Nalir glared at his feet as Markl came striding through the door.

Only then did the Wallmaker's son realize he'd brought back half the wastes via the mud on his shoes. He'd come straight from the farm fields by Star Lake when Nalir called him back to Kingsbury. It was nearly a three day journey by cart. But the Mardan Wizard could reach further still, all the way to Tyrn.

Not with his feet.

But with his mind.

"What're they arguing about?" Markl craned his neck to see the images swirling in the eerily perfect orb of crystal on the table. But he couldn't see anything beyond the red curtain of his apprentice brother's hair.

"Wheat," Nalir replied simply. A single crease pressed between his fine red brows and the images shifted abruptly, swirling angrily as the line deepened.

"What?"

"You heard me. Now shut up so I can concentrate."

Markl resisted the urge to kick that back of his apprentice brother's chair, although he got distracted as the colors trembling within suddenly napped at once into place. Within the crystal a tiny replica appeared of one of the council room smaller antechambers. It was heavily scry-warded, but that meant little to a powerful artifact like Suliman's glass when it was in the hands of a master.

Markl recognized his mother's silver head almost immediately.

And there was no mistaking Seran.

He stood behind Martha like a living statue, muffled from head to toe in protective gear so that not an inch of skin showed save his flinty gray eyes. The Stone Man, so the servants called him. Scarred during the Daemon Wars by an encounter with Door, anyone that touched him aged as though they'd put a hand to the hungry black bricks of the Wall in the beyond. The Herbalist had shown Seran great kindness. And after the War the wizard guard appointed himself Martha's personal body guard. Barimus was not inclined to disagree.

Few would welcome such a man into their homes.

Only among the Wallmakers was such a curse really not that out of place.

Markl slouched into an empty chair with a heavy sigh, pulling at one of his amethyst earrings as he propped his heels on the corner of another chair.

"Stop fidgeting." Nalir barked.

"I'm not fidgeting. I just sat down!"

"You are. And get your feet off that chair!"

Markl dropped his offending feet off the cushion. Well, wasn't Nalir in a mood, which probably meant he hadn't eaten a thing today. Casting about he found a still covered tea tray by the door. Stone cold and untouched.

The Mardan could hold still for hours on end, sustaining a perfect concentration that absolutely baffled Markl. Somehow he could feel even the slightest vibration. Hear the tiniest of noises. Markl could barely sit still through a single class session. Could sleep anywhere and through anything. According to Nalir, he snored like a thundercloud.

"Do be quiet!" His lips pressed into a thin line, "I can't hear Master Barimus."

"You've got Barimus? When did he check in? How are the south villagers? Is the flooding bad? Will there be refugees?" Markl began in earnest.

Knocking the table with his knee as he sat bolt upright. Nalir lunged to catch Suliman's orb as it bounced off its stand, turning to glare at him as though he'd cut off all his stupid shiny hair.

"Black bricks, you are a bloody nuisance!"

"Sorry…" He snapped begrudgingly, "I'm just worried, okay."

"Well, go worry somewhere else if you plan on thundering about!" Nalir snapped, already bent back over the orb, "I'm trying to relay orders!"

"But you just called me back here!"

"Shhh!"

He could've left. He could've gone back down to the practice labs and set practice spells or give final marks to the reams of exams they had yet to grade. Instead Markl stood and began pacing Barimus' office, which was its usual mess of books, papers, and piles of other official Ingarian wizardry business. The only reason it was in any order was because of Nalir. He tidied almost obsessively. Just like Sophie.

But the Royal Wizard was not in.

And Markl was anxious to hear news from his Uncle.

The Red Sorcerer and Captain Peoter were touring several flood damaged villages on the southern coast. Winter had come early and hard to the three nations. Snow in the wastes and heavy rain on the Chipping Hills was drowning the lower basins. The Royal Sorcerer had gone with the Wizard's Guard to lend whatever aid was needed. That left Martha, Sophie, and Calcifer to try to iron out the workings Tri-Council. County woman, sorceress, and daemon: they represented all three peoples required to hold the assemblies that were being called more and more frequently by bickering Magi.

This week the problem was the wheat shortage.

Last week was negotiating with daemons for a section of the Tyrn River.

The week prior to that was a hideous battle over whether or not the Daemon Wars memorial statue slated for the Royal Square should or should not depict Daemons. That committee was still in discussion.

Six years it had been since the Wall broke.

Six years since it had been mended.

Markl marveled for a moment. Gods, had it really been that long?

And what had they to show for six years of cross creature civility?

Endless, encumbered, bureaucracy.

The Capitol Shielding was still running on electricity. And no one except for Howl trusted the blasted light bulbs enough to touch them. So the north wing of the Royal Palace had been wired with ghastly humming cables. The headache it gave Markl was a constant reminder of the major magical work still to be done.

They were only just finishing rebuilding the country.

Yes, there were finally roofs over the countrymen's heads and cobbled roads for steam cars to perambulate upon. The trains ran through the mountains again and planes took to the skies. But hundreds of rural towns across the three nations still lived a tenuous truce with their otherworldly neighbors. Ever since the war the Kindred had begun making a great show of reclaiming their territories. Unfortunately daemon's had long memories to match their long lives. And their traditional territories ran borders hundreds of years old. Problem was, these ranges often overlapped with what mankind liked to call Progress, namely farms pastures and often whole townships. Problems occurred whenever a framer tried to till a pasture or cut down trees to raise a barn, which was making it near impossible to grow food.

Hence the wheat shortage.

Hence he was in the field ever other day, mediating conversations between kindred, mankind, and magi alike. Humans were far more difficult to deal with than daemons. Markl was better with daemons anyway. And truth be told, Markl didn't mind being gone from Kingsbury. No matter how much time he spent in his uncle's office. Or the teaching rooms working with the apprentices. Or even his clutter strewn apartment at the top of the North tower. He always felt like he was just visiting.

Kingsbury wasn't home.

It never would be.

For all Howl's dandying, not a lick of his charm had rubbed off on his apprentice. Markl could never remember the proper address for each title or rank. He was always spilling ink or components on his dress suits or tripping over his own feet as he bowed.

Thank the Wall for Nalir.

His apprentice brother was everything he wasn't. Refined, well spoken, expertly versed in etiquette and all the worthless courtly pleasantries Markl had no time for. And he made an excellent blind. The red haired Mardan was so pretty all Markl had to do was hide in his shadow and he practically disappeared.

Sometimes he reminded Markl of Howl.

And Howl?

Well, who really knew where Howl was at these days. He seemed to be everywhere at once. Any moment he could pop out of a closets in a shower of dazzling sparkles or crash into a committee meeting reeking of hyacinth. Like fate itself, he always appeared exactly when he needed to. But oddly enough, he never seemed to be around when you wanted him. As a result, he never managed to get anything done.

That, according to the Wallmaker, was what he had apprentices for.

Besides picking up after their masters, tutoring apprentices at the Ingarian Wizard's academy was the mainstay of their weekly business. But thanks to the winter holiday the screaming droves of pre-pubescent magi were gone. Which left Nalir to his official-unofficial business: eavesdropping. At Barimus' instruction Nalir listened in on practically every council meeting that was scheduled, making full reports of the decisions being made and by whom. He also kept tabs on the general goings-on of the Palace, reporting anything out of the ordinary directly to Barimus via Mindspeech.

Markl liked to watch Suliman's crystal.

The images were fascinatingly beautiful.

But the suspense was killing.

After a long moment Nalir let out the breath he was holding, rubbing his temples as he collapsed back into his chair. He looked tired. Dark circles stood out against his pale skin, which was nearly translucent compared to Markl's brown complexion. Mucking about on the wastes all summer courting daemons had its advantages; although the snow piling from the sky was sure to cure him of his tan soon enough. Nalir did not come on these forays, and not just because of his delicate health. His apprentice brother did not do well with daemons.

Not many Magi did save the Wallmakers.

This was where Barimus and Howl depended on him. Because they had enough on their hands. They couldn't be spared to sort through every spat and incident that occurred between Otherkind and human. But someone had to; otherwise they would be right back where they started. And that was where Markl excelled.

Keep the peace.

Preserve the Wall.

Lest both worlds be unmade.

"You look like hell, Nalir. When's the last time you went outside?" Markl came back to the table to watch the little figures mill about as the image snapped back into place within the orb.

"I am quite well, thank you. May I suggest you keep your thoughts on our current business?" Nalir relayed frostily, "Looks like they've reached an accord. Lady Sophie has convinced Yewin to accepting fair terms by my judgment. Trader Ewigg from Marda and Wizard Elsha from Tyrn both agree. A 2 to 1 distribution of emergency stores to be overseen and distributed by Countrymen."

Markl frowned. "What was he asking for?"

"More than was necessary." The line was back between Nalir's green eyes, which opened to scowl at the crystal, "Ingary has the larger population by far of Tyrn and Marda. There was no reason to ask for equal distribution. He was just being difficult."

"Why's that man on the Countrymen Affairs council anyway?"

"He has a right to take an interest in the wellbeing of his fellow men."

"Right." Markl drawled sarcastically, earning a scathing glare from the Mardan wizard.

"The same can be said for your interest in resettling displaced daemons."

It was Markl's turn to bristle.

"Kindred have as much right to a safe home as we do."

Nalir steepled his graceful fingers, leveling his emerald eyes over the tips. His hands were far too pretty. Long and slender. Just like Howl's. Not at all like his. Between Mrs. Fairfax's farm and Martha's garden, Markl's hands were rough and square from work.

His were farming hands.

Not wizarding hands.

"Precisely my point." Nalir caught short on a cough that rasped deep in his lungs, "And Healer Yewin has a right to work for the wellbeing of his countrymen."

It was Markl's turn to scowl at his apprentice brother, "I'm no healer, but that cough's getting worse. Did you go to see Theresa yet?"

"Enough, mother-hen!" The pictures in the orb faded as Nalir waved him off irritably. "It's just the damp."

The Mardan rose with all the poise being raised highborn could offer. And Markl marveled for a moment, envying his apprentice brother's dexterity. Nalir loved showing off just to get a rise out of him. Markl hated being reminded of his social ineptitude. Still, Nalir was just a skinny bastard beneath his fancy black robes. Nearly a year older and still a shoulder shorter. He had an awful inferiority complex to go with his vertically challenged state. All Markl had to do was loom and the little wizard went perfectly red with fury.

"Don't make me get Theresa to put poison in your tea."

Nalir snorted derisively as he carried the crystal to its ornately carved box, "I doubt she'd even trouble with the tea."

Markl looked beyond the sarcasm and softened, "Aw, don't be like that. Look," He pointed at the food tray, "Therese keeps trying to feed you, doesn't she? She wouldn't do that if she hated you."

"So you say." His apprentice brother sniffed dismissively as he took a dust cloth from the drawer beneath the box, cleaning the fingers prints from the reflective surface. But his shoulders were still tense, knotted with poorly disguised tension.

"You never said whether or there would be refugees." Markl pressed.

And Nalir paused, leaning over the orb as if trying to hide something.

"Yes." His voice was heavy with worry and regret.

Nalir himself was a refugee.

So his reaction wasn't a surprise to someone who really knew him.

"How many?"

"Entire villages were destroyed," He continued grimly, "I've already let the Healer's Wing know what to expect."

"Shit…" The young wizard's heart sank in his chest.

"Precisely." Nalir resumed polishing even through the orb was clean.

But then he paused, standing bolt upright as though he'd been shocked. Spreading his palm over the crystal, it lit up with such a perfect picture of Theresa Markl felt his chest squeeze.

"What the…" His apprentice brother turned; hand still on the orb, shock and confusion replacing his usually overconfident countenance, "Markl… Yewin is demanding Theresa accompany the wheat shipment to as an official ambassador of Marda."

"W-what!?"

"Apparently he's already heard about the inbound refugees."

"How the hell'd he find out?"

"I don't know…" Nalir had both his hands on the orb now, bending over it as though forcing it to submit to his will. Sweat beading on his forehead. And the shapes within were moving so quickly Markl had to look away. They hurt to look at, so he could only image what was going on in Nalir's head.

"Martha is protesting, but Yewin cut her off. He says no one else can be spared or trusted. Not with the incoming refugees." His apprentice brother went pale, grimacing into the glass, "Bloody bricks, your aunt looks about ready to throttle him."

Markl was floored. "But it's just a wheat shipment! What the hell is he worried about? Air pirates!?"

"No. It's not just wheat." Nalir turned his ear to the orb, listening to things Markl couldn't hear. "Medical supplies and other aid will also be included in the shipment. These are desperate times. Under-handed dealings and outright piracy have already been discovered on even Crown appointed crews."

"But Theresa's not even from Marda!"

"Actually, she is." Nalir's matter-o-fact replay brought Markl up short.

"Really?"

Nalir nodded absently, as if remembering, "She's a refugee of the Ingarian-Mardan War. She came to Kingsbury with a group of orphaned country children."

"How'd you know that!?"

Nalir shrugged, "Ryden must have told me."

Markl mulled that over, wondering what else he didn't know about her. "Well that doesn't matter because Theresa won't want to go. I know her. She'll want to stay to help with the refugees."

Again Nalir was frowning, peering into the glass, "Apparently not. Lady Sophie just raised that question. Yewin says that Theresa's been asking him for a chance to supervise something important, something beyond inventorying herbs and bandages… Good Stars, Lady Martha looks ready to have an embolism."

It never ceased to be funny to hear him calling his mom and auntie by such formal names. Six years now Nalir had been coming to diners, holidays, and birthdays. Six years he still insisted on formalities, although Markl couldn't understand why. All it did was hold them at arm's length. But then again, Nalir didn't come from a very affectionate family. He'd seen rocks with more warmth than Lady Merra. At least Calcifer was pleased. He crackled all rosy and pink whenever Nalir called him Lord Councilor.

At first Markl and Nalir hated each other.

They were nothing alike.

Had nothing in common except their devotion to their masters.

After a while he got used to having Nalir around. Got used to his snippy comments and puffed-up ego. Learned to look through them and see what was behind: fear and loneliness. Nalir must have gotten used to him too, because over the years they began spending more and more time together. Nalir was smart. Really smart. He saw things Markl didn't even consider. Boy, did that every come in handy. Now he couldn't image life without his apprentice brother.

"I don't want her going by herself." Markl was back to pacing, an anxious stone growing larger and larger in the heart of his chest, "Not if it's like you say."

"I never assumed she would be going alone." Suddenly Nalir sounded exhausted. He was bent over the orb, gripping the table. "Of course you'll accompany her."

"Yeah… You're right. I should go, shouldn't I?"

"Don't reply with open ended questions, Markl. It leaves room for argument… You'll not be surprised to know that Calcifer just suggested such a solution. Lady Martha seems to have quieted. Lady Sophie looks rather pleased as well." Nalir lifted Suliman's crystal back out of its box, carrying it back to the table as though it weighed a hundred pounds, "May I suggest that this would be a perfect opportunity to give her an early birthday present."

"Huh?" Again he gave his apprentice brother a blank stare.

"Her birthday, Markl. It is seven days away."

That's right!" The lanky wizard smacked himself on the back of his head.

Theresa's birthday was close to Shan and Dierdre's. Lettie made a fantastic cake one year out of toasted cocoanut cream. It looked just like a snow man. But beneath the icing was all chocolate. She lit it on fire and the insides melted to perfection. Markl was looking forward to the grand cake she made for the Royal Ingarian Winter Solstice Ball. He was willing to dress up and be bored to tears by an evening of dancing and endless pleasantries if it meant having just a single slice of Lettie's cake.

"It would not be wise to forget this year as well." Nalir commented dryly.

Markl winced.

He'd forgotten last year. Theresa didn't make a big deal out of it, but he knew it hurt her feelings. She always did such nice things for his birthday.

Nalir put the orb back on its pillow and heaved a sigh, collapsing into his chair. There was a Mardan sized dent in the seat cushion, evidence to how many hours a day he spent working at that table. And a Barimus sized nook pressed into the cushions of the chair next to it. Beyond furniture, something in Nalir's manner reminded Markl of his uncle. The Red Wizard's legs ached on damp days like this. And so did Nalir's chest, his lungs scarred from childhood sickness. Peas in a pod.

Other apprentices might have been jealous.

But Markl wasn't.

He was glad.

He'd never wanted to be Royal Sorcerer.

Nalir was a better choice by far.

Unfortunately Barimus still wasn't convinced.

They'd have to make a choice soon enough.

And Nalir could never be Wallmaker.

But as things were shaping, Akarshan had a better chance as Wallmaker's heir. Only thirteen and the little brat had more magic in his little pinky than Markl could dream of. That and an eerie affinity for anything Otherworldly. He had his twin to thank for that. Deirdre looked in on them from time to time. It still scared the pants off him to see her looking out of a mirror. Smiling serenely. Just like Nox.

Poor Nalir. He let out a good one just the other day.

Screamed just like a girl.

Matched his hair and his hands for once.

But if Nalir became Royal Sorcerer, and if Akarshan followed in his father's footsteps, then Markl would be free. Free to leave Kingsbury. To start a farm in the wastes where he could easily help keep the peace.

Free to finally have a family.

Keep bees.

Grow apples.

And have scores of little red-haired children.

"Yeah… I totally forgot last year. Thanks for reminding me!"

"Yes, Markl. Not, yeah." His apprentice brother was always on him about speaking properly, smoothing out his clothes and getting him to stand up straight. "You are welcome. Now go away."

"But you haven't told me why you called me back here! I came all the way from the Wastes!"

Nalir was quiet for a long moment, looking at the far window, out into the royal gardens. Beyond the bare trees they could see the fogged up windows of the solariums and the Healer's Wing.

"I called you back because I knew this meeting would have something to do with Theresa. I assumed you would want to be here to hear about it yourself."

Markl marveled. "Gods… Is there anything you don't know!?"

"Probably." A slight smile pulled Nalir's lips; although it self-deprecating rather than prideful, "But I'll find out eventually."

"Nalir… What do you think about a new pair of hedge sheers?" Markl scratched his chin, feeling the stubble he'd trimmed off that morning. Not a whisker stood up on Nalir's chin. Not that there were any there to scrap off in the first place, "Or a new pair of muck boots? She said her pair is leaking. And there's nothing worse than muddy socks in the winter."

His apprentice brother wilted in his chair, letting out a long suffering sigh.

"What? No boots?"

"No, Markl… No muck boots." Nalir paused to hack into his elbow, "May I recommend something more romantic?"

Instantly heat flowed into Markl's cheeks, burning beet red. "S-sure… What do you suggest?"

"Flowers, Markl. Get her flowers. No roses, mind you. See if you can find sunflowers. Theresa adores them." His apprentice brother had his face in his hands. "That's all the help I'm giving you for today. Now get out so I can work."

***

Theresa glowered up at Markl, growing angrier by the minute.

Good, green, growing things!

He actually didn't get it did he!?

He didn't understand how important this opportunity was for her. Didn't understand how long she'd been waiting for this. To be given a real task befitting a healer, not an apprentice. This was her chance to prove herself. A chance to be taken seriously. To prove she was capable of handling things on her own.

But everyone seemed to want to cosset her.

Wizard Guards, servants, and healers alike tripped over themselves to open doors when she was perfectly capable of opening them herself. They were always catching up whatever she was carrying even when she didn't need the help. Relieving her of her wheelbarrows or loam buckets. Fetching her ladders instead of letting her climb the low limbed trees.

Had it really been that long?

Had they forgotten what she'd done during the War?

Now that she had a chance to help people again.

To remind them all of what she could do.

Why couldn't he be proud that one of the Councilors remembered enough to believe in her? Why couldn't he be happy that someone had remembered enough to recommend her by name? But facing him in all his blind male stupidity, all that came out was something equally stupid.

"I don't need a babysitter, Markl!"

It was the wrong thing to say.

Instantly his face hardened, that stubborn frown turning down the corners of his mouth as he stuffed his fists into his pockets. He scowled down at her like an angry stork. Theresa's heart immediately started up in her chest as she stared back, resisting the urge to stand on a chair so she could look him right in the eyes.

"Well, I'm not your babysitter."

And here it was.

A perfect chance to call him out on six years of awkward hugs. Six years of chumming around digging mud puddles, planting Mrs. Fairfax's fields, climbing trees. Six years of flying together at dusk. Just flying. She'd been thinking about this moment for almost a year now. Trying get up enough courage to talk to him. But there never seemed to be time.

There was too much to do.

First it was the War.

Then the aftermath.

Rebuilding was harder than anything she faced during the sieges.

Monsters were easy compared to getting people to cooperate.

It seemed like they were always right next to each other.

In the same room.

At the same meetings.

Working on the same projects.

But still, they were miles apart.

Just like when they went flying.

They both kept moving forward.

Together at first. Close enough to touch.

But then slowly but surely drifting apart.

He wasn't a kid anymore, which was for sure. And neither was she.

Her insides went all kinds of warm as her eyes wander over him. Gods, he'd gotten handsome. Strong nose. Strong chin. Warm brown eyes that crinkled up when he smiled. And he was good with kids. Kind by far to the youngest apprentices than any other of the teachers. Markl was even taller than Howl now. All lean muscled browned from working in the sun.

She heard the other healer girls tittering about him when they thought she wasn't listening. They were worse than the girl apprentices; although Hedera was the worst. Both the chesty blonde taught at the Academy along with Trissa. But she hung around the palace gardens more and more frequently, and not for an appreciation of nature. The things that came out of her mouths were more than indecent. They were cruel! To her credit, Trissa tried to keep Hedera away from her, but for not reason other than she thought Markl was beneath her apprentice sister. Theresa had come close to going after them with a rake just recently for a comment Trissa made to that effect.

But that would have damaged any chances she had of moving upwards.

Closing off any hope she had of escaping the store rooms.

King Ferdinand's All-Kind decree ended the Daemon Wars and opened the Council to more than Magi. Country men and women from all three countries now had the opportunity to participate in government. But it was very difficult to gain position without the sponsorship of a functioning member. It would be near impossible to find that sponsorship if she took up the practice of pruning the egos of rude Magi with her clipping sheers.

So she gritted her teeth and bided her time.

Even now there was mud on Markl's boots, probably from trekking over the wastes. And if only for a moment she envied him his freedom. Wishing she could go with instead of being left behind. But there was no place for her where he went. With not a stitch of magic in her bones, there was nothing useful she could do to help him keep the balance.

So she would have to find her own way free.

Because Theresa knew what was going on.

Hedera was waiting. Waiting to see what would happen. Waiting for a turn to try her luck. And the Herbalist's apprentice glared at the lot, making it clear she knew exactly what they were doing. That, however, wasn't making her any girl friends. She didn't really have any besides Markl's cousins. Milly, Tilly, and Lily: Cesari's armada of little blonde pastry chefs. But she didn't care. Who needed bitchy, stuck-up, hanger-on's anyway?

She did have some friends in Kingsbury. Ryden for one. The bean-pole apprentice had filled out into an excellent Wizard Guard. He had made himself indispensable to Captain Peoter. Peoter had never been the same after his brother's death. He rarely smiled. Except for her. A bit of life flickered in him then. But it never went into his dark green eyes. And Theresa adored Ryden if only for the fact that he was a good friend to the shattered twin and the Stone Man. The Herbalist's apprentice often found Seran wandering alone the Royal Gardens, often while waiting to accompany Martha on official business. She kept him company whenever she could. The same for Peoter.

Why did she always collect men who needed to be taken care of?

And she was looking her favorite right at that moment.

Theresa frowned at the gray already peppering his shaggy brown hair, which was in sore need of trim. He needed a shave too. There were buttons missing from his shirt. Stains on the collar. Holes in his socks, which were always going missing. She knew because she was the only one who dared excavate a way through the sty of a room he kept in the top of the north tower. He would dress in rags if not for her and Nalir. She'd seen his apprentice brother spin him around and march him right back to his room to change the moment he set eyes on his clothes. The thin Mardan wizard was trying to make a proper gentleman out of him. And she was trying to keep the both of them from starving. Theresa feared that was a lost cause. Especially when it came to Nalir.

And what did it matter if he did go without socks or wear stained shirts!? Markl didn't have to impress anyone. Everyone knew who he was. Everyone remembered what he had done. He didn't need anyone's approval to do what he knew needed to be done. That was something else she envied him for.

But Markl would never be courtly in the way of his father and Uncle.

And now that he was living at the Royal Palace, outside the range of Sophie's care, far from the haven of the Moving Castle, Markl was falling apart.

She saw it in him a little more every day. The deepening lines around his eyes. The constant frown on his lips. The defeat in his shoulders when the Magi's endless bickering stretched longer and longer.

Markl didn't belong in Kingbury.

It was changing him in ways she didn't like.

And so she threw her eyes at the door of the supply room. Closed. Thank the sun! No one was in the supply room but them. Then she planted her hands on her hips and got right up into his face, nose hovering inches from his. Her voice low, not so much angry as something else.

"Alright… What are you then?"

Again he stared at her, gaping like a helpless fish. Turning so red she could feel the heat coming off of his face. Looking thirteen years old all over again. Lost. Confused. Gods, she almost kissed him right there on the spot. Then he had to open his big dumb mouth.

"I… I'm your friend, Theresa. I… I care about you."

Theresa looked back at him, just as helplessly.

Was she doing something wrong?

No. There wasn't any way to make this clearer.

And then she realized it wasn't her.

It was him.

There was just as much longing in his brown eyes as there was fear.

He knew! The bastard knew!

He just couldn't make the first move.

And he never could. The first and only time they'd kissed, she kissed him. If you could call hitting your head against someone else's in an ash pit after crashing a flying castle kissing.

It hurt. How, it hurt.

But she was tired of doing all the work.

Tired of taking care of everyone.

Tired of waiting.

Wearily, she got off the chair and turned away a step back, crossing her arms, folding in on herself as she stared at her feet, willing her blurry vision to clear. "Please, Markl. Let me do this by myself."

"But… But I don't want you to go alone!"

"Well we don't always get what we want now do we?!" It was a cruel thing to say. But she wasn't feeling very generous right now. "If you're my friend, if you care about me, then let me do this! No one will take me seriously if I can't complete a simple aid mission without an escort. Especially if that escort is you!"

He blinked, looking hurt, "What's that supposed to mean!?"

Turning back to him, she threw her shaking fists at the ceiling, "It means I don't want to spend the rest of my life inventorying baskets and bushels of herbs. I want to help people, Markl!"

"But you do help people, Theresa. This place wouldn't run without you." Ever the peace maker, he cut in, holding up his hands placating, trying to calm her down.

But she wasn't having any of it.

Because he wasn't listening.

No one was.

"Yes it would, Markl!" She nearly shouted in his face, and he looked away, at anything but her. "That's what you don't understand. Anyone can run inventory. Anyone can keep shop. But I've got bigger dreams than this room can hold! I don't want to be an apprentice anymore, Markl!"

He looked flabbergasted as he stared at the floor. And a heavy flush climbed up into her cheeks as she paced the room, nervously straightened and dusted the supply shelves, feeling completely exposed. Because she'd never told anyone about this before. Not even Martha.

"You get to go out there, Markl!" She waved at the skylight, looking up at the grey light filtering down from the sky, "But me? I'm stuck here, mixing medicines and brewing gallons of tea for people I will never see. It isn't enough! I want to be out there while it's happening where I can make a real difference. This is my only chance, don't you see!? My one shot at showing the Tri-Council and Martha what I'm capable of."

He started as if her words had bounced off his forehead, "Theresa… I… I'm sorry, but I already talked to Martha. She won't let you go without me."

The Herbalist apprentice dropped the bundle of sage she held in her hand.

"W-what?"

He was pulling on his earring, a sure tell he was really upset. "That was Martha's requirement. That was the only way she agreed you could go, was on the condition you have an escort."

"Martha?"

She spoke her Mistress' name out loud as if hearing it for the first time.

The Herbalist hadn't said word one when Healer Yewin came by to charge her with the task. She'd just stood there. Still and quiet as stone. Arms crossed. Scowling at Yewin's back just like she always did. Theresa didn't think anything of it. But then again, they never mentioned the Herbalist's requirement. Probably assumed she wouldn't object.

It wasn't such a big deal.

But why did it feel so much like she'd been betrayal?

Whirling on her heel, Theresa seized a basket, climbing as high up the ladder as she could, throwing things into it at random. It was the only thing that kept her from hitting Markl or screaming her head off. There were patients asleep in the next room over. And if she seriously hurt Markl, well, she'd be the one that would have to patch him up.

"Theresa? Theresa!" He called from the base of the ladder, backing up as she tromped down, "I know you're upset. Wait! At least let get the door!"

"I can get it myself!" She snarled, kicking it open before slamming it behind her as hard as she could.

She took a hard right almost immediately, pushing into a broom closet before Markl could follow. Inside she set down her basket and turned one of the hooks. A tiny panel popped open in the wall, reveling one of the thousands of narrow passages that crisscrossed the Royal Palace. Magi could pop in and out by sorcery alone. But countyfolk had their ways of sly creeping about too. Squeezing through into the secret passage, she shimmied her way through the wall and out into another closet adjacent to the door to the green houses. The hot moist air hit her like a wall, and greenery blurred by anonymously. She held it together until she made it to the hedge maze. Winding herself silly through the twisting nooks and corners of well trimmed laurel.

Until she hit the center; an ivied courtyard of stone benches and gently bubbling fountains ringed by short walls of ornately carved stone. Tucking herself behind the fence, cozied up to the roots of one of the shrubs, she sat in the dirt and cried her eyes out.

Theresa didn't know how long she sat there, staring up at the delicate veins of the high glasses ceiling. Long enough for someone else to make their way through the maze. She heard the footfalls on the bricks, slow and measured, followed by the rustle of silks and the awful stink of synthetic rose perfume. Theresa's heart froze in her chest as Hedera sat on a stone bench just on the other side of the wall. The Herbalist's apprentice went perfectly still. The last thing she wanted was for the fat witch to see her in this state.

"What's wrong, sweetie? Why you hiding?"

Theresa nearly jumped out of her skin as Hedera spoke up, her drawling words viper sweet. Try as she might, she couldn't think of anything to say

"Did Markl finally break up with you? Or are you just having fun digging in the mud?" She laughed then, a high twittery sound devoid of anything but nastiness. "Try the pig sties next, little twiggy. I'm sure you'll be more at home there."

Hated scorched Theresa's insides as she gritted her teeth, struggling to make not a single sound, even through Hedera knew she was there. But it came welling out her all the same. Hot little traitors tears that cut paths of shame down her cheeks.

"Why, Hedera." Nalir suddenly spoke in the distance, "I didn't expect to find you so far from the dining hall."

Theresa went stock still as Hedera let out a small squeak of surprise. She could feel the witch bristle with dislike.

"What do you want, Skinny-Nally?"

"Just enjoying the maze." He replied smooth as silk, "Although I fear you'll starve before you make it back. Oh. But I see you've brought provisions. The cake crumbs on your bodice should see you through."

"How dare you!?" Hedera seethed.

Theresa flinched as the air crackled with kinetic potential of the witch's magic, making the hairs on her arms and neck stand up.

"I dare quite well, Hedera," Nalir's voice deepened with confident forewarning, "Care to try me?"

The threat of her magic dissolved much the same way a flame extinguishes, but not without a parting shot, "And be thrown in shackles for damaging an already crippled weakling? I think not."

She rose in a huffy rustle of skirts, the heels of her shoes clicking loudly against the stones as she stomped away.

"Good afternoon, Hedera." He called after her urbanely, "And do remember the kitchen pantries are to the left, not the right."

Markl's apprentice brother came over to the bench and sat down without a word. Waiting patiently, until Theresa couldn't stand it anymore.

"How the bloody hell do you know I'm here!?" She muttered.

"You smell like the Healer's supply closet."

She bristled in anticipation of more torment, "What? No pithy insults?"

Nalir was quiet for a moment. But his calm reply was nothing but neutral, "On the contrary I think you smell good. Like camphor and cinnamon. Something at once earthy but sharp and green."

That was not what she expected to hear.

"Oh…" She snuffled loudly, wiping her nose on her sleeve, not sure what else to say.

"Here," A handkerchief slipped over the edge of the wall. And she took it without comment, pausing as he spoke again. Gently this time, almost as though he was apologizing.

"In any other instance I would have sent Markl or Lady Martha, but though that might be a bit imprudent. Lady Sophie and Master Barimus are both indisposed. As are Guard Seran, Guard Peoter, and Guard Ryden."

"Are you spying on me, Nalir?"

"Yes. Well. I spy on everyone. It is my job." His awkwardness made him sound less like of an ass, although contempt crept back into his words as he spoke of Hedera, "I wouldn't have come if that fat pig hadn't followed you."

Theresa sighed.

"Would you like me to leave?" His earnest reply made her reconsider the hot words she was planning on tossing at him. And then she realized she very much did not want to be alone right now.

"No… It's okay."

She stood slowly only to find her legs had fallen asleep. Nalir jumped up from the bench as she climbed over and gracelessly plopped onto the stone bench. Wiping muddy hands on her green apron, Theresa looked the Mardan Wizard up and down as if seeing him for the first time.

"Here." She held out his handkerchief only to find that he was frowning at her hair. Instantly she bristled, "What!?"

"Umm… There is…" He half reached out hesitantly only to yank back his hands, putting them behind his back, "There are sticks… and things in your hair."

"Yeah. That happens." Shaking her head, she swept at her head and face.

"Um… There was some mud." He flustered his hands again, pointing ineffectually.

"Where?" She wiped at her cheek, "Gone?"

"No. No, there's more now," He had his handkerchief in hand, tentatively holding it out like a white flag, "May I?"

Standing, Theresa found he was only a little taller. She could look him right in the eyes. The barest hint of a blush crept into his cheeks as he dabbed at her forehead and temple.

Okay. So Kelly, one of the greenies in her wing, was right.

He was gorgeous.

Man pretty in that Howl kind of way. His long auburn hair silky and shiny against the stark black velvet of his robes. With the pale, refined features you saw so often in Royal portraits. Thin lips drawn into an anxious line that matched the crease between his brilliant emerald eyes. And he stood perfectly still with impeccable posture.

Oh, yeah. He was Marda through and through.

"There." He stepped back, letting out the breath he had been holding.

Theresa discovered she had been holding her breath as well. Although she didn't crumble into a coughing fit as she breathed in.

Nalir did.

The thin wizard bent his face into the muddy handkerchief, dropping gracelessly onto the stone bench as the dry hacks wracked his thin shoulders. He was pale and trembling when they passed. Immediately Theresa was beside him, already full healer-mode.

"How long have you had this cough?"

"What?" He rasped, starting violently as she took his chin with her muddy hand. He went rigid as a pole as she peered intently at his wan features.

"How long?" She repeated.

"S-since a child."

"I've never seen you like this."

"Winter aggravates it. The cold and damp, you see. Its better here in Ingary compared to Marda." His flush was back with a vengeance, turning just his cheeks and his Adam's apple brilliant red. The rest of him stayed milky white. It was funny. Almost cute.

"What are you taking?" He jumped again as she picked his thin wrist to take his pulse. Black bricks he was thin. Birdish even.

"Horehound syrup. Onion and garlic poultices. The gardens help. The air is warm."

She frowned, "In six years I've never once seen you out here."

"And you never will." He answered in distraction, shrinking as she reached for his face, earning a fierce scowl.

"Stick out your tongue."

"P-pardon?"

"You heard me."

"I assure you I'm quite well." Nalir put up his hands and Theresa drew back, putting her hands on her hips with an exasperate exhalation. He noticed the movement, and the apples of his cheeks turned redder still.

"If you're so well, then why do you look so sick?"

He stiffened, gathering up to his feet as his jade eyes hardened like stones, "As I said, Lady Theresa. Winter is hard."

She was pushing it now. Theresa could see the barely restrained anger in the set of his jaw. Rigid. Like the rest of him. But he was keeping his temper, something rare for Nalir. Which gave her pause, because throughout their entire interaction he had been nothing but polite. Impressed, and a bit confused, Theresa relented.

"Fine. But swear on the Wall to come and see me if it worsens."

"Fine."

Stepping back, he put one of his slender hands to his chest. Summoning all the grace and gratitude of a thousand words, he bowed to her as if she was queen of the world. Shocked, she watched as he turned and strode to one of the mouths to the maze. But here he paused with his back to her.

"For what it's worth… I know how you feel."

Baffled, Theresa stared after him as he disappeared into the laurels.

***

Since Nalir's apprenticeship to the Wizard Barimus Lady Merra politely declined King Ferdinand's invitation to a suite on the Royal Grounds. She took a house in Kingsbury instead. Outside the enormous windows rain had begun to fall from the swiftly darkening sky. But through the clouds he caught a glimpse of the Palace's golden domes.

He had a room here but never used it.

And Merra never visited his apartment at the Palace.

So he had to come to her whenever he wished to see her.

Which was not very frequently.

For some reason Merra treated him as though he had betrayed her for accepting something he did not want. Something she had all but forced him to take. True, when she first posed being heir to the Royal Sorcerer he'd been thrilled. What young wizard didn't dream of being apprenticed to Lord Councilor Barimus, the Red Wizard, and brother of the Wallmaker himself! And after the Daemon Wars ended, Merra received her wish, payment for finding Erin Danna, the blight that had nearly destroyed them all. As per the agreement struck with King Ferdinand, Master Barimus offered him an apprenticeship.

Grudgingly, of course.

Barimus did not want him, had never wanted him.

And Master Tirut did.

Nalir didn't appreciate what that meant until he was forced to give it up.

He accepted. Even through abandoning Tirut nearly destroyed him. But if the tremulous old man had ever been troubled by it, he never let it show. Instead Tirut showered Nalir in congratulations, lauded him in front of the Alliance Council for contributions that saved the three nations. Even in front of Merra! Nalir had never seen his mother so abashed. Then Wizard Tirut, eldest and wisest of the Council, presented him to his master, Lord Councilor Barimus with the greatest pride.

Later that night, Nalir listened in on a few of their private words.

Never before had Nalir come to close to crying in public.

But not from delight, but shame.

"He is a good boy, Barimus." Tirut pronounced with great earnestness, "Treat him well and never doubt that. He will do you proud."

Tirut died in his sleep less than three months later.

Nalir never forgave himself.

But Merra could care less about his personal pain. For once in her life, was she happy? No. Not in the slightest. Yes, he was apprenticeship to the Royal Wizard. But he stood as one of two potential heirs to the position. As far as his mother was concerned, she had been cheated. And if there was one thing Nalir had learned about his mother, eventually Merra always got her way.

Seated on a red silk chair as if a perfectly posed, Merra green eyes grazed over the book in her hands, sharp like a razor. Nalir watched from the archway as the fire flickering in the enormous stone hearth danced across her alabaster skin. There was a long puckering scar on her temple. A constant reminder of how close he came to loosing his mother on more than one occasion. He couldn't stop staring at it.

Over the fireplace was a portrait of his dead father. It was like looking in a mirror. So Nalir never looked.

She could have been stone. Marble.

Ice was more likely. He could feel the cold emanating out of her.

"What are you doing, mother?"

"What does it look like I'm doing?" She replied archly.

Nalir crossed his arms, "You know what I mean."

"I assure you," She countered with detached crispness, "I do not."

It was hard not to let a shred of anger permeate his words. She was lying to him. And it wounded him deeply.

"Then explain to me how Yewin knew about the flood refugees?"

"Good heavens!" She put down her book, lifting a hand to her cheek as she turned wide eyes to him, "There are flood refugees?"

Nalir blood instantly rose to a boil. And it took every shred of his self-control to keep his temper in check.

"It is ill befitting of a lady to make light of other's suffering, mother."

He spat the word as though it was poison. Merra's eyes narrowed dangerously, glittering in the candle light although her features remained serene.

"I would remind my son that it is wise to trust his mother's judgment."

She turned away, back to her book. But the smug smile on her lips sent Nalir's heart racing with dread, breaking his calculated calm; because he never could be sure what that look meant. Then the cough caught him off guard, choking off the words he'd planned, stealing the air from his lungs as pain burned deep in his chest. And the marble floor was beneath his hands even before he realized he'd fallen, gasping at air that seemed to burn like coals. The world tipped. And Merra had him.

"Shhh! It's alright, darling." She hushed, her soft voice pitched with fear. He struggled for air as her cold hands smoothed over his back. All the while she whispered soothingly, "Hush! Hush, little bird. Breathe. Breathe."

If only for a moment he clung to her out of sheer panic. Letting her thin arms hold him. Letting her rock him as she had when he was very small.

But he tore himself away, knocking back against the far wall, staring at his mother as though she was a stranger. Merra looked back from where she knelt on the floor, her black skirts pooling like tar on the pale stone floor. The same pale color as her outstretched hands. Wordlessly she reached for him. As if he was miles away. As if she knew she'd never reach him. And the pain on her face looked real enough. He'd experienced enough pain to know when it was false. But he never could be sure with his mother.

"Whatever you and Yewin are scheming… I won't be a part of it…" Nalir rasped as another spasm clutched at his throat, "Do you hear me!?"

"I swear to you, Nalir, I told Yewin nothing! I don't know how he knew about the refugees." Her emerald eyes were pleading.

And she was telling the truth this time. At least he thought she was.

Still, something wasn't right. The dread remained.

Scrambling to his feet, he stumbled down the hall. The walls seemed to press down on him from all directions. Smothering him. Covering him until it seemed he would be pressed flat in the frigid darkness.

But he didn't stop.

Calling up his magic, Nalir tore at the front latch, spilling into his Master's empty office, closing the portal behind him.

"Nalir!" Merra's shrill cry chased after him, cut short as the door slammed shut.

***

Markl tugged viciously on his earring as he starred out the window in Barimus' office at the airship on the landing field beyond the green houses. Loading crews milled in and out of the great metal beast like tiny trails of ants.

"Pull any harder and you're going to bleed all over your new shirt."

The Wallmaker's son turned to regard his apprentice brother. If possible he looked even more tired than the night before. At least he was eating. Picking half-heartedly at the

"I hate airships."

Nalir snorted, "You used to live in one."

"The Castle wasn't an airship. It was more of a flying trash heap."

"Suddenly your room makes perfect sense."

"Drink your tea." Markl scowled as a thin smirk tugged at the corners of the thin wizard's mouth.

"It smells terrible." He wrinkled his nose, pushing it away.

"It's supposed to. Theresa made it just for you."

Nalir blinked, looking at the cup askance, "How do you know that?"

"Does that look like china from the Royal Kitchens?!"

The cup was hand thrown, thick walled, and glazed in green. Sturdy was the only words that came to mind. You could probably stand on it and it wouldn't break.

Nalir was marveling as he picked up the mug, "How the blazes did she get it on the tray?"

Markl tried to hide his anger, but his reply came out snappish all the same, "She tracks down the servant responsible for the delivery, bribes them to wait for her and slips it on there before it comes up!"

His apprentice brother was quiet for a long moment. And Markl was getting very good at reading this considering pauses. A lecture was coming. One he didn't need.

"Just don't, okay Nalir!?" He growled, throwing up his hands, turning to pace a well traveled path along the edge of the rug, "I know I screwed up! I botched things with Theresa big time!" Suddenly he fell very still, staring at his hands. Farmer's hands. "I… I don't know what's wrong with me!?"

"There's nothing wrong with you," Nalir answered with a gentleness he rarely used, which was perhaps the only reason Markl listened, "This is possibly the single most important decision in your life. There's nothing wrong with being scared by that. It shows the true depth of your feeling."

"What am I going to do!?" Face in hands, he sank into the nearest chair, "I've never seen her so angry. What's worse, I don't even understand why she's angry."

Nalir let out a long slow breath, and Mark cast a sideways glance at the red haired wizard. He had his eyes closed, and a muscle was jumping at the back of his clenched jaw. The Mardan was pissed, but keeping it together. Patience did not come easily to Nalir. But today his apprentice brother was doling it out to him in spades.

"You're going to be stuck on an airship together for nearly two days. That's ample time to track her down and apologize, even if you don't know why you're apologizing. Then ask her why she's angry and actually listen to her."

"But I did listen to her-"

"No you didn't!" Nalir cut him off, pointing a skinny finger at him, "You interrupted her when she started. Then you shuffling about looking at the door or the floor the entire time she was talking, waiting for her to be done being mad so you could try and make her feel better. But you weren't listening!"

"You were watching us?"

Nalir's cheeks went beet red. So did that spot on his neck. And he looked away, inspecting the cuticles on his right hand, "Yes. I'm sorry."

Markl stared, not sure how to feel. "Why?"

"I don't know why!" Nalir snarled, throwing his hands up. "Because I wanted to make sure you were alright. I heard you shouting. Do you know how hard it's hard to turn things out after listening in for so long!?"

"No. It's okay. I'm kinda glad. 'Cause I'm really lost on this one."

His apprentice brother fell very still, staring at him cryptically, like he was trying to decide whether or not to say something. He looked about ready to be torn in two.

"Whatever it is, Nalir, out with it. Better out than in."

"Do you love her?" The Mardan blurted out.

He hadn't been expecting that. And it was his turn to flush as he stood, turning away. Pacing again. Coming back to the window again and again. Staring out at the gardens. He could see them from the north tower. And beyond them, when the skies were clear, he could see the tiny snow capped teeth of the Wastes.

He flinched as Nalir started up again, dead serious, "You need to be able to answer that question before you get on that airship. Markl… Markl!"

"I know!" He snapped, turning to face his apprentice brother.

Nalir had the healer's cup, watching as he took a sip of the tea. His emerald eyes popped open. And he swallowed audibly.

"That bad, huh?"

Much to his surprise, Nalir took another sip, looking past him, out the window. "Actually, it's quite good. She put honey in it."

"Really!? Wow… She definitely doesn't hate you, my friend."

Markl's grin dried up as the Mardan dropped the cup. It bounced on the table top, spilling hot tea all over the papers neatly piled in front of the red-haired wizard. Nalir's chair fell over as he jolted to his feet, both hands on his head, eyes pale and very, very far away.

"Shit!" Nalir never swore, "Shit, shit, shit!

"What!? What!?" Markl rushed forward, grabbing the little wizard by the shoulders, barely resisting the urge to shake him. His apprentice brother finally looked at him instead of through him.

"River Daemons are claiming the flooded southern basin. They're harassing the Wizard Guards trying to fix the broken dykes. Barimus says they don't understand the concept of evacuation. Apparently violence has been avoided thus far, but antagonism is mounting."

"Where?"

Nalir's eyes went pale, "Just north of Loushire."

He knew exactly where. It was the township up the river from Porthaven. In two portal jumps he could be there under a half-hour. He knew one of the daemons who lived in the delta at the base of the river. The nyad might be willing to lend her aid. Anxious plans swirled in his head as he strode towards the door.

"I have to go."

Something caught him as he went by, yanking him to a halt. "Hold it, you fool! Airship is leaving in less than an hour!

Markl came to a halt, staring at his furious apprentice brother.

"You could be gone for days! Can't Howl go instead!?"

Markl stared at the blue section of the portal dial, "If he's in the beyond, finding Howl could take days. River Daemons won't listen to Calcifer. I have to go now before this blows up."

Nalir hauled him back again. He was a lot stronger than he looked, "But what about Theresa?"

It was his turn to feel torn in half.

"Will you go with her?" Markl grabbed Nalir's arm.

"W-wha!?"

The Mardan drew himself up, sputtering as he pulled away, "I can't just leave, I have duties that require I remain here. Theresa is more capable than you all give her credit for. She can take care of herself."

"Please!" Markl cut him off, pleading, "I don't want her to go by herself. You're one of the few people I trust to take care of her."

Nalir looked about ready to hit him. And Markl was prepared to let him if it meant he'd agree. Somehow the Mardan checked his ire, growing still and disquieted. But his acceptance was as clear as Suliman's crystal.

"You're an idiot, Markl. You know that?"

It was as close to yes as he was going to get.

"Thank you! Thank you, Nalir." With that the Wallmaker's son bolted for the door, turning the portal latch to blue.

***

"Markl!? What the hell!?"

Nalir heard Calcifer yelp from the top of the familiar stone stairs just as the door slammed shut behind Markl. He stood there staring at the door for a long moment, trying to overlook the gravity of the situation.

Another woman might not have forgiven Markl for this.

As calmly as possible, he conjured his work papers into the air, drying them with a single thought, packing them away with decisive flicks of his hands. But Suliman's crystal he trusted only to his hands. Placing it in its trunk with his files, he pressed the box with his hands until it compressed and shrank small enough to pop into his robe pocket. He barely had enough time to retrieve some winter garments before he heard through his contact points that a series of troubled Wizard Guards looking for the Wallmaker's son.

Muffled from head to toe in his heaviest black cloak, Nalir strode out into the freezing rain, heading across the yard for the distant humming engines of the airship. The craft was battened down and ready to take off in spite of the weather. And a be-slickered guard greeted him at the entry point to the loading bay, saluting him smartly.

"Sir!"

"A change of plan, Guardsman!" Nalir called over the deafening roar of the motors, "The Wallmaker's Son has been called by the Royal Sorcerer to the South Basin on an urgent mission. I will stand in his place and accompany Lady Theresa to Marda, Tyrn, and back! Inform the King and Tri-Council of the changes."

"Very good, my Lord!" The guard bowed, waving him up into the loading desk. The wind dropped away as he cleared the hatch, transitioning into the storage bay. Crates stacked upon crates, looming among great paddocks of lashed down bushels and barrels. The smell of dried grain and sharp cheese wafted among the sharper stink of burning oils and effervescent magic.

But then he smelled something else: camphor and cinnamon.

Turning, Nalir looked down the walkway to the hatch leading into the ship interior. Theresa stood in the doorway, outlined with light from behind. No other woman besides the Herbalist would be caught dead wearing baggy trousers. And Nalir knew for a fact that Martha was currently entrenched in a Council meeting.

"Alright! Close her up!" One of the crew called from above.

The great metal plank behind him jostled, groaning and vibrating as it lifted up and locked into place, darkening the interior until he could see Theresa's face. She wasn't furious, as he expected her to be.

Instead she looked tired. And incredibly sad.

Without a word she turned away, disappearing into the interior.

Nalir did not follow. Instead he made his way to the King's Office; the grandest of chambers build into each of ships in the Royal Ingarian Fleet. Crewman snapped to attention as he passed; bowing and saluting. He ignored them; pushing forward until he reached the place he would spend the entirety of their journey. Busying himself with laying out his papers, organizing the space and reconnecting with his contact relays back at the Royal Palace. Anything to keep him from thinking about the fact that he was going back to Marda.

But his hands shook with every movement he made.

Making it impossible to lift Suliman's Orb from its case.

Markl didn't know what he was asking by making him stand in his place.

Nalir had not been to Marda since he and his mother left for Tyrn as political refugees, fleeing the bombed out ruins of their home as Magi killed Magi during the Ingarian-Mardan War. They hyphened the name of that fight now, spreading the culpability. Although in Marda they called it the Ingarian-Mardan war. And in Ingary? The Mardan-Ingarian. Funny how the billing went when it came to blame. But like all wars, it was a stupid one to begin with. What did it matter what it was called. And then of all places, Merra brought him to Ingary while acting as an ambassador of peace, joining the Council and enrolling him in the Ingarian Academy of Sorcery.

That changed little the fact that his father way alive the last time his feet touched his native soil.

Nalir had to grip the edge of the table as the ship suddenly began to rise. The surface was magicked so that nothing would roll or fly free. Beyond the wall of glass to his left, the ground drifted away, slowly replaced by dome of angry grey filled the world beyond the windows. Rain and sleet beat against the surface, shattering his composure.

He was forced to sit down before his knees gave out.

Luckily a sea of work stretched out in front of him.

In which he gratefully drowned himself.

By the time a knock came at the office door snow rushed against the windows. And the highest crags of the Wastes slowly drifted by beyond the observation desk outside. Theresa left herself in. Somehow she managed to bind all her unruly red hair in a single tight twist that stuffed into the back of her uniform. It was a variety of Healer Garb he had yet to see, a heavy moss green suiting with shiny brass buttons that looked very official and oddly militaristic. The arms of the Tri-Kingdom Council pinned to the left lapel.

Sturdy was the only words that came to mind.

Still, she looked tired. And no more at peace than earlier.

Nalir looked up from a conversation back at the Royal Palace and cut things short as the Herbalist Apprentice sat at the very opposite end of the table, looking out the window at the snow. She was wearing leather gloves. They creaked as she tightened her hands into fists. They sat there quietly for a long while, watching the ice swirl by without a sound as the sky darkened towards night.

Nalir had to clear his throat before he spoke, "If I had my way, I would have let you go by yourself."

She flashed a wan smile, "Was it important then? Whatever his reason?"

"Yes." Nalir assured her, and then lied without hesitation, "He asked me to apologize profusely and tell you he promises to make this up to you in anyway he can one you return."

Theresa picked at the table top, "That doesn't sound like Markl. But thank you for the message, anyway."

"He really is sorry." He pressed, unnerved by her reserved calm. He was expecting something similar to the supply room. At least some yelling or perhaps a broken chair.

"I know, Nalir." Theresa interrupted, folding her hands in a very business-like manner. "He's just doing his job. So are you. So am I. Nothing to apologize for."

Silence stretched between them, filled with the distant hum of engines.

"Nice suit." Nalir blurted out. Someone about it captivated his memory.

"Oh." She flushed to match her hair, unconsciously touching the emblem on her shoulder, as if proud of it, "Martha found it in a storage closet. It's an old military uniform for the Healers Guild from back during the Ingarian-Mardan War. The Guard just updated it with the new arms."

His memory jogged and he fell very still, remembering the uniform. There had been one with the soldiers that pulled he and his mother from the rubble that had once been their home.

"So you are a Mardan after all." It was more of a statement than a question. And one he should have kept to himself.

"Excuse me?" Theresa turned away from the windows.

"Sorry." He muttered, "Never mind."

"No." Her keen green eyes had him pinned in place, "What makes you think I'm from Marda?"

"Beside your flame red hair and emerald green eyes, you called it the Ingarian-Mardan War. Only Mardan's do that."

"So what if I'm from Marda?" She shot back defensively.

"Forget it!" He snapped back, "I didn't mean to offend you in any way."

Theresa let out a gusty sigh, leaning forward, "No, I'm sorry. I'm the one being rude. Why'd you ask?"

Nalir looked back as his work. Not looking help. It felt wrong to be talking about this, but he felt he might fly to piece like if he didn't talk to someone. And talking to her was turning out to be easier than he thought.

"Is it hard? Going back?"

"Dunno…" She had pulled a curl loose from her tight knot and was twisting it through her fingers, "Never been back before."

"Me neither. Apparently I have cousins."

"Yeah?" She perked up a bit.

"I don't know anything about them," He frowned out the window, "I don't even know where to find them."

Theresa followed his gaze out the window, her green eyes troubled.

"Was it bad for you? Back then?"

"Yes… I… I lost my father."

"I'm sorry." She was looking at him, understanding bright in her gaze.

Nervousness was tightening his chest, and he stumbled over the beginnings of a cough, trying to hide his discomfort.

"What about you?"

"I lost everyone." She replied all too easily. The way someone talks about an old hurt that never goes away. It was all too familiar to the pain in his chest. But she veered away from the past as the concern in her eyes turned clinical, "How's your cough?"

"The tea helped." He stifled another catch in his breath, "Thank you."

"What was that?" She stood with a hand to her ear, coming down the table towards him as the engines accelerated, and humming louder.

"I said, thank you!" Nalir called louder, even she was right next to him.

But the hum was growing even louder, turning shrill. Until an unnerving vibration went rattling through the floors, jarring its way up the walls and into the ceiling. Nalir and Theresa froze as the hum of the motors suddenly cut out with a hollow choke. Leaving terrifying swallowing silence in its wake. Within the emptiness that bathed him in chilly dread, a deafening moan sounded deep in the airship. Wrenching, screaming steel.

An explosion rocked the room, hurling them to the floor.

Warning sirens erupted through the snarling roar.

And Theresa screeched just as the windows detonated, spraying them with icy glass. The floor heaved and buckled. Splitting as the ship began listing hard to the left, spilling any furniture that wasn't bolted to the floor sliding out the windows. But they caught themselves on the legs of the conference table, cringing from the maps and cabinets that jumped off the walls above them.

"Fly you stupid wizard!" Theresa yelled over the screaming wind.

"I can't! I can't fly!" He thundered back, clinging to the table leg as the yawning gray opened up beneath his feet.

Just as the room tore in half.

Dissolving into the swirls of white.

Tossing him out into the empty freezing sky.