Shazzwick of Land: Volume 1 (Sample)

Download Samle here: ePub or kindle.


My people have always been. We had not known ourselves strange, until others unlike us began. Those who come and go. We love them despite their transience, and we cherish them because of their transience. Their love for life taught us that we live.

Generally, we are merely adoring observers and protectors. Occasionally, we interact. Once in a few millennia, one of us becomes bound. This occurs so rarely that our bonds become legends to all who know of us—all of nature is desperately curious of them. We do not bond amongst ourselves. For what does not die must not reproduce. We become bound only to those who are unlike us.

The binding requires no vows, it just is. It is welcome to us, but is entirely involuntary. It persists even when our bonds are no more, for as long as we are.

The tragedy is that we always are.

I am Shazzwick of Land, and I write with the desire to tell you the story of my bond, my beloved Magnolia.

Part 0. Welcome to Libre

1.   Collateral Damage

Magnolia ducks. Teon’s scimitars scissor-cross just above her head. She would have lost a few black curls this mid-spring afternoon had the dryad not coated Teon’s child-size blades with wood for their practice.

Amidst the tropical birdsongs in the dryad’s tree, “Right, ribs,” Elion quietly announces the opening that his twin has left for Mags’s blades, “eight-nine,” correcting her grey-blue eyes from tracking Teon’s weapons to their proper target.

She rotates her little main-hand dagger, likewise coated with living wood, to aim between Teon’s eighth and ninth ribs.

Advancing rapidly, she holds her blade steady, level with her shoulder, for Teon is more than a head taller than her, even though he and Elion are only as tall as Mummy’s chest.

“Hey, that’s not fair!” Teon chides, chuckling as he dodges two steps rightwards. Contrasting against his warm-brown skin, his honey-blonde curls gleam in the sunlight peaking between the dryad’s magnolia leaves.

The dryad’s laughter jingles like a silver bell across Grandma’s stone-fenced garden, spreading like the fragrance of her blooms.

Teon’s scimitars come at Mags’s neck again.

She lifts her off-hand sabre to intercept his blades, but misses. So, she rotates her forearm, keeps advancing until her wrist-shield catches the scimitars. Pushing them up, she leans in under them, and runs her main-hand dagger across the artery on Teon’s left thigh, even as Elion says, “Left, thigh— yeah, right, do that.”

“Treachery!” Teon cries dramatically, drops his weapons, plops down against the dryad’s magnolia, and makes a show of applying pressure to his non-existent wound.

Mags giggles, running to kneel beside her playmate, “Oh, no! Dear Uncle Teon, please don’t die!” rubbing imaginary tears with her fist of warm-beige skin.

Even the dryad hops off the low branch from which she has been dangling her feet, still jingling as she pretends to tend to Teon. She is about the same size as Mags, but shaped more like an adolescent than a child.

Teon puts one arm around Mags’s shoulder, pinching her chin with his other hand, “When you get bigger, my sweets, you will be unstop—” and rolls his eyes, seeing that her dagger is now positioned to pierce his heart.

Amidst the storm of her giggle and the dryad’s laughter, Elion ruffles her curls. “My little sunshine, you are getting pretty good.”

Elion used to call her “my sunshine” in elvish, but now that the twins are learning her daddy’s language with her, he started calling her that in the human tongue instead. Teon adores the sound of “sweets” in Daddy’s dialect, so he just calls her “my sweets.”

She grins up at Elion. “I am not that little, at least not for long.” The twins are full elves, just about to enter their adolescent years when their growth would slow. Her half-human blood means that she will catch up to their development soon enough.

“Don’t grow too fast, though,” Teon chuckles, “or you would be old before Elion matures enough to court you.”

She rolls her eyes, thinking to herself, he is always joking about that.

The dryad says, “Oh, what a brilliant idea,” clapping her hands together, making the miniature magnolia petals in her vine-green hair wave as though touched by a gentle breeze, “then I will get to play with babies of baby’s baby’s baby’s baby.”

Elion scratches at his honey-blonde curls, turns his sky-blue eyes to Mags, and his golden-brown skin warms a few shades. He picks up his brother’s scimitars, muttering something about putting things away.

He walks towards the array of glass doors along the House, standing open to let in the magnolia’s fragrance. Sheer curtains wave in the humid spring breeze.

When the twins were adopted, Mags was worried that the dryad wouldn’t accept them. The dryad had never interacted with those outside the family. Not once had she shown herself to the boys, although they came to the Thrake House to play with Mags all the time, and would live here for weeks on end while their birth-parents were away at war.

The night of their adoption, Mags was crying with them, mourning their birth-parents—brave and mighty warriors under Grandma’s command, lost together in the war against the cursed ones. The dryad stepped out of her tree and handed the boys each a blossom, blooming out of cycle to console them.

Those have long since wilted, and Mags is getting better at not calling them by their birth names, Elian and Tehan, for it would remind them of their losses. Their names were changed when they became Thrakes, since they are not nobles anymore. But when she forgets, Elion always says kindly, “It’s all right, my sunshine, it is good to remember them,” while Teon would remind her, “At least make that, ‘Uncle Tehan.’” for they were adopted as Grandma’s children, so they are now her uncles by rank.

Elion has returned to her, offering his hand. “Let’s clean ourselves up. Your dad should be back from Palacio Draconi soon. Then we can, um,” he pauses as a familiar shadow falls across his face, “we can join the city to welcome Mamá, your mum, and the rest of the troops. If we go early, we can find good places by Gate Armonía.”

He longs for the ones who will never come home again, even for holidays.

She knows just what to do to cheer him up. Instead of taking his hand, she beams at him and lifts her arms, asking him to pick her up. She is almost too big, but he is tall and strong.

He returns her smile and crouches to receive her. After she wraps her arms around his neck, he takes her up. Holding her against his hip with one arm, he picks up her sabre with the other, and follows Teon towards one of the many pairs of double-doors opened to the parlour.

Behind Elion’s back, the dryad waves at her with woody fingers amidst the magnolia blossoms.

Mags smiles back, tightens her arms around her dear uncle’s neck, and start humming the silly sunshine song they made together that always lifts his spirit.

Sure enough, the shadow has lifted before they even arrive at the parlour.

The staff bustle about jovially despite the oppressive humidity, preparing to welcome their Coronel Yulania Thrake and Teniente Michelia Thrake, returning for their two-week holiday from the frontline.

Even Daddy arrived two days ago, having come half-way across the world to join them these two weeks, although he usually comes in the winters—now that he doesn’t live here anymore. He was recalled back to Hong’guo (鴻國[1]) eight years ago, something about being disqualified as an ambassador because of children.

Mags doesn’t really understand this. Other diplomats have children, too. Maybe it’s a human thing.

The fragrance of fire-roasted goose permeates the air, along with garlic and rosemary that are undoubtedly being pre-roasted in goose drippings to enrich carrots and potatoes.

Mags turns her nose up to sniff the air. The buttery, cereal scent of Chef Dani making pan pastry. His pâte à choux is as legendary as his roasted goose. Both would occasionally appear in Mags’s dreams when absent from the menu for too long.

The grand parlour is spotless, but warm and welcoming. The very special whisky that Daddy purchased from the merchant by the City Park—the “park” is really an ancient rainforest in the middle of the ancient City of Pensa’dorei[2]—is laid out along with masterfully crafted crystal tumblers, on the low, teak table amidst the firm cushions of plush, purple velvet, arranged on a giant woven carpet made of the softest of wool. The fireplace burns cheerfully, fir wood, by the scent of it, despite it not being cold at all, because it is Mum’s favourite firewood.

They enter the foyer, its marble floor shines cheerfully in the afternoon sun, streaming from the many windows behind the double staircases. The foyer is dominated by a round, centre table of red oak and its marble vase, in which Daddy has put a giant bouquet of michelia, magnolia, and yulania blooms accompanied by sword ferns and daintier greens, all gathered from the House’s conservatory and garden.

The front entrance opens, Daddy starts to enter but stops, his brows lifted, surprised to see them just inside the door. Daddy’s main hand is holding ajar one of the intricately crafted, red-oak doors, blocking the gap with his frame. He has a sack in his off hand. The sack looks just like the one Mummy uses when she travels, even the stains are the same, but Mummy isn’t due back until evening—

“Ah, my heart,” Daddy’s sunny heldentenor interrupts her thought, “did the twins beat you up again?” making her giggle.

Being a human rather than an elf, Daddy’s light-blonde hair is straight, unlike everyone else’s which curls. Although his caramel skin and hair colour are not uncommon, he still looks so different from everyone else. It is not his colouration, since elves, humans, and dwarves come in all shades, from skin like porcelain to ebony and hair like snow to charcoal — no people are as colourful as the Peasnyan races, of course, the kerases can be any colours like gems, and the satyrs any shade found in furred creatures — and Daddy is tall for humans, tall enough to be an elf. It is his features. Daddy thinks that perhaps humanly forms are generally shorter and rounder, their features more angular, but at the same time, paradoxically, gentler.

His eyes, like many from southern Yan’zhou (燕洲[3]) regardless of race and state, are elongated and curve upwards like a magical dragon’s tail when it is happy.

Mummy is always very pleased that Mags has inherited the shape of Daddy’s eyes and her curls. “A proof that she has comingled the strength of both people,” she would say.

“No, Señor Lu-Wah (鷺華[4]),” Teon protests, “in fact, your daughter beat me up, then pretended to care for me before stabbing me in the heart!”

She loves her daddy’s name. It means a heron in its magnificence.

Daddy laughs heartily as he sets the sack on the marble floor, and takes her from Elion with one arm, still holding the door handle with the other hand behind his back, blocking her sight. His hazel eyes twinkling as he says, “Who is this little lady after my own heart, if not my very daughter who is destined to be the shrewdest of diplomats?”

A smooth, crystalline soprano sounds beyond the door held ajar. “Or is she really the stealth warrior-in-training, following in her mamá’s footsteps?” asks the voice Mags has missed dearly.

Daddy opens the door to reveal the two warriors in travelling gear, both tall and slender, with cool-beige skin and grey-blue eyes.

“Mummy!” Mags leaps into the dear lady’s arms, burying her face in Mummy’s midnight-blue curls and their lightning streaks of paler blues. “You are home early.”

Mummy kisses the side of her head, holding her tight. “Mamá and I took a couple Vence’doreian fast-horses from the spoil, riding home ahead of the troops to see you all earlier.”

And so that Elion and Teon won’t have to watch the troops’ Carriages of Mourning coming through Gate Armonía and down Lluviosa Bulevar. Mags nods approvingly and kisses both of Mummy’s beautiful, cool-beige cheeks.

Mummy runs her fingers through Mags’s curls. “Oh, my heart, you grow so fast every time I leave. If this war doesn’t end soon, I will miss your whole childhood.” The firstborn’s purple sapphire twinkles in the foyer’s sunlight between her grey-blue eyes, sparkling with tears.

So, Mags cups her hands around Mummy’s cheeks to bring the lady’s forehead upon her own, and grins at Mummy until a radiant smile blooms to chase the sorrows out of those lovely eyes.

Chuckling, Mummy sets Mags down to properly greet her dignified grandmother, and loops one arm through Daddy’s.

Mags bows with her left hand open under her right chest, “Grandma, welcome home,” and the twins bow in like manner.

Grandma nods sharply, making her cropped, dark-blonde curls bob once, then return obediently to their proper places. Her severe face is less stern than usual as her resonant contralto says, “Good afternoon, Magnolia, Elion, and Teon.” Glancing at their soiled robes and humidity-frizzed curls, she adds, “I see you have been practicing with your blades. Good. Now go prepare yourselves for tea while we settle.”

“Yes, Grandma,” Mags says as the twins say, “Yes, Mamá,” and all three turn to march quickly up the stairs.


Mags dries herself after washing in the bathing closet, within the bedchamber that she shares with Mummy.

Rubbing the towel against her head, she is reminded by the mirror that her curls are unlike anyone else’s in the extended family.

No one has black hair. They are all various shades of blonde, except for Mummy, who has the hair of magical people.

At least her eyes are grey-blue like Mummy and Grandma, her skin warm-beige between Mummy’s cool-beige and Daddy’s caramel. Her features, too, a cross between her parents, a blending of two peoples.

She puts on her robe fit for Grandma’s table. It is her favourite, not only because it is very pretty—pale-blue chiffon silk with cheerful yellow daisies embroidered at the hem—but because it is from Grand-Cousin-Auntie Brisa.

When do I see silly Gran-Brisa again? It’s been over a week. Gran-Brisa is wonderful because she would play with Mags and tell of silly adventures that Grandma and she used to do inside the castle called Palacio Draconi.

The door of the bedchamber clicks open beyond the bathing closet, clicks shut, then Mummy’s giggle fills the room that has missed her dearly.

Oops, Mags forgot that she is to wash and sleep in her own room now that Mummy is home.

Mags usually sleeps here. Alone when Mummy is deployed, together with her when she isn’t at war—except when Daddy visits.

She forgot because the last two nights she slept here with Daddy before Mummy came home. Now they are both home, she should use her own room.

Mummy is saying, “What a lovely surprise, mi’amado. How did you manage to get holidays to come visit again so soon? How many days were you in Hong’guo before turning around for another six-week voyage here?”

Daddy answers, a little breathless for some reasons, “I ostensibly came for urgent, official business. The ironically named Prince Lu-Jing (鷺靖[5]) ran his mouth and offended Queen Aestiva, so Uncle sent me to smooth things over.” Mags knows that the uncle referred to is the King of Hong’guo, Daddy’s birthplace. Daddy seems to have caught his breath now. “Lu-Jing tried to persuade your Ambassador that Pensa’dorei should quit fighting Vence’dorei[6] and just submit to her reign.”

“What?” Mummy says sharply. “That will never happen!”

“Of course, mi’amada,” Daddy sighs, “everyone knows that—has known that for millennia. Prince Lu-Jing is definitely missing some sorely required gears in his head. His father censured him, but ineffectively and only for appearance, for Lu-Jing had recently won the king’s favour with some rare potions.”

He takes a deep breath. “My Michelia, I am afraid the long-standing diplomatic alliance between our states won’t survive for long.”

They stop speaking for a long moment.

Mags quietly picks up her towel and soiled clothes, and peeks out of the bathing closet.

Sometimes when they are together, they will start doing intimacy. Then maybe she can sneak past them with the stealth skills she is learning, so that no one would know she has eavesdropped, albeit unintentionally.

No such luck. Daddy is only leaned his forehead unto Mummy’s, both with their eyes closed and their faces worried.

Finally, Mummy asks, “But Lu-Wah, why did the King send you? I thought he doubts your loyalty after hearing rumours about us having received our Magnolia.”

Oh. The missing piece clicks into place.

So it isn’t just about diplomats having children, but that he had me.

With a royal warrior.

That’s why Daddy couldn’t be Ambassador anymore. Tears are coming to her eyes against her will. He had to move away, because of me. They can’t be together anymore, because of me.

She shakes her head to shake the stupid tears away.

They wanted to have me.

It isn’t my fault for being born.

Daddy could stay if he wanted to, even if he isn’t Ambassador anymore.

He just needs to serve his country like Mummy does.

“Uncle isn’t reneging on the alliance yet, but I am sure he is preparing to. From what intelligence I could gather, he wants someone to smooth the matter over as he finishes amassing resources and power, and I am his best.” The sunny heldentenor quivers as Daddy brushes his cheek against Mummy’s. “I have secured an audience with Queen Aestiva a week hence, but mi’amada, I don’t know what to do. Even talking with you about this is disloyal to my King. Yet remaining loyal to my King is to be disloyal to my country, to be dishonourable, and likely also harmful to the homeland of my love and my child.”

Mags quietly gasps at the prospect that her parents’ nations may be at odds, or even at war.

Within a blink, Mummy’s quick-blades are upon her, one pointing at her neck, the other between her widened eyes.

“My heart!” Mummy exclaims. Her blades retract, curving back into the silvery-white bangles on her wrist. “How long have you been standing here?” After shooting a glance back at Daddy, she crouches to run her fingers through Mags’s hair, “With your curls still all wet, you will catch a chill,” and takes the towel from Mags’s hand to dry her curls.

It isn’t cold enough to be worried about chills.

Mummy just doesn’t like Daddy to tell me the things behind the wars.

Even though I am to learn the skills to fight in these wars.

It all feels a little unfair.

Mummy wants me to learn her war-skill, but she doesn’t want Daddy to teach me his skills that can prevent wars.

But she will not argue with Mummy. She will enjoy this day because her family is whole.

So, she rounds the muscles around her eyes and relaxes her brows. That way, when Mummy is done fuzzing over her wet hair, that’s the face she will see.

She is determined to act as though she does not understand what she heard.

Lowering the towel, Mummy pinches Mags’s chin. “What did you hear, my heart?”

“Something about uncles. Were you talking about Elion and Teon?” Just to make sure, she tips her head to the side slightly and makes her eyes smile in just the way that they do when she thinks about the twins. “They should be ready for tea soon.”

Mummy chuckles as though relieved, “Well, you better get ready and join them, then,” but behind her, Daddy’s eyes narrow for a fraction of a second, then the corners of his lips twitch twice—as though he almost smiled but refrained.

“Mummy, can I sleep here with you and Daddy tonight? Tomorrow I will sleep in my own room, promise.”

“Of course, my heart,” Mummy glances at Daddy with a twinkle in her eyes, “I am sure Daddy and I would have time together between tea and dinner, while you have your lessons,” making Daddy blush.

Mags and Mummy both giggle at his embarrassment. Mummy always teases him like this, because Yan’zhouians are very shy about nudity and things pertaining to intimacy, so everyone has to remember to wear clothes when he visits.

Mummy stands, puts a hand on Mags’s back, guiding her to the door. “Now go join Elion and Teon, Daddy and I will be down shortly for tea.”

Mags walks down the portrait-lined corridor to Elion and Teon’s rooms, wondering where she can learn how to keep from gasping in surprise.


Tea has been set in the conservatory, on low tables between wicker cushions surrounding a roaring, stone lined fire pit that keeps the humidity at bay.

The conservatory captures and preserves a small piece of the rainforest within which the City of Pensa’dorei is built.

Under the glass dome thrive ground ferns, fern trees, flowering vines, and of course, Grandma and Mummy’s namesakes—yulania trees and michelia shrubs, both blooming. These could be planted here because they don’t grow as tall as the dryad’s magnolia. The conservatory stands eight-men in height, more than enough to accommodate these.

The middle tier of the glass walls is made of windows, always open to welcome colourful birds and other small animals like gliders, flies, and monkeys. Not many birds are here today, since there isn’t a storm, so they don’t need to take shelter. The faerie-flies have come, though, for they like the nectar of the yulania blooms. Mags sees only the blue, purple, and orange ones, because the red and yellow ones won’t start to fly until next moon.

She sits on the wicket cushion between Mummy and Elion, happily eating Chef Dani’s pâte à choux filled with fluffy cream and peaches chopped fine, chatting with those dearest to her in the world.

Grandma is saying, “Something is shifting in the dark ones’ focus, for the most formidable generals seem to have been reassigned somewhere.”

“Right,” Mummy says, “even General Damia.”

“Woah,” Teon jumps on his feet, “Damia the Victor is gone? Where did they send her?”

“That’s the mystery, my child. No one knows.” Grandma sighs and pinches the skin between her brows. “Best case scenario is infighting or palace intrigues. Despite our relief that this may mean an end to this war, we fear where the cursed ones will take their aggression next.”

Daddy says, “Likely to people less experienced in fighting them,” tightening his grip around Mummy’s hand.

Mummy turns those beautiful eyes to him, the grey in them overshadowing the blue, accentuated by the cloudy sky beyond the glass dome.

Mags tries to cheer everyone up. “If Pensa’dorei gets a reprieve, then we can be together all the time! Grandma and Mummy will get to stay. Elion and Teon won’t be sent to war when they grow up. Daddy . . .” she trails off, realising that if the Vence’doreian army turns away from its westerly neighbour of Pensa’dorei, it is likely to aim eastwards, since they cannot go North or South across the oceans because the curse makes them afraid of water. So, they would go over the eastern mountain range to the Continent of Yan’zhou, and Hong’guo is just beyond those mountains.

Which means Daddy wouldn’t get to visit because he must serve his people.

Unless it’s infighting. I hope it is infighting.

Mummy lifts Mags’s chin up with the knuckle of her index finger. “My heart, that isn’t something for you to worry about. We will take care of you. I don’t want you thinking about these things before you grow up.” She looks around at everyone else pointedly, then puts on a cheerful face before saying, “Children, Lu-Wah has brought gifts from all over the world for you.”

Daddy smiles wistfully, nods, and takes a deep breath.

When he turns to Mags and the twins, he has put on a mischievous grin, reaching into the fine leather sack he travels with.

He pulls out a toy dragon the length of his arm, but coiled as though asleep. Its serpentine form is made of leather tinted to a metallic copper, with ridge fur like that of winter foxes.

It is so wonderfully crafted that a little squeal escaped Mags’s lips. She has never seen leather work like this, only read about it. The leather-craftsmen in a small continent called Libre[7] have managed to infuse a magical ore into paint so that the leather remains supple—but supple enough for a toy?

Daddy sets the toy on his lap, stretches out one long, thin hind leg then the other, and uncoils the dragon, starting with its neck. Then he touches a latch along its snake-like body, and extract one hidden wing after another, spreading it out—for the copper dragons’ magical wings only exist for take-off and landing. When they are in flight, swimming through the air, the wings disappear to who-knows-where.

The little copper dragon is now ready to take flight, its beautiful, emerald-green eyes lively and alert.

The famous emerald of Yan’zhou.

Daddy looks around and chuckles at their astonished faces.

Smiling at Mummy, he pinches the dragon’s right foreleg.

The tune of the silly sunshine song starts to play from its belly.

Mags turns to Elion. His opened mouth reminds her to close her own, so that she doesn’t look as silly as the song.

Only Pensa’dorei has the metal-craftmanship to make combs for musical boxes. Daddy must have commissioned this across half the continents in the known world—had the emeralds cut in Yan’zhou, and the musical box and serpentine frame made here in Gephria[8], then took them to Libre’s leather-masters so that they could use these to make the dragon—across multiple years of travelling for diplomacy to serve his homeland, to prevent wars.

What a thoughtful gift. Mags beams at her dear Daddy. He must have started even before the twins were adopted.

Mummy says with a big grin, “Mi’amado, but there are two children who made up that song, aren’t there?”

“Indeed, mi’amada,” Daddy answers, “and Teon is also an admirer of dragons.”

“Right, there is no child who does not admire magical dragons. Why, then, which one of them would receive this lovely earth dragon?”

Teon grins and points to Mags, “I like silver dragons more anyways. Water dragons are more elegant than earth dragons,” even as Elion says resolutely, “For my sunshine, of course.”

“It is all the same,” she chuckles at her silly uncle, who spoke as though making a vow, “we always share everything.”

“Well, to reward you for playing so nicely,” Daddy says as he hands the earth dragon to Mags, and pulls a second, slightly larger copper dragon from the sack, then a third, but that one a silver dragon with webbed limbs, finned tail, and sapphire eyes.

Her uncles’ warm-brown faces light up with big, happy grins.

“Now,” Mummy says as Daddy hands the boys their gifts, “before going off to play with these, please attend to what we will say next.”

Grandma rings the handbell thrice, signalling the staff to vacate the conservatory until summoned. After footsteps have quieted, she nods to Mummy and Daddy.

Daddy pulls a small box from the inner chest-pocket of his robe and hands it to Mummy, who says, “Come, Magnolia, my heart.”

Mags hops off the wicker cushion to stand before Mummy, who opens the velvet-lined box, revealing a small, pearl ring.

“This looks like a pearl, but it is not,” says the crystalline soprano, “it’s a potion that Daddy and Volodymyr worked really hard to acquire for you from Peasnya.”

Mags grins, she has heard so much about her almost-uncleVolodymyr. The royal satyr, whose title means something like “Prince-of-Dukes,” is Daddy’s opponent-turned-dearest-friend, after facing off in an international debate tournament for youth ages ago.

Mummy puts the ring on Mags’s middle finger of her right, off hand.

Mags lifts it against the firelight. The pearl looks still and not fluid. She wiggles her hand, faster and faster, until she finally sees the pearly sheen swirl, and turns happily to Mummy.

Daddy says, “My heart, this makes you disappear—so that no one can see, smell, touch you, or hear you breathe. Do you understand?”

Mags nods. “As long as I don’t make a sound beside breathing, no one can find me.” She knows how to play this game. Daddy has played this with her ever since she could talk.

“Indeed. It is a potion from the horned people, the satyrs and kerases from the Continent of Peasnya. Do you know what that means?”

“It means it will only work once, unlike the elven magic of Pensa’dorei.”

Mummy nods to Grandma, who says, her contralto as serious as the winter rain is cold, “Magnolia, you are not to use this unless your parents or I tell you to, or if Teon and Elion both agree that you need to—until they come of age, then one of them would do.”

Mags swallows nervously at her very stern grandmother and nods.

Mummy says, “Now, go, play with the dragons while we talk,” glancing at her with mock gravity, “this time far away where you can’t hear us.”


Magnolia’s earth dragon flies alongside Elion’s, with Teon’s water dragon shooting steam at their heels, chasing them out of his territory. Once Elion and Mags step off Mummy’s rug, Teon flies his silver dragon to land on the low-table to groom itself, rumbling triumphantly of its own heroism in defeating the interlopers. The coppers land on the hearth, singing the silly sunshine song to one another.

Across the bedchamber, her parents are talking with the smith-master about Mummy’s armour, its silvery-white components spread on the maintenance table.

This morning, Mummy found a snick in the chest-plate when she was oiling it with stealth potion. Hardly noticeable, the snick chipped one of the runes that are supposed to channel Mummy’s magic in battle, making her blades more precise and forceful.

“The weakening effect will worsen over time,” the aged smith-master says, rubbing his chin. “I am afraid this requires the armour-mage’s attention. She will prioritise and attend to this before Teniente Thrake returns to duty next week.”

As he slings his tool-strap over his shoulder, Mummy says, “Thank you, Master Halian, for coming the same day we asked.”

“Of course, Teniente,” Halian says. “My house would have no heir if you hadn’t saved my son. I am sorry I couldn’t come until after dinner.”

Mummy smiles warmly, “Please, don’t mention it, it was my duty and my pleasure to serve. Good evening, Master Halian,” waving the twins over to escort the smith-master out.

Elion bows politely, resting his right, opened hand under his left chest, a civilian’s salutation since he hasn’t entered military training. He gestures the smith-master to the door.

Teon bows likewise, but with much drama, opening the door with his silver dragon tuck in the crook of his arm.

The smith follows the boys down the corridor, chatting with them kindly, asking about their toy dragons.

Mags smiles approvingly. To show care, people sometimes ask the twins how they are adjusting, but it reminds them of their losses. Since Halian can see that they are adjusting well, he is showing care more sensibly.

Daddy closes the door, comes to the hearth to scoop Mags up, and returns with her to Mummy. “I better be off, too, mi’amada, to attend Queen Aestiva during her after dinner drink.”

Mummy wraps her arms around Daddy’s waist, embracing him along with Mags. “Thank you, dear Lu-Wah, for serving both our peoples, rather than one man who betrays.”

Daddy leans his forehead unto Mummy’s, holding Mags tighter against himself, and closes his hazel eyes for two long breaths. Then he opens them and smiles sorrowfully. “I will do my best.”

“I know, my Lu-Wah,” the grey-blue of Mummy’s eyes seem translucent, sparkling with tears, “thank you.”

Daddy kisses Mummy’s lips. “Don’t worry, my Michelia. Either way, we shall be together at last.”

Mummy’s beautiful face blooms into a smile even as a tear runs down her cool-beige cheek.

Mags studies Daddy’s face, then Mummy’s, then back to his again.

She thinks she understands. At least, she knows she almost understands.

She puts her arms around Daddy’s neck, clinging to him even as he tries to hand her to Mummy.

Queens don’t look kindly upon those who turn away from their own sovereigns, even those who are trying to help.

“My heart, you are breaking my heart. I will only be away for a few hours.” Daddy kisses her curls, turns away from Mummy, and whispers, “If you keep this up, Mummy may start to think you understand what you overheard.” She can tell he is smiling by the way his voice is shaped, even though he is barely audible to avoid Mummy’s keen senses.

Knowing he is trying to cheer her up, she chuckles a little, kisses both of his cheeks, and lets him go.

He hands her to Mummy, kisses them both again, and leaves their bedchamber.

As Daddy closes the door behind himself, Mummy holds her so tightly that it hurts a little.

The dear lady’s breath is shallow, trying to dam more tears.

Mags put her arms around Mummy’s neck, under her midnight-blue curls and their lightning streaks. “Don’t worry, Mummy. Daddy is very good at his craft.”

Mummy cups her hand behind Mags’s head to draw her still closer. After sniffling, Mummy chuckles, “You know more than you let on, don’t you, my heart?” and leans back to look Mags square in the face, the grey-blue eyes twinkling.

She answers truthfully, “I think I almost understand, but I don’t know why Daddy said we could be together at last.”

Mummy takes in a deep breath, sighs as she breathes out. “My heart, he is to ask the Queen if he may stay, to serve her instead of his uncle in Hong’guo.”

“What if the Queen says no?”

“Then, my dear heart, we will secretly move, together and with new names, to one of the places he has prepared for us in one of the safer continents, Jasiri[9] in the North, or East to Peasnya[10] or Tevaihau.”[11]

Anywhere but here, Yan’zhou, or Libre.

Good. Then Mummy can be away from wars to live out her natural lifespan unlike her grans and gran-grans.

“Would Elion, Teon, and Grandma come, too?”

“We don’t have to think about that now, because it is time you go to bed.” Mummy takes her towards their bed. “You can stay here with us tonight. It will be nice to be together.”

Mags lays down as many, many thoughts run around in her head.

As Mummy pulls the blanket over her, the full moon is bright behind the sheer curtains.

Her thoughts stop running in circles as she remembers something important. “Mummy, it’s the fourth moon tonight.”

“Right!” Mummy goes to the chest, to retrieve the potion they use thrice a year. “Thank you, I nearly forgot. Here.” She tips the vial down, then up, wetting the stop. Then she removes the stop and daps it on the top of Mags’s head.

Mags has asked many times why they do this. Mummy always says, “It keeps you safe,” and never explains any further, only reminds her that this must be done every four moons, and is of extreme importance.

Mummy slips under the blanket beside her, picks up the thread-bound book they have been reading together from the bedside shelf, and puts an arm around her.

She snuggles in, enjoying Mummy’s parfum of michelia blossoms, as Mummy reads aloud to her.

She isn’t allowed to hold her books before she sleeps, at least not when Mummy is home, lest she reads well into the night and misses breakfast or even morning lessons. “Because you are a little owl,” Mummy would say.

The smooth, crystalline voice tells the tale of the earth dragon’s adventures when he took on the form of a man, destined to fall in love with a mortal woman.

She is drifting off to see the ancient landscape, when the dragon met his bride—

Suddenly, Mummy is shaking her awake, saying urgently, “My heart, my heart!”

Mags’s eyes spring opened, confused.

There is a strange scent like rotten eggs.

“We only have three breaths time,” Mummy has grabbed Mags’s hand that is wearing the ring, bringing it to Mags’s lips. “Now! Bite that pearl,” her hush voice is filled with alarm, “make not a sound until someone safe comes. Promise me.”

Mags nods, still confused.

As she puts the ring in her mouth, Mummy kisses her on the forehead.

Mummy’s dear crystalline voice breaks, “I love you so, my heart,” kissing her on the forehead again.

Mags bites the pearl, wrinkling her nose as a bitter fishiness burst into her mouth.

Mummy flings something to the floor, picks up the handbell by the bed—two rapid rings, pause, two rapid rings, then the bell is thrown at the door. Before the bell hits the door, Michelia the Fierce is in battle stance before the bed. Her curve blades forming from her bangle to fill her opened hands.

Three breaths’ time.

Half a dozen armoured, female warriors appear, out of thin air, in the bedchamber with their weapons readied.

Mags covers her mouth so that she doesn’t cry out.

Mummy’s armour is still on its maintenance table!

In the moonlight, she can see that these are not just warriors, they are warrior-mages. They all have nearly black hair with lightning streaks, their armours adorned with runes. Four mages’ skin are covered entirely in tattooed runes, even their faces, the streaks in their hair are of various colours. The other two each has grey skin, and their streaks are white.

The youngest amongst them, a grey one, gestures at Mummy.

The four runed mages charge at Mummy without making a sound.

The young grey one looks around the room searching for something, and comes towards the bed, waving the other grey one to follow.

One breath.

Mummy spins her off-hand curved blade to fend off her four assailants, even as her main-hand blade tries to intercept the grey mages.

The young grey mage points to Mummy. The other grey one nods, joins the runed mages and engages Mummy’s main blade.

Mags pulls her knees towards her chest as the young grey one gets on the bed, patting at it.

Unlike the other, this grey one has runes newly tattooed on the left side of her neck, crawling up her cheek, still raw and swollen beside a greedy smirk that sends chills down Mags’s spine.

Those eyes are unsettlingly black. The left one is a deep, cold black like a forgotten well. The right is a cloudy black, dim and lifeless.

The slate-grey hand has found Mags’s knee, making her eyes widen. Taking no notice, it moves on to the rest of the bed.

The hand. It has that yellow colour of sickly people.

Two breaths.

Mummy has disarmed the other grey mage, and is now coming for the one on the bed.

No! Mags bites her lower lip to keep from crying out—Mummy has left an opening on her waist.

A runed mage slices Mummy’s forearm.

Mags bites her lip harder still.

The assailant has forgone the waist that would cause more serious injury, but this will still weaken Mummy’s blade before the House can respond to the alarm.

Yet, after the first blood is drawn, the enemies retreat.

Three breaths.

The sound of the House mustering, shouting to communicate the source of the alarm.

Mags bites her lip still harder and covers her mouth even tighter. More than anything, she wants to call out so they would come to help Mummy.

But I promised.

The knees of the beautiful, fierce warrior give.


The young grey mage gets off the bed and takes Mummy’s blades, as though to prevent her from cutting herself as she slumps onto the rug.

Four breaths.

Heavy footsteps and the clink of armours are running up the stairs.

The young grey mage puts on a black glove and touches Mummy’s shoulder with it.

Mummy vanishes.

Mummy! Mags screams in her head.

Then the grey mage touches her own chin with the same glove, and she, too, disappears. 

The other mages do the same, and all vanish without a trace—except for the rotten egg smell that still lingers from before their appearing.

Five breaths’ time.

Still screaming in her head, covering her mouth, and biting her lower lip, Mags stares at the emptied bedchamber in which she found so much joy.

She can hardly see.

Her eyes are too blurry.

She begins to shake.

Something sharp and big is punching and kicking against her belly and her chest, trying to escape.

Five breaths’ time.

That’s all it took.

Mummy is gone.

The world has changed.

Something bright and safe has gone out of it.

Or has the world always been this way, and the something was merely a veil?

A veil removed to reveal the world as it always is—

Grandma bursts into the room in full armour, at her heels are the four royal-guards assigned to the House this shift.

The guards, that’s why there were heavy footsteps.

Grandma quietly gasps, finding the room empty and the bed in disarray, then she wrinkles her nose at the rotten egg stench.

Mags can see better now, because tears are running down her cheeks instead of blurring her eyes.

The fear that flashed across Grandma’s face is quickly replaced with resolve. Her sharp eyes scan the room, and locks onto the rug by the bed.

The elegant figure lithely and silently dashes towards the rug and kneels on one knee. She daps something on the rug and rubs it between her fingers, probably blood drops that Mummy left. Then something else on the rug catches her attention, something that Mags can’t see. Grandma picks it up and tucks it inside her chest plate.

Mags lowers her hands from her mouth to speak, but is startled by the blood that has pooled in her hands, covering it, and now dripping onto her nightdress.

She takes in a breath to focus her mind, and whispers, “Grandma.”

It is hard to speak. Her jaw has been so tightened. And her lower lip really hurts.

Grandma gasps again, this time in relief rather than fear. “Magnolia!” her voice shakes as she sits on the bed, reaching out. “Right,” recalling that she won’t find Mags this way, she turns to one of the guards, “Watt, please fetch Elion and Teon. The rest, please wait outside.”

After the guards close the door, Grandma takes a small vial out of the chest where the safety potion is stored, puts it on the bed near to Mags. “Magnolia, please drink this, so that we can see you again.”

Mags reaches for the vial. Her hand is stiff, and it is shaking so much she can’t grasp the thing. “Grandma, my hand isn’t working.”

Grandma sniffles, nods, and picks up the vial. She unstops it and holds it out.

Mags tries to take it, but her hand still isn’t working. It is stuck in the way it was when it had covered her mouth, not to mention the shaking.

So, she carefully waits for the pauses between tremors, and taps up at the bottom of the vial with the side of her stiff index finger.

Grandma tips her head, then understands. So, she holds the vial steady as Mags haltingly guides it towards her own mouth.

Ow. It hurts to wrap her lips around the vial to drink the thing. Instead of bitter fishiness, this one is sweet fishiness. Ew.

Finally, Grandma’s eyes focus on her face. Tears flood the grey-blue as she lays a hand on Mags’s face beside her curls, “Oh, you poor child.”

She tries to smile at grandma to reassure her, but her lower lip also isn’t working.

“Mags!” Teon cries out as he and Elion burst open the door and rush to her side.

Teon puts his arm around her.

Elion searches her face, then takes a kerchief to dab at her chin.

“Ow,” she flinches, and regrets it immediately, seeing his fear for her in the sky-blue eyes.

“I am so sorry, my sunshine,” he says, looking lost, then he wipes her tears from her cheek.

Grandma stands. “Teon, Elion, please tend to Magnolia. I must go sort things out.” She heads for the now-opened door, “Watt, please fetch the physician. Pattian, please take two fast-horses, go to the palace to give one to Ambassador Lu-Wah as soon as he leaves the Queen’s presence. The rest, please come with me.”

After they leave, Teon says, “I will go fetch water and balms for your wounds, my sweets,” and runs out of the room.

Elion sits beside her.

Still shaky, she lays down on the bed, curls up against him, and buries her forehead in his robe.

As Elion puts his arms around her and sobs, the something big and sharp finally escapes her chest as a wail.

Her longing for Mummy, her wishing that the three breaths and the five breaths never happened.

If only she could help her beautiful and brave Mummy, but I wasn’t brave enough to help, I wasn’t big enough to help.

She weeps.


Magnolia wakes in cold sweats from a dream where she is covered in Mummy’s blood, after a dozen warrior-mages pierce Mummy with many poisonous blades.

She went to sleep in Elion and Teon’s room, after the shaking stopped, after the physician came to stitch her lip, after Daddy came home to weep with her, and after Daddy asked her many, many questions about what happened in the three breaths and five breaths.

Daddy kissed her many times before sending her to bed, so that he and Grandma can talk with the general and the chief-general, who had politely dismissed the constables who came to attend them.

The moon is much higher in the sky, the guests should be gone by now.

Daddy and Grandma must be talking about where Mummy was taken, and what is to happen next.

She knows they won’t tell her everything, especially Grandma. So, she carefully slips out from under the blanket.

Her stealth skills must be getting better, for the twins haven’t stirred when she climbs off the bed.

The boys have grown big enough, so they don’t usually sleep together anymore, but they did tonight, along with her, for comfort and consolation.

She tiptoes to the door, leaning her ear on it. Not hearing anything, she glances back at the sleeping twins as she carefully unlatches the door, opens it just enough to slip out, and relatches it as quietly as she can.

Walking down one set of the double-stairs leading to the foyer, she hears voices to her right, from the parlour.

The four voices are all approaching her, heading to the foyer.

She sidles down and across the rest of the steps, to slip behind the large marble post on her left, at the end of the banisters, which curves out decoratively, blocking her from sight.

Grandma and Daddy are escorting the generals into the foyer.

When they arrive at the doors, the female with the more elaborate ceremonial uniform, the chief-general, turns to Grandma.

“Coronel Yulania Thrake, Ambassador Qin Lu-Wah (秦鷺華).” After Grandma snaps to attention and Daddy bows, the chief-general continues, “On behalf of Her Majesty the Queen, the citizens of Pensa’dorei, and the arm forces of Her Majesty, please accept our condolences and our deepest gratitude to Teniente Michelia Thrake for her service and sacrifice.”

Grandma salutes, and Daddy bows again.

Mags takes in a slow, slow breath to prevent herself from gasping. The chief-general is speaking of Mummy as though she is no more.

The chief-general taps on the front entrance, and someone opens the double-doors from the outside.

Mummy’s platoon, six dozen strong, stand in formation on the street below, despite the small hour of the night, in full ceremonial armour.

A familiar frontline warrior walks up the steps to the front doors. Every warrior under Mummy’s command admires her, but Ethian the Mighty especially. Grandma says he would lay down his life for her.

Ethian now stands before Grandma, his eyes sparkle with solemnity, and stomps his foot once.

The warriors all stomp their feet once, in unison, snapping to attention.

Without a word, Ethian leads the platoon to salute their dear teniente’s mamá and amado.

Mags parts her lips to take in a big, big breath to control her diaphragm, to prevent from sobbing at the honour shown to Mummy by those whom she leads.


They think Mummy is dead.

Tears run down her cheeks, the somethingis kicking at her guts and her chest again.

Deep breath, Mags, nice and slow.

Mummy isn’t dead.

If they wanted to kill her, they would not have taken her alive.

Grandma salutes the platoon.

Daddy bows at his waist with his right fist on his left shoulder, an Yan’zhouian warrior’s salutation since Daddy is also trained in the Hong’guoian ways of the blades.

Both then step back into the house, and Daddy closes the door from within.

Grandma wipes her tears before they run down her cheek. “We need to talk.”

Daddy nods and offers Grandma his arm.

Grandma smiles with tighten lips, takes his arm, and leads him up the stairs.

Mags listens attentively, but can’t hear what they are saying over the sounds of the platoons moving about beyond the door. It seems the warriors are to ceremonially guard the House until morning.

She sees Daddy and Grandma round the staircase, so she creeps up the stairs, following them furtively to Grandma’s study.

They close the door.

After six breaths’ time, she sneaks over to sits on the corridor beyond the closed door.

Nothing, she pouts. They are either not speaking, or she can’t hear through the thick, insulated door.

Footsteps are coming from the corridor.

She finds nowhere to hide.

A figure rounds the corridor’s corner.


He sees her and opens his mouth to speak.

She puts an index finger on her lips, Ow, touching her stitches by accident, and points with her other index finger to the study’s door.

He rolls his eyes and waves her over, still approaching her.

She glances at the door blocking what she wants to hear, and reluctantly goes to him.

He meets her at the door to the right of the study, opens it silently, slips in with her, and closes it behind them.

She finds herself in a little storage closet, mostly empty.

There is a gap between the planks where she can hear into the study. But it is so narrow that she can’t see into it unless she puts an eye right up against it—Grandma is pacing back and forth, while Daddy is seated in a thick, satin cushion by the unlit fireplace.

She grins at Elion. Ow. It seems smiling would hurt for a while.

They sit beside the gap, side by side.

She leans into him as he puts an arm around her protectively. She wishes she could tell her dear uncle what she saw earlier, but that has to wait.

Grandma says, “Lu-Wah, the child is wrong. She has to be wrong,” her voice isn’t moving, she must have stopped pacing.

A breath later, Daddy says, “My lady, knowing our Magnolia as well as you do, you know she is unlikely to be wrong about such a formative experience.”

“But what she said is simply not possible.” Grandma’s voice is so stern. “No dark ones have ever travelled by magic at all. While elven magic can do that, it can only do so across short distances. Even if we are to grant that Magnolia was right, that some of the mages were uncursed elves, the ones with the runes. The House is still big enough that they would have to travel by magic multiple times within the House to get to my daughter, and someone would surely have seen them.”

Well, there is this closet that seems to have been forgotten.

Grandma continues, “Only daemons can travel by magic farther than that, but they can carry only small objects on their persons,” speaking more quietly now, as though musing to herself, “unless the prime daemons aren’t really extinct. I remember reading that the most powerful primes could travel by magic with another person.”

“We know that daemons were involved because of the sulphur scent, but are you saying the assailants were daemons? Surely, you don’t think daemons can disguise themselves as warrior-mages and have war-skills to subdue Michelia the Fierce.”

“No, I am saying that the child is wrong.”

“If she were wrong, my lady, from whence and how did the assailants enter the bedchamber without alerting anyone in the House?” Daddy waits a couple breaths, and adds, “Lady Yulania, our Magnolia is not wrong. She described the event in too much consistent details for her to be wrong, and you know very well how observant she is.”

After another few breaths’ time, Grandma sighs. “I know, Lu-Wah. You are right.” She sighs again. “It had never been possible for the dark ones to travel the way she described.” She pauses, and says, “Perhaps I am resistant for I fear what it means if they can indeed do such things,” the contralto changes, as though Grandma is smiling a little, or is baring her teeth in bitterness or anxiety.

Daddy says, “Per Mags’s account, the assailants used objects infused with some magic unknown to us. It doesn’t have to be something that belong with the cursed elves specifically, just as the potions we use don’t require us to be horned people. Only kerases and satyrs have illusionary magic, but Mags as an elf-human hybrid can still be protected by it once it is infused into potions.”

“But no one, and no magic from any people, can travel by magic the way the assailants did, except for daemons and the extinct prime daemons. What doesn’t exist can’t be infused into anything, black gloves or not.”

“Right. There is something we don’t understand here.”

They were quiet for a long time.

Mags snuggles into Elion, trying to stay awake.

Finally, Grandma says, “Lu-Wah, she isn’t safe here.”

Another long pause.

Daddy takes a deep breath. “I know. With your leave and your blessing, Lady Yulania, Mother of my love, Grandmother of my child, I will take her with me.”

Elion inhales deeply, tightening his arm around Mags. She leans her forehead into his robe, trying not to cry, lest they be found out.

Grandma asks softly, “Where, Lu-Wah?” She sniffles and the contralto breaks a little. “She isn’t safe in Hong’guo either. The moment she is more than a rumour, the disguise will not protect her—especially if they learn of your intention to serve Queen Aestiva. Where will you go?”

“Libre, my lady.”

A small whimper escapes Mags’s nose, even as something wet falls on her cheek. She looks up at her dear friend, he is biting his lips, tears falling from his sky-blue eyes. She snuggles closer, trying to comfort him and herself.

“That’s, um, an odd choice. How would Magnolia thrive? Libre is so inhospitable to those who aren’t human.”

“Exactly, my lady. There, I will see a dark elf from a mile away.”

Grandma considers for a long time. Then she says, “I am concerned about Magnolia living amongst humans, especially in such a closed-minded place. They wouldn’t know what to do with a hybrid child who grows in knowledge along with her cohort, but much slower to mature physically and emotionally.”

“She looks as a human does in her sixth or seventh years, and is as mature as that. Socially, the Librers will interact with her based on her visible age, and her natural responses will meet their expectation, despite being as knowledgeable as a 12-year-old human.”

“But, Lu-Wah, issues will arise over time. Her peers will see her falling behind in physical stature and maturity.” By the ever-changing locations of her voice, Grandma is pacing again. “How will she be educated? By whom? At her maturity level or knowledge level? I doubt Libre has specialised tutors for hybrids like we have here.”

Elion sighs quietly. He and she both know that Grandma is fussing about the education not because of the education itself. It is her sorrows and reluctance, so soon after losing her daughter, to part with that daughter’s only child.

Of course Daddy understands as well. “Lady Yulania, I have resources and connections, she will lack no good tutors.”

Then he moves towards where Grandma’s voice came from, “Mother of my love, please,” he seems to have kneeled, “please rest assured that I will strive to raise up our Magnolia in a way that you and your Michelia will be proud of.”

“I know, Lu-Wah. Thank you.” Grandma pauses for another long moment before taking a deep breath. “You understand, then, with your new names and new lives, it will be safer for her to never see us again, or be associated with us in any way.”

Mags and Elion look at one another, both trying hard to keep quiet as they cry.

“My lady . . .”

“My son, if Magnolia is correct,” Grandma’s voice is shaky but determined, “then the dark ones wanted her at least as much as they wanted Michelia. There mustn’t be connections left between us and your new lives. Yet, Lu-Wah, I found this.”

Mags sits up, trying to see what it is. But by the time she positions her eye, carefully and quietly, Grandma’s hands are on her lap, and Daddy is looking down at something in his one hand that she can’t see, wiping at his eyes with the other hand.

Grandma says, “Our Michelia, she must have ripped the chain off to leave it for us to find. She wants her daughter to have it when Magnolia comes of age.”

The thing that Mummy flung to the ground before she rang the handbell.

Chains. Could it be the firstborn’s sapphire?

Daddy lifts the thing to his lips, kisses it, before looking back up at Grandma.

Grandma’s voice is so soft it could break, “I am torn. It is recognisably from the House of Thrake, at least Pensa’doreian royals. Such a tie to us may endanger you both. But it was Michelia’s wish that her daughter should have it. A wish dear enough to her that she communicated it despite dire danger.”

She smiles wistfully and puts a hand on Daddy’s face. “Lu-Wah, my son. I will leave it up to your discretion, for you are functionally Magnolia’s sole parent now. If you choose to give it to her, please know this, and tell her the same, that each of us will never forget you two, and we long to have you return to us, even just to visit, if you deem it safe to do so.”

Daddy’s heldentenor shakes, “Thank you, my lady, for entrusting to me your granddaughter. I know, even though you never speak of it, how difficult it is to do after the loss of Ari the Lion of War, now our Michelia. Yet you in your wisdom decides to do what is best for Magnolia.”

He kisses Grandma’s hand. “Please rest assured that I will do everything in my power, not only to raise our Magnolia up to be one you will both be proud of, but also to secure our situation so that it will be safe for her to resume contact with you and the family.”

Grandma nods, smiles a little, stands, and gestures towards the study’s door.


Through the docked galleon, Magnolia and her family follow Captain Kratovil, a convivial amber-kerasis. Her silver oxen-horns extruding from her dramatic, wide-brimmed hat.

Mags follows the captain into the cabin that is to be her home for the next six weeks, on the voyage to Libre.

Her hand in Elion’s, she lifts her copper dragon to shield her eyes from the sunshine sneaking through the door of glass panes.

The sunshine stings. Her eyes are so swollen from crying in the past two days. Elion and Teon’s, too.

“Mr. Connor, Little Miss Connor,” the jovial captain says, “we have partitioned the deck so that no one should intrude upon you, should you decide to enjoy the fabulous ocean breeze out of doors.”

“Thank you, Captain Kratovil,” Daddy says, “for your kind accommodation.”

“Not a problem. The chef charged me to thank you for the lavish provisions. What did he say? ‘So that I can actually exercise my masterful chefmanship for once.’ He was trained to serve Jasirian nobles, you see, until his drinking landed him with us.”

Grandma clears her throat, helping the gregarious captain to realise that she is intruding upon the family’s precious time to bid one another goodbye.

“Ah, I must return to my duties.” Captain Kratovil bows, tips her giant hat, “Good day, Lady Caballero, Masters Caballero,” addressing Grandma and the twins by the false name they provided.

After the captain leaves, Mags looks around the elven faces that she won’t see for a very long time, if ever again in this life. Tears are stinging her eyes again.

Grandma sets down the vase of magnolia blooms, which the dryad charged them to bring on the voyage, and crouches before Mags.

“My dear child,” Grandma takes her hand, the one on the arm cradling the dragon, smiling more gently than ever. “I regret being so stern and made you a little afraid of me. Michelia tried to help me be different, but I never got very good at it. I will keep trying, perhaps the boys can teach me until she returns to us.”

Mags bursts into tears. Grandma thinks Mummy still is and will return, like the rest of the family.

Unlike everyone else in Pensa’dorei.

She hands the dragon to Elion and wraps her arms around Grandma’s neck.

Grandma embraces her. “My Magnolia, please know that I will never forget you and will miss you dearly every day for the rest of my life. I long for the day that we will be reunited, whenever that can come to be.”

Mags’s heart sinks. She doesn’t think she will, or should, see me again. Yet she says this. Does this mean she doesn’t really believe Mummy will return?

She buries her face in Grandma’s neck, perhaps she is speaking in hope, not a falsehood, hiding Grandma’s scent in her heart so that she will never forget.

Grandma kisses her forehead, whispering, “Your Gran-Brisa sends her love, and this little bug from us both.” Smiling through tears, she puts a toy beetle in Mags’s hand. It has red wings with four white dots on each.

Mags melts into tears all over again. This is the treasure Gran-Brisa and Grandma found on a childhood adventure. In a hidden chamber deep in the castle’s dungeon, covered in cobwebs amidst scrolls and tomes long forgotten, this little bug sat on a rose carved out of a large amber, a metallic latch connecting the two. The little girls split the loot before alerting the Royal Librarian. The amber rose still sits on Grandma’s desk.

Grandma picks her up, stands, and turns to Daddy. “Lu-Wah, Magnolia, we have prepared a gift for you. We,” gesturing to include the boys, “are determined that you must have it, even if you must keep it hidden from sight.”

Teon puts on the bed the slim-trunk he has been carrying, opening it to reveal a small, framed oil painting of Mummy, Daddy, and Mags sitting and reading the Earth Dragon and His Bride under the dryad’s tree. Unlike all the other paintings of Mummy, the beautiful lady is not in armour, but in Mags’s favourite evening robe—pale-blue satin with intricate embroidery of her namesake blossom. A gift from Ethian’s wife Sybil, a kerasis tailor famed across the continent of Gephria.

How much tears do my eyes have! Mags rubs her eyes in frustration because she can’t see the portrait clearly with her stupid, blurry eyes.

Yet, still more tears come when she realises that giving them the painting means Grandma must have softened her stance about Mags cutting all ties with them.

“My sweets,” Teon chuckles in the way he does when he wants to cheer her up, “It was commissioned and painted in haste. The artist was quite distraught that the dryad’s tree isn’t as accurate as she would like.”

Grandma sets her down before Teon.

He lifts her chin with the knuckle of his index finger, then pinches it lightly with his thumb, the way that only he and Mummy do. “I am going to miss you so much, but I know you will be well because you are as resilient and fierce as your Mummy,” he embraces her and whispers, “and don’t worry, I will take up your mantel and cheer these gloomy people up in your absence.” Holding her out by the shoulders now, he says, “Your dear Uncle Teon has some big shoes to fill,” making her giggle through her tears.

Teon grabs Daddy’s arm and begins to talk to him and Grandma about the painting and its artist in great details.

Elion sets her copper dragon on the table, takes her by the hand, and leads her a few steps away.

He kneels to look her in the eyes. “My sunshine, I will see you again, I just don’t know when. Even if all the doors are shut in my face, I will kick every one of them down until I see you again.” He takes both her hands and kisses them each, lowering his voice, “Magnolia Thrake, Magnolia Connor, whatever name you will use, you will always be my sunshine to me. I promise, I will grow up to be strong and brave, someone you can be proud of, then I will find you and I will protect you.”

She bursts into tears all over again, clinging onto Elion’s neck until the ship’s horn sounds.

That’s when Grandma gives the ultimatum that if Elion doesn’t leave, she would pick him up like a little boy and carry him away.

It makes Mags chuckle, and she reluctantly releases him for his dignity’s sake.

Elion kisses her forehead one last time, even as Teon drags him off the ship.


Pensa’dorei fades into the blue horizon.

“Where are we going, Daddy?” Magnolia asks, standing by the banister on their deck, holding onto Daddy’s arm.

Daddy has yet to tell her where they are to go. Although she heard it with Elion, Daddy would surely be suspicious if she doesn’t ask.

“We are going to a place where you will be safe from the cursed ones and from my family. We will start a new life there together.”

What about my “old” life? Elion, Teon, Grandma. And Mummy. Are we truly not going to see them again, or only until we can find a way?

She tugs at his arm. He obliges by crouching to let her search his face.

“I have questions.”

“Ask, my heart.”

“What do we have to keep me safe from? Why didn’t we give Mummy the potion that keeps me safe, so that she could have been kept safe? Will I see them again? Mummy, Elion, Teon, and Grandma?”

Daddy’s smile is wistful and amused at once. “Is that all?”

She shakes her head.

“Let’s get this straight first,” Daddy picks her up and takes her into the cabin, sets her down on the bed, and pulls up a chair. “Why did you doubt you will see Elion, Teon, and Grandma again? I heard what Elion said. You two seem to know more than you ought to.”

Mags widen her eyes. Does he know?

While her eyes are still widened in surprise, she rounds them out all the way, and stares at him as though confused.

He chuckles again. “You are very good at pretending not to understand. But you have a tell. When you pretend, you are only using the muscles around your eyes. You need to also slacken those of your jaw.”

She tries, and he inspects her work.

“Exactly like that. Now part your lips as subtly as you can,” he squints at her, “even less than that. Perfect. Can you lift your inner brows very, very quietly? Nice work.” He ruffles her curls. “A picture of innocence. My heart, you are a natural. Keep practicing, in a year, you can probably fool me, too.”

Daddy grins at her. “Now, put that innocent face away and tell me what you know.”

She obeys the first instruction but hesitates on the second.

He smiles his understanding, takes her hand in his, and says earnestly, “There are many things I was charged not to tell you, because Mummy and Grandma wanted you not to worry. What do you think about that?”

She considers. “Knowing things doesn’t mean I have to worry about it. I can know something, know that it is worrisome, but then choose to not worry about it, right?”

“I supposed so,” he laughs, “but I must confess I have never learnt how to do that, nor met anyone who has.”

She happily watches her Daddy laugh. It lifts her spirit to hear his hearty laughter for the first time since that dreadful night.

The stitches are hurting less, too, even though it still tugs at her lip a little when she smiles.

Once his laughter subsides, she says, “But what good does worrying do? It doesn’t help anything.”

He is still chuckling. “Right. Don’t you ever forget that.”

He stands, walks over to one of their trunks, and takes out a bottle of whisky and a jar of the osmanthus honey that she likes. “Come, my heart, sit with your daddy at table.”

As Daddy goes to grab tumblers from the cabinet, she drags back to the table the chair that he pulled beside the bed, and sits on it.

Daddy pours water into a tumbler, mixes in a spoonful of osmanthus honey, and puts it before her.

Pouring himself a whisky in another tumbler, he says, “Tell me the truth, have you noticed this difference between myself and Mummy before? That she tried to protect you from knowing things, and I disagreed?”

“I have seen Mummy turn to you when you are about to say things. Then you would smile sadly and stop.”

“Grandma and Mummy believe that you would feel safe if you don’t know the treacherous currents of the world in which we live.” He smiles that wistful smile even now. “Unlike them, I believe it more important that you are safe, rather than merely feeling safe. The more you understand the world, the more you can keep yourself safe.”

She recalls the darkness that descended when Mummy was taken two nights ago.

Perhaps, indeed, the darkness has always been. Only I was kept from seeing it until the illusion of safety was taken away.

Daddy continues, “I complied because Mummy was the one raising you, for I was not in position to be with you as often as I wish. And as you know, I love your mummy deeply and respect her judgement.”

He brushes at the curls beside her cheek. “But it’s just you and me now, my heart. Which path do you choose?”

She says with resolve, “I will know the darkness, so I can fight it.”

Daddy’s smile is so sorrowful.

“My brave child,” he kisses her on the forehead, “you are a child after my own heart indeed,” lifting his tumbler, looking at her expectantly.

She is uncertain what he wants her to do.

He chuckles. “My heart, pick up your tumbler and clink it against mine.”

“But only adults do that.”

“You are not a child anymore, if you want to learn the treacherous waters of the world, or the darkness, as you called it.”

She takes up her tumbler and clinks it against his. Then she follows his lead to take a sip from it.

“There were many things I was asked to not tell you. You know exactly what those are, even though you are very good at pretending. Now ask what you would, we do have six weeks.”

“You have prepared places for us in all the other continents but Libre, Gephria, and Yan’zhou. How can we move to Libre if you haven’t prepared a place for us?”

Daddy leans back on his chair, shakes his head, smiling as though impressed. “So you did hear my conversation with Grandma then?”

She nods, “So did Elion,” then shakes her head also, “but I know you prepared places for us because something Mummy said after you left to see the queen.”

“Very well.” Daddy smiles his approval. “Although I made no provision in Libre specifically, when I was recalled as Ambassador, Volodymyr and I devised covers for us as the Connors, native born Peasnyan nobles. He put in place the necessary documents and credentials for me as a diplomat, Mummy as a champion warrior, and you as our child.”

A shadow falls on his face, and he looks away for a moment to gather himself.

“The morning after Mummy was taken, after Grandma gave her blessing that I take you with me, I sent a message to Volodymyr’s broker in Libre, who knows me only as this Lucas Connor, as someone whom Prince-of-Dukes cherishes. This broker is even now buying a suitable house for us—not a grand one, just one that is comfortable, respectable, but would not attract too much attention. He is also to identify candidates for a prospective governess to care for you, ideally one who is also an excellent chef. Trust your daddy when he says he cannot cook, and I believe it is best if we don’t have a staffed household in our new city. Can you think why?”

“Too many eyes and ears. Expensive and unwise to spend your resources on that until you re-establish yourself. Also, too much attention?”

“Quite right. Good work.”

But you were the one who gave me tips to answer the question. Well, at least part of it.

Never mind. She understands he is encouraging her to do what she wasn’t allowed to do before. Talking and thinking these things out with a parent.

“Daddy, but the message would only arrive two days ahead of us, at most. We are already on one of the fastest long-voyagers in the world.”

“Very insightful question, my heart. Have you heard of a daemoner?”

She shakes her head, wondering if she has forgotten something from her lessons. Daddy is very good at not forgetting anything. She is pretty good at it, too, just not as good as he is.

He smiles to encourage her. “It is not surprising that you haven’t heard of them. Elves have a deep, historic aversion to daemons, and their strategists are known to avoid using daemoners even in the direst of emergencies. Now, daemoners are people for hire, to transport messages quickly across vast distances. They are expensive, but generally reliable when the price is right, and very, very quick, for they have made deals with daemons, the only creatures still in existence that can travel long distances by magic.”

“Right, elven magic only travels, at most, hundreds of steps at once.”

“Indeed. Daemons can travel across continents within a few breaths, carrying small objects like letters and such.” Daddy sips from his tumbler and rests his elbows on the table. “A slight problem is that everything smells like sulphur after they are done, so everyone would know that a very evil creature is involved.”

“What’s that?”

“What’s what?”


“Ah, Sulphur. That is a volcanic scent. It smells like rotten eggs.”

She jumps to her feet. “Daddy!”

He smiles wistfully. “Yes, my heart, daemons were involved the night Mummy was taken. Though we don’t know how. That’s something we can figure out together, you and I.”

She nods eagerly. “Then we will find her and bring her home.”

Daddy kisses her forehead. “Indeed. We will try our best.”

He taps on her chair, and after she takes her seat again, he asks, “Any other questions?”

She considers a while before deciding what’s next. “What, exactly, does the potion do to protect me? The one I am to use thrice a year?”

“Ah, that one I agree with Mummy. I will tell you when you grow up. Next?”

“Why were you recalled as ambassador?”

Daddy nods wistfully. “Right, that. What do you know so far, and what do you think of it?”

And so it goes.

For the rest of the voyage, Daddy teaches her much about the treacherous currents of the world, both the things that affected them and those that are distal from their lives. But as Daddy would say, “No current is so distal as to not affect every other current by its very ripples”—to understand one situation, one must understand its context, that is, all the other situations.

2.   The Test of the Red Boy

Shazzwick of Land glides, formlessly, alongside Ayaisha of Macrofauna above the piers. Imperceptible to those who come and go, the two observe the galleon approach the busy dock of Libre.

Amidst the salty ocean breeze, the street vendor bangs tin buckets together over his head, “The freshest of fish in all of Libre, my friends!” even as his neighbour follows, “Then top it off with the sweetest of pineapples from Peasnya, off the boat just this morning!” Around them, labourers move goods to and from horse-drawn wagons, unsupervised children roam the streets with rowdy banters, and wives call out to their loves to receive their lunches.

Sycamore is the liveliest district in the island continent. Wagons clomp and clatter up and down Willow Creek, the capital city’s main thoroughfare, which joins the River of Wistaria as it approaches the pier.

This time of day, Wistaria is crowded with the island’s fleet, bringing librium from mountain smelteries to anchored merchant ships.

To get around the jam, one of the cogs is sailing close enough to Willow Creek for a deckhand to shout to a flower-vendor, “Nice iris, Esther, if only it wasn’t put to shame by that smile!” making her giggle.

The close-knit City of Libre has been buzzing about the Peasnyan nobleman coming to their island. The gossip in the taverns centre around why he chartered a warship from Gephria, the lands of the elves. Some say it is simply the most seaworthy vessel for such a long journey, others say that he meant to intimidate the elves into letting him marry a princess with whom he had a bastard child. Some wonder if he would stay, for he hired a broker to secure a house and to scout for a governess to help  raise this very child.

This has attracted the attention of Shazzwick’s brethren as well. Their counterparts in Yan’zhou informed them of the man’s desire to settle here with his child, for fears that she would be harmed by palace intrigues in the political instability of his homeland.

This man is not in fact a nobleman from Peasnya, but a renegade Hong’guoian prince, embarked on the voyage under a false name.

Shazzwick shakes his head. It is not as though his child would have an easy life here, being born out of wedlock and only half human.

They know the man to be an exceptional diplomat and is politically ambitious, destined to be a leader, but is he good? Should he be permitted to stay, or encouraged to leave? Would his origin from Hong’guo endanger the islanders, or does it equip him to lead them against that expansionist nation? What best serves Emet by benefiting the islanders?

Shazzwick sighs. “This feels dishonest, what I am charged to do,” he says in a voice like velvet.

Ayaisha grins mischievously. “Oh, Shazz, you would think that, wouldn’t you?” Her tone is like silvery silk. “The brethren insisted in the Gathering that it be you, and don’t think I am not jealous.”

Shazz frowns at his sister, for she is proving the Gathering’s wisdom by those very words. “They insisted that it be me exactly because I would not do this for my own enjoyment,” putting me in position to take better care in preserving the dignity of the mortal ones.

While Ayaisha pouts, Shazz watches the tall, caramel-skinned man stand by the galleon’s bow, his hands resting protectively on the shoulders of a girl child.

The child’s curls seem black at first, but they are tinted with blue like zenith at dusk, with streaks of brighter shades of blues—the hair of ones born with magic.

Quite striking against her warm-beige skin.

Magic is a mystery to the brethren. They have no access to it, cannot perceive it, and can only deduce its presence by context. Like all of nature, magic find its source in Emet, who made both to serve His creatures. He serves through the brethren in all things natural, but has not seen fit to let the brethren participate in magic.

The child’s magic likely further motivated Prince Lu-Wah to hide from his family.

Magic is rare to those who come and go. Most races receive only a handful every generation across the globe, and there are some who would spare no expenses to steal them.

He asks, “How old is she?”

Ayaisha inspects the child. “She is the size of a six-year-old human. Elves mature slower. We halve that differential rate and land at about twelve.”

The galleon begins to dock, and the man readies his daughter to disembark.

Shazz sighs again. “We shall begin.”

Ayaisha isn’t even trying to hide her glee. She gestures, giggling, and the form of a young ruby-kerasis boy appears, standing nude and unanimated between shipping crates, out of sight near where the galleon is docking.

Rarely seen on their island continent, the kerases, or “the colourful horned ones,” are a race originated from the eastern continent now called Peasnya by this generation of those who come and go.

Shazz concentrates his consciousness onto the boy avatar, forms a white stone in its chest, and anchors his consciousness to the stone. The avatar’s eyes open, he looks up at Ayaisha still in the air. After opening and closing the avatar’s hands to check his anchoring, he nods at her.

Expanding his consciousness beyond his new form, Shazz checks his anchoring from without, and to inspect the avatar’s appearance. His skin is an aggressive true red, with brilliant, emerald eyes guarded by fiery-yellow lashes. Thick, wavy hair in the form and shades of flames dance around his copper horns.

Oh, this will be well received.

Now I must make it worse. He reluctantly clothes himself in an illusion of a robe, in the fashion of the far east, rather than the tunic and trousers that the islanders are familiar with. Now by appearance and by dress, he is most unmistakably a foreigner. No kerases have visited Libre in decades, for the island has a reputation, rightly deserved, of being unwelcoming to non-humans after the infamous civil war three centuries ago—the only war in Emet’s world fought on the bases of race rather than for territory or resources.

He spreads his consciousness to search for the street urchins whose turf this is. They had been coming this way and should be arriving—

Ah here we go.

He steps into the open right before the biggest one in the group while whistling like an absentminded tourist.

The big one squeals at Shazz’s devilish-looking face, perhaps more girlishly than he intended to. To recover his standing before his peers, he snarls, “Watch where you’re going, you daemon!” and shoves Shazz, hard.

Shazzwick of Land plants the avatar’s little feet firmly onto the land, which responds by gently grounding his slight frame.

Seeing that the shove has not moved him, the other boys join in to pull at his horns, shove him around some more, to taunt and mock him for his socially unacceptable form and dress, “Are you an animal or a man? Why don’t you speak?” “Why does your clothes feel like skin, you weirdo,” and “Yeah, is it made of dead people, you devil?” The younger boys seem a little frightened by that last taunt.

Shazz endures the rudeness without malice, looking at the boys as though he does not understand their language.

Meanwhile, he spreads his consciousness to watch for the right time.

He waits until the prince has disembarked, greeted by his broker, and is speaking with him. The girl child stands by her father, curiously looking around the busy dock.

It is time.

He breaks into a run towards the galleon.

“Help!” he announces his presence as he runs towards the trio, the boys chasing after him. He heads straight for the prince, intending to take shelter behind him.

As Shazz runs past the girl, however, he is astonished to see her drawing two blades with her little hands—while her father smiles contentedly at her. He decides to stand between her and her father instead.

The boys pause at the sight of a small child with a sabre and a dagger, standing in combat readiness. Then they look her father up and down, and sneer at his Peasnyan robe.

The leader of the urchins exchanges a look with the broker, nods, and turns to his fellows.

Before the leader speaks, the one whom Shazz knows to be the big one’s little brother jeers at the newcomers, “Oh look, the devil boy has a baby for his bodyguard.” likely hoping to help his dim brother regain their peers’ respect.

Emboldened, the big one walks towards the girl and says, “You, weirdos, go back to where you came from.”

She cocks her head, a corner of her mouth turns up, and her blades flash even as the lightning streaks in her curls brighten for a fraction of a breath.

The big one’s trousers fall to the ground.

Impressive for one so young.

As most of the boys woot at the big one’s embarrassment, the girl looks to them with calm, grey-blue eyes, and tips her head again. “Who’s next?” She speaks as though the language is known to her, but not familiar, her intonation is more fluid and melodious than that of the Librers.

The leader comes forth, bows, “Welcome to Libre, my lady,” and turns his gang away with the big one in tow, holding his trousers up with both hands.

The girl sheaths her blades and turns to Shazz, “That should teach them about ‘weirdos,’” she says in that melodious tone.

He reaches her mind, and nearly gasps. He finds a landscape of strength, humour, resilience, and a vigorous love for life—despite the overshadowing sadness of recent losses.

Now this, this is impressive for one so young, he admires.

He bows. “I am called Shari Lancaster. May I be honoured to learn the name of my saviour?”

She beams as she hears him speak. “You speak the elven tongue!”

Ah, he returns her smile but doesn’t answer, she hears the brethren’s tongue as her native language, of course.

She looks to her father, he nods. She curtseys and answers in the elven tongue, “I am called Magnolia Connor, daughter of Lucas Connor.”


This late-summer afternoon, Shazzwick walks down the busy market with his friend, following the buttery fragrance to her favourite pie shop, and they are to stop at a fruit stand on the way.

Walking through the afternoon crowds hunting for dinner wares, Shazz spreads his consciousness to see if the girls he wants Magnolia to meet have arrived at their mother’s flower shop. Ayaisha and he know this family have open hearts for outsiders, and he has been seeking an opportunity to introduce them to the Connors.

Amidst the shouts of merchants promoting their wares, Mags happily chatters on about baby Timothy, who has started, just this morning, to experiment with throwing and catching things.

Lu-Wah, now called Lucas, interviewed many candidates before hiring a stern but kind-hearted governess to look after Mags. Ms. Valerie is a recent widow with a baby called Timothy.

Being the only two children in the city who are not humans, Mags has become fast friends with Shari-Shazz as the Connors settle in the city. Most are unkind to them, especially to him. Lucas, however, has welcomed him, and thinks the friendship good for his Mags.

Shazz has reached many times to sample Lucas’s emotional states and has come to learn his heart. While he can be overly ambitious and too savvy at times, Lucas means well and wants to do good for those around him.

More than suffices for a politician. So, Shazz and his brethren have been subtly leading the right people into the Connors’ lives, those with space in their hearts for those who are different.

Through the crowded market, Shazz and Mags head for the third fruit merchant on this block, the only friendly one.

They learnt quickly which merchants to avoid. At first, they blundered about, for he felt it wasn’t right to shelter her from the truth of Libre, so he refrained from reaching to determine whom to avoid. So, they received many “we don’t serve your kind here,” or most commonly, “go back to where you came from,” which always amuses him, for he has been here long before humankind came to be.

Not having interacted much over the eons with those who come and go, at least not this closely, he also learnt that he is not to let that amusement show. It seems people consider it bad manner if one is amused by what is meant to be insulting.

Mags stops to admire some caged canaries and their intricate songs. Sold individually, the yellow birds are to be released as the Librers make wishes in the upcoming yellow-moon festivals.

Three breaths later, Shazz’s consciousness senses projectiles heading their way.

He pulls Mags aside, and a pile of fish entrails splats onto the canaries’ cages.

The birder shouts at the fishmonger across the way, “Hey, what you do that for, you old fool!”

“Move, you little devil,” the fishmonger ignores his neighbour and glares at Shazz, “before you bring bad luck to my shop again!”

“Com’on man,” the birder says, “stop being stupid. They are just kids.”

Still paying the birder no mind, the fishmonger scoops up another handful of refuse to threaten Shazz, making like he will throw that, too. “Shoo!”

Mags puts her hands on her waist, “You shoe!” not having learnt the rude word from her studies.

“Oh yeah?” The fishmonger waves the fish guts at her, piled on his palm and dangling between his fingers. “Last time your little daemon looked at my fish, I was out sick a whole week. He will be the death of you. Serves you right, you little mutt.”

She steps aside, pulling Shazz along, as the entrails come their way again, this time splattering across fabric-barrels of walnuts, almonds, and imported pistachios.

They steal away in the ensuing uproar, with the nut-merchant shouting at the fish-monger, “Oh, you have done it now, you superstitious fool!”

Leaving the commotions far behind them, Mags and he have come to the fruit stand.

The young man full of terrible puns and jokes greets him, “Ah, young Shari, I was wondering why this day is so devilishly hot. Then I see you, perhaps it is your hair setting the day aflame?” making him chuckle. Derrick has a fresh joke for Shazz’s hair nearly every time he comes with Mags.

I wonder why he has never made a joke about Mags’s lightning hair, since magical people are so rare.

His neighbour at the summer squash stand, a heavyset older man, says to the fingernail he is picking, “Keep running that mouth, Derrick, and the little devil will eat your soul instead of your sorry produce.”

As Mags frowns at the man, Shazz shakes his head lightly and says quietly, “He doesn’t mean any harm.”

“Wise, you are, Shari. Willy is about as harmless as they come, his mind rusty is all.” As his neighbour grumbles petulantly, Derrick chuckles and asks, “Now, what can I do you for?”

Mags says in the human language, with her melodious tone, “Mr. Derrick, Ms. Valerie would like a dozen heavy oranges and two dozen sour apples. She said, ‘Tell Derrick, heavy oranges.’ I think she thought the last ones a bit dry.”

“Ah, alright. Please forward my apology.” Derrick scratches his head. “I will check them each this time. Should’ve known better with Ms. Valerie.” Then he says cheerfully, “Little miss, if she is getting sour apples, you are in for a treat. Her apple tarts are legendary. Seems like she is making more than one, too, with two dozen.”

Mags grins at Derrick, curtsies after he provides a delivery time this evening, and heads for the pie shop.

The tarts are for yet another dinner party that Lucas is hosting. Valerie’s excellent culinary skills is definitely an asset, but she is proving even more valuable in her understanding of Libre’s culture and social landscape, despite her taciturn nature.

Between Valerie’s guidance and his skills in diplomacy and politics, Lucas has made many new and powerful friends, established a network of support, and is beginning to charm his way up the political ladder.

It is a different matter with Mags.

She has not been adjusting well, nor made new friends, but spending all of her time with baby Timothy and Shari.

Perhaps she would accept Patricia and Alexandra, he sees in his consciousness that the sisters of clever, golden eyes have arrived at the market, now walking through the stalls towards their mum’s flower shop.

At the pie shop, Mags elbows his avatar. “Shari, choose a pie, instead of standing there lost in thought.”

“I will have what you are having.” His ability for decisions is entirely paralysed before a sea of masterfully crafted pies.

She chuckles. “You always say that.”

He grins, pleased that he has amused her.

As they walk with the warm pies in a box, he suggests that they stop at the flower shop to buy something for Ms. Valerie for Timothy’s first birth anniversary.

“Great idea,” she says happily, “I love the Peasnyan custom to celebrate the mother rather than the one born on birth anniversaries.” Then her smile turns a little wistful, “I always thought it was silly to celebrate a person for merely being born, rather than the person who did the hard work of the birthing,” and a shadow falls across her face.

“I am sorry, Mags, I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s all right,” she turns a brave smile to him, “it’s good to remember her.” Her delicate brows pinch to cause a little furrow of resolve. “I will find her, even though I can’t use my blades anymore, I will use my brain.”

Her father has complicated her adjustment by deciding that she will focus on scholarly pursuits and set aside her training of the blades—both for her sake and that of his political career, as the martial is considered inappropriate for females in the island’s culture.

Rubbing at the scar under her lip, she adds, “I know it will be hard, but when all the doors are shut, it doesn’t mean we give up. It just means we have to kick down some doors.”

“I have no doubt,” he says, impressed again by the resilient spirit in so young a soul.

I will help you find her, if Emet permits. He quietly entreats Emet to so permit, and He who is ever present instructs him to wait and see.

They arrive at the flower shop. Young Patricia and little Alexandra are just settling their book-bags from school.

Their mum comes to Shazz and Mags, crouching to look them in their faces. “Ah, who else could it be but Valerie’s ward,” the flower-shopkeep says kindly, her keen, amber eyes twinkling. “Magnolia, right? And Shari?”

Mags nods hesitantly.

The girls come to stand behind their mum and wave at Mags. Like their mum, the sisters have golden-amber eyes and olive skin framed by wavy, light-brown hair. Patricia is very tall for her age, her handsome features stronger and sharper than Alexandra’s delicate ones.

Mags hesitates again, but waves back with a little smile. She says in the human tongue, “We want to get flowers for Ms. Valerie, because it is Timothy’s birth anniversary today.”

The shopkeep grins. “What a wonderful idea. If only every culture knew to do that.” She stands and turns to her workbench, Alexandra in tow. “Wait right here while I whip up something beautiful for the most steadfast soul in all of Libre.”

As Alexandra hops on a stool to help her mum, Patricia says, “Hi, Magnolia, I am Pat, and that’s Alex.” After they exchanged curtseys, she continues, smiling warmly, “We heard you have moved into the Rosses’ old house. We keep hoping that we will see you in class so we can say hi and welcome.” Alex turns from the stool to nod eagerly in agreement.

Mags searches Pat’s face as the streaks in her hair brighten, then dim again.

Between his observations and his reach, Shazz has come to learn that this happens when she draws on her magic. Since she no longer wields her weapons, she now draws on her magic to discern the motives and emotional states of others, to consider what she is learning, or to calculate how to respond. He has never heard of magic like that across all the races. Perhaps it is because she is a hybrid.

She is likely trying to discern if the girls are being earnest.

He sighs to himself, wishing that his friend would be less distrustful of the world. Pat is only twelve, the same as Mags’s true age, while Alex is seven and about Mags’s height.

Finally, Magnolia says in a small voice, “The school says I am too old and know too much to join Alex’s class, but I am not big or mature enough to join the older classes. So, they won’t take me in.”

Pat frowns and turns to her mum, who sighs and shakes her head. “Perhaps one day, dear Magnolia, this island will be a welcoming place for all who desire to make their home here.” She takes the violet ribbon that Alex is handing to her. “Ah, my doll, this is the perfect colour, thank you.”

Mags stands motionless, observing Alex and her mum chatter happily as they make the bouquet together. The front of her little brows furrow, and her eyes sparkle with tears.

Pat watches her, puzzled for a moment. Then her brows lift lightly as comprehension dawns, her face warming with empathy. She starts looking around the shop in search of something.

Shazz’s heart aches, knowing how much Mags misses her mum, Michelia. After witnessing her mum taken violently, she was uprooted from her elven family, moved to a strange city with its unfamiliar faces, customs, and language.

Perhaps this is too soon. He entreats Emet to heal his friend, for he knows very well that it is not too soon. It has been months, and she has made no attempt to make new friends.

The shopkeep hands him the bouquet, it is beautiful indeed—lavender accompanying hyacinths of dusty purple, wrapped with a lily pad instead of paper, tied with that violet ribbon—and very fitting for the governess with a steely appearance but the softest of hearts. 

As he pays for it, Pat comes to Mags. “Don’t be sad, Magnolia. The school is stupid. You are always welcomed here,” handing her a little white flower.

Shazz’s heart sinks as he recognises the bloom.

Not this flower, not this day.

Pat says, “I believe this is a cousin of your namesake. It is called michelia alba.”

With a shaky hand, Mags takes the blossom, a closer cousin to her mum’s namesake than hers.

“Thank you, Pat,” the words are but a whimper. She turns abruptly, bursts into tears, and runs towards her house, dropping the pie box on the ground.

He bows hastily to the astonished mother and girls, bouquet in one hand, scooping up the pie box with the other, and hurries to follow his friend home.

He soon catches up with her and runs alongside her as she turns down Willow Creek.

When they come to the house, she pauses to wipe her tears and compose her face, opens the door quietly, and looks around. Seeing that Valerie and Lucas are not in sight, she resumes running but with the silent gait that she learnt from her mum, up the stairs and into her bedchamber.

She runs to the far side of the bed where she cannot be seen from the door, and sits on the rug to listen for sounds from beyond her room. Hearing that she has not attracted the attention of her guardians, she hugs her knees and weeps quietly.

He sits in front of her, sets the bouquet and pie box on the rug, takes one of her hands, and waits for her to speak to him.

As her grief subsides, she looks at the michelia blossom in her other hand for a long time. Shazz resists the temptation to request the flower never to wilt, for he is not to show her his power at all.

Finally, she turns her grey-blue eyes to him and says apologetically, “Mummy wears, um, wore, a parfum of her namesake flower,” and tries to smile through her tears, “I don’t know if she gets to use parfum any more.”

He doesn’t know either. He hasn’t been able to find Michelia across all the continents.

But that’s not why you are sad, is it. The parfum.

He squeezes her hand sympathetically.

She tries again to smile. “I was happy to meet Pat and Alex. It just made me miss Mummy too much.”

But hiding would only keep you from healing and from integrating into your new city.

Then she explains to him again what she always does when he encourages her to make new friends—the Pensa’doreian children her size always knew more than she did, and always had new things to teach her. Here, those who are her size don’t seem to know anything, and the bigger ones are mean and think she is a baby who doesn’t know anything.

Shazz listens empathetically, but he can no longer deny that his own presence is a hindrance to her integration. With one friend who understands her, she is disinterested to put in the effort to integrate. She is even hiding her grief from her own father and governess.

Shazz admits to himself reluctantly, It is time for Shari to depart.


A week later, Shazz brings his friend freshly baked pies from their favourite shop. She loves the flaky crusts and tender, well-seasoned meat.

Valerie, the austere governess who rarely speaks, answers the door, her straight, warm-brown hair wound in a tidy bun above her iron-grey eyes. She meets him with a kind smile on her otherwise severe face with tawny-beige complexion.

Hurried footsteps pitter-patter from behind her as Mags runs excitedly to the foyer to greet him.

Mags takes his hand and drags him towards the garden.

Passing Lucas’s study, he sees the man hunched over his desk, rubbing his brows with both of his wrists. Shazz reaches and finds Lucas anxious, angry about something unjust.

Shazz sits, side-by-side with Mags, on the steps that lead to the garden from the house, waiting for the pies to cool.

“Why is your dad upset?” he asks.

“He got a letter today. He was pacing around the house saying something about brainless Lu-Jing trying to take over the world.”

Lu-Wah must have received news from home, then. He asks, “Who’s that?” despite knowing the recent power shift in Hong’guo.

“That’s Dad’s cousin. I have never met him, but I think it is safe to say that Dad doesn’t like him.” She chuckles as she blows at her pie to cool it.

Shazz spreads his consciousness to Lucas’s desk, finds the letter, and reads the scroll without unrolling it.

Addressing dear Older Brother, the anonymous author reported, cryptically, that he has decided to surrender his title, wealth, and the family’s manor in the capital city—as a “consolation gift” to their poor cousin, who has lost all four of his brothers to a series of “tragic accidents” in the past month, making him the Crown Prince of Hong’guo. The author reports that he now resides in the same lakeside village where Older Brother had broken a little finger during a childhood summer vacation. Then he provided a detailed list of the family’s surrendered wealth, in a long paragraph with uncharacteristically poor grammar.

Shazz sighs. Lu-Wah has only one sibling, a younger brother. Lu-Yi (鷺逸[12]) has gone into hiding, and didn’t even want to put into writing where to. I guess it is a good thing that Lu-Wah has already forfeited his right to the line of succession by disappearing, or he would have been likewise targeted—

He hears Mags giggle.

The peas by the steps are flowering, their curly tendrils wave in the wind. She is giggling as she disentangles a tendril from his left horn.

He refocuses his mind to his dreaded mission for the day.

He smiles at her, wistfully, steeling his heart.

I am very sorry to have to do this. You need to integrate with those who are like you, those who come and go.

After the pies.

“Shari, why are you sad?” she asks as the lightning streaks in her curls brighten.

He puts on a brave face. “I will tell you after we eat.” And putting action to his words, he begins to eat. Despite her love for well-crafted food, she has a tendency to neglect eating when her mind is preoccupied. He is afraid that she wouldn’t eat for a while after this conversation that he wishes didn’t have to happen.

She eats her favourite pie with uncharacteristic slowness. He knows that she is eating slowly not because the pie is hot, but because she is dreading what he will say.

When she finishes, she stares at the empty napkin for a long moment before turning her eyes to him, her lightning streaks glowing and dimming all the while.

He brushes a pastry flake from her chin, mastering his own reluctance to say what he must. “My sister is coming to fetch me for a voyage.”

She freezes.

Then she turns her eyes slowly to stare at the empty napkin again. A few breaths later, tears fall on the napkin.

He reaches and finds fear, loss, and pain—disproportionate to bidding a friend farewell.

“Mags, please don’t be sad. I will see you again, I promise, I just don’t know when.”

His words have made it worse. She buries her face in her hands and cries pitifully.

He wrings his hands helplessly. Each of her sob wrenches at his heart. He looks around the garden as though he may find some ideas, some things, somewhere, to ease her pain.

Finding nothing of the sort, he gets up from the step, kneels before her, and gently tugs at the hands covering her face, trying to catch her eyes. “Please tell me why you are so sad, even though I promised I will return.”

When she finally lowers her hands, she only looks at him with those doleful grey-blue eyes, like a thundercloud darkening the brightest of days, as she struggles for breath.

Finally, she says between sobs, “What you said. That’s what Elion said. He promised I would see him again, but he didn’t know when.”

Elion. One of her mum’s preadolescent twin brothers. She told him that Elion and Teon would care for her when her mum and grandma were away at war.

She wipes at her tears.

He takes her hand, and quietly requests her diaphragm to calm its spasm, so that she can breathe more easily. He may be powerless to ease the pain he stirred up by reopening a wound still healing, but it is within his power to help her breathe.

Her sobs ease, yet tears continue to run down her cheeks. “Elion promised, too. But it has been months. I don’t see him.” She gestures with her little hand that is not in his, as though inviting him to look around to see that Elion is indeed absent. “I don’t see Elion. I don’t see Teon. I don’t see Grandma.” Her diaphragm is now refusing to indulge his previous request. She whimpers as her sobs return to choke her words, “And I don’t see Mummy!”

She is breaking his heart.

“I see Daddy. I see you. And Ms. Valerie and baby Timmy.” She closes her eyes in pain. “Now you tell me the same thing.”

His own vision is becoming blurred with tears.

He steels himself again. To heal, she needs to connect with her new home.

“Mags, I am sorry to go, too,” he says gently, leaning his forehead against hers. This has always cheered her up when her losses have haunted her usually-cheerful spirit. “Please forgive me for making you sad. But I promise, I will see you again.”

I will return to you. And I will help you find your mum. He entreats, again, that Emet would permit him to do so, for he longs to lift the shadow darkening the brightest of mortal souls.


Shazzwick of Land spreads his consciousness, as is his custom, across the land that he is charged to care for, to ensure that all is well with the folks and those who are dependent on the land.

It is a quiet night across the continent, so his consciousness lingers on his little friend in Elmsborough, the district at the heart of the City of Libre.

At the dinner table, to Valerie’s dismay, both father and daughter are picking at their food. Even baby Timothy is eating more than they are, despite still learning to grip and eat solid food, with most of it ending up on the floor.

As soon as Valerie puts down her fork, Lucas stops pretending to eat. He thanks her for dinner and stands, gesturing for Mags to follow him.

Despondent little feet follow preoccupied ones into Lucas’s study.

Shazz has hoped that Lucas would notice Mags’s distress, but from his reach, Lucas is too engrossed in Lu-Yi’s situation and what it means for them.

Gesturing for Mags to sit at a sofa, Lucas mixes water and honey in a tumbler, and pours a Gephrian whisky into another. He sits by her and sets the drinks down on the short table beside Lu-Yi’s letter.

“My heart,” he says in the human tongue as is part of her training, “read the letter, it is from Uncle Lu-Yi. Then we will discuss.”

Even without reaching, Shazz can see Mags struggling whether to tell her dad about Shari’s departure.

Then it is decided for her, for she has failed to contain her tears.

Lucas’s brows lift. Putting his arm around her little shoulder, he asks softly, “Hey, hey, what’s wrong, my heart?”

She says to the hands she is wringing, one hand pulling at the fingers of the other, “Shari says his sister is coming to take him away.”

“Oh, dear,” Lucas breathes. He draws her closer and kisses her curls.

Shazz sighs in relief, glad that Lucas is not too preoccupied to make time for her grief.

After a few breaths, Lucas asks, “My heart, why do you think his sister is to take him away?”

She turns to him dolefully. “He can only be here on his own for so long, someone has to look after him.”

“Do you think he should stay if we look after him?”

“No,” she shakes her head, “if the school won’t take me, they will never take him. And he should be with his family.”

“But it doesn’t make it any less sad, does it?”

“No,” she whimpers and buries her face in her dad’s tunic.

Lucas tightens his arm around her and kisses her curls some more.

After a long moment, she wipes her eyes and reaches for the letter.

“My heart, we don’t have to talk about this now, we can wait till—”

“It’s all right, Daddy,” she turns a tentative smile to him, “Uncle Lu-Yi is family, too, even though I have never met him. I want to see what he wrote us.”

She reads the letter slowly, for the human language is less familiar to her. Then she sets it down, rubbing her lips with her knuckles, the lightning streaks in her curls gently glow as she considers.

A long moment later, she says, “He doesn’t mean what he wrote.”

Lucas smiles. “Oh?”

“The ‘accidents’ and the ‘gifts,’ they were not really accidents or gifts, were they?”

“No, indeed. Why do you think he wrote that, and why did he not name the place where he now lives?”

“He is afraid someone else would find or read the letter. But you know where the place is, right?”

“Quite right. And I do.”

“Good,” her smile is still so sorrowful, “so we can still find him or write him.”

“What do you think I should write him?”

“If his letter found us, you must have told him where we are now, and who we are presenting to be?”

“No, my heart, the letter came to us through multiple blind intermediaries.”

She tips her head.

“That means it passes through a series of people paid to not remember where the letter came from or where it went.”

“Ah, I see. Will it be safe to tell him?”

“I think so, but before I write him, I want to talk to you about our future. If you agree with my plan, I will invite him to join us here.”

“That would be wonderful, Daddy,” her face brightens, “I have always wanted to meet Uncle Lu-Yi, with his books, war games, and swords. It would be so nice to have more family here, too.”

“He would adore you.” Lucas ruffles her curls. “Lu-Yi has always been more scholarly than the rest of us, while being so very good with his swords.” Then he takes a deep breath. “My heart, his letter made me realise that our plan to stay anonymous would not be sustainable. There is a hidden message in his last paragraph using the encryption we developed—”

Ah, the long paragraph with poor grammar.

She tips her head in question again.

Lucas says the word in elvish, then explains, “that means a secret code that only he and I understand.” After she nods, he continues, “Lu-Yi plans to start cultivating a martial force in the scholar-ruled state where he now lives, as well as the surrounding region. So that they can resist Lu-Jing’s expansionist ambitions when the crown-prince comes into power. But he believes that his time will be short, that Lu-Jing will hunt him down—and me—as soon as he takes the throne.”

“What does it mean for us, Daddy?”

“It means we can’t just try to keep ourselves safe and have a new life, because Lu-Jing will bring war all across Yan’zhou, and it will not stay there. My heart, war will find us here, and we mustn’t be found unprepared.” He takes her little hand in his. “To keep you safe, we cannot be contend with just making a place for us in this society, but we have to put ourselves in position to wield power. That way, when the time comes, it isn’t just you and me and Libre against Hong’guo’s King Lu-Jing, but we can influence nations to face him together.”

The front of her brows lifts in concerns, the streaks in her hair grow bright, then dim again. Shazz sees her anxiety rising in his reach.

Wars have already taken so much from her, and she was hoping that her new life would be freed from them.

As her lightning streaks calm to its usual light-blue, Shazz tilts his head. His reach finds a brightness, a hope, arising in the resilient landscape of her mind.

“Daddy, if you become influential here, maybe it will help us find Mummy, too.”

Shazz’s heart warm with thankfulness and astonishment. Emet is helping his friend heal, after creating in her a spirit so bright and persevering.

“My heart, ‘we.’ If we become influential. Even if I must be the face, at least at first, because of how the Librers view females, we shall do this together. You and me. We will find Mummy and we will keep you safe—from the dark ones, from Lu-Jing, and from wars.”

“Maybe with Uncle Lu-Yi, too?”

“I will try, my heart, but I doubt he would come. He is determined to resist Lu-Jing where he is, but I will try my best.”

“Shazz,” says the bass voice of Shardite of Ore, “my brother.”

Shazz lingers beside the brightest of mortal spirits a moment longer than he should, before turning his consciousness to his youngest brother.

He finds Shardite most concentrated at the largest librium mine of the island, with his consciousness spread across a highly productive slope mine.

“Shardite.” Shazz presents himself, reaches, and finds his brother concerned.

“Brother, the profit is too good as the wars continue to drive librium prices up,” Shardite says, “it is very concerning how aggressively the islanders are mining.”

“Are you afraid they would deplete this resource?” Shazz asks, surprised, for the land itself is made mostly of librium. It is called the Ore of Wars, for its magical property allows its alloy to make the fastest and most precise weapons.

“No, it is plentiful. I am afraid the Librers haven’t considered how fuelling the wars may eventually bring the wars home to the defenceless island.” Shardite sighs. “Someone is going to figure out it is cheaper to send a navy to claim the whole islandful, than to keep paying the Librers for it.”

“Is there a particular patron you are concerned about?” Shazz asks, dreading the answers he fears he may already know.

“Pensa’dorei has started slowing down its orders this past year, while Vence’dorei is not—at least based on what I can deduce with Caryte of Ore of Gephria. The most concerning is that Yan’zhou is ramping up its orders, too, from multiple states.”

Preparation for wars.

“Shardite, you should bring this up in the Gathering next week, when we will discuss the conclusion of my interaction with the renegade prince from Yan’zhou.” Shazz sighs, saddened both by bidding Magnolia goodbye and the brewing wars across the strait. “To provide more information for the brethren to discuss if further intervention is wise or permitted.”

Shardite says, “I want to propose we shield most of the financially viable librium from discovery.”

Shazz nods. “I believe that is wise, and that Emet will permit. It will serve not only Libre but the rest of the world, especially since the economic incentives are too great for us to fruitfully intervene through social interactions.”


Mags and Lucas come to the dock to see Shazz off.

Beside him, Ayaisha of Macrofauna stands in her usual amethyst kerasis avatar—diminutive and plump with lavender skin, deep-violet eyes, and violet-black horns curl amidst dark-purple hair, cropped close to her scalp. “Thank you, Mr. Connor, little Magnolia, for taking care of my tiny little brother.”

Shazz frowns at his sister before presenting his parting gift to Mags.

In a red, wooden box tied with a yellow ribbon, Mags finds a necklace with a matted, white-silver pendant.

“It is a replica of my left horn, which you said you like better than the right one—even though I think they look the same,” he chuckles as he explains.

After he puts the necklace on her, she holds the pendant in her hand and looks down at it for a moment, then begins to cry.

He holds on to her hand for as long as he can, until Ayaisha physically drags him onto the ship.

He stands with Ayaisha by the railing as the ship pulls from the dock. Lucas has picked Mags up, and both watch them as they draw farther and farther away, until Shazz knows that even her half-elven senses can’t see them any longer.

Ayaisha says to the captain, “Thank you, Alejandro. We will be off now.”

The topaz kerasis captain grins at her, “Farewell, Gran-Grand Auntie,” and embraces her.

Shazz smiles at Alejandro. Ayaisha is always so happy to see him, for he is great grandchild to one of the siblings of Ayaisha’s bond, Kalyre, who is no more.

Ayaisha returns his embrace before she and Shazz dismiss their avatars.

When she begins to spread her consciousness to return to Libre, Shazz says, “Let’s take the long way home.”

She looks at him empathetically and nods.

They glide, formlessly, towards the island they are charged to care for.

Having passed the dock, they glide above Willow Creek, and he watches Lucas walk down the street with Mags sobbing in his arms.

Despite his heavy heart, Shazz is glad that she isn’t hiding her grief from her father this time.

He asks, “Ayaisha, would you please fashion another avatar like that for me, but not as a child?”

Ayaisha says gently, “Yes, brother. I am sorry you have to leave her.”

“It is for her good,” he whispers.


Shazz receives news that Alejandro’s ship was viciously attacked beyond the range of his island brethren, and was found adrift with no survivors.

While he sits with Ayaisha to comfort her, he spreads his consciousness to Lucas, watching empathetically as the man born Qing Lu-Wah struggle, after receiving the news, whether to tell his daughter. After discussing with Valerie, Lucas decides that he will tell Mags once she is older and has made new friends.

In the years that follow, as Shazz cares for the land and its inhabitants, he finds that the spread of his consciousness often lingers where she is for longer than he ought.

He has asked Emet many times, but He seems not to be displeased—perhaps, even a little pleased, which baffles him very much. When he asks Cath of Land of Gephria, the First Brother, Cath just smiles at him and does not answer.

So it goes as she grows, both physically and as a rigorous scholar.

Shazz is impressed when Lucas is elected the first foreign-born governor of Libre merely fifteen years after his arrival—even though the brethren has not intervened after Shari left, and despite his political opponents’ continual attempts to undermine him as a father of an illegitimate hybrid.

Near the end of Lucas’s first six-year term in office, Magnolia is appointed  Professor of Diplomatic History and Strategies upon her graduation, the second female in the faculty body, and the first with non-human blood since the singular race war in world history drove an exodus of the other races some three centuries ago.

Baffling Shazz still more, Emet sends him to attend her appointment ceremony, using the humanly avatar he used for millennia before taking on this one with the form of a kerasis. He expects that he is to interact, for something important that Emet has planned for him, but no such thing happens. He only sits amidst a sea of attendees, watching with much joy his friend receive the hard-earned honour she so deserves, then the crowd disperses before anyone even speaks to him.

Meanwhile, Lucas has governed the island with grace, savvy, and much care for nearly a decade. As Libre grows exceedingly wealthy for its highly coveted ore-of-war, Governor Connor garnered popular support to significantly strengthen defences for their resource-rich nation. The rest of the wealth, he invests wisely to benefit every stratum of society, urban and rural alike.

The populace thrives.

Part 1. When Time Becomes Relevant

3.   An Honest Meeting

This autumn night, as is his custom, Shazzwick of Land spreads his consciousness across the island continent in his care. He checks on the well-being of those who come and go, and to see if his younger kin require his assistance—it takes eons of practice to serve while remaining unseen and undetected. One learns over time how to request elements and forces to change in ways that are easily explainable to mortal eyes and minds.

Shaston of Coast is freeing a fishing boat caught on a reef, but he shall not require Shazz, for one of old is with him. Shaston requests the reef to spread out, while Lysha of Air asks the air to fill the sail. Once it is freed, Shaston should have no issue asking the current to escort the fishermen safely to shore.

Ayaisha of Macrofauna and Shasta of Microfauna are guarding the workers labouring beneath a rotted beam, for it is soon to fall. Although Emet has not permitted them to stop the collapse, He has granted the young sister to prevent grievous injuries, and he of microfauna to styme subsequence infections.

Lyaisha of Microflora and Kyaisha of Macroflora are happily ridding an old, dilapidated building of mould. The sisters are elated that Emet has permitted this, for a stubborn aged one refuses to leave her childhood home after it was condemned, even after Governor Lucas Connor visited to personally entreat her to move into the housing recently built for the poor. She is not long for this world now, but she will breathe easier these last few days and, hopefully, finish the story being read to her by the nurse sent by the governor.

So, this autumn evening is a peaceful, quiet one, like countless others before it.

But it is also unlike any other, at least for him.

He is to present himself to her.

His consciousness lingers on the little house covered in ylang-ylang blossoms (cananga odorata), a local species of the magnolia family. Magnolia planted these nearly eight years ago when she moved in, attempting the impossible task to train the fast-growing trees to climb up her walls like a vine. He took the liberty to request that the ylang-ylang would agree to the training. They have flourished beyond their years and have now climbed along the trellis to cover most of the little house. This has much astonished her colleagues at the Botany Departm—

“Shazzwick,” Daysha of Water calls upon him, her voice low and musky, snapping him out of his thoughts.

He finds Daysha concentrated at the piers, hovering above the calm sea, her sand-coloured skin reflecting the twinkles of the star-lit waves. Two small horns like fuchsia coral stand amidst hair the colour of turquoise like shallow seas in sunny days, waving to the same rhythm as the ocean below her feet.

He smiles warmly at his kin, one of their earliest sisters whom Emet created to serve His world alongside them, when waters divided the land that Shazz was one with.

Daysha squints at him. “You are anxious, but not about how the Librers would receive these refugees,” gesturing to the Yan’zhouian caravel approaching the dock.

Daysha must have reached him, yet he can’t help but his consciousness glances to where she is.

“Oh?” Daysha’s brow lifts, and her eyes twinkle. She gestures, communicating in the oldest aspect of the brethren’s tongue, ‘Is today the day?’

If I have the courage. It was supposed to be yesterday, or the day before that. He clears his throat, “How fare the refugees?” hoping that his sister would desist.

Daysha tightens her lips to suppress a smile, then her face turns serious. “They are in good health, and as well in spirits as one can expect from those displaced by an invasion. They are grateful that Governor Connor has facilitated their settlement, but many are anxious for the elves—on how they would fare in a place so hostile to non-humans should their disguises fail.”

He says hopefully, “Their presence might be an opportunity for new friendships, to heal Libre from the Race War.” Wars have been spreading and shifting. The peace and prosperity the islanders have enjoyed will not last long unless the populous support their governor’s efforts to ally with nations of mixed races—that is, all the other nations in Emet’s world.

While the refugees gather their belongings to disembark, Daysha draws his consciousness to the librium shipment prepared to be loaded onto the caravel to return to Yan’zhou. “Most states across the strait built up a reserve a couple decades ago, then slowed their orders.”

He nods, for the sisters of waters have been tracking librium exports, trying to predict the shifting wind of wars.

 That’s how they predicted that the two elven states would cease warring one another—Pensa’dorei has stopped ordering librium altogether for nearly a decade, while Vence’dorei never slowed—then, last year, the dark elves joined Hong’guo’s invasion.

“Yet,” Daysha continues, “we are exporting just as much to Yan’zhou, my counterpart-sister,” while there is a sister of water in each of the six continents, Shazz knows Daysha refers to Shahday of Water of Yan’zhou from which this ship came, “she says most of the librium went to Hong’guo.”

Her confident voice shakes a little with contained anger. “I could have asked Dayus of Land, if he hasn’t become the way he is. Once the shipments are on land, it should be him tracking them, not Shahday of Water.”

“Right,” Shazz sighs and works on mastering his own grief and anger at his counterpart-brother’s corruption. In all the previous seasons of wars, the brethren from every continent have worked together to reduce the masses’ suffering. Since Dayus’s corruption last autumn, this year has already proven the bloodiest in the history of Emet’s world.

Between Dayus’s negligence and the dark elves’ blood-thirsty tactics, grim reports come one after another—of cities taken with no survivors, not even the aged and children are spared, rampant people-trafficking, the displaced being exploited and hunted down.

And this war has barely started. Hong’guo took five years to absorbed its two empirical neighbours. With the dark elves’ help, in merely a year, King Lu-Jing has taken the last two empirical states and the four closest scholar-ruled states, each more prosperous and well-armed than the last.

He sets aside his grief and refocuses his mind on the travellers.

Daysha says, “The elves must be in illusionary disguises, since the passers-by aren’t reacting to their appearances.”

Shazz nods, although he, too, sees the elves in their true forms. “The two tallest amongst the humans are likely elves disgusted by cosmetic as well.” He seeps his consciousness into their hands to find, indeed, bodily matters of elven heritage rather than humans.

Daysha looks closely. “I see. The one with the raven-black hair seems much better at cosmetic than the other. I couldn’t tell until I checked his blood.”

“Were they in disguise throughout the voyage?”

“I couldn’t tell, they kept to their cabins since the ship entered the water that is one with me, and I had no justification to breach their privacy.” Daysha says as the deckhands carry the traveller’s baggage off the caravel.

She tips her head, for they both hear Ayaisha and Shasta of Microfauna calling for him.

Nodding to excuse himself, Shazz attends to his younger kin.

The warehouse’s rotted beam is about to give, its elements groan, trying with all their might to hold together, for those who come and go are working beneath.

“Oh good,” Ayaisha exclaims at the sight of him. “Shazz, I can’t find a way to prevent serious injuries without making it obvious—”

“The ground is simply not soft enough,” Shasta interrupts, for their time is short.

Shazz nods.

The beam gives, and the roof begins to collapse upon the two dozen labourers moving librium crates.

He requests the dirt floor to soften around the men, while firming up the ground beneath the crates, letting the stacks shield the workmen further.

They breathe a collective sigh of relief. Five men sustained minor injuries, two are more seriously hurt, but shall recover fully within a year without subsequent infections—and Shasta is permitted to make certain of that.

They watch the Librers extract those trapped under the roof, but Ayaisha’s brows are still furrowed.

He reaches the young one and finds her apprehensive. “Ayaisha, what’s your concern?”

She sighs, “Jerry,” referring to one of the seriously injured men, “has a tendency for drinks. He worked so hard to give it up when he became wedded,” her deep-violet eyes are twinkling now, with tears, rather than the usual cheerful mischief. “He adores his bride and wants to be a good provider for her.”

Shazz smiles encouragingly. “This will be a test. He may fail at first, but Emet will see him through, to encourage him with exactly that love for his family.”

“If only we could tell Jerry that to help his heart heal.”

“Patience, my dear,” Shasta puts his arm around Ayaisha’s shoulder. “We will one day. Emet promised in the prophecy.”

Shazz grins at his younger brother. He knows the passionate one has wrestled much with his own impatience, now coming alongside one of their youngest to help her do the same.

Shasta rolls his eyes. “I am still working on it, Shazz, you have eons longer.”

“I know. I wasn’t teasing.” Shazz chuckles. “I am proud of you.”

Shasta returns his grin.

A cheer on the ground, for the Librers have rescued every workman.

Now that Ayaisha’s brow has eased, Shazz says, “I must go.”

“Oh? Where are you going?” Ayaisha’s mischievous grin makes a ready return.

He smiles but does not answer. He knows she is probably reaching him, so he fills his mind with sunflowers and elks—something he learnt from reading on the Vence’doreian assassins.

As she squints at him, he thins his consciousness from the dockside warehouses until he knows she would not be able to sense him any longer.

“Really?” Ayaisha complains, “Did he seriously just leave? That inscrutable one! Who is watching over the land here?”

“I wouldn’t be so sure that he left.” Shasta chuckles. “Daysha of Water has dropped some hints that they know tricks we don’t.” Then he looks around as though speaking to no one in particular, but tipping his head towards the land, “Whatever you are up to, farewell, my dear brother.”

Thank you, Shasta.


Shazz turns his consciousness to where she is.

Magnolia’s little house sits on Willow Creek, in Elmsborough. Both the thoroughfare and the neighbourhood are busy with clatters and voices of post-dinner carriages and pedestrians this autumn night.

His consciousness concentrates beside the great maple tree and its fiery-orange leaves beyond her window, without his avatar.

From the conversations he observed at the university, she is on sabbatical to study the dark elves. She wants to find her mum, and has not relented on hope after a quarter century. Having set aside the ways of the blades, she seeks to learn as much as she can about her mum’s captors in hopes of reuniting with her through diplomatic and political means, rather than martial.

Magnolia flings open a window to let in the breeze, and Shazz smiles at the sight of her.

She always seems to find it easier to concentrate when she can hear the lively city noises.

Her research has been difficult, as the cursed ones are furtive academic subjects, impossible to study from afar. Most of what is known beyond Vence’dorei, the city of the dark elves, are written by elven strategists about how to defeat them at war. Only one written work has ever been known to document the society of the dark ones, but it has been out of print for two millennia.

Four days ago, when she and Lucas took a walk on the grounds of the governor’s manor, Shazz learnt that she was planning a journey to her birthplace to continue her research. Her father demurred that he required her expertise and advice here. It was plain that Lucas was also reluctant to see her away for so long, and likely afraid that she would wish to move back to Pensa’dorei after reuniting with her elven family. The two agreed that she would wait, and only go to Gephria if the first season of the sabbatical fails to yield fruitful outcomes.

Her choice of word alarmed Shazz, for she said Gephria, the continent, and not specifically the City of Pensa’dorei.

This was what spurred him to come to her now, for he is afraid she would try to go to Vence’dorei.

He cannot protect her there. Not only is it far beyond his range, even the brethren of Gephria have not been permitted to intervene in Vence’dorei in the millennia since the cursed ones overtook the city—except for Cath of Land.

Cath alone serves the dark elves amongst the brethren.

Since Shazz bade her goodbye as Shari, he has visited Cath many times to learn about the dark ones—at least what his First Brother is permitted to tell him, which is more than any scholar can learn.

He has come to her now, with that knowledge and a gift.

This is the third night he has come, intending to show himself. He hesitated because he was, and still is, afraid that she would recognise him and be angry that he didn’t return to her sooner. He is also anxious that she wouldn’t recognise him and would distrust him as she has distrusted the world. These two thoughts chased one another in his head until they chased his consciousness away from her little house.

This night, he is determined to interact, and to not refrain for no better reason than fear.

After gathering his courage, he follows the scent of the mature ylang-ylang plants—flourishing in the form of vines and beyond their years, per his request—into her walnut-furnished study.

She is gathering the scrolls she has been reading, from the nook where she has laid out a sheepskin and pillows by the hearth. Many times, he has seen her neglect the well-crafted armchairs and sofa framing the fireplace in favour of this nook. She told him, when he was still Shari, that Pensa’doreians prefer to sit on rugs and cushions, while sofas and chairs are reserved for the aged and the sick.

It feels surreal to finally be on this side of that window. Except for the small kitchen, her study makes up the entire ground floor of her two-storey house. A walnut desk on one end, and on the other, the familiar fireplace, which he has seen many times from the streets when her front window is opened.

She begins to scribble at her desk, her curls just long enough to frame her chin. Despite having lived thirty-seven years, as a hybrid, she looks as a human would in her early twenties, petite with a full figure more luxurious than elves. Her elongated eyes curve, with a shadow of a smile, like her father and the people of southern Yan’zhou, not deeply set with a downward curve like most in western Gephria. As she matured, the streaks in her midnight-blue curls grew lighter, but her features remained largely the same, delicate and symmetrical, except for the single dimple on her right cheek. The dimple is nowhere to be seen at the moment, for she seems quite frustrated.

Over the years, he has learnt the small furrow that appears between her brows when she thinks, and the knuckle that rubs the scar below her lips when she contemplates. This is the first time he sees her do that in private, as she pours over the few scrolls and tomes she could request through the university library that mention the dark elves, which she has checked out from said library many times already.

He reaches to see how best to approach her, and she quietly gasps.

Did she detect the reach? That’s not possible. . . .

It must be possible, for she puts down her quill, eyes searching the room for something. The lightning streaks in her curls brighten, then dim again.

He hesitates.

I wish to meet her again, this time without deceit. What could be more honest than not concealing my power from her?

So, he conjures a sphere of privacy to shield her house—from mortal eyes and ears, and those of his very curious kin.

He summons his avatar by the armchair on the other side of the room, even as he focuses his consciousness to overlap with it, anchoring onto the white stone in its chest.

Then he makes the avatar perceivable to her, and bows. “Good evening, Professor Connor.”

He hears her heart skip a beat. Hm, maybe I should have knocked.

At the sight of him, her pupils dilate and her lips part as though she recognises him, but as soon as he has perceived it, the recognition vanishes. Her eyes narrow and her jaw tightens, even as the lightning streaks brighten.

Her grey-blue eyes fixed on him, she says calmly, using the lower register of her raspy, mezzo-soprano voice, “Good evening.”

“I apologise for the intrusion, but I am impressed that you are not afraid.”

She looks straight into his eyes. “If you wish to harm me, you could have done so when you touched me,” she says with diplomacy, her burgundy voice tight with restraint.

He can hear her heart slowing. Even without reaching, he can tell she is waiting for him to state his purpose.

He bows again. “I wish to offer my help on your research into the dark elves.”

“Thank you,” she says coolly, withholding the warmth he knows she possesses, “but why?”

So she doesn’t recognise me, he can’t help but feel disappointed. Then he brightens, but this allows me a fresh start.

He says, “I have expertise on the matter, and I have material,” gesturing at the meagre scrolls on her desk, “far superior to what you currently have access to.”

“You have neither introduced yourself nor answered my—”

He quickly spreads his consciousness to the depths of the land where he has stowed the gift, and brings it into their presence. Now in his arms is the tome he knows she will recognise by its cover’s pompously elaborate embroidery.

She springs from her desk. “Is that . . . is that the Memoir?”

He smiles, failing to contain the pride on his face. “The Insider’s Memoir of the House of Jarh’ri: Dark Elf Society High and Low.”

“Where did you get it?” She is breathless with excitement. “I couldn’t secure a copy despite searching multiple continents.”

Shazz smiles. “I have my ways.”

Like bribing an illiterate goblin who used one of the last surviving copies as a dining table. 

He walks over, gesturing for her to make space on the desk. She hurriedly shoves her poor, frustrating material aside. After he sets down the Memoir, she draws near and runs her hand over its embroidery as though she cannot believe her eyes.

She is standing close enough that, without spreading his consciousness, he can sense her parfum of michelia alba—the island’s cultivar of the namesake of her mum, Michelia.

After her hand confirms that the tome indeed exists, a beautiful smile blooms, and she looks up at him—just to catch him staring at her, contemplating her parfum. She promptly looks back at the Memoir.

He collects himself and clears his throat. “If I may ask, what was troubling you before I presented myself?”

She thoughtfully rubs the skin between her collar bones, perhaps looking for the pendant he gave her? In the past few weeks, she hasn’t been wearing it. He has refrained from searching for it across the land, for it isn’t really any of his business since the gift now belongs to her.

She says, “I am trying to understand why the dark elves would take a female warrior-mage. They take the male warriors for hard labour. They take females occasionally, but only the mages who are not warriors, for breeding to produce magical offspring.”

“I see why it is puzzling. With her war-skills, they shouldn’t think they could subdue your mother for breeding,” he mutters to himself as he opens the tome to find the section on enslavement.

“Right, we have been unable to gather intelligence on the league of warrior-mages. From whence they—” Then she asks suspiciously, “How did you know about my mother?”

He deflects, flipping to the relevant page, “It could be deduced from the fact that you moved to Libre without her, that you are an elf-human hybrid whose father is full-human, and that your gait is of one trained in the elven way of the blades in childhood.”

She squints at him sceptically.

I wish to meet her again, in honesty.

So he adds earnestly, “I also have the means and necessity to know many things, such as locations of lost tomes and manuscripts, but I am not in position to explain further at the moment. Please,” he smiles apologetically and directs her gaze to the page he found. “Here. This chapter does not answer our question directly, but provides fuller detail than those,” gesturing at what she earlier shoved aside. After she puts a bookmark there, he continues, “I assume she is beautiful, so, here.”

As he finds his way to the next section, her eyes narrow with an unvoiced question.

He glances at her, murmuring, “There is evidence,” and tries to direct her back to the tome, “here. This is probably the section wherein our answer lays.”

He says as gently as he can, “‘Collection of the Beautiful.’ The author discussed how some houses collected beautiful specimens from other races, and the variety of motives behind it.”

After scanning the section’s dreadful headers, she reaches for another bookmark, turning her face away, but not before pain casts over it like a shadow.

Sympathy rises in his heart, hearing her master her breathing.

Then she looks back to the Memoir, puts the bookmark on the page, and lifts her grey-blue eyes.

Still standing but a breath away, she looks him squarely in the eyes. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

He deflects again, “As I stated before, I have the expertise you seek.”

“No,” she persists, “you stated your qualification to help, but not why you are helping.”

He blushes, opens his mouth, but closes it again. He searches her face, for he dares not reach her again. He is anxious to answer but doesn’t know how.

She seems intrigued by his blushing and distress. She takes her eyes off his and surveys his face as he did hers, the streaks in her curls glow briefly. He hears her heart quicken again, and a hint of sadness flashes across her eyes. She parts her lips as though to speak, but does not.

He wrests his eyes from those lips and answers her question the best he can.

“Having expertise in an obscure topic makes one wish to exercise such knowledge whenever he can. However, the reason I offer my help is that I, um—” he takes a deep breath to gather his courage, “I simply desire to help you.”

She almost smiles. She glances at his chest which heaves despite his attempt to control it, and looks back up with challenge in her eyes. “Why then, did you approach with seduction when you touched me?”

His eyes widen in surprise. He considers for a long moment, and says hesitantly, “I did not intend to. I was unaware that, um, that it would have that effect.”

She cocks her head.

He works hard to control his blushing, his avatar’s capillaries are simply not cooperating.“What I did is called a reach. A customary way my people discern how to converse with others, similar to how you would observe another’s body language before speaking with them.

“You surprised me, for you are not meant to detect it. No one has ever detected a reach before. So I didn’t know that it would be, um, like that.”

After she nods to accept his explanation, he swallows, and asks sheepishly, “May I return?”

She looks at him for a long moment, her expression expertly unreadable. Finally, she says, “It isn’t as though I could stop you.”

He scratches at his hair. “One prefers to be welcomed.”

She says in a small voice, “When should I expect you? I shall prepare a gift in return.”

He says, “Tomorrow, early evening, if you’d please,” anxious that he would sound too eager.

She nods.

He bows, trying to contain his excitement, and dismisses his avatar so that she no longer sees him.

She exhales as though she has been holding her breath.

I should leave now that she no longer thinks I am here. . . .

Yethe cannot bring himself to do it.

Magnolia seems lost in thoughts for a moment, then a smile flirts on her lips.

Upon seeing that, his consciousness simply refuses to concentrate anywhere else.

Soon, melancholy overtakes her countenance as her gaze falls on the tome. She runs her hand over the text, “Collection of the Beautiful.” Securing the bookmark, she closes the tome with a sigh, and sits at her desk.

Her hesitant hand lingers over a drawer’s handle. Melancholy has given way to grief.

Shazz does not understand why a shadow has so darkened her lovely face. His heart aches with impotent sympathy.

She opens the drawer, revealing the familiar red box with its yellow ribbon.

He swallows. He now understands.

[1] Hong’guo (鴻國): Literally, the Great Kingdom. Transliterally, the Land of the Giant Swan Goose, a bird known for its majesty in flight, its perseverance in long journeys, and its rich and flavourful role in Hong’guoian cuisine.

[2] Pensa’dorei: “City of Thinkers” in ancient elvish.

[3] The Continent of Yan’zhou (燕洲): the Land of the Fork-Tailed Swallows, a family of Yan’zhouian birds admired for its agile flights and ability to feed while on wings.

[4] Lu-Wah (鷺華): a heron in its magnificence.

[5] Lu-Jing (鷺靖): a heron in its peace and stability.

[6] Vence’dorei: “The City of Conquerors” in ancient elvish.

[7] The Island Continent of Libre: “The Land of Freedom”.

[8] The Continent of Gephria: “The First Land”.

[9] The Continent of Jasiri: “The Land of Bravery”.

[10] The Continent of Peasnya: “The Land of the People of Songs”.

[11] The Continent of Tevaihau: “The Islands in Peaceful Waters”.

[12] Lu-Yi (鷺逸): a heron indulging in its leisurely flight, eluding the bounds set against its freedom.

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