NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Beryl's Storyline.
There was only one customer in Beryl's shop when her sister entered – an old man looking at the shelf of brightly-colored tonics which promised libidinous potency. He had been silently examining Beryl's wares for some time but had yet to pick up a bottle for closer study; she had written him off as a potential customer long ago.
The shopper did not look up as Astria Trevanei came in from the street, holding the folds of her iridescent silk robes up with both hands to keep the embroidered hem from dragging across the muddy threshold. The sorceress was followed by a large, fully-armored man, whose sword scraped against the narrow doorframe as he turned slightly to fit through. The noise startled the old man into turning away from the tonics to stare at the new arrivals.
The armored man with the sword put his hand on its hilt. “Get out,” he said to the elderly shopper. “Store's closed.”
The old man turned to look at Beryl, seeking guidance.
“We're closed,” she said.
The armored man moved a bit to one side to allow the old man to get past him and out through the door, which he did, quickly, after which the armored man closed the door behind him.
Beryl began to say, “If you wanted to drive off my customers, you could always just,” but stopped when the armored man turned the bolt on the door, then drew the bar across it as well, before moving to stand in front of it.
“What do you want?” Beryl asked her sister.
“It's lovely to see you, too,” Astria said. She walked across the small room, picking up a wooden chair as she went. She placed it in front of the shop counter across from Beryl, and wiped dust from the seat with a linen handkerchief which she pulled from and returned to the tooled leather scrip she wore across her waist, but she did not sit down.
“If we're going to waste time on pretend pleasantries, then you have to at least try to sound pleased to be here,” Beryl said.
“Yes, well, you are not exactly situated in the most reputable district,” the sorceress said. “And I do not exactly feel welcomed when forced to travel here. This would have been much simpler had you accepted my summons to Court.”
“Yes, well, I don't exactly feel welcomed at the Court. Besides, I have a business to run. Most people have to pay for their own meals, you know.”
“That's as may be,” Astria said, “although from the look of you this business certainly isn't keeping you overfed.” She did not bother to hide the edge of disdain in her voice as she pronounced the word “business.” She leaned forward. “In fact, you look positively gaunt. Are you unwell?”
Beryl didn't bother to argue. Business had been slow of late. And, as for her own appearance, she herself had been taken aback by the reflection she'd found in her mirror recently. The face she'd seen was pale – even paler than usual, with its only color coming from the one dark green eye that peeked out from beneath her long black hair, which she kept combed-down over the left half of her face so that it mostly concealed the violent red scars which ringed the clouded, milky ruin of her other eye. She had been losing weight too – enough so that she shivered in bed as the autumn nights grew long and cold, which only made it harder to sleep. Well, that and the dream, which had come back, stronger than ever. The dream did not help.
The armored man coughed, bringing Beryl back to the present with a start.
“I'm fine, although I'm touched that you care,” she said.
Astria drew herself up a bit. “Whether you choose to believe it or not,” she said, “I am not wholly indifferent to your welfare.”
Beryl laughed. “Glad to know it,” she said. She looked her sister up and down. “I can see I don't need to be concerned about your welfare. Court life clearly agrees with you – all those hot meals and soft cushions. You'll let yourself go, if you're not careful.”
Astria affected a snort of disdain, but as she did so she also shifted slightly on her feet so as to straighten her posture, and Beryl knew that her words had struck a nerve. Astria was still beautiful, as she had always been – a state which she maintained both through careful daily ablutions and modest magical intervention – but the gracefully austere lines of her face had begun to acquire a roundness in just slightly the wrong places. Beryl smiled at the observation.
“Do I need to remind you who I am?” Astria said. “Or who you are not?”
“No,” Beryl said.
“Then perhaps you should choose your words more wisely.”
The armored man had taken a few steps forward from the door. Without turning, Astria raised a hand in the air, halting him in place. Her two eyes locked onto her sister's one.
After a long second, Beryl looked away. “Just tell me what you want,” she said.
At this small gesture of submission, Astria relaxed. She lowered herself onto the wooden chair and reached into her scrip, removing a small metallic box which she placed on the counter. She slid it halfway across to Beryl, who took it and held it up to the light of a nearby candle, turning it over in her hands to see it from all angles.
The box was bronze in color, but too heavy to actually be bronze, and warm to the touch. It fit neatly into the palm of Beryl's hand, leading her to assume that it had been sized for that purpose, and it appeared to be divided into two halves held together by a single, raised hinge along one side. Upon closer inspection, however, the seam which appeared to separate the halves of the box was not a seam at all – the box’s top and bottom were fused together into a single mass of metal.
Then there were the runes, which were what really caught Beryl’s eye. All across the box’s surface, inlaid in a kind of silver ribbon, were arcane words and symbols in tight, linear patterns. There was something vaguely disconcerting about their arrangement; the overall effect was almost vascular, and Beryl noticed that they seemed somehow to pulse. She could feel the magic which radiated off them, and she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
“What is it?” she asked.
“A sealed box,” Astria said. She leaned slightly forward across the counter while Beryl studied the box, giving Beryl the unmistakable sense that her sister might suddenly lunge at her to snatch this treasure back.
“What’s inside it?” Beryl said.
“That's what you're going to find out for me.”
That caught Beryl by surprise. She put the box down on the counter. “You have a magically-sealed box, but you don’t know what’s inside it?”
“I've never seen runes like this before.”
“I don't even know what language this is.”
“Neither do I.”
“And so why exactly do you expect me to be able to help?”
“Because,” Astria said, “this is the sort of thing you've always had a knack for. Runes. Wards. Seals. Small magic.” She stood up and turned, waving a hand in the direction of the tonics and potions lining the walls of the store. “Little, practical things. You can't control real magic, but you can put that sizzle of voltage into a phial of horse piss that makes a man's hair stand on end so that he thinks you cured him of baldness.”
“It's always nice to be appreciated,” Beryl said.
“You think that I look down on you,” Astria said, in a tone which confirmed what her words tried to deny. “But it's not that I don't respect you. It's just that I understand your strengths and limitations, even better than you do yourself. I always have.”
Beryl said nothing.
“Besides,” Astria said, “it would be unfortunate for me were this particular item to be discovered in my possession.”
“Ah, now we arrive at the heart of the matter,” Beryl said.
“I mention this only so we are clear that, should anything unfortunate happen to me, I will make things doubly unfortunate for you,” Astria said.
“I don't like being threatened.”
“Then consider how much less you would like it if it were to stop being a threat.”
Beryl bristled. “I take it the High Sorceress doesn't know you have this? Or, just as likely, that she doesn't know you've stolen it from her? If I were to give it to her, I imagine that might work out rather nicely for me.”
“Try to imagine me burning down this hovel with you still inside it,” Astria said, bringing her face close to her sister's, so that Beryl could see her flushed cheeks and the ember-like glow forming deep within the black centers of her widening eyes. She had seen those embers once before, and she knew the powerful, dangerous anger they foretold.
“You'd have a tough time. You said it yourself – I've always been good with wards. I'm well protected within my own walls.”
“And if I ordered Sir Treddon to cut your throat,” Astria said, gesturing over her shoulder to the armored man, who had remained silent throughout the proceedings, “would your wards protect you from that as well?”
“Admittedly not,” Beryl said. “I was wondering when you would introduce me to your friend.”
“Where are my manners?” Astria said. “This is Sir Treddon.” She turned to face the knight.
Sir Treddon drew his shortsword from its scabbard. Even in the dim light of the shop, Beryl could see the powerful runes which ran the length of the carbon-black blade. With a rueful smile, she recognized her own handiwork.
“You want I should introduce myself more formally?” Treddon asked, turning the sword a bit from side to side so that its edge caught and reflected the candlelight. The corners of his lips turned up into the hint of a smile.
After a moment's hesitation, Astria said, “No, that won't be necessary.” She lowered herself back into the chair, closed her eyes, and took a long, slow breath. Exhaling, she opened her eyes again and looked at Beryl. The embers were gone. When she spoke, her voice was composed and level.
“I haven't come to argue with you, nor have I come to offer you a choice,” she said. “But we can and should be reasonable about this. Spitefulness aside, you will see that you have everything to lose by refusing me, but much to gain should you succeed.”
Beryl picked the box back up, turning it over in her hand, feeling its magic. “What are you offering me?” she said.
“Gold,” Astria said. “Enough now to move you into more suitable quarters, with a regular allowance which would guard you against penury for as long as you may live.”
Beryl shook her head. “You know that's not what I want.”
“Don't ask me for what I cannot give.”
“I want my name back,” Beryl said. “Our name.”
“It's not impossible. You could do it tomorrow.”
“But I won't,” Astria said with the cold finality Beryl recognized from the previous times she had dared to raise the subject. “That matter is closed, and I'll waste no more breath on it.”
The sisters looked past other, their eyes not quite meeting.
“Will you see reason?” Astria asked after what felt like ages.
“I'll see what I can do,” Beryl said.
Astria nodded. “Good. What do you need to know?”
Beryl ran a fingertip across the runes which covered the metallic box's surface. “Who sealed it?”
“I don't know.”
“Who does it belong to?”
“That's not important.”
“I would think it is.”
“It isn't,” Astria said. “Next question.”
“How old is it?”
“Is it warded?”
“I don't believe so.”
“Is it trapped?”
Beryl sighed. “Not asking much, are you?”
“If it was simple, I would do it myself.”
“And you've never seen it opened, or even heard about it being opened?”
Astria shook her head.
“How long do I have?”
“You know that's not enough.”
“I'll have to keep it here,” Beryl said.
Astria nodded. “I know. That's why Sir Treddon will be staying here with you.”
“I assure you, I'm not.”
Beryl gestured around at her shop, with its packed earth floors and spartan furnishings. “And where will he stay? I'm not exactly equipped to receive guests, and I assure you he is not staying in my chamber.”
Astria smirked. “Sir Treddon is used to rough accommodations. He will manage.”
“Is he my bodyguard or my jailer?”
“Neither, if all goes as planned. Just a friendly presence.”
Beryl looked at Sir Treddon, who still held his sword in his hand. “You must have strange friendships at Court.”
Astria sighed. “More than you could possibly know.” She stood, collected up the hem of her robes, and started towards the door. Over her shoulder, she said, “I will return in two days time, whereupon I expect to hear good news. Do not attempt to contact me during the interval.”
“How am I supposed to feed him?” Beryl said.
“I'm sure you can be resourceful,” Astria said. Sir Treddon removed the bar from across the shop door, turned its bolt, and opened it. Pausing at the open threshold, Astria pointed to a nearby shelf of white-colored and floral-scented tonics – elixirs for beauty and youth.
“Do these actually work?” she asked.
“Some of them do,” Beryl said.
The Court sorceress made a non-committal noise, then vanished out into the street.
* * *
Mysterious box in one hand, dripping candle in the other, Beryl retreated into the store's cramped workroom, with Sir Treddon following close behind. Pressed against one wall was her apothecary's bench, with mortars and pestles and cups of varying measures scattered across its surface and a crate of empty glass phials shoved underneath. An adjoining wall was lined with shelves and cubbyholes filled with dried herbs rolled into bundles, powered crystals of all colors, and foul-smelling oils in grease-stoppered jars. In front of the remaining two walls, books of seemingly all sizes and ages were stacked into precarious-looking piles which reached from the floor to the low ceiling. Sir Treddon, stooping low so as not to scrape his head, sat down on an overturned crate near the workbench. Beryl sat on the room's only chair.
“So, how does this work, then?” the knight asked.
“Do I have to explain myself to you as I go?” Beryl asked. “Because that wasn't part of the deal.”
“Just curious, is all,” Treddon said. “Seeing as I'm stuck here while you do all the magicking.” Out from under Astria's watchful eye, Beryl thought, her sister's taciturn enforcer had suddenly discovered his voice.
“There's not really a process to it,” Beryl said, cupping her hands together around the sealed box. “I have to just kind of feel the enchantment, feel its magic under my fingers, listen to what it has to tell me.” She closed her eye, and her face softened into a sort of distant, faraway look.
After minutes passed in silence, Treddon said, “You're not going to try to read what's written on it, then?”
Beryl frowned without opening her eye. “No point,” she said. “I don't know the language the runes are in, and there are more dead arcane languages than I could hope to research in a lifetime, let alone two days. Without any clues, it's not worth the time. Now, please, just be quiet.”
Treddon grunted, but he did stop talking.
Beryl tried to clear her thoughts, calm her mind, focus all her being on the small, inexplicably-warm box she held in her hands. Despite the lack of grace with which Astria had acknowledged it, this sort of magic was the one area of spellcraft in which Beryl was indisputably gifted. She had “the knack,” as the enchantresses sometimes called it – the ability to sense the inner workings of an enchantment, to probe its secrets, and to know the mind of its maker with an innate, subconscious alacrity.
Small magic, Astria had called it. Not powerful enough to kill a man or to move a mountaintop, but useful enough for reading runes, laying down wards, and bestowing enchantments.
Or for breaking them, as the case might be.
Useful enough to make a living, Beryl knew, even a good one, provided of course that you weren't banished to the Nameless District, where appreciators of the arcane were few and far between and where most moneyed patrons feared to tread.
Beryl shook her head and put those unbidden thoughts aside. Not now, she thought; focus on the task at hand, bizarre though it was.
Again, as before, she felt what seemed like a pulse emanating from within the runes, almost imperceptibly at first, but with an intensity which grew as she allowed her mind and body to attune themselves to its rhythms. This connection seemed to flow in both directions, and she noticed that the runes pulsed in sync with the beating of her own heart. She could feel the seal’s magic start to snake its way up her arms, along her veins, and hear its throbbing pulse behind her eardrums as her own blood pounded through them.
Her eye shot open, and she gasped with a sharp intake of air. She was never aware of holding her breath while feeling an enchantment, although she knew that she did so, for minutes or even hours at a time.
“You back?” Treddon said, pulling himself upright. Beryl saw that the candle she'd placed on the workbench earlier had nearly burned down.
“How long was I gone?” she asked.
“I don't know. I don't carry around an hourglass. A long time,” he said. To Beryl, it had felt like seconds, as though she could have counted out each heartbeat on her fingers.
“Thought for a moment you were dead,” the knight said. “You weren't breathing or nothing. Wasn't looking forward to explaining that to your sister.”
“Don't worry about that,” Beryl said, cutting him off. “Besides, I think I know what kind of seal it is.”
She stood up and walked over to a leaning pile of books, carefully extracting a thick, weathered tome from the middle. It was bound in faded red leather, with gold gilt edging around the pages which was worn away in places where the book had been well-thumbed over the centuries. Returning to her chair, Beryl opened the volume of Thineaus's Arcanum Obscurata and began carefully leafing through the brittle pages, reading the ancient text aloud to herself in a hushed tone as she scanned the illuminated chapter headings for the story she wanted. Her eye moved fast; after years spent reading and memorizing the Arcanum Obscurata – dark years, years best forgotten – she knew the ancient book by heart.
Finally, she tapped the top of a page with her index finger.
“Here we are,” she said. “It's just a short little mention in the story about Lord Kressis and the Warlock's betrayal, but this has to be it.” Clearing her throat, she read aloud:
“And then the Warlock did seal Kressis inside his own vault, and he did heart-seal the door with powerful magic which could be dispel’d only at the moment when then the Warlock’s heart beat no longer.”
“What else?” asked Treddon.
Beryl flipped forward for several pages, running her finger along the text as she went, confirming what she already knew. “Nothing,” she said. “The heart-seal on the vault door drops out of the story. The rest is mostly about the Warlock deceiving Kressis’s wife into believing that her husband is dead.”
“So what's the big mystery then, if all you had to do is look this thing up in a book?”
Beryl looked at the knight. “It's not so simple as all that. First, you have to guess that this seal is a heart-seal. I've never heard of one actually being done before, and, as you heard, Thineaus's description isn't exactly precise. Second, you have to think to consult Thineaus in the first place, and even the most learned sorcerers rarely spare a thought for him these days, since he's a better storyteller than historian and fully half the spells he describes don't ever seem to have existed, at least in so much as anyone alive can tell. And, third, after all that, you have to actually have a copy of the Arcanum Obscurata, which is a rare enough thing to begin with. The Court library doesn't have one, so far as I know, and neither does the Sorceress's Guild anymore.”
“So how does someone like you come by one, then?”
“It was my mother's,” Beryl said, reaching up to rub her good eye. “Anyway, I know how the box was enchanted. It's heart-sealed. I'm sure of it.”
“So how does it work, then, this heart-seal? How do you get it open?”
“I don't know.”
Treddon snorted. “What good is knowing what kind of lock it is if you don’t know how to open it?”
“Well, according to Thineaus, it can only be opened when the heart of the person who sealed it stops beating,” Beryl said, repeating the passage from memory.
“And what does all that mean, then?”
“Anything, potentially. It could be literal – when the person who sealed it dies, then the seal comes undone, or it can be broken. Or it could be figurative. Or, frankly, just wrong. Thineaus was recording stories which had been passed down through generations, many of which originated in languages which were already dead by the time he compiled them,” Beryl said. “His translations can be unreliable.”
Treddon scratched his head. “So all that was for nothing, then?”
Beryl shook her head. “I know the spell’s name now, which is more than I knew before. And there is great power in names.”
She gently closed the ancient leather-bound book, which felt heavier by the minute in her arms. It must have been well after last light, she reckoned, and probing the seal had sapped her energy. Beryl had to stifle a yawn as she replaced the tome. She blew its dust off her hand, then rubbed her eye again.
“The rest will have to wait for tomorrow,” she said. “I'm dead tired, and I haven't slept. I'm going upstairs.” The knight started to stand, but she pointed an admonishing finger at him. “And you won't be following me. I don't care where you sleep down here, provided you don't disturb any of my books or goods, but no one is allowed into my quarters.”
Treddon shrugged. “Suits me,” he said.
He was clearing a space on the earthen floor as Beryl ascended the narrow stair from her workshop to her tiny chamber, candle in one hand, the heart-sealed box still beating in the other. Once inside her living space, she set both down upon her knockabout dresser, then bolted the chamber door behind her. The door was made of ancient, cracked wood and would hardly withstand any assault from Treddon's muscular bulk, but she valued the barrier more for its privacy than security. She wondered again about what sort of intrigue Astria had pulled her in to, and why her sister had felt the need to leave the knight behind. There were multiple possible explanations, some of them mundane if not quite innocent. Others, well – it didn't do to dwell too much on their implications.
Beryl kicked off her battered hobnail boots and slid out of the leather apron she wore in the shop. Shivering in her underclothes, she pulled on the patched woolen robe she wore to bed. Fatigue clung to her like cobwebs, blurring the world around the corners of her eye. She stared for a second at the bed which had afforded so little rest of late, before turning to face herself in the dingy mirror which hung above the dresser.
“There is great power in names,” she said to her own reflection.
Then she licked her fingertips and pinched the candle flame out of existence. She picked up the little sealed box and slipped it into one of the robe's deep hip pockets, keeping her right hand closed around it. Then, after covering a final yawn, she collapsed into the bed, allowed her eyelid to fall shut, and slept.
* * *
The dream began as it always did, with music.
Notes from a harp wafting up through the darkness of oblivion, followed by the sound of birds, and occasional laughter. Colors emerging from the black fog as the world took shape. She was in the Palace garden, standing below the blue and white trellised roof of the music pavilion, nestled within a clearing among leafy, weeping trees.
It was spring. Birdsong greeted the dawn. It was still cool in the shade of the pavilion, and the morning breeze was crisp, but the sun shone.
She was in the center of it all, feet rooted in place, unable to move.
From her vantage point in the dream Beryl saw her whole family. She saw her mother, resplendent in the embroidered robes of the High Sorceress, with silk of the deepest blue and figurative gold cording which Beryl could still remember running her young fingers across, leaning back against the pavilion's wooden railing. In her arms she held her newborn child, a son. She rocked the baby along with the notes of the harp while still keeping an eye on her two daughters nearby.
Beryl saw Astria standing behind a book on a stand with a look of great concentration on her face. Astria, barely into her teens, already the budding beauty, already the prodigy, already with her name being mentioned around Court as a sorceress of promise. Astria Trevanei, eldest daughter of High Sorceress Moira Trevanei, peeress of the realm and the greatest spellcaster of her age. Same auburn hair, same amber eyes, same effortless talent for bending magic of all kinds to her will.
Truly her mother's daughter.
Under the pavilion Astria looked up from her book, pointed a slender finger at a nearby candelabra, and, with a whispered word and small flip of the wrist, set its wicks aflame, one after another. With each hissing spark and crackling flame, Beryl saw her mother smile.
And, finally, as always, Beryl saw herself, aged eight, watching her older sister with both awe and jealousy through the deep green eyes for which her mother had named her. As each candle sparked to life, Beryl saw her younger self start in place, mouth slightly open, hardly daring to breathe, but unable to look away.
Beryl Trevanei, a precocious reader of books, a clever girl, an enchantress no doubt with a knack for small magic, but seemingly born without that spark which set the Trevaneis apart from the other great magical families. A girl who, no matter how hard she tried, no matter how many times she practiced alone in her room at night, could never make a paraffin wick light, or a glass of water freeze, or a wooden top float into the air and spin by itself.
Her mother must have seen the pained expression on Beryl's young face as she stared at her sister, because, newborn in arms, she walks over to run a hand through her younger daughter's black hair, and bends down to plant a kiss on the top of her head.
From her invisible perch within the dream, on this night as on countless nights before, Beryl watched her mother kneel down close to her younger self, to whisper the last words she will ever say:
“Don't fret, my child. You have your own gift. More than that, you have a good heart, which no one can ever take from you. Do not doubt that, or yourself.”
Though powerless to do so, Beryl wished she could snatch those words from the air.
Instead, Moira stands up and walks back over toward the harp. Astria closes her book and extinguishes all the candles with a wave of her hand. She climbs down the pavilion steps to return to the Palace.
With her older sister gone, young Beryl walks over to the abandoned book and, standing on tiptoe, restores it to its recently opened page. She fixes her eyes on the candelabra and takes a deep breath. She points a finger like Astria does, says the words like Astria says them, and, now more than ever before, she believes that the fire will come.
What comes is not so much a flame as it is an inferno. The air itself seems to ignite, with the force and heat of the blast radiating out from the candle in a wave of cinders and fire. The eight year old who sparks the explosion turns her head away just as the blowback washes over her, knocking her down, setting the tips of her hair on fire, a bit of molten debris striking her face as she falls. This girl will be left scarred and half-blind, but she will live.
Her mother and infant brother, who are standing behind the candelabra, who will take the brunt of the explosion, will not live. The little girl will not see it happen through her clenched, burning eye, but she will hear it, smell it. Hear the scream, smell the acrid, nauseating smell of burning cloth, hair, flesh.
And when the little girl opens her eye, the thing she will see through the haze of pain and blood is her older sister looking down at her, with embers smoldering in the black depths of her eyes.
Watching this all through the lens of the dream, reliving again the fatal moment which left her maimed and banished and stripped of her name, Beryl opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. Instead, she felt a searing heat erupt in the palm of her closed fist, a heat which spread up her arm like a licking flame.
Looking down, she was shocked to see the little heart-sealed box – glowing, beating, throbbing – clenched in her fist, to see the runes across its surface flare brightly and a blinding white light emerge from the seam between its two halves, growing in brightness and intensity until it blotted out the background of the dreamscape and seemed to burn its way through her retina and into her brain, until all the world was heat and light.
* * *
Beryl woke with a start.
She sat upright in her bed. Her face was covered with a thin, sticky layer of warm sweat, and her nightclothes were soaked through. She reached up to wipe away the damp strands of hair which clung to her face, only to realize that she was still gripping the little box tightly in one hand.
The heart-sealed box. She had seen it in her dream. Now awake, she realized that the bit of metal she clutched had changed. Where once it had pulsed with a magical energy, it lay still. The beating she had felt before in its enchanted runes now seemed to emanate out from her own hand and her own heart.
Shaking slightly, she stood and walked to her dresser and the mirror which hung above it. The box’s surface was now a uniform bronze patina – the runes upon it had vanished. Instead, Beryl held her right hand up to the glass, and she saw entwined runes and characters, patterned like veins, burned across the open surface of her palm, where they pulsed in time with the beating of her heart.
The little box itself was still warm to the touch. Beryl slid her fingers across the seam between the box’s two halves and, where the heart-seal had previously fused the lid and bottom together, they now parted beneath her touch. The box swung open on its hinge, and inside Beryl saw a small, red crystal. It was the color of a smoldering fire, and both heat and magic seemed to radiate up from it in waves.
She realized she had seen it once before – she could picture it now, in a half-forgotten memory from her childhood. She could see the little red crystal in her mother’s hand, and remember what her mother had called it: a fire diamond.
She picked up the fire diamond, and, as she did, she felt a surge of mana welling up within her body, like the oncoming rush of a summer storm. Looking at her own reflection in the mirror, even through her single eye, she saw her transformed self with a startling clarity and intensity, as though a dim veil which she had never known existed had been lifted from before her. It was simultaneously thrilling in its possibilities, and frightening in its implications.
Then, her mouth fell open, and she froze in place. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the source of the glow which lit her reflection in the glass.
A tiny red flame danced atop the candle on her dresser, which she remembered smothering before going to bed.
Without bothering to put on her boots, Beryl yanked open her chamber door and rushed down the stairs, taking the steps two at a time.
* * *
“What's this ruckus?” Sir Treddon was saying as she burst into the workroom below. The knight had one hand on her workbench for leverage as he raised himself up from the floor. In his other hand, he held his shortsword at the ready.
“It was my mother all along – it must have been her,” Beryl said in a rush, holding out the fire diamond for the knight to see. “She must have sealed the box, and then I saw her in my dream, and I broke the seal. And the box was warm to the touch was because the fire diamond was inside it.”
“What’s a fire diamond, then?” Treddon asked, stepping closer as he did.
“It’s a mana stone – a powerful mana stone. Look.”
With that, Beryl raised her hand towards the workbench. She pointed a finger at a bundle of dried willow bark which hung from a hook overhead, and, with a crackle and a rush of heat, the bark burst into flame. After letting it redden and smoke for a second, Beryl gave her wrist a little twist, and the flames were extinguished beneath a violent gust of air.
The corners of Treddon's mouth curled up. “It's that simple, then, is it? That stone powers magic?”
Beryl allowed herself a smile as well. “It's that simple,” she said.
“That's what I've been wanting to know,” the knight said, and, with a swift, practiced motion, he drove his sword through Beryl's heart.
As the blade went in, the expression on her face transformed into one of shock. She let out a small gasp, and mouth open, eye wide, she looked down at the blade which protruded from her chest, then back up at the cruel smile of the man with his hand on its hilt. She felt the sword's tip glance off a rib and exit through her back as the knight eased the blade in another few inches.
Then, slowly, the look on the knight's face changed from one of sadistic pleasure to one of confusion. For, although he knew his strike had found its mark, and that his blade was buried in his victim's heart, the wound did not bleed, and Beryl did not collapse. Instead, he saw her features darken as her shock transformed into rage, and a fire kindled deep within the black center of her wide green eye. He stood transfixed as a woman who should have – must have – been dead instead wrapped a hand around the blade of his sword where it emerged from her chest. The air around the blade began to shimmer, as the air above hot ground does on a blistering summer day, and the handle of the sword began to heat up under his grip. With a start, he snatched his hand away from the suddenly scorching hilt, and began to back away.
Her hand still around the blade, Beryl began to pull. The red hot sword slid gently back out of her body, cauterizing its own wound as it went. Soon its point emerged and she pulled the blade free. She threw the sword down on the floor at her side, and looking down at the singed gash in the front of her robe, placed a finger through it and ran it down across the clean, raised scar where the wound had closed itself over.
A thin, red line across the skin over her heart, the only evidence which remained of such sudden and unexpected violence.
“That was unkind,” she said, her voice level and cold. “I already have enough scars.”
Now backed into a corner, her attacker held his arms out as if to intercede with her. His head and hands shook. The terror on his face was palpable.
With a few swift steps, Beryl closed the distance between herself and the knight. Though he stood easily a head taller and weighed easily ten stone more, the knight seemed unable or unwilling to resist as Beryl raised her right hand and placed her fingertips on his forehead.
“Did my sister tell you to do that?” she asked him. As she did, the skin under her fingertips began to redden and blister, and the sickly smell of singed flesh began to fill the room.
Treddon made a noise that was somewhere between a scream and a moan. “Please,” he said, squirming under her touch, but still seemingly riveted to that spot of the floor.
“I'm sorry,” Beryl said, as a thin stream of blood began to trickle down the knight's forehead from one of the spots where she held him. “It seems like this is hurting much more than I intended. But, then, you have to understand, this is all new to me. I'm sure I'll learn.” With that, she sent another surge of heat through her grip, and the skin underneath sizzled audibly.
“Please,” he said again, nearly choking on the word. “Please.”
Beryl's face softened almost imperceptibly. After a second which felt like an eternity, she drew her hand away. Treddon slumped into a heap on the floor. He cradled his head in his hands, and tears streamed out from under his clenched eyelids.
Beryl knelt down so that her face was level with his, and waited until he opened his eyes. Holding his gaze with hers, she repeated her question:
“Was that ordered by my sister? Was that the plan all along?”
Treddon shook his head. His voice shaky, his words coming in short bursts between heaving gasps, he said, “No. Your sister makes a lot of enemies at Court. People, powerful people, who don't want to see her gain more power, who don't want to see another Trevanei climb the ranks of the sorceresses. They want her out of the way, and they want that mana thing for themselves.”
“Well, you can give them a message from me. Tell them that this fire diamond doesn’t belong to them, or to my sister,” Beryl said. She looked down at the red crystal which pulsed with power in the palm of her hand, before slipping it into her pocket. “And tell them that they will be seeing another Trevanei very shortly.”
Leaving the stunned and bleeding knight slumped over on the packed earth floor of her shop, she stood up and started walking towards the door.
From behind her, she heard Treddon's cracking voice call out: “Where are you going?”
“I'm going to take back what is mine,” Beryl said.
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