Jourd’Aradia, 23rd Novena
The next day, Ghia said her farewells to her friends in the Regiments as they left for leave vacation―the consensus, unspoken, was to leave before the Empress changed her mind.
Most of the goodbyes were formal, despite her closeness with some of the people. Suckers for protocol, the lot of them, she thought with a smile. Curiosity got the best of her and she’d asked each person where she would go. That Yarrow chose Harbourtown was no surprise, nor Caelum’s choice of Southland. Sentiment and family, respectively, called to them. Interestingly, they were going alone to each place, and apparently had no plans of rejoining. This was not surprising to the healer as, despite the block, she could still feel Yarrow’s anger and Caelum’s melancholy. She hoped a month apart would give them time to work out the quarrel and move towards reconciliation.
Anita and Leala were going to Two-Sides, which was expected as well, despite the small danger in store for bellica and majora of the Third Regiment. The east end of Two-Sides was technically part of Nucalif, though Anita had assured her they’d done no damage to the city on the East Campaign.
“What would be the point in destroying one half of a city? They got the message clear enough; we don’t expect any trouble,” she’d said with a smile. Leala had nodded, embraced Ghia quickly, and then the two of them took off, in high spirits.
She watched them go, waving, and then turned to Anala and Aro, who showed all evidence of leaving together. “Where are you two headed?” she asked as she drew near.
“Not sure,” replied Anala as Aro said “Aeril.”
Bellica and Major exchanged glances that spoke a thousand words, and Aro kept his peace and let Anala continue. Raising her eyebrows at this silent argument, Ghia turned to Anala attentively.
“Have na been on leave fer years, and my choice vacation spot is no more.” Anala said in a low voice. Ghia nodded. She knew whereof the Bellica spoke.
“Have you not family in Harbourtown, though?”
Anala’s face closed down. Even with her powers somewhat muted, Ghia could sense years of pent-up anguish in the Bellica. She felt stupid. What a blunder! Some psychic you are, Ghia!
Anala continued with false heartiness. “It’d be a big family, ye ken, and a small house. There’d be no reason to be burdening them with a coupla tall officers, we who’d barely fit through the door!” She tried to laugh convincingly, but Ghia saw the strain in her eyes.
Reaching out, she took Anala’s hand in her own. “I understand,” she said simply. The bellica looked at her with such gratitude that for a moment Ghia had trouble breathing. She smiled hastily and grabbed at formality again. “Farewell, Bellica Anala, Major Aro. I hope you journey well.” Anala nodded as Aro put his arm around her, saying something about needing to leave while it was still light.
He nodded at the healer, smiling down at her from his not-so-impressive-as-Caelum’s height. “Farewell, Ghia. And thank you.”
Ghia nodded, understanding when Aro spoke for Anala. She sensed he spoke for both of them, this time.
They swung their packs over their shoulders, headed down towards the stables. Ghia noted the closeness with which they walked, and how comfortable they seemed with each other, and felt a pang of envy. Would she ever feel so close, so at home, with anyone?
“Don’t I get a goodbye?” said a deep voice behind her, and Ghia turned to see Jules.
She smiled. “I don’t know. Have you earned one?”
He put his hand to his chest as if an arrow had pierced it and staggered melodramatically. “Have I earned it? How you scorn my affection, damisela!” He fell to one knee and held a hand out to her, and against her own volition Ghia giggled. She reached out a hand to help him up and he leapt to his feet, granting her a dazzling smile. “My faith in your goodness is restored, m’lady,” he said, and dipped a quick curtsy.
“Though your eyesight obviously fails you, for if it did not, you would see I am no lady.”
“That’s a matter of perspective.” His eyes were unusually intense.
Ghia felt the heat rising in her cheeks and spoke quickly. “So where are you headed this month, Jules?”
He shrugged. “Despite the ice, snow, and treacherous passes,” and here he grinned, “I am headed into cold, mountainous Atton, to see my father and brother. Nathaniel’s last letter tells me I have a new nephew. Mind you, that last letter was quite a while ago, so I suspect the boy’s grown a bit. Probably already crawling around the house and getting into all sorts of trouble. I’m sure they’ll welcome me as a babysitter, at least,” and his smile grew. “Forgive me, I’m rambling.”
“I don’t mind. Your family sounds…nice.” Brilliant, Ghia, education of the ages at your fingertips and the best adjective you can think of is “nice”? She wished fervently for the earth to swallow her up.
But Jules smiled and agreed with her. “They are. I am overly blessed. And where are you going, once you are released from your healer’s duties?”
“When is one ever released from healer’s duties?” He nodded assent. “But to answer your question, I’m staying here in Atherton.”
“You’re not traveling?”
“I have nowhere to go, no one to go with and no money to hire an escort. So it is here I stay.”
A moment passed; Ghia could almost see Jules’ thought process in motion. “You know,” he said, “I could wait for you to be let off and we could go to Atton together. I’m sure my family wouldn’t mind.”
Ghia was taken aback. She couldn’t read him as she once could and hadn’t had an inkling of what he was going to say. But why should I be surprised? Jules is just the sort to make such a generous offer. I guess I just didn’t think such an offer would be directed at me.
She would’ve liked to accept but knew she could not, as much as for her own reasons as to afford Jules more time with his family.
She shook her head. “No. I appreciate it, but you need time alone with your family. I have time enough to travel this lifetime.”
Jules frowned. “But how can I make sure you’re taking care of yourself?”
“I’m a healer, Jules.”
“That’s what I’m worried about.”
Ghia made a frustrated noise in her throat. “Compromise? You go today and enjoy your vacation and I promise I will eat and sleep and generally be healthy in your absence.”
Ghia put her hand in the air and said solemnly, “Healer’s Honour.”
Jules snorted. “As if I could trust that. But I’ll take your word as it stands. You better not be this thin when I come back.”
Ghia rolled her eyes. “I did survive the four months of your last absence, Jules, without your divine dietary dogma, so I think I’ll be fine for a month.”
“You wouldn’t like me any other way,” she said impishly.
“True.” He gave a wry grin, then drew her into a hug―gently, not so suddenly as last night. Ghia returned the embrace. I could get used to this.
His next words were muffled in her hair, but she heard them and their undertones clearly in her mind, and knew part of the block was wearing away. “Even if you have that damnable healer’s nature of not caring whether you live or die, remember, I do care.” She heard the unspoken words that followed, words she never thought she’d hear, and ignored those quickly. She couldn’t deal with those emotions right now.
She nodded in response to what he had said aloud, and they pulled away from the embrace. “Are you riding alone, or going with the mail caravan?” she asked.
“Sun’s high in the sky, Jules. Better go or you’ll miss your escort.”
A whinny from outside signaled that Suki had noticed this as well.
“That horse is as willful as you, girl,” he said, looking out the door. “How’d she get out of the stables?”
“Go, Jules, and I’ll bring up your comparing me to a horse when you get back.”
He smiled down at her, and, before running out the door, leaned down and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Farewell, Healer.”
“Si vales, valeo!” she called after him.
If you fare well, so do I. Ghia turned to go back to the hospitalis. She wasn’t free yet.
Jourd’Selene, 26th Novena
Three days had passed and Ghia still had not gone to the North Tower. Her job was a legitimate enough excuse to delay her going, but the truth of the matter was that she was scared. Terrified is a better word, she thought as she sat down to give her aching feet a rest. She’d been on them all day, since she and Helene had given the younger healers the day off, tending to the wounded themselves with Jera and Giselle. There wasn’t much left to do. Crisis and urgency had passed, giving way to tedium.
She leaned back and closed her eyes. Her head ached and she hadn’t been sleeping well. Well, at least I’m eating, she thought, remembering her promise to Jules. More of the block had worn off and without her boundaries she was continually assaulted by the thought patterns of the myriad minds surrounding her. She knew she had to go to the North Tower and receive training, as the voice bade her, but the anger at having her boundaries removed in the first place rankled. Still, there was a sense of home with the being and her curiosity was burning as to why. Maybe the mystery of my parentage waits to be solved, if only I would get up the courage to go. Yet she was reluctant to go, to meet the inevitable, irrevocable change.
Maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing. All her life, she hadn’t fit in with the people around her and though she thought she faked it pretty well, she never felt comfortable around them. She knew that if her powers were discovered, she could be ostracised by the superstitious Atherians―or worse, killed. Witch burnings were not uncommon in Athering’s tumultuous history. She knew she’d been abandoned by her real parents, whoever they were, because of these powers. She didn’t know her parents, and so could not hate them, but she resented them for leaving her for dead on the streets of Atherton when she was but a year old. She was still ambivalent as to whether she wanted to know them. She had a pseudo-family who loved her. Why find relatives who didn’t?
Because you need to know, a voice inside said. You need vindication.
That was true. She wanted to know she was different, or special, because of these powers, and not just another freak with even more freakish abilities.
She drifted on clouds of thought semiconsciously as a doze took her, and she fell into a short sleep.
She awoke suddenly a few hours later. The clock on the wall told her the sun would be setting soon. She remembered hazy dreams: a woman with dark hair and hazel eyes, laughing, and a man with hair and eyes like her own―curly orange and green. Both tall, towering above her, and moving inexorably away. She’d cried out, reached small chubby hands to them, but they didn’t hear and drifted into mist, and she was left alone in the dark, shivering.
She shook the dream from her head, and got up in search of her foster mother.
She found Helene tending Lieutenant James, who was nearly ready to be released and angrier than ever that he was missing a single day of his vacation.
“I could be in Mudflat now, wenching and too drunk to see straight, and you keep me here!” he was ranting as Ghia walked up. Her lips quirked in a small grin: it was no surprise James would want to spend his vacation in Mudflat, Athering’s City of Sin.
“You can’t see straight while sober. I suggest you take your medicine and rest, so you may get to Mudflat in one piece,” Helene responded, as she spooned the man some potion and applied tincture to his eyes. He took it sulkily. “That’s a good boy. Now sleep.” He glared at her, but made no move to get up. She turned away from him.
“Ghia,” she said at the sight of her daughter. “I saw you sleeping and thought it best to let you. I know how little rest you get.”
“Gracias, madre. I was coming to ask what else can be done.”
Helene shook her head. “We’re done for the day, mija. Go home. Eat. Sleep.”
Ghia smiled tiredly. “Thought I did that already.”
“A siesta is not the same as a full night’s rest. Now vamoose.”
Ghia kissed her mother on the cheek and embraced her briefly before leaving the hospitalis.
No, there was no need to find her birth parents.
Jourd’Muerta, 28th Novena
Two more days passed before she went to the North Tower. The block had stayed steady till then and she’d almost convinced herself she didn’t need to go.
Then, while making the rounds in the hospitalis, a piercing pain had seized her mind and she’d fallen to her knees, clutching her head in agony.
Two acolytes and Jera had rushed to her aid and helped her to a chair, where she’d sat, rocking back and forth, making no sound despite the rippling waves of pain that gripped her.
When it had passed, the terrible, frightening clarity was back and she knew the block had worn off completely. She cursed her own stubbornness and fear, excusing herself for the day. She needed training―right now.
The way to the Tower was dusty with disuse and neglect. The Tower had been closed off for almost three hundred years. Not for the first time, Ghia wondered what she was getting herself into.
The hallway was littered with portraits of ancient Queens Ghia had never heard of: Sagea the Visionary, Anala the Strong (which Ghia found fitting for the present Anala), Zardria the Divine―that one made her laugh out loud. The Queens wore a strange style of dress, and the portraits were in surprisingly good condition for their age. The placards dated them as far back as the First Age. Fleetingly, Ghia wondered what manner of material kept them so well preserved.
She came to the entrance to the first floor of the North Tower, the staircase to the left leading up to other rooms. She suddenly realised she had no idea what floor she sought and would have to search the rooms until she found what she was looking for. Which is what, Ghia? She’d seen only eyes and heard the voice. She had no idea what this being looked like. I guess I’ll just have to trust that she’ll recognise me.
Hesitantly, she placed her hand on the door’s handle but did not turn it. She stood, feeling that this was one of those moments in which an entire world changed, that no matter what happened after this, her life would be different.
Taking a deep breath, she turned the handle and went inside.
She stood in an empty room. Except that tree, she noted, wondering why there was a tree in the middle of an empty room. I wonder if this is the source of the voice? she thought flippantly, but dismissed the thought. Trees couldn’t talk aloud, let alone mentally. Looking at the rest of the room, she saw no one and nothing, and was about to leave to search the next floor when she belatedly realised that the voice was probably invisible again.
“Hello?” she said to the empty room.
The tree turned and looked at her.
Ghia wanted to faint but she was more sensible than that; so she settled for saying “That’s interesting,” before falling to sit with a thunk on the floor.
The tree walked up to her. She could see it was not a tree at all but a woman with brown skin―no, that’s bark―arms like branches, fingers like limbs, and green, leafy hair. Before she could decide what was strangest, the feeling of home came back and she could have wept with the joy of it. She almost wanted to ask Are you my mother? Suddenly self-conscious, she didn’t. Her sensible mind was just using silliness to deal with the illogical situation.
No, I am not, said a voice in her head, the same voice from the night of the banquet. The tree-woman looked perplexed. Ghia remembered she was dealing with another being with powers like hers.
She held back a fit of hysterical giggles and managed to look the being in the eye as she stood up slowly. The tree-person was taller than any human she’d ever seen, even Yarrow or Caelum, but exceptionally short for any tree. The eyes were the same―ever-changing, earthy, still flickering with scores of emotions. This time Ghia could read a few: confusion, resignation, and, just barely, hope.
She forced the mental voice cowering in the back of her mind to form a sentence.
Forgive my reaction. I’ve never seen a tree do that.
I am not a tree, said the being without offence, but, Ghia sensed, with a hint of pride. I am a Magi.
A Magi. Third race to inhabit this continent, possessor of “freakish” magekal powers, ancient, long-lived, and I am the last of my kind. You know. Same old Saga.
Ghia frowned. Something tickled her memory, something from her early education in the history of magek. One of her books had mentioned a Magea Rosa―one of the fabled Magi. Was this being…?
I am she, Rosa answered, and Ghia blinked.
But I didn’t even project….
You did not need to. You are an open book to me; all Terrans are.
That doesn’t seem ethical, she started to say before her mind snagged on the strange word again, like a thread on a nail. What does that mean?
Terran? It refers to a member of your species; what you called yourselves when you first arrived here. But here I am teaching history when you need to be trained. How rude of me. Step further into the room, and close the door―it wouldn’t do for other castle denizens to see you talking to a tree.
Ghia was about to say, I thought you were a Magi, but realised the Magea had a sense of humour and smiled as she closed the door, following Rosa further into the room.
So…do all Magi look like trees? She couldn’t help but ask, as she took a seat in front of Rosa, who, sitting, was still very tall.
No. Only those of us bound to the Earth―the Corasin―and of those, only the ones bound to trees. I am bound to the Kash tree, and so am rather short for my race.
Ghia nodded, in a daze.
This doesn’t seem real to you, does it? the Magea asked.
The Magea nodded in understanding. There is not much I could do or say that would prove how real this is. I trust you’ll come to accept it in time. I do have a small question for you, however.
What is today’s date?
Ghia thought this a strange question but answered without hesitation. Jourd’Muerta, the 28th of Novena, 4019 of the Third Age.
There was a pause, then: I see.
May I ask you a question?
For now. How old are you?
The Magea smiled, completely transforming her face. As if there were seasons to her expressions, her face changed from winter to summer.
I am sure I’ve lost count of the years, was what she said, but Ghia saw through the lie.
Somehow I doubt that.
You’re sharp. Good. Let us just say I was middle-aged when your kind arrived here.
Which was when, exactly?
That’s two questions.
And now has become then. But I’ll leave it alone. About the training?
Rosa’s face turned serious. Yes, we should get down to that.
What do you expect from me?
Concentration. Focus. Effort. The will to use your powers for good.
Ghia frowned. And just what is the extent of my powers?
The Magea laughed mentally and it sounded like a wind through the forest, rustling the leaves and grass. We shall have to test you…and see.