A path of rich red paver stones led up to the Denoir estate, flanked by thigh-high bushes that were currently blooming with bright blue flowers despite the chill from the mountains. The mansion itself was huge, easily three times the size of the Helstea estate where I had lived in Xyrus, and the grounds around it rivalled the yards of the royal palace from my previous life.

After taking a moment to make sure that Regis was still well within range of me, I strode forward.

Floating light artifacts began to blink to life throughout the gardens as we approached, bathing the grounds in a soft yellow glow. One of the oversized double doors into the estate opened, and a woman in an ash-gray uniform came rushing out, moving quickly to meet us. Her bright orange hair was pulled up in a bun, just as it had been when Id seen her outside the Relictombs descension portal.

”Lady Caera! ” she said warmly, stopping in front of us and bowing. ”And Ascender Grey. ” She bowed again. ”Welcome to the Denoir estate. ”

”Thank you, ” I said, returning her warm smile. ”And you would be Nessa, correct? ”

The woman was clearly surprised, but made an effort to hide it, bowing a third time. ”You honor me. ” Although her tone was steady, I could just see a red blush spreading onto her cheeks.

”No need to be so humble, ” I said, gesturing for her to straighten. ”Caera expressed that you are half the reason she stayed sane under the highlord and ladys roof. ”

Nessas blush deepened, and she seemed unsure how to reply. Caera saved her by reaching for the womans arm and continuing toward the house.

After a few steps, Caera shot a glance back over her shoulder, her expression both playful and scolding.

She had prepared me for the evening, telling me everyones names and explaining the evenings protocol, even outlining the likely topics of conversation should her adoptive parents attempt to wrangle me into some political debate.

Caera most likely viewed me as some sort of unsociable brute who preferred picking fights with mana beasts to being sociable—and I guess she wouldn be entirely wrong—but she didn know that I had been a king in my previous life, which had given me years of practice dealing with people like the Denoirs.

A few more servants were waiting in the entrance hall. Although most kept their eyes down in a respectful bow, a younger woman glanced a peek only to meet my eyes. I flashed her a polite smile, which she responded with a panicked look before averting her eyes back to the floor. From there, we were led to a posh sitting room. Lavish furniture was arrayed in small groupings throughout the large room, which burst with color, and an entire bar ran along the far wall.

Standing at the bar was Lauden Denoir, who Id met at the culmination of my trial. A woman in a sprawling maroon dress with brilliantly white hair that draped over her shoulders was leaning back in a lounging chair—Caeras adoptive mother, Lenora Denoir. The blond swordsman, Arian, stood in one corner.

Lenora stood gracefully as we entered, practically floating up out of her seat and giving us a well-practiced but welcoming smile. Her eyes took in everything from my boots up to my wheat-blond hair in a single glance, and I could practically see the gears turning behind her perceptive eyes.

Nessa bowed and stepped aside. ”Lady Lenora of Highblood Denoir. Lady Caera has returned. She brings with her a guest, Ascender Grey. ” Then she straightened and backed up so she was nearly pressed against the wall next to the sitting room door, still as a statue.

”Please, ” Lenora said, gesturing to the closest couch. ”Join me and my son for a drink while we wait for my husband. He should be down any moment. ”

Lauden carried two glasses from the bar, one of which he handed to his mother, then he turned and held out his hand to me. I took it firmly, meeting his eye. ”How nice to see you again, Ascender Grey. Or do you prefer professor, now? ” His manners were impeccable, but they couldn completely shroud the obvious tension that he carried in his shoulders and brows.

”Please, Grey would be more than adequate, ” I answered.

Lauden handed the second glass to Caera. As soon as her adoptive brothers back was to her, she wrinkled her nose and set it down surreptitiously. Lauden didn seem to notice as he returned to the bar. ”Well then, Grey, what would you like to drink? My father takes no little pride in the quality of our collection. Here you will find only the finest and most potent drinks, specifically tailored to be enjoyed by those with the elevated metabolism provided by strength in magic. ”

”Its only proper that I wait for the highlord, as tradition dictates he has the first drink when imbibing with guests, ” I answered properly before giving him a wink. ”But I would enjoy the opportunity to sample your fine collection, of course. ”

Lauden chuckled. ”A man of culture. My father will no doubt appreciate your adherence to the social norm, although I hope youll forgive me for starting without you. ”

With this formality out of the way, Lauden continued to make small talk while Lenora questioned Caera about the academy. Lady Denoir and Caeras attitude toward each other was stiff and businesslike, and I caught Caera glancing in my direction more than once.

After a few minutes, the noise of heavy, unhurried footsteps in the hall announced Highlord Corbett Denoirs arrival.

We all stood as the highlord entered the sitting room, appearing from whatever preoccupation he had feigned in order to keep me waiting, a common tactic among these noble types. His clever eyes jumped to each of us in turn, though they lingered on me the longest. His white and navy suit looked like it cost as much as some peoples houses, and he wore a golden-hilted saber at his side.

Crossing one arm over my chest with my fist just below my shoulder, and the other behind my back, I bowed slightly, just the gentle inclination of my back. It was the type of bow one gave to show respect, but not subservience. This simple gesture—I had all but shouted that I saw our positions as equal—would set a spark to the questions in his mind, since the Denoirs already suspected I was secretly a highblood.

”Welcome to our home, ” he said, unperturbed, before moving around behind where his wife was sitting and resting a hand on her shoulder. ”This meeting has been too long in coming, hasn it my love? ”

”Indeed it has, ” she replied, beaming up at him. To me, she said, ”Youve given us such a novel experience, as neither of us are accustomed to having our invitations rejected. ”

Her execution was flawless—politefully teasing with barbs hidden between her words and a blade in her smile.

”You have my apologies, ” I replied with a weary smile. ”It was my selfish desire to express to the other professors at Central Academy that I had rightfully earned a position there. ”

”Come now, we only jest, ” Lenora said with a chuckle. ”Regardless, Corbett and I are quite curious about you. Why don we move to the dining room, and you can tell us about yourself over a wonderful dinner our cooks have prepared in your honor? ”

Standing, I held out my arm to the Denoir matron, who took it with a curious smile. ”Lead the way, Lady Denoir, ” I said politely.

She did so, with the rest of the Denoirs following after us. Corbett spoke quietly with Lauden about some business dealing while Lenora showed off the mansion, telling me about the many items on display throughout the estate, including several very fine paintings and tapestries, and at least a dozen different accolades returned from the Relictombs.

A long table dominated the dining room, with seating enough for at least thirty people. Three chandeliers hung from a high ceiling, filling the space with a brilliant light. Another small bar ran along one side of the room, while the other was covered up by cabinets and shelves filled with fine dishes and silverware in dozens of different stylings. It was clearly a valuable collection, and likely something Lenora took great pride in, a fact I filed away for our conversations.

The table was already set, and Lenora led me to the far end, gesturing for me to take the seat just left of the head of the table, where Highlord Denoir sat a moment later. Lenora sat across from me, with Caera to my left, and Lauden across from her next to his mother. It was a position of honor, to be sat at the left hand of the highlord, which I assumed was normally reserved for his son.

Lenora continued to chat away while hors doeuvres were served, and I grinned and laughed freely between bites of spiced figs topped with crisp bits of meat. The conversation shifted to Corbett over an appetizer of stuffed mushrooms, but he avoided any serious topics, expressing interest in my class at the academy and telling me about his interest in literature as he subtly bragged about the Denoirs donations to the Central Academy library. Caera kept a cool kind of silence, not interjecting in the conversation unless she was addressed directly.

It wasn until the salad arrived that the conversation shifted into something more serious.

”So, Grey, ” Corbett began, stabbing his fork into his bowl, ”I was hoping to learn more about your blood. Its no mean feat, securing a position at Central Academy. It speaks highly of your bloods connections. ”

I gave the man a wide smile and shrugged nonchalantly. ”Im sorry to disappoint, but there is no mystery to uncover, whatever rumors might be flying around. My parents are from a remote village, and they were both simple people. My father was killed in the war, ” I said passively, my voice devoid of emotion. ”After the war was over, I turned to the Relictombs and became an ascender instead, trying to take care of my mother and sister. ”

Corbett listened as if he only half believed me, but Lenoras hand had moved to cover her mouth. ”Too many were lost fighting those savages in Dicathen. ”

Lauden grunted unhappily, turning away from the conversation and taking a long drink from his glass.

Seeing an opportunity to take the reins of the conversation, I said, ”Indeed, far too many, especially in…what was it called? Dicathens magic forests? ”

”Elenoir, ” Lauden answered, staring down into his drink, his expression sour.

”Thats it, ” I said, rapping my knuckles on the wooden table. ”Poor souls. Although, from what Caera has told me, Highblood Denoir didn have a presence there. ”

Corbett and Lenora exchanged a quick glance. ”No, ” Corbett answered after a moment. ”I recognized that we already had everything we needed in Alacrya. Maintaining a hold in such a far off land, and still full of turmoil, seemed an unnecessary complication. ”

”A fortuitous decision. Many others weren so wise. ” I turned to Lauden. ”You lost people in Elenoir? ”

He tipped back his glass, finishing off his drink in one gulp. ”A lot of those who went to Elenoir to set up the holds were blood-heirs, or second sons. I knew many of them. Some entire bloods—those who dedicated the most to this effort—were wiped out, depriving Alacrya of many powerful voices and ending many potent bloodlines. And what did we accomplish— ”

”Lauden, ” Corbett chastised, giving his son a subtle shake of his head. ”This isn the time for such a conversation. Grey, I hope youll retire with me to my study after dinner? A good fire and a Sovereigns Quarrel board make for a better backdrop to politics than the dining room, wouldn you agree? ”

Although disappointed—I wanted to delve more into this tension Lauden displayed, to see how deep it ran—I only nodded politely, and the conversation turned back to more mundane matters for the remainder of dinner.

After wed eaten as much roasted meat and fruit tarts as was polite—leaving the last bite on our plates to show that wed been well fed and weren gluttonous—the table was cleared and Lenora whisked Caera away.

Lauden leaned back in his chair and gave me a curious look. ”Your star seems to be rising fast, Grey, ” he said with just a hint of a slur after several glasses of strong amber liquor. ”Best of luck at the Victoriad. It is the place to cement your position amongst the nobility—or to see yourself fall with all speed back to the ground. ”

”See to your mother and sister before retiring, ” Corbett said firmly, leveling a steady gaze at his son. He held out a hand to a side door out of the dining room. ”Grey? ”

Wordlessly, I followed Corbett through the house and up into an office. Id known people whose entire homes would have fit into the two-story study, and there were as many books as the Aramoor City library. The fire was already burning.

”Have a seat, ” Corbett said, gesturing to a very fine leather chair resting to one side of a carved marble table, which had a game board etched into the surface and pieces already laid out. ”I assume you play? ”

I nodded, then gave a helpless sort of shrug. ”I should say I have played. Caera enjoys reminding me that she has benefited from significantly more practice and training than I have. ”

Corbetts expression didn change as he poured us both yet another drink and took the seat opposite me. I took a sip from the offered glass. It burned going down, but settled warm and heavy into my stomach. Some of my surprise must have slipped through onto my face because Corbetts lips twitched in a bare smile.

”Dragons Breath, ” he announced. ”Im not surprised youve never had it. Its made with a rare spice that only grows along the banks of the Redwater near Aensgar. The warriors of Vechor will often drink it before a battle. ”

”And is that what this is? ” I asked, resting my glass on the edge of the board. ”A battle? ”

The brief glint of a humorless smile returned. ”That depends on your skill. ”

He gave me the first move, and I started the game conservatively, moving a shield up the middle of the game board. ”Have the events in Elenoir soured the highbloods taste for this war? ” I asked conversationally, although I watched Corbetts face carefully.

He responded more aggressively than Id expected, drawing a caster along the edge of the board. It was the same opening maneuver Caera often used. ”My son is headstrong, and has reason to be frustrated. Several of our friends and allies were lost in the asuras attack. ”

”Although, to be fair, many more Dicathian lives must have been lost in the attack than those of Alacryans, ” I pointed out, continuing to inch forward with my shields.

”All the more reason they should embrace the High Sovereign, ” he grunted, his eye on the game. Still, there was something in the lines around his eyes and in his stiff posture that told me he found the topic of Elenoir and all those deaths uncomfortable.

”Perhaps, ” I replied, pretending to think about my next move as I took another drink of the fiery liquor. ”And yet, I can help but wonder…if it meant avoiding further conflict between the asura, would it be worth giving up Dicathen? ”

He frowned deeply, which highlighted his wrinkles and made him look about a decade older. ”You mean withdraw the forces there and abandon the continent? ” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ”That is a risky proposition. The blow to morale— ”

”Let me phrase it another way, ” I said, dragging a striker across the board to take out his caster. ”If the cost of the war—the cost in highblood lives—had been made clear up front, would they still have supported it? ”

We played a couple moves in thoughtful silence, although Corbetts eyes kept flicking away from the board to me. After a minute or two, he said, ”It is common for the lesser bloods to overestimate the power and authority of the highbloods. ”

I bit back an eager smile at his slip. ”Surely if a majority of the highbloods spoke together as one, the Sovereigns— ”

”You have climbed far, and too quickly, ” Corbett said, taking his hands away from the board and leaning back in his chair. ”It is evident in the way you speak, like you have no experience with the higher levels of politics in Alacrya. You should be careful, Grey. The wrong word in the wrong ear can get you killed. ”

As if to emphasize his point, he took a striker through a gap in my shields and killed one of my casters. It left the striker piece open to a counterattack, but it weakened the inner circle of defense around my sentry. ”Rushing in, being bold…that is what those bloods who died in Elenoir did. And now many of them are less than the lowest unnamed. ”

When I responded by killing the striker, I noticed Corbetts knuckles were white as he picked the piece up, squeezing it between his fingers as if he could crush the carved stone to dust.

”Why encourage such heavy investment in Elenoir if there was still such risk? ” I asked, my tone innocent and unassuming.

Corbett set the piece down with a sharp clink and met my eye. ”Perhaps the Sovereigns didn think the asura had it in them to break the treaty… ” But the truth was there, gleaming like a fire in his eyes. He didn believe that the Vritra—deities themselves—could be caught so off guard. Which meant…

”You think it was a trap, ” I said flatly, a statement of fact. ”Bait, to make the asuras break the treaty. ”

Corbett tensed. ”You are aware of the relationship between Caera and the Denoirs, correct? ”

I nodded.

”Did you know that, should we fail in our duty to the Vritra and to Caera, Highblood Denoir could be stripped of all titles and lands? Lenora and I could be executed. ”

Again, I nodded in response.

”We are one of the most influential highbloods in the central dominion, even in all of Alacrya, ” he said, although there was no smugness in the statement. ”And yet, a misstep would mean our sudden and violent end. We do not serve kings or queens, as the Dicathians do. Our lords are gods themselves, and we are all subject entirely to their will, from the lowest unnamed to the wealthiest highblood. You would do well not to forget this fact, Grey. Do not think yourself untouchable because you have found some success. ”

Pondering this, I made a series of quick moves to end the game. Although I felt certain I could have ended it in a true win, taking my sentry across the board to Corbetts hold, my taste and patience for the game had faded. Besides, I doubted I would gain anything else from Corbett or his family that evening.

When my caster finally killed his sentry, he gave a resigned sigh and held his glass up to me. ”Tell me, Grey, is it generally after youve beaten her that Caera reminds you of her tutoring in this game? ”

I let a genuine smile show through the stoic calmness that Id kept up for most of our conversation. ”Howd you guess? ”

As soon as we returned to the ground level, Caera took me by the arm. ”Grey, Im afraid we really should be going. Plenty to do still in preparation for the Victoriad. ”

”You
e right, of course. Highlord Denoir and I— ”

”Please, call me Corbett, ” he said, his tone shifting noticeably toward something approaching friendliness. He patted me on the shoulder and said, ”I enjoyed our game, although Im afraid you distracted me with conversation—by design, I imagine, ” he said, giving me a sharp look. ”You owe me a rematch, which of course means you and Caera will have to return for dinner at a later date. ”

Caera was watching her adoptive father with unsuppressed surprise, and even Lenora seemed taken aback for a moment before sliding her arm around around the highlord. ”If anything, Id say you owe it to us for keeping us waiting so long! ” Lenora and Corbett both shared a small laugh.

I gave them another bow, slightly deeper than before. ”Thank you, both for the fine food and stimulating conversation. ”

Caera looked at me like a third eye had just grown in my forehead. ”Okay then, well see ourselves out, so…bye. ”

With that, the Denoirs bid us farewell, with Lady Lenora seeing us to the door herself while Nessa stood by. Caera gave a perfunctory farewell before leading us quickly away from the estate and out to the street where we could flag down a carriage to return us to the academy grounds.

”What in the name of the Vritra did you do to Corbett? ” she said once we were well away from the doors.

”What? ” I asked innocently, my mind already at work sorting through everything Corbett had told me.

”I swear, you
e like a handsome, mysterious onion, ” she said wryly. ”Every challenge that we face together reveals yet another layer to you. How exactly does a self-proclaimed nobody from the outskirts of Sehz-Clar learn to rub elbows with highbloods like you? ” Before I could answer, she kept going. ”No, never mind. Honestly, I don want to know. ”

I laughed quietly as I threw the white cloak Kayden had given me around my shoulders. ”Ive had reason to learn many skills. A dining room can be just as deadly as any battlefield. ”

”And your tongue is sharp as a sword, ” she scoffed as a carriage pulled by a bright orange lizard stopped for us.

***

Black void.

Just that, nothing more.

What am I missing? I asked myself as I swam through the keystone realm. There is something here. Ive felt it.

The real problem was context. Djinn had handed down their knowledge in an esoteric way designed to spark insight, not to allow for memorization or the building of a skill. They likely had an instinctive understanding of their own teaching methods, much the same way that I had been able to read encyclopedias and tomes on magic when I was first born in this world. The Dicathian method for teaching and learning operated on the same principles as those of Earth. But the djinns keystones did not.

And yet I had gained insight into Aroas Requiem from the first keystone—

An idea struck me, sending my heart racing. I withdrew from the keystone and held up the black cube. If it was damaged somehow, perhaps…

The golden rune flared to life on my back, glowing through my shirt, and amethyst motes of energy danced and jumped along my arm, flowing to the keystone until they swarmed over it like purple fireflies.

But they didn appear to be doing anything.

There were no cracks to flow into, no damage to repair. More frustrating still, I didn know if the godrune wasn working because there was nothing to fix or because it couldn repair the damage—like the exit portal in Three Steps zone.

Cursing my incomplete insight into the godrune, I released it, and the motes flickered and faded away.

Several minutes later, I was still sitting there staring at the black cube when my office door opened suddenly, and Enola marched in and seated herself in the chair on the other side of my desk.

”By all means, come in, ” I said, setting the heavy cube on my desk and looking at the precocious young woman. She was glaring down at her hands, which were clenched together in her lap. My voice softened slightly as I continued. ”You weren in class after the bestowal. Did you receive such a powerful rune that theyve allowed you to skip the rest of your schooling? ”

She rubbed at her face then combed her fingers through her short golden hair. ”No. My blood matron recalled me to our estate for a couple days, ” she said stiffly. ”To discuss my future. ”

When did I become a teen counselor? I nearly said the words aloud, but bit my tongue.

”I received a regalia, ” she said, her voice gravelly with restrained emotion. ”The only one in the academy to do so during this ceremony, even among the older students. ”

I let out a low whistle. ”Thats serious. ”

With huff, Enola stood suddenly, nearly knocking over the chair, then winced and set it back in place. She stood behind it, her hands clenching the back. ”My blood has already arranged a posting for me in Dicathen after this season. I should have another two and a half years of academy, but they are moving me around like a piece on a Sovereigns Quarrel board, using my regalia to elevate our highblood. ”

”And putting you front and center if this conflict with the asura escalates further, ” I pointed out carefully. I considered saying more, offering her advice or a calming word, but I couldn bring myself to comfort her; she was being sent across the sea to help keep my friends and family in check.

Enola turned her chin up proudly. ”Im not afraid to go or anything. Im a warrior. But… ” She swallowed heavily. ”Is it really even a war, if we
e battling asura? It seems more like an extermination to me. Regalia or not, how can regular soldiers make a difference in such a conflict? ”

They can , I wanted to say. Aldir had burned an entire nation like Elenoir had been built on the head of a matchstick.

”My… ” She paused and slipped around the chair, taking her seat again. ”My brother was killed in Dicathen. In the early days, one of our first assaults. The same battle in which Jagrette, the Truacian retainer was killed. ” She smiled bitterly, looking past me instead of meeting my eye. ”I remember because they announced it like dying alongside a retainer was some kind of honor. ”

I couldn help but wince. I had fought and killed the poison witch Jagrette in a swamp near Slore, and a sudden realization hit me. While I was busy being angry about what these students families had done, I hadn even stopped to consider the fact that I could have killed their relatives in battle.

”You must hate the Dicathians, ” I said, feeling somewhat guilty for my deception.

”No, ” she said immediately, her answer firm. ”My brother died in honest battle. War is war. They were our opponent. Although Ill miss him, my brother was lucky to have such a war to fight in. ”

Enola fell silent, and I knew what she was thinking.

”But fighting asuras… ” I probed.

”I want to be a soldier, or maybe a powerful ascender. ” She crossed her arms and sagged back into the chair. ”But I do not wish to be tossed away or burned up as kindling in a battle between greater beings. ” Her eyes locked onto mine, then, like she was daring me to argue with her.

Resting my elbows on the desk, I sighed. My gaze drifted to the keystone, and Enolas followed. ”Any one soldier can change the course of a battle, ” I stated. ”The strongest warrior can fall unexpectedly, while the weakest and most cowardly might stumble ass-backwards into victory. ” I picked the keystone up and turned it over in my hand, recalling the djinn projections words. ”But your path is your own, and only you can walk it. You might choose to give up your life, if necessary, but no one gets to throw your life away like it means nothing. ”

Enola tensed, her jaw visibly tightening as her eyes bore into me. ”Do you really believe that? ”

I smiled and knocked the cube lightly against the desktop, breaking the tension. ”With every fiber of my being. ”

She gave me a single sharp nod, then looked again at the keystone. ”What is that? ”

”Oh, this old thing? ” I said, flipping it in the air and catching it again. ”Its just a tool to help me meditate and channel my…mana. ”

As I stumbled over the word, very nearly saying aether instead, my mind connected two points of data I hadn previously considered. Both times I saw the black-on-black movement within the keystone, it was when someone had approached me, interrupting my meditation. I had thought it was just bad luck, with the interruptions coming at exactly the wrong time, but what if…

”Here, let me show you how it works, ” I said quickly, channeling aether into the keystone.

My mind rushed into the darkness. It was alive with movement. All around me, subtle streams of inky black writhed and ran like oil over water.

The keystone reacted to the presence of mana. Which explained why I couldn sense anything within.

Like a blind man trying to navigate a labyrinth, I thought, alive with sudden motivation in the face of such a challenge.

I would find the insight stored within, and take one step closer to discovering the edict of Fate.

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