This is a short story set after the events of Storm (Catalyst Moon – Book 3). I love Cobalt, and wanted to give him a little place all his own.
It was a week after Cobalt’s field promotion; a week since his predecessor’s arrest. Talon was well on her way to the capital, leaving Cobalt and the rest of the sentinels in Whitewater City to clean up her mess. At least Argent had sent reinforcements to help patrol the city and surrounding areas for any errant moon-bloods, although Cobalt was starting to think no one would find the escaped mages – or the traitorous sentinels who’d cast off the mantle of their oaths.
Captain Gray appeared at Cobalt’s side as he patrolled The Eye, Whitewater City’s marketplace. “There’s word of another thrall attack nearby. A caravan. They’ll need healers.”
Of course they will. He fought back a surge of useless fury, and nodded. “Anything else?”
“The fleet rider just brought this for you, ser.” She offered the message before he could ask.
“Thanks.” He paused, careful to keep out of the main flow of traffic and scanned the contents. There was Argent’s usual brisk tone, pointedly inquiring about Cobalt’s progress so far, adding to please advise him at once of any issues. Pretty words; protocol-proper and empty of true camaraderie. Cobalt knew well the price of failure under Argent’s command.
The second paragraph, though, was the boot to the balls:
…no new mages sent to Whitewater Bastion for at least a month, if not longer. In the interim, report to the priest, Serla Iban Vellis, in the One’s temple for further instruction.
Gray trembled, no doubt eager to read over his shoulder, but clearly unwilling to jeopardize her new rank with such a crass display. At last, she said, “Is it the message you were expecting from the High Commander?”
The letter started to crumple in Cobalt’s grip before he stilled his fist. Whitewater Bastion’s lack of mages was Argent’s doing. Cobalt couldn’t stand in the training yard without the stink of the funeral pyres soaking into his skin, through to his bones. No, Argent had not wielded the blades that killed all those mages, but his order had been enough.
What kind of man didn’t have the decency to at least try to right his wrongs?
“Ser?” Gray asked.
“It’s what I expected,” Cobalt replied. “Head back, would you? I’ll finish my patrol here.”
She nodded but did not move. “Does the High Commander say when the mages will arrive?”
Something in his voice betrayed his fury, and Gray hurried off without further question. But Cobalt only saw his captain’s retreat in his peripheral vision, for most of his attention had drifted ahead, to the bustling crowd.
Winter still held tight to Whitewater Province. Breath fogged the air as a hundred simultaneous haggling sessions collided with old folks’ laughter, children’s shrieks, and the endless, beseeching cries of merchants. A city, a country, encased within the marketplace. Hundreds of lives so close at hand, reliant on his protection. The thralls would not stop at the smaller
, border towns. Eventually, the monsters would find their way to the heart of this province, and there would be blood.
And he had no mages.
A pit twisted in Cobalt’s stomach. He needed to move, so he strode forward, ostensibly directing his patrol through The Eye’s outer ring, where the lower tiers did their business. But in truth, he wanted to lose himself within the milling crowd, fretting over the price of salt.
His gray, glinting armor always made an impression—although the sword and pair of daggers made a bigger one—and the market-goers slipped out of his path like ducks avoiding an angry goose. By now, he was used to the wary glances shot his way.
But then the crowd drew aside and suddenly, Lina was before him, chatting with a merchant as she tucked a bundle of herbs into her wicker basket.
Her hair was still dark, but threads of silver caught the morning light. Otherwise, she looked the same: curling hair that fell to her waist, brown skin, eyes that smiled. How many times had those eyes looked upon him in lust, in laughter? The wind changed, and he could smell the rose soap she still favored, even six years later. The merchant said something to her, and she tossed her head back and laughed.
Then the crowd shifted to reveal a child clinging to her hand: a girl of about six summers. Cobalt froze in the middle of the crowd; she turned, her gaze fell upon him, and all joy fled her face.
Just then the crowd, no longer intimidated by a moving man in armor, swarmed back between him, and he lost sight of her once more.
Lina’s old neighborhood was as he remembered: cramped and dim, far from the ceaseless rumble of the White River, but still somehow perpetually damp. After several minutes of forced recollection, Cobalt found the familiar door—freshly painted in that blue-green color Lina had always loved—and after an hour or so, his patience was rewarded. Lina and her child wove through the shadowed alley to the blue-green door, but both went still when they caught sight of him
., standing beneath the streetlamp.
Cobalt spread his hands to show he wore no weapons. A risky move in this part of town, but he’d weighed the potential outcomes and chosen to take the chance.
“Lina.” He bowed briefly, courteously, and met her eyes. “It’s good to see you again.”
Lips tight, she nodded. “And you.”
The child tugged her hand. “Mama, is that a—”
“Hush, Sidi,” Lina hissed back. To Cobalt, she said, “Why have you come?”
He frowned. “After you left town, I thought I’d never see you again. Is it so strange to visit an old friend?”
Not friend, exactly, but he had no other word for what she was to him. Most would have just defined her by her profession: whore. But he’d always hated that word, and the way folks sneered the sound even though they often made use of hardworking people, people who didn’t judge their clients, or ask too many questions; people who had known enough cruelty that they always showed kindness. People like Lina.
To his relief, a faint smile tugged her lips, but she erased the expression. “Of course not. But…now isn’t the best time.”
The only thing more idiotic than the way his stomach sank at her words was the fact that he was here at all. His second bow was stiffer. “Very well. Forgive me. I’ll just–”
“Are you a sentinel?” Sidi tugged her mother’s hand as she crept toward Cobalt. She had her mother’s eyes.
Why ask? Surely the armor gave him away. Sentinels were common enough; most people had some idea of what they looked like. He glanced at Lina, who wore the blank expression of someone trying not to panic.
Strange. But… Cobalt studied the girl again, but this time caught the faintest thrum of magic humming in the air around her. Faint, sparse, but real.
“Get inside, Sidi,” Lina said softly. The girl pulled a face but obeyed, leaving Cobalt and Lina standing together before the blue-green door. Lina stared up at him, hands balled into fists, lips parted.
“She’s not mine, right?” Cobalt asked.
Lina lifted a dark brow. “Why ask? Doesn’t the One god denied you sentinels the joy of parenthood?”
He permitted himself a chuckle at her dry tone. “Aye, although I’ve heard rumors to the contrary.”
She spread her hands. “Well, now you know. It was…honorable of you to seek me out to ask. But you should…” She trailed off as he shifted to better face her. “Sweet Mara, that scar.”
He resisted the urge to scratch the tight, pink skin that split his face, forehead to cheek. He’d never quite gotten used to the feeling. “I got this one not long after you…vanished.”
“It looks…” She reached out as if to touch him but pulled her hand back as if he’d burned her.
“It was.” Cobalt leaned against the doorway and rubbed the bridge of his nose. This day had veered wildly off-course, but now that he was here, he needed to see it through. “Please, Lina,” he said before she could send him away. “I just wanted to learn how you’ve been. That’s all. I swear it.”
“You give your word?”
He replied with a warrior’s salute: hands crossed before his chest, bowing low. “I do.”
When he looked up again, something in her face had softened, and he caught a glimpse of the young woman she’d been when they’d met many years ago. Perhaps she saw in him the young officer, freshly elevated from his brethren, and alone.
“One cup of tea,” she said, and reached for the door. “Maybe with sugar, since you’re behaving yourself.”
He chuckled for the second time this day – the second time in far too long. “Duly noted.”
Lina’s home was the same: a single room, a table, two chairs. The small sleeping pallet was new, probably the girl’s. He didn’t see Lina’s bed, but there was the woven wall hanging she’d used to cover the spot in the wall where the bed tucked in, to be folded out when needed. The painted portrait of her mother rested above the hearth, surrounded by cut yellow roses in full bloom. Their sweet scent permeated the cramped space.
Sidi stood before the flowers, touching the petals, magic humming softly around her. When Cobalt entered the single room, the girl drew her hand back and scurried to the sleeping pallet tucked into the corner, wrapping herself in the waiting blankets.
“She’s not hiding from you,” Lina explained as she gestured to one of the chairs at the table. “She just…likes it under there.”
Perhaps the girl was used to hiding, but Cobalt didn’t say that. Instead he sat at the little table while Lina fussed over the hearth, where embers still glowed. Soon, she placed a mug of tea before him and sat opposite him, cradling her own mug. He drank, and a thrill of pleasure shot through him at the sweet lilt of sugar; a luxury he had denied himself for…well, a long time.
“Thank you,” he said, lifting the mug. Lina nodded and they sat in silence for a few minutes while he scrambled for something innocuous to ask that would still deaden the roar of his curiosity.
He settled on, “Sidi looks like you.”
“She takes after her grandmother.” Lina toyed with her mug, then cast him a look he did not want to recognize. “I was afraid she would. You can tell, can’t you?”
The hematite in his blood was a living thing, always stalking the perimeter of his consciousness. “I’ve never been the best at sensing magic,” he admitted. “But I can. Sometimes.”
Her fingers trembled as she gripped her mug. “I shouldn’t have come back to the city. But work is scarcer than I’d hoped, and the patrols are–” She cut herself off and met his gaze squarely, despite her trembling. “If you want her, you’ll have to kill me first.”
He couldn’t help it, his gaze stuck to the perfect yellow roses. Sidi had crept out again and resumed stroking the petals. If the girl could keep flowers alive, perhaps she could heal cuts and bruises. Even a little healing would be welcome. The people of the province would need all the help they could get.
But he couldn’t speak for several, shallow breaths, and when he did, his voice didn’t work properly. “I did not come here to fight you.”
“You’re a sentinel,” Lina whispered. “Why else would you be here? I had hoped you didn’t see me in the market. I should have run, right then. I should have–”
“Is that,” he nodded to Sidi, singing softly to the roses, “why you left before?”
Perhaps she’d not expected this, for some of the panic fled her face as she frowned at him. “Aye. My mother was a mage. A weak one,” she added quickly, “hardly able to light a candle, but still…magic is magic, in the eyes of the One. And you and I were together so often back then, I feared…”
A sick feeling twisted in his gut: understanding confirmed by an overabundance of self-knowledge. She’d been right to fear him, then. But he was a fool and could not keep the edge from his voice. “You thought I’d take your babe away.”
Now she met his gaze with iron. “It was a chance I couldn’t take.”
“No,” he said. “I don’t suppose you could have.” Heat flooded his cheeks, and he looked down into the tea. “But I would have liked to have said goodbye.”
“I made my choice.” Lina’s voice softened. “But I would have liked that, too…” She trailed off and he thought she might say his birthname, but she didn’t.
He glanced at the girl again. She’d left the flowers alone and curled up on her sleeping pallet with a small chalkboard, where she scrawled images he couldn’t make out. Just like any other kid, he couldn’t help but think, although he hadn’t spent much time around civilian children. Actually, most kids he’d known had been either mages or sentinels, and only a few had survived to adulthood. It was a hard life on either side of the wall.
“Your armor looks different,” Lina said, breaking into his thoughts. She hesitated, then tapped his commander’s sigil.
He could still see Talon’s face after Argent killed her father. He saw it before falling asleep each night, and again first thing after waking. “I was promoted,” he said.
She snorted. “I’ve no doubt about that. I imagine you’re running the place now.”
No sarcasm in her voice, only the wry teasing he’d never allowed himself to miss. For the first time, he wondered if his scar made him ugly when he tried to smile. “I’m trying. It’s been…chaotic.”
“I heard about the mage escape,” she replied. “In truth, I’d hoped the sentinels would be…preoccupied.”
She spoke carefully, but he was no fool. Well, there was little use in delaying the inevitable conversation. “You wish to leave Whitewater City?” he asked.
Unlike so many, Lina had never been put off by his brusqueness. She nodded. “I think it’s time to go south. But…” She hesitated, clearly measuring her words.
Well, he knew. “My people are at the gates–”
“Your people are everywhere,” she broke in. “The gates, the roads…” She gave him a pointed look but did not, thankfully, add, “My own home.”
She didn’t ask him, which was the worst part. She only sipped her tea and watched her daughter, perhaps to let him wrestle with his own conscience. And although he could not smell pyre smoke here, where the scent of roses overpowered all else, the recollection was enough.
Refugees streamed through the Whitewater City gates, wide-eyed, some bloodied, others still bearing char marks from their destroyed homes. Cobalt stood at the inner gates. Per Serla Vellis’ request, he had coordinated with the city guards. The secondary check point inside the city, after the one at the outer gate, held not only guards double-checking tier marks, but also sentinels checking for even a hint of magic. Cobalt had pretty much permanently stationed two sentinel squads on either end of the gates. It wasn’t like they had any mages to keep track of in the bastion.
Gray trotted his way from across the bridge leading to the outer gate. “Sorry, ser, they just told me you were here, otherwise I’d have come sooner.”
She saluted crisply, eyes sparkling beneath her helmet as she took in the crowds of travelers. Someone had evidently had her hematite dose early.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a gleam of blue-green silk and a flash of yellow roses, moving against the river of gray exhaustion the refugees bore.
“Report?” he asked Gray, a little firmer than was necessary.
Her eyes whipped back to his. “I’ve got the situation well in hand, ser. We’ve come across no mages today.”
Or at all, since this mess started. But Cobalt didn’t say that. “You’re certain?”
Her cheeks flushed and she lifted her chin. “Yes, ser. I’ve been overseeing the gates, myself.”
Blue-green and yellow moved closer, toward the gate
–guards who would wave them through. Anyone could leave the city. But the sentinels there were already looking Lina’s way.
Cobalt gave Gray one of his sternest glares. “Luck is the fool’s best weapon – and only defense.”
She stared at him. “Ser…?”
One of the sentinels—a new face Argent had sent—had stopped Lina, while another sentinel, Rath, knelt to Sidi’s height. Cobalt couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it hardly mattered. He shot Gray one last look. “Stay here.”
Before she could reply, he went toward Lina and the sentinels, hurrying without looking like he was trying to. As he’d hoped, the flow of refugees pulled up short to give space to the scarred man in battered gear, though many of the eyes on him held only anger.
He came to Lina and the sentinels just as the new fellow was saying, “…no magical talent?”
“None.” Lina lifted her chin, and the yellow rose tucked in her ear somehow only enhanced her determination. “Now may we please pass?” Beside her, Sidi stroked the blue-green silk scarf, beneath which lay a veritable wreath of hematite charms.
But none of that would matter once the right sentinel got too close.
“I’ll take it from here, Sage,” Cobalt said as he strode up. The other sentinels scrambled to attention; had his palms not been pricked with sweat, he would have allowed himself private amusement at the sight.
“Ser, yes, of course, ser,” Rath babbled, saluting deep. “We were just–”
“Nobody cares if someone’s leaving,” Cobalt broke in, gesturing to the stream of new arrivals. “That’s where you ought to be checking for mages.”
“But, ser…” Another of Argent’s sentinels wrinkled his nose. “Don’t we need mages here? In the city?”
Hers and several other’s eyes crept back to the girl, and Cobalt’s stomach twisted. He shifted so that he stood slightly more between Sidi and the sentinels. “I’ve received multiple reports with your name on them stating you’ve found no mages in this city at all for the last fortnight. Is that correct?”
Rath swallowed hard. “Yes, ser.” They all flinched, and hopefully not just at the ice in the commander’s voice.
Cobalt gave Lina a brief bow of courtesy. “I apologize for the delay, serla. May I please escort you to the outer gates?”
When their gazes met, he suppressed a smile at the glow on her cheeks, although her mouth, like his, was set into sternness. She nodded once and clutched Sidi’s hand, and the three of them set out across the bridge.
It was impossible to speak over the din of the White River rushing below their feet, but Cobalt caught Lina’s gaze at least once every few steps. She didn’t look as afraid as before, which heartened him a little. Sidi tugged at her hand, eager to peer over the stone sides down at the churning river.
At last they reached the outer gates, and again, a few well-placed words from the garrison commander set the burnies in their places. As more refugees continued to press on toward the gates, Cobalt drew Lina and Sidi away from the crowd, to a spot just beyond the guardhouse, hidden from the sight of the sentinels, guards, and refugees.
“Don’t keep to the main roads,” Cobalt said at once. “Use the route we discussed; it’ll take a bit longer, but you’ll have a better chance of reaching Pillau in on
“Can I take off the necklaces now?” Sidi asked, tugging at the silk scarf.
Cobalt weighed the risks, then removed his helmet and knelt so that he was at her eye-level. “You must leave them on for a while longer, Sidi.”
“Until we get to Pillau,” Lina added, squeezing her daughter’s hand. She knelt too, and looked at Cobalt. Their faces were closer than they’d been in years; he could feel the heat of her skin. “Come with us,” she whispered.
It was his turn to gawk like a fool. Gray and Lath would have laughed their asses off.
Lina brushed a fingertip against his scar, sending a thrill of longing through his very soul. “We could all start over.”
One heartbeat was all he gave himself; one sweet moment to indulge in the fantasies of love and family, the luxuries he’d cast aside upon taking his sentinel oath. Honor. Service. Sacrifice. That last one always took more than its fair share.
Against his will, his gaze crept back to the gates where more injured, sick, and frightened arrived each moment. The city had no mages, but he’d still sworn an oath. So many innocents outside the walls needed help; folks draped in arms and armor should do something more than harass them at their weakest moments.
Hesitation spoke his answer, bolstered by the sink of his shoulders and the way he didn’t want to look down, but did anyway. “I’m sorry,” he added, his voice too soft. Could she even hear him?
They straightened and he made to slip his helmet back on, but she touched his arm. “Another life, perhaps,” she said, and brushed a kiss against his mouth with lips like rose petals. “Take care, Galen.”
He almost didn’t recognize his birthname; he wished he hadn’t. But the soft, strange sound only made him kiss her harder.
“You too,” he said when they parted. He knelt before Sidi again. “Watch out for your mama, will you?”
The mage-girl grinned and offered a warrior’s salute. “Aye, ser.”
Lina rolled her eyes and led her daughter away. Cobalt told himself again he’d made the right choice—the only choice, really—but didn’t stop watching them until they were well out of sight.
A/N: Couldn’t resist giving Cobalt some sugar, despite his insistence on making it bittersweet. Dude, I’m trying to write something happy here! 😆