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IT HAD SEEMED like a good idea when he started, Arien thought, hunching his shoulders and cuddling Rowan tighter around his neck as the night drew in. The rain had followed close on the heels of the darkness and it was bitterly cold.
Arien didn’t care. What did it matter if he was wet or cold? He was alone and it was his own fault. Whatever else life had failed to teach him there was one rule he’d known to always keep: never trust an adult. But he had. He’d trusted Mara and now she’d left him. In barely two days she’d turned everything he’d ever known on its head. Now she was gone.
It shouldn’t have felt like a betrayal. She’d explained so carefully about how she’d been ordered away on the King’s business and would return as soon as she could. She wasn’t abandoning him. It just felt like it.
He was due to have his first magic lesson with the others tomorrow. Under their curious gazes he was supposed to dip his hands into the silver flow of his magic and produce a glowing globe, yet the only person he’d ever trusted to help him wouldn’t be there. Even if he did by some unknown miracle succeed, what then? His magic was dangerous. If Mara wasn’t there to hold him back, anything might happen.
He couldn’t risk it. That was why he was out here in the cold, the rain and the darkness. Alone. There was someone he needed to speak to. All he had to do was find her.
* * *
HAWK BURST THROUGH the front doors of the mage school with a crash, ruffling the rain from his hair as he pushed through the crowd of students and hurled himself up the stairs.
“Mage-page!” a commanding voice boomed. “What is the meaning of this haste?”
Hawk skidded to a halt on the half-landing and leant against the windowsill to catch his breath. Which was when he realised he’d left Cyrus outside. Their bond tightened painfully as he tried to stretch it beyond its limits. The rain hammered on the glass; his mage-beast was not going to be happy with him.
Mage-Mistress Evariste raised an eyebrow and descended the stairs. “Open the door,” she ordered, and a student rushed to obey.
A sodden lump of furious grey and orange feathers darted inside, slamming into Hawk’s chest with a shriek of angry scolds.
“A good mage never forgets his mage-beast,” the Mage-Mistress informed him coldly.
Still bent over, Hawk found himself eye-to-eye with an ice lion and hurriedly straightened. “Forgive me, my lady,” he panted, pressing a hand against his burning side while Cyrus muttered dire threats in his ear. “Lady Mara sent me – I need to find – Arien – missing.”
The Mage-Mistress raised her eyebrows. “Then you will need some help.” She looked at the students staring curiously up at them, oblivious to the gaping front doors letting in both wind and rain. Until a large figure stepped inside and shut it behind him.
“Sir Tobias,” Mage-Mistress Evariste called. “Your timing, as always, is impeccable.”
* * *
TIME WAS A great healer, or so Arien had been told, and apparently in the case of Hawk’s former guards it was true. Not so long ago they’d looked at him with fear and ignored him as much as possible. Now they were guards of Royas Bay and saw him as only a boy. Possibly even one to be pitied, scrawny and wild as he was. So when he asked his question, they told him what little they knew.
Which in turn led him out beyond the gates of the palace to a place he didn’t know: the city of Royas Bay. In his more sensible moments, Arien would never have dared explore an unknown city at night, but right now he didn’t care. Mara was gone, Hawk was busy and he wanted to see Irissa. If this was the only way to find her, so be it.
Cuddling Rowan, he remembered the directions he’d been given by the man at the palace gates and turned left before the Shipwright Inn. The dingy alleyway was made darker by the rain and there were no mage-globe street lights down here to guide his way. Shrugging, Arien walked into the gloom.
* * *
“THIS IS RIDICULOUS, I’m sure the boy is in his room. Has anyone checked? He’s probably having a tantrum. How old did you say he was?”
Mage Faron looked up from his deep thoughts. “About thirteen, we think.”
“There you are then.” Mage Alraun folded his beefy arms across his chest and sat back with a satisfied nod. “It’ll be a tantrum. He’s at that age.”
Hawk had never liked the battle mage tutor, and was thoroughly grateful he wasn’t one of his students. Of the six tutors gathered in Mage-Mistress Evariste’s study, only this one was impatient and annoyed.
“Ari’s not like that.”
Alraun looked at Hawk. “You take too much upon yourself, mage-page. All this activity has gone to your head. I’ve lost count of the boys I’ve taught in this school, but I can assure you they are all like that.” He pushed himself out of his seat in a creak of protesting wood. “This is a waste of time. By your leave, my lady?”
Mage-Mistress Evariste frowned and waved Alraun away. “Go.”
The man went, leaving the five remaining mage-tutors exchanging looks behind his back.
“Tell me again, Hawk,” Mage Faron said softly, staring at the carpet and tapping a finger thoughtfully against his lip. “Tell me exactly what Mara said to you.”
Having repeated himself three times already, Hawk practically had the words engraved on his brain. “When I asked where Arien was Mara said something about old friends. Then she told me to find him, that she had a bad feeling, and to tell him she’d be back soon. That she hadn’t abandoned him.”
Faron transferred his stare from the carpet to him. “What friends, Hawk? Who else does he know in this city other than you, Sidony, Tobias and me?”
They reached the same conclusion at the same moment. “Irissa and the guards.”
Faron turned his head. “Tobi, what happened to the witch?”
“Witch? What witch?” the other mages wanted to know while the knight scratched his chin.
“She left with Gedrey, Philippe and the guards as soon as we arrived. As far as I know she never reached the palace.”
Faron looked at Hawk. “Where did she go?”
He had no idea. “She only left Gunnis Ridge to follow Ren, but he’s dead.”
“Would she go home?” Faron wondered. “It’s a long way for a woman alone, but she seemed capable. Tobi?”
The knight shrugged. “Hawk?”
Since he’d known her best he could understand why they were asking him, but what did he know of women or witches? Not that Irissa had seemed to be a typical example of either. She was strong willed and would always go her own way.
“The guards,” he suddenly thought.
Tobias and Faron raised their eyebrows.
“If she told anyone, she’d have told them,” Hawk explained. “They were Ren’s men. When he died they looked to her for leadership.”
Knight and mage exchanged a glance. “They did follow her,” Tobias agreed.
Faron nodded and turned to the Mage-Mistress. “By your leave, my lady, I believe a visit to the guard barracks is in order.”
* * *
ARIEN WAS HOPELESSLY lost. He’d followed the directions he’d been given, but out here in the dark it was impossible to know what was an entrance and what was a proper turn. He’d stumbled into enclosed yards to stand exposed in the middle, knowing eyes were watching as he struggled to find his way out again. He’d fallen through half-walls, taken turnings he had no idea existed. He’d slipped and almost fallen countless times into the fetid muck that clogged the drainage trenches running down the middle of every street. He’d barely avoided having buckets of waste dumped on his head.
It had sounded so simple back at the palace, when he’d felt abandoned and betrayed, and that life wasn’t worth living. Now he was lost in the dark streets and he was frightened. He felt foolish and very alone. Not even the warmth of Rowan tucked inside his tunic brought comfort.
He had no idea where he was or how he would get out of this.
There was no one to be seen in the darkness. Even if there had been Arien would have hesitated to approach them. The people on the streets at this time of night were not the type to spare kindness on a lost boy. He might not have had any money, but his clothes and boots were worth stealing. And even skinny boys had enough worth to be caught and sold.
They said there were no slaves in Wrystan, but Arien had seen enough of the world to know there were slaves everywhere, even if people used different words to make themselves feel better. He’d been in some unpleasant places in his time and had wriggled his way out of some nasty situations, but he’d been prepared for those.
To find that Royas Bay contained the same darkness surprised him. And it shouldn’t have. Darkness was everywhere – why should Wrystan and its royal city be any different? He was growing soft, Arien realised disgustedly and held Rowan tighter.
Somehow, he had to find a way out of this. No one was coming to rescue him. All his life, Arien had been taught to look after himself. To trust only himself. To rely only on himself. It was a lesson he should never have forgotten.
And one he quickly remembered when he stumbled into Night Town.
* * *
“WHAT WERE THEIR names?” Sir Tobias asked, as he hammered his fist on the thick wooden door of the guard barracks.
Shivering in the cold and trying to keep the grumpy Cyrus dry, Hawk took a moment to think. “Huw, Edo, Lupe and,” he paused as the door finally swung open, letting out a wave of light and heat. “Grey.”
The palace guard straightened when he saw Sir Tobias. His shoulders stiffened as he moved onto the dignified presence of Mage Faron. Then his eyebrows rose as he spotted Hawk standing behind the knight. “Grey, is it?” he asked in the loose, rough accent of the lower city. “Seems he’s popular tonight. Ho! Ridgies, you got more visitors.”
He stepped back and invited the dripping trio inside, while the four Gunnis Ridge guards stood up around the table they’d been dicing at.
“My lord!” they greeted in a surprised chorus.
But Hawk had no time for niceties. Forgetting he was supposed to be letting Sir Tobias do the muscling and Mage Faron the talking, Hawk strode across the room.
“The boy, Arien, where has he gone?”
* * *
THE BLAZE OF torchlight came as a shock after the long darkness of the narrow streets. Especially when it was accompanied by so many shrieking, laughing voices. There were people here, many people. Arien reached for his magic, unconsciously preparing to defend himself.
The air stank of alcohol, unwashed bodies, filth and animals. It pressed in on him, driving him back against a damp wall. Even half-blind he knew this had been a turning too far. It looked like a market mixed with a festival atmosphere, crammed inside one of the many rotten courtyards that popped up amidst the back streets and alleys. Morals were loose, people were drunk and everyone was dangerous. Arien clutched Rowan against his chest. Magic pulsed inside him, a beacon in the darkness, and the courtyard fell silent.
Too many eyes turned to stare.
“Mage.” The whisper slid around the cobblestones, a curse and a chuckle combined.
“A little mage. And all alone.”
Too many gazes glinted in the over-bright torchlight as the watchers started to smile, their eyes greedy, their fingers twitching as they reached for him.
A hard hand seized his arm and dragged him through the crowd of jeering faces. “A mage!” his captor cried in a voice that would do any stage performer proud. “A mage has come among us, Night Towners! What price a mage?”
Arien was shoved onto a rickety wooden platform, straight out of his memories and nightmares. He reached for his magic, but the river was sluggish here, the silver tarnished by the cobbled ground.
Then panic overwhelmed his common sense as the bidding began.
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