The moment Kaji saw the crystal city of Anjur, she hungered to learn the magic which had wrought it. In awe she gazed at the multitude of tall, glassy spires that captured the dawn's light and swirled it like water around long, graceful curves. The towers sparkled clear and distinct, even several miles away. At this distance Anjur looked like fluid calligraphy, painted in crystal on the sky, depicting some ancient, cryptic language that begged to be deciphered. Kaji's mind quickened at the sight.
The young Meer stepped out of a thicket of oversized ferns, onto a hillside overlooking the city. Her mage's tunic was grimy after the long journey from the provinces. Despite the fatigue which made her feel heavy as stone, she stood with a proud arch in her back. Her ears perked high. Her spotted fur was damp with dew.
Teyloth walked beside her. He was dressed in his warrior's armor, round plates of iridescent chitin engraved with his family's symbols. His face bore marks and bruises from their ordeal a few nights earlier. His expression was not as bright as his companion's.
"There it is," he said in a dark tone.
Kaji nodded, still staring.
"That's it, then," he mumbled. "We can't see each other once we're in the city."
She shook her head, very slightly.
The warrior sighed, then twitched his ears at a tiny sound from Kaji. Over her shoulder she glanced at him, grinning. "Take this," she murmured, and held up a fist. From her fingers dropped a small stone into his palm. It looked like carved amber. He furrowed his brow.
"It's a heartstone. When we were little, at the Matriarch's villa, we'd trade them with our best friends. I thought I'd outgrown them." She presented a second stone, which she squeezed in her grip. "Hold it tight."
Teyloth closed his hand over the stone, and smiled. "It's warm."
"That's the warmth of my hand. I can feel yours, too." She rose to her tiptoes and crossed her wrists behind his neck. "So we can always hold hands, no matter how far apart we are."
He chuckled and hugged her around the waist. "I'll stay in the city for a few months. Call on me sometimes, at my family's estate?"
She touched her lips to his and nurtured a long rich kiss. When it ended, her eyes glistened with wild, helpless excitement.
The city was a festival of activity. Inside the crystal gates the zealous bustle of crowds swallowed Kaji before she could defend herself. Along the wide streets clamored reptilian livestock, wicker carts and servant-borne litters, past endless merchant booths laden with food and wine and incense. The atmosphere was a thick tapestry of smells and sounds.
The young mage pushed through the chaos with bewildered amusement. Her eyes were centered on the closest of the tall spires. The titanic structure resembled a cluster of giant quartz pillars, elongated to fantastic heights, the crystal stretched so thin and curved it could not possibly support the weight of the smaller clusters blooming at its peak. Yet it stood firm and beautiful. And it was a humbler representative of the dozens of legendary Anjuric spires in the sprawling city.
She smiled. "I've come for your secrets," she whispered, softly so it would not hear.
Kaji did not detect the eyes that watched her, from a mushroom-shaped window at the peak of the tallest spire. "She'll betray us," said a grave voice.
"No," came an answer. "She completes the formula. She is essential."
"You're wrong. But our time runs short."
Inside the window, the chamber rippled with kaleidoscopic light, streaking out of a granite basin. Two faces turned to watch the display, with expressions of muted dread.
"And so you've traveled from the country to become a sorceress," reviewed the middle-aged Meer, his voice somewhat deadpan. He wore robes and jewelry, as exquisite as Kaji had ever seen on Dame Sayaru, though his face was not nearly so grim. The fur on his temples and nose was whitening with age, forming a pale mask that distracted Kaji's eye. He sat behind an irregular granite table and glanced over a scroll unfurled in front of him. "And this recommendation from your Matriarch is supposed to grant you an apprenticeship."
"Yes. I have completed the Circle of Elements. I can demonstrate my skills as a mage." Kaji recalled Sayaru's instructions for addressing members of the Lore Council. "I thank you for hearing me, Honorable Master."
The older Meer smirked. "You needn't resort to flattery, miss. I am not yet a member of the Council. You may address me as Master Mithrazel. And I am proud to say I recently graduated from a long apprenticeship myself, to none other than Lore Master Adranath. Do you know the name?"
"Of course I do. I'm honored to meet a student of the head of the Lore Council."
"Mmmm. But as to this business of your apprenticing, it's just not possible. Provincial magecraft conflicts with Anjuric teachings. You could not meet the challenge of reconciling the two, nor of discarding a lifetime of Matriarchal training, young though you may be."
"Give me the chance and I'll prove you wrong, Master Mithrazel." Kaji sensed her own frankness, but her tongue was driven by rampant nerves. "I'm a very good mage, but I'm not narrow-minded about provincial traditions. You must trust that I can handle... contradictions. They have never hindered me in the past."
She recognized dangerous territory and said no more. She wished she could hold the heartstone in her hand.
"Hmm. And this is supposed to persuade me that you'd make a good sorceress." He pointed a long-nailed finger at his nose. "Look at my face, miss. Do I look like a boy to you? As I told you I only just received the title of sorcerer, after decades of study." He leaned over the tabletop. "Sorcery is not the same as pollinating crops and healing broken legs. Sorcery requires a lifetime of discipline and responsibility. It is not for cubs to putter with."
"Mithrazel, you forget," boomed a new voice, "that I began my studies as a cub." A figure walked into the room through a marble door. He was dressed in a long wizard's gown, alive with many flowing layers of gossamer brocade. The fabric glittered with crystalline threads. A wide, beaded belt held the robe in place, describing a sigil in its embroidery -- the symbol of the most respected house in the Mystic caste.
"Honorable Master!" Mithrazel rose from his chair and bowed.
Kaji's heart jumped. "Master Adranath?"
Lore Master Adranath tipped up his ears and smiled. His advanced age was evident only in the rich silver sheen of his fur and the distinguished lines of his face. The rest of him could have belonged to someone Kaji's age. "Good morning to both of you."
Kaji rose and opened her mouth to speak, but Mithrazel was quicker. "Honorable Master, if I may, I am nearly finished here."
"But I am interrupting you." Adranath cast an eye over Kaji. At his glance the young Meer sensed something almost like a physical touch. The Lore Master lifted his eyebrows. "Why can't she apprentice herself to one of us, Mithrazel? She has a talent with mana, doesn't she?"
"Yes I do, Honorable Master. Dame Sayaru has always said it."
Mithrazel furrowed his brow. "Honorable Master, the philosophical differences..."
The old sorcerer looked into Mithrazel's face and chuckled. "You don't know who she is, do you? This girl is the cause of the disturbance we sensed last week in the Wilds of Dashan."
"The insects?" The gray-masked Mithrazel swiveled to face her. "You wrought that?"
Kaji quickly looked down at the granite table. "It wasn't intentional. I'm sorry." Suddenly she felt foolish for imagining that the nightmare in the jungle could have escaped the Lore Council's notice.
"There you are, Mithrazel. She didn't even cast that spell consciously. She has raw, virgin power."
Kaji almost smiled, despite herself. When she glanced up, Adranath's eyes twinkled at her.
"And that is convincing." Mithrazel stroked his jawline, gazing at her more closely. "That is convincing."
"Honorable Master, I am worthy of an apprenticeship. You will not regret the decision."
"Very well, " proclaimed Mithrazel, rolling up the Matriarch's letter, "we shall grant you a chance to prove yourself. As I am only recently graduated from Master Adranath's tutelage, I am presently in need of an apprentice."
Kaji inhaled quickly and raised a hand. "With regard, Master Mithrazel, it seems to me that since you recently graduated from Master Adranath's tutelage, Master Adranath is presently in need of an apprentice."
Her stomach knotted in the silence that followed.
"By my ancestors," said Adranath at last, "your tongue blows like a trumpet, girl. Mithrazel, she's got what you had when you first came to me, and a lot more of it. I could take a liking to her."
She attempted to look directly into his eyes. "Thank you, Honorable Master."
The old sorcerer stared straight back. "Kaji Sayarukan, either you're going to lead the Lore Council in your time or you'll burn yourself to cinders like a shooting star. One way or the other, I'm intrigued to watch what you do." He opened a wide grin and nodded. "You'll be Master Mithrazel's apprentice. I haven't the time for one, anyway."
Mithrazel bowed his head to the Lore Master. Kaji closed her eyes and hoped she wasn't frowning.
"And now," said Mithrazel after Master Adranath exited, "you'll want to change out of those provincial clothes. I'll see about finding you something more... dignified."
Kaji enjoyed the fashion of Anjur mystics -- gowns of exquisite silk in colorful, translucent layers. She felt like some diaphanous spirit from a child's tale. Her immediate thought was to slip away and find Teyloth, who would doubtless savor the effect. But Master Mithrazel had strict plans for her. To her disheartenment, they involved no foreseeable spellcraft. Instead the magician showed her around his labyrinthine stacks of documents and scrolls, droning out historical lessons which seemed better suited to scholars than practicing sorcerers.
When Mithrazel's discourse reached a pause, she stepped forward and pressed her palms together in a gesture of humbleness. "Master, I've got to ask you something that puzzles me. The Matriarchs teach us that nature requires a balance. For every blessing we receive, we must endure an equal sacrifice. Yet your sorcery seems to reap only rewards. How can you defy the balance of nature like that?"
Mithrazel wagged a bony hand in the air, dismissing the premise like a pesky fly. "Do not be deceived by the mystique of nature. Nature has no notion of blessing and sacrifice, or good and evil. It's just an arrangement of materials and energies. Like this pile of scrolls here." He stopped before a pyramid of scroll tubes, stacked in a careful arrangement. "What the Matriarchs call 'balance' is just this: If you take away some of nature's mana to cast a spell," he nudged the tip of a scroll in the middle of the pyramid, "you've got to replace it with something else, or the whole thing might crash down on top of you." He plucked the scroll from the middle of the pyramid. Kaji jumped as the stack toppled to the ground, priceless scrolls clattering atop each other, spilling across the library aisle.
"Dash it," mumbled Mithrazel. "Pick those up, would you?"
Kaji knelt and began to collect the tubes. "But that doesn't answer my question, master. How does Anjuric sorcery defy the balance of nature?"
"And so begins the ordeal of an apprentice." He sighed. "Don't be short-sighted, girl. We sorcerers don't dally with nature's original balance. We reinvent nature itself." He peeked at the scroll in his hand, then slid it into a diamond-shaped slot in the wall. "You see? Nature stacks things in haphazard piles. Sorcerers," he patted the wall, "build shelves. Do you understand?"
The young mage wrinkled her brow. "No, master." She tried to reconstruct the original pattern of the pyramid of scrolls, but her clumsy stack kept tumbling down. Her tall ears pressed flat on her head. "But claiming to reinvent nature sounds... prideful."
The sorcerer snorted. "And this is the girl who told me she wasn't narrow-minded! The only pride here is your pride in primitive Matriarchal philosophy. You're going to put that out of your mind or I shall put it out for you." He grimaced at the young girl as she knelt in the library aisle. "Now move back."
Kaji perked her ears and slid backward on her knees. The gray-masked sorcerer chewed on a breath, then performed a brief, intricate gesture with his fingers. Kaji felt as if a squall of mystic energy had whirled out of nowhere. When the sensation passed, she was looking at a perfectly stacked pyramid of scrolls.
"Examine it," said Mithrazel, "and ask yourself what was sacrificed here. Did I lose anything in that act? Did you?"
Kaji held back a grin as she committed to memory the sorcerer's magical hand gestures. "Thank you, master." She bowed with conjured humility. "It is clear I have much to learn from you."
The walls of the room were pearly crystal, illuminated by the glow of tapestries with a phosphorescent weave. In the center, a pair of wizards bent over a basin of glistening water. An oily sheen made rainbow patterns on the surface.
"She's too capricious," said one as he scrutinized the swirls of color. "We could never trust her."
"You're wrong," said the second. "She'll perform, when the time comes."
"She'll never last that long."
The colors shifted again. The wizards leaned closer.
"Perhaps she might," murmured the second wizard. "Perhaps she might."
In an instant the liquid in the basin surged upward, then exploded out into the room. The wizards cried out and shielded their faces. Quickly they flung their arms into a series of wild gesticulations, shouting an urgent canticle of mystic invocations. Violent streaks of color and light dashed around the walls and converged again on the overflowing basin.
A shape stirred under the bubbling surface of the liquid. It was dark and nebulous, its form indistinct.
The sorcerers strengthened their effort, bellowing enchantments with aggressive fervor. Nightmarish sounds gurgled from the basin, throaty and coarse, which rumbled the walls and shook the floor. After an eternity of clamor the tumult ceased. The wizards caught their breaths, dripping with oily fluid.
"She won't be trained in time," panted one of them. "It's very close now."
The other had no response.
It only took a few days before Master Mithrazel capitulated and began to instruct Kaji in actual sorcery. She attended him with extravagant zeal.
"Do bridle your ambition, girl," he cautioned her with a patronizing frown. "You must learn to stand before you can walk. You won't be building a crystal tower any time soon."
What she did learn dumbfounded her.
The sorcerers of Anjur did not simply cast more effective spells than the Matriarchs. Rather, as Mithrazel had hinted, the Lore Council had actually refashioned the very laws of nature. Centuries ago the Council replaced the random patterns of nature with a structured, predictable matrix of Anjuric enchantments. This matrix literally enveloped the world, from earth to sky. By subduing nature's randomness, it allowed Anjuric spells to become infinitely more refined. Sorcerers could now command weather, suppress disease, shape crystal and perform many other magicks on a scale that astounded Kaji. In this context the famous crystal spires of Anjur were perfectly rational constructs.
As Master Mithrazel portrayed it, with some pride, the Lore Council no longer had any boundaries to its power.
Yet the young mage felt a stitch of doubt in her gut. As her master had warned, the teachings of Dame Sayaru did not yield easily. Kaji had been raised with a fundamental awe of nature's mysterious forces. She could not accept that nature would defer to the wishes of the Lore Council without repercussions. But nothing in Mithrazel's teachings revealed any weakness in the Anjuric system, and so she began to suspect her misgivings might truly be what her master called them -- provincial superstition.
After a few weeks as a sorcerer's apprentice, Kaji did not sleep well.
In the darkest hours of a particular night, she tried an experiment. From a small box she took out the amber heartstone. Applying basic lessons she had learned, she tapped into its simple enchantment and attempted to alter its function. She was surprised how readily it bent to her sorcery.
"Teyloth," she whispered at the stone, "can you hear me?"
After a pause an answer came: "Kaji?"
Her heart leapt, at the success of her spell and the magical sound of the warrior's voice.
She told Teyloth about her new life. Her words poured out so fast the warrior could barely insert his own, yet she knew he did not mind. When she spoke of her uncertainty between the two disciplines of magic, Teyloth's grin was audible in his voice.
"You know what I say, Kaji? I say we're here in the city, so let's squeeze it dry! Let's enjoy every last drop of Anjur while we can! You came here to become a sorceress, so become a sorceress. Master their ways. Forget the Matriarch, just for a while. You'll still be the best mage in the province when you go home, right?"
"Will I? Is that true anymore?"
"It's in your heart. You'll always be a mage. You know that."
In fact she did know that. To hear someone else say it aloud -- even a voice from a tiny amber stone -- was a weight lifted from her back. A lilt of excitement rose in her belly.
It was just as she had told Master Mithrazel -- Kaji knew how to handle contradictions. She could embrace the Anjuric approach. Now she craved the chance to prove it.
A low-pitched rumble, barely audible, shuddered the uppermost peaks of the city's tallest spire. In a high-ceilinged chamber of wine-colored crystal, many sorcerers clustered around a long table. "It's happening again," muttered one of them, bracing his hands on the tabletop. "The second time in a week."
"We have to double our sentries, then." Lore Master Adranath sat at the table's head, stroking the silver fur of his chin. His gaze was intense, focussed on a cloud of colored light floating above them. "I'll take that duty myself tonight."
"It won't be enough, Adranath. We all know that." The group fell silent, in an ominous assent. The speaker raised his hands. "Honorable Masters, it's time to decide. When shall we perform the Parting?"
"No!" snapped Adranath. "We aren't ready. We lack a nexus."
"The girl --"
"-- is not an option!" The head of the Lore Council glared at the rest of the sorcerers. "She's unreliable. And Mithrazel cannot train her in time."
"Mithrazel has no urgency because he does not know the danger. But we have no choice now." The council muttered agreement. "Unless you know another way, Adranath?"
The old sorcerer glowered at his companions. His ears flattened back, in determined challenge.
After another month, Kaji imagined she must smell like dusty parchment. She spent her nights in Mithrazel's abundant library, poring over what edge-worn scrolls and codices she could decipher. Her days encompassed every lesson she could extract from her reluctant master. She devoured each new spell with mounting hunger. Sorcery, she discovered, was intoxicating to the senses, and it awakened in her a new sensitivity to the textures and nuances of magical energy. And as with provincial magecraft, she found the complexities of sorcery unraveled for her with unexpected ease. Even Master Mithrazel seemed unnerved by her aptitude.
"Discipline and responsibility," he lectured on many occasions. "These are the cornerstones of Anjuric sorcery. Contain your ego, girl, or it will undo you."
When he offered such advice, Kaji detected a tinge of alarm in his voice. The thought made her smile when she was alone.
"Something is missing," she told her master after an evening's lesson was finished. In the sorcerer's workshop, she reclined on a wicker-and-bone chest she had just filled with spent crystals. "From the matrix."
Mithrazel was scratching notes on a parchment with a quartz stylus. "Missing? What on earth are you talking about?"
"The Lore Council's matrix of enchantments. It's designed to eliminate randomness from nature, right? But it can't." She sat up, crossing her legs atop the chest. The wicker complained of her weight. "It doesn't eliminate randomness, it just spreads it out over a large area."
"That's the same thing, Kaji."
"It isn't the same thing, though. Nature gets its energy from life. Only the living earth and the living elements create mana, right? And living things are inherently random and chaotic. Therefore the matrix can't actually eliminate chaos unless it eliminates life."
"Provincial nonsense. The matrix is stable."
"Or..." She nibbled her lip in thought. "Or if the matrix could create life. Ordered life. Then you'd have power without randomness."
Mithrazel chuckled. "And you are precocious at times, girl. Indeed you are."
Kaji raised an eyebrow. "Are you saying the Lore Council can create life?"
"I made no such statement."
She slid off the chest, her diaphanous robes whispering around her legs. "I know that tone in your voice, master. What is it you're trying to hide?"
The sorcerer dropped his stylus and pressed his fingertips over his eyes. "By my ancestors, Kaji, you've impudence enough for a dozen apprentices." He rubbed his brow and sighed. "Very well, I suppose you should know. The time will come when you must assist me with the details."
Kaji crouched at his side. Her ears tipped high.
"Long ago, the Lore Council came to the same conclusion you just have: We are not the masters of nature. We cannot be, until we learn the greatest secret of them all. The ultimate source of power."
He pursed his lips and nodded. "Creation. The ability to fashion life out of emptiness. And with it, most importantly, the ability to create mana. When we can create our own magical energy, my girl, then we will truly refashion the world. Not just control the weather and suppress disease, but literally we will rebuild landscapes, jungles, climates, systems of life, everything, as we see fit."
"Surely that's impossible...?"
Mithrazel smiled, in a way that compressed his mask of gray fur. "It's not impossible. Lore Master Adranath has devised a spell to make it happen. He calls it the 'Parting of the Veils.' The Council intends to perform it quite soon -- possibly within a year. I shall assist Adranath, and you shall assist me."
The young Meer gaped, unable to compose a response.
The wizard's eyes drifted off toward an unfathomed future. "If it works, Kaji, it will be the end of suffering. The end of sacrifice. The end of everything detrimental to the Meer."
The end of everything. Dame Sayaru had used the same phrase, months earlier, to foretell some horrible result of the Lore Council's actions. As she sat in her humble apprentice's room, Kaji recognized that this was why the Matriarch had sent her to Anjur. This was the information Sayaru wanted.
Kaji hugged her knees to her chest and rocked on the bed, in heavy silence.
Many hours later, she crept down to Mithrazel's library. Hanging luminant beads for light, she rooted around for a particular document she had discovered weeks earlier. When she found it, she curled up in a secluded corner and began to study.
The spell was intricate, more so than any she had ever tried before. But when she read the formula, she felt immediately comfortable with its design. She knew she could succeed. Whether it would make her task any easier, she could not be certain -- betrayal was an ambiguous errand.
She doubted the spell would cure the hollow anguish in her stomach.
Kneeling, she pulled the heartstone from her robes, held it before her, and began to chant.