Chapter 14: Ivory & Bronze
Time was caught like a dried leaf in a hailstorm, swept every which way with no discernible trajectory, consistent speed, or hope for reprieve from its chaotic tumbling. I caught glimpses through a drugged, slitted vision, of Sarkana’s hands over me, the shining edge of a scalpel, the bundles of her sleeves bunched just beneath her elbows, with stains of blood rounding her wrists like splattered, shining circlets. The intermittent glances between unconsciousness came with pinches of discomfort, stabs of pain that poked through the numbness, sometimes punctuated by shades of indigo coloring my eyelids. But in my stupor, I couldn’t alert her that the drug was wearing off, or even to consider her distorted expression of enrapture as I lapsed in and out of these visions like light being granted space between clouds in a storm’s frenzy.
In one instance, I stirred to find that night had fallen. Sarkana was looking over a cracked tome with gnarled parchment and deep gauges of ink that stained symbols and words throughout the pages. When she turned round, the tips of her fingers discolored with faded blood, she was shocked to see me looking at her.
I raised a sluggish hand to my eye, cognizant that the arrow’s weight was now missing from my head, and that gauze had replaced it. “Not yet,” she whispered and took my hand in hers, murmuring other words that quickly slipped away with the rest of the room.
Memories intermingled with the nightmare that I’ve shown you before. Only, this reoccurrence was slightly altered. I sat up in frigid air, my right hand and left eye bandaged, on a stone slab whose edges were chipping, falling away to depths which breathed a foul, impenetrable blackness. With no windows, the chamber seemed little else than a prison. When I had turned my gaze in a full circle, I found that each of its four walls hosted three or four corpses, all of them strapped down by leather belts and bolts, into stone slots that loosely fit the contours of their bodies.
Upon closer examination of their clothing, I recognized the thirteen corpses as the fallen bodies at the Crossroads, only their faces were covered by the same masks which appeared in my nightmare, each emotion distinct than the next. Despite the fear that I usually felt from seeing those masks, the same expressions I had run from since I was old enough to dream them up, I wanted to free the corpses, to let them plummet into the depths below. But when I outstretched my arm towards one of them, its eyes sprung open and revealed that shallow, milky stare of the dead. It sent me crawling backwards, until I was leaning over the edge of the slab. Soon, it crumbled from my weight, and sent me falling into the blackness beneath.
Halted. I looked up to see a dark silhouette, of what appeared to be a boy just a few years younger than myself, but with eyes that penetrated with ageless wisdom. Large, leather wings spread from one end of the room to the next, sprouted from his back. His arm strained to haul me back onto the slab, and I wanted him to, as I sensed that he had other plans than for me to continue in this cycle of nightmares. There was a loud noise, a bang, like a steel pot slamming against the ground, that caught his attention. Once he looked away from me, I felt my fingers slip from his grasp, until I was plummeting through the vacancy beneath the chamber, with his eyes following me all the while.
Through the darkness, the dial of my visions was turned again, diffusing recollections through ticking that slammed like the heavy beating of a heart in an epiphany. Once again, I was kneeling within arm’s reach from Lisence as the marauders repeated their atrocities, my arms held down by leaden weights. Although I couldn’t stand seeing her this way again, looking away was somehow more horrifying, so I watched, and grunted, and screamed while I strained. Eventually, I managed to pull myself free. I threw myself towards the marauders, pushing them aside. The wind carried their silhouettes away in clouds of soot. And when I bent to hold Lisence as she shook with her knees pressed against her naked chest, her skin reacted the same to my touch, that is, to swirl away in a sigh of dust.
I woke up to the familiar smell of damp earth and the certainty that the dreams were over. I inhaled deeply, savoring the clarity of wakefulness, even if it came to me in the diluted form of a single, bleary eye, and the first, shaky breaths that came after the unconscious crying that had evidently left my face wet.
“You’re all right,” Sarkana murmured, repeating it a few times. “You’re safe.”
I opened my eyes. My nails were dug into her back, my face in her hair. The damp earth, I realized, was her smell. I unwrapped myself from her body, our skin stuck together like bandages from the cold sweat that covered me.
“Forgive me,” I began, “it was just a nightmare.” My voice had been collecting dust. I cleared it away and wiped my face.
“There’s no need to apologize. If anything, I should. The tincture didn’t appear to pull you into a deep enough sleep. Did you feel any pain?”
The three Addoran suns rotated high above the sanctuary, the softer light from the smaller two—which were truly moons—mingled with the heaviest rays piercing through the billowing, mountainous clouds which nearly kissed the surface of the Ruined Sea. As I watched the water, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t dreaming anymore. My head felt like a dense glass bowl, but otherwise containing nothing. “Hardly. I won’t take any apologies,” I replied. “Maybe the elixir worked all too well; perhaps in the farthest depths of sleep I had discovered a place of endless dreams. I saw some things that will be difficult to forget.”
Her lips were pressed together with a look of apologetic pity on her face. She pushed a cup of water into my hand and motioned for me to drink. “Dreams are our burden only so long as we are sleeping. It’s best to leave them there, if you can.”
I nodded and drank, unable to shake the image of that boy’s stare into my eyes as his hand kept me from falling. “The tincture lasted an entire day?”
“Two days,” she corrected.
“Two?” Despite the heaviness that seemed to pull my entire body into the bed, I longed to stand in the wind, to feel the sun’s kiss or even winter’s bite. But even just moving my legs seemed like an arduous task. “Why did it take so long?”
“Using necromancy for healing is not the simplest of tasks. But I do hope the results are … satisfactory.” Sarkana lifted my right hand, the one that had been pierced through by the same arrow that killed Fahim. After she unraveled the bandages, I fixed my gaze on the new scar, which looked like the remnants of a burn wound, where flames had scalded the flesh in the shape of a star, but had long since healed into a pale-grey hue. I laughed, because the last time I had tried to move my fingers, they had only twitched. I curled them around Sarkana’s wrist. Her expression lit up as if I had just enjoyed a meal that she had meticulously cooked. “How does it feel?”
“The way it always felt, as if nothing had ever happened.” I held the hand up to the light, expecting to see some mechanism working beneath the flesh. I massaged the scar, anticipating the pain, but felt none. “This is unbelievable,” I muttered, shaking my head.
“Well, I am not certain that it’s possible to give you anymore proof,” she laughed.
“My eye …” I began to unfurl the bandages around me head.
“Oh no. No, no, no,” she stopped me and replaced the gauze. “I’m afraid that will take another day or two, at the very least.”
Beneath the bandage, I could move whatever eye had replaced mine. Before I had drunken the tincture, the possibility seemed distant, perhaps because I didn't believe something like that was possible. But now that I felt it, the eye moving in place of mine, I could not help but feel nauseated. Still, Sarkana was eating up the satisfaction in my expression, even if she looked as if she could fall asleep that very moment. I didn’t want to disappoint her.
“I am sure it is just as astonishing. I can feel it moving already.”
She nodded quickly, her fingers wrung together. “Everything is in place, I would just prefer it if your body had more time to adjust.”
“I’ll take the healer’s expert advice. But do you have my, ahh, my old part? I am curious.”
“Oh … well. I thought it best if you didn’t see it. It was not so, how should I put this … familiar looking as you might think? Lacking any appropriate use for it, I had it mixed in with Zuma’s breakfast today.”
My mouth hung open as I attempted to find the correct response, or rather, any response that would adequately articulate my feelings towards that decision. I had never expected that one of my eyes would be eaten by an imp, but if it had to happen, I suppose this was the least painful, and traumatizing. “Always thinking pragmatically, I see.”
“As one should,” Sarkana replied. “Are you still tired? There is no shame in resting more. Your body has been through more than you can imagine.”
“I am,” I admitted.
“That too,” I laughed.
“I thought as much.” Sarkana left the room, returning with a plate of steaming biscuits and thickly sliced cheese. “Something I had prepared for myself, but was hoping you’d be willing to share with me. There’s no possibility of me eating it all.”
After focusing all of my being on eating several of the biscuits and fistfuls of cheese, I finished another cup of water and looked at her with a touch of pity, as well as guilt. “Please don’t take this poorly, but you look exhausted. Don’t tell me you’ve been watching over me this entire time.”
“You mean I am not my usual bewitching self?” she recoiled, gasping and pretending to be offended.
“Relax. The deep, black rings under your eyes are charming. Have you not slept since the crossroads?”
“Sleep is for the wounded and the unmotivated. I sleep only when there is no other choice,” she said, peeling a layer of the biscuit before slapping cheese on and putting it into her mouth. Despite her confidence, she sighed deeply and rubbed her eyes. The way she chewed, eating seemed to be a chore for her, rather than a pleasure. I could only imagine that was how she regarded sleep, as well, as just another errand for the body’s feeble mechanisms.
One of the the most alluring demeanors is an indifference to one’s own health in place of another’s well being. It placates an irrefutable longing that everyone either nurtures or ignores, the desire to be loved and cared for. I couldn’t help but feel myself wanting to grow closer to her. I reached out for the hand she wasn’t using to feed herself and pulled it into both of mine.
Upon feeling my fingers wrap around hers, her eyes went quickly from our hands to me. A stunned disbelief, a loneliness fulfilled with relief, wrapped in fatigue, settled into her face. It seemed to me, then, that any false pretense I was under of Sarkana’s dangerous side needed to be considered no more than one’s fear of darkness. Maybe she had sharpened fangs only because the world is talented at transforming the potential of the intelligent into the ruthlessness of a savage. Maybe I was a fool to treat her coldly after she’d shown me tenderness, after she’d boldly embraced me as a friend when death was her only trusted preservation.
“Both of us should sleep. You’ve done more than enough for me.”
“Only what I felt compelled to do,” she said modestly.
“No. Nobody feels compelled to stay awake this long for the sake of a stranger, to pour their life and energy into them so that they might live comfortably again.”
“I’d be wounded if you saw me as a stranger. I don’t think of you that way, Casimir.”
“You know what I meant.”
“Yes,” she said, not meeting my eyes.
“Compassion is precious, to be cherished more than its less admirable sibling, love, whom one way or another, seems to always become convoluted. Because just like gods and stars, I am not certain that humans were ever meant to hold it, rather admire and revere the notion as any other unobtainable perfection. But compassion has no double faces or smoke or mirrors, compassion knows only itself.”
“If you really believe it’s so pure, what makes you think I’d be capable of such a thing? Is it not much more easier to believe that I am only acting out of the latter?”
“Are you trying to say that you love me, Sarkana?”
She laughed but held my hand tighter. “No. I am saying that you are one of the only friends I’ve had in many years, and the only one I found worth keeping. So maybe I really am selfish. I couldn’t stand the thought of you dying, and worse yet, of you dying because of a wound that could have been mended far better than most would think.”
“Well now that I’ve seen how useful you can be, I think I can entertain the idea of being your friend. So maybe both of us stand to gain something from this, after all.”
Perched on one of the branches of the tree extending from the kitchen, Felix was feeding on a shrew, the blood on his beak shining from the sunlight sprinkling itself through the other canopies circling the gardens.
The gardens exuded an admirable dedication, just as rampant as the ivy that spread over every structure, almost elegantly forlorn in its display of isolated mastery, of countless hours sacrificed to the sanctuary’s beauty. Every time I looked at her creations, I seemed to have another conversation with her, as if she had whispered secrets to the plants who in turn divulged fragments with every glance. When she looked at her gardens, I wondered what she saw.
“Maybe,” she replied with a tired smirk. “Maybe.”
“You’ll finally catch some sleep, then?”
“Oh shush. I’ve been caring for you for two days. Don’t spoil my self-righteousness by becoming my caretaker at the very end. Put your head back down. Don’t pretend as if you’re not already nodding off again.”
And I didn’t. The biscuits had settled to a dull heat in my stomach, and the suspicions I’d felt had all but dissipated entirely, so much so that nothing seemed more satisfying, more self-indulgent, than to let myself pass once again into a deep, guarded sleep.
After I had rested long enough that I couldn’t endure smelling my own sweat on the blankets, I thrust the covers off and jumped into my garments, which had been folded and left on a stool beside the bed. Only when I left the chamber did I realize that the air inside had gone stale, stifled by ointments, dried blood, and all of the odors that had been issuing from my unwashed body. A little disgusted with myself, I unlatched one of the windows and let the temperate air breathe through, unknowingly inviting the regent demon Felix back into the home, who decided that biting my ear for several minutes was my payment for worrying him.
The air in the home was filled with the rich scent of solitude and routines perfected by repetition, of incense, freshly harvested herbs, and the cleaning solutions. At the bottom of the staircase, I found her asleep on one of the armchairs in the living room, her arm wrapped around the seer’s eye, and a strand of drool connecting from her mouth to the device.
When I tried to pull the blanket higher up over her waist, she woke up and looked around as if she was horribly late for something.
“What day is it?” She wiped the drool away, not bothering to pretend that I hadn’t seen it.
“I reckon the one right after last. The world won’t stop turning because you finally got some rest,” I laughed.
Once she saw the early morning light coming through the window, she seemed to relax. “I must’ve fallen asleep,” she said. “Gods.”
“That is typically what most people do, every now and then. You should try it more often, you might actually be able to keep your eyes open throughout the day.”
“Oh joy, your sarcasm has returned. That must mean you are healing well.” She stood up and lifted the bandage up just enough so she could prod and examine the skin around it. “Good. There’s no infection.”
“And I am dying to see with it. Can’t I take it off?”
“No,” she said firmly, “this may shock you, but replacing someone’s eyeball is a delicate process. Give it at least one more day. But no more words before caffek and nitskel, immediately. That nap felt as refreshing as pounding my skull with a sledgehammer.”
“You said more words,” I pointed out.
“And not another from you.”
On the terrace beside her kitchen, we didn’t share cigarettes of nitskel, but each had our own, trading inhalations of smoke for sips of caffek, both of their invigorating, earthy flavors reviving us from the inside. Felix was perched on the guardrail next to us, so enthused to see me outside that he decided to present me with as many innards as he could find of all the smaller critters scampering around in Sarkana’s gardens.
“The eye …” I began, “whose is it?”
As soon as the cigarette risked burning her fingers, she dropped the nub into an empty flower pot and rolled another, decidedly abandoning any attempts to curb her addiction since I’d been wounded. “I realized after you’d fallen asleep that I should have asked you, as it is rather a personal decision. So I thought about it for as long as I worked on your hand, and by the end, I had decided to use Magister Fahim’s. I thought you’d like the idea of him living on, through you, in a more innocent way, in a way that necromancy or any other kind of magick can never imitate. He will, quite literally, see the world through you.”
A white, pale iris, with a pupil that was more often unsettlingly small than it was large, like a perfect spot of ink on a bleached piece of parchment. That was how Fahim’s eyes looked. I struggled to imagine how it would appear sitting next to the bronze of my own. “You made the right decision. Thank you,” I replied. “Do you think it’s as simple as that, that by spreading someone’s ashes to the sea, or by burying them beneath a tree, that they live on through the materials they are cast into?”
“No,” Sarkana laughed and shook her head, “burial rituals are for the living, Casimir. Metaphors are just the same, unfortunately. Spirits are like rabbits once they’ve left their bodies, damnably hard to catch once they’re scared, and once a spirit leaves its body, you can bet your week’s wages that it’s going to be scared. The tricky part of necromancy isn’t mending dead flesh, it’s capturing the essence of something. That’s why the Vyurken exist.”
“The Vyurken, you mean, the demons whom Death uses to help carry off spirits into the Nether?” Sarkana nodded, knowing fully that this creature was, to many, just another children’s tale. She hid her knowing smile behind her mug.
“I wouldn’t suppose there’s any use telling you that I am not someone who has any reason to believe in such things.”
“No, I wouldn’t suppose so,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean you’re right.”
“So you don’t think …”
“You don’t think there is some essence of Fahim lingering in me?”
But that only amused her further. “Unless it slipped by me unnoticed, I doubt it. The Vyurk that helped Fahim was rather quick, and rather thorough.”
Briefly, I considered asking her what one of the Vyurken looked like, how they spoke, if they did at all. I remembered the boy in my nightmares, but felt childish proposing the idea that, somehow, I had shared a vision of the one that took Fahim’s spirit. “I see. And what about Fahim?”
“What about him?” she replied, her tone hinting that she knew what was coming.
“You knew him, didn’t you?”
“So he did, didn’t he?” she murmured with a chuckle. Her eyebrows were raised while her fingers traced the handle on her mug, a look of distant surprise taking hold while she was swept into her thoughts.
“You had no correspondence with Fahim after you left Foxfeather Castle? Nothing besides the ring you sent?”
“Of course. So how else did he come to tip you off that he knew me? He must’ve said something, either right before then, or right as he died.” She shook her head in disbelief. “The bastard. What a waste.”
“To spend your last moments speaking of another …”
“Am I a fool for not heeding his final words? He seemed … wary of you.”
“So they really were his final words?” she tilted her head back and laughed. “I’d say you already made your gamble, fool or not, you’ll just have to live with it.”
“But why did you never mention that you knew him? You let me go on guessing.”
“And I am quite sorry for that. There was a history there that, to be blunt, made me feel as inclined to save his life as I would feel inclined to nurture a wasp. Yet, I didn’t feel justified in denying your good intentions. I was willing to help, or willing to do nothing at all, depending on your decision.”
Watching Sarkana lift her leg up to lean back in her chair, to sip her caffek, to smoke her nitskel and ponder all this over the morning light, only made the entire situation seem more ridiculous. I wondered if I had wasted a perfectly innocent fortnight of rest entertaining useless considerations of paranoia. In spite of the bond growing between us, I entertained the curiosity left behind from my reservations, and continued down the trail of Fahim’s warning.
“How did you know him?”
“Oh, I hardly knew him at all,” she said, waving away the notion with her hand. “Before the crossroads, I hadn’t the slightest clue how he’d aged. Fahim is, or I suppose was the son of an instructor at the Ardor Academy, the one I attended in my youth. Are you familiar with the name Fell Mecidias?”
At the mention of her ‘youth,’ I remembered that I still didn’t know her age. And the more I looked at her, the more perplexed I became. Her attentive eyes, the dark colors of exertion beneath them, the faded rose tint to her lips and the pallid hues of her skin, always had me caught between admiration, affection, and confusion. “Only the second name.”
She finished the last of her caffek, pinched the end of the cigarette out, and ran her tongue across another rolling sheet before stuffing it shut with more of the dried plant. With a murmur, she ignited the end of it with a small flame that spawned from her palm. She waved her hand rapidly until the flame spluttered. It made me feel ordinary, especially when I leaned over to light mine on a candle in the middle of the table. “Fell Mecidias was a brilliant mage, I’ll admit that much, even if I have enough reason to despise him. He was an instructor of destruction magick, particularly its use in combat. He fostered more than a few golden names that appeared in the recent Runeland wars.”
“That explains how Fahim secured his position with the Foxfeathers.”
“All Fell would’ve needed was to write a word of recommendation and have it sent to the right hands. But, knowing him, he would have popped the letter through the dining hall with a summoning portal.”
“I think you enjoy this person more than you’re willing to admit, judging by that grin on your face.”
“I have a tender spot for people who can cast magick the same way they steep their tea in the morning,” she admitted. “All the same …”
“What does Fahim’s father have to do with all this?”
“Right,” she sighed. “Well, you asked how Fahim knew me. The Mecidias family house was in my hometown. After my parent’s death, I was fostered partially by Fell’s wife, and even Fahim’s siblings, since his father all but lived in the Academy. But I never spoke much to Fahim. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. He was only a child by the time I was preparing myself for admittance into that institution. In fact, the person who wrote my recommendation letter was Fell’s wife, a woman called Lelayna.”
“What was she like?”
“Caring, honest, surprisingly loud and only a little too proud of her baking. She was like her husband—incredibly devoted to the arts of casting—but after four children,” Sarkana spread out her hands and shrugged her shoulders, “there simply wasn’t enough time in the day.”
We laughed at that thought, but behind my quickly fading grin, I felt the guilt for Fahim’s death return. The realization struck me like the arrow that had punctured my hand, that there was nobody to notify his family of his demise. Nobody, of course, except for me. Already I felt the obligation tugging me towards another destination, another road, another responsibility asking for a journey with a conclusion to bind its beginning shut forever, sewing any unanswered questions within. Already I could see myself and my shadow cast upon the steps of their home, greeting Fahim’s mother the same way in which I had said farewell to her son, with my hand over her heart, sharing a moment too burdensome to speak of while we stared into each other’s eyes. Only, when she looked at me, she would see one of his staring back.
Over the sanctuary, clouds thickened by storm unfurled heavy, black curtains of rain, which trailed and made rivulets down the translucent barrier that protected her home from the harshness of the Addorian winters.
“But what gave you reason to despise his father?” I pursued.
“Maybe ‘despise’ is a harsh word, especially after so much time has passed. After awhile, disdain can become a habit, but now that I truly think on it, I suppose it is more apt to phrase it as, ‘what would make Fahim despise me,’ or at least enough for him to warn you. It was his father. He was too much of a traditionalist, in my opinion. But despite our differences in the changing culture of magick and how it could be explored, I felt we needn’t discuss or even acknowledge the disparity in our opinions. I was, after all, only one of the many pupils in his classes. And I must admit, there was a strong connection between us, especially after all the letters his wife had written to him about me. I didn’t think our separate methods would tarnish the relationship.”
I did only what anyone should do when someone else is exploring the narrow, cavernous corridors of their past to drag out old memories. I folded my fingers together, met her eyes when she sought mine, and kept my lips shut while the recollections spilled from hers.
“At the Ardor Academy, graduating scholars are expected to conduct an experiment which replicates the newest findings in their respective schools, if not something beyond what’s been discovered in the past five years or so. For the most part, students of alchemy present elixirs with stunning capabilities but absurdly expensive or unique ingredients. Destructive mages will typically combine spellwork with military designs to create weapons with impressive potential to slaughter by the hundreds. Healers will find loopholes through runes to store energy with the ability to heal freshly broken bones for soldiers. Onward and onward. You can see where the rest goes, can’t you?”
Pretending to be capable of imagining what she was saying, I nodded quickly. But once more, I contemplated the difference between the life of a well-off practitioner and that of a commoner. While I had been familiarizing myself with the best way to outrun city guardsmen, as well as learning how to hold a blade from some less than undesirable individuals, Sarkana and her peers had been testing the limits of magickal theories and the principles which governed our world, prodding limitations to meddle with the intricacies of spells and runes and flesh and intellect. I almost felt bitter. Then again, someone had to lose an eye so someone else could learn to fix it, as the old saying goes.
“And yet,” I realized aloud, “this still leaves a few questions unanswered.” From what I had seen of Sarkana’s practices, I felt I could guess the rest of the story. But of course, I settled deeper into my chair, rolled another cigarette, and continued to listen while looking out at the sky as it leeched color from the ground, turning everything into darkened shades of moss, bark, and stone, and the sea into a black mirror.
“As all good stories should, before they are finished.”
I raised my mug up in accord.
“When it came time for me to present my final year’s experiment to the graduation panel, I first showed it to Professor Fell, as I had come to him for nearly all of my questions. I never found a question that he didn’t have an answer to, or at least a recommendation for which book to read in order to find it. Yet, when I showed him my experiment, which was the transmutation of life-force from a colony of beetles to a squirrel using a soulstone, he was unexpectedly disapproving, and enraged. I was surprised, even hurt. Anger was not an emotion that I thought he was capable of; it only told me how much he disdained necromancers. He told me it was too close to the same magick which created the Mancer’s Stone, the same style that would result in practices that had the potential to cause wars and promote pursuits of immortality. Shifting the life-force from two creatures of the same species was one thing, he said, but between two drastically different types … he wasn’t altogether thrilled at the immense possibilities.”
The mention of the stone twisted my stomach, bringing back images of Shamus grimacing through a thick sheen of blood spreading from his nose, as he described to me the dangers that the artifact were in. “Could it, though?”
“Could it what?”
“Psh. Ask the royals you once belonged to. Consult their military commanders. Discovery and intellect are a practitioner’s priorities; if their findings bring conflict to the world, it says nothing of their studies. It speaks only to the depressing nature of the world’s inability to handle progress. Would you stop the first man from discovering fire if you knew it would create a world with warfare, cutthroats and rapists?”
“You’re talking to a knife juggler. I’d tell him to hurry. But I thought necromancy wasn’t frowned upon in the academies?”
“That’s what most folks say,” she muttered with a shake of her head, “I am not sure who started that little lie, but in the academies, the only reason that necromancy isn’t frowned upon is because it’s not taught readily enough to encourage any students towards a career with it. You’d be looking for a bat in a mouse trap, unfortunately. There are few, if any, professors who teach higher necromatic castings, not just in Addoran, but all of Netherway. The truth is, most academies won’t touch the subject with a staff. They say they don’t mind it because, largely, they’re afraid of it.”
“So Fahim …”
“… had no true reason to be afraid of me, besides what his father might’ve shared with him. You see, although the experiment was controversial, it was something that hadn’t been attempted in many years, at least not by a student. Despite the school of magick I’d chosen to pursue, they were impressed. I was seeking a position at the Ardor as an instructor, and I wasn’t going to shy away from showing them my best work. As soon as I’d graduated, I pursued a career as a soulmancer, a practitioner of higher necromancy. Reluctantly, the academy agreed, but under the pretense that I teach nothing remotely related to soulstones, not even any runic symbols that could be contrived to aid in their creation. Soon after,” she said with a touch of pride, “I had become one of the youngest instructors at the Ardor Academy, with my own classes and students.”
The cigarette between Sarkana’s fingers had long since gone out, the end as cold as the expression that quickly overtook her wistful gaze. I needn’t ask her to go on. I could already see that she had had too many years in which these stories had been locked in the most dangerous place for any hatred to linger: the heart. It’s in silence that our worst thoughts fester, as if they feed on the stifled air of unspoken bitterness.
“I had been told to teach nothing beyond the basics of necromancy, nothing beyond simple reanimation and the manipulation of death’s energy, to produce little else than pithy lights and displays for a circus’ sideshow.” She scoffed. “But they never advised me against my own, private pursuits. Soon after my first two years with the academy, Professor Fell alerted the institution’s council of the experiments I conducted alone, of what he called their ‘danger and potency.’
“I expected to be exalted, to be encouraged by one of the highest ranking institutions for any practitioner. In fact, when he threatened me to alter my attention to studies other than soulstones, I only laughed; I thought the council would be excited to review my findings.”
“Tossed out. Thrust aside. Shunned. After they completed a thorough investigation of my study, they concluded that I was ‘unfit for the instruction of the young and pure-minded’. That I was a poor influence on the students, that my pursuits would bring only darkness to the world. They collected my journals, my texts, two years of data and recorded experiments, of illustrations and devices … and burnt them.” She’d since set down her cigarette and mug, her hands digging into the skin of her thighs. An angry tear slipped down her cheek. “The council sent letters to every academy in the realm, warning them against admitting me into their staff, and instructing them to destroy any of my published findings.” She spoke in a rushed voice, as if she was arguing her fate against the gods, trying to convince them of its unfairness. “In the higher circles, unfounded rumors and accusations spread until my name became all but outlawed. For a few years, I couldn’t so much as set foot in a chapel in any major city without being accosted by questions.
“So I came here,” she said with a shrug, and flicked the tear away, "to pursue the life I wanted without the people I wished to share it with."
“And sadly, to my great luck,” I added, reaching for her hand to squeeze it. To which she pulled on it, almost roughly, so that I was close enough to feel the shallow exhalations between her lips. When she looked at me, there was a frustrated expectation in her eyes, as if she deserved nothing less than what she was about to do after so much disappointment, which was pull my head closer, close enough that our lips were pressed against each other, parted just enough to taste the resentment lingering in the words that had just left her mouth.