Seri hated the sound of her own name. It wasn’t a bad name in its shortened form, but she had heard her full name, Seri-Belit, so many times that Seri suffered by association.
Her parents and teachers all assured her that her name held rich historical significance. Ordinarily, that would have excited her, as she loved the study of history. But in this case, it didn’t matter. “Seri-Belit” might be a fine name for someone who lived hundreds of years ago, but not for a young woman on the verge of major accomplishments. It was far too… old fashioned. Stodgy. Mired in old traditions.
Like this man pulling at the oars right now. Hauk was his name. A perfectly acceptable name for a person in his position. Simple, but with a bit of strength to it. Hauk ferried people across Lake Litanu from larger ships to the shores of Zes Sivas, island of mages and Kings. A simple job requiring a bit of strength, but mired in old traditions. Just like his name.
“Can’t remember the last time I took a woman across,” Hauk said, proving her point.
Seri sighed. He was baiting her and she knew it.
“Do y’ think they’ll let a woman become a mage?” Hauk asked, chewing on something. He strained a little harder at the oars.
Seri fixed her gaze on him. “I have the full confidence of Lord Enuru and Lady Lilitu,” she declared.
That was not the entire truth.
For all she knew, Lord Enuru hadn’t even heard of her. Lady Lilitu, on the other hand, had given her a hand-written note which she kept stowed in her satchel on the seat beside her.
Hauk shrugged and kept rowing. Seri’s temper flared, but she wasn’t sure whether it was at Hauk for his attitude, or at herself for reacting to it. She kept her mouth shut. Her mother had often chided her about speaking too much at the wrong times. She considered her efforts to abide by that warning to be supremely admirable.
A lump rose in her throat as her parents flooded her thoughts. She knew the pull, the homesickness, was caused by the Binding that everyone bore toward their native land and people. Yet another thing she had to fight.
A few moments later, the early morning fog cleared and Zes Sivas came into view. Yesterday, she had seen it from the ship, but only as a vague mass in the distance. And drawings could never do it justice. The island rose thirty or forty feet out of the water before leveling off, the sides rising steeply, but not into outright cliffs. Moss clung to many of the surfaces. A few haphazard cypress trees dotted the top of the banks, extruding knees in a myriad of directions around them and down the sides.
Seri paid little attention to the fauna, so focused was she on the island’s structures that covered most of its surface. Two massive fortresses stood side by side with walls and towers so intertwined it was virtually impossible to tell where one structure ended and the other began. Seri knew this was intentional, symbolic, representing the union of sovereignty and magic. Most of the stone appeared to be either grayish limestone or reddish marble. None of it was native to the island itself. The task of ferrying that much stone across the lake had to have been immense.
The Citadel of Kings sat northernmost on the island, built to house Akhenadom the Great and his descendants. It stood empty now, as far as she knew. There hadn’t been a King over the six lands of Antises for over seventy years.
The second fortress, the Citadel of Mages, had been built to house the Conclave, the greatest magic-users of all six lands. Together, sovereignty and enchantment were supposed to work for the good of all within the realms. Seri wondered when that had last been true.
Hauk continued rowing, not sparing a glance for the fortresses. “We have to get around to the southeast for docking,” he said, turning the boat with expert strokes.
Seri ignored him, her eyes fixed on the citadels. She felt her heart beating faster. She was here at last. The one place in all the lands that she had longed to see her entire life.
“This is so amazing!” she exclaimed. “So much of our history took place right here! Akhenadom and the Conclave crafting the Bindings and Cursings. The Lords’ Betrayal. The Loss of the Last King. The yearly Passing. I can’t wait to–”
She cut herself off.
The rowboat drew parallel to the island, veering south. Seri took a deep breath to calm herself. Master Hain, the current head mage of her homeland, would be waiting at the dock. Five years ago, he had seemed disdainful of her chances at the Conclave. Yet he had accepted her application to become an acolyte. She hoped that meant his opinion had changed.
A small wave swept across the surface of the lake, running counter to the normal waves. Hauk noticed it too, and frowned. “What’s that?” he mumbled. A second wave flowed past the boat.
“It’s coming from the island,” Seri said, leaning forward to get a better look. A chill wind struck her face as the boat rocked.
“Watch it!” Hauk warned.
The island shuddered. Seri saw rocks and clods of dirt tumbling down steep banks. The citadels themselves seemed to vibrate, as the ground on the nearest slope cracked open, dirt and water both pouring down inside.
Seri caught a glimpse of a tall figure in purple robes at the top of the slope, looking down at the crack. He looked unsteady, as if he were having a hard time keeping his balance.
And then, to Seri’s open-mouthed horror, one of the citadel pinnacles began to tilt. Slowly, as if time itself decelerated, thirty feet or more of the tower began to fold over on itself. Bricks separated. Windows shattered. Roof tiles slid in every direction. The entire conglomeration plunged toward the water only a few yards away.
Seri leaned further, trying to discern from which citadel the pinnacle had fallen, and if the man she had seen was safe. The collapsing tower struck the surface with a tremendous impact, splashing ice cold water over the rowboat. Hauk pulled with all his strength, trying to get them out of the chaos, but the boat’s rocking intensified, catching Seri by surprise. She lost her grip on the gunwale and plunged into the lake.
The glacial temperature of the water rendered Seri insensate, turning her muscles into ice. Her heavy clothes sucked her under the waves. The cold penetrated straight through her clothes, her skin, and her very bones.
Seri’s thick gown, so rooted in current Arazu fashion, tangled around her legs. Even if she could manage to tear part of it off, it would be too late.
Her mind comprehended all of this in an instant, even as it screamed out at the injustice of losing her life when she was so close to achieving her greatest dreams.
And then, a rope came toward her. No, the rope swam toward her, moving back and forth as if it were a sea serpent skimming through shallow waters in an oasis. Seri assumed it must be some final hallucination, perhaps due to the lack of air in her burning lungs.
In spite of all that, she seized the rope, but her fingers struggled to entwine. It yanked her back toward the surface. She lost it for a moment, grabbed it again, and found herself dragged upwards into the light of day.
Bursting out of the waves, she gasped, choked, and spewed water. The rope continued to pull up onto the nearest slope of the island. The tall man she had glimpsed before stood waiting at the top.
“Welcome to Zes Sivas, Seri-Belit,” he announced.
As she collapsed, shivering uncontrollably, Seri’s couldn’t help thinking that if all the mages already knew her full name, she might as well have drowned.
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