My way is the Old Way.
— NÚMI MAIDA, TO HIS SON
As Númi came to a stop outside Viscount Baldur’s private audience chamber, his eyes went to the two top-knotted warriors that stood on either side of the doorway. They had not moved an inch when he arrived, except for their eyes which flickered to watch him like birds of prey, judging, weighing. He understood what they saw. They saw a warrior past his prime, a man who had recently lost a hand, covered in half healed nicks and cuts. Yet, inside he was ice, ice cold enough to burn.
“I was summoned,” Númi said in a voice void of all emotion.
The warrior on the right, a man with narrow blue eyes and a brown topknot, banged on the door without look away from Númi. “To hear them tell it, you’re three meters tall with a golden cock, but here you are standing before me, and I’m not so impressed.”
Númi stilled, heat melting the ice inside of his chest. There it was, one more indignity heaped upon him. He wondered if the Lightbender would have had the courage to say those words only twenty-four hours earlier. He doubted it.
Númi turned his attention to a tapestry of colored spirals that hung on the wall across from him, pretending the blue-eyed Lightbender no longer existed. His action had the desired result, the warrior’s hand dropped to the hilt of his longsword.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Númi said. It hurt to speak, every time he opened his mouth the half-healed wound along his jaw throbbed. “He’s a cripple, he almost lost his life to the Third Prince. How strong can he possibly be? But . . . if you draw that blade, you will die.” He returned his icy gaze to the warriors. “Both of you.”
The door opened, and a gray-headed liveried servant stepped out into the hallway. “Sir Númi, this way,” the man said after giving a short bow as etiquette demanded. Without waiting for a response, he turned and walked back the way he came.
For a second Númi stood there, face unreadable behind a mask of blankness. Then, slowly, he followed, noticing the tightness with which the warriors gripped their weapons. He thought of sending them a smile, but could not muster the effort it would take. The things that once brought pleasure no longer held any appeal. He was numb to it all, numb to the pain throbbing under the blood-stained bandage that covered the nab at the end of his right arm. Numb to the world.
A larger oval chamber greeted Númi after he passed through the doorway. At the center of which stood a statue of a woman on her knees, her arms stretched out to the heavens; whether in pray or beseechment was not clear. Brightly colored carpets covered the floor, and the walls were consumed by tall shelves filled with books, only interrupted by the room’s three doors. The servant led Númi around the statue and towards a door across from the one he entered, then he held the door open with a smile.
Númi stepped inside, and the door closed with a bang behind him. The private audience chamber was a large, windowless room, lit by lamplight and the orange and red flames of a hearthfire. Tattered wall hangings and ancient paintings dotted the walls, stone walls overlaid with dark wood paneling. Behind a mahogany table, Viscount Baldur sat on the room’s only chair—a high-backed monstrosity that was almost a throne—writing a letter with a molted eagle feather. The Viscount did not look up from his desk or acknowledge Númi’s presence in any way. Seconds slipped into minutes with nothing but the sound of the quill scratching against rough paper to break the silence.
Great, Númi thought with more than a little bitterness. He stood as still as the stone he cooled his heels upon, doing his best not to sulk. He did not waste any time wondering what Baldur was up to; he had experienced this many times before. Nobles had their subordinates wait at their pleasure to reinforce the power they held over them.
By custom, Baldur had little power over him. He was appointed by the King to lead Prince Erik’s honor guard to the Rin Mountains and fell outside the regular chain of command of Hjörtur. But now that his charge was missing and most likely dead, things were different. Without the Prince here, he became the Viscount’s to direct as he saw fit.
“Who gave you permission to lead a rescue party out of the sally gate last night?” Baldur asked, breaking the silence. He dipped his quill into an ivory inkwell, without glancing up and continued to write even as he spoke.
Númi’s fingers twitched before he could stop them. “No one.”
Baldur froze, brown eyes rising to meet Númi’s own. The fire crackled to Númi’s left, but the room suddenly seemed as cold as his insides. Two. Those were the number of steps it would take him to plunge his longsword into the Viscount’s throat, but he doubted they were alone. Most likely, there were at least two Lightbenders cloaked in invisibility, ready for any attack.
“My Lord,” Númi added as if it were an afterthought.
Baldur’s ancient brow wrinkled into a frown. “Do you understand what I’m doing?” When Númi did not respond, he continued, “I’m writing a letter to his Majesty, the King. In this letter, I explain that his son is dead. This is the second time I’ve had to write this in two days.”
“Is he?” Númi asked, his voice so cold it could freeze running magma in its tracks.
“Is he what?” Eyes narrowing, the Viscount stared at Númi as though he was trying to peer inside his skull.
“Is he dead?” Númi said. “From what I understand no body was found.”
“Don’t.” Baldur flung up a hand, his irritation showing on his face. “I have heard enough stories and theories for one day. You were much closer to the battle than I was. I know you saw the spears that entered his body.” He lowered his arm back to the table. “This is not why you’re here. You’re here because you put the whole citadel in danger with your reckless actions. Men died last night.”
“This I know, my Lord,” Númi grunted. The image of his son’s throat erupting with blood flashed through his vision, making his fist tighten in rage.
“Men who had no need to,” Baldur continued as if Númi never spoke. “Men who had sons and wives. Their loved ones weep for them now. Your son should have been the only one to die last night.”
Númi took a menacing step forward and stopped when he caught sight of the slight smile curving the Viscount’s lips. This was a trap! He could see it now; Baldur wanted him dead so he could place Erik’s death squarely on his shoulders.
Baldur’s smile disappeared when Númi moved back to his original position. “You’ll be escorted to a cell where you’ll spend the night,” he told Númi. “In the morning you’ll receive ten lashes in front of an assembly of your fellow Lightbenders. This shall be your punishment. Questions?”
“None, my Lord,” Númi replied.
“Good. See yourself out,” Baldur said, returning his to the letter.
Númi saluted by slamming the stump of his right arm against his chest. Intense and nagging pain bloomed at the end of the limb, but he ignored it and walked out of the door, once again passing through the room with the statue of the woman on her knees. This time, he did not bother to give it a glance.
In the hallway, the number of Lightbenders had increased by four. They fell in around Númi as he stepped into the corridor, destroying all thoughts of escape, not that he had any to begin with.
“This way, cripple,” said the warrior with the brown topknot from before. He gave Númi a cruel smirk and gestured down the hallway. “You’re palace awaits.”
It doesn’t matter, Númi thought. Nothing matters anymore. Nothing! He pushed his regret away and allowed himself to be led, without responding. From the corner of his eyes, he graded the skills of the rest of the knights that traveled with him, running different simulations in his head. All outcomes ended with his death, the only variations being the number of Lightbenders he took to the grave with him.
The hallways were mostly empty, but those that were not soon found their inhabitants scurrying away to find somewhere else to be when they caught sight of Númi’s party. He did not blame them, it was the sensible thing to do; the air around Númi reeked with the promise of violence. A promise that might just come true.
Before long, he stopped in a passageway beneath Hjörtur, in front of a door made of iron bars, with a lock as big as his fist. A potbellied man on the other side, the jailor, unlocked the door and Númi and his entourage spilled into the chamber. Whips and more insidious tools of torture hung on the walls, but he did not spare them even a glance. He undid his sword belt and let it clatter to the floor.
“This way, Sir,” the jailor said, motioning to a smaller iron gate.
Without a word, Númi followed the potbellied man into a corridor lined with thick, iron-bound doors and lit torches suspended from metal brackets; he felt a sense of relief at seeing where he would be housed; he had seen much worse places in his long life.
His cell was unlocked, and he stepped inside. The room had enough space for him to pace back and forth without feeling too cramped. There was a pan for his waste, a bed, a long slit in the wall through which he could see a glimpse of the night sky, and a small, wooden table with a lamp.
“I put an oil lamp in there in case it gets too dark,” the jailor pointed at the table. He turned to leave when Númi did not acknowledge him.
“Thank you,” Númi said, taking a sit on top of the dirty, little bed.
“You’re welcome, Sir,” the man said, shutting and bolting the door. “I’m sorry for your loss.” The last part was muffled but still understandable.
Númi closed his eyes and forced his breathing into a controlled pattern. Prana flowed into his Three Sefirot—Malkuth, Yesod, and Tiferet—from all around him. With every breath they pulsed with more power, replenishing what he had used to heal himself. It was a sighing breeze filling the sails of his ship, suffusing his Sefirots with untapped potential.
A bug flew in through the slit in the wall, buzzing, circling in the air. Númi’s eyes snapped open, just in time to witness the insect fly into the lamp’s orange flame. It burned to a crisp and fell onto the table, dead. Captivated, he sat up straighter, not understanding why. Soon another winged insect charged into the room and then another. One by one, he watched them all seek their deaths in the flame. Hours passed, and still, he observed, trying to find meaning in their suicidal actions.
Númi blinked, turning to face the door. It opened, and Asbjörn entered, dressed in a scarlet robe. Númi brow wrinkled. “Is it time?”
“Not quite,” Asbjörn responded, the door slamming shut behind him. “I’m here for another reason altogether.” He took a seat on the empty air, across from Númi.
The casual display of power made Númi’s skin prickle with revulsion; the Abyss was not a toy and should only be used when in dire need, or so he believed. He turned back to the lamp and the bugs swirling around it. “I’ve been watching them for hours now,” he said. “At first, I was curiosity. Why do they keep flying into the flame? What do they get out of it? It seems so pointless.” He paused, gazing at Asbjörn with a serious expression. “No, I’m not going insane.”
“I never said you were.”
“I’ve seen insects do this before,” Númi murmured. “But. . . . It’s strange the way we can go our whole lives never seeing what is right in front of us.”
“Closeness makes wonders commonplace,” Asbjörn replied. “We all have a tendency to look outside of our circles for revelations, thinking what is near holds little meaning.”
Númi touched his cheek and was surprised when his fingers came away damp. He could not remember the last time he cried, it had to be over ten decades at least. Tears were the currency of women, and those too weak do battle with the unknown. Lightbender never cried, not even when. . . .
“To lose a son is no easy thing,” Asbjörn said with a sad knowing smile. “To grieve is not something to be ashamed of.”
“Tell me why? Why do they do it?” Númi demanded, a hint of desperation creeping into his voice.
Asbjörn sighed. “I don’t know. . . . They’re drawn to the flame because it’s their nature. Because they’re just bugs and there too stupid to know any better.”
“If they’re stupid what am I? Am I not just like them?” Númi laughed, sobbed. “To seek the flame, isn’t that what it means to court death?” He wiped his tears away. “Why are you here, Asbjörn?”
“I plan to lead an expedition in search of Erik,” Asbjörn answered, “and I want you to join me.”
“Why would I do that? I blame him for the death of my son.”
“I know,” The Mainlander growled, eyes gleaming in the dim lamp light. “That’s why I’m here. What I lead is not a rescue mission, it’s an execution. I plan to kill the thing that now wears Erik’s face.”
Stunned, Númi searched his face. He realized this was the first time he had ever seen Asbjörn dressed in red.
Abruptly there came a knock at the door. “It’s time!”