Brilliant pinpoints of light unfolded across the sky, as though someone was shaking out a gem-studded cloak for the two queens that ruled the night. Ydera and Solida shone in their dance. Ydera was far larger than her sister, offering a soft green shimmer to the world below. What Solida lacked in size she made up for in the strength of the majestic lavender brilliance of her light. The seas of Braevis danced heedlessly through the change of hours. Below the white-capped surface, flashes of brilliant bio-luminescence caught the eye in colors and shades that stole the imagination’s capacity for names.

Still, it was not for the mysteries of the Triminn Abyss that she had come. That was best left for her brother and father. They were still locked away in their workshop, even at this hour. It was their endless quest to find a way to submerge themselves and mine the sea’s mysteries. She crossed her arms behind her head and leaned back on the wooden platform. Father had built it years and years ago, in the tallest tree in the yard. Malise’s gaze had forever been fixed upward.

She wasn’t interested in flight beyond that it could get her out there to see the universe unfold in front of her, to dance with Ydera and Solida so far above. Her father thought she was crazy. That had been something of an irony, given his own life’s dream. She tilted her head and reached for the notebook and charcoal she kept close to hand on nights like this. The pages were covered with sketches and notations about the placement of the stars and their movement over the seasons. She knew every legend and all the new information the astromancers in Dovleigh learned about the heavens and their magics.

Malise lifted a hand in the air, turning it and studying it under the light of the moons. Every night was the same. She would climb up here, make her notations, ruminate on the vast expanse that the stars hinted at, and then study her hand. Every night, the same stab of trembling disappointment tore through her. The runes of an astromancer would never dance under the skin of her palm. She would live here an eternity. Just a hedge witch in a family of shipbuilders in a village that had thus far managed to repel the assault to expand to a full city under the weight of all the business coming in for the shipwrights and even the fishermen.

She sighed and dropped her hand back to her side. The idea of becoming a fishwife was abhorrent. The last time she had tried to clean a fish, she’d nearly sliced her hand to the bone. Her mother had thrown her hands up in exasperation and dismissed her from the kitchen for good. That had been fine with her. Hours had been spent exploring the forest and the shoreline, learning the nooks and crannies of every rock and tree and brook. Copious notes had been taken about those, too, although in much different books than this. Entire treatises could be written from her notes on local herb lore and their effects in certain spells. They were all minor spells, as Malise wasn’t particularly powerful. Her brain, however, made up for any lack of natural talent.

Dark brown eyes wandered amongst the points of light, drawing fantastical beasts and lowly kitchen tools. Her mind and heart settled into a quiet accord as her usual restless nature calmed during the exercise. This was her sanctum and escape. No one would dare interrupt her in her tree-top tower, at least not until the morning. Her full lips curved upward in a smile. It was almost easy to imagine a future somewhere far from here in moments like this. Somewhere like the capital of Dovleigh, or maybe Marinna to the south and east. Her mother’s people came from that way. Those thoughts left seeds in fertile soil. There was a place in the world for her, if she were up to the task of finding it for herself. The idea nagged at her even as she drifted off to the sounds of the night insects and breeze Above her, Ydera and Solida kept their solemn watch until sunrise.

“Malise! Get your daydreaming hide down here this minute! There’s geese to be taken into town.” Lillai Izel banged on the base of the tree with a stick. She had no idea what she would do with her only daughter sometimes. Perhaps they’d indulged her too much as a child. She should have worked harder to make sure her daughter would be more content with the prospects such a small place afforded her. She cracked the tree again. “I will tear that platform down myself, girl! Get a move on!”

Malise squinted and turned her head away from the morning sun’s glare. Damn it, damn it…. This was the third time this week she’d fallen asleep up here. Her mother was going to kill her. She pushed herself up and gathered her notes together hastily. “Coming, mama!” Oh, gods she was in for it, she just knew it. She straightened her rumpled shirt and pushed unruly black curls out of her face. With that done, there was nothing left to do but tuck her notebook under one arm and clamber down to face the music. “I”m sorry, mama, I didn’t realize…”

Lillai sighed. “Of course you didn’t. Again. Go in, eat and clean up. Trader Sookree won’t wait for those geese forever.” Malise leaned up to give her mother a quick kiss on the cheek and hurried inside. It wasn’t as though she didn’t appreciate what her mother did- all of which entailed keeping the lot of them in one piece, body and soul while her father tinkered and drafted his life away. Her mother oversaw everything about the house, and the finances and the rest. She wished she could explain to the older woman that it was her example that made Malise long to be more than a fishwife.

The house was one of the larger in the village, a respectable yet cozy two stories, with real glass windows and working plumbing. There were perks to her father’s eccentricities. A deep breath gave her a nose full of fresh bread and some fruit pastries, along with all the comforting familiar musk of the monkswood furniture and the beeswax her mother used to polish it all. She trotted up the stairs and tucked her notes away in her room before pulling out a clean shirt and leather trousers. She grabbed the calf-length coat, also of soft comfortable leather with an abundance of pockets. This she carried with her after buckling on her boots. Her hair had been temporarily tamed with a simple head kerchief.

The aroma of fresh apple fritters, eggs, and bacon carried her into the kitchen. The dining room was only ever used on formal occasions. Malise piled her plate high and settled onto one of the benches running along the simple wooden table. The food disappeared with an alacrity fitting someone twice her girth. Once she had polished off a second helping, she carefully tucked a pair of fritters away in parchment along with the sandwich that was already waiting, stuffing them into her coat’s pockets as she slung it over her shoulders. A third found its way into her palm and she nibbled on it while she headed to the pens.

“Is there anything else I should be expecting to bring back?” The words escaped past a mouth full of food and she watched her mother roll her eyes.

“Check at the post for me. It’ll be at least another two days before I can fish them out of the workshop to drive into town, and some of it can’t wait.” Lillai surveyed Malise. She should have been married already. She probably could have been, if she’d actually do something with her hair, or pay more attention to her clothes. Her brother’s hand-me-downs were hardly flattering. She did have to admit the girl had a fair turn with the needle, though. At least they’d been properly altered to fit her and weren’t falling off. She wasn’t a classic beauty; while her warm olive skin was striking, it was matched by a nose that was a hair too long and chin just a bit too sharp, not to mention the lips that looked too generous by half on Malise’s slender oval face. Her mother’s lips turned in that thoughtful frown she was so familiar with. Before the tide of well-meant advice poured forth, Malise gave her mother a quick hug, grabbed her walking stick next to the hen coop and the water skin her mother had been holding, and went off to round up her honking charges.

She nearly danced in glee once they were out of sight of the farmhouse. Freedom, at least for most of the day. It would take an hour or two to get into town, plus the added time to deliver the three geese that had been requested. On top of that, there was checking the post, and maybe she could nose around near the workshops and find another set of discarded blueprints. It was like a treasure hunt. She continued to nibble at her fritter and hum under her breath while they went. The day was pleasant enough as they made their way through the light forest that ran along the seaside bluffs. Autumn was slipping its fingers through the foliage in warm shades of red and yellow and orange. Winter would come along behind sooner rather than later, or so the stars had been telling her.

Malise lost count of how many times she stopped for an herb, or to study a set of small tracks. It was easing past the noontide when she finally arrived. Pomovaara, it was often joked, had more letters to its name than inhabitants. The joke was losing its luster with every new wave of labor for the shipyards. She had to practically carry the geese through the crush in the commons. Trader Sookree’s was on the far side. Finally, she was able to put the honking monstrosities down, hands aching and out of breath. The geese were ushered into a small open shed with other livestock offered up in trade and she tied them off to a post in the wall.

Finally free of that particularly loathsome duty, Malise took her sweet time about wandering down Pomovaara’s main thoroughfare. She still had a few coppers of her own left from a little work she’d done for one of the astromancers who traveled through on occasion. Her memory couldn’t call a time when the way seemed more crowded. It was almost like a high festival, excitement running like a current through the people. A crumpled piece of parchment caught her eye and she knelt, lifting it to inspect it. Her eyes widened. It was a Selection Day. How had she not known? Every quarter, the guilds of Dovleigh traveled to select those who showed promise or aptitude in their given fields. She bit her lip and looked around. There were all the usual suspects- the tanners and weavers and glassblowers. The bardic schools, of course, and the theatrical types….it took her a long moment before a banner she was unfamiliar with came into focus. She inched closer. The banner was divided in two, one side a warm green and the other a deep lavender, each with their respective moons and a field of stars. A trio of cogwheels sealed the bottom, shimmering threads seeming to reflect the light of both moons on metal. The runes beneath simply stated ‘Nighthaven’, nothing more. There was no blaring slogan like the others.

This booth had no crowd, aside from the ones who looked to be running it. At second glance, they looked too busy arguing with each other over the parchment in front of them. She wandered up to peer curiously.

“No, I’m telling you, the Dasypodidae is here, in the north.” The first pointed to a spot on a chart of stars.

“No it isn’t, you lunkhead. It’s in the west.” His compatriot pointed to another section of the chart. Malise’s lips quirked upward.

“It’s actually neither, although those both look similar when you’re looking at the chart upside down.” She chuckled quietly and corrected the orientation. “The Dasypodidae is here,” she tapped the constellation as familiar to her as her own features, “In the southeast. In the winter, it’s slightly more to true south, and in the summer sits firmly in the southeast.” She pointed to two other clusters. “Cloridanse and Sarien are the easiest way to locate it at any spot on Braevis.”

The young men looked at each other, and then at her, and then back at each other. “Ha,” the first exclaimed, “you were just outsmarted by a girl!”

The other didn’t let that slight sit for long. “You were the idiot reading the chart upside down!” They continued squabbling, leaving Malise to only guess at their names and feeling somewhat bemused.

“Tamek! Timon! Can’t I leave you alone for five minutes? Quit that. How long have you left this young lady to stand there while you quibbled?” Malise turned to see a wizened old woman behind her, leaning heavily on her walking stick. “Come child, what questions do you have for us?”

She bit her lip. “They have a star you deal with astronomy or astromancy, then? How many are you? I’ve never seen you at a Selection Day before, why come now? Where do you work from?” The words tumbled out one over the over the other. Her curiosity was rising.

“She noticed we had the chart upside down, grandmother.” She wasn’t sure if that was Timon or Tamek.

“And she could find the Dasypodidae without help, the best way to help locate it anywhere on Braevis, and its locations through the year.” The other one replied. The old woman eyed her speculatively.

“Did she now? That’s promising, indeed.” The constellation was one of the more difficult to pinpoint. “Come in, come in, and I can answer all your questions….” She lifted a brow, waiting for the girl’s name.

“Malise. Malise Izel.” She smiled and followed the woman into a booth. She was invited to settle on a wooden stool and did so gladly.

“Ah, welcome, Malise. May I call you that? I’ve lost patience for formalities in my old age.” The old woman smiled and settled on a stool across from her. “That’s Timon and Tamek, there, my grandsons. You can call me Mendi. We are a small family that crafts star charts and other tools the astromancers use in their studies.” Her look turned distant for a moment. “We were larger, once, but time and the gods have taken their toll. The three of us are the last, and so we need to bring in new blood.”

Malise nodded. She was interested now, oh so interested. She could put her knowledge to use. That idea alone sent tremors of glorious anticipation through her. “My father’s always said I was born staring at the night sky.” She chuckled a bit. “Where does your family work?”

Mendi of Nighthaven studied this girl with the eyes that lit just so when she was intrigued. She had a feeling the girl would settle in well with them. The matriarch nearly chortled out loud when another thought struck her. He needs taking down a few pegs, and I think this little filly just might manage that and then some. “We work in Nighthaven. The estate is about a day’s ride from Dovleigh. We couldn’t dream of working in the city with all that light. You can hardly see Solida, let alone Ydera or the stars.”

“Well, that makes sense. I hadn’t thought of something like that before. But I suppose the capital would be….crowded.” Scenes of a life of her own and independence were already spinning through her head. Surely her parents wouldn’t find it objectionable, to have her finally off their hands. Malise didn’t necessarily need their permission- she’d reached her majority two years ago. Still, it was always nice to have good wishes and familial blessings on starting any new endeavor.

“Exactly. We live simply, but I don’t think you’d object to that. You look like you come from level-headed stock.” The gnarled old hands passed over the walking stick in her lap. “Tell me, Malise, where one can find Nasua and Fanum in the early spring?”

“Trick question. Both Nasua and Fanum are hidden by the Twin Queens in the early spring, when their lights shine brightest. To be very technical, however, they are three degrees to the north-northwest of Ydera at her rise at that time of year.” Malise smiled. She didn’t even need her notebook for that one.

Mendi nodded. “Good, good. I think you just might do. We’ll be leaving tomorrow afternoon. Meet us here if you’ll join us.” She smiled. “You should go get ready, I think. Queens watch your step.”

Malise would never be able to recall the trip to pick up the post, or the hike home. Usually she took her sweet time, but with the prospect of adventure within reach, she could hardly refrain from running. Her mind raced about who to talk to first. Her father would be at the shipyards until dinner. Her mother would likely be the biggest hurdle, so starting earlier there would make the most sense. She stopped to hang her coat up on the peg inside the kitchen and made sure to throw away the paper that had been wrapped around her food. She couldn’t even remember eating it.

She took a moment to compose herself. A hand reached up to make sure that her hair hadn’t come undone in her rush back. Mud was carefully removed from shoes and garments. No reason to give her mother a reason to complain before she even started. Rather than clomp through the house, Malise made her way through in the most ladylike fashion she could muster, pausing at the parlor door and knocking, post in hand. “Mama, I’ve got the post for you.”

Her mother hardly looked up from her sewing. “Oh, good. Bring it here. Your father and brother leave me so many socks to darn...maybe you can help me with it.”

Oh joy! Oh rapture! Darning socks was precisely what Lise wanted to do right now. But she smiled and settled next to her mother, reaching for a stocking, a needle, and the thread and depositing the mail on the table. Right on cue, her mother finished the stocking in her hand and went for the mail, leaving the darning to Malise. “Of course, mama. It was busy in town today.” That felt like a nice, solid opening without raising too many suspicions. “I’d forgotten it was Selection Day again.”

“Hmm?” Lillai eyed her daughter from over a letter that had come from her own mother. “Was it? I should have sent Lafe. It’s all well and good for he and your father to dream their crazy ideas, but he needs a profession of his own before he can take a wife, and he doesn’t want to work in the shipyards.”

Of course Lafe needed a profession before he got married. Why on earth would she need one? She hid her frown in her work. “There was an interesting group there. I’d never heard of them before.” She edged her foot out over the precipice very carefully. “They call themselves ‘Nighthaven’. Apparently, they make the star charts and things for the astromancers.” She left it at that, to gauge her mother’s reaction.

A faint pucker began to form between her mother’s eyes, and she slowly lowered the letter to give Malise her full attention. “Is your wanderlust finally getting the better of you, Lise?” Lillai had known at some point that her girl’s adventurous spirit would steal her away. She’d just hoped it would be with better prospects than on her own and no one to look out for her. It wasn’t as though she could blame the girl. Her own wanderlust had tossed her in the path of Azariah Izel more than twenty some odd years before.

“It’s not that I don’t love you all dearly, Mama…” Malise bit her lip and thought best how to explain. “It’s just that you and I both know I don’t fit in Pomovaara- I’d be miserable as a fisherman’s wife, or even a ‘builder’s. The only person in town who looks up instead of down.” Her lips quirked in a faint smile. “It’s a family business, but the line is petering out. Entirely respectable and it’s what I love-” She stopped, her mother’s actual words settling in. Confusion followed the realization. No arguments? No badgering? No…anything? She reached over and squeezed her mother’s hand. They’d talked, a few times, about what had brought Lillai to Pomovaara. “I suppose so, yes. You never know, I could find a nice young man that doesn’t mind that my hair will never do as it’s told, my chin is too sharp, and that I spend half my time dreaming about stars and wind up as happy as you and papa are.”

The older woman squeezed her daughter’s hand. She and her husband had discussed this day with some trepidation, but they both knew if they wanted to keep her at all, they’d have to let her go. Lillai offered a smile. “I can only hope, dear. Tell me more about these people, so that we can figure this all out with your father. When are they heading back to wherever they hail from?”

“Apparently Nighthaven is about a day’s ride from Dovleigh- you’d have an excuse to go shopping in the capital!” Malise’s face lit up again as she told her mother about Mendi, and the twins, and how she’d come upon them. “It was so hard not to run back, Mama. Mendi said they’re leaving tomorrow afternoon. I know it’s terribly short notice. I’ll hardly have time to get my notes together, let alone anything else. But I want to do this. I want my life to have a meaning, to see things before I settle down- like you.”

The parlor tilted slightly in Lillai’s vision. It seemed awfully sudden, to realize she was sitting like this with her daughter for the last time in who knew how long. If you tell her no now, she’ll just run on her own. She’s too much your child for your own good, some days. Her smile wasn’t entirely forced; it was impossible to sit with any of her children and not get some enjoyment from their excitement. “Papa will be startled to hear that, but I think we can make him see the sense in it, as long as we’ll be allowed to visit soon.”

Needle and stocking were dropped as she threw her arms around her mother. “Thank you, mama. I’ll make you both proud, you’ll see. Thank you.” She hadn’t thought anyone had understood. What a fool she’d been, when her mother had been here her whole life. Her mother returned the hug just as warmly. The two spent the remainder of the afternoon planning how they would present this to her father and getting her things in order. Compiling all of her notebooks had taken the longest, as she’d thought, but with her mother’s help, she’d even go with some clothes to wear.

Dinner had gone more smoothly than Malise or Lillai had expected, although Azariah was a bit saddened that she had to leave so quickly. The next morning, Malise set out to Pomovaara proper on one of their precious horses, a small store of coin, a massive bag of food (her mother really did understand her better than she’d thought), and everything she owned in the world in the pack on her back and two saddle bags. Everything around her looked brand new, now that she didn’t know the next time she would see any of it again. Even the long fingers of sunlight that sifted through the leaves like a lover’s fingers seemed warmer and more memorable. She offered a small salute to one of her favored sitting places by a small brook on her way by.

This was it. She was finally going somewhere to do something more than breed more fishermen. A small pang of homesickness stung already. Malise pushed it back, trying to focus instead on her excitement at the journey. She wondered how many stops they would be making, how many others might come back with them. Her imagination started to plumb the depths of what it would be like living in a place dedicated to what she loved most among people whose hearts and minds worked the same as hers. Her pulse began to race in anticipation and the homesickness eased.

Gauzy curtains fluttered in the warm westerly breeze. Patches of sunlight skittered across the tiles in dancing patterns as they did so. Tiles in warm shades of umber and dark amethyst couldn’t hide their long neglect in the onslaught. Fine cracks ran through them and their surfaces were subtly pitted. The numerous small and threadbare carpets were no protection against observant eyes. Delicate cream all the way to buttery yellows that complimented the tiles were now nearly as gauzy as the curtains, all badly in need of replacing. Just another shell of its former self, the room was situated in the north-easternmost corner of what had been the heart of the Draivalon Empire, Bastoph Palace. The empire’s collapse and the ensuing wars just to keep the core secured had not been kind. 

“Did you know this used to be Empress Ilisaria’s favorite sitting room once?” The speaker’s voice was rich and deep. It rolled off the naked plaster of the walls and the floor beneath its inadequate armoring. 

“I’m positively stunned you would even know that, Terioc.” The air became palpably tense as the pair settled into the last remaining rickety armchairs left to the room. “Now, stop stalling. What does Ainsu have to say for himself?” Long, elegantly manicured nails painted in a deep burgundy lacquer clicked impatiently against the arm of her chair. Terioc felt his jaw clench slightly. No one had ever covered up the fact that their empress was a bit, sometimes. 

“He says there may be problems, Your Majesty. Apparently, the young queen is not such an easy mark as her father. He’s had to resort to one of the lords to start stirring the pot. There are rumors their astromancers have found a use for their powers- something big. He hasn’t been able to get any solid information.” 

“He’d better work harder, then. Tell him if he botches this, he’ll be recalled.” She nearly purred the threat and stroked her fingers over the tail of the braid coiled stylishly over her shoulder. He shuddered inwardly. Recall was death. Given what he knew to be true about his empress, and what else there was rumored to be, he didn’t need any more explanation than that. Recall meant worse than death. “We need those resources if we have any hope of rebuilding the Empire to its former glory.” Cadan Mionas, Empress of Draivalon and collector of the souls of those who’d failed her reached a bronze hand over and ran those nails lightly along his cheek. “I’m sure you’ll take good care of all of this for me, won’t you, my altaica?”

 She knew he hated it when she touched him, hated the pet name even more. He was no one’s pet hunting cat- but self-preservation prevented him from saying as much. “Yes, my lady. Everything will proceed as you wish it.” Her soft chuckle told him she’d caught the faintest hints of resentment and tension. 

“Mind yourself, altaica. Lord Vairach has been asking me for another offering, and I’d hate to give up someone so useful.”

 “Of course, my lady.” Bile rose in the back of his throat. Clearly the demonic entity the Nightdreamers worshiped for their power wasn’t pleased with whatever she’d offered up the night before. Subtle flakes of dried blood still sat in the fine lines in her palms and just beneath the edges of her fingernails. Those nails bit, suddenly, just below the upper edge of his jaw, digging into the soft flesh under the bone. 

“See that you do, Terioc.” She hissed. “I will have my birthright again.” She stood and swished out of the room, carrying a cloud of irked menace with her.

 He waited for what seemed like ages before he rose and made his way quietly toward a small closet about three doors down. He looked both ways before he opened the door. Almost no one came here anymore, except the housekeeping staff on occasion to dust. It was an ideal area for any meeting that one didn’t want observed or overheard. They’d held all the meetings regarding Igain here. Cadan had thought it an ideal place with more than enough distance from the ambassador from Aven’s court. Terioc hadn’t ever intended to play courtier- he’d joined the Imperial Army young and made a name for himself on up through the ranks, until Cadan had decided she preferred him at her beck and call. Everything he had done had been to protect Draivalon- and now the time had come to protect it from its own Empress. Just inside the closet, a small notch in the floor showed him where to re-open the hatch that had been built there at Empress Ilisaria’s request. A small passage led to the floor underneath the old study. Cadan may have known about the study, but he knew for sure she’d never known about the passageways that riddled the palace, except a small few. Those she’d had boarded up once she no longer needed the secrecy. 

“Onas.” He nodded down and reached to offer a hand up the shaky ladder. The Igainian ambassador seemed less shaken than he thought the man might have been. 

“Terioc.” Onas Silverstrand nodded back. “Our worst fears are confirmed. I should write immediately to Queen Aven.” He pushed long fingers through his hair to clear it of cobwebs. “Thank you for this. You put yourself at great risk to save people that aren’t your own.” 

“It serves the greater good of Draivalon, as well. Mutual benefit is always the strongest alliance.” His smile was swift but fleeting. “Go ahead of me, the way I showed you before. You won’t see any guards to question you that way.” He waited for the ambassador to disappear before returning to the window of the study. The capital city of Sael Alari below was oddly sluggish at such an hour and with the sunlight. Whatever of the city’s population hadn’t been ravaged by the wars, Cadan’s damned rituals were slowly draining. Everyone knew, or suspected, and no one dared- or could- say anything about it. There wouldn’t have been any wars if the evil bitch hadn’t decided to so openly practice her ways more than a hundred years ago, when she’d ascended to the throne. No more, he thought to himself. He was hoping that in repayment for saving them, the Igainians might see their way to helping him save his home. 

 Several hours later, the rider to Igain left with his usual monthly dispatches. The guards eyed the lot quickly, joking about how rich people there must be to not even notice they’d added a blank sheet to the pile of correspondence. The courier just accepted it back with a chuckle and shrug- who could tell with nobles anywhere? Once he was outside of the city, he let his horse have its head, tearing over the dusty, rocky terrain that marked the center of Draivalon proper. It took three weeks of hard riding, but all of the letters were delivered to the appropriate place. Queen Aven received the seemingly blank page with grace and a warm smile- and extra gold on top of that. The courier had no idea what was so special about some blank parchment, but he’d take it. It;’d see his family well off for months to come, and the road between here and Sael Alari was long and dangerous and any extra security they could get was more than welcome.     

Next Chapter: The Altaica and the Cartographer