Hide Your Heart
The cavern’s shadows clung to Verve, binding her in darkness and squeezing her heart like a vise. By the One god, nighttime was bad enough, but prowling along the shores of one of Aredia’s underground rivers was like being buried alive. Her breath also struggled in the shadows’ grip but she ground her jaw against the feeling. Stop fretting and just do the job, she told herself, and pressed on, silent.
In theory, Verve only ever had one chance to kill a mage. If she bungled that first opportunity, she’d have pissed off someone who could—and would—shoot fireballs or throw lightning spears her way, and then she’d be too busy trying not to get burned to worry about making that nice clean kill. But no matter how they died, the world would be free of one more magic-user. A few new scars were a small price to pay.
At least, according to Danya.
Ahead, Verve’s target and his companion chatted as they set up their camp. Their voices echoed through the massive underground chamber, and the light from their campfire danced over the cavern walls. Verve came around a bend in the black, rippling water to assess the situation. Two men—a mage and his ally—sat beside a small fire, burning merrily without fuel. The hair on the back of Verve’s neck prickled at the sight of the magic-made fire and she swore inwardly. A part of her—a stupid part—had hoped this mage might not be the type who could manipulate fire, but of course, her luck was shit. As usual.
Best not to worry about her terrible luck and focus on the task before her. Fire-wielders were tricky, but not impossible to take down — with the right equipment. Best of all, once she did her job, she could get out of this damp, dark sodding cave, and never think about it again.
Verve smoothed her gloved hands over her hematite gear one more time. Both her hood and close-fitting jacket boasted an intricate pattern of dark-gray hematite beads, which Verve had sewn on herself. The jacket hung to her thighs, shielding her upper legs as well, and her boots had hematite fittings. The hematite would prevent mage-fire from burning her to ash — at least for a few minutes. Long enough for her to gain the upper hand.
She eased forward. Mage-made flames meant her daggers would have to stay in their sheathes for the initial strike, so her crossbow was already in her hand, along with a hematite-tipped bolt she’d not yet loaded. If her aim was perfect, the mage would be dead before he hit the cavern floor. But if the shot didn’t kill the mage immediately, the hematite would slow him down enough for a quick thrust of her dagger. Then she’d just have the other fellow to capture, per Danya’s orders. Soft-spoken and unarmed, Verve’s target seemed mild-mannered enough. Seemed.
Stalagmites thrust up out of the rocky ground, concealing her from the mage’s view. But the other fellow, her true target, stopped talking, inclined his head, and Verve froze.
“What is it?” the mage asked, glancing around.
Her target didn’t respond at first, but his gaze landed on Verve’s location. Twin stars burned briefly in his eyes before he glanced away. She swore mentally again. Ea’s tits. Her heart pounded; surely the sound would echo off of the cavern walls.
A faint feeling tingled at the base of her spine: a sensation of a single finger stroking up her back. And with the feeling came an awareness, a sense of recognition, like seeing someone you sort of knew from across a crowded room.
Magic? There was no other explanation. As one of Atal’s Chosen, Verve had met—and killed—plenty of mages in her twenty-four summers, but had never encountered one with this sort of… bizarre mind-magic. But the evidence shuddered over her skin: she now faced two mages, not one. Her patron, Danya, had passed on faulty information, but that would be no excuse for failure. Verve had no choice but to bring in this fellow alive.
Fine. But her fingers trembled as she eased the bolt into its seat of the crossbow.
The second man, the secret mage, murmured, “We’re not alone.”
Fire bloomed at the first mage’s fingertips. “Get behind me, Celidon.”
Nothing for it. Verve aimed through a slit in the stalagmites. May the One god forgive me, she prayed, bracing herself, and pulled the trigger. The kickback shoved the weapon’s butt into her shoulder, but she’d grown used to the impact well over a decade ago, when she was only eleven. A strangled cry echoed in the cavern as the mage staggered backward, grabbing at the bolt now protruding from his chest. His companion dove for cover behind another rock formation—the fools had made their camp out in the open—but Verve was already on her way.
Black water rippled around her as she slipped toward them. But the mage caught sight of her before she could duck beneath the water. As she stepped onto the other shore, water sluicing down her sides, he gave a cry of pain and fury. But the fire at his fingers flickered and died as the hematite muted his magic.
“Who sent you?” he gasped, struggling to stand despite his injury. Magic fire flared again at his hands, but briefly.
Verve unsheathed one of her daggers—an old style sentinel’s dagger, hematite fortified with iron—grabbed the mage’s hair, and wrenched him to his knees. She steeled herself, as she always did, for the moment when her prey’s life would end by her hand.
“Please,” the other fellow said, stepping forward. His eyes were dark like her own, but a strange light flickered in their depths. “Please, don’t do this,” he added. “You don’t want to do this.”
Her reply was steady, even if her heart was not. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “It’s not personal.” She punched her dagger into the mage’s throat. He crumpled to her feet, blood streaming over the cavern floor.
“Karel,” the other fellow cried and fell to his knees, moaning, clutching his head as if he’d been kicked. He said other things, before she gagged and bound him, but Verve shut her mind to his voice, his fear, his pain. The ache in her chest, the gnaw of her heart eating itself; she shut her mind to them, too.
She had a job to finish.
Each breath came easier once Verve was out of the caverns. Early afternoon sunlight poured over her dark-brown skin, warming her all the way to her bones despite the chill of the early spring day. The underground river system may have made travel through the country of Aredia convenient—to a degree—but by the One god, she regretted each foray into the caverns.
Her prisoner sat atop the horse she’d left waiting on the surface. When Verve had wrapped the apparent-mage in iron chains, he’d cried out as if the chains had burned him. Although he was awake, he barely seemed conscious, so she’d had to pull him into the saddle like a sack of yuzah roots. At least none of that strange starlight flared in his eyes. He was still gagged, but she thought that even if she removed the rag from his mouth, he’d not say one word to the one who’d murdered his friend.
Her stomach clenched. She tugged the horse along faster. They’d made good time; she could already see Freehold’s sturdy walls ahead. Soon, this job would be over.
But what about the next job? And the next? And on and on, until—
As always, she cut off the thought. Until didn’t exist yet. Just like tomorrow.
“Ser Vervaine,” one of the gate-guards called, lifting her hand. “I trust that mage is properly bound?”
Verve paused her horse and peered up at the armored figure. “Is that jealousy I hear in your voice, Sacha?”
The guard’s helmet almost hid her smile. Almost. She had a lovely smile. “Of course not,” she replied with exaggerated formality. “I’m simply doing my duty to protect Freehold. Someone has to, given how those moon-blooded maniacs tear through the country like they own it.”
The mage-on-mage fighting had been going on for about a hundred and fifty years, since the Sundering that had fractured Aredia. Mages had once been safely contained behind hematite-filled walls, until they had rebelled, murdering the Aredian queen and casting the country into turmoil. The magic-users, finally free to wield their magic as they saw fit, chose not to help heal the land they had sundered, but rather to war with one another over resources and territory, leaving non-magic folks to band together and defend themselves. Because of Verve and the other Chosen, Freehold was one of the few safe havens for those who couldn’t shoot fireballs out of their asses.
Verve winked at the guard. “Do you ever stop being so diligent, Sacha?” Sacha’s neck flushed pink and Verve couldn’t resist adding, “When are you off-duty next?”
Sacha sighed. “Not until first light.”
“Well, next night you’re free, I’ll buy you a drink and tell you the story,” Verve replied. “But I must check in with Serla Danya now.”
“And I thought I was diligent,” Sacha replied, chuckling.
“Ea’s balls,” the second guard muttered. “Stop making eyes at the mage-hunter, Sacha. Ser Vervaine, thank you as ever for your efforts to keep Freehold safe. We are all indebted to you and all of Atal’s Chosen. But please take your prisoner and move along.”
Verve saluted and led her horse through the ironwood gates. They closed with a familiar groan and she exhaled. She was back where she belonged.
Freehold was a large village that dearly wanted to be called a city. No doubt it would, one day, for every time Verve passed through the streets, she saw new faces, heard new voices. Most folks parted to let her pass, whispering to each other or calling out a friendly greeting. One less mage in the world meant these people were that much safer. Verve squared her shoulders and held her head high, and the tightness in her chest that always accompanied her on a mission began to ease.
You do good things, too, she told herself.
At the edge of Silverwood Province, Freehold was one of the few places regular folks could live without fear of the magic-users’ war. Danya, the Circle priest who’d taken over as town magistrate when the former magistrate had been killed by mages, had installed hematite fittings into the town’s stone walls. Although the ore was rare, Danya had also ensured that every citizen in Freehold had a hematite amulet to wear as additional protection against magic. No one asked where she’d gotten the precious material. Once upon a time, there had been an old hematite mine to the west, over in Stonehaven Province, but mages had destroyed that too.
But life in Freehold was peaceful, thanks to Verve and the other Chosen’s efforts. The Argus Mountains loomed to the north, standing sentinel over the town and its denizens, while the Temple of Atal rested on a small hill at the center of town. Another wall and gate protected the temple. Verve didn’t flirt with any of the guards here, but hurried inside the temple courtyard. While most of Silverwood Province boasted little but saffron-colored prairie grasses, Danya had coaxed a lush oasis to grow in the temple garden, filled with fruit and nut trees.
Usko, one of Danya’s other Chosen foundlings, spotted Verve across the courtyard and raced over, his bare feet slapping against the flagstones. “Back, already?” he said, grabbing at her horse’s reins. He was nineteen summers, five years younger than Verve, but his round face made him seem no more than fourteen. He glanced at her bound prey and laughed. “I knew you would be fast. You just won me twenty silvers.”
Verve lifted a brow. “That’s all?” She clucked her tongue. “Surely, my skills warrant at least thirty.”
“Sure.” He grinned and held out his palm, calloused from years of weapons-training. “Lend it to me, and I’ll share the profits with you next time.”
She playfully slapped his hand and headed for the temple’s interior. “Make your own profits, Usko.”
He gave a dramatic sigh. “Danya says I’m not ready for a mission alone.”
“Danya knows best,” Verve replied by route. She dug around in one of the pouches at her belt and tossed Usko a silver coin. “Take care of the horse and help secure the prisoner, and I’ll give you some more pointers next time we spar.”
Usko caught the coin with practiced grace and grinned again. “Deal. And Verve…welcome back. We missed you.”
Verve had timed her arrival just right. Within the temple, the evening services were still a few hours away, so she met only a few Circle priests as she slipped through the corridors to Danya’s quarters. The sharp scents of clove and pine incense drifted along with Verve, guiding her toward Danya’s office, where she found the head priest scribbling in a massive ledger, spectacles reflecting the lamplight. The priest’s office was dark, the windows covered by thick curtains, with only a few oil lamps set at strategic places to allow Danya to see what always seemed to Verve like endless stacks of paperwork. Running a town like Freehold required a lot of time and energy.
Indeed, the priest was so engrossed in her work that Verve had to practically shout her greeting before Danya looked up.
“Vervaine, you’re back.” Danya tilted her head, expectant. “I trust you found success on your mission?”
“The mage is dead. The other’s in our holding cells…” Something in Verve’s stomach rolled.
Danya clasped her hands and peered at Verve from over her spectacles. “What’s wrong? Were you injured?”
“No, serla. But the prisoner…” Verve hesitated. “There was something strange about him. He seemed to sense me, and—”
“Sense you?” Danya broke in. “How?”
Verve glanced up to see the priest studying her. “I don’t know,” Verve said, careful to keep her features neutral. “I just felt…like I was being watched.” She shivered at the memory of something crawling up her spine. “You said he wasn’t a mage. But I was dripping in hematite and he still did…something to me.”
“Well, it hardly matters now,” Danya said. “He’s in our custody. Put him out of your mind.”
“But what was he?” Verve pressed. “If mages have learned a new kind of magic, shouldn’t we investigate? It’s our job to keep normal folks safe.”
Danya removed her spectacles to pinch the bridge of her nose. She was an older woman, well into her fifties, with brown skin and long iron-gray hair woven a crisp braid that fell down her back. “Can you not listen to me, even for a moment? All that matters is the prisoner. They wanted him alive, after all.”
“Who’s they?” Verve asked. “I thought Atal’s Chosen worked only for the people of Freehold.”
“Some questions are best left unasked,” Danya replied. “Don’t press this matter further.”
But Verve couldn’t help herself — which was always her biggest problem. “Why keep this a secret? What aren’t you telling me?”
“Nothing you need to concern yourself with,” Danya snapped. “And I’ll warn you to keep your wits and your silence. Vervaine, you’re my oldest and most skilled Chosen warrior. I took you in as a child, fed you, clothed you, and gave you a better life than you ever could have dreamed. Yet you return my gracious favor with malicious questions.” She gave a labored sigh. “If you will not behave for your own good, think of the example you’re setting for Usko and the others.”
Verve hunched her shoulders, trying to make herself smaller. She was taller than most women and many men, but Danya could make her feel no bigger than a teacup. “I’m sorry, serla. But as you’ve taught me, we can’t take any chances with mages.”
Verve’s deferential use of the formal address always mollified Danya. But as Danya came around the desk and touched Verve’s chin to draw her gaze, Verve fought back the instinct to flinch away from the other woman’s touch.
“No, we cannot take chances with mages,” Danya said. “But the world is changing and I fear our little haven here will suffer.”
“What’s changing, serla?” Verve asked before she could stop herself. Her breath caught. “Is it Legion? Are they coming?”
The Legion of the Pure: a place and a people. A massive city-state built on the ruins of Whitewater City, several weeks’ journey east of Freehold. In the Sundering’s aftermath, many had fled the magic-sowed chaos to Legion, where the god Atal had supposedly returned to keep his supplicants safe from the magic-users. Everyone knew the folks of Legion hated mages, which meant Verve should have considered Legion folks allies. But even the thought of Legion made Verve’s head light, as if she couldn’t suck in enough air.
Danya’s expression did not waver from kind concern. “Don’t fret about Legion,” Danya said. “You’re a good girl, but I can tell you’ve been working too hard lately. My fault, I know. I push you. You’re so skilled, but you are still young.”
Verve bristled. “I’m twenty-four summers.”
“Aye,” Danya said fondly. “But sometimes to me, you are still that little heathen child I found in the orphanage.” She dropped her hand and went to her desk, rifling through various stacks of paper before withdrawing a letter.
“I’ve news of your cousin,” Danya said, returning to Verve’s side. “A Sufani caravan matching the description you gave me was spotted in Starwatch Province, a few months ago.”
Verve’s heart lifted. She reached for the letter, her fingertips just brushing the parchment as a smile broke free across her face. “By the One! Are they still there? May I go—”
The slap across her mouth stung, and she snapped her jaw shut. Danya glared at her, although her voice was soft. “I have indeed failed to rid you of your Sufani ways, Vervaine, if you have not yet learned this lesson: Hide your heart, child, lest evil-doers use it against you. Atal demands nothing less than everything you have, and you cannot serve Him by half-measures.”
Mouth burning, Verve bit back her grimace and lowered her gaze. Stupid—utterly, completely stupid—to mention the Sufani god before her patron — one of Atal’s most devoted servants. Verve knew better.
Danya waited a beat before continuing. “I need a little more time, but I’m sure we’ll find your cousin soon, you poor thing. Everyone should have some blood family.”
Verve nodded. Heat pricked her eyes but she refused to let her tears fall lest she receive another blow for such an emotional display.
“In the meantime,” Danya continued, tucking the letter in a pocket of her robe. “I have another job for you.”
“Please, not another capture.” Verve tried to keep her voice light.
Danya arched a thin brow. “The very least you can do for the woman who raised you is follow a simple order.”
Long years of practice helped Verve suppress a groan. “Yes, serla.”
Danya went to her ledger and skimmed her finger down the open page, eyes darting over the text. “Marea Damaris, a mage famous—or infamous, I should say—for manipulating the weather in their locality.”
Verve’s mind leaped on the information. “A particle mage, then?”
Particle mages were the most common sort of magic-user, able to bend physical elements to their will. A few generations ago, most mages were particle mages and were capable of more or less the same magic: creating fire, purifying water, controlling gusts of wind or blooms of fog, making plants grow, among other talents. But after the Sundering of Aredia, mages’ abilities had become more specialized. Now, most magic-users could only manipulate one sort of particle, and so had their own focuses: fire, water, earth, and so on. Which sounded easier to defeat — until you actually squared off against a mage who’d practically been born breathing fire.
“A Damaris?” Verve added, still musing. “They’re supposed to be more powerful than most moon-bloods. And you say weather… What sort?” Please not tornadoes, she added silently.
“Lightning,” Danya said, and Verve nearly grimaced before she caught herself. Danya went to the map she’d tacked upon the wall to one side of her desk, and gestured to a murky green area towards the center of the Aredian continent. “An agent of mine reported a sighting of Marea Damaris in Greenhill Province. They were last seen holed up in some backwater village. Lotis.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Apparently, it’s little more than a shantytown in the swamp,” Danya replied, sniffing. “But I’ve gotten reports of other mages meeting there. Rumor has it that Damaris is building support among their fellow mages, assembling a force for some nefarious purpose.”
Verve’s skin prickled. “Warring with another mage clan?”
“Only the mighty Atal knows what evil lurks in mages’ hearts,” Danya said. “But we cannot allow the mages to organize. The only thing keeping us safe from their vile magic is their desire to war with one another. If Damaris is truly trying to build an…army, I dare say we’ll all be in a world of trouble.”
“So I’m to eliminate this Damaris person?”
Danya looked over her spectacles at Verve. “No, you must capture and return them to me.”
Capture missions were the most annoying, but—as she’d proven—manageable. There was no use complaining, so Verve nodded, her mind whirring with plans.
“I fear tracking Damaris down will be difficult,” Danya went on. “My sources say they don’t stay in one place for long, but keep on the move. Your best bet is to start in Lotis and comb the area. Discreetly.”
“I’m the soul of discretion,” Verve said, keeping her voice deadpan.
“This is not a joke, Vervaine,” Danya said at last. “This mage—all mages—are evil and destructive. They crave nothing but power. They are an anathema to the order Atal wishes His followers to maintain. They tore this country apart and will not stop until every one of us is dead by their hands.”
Verve’s blood pounded in her ears, but she kept her voice calm. “I know, serla.”
“I took you in as a child, trained you to defend yourself and others against magic’s treachery,” Danya went on. “As I am doing with Usko and the other Chosen. No one else in this world will look after you the way I have. You and I and all the Chosen, we must stand together against the chaos of magic.”
The older woman’s gaze went distant. “I can still smell the smoke, hear the roar of mage-fire. Even now, I sometimes still wake in the middle of the night, thinking I’m back home, when the moon-bloods struck. But as I reach for my son and husband, I remember…” Her eyes landed on Verve. “It’s the same for you, I know.”
It was. Too well could Verve recall the choking, black smoke of her burning home, engulfed in mage-made flames. The wail of her mother echoed in her ears, a memory she would never be rid of. It was harder this time to fight back her tears, but she’d had a lot of practice. “We’ve both lost much to the mages, serla.”
“Indeed.” Danya squared her shoulders, lifted her chin. “But with Atal’s blessing, His Chosen will stop their reign of destruction, and Aredia will know peace once again.”
The mention of the mighty god, Atal, made sweat prick at Verve’s palms beneath her gloves. Atal’s blessing. Surely a blessing of any sort was impossible. The warmongering, vengeful god that had usurped worship of the rest of the Aredian pantheon after the Sundering was not known for His compassion.
Not like the One god, the oldest god, whom the nomadic Sufani tribes had once worshipped — until Legion sentinel-soldiers had tried to eradicate them from the face of the world.
Don’t think about that, Verve scolded herself. Surely the One god did not care for her any longer, especially not here in Freehold living as one of Atal’s Chosen.
So she only said smoothly, “Yes, serla.”
Danya went back to her desk, her white and black priest robe fluttering with her quick movements. “I’ll expect regular reports, as usual. Since this will be a more complex task than you’re used to, you have three full cycles of the first moon to complete it.”
“There’s not usually a time limit on these jobs.” Even as the words left Verve’s mouth, her guts twisted. There was only one entity that would commission such a job from Danya’s mage-killers. She shoved away her misgivings and added, “You made a contract with someone outside of Freehold?”
Please don’t answer. Ignorance was bliss, after all.
Danya’s attention was back on her ledger. “Atal is full. Three cycles from now, you must have Damaris in your custody.”
“And if the mission takes longer?” Verve could not help but ask.
The Circle priest did not look up. “Failure is not an option. You are dismissed.”
Verve bowed and turned to leave. But when she reached the threshold, Danya called, “And Vervaine?”
Verve paused without looking back. “Yes, serla?”
“You’re going to need a boat.”