The rain was louder on the second floor, or they were closer to the noise. Staccato plips on the red ceramic roof tiles. The old wood scaffolding holding up the exterior brick creaked in time with a bronze ring that held a lantern on the main post. Felfet sat at her great aunt’s table, mentally numb, still draped in the ruined dress she had walked down the mountain in—all for a prize that was no longer hers.
The wooden chair dug into her legs. Felfet’s hat sat on the floor next to her, drawing her eyes away from the half empty teacup offering its best invitation from the table. Equal parts pride and fear, the green hat was a symbol of all that she had accomplished, and all that had just slipped through her fingers for reasons at once absurd and incomparable. She had given the sword up to Herren. Of course she had. What else could she have done?
“Damnable thing.” Mureal said softly and stood up from the table to fetch the kettle off the stone stove. Felfet watched the tea flow from the spout into her cup, momentarily distracted by the amber color in the candlelight. The elder magician sat back down, and lit her pipe, briefly flashing her ruined teeth as she took the bit into the corner of her mouth.
“Me’n Safren found that sword fifty-two years ago, for all that years matter in the Golden Summer. Your dad had just been born, in fact, though I didn’t know it at the time.” The thunder of the storm was growing more distant, the creaking joints of Mureal’s chair were nearly its equal. She paused for just long enough to exhale, and give Felfet the opportunity to respond, but there was no response so the old magician continued:
“We were both studying at the Colloquium, much like yerself I wasn’t from a Courtier family and Safren was, but we got along just fine. She stood up for me more times’n I can count and I helped her through the coursework she didn’t understand. Convame clan’s more inclined toward the Ethereal magics than the Corporeal. Ghosts’n such, fortune telling, Ethereal’s usually less reliable than Corporeal on account of the ghosts doing as they please, but the Convames all take an oath on their death bed to answer the call of their kin. Generations of ‘em, powerful stuff.
“So, there we were in our twenties, full Greenhats and we decide that we should both become Courtiers. Well…I decided, Safren took it as a given, it’s what she had been raised for and she couldn’t see any other way. The fey only offer patronage to people they find interesting, folks that the fey thinks will get them what they want as much as the other way ‘round, so I did what you did. Set off to find something extraordinary and prove myself to them. Safren came along, and we were bound and determined to pull it off.
“We went north from Melythis, through the wooded hills, all the way out to the veil. Those towering clouds that surround this whole world of ours, bright and beautiful in the sun from a distance but up close, on the ground? It’s like a golden haze, a thick fog where everything just sort of blurs out like smeared ink. There’s a river there, it doesn’t have a name in any of the Colloquium’s books, and in the mud and silt on the bank we found the sword. Left behind, buried in the mud. It was red-brown, like bloodrock, marred by the water and the song of some forgotten fey. We took it back to the Colloquium full of pride and excitement. Tried a hundred different things to clean it up, lime and vinegar did it, and an abrasive.
“As soon as we realized that it had runes inscribed on the surface we stopped using the abrasive, of course. Luckily, nothin’ was damaged, at least I don’t think so. I worked out the formula, realized there was no way a normal fire could be stoked hot enough for long enough to make the metal. Amazing stuff, really, it’ll take a chunk out of a bronze sword if the edge isn’t hardened properly. We were all set to present our finding to the board when the trouble started.
“It was a bright, hot day, thick air outside. One of those days that makes you glad to be in Melythis where the streets are set to catch the breeze off the Ellyth. I was in my Colloquium workshop trying to work out a way to build a kiln that could keep the heat we needed to work the metal in the formula when Safren came in with Alin, both of them in a state. Alin was already an instructor in Corporeal Magic at the Colloquium, a good half a decade head start’ll do that.
“’Where’s’it?’ he blustered, you know how he does, squashed all the words together. Well, there it was on the table for anyone to see, it’s not like we were hiding the thing. So, Safren had gone and told Alin because he had to file for the presentation, and he had run straight to the workshop to see for himself. They call it the grey-bright: steel. Some group of folks—giant spawn, most likely—had worked it out long before the Golden Summer began. They’d tried to wage a war on the Bronze King, didn’t want the world to be saved, so he wiped them out. As is his way. Profane. That’s the word Alin used to describe it. Unnatural.
“He told us to get rid of it, and that he’d work something out as far as our petition to the board to become Courtiers. Well, sure, but the only problem was neither of us knew of anything that could effectively damage the steel and besides that, taboo or not the formula seemed important. That’s a thing about Safren, you see. Ethereal magic is, itself, a taboo subject. Any ol’person can go around invoking the dead, and sometimes they might even answer, so we say…you know, don’t do that. Consistent and reliable, that’s the hallmark of the Corporeal Magic that our world is built on, and Ethereal is about the opposite. But the Convame clan? They worked out how to use it, and well, so…we decided to hide the sword, just in case.
“We came back to the Redfens, back home, up to Garrison Mount, and a cave that we had found as kids. The crypt of the giant Mateo, one of Lyravatan’s children. Weird place, fish on the walls, colder than anything. My own gran, she used to say that before the Golden Summer there was a whole season of cold. Can’t hardly believe it, how would anything grow? So, we wrapped ourselves up in as many blankets as we could, pushed our way inside the cave to the door. Pried it open with a lever—Safren’s kin told us how, it’s amazing what the dead know. Inside there was Mateo’s coffin, and a fountain of liquid cold. We left the sword there, and took off.
“Our families used to go up to the ruins on Garrison Mount on vacation, that’s how your dad knew about the cave, the kids found it messin’round in the King’s Thorn. He never really knew what it was though, just something interesting in the mountains. Alin was true to his word, at least in partial, Safren was offered patronage by Kayfir the greater ephen fey of the Redfens forest. Grand old oak spirit, Pirea’s his knight you might say. I got nothin’ for it, but Greenhat’s better’n no hat. The work I did on that fool sword set me up to be the best kilnsage still livin’ anyway.”
Mureal put down her pipe, knocked it twice on the corner of the table, and dumped the spent ashes on the floor.
“Are you happy with how things turned out?” Felfet ran her fingers through her hair to get it out of her eyes, it was stiff from dried sweat and wholly unpleasant. She hadn’t meant to look her great aunt in the eye, but when the older woman’s gaze flinched away Felfet realized that she had been staring.
“S’not a bad life, Fel, being a magician. You don’t know where you might end up.”
“I know.” Felfet stood and grabbed her hat, Mureal stood as well and Felfet gave her a hug, “Thank you, Aunt Mureal.”
“Anytime you’re in Trefen, you come on, okay?” Felfet nodded but tried not to speak to avoid having to taste the tobacco hanging on Mureal’s cloths and breath, “Love you, child. My sister would be so proud of you.”
“Love you too, Aunt Mureal.” Felfet mumbled as quickly as she could and then made her way to the stairs. The sounds of the rain on the roof had stopped entirely, “I need to go and find my team, they have been waiting for quite some time at this point.”
“Stop by before you leave town, and I’ll make sure you’ve got food for the road back to Melythis.”
“Will do!” Felfet called back up from the bottom of the stairs, and then quickly left the workshop trying not to look at the space where Pirea had been standing a few hours prior.
With the passing of the storm, the sky above the Redfens had taken on the bold colors of evening in Vanoree. The hour was late enough that Trefen had largely decided to stay asleep. Felfet made her way from Mureal’s workshop to the inn where she and the others had stayed when they first passed through. Along the riverbank the small waterfall and current were noisily process the increased waterflow from the storm, stained a ruddy grey brown from the red clay run off. The road beneath Felfet’s feet was slick and muddy. She walked it with tenacious purpose, her hat clutched at her side in a death grip.
The inn was just passed the old bridge at the bend in the road, the tall wooden building sat near the tree line at the edge of the town. The droning cicada song and pine trees cast black in evening silhouette drew her back to the confrontation with Herren and Pirea, but she pressed on. The door to the inn was a memory before she even really noticed that it had passed her by. Across the lobby, ignoring glances as she hurried along. Lisle would have paid with her seal, so it would be the same room as the last time. Up the stairs, nestled in the corner of the angled roof space.
She tossed the door open and threw her hat on the chair sitting next to the entryway. Lisle looked up from sorting gear into a pair of new bags on a low squat bed covered by a square-patterned brown blanket. Mif sat on top of the chest of drawers by the window, halfway into biting a purple-black plum.
“You alright, Fel?”
“She doesn’t have the sword.” Mif finished a sloppy bite of the plum and grinned around the pulp at Felfet, “Filched ya’ out’a our prize, eh?”
“What?” Lisle jumped up from the bed, and moved toward Felfet but the magician held up a hand and shook her head, “What…happened?”
“Herren confiscated the sword. The formula is contraband.”
“No. This is not the end of it. I do not know how something can be outlawed if no one has ever heard of it. We found it. It belongs to us. I do not care how it got where it was. I will not let the best chance that I have of becoming a Courtier slip away like my aunt did. I will not.”
“So, what do we do?”
“Filch it back.” Mif hopped down from chest of drawers and scraped at the remainder of the plum pulp on the pit. Felfet nodded and smiled at Lisle.
“We steal it.”