Chapter 1

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Wenyanga stared at their hands, scrubbed clean as they were, rings gleaming on each finger. The window seat's cushions were cold against their back, even as the morning sun passed through the shutters to wash their robes in slates of yellow light. 

The rings were simple bands wrought with white gold, bright against their dark skin, the metal scuffed by years and use. Sunlight warmed Wenyanga's right hand, but it was the rings on their heart hand that shone slightly. But each one hummed slightly, mirroring the constant, tiny vibrations just under Wenyanga's liver, where their soul sat.

Grief could, in quiet moments like this, make anyone forget to breathe. That wasn't half as dangerous as a mage who forgot to cycle. Wenyanga inhaled deeply, drawing in a wisp of the Air aura around them and their soul began to rotate again. The aura refined in their core into a cool liquid power. Orgone. All ten rings fell silent.

The wind that passed through the window hot and dry, carrying in the smell of the desert and a whiff of smoke from a cooking fire in the town square nearby. On the street two stories below, someone sang the first line of a funeral song, and a hollow chorus joined around them. Wenyanga nudged the shutter closed with their elbow.

"You're just going to sit there, then?" Thula asked from deeper in the room. Her voice was as gentle as the ocean she was named for, but metal clanged as she set a tray down forcefully. "Let strangers sing his funeral songs, give the duty of his pyre speech to a priest who never even saw his face?"

"Why speak to a corpseless pyre?" Wenyanga asked. When they turned their right palm up, runes glowed inside the scuffed white gold, casting yellow light on burnt fingertips. "Only a carpenter cries for an empty coffin."

Thula said nothing. A cold, quiet rebuke.

"I..." An apology was warranted; it sat right there at the base of Wenyanga's throat, growing thorns. "I must've grown the heart of a swine in my sleep."

"I think so too. Come eat, beloved."

"Coldroot. I had some an hour ago."

"Root tea isn't breakfast," Thula said, "especially that poison."

The half-chewed bark sat heavy in the inner breast pocket of Wenyanga's divine robe.

"You know," they said, "I spent two months with a Saint of Uxolo, taking no food and only drinking teas from their Garden of Wisdom. They said coldroot clears the mind."

"And I spent twenty years training to become a doctor. Stop moping and come eat."

Wenyanga exhaled deeply, and their soul cycled a little quicker in response. With great effort, the old mage rose from the window seat. 

Old? Age was a difficult concept to grasp for a mage as advanced as they were in the divine arts. If they had to count, Wenyanga would pin their age somewhere between their seventh and ninth decade; by now, their body should have been bowed under the weight of long years, but the power of their soul crackled along their spine, reinforcing their body.  Their bones were knitted with old magic, every fibre of flesh stitched together with it, so they stood as tall as half a lifetime ago, despite the fine wrinkles on either side of their mouth that Thula loved to kiss or Tello would caress... 

Tello.

Wenyanga went to brush away the grey matted locks that had fallen over their face, but their hand fell limply to their side, so they stood for a moment before the shuttered window, perfectly aware of how their greying braids framing a downturned, scowling face. 

If Thula were a cruel woman, she would have called Wenyanga the picture of grief.

"You haven't been sleeping well," she said instead. 

When had she come to stand so close?  Unlike Wenyanga, the lines in Thula's round face were deeper, though she was only fifty. Where Wenyanga was long and lean, Thula was short and heavy, and a slow-churning patience sat deep inside her dark eyes. The only thing they truly shared was grey matted locks, though Thula had worn hers up in a knot pinned with two needles of polished bone. 

Wenyanga knew she favoured the silver needles when she wore her long skirt of heavy yellow silk, but the bone ones had been a gift from Tello, carved by his own hand. So too was the shawl of layered peacock feathers that hung from her shoulders. Wenyanga had watched him stitch each one on with the hair of a copper ram to keep them as bright as the day they'd been plucked. Thula had even painted three stars under her left eye with the white clay he had blessed her with on their union night. One star for each of them. 

"You're mourning."  Thula put her hands in the outer pockets of Wenyanga's divine robes. She smelled of herbs and ink. "Tello would not mourn himself."

"No," Wenyanga said, sensing the trap. "He wouldn't."

"But he'd mourn you."

"And I him, and I you."

"And I you, and I him, and he me," Thula said. "Were we not all beloved? Three tiles slotting perfectly together?"

"We... I know what you're going to say."

"Then let me say it."

"Thula--"

"Are you just going to sit there inside your head and leave me to mourn alone?"

Tello's scream echoed. Wenyanga's hands went cold with the memory of cupping his mangled soul in their palms. A memory hidden behind what might have been a smile or just a twitch. "Of course not, beloved."

Wenyanga heard the rough knock two heartbeats before Thula turned to the door.

"Probably a well-wisher," she said. "I'll deal with it."

As Thula padded towards the door, yellow silks almost kissing the wooden floor panels, Wenyanga turned to the tea table. When they passed the unmade bed, a brief fight broke out inside their head between walking past and crawling into the sheets. They sat down at the table as Thula opened the door with one hand and readjusted a loose feather in their shawl with another.

Wenyanga tapped the edge of the silver tray with one of their rings.

"Thank you," Thula said. "We will be there shortly."

She shut the door and turned, worry shading her face.

"The chief wants to see you to discuss Tello." Thula fiddled with the copper ring on her heart finger. "Two of his personal warmages are outside. Escorts but... well they're warmages."

Wenyanga stared at their beloved a moment longer than they meant to. An arrest, surely, a courteous one but an arrest nonetheless.

Even while strangers sing for Tello, strangers who couldn't have loved him with half the sun-eaten--

Wenyanga poured a cup of rosemary tea, and slid it slowly to the opposite side of the table. With a flick of their sleeve, a long silver needle appeared in their hand, cool against the still healing burns on their fingertips as they used it to flick open the tray's lid. Steam wafted from two bowls of yellow rice studded with nuts and spiced fruit. Wenyanga balanced a single grain on the end of the needle.

"Beloved." Thula wrung her hands. "The warmages are Refined-level, and Chief Sanele is a Perfect."

"Good for all of them."

"'Nyanga. Tello's death means something to Sanele too."

Means something? What does that back-facing worm know of losing Tello?

Another knock on the door, this one hard enough to rattle the brass hinges.

Wenyanga inhaled, and deep in their core, the cycle of their soul pushing orgone into their channels. The magic was a cold, dense sap crawling through their flesh. "Your tea is cooling, beloved."

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