Normally, Eden Drew liked the sun. She was a big fan of tanning, after all. And she enjoyed swimming in the river, boating and plenty of other outdoor summer activities. She owned eight different swimsuits, twelve sundresses and a vast assortment of other such clothing and accessories to suit the mood. She was a girl who was, if nothing else, prepared for summer.
She even liked camping. An overnight stay at Teardrop Lake up the mountain back in Dunsmith was always a blast. She could even handle a whole weekend at a Provincial Park. Longer if she was sleeping in a trailer.
And horses! Eden loved horses. Her uncle had a farm in Whitepoint. She would go horseback riding all the time as a kid.
But frankly, after four days of nothing but sun, camping and horseback riding, she wanted nothing more than a bed to sleep in, a meal to eat, and to never, ever climb onto the back of a horse again. She was bruised in some very embarrassing places, and her horse, which she had not-so-affectionately named Dumpy by the second day due to the copious amounts of fecal matter the creature ejected from its bowels, stank.
Speaking of stinking, Eden hadn’t had a shower since she left Dunsmith. The few people they came across smelled worse than her horse, and she still wasn’t sure what to make of the Featherclaw.
So when she first set eyes on what appeared to be a small town cresting the other side of the Cantos river, she was elated.
“That’s gotta be Ansem,” said Nico, hopping off of his horse and walking it closer to the river’s edge so it could get a drink. Nico was a bit of a nerdy kid, but he was incredibly smart. He was a couple of years younger than Eden, but they went to different schools. He, like Eden, had been hired by Jim and Grace Burton.
Jim and Grace had seized upon the understanding that trade relations were exactly what the town needed in order to survive. So, after finding themselves unemployed as a result of the Blacklight Event, they took their savings, and started the planning stages of Burton of Dunsmith Enterprises. Which included the hiring of a personal assistant, an inventory manager, and a couple of security professionals.
Eden had gotten the assistant position through sheer nepotism. She had studied to be a paralegal, but her father had worked with Jim Burton for decades, and the two were best friends. Nonetheless, she was attracted by the dollar signs. Almost everyone was starting to have dealings outside the town.
After exhaustive meetings with Corpus Indetae and an arrangement with NalyaRuus, two locals from Halen, Jim and Grace had secured not only the names of whom to enter into business with, but a base of operations at an actual manor house.NalyaRuus had generously offered the use of her family manor in Cilasia.
And now, Halen was in sight. Eden knew it would still be another day or two of travel to Cilasia, but she was excited at the prospect of being back in civilization again.
Well… relative civilization.
“It’s Ansem,” Basil confirmed. Eden looked over to him. Basil Lochside was Halish, one of the soldiers that had swooped in to rescue them. It was Basil’s responsibility to pass along a message to the King, and as such was instructed to escort the group through the Disputed Lands and to Cilasia in the process of delivering his message. He was a talkative man, but Eden didn’t think he was much like other locals that had been to Dunsmith. Basil seemed to take it all in stride, as if he just accepted it. While his countrymen were enamored of all the things Dunsmith had to offer, Basil was more interested in his duty. He didn’t waste any of his time with movies, drinking at the pub, or playing street hockey like many of the other Halish soldiers were doing.
Eden had been watching him a while. He was always the first up in the morning, but he never complained when Eden was the last to pack her tent and be ready to go. She’d never seen him have an emotional reaction of any sort, and that intrigued her. He seemed warm to her, as though he were filled with passions of all sorts. She just never saw him display anything but determination.
“About time,” Cree muttered. Cree was the brawn of the so-called security professionals Jim had hired. Eden had seen him around plenty of times in her life, and he was mostly drunk. He was a regular at the Sporty Pub and worked as the night guard down at the mill. He was big, tough and he knew how to fight. Too bad he was a pig. Eden was getting sick and tired of catching him leering at her. Every time she caught him, he would stare her right in the eye and lick his lips. To be honest, it frightened Eden. She’d brought it up with Grace, and he’d had a talking to by Jim about it, but there wasn’t much else to be done.
And then there was Eric. He was the attentive one. He was always checking on the shipment. He was the type of guy who always had a checklist. He was organized and efficient. While he was technically hired on as the brains half of the security detail, his skills far surpassed just that. He was good at managing people without having to resort to violence, and Eden had never seen him waver from his attention to detail, nor his faith. Eric was also deeply and openly religious. His faith came first in his life. Eden suspected the main reason he’d signed up to come along was so he could spread the news about Christ. Eden, being agnostic herself didn’t really mind, but it cause a fair amount of tension with Jim, who was, among other things, a staunch atheist.
“So, what now?” Jim asked, climbing down from the wagon they had specially made for the trip. It had been rigged up with a six –by-six shipping crate and loaded up with a wide variety of things from Dunsmith. It was, essentially, what the Burton’s business model consisted of. Buy up products from Dunsmith, travel to Halen. Buy up products from Halen, travel back to Dunsmith. Eventually he wanted to open up a permanent shop in both Dunsmith and Cilasia and just run supply trains back and forth.
For now, however, it was a business venture. An exciting business adventure. At least, that was what Eden had pictured. Reality has a funny way of tricking you like that. Still, no matter how large her complaints, she was in it for the long haul now. She was in it for the long haul the moment she stepped out of Dunsmith.
Eden watched as Basil descended down the small hill toward a wooden dock that looked as though it had seen better days. He tied a small banner to a pole and spread it out. He turned to Jim and gestured to it. It was a strange cross, slightly skewed. It was grey, against a golden background. To be honest, it reminded Eden of a swastika, but she doubted that was an intended result.
“It’s the banner of Hillbreaker,” he explained. “It announces that I request passage on behalf of the King.”
“So what if he doesn’t see it?” Cree asked from the back. “We could be here all day.”
Basil smirked. “There are hundreds of people in Ansem, someone will see the banner. Alert the ferryman.” He pointed across the river. “You see? Here he comes.”
Eden looked into the distance and realized he was right. She could see activity on the other side, a couple of men were preparing their ferry. She was relieved to see that it wasn’t a raft. In fact, it seemed pretty sturdy from a distance. She was confident that the boat could hold the weight.
The dock, on the other hand, was a different matter.
“So what does it cost?” Jim asked.
Basil shrugged. “It depends on his mood, and which ferryman you get.” He looked across as the two men hopped onto the boat and started guiding it toward the opposite bank. “Wait,” he said. “Something’s wrong.”
“Something’s wrong?” Eden asked. “What do you mean something’s wrong? I really don’t like the way you said that.”
“Miss, please calm down,” he said. It drove Eden nuts when he called her miss. She wasn’t sure if it was a good nuts or a bad nuts, but he drove her nuts nonetheless. He continued watching the men ferrying across for a moment and suddenly turned back to face everyone.
“It’s an officer,” he said. “A captain.Which means he’s a Lord. I need you all to be on your best behavior.”
“When aren’t we?” Eric piped in.
Basil turned back to the approaching ferry and walked down to the dock. By the time he got to the edge, the officer’s shout could be heard across the water, but she couldn’t quite make out what he had said. Nonetheless, Eden inched closer.
“Eden!” Grace spoke softly. “Eden, get back here.”
Eden ignored her.
“I am Basil Lochside, of the Swift,” Basil shouted back. “I come bearing a message! For the King!”
“And the Freemen?” the officer shouted back.
“They are New Canadians, Captain!” Basil replied. “People from beyond the Veil.”
“You believe such nonsense?” the Captain shot back, his volume lowering the closer he got.
“I’ve seen it with my eyes and heart, My Lord,” Basil assured.
The Captain was now close enough to step onto the dock. He walked up to Basil and studied him for a moment. His eyes then passed to Eden, and behind her to the others.
“My name is Captain Errin,” he said.
“I know who you are, my Lord. You are Nilus Errin, Lord Captain of the Eastern Spear, Prince of Itelier Province,” Basil said, and bowed his head.
Eden’s ears perked up. Did she hear that right? A prince? An actual prince?
“I see I am known even among the Swift, Basil Lochside,” the captain replied, smiling. His face suddenly turned grim. “I fear I have disturbing news, Basil. Just a few nights ago, the King was attacked.”
Basil suddenly stiffened. “Attacked?” he asked. “By whom? Is he well?”
Errin shook his head sadly. “I fear not,” he replied. “He was assassinated. Her Majesty Hillbreaker has assumed the throne.” He sighed, and shook his head sadly. “We’ve orders to have General Liass return at once with his forces. A messenger was sent yesterday morning into the Disputed Lands.”
“Wait,” Eden said suddenly. “You’re calling the soldiers back?”
Errin regarded Eden for a moment and nodded. “It is by the Queen’s order. I’ve also explicit instructions to monitor the crossings into Halen from the Disputed Lands. We heard of the victory against Vector. For the past week we’ve been dealing with the remnants of their forces crossing into Halen to seek asylum from Vector. They told some unbelievable stories,” he explained. “I’d assumed they were rubbish.” He took a moment to look past Eden at the others present, and let his vision linger on the wagon’s rubber wheels and shipping crate. He looked back to Basil. “Do you speak for these people, Basil?”
Basil nodded. “I was given a message to deliver,” he said. “These people are part of the message.”
“The King has passed on, Basil. Surely the oath of the Swift cannot transcend death.”
“Neither Daemon nor Paragon nor wretched path shall sway the duty of the Swift,” Basil recited.
Errin smiled. “I like that, Basil Lochside. I truly do. And I remember such dedication. I am certain we’ll meet again.” He looked over to Eden and the others. “I will have to record your names, of course, but as a charge of the Swift, I cannot bar your passage.”
“I thank you, Lord Captain,” Basil said.
“Well, come then,” Errin exclaimed. “I can take your names on the ferry.”
The ferry was just big enough to fit the group, horses and all aboard. It was a little cramped, but Eden stuck with her horse during the trip across. Basil stood next to her, looking out toward the approaching northern bank.
“So what does it mean? If the King’s dead, I mean,” Eden asked. She suddenly regretted saying it that way. It sounded crass coming out.
Basil, however, didn’t take offense. “It means I must deliver my message to the one who holds the throne. The Queen, and only the Queen.”
“So the Swift, they’re like messengers, then?”
Basil shot her a look of offense for the briefest of moments, then calmed his features. “A messenger is a man who will deliver a written letter from one general to another during a battle. They are fleet-footed to be sure, but useless on their own.” He gave her a serious look. “Swift are far more than that. A Swift holds no allegiance to any army, or King. We take our charge to its intended recipient. We overcome whatever obstacles by man or by Veil and we complete our charges to the death.” He motioned over toward Errin, who was currently locked in conversation with Jim and Eric. “If he had tried to prevent our crossing, I’d have slit his throat. My oath demands it.”
“But he’s a Lord,” Eden pointed out.
“And I’m a Swift,” Basil asserted in such a way as to leave no question in her mind that he was dead serious about it. “It’s regretful sometimes, but even a short delay for a Swift could mean the difference between life and death. Sometimes the rise or fall of entire noble houses rests upon the shoulders of a Swift.”
“So they’re sort of like… assassin-messengers, then?”
Basil wore the offended look again. “Never. The oath forbids us from doing harm to our recipients. If any Swift were to needlessly kill innocents, or take payment to murder another, they would be exposed and hunted. They would be killed without remorse. Any Swift that falls is no longer a Swift, and is a danger to all the Pactlands.” He looked at Eden. “Nor do we spy. We do not sell information. We do not dare engage in such practices. To do so would be to ruin the Swift, and all that it has built since its inception.”
“But what if you deliver a bomb or something? A letter laced with poison?”
“Then we shall deliver it to its intended recipient.”
“Even if it kills them?”
“In the event that it occurs, it is well understood that the Swift are not responsible for the death itself. It’s happened before. It’ll likely happen again. While an efficient way to kill someone, it’s impractical. We will expose the dispatcher. We are not the hand that holds, but the dagger itself.” He looked at Eden dead-on. “I suppose you could refer to me as a tool.”
Eden couldn’t repress a giggle.
Basil wore a look of confusion.
“I’m sorry,” Eden said. “I didn’t mean to laugh. We call someone a tool usually when they do something stupid.”
“I don’t understand,” he said plainly. “Why? Are tools not objects of use? If a person is a tool, are they not beacons of creation?”
Eden thought about it. Tools were useful. She suddenly put some critical thought into the subject. It was strange how easily the Halish and Canadians got along, despite the vast differences in culture. Sure, there was the occasional fight, especially at the pub back in town, but for the most part, they almost complimented each other. Basil had just successfully scattered all traces of Eden’s resolve to use what had once been her most commonly used insult by bringing up a single point.
“I guess they are. I never thought of it that way,” she replied.
“Then perhaps you should.” He motioned to the front of the ferry. “Nearly there.” He craned his neck back and looked to the others. Lord Captain Errin had finished taking the other’s names and came back toward the two of them.
“All seems in order, Lochside,” he said. “Mister Burton showed me the letter from Lady Ruus. I saw her recently, at the Harbinger’s Ball. She seems well invested in these Freeme—“ He paused as he made eye contact with Eden. “My apologies.These Canadians.” He smiled. “Whether the stories are true or not, your people definitely have some items of interest to bring in trade.” He held up a small object, clearly of Earth origin. “A flashlight, it’s called. It apparently casts light in the dark without use of magick. Mister Burton graciously offered it to me as a gift. I do hope it performs as well as night as he claims.”
Basil nodded. “It casts more light than even a lantern. Perhaps as useful as having a pyromagi light your way,” he said. “That one is powered by the winding of the crank on the side. Should you find it growing dim, simply wind it. A useful tool, even among the Swift. I have purchased several. May it never fail you, Lord-Captain.”
“I do hope not,” Errin replied as the ferry finally connected to the other side of the Cantos. He stepped off. “There is room for all of you at the Lanternlighter,” he announced. “They will provide protection for your things as well. It is unwise to travel the road between here and Arronay at night. There are not as many bandits in Halen as there are in the Disputed Lands, but the ones we have are unforgiving. A Freeman bandit will take your things and leave you to die. Here, they’ll simply kill you and hide the bodies. I daresay having a Swift among you would deter them, but take a care on the road.”
“Thank you, Lord-Captain. I will take your advice and remain vigilant,” Basil replied.
And with a nod, Lord-Captain Errin walked toward a wooden building nearby and started talking to the soldier within.
After the group had fully gotten off the ferry, horses and all, they stopped in the center of the square. Around them, villagers wandered about. It was clear they saw no end of strangers from the Disputed Lands. They clearly saw the group in the center of the town as an oddity. Often Freemen would come to trade, and only a few weeks prior, Nalya Ruus had led a group of Canadians through riding quads. Ryan and Terra, who Eden counted among her circle of friends, was among them.
She remembered what she had been going through during the month after the Blacklight Event as her own transitional period. She’d gone from studying at Malaspina College one day, to being stranded in the Pactlands with two-thirds of all her friends and family a world away the next. Eden was practical, however. She tended to adapt quickly to new situations. She was pretty adept at it. She went to Italy after she’d graduated high school and wasted no time getting in tight with the locals. A week after the Blacklight, she’d resigned herself to the idea that she might never see her family or friends again, and made the resolution to honor their memories and live her life.
Within two weeks, she realized she had to re-assess her life goals. Law as an industry was about to bloom into something far larger than what she had originally anticipated getting into back on Earth. Seven lawyers came across during the Blacklight Event. And at least three out of the five she’d met weren’t interested in Eden for her clerical skills. And besides, with the complete overhaul of the legal system happening in Dunsmith at that very moment, Eden knew she didn’t want to get swept up in it. Her paralegal course was nothing more than a means to an end. A stepping-stone to where she wanted to be.
And that was, simply put, she wanted to be an event planner for charity organizations. It had been her life’s dream since the first time she had gone to a charity event with her aunt. Everything about it filled her eyes with stars.
But, so far as she knew, it was a pipe-dream.
Hence the eagerness with which she accepted the offer to travel to Cilasia. She needed to see it for herself. She needed to experience the local culture. And perhaps, if she was lucky, introduce some her own culture to the people there.
As the group made their way to the Lanternlighter’s Tavern, she made sure to look around and study the town and its people. It all appeared very seventeenth-century Europe to her. It was eerily reminiscent of some period movies she’d seen over the years. She understood that most of the people were illiterate well before leaving, which would be a hindrance, but not an insurmountable one.
Either way, she would bear close study on the things that might help her in Cilasia. She had a job to do, but she also had her own plans. She just wasn’t sure how to execute them, just yet.
Dey had changed little since Arie had last laid eyes upon it. Still the House of Windchaser stood majestically upon the ocean, surrounded by breakwater. Still, the buildings of the royal quarter stood tall, clean and clumped together. Down along the coast she could see the prison which had once kept her brother’s stone-affixed soul. Seeing the building in the distance induced a feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach. Tam might not be her brother anymore—in truth, he never was, but that didn’t mean she didn’t love him as one.
But thoughts of Tam were second only to thoughts of Boomer. Boomer, who had saved her life. Boomer, who had mercilessly slaughtered any Vectoran unlucky enough to be within sight of him after she had been shot by an arrow. Boomer, who she had little doubt was coming for her, regardless of her plea to leave her be.
It would be folly if he did. Shavi was full of dangers that even Boomer, with the power of a Psimagi, would be hard-pressed to defend against. But still, regardless of the danger, a small part of her hoped he would.
Arie turned back from the bow of the ship and watched the crewmen throw grappling hooks to the nearby dock, pulling the ship in close in preparation for docking. Not ten feet away from her stood Phearon Tome, her former teacher. He seemed to be looking upon the House of Windchaser silently.
“What happens now?” Arie asked him.
Tome looked back and regarded her for a moment. “Scaszi will be expecting us,” he explained. “We can’t leave him to wait. We should waste little time in seeing him. There’s much to be done.”
Arie nodded. The feeling in the pit of her stomach worsened. To say she was nervous to be seeing the man who had sentenced Tam to be removed from his body and imprisoned in stone was an understatement. The same man who had sent Tome to search for her, authorizing the use of whatever methods he deemed necessary.
But this was Phearon Tome. A man who had been as warm to her as her own mother.
No. Not mother. Adoptive mother. Muria Boas shared no blood with Arie.
Nonetheless, Tome had been kind to her. Always. Even after having traipsed entirely across the Pactlands to seek her out, he never raised his voice to her. Never raised a fist in anger. Instead, he was calm. Constantly. Almost to a fault.
Which was twice as strange considering the way he regarded others during their journey back. Tome spoke with authority and force. If he couldn’t convince someone to do something, he would intimidate them into it.
But not Arie. He let her be. He allowed her freedom. If she refused him something, he would accept it. For all the man’s faults, and for the name which Tome invoked, the High Magus Council, she found she trusted him. Implicitly, almost.
He promised to protect her. He promised he would allow no harm to come to her, and by proxy, anything or anyone she cared about. That included the people of Dunsmith. The town which had accepted Arie as one of their own on the first day after meeting her.
Arie might have been born in Shavi. She might truly be the daughter of Mystra Windchaser, and as such heir to the House of Windchaser, but she found these things secondary to the loyalty she felt to the Canadians who had left their world for her own.
Arie Boas was a citizen of Dunsmith, and as far as she was concerned, she would die a citizen of Dunsmith.
But now she had trials to face that Dunsmith could not help her with. Tome knew of her true lineage, she knew, but he did not speak of it. When she’d brought it up to him, he acted as though he’d known all along, but would not speak of it. As though it were a chore for him to acknowledge. Tome was, as he had always been, an enigma to Arie.
And yet, she trusted him. If not for his clear ability as a Geomagi, she might have thought him a Psimagi playing with her mind.
Finally, the ship pulled up next to the dock and the gangplank lowered. Arie strapped her sack over her shoulder. Before she had left Dunsmith, she had made sure to take supplies for the trip, including several objects of Dunsmith origin. The purple backpack with a Roots logo emblazoned on the side and a pair of Adidas running shoes on her feet had been the most obvious, drawing questioning looks from the crewmen aboard the ship and travelers they’d come across on the road. While the cloak she wore was clearly of Pactlands origin, every other article of clothing she had with her were purchased in Dunsmith, or borrowed from Lily. The pocket knife she kept tucked beneath her cloak in the waistband of her slacks allowed her to feel a little more comfortable about her predicament.
But still, she doubted harm would come to her. As she understood things, she needed to be kept safe and alive if the Council was to get any use out of her.
With the gangplank lowered, Tome and Arie made their way down to the dock and walked along into the city.
“You there,” Tome called to the guardsman at the little shack at the end of the dock.
The guard turned back to regard him. At first, he had a strained look on his face, but as soon as he recognized the telltale cloak of a Master Geomagi, he straightened his posture and put his fist to his heart.
“My Lord,” he greeted. “How may I be of assistance?”
“A carriage,” Tome replied. “We desire transit to the Academies.” Tome flipped the guard a gold coin. The guard caught it effortlessly, and his gaze slid past Tome to Arie. It lingered for a moment, and then he nodded and turned to another guard across the wide avenue that ran along water’s edge, whistling loudly.
The other guard noticed it and whistled in turn, twice. Further in the distance, she could hear three whistles.
Tome turned back to Arie. “Okay, Dumpling,” he said. “You remember what I’ve told you?”
Arie nodded. During the trip, Tome had taken it upon himself to continue her studies, with a slight difference. While he did not explain why, he had her working on certain exercises of the mind. He’d been teaching her the art of visualization, the utilization of her imagination when using her powers. It didn’t always make sense, though. For nearly an hour of every day since they’d left Dunsmith, he’d instructed her to remember differently. An exercise, he claimed, that would help her to focus her power more. She didn’t honestly see how it would help her focus her powers to replace certain things she’d remembered with made-up nonsense. It was always different, too.
At first, he’d asked her to describe the cars he’d seen in Dunsmith, right down to the most minute detail. Once she had described it, he had her piece-by-piece replace the thick rubber wheels with wheels of wood in her memory. The glass windows then became open portals. The engines were replaced by horses or myrnah.
Airplanes and the helicopters were then replaced by trained birds. Television was replaced by plays. He was very clear about how she was to remember these things, and even though Arie didn’t understand, she replaced the sights in her memories with these things. Of course she couldn’t forget the truth, that television and electric lights and automobiles were wondrous things to behold, but with the constant repetition running through her mind, whenever she pictured them in her mind, she saw what Tome had been instructing her to see.
Then, only the previous day as they’d set sail for Shavi did Tome explain the importance of it. The less she understood, the better off she and the people of Dunsmith would be. If the people of Dunsmith were as important to her as she believed them to be, then Tome would honor that, and do what he could to protect them. The best way was to make it seem as though they had little advantage over Shavi in terms of their techknowledge. They would question her, of course. They might even bring in a psimagi to pull the images out of her head.
And the only way to fool a psimagi would be to remember things differently than they were.
The idea shocked Arie. And even more than that, the idea that Tome would willingly help to her deceive the men who had charged him with her recovery surprised her. As she’d thought for a long time, Tome was an enigma. She simply did not understand whose side he was one.
Even after she asked him outright, he only gave her a wan smile and simply told her that he is a man who keeps his oaths.
The revelation had allowed her to understand the importance of disguising her memories. So she spent much of the night going over the things she’d learned of Dunsmith and the people within. More importantly, the things she hadn’t told Tome about. Like Boomer. The Dunsmith man she’d fallen for. The man who had saved her life, and the man who was a Psimagi.
If the Council learned of Boomer’s abilities, they would probably seek his destruction. So, taking Tome’s cue, she began the process of remembering things not as they appeared, but how she wanted them to appear.
But one could not disguise an emotion the way one could disguise an automobile or an airplane in the mind’s eye. Her feelings for Boomer could well betray him, and no matter how she tried to remember Boomer differently, it all boiled down to the deep longing she felt for him.
And so, her only respite was to not think of him. It was easier said than done. Even for all her trying, his face appeared regularly in her mind. His voice resounded clear in her memory.
But still, she nodded to Tome. “I remember,” she said. “I’ll do my best.”
“Good. We’ll first go to the Academies and have you change. It wouldn’t do to draw attention to yourself the way you’re dressed.”
“I rather like these clothes,” Arie protested.
“I’ll not take them away from you, Dumpling. They’re yours to keep, but it’s important to remember the severity of this situation. If they feel you have any form of loyalty to Dunsmith, they’ll likely try to use it to manipulate you.”
“It’d be nice to know what they’re planning to use me for,” Arie complained.
Tome sighed. “In good time, Dumpling,” he said. “I do not wish it kept from you, but it’s important for now that it is. At least until the time is right.”
“And when will the time be right?” Arie asked.
Tome delivered another wan smile. “We will soon find out,” he replied.