The dream collapsed into stale night sweat and twisted sheets.
Asaina blinked. The tawny light of Alb'arel fell through the open window, coating the simple wooden furnishings of her room with warm, lustrous wax. The cool night air of the badlands wound itself through the room, rustling the scrolls and bringing in the gentle susurration of Zaikhal's fountain.
Softly, again, came a rap on her door.
She stood, gathering the blanket around herself, and shuffled across the book-strewn floor. "Yes, yes. Coming," she grumbled, pushing sleep-wild hair away from her eyes.
The Sho girl in the hall, perhaps sixteen years old, gulped and bowed deeply, holding it until it seemed certain she would topple to the floor at Asaina's feet. Moonlight glittered off the polished obsidian chopsticks holding the sable hair off the back of her neck. "My sincere apologies for waking you at such an hour, Mistress al-Arqis. I have been sent by my master, Celdiseth. He wished me to give you a most urgent message."
Asina folded her arms crossly, but forced a smile. "Worry not, child. I'm used to that old crank's ways." The girl's eyes widened at the word. "What is your name?"
"Hoshino Kei, mistress."
"Have you walked far, Kei? I could make you some tea."
Her mouth worked, but nothing came out. Then, "Portal magic, mistress."
"Ah. Well, tell me your message." Asaina walked back across the floor and perched on the edge of her bed, folding her hands in her lap.
Kei looked down and began to recite in low, even tones. "Master Celdiseth wishes to say that the Monster of the Labyrinth has just completed her studies, and called for a meeting of the Archmages and certain powerful nobles. Celdiseth desires that a representative of the Arcanum be present, for he expects what is said will be of great interest to all sages, and yet would not become common knowledge otherwise.
"He has chosen you because you are aware of the Monster's illicit appropriation of texts recovered by the Arcanum from the archives of Xarabydun. He also knows that you expressed disapproval of this, and were reprimanded by other members of the Arcanum as a result. He therefore believes that which will be whispered tonight must be heard by you. He yet recalls being impressed by your persistence in warning of the sudden frost that presaged the discovery of Old Frore." The girl bowed again, and spoke in her normal voice. "This is the message I was given, Mistress."
Asaina rose and walked to the window. Below, auroral waves of sand shimmered and drifted across the stones of the courtyard. So. This was the night the first age of humanity in Dereth would come to an end. The night nomadic wandering gave way to settlement, to true civilization.
The greatest schemer of Ispar was prepared to move, having at her side the lost secrets of Empyrean magic. "The Monster of the Labyrinth."
Nuhmudira, scholar of Tirethas.
The door wearily creaked open at her touch, shushing the sound of excited discussion into a stern, disapproving silence. Nine faces studied Asaina, including--
"Queen Strathelar," she curtseyed.
The tall blond woman brushed aside the courtesy with a tired wave of her hand. "Walim al-Arqis. I see Master Celdiseth's messenger found you."
Asaina could feel Kei stiffening into another bow and stepping back. Poor child. She seemed very much a country girl out of her depth. She turned to look back at her. "My thanks for guiding me here, Apprentice."
Kei murmured something appropriate and continued to retreat, holding her bow and looking intently at the floor. Behind her, a boy with straw blond hair skipped out of the path of her posterior. His eyes were very blue, and very wide at the sight of the elegant apprentice. That is the prince? Asaina smiled to herself. The very image of his mother; lanky and pale, not at all like dark and muscular Thorsten. Kei straightened and noticed him in the shadows along the wall.
"Erh, g'morning," he said, blushing furiously.
"Greetings, Prince Borelean," Kei said, formally.
"Dinna call me that," he scowled. "Talk ta me like a person." Yes, definitely his mother's son.
"Why are you here, Scholar al-Arqis?" The voice crackled like old, dry sticks. Asaina turned back to the table. There, in the candle-lit twilight at the end, lurked the old spider. "Have you no scrolls to read, no shelves to dust, that you should meddle in the affairs of those above your station at such an hour?" The hairs on the back of Asaina's neck went rigid with indignation. A retort coiled in her mouth-
"I sent for her, Nuhmudira," Celdiseth growled.
The other woman unfolded herself from her chair. She was old as dust and stone, her hair spider web silver, her hands gnarled as the mage's staff she leaned upon. "You are not welcome." The intensity of her black eyes nearly drove Asaina back a step.
"She is welcome," Strathelar said simply, and nothing more. The spider, ever a political beast, bowed to the queen, and settled herself back in the cobwebs of her chair. The chair from which so many plots had spun. The chair that had decreed no human settlements would grow until they could be defended from the greatest enemy of all.
"As I was saying," Nuhmudira said. "This art I have learned from the texts of Xarabydun was used by the Seaborne Empire to keep their homes safe from intrusion. It is therefore proof against their own arts. With it, we may bind a parcel of land to an owner, who may bar entry to any he or she wishes to keep out.
"At long last," the spider breathed, "we have a way to hold this land that is proof against the might of the Empyrean themselves! We are free now to colonize this world, safe from the threat of their return."
"Hogwash!" Celdiseth chortled.
"How would you propose we begin to distribute this boon?" Jaleh al-Thani, bey of Ayan Baqur, loomed over the table, a covetous emerald gleam in his eye.
"Slowly, of course. Haste only leads to error. That is the principle behind every decision I have made in my life. One thing is certain, whether or not our homes are safe against Asheron's people."
"They were never his people," the queen said, softly.
"Whether or not they are safe against the Empyrean," Nuhmudira amended, "we will have to venture from them sometimes. One day they will return from their diaspora. There will be a war then, between the old residents of this island, and the new." She looked around the table, plainly daring anyone to disagree. The queen sucked on her lower lip and said nothing, her eyes distant seas. "We must win, even against such overwhelming power." The old woman's eyes burned. "Dereth is our home now. We have bled for it. All my efforts here have been towards solving this problem."
"We will need material to pursue this war," she continued. "Spells. Weapons. Armor. There are many things in Dereth free for the taking; leavings of the empires that once thrived on this land, and the resources of the species that finally destroyed them. We shall call upon the entire human population of Dereth to serve as our provisioner."
"The Keepers that bind the land shall ultimately answer to the mages and nobles assembled at this table. We will own the land. For one to tenant it, they must provide our chosen representatives with whatever relics we require. We will post these people in every town of Dereth. They will provide the special items that the Keepers will recognize as payment.
"The war material the representatives collect will be held in trust by the Arcanum," she nodded at Asaina, "until that day, may it be long in coming, that it is needed."
"And how shall we begin?" Jaleh asked, looking somewhat disappointed.
"First, we should build a single settlement. It has been some time since our carpenters plied their craft on such a scale. They will need practice, and we will need to prove the concept. Some of the arts involved are beyond the ability of Isparian craft. The Keeper, for example. They rely on Empyrean demiurgy. We must make sure we can make them function properly. It will take several months before we can rest assured they operate as we desire.
"As time passes, we will continue to build. Until we have sufficient numbers of houses constructed, I believe we should refrain from selling any. There will be, I daresay, some demand for them. Better to avoid riots. We must use our strength to fight the Empyrean, not each other."
"Oh come now," Celdiseth said grumpily. "Surely you don't believe this poppycock. This was a spell used by the Empyrean to prevent burglary. Does anyone here seriously believe it will be any use against the Hieromancers of the Seaborne Empire? The mana-bombards? The area dispels? Do you think the Cathedral of Ithaenc would lie in ruins if it was?" He turned to Asaina. "And you, fellow of the Zaikhal Arcanum? What do you think of this?"
In the mornings, the smell of her mother's kitchen garden had filled their house as the sun warmed the fragrant leaves. She awoke every day to intoxicating air, rich with saffron and cinnamon, and mint bought from far Aluvia. As the sun climbed the earth-colored walls, and splashed the ember patterns of the tapestry she had hung on the wall herself, she would pull the blanket tight around herself and imagine the roots of home stretching deep into the earth.
As she grew older, her mother taught her to weed the garden, to fetch water from the well and shake it gently over the plants. To pick the aphids off the leaves. When the choicest time to harvest them was, and how to tie the leaves in a bundle to hang from the rafters to dry. To carefully brush the dust and spiders from the garden demon, with its bulbous eyes and ridiculous hat. "One day," her mother told her, "this garden will be yours to keep, and then your daughter's, and then hers."
"Yuck!" she'd cried. "I don't want to tend the garden forever, mother. I want to travel to distant lands, and learn magic."
Asaina smiled, and blinked a few times. A quote from the poet ibn Salayyar came to her.
"It may be bitter fruit we pluck. Yet what else is there to eat?" She faced Celdiseth's disapproving eye. "I would like a kitchen garden, Master Celdiseth, whether the Empyrean return or not."