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Beyond the Vale - Secilia & Uriek - Indistinguishable From Magic
...any sufficiently advanced technology...
sightsbeyond
sightsbeyond
Beyond the Vale - Secilia & Uriek
Trying to come back from my hiatus, skimming through to do some more edits. Want to keep tweaking some of the phrasing, as I think my style's gotten a bit more refined since this was written (too much practice, perhaps?)

Thought I'd throw it up, though, as it's the intro chapter for these two characters and I miss them. Heh.



                Secilia Warren leaned her forehead against the reassuring warmth of the hotbox and let her eyes fall shut. These few moments of peace were precious but could well cost her dearly. There were always eyes to see, even in her own chambers, and to linger in such a way would surely be taken for weakness.

                Before her was the long glass box, shorter of width and height, resting upon a raised dais glowing with runic carvings. It would have been a tight squeeze for a man, but it was not built to hold one so large. The figure within was short and slight – so very small – and looking more so every day. Secilia's view was partially obscured by the haze of amethyst mist drifting languidly within, but she knew every line of that face, the face that she had stood vigil over for seven long years. Anyone else would have put the child's age at no more than four or five, but Secilia could remember every day of the past seven years with the fear and longing that only a mother could know.

                Face still pressed to the glass, she whispered "Ariana."

                A knock at the door brought her back to her feet.

                "Enter."

                The little man who pushed through bowed, but held her eye. Aldos Vanwar was the youngest-born brother to her late husband and was perhaps the only person in Avereo in whom she could put absolute trust. The wiry, bespeckled man had served as her steward since her marriage to his brother many years past. Arik and Aldos were of a distantly-related house, nobly born but in no position to use the marriage to place their claim to Varna over her own. It had been a good match, meticulously arranged by her parents, and she had even come to love Arik after a time. The thought of him stirred a bit of sadness, but she did not let it show.

                "Your guest waits without," Aldos's eyes flickered to the hotbox with their usual pity, but today fear was written there just as plainly. It only strengthened her resolve.

                "And my brothers?"

                "Marcos is in the hall with his Porters, Vernen has charge of Adin and Alin in the yard, Etan is on duty and Danal has gone out into the city."

                Though she was the Lady of Varna, this had always seemed to count for little and less in the eyes of her family. She was fifth-born, but the seat had always belonged to a woman. House Warren had held the strongest claim to the tower for years but, according to the laws of Magi succession, she still only inherited the meager portion of magical power allotted to a fifth child. Sometimes she felt she had no more prowess than a woodswitch. There were whispers that her rule had done much to weaken her house's claim. Of course, she had to seek out such rumors herself; her brothers would never let such troublesome words reach her delicate ears.

The four of them had dogged her steps all her life, doting upon her as if she were no more than a frail little doll, an empty placeholder to keep the family claim until one of them had a daughter of their own. Marcos was the eldest and had command of the Porters. True, it was the Magi High Guard who were said to keep the peace of the towers, but they were pledged foremost to Rork and it did not take Varna and Belfort long to realize that they were being spied upon. Though the Porters were officially no more than orderlies, Varna had made it clear long ago that the services of the High Guard would not be needed beyond their threshold.

Marcos was all a first-born son should be: strong and diligent, powerful in the arts, though far too brusque for Secilia to ever be truly comfortable around him. The fact that he had chosen leadership of the Porters, rather than pursue a career in healing had always rankled as well. Sometimes he seemed to have more of Rork in him than Varna. He also had the sullenness particular to Varnarian noblemen, a regret and sulkiness that came of not having been born female.

Her second brother, Vernen, was a healer, though in truth he had more skill in teaching than in the craft itself. Secilia's two first-born sons, the twins Adin and Alin, would be amongst his students today. They were good boys and she loved them dearly but, as she fretted over Ariana, they had come to spend more and more time in the care of their uncles. Fourteen now, almost grown, and she still could not sense the kind of men they would be. It was her own fault, she knew.

Etan worked diligently in the hospice below and was said to be strikingly skilled for a third-born. Danal, her Danal, had been more brother to her than any of the others. Only a year her elder, he had been her constant companion but, where she had grown into her life of order and duty, he had found himself a fourth-born lord with much in wealth and little in responsibility. Her brothers had indulged him, even allowing him – a born healer – to play at swords, but she had never begrudged him his freedom. It seemed he had gone on another of his sojourns, to return with the tales and trinkets that had long been her only escape. Her heart went with him.

But, for now, she was alone. She nodded to Aldos and, taking a last look at the swirling mists of the hotbox, gathered her skirts and followed him from the room.

Ariana shared her private quarters, always close by her mother's side. They proceeded through den and dining chamber, to the anteroom where the Lady of Varna would entertain more private guests. Aldos had laid a fire but it was blocked by an immense figure, his back to them.

"Leave us," she gave Aldos a curt nod.

"My Lady—" the old clerk began to argue.

"Leave us."

With a last fretful look to the visitor, he bowed his way out and closed the door behind him.

The big man turned then. He was fully covered in a deeply hooded grey robe, impossibly large enough to fall in waves over his enormous frame.

"Were you seen?" Secilia settled herself into one of a pair of overstuffed chairs. Any number could be arranged to accommodate a small party of important guests, but Aldos had moved all but two from before the fire. It struck her as lonely.

The man's voice could barely be heard over the crackling of the flames. "No Healer, there are ways under the city unknown even to my masters." He lowered his hood, letting the shadows play across his face. Of course, there would always be shadow there, even in the brightest of light. The man's flesh was a pallid grey, but the firelight danced lively in his coal black eyes.

Secilia smiled to look at him. "Uriek, Lord Uriek." She gestured to the chair. "Please, sit."

                "If it please my lady, I do enjoy the strength of my own legs."

                "As you wish, my lord."

                "I am no lord, Healer, as you well know."

                "Not yet." She offered him a smile.

                "You speak of spoils before the call has even sounded. Do you really know so little of what we do here?" His voice was still soft, but there was a gruffness to it that she did not remember.

                "A jest then, Uriek. But you are a lord, if not in name. Who is it that rules the quarries?"

                "It is the Magi who rule, as they always have."

                "Again, in name. Who is it that the T'Ren look to, to whom do they come to settle disputes, to perform ceremonies that no Magi could understand? Rule you we might, but none could ever be your master."

                He was sullen, silent.

                "Lord is not a title, Uriek. You are the type of man who others will follow… without ever wondering why."

                "And what would the Highest Healer have of the Lord of Slaves?" The Grey Man gave only the slightest of nods, but there was mocking there. It hurt her more than she had realized it would.

She had met Uriek when she was little more than a girl. All of the students in Varna's hospice traveled on missionary visits, bringing the healing light of the Magi to the more savage parts of the world. It was as much to strengthen their political and military holds as to establish goodwill, she now knew. As the heir of the tower, she was kept close to home, working in the T'Ren mines beneath the city.

Daily they would descend, a handful of students in the care of their professor and her own contingent of Porters, down into the dark. Small numbers of T'Ren would appear, furtive and shamed, to bring them fairly simple ills: broken limbs, the coughing sickness so common in the mines. Secilia could feel the eyes from the shadows, though, far larger numbers keeping their distance, distrustful or resentful or afraid, despite the best efforts of the Magi foremen to call them to assembly.

She was no older then than her sons were now, but already she was famed for her fair skin, her deep red hair. She had thought herself a woman grown, on the cusp of a marriage that excited more than it terrified, but she never acted the part.

One afternoon, as the students busied themselves with the day's sick, Secilia had linked arms with a girlfriend – had it been Colleane? – and snuck off down a side tunnel. Never had they ventured beyond the wide chamber where the lift brought them to and from the surface but, in a life constricted under the eyes of her brothers and the Porters, she had felt a pressing need to take what freedoms she could.

Breaking into a run they followed sloping, rising, twisting paths until they were well and truly lost. Collapsing against a wall, they had lost themselves in a fit of girlish giggles, hugging each other and boasting of their grand escape.

Voices rebounded off the rough-hewn walls and for a moment she feared them caught, but these were up ahead, the deep-throated voices of men, the hushed tones of T'Ren.

Pressing a finger to her lips, Secilia twined her fingers through Colleane's and stepped lightly down the corridor. Rounding a bend, they saw the way ahead crowded with figures, looming Grey Men, their shorter but impressively-muscled women. Beyond them a wall of fresh-fallen stone blocked the tunnel and, as the girls watched, large hunks of rock were passed hand-to-hand amid hurried whispers.

"What happened here?" If only she were still so bold.

The man nearest them turned. He was naked to the waist, his pallid chest covered with a fine sheen of black hair and a thicker sheen of sweat. He could not have had many years on her and, though he was half again as tall, Secilia drew herself up regally. Colleane's nails dug into her palm.

If the man was surprised to see her, he did not show it. "Cave-in."

"Secilia!" Professor Letrim had come clambering down the tunnel behind them, his massive bulk heaving as he struggled to catch his breath. Four of her Porters shouldered up at his back.

The young man had turned away as she and Colleane were escorted back to the lift under the scowls of her protectors and the breathless admonishments of the professor. Back in the tower, he had made fearful apologies to Marcos, eldest of house Warren and her caretaker since their parent's death, straining to bow repeatedly over his bulk. Marcos' face had reminded her much of those distant, half-remembered figures, silent and imposing, always lost in shadow tall above her. It had always been this way, her parents strict and distant and, in their wake, Marcos was no less severe. The care of her other brothers was somewhat better, particularly that of Danal and Veren, though age had made the latter awkward still.

She did not return to the mines the next day or the day after. Soon the hospice delivered a letter of graduation, stating that she had completed her missionary trials with exceptional marks. Alone in her chambers, safe and protected as a Lady should be, her mind wandered below, back to the young T'Ren. She had met her husband-to-be by then; the courtship had begun slowly, with Arik coming round to take family meals in the tower. Arik was said to be all a man of worth should be, but he was not so tall as the slave boy had been, his arms not so thick and taut. He was older too, his flesh already loosing the glow of strength and youth. Secilia supposed the boy in the mines might have even been attractive, if not T'Ren, of course.

It had been Danal who brought her the news. Danal, always smiling, his eyes alight as if he alone were privy to a magnificent secret. He was already a head taller than her, she noticed, as he bent next to her window seat to lay a kiss on her forehead.

He had the broad shoulders of Marcos, but already promised the height of Etan as well. His hair was lighter than her own, the red there more vibrant, and he had the deeper complexion that her sons would one day share. Once, wandering out to Northwall, a shopkeeper had mistaken him for a Wayfarer and had given chase over three blocks, bransishing a butcher's axe over his head. Danal had shared the tale with his wide-eyed sister amidst breathless laughter.

On this day, though, his grin was particularly wide. "My sister the hero."

"What?"

"You haven't heard?" He chuckled. "You're the talk of the tower, the savior of the T'Ren."

She had not understood the jest.

"The cave-in. All those T'Ren buried alive, surely they couldn't have survived. Then Secilia Warren appears and, once the rocks were cleared away, there was not a dead man among them. Injuries, to be sure, but all of them walked away. Truly miraculous. What did you do?"

"I… nothing." She looked at her hands. "I saw them moving the rocks, but Letrim brought me back to the surface straight away."

"Truly?" He had looked vaguely disappointed, but recovered quickly with a conspiratorial wink. "We just won't tell anyone then, yes?"

She looked up at him. "Are people really calling me a hero?"

"They had better be. Marcos has been having his men spread it around enough."

"And the T'Ren?"

He scoffed.

"No, I thought not."

It had been many years before she thought of that young T'Ren again. Many years, before she learned the truth of that day, of the secrets buried deep in the earth. Had she known that day of the terror being wrought beneath her feet, of the fact that none of those buried had lived more than a few days before their own people put them down, would she have stayed away? But it was many years before she learned these things, now a woman and a Lady, a grieving widow and a mother deep in the exhaustive illness of her only daughter. And so she had sought the reluctant T'Ren, and bartered from him the secret that had stirred the earth all those years ago.

"I ask only words, Uriek. Surely words you can spare?"

"A pittance next to what I have already given." He bit the words.

"And what I have given?" She half-stood in anger. "My debt to you is paid. A mother's gift… to a father."

"Magi gifts," he scoffed. "Always the price is high."

"What I have risked for you—?"

"You risked only yourself for me, lady. And you are Magi, a queen, almost beyond reproach. You ask me to risk far more. Myself, I would give you. That debt I would pay. But you once asked me to risk us all and, more fool me that I obeyed. The world itself will tremble if we are wrong. And I am T'Ren, no lord, no king. My own people would lynch me quick as yours if they were to find out what I have done."

He stood close now, his ire somehow radiating warmer than the flames at his back.

Secilia touched his arm. "What we have done Uriek. We. And none know, none will know. And if we are right, if your legends are true, I will have brought true healing back to this world. Is that not worth the risk?"

He turned away, but his arm remained hers. "You think yourself wise, Magi. But there are magics beyond any of your parlor tricks. And yet you dabble—"

Her slap rang out in the darkened space, the crackle of the hearth rushing to fill the silence in its wake. He looked to her, but gave no sign of pain. No, not a T'Ren.

"I am the Lady of Varna. This is my art. I do not dabble. I merely seek alternative means—"

"—that even slaves know to leave well alone."

"If a slave is all you are, all that you profess so proudly, you will hold your tongue in my presence. Or perhaps you would like me to take back what I have given you? I can have a contingent of guards on the road within the hour."

The big man pulled away now, turning his eyes back to the fire. "But I understood you. The desperation to save your own blood, the desperation to save my own, is there nothing we would not do? Is it all somehow… noble?"

Secilia stood close, calming her voice, hoping to reassure, to persuade him. "This hollow threat, you know it would not suit me either. We have already gone this far, our previous exchange well and done. All I ask is this smallest favor."

He turned to her, his darkened features holding fast to the flickering shadows. "What? What more would you ask?"

"Your… man… on the outside." She sighed. This was the important part, the difficult part. She could feel the arrangement sliding, unraveling, threatening to slip through her fingers. "I know you have had contact with him. I do not know how, but there are rumored arts in your tunnels that I do not profess to understand. I know that he went West, but there lies nothing in that direction but swampland and unyielding bog. An obvious misdirection. And the South falls to desert before too long. I would guess that he ultimately went North. There are verdant lands, rich lands where my people hold no sway. And this is all that I ask: that, while in the North, he seek word of a boy. That is all. He need not return, he need not show himself, merely locate one small boy and tell you his location."

"What is this boy?" Was it curiosity that flicked now behind eyes once so full of malice.

"Let us say he is a relative of mine, long lost, and I look to bring him here."

"Why not send your own? Your Porters, your brothers?"

She scowled then, unable to hide it in the firelight. "Haste. That is what is important now. And I already have a man in the Northlands, do I not? A man who, if he would like to so remain, if your blood is to flow well and truly free, will do me this small favor, yes?"

"Of course, my Lady." The big man's bow was stiff, bitter.

"Uriek, I do not mean to be so harsh. Please, I would entreat you, look only to the love that you once bore me, if I thought it would bear some fruit. But as things lie, I fear I must speak of debts owed, must threaten and cajole. Once you pitied me."

"And will never do so again." He strode to the door, shifting through shadows. "I will do you this favor, Magi, not for you but – you were wise enough to notice – for your threats. I will tell my son to find this boy. But our dealings end there. Threaten me if you must, but your influence ends beyond this city, some even say beyond this tower. And yet you tred the darkness, play a fool's game with the unknown. Is your daughter's lingering ill health not a sign? I will have no more part in this folly."

"Deliver to me this boy and I will never send for you again, never let your name or that of your blood pass my lips, you have my word."

"Would that were enough. But I fear the time of words grows short." There was sadness there, sudden and harsh on his hardened features as he crossed the threshold, melting back into the darkened hall. "My Lady."


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