“We should ask the Hellmages.”
Silence exploded from the far end of the long, oaken table, reverberating through the Mages’ Council as they took in Britta’s statement.
We should ask the Hellmages. Siraj flinched as the old mage’s words echoed through his head. Beneath the table, he turned an orb of hardened light between his fingers nervously.
“Why do you say that Councilwoman Britta?” Robin, Chair of the Council, kept her voice was steady, belaying the tension causing the empty fireplace behind her to flicker with the memories of flame. Had it been winter, and the fires lit, they the entire Council would be feeling the scorch of the fire mage’s emotions.
Britta’s brow furrowed as if she was confused by the question. A lie, an act, it almost had to be. Britta was ancient, even among immortal mages. Very little confused the mage who may have taken her name from old Britannia or given the empire its name, no one knew for sure. “Esteemed Council. No one knows death like the Hellmages and death is what we have.”
“You would have us consult with abominations?” Sarah, leader of the earth mages, spoke over the suddenly groaning stones beneath them, her fury echoing up through the chamber’s flagstone floor.
“I would have us consult with whoever can answer questions about your dead mage, Councilwoman.” The air stilled again, the stones going quiet as Britta’s words sank in. It was true, the dead mage was an Earthworker and Sarah’s, far more than he was anyone else’s. A stone mage from her clan who died deep beneath the earth’s surface while investigating a place where the bones of the world trembled when they shouldn’t. He had carried no wounds, but agony written on his face and companions who reported mysterious, source-less pain that lessened the further they got from where the body had been found.
“Your memory wanes, Islemage.” Sarah’s voice was cold. Every stone embedded in the myriad jewellery worn by the Council Mages rattled with her fury.
“Does it, Earthqueen?” Britta’s voice held none of Sarah’s fury and far more of a threat. The Council’s citadel sat on an island and all islands, with their intimate balance of land and sea, sky and magma, belonged to the ancient mage with jade eyes and blue spirals across her flesh.
Sira’s eyes followed the woad, the endless swirls and spirals tracing the veins up her arms, diving beneath her clothes, and crawling up her collar across her throat. Immortality made most mages leery of permanent changes to their bodies, but Britta wore her marks proudly, bright as any battle paint. Tonight, she looked every inch the Pictish goddess she’d once been worshipped as.
Sira’s gaze swept up off the curved line over her pulse to meet the Islemage’s eyes and realized she was staring at him too. Assessing the Lightkeeper in a way that made him spin the orb of solid sunlight in his palm faster.
“And who would we send to the Hellmages, Councilwoman Britta? Who could we send that would not be killed on sight to feed their magecraft?” Robin’s question cut through the tension in the room with cold practicality.
Britta was still weighing him with her gaze and at her silence the rest of the Mages’ Council turned towards him too. Sira crushed the hardened sun in his palm and raised his hands from beneath the Council table, resting them palms down and staring at his fingers, at the way his knuckles whitened beneath the burnt gold of his skin when he pressed his joints into the surface.
“Of course.” The green mage Councilman’s words were slow, like the circulation of sap through an old forest. “Send the light mages’ pet heretic, who better to find the outcasts?”
Sira’s jaw fluttered. Heretics were excommunicates of the Palace Under the Sun and he was a Lightkeeper. Powerful and respected, the furthest thing from a heretic.
Even if he was also the youngest mage on the Council by several centuries.
“But could he find them?” Sira knew Robin didn’t mean to speak over him like a child, it only sounded that way because he couldn’t find the words to speak for himself.
“Surely the orphan knows something.” The water mage Councilwoman, a Seawitch wreathed in pearls and coral, had a voice as sibilant as the slide of water across stone.
Yes, he did know something. It didn’t mean he wanted to share it. Those documents were all Sira had of his parents—whatever else they had been, they’d given him to the Palace when he was an infant and he wouldn’t betray their trust.
“You could send Peacekeepers.” Sira’s suggestion was softer than he wanted, his eyes still on his hands, his blanched knuckles.
“Peacekeepers find and destroy, they do not investigate or parlay with Hellmages.” Robin wasn’t wrong. The light mages trained to search out heretics, Hellmages, and other trespassers weren’t exactly known for anything but their abilities to burn enemies to ash.
Sira finally looked up, his eyes again landing on the Islemage, retracing the patterns on her skin. Not quite glyphs, no one but Healers could glyph skin and expect something to happen, but markings of meaning nonetheless. Something from a misty past he, a child of the Victorian era, barely brushing a century old and little more than a youngling by mage standards, couldn’t fathom. She was so old, so experienced, a mother to many, many mages when their kind were so rare.
He’d be a fool to discount her wisdom.
“Lightkeeper Siraj” His full name and title. The name his parents had given him, the title he’d earned because of the raw power contained in his core. “Will you embassy with the Hellmages and find out who or what killed the Earthworker?”
And that was the real reason the Council sat here. An immortal mage, a powerful one, was dead under mysterious circumstances and someone needed to find out why. Someone needed to find out who could kill one of their own.
Sira met the Chair of the Mages’ Council eyes. She would call on his Oath and order him if he deflected again, but he could see she didn’t want to.
She wanted this to be his choice.
Slowly, he swept the room. The eyes of his fellow Council Members were considering, some amused, some scornful, some expressionless.
The weight of their waiting made him want to call another orb of light to spin between his fingers, to take courage from the press of the tiny sun against his flesh.
Instead he lifted his hands in acquiescence. “As the Council wishes, I will find a Hellmage and make your inquiries.”
Jana glanced up at the man her minion brought to the back office and then back at her records, her eyes confirming what her ears had already known—he was impressive, this man with summer-sweet skin and gleaming, golden eyes. Power, the warm fuzzy kind, hummed out of his body, when he moved, she heard the distant song of a heavenly chorus announcing his sunlit presence.
A Lightkeeper, purifier, a paladin, a light wielder of the highest order.
If he’d come in company, he’d be one of their hunters, the light mages who tracked and killed her kind and buried or burned their perfectly good carcasses, rather than scavenging them for parts like any Hellmage would. That he came alone told her he was not here to kill her outright, Jana had not raised enough noise for Peacekeepers to chase her.
As it was, his presence was still danger to the likes of her. If he chose, his touch could be her death. Lightkeepers as powerful as him could cleanse magecraft dark as hers with only their hands, no glyphs, no incantation, no ritual, just touch.
The thought sent a slither down her ribs and into her crotch, warm and wanting.
“Well, what have you brought me, Lizzy?” She didn’t look up to address the minion, a minor demon bound to a human shell, who tended the bar downstairs and saved her a mint on hiring mortal bouncers. Even minor demons could manhandle a rowdy customer out the door, and channel the power of the customer’s anger or pain or embarrassment up to Jana while she was at it. There wasn’t much power in the brief interactions, the brushes with violence on such a small, second-hand scale, but Jana liked the feel of a conduit almost as much as she enjoyed harvesting power directly. “And why does it smell like disinfectant?”
“He says he comes to Bargain.”
A Bargain? What could she have that a Lightkeeper wanted to Bargain for? Jana had plenty in her keep, but nothing that could serve him. Nothing that he could know about, at least.
“Really, disinfectant? You came to Bargain with a club owner?”
His hands were on the scarred surface of her desk, he was leaning towards her and his scent, sunshine and crisp, mountain air, reached her. When he shifted his weight and his fingers moved, she saw the clean places they left behind on the century-stained wood. It was a position meant to intimidate, standing over her like this.
“No, I came to Bargain with a Hellmage.”
She pushed back her chair and stood, leaning across the desk to meet his gaze and placing her hands so that her fingers lay on top of his. Their noses were just inches apart and she thrilled at the little pain the contact in their hands brought. The burn of his touch purifying her flesh.
Jana let the thrill show in her smile.
“Now what bluebird sang that in your ear, sweet paladin?” The club she ran had been a pub, and before that a saloon, and before that a whorehouse, a trading post, a remote outpost on the edge of frozen nowhere, but always operated by Hellmages, never found by Peacekeepers or that pissant Council that governed the rest of the mages. He knew what she was and he knew this place, but he didn’t know her name, and that was good. Names were powerful things amongst Hellmages. The truer the name, the easier it was to Compel, or worse.
His face was smooth. “No songbirds in your stable, Hellmage, I know you of old.”
She was not old. A century was hardly ancient in mage-terms. Her house certainly wasn’t eager to make her existence widely known.
“There are no Lightkeepers amongst my old friends unless…” She smiled, mystery unravelled. “Unless I knew them before they were Lightkeepers.” Jana savoured her revelation, the way her words hardened the light mage’s features. “You are the Disowned. Wrath’s only begotten traitor.”
His smile was tight. “You know as well as I that if Wrath sits on my family tree, he is not my father, or even my father’s father.”
“Oh little Lightkeeper, who told you that?” She leaned forward further, until her lips brushed his as she whispered. “Only one fallen from such a terribly high place could father power like yours.”
And then she kissed him. Because he was light and heat and ferocity, because his essence was song in her ears and his eyes were fire on hers, because he tasted like all the things she would never be.
Because her lips surprised him and for a heartbeat, the barest fraction of a life, she tasted his sin, sweet enough to sate even the monsters cradled inside her bones.
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