara was still cold. I puttered around, tidying up supplies, and found the blanket tucked away in a corner. Adriana must have removed it to check on his wound. I unfolded it and draped it over his still form. When there was nothing left to do, I perched on the edge of the bed and fiddled with the hem of the blanket.

    “Why did you do it?” I said abruptly. “What am I missing? You never said anything about Menelaus. You just up and left one day. I went looking for you, and you were just gone. You never told me anything.”

    I stood up and paced back and forth in the small room, knotting my fingers in my hair. “And now I’m just supposed to watch you die. Of course, you didn’t know I was going to show up here. That I’d ever find you.” I pressed my fist into my mouth to muffle a sob. “I would have gone my whole life – loving you–”

    I couldn’t breathe. The deathly silence roared in my ears. I pushed on the window. It didn’t budge. I slammed my shoulder into it, and the wooden frame slid open with a groan. The sound of waves and the smell of salt water filled the room.

    “Why did you do it?” I gripped the windowsill, the stone scraping my palms. “What was so important that you had to give up everything else for?”

    I leaned out the window and screamed.

    Day 9

    The sky was still dark when I gave up on sleep and rose from bed. I rested my elbows on the windowsill and watched the ocean roll in under the glow of moonlight. I told myself that I was waiting for dawn to visit Avatara, but in my heart I didn’t want to go.

    I eventually became aware of my own reflection in the glass, and was shocked to see how thin my own cheeks were. I looked down at my arms. My skin was so pale the blue tint had almost vanished.

    Dawn came and went. I wrapped my cloak around my shoulders, but instead of heading for Avatara’s room, I went downstairs to the outside gate. Fog scudded over the ground outside and dew from the fields soaked the hem of my dress.

    The cliffs by the ocean were the daunting part, but I’d seen one thing during my haphazard research: a set of stairs, hand-drawn with red ink onto a folded map of Pnyx’s outlying lands. It wasn’t marked on the huge tapestry map hung on the library wall. I finally discovered it some ways to the south, little more than steps cut into the stone, crisscrossing back and forth down the cliff face.

    A tiny patch of sand was at the bottom, tucked into a shallow cave in the rock face. I stripped off my clothes, dropped them on the sand and walked into the ocean. A shock of cold hit my ankles. I kept going until the water buoyed me up, and started swimming. The hard splash of water consumed my hearing. Kelp wrapped around my arms. I took it with me. When I was well away from the shore, I dove under.

    I opened my eyes and drifted in the gloom, my hair floating around me. Silence pressed in from every direction. The ocean enveloped me, an embrace that touched every inch of my skin. No matter where I was – the west or east coast of Cythera, or even my own homeland ¬– the ocean was there for me. It was a true welcome home: the welcome of release, of the time before life.

    Not today.

    With a powerful kick of my legs, I surfaced and gasped for air. The salt stung my eyes and I blinked fast to wash it away. I pushed my hair back from my face and breathed.

    There was a knock on my door that evening.

    “Come in,” I said, expecting Niobe to ask why I hadn’t shown up at the common room all day.

    It was Protesilaus. I jumped up, scrambling to make sure I hadn’t left anything suspicious in plain sight. He hesitated in the doorway, as if expecting me to invite him in, except that I’d already done so.

    “May I speak with you?” he settled on. I nodded and beckoned him in.

    “Adriana said she hadn’t seen you today or yesterday. She was concerned.”

    Adriana needs to mind her own business. “I’m fine.”

    “Katerei,” he said, and I was faintly surprised that he knew my name. “Listen. I’ve just been to see Avatara. He’s not doing well.”

    “I know.”

    “His heart rate has slowed. He was weak when he was brought in. Now…” Protesilaus rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Unless he wakes soon, it doesn’t look good.”

    I felt dizzy. My heart raced. “What are you saying?”

    Protesilaus stepped forward and took my hand. “You should say your farewells tonight.”

    No. No.

    My knees gave out. Protesilaus caught me before I fell and eased me to the ground. He said something else, but I wasn’t listening. The room ceased to exist. I was drifting in the ocean; seaweed wound itself around my limbs and pulled me into the depths until the bright orb of sunlight disappeared from view.

    “I want to spend the night here.”

    One of the guards looked from me to Protesilaus, who stood at my side holding my arm. He gave a slight shrug and waved me in.

    “The guards will send for Adriana or I if anything happens,” Protesilaus said to me inside.

    “Thank you,” I whispered. He gave my arm a small squeeze above the elbow, and then I was alone with Avatara.

    I found the blanket and spread it over him once again, and tapped at the glow crystal until it went out. Then I carefully crawled into bed next to him, careful to avoid his injury as I draped my arm over his chest and my leg over his.

    “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m not angry. Whatever you did, I’m sure you had your reasons. It doesn’t matter if you won’t tell me. I just want you to live. Please, please live.”

    My eyes threatened to spill over as I summoned up the last of my willpower and focused on healing him. I didn’t care if anyone found out. I didn’t care what they’d do to me. I just need you to live.

    I leaned down, my hair spilling all around us, and pressed my lips to his.

    Silence bore down on us like all the weight of the ocean. I laid my head on Avatara’s chest, feeling the slow rise and fall of his breath. Moonlight filtered in through the window and turned our skin pale. The night stretched out in front of me until I could no longer maintain my vigil. My eyelids fluttered shut and I drifted into sleep.

  • Day 10

    I woke to movement.

    I nearly fell out of bed as I jolted upright. The first traces of morning light filtered into the room. Avatara stirred, just as if he were sleeping. A grin cracked across my face.

    The blanket fell to the floor as I scrambled up and flung open the door. “He’s still alive, and moving,” I said breathlessly to the guards. I didn’t wait long enough to see their reactions.

    It took only minutes for a swarm of people to enter: Adriana, Protesilaus, an older man in healer’s robes I assumed was Pheres, an even older man that I suspected might be Lindus by the way the others deferred to him, and others I couldn’t identify. The room could barely accommodate all of us.

    I stood fast at Avatara’s side, refusing to let them push me out of the way. Voices buzzed in the background as I lifted his arm to take his pulse. It was almost normal. Then, as he flinched, I realized his eyes were open.

    “Av? Can you hear me?” I placed his arm back onto the bed and leaned forward, trying to attract his gaze, but someone had turned up the brightness of the glow crystal and he turned away from the light.

    I filled a cup of water from a pitcher and held it to Avatara’s lips, tipping it just enough for a bit to run into his mouth. I spoke quietly to him, but he seemed disoriented. The crowd of people around us surely wasn’t helping. I resisted the urge to pick up the ancient tomes I’d left on the table and hurl them at their heads.

    Instead, I took Avatara’s hand in mine and used my other hand to wipe away the tears that ran down my cheeks.

    Adriana kicked us all out some time later, insisting she had work to do. I couldn’t help skipping a bit on the way downstairs, a move that my leg protested thoroughly against.

    “Wha’ are you so ‘appy abou’?” Niobe said as I danced into the kitchen.

    “Avatara’s awake.” I couldn’t stop grinning.

    Niobe gaped at me, and then dropped the dishtowel she held and flung her arms around me. “Tha’s wonderful!”

    “Well, he’s asleep now,” I amended as I brushed the flour off my dress. “But he was awake.”

    “You know wha’ tha’ means?” Niobe picked her up towel and flicked it at my arm. “Tha’ means you have nothin’ better ta do now than ‘elp me cook!”

    Day 11

    The hallway outside Avatara’s room was becoming altogether too familiar. I sat cross-legged on the floor, rubbing my eyes. My giddy relief had finally worn off, leaving just exhaustion behind.

    Adriana came out with a metal tray balanced on her arm. “He’s awake. You can bring him up some food. Make sure it’s bland,” she told me, and strode off.

    “I need a bowl of your blandest food,” I repeated to Niobe in the kitchen downstairs.

    Niobe rolled her eyes. “My mother’s special’y.” She gave a muffled giggle as her mother walked back into the kitchen, and served up a bowl of porridge in silence.

    My stomach twisted as I raised my hand to the door of Avatara’s room, holding the breakfast tray on the other arm. What does ‘awake’ mean, anyway? Does it mean ‘better?’ I took a deep breath and knocked. There was no response, so I pushed the door open and stepped inside.

    There he was: pale and gaunt as ever, but sitting upright for the first time, and… looking straight at me. A surge of relief bubbled up inside my chest. I nudged the door shut with my foot and drifted towards the bed, barely aware of my own movement.

    “Good morning!” Avatara said too cheerfully. I blinked. How was he so upbeat when he must be in so much pain? Or rather, why would he fake it to me?

    “Barely.” I nodded at the window where the early morning light streamed in with the breeze. Apparently, now that I’d fixed the window, Adriana was taking advantage of it.

    I settled into my too-familiar spot on the edge of the bed, the heat of the porridge warming my legs through the tray. My curiosity about his mood could wait. “Do you need me to feed you?”

    Avatara didn’t answer, just grabbed the bowl off the tray. I hid a smile. After days of watching him waste away, I would have bullied him into eating if I had to. “Careful,” I said, and handed him the spoon.

    I averted my eyes as he ate. Words swirled around my head and caught in my throat; all the things I murmured as I sat next to his motionless form, all the things I wanted to say if he woke. What if he heard any of it? The longer I waited, the worse it got, until I could hardly breathe. My gaze lingered on the door. Maybe I should just leave and give him time to himself. But what if he needed something and Adriana didn’t come back for hours –

    AUGH. I felt dizzy from the spiral of thoughts and put my hand down on the bed to steady myself. Okay. Just be straightforward.

    “How are you feeling?” I asked. Avatara shrugged. “Do you need anything?” He shook his head, thanked me for breakfast, and settled back against the pillow. Well. That was unproductive.

    I was about to gather up the dishes when he spoke again. “Where are we?”

    “Pnyx.” When he didn’t respond, I looked up and met his eyes, searching for any hint that he remembered. “You’ve been unconscious for ten days.”

    His brow furrowed as if in deep thought. Of all the times I’d imagined this conversation, his next words had never entered my head. “Have you seen Desert Fox?”

    What? “No. I haven’t heard from him in a long time.” I couldn’t remember Avatara mentioning Desert Fox once during the night of the wedding. What does he have to do with… well, anything?

    “What happened to you… after…” he said haltingly.

    My heart started to pound. He did remember. I set the dishes on the tray and pushed it onto the table with a clatter. After I found you only to think I’d lost you? After they scraped us off the flagstone, dyed with each other’s blood? After I woke first and waited, hoped, prayed for you to follow?

    I gave him the short version. There were more pressing matters on my mind. I knew part of the story from Protesilaus, but I wanted to hear it from Avatara. “You probably would have healed a lot faster if they used magic,” I said. And saved me ten days of hell. “Why do they forbid it?”

    His eyes darkened and he turned away from me. “Did they get the assassin?”

    I wasn’t sure whom he meant. Simon, I knew about. Truth be told, I hadn’t asked anyone what happened to Trundaylan’s killer, but I didn’t want to talk about either of them. “Yes. Eventually.”

    Avatara sat up again and leaned forward, and I thought he was about to say something, until I realized he was trying to stand. A swift interjection of my arm put a stop to that. I hadn’t gone through everything just for him to re-open his wound.

    “I just want to get a better look out the window,” he protested as I pinned his shoulders to the bed, and I withdrew my hands, covering up my embarrassment with a reprimand. I wouldn’t have survived the last ten days without the sea and the sky, and he had been down in that dungeon for longer than I could imagine.

    Despite all the things he wouldn’t tell me, and all the things I didn’t understand, I did understand that longing. I half pushed, half pulled the bed to face the window, ignoring the throb of pain from my leg, and arranged the pillows behind Avatara so he could see outside. Then I drew up a stool and watched the waves with him, pushing aside my worry and opting to just bask in his survival.

    An unfamiliar guard interrupted us some time later to say that Protesilaus wanted to see me. In the infirmary, he beckoned me into a side room that I’d never noticed before. It was a small office, crammed with neatly shelved medical texts, rolls of bandages, and a single potted plant on the windowsill. I sat across from Protesilaus in a hard wooden chair, gripping my hands together in my lap.

    “Thank you for coming.” Protesilaus sifted through a stack of parchment. “Adriana tells me Avatara is making a remarkable recovery. By all rights, he should not have survived.”

    “I wouldn’t know anything about that,” I said, keeping my voice neutral.

    “You were with him the night before he woke up.” When I didn’t reply, he continued, “Did you notice anything unusual that night?”

    “No. Nothing.” That much was true.

    Protesilaus studied me intently. “A violation of the Headmaster’s orders is not taken lightly. Outsiders are granted no leniency.”

    “I know.”

    “Is there anything you want to tell me?”

    “That I’ve done nothing I regret.” I held his gaze for a long moment. The lines around his eyes seemed deeper. Protesilaus finally nodded. I felt like I’d passed some sort of test.

    “The head mages suspect Avatara prepared a charm ahead of time,” he went on briskly. “Something to bring the subject back from the brink of death. It’s not unheard of. Difficult magic though.”

    “It would heal the person? How much?”

    “The effect depends on the ability of the caster. It might heal him or her entirely. Might ,” Protesilaus emphasized.

    “What does Adriana think?” I asked before I could stop myself.

    “Adriana will think what she will. I recommend not asking her.” Protesilaus ran a hand through his hair, leaving a few bits sticking up. “Well. That’s all I needed from you.”

    I stood up to leave, but paused by the window. “Your plant is dying.”

    “Yes. My knack for saving lives doesn’t extend to flora,” he said.

    “You over-watered it.” The leaves were yellowed and stunted. I bent over the plant, pretending to examine it. A fine cloud of mist appeared as I drew the excess water out of the earth.

    I turned back to look at Protesilaus from the doorway and gave him a half-smile. “Take care of it. All lives are precious.”

    Day 12

    “Wha’s ‘appenin’ with Avatara?” Niobe asked when I showed up in the kitchen that morning to get the tray of porridge and tea she’d prepared.

    I rubbed my thumb over the handle of the tray. “He’s still sleeping lots, but he’s getting better.”

    “Hmm.” Niobe pursed her lips at me, as if I hadn’t answered the question.

    Niobe’s reaction kept me distracted while I sat with Avatara during his meal. He is getting better, isn’t he? At least he’s awake. I didn’t pay much attention to our conversation or to the silver bracelets around his wrists that he showed me.

    Then Avatara said something that caught my full attention. “I want to try walking today.”

    “Absolutely not!” I said. Two days ago, he was expected to be dead. “You are in no condition to be moving around!”

    I ignored his protests at first, but eventually had to relent when he asked to prove if he could. Protesilaus had granted me that much. I was not going to let him skip breakfast, though. His ribcage still showed through the thin sheet.

    Once he was finished eating, I cleared the floor around the bed and stepped back. I hope I’m strong enough to hold him if he falls. Perhaps I should have gotten help, but Adriana was the last person I wanted around, especially given that he was only half-dressed. I tried to keep my eyes away from his bare chest.

    Avatara placed his feet on the floor, stood up – and pitched forward. I swept forward and caught him. He clung to me, arms around my body for support, his shaggy hair brushing against my bare shoulder. My heartbeat echoed back to me through him.

    “Let me try one more time,” he said. My throat was too dry to answer. A tingle coursed over my skin like an electric shock as he slid his hands up my sides to my shoulders. Too soon, he let go.

    “See?” He smiled at me.

    I couldn’t help but smile back. “Now try walking.” He stepped forward, but had to steady himself on me again, his hand shaking. I frowned. “I don’t think–”

    “I can do this!” he said. “Please? I just need something to lean on, that’s all.”

    What’s the worst that could happen? I bit my lip, not sure if I wanted the answer to that, but he looked at me with such desperation that I couldn’t refuse. He trusted me to help him. “All right. Let me find you a walking stick. A shirt too.”

    To my chagrin, I came across Adriana before Protesilaus. She fetched a clean, albeit unattractive, shirt from the infirmary. However, she absolutely refused to give me anything resembling a crutch, claiming Lindus forbade Avatara access to any weapons. I didn’t bother pointing out that Avatara was too weak to give anyone more than a bruise.

    “Is Avatara allowed to walk around the building?” I asked the guards when I returned.

    “If he’s capable,” the older one said with a skeptical look. “We’re under orders to supervise him at all times though.” Well, I hadn’t hoped for otherwise.

    While Avatara dressed, I explained that he wasn’t allowed a walking stick. Steeling myself, I took his hand in mine. “If you’d like, I thought I could…” I trailed off.

    He placed his other hand on mine and smiled. “Thank you.”

    Ignoring the flutter in my stomach, I put my arm around Avatara and guided him out into the hallway. We looped through the upper halls, the guards following a few paces behind. I kept my gaze fixed forward, still unable to look into the doorways without a rush of panic. When Avatara paused to rest by a staircase, it was all I could do not to urge him onward.

    For once, not all of the stares and whispers were directed at me. If people hadn’t heard the gossip already, our escort gave us away. My sensitive ears picked up comments that I prayed Avatara couldn’t hear. Although I pretended not to react, at least one loose-lipped guard had a nasty encounter with a spontaneous patch of ice that morning.

    Avatara dozed off soon after we returned. I found myself checking his pulse and his breathing, and then checking it again just to make sure. He hadn’t complained, but I’d been able to see how much it hurt him just to walk. Every step drew a ragged breath from him.

    I realized I was gritting my teeth. I released them and rubbed my sore jaw. At least when he was in a coma, I didn’t have to see him suffer.

    “I remember the first time I saw you,” I said, talking out loud to distract myself. “You were in the tavern in Cademia with some companions, talking and laughing. You’d all just returned from a journey. I thought you were the most handsome man in the room.”

    He had been healthy, strong, and happy. I smiled at the memory. “You didn’t notice me that day. But a week later, you were in the marketplace and bought those berries from me. I came back every day for a week, hoping to see you.”

    My skirt sprawled out around me as I sat on the floor and took his hand. The bracelet dangled loosely on his wrist. His fingers were as thin and bony as my own. “Maybe one day I’ll see you laugh like that again. Maybe one day all this pain will seem like no more than a bad dream.”

    I kissed his fingertips one by one, then got up on my knees and unwound the bandages. I didn’t care what any of the healers or the mages thought. I couldn’t watch him suffer anymore.

    Night had long fallen when the knock came at my door. I slammed my book shut just before two guards strode in and pulled me upright.

    “What’s going on?” I demanded.

    “You’re under arrest for healing a prisoner of Pnyx,” one of them replied as he bound my wrists behind my back.

    “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I tried to pull my hands apart, but the rope was knotted tight.

    The guard jabbed me in the small of my back. I looked over my shoulder as I was pushed out of the room to see the other guard rifling through the books stacked on the desk.

    The guard prodded me along to the Headmaster’s office downstairs. At a different time, I would have admired the beautiful marble floors and ornate carvings across the ceiling, but my attention was drawn to the raised dais along the far wall. Lindus and four other figures in mage robes were seated there behind a heavy table. Adriana, Protesilaus, and Pheres stood off to the side. I swore quietly in my native tongue.

    I was pushed to the centre of the room in full view of the mages. The guard stood just behind me to my left. My skin itched from the ropes, but I clamped my hands tight and stood tall, shoulders thrown back.

    Lindus peered down at me, and his rumbling voice filled the hall. “Katerei. You stand accused of using healing magic on the prisoner Avatara, in direct violation of the terms on which you were allowed to see him.”

    The pure loathing on Adriana’s face told me who had accused me. “I didn’t heal him,” I said.

    “Avatara woke against all odds, when the attending healer fully expected him not to survive,” Lindus said. His grey moustache twitched as he talked. “You were… present the night before he woke. Do you claim to the contrary?”

    “I’ve been visiting Avatara the whole time. I know what the healers expected. Even if I knew how to heal him, why would I wait until he was on his deathbed?” I said.

    “Perhaps you were hoping someone else would step in first and take the blame,” said one of the other mages, a woman with a pointed face and a tight black bun.

    “I don’t play games with people’s lives when I’m capable of saving them,” I said, lifting my chin and eyeing Adriana. “Maybe the attending healer underestimated Avatara.”

    “I suppose he healed his wound by sheer willpower?” Adriana snapped. “The mages put mana blockers on him! Someone else had to do it!”

    The bracelets. How could I not realize what they were? I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from cursing. “And you think it was me, as opposed to any number of people here that actually know healing magic?”

    “The guards report you have been Avatara’s only visitor,” Lindus said.

    “Maybe you should question what information your guards are feeding you,” I said. The guard next to me stiffened.

    The black-haired woman leaned forward. “And who else do you suggest they might have let in to heal the prisoner?”

    I locked eyes with her. “I don’t know. Someone that cares enough about justice to see a prisoner live out his sentence. Is there no one in Pnyx matching that description?”

    A ripple of sound went across the row of mages. “He is a murderer!” the woman said, thumping her hand on the table. “His own life is forfeit!”

    “What are we going to do, stab him again?” Protesilaus cut in, drowning out my impending diatribe. “He’s nearly recovered already! Let it go, Palaestra!”

    “Enough!” Lindus rubbed the wrinkles on his forehead. “Clearly we have insufficient proof to uphold the charges. Release Katerei.”

    Adriana’s mouth fell open. “We can’t just ignore what–”

    Lindus held up a hand. “What’s done is done. Everything will proceed as planned.”

    The room erupted in heated discussion as the guard unbound my wrists. Protesilaus stepped forward to escort me out. As we left, I saw Adriana’s fist slam into the brick wall.

    “I’d be angry if I weren’t so impressed,” Protesilaus said outside Lindus’ office.

    “By what?” I leaned against the brick wall and took in several deep breaths.

    “Lying to the head mages and getting away with it.”

    “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I rubbed away the itch on my wrists and gave him a wry smile. “But thank you for stopping me before I got myself locked up.” Again.

    Protesilaus laughed, a rich, warm sound. I couldn’t recall if I’d seen him so much as smile before.

    An idea crossed my mind. “Do you need to go back to the infirmary right away?”

    He frowned slightly. “Not immediately. Why?”

    “I want to thank you. I’ve been working on something special in the kitchen. With Niobe’s help.”

    “Oh. Niobe’s helping? That’s a relief,” he said.

    I stuck my tongue out at him and led him to the common room, where I pointed to a seat and instructed him to wait.

    “Quick!” I said as I burst into the kitchen. “Protesilaus is waiting outside. I offered him our new drink.”

    “Wha’?” Niobe demanded, setting down a giant bowl of peeled potatoes.

    “And he totally knows who you are, you dolt!” I shook my head at her.

    “Why were you talkin’ to ‘im at this time o’ the night?” Niobe put her hands on her hips and glared at me.

    “Uhhh.” I grabbed several clay pots of spices and started measuring them into a bowl. “Let’s not talk about that now.”

    “I don’ believe it,” Niobe grumbled. She dumped some milk into a mug and set it on the oven hearth to warm. “You could ‘ave warned me. Look at my ‘air.”

    “You look fine.” I stirred the spice mix into the mug and tapped my foot against the oven until the liquid was warm. I handed the mug to Niobe and all but pushed her into the dining area. “Go on!”

    Once I was alone in the kitchen, I sank down onto a stool and pulled back my tangled hair. Keep your head down , Wizard said. Perhaps I hadn’t succeeded completely, but it was a nice feeling to have other people looking out for me. As long as Avatara was alive, that felt like a success.

    Day 13

    “Protesilaus liked it,” Niobe said, all smiles when I showed up in the kitchen that morning. “’e asked me to bring ‘im up some when I take breakfast ta the infirmary.”

    “I told you so!” I nudged her in the ribs before grabbing my tray.

    I was still smiling by the time I got upstairs. Niobe was happy, Avatara was better, and I was in the clear. But all my energy evaporated when I saw Avatara’s shell-shocked expression.

    A dozen possibilities ran through my head. Did the healing go wrong? Did he hear about last night? What did Adriana say to him? Are they going to ban me from seeing him? I opened my mouth and closed it again. He hadn’t even said good morning.

    He didn’t say anything at all until he set down the bowl of porridge. “I want to go walking again today.”


    At least the healing seemed to have helped; he refused my offer to help him walk again. I didn’t protest when he said he wanted to go downstairs. There was nothing in these upper halls but grief and bad memories anyway. I didn’t even have the heart to disagree when he asked the guards for permission to visit the ocean.

    Niobe must have been in the kitchen when we passed through the common room, but I saw her mother gape at us and knew I would hear about it later. A worse surprise greeted me in the main hall. String music drifted out from the garden, and through the doorway I could see Adriana playing to some children. I pulled Avatara onward before she turned around.

    The wind and the sound of crashing waves were a welcome relief. We stopped at the edge of the cliffs overlooking the endless expanse of water; the guards lurked out of sight behind us. I shut them out of my head. Only the spirits knew how many of my secrets they’d overheard already.

    I took a seat on the grass next to Avatara, his arm grazing mine, and shivered. It was cool out. I should have stopped to get my cloak.

    “You know, I’ve always been running around this island, but I’ve never really taken the time to stop and look at it,” he said.

    I half-turned my head to look at him. His eyes were fixed on the ocean, his hair stirring in the wind. I’ve never seen him be still like this. “What are you going to do when you get out?”

    “I don’t know yet,” he said. “Maybe I should take the time to really see what this place is like. See if I can enjoy the beauty of the land.”

    I’d spent too much time sitting still and looking out, curled up in the mouth of a cave during silent snowfalls or perched in the crown of a tree under a baking midsummer sky. Silence. Stagnation. The world was beautiful, but it was hollow.

    I was no longer content to just see. I wanted more. The sound of his voice soaked into me like the warmth from a fire. My own body remembered how it curled around his the night that I thought I’d lose him. I needed more.

    “I have a house by the ocean.” I stretched out my fingers toward his, but my nerves failed me now that he was awake. I pulled back and clasped my hands together in my lap.

    “Catamarca, right?”

    “Yes.” I’d never spent much time there. It was a shell of a house, no laughter or joy to fill the cracks in the walls. For just a moment, I dared to imagine Avatara there with me. “It’s a lot quieter there. Fewer watching eyes.”

    “That would be nice,” he said. Then he added, “I’m not sure I could walk that far though.”

    Not at this rate. But would he come if he could? And then, riding on my narrow escape the day before, I knew what I had to do. “Stay here,” I said.

    I moved to sit behind Avatara, arranging my skirt so that I could place my legs on either side of him. The wind gusted around us, wrapping blue strands of my hair around his arms. I could smell dried blood and sweat and the musk of unwashed clothing. I slid my hands down his sides and pulled him close.

    “This is the only way I can,” I whispered into his ear. I tugged his shirt loose and placed my palm over his wound; the location was fixed in my memory. His breathing quickened, but he made no move to stop me. One last time. I felt his warm skin knit together and grow smooth.

    “Mystery solved,” he said, and I could hear the smile in his tone.

    “This wasn’t easy, you know. I almost think they didn’t want you to recover at all.” Or, in the case of certain people, quite sure of it.

    “That wouldn’t surprise me,” he said.

    “What makes you say that?” I asked, but he only stuttered and fell silent. I curled my fingers inward and pressed my nails into him. “You can’t trust me?” Of course not. If he did, he would have told you days ago, you idiot.

    He spoke slowly and deliberately. “They accuse me of murdering a freemage, Menelaus.”

    “Did you?”

    “Yes. No, but I–” He paused. “I confessed that I did. I went before the Headmaster and admitted it and he gave me a lenient sentence. One year in the dungeon.”

    I counted seasons in my head. It was early autumn and he had been missing since spring, maybe longer. But the memory of my conversation in the woods with Niobe surfaced and blocked out everything else. “Why?” I pressed.

    “Because I had helped out the mages in the past. The other masters weren’t too happy about it, but Lindus convinced them that my punishment would be enough, as long as I went along willingly.“

    “No. I mean, why did you do it?” Why leave without saying goodbye? Why sacrifice an entire year for something you didn’t do? Why can’t you tell me?

    Avatara turned and looked into my eyes. I refused to let myself cry in front of him.

    “It seemed like the right thing to do at the time,” he said.

    “I see.” I leaned back so he couldn’t see my face. Maybe it was all a lost cause.

    The weight of days bore down on me. Sleepless nights and skipped meals were taking their toll. I rested my forehead on the back of Avatara’s neck and dreamed that the crashing waves reached up the cliffs and swept me away, so that I was drifting, drifting in the white haze between sky and water.

  • Day 14

    “My mother said you an’ Avatara were walkin’ aroun’ together yes’erday,” Niobe said.

    “Mmm.” I didn’t look up from sorting through pouches of dried herbs.

    “Tha’s good, ain’t it?” she pressed.

    I could feel her gaze on me. “It’s not anything.”

    Niobe sighed. “Wha’ are you lookin’ for?”

    “I’m making tea. You Cytherans all drink really bland tea.” I lifted a wire mesh ball from a rack on the wall and filled it with a mix of herbs. I’d never been able to perfectly reproduce my people’s blends, but I could make do with what grew on Cythera.

    I took two mugs upstairs along with the standard bowl of porridge, but it turned out to not matter. Avatara was still asleep when I got to his room. The window was still closed; Adriana must not have come yet. His hair seemed cleaner though, and I wondered when he’d had a chance to wash it. I set the tray on the table and curled up in the chair to drink my tea, but when even the morning sun failed to wake him, I left him alone to sleep.

    There were few places of peace left to me in Pnyx. Watching eyes followed me everywhere as if the whole building knew what had transpired with the mage council. I couldn’t go to the garden for fear of encountering Adriana. I spent the morning outside, resting against the sloped wall with the grass stirring around me, but even that reminded me of Simon. Once the sun reached its peak, I went back inside to see if I needed to carry up lunch.

    The guards were gone. Avatara was gone. I stood in the middle of the empty room and took deep breaths. Maybe he felt well enough to visit the common room for lunch, though I doubted he’d want the attention there. Maybe he had gone outside without me. There were lots of perfectly banal possibilities that didn’t involve his death or return to the dungeon.

    Yet no one had seen him. Niobe asked her mother, but he hadn’t been to the common room all day. The gate guards said he hadn’t left. I even asked Protesilaus where I might find Adriana, which earned me a blunt command to not speak to her. I finally had luck in the library, where Selinus assured me that yes, Avatara had been there until recently.

    When I returned to his room, one of the guards blocked the doorway with his sword. “You can’t go in there.”

    “I was just here this morning. What changed?” I said.

    “Uh – the prisoner isn’t in there,” the other guard said, his face going red.

    I folded my arms over my chest. “Then where is he?”

    The guards exchanged uncomfortable looks. “He’ll be back soon,” the first one said.

    “This is ridiculous.” I raised my eyes to the heavens. “Look, I won’t tell anyone you lost him. I don’t want him in trouble either. Just let me wait inside.”

    I collapsed onto the chair next to the bed and rested my forehead on my knees, not caring how my hair tumbled onto the dirty stone floor. Is he avoiding me? Is it that hard to speak to me?

    I must have dozed off, but the creak of the door woke me. I jerked up as Avatara crept in. “Where have you been?” I demanded. “I’ve been looking for you all day!”

    “I uh–” he stopped and then started again. “I was in the library.”

    “Doing what?” I tilted my head and frowned. Clearly he wasn’t going to tell me where he’d been since then.



    Avatara didn’t look at me as he spoke. “Current events. Look, I appreciate you coming to visit, but I’d like some time to think to myself. I don’t have much time left.”

    “Until what?” I put my hands on my hips and suddenly felt very Niobe-like.

    “I go on trial in two days.” He sighed.

    Oh no. I felt dizzy. “For what?”

    “For breaking out and killing a bunch of guards.”

    My jaw dropped. “That wasn’t your fault!” None of it was his fault. By stopping our rescuer assassin from killing more or less at random, he’d actually saved lives that night.

    “I know.” Avatara crumpled into the chair I’d been sleeping in. “I don’t see any alternative.”

    How is there not an alternative? I wanted to shout at him. Everything is an alternative! There was only supposed to be half a year of his sentence left. How long would they lock him up for now? I’d never get him back. “So you’re just giving up?” I asked.

    “Do I have a choice?”

    “Yes.” Choose to fight. Choose to live.

    Avatara finally met my gaze. I searched for hope in his eyes and found nothing. Maybe being in prison had broken him too much. Nowhere in the world could I learn magic to reach inside and mend his spirit. But still, I prayed.

    He lowered his head.

    I turned on my heel and slammed the door behind me.

    “I can’t do it anymore.”

    “Do wha’?” Niobe handed me a hunk of pastry dough and began sorting through a bowl of fruit.

    “See him. Speak to him. Help him.” I dropped it into a pile of flour and pushed my knuckles into it. “They’re accusing him of crimes he didn't commit and he won’t do anything about it.”

    Niobe frowned and flipped her ponytail over her shoulder. “Why don’ you tell ‘em the truth?”

    I couldn’t keep it from her any longer. I knew how much it hurt for someone you trusted to lie to you. “Because I’m responsible for some of them.”

    “Wha’ did you do?” She paused with her paring knife in midair and looked at me warily.

    “Broke Avatara out of prison. Then killed the guard that stabbed him. We were betrayed.” I pressed all my frustration, all my rage, all my grief into the dough, kneading it flat.

    “I’m not afraid to confess,” I said. “But it won’t do any good. Not all of it was my fault. They’d never believe that I could lay half a dozen guards flat anyway. They’ll still blame that on Avatara and then we’ll both get locked up.”

    “Wha’ do you wan’ Avatara ta do?” Niobe asked softly.

    “I just want him to care!” I balled up the dough and flung it against the table. Flour exploded everywhere. “I want it to matter that they’re wrong! I want him to care about something enough to fight for it!”

    “Stop. Stop.” Niobe put down her knife and held my wrists. Her deep blue eyes met mine. “You ‘ave ta tell ‘im.”

    “I can’t.”

    “e won’ change ‘is mind unless you do.”

    “He won’t change his mind even if I do.” I folded in on Niobe and let the tears stream down my face.

    Day 15

    I planned to leave again immediately after taking breakfast to Avatara, but he stopped me on the way out. “Wait,” he said. “I’m going to see Lindus. Will you come with me?”

    There was no point in getting my hopes up. I could still hear the defeat in his voice; see it in the slump of his spine. “Fine,” I said.

    I regretted it as I waited outside the Headmaster’s room. The sight of the massive doors made my skin crawl; I flat out refused to go inside. The minutes ticked by. I shuffled my feet, tired of standing on hard stone.

    “What did you want?” I asked when Avatara came out, accompanied by his guard escort.

    “I’ve been given permission to visit the site,” he said.

    “What site?”

    “You’ll see,” he said. So I was invited too.

    Three guards and a freemage escorted us outside; the mage clamped Avatara’s forearms together with some spell. They were taking no chances. No matter how upset I might be, it pained me to see how Avatara struggled to place his arms comfortably, so I placed my hand on his shoulder a we walked.

    It was only an hour’s walk, but Avatara had to stop and rest often, for which I was secretly grateful. Not a month ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about such a journey, but exhaustion had crept deeper and deeper into my bones. When we turned off the main road and went down a dirt path through the forest, I nearly asked Avatara where we were going, but he struggled enough to breathe just from walking.

    We stopped at the bottom of a hill. Birdsong drifted toward us on the breeze; the scent of evergreen needles filled my nose. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

    “It’s nothing,” he said, and pressed on.

    At the top of the hill stood the charred wreckage of a house. Only two walls were still partially intact. In the remains of what must have been a garden, purple and white petals were scattered across the dirt. Green grass sprawled out around us toward a hedge, save for a scar of dead earth to the east.

    I stood back while Avatara explored the ruins. He picked his way through in silence, as if we were visiting a grave. I wondered if we were. There was no sign of a grave marker, though my own people didn’t use them. Perhaps whoever lived here had similar customs.

    Avatara returned to the front of the house and motioned for me to join him. I sat on the grass with him, and finally, he spoke.

    He told me how he and Desert Fox fought someone named Icel all across Cythera. He told me stories of wraiths and shadow magic. Of Menelaus, who had been possessed by a wraith and his spirit lost, before the wraith ultimately sacrificed itself. Of Desert Fox, who took Menelaus and the wraith’s lives in the very clearing in which we sat. Of Saria, the ranger that Desert Fox had fallen in love with only to lose. And of Avatara himself: how he’d taken the fall for Desert Fox and let himself be taken prisoner so that his friend could carry out their mission.

    The pieces fit together. I studied Avatara, my fingertips pressed to my lips. I couldn’t blame him for disappearing without warning, or for saving a friend that had once saved him, or for worrying about Desert Fox when he first woke in Pnyx. But there was one piece missing.

    “What are you going to do now?” I asked.

    The afternoon sun cast deep shadows on his face. “I will go before the magisterium tomorrow and be sentenced,” he said.

    “That’s it? You’re not going to fight?” The air stopped in my lungs. Maybe that was a blessing. If I’d been able to yell everything that I wanted to, the guards would have arrested me on the spot. I choked back tears. “Why?”

    “I gave my word.”

    Not for this. Not like this. It wasn’t some noble sacrifice to protect someone else. He didn’t even know who had killed Simon. It was nothing. It was giving up. There was nothing left for me to save.

    We stared at each other, tears burning both our faces. I crumpled a handful of grass into my fist. There’s nothing left.

    I leaped up and ran, my feet pounding the dirt, trees sliding past me in a blur, until the house and the hill and everything they meant were gone from sight.

    I rounded the corner at the top of the stairs in Pnyx when a figure grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved. I fell backward and slammed into the brick wall, the breath violently expelled from my lungs.

    “This is all your fault!” Adriana shouted. “I was suspended from my duties, and it’s all your fault! This never would have happened if you hadn’t healed him!”

    “What is wrong with you?” I gasped, holding my hand to my chest. “Maybe you were suspended because you wanted your own patient to die!”

    “I know you healed Avatara! Lindus won’t do anything, but I know it was you!” She thrust forward a crumpled piece of parchment. “I found this in your room. The guards missed it. You were trying to learn healing magic!”

    The one thing I didn’t get rid of. I pulled myself back upright. “Fine. I healed him. What’s it to you?”

    “Why would you do it? How could you care so much for a murderer?” she demanded.

    I shoved Adriana back and she stumbled, collapsing to the ground. “Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you have saved Menelaus’ life if you could? Wouldn’t you do anything to save someone you loved?”

    She stared at me, her mouth wide. “I know what he did,” she panted when she caught her breath. “And after the trial, so will everyone else. He’ll be brought to justice.”

    “You don’t want justice. You want revenge.” I stood over her with my hands clenched. “You wanted him to die before he could even attend his trial. Some impartial healer you are.”

    “I’ll get both.” Adriana scrambled to her feet and faced me, a pint of brunette fury that I towered over. “It doesn’t matter what you did. I’ll make sure he hangs.”

    My fist struck her face with a solid crack. She reeled backward, blood pouring from her nose.

    “You don’t know anything,” I said. “Menelaus was lost already before he died.”

    I pushed past Adriana and ran. I ran through the upper halls to my room, threw open the door, and flung myself into the wall. I screamed, not caring who heard. I slid down the brick wall to the flagstone and screamed and screamed until my throat was raw.

    You’re dead inside already. I can’t save you. There’s nothing left.

    Day 16 (Bells)

    “I’m leaving.”

    Niobe dried her hands on a towel. “You won’ stay for the trial?”

    I shook my head. “I can’t watch that.”

    “I’m sorry it turned ou’ like this.” Niobe drew me into an embrace. I wrapped my arms around her small frame, resting my chin on her head.

    “Tell Protesilaus thanks for everything,” I said. “And maybe tell your mother I’m not an elf.”

    Niobe smiled and then bit her lip. “Wha’ should I tell her you are?”

    “A friend.” I managed a smile in return. “Thank you for taking care of me.”

    “Will I ever see you again?” she asked softly.

    “I don’t know.” I shouldered my rucksack and breathed in the warm smells of the kitchen: wood smoke, Niobe’s pastries in the oven, my dried cinnamon sticks. “I hope so.”

    I stood at the edge of the cliffs by the ocean, wind whipping my hair around my shoulders. I closed my eyes and swayed with the motion. Waves crashed far below me. I had travelled on a ship once in my life, one that brought me from my own land to Cythera, where I started a new life. Whatever happened from this day on, I would have a new life again.

    My foraging knife hung in a leather sheath from my belt. I withdrew the blade and cut a single line down the centre of each palm. Our ritual for the dead.

    I lay down in the grass with my arms and legs stretched out, pressing my palms against the dirt. My palms bled into the earth. The midday sun beat down on me, spots of light dancing across my eyelids. I am the earth. I am the ocean. Whatever happens, I will live.

    The wounds on my palms sealed up, leaving behind two bloodstains on the grass. I lifted my arms into the air and flexed my hands, the pain fading into two tiny white streaks that crossed the lines of my palms. I am alive.

    Then I heard the bells.

    A surge of hope erupted in my body. I stared into the cloudless sky. I’d never make it back in time to help, even if I knew where to go. All I could do was wait and hope. My question rang in my head. What are you going to do when you get out? I didn’t dare think of what would happen if he didn’t make it.

    Could I be content just knowing he was out there somewhere, even if he didn’t come to me? I put my hand in front of the sun and squinted at the light between my fingers. Always there, just out of reach.

    Maybe. Maybe. But I wanted more. I pulled my hand away and let the sun burn into my eyes. “Live with me,” I breathed into the air.

    I sat up to wait, hugging my knees as the wind pulled at my skirt. Sunspots flickered across my vision. The bells tolled across the fields, ringing out to the river, the forest, the ocean.

    And then there he was.

    “I changed my mind,” he said.

    I rose and pulled him towards me. “I know.”

    “I can’t stay here.”

    “I know,” I said and ran my fingers through his hair.

    He slid his arms around my waist. “I can’t run much further.”

    “I know.” I leaned back to look at him, to see the old scars on his face and the dark hair on his jawline.

    “It’s dangerous for you to help me,” he said.

    “I know.” I lifted my hands and pressed my brand new scars against his cheeks. Then I leaned in and pressed my lips to his.

    I just need you to live.

  • Bonus Content: Soundtrack

    Yes, I compiled a soundtrack. No, it doesn't necessarily flow well from one track to the next. No, I'm not going to change it. You can download it here.

    A track list (with corresponding scenes) and a folder of lyrics are included.

    Songs that people other than me might not want to listen to: 2, 3, 8, 23, 26. You can't say I didn't warn you!

    Bonus Content: Trivia

    TS/chron references

    The entire story was conceptualized because after reading The Trial, I got a mental image of Katerei's reaction at the end of day 15. Yes, an entire chron from what wound up as one paragraph. I felt like Katerei had a lot of story left untold.

    Katerei references La Coranich when she reflects on her wolflizard wound, though most of the chron is outdated since I rewrote her backstory.

    Katerei being reported as unconscious at the end of Bell Tolls is totally accurate. :ninja:

    Game references

    I chose Protesilaus over Thrasymedes to be the healer in charge because I liked his portrait better.

    Palaestra was a generic character in the original draft, but her portrait terrifies me so it seemed appropriate to name the character after her.

    There are at least three in-jokes that make reference to the game.

    I followed the map of Pnyx pretty closely, but made a few changes, like the conversion of the northeast library into an infirmary and the installation of windows.


    The chron title is taken from the midpoint song.

    I partially wrote the last scene of day 9 based on the corresponding song.

    The epilogue track and Avatara's soliloquy were chosen very early on, well before I got to writing the conclusion.


    I was watching Pirates of the Caribbean 4 with my family the other day when I saw the missionary and went "Hey, that's how Protesilaus looks to me!"

    In my mind, Avatara looks like a hobo version of Aragorn.

    The first scene I wrote was the day 11 conversation with Avatara, to see how viable the project was. After that, I started writing from the beginning and edited that scene later to fit in.

    At the time of the story, Katerei is 22, Niobe is 18, and Protesilaus is 26. I have no idea how old Avatara is. Ask him. Please.

    There is no point in any story where this illustration occurs: Kat is never wearing her (undamaged) ball gown and cloak at the same time her hair is down, and particularly not outside around any birds.

    At 17 500 words, this story is 2600 words short of the longest chron (The Trial.)

    Things I had to research to write this: dehydration, stab wounds to the stomach, cinnamon cultivation, the safety of river diving (for a deleted scene), capitalization rules when letters are dropped in dialogue due to accents, and brick architecture.

    Katerei's mostly illiterate, but in the alt-world, Avatara taught K to read.

    This post has been edited by iKaterei : 01 February 2014 - 06:08 PM

  • @ikaterei_bot, on 01 February 2014 - 08:01 AM, said in Hym:

    Songs that people other than me might not want to listen to: 2, 3, 8, 22, 25. You can't say I didn't warn you!

    Ironically, the only one I had to skip was 23.


    The entire story was conceptualized because after reading The Trial, I got a mental image of Katerei's reaction at the end of day 15. Yes, an entire chron from what wound up as one paragraph. I felt like Katerei had a lot of story left untold.

    Which paragraph? The crying?


    At the time of the story, Katerei is 22, Niobe is 18, and Protesilaus is 26. I have no idea how old Avatara is. Ask him. Please.

    I was going to wait until someone asked, but... ;)

    At the time of this story, he's 28. (Bonus: At the time of the palace flashback with DF in my story he's 14-15.)
    Note that DM takes place about a year after this story.


    There is no point in any story where this illustration occurs: Kat is never wearing her (undamaged) ball gown and cloak at the same time her hair is down, and particularly not outside around any birds.

    Oops. :ninja:


    Things I had to research to write this: dehydration, stab wounds to the stomach, cinnamon cultivation, the safety of river diving (for a deleted scene), capitalization rules when letters are dropped in dialogue due to accents, and brick architecture.

    Deleted because it didn't work the way you expected, or...?

  • @avatara_bot, on 01 February 2014 - 05:34 PM, said in Hym:

    Ironically, the only one I had to skip was 23.

    OH. That's because a track somehow got deleted from my working playlist and threw off the numbering. I meant 23 and 26 instead of 22 and 25. Fixed in my above post.


    Which paragraph? The crying?


    The screaming and throwing herself into the wall.

    Once I had that scene in my mind, I suddenly realized this is an angry story for Katerei. She's pissed off at a lot of things. Looking back over old stories, she wasn't always weepy. This story is sort of a bridge from immature Kat into the jaded, broken Kat we see in DM/OoR.


    Oops. :ninja:

    Eh, it's my fault. I'm pretty sure I didn't want to draw her fancy hairdo and just went 'screw it, no one will notice.' Then I had to go and point it out.


    Deleted because it didn't work the way you expected, or...?

    It was too lighthearted and didn't match the tone of the story. Too bad, because I had to cut one of my favourite lines from Niobe. I didn't keep a copy of the draft because I chopped up parts and inserted them elsewhere.

    This post has been edited by iKaterei : 01 February 2014 - 06:23 PM

  • Very impressive, Kat! Thank you for writing ^_ __^ I really enjoyed seeing the differences in the characters when the story was told from a different pov - especially how frustrated & desperate to get answers Kat was, I wondered if the mellow, easygoing Kat that Av saw was just a front. I really like Katerei as a character & admire how she tries to put her frustrations aside when she's with Av & be a friend to him.

    We also see a harsher version of Adriana from Katerei's pov. I liked the mostly-composed version that Avatara saw, but this version seems pretty consistent with what we know from The Trial.

    I find myself rooting for Protesilaus & Niobe too : __x

    So this is when Katerei learns healing magic! I can't remember, did she use these skills in DM/OoR?

    This isn't exactly a question about the chronicle, but I still feel like gossip about Avatara's incarceration should've gotten around. Is this a sort of thing that mages just keep quiet about? (like the demon under Pnyx?)


    “What happened to your hair? Alchemy accident?” asked one.

    Ugh. I don’t have time for this drivel. “What happened to your face? Titan accident?” I said.

    Heehee, this one made me laugh. I hope Katerei never gives up "your face" jokes! : __D (Although, I think she does. Maybe someone should work one into a OoR post?)


    I frowned. “How are you supposed to know if you’re in love with someone?”

    Niobe furrowed her brow in contemplation. “My mother says it’s when someone is the firs’ thing you think abou’ in the mornin’ and the las’ thing you think abou’ at night.”

    o_O Creepy. I don't think I'd take relationship advice from Helen....


    Palaestra was a generic character in the original draft, but her portrait terrifies me so it seemed appropriate to name the character after her.

    So the Palaestra in the chronicle isn't the same as the one in the game? I wondered about that. I remember Fiery replaced her with Charax in Witch Hunt, but then I started wondering, what do Master Mages do when they retire? Would she still be living in Pnyx?


    “Enough!” Lindus rubbed the wrinkles on his forehead. “Clearly we have insufficient proof to uphold the charges. Release Katerei.”

    Was he interrogating her without Ascertainment? I wonder, did the mages just give up on Ascertainment after all the trouble with Kesh started? I can't remember if the "ulkesh" mentioned in Ruffian Encampment is still a potential issue.


    "... Here. Drink this.” He uncorked a small flask and tapped a bit of amber liquid into a glass vial.

    I took the vial and sipped, expecting something foul. I was pleasantly surprised. It was slightly sweet and warming. “Thank you.”

    Is this a potion you made up? I don't remember any amber potions in the game, though the hintbook mentioned a yellow "Confusion" potion. It's apparently made from grapes, so it probably would taste sweet. But does that mean the mages have been trying to keep Katerei in a state of confusion? ^_ ****^


    There are at least three in-jokes that make reference to the game.

    I'm guessing one is Helen's bland food. Maybe also people saying the same, unhelpful, thing and/or Pnyx not teaching much besides Runes & Alchemy? That's all I can think of right now : __\ Now I want to re-read it!


    I have no idea how old Avatara is. Ask him. Please.

    When I asked him a few months ago he said he didn't know, maybe 30's by now (I'm also not sure how much time has passed between The Trial and OoR). But now he's answered for sure, so that's nice ^_ __^ Why didn't you just try asking him? : ****P


    At 17 500 words, this story is 2600 words short of the longest chron (The Trial.)

    Nice! Out of curiosity, did you word-count all the chronicles? I mean to do this someday but haven't yet.


    Yes, I compiled a soundtrack.

    Wowev, I wasn't expecting that! ^ ___^ I'll have to download it.

  • @breadworldmercy453_bot, on 02 February 2014 - 03:55 PM, said in Hym:

    We also see a harsher version of Adriana from Katerei's pov. I liked the mostly-composed version that Avatara saw, but this version seems pretty consistent with what we know from The Trial.

    I think Adriana's a good person at heart, but doesn't feel the need to extend 'impartial treatment' to someone who's not her patient, especially someone who's a constant reminder of her internal conflict.


    So this is when Katerei learns healing magic! I can't remember, did she use these skills in DM/OoR?

    She did know the basic principles beforehand, hence why she could muddle her way through more complicated healing, but was better at herbalism which doesn't work so well on internal wounds.

    She healed Radik and Wizard at the start of DM, but still wasn't completely comfortable with spells. She also comments on her lack of healing skills at the start of OoR when caring for Moonshadow and Rapierian.


    This isn't exactly a question about the chronicle, but I still feel like gossip about Avatara's incarceration should've gotten around. Is this a sort of thing that mages just keep quiet about? (like the demon under Pnyx?)

    It probably got around, but not through any channels that the heroes get news from.


    So the Palaestra in the chronicle isn't the same as the one in the game? I wondered about that. I remember Fiery replaced her with Charax in Witch Hunt, but then I started wondering, what do Master Mages do when they retire? Would she still be living in Pnyx?

    Whatever explanation makes you happy. I didn't know she'd been replaced. Maybe it's her daughter Palaestra II.


    Was he interrogating her without Ascertainment? I wonder, did the mages just give up on Ascertainment after all the trouble with Kesh started? I can't remember if the "ulkesh" mentioned in Ruffian Encampment is still a potential issue.

    I deliberately didn't include the spell because it takes all the mystery out of a story. It's basically impossible to write with. There could be any number of reasons they didn't use it, including ethics: it's a pretty big violation of someone's privacy, especially when, as Kat points out, there isn't much evidence against her.


    Plus Lindus is supportive of Katerei's position, but had to appease the other mages by bringing her in for questioning.


    Is this a potion you made up?

    Yup. I don't know any real potions used in the game.


    But does that mean the mages have been trying to keep Katerei in a state of confusion? ^_^

    Haha! Maybe Protesilaus thought she wouldn't be able to hit him again if she was doped up.


    I'm guessing one is Helen's bland food. Maybe also people saying the same, unhelpful, thing and/or Pnyx not teaching much besides Runes & Alchemy?

    ding ding ding Correct!


    When I asked him a few months ago he said he didn't know, maybe 30's by now (I'm also not sure how much time has passed between The Trial and OoR). But now he's answered for sure, so that's nice ^_^ Why didn't you just try asking him? :p

    Because last time I asked, I'm pretty sure he said mid-30s, but we constructed a timeline since then so it might have changed.


    Nice! Out of curiosity, did you word-count all the chronicles? I mean to do this someday but haven't yet.

    I didn't, I'm just going off what Avatara told me.

  • @ikaterei_bot, on 02 February 2014 - 06:44 PM, said in Hym:

    @breadworldmercy453_bot, on 02 February 2014 - 03:55 PM, said in Hym:
    Was he interrogating her without Ascertainment?

    I deliberately didn't include the spell because it takes all the mystery out of a story. It's basically impossible to write with.

    Yeah, Ascertainment is the most difficult spell to work with because you pretty much get the entire picture right away. Some of the guards were traitors in Bells, why didn't the mages simply assemble them all and go down the line using Ascertainment to find out? Well, it wouldn't have made for much of a story.

  • Quote

    It probably got around, but not through any channels that the heroes get news from.

    I was thinking of Sideline in particular. He always seemed to have all the gossip.


    Whatever explanation makes you happy. I didn't know she'd been replaced.

    Eh, I don't think I'd be unhappy with any explanation, though I do wonder what master mages do when they retire, especially the Magisterium teachers. Maybe Palaestra continued to live in Pnyx, or maybe she moved out to retire but returned for Danae's wedding & hasn't left yet, or maybe it's a different Palaestra present at Katerei's interrogation. Whatever ^_ __^


    ding ding ding Correct!

    Yay! dances


    Yeah, Ascertainment is the most difficult spell to work with because you pretty much get the entire picture right away. Some of the guards were traitors in Bells, why didn't the mages simply assemble them all and go down the line using Ascertainment to find out? Well, it wouldn't have made for much of a story.

    Ascertainment is a lousy spell. In the game, the only character I could find who triggered Ascertainment (that is, you get a little note in the convo that you feel he's being dishonest) was Myus. I was planning to do an experiment where I used Ascertainment before every single conversation in the game to see if I could find other triggers, but I killed Miss Shinjy partway through, and I'm too lazy to do that experiment on Kail. Maybe if I could find a way to cheat so that I wouldn't have to replenish my mana, but I'm sure I can't use Pandora's Box on that computer; not sure if I could possibly use ACE! or something else if I could get that on Kail. (Also I think Shorty already has ResEdit on there, but I don't know how to use it. Does anyone know if you can change your Mana with ResEdit?) Anyway, my point is that I'm fairly sure the spell only works on Myus, even though other characters in the game are obviously lying. We could assume that all the other liars were under the influence of Kesh, or maybe that the spell doesn't work on Undine (fake-Pelagon stands out in my memory as an obvious liar) & who knows who's really an Undine agent. Or it could be that Ascertainment really isn't reliable to begin with. In any case, it seems believable to me that the mages would've mostly given up on it by now, considering how often it wasn't working.


    There could be any number of reasons they didn't use it, including ethics: it's a pretty big violation of someone's privacy, especially when, as Kat points out, there isn't much evidence against her.

    I hadn't thought about it being a violation of privacy. I don't know much about our trial system here in America, but I think it's kind of similar in that you have to swear not to tell any falsehoods or lies-by-omission.

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