Snow fell in sheets outside the library window, reminding Neredos of how cold it was outside. In the moments it took him to contemplate the flakes, he instinctively reached for the cup of drael sitting next to his books. It was at his lips in a second, a single sip of the steaming hot stimulant sliding down his throat.
Drael was new to this region of Oligan, one of the few pleasant byproducts of the civil war in Lodan. Many Lodani refugees had crossed the border into southern Oligan over the past few decades, and they had brought many of their exotic crops and livestock with them. It had taken some time for the trees that produced the drael seeds to take root in the slightly cooler climes, but the Lodani farmers had persevered, and the seeds were now harvested regularly, ground into powder, and brewed like tea.
For Neredos, the brownish purple drink was a godsend. At seventeen, he was the youngest student at the University of Thalom, having entered two years before, five years ahead of the regular age of admission. His knowledge of physical sciences and engineering had won him the respect of his professors, but his fellow students often went out of their way to remind him that he was beneath them.
That meant long hours of study, constantly trying to prove his worth to everyone around him. It meant many nights without sleep or rest of any kind. It meant taking every advantage he could, to stay awake and alert, and that meant drael.
He looked up at the sound of footsteps on the far side of the study hall, the large area of tables and chairs set up between all the bookshelves for student use. Usually he was one of few who stayed this late in the night, though the next round of exams were approaching fast, and he expected the library to be busier than usual.
But not tonight, not with the blizzard. The deep snows were enough to keep most everyone away, and he expected even the archivist and his team of clerks would be bunking down in the library instead of traveling home. With that in mind, he reasoned that the footsteps likely belonged to one of them, and were not worthy of any special notice.
Just before he returned his gaze to the book in front of him-a manual on magical theory applied to gravity- he caught sight of the person moving amongst the shelves. She was dressed as neither clerk nor archivist, a grey travel-worn cloak hung heavy around her shoulders, though it was parted in the front, to reveal the shape of her modest bosom through the blue winter blouse she wore. The hood of her cloak obscured her face, and even her mouth and chin hid behind a sky-blue scarf. Gloves, boots, and a pair of thick dark pants completed her wardrobe.
He watched her for only a moment, not wanting to make her feel uneasy by his attention, and then returned to studying the manual in front of him. Despite his interest in the subject before him, he couldn't focus on the words. He lifted the drael to his lips again but paused there, the earthy aroma tantalizing him. He set the drink down, then looked up again. The woman was coming closer.
"Did you get caught in the storm?" Neredos asked. It was best to meet unfamiliar circumstances head on once they seemed unavoidable. That was a trait he had learned from his father; may he rest in the light.
The woman looked up, startled, thereby giving Neredos his first look into her eyes. They were amber colored, with flecks of silver, and unlike any eyes he had ever seen before. They showed youth and wisdom in perfect harmony and glowed intensely in a face that seemed otherwise soft. She lowered the scarf, revealing thin and wind-chapped lips, though this sign of damage did little to dissuade Neredos from appreciating her beauty. In fact, knowing she was mortal and capable of succumbing to the elements only made her more real, when a part of him thought he might've been hallucinating.
"I'm sorry, I didn't realize anyone was in here," she said, her voice as gentle and cold as the snow falling outside. Her accent was strange, though Neredos was certain he had heard it before. He listened intently as she continued, trying to place it. "I was walking in the street, and this place looked warm."
"Yes, the archivist maintains a proper furnace. This is one of the few places I feel comfortable, here in Thalom. I'm from the South, near the border with Lodan," Neredos said, giving her the best smile he could manage. "Are you a student here? What possessed you to be out in this weather?"
She glanced toward the seat opposite Neredos. He quickly stood and removed the stack of books he had been storing there, transferring them to a corner of the table. As he returned to his seat, she removed her scarf and hung it from the back of the chair before sitting down.
"I'm a traveler," she explained, before removing her gloves and setting them next to her. "I ignored the warnings about the blizzard. I am not normally in this area during winter, and I believed I could handle it. It appears I was mistaken."
Neredos grinned and raised his cup of drael to that. "As I said, I'm from the South. After living here for two years, I know all too well how unexpectedly cold the blizzards can be when you're not used to them. Would you care for some drael? I'm sure there's more powder in the kitchen, though either you or I will have to brew it. The cook went to bed hours ago."
"I would love some," she replied in a warmer voice, smiling. It was a smile that warmed Neredos nearly as much as drael did. Then those intense eyes settled on his, holding his gaze. He shuddered, but not from any chill.
"Er . . . Well, then how about you join me in the kitchen?" Neredos said, rising to his feet with knees that now wobbled. He took a moment to steady himself and covered his momentary weakness as best he could by saying, "My name is Neredos, and I am a student here."
"Alazyn," the woman replied, returning to her feet. She started to remove her cloak to drape it over the back of her chair. Before she removed her hood, Neredos had already guessed what he would see. Two pointed ears, both tattooed, one with a bird and the other some form of lizard. What Neredos hadn't expected, however, was to find Alazyn's head had been recently shaved, a fine layer of brown fuzz doing little to obscure the mosaic of tattoos running along her scalp to her neck.
As soon as Alazyn said her name, Neredos had placed the strange accent. She was a Gor, and not just any Gor, a descendent of a high priestess. "You are related to Alazyn Tendrakanil? The daughter or granddaughter, perhaps?" Neredos asked, struggling to keep his tone under control. When Alazyn stared at him in surprise, he went on, "the high priestess gave a presentation here seven months ago. I remember her saying that the names of high priestesses are passed down, and no one outside of the priestess line are allowed to use those names."
"I am her youngest granddaughter," Alazyn replied, nodding in appreciation, "though I belong to the family Selbrakhin. My mother married Alazyn Tendrakanil's second son, and he took her name as is custom in our tribe."
"And what, if I may ask, is the granddaughter of a Gor high priestess doing walking alone in a blizzard in Thalom?" Neredos asked, offering a weak smile.
"At the moment," Alazyn replied, "I believe I'm getting a cup of drael with a boy named Neredos."
Neredos chuckled despite the awkward situation and said, "Quite right. I suppose it's better to talk about that over drinks. The kitchen is this way."
"I like the bit of gold in your hair," Alazyn observed, continuing to watch Neredos as intently as she had since she first arrived. "It reminds me of the Kithsar Tribe, our furthest neighbors to the east."
"It used to be much lighter," Neredos said, taking a sip from his freshly brewed cup of drael. "It has been getting progressively darker as I've aged. Never been as pale as a Fedain, mind you. It was always golden before it became brown."
They had spoken very little as Neredos heated the water on the stove to brew their drinks. Mostly Alazyn had studied him, and he had done his best not to notice. He'd never had such a pretty woman show attention to him, and certainly never had any Gor pay attention to him at all. He found it flattering and intimidating all at once.
But it was time to get some answers, and despite a certain lack of confidence regarding speaking to women-especially those several years older than him, as Alazyn appeared to be-his curiosity gave him the courage to perform feats he would otherwise not dare. As she took a drink from her own cup, Neredos took the opportunity to press the question uppermost on his mind. "So, are you going to tell me why you're here?"
Alazyn gracefully set her cup down and stared at Neredos for a moment, her lips pursed thoughtfully. Eventually, she shrugged and said, "Training to become a priestess is not the life I want. I'd rather see the world on my own two legs than be carried by an entourage. I was the chosen apprentice to my grandmother, and I knew within a day that it isn't the life for me."
"You're not very far from home," Neredos observed. "If you are trying to run away, you didn't get very far. Aren't you a little old to just be starting as an apprentice?"
Alazyn chuckled, her eyes sparkling in the bright electric light of the study hall. "You may know a lot of things, Neredos, and you observe well, but you don't know the Gor quite as well as you think you do."
Neredos nodded, leaning back in his chair as he considered her words. "That may be true, but by refusing to answer the question, you've told me something."
"Oh?" Alazyn said, eyebrows shifting up and down as she raised her cup again. "What do you think you've figured out about me?"
"That you're hiding something," Neredos said plainly. "And that you are so eager to avoid anyone finding out, that you're willing to walk through a blizzard at night in Thalom."
"I'm beginning to like you, human," Alazyn said. "And not just because you brew decent drael. It's not as good as what they have in Lodan, of course. Then again, the Lodani have been brewing drael for centuries before Oligan ever got its hands on the recipe."
It was Neredos' turn to chuckle. "Now you're just playing with me. You offer facts about Lodan to try to prove that you've been there, but as a priestess you almost certainly studied other nations and their commerce. It is the role of the priestess to advise the chief, after all. At least that's how it works in the northern Gor tribes."
"How do you know so much about us?" Alazyn asked. "You're barely old enough to be involved in anything of importance."
Neredos grinned wide. "I have a knack for getting involved in things before society thinks someone my age should be ready for them. And I retain information easily. They say I have a 'Golcaw's memory'."
"What is a Golcaw?" Alazyn asked, her face scrunched in confusion. "I've never heard that word before."
Neredos nodded. "I'm not surprised. The Golcaw is a bird native to southeastern Ultaka, specifically the Gulf region. The Fedain used to train them as messenger birds, because they could easily memorize patterns and locations, and always find their way back to wherever they needed to be. Like the bird, I rarely forget anything that I'm taught, and," he gestured to the stacks of books around him, "I teach myself a lot."
"Then I suppose I'll just have to kill you, to make sure you don't go spreading around my secrets," Alazyn replied with surprising calm. Neredos wasn't sure if she was joking or not.
He played along, his curiosity once again getting the better of him. "Are you sure you want to do that? If you do, I won't be able to make you any more of that drael. And you wouldn't have anyone to have such pleasant conversation with. We both know you'd rather have me alive. I'd prefer that, too, if I'm honest about it."
Alazyn laughed openly at that. "Don't worry, I have no intention of killing you. Just thought I'd see how much you feared me before I decided if I wanted to trust you or not."
"And have you reached a decision?" Neredos replied.
"Well, you fear me just enough, I think," Alazyn said with a sly smile. "If you feared too much, then someone could come along and make you fear more and get information from you. If you feared too little, I'd think you too much a fool. But instead there's a nervousness about you, but a confidence that more than makes up for it."
"Does that mean I get answers?" Neredos asked.
Alazyn nodded. "A few, for now." She took another sip from her cup before continuing. "I originally left home four years ago, when I was sixteen. I ran away then, all the way to Lodan. Of course, during the time there was a cease-fire in the civil war, and I thought it would be a peaceful place to explore for a while. They have no particular feelings about Gor there, since they see them so infrequently and never have to deal with them. Unfortunately, a month after I arrived the fighting started up again."
"And every faction was fighting to have you on their side?" Neredos surmised.
Alazyn sighed, frowning wearily. "Something like that. Unfortunately, I started by offering my services to everyone who came my way. A little herbal work here, a divining spell there . . . Little did I know that I was helping people from different factions, and they all started thinking I was working for the enemy. I crossed the border into Oligan with six different factions chasing me like wolves after deer."
"The Lodani have a saying," Neredos said, "never trust a guest at your neighbor's table."
"They are a very distrusting group, that much is certain," Alazyn agreed.
"So, you traveled around Oligan for a while, keeping a low profile, I assume?" Neredos said. "In the South they know about as much about the Gor as the Lodani do. Which means folktales and superstition, which they believe in a lot more than the Lodani do."
"But you're from the far South, Intruska Valley, aren't you?" Alazyn said. "You're not the only one who's observant. I spent two years in that region, and I know all the local accents, even if yours is more suppressed."
"As I already said, I've always been a good student," Neredos said dryly. "I was educated out of folklore long before I moved up north. Also, racial prejudice may be common in Thalom, but the University doesn't sanction it. We even have Fedain students, and we're at war with Ultaka."
"Yes, the war . . . All the wars," Alazyn said quietly. "If you must know, that's the reason I came back."
"Back?" Neredos said. "So you have been to your people recently . . ."
"Yes, four days ago. That's why I shaved my head. I came seeking forgiveness, and was rewarded with exile," Alazyn replied. She met Neredos' gaze again, and for the first time since they began speaking, her eyes held none of their spark. "There are so many wars going on, I wanted to be with my people, but they would have none of me."
Neredos' eyes moistened at the pain he saw in Alazyn's expression. On impulse, he reached across the table and took her hand in his. She seemed surprised at first, pulling back slightly, but then gave in and squeezed his hand gently, nodding in appreciation.
"I may not know what it's like to be in exile," Neredos said, putting as much feeling into his words as possible, to try to communicate his sincerity, "but I do know what it's like to be an outcast, especially for being who you are. I receive very little respect here, and that is only from the few who have seen what I can do. Perhaps, in time, your people will see you for who you are, and take you back."
Alazyn shook her head, fighting back tears. Her eyes showed a mixture of anger and sadness. "It doesn't work that way, when you're exiled the way I was. My status is permanent, and I can never return home again." She closed her eyes and sighed heavily, and when she opened them again her cheeks were wet. "The whole world seems on the brink of disaster, nations tearing themselves and each other apart, and my own family refuses to accept my apology. The grandmother we spoke of earlier branded me herself after they stripped me naked at the bonfire tribunal."
Neredos added his other hand over the first and spoke intently. "I will never claim to understand your pain, but know that you've made a friend today. If you're planning to stay in Thalom at all, I will lend you whatever support I can. I make a pittance of an allowance for the work I do here in addition to my studies, but I have room for a cot in my antechamber if you need a place to stay."
"Why are you being so kind to a stranger?" Alazyn asked, smiling nervously as she wiped the tears from her cheeks with her free hand. "What have I done to deserve your generosity?"
"Being against the wars is good enough for me," Neredos said with a disarming smile. "I intend to end this war, peacefully if possible. That's why I'm studying as hard as I am. I want to work with people, try to find a solution that everybody can work towards. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who wants peace is an ally, stranger or not."
"Well," Alazyn said, "then I accept your offer. At least for now, until I can find a place of my own somewhere. I won't have you put up with me forever."
"There's another Lodani saying, and it's much more optimistic than the other," Neredos said, giving Alazyn's hand another squeeze. "Forever is for those who believe in a better world." He let go then, glancing out the window. "It looks like the snow has stopped. Maybe it's a sign?"
Alazyn glanced out the window, then returned her gaze to Neredos. "But is it a sign that the blizzard has stopped, or is it a warning that more snow will come?"
"Is this absolutely necessary, Ghayle?" Neredos said, pulling away from her. He looked at all the others in the circle, from Prism to Veil, then to Dogo and Telzath. They were all watching him, their eyes filled with questions. Only Veil had known any of his history with Alazyn before now, and he preferred to keep it that way.
However, he trusted Ghayle more than he had ever trusted any other person except Alazyn. She had insisted on this exercise, and he had reluctantly agreed. Now, after seeing Alazyn again for the first time in centuries, he was reevaluating his decision.
"You will be working with your fellow Chosen for millennia to come, Neredos," Ghayle said with a touch of impatience. "It is better for all of you to understand where each other came from. Eventually, you should all know each other's history from the womb to the grave. Once my replacement has been officially assigned, the duty of exploring your pasts will fall on their shoulders, but for now it is up to me, and this is where I have chosen to start your story."
Neredos gritted his teeth and looked to Prism for support. While Veil had spent far more time as his closest friend, she had recently attempted to kill him. As much as he wanted to move past that, he did not trust her yet, and so Prism was his best support by default. While they hadn't always seen eye to eye, they had been allies and friends during the most difficult time in all their lives, and he would trust Prism with his life to the end of time. "Surely I can't be the only one who's uncomfortable with trudging through the past."
"Unfortunately," Prism said, "I've already been through this once. As difficult as it was to relive some moments, it helped me understand everything much better. We've been charged with the role of protecting the world after Ghayle moves on. I think we owe it to the world to do the best job we can, wouldn't you agree?"
Neredos sighed and nodded. "I suppose that's the way it has to be, when you put it that way. Please tell me I'm not the only one who will be analyzed today."
"Not the only, but there are events to be viewed from your eyes, which will illuminate the understanding of magic and the demons for the others," Ghayle said smoothly. "You have a unique understanding, Neredos, and it will help the others grasp your perspective if we get to the roots of your decisions. You cannot tell me that Alazyn is not at the focal point of nearly every decision you made before the demons were unleashed upon the world. I know you better than that."
"Then let's get on with it," Neredos said glumly. "If it's inevitable, then we might as well go through it all as quickly as possible."
"I'm afraid there is a bit too much contention for that," Ghayle said, looking around the circle and meeting everyone's eyes. "You are not the only one here who needs to be understood. Veil does not have the support of the circle in quite the same way that you do. Dogo may distrust you, Telzath may disagree with you, but ultimately, they believe that you were a King gone mad. That is enough to give you the benefit of the doubt; that you have justification for the decisions that you made. Veil, however, has earned Dogo's hatred, and the complete distrust of the rest of you."
Veil stiffened with every word, but she avoided the nervous glances aimed her way. "I only wanted to serve my people," she said quietly.
"Great job of that, really," Dogo said dryly. "Is that how you convince yourself to steal the youthfulness from women to keep yourself alive? When you stole the youth from my wife? Is that what you told yourself when you stole my son's free will?"
Telzath put a heavy hand on Dogo's shoulder and offered him a gentle smile. "I understand your pain, friend, but I have also learned to trust Ghayle's instincts. If she has said there is much to learn here, then I am willing to let her teach me. I urge you to give her the same chance. If we can't trust Veil, we can trust Ghayle and Prism."
"If you are all in agreement . . ." Ghayle said, searching for signs of dissension. Dogo muttered something unintelligible, and Veil sniffed disdainfully, but neither said anything in protest. Neredos, Prism, and Telzath simply nodded. Ghayle continued with a nod, "there is a young girl we must visit. Around the time you met Alazyn, Neredos, another's life was changing just as dramatically. We will go there, that you may all understand tragedy through the lens of her eyes."
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