The Senior Mage Apprentice

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~TIEN LYN~

Their mysterious guide, Lady Chen Guang, and Tien Lyn made their way through the palatial district of Xichon at a brisk pace. This part of the city was built over with the new estates for the noble families that had followed the Imperial court from Sutao. The plain clothes made their small group look like servants hurrying to return from their errands before a curfew, so the guards did not pay much heed to them.

But as the dusk turned to darkness, they'd crossed into the wards of the Old Town. This was Xichon before it caught the eye of the Celebrated Emperor Wo Jia, and he made it his new capital.

In the Old Xichon, there were no palaces. Instead, the untidy brick, mud and wood houses crowded the crooked streets. The patchwork of dwellings, vegetable gardens, cookhouses, shops, and animal sheds was dense and beguiling. Tien Lyn's nose was assaulted by a pungent blend of smells of smoking meat, pigs, dirty bodies, spices, muck, and sewage.

The guards also grew meaner and greedier here, so the guide took to scouting ahead to make sure they can slip in between the patrols or paid bribes to let them pass.

At the edge of the Old Market Ward, the ladies crouched in the deeper shadows at the corner of the small square.

Their protector negotiated to be let through the gates to the Hillside Ward on the northern outskirts of the city. The silver coins changed hands, and the three guards chuckled merrily as he spun his story. One of them produced a key to unlock the Gates when a young officer accompanied by one more guard dashed past their hiding spot.

The flowing hem of his robes nearly swept Tien Lyn's face, but she felt lucky he did not notice her. Tien Lyn just kept hugging herself tighter and tighter as he yelled at his men. She wished she had enough strength left to plug her ears.

The black-clad stranger stepped back, making calming gestures, offering more silver.

The officer ripped his sword off his hip. Alas, they'd chanced upon an honest man.

Tien Lyn expected their protector to flee or die, and for the angry officer to come at them next. It would all be over then.

He stood his ground, apart from making a sliding step back, and shifting his weight to the back foot.

Was he buying them time? Should they run for it? Should they surrender? Tien Lyn lurched forward to rise, but her mother put an arresting hand on her shoulder. She froze on her knees.

The officer swung his sword. Their man ducked under the blade and retreated another step.

Simultaneously, he brought his hands together in front of his chest, as if begging the guards to spare his life, then pushed them forcefully outwards, palms facing down.

A tiny ball of light formed between his fingertips at the top of that movement. He pushed the light down to the ground. When the light hit the pavement, it broke into a dozen sparks. Most of the sparks ricocheted off the stones and leaped onto the guards.

A single spark sent men into a fit of violent convulsions. The guards' eyes bulged out, their jaws opened wide in silent screams.

The man dashed forward between the stunned guards, spinning, and kicking. They dropped to the ground in his wake.

Tien Lyn caught a gleam of moonlight on a short blade in his hand. A moment later, the blade looked dark and steamed in the cool night air with blood. A hysterical half-giggle, half-sob shook her: were their officer corrupt, they would have lived. Now they were dead.

The smell of violent death did not stand out in the Old Xichon, but it still made Tien Lyn sick. When she straightened up from her retching, the black-clad man crouched over the motionless lumps on the ground searching the corpses methodically until he found a key to the gate. He looked like a vulture from the steppes, short of leg, and wide in the shoulder, with a barbarian's cast to his eyes.

Tien Lyn almost heaved again when he beckoned the Chen women to approach.

"It's safe. Hurry."

Tien Lyn did not want to leave the shelter of the house wall. In fact, now that they'd finally stopped moving she wanted to sit down on the pavement and never move again. It did not bother her at all that the ground was covered with her own vomit, or that she would be found in the morning, recognized and killed.

Everyone she knew died tonight or would die before long: her father, everyone related to him, Xi Dao Ni, her maid, the cook, everyone in her household. That was what purging meant. Every family member, to the third degree of relation...

She heard scary tales before about other families being wiped out, even to the ninth degree of relation. She heard about men who displeased the Emperor so much that their bones were ground to dust like Empress Mei's so that they could never enter the Celestial Realm or be reborn, but she had never dreamt that it could happen to her family. She worshiped the Emperor, and she'd never done anything wrong.

And neither had her father. It was unfair. It was wrong.

And it was futile to resist. She just wanted to stay here and be killed rather than keep walking into the unknown.

"Tien Lyn?" her mother called. "Come now. Walk."

How droll. Tien Lyn's world ended, and she was still unable to say "no" to Lady Chen Guang. So she separated herself from the wall.

But some part of Tien Lyn did resent her mother's will because her feet felt leaden. She walked with an effort and had to close her eyes when she stepped over the five fresh bodies. She used to be afraid to fall, but no longer.

When she stumbled, a deft hand caught and turned her around so she found herself staring into the man's barbarian face. The killer's face. He frowned at whatever he saw in her eyes, and insisted on holding her by the shoulder as they walked on.

"It's not far now," he promised. For some reason, him trying to cajole her made Tien Lyn ashamed of her own weakness. She straightened up.

"Are you a mage, Master?"

"No."

It was a simple question, and he had no call to treat her like a feeble-minded child. Sure, she was not used to death, but she was in full command of her faculties.

"I saw you cast a spell," she argued.

"I am not a mage. I am a senior mage apprentice."

Keeping humble, was he? "It was an impressive spell."

"Yes."

"Why are you helping us?"

"On my Master's orders."

"And who is your Master?"

"A mage."

Tien Lyn could not recall meeting a man less willing to talk about himself. Her tired mind did not supply any more questions. She was out of breath too, because the senior mage apprentice still clutched her shoulder and they walked at a brisk pace.

It was hard work, running for their lives. Tien Lyn was not aware that Xichon could be so large for someone on foot. The sky was getting a bit lighter in the east, foreshadowing the dawn, when the black-clad man stopped short and spoke up of his own volition: "We have arrived."

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