Everyone was staring at me, waiting for an answer to the charge that my own sister had just levelled at me. My mind, not good for most things but usually quick to come up with a wide range of excuses, bluffs, and out-and-out lies, failed me. It wasn’t as if I couldn’t have made something up (Shalla’s possessed by a demon! Mine is the secret eighth form of magic! The council of mages sent me to test all of you! It’s a dream! You’re all dreaming!) but what possible explanation could I give that wouldn’t be tested by simply having me retake the trial, this time with someone who wasn’t going to be fooled by my trick?
I did the thing that you should never do in these situations. I looked at the faces of the people around me, hoping someone would intervene. If there’s a surer way of demonstrating one’s own guilt, I haven’t encountered it. Oddly it was my teacher, Osia’phest, who tried to come to my rescue. The old man put on an annoyed expression and waved a dismissive hand in the air. “Girl, I may be forced to allow you to be part of these trials, but I am not required to let you interrupt them. Go bother Master He’met.”
“But he’s cheating!” she said, pointing at me. “Kellen’s not even doing the—”
“Shalla, get out of here,” I said between gritted teeth. I tried to signal her with my eyes. Please. If you love me at all, let it go.
If she caught my meaning, she gave no sign of it. Shalla crossed her arms and stood there as if she were about to hold her breath until she got her way. “He’s cheating, Master Osia’phest. He didn’t cast any spells.”
Tennat, who was not yet aware that Shalla had long ago decided he wasn’t quite impressive enough a mage to become her lover when the time came, took the opportunity to put a hand on her arm and give her a patronising smile. “Trust me, Shalla, I was there. Your brother—”
“Oh, shut up,” she said, shaking him off. She pointed at me again. “Kellen’s not doing the spell. He just made you think he was, and you fell for it because you’re an idiot. He convinced you that he was winning and tricked you into turning your own power against yourself. It’s almost clever, but it’s not magic.”
They turned to look at me. Panahsi. Nephenia. All of them. Tennat’s expression was uncertain and I could tell he was trying to relive the experience and decide whether or not his feelings had been real. Some of the other students started to snigger a bit, not sure quite whom they were laughing at.
The ruse had been so simple that no one could have expected it. But now they all knew. Why couldn’t you have let me have just this one thing, Shalla?
Osia’phest frowned, his eyes strangely soft as they caught mine. He already knew, I realised. He’s known all along. But why didn’t he say anything? “Very well,” he mumbled. “I will have to take the matter up with—”
“He can do the spell if he just tries harder,” Shalla interrupted, stepping into the circle Tennat had occupied moments before. “You don’t need tricks, Kellen. You think you do, but that’s only because you don’t believe in yourself.”
Despite how betrayed I felt, I almost laughed. She thinks she’s helping me! I realised. This is Shalla, trying to make me into the man she believes I ought to be.
“You can do it,” she insisted. “I know you can. You’re the son of Ke’heops! You’re my brother, not some Sha’Tep weakling. Prove it to them. Show them. Now!”
She reached out and suddenly I felt her fingers around my heart. Stop, I tried to say, but nothing came out. She was attacking me, just as fast and hard as Tennat had done. But this time I wouldn’t be able to trick her into defeating herself. I had to try to fight back with whatever real magic I had inside me. My left hand formed the somatic shape of the shield, four fingers curled closed in front of my chest and the thumb extended, as I tried in vain to draw on the power of the oasis. With the inks of the iron band flat and dead around my right forearm, I couldn’t summon enough. Spark, I commanded the tattooed bands. The coloured metallic inks briefly glinted in the sunlight, mocking me. Spark. You will light! I’m the son of the most powerful mage in the clan. I can do this. Spark, damn you. Spark!
The pain of Shalla’s attack continued unabated and I cried out. Even seeing me in agony didn’t lessen her will in the slightest. She was so sure that I was as powerful as any of them, that big enough stakes were all I needed to shake me from my weakness. “Find the stillness, Kellen,” she murmured. “Let it flow.”
Despite how angry I was with her, I did try. I tried to be still the way the masters taught us, but all I could feel was the force of Shalla’s will crushing my heart. Oh ancestors, this is really starting to hurt now.
“Come on, Kellen,” Panahsi urged.
I poured everything I had into my shield—every shred of will I could muster and more. I pushed at my limits. I pushed beyond them, tearing through the barriers like parchment. The bands were still there, but I didn’t care any more. You want to see my will, sister? Well, here it is, you stupid, arrogant, mean-spirited wretch. Here’s all of me.
All at once, I felt the stillness, the emptiness. Is this what the masters go on about? The “deep silence of the mind”?
But the silence wasn’t in my mind—it was in my body. I had stopped breathing some time ago … why had I stopped breathing? The answer came to me as my knees buckled and I felt myself falling to the ground.
My little sister had just stopped my heart.