According to a Sachakan tradition so old that nobody remembered where it had begun, summer had a male aspect and winter a female one. Over the centuries since their founding, Traitor leaders and visionaries had declared the superstitions relating to men and women – especially women – to be ridiculous, but many of their people still felt that the season that exerted the most control over their lives had many feminine characteristics. Winter was relentless, powerful and brought people together in order to best survive.
In contrast, to occupants of the lowlands and deserts of Sachaka, winter was a blessing, bringing the rains that crops and livestock needed. Summer was harsh, dry and unproductive.
As Lorkin hurried back from the Herbery, all he could think was that it was colder than he’d expected in the valley. The chill in the air held a threat of snow and ice. He didn’t feel like he’d been in Sanctuary long enough for winter to be this far advanced. Only a few short months had passed since he’d entered the secret home of the Sachakan rebels. Before then he’d been down on the warm, dry lowlands, fleeing in the company of a woman who’d saved his life.
Tyvara. Something in his chest tightened in an uncomfortable, yet strangely pleasant way. Lorkin drew in a deep breath and quickened his stride. He was determined to ignore the feeling as resolutely as Tyvara was ignoring him.
I didn’t come here only because I fell in love with her, he told himself. He’d felt bound by honour to speak in Tyvara’s defence to her people, because she’d saved his life. She’d killed the assassin who had tried to seduce and murder him – but the assassin had been a Traitor, too. Riva had been acting on behalf of a faction that believed he should be punished for the failure of his father, the former High Lord Akkarin, to uphold a deal he’d made with the Traitors many years ago. Nobody within the faction had admitted to giving Riva an order to kill him. To have done so would mean they had acted against the wishes of the queen, so they claimed it had been all Riva’s idea.
There are rebels within the rebels, Lorkin mused.
His defence of Tyvara may have saved her from execution, but she had not evaded punishment. Perhaps it was the tasks that Riva’s family had set for her that kept her away from him. Whatever the reason, he’d endured the loneliness of a stranger in a foreign place.
He had nearly reached the foot of the cliff wall that surrounded the valley. Glancing up at the multitude of windows and doors carved into this side of the valley, Lorkin knew there would be times he’d feel trapped within this place. Not because of the savage winter, which would make staying indoors necessary, but because, as a foreigner who now knew the general whereabouts of the Traitors’ home, he would never be allowed to leave.
Beyond the windows and doors were enough rooms to house a small city’s populace. They ranged from small cupboard-sized hollows to halls the size of the Guildhall. Most were not cut far into the rock wall, since there had been tremors and collapses in the past and people felt more comfortable living close enough to the outside that they could run outdoors quickly.
Some passages ventured a lot deeper. These were the domain of the Traitor magicians – the women who, despite their claims that this was an equal society, ruled this place. Perhaps they didn’t mind living further underground because they could use magic to prevent being crushed in a collapse. Or perhaps they like to stay close to the caves where the magical crystals and stones are made.
At that thought, Lorkin felt a tingle of excitement. He shifted the box he was carrying to the other shoulder and strode through the arched entrance to the city. Perhaps tonight I will find out.
The city passages were busy as workers returned to their families. At one point Lorkin’s path was blocked by the children of two Traitors who had stopped to talk to one another.
“Excuse me,” he said automatically as he squeezed past.
The adults and children looked amused. Kyralian manners puzzled all Sachakans. The Ashaki and their families, the powerful free people of the lowlands, had too great a sense of entitlement to feel the need to express gratitude for the services of others – and thought thanking slaves for doing what they had no choice in doing was ridiculous. Though Traitors did not keep slaves and their society was supposed to be equal, they hadn’t developed a sense of good manners. At first Lorkin had tried to do as they did, but he did not want to lose his habit of being polite to the extent that his own people would find him rude, should he ever return to Kyralia.
Let the Traitors think of me as strange. That’s better than ungrateful or aloof.
Not that Traitors were unfriendly or without warmth. Both men and women had been surprisingly welcoming. Some of the women had even tried to lure him into their beds, but he had declined politely. Perhaps I’m a fool, but I haven’t yet given up on Tyvara.
Close to the Care Room, the city’s version of a hospice, where he worked most days, he slowed down to catch his breath. It was run by Speaker Kalia, the unofficial leader of the faction that had ordered his execution. He did not want her to think he had hurried back for any reason, or needed to finish his shift on time. If she thought him anxious to leave, she’d find a task to delay him. Likewise, if there wasn’t much to keep him occupied, he knew better than to sit down and rest or Kalia would find him something to do, and often something unpleasant and unnecessary.
Still, if he sauntered in as if he had all the time in the world, she might punish him for that, too. So he adopted his usual calm, stoic demeanour. Kalia saw him, rolled her eyes and took the box from him with magic.
“Why do you never think to use your powers?” she said, sighing and turning away to take the box to the storeroom.
He ignored her question. She wouldn’t want to hear about how Lord Rothen, his old teacher at the Guild, believed that a magician shouldn’t substitute all physical exertion for magic to avoid becoming weak and unhealthy.
“Would you like me to help you with that?” he asked. The box was full of herbs that would be turned into cures – some that he’d like to learn the recipe for.
She glanced back at him and scowled. “No. Keep an eye on the patients.”
He shrugged to hide his frustration and turned to survey the large main room. Not much had changed since the early morning, when he’d begun working for the day. Beds were arranged in rows. Not many were occupied. A few children were recovering from typical childhood illnesses or injuries and an old woman was nursing a broken arm. All were asleep.
It had been Kalia’s idea to put him to work in the Care Room, and he was sure she’d done it to test his resolve to not teach the Traitors how to Heal with magic. So far there had been no patients likely to die from sicknesses or injuries he could only cure with magic, but it was bound to happen eventually. When it did, he expected Kalia to stir up animosity toward him. He had a plan to counter Kalia’s, but behind her motherly appearance and demeanour was a shrewd mind. She may have guessed his intentions already. He could only wait and see.
Right now he couldn’t wait. He needed to be somewhere else. He was late, and getting later every moment that passed, so he followed Kalia into the storeroom.
“Looks like you have a lot of work to do,” he observed.
She didn’t look up at him. “Yes. I’ll be up all night.”
“You didn’t get any sleep last night,” he reminded her. “It’s not good for you.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she snapped, glaring at him. “I’m more than capable of doing without sleep. This has to be done now. By someone who knows what they’re doing.” She turned away. “Go. Take the night off.”
Lorkin did not give her a chance to change her mind. He smiled wryly to himself as he slipped out of the Care Room. Guild Healers knew how damaging lack of sleep could be to the body because they could sense the effects. Not knowing how to Heal with magic, Traitors had never sensed their error and believed a good night’s sleep was an unnecessary indulgence.
He hadn’t tried to convince them otherwise, since reminding them of what they didn’t know wasn’t tactful. Many years ago, his father had promised to teach the Traitors to Heal in exchange for the knowledge of black magic, despite not having the approval of the Guild to pass on such knowledge and, more importantly, black magic being forbidden to Guild magicians.
At the time, many Traitor children had caught a deadly disease and knowledge of Healing magic might have saved them. Black magic had allowed Akkarin to escape the Ichani who had enslaved him and return to Kyralia, but he never came back to Sachaka to fulfil his side of the deal. Since learning of his father’s broken promise, Lorkin had considered many possible reasons. His father had known that the brother of the Ichani who had enslaved Akkarin planned to invade Kyralia.
He may have felt obliged to deal with that threat first. Perhaps he could not explain the threat to the Guild without revealing that he had learned forbidden black magic. He might have considered it too dangerous to return to Sachaka alone, risking recapture by the Ichani or the vengeance of his former master’s brother.
Perhaps he never intended to uphold the deal. After all, the Traitors had known of his terrible situation for some time before they offered their help, whereas they helped others – mainly women of Sachaka – all the time without asking a price. That they hadn’t helped Akkarin regain his freedom until it was an advantage to them certainly demonstrated how ruthless they could be.
The passages were quieter now, so Lorkin was able to travel faster, breaking into a jog when there was nobody around to observe. If someone from Kalia’s faction noticed he was in a hurry, it might be reported to her.
Life here didn’t quite live up to Tyvara’s claims of a peaceful society – or even a fair one, despite the Traitors’ principles of equality. Still, they are doing better than many other countries, and especially the rest of Sachaka. They have no slavery, and the work people are given is mostly decided by ability rather than an inherited class system. They may treat men and women unequally, but so do all other cultures – the other way around. Most cultures treat women far worse than the Traitors treat their men.
He thought of his newest and closest friend in Sanctuary, a man named Evar, who he was meeting tonight. The young Traitor magician had been drawn to Lorkin out of curiosity because he was the only other male magician in Sanctuary who had not yet paired with a woman. Lorkin had discovered that his first impression of the status of male magicians had been wrong: he’d assumed that if there were male magicians then the Traitors must offer them the same opportunities to learn magic as they offered women. The truth was, all male magicians here were naturals – magicians whose magic had developed naturally, forcing Traitor magicians to teach them or abandon them to die when they lost control of their powers. Magical knowledge was not otherwise offered to Traitor men.
The few fortunate male naturals were still not equal to the women, however. Men were not taught black magic. This ensured that even weak female magicians were stronger than the male ones, because they could boost their strength by storing magic taken from others.
I wonder . . . would I have been allowed into Sanctuary if I’d known black magic?
He did not ponder that, as he had finally reached his destination: the “men’s room”. It was a large room that accommodated Traitor males who were too old to live with their parents but had not yet been selected by a woman to be her companion.
Evar was talking to two other men, but left them as he saw Lorkin enter. Like most Traitor men, he was thin and smallboned, in contrast to the typical free Sachakan male from the lowlands, who tended to be tall and broad-shouldered. Not for the first time, Lorkin wondered if Traitor men had somehow grown smaller over time to fit their social status.
“Evar,” Lorkin said. “Sorry I’m late.”
Evar shrugged. “Let’s eat.”
Lorkin hesitated, then followed the other man to the food preparation area, where a steaming pot of soup had been cooked up by one of the men for them all to eat. This wasn’t part of the plan. Had he returned too late? Had Evar’s plans changed?
“Are we still going for that walk you suggested?” Lorkin ventured as casually as he could manage.
Evar nodded. “If you haven’t changed your mind.” He leaned closer. “A few of the stone-makers are working late,” the young magician murmured. “Got to give them time to finish up and leave.”
Lorkin felt his stomach knot. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked as they moved to one of the long dining tables, taking places at the end a little distance from the men already eating.
Evar chewed, swallowed, then gave Lorkin a reassuring smile. “Nothing I’m going to show you is secret. Anyone who wants to have a look is welcome to, so long as they have a guide, keep quiet and stay out of the way.”
“But I’m not just anyone.”
“You’re supposed to be one of us. The only difference is you’ve been told you can’t leave. If I tried to leave, well, I doubt I’d get far without permission, and that permission isn’t likely to be granted. They don’t like having lots of Traitors outside the city. Every spy is a risk, even with the mind readblocking stones. What if the stone was in your hand and your hand was chopped off?”
Lorkin grimaced. “Even so, I doubt anybody is going to be happy about me being there,” he said, returning to the subject. “Or you taking me.”
Evar swallowed the last bite of his meal. “Probably not. But dear Aunt Kalia loves me.” Though Lorkin had never seen Kalia chatting sociably to Evar, she did appear to approve of her nephew. “You going to finish that?”
Shaking his head, Lorkin pushed the remains of his meal aside. He was too nervous to eat much. Evar frowned at the unemptied bowl, but said nothing, took it and simply finished off the leftovers. Since land for crops or livestock was limited, the Traitors didn’t approve of waste, and Evar was always hungry. They rose, cleaned and packed away the utensils they’d used and then left the men’s room. Lorkin felt his stomach twist and flutter with anxiety, yet at the same time he was full of impatience and anticipation.
“We’ll go through one of the back ways,” Evar murmured. “Less chance you’ll be noticed going in.”
As they travelled through the city, Lorkin considered what he hoped to find out. The Guild had maintained for centuries that there were no true magical objects, just ordinary things given structural integrity or enhanced properties – like magically strengthened buildings, or the walls that glowed in the University – because they were made from material in which magic acted slowly and so continued to have an effect long after a magician stopped working on it. Even glass “blood gems” didn’t qualify. They channelled mental communications between the wearer and the creator in a way that prevented other magicians from hearing, but they didn’t contain magic.
He suspected that some of the gemstones in Sanctuary did. Most were like blood gems in that magic was sent to them and was converted by the stone to a purpose. Others appeared to hold magic ready to be used in some way. All Traitors who ventured outside their secret home carried a tiny stone inserted beneath their skin that not only allowed them to protect their mind if a Sachakan magician read it, but also let them project innocent, safe thoughts instead. The corridors and rooms within the city were illuminated by gems that gave off light. The Care Room where Lorkin attended the sick contained several stones with useful properties, from producing a warm glow or a gentle vibration to soothe sore muscles, to stones that could cauterise wounds.
If the historical records Lorkin and Dannyl had encountered were correct, then it was possible for a gemstone to store a vast amount of magic. There had been one such storestone in Arvice, the Sachakan capital, many hundreds of years ago. According to Chari, a woman who had helped him and Tyvara get to Sanctuary safely, the Traitors knew of storestones but did not know how to make them. She might have been telling the truth, or lying to protect her own people.
If knowledge of making such storestones existed, it could free the Guild of the necessity of allowing some magicians to learn black magic in case Sachakan magicians invaded again. Magic could be stored within the stones instead, to be used in the country’s defence.
Which was why he was risking this visit to the stonemakers’ caves. He did not want to learn how to make stones, he wanted to confirm that they held the potential he hoped. Then perhaps he could negotiate a trade between the Guild and the Traitors: stone-making for Healing. It would be an exchange that would benefit both peoples.
He knew he would have to work hard to convince the Traitors to consider such a trade. Having hidden from the Ashaki for centuries, they were rigorously protective of their secret home and way of life. They didn’t allow any mental communication in case it drew attention to the city. The only Traitors allowed in and out of the valley were spies, with few exceptions.
But as he followed Evar deeper into the underground network of passages, Lorkin worried that it was too soon to be visiting the caves. He did not want to give the Traitors reason to distrust him.
But as a foreigner, they might never trust him fully anyway. He only needed them to trust him enough that he could persuade them to trade with the Guild and Allied Lands. Eventually they may realise I haven’t been officially forbidden to visit the caves, and do something about it. I must take this opportunity now.
Evar had another view: “Traitors make their own decisions – or rather, they don’t like letting others make decisions for them. If you want us to do something, you’ve got to let us think the idea was ours. Should someone discover us visiting the caves, you will have, at least, reminded everyone that we have something the Guild might want in exchange for Healing.”
“Here we are,” Evar said, glancing back at Lorkin. They had been walking down a passage so narrow they couldn’t walk side by side. Evar had stopped by a side opening. Over Evar’s shoulder Lorkin saw a brightly lit room. He felt his heart skip a beat.
Evar beckoned and stepped into the room. As Lorkin followed he looked around the huge space. It was empty of other people, as far as he could see. He turned his attention to the walls and drew in a quick breath.
They were covered in masses of glittering, colourful gemstones. At first he thought the distribution was random, but as he gazed at the swathes of colour he realised there were bands, swirls and patches of similar hues. He turned to regard the wall behind them and saw that the stones varied in size from tiny specks to crystals the size of his thumbnail.
It was beautiful.
“Over here we make the lightstones,” Evar told him, beckoning and heading toward a dazzling section of wall. “They’re the easiest to make, and it’s obvious when you get them right. You don’t even need a duplication stone.”
“Duplication stone?” Lorkin repeated. Evar had mentioned them before, but Lorkin had never quite grasped their purpose.
“One of these.” Evar changed direction abruptly and led Lorkin over to one of the many tables around the room. He opened a wooden box to reveal a single gemstone sitting in a bed of fine downy fibre. “With the lightstones you just have to imprint the growing gems with the same thought that you use to create a magical light. But for stones with more complicated uses, it’s easier to take one that’s already been successfully made and project the pattern within it. It reduces the rate of mistakes and flawed stones, and you can also raise several stones at the same time.”
Lorkin nodded. He pointed to another section. “What do these stones do?”
“Create and hold a barrier. They’re used for temporarily damming water or holding back rock falls. Look over here . . .”
They moved across to a wall of tiny black crystals. “These are going to be mind blockers. They take a long time to make because they’re so complicated. It would be easier if they only had to shield a wearer’s thoughts, but they also need to allow the wearer to project the thoughts a mind reader expects to read, to fool them into not realising there’s anything going on.” Evar gazed at the tiny stones in admiration. “We didn’t come up with them – we used to buy them from the Duna tribes.”
Dannyl’s warning that the Traitors had stolen the stonemaking knowledge from the Duna people flashed into Lorkin’s mind. Perhaps that was only how the Duna people saw it. Perhaps it had been another deal gone wrong, like that between his father and the Traitors.
“Do you still trade with them?” he asked.
Evar shook his head. “We surpassed their knowledge and skills centuries ago.” He looked to the right. “Here are some we developed ourselves.” They approached a patch of large gemstones, their surface reflecting light with an iridescence that reminded Lorkin of the inside of exotic polished shells. “These are call stones. They’re like blood gems. They allow us to communicate with each other at a distance, but only with the gems they were raised next to. It can be hard to keep track of which ones are linked, so we can’t yet stop making blood gems.”
“Why stop making blood gems?”
Evar looked at him in surprise. “You must know of their weaknesses?”
“Well . . . let me guess: the maker of these doesn’t constantly see the thoughts of the wearer?”
“Yes, and only the message that the user sends is picked up by the gem receiving it, not all their thoughts and feelings.”
“I can see how that would be an improvement.” Lorkin turned to regard the room. There were so many patches of gems, and tables laden with objects faced the walls everywhere.
“What do those gems do?” he asked, waving at a large section.
Evar shrugged. “I don’t know exactly. I suspect that’s an experiment. Some sort of weapon.”
“For the city’s defence, if we’re ever invaded.”
Lorkin nodded and said nothing more. Questions about weapons would be suspicious even to his new friend.
“Weapon stones have to do things that a magician can’t already do,” Evar told him. “For someone with little skill or training, or a magician who has run out of strength. I’m hoping they make one’s strikes more accurate. I wasn’t much good at battle training, so if we are ever attacked I’ll need all the help I can get.”
“Would you even be fighting?” Lorkin asked. “From what I understand, in battles with black magicians, lowly people like me and you are only useful as a source of extra magic. We’d probably give our power to a black magician then be sent somewhere out of the way.”
Evar nodded and gave Lorkin a sideways look. “I still think it’s strange that you call higher magi ‘black’.”
“Black is a colour of danger and power in Kyralia,” Lorkin explained.
“So you’ve said.” Evar looked away, his attention moving around the room as if searching for something else to show Lorkin. Then his eyes widened and he made a low noise. “Uh, oh.”
Turning to look in the direction toward which his friend was staring, Lorkin saw that a young woman had stepped into the room, entering from the larger main archway. He resisted casting about for the smaller back entrance; it must be several steps away and the woman was bound to see them before they got there.
Looks like we’re going to get into that trouble Kalia wanted us to avoid.
A moment later, the woman looked up and saw them. She smiled at Evar, then her gaze slid to Lorkin and her smile faded. She stopped, looked at him thoughtfully, then turned and walked out of the room.
“Have you seen enough? Because I think it might be a good time to go,” Evar said quietly.
“Yes,” Lorkin replied.
Evar took a step toward the back entrance and then stopped. “No, let’s go through the main way. We don’t want to look guilty now that we’ve been seen.”
They exchanged a grim smile, took deep breaths, and started toward the archway the woman had disappeared through. They had almost reached it when another woman appeared, scowling angrily. She saw them and strode over.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded of Lorkin.
“Hello Chava,” Evar said. “Lorkin’s here with me.”
She looked at Evar. “I can see that. What is he doing here?”
“I’m taking him on a tour,” Evar replied. He shrugged.
“No rule against it.”
The woman frowned and looked from Evar to Lorkin and back again. She opened her mouth, closed it again, and a look of annoyance crossed her face. “There may be no rule,” she told Evar, “but there are . . . other considerations. You know the danger in interrupting and distracting stone-makers.”
“Of course I do.” Evar’s face and tone were serious now. “That is why I waited until these makers had gone home for the night, and didn’t take Lorkin to the inner caves.”
Her eyebrows rose. “It is not up to you to decide when it is appropriate. Did you seek permission for this tour?”
Evar shook his head. “Never had to before.”
A flicker of triumph in Chava’s gaze set Lorkin’s heart sinking. “You should have,” she told them“This must be reported, and I don’t want either of you out of my sight until the right people have heard about this, and decide what to do with you.”
As she turned on her heel and strode toward the archway, Lorkin glanced at Evar. The young man smiled and winked. I hope he’s right about not needing permission, Lorkin thought as they both hurried after Chava. I hope there isn’t some law or rule that nobody told me about, too. The Speakers had instructed him to learn the laws of Sanctuary and follow them, and he’d been very careful to do so thoroughly.
But he couldn’t be as unconcerned as Evar was. Even if they were both right, Chava’s reaction had confirmed Lorkin’s fears: that he had tested the Traitors’ trust in him by visiting the caves. He only hoped he hadn’t gone too far, and ruined his hopes of them ever trading with the Guild – or letting him go home.