International No. 1 bestselling author Trudi Canavan returns with the thrilling final chapter in her Millennium’s Rule series – a place where worlds are at war and magic is not what it seems . . .
The arrival place was surrounded by three low walls, each a little higher than the last, as if they were seating around a performance area. A large slab of rock dominated the centre. As Rielle moved sideways within the place between worlds, so that her legs would not fuse with the slab when she arrived, she stared at the dark stain covering the top and tried not to imagine it was blood. When air surrounded her, she breathed in, and her heart sank at a familiar scent.
It was blood.
Shivering, she looked around. The land around her was flat, and divided into fields. The road leading to the arrival place – or was it a sacrificial altar now? – was empty of travellers, and weeds were encroaching on either side. The fields were occupied by workers, however. None had seen her yet. She did not recognise the crop, and the cool air held none of the scent of the plants she had helped harvest last time she had been in this world. Her senses told her that there was very little magic about. That did not worry her. She’d brought enough with her that becoming stranded was very unlikely.
She had not been to this world for five cycles – a cycle being the measurement of time similar to a year in most worlds. When she had left it, she’d forged a new path, but it was unlikely any trace would remain after so much time. The most reliable way to find her way back here had been to follow the traces of what had once been well used as a route; then, on arrival, seek out the area she had lived in before.
Judging by the plant species, she’d arrived in a very different part of the world to the one she remembered.
She had learned that the sudden removal of power could have unpredictable effects on civilisations, with violence and chaos all too common. Without magic to call upon, the local sorcerers would be no threat to her. Nor would ordinary people. Yet she’d hesitated to return here, fearing that her brief visit might have changed this world for the worse, and that the inhabitants would blame her for those changes.
Because she was to blame.
She had been chasing Qall, the young man whose body was meant to hold the mind of the Raen, former ruler of all the worlds. The ruler’s most loyal servant, Dahli, wanted to attempt another resurrection and had sent out his followers to find and abduct Qall. When one did, Qall had chosen to cooperate with his enemy in the hopes of finding a way to resolve the situation. To stop Rielle following and complicating the situation, he’d removed all the magic of a world in order to trap her there.
But the people of that world didn’t know that. All they knew was that she had arrived at about the same time. The more sensitive of them might have felt the flood of magic she had created several days later, when she had given up agelessness in order to become a Maker again, so that she could generate the magic needed to escape this world. They’d have sensed someone take that magic, and the workers and managers of the clothing factory saw her fade out of sight straight after. It wouldn’t have taken much for the local sorcerers to work out she’d had something to do with it.
Taking hold of the lozenge-shaped pendant that hung on a chain around her neck, she twirled it between her fingers. She’d had to replace the bristles of the brush concealed inside three times since she’d begun restoring worlds, wearing them out while painting in order to generate magic. Thinking back to the image she’d made in the grime of the fumigation room at the factory, she sighed. She had depicted the workers living free and prosperous instead of held in near-slavery by sorcerers. Sympathy and anger had moved her to paint it, but she had regretted it every day since. If the workers had rebelled, it was likely that violence had followed. Though the sorcerers among them had no magic, they still had physical methods of persuasion and punishment. She looked down at the stained slab. It was unlikely they’d have given up their power without spilling blood.
Meddling in the affairs of worlds was dangerous. She and Tyen had learned that when they’d attempted to negotiate peace between the two worlds of Murai and Doum. They’d discovered their task had been designed to distract them as the leaders of Doum planned their invasion of Murai. They’d both decided never to become involved in the affairs of a world again.
And then she had, here, in the world she now knew was called Infae.
A shout brought her attention back to her surroundings. One of the workers had seen her, and was pointing in her direction. She sought his mind but found nothing. A certain amount of magic must imbue an area in order for minds within it to be accessible. She could release enough of it to be able to, but the closer she was to a person the less magic was required. So she moved to the edge of the circle, stepped over the stone walls, and started towards them.
The workers were gathering together. The way they hoisted their harvesting tools spoke of determination and defensiveness. At a signal from one, they began walking towards her, fanning out to surround her. She did not have to see their faces to know they meant to do her harm.
She stopped, let magic spill out and read their minds.
Her breath caught in her throat. They had decided she was a sorcerer by her strange clothing and because she had appeared within the stone circle. Sorcerers were to be killed – sacrificed to the goddess Rel, who had stripped Infae of magic.
The goddess Rel?
The group were afraid as well as determined. They knew she could have arrived carrying magic. Sorcerers didn’t submit to being sacrificed without a fight. She couldn’t help admiring their bravery, even as she felt horror that this world had come to this. They knew if they failed, the priestesses and priests in the nearby city would deal with her. If not . . . they would be paid well when they brought this woman’s head to them.
Rielle’s stomach turned. She drew a deep breath, pushed out of the world and, as the first of the deadly harvesting scythes passed through the air she had occupied a moment before, skimmed away.
A sense of the direction the city lay in had been in their minds. She headed for it, moving herself higher so she could see the area better. The land was flat in all directions, except where outcrops of rock thrust up from the earth. Quite different to the landscape she had visited the last time she had entered Infae, five cycles ago. The local city was definitely not the one she had known, sprawling around a delta river system. Here, one particularly large outcrop dominated the plain, its surface covered in buildings and roads.
She increased her speed, deciding she would not emerge in the world to breathe before arriving in the city. Descending to the rooftops from above, she positioned herself over the top of an empty circular tower built of bricks so dark they were almost black.
The air that surrounded her was humid and tinged with smoke. As her feet touched the tower roof, a wave of dizziness told her she had spent longer out of the world than she had realised. No physical sensation could be felt in the airless place between worlds, so she could never tell how close she was to suffocating. Having given up the ability to pattern-shift – to heal her body with magic – in order to become a Maker again, she could not survive there any longer than she could hold her breath.
A muffled sound of shouting drew her attention down to the streets. Nearby, smoke and flames were billowing from the half-collapsed roof of a large building. Where streets were visible she could see people carrying buckets of water up the hill in a seemingly futile effort to quench the fire. Bright orange lights caught her attention, and she glimpsed a group of twenty or more people carrying torches striding past an alley entrance, their manner full of satisfaction and threat. It sent a chill down her spine as she stretched forth her senses to look for the source.
She found nothing, of course. Though she could sense some magic here, it was too thinly spread. Some patches did exist that might be strong enough to allow thought reading, however.
Releasing magic while on the tower would draw attention to her, so she pushed a little way out of the world and skimmed down to the alley the torch-bearers had passed. It was within one of the areas of stronger magic. The crowd’s stragglers were still passing. Seeking minds, she caught fragments of thoughts.
. . . know better than to hide sorcerers in their . . .
. . . No more sorcerers! No more sorcerers! . . .
. . . said there was nobody inside but I’m sure I heard . . .
. . . knew who would be next so they robbed them the night before, which was enough warning that they got away . . .
. . . hope they never work out that I can use magic, or I’m dead and all my family and . . .
When the marchers had passed, she peered out of the alley. Blackened ruins lay where three more houses had once stood. The street was eerily quiet. She caught sight of a few people looking through the curtained windows of their homes, and detected the minds of several within the closest houses, full of fear and relief that the Followers of Rel had not targeted them this time.
Rielle moved back into the deeper shadows of the alleyway.
They’ve turned me into a god that hates sorcerers. The irony of that development would have been amusing, if not for the deadly consequences. What can I do? Is there any way I can convince them I’m not a god? Or, failing that, persuade them not to kill in my name?
She needed to know more. Pushing out of the world as far as she could while still being able to see enough of the city to navigate by, she skimmed over the rooftops, hoping nobody would look up and see her ghostly figure flying past. She needed to find a quiet place close to one of the patches of stronger magic from which she could observe more people. Inspecting the garbage within another alley told her it was a promising location. It was full of offcuts of cloth, wire and other materials. Where objects were made, magic would be generated, imbuing the area with it.
Descending into the alley, she was not surprised to see the local buildings housed carpenters, tailors and hatmakers. It was a busy area, making it likely someone would enter the alley and see her here. She’d noted that both men and women wore patterned knee-length wrap skirts over a loose, sleeveless top. Unwrapping her scarf from her head, she wrapped it around her waist, covering the bottom half of her shift dress.
There was magic here, but not as much as she needed. She let some of what she carried flow gently outwards. It slowly intensified the local patch of stronger magic, and soon she was able to detect the thoughts of people nearby.
What was that? came the thoughts of a woman, pausing in her work. The flow of magic had come from close by, but not within the building. The woman glanced around the room and saw that none of the other hatmakers had looked up from their stitching. Her son’s back was stiff, however, and as she met his gaze she felt a wave of affection. Toyr is more sensitive than most, she reminded herself. He may not be a Maker, but he can sense them working better than all the priestesses of Rel. If he finds a new one and nobody else has reported them, the reward might be enough to buy us a better workshop.
“Go on,” she told him. “But no further than two buildings from here.”
The boy leapt up and ran out of the room, excited by the prospect of earning his family money.
There was no sense of menace in this search the woman had sent him on. Makers weren’t hated as sorcerers were. They were considered to have a godlike skill, as Rel had created magic before she’d emptied Infae of it. Rielle had stopped releasing magic, so the boy would not detect her, but he might note her strange appearance. Rising, she continued reading his mind as she walked down the alley, travelling in the opposite direction as he was.
It’s probably someone the priestesses already know about, Toyr was thinking. A new cloth-maker had moved in a couple of days ago and was looking to hire weavers. Three streets away, though. Further than Mother said I could go. He headed for the area anyway. But she wouldn’t mind if I found a Maker and we got the reward.
A pang of envy followed the thought. To be one of the rare sorcerers who generated plentiful magic when creating would be wonderful. They were given anything they wanted, as long as they spent their days making things. They got to make whatever they desired to. His mother constantly told him he should be thankful that the priestesses had freed all the artisans of the city from bondage, and ensured they were paid a fair wage, but making hats was boring. If he were a Maker he would never have to make a hat again. What he’d make instead he had no idea, but he was sure he’d find something he liked doing.
The boy’s thoughts were fading as he moved out of the magically enhanced area Rielle had created. She reached the end of the alley. Shops selling all manner of garments, shoes and hats faced the street beyond. Sensing another patch of stronger magic in the alley across it, she slipped out of the world and skimmed quickly across the street. Arriving again, she walked down the second alley to the end, from where she looked out upon a small open space ringed by food vendors. Letting more of her magic strengthen what was here, she sought the minds of three young men talking nearby.
. . . ending slavery was a good thing, but this is going a bit too far, one was thinking. “Do you think they’ll come here?” he asked his friends. “What if they decide to burn shops as well?”
“They won’t,” the taller of the youngsters replied. “We’ve always been family businesses. We paid people well.”
“I heard family workshops were burned in Defka city,” the third pointed out.
“Why?” the first young man asked.
“For making their children work, I heard.”
“But how’s a person going to have the skills they need by the time they’re grown if they don’t start young?”
“Teaching is all right,” the tall one said. “It’s making them work without pay that’s—”
“Who are you?”
The voice cut over the youth’s chatter, coming from closer behind her. She turned to see a young man a few steps away, his body tense as if he were ready to flee at any moment. Which he was, she read. He had come to find the source of the sudden surges of magic in the area, as he had been ordered to do by the Followers of Rel. He was a sorcerer, and the Followers had only let him live because he was a close friend of one of the priests, who had pointed out that Annad was a gentle scholar and healer, and had never employed even a servant, let alone used his magic to rule over others.
He was worried, now that he had found the source of the magic, that he would have to turn her over to the Followers. She was clearly a stranger, if not to this world then to this part of it. But if she was a Maker she might be safe . . .
He was thinking all this deliberately, using the Traveller language that his mentor had taught him, as it was known by sorcerers who moved between worlds, hoping she would see she was in danger and have time to flee.
“I am in no danger,” she assured him. “But I do not want to cause trouble. Is there somewhere we can talk?”
He considered. It was a risk. Probably too great a risk. But she deserved an explanation. If she could get to his late mentor’s rooms unseen . . .
She moved closer and held out a hand. He looked at it dubiously. As she began to withdraw it, curiosity overcame his fears, and he took it.
Pushing out of the world, she took them far enough into the space between worlds that the city almost disappeared. Enough details remained visible that she could navigate, skimming high over the city. Annad’s eyes widened, but his surprise was quickly replaced by fascination. He knew about world travelling, she guessed, though perhaps not how to.
She took them back towards the world so they could see more of the city’s streets and buildings.
“Where are your mentor’s rooms?” she asked.
He pointed. “The highest room of the tower with the five-panelled roof.”
No other roof fitted that description. She skimmed down, through the roof and into a circular room. To her relief it was unoccupied. She did not want to make his situation any more complicated and dangerous.
As they arrived she let go of his hand. “I am Rielle,” she told him.
“I am Annad,” he replied.
“What happened in this world?”
He told her about the loss of magic. Foreign sorcerers had been blamed for it, and many of them murdered. After they had died or fled, the Followers of Rel had arrived, spreading their tales of a goddess who had taken all the magic of Infae, disgusted with the way sorcerers enslaved and exploited non-sorcerers. Now it was the local sorcerers who were murdered, and while he had survived so far, Annad did not like to think about his chances of living out the year if his friend lost influence among the Followers.
“But they do not kill Makers,” he assured her. “You are a powerful Maker?”
“Yes. But I am also a sorcerer.”
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“I arrived in this world today.”
His eyebrows rose in surprise. At the same time he felt a rush of excitement as he realised she must be powerful to have travelled all the way to other worlds through the place between. “You did not know this was a dead world?”
“Then why did you enter?”
“To see what has happened since the magic was taken.”
He frowned. “How did you know it was taken?”
She sighed. “Because I was here when it happened.”
He stared at her, recalling what the priestesses believed. Is this her? Is this Rel? The Followers say she will return. If we are better, if all are free, she will restore the world.
Rielle shook her head. “I am no god. I did not mean for this to happen, but it is my fault. I should have come back sooner. I was . . .” She sighed. “I should not have meddled.”
Annad stared at her silently. He did not see the goddess the Followers spoke of. He saw a powerful sorcerer and Maker in obvious distress. He thought back to his mentor, Sentah, who had been strong enough not just to travel between worlds, but to become ageless. When the magic had left the world, Sentah had been unable to heal himself when yellowlung spread through the city. But he had welcomed that death, saying he had lived far too long. His only regret was not being able to teach Annad everything he knew.
“I’m sorry,” Rielle said.
He shook his head. “It is not your fault he caught yellowlung.”
Nor was it entirely her fault that the old man had been unable to heal himself. The magic she’d made, then taken, before leaving Infae would not have spread this far.
“So . . . what will you do now?” he asked.
She drew in a deep breath and straightened. “Decide whether or not to restore this world. I think, before I do so, I will need to find out more about the Followers. Where are they based?”
The delta city. She nodded. “Then I will go there.”
Annad crossed his arms. “By restore, do you mean fill Infae with magic?”
“Yes. I am a Maker. A particularly strong one.”
He nodded. “That’s what Sentah believed. He’d said Makers couldn’t be gods, since they could not become ageless. Not without breaking the worlds. It was the price they paid for their ability.”
She blinked in surprise. “You know of Maker’s Curse?”
Annad straightened, glowing with pride that she should be impressed by his knowledge of magic. “Sentah told me of it.”
“How did he know about it?”
“He was a member of a secret library, so I expect he read about it there.”
She felt a flash of hope. “Where is this library?”
Annad grimaced. “Lost. Sentah’s membership was revoked many cycles ago, and all of those who belonged to it have died since. He gave me clues to its location when he was dying, saying if I could work them out I was worthy of its treasures, but it is not in this world.” The young man shrugged. “And even if this world was restored, I don’t know how to travel between worlds.”
Rielle considered him. I could teach him. If I decide not to restore Infae’s magic I’ll have to take him out of this world first. Then go with him on his search? But what of restoring worlds?
She’d decide later, after she had sorted out matters here.
“Where is Vohenn?” she asked.
A vague idea of the city’s location flitted through his mind, his knowledge based on Sentah’s maps.
“May I see the maps?”
He nodded, then hurried over to a cupboard and, with hands shaking, opened it and rifled though a multitude of scrolls, packets and loose sheafs of paper. Drawing out a large roll, he moved to a table and pushed aside the dirty utensils and crockery of several past meals to make space for the unrolled map.
Rielle watched his mind as he pointed out details. Vohenn was half a world away. It had only taken five cycles – nearly seven years in Infae’s measure of time – for the Cult of Rel to spread so far.
She touched the map. “Can I take this?”
“If you take me with you,” Annad replied.
Rielle looked up at him. “If I have to leave this world suddenly, you will be stranded on the other side of it.”
His shoulders lifted. “I am willing to take that risk.” Not just for the fame of being her guide, he told himself, but if she is here to decide whether to restore magic, I must speak on behalf of sorcerers. “It’s not like there’s anything to keep me here now.”
“Then pack a bag. Even if I restore magic, you won’t survive with nothing to trade.”
She picked up the map and examined it as he rushed about packing. He did not take long, pausing only to write two quick notes, one for the landlord and the other for a friend. When he was done, she held out a hand. He took it gingerly.
“Take a deep breath.”
As he did so, she sucked in one herself, then pushed them both out of the world and began skimming upwards. The land below shrank, and soon she was able to recognise local features on the map. Having got her bearings, she sent them shooting off towards the nearest coastline. Following it would take longer than going directly to Vohenn, but a large ocean lay between them and their destination, with no features to get her bearings from.
She stopped several times to breathe, Annad coping with standing on an invisible surface high above the world remarkably well. He had travelled with his mentor using this method once or twice, though never so high above the ground, and never so far from home. At last a delta city appeared. The waterways glistened brightly, the reflection of the dawn sky making the water appear clean rather than the waste-tainted filth she remembered. Taking them downwards, she realised that the illusion was not entirely false. The waters were much less polluted now and no slick of wastes stretched to the horizon.
The city was still a shambles, but at the centre a shining new building was under construction. Rielle had seen plenty of temples before and it was clear this was to be one. Stopping high above the city, she brought them into the world again to consider her next move. To her surprise, plenty of magic surrounded them. It emanated from the city below like a comforting mist, spreading a little way out into the countryside. The sources were numerous, but one in particular was stronger than the rest and she traced it back to a building in the temple complex. She sought minds.
A man was resuming his carving of a sculpture, taking advantage of the quiet of early morning to get some work done before the rest of the Makers arrived. This was where the Cult of Rel housed the Makers it had attracted with the promise of good living conditions. Many were working on the temple decorations, their professions ranging from carvers to painters to weavers. They were overseen by a priestess named Bel.
Rielle recognised the face in the carver’s mind. The youngest and most shy of the three young women who had helped Rielle, Bel was now full of confidence and purpose. She liked working with the artisans, and they looked up to her as one of the three who the goddess had judged worthy, and whose likeness Rel had painted in The Promise.
Rielle winced. As she feared, they’d taken the images she’d made of them on the factory wall as a kind of prophecy and order. They believed they must make the scene of prosperity and equality happen before she returned.
How had this translated to killing sorcerers? Looking around the city, she saw no sign of burned houses. She skimmed across minds until she found a sorcerer enjoying a morning meal with his family. He nursed no fear of being murdered. Searching further, she found no sign that sorcerers were being attacked here. Many were not as wealthy as they had been before, but few had fallen on hard times. Enough magic existed that they could trade small services for payment. Several had joined the temple and become priests and priestesses.
Turning back to the temple, Rielle searched the minds there. She found young priests and priestesses gathering for their morning class.
“Sorcerers aren’t being killed here,” she observed.
“They call themselves the Cult of Rel,” Annad observed. “Not the Followers.”
Rielle looked into the minds of people within the centre of the temple. A familiar name caught her attention. She handed the map to Annad, pushed out of the world and sent them downwards.
“Time to find out what’s going on.”
They passed through the temple roof into a large room. A young woman stood before a mirror adjusting her plain white high-priestess robes. Rielle let go of Annad’s hand and walked over to the young woman.
“Solicitations, High Priestess Bel,” Rielle said.
The young woman looked up at the mirror, blinked as she saw Rielle’s reflection, then spun around. Rielle smiled as disbelief fought recognition in the woman’s mind and lost.
“It’s you!” Bel exclaimed. “It’s really you!” She put a hand to her mouth in amazement, covering a grin. The young woman considered what would be appropriate behaviour, then decided she must prostrate herself.
“No,” Rielle said quickly, catching Bel’s hands. “Do not lower yourself before me. I am not . . . We are friends. And we have much to discuss.” She let go of the girl’s hands. “Are Mai and Vai here too?”
Bel nodded. “I’ll send for them.” She moved to the door and, opening it a crack, spoke to someone beyond. “Find High Priestesses Mai and Vai and tell them to meet me here immediately.” She closed the door, then glanced at Rielle’s companion.
“This is Annad,” Rielle explained. “I arrived on the other side of the world and he offered to be my guide.”
Bel smiled at him. “Welcome to the Temple of Rel, Annad. You have travelled a long way.”
He shrugged. “Yes. Thank you,” he replied haltingly, unfamiliar with her language but able to understand and answer because he could read her mind.
Bel paused, deliberating whether she should send someone for food. She was saved from deciding by the door opening. They all turned to see Mai entering.
“Rel! You came back!” The young woman beamed and hurried towards Rielle, then stopped abruptly. “I mean . . . goddess Rel, welcome back.” Her knees began to bend.
“Thank you,” Rielle replied. “Please don’t do that.”
Mai froze, then straightened and continued the rest of the way to Rielle, her steps measured and her face calm despite the multitude of emotions vibrating within her. Fear, delight, even a little guilt. She, Vai and Bel had presumed so much by starting all of this, not because they believed Rielle was a god, but because they knew she wasn’t.
“Then why tell people I am?” Rielle asked.
Mai paled. “Ah . . .”
“We didn’t think you’d come back,” Bel replied. “The whole idea that you might return wasn’t ours. We wanted people to fix their own problems, not wait for you. That’s why we seek out Makers and pay them well in exchange for creating things. We believe we can bring back the magic ourselves.”
“But people are so excited by the idea of a goddess visiting our world. They want to meet you themselves,” Mai explained. “They want it so badly that when we suggested you wouldn’t return, they lost interest in fighting for freedom.”
Bel smiled. “And you were clearly so powerful you might well have been a goddess.”
Rielle shook her head. “Gods don’t make mistakes. I do.”
“All gods do,” Mai told her, frowning. “How could anyone believe in gods that were infallible, when they see how imperfect the world is?”
Rielle could not answer that.
“Why did you leave that picture?” Bel asked.
Before Rielle could reply, the door opened again. Vai stepped into the room and, seeing Rielle, stopped to stare.
“Yes,” Rielle said. “I’m back. I’d have come sooner, but . . .” What could she say? That she had avoided coming for fear of what her interference might have led to?
“You don’t need to have an excuse,” Mai said. “Why have you returned?”
Rielle sighed and turned to Bel. “The picture was . . . I wished you had a better life. I wanted to show you that you deserved to be treated with fairness and dignity. It was a way to say thank you for all the help you gave me.” She paused. “But . . . to be honest, I did hope you and the other workers would be inspired to make a change, even as I worried that my interference would lead to strife. And it did.” She glanced at Annad. “I arrived on the other side of the world and found that the Followers of Rel were killing sorcerers in my name.”
“Ah,” Vai said, her voice darkening. “The Followers.”
“They disagreed with us,” Bel explained. “And formed their own cult.”
“It wasn’t easy, in the beginning.” Vai came forward to join them, now recovered from the shock of seeing Rielle. She had always been the most confident and pragmatic of the three. “People didn’t know if what you drew was a promise or an instruction. Or meant anything. We and the other workers decided that it must mean something. We wouldn’t let it mean nothing, so we refused to work.”
“It wasn’t easy.” Mai shuddered. “The factory managers didn’t have magic, but they had other weapons. Beatings. Withholding pay. Throwing the children out of the compounds and keeping
their parents within. But the factory owners weren’t going to make any money if we didn’t work, so they had to give in eventually.”
“The controllers who saw you disappear told others about you, before the managers ordered them to silence,” Bel added. “As word spread that we were visited by a goddess, many controllers refused to deal out the beatings, or joined us. One had made a copy of the painting you left by pressing cloth against the wall, so that others could see and replicate it.”
“By the time the owners were ready to negotiate, it was too late,” Vai finished. “It was out of their control. Out of everyone’s. People looked to us for answers. They didn’t like that we didn’t have any, so we had to start making things up. To make rules and give orders. We managed to stop things going completely crazy.”
“There’s no stopping the current, so we stick to steering the boat,” Bel added, in a tone that suggested she’d used the saying many times before.
“That all seems like a long time ago,” Mai said. “We’ve been in control here for a few years now. Elsewhere . . . unfortunately the other side of the world is too far away for us to influence. One day we will be strong enough to deal with the Followers, but not right now.”
“Are you . . . are you unhappy with what we’ve tried to do?” Bel asked.
Rielle glanced from face to face. The women were holding their breath. She realised she was frowning and relaxed her expression.
“No. I’m amazed you have achieved so much. And yet . . .” Rielle hesitated, trying to put words to the nagging doubt she felt.
“What?” Vai asked.
Rielle spread her hands. “I am troubled, that it is all built on a lie. I am not a god.”
They bowed their heads.
“Would you have us undo everything?” Mai asked.
Rielle sighed. “No. The truth might be as dangerous as the lie.” She grimaced. “Though it might stop the Followers.”
“Could you pretend to be a god in order to stop them?”
Rielle winced. “If I had to, I suppose I could.” She looked at Annad. “What do you think, Annad?”
He shook his head. “I think they would fight to retain their power. They would declare you a fake – a sorcerer pretending to be Rel.”
“Even if I restored the magic of this world?”
He shrugged. “Then perhaps you wouldn’t have to convince them of anything, because the sorcerers could defend themselves again.”
Rielle turned to the girls. “People here obey you and made hard changes because you let them believe I would return and restore the magic of this world. That was a risk. I might never have returned. But I am here, and that means you face another dilemma: if I do restore this world, I will be putting power back into the hands of those who oppressed you.”
Mai shook her head. “If they go back to their old ways, they will not find people as willing to bend to their demands.”
“So you don’t mean to restore the magic?” Bel asked, turning back to Rielle. “Or do you need to be completely sure it won’t do harm first?”
Rielle shook her head. “I doubt I would ever be completely sure. Perhaps if I were a god I would be able to predict the future, but I am not. And since I am not a god, and not of this world, the decision is not mine to make.”
Annad took a step towards her, opening his mouth ready to list the reasons he wanted to give in favour of restoring magic, but the three women frowned at him in a warning against interrupting and he bit back the words, bowing his head respectfully.
“Whose decision is it?” Vai asked.
“The people of Infae.” Rielle smiled. “But since it would take too long to ask them all . . . their representatives.”
“Would we suffice as those representatives?” Bel asked. “We and your guide together.”
“You have the good of all people at the heart of what you do.That seems the best qualification I can think of.” Rielle looked at Annad. “And my guide speaks for sorcerers from the other side of Infae. I think we can tell what he wishes.” She turned back. “What do you want me to do?”
The trio exchanged glances. Rielle saw from their thoughts and doubtful faces that they had discussed many times what might happen when magic returned to Infae, though they had figured it would happen slowly over many centuries. They’d considered many possible consequences, both good and bad. They’d consulted men and women whose wisdom they respected, and debated their advice.
Bel regarded Rielle thoughtfully. “You’ve restored worlds before, haven’t you?”
“Yes. Many times.” Always at the behest of another. This was the first time that burden of that decision had shifted to her, and here she was fobbing it off onto these three young women. Yet it felt like the right thing to do. “I have seen enough to know I can’t predict what will happen. All I am certain of is that it brings great change.”
“Then . . .” Mai glanced at her two friends. “I say we should do it. We’ve weathered one change. We will survive another. There is much good in magic. We may need it, when we deal with the Followers. And we will deal with them. They sprang from our actions, and we must be the ones to stop them.”
Vai nodded. “I agree. We have built the foundations of a fairer world. I’ve been cynical about the chances of it staying that way, magic or no magic. People will always try to take advantage of others. So we may as well have magic.”
“Then we are united,” Bel said. She didn’t elaborate, just smiled and turned to Rielle. “I ask, humbly, for you to return magic to our world.”
Rielle bowed her head. “I will do so.”
A cheer erupted from Annad, earning him looks of amusement from the women.
“Do . . . you need us to bring you anything?” Bel asked.
“No, I came prepared.” Rielle started towards the centre of the room. Shrugging off her pack, she opened it and drew out a board, a sheaf of paper and a drawing stick. The materials always seemed too humble in the face of the task she would be performing, but she handled them reverently, glad for this chance to exercise her skills.
“I think another portrait will do,” she said. “In those chairs over there, where the light is good.”
As they obeyed, she drew a deep breath, composed a picture in her mind and began to transfer their likenesses to paper.