Reading Shadows

The clever ones will know I’ve been reading shadows–folding them, discarding them like bruised fruit from a basket, meddling with magic that had never been touched before. They’ll inevitably discover my spellweaving. And of course they’ll wonder what I made, then they’ll dig to find out why.

I was Yuroma, after all, Archmage of the Amber Empire. I was arguably the sharpest, quickest mage alive, the most likely to survive plunging my hands into the dark. And despite the risks, I had more to gain than most would. It will puzzle them to no end when I’m no longer here to open my secrets like clam shells.

But my secrets stay shut.

His Imperial Excellency Daráthnivol, Emperor-to-be, was taken aback when he met his Archmage. Yuroma was young to fill the position, despite having served under the last two short-lived Emperors. She dressed half like a fisherman’s wife, with only the traditional earring to mark her as part of the Amber Order. Daráthnivol had envisioned a harder, bolder-looking woman. Yet Yuroma was to be his adviser, his right hand. He didn’t have much say in the matter.

Daráthnivol waved for his counselors to withdraw, leaving only two stationed guards, himself and the Archmage in the throne chamber. It was a cold room, with black floors that shone under the glimmer of amber lanterns, black walls that blocked the sun, and a black ceiling that fell too low like a tall man’s cloak on his son. It all felt lonely beneath the blazing blue of the Imperial crown. Only one day in the Palace, and already lonely.

“Tell me something of yourself, Yuroma,” Daráthnivol said, reclining to look more at ease than he felt.

She raised a single eyebrow. “Do you intend to keep your watchdogs at the door?”

“They’re only guards. Do those without magic bother you so much that you can’t introduce yourself in their presence?”

“Not at all. But you and I can dispense with all the pleasantries.”

Now she was beginning to annoy him. “I’ll decide when to talk pleasantries and when not to. Now tell me something–”

Before Daráthnivol could finish, the carved metal fire of his crown flared up, suddenly alive with heat. He shouted and hurled the circlet away, whipping his hands back lest he burn himself. It was her. Her hand had moved in the motion of an invocation. She’d tried to burn him, the Amber Emperor in waiting.

“Is this how you dealt with my cousin before me?” Daráthnivol snarled, standing up. “Guards!”

The guards stayed motionless at the back of the room.

“Guards!” he shouted now. “Get this wretched vixen out of my sight!”

Still motionless, curse them to the bottom of the ocean.

“They can’t hear you,” Yuroma said. “Or see you, really. I prefer to have this particular talk in private.”

“How dare you? I am your future leader!”

“And I’m your Archmage,” Yuroma replied. “You might not want to cross me on your first day here–seeing as how I’ve conveniently outlived one or two Emperors before you.”

Daráthnivol found his pulse speeding up, racing even, and his hands suddenly slick with sweat. Her threat felt too heavy to ignore, too quick, too forward, too real. He staggered back and tripped over the foot of his own throne as he tried to put some distance between himself and this mad, dangerous woman.

“I have no intention of hurting you, boy,” Yuroma said. “If I did, it would have happened long before you got to the Palace. Do you believe me?”

“Guards!” Daráthnivol shouted again. “Someone! To the throne room!” Why did they ignore him?

“Save your breath. No one will hear so much as an echo while my spell holds.”

“What the blazes do you want?”

Yuroma advanced another step, causing Daráthnivol to flinch. “I want you to be a little kinder to your subjects than the last few Emperors have been, little Rath. Your family has bled these islands dry. They’ve squandered hard-earned funds, abused their servants, raped where they liked, killed where they weren’t liked, and generally done more to shield their own backs than to guard the Amber Empire.” She stepped near one of Daráthnivol’s newly oiled hands, sending him skittering backward to the throne. “All these patterns will die with you, Emperor-to-be.”

There were tears in Daráthnivol’s eyes now. His hands shook as he tried to push himself farther from the narrow-eyed Archmage. His mouth hung open, formless whimpers issuing out. Why the dancing devil had he sent everyone else away?

“You will be the most beloved Emperor in recorded history,” Yuroma added. Then she snatched her hands apart, summoning a twisting vortex of magic as blue and deep as the ocean. “Or you can be like your cousin was and die like he died. Are we clear, Your Imperial Excellency?”

Daráthnivol’s mouth hardened, even as fresh tears formed under his eyes. “You can’t command me, whether you’re Archmage or Archangel!”

“Do as I advise or you might become an angel yourself, Rath. Or more likely a groveling pitspawn of the devil you and your royal family like to impersonate.”

With that, she twisted her hands once more, dissolving her vortex and magicking the crown back onto Daráthnivol’s head. Then she walked from the room as if they’d just talked about dinner.

Daráthnivol stared after her until his breathing calmed and he could find his feet. Even then his guards seemed not to notice that anything had been amiss.

My demise will puzzle them most, I suppose. No doubt they’ll believe it’s indicative of a plot, some scandal hidden behind Imperial robes and policies. Most members of the Amber Order die by treachery, often for betraying someone else in the first place. The rest tend to die fighting wars for the Empire, which is more or less the same thing. Why should I be different? I’ve been Archmage long enough to lie, to murder, to exert my Imperial sway a thousand times over. They’ll all suspect I brought it on myself now, at the gray twilight of my life.

I suppose they’ll be right.

Gull found the Archmage in her usual, solitary place. It was a tiny outcrop of rock just off the Imperial Palace’s outer wall. He’d limped out there praying that he wouldn’t fall between the cliffs and hoping Yuroma was there so as not to waste his treacherous climb. Sure enough she sat beneath the single linden tree growing there, which offered a shaded outlook over the cliffs and the endless ocean in the east. It was a peaceful little space.

“Working more secret spells?” Gull asked as he arrived.

Yuroma jerked toward him, a furious look in her eyes. Fifty years old she was, but she still had a fire that belied any age. She coughed furiously into her shoulder, then said, “How’d you find me, Gull?” Her voice was hoarse. Perhaps she’d been sick again.

“Followed you, as it were,” Gull said.

Yuroma swore and kicked a loose stone toward the water nearly a hundred paces below. “I’ve told you not to come out this way! You should do as you’re told if you want to keep your position.”

Gull just smiled. She wouldn’t remove him. They’d known each other too long, now. Ever since she came there as a lonely young woman. Ever since he’d been young, it seemed.

“I only came because you’re wanted by the rest of the Order. They’ve been searching high and low for you.”

“I don’t have time for those fools.”

“Aye, but you have time for whatever secret magic you’re making out here,” Gull said, savoring the surprised set of her jaw. “Don’t be snappish. I’ve known you long enough to read an expression or two, Yuroma.”

“To whom have you spoken of this?”

“No one.”

“Swear it, old man.”

“I swear it on my one good leg.”

Yuroma let out a long breath, then coughed and hacked into her sleeve again. Always so uptight, even when she was young. “No one can know of this,” she said with a black look when she mastered her cough. “No one. Do you hear me?”

Still smiling, Gull procured a fresh pear he’d brought for her. “An offering of peace, for your sick throat. And you can trust old Gull. No one will ever find out.”

I’ve toiled night and day, month by month, summer and winter. It must be seven years now that I’ve been crafting, weaving, patterning, shaping, testing, though few of my spells have taken, let alone been replicable. Of course so many failures have made me wonder whether there’s some other means open to me. Too late now to try. My hands have dipped too deep to wipe them clean again.

I’ve tried to keep it secret, but there will still be traces somewhere, because magic always leaves a smudge, a shadow. Especially when it is shadow.

It was a tiny house, not much more than a hut, at the edge of the fishing quarter. Lin Hador had never come to that part of the city before. By His Imperial Excellency’s grace, he hoped he never would again either, disgusting, rancid rathole that it was.

The door stood open, and a breeze flowed through to a tiny herb garden in the back. Yuroma sat inside. She looked up with a glint in her eyes, setting a wooden cup aside as Hador showed himself in.

“I didn’t know you still had a house,” he said, dropping into a seat across her table. “If house it can be called, Yuroma. You really should build something better for yourself now that you’ve been Archmage for thirty years. Maybe your moldy hovel is why you’ve been coughing so much.”

“What do you want?” she growled. “And I’m not going to ask how you found me here. I’ve noticed you snooping around behind me these last few months.”

A bead of sweat formed on his forehead. He hadn’t counted on her detecting that. Hoping she hadn’t noticed his discomfort as well, Hador held his hands apart and shot her his best smile. “I suppose my sneaking skills need work, eh?”

“Don’t try to worm around me. Why are you here?”

His hands were sweaty now. But he had her cornered, or as good as. He had but to pounce and he’d be rid of the vicious woman once and for all. “While I’ve skulked around in your shadow,” he said slowly, “I’ve noticed a few of your habits.”

“And now you want to court me, is that it? Get your greasy face out of here, Hador.”

He held his ground, though only through trained force of will. “I know you’ve been making something.”

That stopped her. The arrogant set of her face seemed to flicker. She frowned over the table, scooting her chair back as if he had an offensive smell. Yes, he had her now, at long last.

“As an Imperial Mage in the Amber Order, I may be beneath you, but it is my solemn duty to prevent catastrophe,” Hador said, lowering his voice now that he had her ear. “Of course I’ve come to you first, before assuming anything. Perhaps I’m mistaken, see. But if you can’t explain this adequately I’m afraid I’ll have to discuss it with His Excellency. Last I heard, Emperor Daráthnivol wasn’t fond of those who toy with powers best left alone.”

Like a striking cobra, Yuroma swatted her wooden cup off the table, splashing water across the room as the cup flew into the wall. “Powers best left alone, you say? You ought to consider leaving me alone, if you know what’s good for you.”

“I care first for the Amber Empire, and then for myself. What have you been making, Yuroma? Something to protect yourself, heal your mystery illness? Something to cover your tracks? Or maybe a new weapon to remove those of us who don’t like the way you play? I’ve seen the shadows dance behind you when you think no one’s looking. I know you like to leer at the dark.”

“I’m warning you,” she said through gritted teeth.

“I’m not your student anymore. Give me one good reason to stay silent or I’ll go straight to Daráthnivol.”

She stood. “He won’t believe a word from your mouth, maggot that you are.”

In an eruption of anger, Hador raised both hands, twisting them sharply into a disruption pattern. His spell blasted her table apart. Fragments of wood and clouds of dust swept across the room. Yuroma somehow dodged the spell and rolled to the garden door, conjuring a wavering green nimbus around herself as she prepared to retaliate. Before she could strike, though, Hador twisted his hands again to release a throwing knife. Archmage or no, she wouldn’t be prepared for that.

The knife pierced her shoulder near the joint and she cried out in pain. Her voice caught in a hideous cough as the still-settling dust absorbed her.

Then something silver cut through the dust, like a twisted web of liquid metal. Icy pain shot across Hador’s scalp, his ribcage, his left hand. He whipped himself backward to discover a series of thin, near-invisible cuts where Yuroma’s counterspell had hit him. He barely had time to look up before she struck again. A poof of air was all he heard before the dust exploded outward, the back wall shuddered, his tiny cuts burst open and his arms locked into place at the sides of his head, suspending any spell he could work. The impact of the attack knocked him into what was left of his chair, where he collapsed with a bone-rattling thud. He tasted blood from his own tongue and a widening cut above his ear.

Yuroma was only slightly out of breath. She kicked aside a leg of her table and walked slowly up to Hador, eyes narrowed. By the devil’s own face she was a chilling sight, red streams across her arm where the knife wound bled, dust and smoke concealing all her face but her half-bared teeth.

“Perhaps you forget, Lin Hador,” she said, stopping only inches from his face, “that I’ve killed my share of Emperors before. And my share of Archmages, for that matter. I have enough blood on my hands that I wouldn’t feel any filthier to crush a worthless pisspigeon like you.”

He quivered in pain and fear, trying to wrench his hands free, but her binding spell still held him in place. It was impossibly sound, hard as the face of a cliff. Gods above, how was she still so strong?

“But I’m not like you,” Yuroma went on in a whisper. “The people I’ve killed? They were like you. So tell Daráthnivol that I’m hiding an illness, that I’m spell-building in secret, making some weapon to overturn the Empire–tell him whatever you want. Say you accosted me, and that I almost killed you for it. Go tell the whole Amber Order that I’m uncontrollably mad.” She raised her hand to his face planting two fingers on his frozen chin. “I dare you, Lin Hador.”

Her spell vanished as quickly as it had hit him. He tumbled back again, banging both his elbows and his face. He tasted bile welling up with his blood, fought to find his feet before Yuroma could strike him in the back. She just stood there, though, staring like the vulture she was.

“You’ll never get away with this,” Hador spat.

“Prove that to me. You have no idea what I’m making.” Then Yuroma spun her hands once more, hurling him out the open door.

He collapsed in the dirty center of the street, startled to see a dozen fisherman, sailhands and ropemakers standing nearby and regarding Yuroma’s tiny house with awe and terror. Had they all seen what’d happened? Had they all heard their conversation?

Hador didn’t wait to find out. As soon as he regained his feet, he ran back to the city he knew, toward the Palace. Away from Yuroma.

I’ve known for years now that this spell-weaving was irreparably harming me. I probably knew before I started. The strain on my body is commonplace enough to conceal, and even the usual scars magic leaves are hard to detect in this case, since my work is not a spell so much as a failure to be one. Still, I’ve always felt it draining my life force away.

It’s a terrible price to pay. But then again, I probably deserve that price.

In the first few years of her widowhood, Palén tried to keep to herself. They’d saved enough for her to live meagerly, if not comfortably, and she stretched it further by selling Rijo’s big house and returning to her old home on the stony coast. The fishing village where she’d grown up hadn’t changed much since then–still battered by salt and cold winds, saving trees for boats, burning dung and peat for fuel in the low-roofed huts in which most everyone lived. City money was still money, though, and folk remembered Palén well enough, welcoming her as if she’d never left to marry rich, inland Rijo.

Palén was nearly sixty now, and beginning to tire, but returning home eased her husband’s loss and gave her a sort of purpose again. Now she mended sails, cleaned fish, pressed for gravelfin oil, taught children to figure and haggle like inlanders. It was a simple life. Not an empty one, though.

She’d been back for three years when Yuroma returned too.

It almost made Palén’s heart stop to see her there, standing in the hut’s doorway dressed in lavishly fine robes. A single amber earring, dangling almost to her right shoulder, marked her as part of the Amber Order. Gods above, but Palen’s little sister had really become an Imperial Mage.

Yuroma stooped to step into the hut, though she was no taller than when she’d left as a child. “They told me that you’d come back here,” she said, not meeting Palén’s eyes.

Palén felt herself shift in her chair, where she was halfway through knitting a headscarf. Her mouth opened without any sound. She wondered for a moment if she could be dreaming. But no. The coastal wind cut in through the doorway, biting her skin. Dust stirred where Yuroma stepped. It was no dream. Yuroma was there in the flesh.

“Aren’t you going to greet me?” Yuroma asked. She sat opposite Palén without waiting to be invited. “Forty years apart and you look at me like I’m a dried eel.”

Again Palén opened her mouth soundlessly. Her throat didn’t seem to work. How could Yuroma do this to her, after all this time?

“I heard about Rijo,” Yuroma added, now lowering her eyes.

“Is that why you came back? To rub dirt in my face now that I’m a poor widow and you’re…whatever you are now.”

“Imperial Archmage, Palén.”

Archmage? That was almost too much to believe. Palén stiffened, resumed her knitting with a furious intensity. “So you’re in the Emperor’s high-taxed employ but you could never spare a few days to come see me? Not in all these four decades?”

“They say Rijo was wealthy when he died. You could have visited me, you know.”

“I didn’t even know where you were.” Palén kept her eyes on her needles, the things she still knew and understood. She’d never felt so uneasy in her sister’s presence, not even when Yuroma announced that she was leaving. It was almost wrong to see her again–though she’d always wanted to. She’d yearned to be reunited.

They sat without speaking for a long moment, only the wind and the clack of Palén’s bone needles breaking the silence. Then Yuroma said, “I did mean to come sooner.”

“Why? Because you still hoped to steal Rijo from me? Or to laugh at me when neither of us could have him anymore?”

Yuroma flinched. “I didn’t even know about his death until I arrived.”

“So you stayed away because it hurt too much to see the two of us together?”

“I didn’t leave just because I was jealous of you!” Yuroma said, eyes narrowing just as they had when she lost her temper as a child.

“You can’t pretend you didn’t love him,” Palén said. She pushed her needles away, meeting her little sister’s angry glare. “I know you! You might have changed after all this time, but I knew you then and I can read you just as well now as ever before.”

Rijo had chosen her, Palén. Not Yuroma. Of course Yuroma had to leave.

Yuroma’s eyes rounded, the anger abating like an outgoing tide. She coughed hard into her shoulder for a moment, then said, “You really thought that was why I ran away?”

“Even an Imperial Mage–even the Archmage, if that’s really what you are now–can’t lie to me,” Palén said. She stood abruptly, blood rushing to her head and making her so dizzy she almost fell into the cold firepit. But she managed to reach the doorway, where she didn’t have to meet her sister’s hurt, anguished look.

Something scuffed the ground behind her. Then she felt Yuroma’s hand on her shoulder.

“I left because I loved you, Palén. Yes, I loved Rijo too. Yes, I was jealous when he chose you. But I didn’t just lose him when he asked you to marry him–I lost you. And you were all I had.”

The hand fell away. Just like Yuroma had, barely sixteen years old, fatherless, motherless, only Palén to guide her through the fragile world they knew. A lump swelled up in Palén’s throat. She locked her eyes on the gray sky outside, afraid to look and see her sister’s face now. They’d both been hurt too much. She couldn’t stand to remember it all again.

“I knew I’d learn to love someone else,” Yuroma said. “Even then, as a fool child, I knew that much. But you? There are no sisters in the Imperial Palace. Everyone has to claw out their own space there.”

“…so you really did find your way to the Palace,” was all Palén could think to say.

“What else could I do? There was nothing here for me. Palén, I’ve done terrible things to leave our old life behind–things I can never undo–and greater things than you might think, too. I’ve killed hundreds, maybe thousands, and I’ve protected even more people than I’ve hurt. I’ve molded Daráthnivol into the finest Amber Emperor in generations, perhaps that there ever was. But I’ve almost killed myself trying to find a way back. Trying to get back what I was before.”

Palén wasn’t sure what to say, even what to believe. After a moment she sniffed, finding her eyes raw, stinging and full of confused tears. She hadn’t hurt so much since they first came to this very hut forty-five years before, orphaned, with no one but themselves to tend to each other’s needs–only the other’s voice to comfort or reassure the other when they went hungry, or took ill, or ached too much from their loss even to sleep the night through.

She wiped her face with the back of her hand. “What’s this about you almost killing yourself?”

“Working magic,” Yuroma said simply. “I’ve been trying for years to craft some spell to set us right, you and me. I’ve tried reading the shadows to bring back the days before Rijo came and I left.”

“You want to change our past.”


“…what, then?”

Yuroma’s hand returned to her shoulder, turned her around finally to meet her eyes. “I want that past back. Not to change. Just to have it again.”

For perhaps the tenth time in a quarter hour, she’d caught Palén completely by surprise. Somehow, she’d never guessed. She’d never really understood her own sister. It was so late to be seeing Yuroma clearly again, but the clarity made Palén’s pain recede like poison siphoned from a cut.

She reached up and gripped Yuroma’s hand. Then she pulled her sister toward her, slowly wrapping her arms around her shoulders as she’d wished she could ten thousand times in their years apart. Yuroma rested her head on Palén’s shoulder, and her face was wet with tears too. It felt, for a moment, almost like those lonely nights fifty years ago, when a sister was enough because it was all they had.

“I’ve missed you, Yuroma,” Palén said into her sister’s hair.

“I’m finally here,” Yuroma whispered.

It will hurt Daráthnivol. He’s grown to trust me so. He won’t understand. But better to keep my secrets, keep them safe from anyone who could use Palén against me, or use me against her. After all, it took me forty years to make things right with her, including nearly ten years of spellweaving, struggling to summon back the past we’d lost.

I won’t blame them for mistrusting me when I’m gone. Deception pays its price. If they watch my shadow, follow my tracks and look where I’ve stepped, they’ll know I kept my own secrets.

Would to God above they never find out why.

“We face a scandal of unmeasured proportion,” Lin Hador announced when Imperial Archmage Yuroma was found dead. “Although the evidence has yet to be examined fully, it is clear that some sort of magical means ended Yuroma’s life. Whether it was murder, accidental or even self-inflicted remains to be seen.”

Daráthnivol sighed to himself as he listened to the scar-faced interim-Archmage’s announcement. He’d known Yuroma wasn’t herself these past few years. Always tired. So reluctant to work any magic at all. He’d supposed it was her age catching up, like his was too. Not some secret machination. He’d thought she was different.

“It is also clear that Yuroma was actively involved in building some sort of magical weapon,” Hador went on, addressing a large gathering of mages, servants, nobles and low-borns gathered in the Palace’s central courtyard. “It appears that she used a shadowy branch of wizardry to convey messages of events and insights to which she was privy, and was plotting with outside mages to overthrow the Amber Order, perhaps even to bring down our beloved ruler, His Imperial Excellency Daráthnivol.”

It couldn’t be true. Daráthnivol hated even to hear it suggested. Yuroma had been his one true friend, the voice of reason and sincerity when all others pandered and begged and oiled the ground beneath his feet–glistening and smiling, but lethally slick.

“We have traced her movements and uncovered a secret visit to an island village at the Empire’s northern edge,” Hador was saying now. “We believe she met enemy mages or informants there, and we have already dispatched a group of expert investigators to bring the truth of this sordid plot to light. In the meantime I am willing, albeit humble and reticent, to fill Yuroma’s position as interim-Archmage. May the Amber Empire ever be as strong as the stone roots of our islands!”

The gathered crowd cheered. Daráthnivol supposed he couldn’t stop them now, but he hated to hear his one genuine friend discussed this way. It burned even to entertain a doubt in her loyalty, though the evidence of her secret journey was more or less irrefutable. Why hadn’t she just told him if she wanted some change, though? He’d have listened. There was no one he’d rather hear out than Yuroma.

As Daráthnivol and his immediate retinue returned indoors, Hador stepped up behind him. “I’ve sent Laveld to lead the investigation, Your Excellency.”

Daráthnivol grunted. “Very good, I suppose.”

“Is Your Excellency displeased?”

“Not at all, you obsequious magpie!”

Hador and those around him stepped involuntarily back. Daráthnivol supposed it wasn’t like him to lash out, not even at hungry sharks like his interim-Archmage.

“I only intend to serve Your Imperial Excellency,” Hador said, bowing deliberately low.

“Yuroma served me, Hador. Report when you’ve found the truth of her unexplained trip. I know that Archmages don’t just up and die, but until you have more evidence I refuse to believe ill of her.”

Leaving a flabbergasted Hador behind him, Daráthnivol swept into his chambers and had his guards bar the door shut.

After seeing my sister, I knew I didn’t have much time left to live. I’d been failing ever since I started my search, ever since I began reaching back for the life I’d abandoned. I never mentioned it to anyone else, though. Just to Palén in those short few days we had together.

Of course I tried to get her to return with me, to stay with me. And of course she wanted us to remain in the north where we’d lived as children. I was ready to stay, even happy to. I only needed to settle a few affairs for my Emperor before I left his service for good–tell him the truth of why I was leaving him to the wolves.

By the time I sailed back to the Imperial City, though, I knew I’d never survive another voyage home. I’d read too many shadows when I should have been looking at myself, looking at what I already knew. It had sapped me dry like a flagpole in the desert wind. All I could do now was send word with the quiet fisherman who’d ferried me north:

I’ve weakened myself too much to return, Palén. Come to me if you can. I send all my love, and ask again for your forgiveness for the lost years.

Ever yours,


Laveld spent two months investigating tiny fishing villages, trapping outposts, water holes between islands, pirate holds, anywhere he could think to search in the rocky desolation of the north. Almost no one knew half a stitch about whatever trips Yuroma might have made. One man claimed to have seen her visiting the grave of a wealthy merchant named Rijo. Perhaps someone she’d killed and felt guilty over. Laveld wouldn’t be surprised, given all he knew of the wild, fierce Archmage.

“And that is all you have to report?” Emperor Daráthnivol asked when Laveld knelt in the Imperial Throne Room, salt-crusted, sweaty and defeated by the search.

“I regret to say that it is, Your Excellency. I am convinced that Yuroma was plotting with enemies to the Empire, given the eyewitnesses who saw her experimenting with shadowy magic, not to mention her suspicious journey. But I have nothing substantive to add to these reports.” He bowed his forehead to the floor, hating himself for being such a groveling low-life. “I beg Your forgiveness, Excellency.”

He’d be lucky to keep his post as an Imperial investigator. Lucky to keep any post, perhaps. Curse that Hador for assigning him to such a task. But Hador had never liked him and had found an easy way to remove him for good. Laveld probably would have done the same thing were he interim-Archmage instead.

Somehow, the Emperor didn’t seem displeased. In fact, he almost looked happy as he said, “There is nothing to be forgiven. You did your duty and no new facts came to light. I thank you for your diligent service to the Amber Empire, Laveld. You are dismissed.”

No reprimand. Not even any questions regarding his report. It was a miraculously simple dismissal, leaving Laveld feeling giddy as a hummingbird. As he left the throne room he only looked up long enough to see Hador’s normal smile wavering, the leech. Well, he’d lost this battle. Perhaps the Emperor could keep even Hador in line, then. Maybe they weren’t so bad off without Yuroma after all.

I doubt now that there is or ever was a spell to bring back what I wanted. I searched as I’ve never searched for anything, and to no avail. All I wanted was a day or two to mirror those when Palén and I were young, just to be sure that they were even real. Reading shadows has never given me that.

Those days were real, though. I remember them now.

I recalled them too clearly to doubt, not once I found Palén again. And I remember them anew now as she sits beside me and holds my hand, or tells me softly of her life with Rijo, the children they raised, the stories they invented about their lost aunt who went off to be an Imperial Mage. I laugh for joy at how close some of those tales come to my reality.

I’ll have to send Palén away soon, to keep her hidden once more. But until then, I can set aside the shadows where I’ve lived so long–just listen as my sister sings me to sleep.

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