Excerpt: Burning Bright

Chapter One: Magic

Dym waited patiently for the cathedral to empty, standing at the top of the steps that led up to the altar should anyone wish to speak with him. No one did. He was used to it, even if it never stopped hurting.

Once upon a time, the High Priests of Pozhar had been valued, trusted, and looked to for advice in all things. He would never grow accustomed to being an object of fear and loathing. But behind him stood the door to the Sacred Flame where nearly a thousand Vessels had been sacrificed, the most recent less than a year ago. People would forever associate him and the position of High Priest with the sacrifices.

When at last the cathedral was empty, Dym went about tidying it up, meticulously picking up the various objects and pieces of clothing that people left behind. He would leave the items with his priests to track down the owners and return them. Immediate chores completed, he took the time to admire the sanctuary as he always did. He never grew tired of its timeless beauty.

High above, mosaics filled the spires, telling ancient stories in faded colors. Along the walls, stained glass windows depicted scenes from stories long forgotten by most: an enormous white snake lying on a stone sunbathing; a beautiful woman with rainbow butterfly wings stroking the noses of a pegasus and a unicorn; a man with dark hair and bright gold eyes accompanied by a black wolf and a golden mare; three men in brightly colored sarongs, their dark blue hair falling to their waists. Image after image, story after story, memory after memory.

All forgotten and ignored, unable to overcome the fear born just over nine hundred years ago, the fire and blood, the nine hundred and ninety-eight bodies so far burned.

Sighing softly, Dym left the hall and slipped into the back rooms, making his way to his private chambers. Once there, he passed through the front parlor, the study, and the bed chamber to go into the bathing chamber. It was conveniently connected to his bed chamber by way of a dressing room.

Dym paused in the dressing room and stripped off his ornate ceremonial robes and set them aside, before he stepped into the bathing chamber and slipped into the steaming, mineral-rich, hip-deep bath. He settled down on the bench that lined the edge of the bathing pool, leaning his head against the edge, and sighed.

Only two Vessels remained. The words rattled around in his head over and over and kicked his heart up to a fierce pace in his chest. His hands would tremble if he let them. So many years, so many sacrifices, and there were finally only two left.

Soon, very soon, it would at last be over. No more Vessels. No more worrying. No more waiting. He would no longer spender every day tense, no longer be plagued by nightmares or nights where he did not sleep at all. It would all finally end. He just had to endure two more.

When the hot water had relaxed him as much as it could, Dym climbed out again and returned to his dressing room, wiping down with a drying cloth before pulling on undergarments, leggings and a lightweight shirt. Over those he pulled a dark gold under-robe, shaking out the folds before he pulled on the deep red robe embroidered at the edges with prayers stitched in gold thread.

He fastened the robe in place with a belt of gold links set with rubies, mouth setting into a thin, flat line as memories he preferred stay buried rose up anyway, reminding him of the day he had been gifted the belt.

“I have no need of such finery—”

“Take it, anyway. No one needs such things, the point is not need. The point is pleasure.”

Dym flushed, not wanting to think of pleasure right then. “I don’t—”

“Take it, for me.”

The soft request, the softer smile, made Dym sigh and concede defeat.

Leaving the dressing chamber, he walked briskly back through his suite and into the cathedral, heading down the hall and then turning down the corridor at the end to take him to the door that connected the Cathedral of the Sacred Fires to the royal palace. The guards stationed at the set of wide, tall, ornately carved wooden double doors bowed low to him and pulled the doors open to let him pass.

Inside the palace, Dym left the smells of incense and ash behind and was inundated in flowers and expensive cologne and too many people instead. He ignored the people he passed as he traversed the maze-like halls of the palace, though he smiled fleetingly when someone nodded or half-bowed to him. Most were content to politely disregard him, and he could not blame them for being too intimidated to cling even to protocol. He could be hurt by it, but he could not blame them.

Eventually he reached the Queen’s Morning Room, and the guard there pulled open the wooden door set with stained glass flowers, bowing to him as Dym walked past. Inside the room, Princess Sonya sat at the head of a small, rectangular table. Morning sunlight streamed in from the bank of windows behind her, setting her red hair aflame and warming her dark amber eyes. On her immediate right, beautiful and cold and dressed completely in black, was Lord Nikolai Krasny, Duke of Alkaev and Advisor to the Tsar. Opposite him, on Sonya’s immediate left, was Lord Osip Zholty, the Duke of Vaklov and Minister of Magic.

In theory, the High Priest and the Minister of Magic were partners in guarding and regulating magic throughout the country. In practice, Zholty preferred to have as little to do with Dym as possible while still helping himself to the fire feathers at every opportunity.

Dym found him tiresome, but withheld voicing that opinion for the same reason everyone held his tongue: Zholty was also formally engaged to Princess Sonya, the Tsar’s younger sister. As the Tsar was deathly ill and not even Sonya held out hope he would continue … well, discretion was definitely the wiser recourse. “Blessing of the morning, Princess, Minister, Advisor,” he greeted, bowing low before he took his seat, settling the folds of his robes around him.

“Blessing of the morning,” Princess Sonya greeted with a warm smile, and she gestured with a slight movement of her head for a servant to pour Dym tea. Another gesture and the three servants in the room silently departed, leaving the four of them alone.

“Thank you for coming so early,” Sonya said, clasping her hands in front of her on the table. She was resplendent in a gown of deep burnt orange, pearls and amber wrapped around her throat and dripping from her ears, and a diadem of pearls and diamonds nestled in her artfully arranged pile of deep red curls. Her eyes carried just a faint sheen of magic, for she was only a token magic user. “Dym, how long do you think it will take to find the last two Vessels?”

Krasny set his teacup down, the fine porcelain clinking softly against the saucer he placed it on. Frowning deeply, he said, “I cannot believe there are only two left. After so long, it seems unreal that it will finally come to an end. It will go quickly from here, I should think.”

“Very quickly,” Dym agreed. “With every Vessel sacrificed, the next comes faster. We will find number nine hundred ninety-nine in a matter of days. After that Vessel is given to the Sacred Fire, the next will be located in a matter of hours.”

Sonya nodded, lips pursing. “Good. The people will rejoice to know that the deed is at last done after over nine hundred years of these awful hunts. I will begin to arrange a celebration, to take place after a suitable mourning period. It is time to be rid of this shadow hanging over us. We have enough shadows looming over us just by sharing a border with Schatten.”

“I heard there was another attack on the mountain,” Krasny murmured, lifting his teacup again and taking a sip before adding, “I was going to head out that way today or tomorrow to do what little I could.”

Across from him, Zholty sneered, “Little? Try nothing. No one goes up the Jagged Mountains unless he desires to die. Serves them right for being so foolish. You are needed here; there is no point in gallivanting north to search for specters and legends.”

“It is a very good thing I rely upon neither your advice nor your opinion,” Krasny said coolly. “I am going north to offer what assistance I can. There is very little for me to do here at present. When the Vessel is found, the magic will pull me where I must be. Until then, what shall I do? We are notably lacking in foreign dignitaries to amuse, especially since Kundou all but fell apart last year. His Majesty has no need of me—”

Sonya stirred at that. “He speaks of you all the time, Kolya.”

Krasny’s mouth tightened. “He may speak all he likes. I have no interest in words spoken too late.”

“But Kolya—”

“No,” Krasny said coldly, and they shared a long look before Sonya finally broke away with a soft, frustrated noise. Zholty reached out and lightly covered her hand with his own, dark gray eyes hard as he took his turn glaring at Krasny. After a moment, he too looked away.

Dym shifted in his seat, drawing their attention, and said, “Lord Krasny, if you are inclined to come see me before you depart, I will see you are well supplied with fire feathers for the Jagged Mountains.”

“Speaking of the feathers,” Sonya said with a note in her voice that indicated she was broaching an unhappy topic—but it was one Dym had anticipated. That they had all anticipated, to judge by the expressions on their faces: displeasure on Zholty’s, somberness on Krasny’s. “The law has always stated that magic is to be used exclusively for the purpose of hunting the Vessels and destroying Holy Zhar Ptitsa once and for all. We have, in the course of things, expanded quite a bit beyond that law over the centuries. But the law remains the law, and I will abide by it. After the last sacrifice is made, we will cease to practice magic.”

Zholty shifted impatiently in his seat. “You cannot truly mean to rid us of magic altogether! Sonya, be reasonable. We would be a laughing stock—”

“I do not think Kundou is regarded as a laughing stock right now,” Krasny cut in coolly. “Indeed, after their initial struggle they managed to do quite well without magic. Whether or not it is true that the Dragons of the Three Storms have returned, I could not say. I know it is true that the oceans are calming and no one has reported a mermaid attack in a year. Kundou is flourishing, and there is not a single drop of magic anywhere to be found amongst its people.”

Dym smiled faintly while Zholty only sneered and continued to press his argument. “Kundou does not need magic because it controls the seas. What do we control? A land that remains snow-bound a little longer each year. The crop season is vanishing, food stores cannot be replenished, and coffers are drained importing what we can no longer grow.”

“What does that have to do with magic?” Krasny replied. “Do not pretend to care about problems that you do not, in fact, care about.”

Zholty looked at him with open hostility. “I am saying that once we no longer need the fire feathers to hunt the Vessels, the magic could be used to help the land. We should be exploring ways to further use of magic, not getting rid of it. Pozhar needs magic.”

“Once the sacrifices are complete and the shadows of the past no longer hang over Pozhar, all the problems you speak of should ease,” Dym interjected. “We will not need magic to fix them.”

Shifting his contempt to Dym, Zholty replied, “How would you know? How would anyone know? The laws against magic were meant for days long gone—days we are smart enough not to recreate. I do not care what the rest of you say: Pozhar needs magic!”

“The children of Pozhar once did quite well without magic,” Dym said. “They will do well without it again.”

Zholty sneered, his amber eyes blazing with the magic on which he glutted himself. “What would you know about the days before we had magic? You are barely thirty—”

“I am thirty-six,” Dym cut in, mouth curving faintly. “I did not mean to sound arrogant, I apologize, your grace. My comment was based on what I know of history. In defense of her Highness, much of history after the Loss is rife with the bloody tales of sorcerers. I acknowledge your points, Minister, but I agree that we are better off without magic once we are safe again.”

“I concur, obviously,” Krasny added, giving Zholty a look that dared Zholty to argue with him.

Zholty smiled thinly and said, “You are accounted the most talented ‘sorcerer’ in the country, cousin. I think you will find it harder to adapt than you anticipate, living without magic.”

“You are not my cousin yet,” Krasny replied, voice so cold that Zholty actually recoiled for a moment before catching himself.

“Enough!” Sonya said, holding up her hands to emphasize her command and forestall any arguments. “You treat this matter like it is a debate. I assure you, it is not. The matter is final. When all the Vessels have been sacrificed we will destroy the remaining fire feathers and cease to practice magic. I did not bring you here to debate that point. I brought you here to inform you that it will be so. Am I understood, gentlemen?”

“Yes, Highness,” they all dutifully chorused, though Zholty was petulant at best. Dym did not envy Sonya the discussion she would be having later with her fiancé. Zholty stood and lifted Sonya’s hand, kissing the back of it, lingering. “I will see you later for tea, Sonya.”

“Of course,” she murmured and tugged him down to kiss his cheek, permitting him to kiss hers. “Do have a care with the council.”

Zholty smirked, brushing imaginary dust from his dark blue jacket and adjusting his pale gray gloves. “The council is comprised of babes, but anything for you, my princess.” He swept her a deep, elegant bow, gave brief nods to Krasny and Dym, and then departed.

Krasny blew out an irritated breath. “Must you marry him, Sonya? I think you would do better to marry a thief off the streets.”

“My brother is dying and people will rest easier to know I have remarried and do not bear the risk of dying childless as well,” Sonya said with a sigh.

“You are past forty, you will not—”

Sonya shot him a look, and Krasny subsided, taking another sip of his tea. Setting it down with a soft clink, he said, “Truly, I will select a thief myself. A nice, clever pickpocket would be more honest—”

“If you do not want him as my consort, then go and see my brother!” Sonya snapped, slamming the flat of her hand down on the table. Krasny looked away. Sonya’s voice held a trace of tears when she said, “Kolya, he’s dying and all he wants—”

“I do not care what he wants,” Krasny said, cutting in, golden eyes cold as they met hers. “He had any number of chances over the years. I gave him more than he deserved. I finally gave up. It is far too late for him to expect me to care about what he wants now. Do not ask me again.” He stood and left, ignoring them both and stopping just short of slamming the door behind him.

Dym stood up and moved closer to Sonya, silently handing over a cream-colored linen handkerchief. She took it with a wobbly smile and dabbed at her eyes. “My apologies for inflicting our family squabbles upon you, Holiness.”

“You need not apologize to me for that, Highness, please. I am sorry so many troubles burden you and admire than you manage it all so gracefully.” He took her hand in both of his and squeezed it lightly. “Be at peace, Princess, please. I am here to guide and warm, not to cast cold judgment.”

Sonya sniffled into the kerchief, dabbed at her eyes again, and then balled it in one fist. “Why must they be so stubborn? I am weary of arguing with them both.”

Dym covered her hand with one of his own, quietly casting a calming spell that she would not notice, smiling faintly when she stopped crying and relaxed more in her seat. “The hotter and brighter the emotion, the more it burns. Your fiancé is terrified of what will happen when he no longer has the magic that has ruled most of his life. Your cousin is losing the man he clearly still loves, whatever he wants the rest of us to think. They should not be taking out their fears in petty squabbling, but I have known men to do much worse over less. Eventually, they will burn their tempers out and act more reasonably.”

“I hope you are right,” Sonya said with a sigh, rubbing at her temples with her fingertips. “On to business, then. When are you planning to cast for the next Vessel?”

“Tonight,” Dym said. “I do not think it will take long to find the remaining two. A matter of weeks at worst, but far more likely a matter of days.”

Sonya nodded, but said nothing. “So many lives lost, and two more still to go. Do you ever wonder if we are doing the right thing? Is it wrong to say I doubt it sometimes?”

“One should always hesitate about taking a life,” Dym said quietly. “I would worry if you were not upset. But rest assured, Highness, that what we do is for the good of all. We are nearly done, and when it is all over, you will see that it was all worth it. We do not act in vain, I promise.”

“So young and yet so wise,” Sonya said with a trace of a genuine smile. “How can you be so wise already, Holiness?”

Dym smiled faintly. “I am not wise, merely good at looking and sounding so. My caretaker, when I was growing up, said I had a very solemn mien. I always have; it lends well to being a priest.”

“You are the most self-contained and solemn person I know, it’s true,” Sonya said. “I wish the rest of my court had even half your calm demeanor. But I have kept you long enough, Holiness. I know you’ve better things to do than soothe my ruffled feathers. I am off to find my intended. Fire warm and guide you.”

She stood, and Dym stood with her, taking the hand she held out and kissing her knuckles. She squeezed his hand, and offered him another smile, weak but true, before departing. Dym lingered a moment to finish his tea and then left himself, slowly wending his way back to his cathedral.

He was not entirely surprised to see Krasny in the sanctuary, head tilted back as he stared up at the stained glass windows on the western side, colored beams of sunlight setting his brilliant hair aflame. He had already changed out of his court finery and was dressed in heavier clothes for travel; his hair was braided back, a sword strapped at his hip, and his saddlebags slung over a nearby pew. “Your grace,” Dym greeted politely. “Give me a moment and I will fetch the fire feathers for you.”

“It seems a pity to me the history behind these windows has largely been lost. Do you know them all? I know this one, of the wolf who helped a peasant boy to become the first Tsar,” Krasny said, gesturing to the window where a dark-haired man stood with a wolf and golden mare. “But this one I do not know. Do you know the tale behind it?” he asked, jerking his chin at one of the windows. They were wide, tall rectangles with arched tops, ten to each side of the hall. “I have deduced most of the tales depicted here over the years, but this one ever eludes me.”

Dym looked at the image in question, of a little boy sleeping beneath a tree of golden apples. “No, unfortunately I do not. The priests try their best to hand the stories down, but over the years something is always lost.”

Krasny nodded and finally turned to look at him. “Is Sonya very upset?”

“Yes,” Dym said, falling into step alongside Krasny as they headed for the back rooms of the cathedral. “She is mostly troubled about his Majesty and your continued refusal to see him. But she also worries about the Vessels, the people, and all those other matters which weigh upon the mind of any good ruler.”

“She is a great ruler,” Krasny said. “I always thought it a pity she was not born first.”

Dym did not comment on the remark, only said, “You should go see him. It is better to say and hear the words too late than not at all.”

“So I am told, frequently and often. I am here for fire feathers, priest, not a lecture. Whatever is or is not between his Majesty and I is our affair, and I will thank the rest of the world to keep out of the matter.”

Bowing his head, Dym murmured, “Of course, your grace. My apologies. Right this way.” He led the way through his private office to a door at the very back. He pulled the ring of master keys from his waist and unlocked the door, and pressed his hand to it, banishing the spell of sealing and protection he had placed upon it.

“As ever, your spell work impresses me,” Krasny said with a grunt.

“You are nothing to scoff at yourself, your grace,” Dym said lightly, pushing the door open. He snapped his fingers, triggering the light spell within to reveal a small room filled with myriad boxes placed neatly on shelves that took up most of the three walls. The space not given over to shelves was only to make room for the large chests shoved beneath them.

Going to the very back of the room, Dym reached up to a topmost shelf and retrieved a wooden box carved with flowers and feathers, sealed with complicated spellwork, and nearly too hot to touch. Taking it down, he carried it back out to his office and set it on a large, dark wood table beneath a wide set of windows. Outside, the world beyond was drenched in snow, bright and sharp beneath the winter sun. Smoke curled up from various chimneys, and far in the distance he could see the colorful spires of the Cathedral of Ashes, sister to the palace’s Cathedral of Sacred Fire.

Spreading his hands over the box, he called up his magic and broke the spell that held it shut. Lifting the lid, he stared at the contents: half the fire feathers that remained in the country. The other half were kept by the Minister of Magic.

He picked one up, unable not to admire the beauty of the fire feathers despite the fact they were only made upon the death of a Vessel. One thousand fire feathers with every sacrifice, guarded and carefully used over the centuries to grant magic to those permitted to use it. Though once magic was granted, the fire feathers were not really needed, they did help to supplement spells and boost magical energies.

Back in the early days, fire feathers had been much more likely to run out because the number of those who could use magic had been much greater. But the dark days of sorcerers were long gone and only nine people were capable of using magic in Pozhar.

Of those nine, he and Krasny were the most powerful, and no one else was remotely close to their level, a fact that infuriated the Minister of Magic.

Dym turned the chest around for Krasny to more easily access the contents. “Help yourself, your grace.”

“Thank you,” Krasny said and took out five feathers, tucking them away in a special pouch at his waist. “Ideally, I will not be gone more than a couple of weeks, but do not hesitate to contact me should my presence be needed.”

“Yes, your grace,” Dym said and swept him a bow. Krasny met the bow in kind and then left. Dym restored the spell on the box, and returned it to the storeroom and then resealed that spell as well. He settled behind his desk and looked over the paperwork set neatly before him—then ignored it in favor of pulling out his sketchbook, which was kept in a locked drawer of his desk.

Picking up a pencil, he began to sketch, letting his mind wander and his fingers work unimpeded. When he finally paid attention to what he was doing, he was not in the least surprised to realize he had drawn the face of the man he had once loved—still loved—more than anything else in the world. The man he had failed.

Dym sighed and set the sketchbook aside, stared at his paperwork, and sighed again. The country was two Vessels away from finally being free of the shadow hanging over it for nine centuries, and he was mired in supply requests, reports to the throne, and a half-finished speech for the next service.

Standing up, he went to go find someone to bring him tea.

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