Book One – A Series of Decisions on Kairas
Zizy Zakar was broke. She was nearly out of money, out of options, and, regrettably, out of time. If she didn’t get out of town fast she’d have to face Emba—again. The gnome’s light-booted feet carried her quickly inside the winehouse. She had spotted just enough people coming and going that she knew it would be a packed house. And a packed house meant merriment, carelessness, and potential solutions to her problem.
She quickly strode up to the wooden bar, needing a little fire in her before she worked. Standing on the tips of her boots, she ordered a drink, then stared in dismay at the few king coins left in her purse. When her drink arrived, she took a large gulp and sighed, rolling her tired shoulders to relax them. Drinking had always helped calm her nerves before a job—well, when it wasn’t dulling them at the end of a sloppy, mistaken night. She started breathing normally again halfway through the bitter contents of the glass, choking just a bit as she rapidly drank.
Looking around the winehouse, Zizy noticed an attractive, chubby Brixan woman staring at her. Her curly dark hair and deep brown, pebble-colored skin were set off by her large green eyes and skewed black-rimmed glasses. She wore a short scarlet dress that Zizy thought suited her well. The woman raised her mug and nodded. She was drinking alone with a large dusty-brown leather book. Zizy smiled and turned away quickly, not offering an invitation to talk. Back when she’d first arrived in the city of Shaw, she would’ve taken the time to wink, to entice her with conversation—and perhaps earn herself a kiss, or maybe just a drink or two.
But today she needed to focus. Distractions were everywhere. There were more than a few pleasures to be found in a nation like Shawia, and Zizy had enjoyed getting tangled in them. Most of the time. The Brix were quiet folks for the most part, and she found it easy to blend in when she needed to. The drab brown shirt and tan pants she had purloined from a clothesline helped, and as long as she kept her ruby-colored curls over her ears, her cloak hood up, and a shy smile pasted on her lips, she was alright. They were only a foot or two taller than her, but she could often pass for someone’s errant child if anyone noticed a tugged belt or a loose king coin here or there. The thought made her smirk. She hadn’t been a child, or had their carefree innocence, for some time.
To see another group so differently shaded had been a shocking but pleasant surprise for Zizy. Being ruby colored, though brighter than the earth-, stone-, and sea-toned Brix, meant almost nothing here, covered from head to toe as she often was. She counted herself lucky that she hadn’t ended up somewhere dangerous when she ran away from Zumi, her home. Well, teleported away more like. She still remembered the shock at finding herself thousands of miles away from her land of gnomes and here, with the Brix.
No, being out of place had been middle on her list of concerns. Ending up in Dragon’s Roost Mountain or under the sea, drowning, had preoccupied her mind far more when she’d forced her way through the old spellwork gate. But being caught by Emba, the most powerful gnomish mage to have ever lived, had been her number one concern.
She drained the rest of her drink and asked for a suggestion on the next, winking at the tender—old habits die hard—before agreeing to it. Instead of another wooden mug, he gave her a small long-stemmed wooden goblet. Even in her hands it seemed tiny. She sipped hesitatingly, enjoying the fine, thick, fruity wine, a better drink than she’d ever come across at home in Zumi. She wondered why wine hadn’t made its way across the mountains to gnomes yet, noticed she was procrastinating, and rolled her shoulders again. She surveyed the room, assessing her next move.
In the corner, beyond the attractive woman, a couple dressed in rugged work clothes sat with their heads down, shoulders hunched, and quietly talked. Zizy dismissed them as potential targets. Too undeserving. At the bar were several older Brixan men, some with long brown beards, big bellies, and clay-colored skin, others with dusty sea-blue skin, their beards the color of seafoam. The men seemed to be enjoying the spirit of the afternoon, having clearly plucked off work early. While it would be easy to make her way toward them and loosen a bag or two, she didn’t think it would be enough to get her out of the city and on to the next.
Sitting near the door was a human man, out of place this far south. His brown hair was slicked back but very tidy. He was pale cream, tall, and wore fine traveling clothes and a long brown cloak. However, there wasn’t a speck of dust on him to mark the days he had traveled. He picked at bits of his food, twirling it on his fork before letting it slip back on his plate. Grimacing, he turned to a simply dressed man, another tall human, though pink skinned—a servant of some sort, Zizy guessed—and mumbled something, jerking his head in the direction of his food. He gestured around the winehouse and cocked his head, saying something she couldn’t hear. The servant gave a polite smile while the man laughed, pleased with himself. He glanced around as if to see if anyone was watching him, but when he noticed Zizy, he stuck up his chin, looked away, and dismissed her.
Zizy schooled her face to show no emotion, practiced in the art of pretending to have none, and turned back to the bar. It seemed to her a new option had presented itself to get the money she needed, Zizy nodded to the tender, paid, and jumped down to the floor.
Her legs wobbled, and she hiccupped, smiling at the men on the stools. Making her way toward the door, she acted as though she were putting change back in her pouch and dropped a few kings, the gold twinkling on the ground. She heard the men get off their stools and pad up behind her.
An older Brixan man called out: “Here now, miss. You’ve dropped some kings. You’ll be missing those.”
But Zizy, dagger ready beneath her sleeve, ignored him and continued walking.
She stumbled forward and bumped into the well-dressed human, cutting his purse in the process. She then swayed toward his servant in a practiced, distracting manner. Zizy gasped, pretending to look contrite, but before she could get a word out, the man jumped out of his seat, hitting his head on the ceiling. He winced and strode toward her.
“Watch where you’re going,” he yelled, “and get your filthy hands off me.”
He dusted his clothes vigorously. The servant, lips tight either from annoyance or hidden mirth, brought out a brush and started swiping at the man’s jacket. The well-dressed human looked at her again, disgust turning to confusion.
“Are you a child?”
Zizy, thinking fast, started to cry. Not enough to get more attention but simply enough to have the human look away in unease. She moved away from them toward the door as best as she could through the throngs of people. The older Brixan men ran up to her, trying to console her and pressing the gold kings she dropped into her hands. She smiled tearfully at them, thanked them for being so helpful, said she really, really meant it, then turned, and ran out of the winehouse.
Once outside, she stuffed the kings in a pouch on her hip along with the heavy purse she’d taken from the human. As she strode the cobblestone street, she pulled out darkened glasses and pushed them over her eyes, wincing at the warm sunlight. She kept on walking until she found a dead-end alley close by. It smelled clean, much to her relief. Slipping into it, she swiftly pulled out a small embroidered black cloth and muttered, “Make this trick real, keep me concealed.” The sigils of her spellwork burned brightly on the cotton square. Zizy felt herself being tugged into the Hylo, the realm of spellwork that surrounds all things mundane. The cotton square faded away as Zizy vanished from sight.
“Where’d you go?” came a rich voice behind her. “How’d you do that?”
Zizy turned around, the edges of her vision a fuzzy, shrouded mess when she was in the Hylo, almost too blurry to see the attractive brown-skinned curly-haired woman from before standing behind her. Zizy held her breath. How had she not noticed the woman following her? Cursing internally, she took a step back.
The woman reached up and poked forward perilously close to Zizy’s nose. She almost made contact, and Zizy stumbled backward, unable to hold back a gasp.
The woman inhaled sharply before laughing. “So you are still here. That’s clever.” She waved her hand in the air again. Zizy took a few hurried steps back toward the end of the alley as the woman reached out again, turning to and fro. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to frighten you. That was rude of me. Please don’t go away. Are you still there?”
A yell came from down the street. Expletives loud and loose exited the winehouse as the door flung open with a hard thwack. Looking cautiously at the woman, Zizy began tiptoeing past her. Surprise couldn’t distract for long. Her light boots and soft footing made no discernable noise on the stone.
“You’re a gnome, aren’t you?” the woman said to where she thought Zizy to be. “You’ve come a long way over the mountains to pick pockets and drink wine.” Delight rang clear in her deep voice.
Zizy pursed her lips. How long had this woman been looking at her? Not many people could tell the difference between her pointed ears and their round ones under heavy hair and cloak. She’d have to be more careful in the future. She couldn’t risk being caught up for long.
“I’ve never met a gnome before,” the woman continued. ”And I suppose I might not be meeting one now, actually. I thought that was clever, what you did back there. Not particularly nice, but very clever.”
Zizy kept moving but smirked to herself.
“If anyone comes by, I’ll look silly talking to myself in this alley. If you’re still here, I’d like to get to know you.”
The belligerent yelling was coming closer now. Zizy had to hope it was just the humans to sneak her way around. What she wouldn’t give for boots like the ones back home. Sure, there’d be tiny puffs of ruby-colored steam coming off them, but she’d be so fast she’d be a blur to them.
“You can find me, or follow me, to the library next door.” The woman motioned to the tall brick building on the other side of the alleyway. “Either way…” She cocked her head to the side, her eyes roaming the empty space around her. “I’m Laysa.”
Zizy watched Laysa’s face for a moment, noticing the soft crinkles at her eyes and her spirited air. She was intrigued but wary. No one had sought her out like this before. She continued to creep past Laysa toward the exit of the alley. She could see indistinct shapes hurrying down the street as she got closer.
“The little brat has to be out here somewhere. She couldn’t have gotten far,” the human said.
She squinted her eyes to judge the distance between them. If she could dart out now and run the direction he was coming from, he’d be too hurried and mad to hear her. She stretched, preparing to run. Suddenly, the man’s indistinct shape became clearer. More focused. Her vision sharpened completely, and she felt tugged, vulnerable and visible, from the Hylo. Oh no.
Laysa coughed behind her. “If you need some help, I do know a shortcut.”
Zizy looked up into Laysa’s heart-shaped face and raised an eyebrow. “For how much?” Her luck had gotten pressed rather quickly, and while the woman was intriguing, Zizy wasn’t entirely sure this wasn’t some sort of trap.
“Just a few answers to a few questions,” Laysa said, adjusting her glasses.
“Is that really all?” she replied, backing quickly into the alley. She looked the woman over to see if she had been the cause of her invisibility dropping, but Zizy saw no spellwork materials on her.
They heard footsteps pounding toward them. “What do you have to lose?” Laysa said, moving toward a wooden door set into the brickwork of the library.
“You lead the way,” Zizy said, slowly putting her hand on the dagger handle underneath her cloak.
Laysa winked and pulled out a key. “Of course. In here.”
In a matter of seconds, Laysa had the door unlocked and swung it open. Zizy followed her in, and Laysa locked the door behind them. A clatter of footsteps stopped outside the door. Zizy held her breath as the handle jiggled but the door didn’t budget. A close call.
“She must’ve kept on down the street. Hurry, go.” Someone mumbled a reply, and the footsteps marched away.
Zizy breathed a sigh of relief and tucked her sunglasses back into her cloak. Inside the small, dark room, she could see wooden shelves lining the wall and crates as tall as her on the floor. It was fairly dusty, the scent of stale paper tickling her nose.
“This is the delivery area,” Laysa said. “The door is always locked but, luckily, by me.” She pulled a tall tapered candle from one of the shelves, lit it, and held it aloft. Its amber light cascaded across the meager items in the room but gave her face a brush of gold on her cheeks. “Welcome to the library.”
Zizy raised an eyebrow but followed Laysa out of the small entrance into a large wooden tower. The curved walls went up three floors, higher than it had looked from outside. An iron spiral staircase ran along the inner wall with arched openings at each level’s landing. There were many panes of glass inset at repeating points along the wall that filtered in the waning sunlight. It sparkled across the swirls and patterns of verdant vines and leaves that decorated the ceiling, making a sort of wreath around the peak at the top. Though she couldn’t see the books, she smelled them—the paper, dust, and ink overpowering in the space. Zizy’s mouth opened wide, and her head swiveled up. Impressive.
“This is an awful lot of text for one person.”
Laysa chuckled, her laughter a smooth, warm blanket that the gnome found relaxing.
“The library is where we keep most of the things we want to preserve. Its architecture is supposedly reminiscent of the original Timeless Libraries. Those created by the deity, Noble Endurance, that stood before the Shattering.”
She smiled wide and moved close to Zizy. A delicious heat emanated between them as Zizy noticed the candlelight dancing in the sea of Laysa’s green eyes. Zizy sidestepped away awkwardly. Unphased, Laysa beckoned her forward and walked farther into the room.
“Brix contribute from all over our nation to these archives. There’s only one other like it in all of Shawia.”
Zizy had passed this building without care before, but she found she couldn’t reconcile the small outside moments with this extraordinarily quiet one inside. She shifted uncomfortably, rubbing the back of her neck.
“Thanks for helping me out back there. You didn’t need to do that.” She swallowed. “So, you said you had questions?”
Laysa nodded and shrugged. “I always have questions. Here, sit please.”
She motioned to a plush, pink velvet armchair that sat across from a small stool. Laysa sat on the stool and placed the candle gently down on the table between them.
The fuss outside, long past them, made the silence feel deeper to Zizy. She felt Laysa’s curious eyes and tried to relax her shoulders. She sat gingerly in the soft chair, worried about dirtying it. It seemed a little out of place in the space, something that should be squirreled away to enjoy in private. Once she was firmly planted, however, her worries abruptly faded away, and she felt loose and light. She yawned. All that running must have caught up to her.
“Why were you stealing?” Laysa said, crossing her ankles and relaxing back.
Zizy waved her hand, shooing away the question. She put on a practiced air of politeness.
“Stealing is a particularly harsh word. I simply needed the funds more than he did, and I helped him help me. I didn’t take more than I needed or more than he could part with. By his clothes, his travel with a servant, and his accent, he would only be minorly inconvenienced.”
Laysa cocked her head, giving Zizy an appraising look.
“Besides,” Zizy continued, “he was acting like a jerk and needed to be taken down a notch.” Not sure why I feel the need to explain myself.
“Why do you even need funds?” Laysa asked quickly.
“Oh, where are you going?”
Zizy nodded. Capping the questions would’ve been smart. Laysa’s eyes lit up with each answer. Zizy decided to end this conversation quickly and be on her way.
“Why are you so interested?”
“I’ve never met a gnome. Or a thief.”
Zizy raised her eyebrows and made to get up. “I—”
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” Laysa said hurriedly. “Sometimes I’m too blunt for my own good. But I meant I’ve never met anyone like you before. And then you disappeared! I’ve never seen magic like that. I’m just curious as to how you were able to get a deity to answer you so quickly.” She fidgeted with her glasses. “I just thought it was amazing.”
Zizy shrugged with a trained indifferent air. “Just regular ol’ Orison magic,” she lied. She knew better than to discuss spellwork, magic that didn’t rely on the deities at all, with someone who wouldn’t understand. It wasn’t forbidden in these parts, as far as she could see, but relatively unknown. It seemed if anything magical happened in Shaw it was because of an Orison, one who kept concordance with the sealed away deities and were granted a smidgen of their power. And what was unknown could be scary to people of ignorance. Emba always said so.
Laysa pursed her lips and looked directly at Zizy, who looked back at her nonchalantly, trying not to smile. She suspected Laysa was anything but ignorant, which made her distracting.
“You spend all your time here?” Zizy motioned to the room, changing the subject. She picked at the chair threads, but they were stubbornly resistant to her nails. She glanced around. There wasn’t a layer of dust on anything. Things were stacked and sorted neatly on their shelves. It reminded her in a way of research rooms. Less workspace and less clutter though. How could anyone get anything done in a place like this? If any gnome worth their tools had space like this in or above the Vault, the connected underground caverns all gnome cities had started in, you could be sure it would’ve been filled with, well, everything.
Laysa nodded. “As much as I can. I’ve been working here for over a year or so now. The Librarian lets me live on the third floor, and I manage the ins and outs. In the meantime, I read. I study. I learn.” She smiled and leaned across the table toward Zizy.
“If you want, I can show you around. Maybe take a tour of the upstairs?” she said with a lowered voice and a suggestive wink.
There was that heat again. Zizy groaned internally. She would’ve liked to continue their rapid-fire discussion. Maybe even get around to doing more than talking. But she’d already dawdled enough here. She made appreciative noises and rose from the chair.
“Well, I should be getting on—”
“Wait. Can you teach me?” Laysa interrupted, perking up.
“Teach you?” said Zizy, confused at the abrupt change of topic. She began moving toward the large ornate glass and iron door she presumed was the main entrance.
Laysa got up, scarlet skirt rustling against the stool. “The magic you did back in the alley?”
Zizy turned and looked at her carefully. Did Orisons teach here in Shawia? That didn’t make a lot of sense. No one could really teach something granted by the Divine Consul. Could they? She couldn’t remember what little she had learned over the last few months out here about how the Brix viewed the deities. And it didn’t matter anyways. She didn’t know enough to fill a vial.
“I don’t know if I have a lot of time to teach,” she said slowly. “I won’t be in town much longer.”
“Oh.” Laysa lowered her head, taking a step back.
Laysa’s disappointed face made Zizy feel warm. With some reluctance, she heard herself saying, “But I’ll still be here tomorrow. I can come around, and maybe you can pelt me with more questions.” She chuckled, unsure of why she was saying any of this. Spending time with her when Zizy had other places to be wasn’t the best idea. She looked up at Laysa’s brown, dimpled cheeks and clever eyes. But it wasn’t the worst either.
“Fantastic. You won’t regret this. I’ll clear out space. And breakfast! I’ll make you breakfast.”
“You had me at breakfast,” Zizy said, pulling up the hood of her cloak. “I’ll be off then. Tomorrow morning?”
“Tomorrow morning.” Laysa stuck out her hand, and Zizy shook it. Her fingers were callused but soft in Zizy’s smaller palm. Laysa opened the door and peeked across into the sunlit street. “It seems clear. See you tomor—oh! What’s your name?”
For a brief moment she considered lying again but stopped.
Laysa smiled, and Zizy matched it unexpectedly.
“Till tomorrow, Zizy.”
The door closed, and Zizy sighed. Another day couldn’t hurt. She had made progress, and that had to count for something. She pulled out her shades and placed them over her eyes. Whistling a merry tune, she set off toward the inn she had been staying at. She barely noticed the clanking hoot of a small owl up above, shadowed by the setting sun.
Zizy knew she was in trouble before she rounded the corner. She always said she had a seventh sense about these things, and typically she was right. Her pointy gnome ears felt warm, and her heart quickened. From the corner of her eye, she spotted the wavy, ruby-colored hair of Emba.
When she was younger and thought she could get away with such things, Zizy would have ducked and ran in the opposite direction, hoping Emba would change her mind and forget about her. But Emba never forgot. She had a memory only a dragon could rival.
Instead, Zizy continued on, turning the corner and leaning into her act of nonchalance. She kept whistling as if she had all the time in the world and tucked a stray lock of curly hair back behind her ear. She strode past the much, much older gnome woman as if she didn’t realize she was there and didn’t fear her. A tremble escaped in her whistle. That was enough.
Emba crooked out a finger to Zizy, “Inside. Now.”
As if it had been her idea all along Zizy turned moving toward the older gnome. She dropped the whistling pretense, preferring to keep herself quiet. Quiet meant she could hide her emotions a bit better. Her shoulders tensed as she moved into the familiar overcrowded apothecary cart nearby. It was Emba’s home away from home and a sore sight for Zizy every time she saw it.
A young Brixan man inside the cart looked up, wide-eyed at Zizy entering. He seemed better dressed than any of the others in the winehouse had been. She avoided his eyes, not wanting to meet another disappointing individual like herself.
“You may go,” Emba said, in a commanding-yet-soft voice behind her.
The man bowed his head slightly toward her and darted out of the cart, carefully avoiding looking at Zizy again.
Zizy sat down and tried to mask her emotions as best as she could. She had hoped to have another day before running into Emba again. All the warmth she had just felt disappeared as Emba beheld her.
“And what do you think you’ve been up to?” Emba asked in honeyed tones. Her eyes flared with orange bursts of light. The oldest member in Zizy’s family, Emba had held on to her looks fairly well. Though wrinkled and slightly stooped, her eyes were lively and her mind just as quick. What kept her alive past the age of almost all other gnomes, Zizy didn’t know. But she had often wondered what her world would be like when Emba finally croaked.
Zizy sat back and fiddled with the closure of her cloak casually. “Just prepping to leave Shaw.”
“Just prepping to leave?” Emba repeated. “Just. Prepping. To. Leave.” She moved slowly about the cart with each word, her rich green robe brushing past bottles and vials. Zizy spotted the gleam of Emba’s mechanical owl perched on a shelf across from her. She could hear its gears clicking and its mechwork twirling inside. Its beady little eyes bored into hers as she stared at it. Nuisance.
“You’ve already been here four days by my account. How much more preparation do you need to do? Is wandering around town instrumental to stealing my artifact? Seeing the sights of the wondrous Shaw part of your plan to return what was stolen from me?” She leaned in, her perfume-scented breath catching in Zizy’s face. “Making friends going to help you pay your debt to me?” The large gray crystal attached to the silver chain about her throat lightly glowed.
Zizy tried to resist the urge to shrink back but did so anyway. Cursing her involuntary nature, she wrestled with her emotions. She was normally better at this. She put on an unconcerned air. “I’m getting coin to keep going. It costs a bit to travel out here. They’re pretty mundane and backward in this place.” She knew what her aunt liked to hear.
Emba stared at her and then sat down on the plush cushions across from Zizy. A small mechanical mouse on the table moved closer to Emba. Its metal mouth held a small flower bud of a brilliant aquamarine color, which it dropped in Emba’s wrinkled hand. Then it chittered at her, its squeak sounding oily and clicky as the gears ground out its words.
Zizy never understood what Emba’s mechs said, but she knew a nark when she saw one.
“I see,” Emba said to the mouse, and stroked it lovingly. “Your time is ticking, dear Zizy. I don’t forget debts, and you owe me a large one. I want that Sandtimer.”
Zizy nodded, her training coming back to her slowly as her nerves died down. “Of course, Aunt. I know I have a job to do.”
She thought stealing an unattended key and teleporting halfway across the continent would’ve gotten her away from Emba’s requests. It’s how she ended up in Shaw, ended up on the other side of the spellwork gate thinking she was home free. But she would never be free of Emba as long as she was valuable to her. An asset. And in stealing from her aunt, she had robbed herself of her own freedom. If she could get the Sandtimer, perhaps she could truly part from her for good.
Emba smiled and clasped Zizy’s chin in her cold, wrinkled, rose-colored hand. She turned her niece’s face, inspecting it. “You’re filthy from this place. Next time have a bath before you come see me.” She dropped her hand and picked up the flower. “I think you need to be reminded about your duties to our family. Too much freedom can be harmful to one’s focus.” She crooked her finger to the mouse and whispered to it, “Stay by her side.” She put the mouse down, and it scurried over to Zizy.
Zizy picked up the mouse and placed it in her bag. Great. Just what she wanted, a pet snitch.
“They”—Emba motioned to the owl—“will continue to send me reports, and if I don’t see any”—she plucked petals from the flower—“faster movement, then we’ll just have to go back to Hadu immediately. Do we have an understanding?”
Not Hadu. Emba had too much clout in that city. Between the Academy of Casters training she presided over and the alchemical business she ran, Emba was powerful. It would mean everything Zizy had done, had given up to get out of there would be for naught.
Emba drew a small sigil, a triangular symbol pointed up, on the table directly around the petals. The gray crystal hanging from her necklace faintly glowed. The sigil sparked and, with a flicker, the petals were licked by small tiny flames from the symbol surrounding them. One by one they burned to soft, gray ash. Emba sighed, satisfied, and scooped them into a vial, which she then corked and placed on a shelf. Her ingredients. She looked up at Zizy then, waiting, and Zizy nodded quickly.
“I expect more from family. Don’t trifle with me, Zizy,” Emba commanded, and waved her toward the opening of the tented cart. Zizy bolted from the cart, the little mechanical mouse vibrating in her cloak pocket. Not stopping to catch her breath outside, she walked on, getting lost in her haste. It didn’t matter. She always felt lost anyways.