Chapter 9: Lilacs

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The Audaxi Chronicles

Althea

 

Sunlight fills the room with an light orange glow. The deep-rooted peace of the morning drifts in the half-cracked door to her room. Amber tinted, the tiny wooden room is set afire with the combination of the morning sun and the delicate sound of plucking strings.

 

Nestled in the windowsill, Althea sits with her feet pulled in, staring out the fuzzy, smudged window. The numbness on her fingertips as she presses down on the gittern cradled in her lap seems to be the only feeling grounding her to her body. Without it, she thinks she’d just be flying out the window.

 

She’s been staring at the sight for the past few hours. The physician’s quarters are at the very bottom of the Rinnreal castle, with its own entrance to the city under the inner wall, so all the buildings of the city stretch down beneath her.

 

Bathed in morning orange, the cramped thatched houses pile on top of each other, receding down the hill and branching out into a maze of tiny woven streets. From where she sits, Althea can see the people start to wake, smoke beginning to float out of chimneys and wagons starting to move and shops setting up. Muffled sounds of people, likely the servants and cooks, float to her ears from within the castle as the bustle starts up yet again.

 

A month passed in Rinnreal, Althea still isn’t used to this view. With the Vaga, she’d traveled to cities before, usually beyond the Eastern Mountains, but none to this scale. So many people living their own separate lives, packed in together on the Mountain of Graves. Living on the site of Rinn’s last conquer, on the exact place where he led the last slaughter.

 

Althea blinks her eyes, shaking the thought out of her head. Enough of the ghosts.

 

She’s not sure how long she stays there, watching the world wake up.

 

“Hello?”

 

A soft voice wakes her out of her reverie. Hopping to her feet, Althea bounces through the door to her room into the physician’s workroom. Passing through the two rows of empty patient beds, she looks over her small domain. The rooms open into a small square shape, the old cold stone walls trapping the cool air. Sunlight dances in from the high windows, onto the large clean table in the middle of the room. In front of her lies the small staircase to the right, which leads up to the tiny loft full of books and vials and ingredients she brought with her.

 

Under the loft, on the left side of that wall, the door to the rest of the castle swings open with uncertainty. A head of long dark hair peeks through.

 

“Come on in!” Althea calls, stepping up to the worktable–her worktable. Sometimes she has to remind herself that this is hers now, her place, her home.

 

It’s odd to have a home. With the Vaga, traveling here and there never felt like there was a permanent place, one location to return to. Rinnreal still doesn’t feel like that place to her.

 

She doesn’t think she ever will really have a home.

 

“Althea!”

 

The girl steps into the room, her eyes immediately brightening. She wears a perfect green satin dress, tight on her tiny waist. A heavy maroon amulet hangs down on her chest, intermingling with her long, silky black hair.

 

“Oh, Eriana.” Althea says, throwing the words out into the morning air. “What can I do for you?”

 

The girl looks a little surprised at her words, mouth opening and eyes widening for just a split second. A little light flickers in the back of Althea’s mind, the bright red light that warns her that she addressed her incorrectly. That little light has really been getting on her nerves.

 

As the ward to the King and heir to Ondin, a Northern Land, Eriana probably is supposed to be addressed in some other, more respectful way. Althea still struggles with that whole respecting the royalty thing. A few days ago, a Chieftain nearly chopped her head off with his axe because she failed to recognize his title. Then, of course, there’s Nolyn, but he’s a different story.

 

Eriana, however, takes it with all the grace a princess should have. At least three years Althea’s junior, the girl seemed enamored with her the minute the King made her the Court Physician. She often comes for short visits to the physician’s room at least once a day, usually at odd times like this, first thing in the morning.

 

“Oh, uh…” Eriana says softly, staring at the floor and wringing her hands.

 

Althea raises her eyebrows. “You might want to start coming up with your excuses before you come.”

 

Eriana’s big brown eyes widen, but after seeing Althea’s light smile, she lets out a breath in the form of a laugh.

 

Stepping up to the worktable and placing her hands delicately on the surface, Eriana says, “I’m just…curious. You are from…so far away. I mean, since I came to Rinnreal I have not left the castle grounds. You’ve seen the world. And…”

 

She trails off, looking intently at Althea’s hands, as if they were about to catch flight.

 

“Ah, that’s it.” Althea laughs. “If you wanted to see some magic, you could have just asked.”

 

A blush creeps up on Eriana’s pale cheeks, but she nods vigorously.

 

Althea can’t help but sympathize with the young girl. Wanting nothing more than to see everything is something she can relate to.

 

Smiling, Althea leans over the worktable, rubbing her hands together a little. Looking up, she studies Eriana for a minute, seeing her intent and expectant eyes on Althea’s hands.

 

Considering for a moment, Althea thinks of what to show the girl. Something simple, something nice. Pure.

 

Then, in her mind, a memory surfaces as violent as a tide crashes over her. Sitting with tiny crossed legs in a bright green meadow by a tiny creek, face contorted and staring at the grass, under the shadow of a snow-capped mountain. Across from her, her mother, in the ethereal way she appeared in Althea’s memories with a sliver of a white dress and long and wild hair. Her mother smiles so sweetly, and then, making a complex hand movement, she draws up a lilac flower, right up from the earth, from out of nowhere. As hard as her tiny hands perform the movement, Althea can’t get the flower to grow.

 

Her mother laughed, light like the wind, and said, “Little Thea, you can’t push. Give the flower your breath. Let it share your life.”

 

“Woah.”

 

Eriana’s soft word brings Althea to the present, where a tiny lilac is pushing up from within the table, right where Althea’s hands are drawing it into life. Refocusing, Althea draws up her fingers in the movement that has ingrained into her body, building the flower from nothing, pushing the tiny pieces of life where they need to be to create the flower.

 

Eriana takes in a sharp breath, as the two of them watch the flower grow up through the table. It’s a simple spell, really. But Eriana’s air of childlike astonishment and excitement makes Althea smile.

 

“How did you learn this?” Her voice is soft, eyes not off the growing lilac.

 

“Well,” Althea sighs, rearranging her mind so she can focus and talk at the same time, “anyone can learn the practice of magic. Some have more power inside them than others, so that just depends. But most people don’t choose to learn because it takes a lifetime dedication, full of studying and reading and learning your focus and practice and…”

 

As tiny purple petals begin to bloom, her focus takes over, pushing out whatever words she was just saying. And she and Eriana stand there, watching this plant, her plant, grow larger and larger.

 

“Eriana? What the hell are you doing in here?”

 

The annoyed voice and the sound of the door slamming jerks Althea and Eriana out of their reverie, and the plant, left to its own devices growing in the middle of a table, fades and wilts instantly. Eriana jumps back, startled, as Prince Nolyn and two of his Audaxi stride into the room.

 

“I’ve been searching for you for over an hour!” The prince nearly yells. “You never came to breakfast with the King and I. Dalla almost threw a fit because you weren’t there. And why am I not surprised that you’re behind this?”

 

At that last sentence, the prince turns his seething gaze to Althea.

 

She gives him a broad smile in return. “Well, I certainly can’t blame her if she wishes to spend her time….elsewhere.”

 

Althea discovered about a week ago that when the prince is really angry, he clenches his jaw and a certain vein pops out in his neck.

 

“Nolyn.” Eriana steps in and literally steps in between them, which immediately softens the prince’s fiery gaze. “I am truly sorry. I was only asking…”

 

The girl trails off, leading the room into a venomous silence. Althea catches the eye of one of the Audaxi standing casually behind the prince. She brightens when she sees Raff looking back at her, and she offers him a smile, which he returns.

 

Among the seven Audaxi, Raff was different, Althea had noted. She honestly didn’t know much about them, even though she’s been staying at the castle for a while now. The Audaxi and the prince trained together, ate together, rode out of the city together, and returned together. Supposedly they had rode to a small town in the kingdom last week and rescued them from a creature that had been terrorizing the town. Personally, Althea just thought them an overrated guild.

 

“Asking what, Eriana?” Nolyn stares over her head at Althea. “About the vinnreal and their uncivilized ways?”

 

Althea winces. “Actually, I believe it was something about how to handle pompous a–”

 

“Magic.” Eriana interrupts hastily but not before Nolyn has time to look outraged. “I just wanted to see some magic, that’s all. Nolyn, let’s go back up to breakfast, shall…”

 

Nolyn steps passed her, ignoring anything she’s saying and his eyes murderously trained on Althea. Raff and the other Audaxi, Lars, behind him share a glance, like they’re unsure whether they should be helping the prince or holding him back.

 

“How. Dare. You.” He spits, walking right up to her. Althea crosses her arms and bites her tongue to stop her from laughing. “I am your prince, and you will treat me as such or you will learn to.”

 

“Well,” Althea says, her voice dangerously soft, “maybe if you treated me with respect, I’d give you some.”

 

Aghast, the prince, standing not a foot in front of her, draws the glittering sword at his hip in one fluid motion. Raff and Lars jump, stepping forward as if to action yet uncertain on which side to be on. Althea take half a step back, bristling.

 

“You do realize that I can have you executed!” He shouts in the stifling room.

 

“Oh, come now, princeling,” Althea sneers in the most mocking way she can muster, “even if you had the courage to and even if I couldn’t stop you easily, you still couldn’t. Do you honestly think your father would let you execute me after I saved your life? Do you honestly think your father would ignite that sort of fire with the Vaga, especially now?”

 

Prince Nolyn deflates a little, lowering his sword. “What do you mean, especially now?”

 

Althea raises her eyebrows. “The Lands are unstable as is. And there might not be a lot of us, but we are vital to the Lands, and not just for our old magic. Your artisans all studied with the Vaga for months to make your candles, your jewelry, your pottery. Your entertainers, your playwrights, your musicians. All from the Vaga. Considering the state of the kingdom, your father cannot afford to isolate us now.”

 

Underneath the blaze of anger in his eyes, Althea can see the understanding seeping its way in. He knows she’s right.

 

Then, as suddenly as he roared into the room, Prince Nolyn bursts away like the end of a hurricane, leaving Althea, Eriana, Raff, and Lars in the settling dust.

 

“That’s not a good way to deal with your problems!” Althea yells after him.

 

Eriana and the Audaxi track after the prince, following him out the door and up the stairs into the castle. And once again, Althea is left alone in the morning air.

 

The day passes in a haze of welcoming the common folk from the door out of the castle and seeing to broken arms and running noses and aching limbs. Apparently, the court physician prior attended only to the Royal Family and those Chieftains and nobles who stay at the castle. Less than twenty-four hours in the position and Althea cracked open the old door that connects to the town and started seeing patients.

 

That was a whole other fight with Prince Nolyn.

 

But getting to work and healing injuries and illness clears her mind. Feeling her hands on someone and focusing to put their pieces back together is always where she feels the most herself. The most whole, when she draws the power from the world around her and hears it pulsing through her veins.

 

That was one thing she didn’t tell Eriana. It isn’t just difficult to learn magic because of the dedication; it is hard because it is addictive and dangerous and uncontrollable. Sometimes it feels like it could pour right through her and leave nothing behind.

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