Ziretta's bare feet made soft, slapping noises on the polished stone floor as she paced between her over-abundantly large four posted canopied bed, and the over-abundantly large fireplace in her bedroom, deep in thought. The fireplace was not in use, empty and clean, being the middle of the summer season, and not needed as it was on the cold winter nights. The large fur rug that occupied her pacing space in the winter had likewise been cleaned and stored away for months now. The oil lamps, in iron brackets on the walls, were turned low, giving off almost an eerie light.
Her robe was discarded absently across the end of her bed, and she paced the floor dressed only in her single piece sleeping gown, long enough to barely reach the tops of her bare feet. Ziretta's mother disapproved of her pacing. She said it was very "unlike a lady" and hardly something a princess would or should do. Ziretta's father always laughed in private at this attitude. To him, pacing was the sign of a thinker, something a good ruler should be.
Another in a series of contented purrs came from the corner of the room nearest the bed. The rich, deep bass rumbling came from Serot, Ziretta's pet ayin. The normally predatory felines were the size of a small horse, with greenish coloured fur to help them blend in to the foliage of their hunting grounds. Only a few had ever been domesticated in their home country of Shendra, far to the east. They were revered and respected there. Ayin were also apparently long lived. Serot had been a gift to Ziretta's grandfather when he had been a small boy himself. Now he belonged to Ziretta and still behaved like a kitten a great deal of the time.
Serot appeared to be sleeping, but when the quiet creak of the bedroom door hinge broke Ziretta out of her train of thought, Serot's eyes had opened and he had raised his head to see who it was. When the head of Ziretta's nursemaid, Mitel, poked into the room, Serot was content to resume his apparent slumber.
"Still up, m'lady? You know I worry so when you don't get enough sleep." The elderly servant quietly bustled into the bedroom, food tray in hand. Ziretta stopped pacing and stamped her foot.
"Mitel, I am nine years old! I'm too old to still need a nursemaid!" She hid the pain of stamping her bare foot on the stone floor.
"And you know that I agree with you, m'lady. But, you see, your mother the queen doesn't see it as such." A knowing smile played across her wrinkled face. "To her, you're still her little girl, and not yet old enough to join the older girls."
She set the food tray down on the night table beside the bed and turned back to the young princess. Ziretta already had a regal beauty about her, and her features reminded everyone of her father. Her long, raven-black hair had a way of always framing her face perfectly, no matter where she was or what she was doing.
"But I am old enough! Aren't I?" she asked as Mitel gently ushered her back to the bed. Sitting down side by side, the older woman produced a hairbrush from a pocket and began working on the princess' hair in deliberate, measured strokes.
"Of course you are, m'lady," Mitel placated her young charge. "But even the older girls have their own servants. So, here is my idea. If you don't mind?"
Ziretta shook her head gently, the anger abated. Getting her hair brushed always seemed to calm her down.
"I will agree not to be your nursemaid anymore, if you'll agree to keep me on as your 'lady-in-waiting.' Deal?" Mitel offered. Even at nine, Ziretta could see the semantics of the situation, and smiled openly at the old woman's attempt to cheer her up.
"Deal. Thank you, Mitel," Ziretta offered sincerely.
"If I may, m'lady? What was it you were pacing about this time?" Mitel finished the hair and, putting the brush back in her pocket, picked up the mug of warm milk from the food tray, offering it to Ziretta.
Mug in hand, the young girl took a swallow, then handed it back. Climbing up onto the bed and under the covers she asked, "Have you ever been in the Hall of Heroes, Mitel?"
"Many times, m'lady."
"I went to see father today. Normally I get to go right in to see him, but today he was busy with some important meeting or something. So instead of waiting in the main hall, I wandered over to the Hall of Heroes. I only remember being there once before."
Mitel helped tuck the young princess in and handed the mug back to her. "I remember that trip, too. Your brother hid behind one of the tapestries and nearly scared us both to death."
"And that black eye I gave him has kept him from doing that again." They shared a smile.
"That it has, m'lady."
"Anyway, today I found a tapestry I don't remember seeing before." She took another sip from the mug.
"And which one would that be, m'lady?" asked the old woman, standing and carefully fluffing Ziretta's pillows.
"I found it in a back corner. It was titled 'The Year of Tears.' What do you know of it?" Ziretta asked, handing the half-empty mug back to Mitel. The young girl began snuggling into her bed.
Mitel still smiled, but her face subtly took on a more thoughtful look. "Not much more than that, m'lady. I know it is not as old as the other tapestries. Your grandfather had it commissioned when he was still rather young. Why do you ask?" The old woman replaced the mug upon the tray.
Ziretta's eyes were getting heavy. "There was something strange about the man in the tapestry. Something different about his face. He didn't look like the heroes in the other tapestries. They all have the same kind of face, a 'hero' face I guess. This man looked, well, he looked normal. I really would like to know more about him. He looked like a very nice man, but just a little sad."
"Well, m'lady, you could always go to the Archives. I mean, that is their job, to know about all those old things." Mitel extinguished the oil lamp on the night table and picked up the tray.
Ziretta's sleepy voice replied softly, "You're right. Tomorrow I shall go to the Archives."
"Of course, m'lady. Goodnight." Mitel smiled as she shuffled back to the bedroom door, tray in hand.
"Goodnight, Mitel," was barely audible from the bed. Another contented purr rumbled from the corner. "And goodnight to you, too, my dear kitty."
The next morning Ziretta made her way through the quickly crowding streets of Tava Rhe, escorted by four Raman's Guards personally assigned to her. The escort was hardly necessary, for no one in the Imperial seat would have anything but a kind word for the young crown princess. And besides that, she was mounted securely on Serot's back, her small hands gripping his fur for support. The feline could not help that physiologically the upper fangs of a mature ayin routinely reach at least a handspan in length, and protrude down the outside of the mouth. This fact, along with the large, piercing green-black eyes, gave the ayin a ferocious look at all times, even if it was in a playful mood. Coupled with its sheer size, the crowd would take no chances with the feline and parted before it, giving Ziretta and her party a wide berth.
Ziretta gave a small frown at the fact that there were, already, crowds. She had awoken at first light and wanted to be off right away. But Mitel had delayed her, insisting on the princess having her morning meal first. Ziretta had grudgingly complied, which pushed back the start of her urban excursion for nearly an hour.
The early morning sunlight reflected off the polished cream-coloured stone buildings of the Inner City. The warm light, with just a hint of the golden hue it takes on at dawn and dusk, was still casting long shadows as Ziretta and her entourage made their way from the Imperial Palace, past the government buildings and public monuments, to the Imperial Archives. In contrast to the buildings around it, the Archives building was only a single storey tall. Most of the parchments and manuscripts inside were preserved in numerous underground vaults.
The royal escort came to a halt in front of the Archives, automatically scanning the sparse crowds for any hint of danger to their charge. Ziretta, oblivious to the chance of danger and comfortable in her surroundings, simply slid off the large feline's back, her bare feet making a slapping sound on the shallow polished marble stairs leading to the Archive entrance. She skipped up the stairs as a young man came out to greet them. He was dressed in a loose fitting crimson robe, his hood thrown back and a braided leather cord tied as a belt around his waist. He stopped and knelt as Ziretta approached.
"Good morning, your highness," he stammered. "It is not often we have one of the royal family come to visit the Archives." Ziretta was flanked by her guards, and one of them spoke.
"The royal princess wishes an audience with the Master Archivist," he all but commanded. The princess frowned up at the escort, feeling that she was quite capable of speaking for herself.
"Yes, please," she said sweetly. "If it isn't too much trouble?"
"Of course not, your majesty. Please, if you would care to follow me?" The archivist rose and led the group through the stone archway to the foyer beyond. Within seconds they had entered the atrium. A small garden, complete with flowering plants, benches, and a pebble-covered path lay in front of them. Birds could be seen and heard through the opening in the roof.
At the other end of the garden sat an old man in a high-backed wicker chair. Ziretta paused in shock for a moment, for the man was so old that it was hard to tell where the wrinkles of his skin stopped and the wrinkles of his robe started. The only hairs he had left on his head were a few white wiry strands protruding from his chin. Oddly enough, there was a blue and white songbird perched on his right index finger, chirping away as if carrying on a conversation with the old man. The small bird flew away as the party approached and the wizened old man turned his head slowly to greet his visitors.
"Master," the young archivist spoke in an overly loud voice, "her royal majesty, Princess Ziretta, has come requesting an audience with you."
The old man nodded his head and dismissed his pupil with a seemingly irritated wave of his hand. The young man bowed respectfully to his master, and then to the princess, and left in a rush. The Master Archivist leaned forward slightly in his chair, peering at Ziretta, seemingly scrutinizing her. Then he beckoned her to him with a knobby finger.
Ziretta thought the Archivist looked rather cranky. But his eyes shone with a youthful exuberance and a joy for life, so Ziretta did not hesitate to step forward. She stopped directly in front of the old man.
"He thinks I'm deaf," the Master Archivist fairly giggled in a voice that belied his advanced age. "I'm not, you know." Ziretta smiled. The old man continued. "I apologize, your highness, for not rising in your presence, but as you can see, I'm nearing the end of my life. It's all I can do to sit in this chair all day. The others even need to carry me to and from my bed."
Ziretta knew she was the princess, and that such a position demanded a certain level of respect. But she was not a vain or spoiled little girl. Her parents had always taught her to respect her elders, regardless of her social position. So she stepped back and dropped a low curtsey.
"Think nothing of it, Master Archivist. In fact, I am honoured to be in your presence." She rose and saw him smiling from ear to ear.
"Such a kind child. Please, would you join me?" The old man indicated a small stone bench beside his chair. She sat daintily, spreading and straightening her skirt on her lap. At this time a young woman appeared, dressed in the archivist garb, carrying a tray with a pitcher, cups, and some covered bowls. She set it on a stone pedestal and served the Master Archivist and the princess fruit juice from the pitcher and pieces of rahm fruit and berries from the bowls. When she had left, the old man resettled himself in his chair and turned to the princess. "Now, your highness, if I may inquire as to the nature of your visit to our humble Archives?"
Before she could remember her original question, another popped into her head. "That bird looked like it was talking to you. Was it really?"
The Master Archivist smiled. "What do you think, your highness?"
"Well, of course birds can't talk to people, can they?" But when she looked into his eyes, a mischievous gleam made her ask in a whisper. "What did he say?"
There was a low chuckle. "I'm afraid I can't tell you, your highness. You see, what my bird friends tell me in confidence must remain between them and myself."
"How do you do it?" she asked wondrously.
"Just something I learned from an old elf friend. He still comes to visit from time to time. Perhaps I shall introduce you. Would you like that?"
Ziretta practically giggled. "Oh, yes please. Do you think he could teach me too?"
"You'll have to ask him, but I don't see why not. Now, princess, I'm sure that is not why you came."
Then Ziretta remembered. "The tapestry in the Hall of Heroes, the one called the Year of Tears...who is the man and why does he look so sad?"
The old man was silent for a long time. Ziretta sipped her juice patiently. Then the Master Archivist spoke, but this time there was a cautiousness and bleakness to his voice.
"Your highness, that is a very long and intricate story. I know. I was there for much of it."
"You? But surely, Master Archivist, you can't be that old!"
"That, too, is part of the story. Do you have time to hear it?" Ziretta nodded.
"Then I will begin. But I will need to start before the beginning, so that you will understand certain events. Let me see. Ah, let me begin this way. The three moons of Elara shone brightly..."
* * *
The three moons of Elara shone brightly in the clear night sky. The air was an odd mixture of a warm breeze coming in from the plains and a cold wind coming down from the mountains. The only things moving at this time of night were the guards stationed along the parapets of the high stone walls of the Academy. Below the Academy lay the sleeping town of Velloria, yet the guards kept their silent vigil. For inside the walls of the Academy, things were far from being silent or sleepy.
A company of soldiers waited on horseback just inside the fortified gate of the Academy. Moonlight glistened off burnished helmets and the tips of spears. The horses shifted with impatience. Those soldiers not wise enough to mind their own business were staring at the light coming from the windows of the tallest building, particularly from the windows of the third story. Those were the windows that opened from the Chamber of the Conclave. That was where the activity was this night. Usually everyone but the guards would be sleeping at this hour. But not tonight.
Inside the Chamber, the Conclave had assembled around their large, oval table. The single stone slab, which served as the horizontal piece, was worn and smooth from years of use. Around the table sat the sixteen members of the Conclave, each one of them an accomplished mage with decades of experience under his belt. The seventeenth man at the table was not a member of the Conclave, nor did he have decades of experience, merely years. Instead, he sat in a seat of scrutiny, the judgment of the other sixteen men destined to change his life.
"And regardless of which rules the Tome of Magic explicitly states," continued Noraalin in his always patient voice, "and which rules it does not, the...experiments performed by Seraada were clearly against the morals and principles upon which this Academy was founded." Around the table the other mages banged their Stones upon the table in agreement, according to tradition. "Use of magic for these purposes was banned centuries ago, even if it was never officially recorded."
"And because it is so taboo, it is never spoken about either. So how is one to know about the unspoken rules if they are not shared?" The seventeenth man looked up from his lap at the assembled Conclave, staring at each member in turn. This was the first he had spoken in his own defense since the proceedings had begun. The torches, spaced around the round room on the thick stone pillars, all seemed to flicker at the same moment.
"The knowledge is passed on to each mage upon reaching the level of Master. Experiments of this kind should not even be attempted before then," stated Noraalin. The tall mage stood with his arms crossed on his chest, almost staring Seraada down, daring him to challenge the Conclave further. Seraada smiled weakly and casually lowered his gaze again.
"Death is something no man wants to face. Even those below the level of Master." The accused let his point sink in before continuing. "I was simply trying to improve the quality of life for all mankind. Our healing arts, though traditionally accepted as sufficient, are sorely outdated and lacking when faced with the growing list of types of injuries and wounds sustained today."
Noraalin almost snorted in contempt. "Are you trying to tell us that you are a humanitarian?" The master mage uncrossed his arms and rose from his chair, beginning to stroll around the stone table. "My Brothers of the Conclave, the facts are present and clear. The accused engaged in morally questionable procedures, potentially putting the lives of others at risk, procedures which have been banned by this honored establishment. He has abused his privilege to benefit from magic. As such, the sentence remains clear."
"Sentence?" Seraada stood and shouted. The armed guards to either side of him moved for the first time, placing hands on their sword hilts but not yet drawing the blades from their scabbards. Though four mages had been placed strategically around the room, casting continuous dampening spells to keep the accused from lashing out magically at the Conclave, the guards were necessary to keep Seraada from physically attacking anyone. Seraada did not move from where he stood, so the guards waited. "Have I been tried and convicted already that you have a sentence for me?"
Noraalin raised an eyebrow as he spoke. "The protocol is very clear. There is no defense, or excuse, for the crime. If it has been committed, it must have been committed by someone. I believe that the evidence, as well as your own admission, has firmly established you as that someone. Therefore, you are guilty, and the sentence must be carried out. What say the Conclave?"
Around the table, each mage in succession banged his Stone once on the table. There were no exceptions. Seraada twitched at the sound of each of the fifteen Stones. He looked up at Noraalin, their gazes locked. The master mage returned to his seat, leaned on the table as he reached for his Stone, then banged it once, firmly but slowly, driving home the finality of the Conclave's decision. "It is unanimous."
The statement sent a shiver through Seraada. But much to his credit, he stood calmly, silently.
"The punishment for practicing necromancy is forced abjuration and banishment, to be carried out immediately. The prisoner is to be removed and prepared for the ceremony." Two more mages entered from the corridor, casting dampening spells identical to the ones being sustained within the Chamber. They took up position around Seraada, one in front and one behind, while four armed guards surrounded them all.
Seraada cast a malicious glance at each of the Conclave, but said not a word as his escort marched him, unshackled, out of the Chamber. They took him in complete silence through the stone corridor and down the curving staircase one level to the cells. Noraalin stood in the Chamber doorway and watched the group descend out of sight. One of his Brethren approached him quietly from behind and placed an encouraging hand on Noraalin's shoulder.
"How could we have let him go unchecked for so long?" Noraalin asked forlornly of his unseen compatriot. His good friend Ladrick Monmai tried to reassure him in a calming voice, even though deep inside he himself was anything but calm.
"Do not blame yourself, my friend. He was, after all, under my supervision."
"And you yourself have said that you have too many students to oversee, in addition to your own research. No, it was not your fault either, Ladrick. I'm only glad you discovered what he was doing when you did. If he had been left to his own devices any longer, Korak only knows what may have happened." It was then Noraalin turned his head back towards his friend. "Have the...abominations been disposed of?"
Monmai dropped his arm as Noraalin turned back into the room. "They put up quite a fight for...things their size, but yes. They've all been dispatched." The pair walked back towards the table in the center of the room. "Do we know who they were yet?"
"No. No one seems to be missing from the Academy. The closest we can guess is that they were townsfolk from Velloria, probably taken after making deliveries." Noraalin stopped behind his chair and address the other men who had been gathering in small groups to talk about the evening so far.
"My Brothers, our night is not yet over. Before the sun rises we have many tasks to accomplish. We must begin to prepare for the Ritual of Abjuration."
Several hours later saw Seraada slumped in a saddle, in the forecourt of the Academy. His body remained unbroken, but not his spirit. Now a former mage, the ritual having stripped him of his ability to access his essence, the source of magic in the universe, Seraada was unwillingly waiting to be escorted off the premises of the Mage's Academy, and out of the town of Velloria. He had lived almost his whole life being able to manipulate the essence, taught as a child by his parents, both master mages themselves. Everything he had ever needed was available to him through magic. Now, it was gone – taken from him, leaving him nothing more than a mere mundane.
"The sentence must be completed," Noraalin spoke in a loud, formal voice for all to hear. It was still a few hours before first light, but the entire populace of the Academy had been roused and assembled for the final ceremony. They did not know the crimes committed, though rumors circulated, only that something heinous must have happened for the Ritual of Abjuration to have been applied unwillingly.
"For crimes against humanity via magic, and abuse of your responsibility towards your fellow Elaran as a user of magic, you have undergone Abjuration," Noraalin continued. Murmurs washed through the crowd like waves. "For crimes against this body of peers, you have been banished from the Academy for all time." Apart from the soldiers actually escorting him from the grounds, the ceremony had been completed.
But somehow Seraada found the strength to sit up tall in his saddle. He surveyed those assembled in the forecourt. Though his gaze fell on all, his eyes singled out those members of the Conclave as he spoke.
"You are all marked men. I will not forget how you treated me, and you will all pay! I WILL HAVE MY REVENGE!" he screamed, spittle flying from his lips.
"That was a bit overly dramatic, don't you think?" Monmai said aloud, to no one in particular. But Seraada heard it and their eyes locked. The former mage and his former mentor caught in an unspoken battle of emotion and contempt. Then suddenly Seraada spurred his horse and galloped away from the throng of onlookers. His escort, caught slightly unprepared, had to catch up. The entire entourage had returned to a trot just before passing through the massive main gates.
People stood for a moment watching the procession leave, then they began filtering back into the Academy buildings to return to their beds. They would most likely never forget this event, but the professors at the Mage's Academy were relentless. They would need the last few hours sleep before First Bell.
"Do you think that's over with?" Noraalin asked Monmai as the two walked side by side back up the great stone steps into the Main Hall.
"I don't know," Monmai confessed. "He seemed pretty self-confident at the end, there."
"It could just have been a show of defiance. One last hurrah, as it were," the Archmage suggested.
Monmai shook his head. "Or he could know something we don't. I suggest his quarters be searched again before they're cleaned out. I have an uneasy feeling." They were the last to re-enter the Hall, and the solid wooded doors made a loud thud of finality as they shut tightly behind them.
No one had seen the cloaked and hooded figure hidden in the shadows high on the Academy wall, nor the nod Seraada had given him just before passing through the gate.