Aimeé stirred in her bed and turned over. She had lain in that half-state where she could have reached consciousness if she wished for quite some time, unwilling to burden her mind with real thought. It had become something of a morning ritual with her, to watch her thoughts go through the process of waking as each thought fit itself into the next until there was a long chain of ideas that were her, herself.
She was not alone. She felt the body next to her and she wondered if there would be any awkwardness. She had wanted last night for long, now; for almost a year. She had known two men before last night, and last night she had learned a third. She had enjoyed the learning.
And yet, as she looked at him and remembered the press of his body, so strong like her own, so different from Darynn's, she remembered the way she had withheld herself from him, had not given herself over to Filo's hunger the way she had wanted. Sansa, the Master of the City Guard, had shown her once how to treat wounds such that the scars would not restrict the way limbs moved. She felt that now, in her soul, scars that held her back.
But he was beautiful, here in the light of morning, the sounds of the city already alive around them, down at street level. She knew she must awaken him and return him to his responsibilities and duties.
"Huh?" He awoke instantly, looking at her. "What?"
"You're in my bed," she said softly as she approached him. "I hope you remember last night."
"Yes, I, I believe that I do. Is it, I mean, are you...?"
She touched his cheek. "I'm well, my handsome guardsman."
"Not a guardsman yet," he said. "Just an apprentice, like you."
"Mmm," she said. "You are still handsome." She kissed him gently. "And I did appreciate what you did to me last night."
"I did well?" He sounded surprised, but perhaps a little sad.
"Oh, you were more than well," she said. "You gave me all the pleasure a woman should experience. Thank you." Even as she said it, she knew he knew that it was not all true.
Still, he was gallant. "You're welcome."
"Is something not right, Filo?"
He glanced away at the window. "I know the city is different, and mages different still. I feel guilt at not saving myself."
Aimeé nodded. "I did not force you, or drug you, or magick you." She pushed him down to the bed. "Except perhaps with my poor feminine skills. I wanted you, Filo. You wanted me. Is there anything more natural than that?"
He looked up at her, his eyes bewildered. "I suppose there is not."
She smiled and kissed him. She wondered from where her desire came so early in the morning. He had not learned all of the things that Darynn had taught her to teach others, but she was happy with what he had accomplished last night. She wanted him inside her once more, before she sent him on his way, if only to erase the splinter of melancholy that worried her. "We can be friends, Filo. We can do this again."
"I hope so." He kissed her now, and he had learned not to keep his mouth so closed, although he was still reluctant with his tongue, holding back from the full touch of her mouth. She didn't care.
Her body covered his and she could feel the hardness of his sex against her thigh. She took it in her hand and guided it into her body. She felt it nuzzle its way past her lips and into her opening, filling her. She felt the presence of his prick in her belly and she moaned. "You are so good, Filo. You fill me in such a special way."
"I have nothing to compare you to, Aimeé, but..." He sighed, his hands pawing gently at her breasts. "You feel so good."
"Mmm," she agreed, and moved her hips against his, slowly stroking him, milking his prick with the walls of her sex, sliding the head of his manhood across the sensitive flesh of her insides. They made love slowly, patiently. She smiled down at him, he up at her until finally his eyes closed and he said, "Aimeé, I cannot... hold back."
"Then come for me, my handsome guardsman." He did as she asked, his body suddenly bucking against hers, his hips bruising hers lovingly. Aimeé sighed, a blissful satisfaction that was unlike the kind of climax they had shared last night but still altogether wonderful. She lay across his body and held him as he recovered, breathing hard. Neither had exerted much to reach heights of pleasure this morning, but still, men always seemed to put out too much when they climaxed. She loved Darynn for the way he did and she appreciated Filo as well.
Afterward they lay together as her majordomo, Ricar, entered and placed a wash basin filled with warm water and a pitcher filled with cold water next to her bed. Filo shook his head. "You are so wealthy."
"I won it in a duel," Aimeé said.
"I know." The story of how Aimeé had come to her station was already becoming a legend. She was one of the wealthiest women in Barraminum, indeed anywhere in the Cortanese Colonies, because her previous owner had illegally enslaved her, fought her in a duel magickal, and lost. She was too young and inexperienced to have magickal clients of her own, but few doubted that someday she would be as capable as her teacher, Darynn.
"That means that I did nothing to deserve it. I was lucky, Filo. Lucky to have good teachers, lucky to have someone from the other world looking over me, lucky to have an owner so twisted and corrupt that he was unable to recognize the danger I could be until it was too late for him. And in the end it wasn't magick that I used to defeat him. It was a candlestick holder." Which she kept in an iron box in the basement.
"Surely that is doing something to deserve it!"
"Only in the smallest sense," she said. "I want to be a good tender of this money, a good caretaker, using it for good purposes. But I don't know what those are!"
"Surely, that is a responsibility like having the touch of the Mages upon you, too?" he said.
She sighed. "I wish I could have only one at a time."
"And then there is your feminine power."
"You man!" She giggled and struck him with a pillow. "Come, let us wash and rise. Ricar must surely have something ready for us."
After breaking their morning fast with bread slathered in berry jellies, she sent him on his way to his responsibilities while she dressed in her robes. She made her way out into the city streets of Barraminum, Capitol of the New World Colonies.
Barraminum was already a great city, thriving because of its protected port. Her home was deep in the inner part of the older city, its mage's tower reaching high to the skies as she looked up into that clear, blue day. It looked to be a beautiful day. She made her way into the noisy crowds, her black robe with the blue trim of an Apprentice as sure a form of protection from thieves and pickpockets as armor and a sword might be. The brick-laid streets stretched out before her, already bustling with folks going about the business of the day, traveling to or from their places of employment, purchasing groceries, handing out leaflets. The leafletters were particularly noisome this season, she noted, with calls for independence from the Empire prominent everywhere. She took one that was handed to her and read it.
It was a call for independence. She did not believe that the New World needed independence from the Empire. People from the New World could rise in prominence within the Imperial Service just as readily as those from the old, as she understood it. For those who sought to escape the labors of the soil or the city the only solution was literacy, and those who could read had only one of three destinies: Imperial Service, liaison for a business to the Imperial Services, or Magehood. Or, she supposed with a smile, leafletting.
They were not abused out here. Calling Barraminum a colony may have glossed over its own five centuries of history, but it was nothing compared to the three millennia of memory ensconced in the Imperial Library at Cortane.
She sighed, wishing she could someday see it for herself. She folded the leaflet, written in the peculiar local style meant to be read aloud, and put it into a pocket. She walked on, dodging a horse-drawn wagon and taking a step aside for the local Imperial Guardsman.
She reached the School of The Eromancer. It was a low building, only one floor without a proper mage's tower, but she understood Darynn well enough to know that he did not need one. She walked up to the twin doors made of wood stained a deep, handsome red, and pulled one open without bothering to knock. She smiled to herself-- Mages are different. She let herself into the foyer, then made her way through the empty teaching space to the rear courtyard.
Darynn was sitting by himself in a canvas-bottomed chair, looking out across the courtyard at a pair of birds that were obviously courting in their wild way. An empty chair stood nearby. By his right hand was a serving table with a pot of tea. "Master Darynn?"
"Ah, Aimeé," he said, looking up. "I thought those were your footsteps upon my hallways this morning. Is it time for our lesson?"
"It is," she said with a smile. "We were discussing the Magicks of War."
"Hmm," he said, lips tightening. "So we were. We were discussing the powers to use in disorganizing an enemy. Fireballs are wonderful once, Aimeé, but if you can confuse an enemy in a charge, make him think he is closer or further than he really is, make him fight as if it were snowing when you know it is a sunlit day, then you have a great advantage. One cannot fight effectively when reality is not thy companion. Tea?"
"Please," she said, noticing that there were two cups with the pot. She accepted one from his hand and drank, enjoying the energizing feeling of it in her mind even as its warmth seeped into her body. Tea was truly a sign from the Gods that they wanted man to be happy, she thought. She had heard others say the same of wine.
He waved her to take the other chair and she did. "I would like to continue our studies, young Aimeé, but I'm afraid that come next week I must be gone from the city for a period." He reached into his robes and took out a folded sheet of paper. "I have received this invitation-- it is a reminder, really-- to attend to my responsibility and promise to the island nation of Pyu Rika. They have a spell there that must be cast every four years, and they need an outsider mage, one who does not live with them, and of great preference one who is an eromancer, to direct their Ritual."
"And what is this spell, Master?"
"I cannot tell you, apprentice," he said. He seemed frustrated with that requirement. "I truly wish that I could, but it is not for me to reveal. I can tell you its name, The Life of the City. But more than that is beyond me."
It was a second surprise. Not merely was he leaving her, but he was withholding teaching. And then he gave her his third surprise. "I want you to come with me."
"I have been invited to go, and I may bring my apprentice. I have also received an invitation for Talen Silisto." She must have smiled then, because he said, "You judge Talen lightly, Aimeé, because he was an ally during your trial. I warn you against warming to him too much. He is a serious man who has spent most of his life behind the walls of the College of Mages. I fear he shall not be well-adapted to life on the outside." He smiled. "Still, we have much to discuss. Such as, how did your night with your young guardsman?"
"Wonderful," she said. "He tried so hard, and he comes from a family that at least taught him well the things a young man should know. I have no complaints about his treatment of me."
"Excellent," Darynn said. "I'm pleased to hear it." He leaned forward and said, "You understand that there is something unnatural about our relationship and the freedom with which we discuss one another. I will tell you of Janadev that he ruts like a beast. Pleasant, if that is your interest."
Aimeé looked at this man, four times older than she and as shameless as he was powerful, and she wondered if she would ever reach the stage where she could talk that way, careless of the opinions of the world. She supposed that today he spoke in the privacy of his own home to his apprentice, but his habits were hardly a secret to the world outside. She struggled to find the words with which she might reply to him. "It is not my interest."
He smiled. "You are too reticent, Aimeé. If you are to be a truly great eromancer, you must put aside all shame at what you are and what you do."
Aimeé thought of her soul and its scars. "To the extent that you discomfort others, teacher?"
"That is an interesting question, my student. But I am not worried about discomforting others, apprentice. I am worried that I discomfort you, and you should not be made so uncomfortable by the sharing of one's craft."
She smiled. "Relating the crudity of a pleasurable evening is not the sharing of one's craft, teacher."
He held up his cup of tea. "Your wisdom grows in bounds, beloved Aimeé. I must tell you... have you a place to take notes?"
Aimeé reached into the colorful, woven bag in which she carried her books and tools and produced a pad of sewn papers and a pencil. "I am ready."
"You shall need clothing fit for a month on a ship. You shall need your most formal gown, and your second. You must of course pack whatever you need for your studies, and you will need to inform Captain Sansa that you will not be available for his classes any time in the future. Do not forget to inform the guard that you will be leaving, especially your favorite there. And tell Bethsany.
"You have two days to assemble this, at most. I shall be hiring with a Captain Shondar, who commands the vessel Swift Teacher. It is contracted with the College and he is a man to be trusted with mages and magic. I believe he has a nephromancer apprentice with him at all times."
"Nephromancer?" Aimeé said. "I do not know that skill."
"A predictor of the weather. It is a skill much treasured by the seafaring type. It often surprises me that there is no call for nephromancers among the farming types; they too would benefit from good knowledge of the coming storms. Truly skilled nephromancers can see up to a year into the future, and sometimes they possess the skill to change the weather as well."
"That is a valuable skill indeed."
"Changing it is rare and takes much power. Knowing it... To a ship's captain, knowing what storms he may cross in the coming days is more precious than the gold carried in his holds." He rose, smoothing his robes as he did so. "Come. I have some mundane teachings to impart upon you. After lunch, you will demonstrate the kind of power you can raise by yourself without the use of a phallus, and we shall use it for levitation and flight."
She followed him into the teaching rooms.
The next day, after she had dropped off her gowns at the laundry to be washed and left instructions with Ricar about what to do with the grocer for the coming months, she found herself without explicit tasks for the coming day. Before a plan for the day had formed fully in her imagination, she found herself putting on her sandals and her apprentice's cloak, making her way out into the crowded noontime streets of Barraminum. She listened to a street preacher condemn her and all her kind, the magic users, and she shook her head. She wondered if he appreciated the long life he would have because of the skills of men and women like herself, who could change the nature of reality with their will.
It was not until she was halfway there that she realized she was heading for the library. It was her favorite place in the afternoon when there were no other assignments. She adored an opportunity to walk among the musty stacks and pull out texts written so long ago and read the handwritten notes of ancient mages and witnesses to times past.
It occurred to her that she knew nothing of Pyu Rika. Until Darynn had mentioned it, she had never even heard of it. She walked through the less-crowded Northern Quarter before coming upon the gates at the bottom of the hill that led up to the College. "Excuse me," she said, "But is Guard Filo on duty at this time?"
The guard, dressed in the handsome red livery of the city's finest, looked surprised for a moment, then recovered. "Guard Filo?" he said. "Now what would an apprentice want with a member of the guard?"
"He's a friend of mine. And he's not a member of the guard yet," she said breathlessly. "He's a trainee."
"He's a member of the guard, ma'am," he said. "If we are attacked, cadets become guardsmen right quick, you understand. If he's with the rest of the cadets, he's probably in class right now. Mage guards have to be able to keep up with their charges after all."
Aimeé nodded. "Thank you. I'll come back and look for him later. If you see him, please tell him that Apprentice Aimeé will be in the library." She stepped through the gate and into the front courtyard of The Mage School.
Visitors to the Mage School always found the main building a bit of a disappointment. It was wide, filling the vision even from a distance, but it was clearly an administrative building and not terribly exciting. It was little more than long hallways with rows of offices in both directions. What visitors could not and did not know was that the administrative building dove five floors deep into the ground and down there were siege supplies to last the school for six months.
She walked up into the small attached courtyard and through the main building, coming out into the quadrangle at the heart of the original school. More buildings had been tacked onto the school over the years, but here was where most of the learning and all of the ceremonies were held. It was here, in two or three years Aimeé hoped, where she would be granted her green cloak of Magehood.
The four buildings that made up the quadrangle were not attached one to another. Students were often tempted to use the quadrangle as a short cut, as the student kitchens were to the east of the main building and some of the newer classrooms were to the west of the dormitories. They were quickly disabused of such ideas. A wizard named Lige had cast a spell on the quadrangle; anyone crossing the grassy sections without stopping to lie on the grass would find themselves a victim of Five Mosquitoes, probably one of the more unique spells written in the school's history. It had needed casting twice. The second casting put in the caveat that Five Mosquitoes only attack any given victim once per day. The original spell had been dangerous, as unknowing miscreants might cross the quadrangle eight or more times in any given day, and one story went that a student had grown seriously ill from multiple attacks.
Aimeé walked along the brick walkway carefully, making a left at the Greater Residency, until the walkway dumped out into another flagstone road. She followed the road north a short distance over a hill until she came to a small lake. Stepping out onto the short pier, barely a man's width wide and five long, she paused at the edge and looked down into the water.
She concentrated, staring at the water, searching in her mind for the right habit of thought. She was searching for a relatively simple spell, and a simple way of thinking, with which to think complex thoughts. It took time, but she found it. "Trom?"
Aimeé? The magical speech came back to her with full strength. Trom's people used such speech all the time and were used to it as a matter of course. But Aimeé was not and it took some effort for her to communicate with Trom. Especially at this distance. Are you ready to try again to live in my world?
"Not today, Trom. I came to tell you that I will be away for a while, maybe as long as two months. My master is sailing away and has asked me to go along with him. "
Where are you going?
The tenor of Trom's thoughts changed as he spoke. Pyu Rika? The City of the Fallen One. Are you sure you want to go there?
"Master Darynn assures me that it's very safe. He called it a lovely land."
I'm sure he did, Trom said back. Aimeé looked down into the water and saw Trom floating there, his teardrop-shaped face with its narrow slit of a mouth and yellow, probing eyes looking back at her. She waved. He waved back.
We do not know much about the land, Aimeé, but we know about Pyu Rika. It was involved in the Thundering three hundred years ago, Aimeé, and there are those among my people who know of it as the City of the Fallen One. It is not spoken of well by my people.
"I will be careful, Trom. I know it is a foreign land, with strange customs. I will not involve myself in anything... unusual."
I will miss you.
"It's only a short time."
You are special, Aimeé, and I would gaze upon your loveliness for hours. So strange, so different from the beauty of a Neritaine woman. He grinned at her. We are too serious for our ages.
"We are mages. It's our lot in life," she said with a giggle. "If I put my toes in the water will you nip at them again?"
No, Trom said, his thoughts full of laughter. Besides, those were my fingers, not my teeth.
"They surely felt like teeth," Aimeé said. "I thought it would be good to let you know where I had gone. Think on me."
I will. And although you are not a believer, I will pray for you.
Aimeé paused for a second, not sure if she should argue with him. "I appreciate that, Trom." She waved again and he waved in reply. She made her way to the school library, waiting for the fourth bell to ring from the school tower.
She spent some time looking up the city of Pyu Rika. She sent the poor librarian Adrort, a kindly old man with a mind filled to overflowing, searching through stacks of scrolls and books piled high on dark, dusty, wooden shelves in rooms that had no natural light and in which a flame was expressly forbidden. Magical glowglobes required long, arduous ritual for their creation, and that Adrort had access to nearly a dozen of the rare, precious items showed how much the Mages of Barraminum respected and regarded his skills.
But the information to be found was scant. Pyu Rika spoke a variant of the language of Arles, one book told her, and the people there were considered very peculiar looking by the standards even of the Old Country. Another note from a traveler told her that there were no old people in Pyu Rika, a fact that she found hard to believe. And the only other reference she found was in an old book on the Thundering and the War of the Elves. It was one line: "And on the back of dead Reris Pyu Rika now lies."
"Who is Reris?" she asked Adrort.
The old man looked up at her with his eyes wide. He appeared to shiver and struggle with the effort of speaking. "Reris is... Reris is the Thundered One, the leader of the Thundered."
Aimeé shook her head. Adrort turned his back on her suddenly and scuttled out of sight, taking his glowglobe with him. The glow followed him around a corner and Aimeé could just follow his movements through the stacks from the puddle of light that glowed on the ceiling.
"You know the rules about reading spellbooks aloud, right?"
"Duh," Aimeé said softly so that she could not be heard. She called back. "Yes, of course, sir"
"The rule applies to this one, too." Adrort returned carrying a large, bound book. "Take. Go home. Read this only with wards up. Never read anything out of it aloud."
Aimeé looked at the book, puzzled. It was clearly not a spellbook, but whatever it was, Adrort was treating it with all the care of a vile grimoire. "I'm leaving the day after tomorrow. To go to Pyu Rika."
"All the more reason for you to take it now and read it."
"But I have..."
"Take it!" Adrort said. "I won't worry about your bringing it back on time. Nobody has read it in nearly a century, and you're the only one right now who has to read it. If you're lost, it'll make its way back here. Talen Salisto has seen to that."
She nodded, understanding clearly the lines of inheritance when it came to magic tomes. "Thank you, Adrort."
"Don't thank me yet, Aimeé. Thank me when you come back."
She left with the book under her arm, still puzzled by Adrort's reaction. What could be in this book that would make him so afraid? Adrort wasn't the greatest of Mages, no; his talent was locked up in the spider's web of his brain, one that trapped every bit of knowledge that tried to sail through it. He seemed unable to use any of it, but he surely could repeat it.
She returned to her original course, heading over to the dorm where the guards were sleeping. She walked through the front door and down a corridor. The floor squeaked as she walked. Heads popped out of some of the doorways, and she waved to a few of the people she recognized as she passed them by. She came to a room with its door closed. She knocked.
The door opened just a crack. "Aimeé?" said a sleepy voice. Eyes peered through the opening. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to tell you that I'm going on a trip and I wanted to say goodbye. It might be a few months before I see you again."
"Months? Just a second." The door closed, and Aimeé waited, smiling as she realized that he must be pulling some clothing on. She giggled then, knowing exactly what he looked like without them. The door opened and Filo stood there, his roommate Aldol at his side. Filo was six feet of redhead settled into a thin, wiry frame.
"Where are you going?"
Aimeé repeated what she had so far told to Tromasina, and at the end Filo simply said, "Wow. That will be exciting, won't it? A whole different world, the Old Country."
"It's not the Old Country. It's an Island Kingdom that's not even as old as Barraminum, if I understood Adrort. I don't know anything else about it, but I have this book to read."
"What is it?"
"I don't know. I'm not... I'm not allowed to talk about it. Something about a great war and a being called Reris."
Filo didn't react, but his roommate, Aldol, stepped back and made what looked like a mundane protective ward. "What?" Aimeé said.
"If you were told not to talk about it, good. Don't," Aldol said.
Aimeé realized that there was more to this voyage than just a simple voyage. At least two people had reacted badly to a story associated with the place Pyu Rika, and if Darynn was going to participate in a spell for the city she wondered if there could be anything she should question more about this trip. She trusted Darynn, but she was also wary of anything that might suggest evil since her duel with her old master.
A chill had come into the room. Filo was one of Aimeé's few friends, although as a mage he didn't have the interest or dedication to learn serious spells. He did seem to have a mind for spotting incongruities, and the few spells he had mastered would make him an excellent member of the Mage's Guard someday. After he grew up.
"So you came over just to tell me this?"
She nodded. "Well, and to tell all my teachers, and close up any projects I might have on campus, and to leave a note with the secretary. I've gotten most of it done," Aimeé said, rattling on. "But I figured you guys deserved to know what was happening since I'm going to be gone so long and I didn't want you to worry about me."
Filo nodded and gave her a brotherly hug. That was one of the things about him that both pleased and worried her. Filo had never looked at her as just someone he should try and conquer and get into bed. Filo treated her like a person, and she liked him for that. It was one of the reasons she had chosen him to be her third lover. "I'll miss you," she whispered.
He let loose the hug and looked at her. "I'll miss you too."
"Anyway, I must get going." She smiled and gave him an equally sisterly peck on the cheek. There was no sense in arousing his roommate's jealousy. She was sure Aldol knew anyway. "Bye. And Aldol? I shall take your words seriously."
"That will be a day to honor," Aldol growled with a grin. Aldol, at least, had a man's eyes; they would travel down to Aimeé's bosom and back up again several times in the course of a conversation. "You take care of yourself, Aimeé. The most beautiful apprentice in the school had better not get herself killed."
She winked at him. He blushed. "I will be careful. Bye, you two. Take care." She felt invigorated from her conversation with them. they liked her. They cared about her.
"You too!" they both called as she walked down the hallway.