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For eight days, Mirei thought she could relax.
Those days weren’t empty of stress; her very presence at Starfall was a source of tension for the witches around her. Her life was no longer in danger, though. Her magic was under control and the Primes were no longer planning to execute her; on the whole, her situation had improved. And so Mirei began to relax.
But on the ninth day, a Cousin woke her with a message that she was needed in Satomi’s office. That alone was a sign of trouble. Mirei had gone to that office every morning since coming back to Starfall, and given that she didn’t sleep in, she was always there by First at the latest. If Satomi had sent a servant to wake her early, then there was trouble bad enough that it couldn’t wait.
Mirei sent the Cousin away and dressed as quickly as she could, throwing on the first thing that came to hand. It was a lightweight blue dress, on loan from some witch, or perhaps another Cousin. Miryo’s clothing, left behind when she went in search of Mirage, didn’t fit her muscled shoulders, and the only clothing of Mirage’s she had was her Hunter uniform. Wearing that only stirred people up even more. As did going armed; Mirei had to stop herself short of taking the sword that leaned against the wall by her bed. There might be trouble, but she sincerely hoped it wasn’t bad enough that she would have to kill anyone.
Besides, you’d look like an idiot, wearing a sword over a dress.
Unarmed, she left the New House, the residence for newly-tested witches who had not yet established homes elsewhere. It was only a short walk from there to the main structure of Starfall, a rambling complex filled with offices, libraries, and classrooms. The hour was early enough that few people were about, for which she was grateful. They still stared at her, and it brought back surreal memories of her childhood as Mirage. People had stared at her then, too, for the fiery red hair that made her look like a witch. She’d snarled about it for years, only to find out that she was, in a sense, a witch — or rather, the other half of one. Getting over that revelation had taken a while.
Ruriko was waiting in the outer office, surrounded as always by piles of paper. She exchanged one look with Mirei; Ruriko could say more with one look than most women could with a speech. Then the secretary waved her through, into the Void Prime’s office, and turned back to her work.
The interior room was one Mirei had never seen before eight days ago, yet it had become familiar with startling speed. As a witch-student who had not yet been tested, Miryo had never been summoned to this inner sanctum, with its elegantly tiled floor, shelves of books, and tidy sheaves of paper. She’d spoken instead with the unranked witches who taught her classes, or occasionally the Keys who served the Primes and ran much of Starfall’s business. Since returning as Mirei, though, she’d spent much of every day here, sitting in one of the high-backed chairs, trying to help quell the trouble she’d caused.
Satomi was alone inside — another worrisome note. Usually other people were present for these meetings. The Void Prime stood next to the window, gazing out over the pre-dawn landscape. She, too, was much more familiar than she had been — enough so that Mirei could read the tension in her body, even though she was trying to hide it. Satomi had the kind of face which registered age by acquiring more dignity, rather than lines, but today she looked old and tired.
The door closed softly behind Mirei; she waited, then ventured to speak. “Satomi-aken. What’s happened?”
Satomi’s voice was quiet, flat, despite its richly trained tones. “Shimi is gone.”
“From Starfall. She left in the night.” Satomi turned away from the window. The lamps in her office, lit against the early-morning darkness of the sky, made her look even paler than usual, and painted her delicate features with shadows. The unrelieved black of her dress only accentuated it. Black was her Elemental color, and she’d always worn it on ceremonial occasions, but she hadn’t put it off since Mirei came to Starfall. Mirei suspected it was in mourning for all the doppelgangers who had died. Or, perhaps, for her own.
The Void Prime crossed to her desk and picked up the single sheet of parchment that lay on it. She scanned it, not appearing to really read the words, and then handed it to Mirei.
I have left, and will not return. I refuse to remain in company with that abomination. The doppelganger is taken out of us for a reason; to bring it back in is rankest heresy. It must be destroyed. To state that it is the Warrior and the Void is no argument in its favor — on the contrary, that is exactly why we must get rid of it. It is the destruction of life, the destruction of magic, the antithesis of everything that is this world, and if we welcome it back in, we will have committed a terrible sin. It will not be enough for that monster to leave. We must destroy it, and remove this horror from the world.
Mirei shook her head in disbelief, putting the sheet back down. “She almost sounds like a Nalochkan.”
“She was raised in Kalistyi,” Satomi said grimly. “The Nalochkan sect was as strong in Kalistyi when Shimi was a child as they are now. Clergy never come into our halls, of course, Nalochkan or otherwise, but the influence still penetrates.”
“You mean …” Mirei fumbled for words. She wasn’t awake enough yet to handle this rupture to the tenuous peace. “She can’t actually share their beliefs — can she? To disavow the Warrior, to say she’s not even part of the Goddess –” It would be radical enough in an unranked witch; though the witches didn’t call themselves a sect, they had their own approach to religion, and rarely strayed from it. For no less a woman than the Air Prime, one of the five women who ruled Starfall and its people, to show such allegiance to an outside sect —
Satomi turned back to the window, placing her slender hands on the sill. When she spoke, her voice was low, betraying her tension. “No. I would not say she shares their beliefs, not to that extent. But the influence is there. And we of Starfall have never given as much attention to the Warrior as we do to the other four Aspects of the Goddess; the Void has, for us, been as much practical as theological. We neglect it, as we neglect the Warrior. And for someone like Shimi, who needs a reason to believe you are anathema … it would be easy to magnify that divide. Especially when she grew up surrounded by Nalochkan beliefs.”
Mirei sank into a chair. When other witches were there, she behaved more formally, but in private Satomi allowed her some liberties. “I don’t get it. You had doubts, sure, but you killed your own doppelganger. I can understand why you didn’t want to believe that I was right — it meant that you were wrong to kill her. But what’s Shimi’s reason? Why won’t she believe?”
“Because she didn’t kill her doppelganger.” Satomi bowed her head. The two of them had never addressed this issue directly, not since the Void Prime told Miryo of her own doppelganger’s death. Mirei had only come to understand it fully when she and Satomi fought in Star Hall. Then she had realized the cause of the Void Prime’s reluctance to accept what Mirei had to say. “I remember looking at her, and I remember recognizing her as the other half of myself. In the end I convinced myself that she was a threat I must eliminate — a threat to all of us, not just myself — but that memory came back to me when you told us what you had done. Shimi has no such memory. It is easier for her to believe that doppelgangers are anathema, when the alternative is such a radical change.”
“But what does leaving accomplish, except to openly declare her opposition? If she’s so worried about what’s going to happen, then she should stay and try to minimize the chaos. She’s one of the five most powerful women here –”
Mirei stopped mid-sentence, because Satomi had turned around, and her pale green eyes were full of fear she had not shown before.
“Ashin sent us the list,” the Void Prime said.
The words didn’t register. “The list?”
“Of the other doppelgangers. Who they are. And where.”
Mirei’s heart skipped a beat, painfully. The list. The Void-damned list. There were other doppelgangers out there, alive — the non-magical halves of witch-daughters. A group of conspirators among the witches had arranged in secret for them to survive the ritual where they were supposed to die, because the conspirators were convinced they shouldn’t die. And they were right; Mirei had proved it. But prior to that, Starfall had branded those witches as heretics, had even assassinated their leader. One of Mirei’s tasks in the last eight days had been to communicate with Ashin, the Key of the Air Hand, and the only one of the conspirators she knew personally. She had been trying to convince the woman that it was safe, finally, to admit where the doppelgangers were.
It seemed she’d finally succeeded.
“Shimi has it,” Mirei said softly.
“Ashin wrote to us last night, after we sent you away. Shimi had no chance to make a copy of the list, but she wouldn’t need to; we spent hours discussing it. She knows where they are.”
Suddenly Mirei couldn’t bear to be sitting; she rose to her feet and moved a few steps away with quick, tight strides that barely helped to ease her tension. Her boot-heels clicked on the tiled floor with shocking loudness. “She’ll go after them. But no — she can’t kill them. Not without the other half of each pair, the witch-daughter. She’d have to kill both at once, for them both to stay dead.” Her gaze snapped up to meet the Prime’s. “You have to protect them.”
“I’ve already taken steps,” Satomi said. “And will take more, after I speak to the other Primes, which will be soon. As for the doppelgangers themselves, we’ll write to the witches that are nearest to them, send them after the children. If they move quickly enough, we should be there ahead of Shimi, or whomever she has sent in her stead.”
For a moment that seemed like an ideal solution, heading the Air Prime off at the pass. Then Mirei had a brief, vivid memory of standing on the balcony of a tower at the Hunter school of Silverfire, watching two young girls train below, listening to the Grandmaster of the school say, “There’s another at Windblade, and one at Thornblood.”
“Bad idea,” she said.
Satomi paused on her way to her desk, shoulders stiff with affront. “I beg your pardon?”
“No way in the Void is that going to work. Not for all of them. You’re going to send a witch into a Hunter school and have her say, ‘Sorry, I need to walk off with some of your trainees’?” Mirei shook her head, knowing her fear was making her be rude. “They’ll throw her out on her ear. If she’s lucky.”
“They will not have a choice,” Satomi said crisply. “We will use magic if necessary.”
“Oh, even better. You send witches into three different Hunter schools and have them throw spells about before they run off with trainees. Aken, you’ll start a war.”
The Void Prime raised her eyebrows in startlement. “They would be that angry?”
“We do not like witches interfering with us,” Mirei said. The word “we” came out reflexively, and she saw Satomi notice it. But Mirei was as much a Hunter as she was a witch, the Mirage part of her had lived that life, as the Miryo part had lived here in Starfall. “They might not be able to stop you. But trainees belong to their schools, just as much as our daughters belong to Starfall. Stealing them away — you’re talking about offending not one but several groups of trained assassins, mercenaries, and spies who already don’t like you very much. You do not want them angry at you.”
Satomi’s hands clenched on empty air, a gesture of frustration and impotence. “Then what do you suggest? We can’t just leave them there for Shimi to take.”
The answer was obvious. “I’ll go after them.”
“No. It would take too long for you to get there.”
“It would take me no time at all.”
Mirei saw the heartbeat of incomprehension in the Void Prime’s face, before Satomi realized what she meant. It was an understandable blindness; translocating living things was supposed to be impossible. And so it had been, until Mirei recreated herself out of Miryo and Mirage. That rejoining gave her access to the magic of the Void, believed untouchable until then. Satomi was not yet accustomed to allowing for that in her plans.
“You could bring them right back here!” the Prime said, hope lighting her eyes. “We wouldn’t even have to wait!”
Mirei almost agreed. Then instinct murmured in the back of her head. She was still learning what she could and could not do with Void magic, but one thing she had learned was how exhausting it was, especially translocation.
She had to shake her head. “No. I don’t think I can move more than just myself.”
The hope in Satomi’s eyes withered.
“Maybe I’ll be able to someday,” Mirei said. “But I’d rather not experiment with something that tricky yet. I can take myself to Silverfire now, though. There are two there, right?” Satomi nodded, not that Mirei needed the confirmation. “I need to talk to Jaguar anyway. He knows he’s got two of them, and that they’re like me — that is, like Mirage was. If he’d hand them over to anybody, it would be me. So I can get them to safety, and then go after the other ones.” She thought it over, grimacing. “Windblade, I can probably manage; we’re friendly with them. Thornblood will be a different story. Their people hate my people’s guts. But I’ll figure something out.”
Satomi pulled herself up, spine straightening from its momentary slump. “The rest are fostered with farmers, tradesmen, the like. We can take care of those.”
“Fine.” Mirei’s mind was already racing, thinking ahead to what she would need. Translocate to Starfall, then ride to Angrim — that would take about four days. Fortunately both Thornblood and Windblade were just outside of Angrim, so she could kill two birds with one stone. Then — assuming she found a way to steal a girl out of the hostile territory of Thornblood — the long ride back south to Starfall, where the doppelgangers could be protected. Once she got away from Angrim with the other pair, they could pick up an escort of Cousins, or even other witches. Just in case Shimi tried something. Or anyone else did. There could well be Thornbloods on her tail at that point, and who knew how many witches out there might agree with the Air Prime about the new situation?
But her experiences as Mirage told her how well plans survived actual testing. Better to stay adaptable. “Give me a sheet to communicate with you,” Mirei said. The written word was slower, but on the road, it would be an easier spell to manage than bringing Satomi’s image up in a mirror. “I may have to play things by ear. And you can get in touch with me if anything else happens here.”
Satomi nodded. “Very well. Bring them back to us, as quickly as you can.”
Packing didn’t take long, once it dawned on her that she didn’t need supplies for a ride. She would have to get a horse from Silverfire anyway, and she could get food at the same time. Assuming Jaguar let her kidnap two trainees in the first place.
Well, if he didn’t, she could translocate back to Starfall. No food necessary.
She changed into uniform: the loose pants, shirt, short jacket, and sash that identified her not just as a Hunter, but as a Silverfire. The silver pendant she wore, the triskele knot that was the witches’ symbol, she tucked out of sight inside the shirt. Then, putting on the jacket, she froze in the act of flipping her hair out from under the collar.
It was a reflexive action — for the part of her that remembered being Miryo. For the Mirage half, it was something she hadn’t done in over a decade.
Long hair. Void it.
From the hard calluses on her knuckles to the scar on her left hip, the body she had was Mirage’s — except for the hair. Mirage had been the Void half, the Warrior half, the physical counterpart to Miryo’s magic, and so when the Goddess put them back together as one person, most of the qualities she had picked up from her life as Hunter had stayed. But the hair, for whatever reason, was Miryo’s, and long. Mirage’s hair had been cropped short.
And if Mirei showed up at Silverfire with hair past her shoulders, they’d know something was off.
She looked around her room and sighed in frustration. Not a pair of scissors in sight, and if she tried to hack off her hair with a dagger, it would look even more bizarre. She could create an illusion, but she wanted to avoid magic as much as possible while around Hunters.
She went in search of help instead.
Eikyo had not yet taken her test, and so was still living in the students’ hall. Mirei received some startled looks and bows as she went through the corridors and up the stairs; her notoriety in Starfall was unmatched. But she was getting used to that. Arriving at Eikyo’s door, she knocked crisply, and hoped her friend was home.
She was. Still wrapped in a dressing robe, Eikyo answered the knock. Her round face showed her surprise. “Miryo. What –” She caught herself, and grimaced. “Mirei, I mean. What are you doing here so early?”
Mirei generally spent her mornings talking with the Primes and her afternoons demonstrating her new abilities to a variety of other witches, but she’d managed to arrange things such that she and Eikyo saw each other most days. It was a deliberate move on her part. Miryo and Eikyo had been close friends; she didn’t want the other woman thinking of Mirei as a stranger. Mostly she had succeeded. The slip-up with her name was the exception now, not the rule.
She gave her friend a crooked smile. “I need my hair cut.”
Soon she was seated in a chair, listening to Eikyo’s scissors snip around her head. The long strands of her hair fell to the floor in a fiery drift. “I wish you’d tell me why you want this done,” the witch-student said dubiously, for the third time.
“Satomi has a job for me, that’s all. And people won’t think a witch with short hair looks nearly as odd as a Hunter with long hair.” Mirei turned slightly, as if that would let her see the back of her own head. “Are you done yet?”
“Nearly. I don’t know how good it’ll look, though.”
“Better than if I did it myself, I can promise you that.” Mirei ran her hand over her scalp when Eikyo finally stepped back, and felt the familiar-but-strange sensation of short hair ruffling against her fingers. How much time would it take before her own body stopped feeling half-alien to her? “Thanks.”
“You look weird.”
Mirei grinned wryly. “Thanks. Look, I’ve got to go.”
Eikyo stopped her with one hand on her arm. The look in her blue-grey eyes was worried, as if she’d guessed there was more to the situation than Mirei was telling. Satomi would have to announce Shimi’s departure soon; Mirei wondered how people would take it. “Is there anything I can do to help?” Eikyo asked.
Mirei shook her head. “For me, no. But I’m sure there will be things for you to do here.”
Her friend’s mouth twisted. “That’s not what I meant.”
“That’s not what I meant, either,” Mirei said, sobering. “The trouble hasn’t ended, Eikyo. I may have found an answer to the doppelganger problem, but it’s going to take a while for people to adjust to it, and we’re going to hit a lot more potholes in the road before that’s over. Satomi’s going to need help. Even after I get back.”
Eikyo nodded reluctantly. “Goddess go with you, Mirei.”
Mirei had already gotten more direct help from the Goddess than she could ever have expected, with the miracle that brought her back together. She wasn’t going to count on more. The sentiment, though, was appreciated. “You too, Eikyo. And be careful.”
Finally she stood in her own room, dressed, shorn, ready to go.
Her final act was to belt a sword onto her hip, and as she did so, she remembered that the blade was not her own. It belonged to Eclipse, her Hunter partner, who also had most of her other belongings — those that she hadn’t left behind in Angrim when she translocated out of the city.
I should get those back from him, Mirei thought, and did some calculations in her head. He ought to be at Silverfire by now.
The thought brought a spark of pleasure, but also of nervousness. Why in the Void am I nervous? It didn’t make any sense. Eclipse had been Mirage’s closest friend, her year-mate at Silverfire — practically a brother. And though Miryo hadn’t known him for as long, the two of them had gotten along quite well.
That was it. Eclipse was effectively the only person in the world that Mirei had known as both halves of herself. Ashin she’d met only briefly, and everyone else had belonged to one half of her life or the other. Mirage knew Hunters. Miryo knew witches. Both of them knew Eclipse, and he knew both of them.
She’d seen him very fleetingly after rejoining, before she left for Starfall. Her thoughts had been so fixated on what had happened to her, and what she was planning, that she hadn’t had much time to wonder what Eclipse thought of her now.
And what she thought of him. The rejoining meant she had layered and somewhat contradictory memories of him. Quasi-brother and friend; known for years and known for mere days. She couldn’t predict which version might win out in her mind, and that made her nervous.
But standing in her room wouldn’t make the problem go away, and she was wasting time. Mirei took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, banishing such scattered thoughts from her mind. The spell she was about to attempt was a tricky one, and she did not want to find out what would happen if she screwed it up.
Mirei rotated her shoulders to loosen them. Large spells often required foci, Elementally-linked objects that helped the caster juggle more power than she would be able to handle otherwise. One of the first questions the magical theorists at Starfall had asked her when they heard about Void magic was, what were its foci? The answer she’d given them had set off a storm of philosophical speculation that left her head spinning. As near as Mirei could tell, the main focus of Void magic — perhaps the only focus — was movement.
She began to sing, her voice calling power from the world around her and shaping it to her will, and as she sang, her body flowed into motion. Mirage, the doppelganger, the Void-linked part of herself, had grown up in environments that centered on movement. Temple Dancer. Hunter. It wasn’t an accident. She’d possessed special gifts for those things before rejoining with Miryo, strength and speed beyond what her body should have had, because the Void belonged to the Warrior. Those advantages had gone away with the rejoining, but the affinity for movement remained, imprinted on her through years of training.
So she sang and she danced, and the spell built around her. She reveled in the feeling. Miryo had spent weeks avoiding the use of her magic, for fear it would destroy her. Now it was safe, and wondrous. She shaped the strands about her body, and blinked out of sight.
There was a shattering moment of nothingness — then she was in the wood behind Silverfire.
The effect left her breathless. She wasn’t sure she’d ever get over that. The concept that translocation moved its target through the Void had always been an unsubstantiated theory; living creatures died if you tried it on them, and you couldn’t ask an object where it had been. Mirei now had confirmation. She didn’t know how long the transit lasted — an instant? an eternity? — and she prayed to all five Aspects of the Goddess that no theorist ever tried to extend the time. She’d fling them through the Void. Let them study it that way.
A foot slammed into her lower back and threw her into a tree.
Mirei caught herself and spun to face her attacker. She blocked, not fast enough; a fist clipped her cheek —
She blinked her vision clear in the dim shade of the wood. The Hunter in front of her was familiar. “Shit, Viper. Yes, Void damn you, it’s me.”
He backed up a step, but did not drop his guard. “Prove it.”
“Prove it?” She stared at him. “Did somebody hit you in the head since the last time I was here? Don’t you remember my face?”
“Prove this isn’t some illusion.”
His words turned Mirei cold. Hunters liked to keep witches from meddling in their business, yes, and were paranoid about them as a result, but there was no reason for Viper to expect a witch to show up in the woods of Silverfire.
Or was there?
“Warrior’s blood, Viper, you know me.” Mirei straightened up slowly. She roughened her tone subtly; if he noticed how trained she sounded, he’d be sure she was a witch. “I was here, what, two weeks ago? With Eclipse. You’d bet ten silver on me showing up sooner. Your leg was injured — well, if that kick’s anything to go on, you’re feeling better. You were playing guard for the infants, so they could try to sneak past you on the front wall.” He still didn’t look persuaded. “You make a weird snorting noise if somebody grabs your hair during a fight. We used to go for that in sparring, just to hear you do it.”
That last bit finally sold him on it. Viper relaxed. “Okay. Sorry. It’s just — I attacked before I really saw you. Seemed like you came from nowhere. Slowing down, aren’t you?”
“Or you’re getting faster,” she said lightly, but inside she winced. She was slower, and hadn’t yet learned to shift her tactics to compensate.
“What in the Void are you doing back here, anyway?” Viper asked.
“Came to see Jaguar. Got to talk to him about something.”
Her fellow Hunter gave her a sidelong look as they began to walk toward the Silverfire compound. Mirei had chosen a familiar clearing in the woods as her target; the better she knew a place, the easier it was to aim for. She still shivered to remember how she’d jumped completely blind to Eclipse’s room at an inn, after she rejoined. That had been the tail end of the miracle that made her whole again. She wasn’t about to try it again without divine help.
But Viper was speaking, and his words reminded her that there was more going on here than she’d suspected. “Does this have anything to do with our two, shall we say, special cases?”
“Does your paranoia have anything to do with them?”
Viper groaned. “Four ways from feast-day. Some of the first-years jumped one of them the other night, for being such a brat.”
“It’s a time-honored way of resolving differences among trainees.”
“Yeah, but it didn’t solve the brattiness, and next time it might be worse. Traditional-sized bloodbaths are fine, but I don’t want a real mess on my hands.”
“The joys of babysitting duty.”
“My leg’s nearly solid again, and you’d better believe I’m getting back on the road the minute I can.”
They were in the compound by now, and Mirei kept Viper chatting about less important matters as they headed for the tower that stood at the center. Or rather, he let her do it. Silverfire Hunters took investigative jobs often enough that neither one of them could miss the fact that there was a subject they were both edgy about. Mirei didn’t want to tell Viper anything before she told Jaguar, and Viper … he was holding something back, too. Like, perhaps, why he was afraid of a witch showing up under an illusion. Mirei was glad she hadn’t put one up.
“You staying long?” Viper asked as they arrived at the door to the building that stood at the tower’s base.
“Well, catch me before you leave. You and Eclipse vanished awfully fast last time.”
Because they’d found out about the doppelgangers. Mirei nodded at him. “Right. I’ll see what I can do.”
He walked off. She closed her eyes to let them adjust from the growing morning sunlight, then stepped into the dim closeness of the office.
For the first time, the rail-thin man behind the desk looked startled. “I didn’t get word you were coming.”
“Guess I’ve learned to sneak better, Slip,” Mirei lied. “I need to talk to Jaguar.”
“I don’t care.”
Slip had his expression mostly under control again; his eyes only widened fractionally at her flat declaration. “You the reason we’ve had witches skulking around lately?”
No wonder Viper was paranoid. “Did Eclipse not bloody explain anything? Or has Jaguar just not let you in on it?”
Slip cocked his head to one side. “We haven’t seen Eclipse since you were here with him last time.”
His words jolted her. “Haven’t seen him?” She did her mental arithmetic over again. Ten days, since she left her year-mate and erstwhile partner with instructions to return to Silverfire. Either he’d found some good reason to disobey her …
… or he’d run into trouble.
Slip answered the question before she could ask it. “We haven’t heard about anything happening. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t.”
She could find him; the spell wasn’t hard when you knew the target as well as she knew Eclipse. But she could hardly resort to magic in front of a former Hunter, especially Jaguar’s aide. Mirei swallowed her curse and snapped, “Right. I don’t care who Jaguar’s with, or what he’s doing. He and I talk now.”
“Go on up. In the meantime, I’ll kick some people in the asses, and try to get you more information.”
Eclipse might just be in hiding, Mirei thought as she climbed the creaking staircase. When she last saw him, there had been Cousins out looking for them both.. Those had all been called off after she went to Starfall, but did he know that? Still, a search wouldn’t halt Eclipse, just slow him down. Something else was going on.
Mirei knocked on the Grandmaster’s door, then went in when Jaguar responded.
He was at his desk with a stack of papers he covered before she came in. The Grandmaster of Silverfire was a man gone hard with age, like wood weathered by a storm. His grey hair was trimmed meticulously short, and like many Hunters, he was always clean-shaven. The irritated look in his light blue eyes smoothed out into careful blankness at the sight of her. She saluted him, and he considered her for a moment before saying anything. “Mirage. Wisp told me you’d vanished from Angrim. Have you come back to give me the explanation you promised?”
Mirei had forgotten that Wisp would wonder where she had gone, after taking refuge in the temple. “Yes,” she said. “You were supposed to get it from Eclipse, but Slip tells me he’s never arrived. So I guess I have extra problems to deal with.”
“I’m afraid I came here with one already in hand.”
Jaguar held up one hand to stop her. “I see. Come here a moment. I want to show you something.”
He rose and beckoned her over to a tall wooden cabinet that stood against one wall. She’d never seen it open; as far as she knew, that was where he kept sensitive papers about the doings of Silverfire’s people. Mirei approached, and Jaguar reached out for her shoulder, looking almost companionable —
And then he spun her violently and slammed her back against the cabinet, a knife at her throat.
“Make one sound before I tell you to and I’ll slit your throat before you finish it,” he said, in a terrifyingly level voice. “You’re not Mirage. Your voice is different, and you’re too damned slow.”
Mirei kept her curse safely behind her teeth. Jaguar did not make idle threats.
“Your voice sounds trained,” he said. “Which tells me you’re a witch. Tell me, briefly, who you are.”
Briefly. Mirei answered him as best she could, and stopped trying to disguise her voice. “Half Mirage.”
The Grandmaster’s eyes narrowed. “Explain. Level tone.”
Which was to say, without the variation in pitch that might disguise a spell. Magic used a different language in addition to its music, but some spells were short; she could attempt one mid-sentence and pretend it was a name. But Mirei wasn’t about to try it. “Half of me is Mirage. The other half is — was — a witch named Miryo.”
He processed this. “Why? Level tone, still.” And the knife hadn’t moved.
“Because they — I — started out as one person. Split apart in infancy — the witches always do that. It’s part of how they get their magic. The half that’s like Mirage is normally a soulless shell, just a body. They kill it. But Mirage survived. Shared a soul with Miryo. Miryo’s magic was going to kill them both. She was supposed to kill Mirage. Tradition, but wrong way to solve the problem. They — I — found a better one. Back into one person. Lost the edge off my reflexes, though, and my voice is different.” Her shoulders were tense with the effort of keeping her tone as flat and expressionless as possible.
“Then the two girls training here,” Jaguar said, “are the same.”
He’d known they were like Mirage in their physicality, their knack for the art of fighting, but not what it had meant. Jaguar looked intently into her eyes. “Why are you here? Just to explain?”
“They’re in danger.”
Finally, slowly, he backed off. The knife left her throat, and he lowered the arm that had her pinned. He did not put the blade away, though, and Mirei knew he still practiced knife-throwing every day.
“I thought they might be,” Jaguar said. “Tell me more.”
After Mirei was gone, Satomi leaned her forehead against the cool glass of her window and let her breath out slowly.
She prayed to the Goddess that this was not the start of new, worse trouble — but she feared otherwise.
Lifting her head, she could see out across Starfall, both the sprawl of buildings too loose to call a town and the domain that went by that name. Pale grey granite blocks quarried from these mountains, the multi-hued greenery of the trees beyond. Her office faced north, toward the rest of the world. She’d chosen the view deliberately. Her predecessor as Void Prime had used a room on the south side of the main building; her predecessor had believed the outside world was not her concern as Void Prime.
To some extent, the woman had been right. The Void Ray dealt with the internal affairs of the witches; the world outside their own people was the responsibility of the other Rays. But for a long time the Void Prime had also been the linchpin of the Primes as a whole, and that meant, in Satomi’s opinion, that she could not afford to ignore the rest of the world.
She gazed out at Starfall, breathing slowly to center herself. This was her home, and had been for nearly as long as she could remember. She’d spent the first ten years of her life in Haira, but then, like all witch-students, she had come here for her real training. Since then, she had hardly left. Fifteen years of studying, before being tested as a witch. Then the hunt for her doppelganger. Finding it at last in Liak.
Not it. Her. Her name was Orezha.
Then returning here after Orezha’s death, and entering the Path of the Head in the Void Ray, dedicating her life to research and record-keeping. Advancement to the position of Key of her Path, overseeing all the Head witches of her Ray. And finally, promotion to Void Prime, the leader of an entire fifth of Starfall — and, in a sense, the leader of all witches, whatever their affiliation.
For the first time, Satomi felt old.
Her health was still good, and her hair showed no strands of white yet, but she wasn’t sure she had the energy to cope with the upheaval Mirei had brought. But what other choice did she have? Not retirement; the last thing the community of witches needed right now was to lose a Prime. And Satomi had no illusions about the prevailing attitudes about this situation; she was far and away Mirei’s strongest supporter. The confrontation in Star Hall had staggered everyone, and to varying degrees it had convinced them — but not entirely. Satomi had to make sure that conviction grew, instead of fading. Starting with her fellow Primes.
Satomi stepped away from the window and straightened the plain black silk of her dress. They would not like that she had sent Mirei off without consulting them, not least of all because it meant she had told the young witch before she told them. But she could not let the discussion get bogged down in that. The real issue at hand was not what to do with the doppelgangers, but what to do with Shimi.
She left her office and went through the hallways to their council room. Unlike the ruling hall, where the Primes settled disputes and pronounced judgements, this place was not meant to impress; it was a working space, and practical. A large table dominated the room, with five comfortable chairs spaced around it, and a wealth of lamps provided light. The chairs might be carved with the Elemental symbols of the five Rays, but that was the only decoration, and the cushions were worn besides. The room itself was layered in permanent spells, protecting it against eavesdropping or anything that might disrupt the Primes’ meetings.
Satomi put down the books she was carrying and settled into her own chair to wait. She was reading Shimi’s letter yet again when the other Primes began to come in.
Rana arrived first, looking sleepy. Oldest of the Primes, her wispy bun of hair had gone solidly white. People had been murmuring for years now about the possibility of her retirement, but she’d been in the position of Water Prime for so long that few could imagine her gone, and besides, she still did her job well. Ministration to the common people of other lands, the province of her Ray, was not the most glamorous of Starfall’s work, but it did require a diligent hand.
Not long after that, Koika showed up, her stocky form dressed in simple breeches and shirt as always. She gave Satomi one of her usual broad smiles, but it faltered when Satomi failed to return it in kind. “What’s wrong?”
Satomi shook her head at the Earth Prime’s question. “We’ll wait for everyone to arrive.”
Arinei came last, and Satomi wondered if she had timed it that way, because the Fire Prime entered in a well-staged fury.
“Why did you not tell us?”
Most Primes came from the Heart, the Path dedicated to organization and administration, but Arinei had been a Hand. Advising the Lord of Insebrar, she had learned to play her emotions like a lyre, manipulating those around her with carefully calculated extremes. Satomi did not disapprove; it was a useful trick. But she had also learned not to be cowed by it.
“About Shimi? By the time I finished with my necessary tasks, it was time for this meeting anyway.”
“Necessary tasks? This isn’t the yearly accounting, Satomi.”
Calm was its own kind of weapon, as much as Arinei’s crafted volatility. “No. It is, however, the disobedience of a witch to the wishes of Starfall. Which makes it first and foremost my responsibility.”
Koika was frowning; Arinei was seething. “So you’ve already dealt with it, I hear,” the Fire Prime said. “Sent Miryo off, dispatched Cousins and witches — is there anything left for us to do?”
“Mirei,” Satomi said coldly, pronouncing the name with edged clarity. “You might do well to remember her name, since her existence is the source of our current complications. And yes, there is much yet to be done.” She passed Shimi’s letter to Koika, who sat at her left. “For those whose unofficial spy networks haven’t already informed them of what’s happened.
“Shimi is gone, and by her words, we have to assume she poses a threat to a dozen students, both here and at our regional halls — and also to the doppelganger halves of those students. That threat is what I’ve been dealing with this morning. The students have been made safe, and the doppelgangers are being gathered in.”
Now Rana was reading the letter, her eyes widening with shock at the harshness of the words. Satomi went on. “That, however, is treating the symptoms, rather than the problem. We must mend this breach with Shimi.”
“I assume we can’t find her,” Rana said, offering the letter to Arinei, who ignored it.
Satomi shook her head. “She’s warded herself against it.” Which was, in itself, a serious violation of her duties as the Air Prime. The witches of her Ray were itinerant, serving anyone they found in need, which made it all the more imperative that they be able to locate and communicate with their Prime when they needed her.
“She might go back to Kalistyi,” Koika said.
Arinei snorted. “Or anywhere but Kalistyi, since she knows we’ll look for her there.”
The lines in Rana’s brow furrowed even more deeply. “If she’s warded, she might be under a disguise spell, too. If she goes to ground, we’ll never find her.”
Satomi shook her head again. “She won’t go to ground. Think of what kind of woman Shimi is. Do you really think she would be content to register her disagreement with us, and then simply retire from the situation?” No woman that passive would ever have risen to the rank of Prime.
“So what do we do?” Koika asked. “Put out word for all witches and Cousins across the fifteen domains to look for her?” She grimaced at her own words. “We might as well hire Hunters to chase her down like a criminal.”
The statement produced an unpleasant silence in the room. They’d done that once before, and not long ago, hiring a Wolfstar assassin to murder one of the Fire Keys. For, ironically enough, believing that doppelgangers should not die.
Satomi steered them away from the memory, before it could spark new arguments. “Shimi is in dereliction of her duty, and in rebellion against the will of Starfall. We agreed days ago on the message we sent out to all of our people –”
“Shimi disagreed,” Arinei pointed out, her expressive mouth settling into a hard line.
“But the consensus was in favor of the message. Four against one; she was overruled, and that means she’s bound to abide by our decision. We agreed to support Mirei’s new way, and to instruct all witches to do the same. If Shimi wanted to register her continued disagreement, there were acceptable ways for her to do so. This is not one of them.” Satomi flicked the letter Rana had returned to her. “Therefore, we must suspend her authority over her Ray.”