The City of Arches was a curious place with an unimaginative name.
Countless pillars rose from the cracked earth, lacking any sensical pattern, each supporting one end of a stone arch. The arches crisscrossed and overlapped, some linked and some free-standing, some broken, some hanging free over an empty space in the city where a column had collapsed and no one dared set up camp beneath it.
Banners and streamers decorated some, snapping in the hot wind. The laundry spread on lines beneath the arches snapped the same way, creating a comical parody of the magnificence overhead.
If only the breeze had been cooler. Rune tugged at the collar of his robes, licking his lips and regretting that it only made them feel sticky instead of parched. Years in the Triad had made him soft. He’d grown too used to the cool weather, forgotten what it was like to live somewhere that only knew heat.
Then again, maybe he’d never really known. Tropical as though his homeland was, the sea breeze that swept the island was always cool.
“Quit gawking.” Sera elbowed his arm. “You look like you’ve never seen a city before.”
Righting his collar, Rune rewound his loosened scarf. The scent of dust was thick enough to be choking, but better that than breathing the dust itself. “Not like this.”
It wasn’t the first time they’d had this conversation. He’d traveled widely before, but only in the north. The southern continent was Sera’s homeland, and it was as unusual to him as he suspected the island would be to her. Still, he couldn’t help the way his gaze drifted back to the buildings spread beneath the arches. Curiosity prickled within him like an insatiable itch.
As if sensing it, his traveling companion beckoned him forward. “Come, then. Let’s have a look. It’s been some time since I was here, the city has grown a bit.” She started off at an easy pace, her white braids swinging.
“The first thing we should look for is a well.” His hand brushed over his emptied water skin. Sera could refill it anywhere, if necessary, but magic was difficult when weary from travel. Besides, the water she pulled from the dry earth tasted little better than the air that filtered through his dust-filled scarf.
“If there is one,” Sera grumbled, giving voice to the concern that had hounded them for days.
The drought that plagued the southern continent had lessened in her years away from home, but the land was slow to recover. In many places, the ground was still too dry to drink the irregular rains, shedding the water into quick-flooding runoffs. Most communities—even large ones—lacked wells, relying on these short-lived rivers and streams instead.
Rune shrugged, falling in step beside her. “It’s a large city. We could be surprised.” Large enough they didn’t stand out, at least. The City of Arches was dwarfed by the Triad’s Royal City—another remarkable metropolis with an underwhelming name—but another pair of dirty travelers bore only a few curious looks.
He hated to admit it was his fault they garnered attention at all. The robes he wore were normal in the south, but it wasn’t normal for anyone in this heat to cover their hands and feet. Sera had traded her normal knee-high riding boots for sandals several cities ago, and the billowy, open-shouldered cut of her dust-sullied white dress meant she was surely cooler than he.
But receiving ill glances for his leather-wrapped hands and feet was preferable to the sort of grief he’d invite if they saw what he covered. And the farther they got from the excellent education offered by the mages in Umdal Temple, the more superstitious people seemed to be.
“Look lively,” Sera said cheerily, flashing a grin over her shoulder. “Water vendors.”
He groaned. If there were vendors, there was no well. Still, he did as she said, squaring his shoulders and putting more life in his step, adjusting their bags against his back. The more weary and travel-worn one looked, the more likely they’d be hounded by water vendors from one end of the city to the other. In the weeks they’d traveled, they’d both mastered the art of appearing as fresh as if they’d just stepped from the sea itself.
Rune leaned forward, murmuring, “If only their water didn’t taste as much like mud as yours.”
His companion rolled her eyes and slapped his arm. “I’d like to see you do better.”
Despite her playful tone, the suggestion needled. His humor faded and he fell back a step once more.
Any other time, he took well to her playful ribbing. Sera was lighthearted and good-natured, often sarcastic, but never mean-spirited. But the difficulties his magic brought him were half the reason they traveled together, and he was more sensitive to the subject than he ought to be. After the animosity he’d encountered on this trip, it would be nice to return to the Royal City and settle into the comfort of his reputation once more. He was a monster there, too, but at least a well-known one.
They slid into the crowds beneath the countless stone arches, drifting past the noisy water vendors with their carts of barrels and water skins without notice. Half of what helped their illusion of belonging was Sera’s flowing white dress, with its open shoulders and wide, gold-trimmed sash.
In every country they’d visited, white was the color reserved for Master mages. Only the cut of their garb differed. She’d grown adept at adding details that suited the region they were in.
Here, the female mages wore dresses cut to knee length in the front and reaching the ankle in the back, while nobility were afforded gilded accessories. Her attire marked her as a woman of importance, and the crowds responded accordingly. Rune carried both their belongings, simultaneously reinforcing the bluff and making himself look more like the attendant and bodyguard he was.
His bluff, he corrected himself silently. There was nothing put-on about Sera’s performance. She was both Master mage and woman of rank, and that rank was the second half of why they traveled.
They wove through zigzagging streets, passing tall, angled buildings that leaned against the supports of the arches, some so haphazardly they looked liable to fall at any moment. He tried to keep an eye on Sera as they walked—he really was a bodyguard, after all—but stole looks at the city, curiosity getting the better of him.
Roughly half the buildings were mortared stone, the others adobe. For every permanent building, there were three tents, some serving as merchant stalls and others appearing to be homes. They came in every color, some as dull as the dust underfoot, others brightly patterned and striped like the banners on the stone arches overhead.
“There are water vendors on every corner,” Rune remarked, careful to avoid meeting their eyes. “At least the well diggers are only a few days behind us.”
Sera twisted back, frowning at him. “That’s what concerns me. There are thousands of people here. How can they not have a well? How can they not have dozens? There should be no need for water vendors here.”
“Maybe the wells are dry. How long has the drought persisted?” He raised a brow at her and she shrugged.
“It began when I was young. It was part of why my mother sent me to the Grand College.” There was a hesitant note in her voice, just enough to make him uncomfortable. “But I traveled through this city then. I followed the same road we take to my home now. Yet I swear I recall the city having water. I think I would remember if my guide had to buy it then.”
“A lot can change in a year’s time,” Rune said. “Imagine what can happen in a mage’s lifetime.”
She harrumphed, resting her hands on her hips and stalling just long enough for him to close the distance between them. “I am not that old yet.”
Rather than walking beside her, he stopped to remain at her back. There was little he could do, guarding her from the side. If she feared attack—something he doubted was the real reason for having him along—it made more sense to walk behind her, watching every space around them. “I can tell. I imagine you were mostly grown when your brother was born, but the un-Gifted grow fast. I expect I’m twice your age.”
“Yet you don’t look a day over twenty-five, and you act no older than sixteen.” She batted her long, dark eyelashes at him, then grinned and resumed walking. “Come. The well diggers told me where we could find a good inn. A proper night’s sleep in a proper bed sounds like just what I need before we start the next leg of the journey.”
He didn’t share her enthusiasm.
The inn they stopped at was a tall building nestled in a corner formed by two massive pillars. Its single-angled roof made the structure look lopsided, the crooked peak almost reaching the arches themselves. The fluttering banners that hung from the curved stone caught on the corners of the rough wood shakes. Here and there, scraps of fabric hung limp over the edge of the roof, where banners had caught and torn free. Wood and fabric alike groaned as the wind caught them, threatening to add more decorations to the roofline.
“What do the banners signify?” Rune asked as they stepped inside. The interior of the building was uncomfortably dim after the daylight and he blinked to clear the brightness from his vision.
Sera raised one white eyebrow. “What makes you think they signify anything?”
Straightening, she slid across the room with a majestic grace. The innkeeper smiled at her, then looked at Rune oddly, the way strangers always did. Even with his hands and feet covered, he couldn’t hide. There was still the oddity of his eyes. In the low light of the indoors, their soft, unnatural violet glow was present—not powerful, but enough to warrant stares. He turned his head, dropping his gaze to the floor.
Unsettled, the innkeeper spoke.
There was a rhythm to the language here. It reminded Rune of music, the way the words rose and fell like a steady beat, the way they shifted into cross-rhythm when the speaking parties grew agitated. His younger brother—now entering his second year with the Royal City’s bards in the north—would have been proud.
Finally satisfied, Sera pulled her small purse free of her belt and deposited coins in the innkeeper’s hand. He offered a key in return, and she jerked her head toward the stairs on the other side of a narrow doorway. “We have a room until morning.”
One room. Rune bit back a complaint, simply nodding instead. There was no point; no matter how many times he brought it up, the decision was the same. Instead, he allowed himself a quiet sigh. “It’ll be nice to put your things down for a while.”
She snorted, taking it as a complaint. “You’re lucky I don’t put rocks in my bag, just to make your life difficult.”
He trailed up the stairs behind her, already sliding their bags from his shoulder. “The moment we’re outside the city, you’re carrying your own things again. They may think you a lady here, but there’s no need to carry the illusion beyond the city’s edge.”
Sera laughed heartily, waving a hand. “Just wait until we reach my home city. Here, I’m a respectable Master mage. There… Well, they already know what to expect.”
Rune hoped what to expect was something similar to the woman he knew. He enjoyed her spirit and playful nature. He’d grown accustomed to them in the trials they’d faced together. Nothing formed bonds quite like war.
The stairway zigzagged, crooked, up through several floors of the inn. At the end of one particularly long hallway, instead of another staircase, there was a rough wooden ladder leaning against the far wall. Rune eyed it as Sera stopped at a door and wiggled the key into the lock. Odd, he thought, that the innkeeper didn’t unlock it.
When the door swung open, she slipped through and he started after, only to stop when she put a hand against his chest.
“Ah-ah,” she chided gently. “I intend to wash before the evening meal.”
He raised a brow.
“We’re in a civilized place now. I won’t need a guard while I bathe, so a little privacy would be nice. Why don’t you take some time to look around?” A sparkle in her ice-blue eyes accompanied her brightest smile. His presence was a joke and they both knew it—as skilled a mage and soldier as she was, there was little chance Sera had a real need for a bodyguard. They played at it, sure, and he took his role seriously, but she didn’t need him and he didn’t need the work she offered. He was along for companionship on a long journey, nothing more; a trusted friend and ally who alleviated the boredom of the trip.
“Very well,” Rune said, slipping backwards with a graceful courtesy. “I trust my lady will call if she has need?”
She scoffed. “Not for you! Not after what you did the last time you caught me in the bath.” She swept backwards into the room, slamming the door in his face.
“That was an accident!” he called through the door, leaning close and listening for a response. When none came, he rolled his eyes and turned away.
For a moment, he considered returning to the front room of the inn and seeking a drink. Instead, he turned toward the rickety ladder, contemplating for only a moment before scaling the rough rungs.
A narrower hall branched in two directions from the top of the ladder. One led to an open storage room, the other to a small walkway between the inn and the stone columns that supported it. More ladders spanned the distance between the walkway and the top of the arches. Their presence made sense, though they robbed the city of some of its mystery. Rune climbed farther, mindful of the billowing banners that crossed his path now and again.
From the top of the stone arches, the sky was open from horizon to horizon. Squinting against the sun, he looked back the way they’d come before slowly swinging his gaze toward the west. Sera’s homeland was near the western coast, she’d said; a place where magic was forbidden due to corrupt mages interfering with war.
Mages were supposed to be a neutral party. Their Gifts offered too many benefits to allow them to take sides or be controlled. They moved freely in most places, but there were some—like Sera’s homeland or the Royal City they’d left behind—where magecraft sowed discord and had been outlawed. With that in mind, he doubted they’d find what he was looking for.
It had been that way everywhere he went.
Rune had combed the northern continent for some trace of the ancient mages who could help tame his wild power. After years of travel, he’d concluded his search without finding so much as a trace.
There were times he wondered if there was a point to continuing. The southern continent had offered new hope, at first; it was a vast region, larger than the north and the Westkings put together. But they’d trekked half the distance between the eastern countries—where magecraft was still allowed—and Sera’s home in the far west, where the chance of finding a mage as powerful as the Alda’anan was slimmer than the breadth of a hair.
He sat, ankles crossed and his arms resting atop his raised knees, watching the sun sink in the western sky until the air began to cool. The fat crescent of Ithi, the large moon, crept into the growing twilight and stole his attention.
“I see you found the secret,” Sera called from the top of the ladder. Her presence was no surprise. A mage’s Gift was always present in the senses of another mage; they stood out to each other like beacons in the night. She crawled onto the top of the stone archway, tip-toeing out to join him. “It’s a rite of passage for young people to climb the arches and leave a banner. Travelers, too. But if you’ve already found the ladders, there’s no point in trying to convince you to do it.”
Rune chuckled softly. “Did you climb them, when you passed through the city before?”
“Me?” She sat down beside him, stifling a laugh. “I had the stuffiest escort you’ve ever seen. I was barely allowed to look at them. I would have, though, if we’d not been in a hurry to make it to the east.”
He nodded, his eyes lingering on the moon. “How far west is your home?”
Sera turned to follow his gaze. She caught the question without him needing to ask. “Far enough to see a sliver of the second moon. But if you want to see the rest of it, you’d have to go to the Westkings, if not all the way to the Chains.”
Thinking of the remote islands beyond the western continent stirred unpleasant feelings in his chest and Rune grunted in response. The only similarity between the Chains and Elenhiise was that both were islands. It was foolish to feel the stirrings of homesickness over something so trivial.
“Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll see it eventually.” She sat beside him, the ruddy undertones of her dark skin glowing in the last rays of the sun. She’d put on her white dress again, a cool contrast that would only serve to make her ethereal in the cold blue-green light of the moon. “Did you get something to eat?”
“Not yet.” The thought of a meal hadn’t even crossed his mind. Now that she mentioned it, his empty stomach responded, making its wishes known.
A sparkle lit her eyes. “Good. I took a tray of food to our room. Care to guess what I learned while I was getting it?”
“No,” he replied flatly, “but I expect you’re about to tell me anyway.”
“Of course.” Sera grinned, smoothing her dress as the sun slipped away. Her white dress and hair caught the moonlight. Where she’d glowed in the sun, the moon gave her a ghostly appearance in spite of her umber complexion. “As it turns out, the city has a number of wells. All still provided water, up until a few weeks ago.”
His eyes drifted to the maze of streets below. People still packed them—perhaps more densely now than during daylight hours—and lamps cast warm light and long shadows around them. He didn’t see any wells, but with so many people out and about, he doubted he would have seen anything from the top of the arch anyway. “What changed?”
“They wouldn’t say. At least, not clearly. They said something blocked the underground waterways, but no one wanted to speak of the matter. It sounded like whatever it was, it blocked off the water intentionally.”
Rune turned his head, giving her a sideways look. Shades of warmer, agitated colors rolled through the luminescence of his eyes. In the dark of night, there was no missing the way they glowed. The light was a trait common in mages like him; mages like him, however, weren’t common. “And you intend to drag me to the wells to find out what happened.”
Sera slapped her knee. “And you’re going to help me!”
“Not tonight, of course. We’ll find a well first thing in the morning and go from there.” She leaned closer, until her arm touched his. “Unless, of course, you don’t want an opportunity to show up the well diggers.”
The memory of his last encounter with the well digging party that traveled on their heels made him bristle and Rune shoved himself up. “Food first,” he growled, stalking across the wide stone arch and swinging down onto the rough-hewn ladder. “Then the well.”
“Tonight?” Sera asked, surprised.
He still had bruises from his spat with the lead digger. He’d refused to let Sera heal them, his ego wounded by how hard she laughed at the outcome of the brawl. “Tonight,” he agreed.
There was no way Rune was giving their leader another chance to embarrass him.