I hope you enjoyed the 3 chapters of prologue to the series. The aim was to give you a snapshot of my writing style and a bit about the underlying story line. This novel is broad, featuring a multitude of characters and intertwining stories - which has been a work in process for many years. What you are about to read is a fifth draft of my project, but by no means a final version. I hope to publish every few weeks as I polish the chapters. So feel free to leave a note, good or bad, about your impressions and what works and what does not.
Chapter 1: The Promise
We will have a rebellion. The yellow candle flame seemed to whisper as it flickered in an unseen breeze. Vivadla’s eyes lingered on the flame and then back on the paper and her quill as it scratched angry words.
It was daylight and the open window invited in all of the sounds of a busy household. Hurrying footsteps on gravel, voices discussing the yield for this cycle and the need for rain, a horse neighing and stamping impatiently, and birds chirping in a nearby tree.
Vivalda signed her name and blew on the wet ink to dry it.
Many Ragaarians liked to boast that Lady Vivalda was the most enchanting and beautiful Ragaarian the country had seen in a long time, but these citizens did not know her well. Those who knew her better described her as difficult, stubborn, spirited, and a little spoilt.
Dear Haleena, her letters were neat, if a little hurried. Should she include Haleena’s husband - Shane of Willowbrook? He was also a dear friend, but more importantly, a good ally. Vivalda pondered on that. Friend or not, ally or not, Haleena was the Head of her House, so Vivalda left Shane's name off. Besides, he was not of the Blood.
Why was she suddenly analyzing her actions so much? Why was she nervous? She was not afraid.
The sound of scrunching warned that she was gripping the paper too tightly. Vivalda released her tensed hands and smoothed out the paper. The snitch is becoming more and more insufferable. She often called the Kalandrian Advisor, Rattar Anistovi, the rat, worm, aardvark's arse, and many other profane names depending on her mood. Haleena, however, always knew to whom she was referring. Just yesterday, someone went through my personal belongings in my room. What took me aback is that the rat no longer bothers to hide it. I am sure you will agree they are becoming bolder by the cycle. I see the same arrogance on the streets. Kalandrian merchants keep their best wares for Kalandrians and charge a premium price to Ragaarians for poorer quality foods and wares. One merchant called it the Ragaarian tax, as he laughed in the outraged face of my servant! Vivalda focused on not clenching her fist again. This had happened just this morning and the incident had spurred her to action. She was not naive enough to believe that the Ragaaran merchants were not playing the same games when selling their goods, but it was becoming obvious that there were increasingly fewer of her country folk in the market. What was happening to her people? When she asked the question, all she got was a shrug of the shoulder and vague lies. "Moved to a different town," or "business is better elsewhere."
I feel so alone, Haleena. It is unbearable. Father is of no use. Alyn is too young and naïve. I miss Ashtar and Taelyn. When my brothers left, the Household went from bad to worse. Wielder Deira is my only comfort, but her calmness infuriates me rather than the reverse. I need to get out of here and see you. I am sure things are not much different in Pariki, but I am desperate for a change of scenery.
PS - how is your beautiful cousin, Aleseena? Any news from Kadia?
Was it enough? The letter was so ordinary, but Vivalda was sure Haleena would read into it more than a stranger would. If her letter was intercepted, anyone else reading it would find Vivalda venting about their oppression, her helplessness at the situation and her desire to see her friends. No one expects a lady to do more than that, but Haleena knew Vivalda better. If Vivalda could have spoken freely in her letters, she would have written: I'm coming to Pariki. Tell Kadia and Aleseena to be there. We are going to have a rebellion on our hands. Time to prepare.
Confident that Haleena would understand her hidden meaning, Vivalda folded the letter. She thrust a red stick of wax into the flame and watched as it melted. The wax dripping on the folded edges of the paper always reminded her of blood. Vivalda pressed the handle of her seal into the wax and then gazed at the imprint: a circle surrounded by an intricate design of leaves within a triangle, Vivalda's personal sigil.
A knock at the study door made her jerk. She had not heard any footsteps approaching from outside. Blowing out the candle, Vivalda packed away the writing implements and hid the sealed letter in the front pocket of her dark blue sarafan, a dress that reached to the floor and worn by most of her countrywomen. Upon her invitation, an armed guard entered the study.
"Lady Vivalda." He gave her a formal bow. Vivalda did not know him. He had a weathered face and his blonde hair looked almost silver giving him an appearance of being old. Vivalda, however, doubted, that he was past thirty-five. He wore trousers tucked into black boots and a short coat buckled at the waist. When he straightened, he took in Vivalda’s sarafan with the red embroidery at the hem and upper torso, her white shirt with red embroidery at the neck and the slightly flared sleeves, and the headpiece that matched the sarafan, placed on the crown of her head. It was held with hairpins and tied at the back with a wide red ribbon, the two ribbon ends running down her back past her waist. Though a woman, her face still bore a childish quality that made her look even younger than her nineteen years. He eyed the smoking candle and Vivalda's stillness behind the desk. His grey eyes seemed to take note of everything and Vivalda judged that he had correctly surmised what she had been up to. She did not like that. "Your Father summons you to the courtroom." His voice was curt.
"The courtroom?" Why there? The hall was mostly abandoned these days.
"Yes, my lady."
"Yes, my lady."
"Do you know why?"
"No, my lady." The guard kept his voice a patient monotone. His short answers were all the more irritating.
"What is your name and rank?" Vivalda did not care that she sounded snappish.
"Khint Mossman, my lady. I am not a soldier. I do not have a rank." His answer was flat and emotionless.
So, he believes I'm a fool. "No, I guess you don't." Vivalda eyed him up and down. He stood much too erect for a commoner and his physique was honed to the sword and being on horseback. Under the long sleeves of his shirt, she was sure she would find the tattooed stars of a swordsman's rank. "You are a new recruit in the service of my father – as a guard for this Household."
"Yes, my lady."
Vivalda swallowed her irritation at his answers. "At least you are Ragaarian, but I wonder whose purse-strings are you fondling? My father's or Rattar's? Or perhaps both?"
"My lady!" The guard sounded outraged. Vivalda felt a small surge of satisfaction. "What you suggest is unthinkable."
"Not unthinkable." Vivalda stood up from her desk and let her anger show in her voice. "Not even unexpected. On the contrary, quite common! You will tell me why my father is summoning me to the courtroom now. And, incidentally, I can't stand this ‘yes my lady’, ‘no my lady’ crap. You and I have got off to a bad start already, soldier!"
The man looked startled at her sudden surge of anger. Vivalda tried to detect a hint of fear in his eyes. None showed.
"I do not know, my lady." The tone was still curt, and was he clenching his teeth?
Vivalda snatched up the brass candlestick and threw it at him. Khint saw it in mid-air hurtling towards him, but he did not have time to duck. It landed on his shoulder, hot candle wax spraying him in the face. Khint grunted and flinched from the impact. The candlestick landed on the floor with a loud thud. He looked down at it and then touched his face where the wax marred his skin. He looked at his fingers disbelievingly and then at Vivalda.
"I warned you already." Slowly and deliberately, Vivalda rested her knuckles on the desk and leaned towards the guard. "If you utter one more useless syllable, Rattar will have to find another turned Ragaarian soldier to play spy for him. You will tell me who is in the courtroom and why I am being summoned."
There! She finally saw it. A glimmer of fear in the man's eyes. He shuffled uncomfortably. "Lord Zvenadra, Advisor Rattar and Wielder Deira."
"And...?" This was like pulling teeth!
"They were talking about your future. Something about a promise."
Vivalda's brows furrowed and she looked away. Her future? Why would they be discussing that? Perhaps it was the punishment that she had managed to avoid a year ago. Have they finally decided how to punish me?
"What promise?" she asked.
"I do not know any more. Truly. And throwing the inkpot next won't help."
She looked at him and gave a thin smile. "Ah! A sense of humour. Maybe there's hope for you yet, soldier."
"I'm not a sold-"
Vivalda interrupted his protests by raising her hand. "Don't. I can't stand lies, especially obvious ones. Your soldierliness seeps from your every pore. Moreover, Rattar is recruiting Ragaarian military turncoats left, right and centre. He knows that I know. And now you know too. So, let's keep this charade open and simple. If you must lie to me, then keep your mouth shut."
In response, the guard shuffled his feet and looked concerned. "My lady is not wise to know too much."
"What an interesting contradiction. Surely you are not a philosopher as well?"
"No, but if you will, I could do without you pointing out my previous military experience."
"I bet you could." Vivalda came around from the desk to face the man. Up close, she saw that his face was considerably weathered - from too many days and nights spent out in the open. What had this man been doing exactly a year ago when they’d assembled an army of sorts and pushed the Kalandrian soldiers back? "We all have a past that does not sit well with the present. The salt in the wound is responsibility though, Khint. Surely you know that. There is no escaping responsibility."
"I know my duties." That was too defensive to be reassuring. How disappointing.
"And I believe your duty for the moment is to take me to my father." Khint looked taken aback and he hesitated. Maybe he expected more probing. "Well? Take me to him! I know the way, of course. But if I go there myself, it would defeat your purpose and I am sure you want to make a good impression on Rattar."
The guard nodded sharply and turned to lead Vivalda to the courtroom. Vivalda followed him obediently and put his past out of her mind. She would find out about him eventually - the House attendants loved to gossip and no one escaped the scrutiny of the kitchen maids. What concerned her more was the purpose in seeing her family council.
Her future... What did that mean?
It had been exactly a year since she had last been summoned before Father in the courtroom with Rattar and Deira present. That was the day when Father had banished Ashtar from this House and country. It seemed that the sun had been permanently eclipsed from the House ever since. Leading up to it, Vivalda had argued bitterly with her Lord and Father. So had Ashtar, and Taelyn. Deira with Ashtar. Rattar with Deira. Her father with Rattar. Arguments everywhere. Finally, Father had snapped and told Ashtar to pack his bags and never return to his homestead or to Ragaar. Ashtar was no longer to bear their family name and would be considered dead to their family history.
The memory still hurt Vivalda and every so often, she broke into tears recalling the words that Father had used. On that day, however, Lord Zvenadra had not stopped with Ashtar. Next, he had turned on his foster son, Taelyn Staris, and declared his exile from Ragaar. Though not banished like Ashtar, Taelyn was not to return to his country until the King gave his permission. Vivalda escaped Father's fury only by fainting in the courtroom. She had hit her head so severely on the floor that it took two days before she came to and plenty more days filled with headaches and dizzy spells.
By the time she regained consciousness, Ashtar and Taelyn were gone and she never saw her brothers again. The memory still hurt and festered and slowly turned into anger and bitter hatred against King Adwarkov, Advisor Rattar and her Lord Father. In that order.
Am I to be exiled too? Surely not, I've been a good little lady daughter. The letter in her pocket, however, was witness to that lie. Could she get rid of it before she entered the courtroom? If she handed it to Khint, he would just pass it to Rattar. A servant passing by? An equally bad idea. Could she tuck it into a crevice of some sort without Khint noticing? Maybe. Calm yourself, Vivalda. The letter holds nothing incriminating and I am jumping to conclusions. It will be all right.
What was the promise Khint had mentioned?
She continued to guess fruitlessly as they passed along wide corridors beneath wooden beams over their heads. Rich tapestries, locally made, hung on the walls portraying colourful flowers, fruits and animals. The old ones that depicted Ragaarian kings and their feats had been taken down and possibly destroyed years before. Vivalda had admired their beauty a hundred times before but she was oblivious to it today, and to the intricate and ornamental woodcarvings on the columns, doors, furniture, and lamps that would make other people gape with wonder.
They passed through a ballroom with tall gilded mirrors on the walls and across the entire ceiling. Vivalda faintly remembered her childish wonder at the many reflections of light, glitter and colour as people danced, swirled and laughed. The laughter still echoed in her mind, especially her mother's, but the light and colour were gone. Today, the mirrors simply reflected two grim people passing by, a man with silver-blonde hair, and a young woman with light-blond hair tucked into a bun at the back of her head.
By the time Khint led her to the wide oak doors of the courtroom, Vivalda was frowning. She had tried to think of every possible reason for being summoned, but she was not sure of anything. Taking a deep breath, she nodded to Khint to open the doors.
He entered first, announcing Vivalda's presence. Vivalda heard his voice echo in the almost-empty hall.
"Bring her in," Father's deep voice echoed back, and Vivalda entered the hall.
On either side of the courtroom stood a massive wooden column carved in an intricate Ragaarian pattern, the same as the supporting beams high overhead. The ceiling was painted in two shades of blue: to the left, dark blue depicting a moonlit night, to the right, light blue with a painted sun. Beneath stood a large curved table before a huge tapestry. On either side of the table were two large crystal stands that gave off a bright light. Everything about this room made a person feel small and insignificant. Vivalda never forgot that this was the courtroom of Zdraz and that once, the King of Ragaar had sat right here on the throne carved from Treelife wood. The throne was missing now. It was said that it had been so old that the wood had merged with the wood of the floorboards. When the Kalandrians removed the sacred throne they had to chop up the floor to lift it. Vivalda did not know if the tale was true or not, but the floor on the far side of the hall did appear newer.
Vivalda faced her father, who was sitting at the table looking at her, expressionless. He was a large man with greying hair and dark blue eyes. To his left stood Weilder Deira, wearing her customary white sarafan and blouse with matching headpiece, unadorned by embroidery. Apart from being a Wielder, she was also Father’s Councillor and a dear friend to the House of Zvenadra.
Vivalda did not return her smile. Wielder Deira was a reasonably harmless entity here, however, the presence of the Kalandrian Advisor, Rattar Anistovi, discomfited Vivalda more than she was already. A dark man in both looks and personality, he dressed in Kalandrian clothes. They were of a similar cut to Ragaarian cloth, but with more red and black. His beady eyes were sparkling with excitement and his pockmarked face bore a crooked smile. Vivalda felt a small shiver creep up her spine. She took another deep breath and steadied her gaze on Father, trying to ignore the presence of the two behind his chair.
"To what do I owe this honour, my Lord Father?" Better put my best foot forward.
"Vivalda," her name sounded like a rumbling sigh. Lord Zvenadra's deep voice was in keeping with his imposing size. He was not a fat man, but he looked like a "person of presence", as Wielder Deira once put it. Vivalda loved that about him and not for the first time the idle thought burrowed through to the surface: What kind of a king would he have been?
Oh, but I forget myself. If he had made a good king, then he would be one by now.
Vivalda scolded the thoughts out of her head and concentrated on the present and the tone of her father's voice. He has been practising what he is about to tell me. Not a good sign.
"You are my dear daughter and a great blessing to the House as the eldest..."
Vivalda felt her heart beat faster. That was a pure lie and a hateful thing to say. Ashtar might be banished, but he was still the eldest.
"I can hardly believe how grown up you are. Almost a woman..."
Where are you going with this, Father?
"...and although you will always be my little burst of joy who crawled under the tables to play hide and seek, and ride Wolfdag as if he were a horse, time stands still only in memory..."
The prepared speech was nauseating.
"Father, please stop. If you have something to say, please be direct with me."
"As you wish." His next words came out rushed and tumbling. "Recently I came to realise that it is time for you to marry."
No one breathed.
Surely she had misheard. Her eyes flicked to the contemptuous face of the Advisor, who was smirking. The glee in the spiteful little man’s face made the meaning of what Farther had said strike home.
They all waited for her to respond.
"Father, I know you mean well," tread carefully. "But marriage?" she wanted to say she was not of age, but that was not true. Nineteen was a very respectful age to be married. Her parents had been much younger when they were joined, so she could not use that excuse. "Marriage means leaving Zdraz and this Household. I don't want to leave you, Papa." Vivalda opted for the cute childhood endearment, something she had not done in years.
"I know it's quite sudden for you," Lord Zvenadra's tone was soft, "but I think it is for the best."
"Hmm." Vivalda was at a loss for words. The whole idea was ridiculous.
Rattar was still smirking. How long have you worked this idea into Father's head? How deep has the notion been planted?
"And for how long have you been planning this?" Vivalda was struggling to keep her voice calm. She could hear it faltering.
"Since you were eight, child." Rattar's voice was feminine. No, it was not Rattar speaking, but Deira! That couldn't be right. Deira was not the enemy here.
"Since I was eight?" Vivalda parroted the Wielder, confused.
"Yes, child, you have been Promised."
"Promised!" Vivalda's tone of forced calm crashed on that single word.
Why had she not caught on sooner? Khint had mentioned a promise, but Vivalda had not thought he meant the Promise, a ritual led by a Wielder that bound her to a man forever. How could she not remember that? If she had been eight, surely she should remember it.
Vivalda suddenly felt lightheaded. She was dreaming, surely. She could not be held to something that had occurred when she was eight. There had been no consensus. No one had talked about it since or so much as hinted that she was bound to someone.
She was breathing too fast and black spots appeared in her vision.
"Are you hard of hearing?" she heard the Advisor sneer. "You have been Promised since you were eight and now it is time to marry." Oh, how she despised him.
"Father! This can't be true!" Her words came out oddly rushed between quick breaths that she could not control.
"It is, Daughter. You have been Promised to the Prince and future King of Devraem–"
"And perhaps you have set the date as well?" She was not listening. Right now, it did not matter whom she was bound to. The fact that she was Promised crippled her.
"Ten days from now," came the unexpected answer. Ten days! Not years, not moons, but days! "And before you flare up in anger for not telling you this sooner, I think you will be very happy. Prince Landar is a great and honourable man."
She took three strides forward up to the table and leaned closer to Father. I am doing the leaning against the table thing again. Twice in one day! She beat the hysterical humour down and focused on remaining outwardly calm.
"Have you thought this out fully, Father? Or have you let the rodent think for you?" Her tone was curt, but it was directed at Rattar.
"You will not talk of the Advisor in that way." Lord Zvenadra's voice lowered in warning.
"Why this sudden urge to get rid of me?" It felt exactly like that - her Household wanting to expunge the last of the troublemakers. The thought of it choked her and she felt tears threatening. Vivalda rapidly blinked them away. It would not do to let Rattar see her crying.
"Not get rid of you! I just want the best for you, Daughter!" Father seemed sincere, but Vivalda did not believe him. Ten days. How is that even mildly respectful? Why today, on the eve of Ashtar's banishment? It was not coincidental. There was a clear message.
"How…!" Vivalda paused, controlling her anger and lowering her voice, "How is marrying me off to a stranger going to help me?"
"It has to be done sooner or later. You have grown up, Vivalda,"
What a feeble excuse. This whole thing was pox pus!
"No!" Vivalda banged her fist on the table and almost shouted. "This is not right. You can't force me to marry against my will."
"I knew you would see it that way..." Father sighed. His look of disappointment disgusted Vivalda. What did he expect? That she would swoon? Did he think of her as a ninny whose only reason for existing was to be married?
"Vivalda," Wielder Deira interjected calmly, "marriage is not that awful and I too truly believe you will be happy."
"Promised ones usually are, Daughter. Your mother and I loved each other dearly."
Don't bring her into this. Vivalda loved her mother and she could not bear the thought that she might have gone along with the Promise.
"Lady Zvenadra gave her full blessing." Wielder Deira drove the painful point home.
Wielder Deira was like an aunty to Vivalda. The discovery that she was behind this felt like an enormous betrayal. "You, of all people...How could you side with him?" Vivalda was pointing at the Advisor.
"What gives you the impression that I have anything to do with this?" Rattar tried to make his slimy voice sound innocent. He was looking at her accusing finger with fake surprise, all the while a mocking smile playing on his lips.
"Oh, I know you do! I know what you are up to. You just can't wait to haul me away from this kingdom, can you? The Promise is just a convenience, isn't it? As is Father, who will not stand up to your King and your suggestions." She should stop, she knew she should, but the surging anger got the better of her and the words kept spilling out. "Well I will stand up to you, and I resist any attempt to tamper with my Fate. You won't get rid of me as easily as you did of Taelyn and Ashtar. I resist you, I resist your King and I resist this marriage!"
"Enough!" shouted the Lord Zvenadra, standing up. She had gone too far. "It is my will as your Lord and Father that you marry within ten days. And you will, as Promised. That is your Fate and none other."
"We'll see about that," answered Vivalda and stormed out of the courtroom. She heard the troubled Wielder murmur, "Oh dear," before Vivalda took the liberty of slamming the huge oak doors with all her might.
Chapter 2: The Now
The children were too loud as they jabbered excitedly, but at least they snapped to immediate attention when Ragana walked into the classroom. She did not even need to ask for silence. Good. She hated trying to talk over them. Usually she would just sit down and wait silently. That tended to do the trick, but today the quiet room was thick with anticipation.
Her shoes sounded too loud on the floorboards as she walked across the room. She wore the common attire of the Sisterhood, which was whatever she wanted under a loose white dress-coat. Ragana usually wore a plain black dress, the hem of which stopped at the calves, none of the dress showing under the folds of the dress-coat, which almost reached her ankles, apart from the long, tight sleeves at the wrists. She also wore black stockings and black leather shoes. No stripy socks or pointy shoes like the popular pictures portraying witches. The white dress-coat had long white sleeves, trumpeting out at the wrists, and pockets sown into them, which Ragana found very handy. The older style versions had reached the ground and featured an elegant train, but keeping the hems clean had been a bastard, so now they wore modified versions. Only Superiors still stuck to the old fashion. The Sisters’ clothes generally had no fancy stitching or embellishment of any sort, their only adornment being an ornate silver belt. The thickness and style of the belt indicted the individual’s ranking in the Sisterhood. Ragana's was the width of her thumb - a row of flat engraved silver panels indicating a position of a plain Sister - a position she intended to stick with. To climb higher meant more responsibility and the potential of travel. No thank you. She was happy with teaching and observing her chores for the Order.
The chair creaked as she sat down at her desk. Eight pairs of eyes trained upon her expectantly. Ragana arranged the folds of the dress-coat and the deep hood in an orderly fashion and gathered her long black hair out of the way, refastening the silver comb at the back. Why they had hoods was anyone’s guess. It seemed to be a badge of honour for any cult. Ragana would have snorted had she not been in front of the children. She never thought of the Sisterhood of the White as a cult. Theirs was a meek order under the thumb of the Seven Towers. She supposed this was why they dressed in white - it was a symbol of alliance with the Wielders. The knowledge of the alliance and that she was now part of it sat uneasily with Ragana. She had been brought up with the knowledge that every Wielder wanted every witch dead and wiped out. So having to wear white was something Ragana had to endure under silent duress. At least being a Sister of the White meant she had some sort of protection by the weakest and the strongest of factions on Orrex from the nastiest one out there.
Eight children, aged eight to ten, sat as still as statues, their individual halos dancing about them. Ragana still had to pinch herself when she saw so many in class. When she’d first come to the Order, three years before, the usual intake was two or three children per year to learn the Arts. Now the numbers swelled each year. They could not fit them in the monastery and they’d had to build outdoor classrooms, albeit a simple platform on the ground framed by columns to hold the roof over their heads. White curtains were hung to give them some privacy, even though they were a distraction when the breeze stirred them. The sound of chirping birds and the noise of the forest permeated the room - creaking pine and the rustle of leaves - making her think that an animal was about to spring forth into the classroom. For all the distractions, Ragana supposed that this was much better than a stuffy classroom that lulled students to sleep. The light was bright and the classroom smelled of pine. So different from what she remembered as her own schooling: a dingy cave room that smelled like the earth and was lit by oil lamps that seemed to suck the oxygen right out of the lungs.
"Right." She should really get on with it. She took out the roll. It was a formality really, she knew that they were all here, but rules were rules and she called out the students’ names, one by one. At least she did not feel silly doing it with a class of eight students, unlike a class of two.
When the roll call was done, Ragana started her lesson. "As you are aware, today we will be moving to a new topic, after having successfully passed basic principles of Healing and herb interactions with Healing, Spirit interactions in our Arts, Mind communication, and Visions. Sister Midridge was very pleased with your grasp of Theories of Reincarnation, Astereoportation and Setting of Price. So today, as promised, we will start on Scrying and spend a good half a cycle practising."
An excited murmur arose from the children. They had been eagerly waiting for this day. Finally, some practical application of their Art - Ragana remembered her excitement too when she had come so far as a student.
"Let me be very clear on a few facts," Ragana had to raise her voice to be heard over the excitement. "Scrying is an intermediate Art and as always there is a Price. Can anyone tell me what the Price is for scrying?"
A pretty girl in a blue dress raised her hand immediately.
"Yes, Heleene?" She was always the first to offer answers and Ragana tried not to sound discouraging when calling her out.
The girl stood up, as was the proper manner when answering questions or talking to the teacher, and with a flick of her long, pale braid she answered, "Headaches, dizziness and in some cases loss of time. Loss of time that can occur days after Scrying."
Yes, yes, very good Heleene, perfect even. There was always one in class who not only did her homework, but read ahead. "Thank you. Who else has read chapter one and two of Sister Sion's ‘Through the Eyes of Jin?’"
All put their hand up.
Did her eyes fail her? All? Ragana certainly hadn’t been as eager in her studies as these children were, and she’d had to face the real threat of severe punishment for the slightest lack in her knowledge.
"Well then, Marion." The shaggy-haired boy was always sitting at the back. "Could you tell me how we lessen the impact of the Price?"
"Umm, drink curdled yellowroot?" the answer came more as a question when the boy stood up with a scrape of the chair. Oh, Marion. The boy was bright enough, but he lacked in effort and self-belief. If she ever needed to gauge the children's retained knowledge, Heleene and Marion were like a ruler, the rest of the class falling in between the two. Sadly, Marion reminded her of someone just like him from many years ago. It was a memory she tried to beat down and not take out on the boy at the back of the class.
"And will that lessen the impact of the Price?"
"Yes," Marion's answer came as a reflex, but he seemed to give it a thought and amended, "I mean no. It will only treat the symptom of the headache."
"If you don't overdose. Anything else we can do?"
Marion sat down and everyone stayed silent. A few flipped through the pages of their book. It was a trick question really, but Ragana let the children ponder it. "Anyone?" A slight breeze shifted the curtains to their enclosure and the trees outside rustled and creaked. All as one were looking downward, not wanting to be called out to offer an answer they did not know.
"Smelling salts?" black-haired Tivi piped up.
"You could try that, I suppose, but the truth of the matter is that there is nothing else we can do but put up with it. This is the way of most Prices - what you do unto others will be done unto you and there is no getting away from that. So, homework for all will be to brew curdled yellowroot potion. You can do this in three days if you start tonight. Those who cannot recall how to make it, you will find the answers in the last cycle books. Do not ask me to help you, for I will not tell you. We are past that lesson, understood?" A few of the children nodded. "Now, I believe yesterday I had set homework for you all. If you could take out a sample of a scrying object, we will look at them now. Heleene, first."
Heleene stood up, her pinpoint halo lights dancing about her as she moved. The halos were remarkable and Ragana wished other people could see them, but as far as she could tell, she was the only one with the ability. Heleene walked to Ragana's desk, placing a mirror on top of it. A mirror, there was always someone who bought in a mirror. Ragana lifted it up and inspected it.
A young, pale face, slightly flushed at the cheeks and speckled with faint freckles across the nose, regarded her back in the reflection - no matter how much time she spent outdoors, Ragana never managed to gain a reasonably healthy colour in her complexion. More reason why white was an ill-matched colour for her. Grey-blue eyes indicated that Ragana was not from Madrick - the place she had grown up in and fled from, but her long hair that fell loosely about her shoulders was black, indicating that perhaps she did come from that hateful place. No halos for her, or at least Ragana could not see them for herself. If she could, she imagined they would show rocks, sharp objects, creeping shadows, and butterflies everywhere. She had not glanced at the mirrors of the monastery for some time so to see her image so close and clear was a little bit...fascinating. She was in front of a class, however, and quickly put the mirror down before she could embarrass herself.
"The workmanship's truly beautiful." Hopefully, the comment covered up her fascination. "How did they polish a surface so clear? Or insert a film so fine?" Ragana truly had no idea. "I'm surprised your parents let it out of their sight, it is a treasure indeed, Heleene." The girl blushed slightly and looked at her shoes as if scolded. "Alas, however, a mirror of this type does not make a good scrying object."
"But, Sister, I read somewhere that mirrors are common to use," the child's voice sounded injured and confused. So she should be, there were plenty of fairytales about witches and mirrors.
"Dull mirrors, my dear, dull. The reflection of this one is of the finest quality and it is fitted with a glass surface. The reflection is too powerful, and a vain scryer can be too caught up looking at themselves rather than beyond." The class giggled. "Anyone else with fine polished mirrors? Stand up."
A girl and a boy stood, showing their mirrors. "My!" Who are these children to afford such objects? Ragana resisted saying, when I was a little girl, such things were rare indeed. That just sounded something a grandma would say. Ragana was twenty-two, and surely not enough time had passed for the world to change that much. "Please sit down and for pity’s sake, don't damage them. Did anyone bring in a dull mirror?" A boy with brown hair and a blue halo outline held up his hand. "Ah, Ernie, do come forth and let me have a look."
The boy was of small stature, but he walked confidently to the desk and handed the dull mirror to Ragana. Then he turned to give a cheeky grin at Heleene, who, in response, crossed her arms and frowned sullenly.
"Much better." The mirror was a simple polished metal piece. An old object that had seen a lot of use. "This will do well, Ernie. You may sit down. Who's next? Maria? What have you got?"
"A crystal ball." Maria, a tall, lanky girl, stood up and with what looked like a practiced flourish, revealed a round crystal ball.
Some students ooohed at seeing the ball and Maria grinned from ear to ear, but Ragana resisted rolling her eyes.
"Yes, there's always someone who brings the ball in as well. Crystals have many powers, as you all know, especially healing, and they are the only tangible things that cross borders into other worlds. We will spend some time later exploring their secrets, but unfortunately, they do not make good scrying objects. Oh, you can try and, in fact, may succeed somewhat, but generally they are not used for that purpose. The shape is wrong and the light is bent in on itself, warping the image. When we scry, the image is already warped so seeing it from a ball makes it all the more difficult to see."
"In my village there always used to be an old crone who travelled past and she used to see things in it," Maria insisted, but her bright smile had faltered.
"That's what the common folk do, my dear. They do it because they believe that is what we do. Anyone who claims to scry from a crystal ball is not someone who is to be taken seriously."
"If we don't scry from crystal balls, what are they used for?" Maria stared at the ball she was holding, puzzled.
Ragana could not help but smile. "Paperweight."
Tivi's hand shot up and Ragana nodded her permission for her to speak. The girl stood up. "Sister, you wear one about your neck. What is it for, if I may ask?"
Ragana pulled the chain out, revealing a small, round crystal ball. "This? Not for scrying." The children seemed to be leaning in wanting to know the mysteries of her precious necklace, but Ragana felt like rolling her eyes. There was actually nothing mystic about it. "All right, all right. Sit down girls, I will tell you. This little ball has no benefit to me whatsoever. If you want a crystal charm, make sure you select a jagged-edged one. This one has all power turned in on itself and thus very little, if any, spills out. It is more steeped in myth than of any practical use. The more I wear it, the more of me seeps into it and gets trapped. One day I will give it to someone who I care about - that way some part of me can be with him always." The class made ohh sounds. "Now, can we get back to matters at hand? Arrie," she addressed a boy with golden yellow hair and blue eyes. "I can see that you have a brass dish with you. Children, pay attention, that is the best scrying object I have seen so far. The reflection is dull but clear enough to make out shapes. A perfectly flat surface means that the vision will not be distorted too much. Also, it is a common enough household item so that none would be suspicious about your occupation if you want to blend in with the common folk. Thank you Arrie, good work. Marion," he seemed to jump with fright when called. What was he doing? Doodling? "I see you have nothing."
The boy stood up. "I did not bring an item because I will scry from here," he pointed to his head.
More likely, he had forgotten to bring anything. "From your mind?" Ragana tried not to sound outraged. It really was not the boy's fault that he reminded her of her past.
"Very brave of you, Marion. And yes, scrying with the mind is possible, but tell me, how will you protect yourself from other Spirit possession?"
Marion frowned, "Possession?"
"If you open your mind to scrying then you are opening yourself to being possessed by anyone and anything. How will you stop that?"
"I...I don't know," stammered the boy.
"Sit down, Marion. We don't scry with our minds purely for that reason. Tivi, your turn."
"Yes Sister." The black-haired girl stood up and held out a brass oil lamp.
"An oil lamp?" It was an odd choice for a scrying object.
"Yes. I mean, not the oil lamp itself, but fire. A bigger fire, like in a hearth or a camp fire." She said it confidently, but then asked timidly, "Is that all right?"
"Fire is a pure element and it naturally puts one into a trance. You can't help but look beyond it. It is harder to master than ordinary surfaces, but once the skill is mastered, it is a very convenient tool. You can find fire almost everywhere you go, no need to carry an object with you. Yes, you can use fire, Tivi, but I prefer that you bring an object to the class and practise with fire at home." Tivi nodded and sat down. "This is my preferred scrying object," Ragana said, pulling out her hair comb, her black hair spilling over her shoulders. The comb was made of silver and the slightly curved surface had intricate carvings on one side but was smooth on the other. "It is not large, but it is always handy. Please note that once you scry with one object it becomes increasingly difficult to do it with another type. So choose one that you will be able to use again and again.
“Now that we have seen everyone's tools, we understand more about what we need. Those who have highly reflective mirrors and crystal balls will need to find another item, and that includes you, Marion." The boy gave her a grin.
Ragana went cold on the inside. That grin. Her hair spilling over her face. Her comb squeezed in her fingers in precisely this manner. She had been here before. Ragana's pulse quickened and the blood drained from her face. She breathed in a ragged breath and looked wildly about. Black specks marred her vision. She could see the classroom, but in the specks of blackness, she could see another time and another place. A room in a cave. Across from her, the boy was grinning at her. She had just bent a Jin to her will and spied on their teacher. Except the Master knew. He knew.
The world was spinning. Ragana gripped the table and focused on forcing out coherent sentences. "All of you have done well and can have the afternoon off. Read chapters three and four of Sister Sion's, ‘Through the Eyes of Jin’." Ragana felt sick. Her stomach clenched and bile burned her throat. "In the next few lessons...we will be going over what we know about Jin. How to befriend them and how to have them listen to us and...serve us. If we don't get this part right, you won't scry." She rushed out the words. "All right, that will be all. Go, and don't forget your homework."
They did not need to be told twice. If anyone noticed the paler than normal complexion of their teacher or the odd early dismissal, any concern was swept away by the excitement of freedom. It did not matter how inviting a classroom could be. Freedom was freedom and the children rushed outside. As their babble and giggles faded, Ragana let herself fall to pieces.
She was breathing too hard - lungs working like furnaces. Her hands clammy and shaking. The airy room was stuffy. Ragana staggered outside, fighting with the hanging curtain to get away from the room. She fell on all fours on the grass, but felt too weak to stand back up. Curling into a ball, Ragana closed her eyes, but once the memories came, they flooded the senses. Now she was curled up and wedged between a cave wall and a boulder. Dust filled her mouth, nose and eyes. She was sputtering and gaping like a fish for air. Surely it was the end of her. She had no air and no room to move, in a cave-in designed to kill her. The shaggy-haired boy smiled again. "Do you like it?" he asked, handing her a butterfly.
Ragana retched and took some pleasure in the awful taste of her own sick in her mouth. A reminder that the burn in her throat was real and the rest a vision, nothing more. To tell herself to calm down never worked. The overworked anxiety was much smarter than Ragana's logic. The comb was still in her hands, the silver teeth sharpened to sharp points. Ragana drove it into her shoulder and screamed. Blood seeped into the white material, red dots so pretty in the contrast. It did the trick and brought her back. The new searing pain was real and here and now. Ragana had scars on her thighs, arms and legs, small slashes of the knife or anything sharp that was handy in moments like these.
She rolled away from her sick and stared up at the sky. It was a cloudless sky, the blue so bright it was almost painful to look at. The wind stirred the grass and swept her wild hair across her face. The injury to her shoulder burned, but it pinned her to the now and she was calmer for it. She had thought that she was safe coming to the Order of the White. Somewhat untouchable even, but she’d never counted on the memories being so potent and disabling. They had been coming more frequently now. She hoped they were not a premonition of some sort. Dear Gods no. Please don't let this be a premonition.