The Mage Heir
Kathryn Sommerlot © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Tatsu woke with such a start he couldn’t breathe.
Heart hammering, he spun up and onto one knee, grabbing his bow and notching the arrow before his thoughts had completely righted. He waited for one breath, and then another, poised and ready to release the arrow into the shadows of the trees. Everything around them loomed threatening, and the pulsing dread shouldn’t have been a surprise—they were fugitives, after all.
His throat closed, pulsing along with his heartbeat. When nothing jumped out from the darkness, at least the idea of the soft sounds belonging to one of the queen’s guards faded. No one had come to drag them both to the prison cells in Aughwor.
“Alesh?” Tatsu said, voice low, and was met with only silence. The low murmuring wasn’t Alesh and Ral either, and knowing they’d stayed in Dradela eased Tatsu’s mind a bit, though his stomach clenched at the thought of the queen guessing their involvement in Yudai’s escape.
With their camp set up in a small clearing, the mountains stood half a day’s walk away, close enough to feel the threat from both Chayd and Runon still breathing down their necks. If the queen hadn’t sent guards after them, then Runon certainly had. The last thing Tatsu wanted was to underestimate Nota—no, his mother, no matter how difficult placing the designation on her was. Underestimating mages had landed them into the whole mess in the first place.
Whatever stirred within the brush faded away—a small rodent foraging across the forest floor, perhaps—and Tatsu dropped his arms back to his sides. He focused on returning his heartbeat to normal rhythms.
He was jumping at shadows, and at such a rate, he’d exhaust himself long before they could hide themselves in the mountain peaks. Willing his body to relax, he settled onto his sleeping roll as the branches overhead waved gently in the night breeze. There was nothing strange about the trees, but Tatsu kept imagining he could hear them sing.
After traveling through so much of the drained land and its twisted aftermath, nature didn’t hold the same comfort it used to.
From his vantage point beneath the tree cover, the moon remained obscured behind branches brimming thick with leaves, but Tatsu guessed half the night had passed, giving them three or four hours before the sun rose. Yudai, sleeping several paces away near the fire pit, was curled into a tight ball on his leather bedroll. Occasionally, he would murmur and turn over, but none of the sounds seemed to be enough to wake him. Small favors, if nothing else.
Tatsu closed his eyes, but unbidden, his mind pulled up a scene he’d spent weeks trying to bury: Zakio’s body crumpled in the crimson-stained snow. He pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes hard enough to leave red spots dancing in his vision after he pulled both hands away, but the image persisted even as he resumed staring out at the trees. When he let his head fall against the trunk of the nearest tree, his hair caught in the rough bark.
At some point, he managed to nod off, still in his uncomfortable sprawl against one of the wider trees, and by the time he woke again, the sky had begun to streak with color. Leaning forward, he winced at the pain the movement elicited in his stiff neck. He was preoccupied enough with the tightness to only vaguely notice Yudai stirring across the fire, but the anguished yell a second later startled any residual sleepiness out of him. A split second of spinning showed they were still alone in the clearing.
The relief, if one could call it that, flashed in an achingly short moment.
Yudai sat up with both hands raised in the air, head jerking from side to side. Around him, stretched out like a too-bold shadow, his own sleeping outline had burned brown into the withered grass. The drained blades bent and curled over on themselves, even the ones that weren’t crushed beneath Yudai’s weight. In only a single night, life had been bled dry by Yudai’s wild, uncontrollable magic.
Yudai glowered up at him, eyes glinting with vulnerability.
“No,” he said, and that single word reverberated through Tatsu’s limbs until he feared he could no longer stand. His chest heaved, a pang of copper blood on the back of his tongue.
The life siphon had endured.
From his vantage point atop an outcropping of stone on the east side of the mountain, Tatsu stared toward the darkening horizon. The withered trees of the siphon’s original devastation stood out blearily against the living landscape, and all sat shrouded in early shadow as ribbons of brilliant red streaked overhead. Twisted toward the ground, the old trees remained far enough away that they didn’t pose a threat. Still, Tatsu stayed for a few minutes, enjoying the last bits of warmth on his skin from the setting sun as he gazed over the brown swath of long-drained land. With the season gradually cooling into autumn, they wouldn’t be able to stay in the higher altitudes. Already, the sun’s descent summoned a fierce chill that whipped against his cheeks, and the thought of remaining in the peaks, with relatively few provisions, didn’t help the tightness in his gut.
As the sun dipped low behind the dark shapes of the mountain range, painting most of the visual in gray and black, Tatsu sighed and made his way back down the rocky slope. The path, long abandoned and overgrown with weeds, snaked through the higher cliffs and coniferous trees, high enough on an old trade route that Tatsu didn’t see any movement in the trees below. While escape had been the goal, the lull gnawed at Tatsu’s subconscious. If anyone had followed them, he’d seen no signs of it.
Hunting sorely lacked in the clusters of dark-needled trees. The abandoned paths only went so far, and after a while, they’d have to start looping over their own footsteps, which would impact any potential food supply.
As Tatsu wound his way along the path toward the small cavern they’d set up in, no noises, animal or otherwise, disturbed the peace. The mountain insects had already migrated down the slopes, and the birds and rodents would soon follow.
Yudai was sitting near the fire when Tatsu entered the cave.
“Anything?” Yudai asked. He didn’t seem relieved when Tatsu shook his head. The white-drained ends of his hair hung ragged in front of his eyes, but the roots were growing in their natural black, and the transition between the colors formed a dark halo around the crown of his head.
“We have at most a few weeks of summer left,” Tatsu said, taking a seat across the fire. He leaned forward to twirl the hare roasting over the flames, split by a makeshift spit. “Anyone on our trail will probably give up once the cold front comes down.”
“And we’ll freeze if we try to stay here,” Yudai replied.
Tatsu kept his eyes steadfastly glued to the fire when he answered, “You’re not wrong.”
“You’ve been worrying about it for a week. I can see it on your face every time you return from hunting.”
When Tatsu didn’t answer, Yudai shifted on the ground, stretching out his legs and wiggling his toes near the warmth. “How long were you going to stew over this on your own?”
“That’s not what I was doing,” Tatsu said, but the argument was weak.
“Well, you certainly weren’t being truthful.”
“What have I been lying about?’”
“We can’t stay here much longer, and a lie by omission is still a lie,” Yudai said, sounding a bit put out. “We have to find somewhere else to go.”
Tatsu peered across the fire at Yudai, who raised both eyebrows and said nothing. As the silence grew too imposing, Tatsu sighed.
“I’ve been going over our options,” he said, taking his time with the words. “I just can’t come up with an end point. We can’t go to Runon—”
“No, we can’t.” Yudai’s eyes flashed silver and angry.
“—and we can’t return to Chayd,” Tatsu finished. “The queen’s response at this point will be much worse than simply using you for revenge.”
“I’d rather die,” Yudai said, low and more of a growl. His gaze dropped to his fingers splayed wide in his lap, curling and uncurling in tandem. “I’d rather die than be used as a slave again.”
After another tense moment, Tatsu said, “I know. I won’t take you back there; you know that. Right?”
Yudai raised his head, teeth chewing on his lower lip. “Where will we go?”
“Far. Rad-em, maybe, or Joesar. Or we’ll take a ship across the Oldal Sea to Dusset and hope luck is on our side.”
“Wonderful,” Yudai said with a mirthless laugh. “That’s worked out well so far. And what are we going to do when I start draining the world around me while we sleep every night? You know it’s getting worse.”
“I don’t have an answer for you.”
Yudai laughed again. “We’re leaving a bright trail for anyone hoping to catch us, without any plan where to disappear to, crushed under the hourglass hanging over our heads.”
“Are you yelling at me or the world?”
“Myself,” was Yudai’s frustrated response before he pressed his hands against his face and stilled, lost in his own thoughts.
The hare was beginning to char on the bottom, so Tatsu spun the spit and sat again. Even while staring at the sizzling meat, his appetite had started to fade away. Apprehension returned, throbbing in time with his heartbeat.
“They must have done something to you in Dradela,” Tatsu said quietly as the cavern closed in around them, threatening in its inactivity. “There’s a reason the drain started up again. It can’t be a coincidence the change came only after the queen tried to use your magic for herself.”
“Knowing that doesn’t get us any closer to shutting it off.”
Tatsu couldn’t come up with anything to say in response, at least not anything inspiring. Instead, he crossed his arms over his knees and tried to push the thoughts from his mind.
“You think this is a result of being a prisoner in Chayd?” Yudai asked.
“It makes sense, but I doubt you were in any state to remember what the Chaydese mages gave you.”
Yudai’s mouth formed a hard line when he shook his head. “There was only a vague awareness of people around me and nothing else. It’s not very helpful.”
“Then we’re stumbling in the dark,” Tatsu said and sighed. After a few seconds of observing Yudai, dejectedly hunched over on himself, he added, “I wish I could find you something else to wear. The brown is insulting.”
“Is it?” Yudai appeared genuinely surprised. “I had no idea.”
“That’s the color the lowest citizens wear. For royalty, it’s…something akin to a slap in the face, I suppose.”
Yudai seemed to consider the information. “It doesn’t bother me. Brown isn’t an insult in Runon.”
“When we found you, you were wearing white.”
“Nota has a twisted sense of humor,” Yudai agreed. “In Runon, white is the color of funerals.”
“Fitting.” A tightness banded Tatsu’s chest. Across the fire, Yudai pushed up to his feet, his face still lined with bitterness there didn’t appear to be a remedy for.
“Less talk of dying,” he demanded, “and cut up that hare. I’m starving.”
They moved on the next day, and the path they walked sloped farther upward through short, jagged switchbacks, though the route wove them around several large rocks and sheer drop-offs Tatsu stayed clear of. Frequent rests, required for the demanding climb, hampered their progress. Even though they didn’t have a destination or an arrival time, the creeping pace made Tatsu’s skin crawl. The uncomfortable buzzing under his skin had increased following their discussion, and more than ever, their only hope for survival depended on getting off the peaks before the siphon devoured everything. The looming limit on their time crept closer, and so, too, did Tatsu’s apprehension.
When they were unable to find a cavern to set up camp in, they had no choice but to rough it in a small clearing between the trees. Tatsu didn’t mind sleeping beneath the leaves, but Yudai’s agitation seemed to grow as the sky darkened. He paced back and forth between two ancient tree trunks with his hands clasped behind his back, over and over, until the stars came out to twinkle above their heads.
“You’re going to have to sleep eventually,” Tatsu pointed out, voice mild, as the moon reached its zenith. His statement earned him a growl in reply. “Please sit down.”
“This clearing will be dead by morning,” Yudai snapped. When he turned to retrace his steps again, his fingers clenched together in fists so tight his knuckles blanched.
“You can’t do anything about it, so there’s no point in blaming yourself. It’s probably making the whole thing worse.”
The glare Yudai threw him was dubious at best, but evidently, the possibility was difficult to ignore. Yudai eventually settled himself between two patches of yellow-green weeds, and he ran his finger over his lip a few times before his eyes flickered up toward Tatsu. “Distract me.”
“You could ask nicely.”
One corner of Yudai’s mouth quirked upward. “I could.”
“Did you know my mother had other children?”
Yudai blinked and sat straighter, face slackening.
“Good distraction,” he said, and from his tone, he was just as surprised by the question as Tatsu himself was. “I was actually wondering when you’d ask about that.”
“Did you?” Tatsu’s lungs swelled too big for his chest, pressing against his ribs in a mad attempt to break free. Part of him wanted to take the whole thing back, to inhale the words and swallow them down his throat—but the other part of him was so desperate for the answer that even the anticipation of an emotional gutting couldn’t keep the words from breaking free.
“No,” Yudai said. There was nothing on his face that betrayed any other truth. “Not until you showed up in the castle that day. But it makes sense.”
Yudai’s head fell to one side a little, and the white ends of his hair brushed against the curve of his cheekbone. “There was a mage in Runon, when I was young, who served as my mentor. He wasn’t particularly gifted or strong, but he was a sensible man, and my father respected him. He never tried to hide his distrust of Nota. He told me she’d spent years trying to convince my father that marrying her and producing magical heirs was the best thing he could do for his kingdom.”
Tatsu shook his head. “I don’t understand what this has to do with me.”
“Don’t you?” Yudai sounded surprised again. “If she’d had a child that possessed no magical abilities, it would severely discredit her bid to be at my father’s side. There would be no guarantee their offspring would share the gift. Her only hope was to hide the evidence of such a child to save her own chances at becoming queen.”
Though expected, the hurt blossoming through his body shocked him with its strength. Shame rippled all the way down his arms, weakening his muscles until his fingers trembled against his thighs.
“It didn’t work anyway,” Tatsu said, so quietly he thought perhaps Yudai missed it.
But Yudai’s face was open with sympathy. “No, it didn’t. My father married an advisor’s daughter. And every chance Nota thought she still might have had was destroyed when I was born.”
“The most powerful mage Runon had ever seen.” Tatsu tried to smile. He couldn’t quite manage it.
He expected a smirk in return, but instead, Yudai’s expression wrinkled further. “That’s what they said anyway.”
As Tatsu tried to pull himself out of his own thoughts, Yudai put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t do this to yourself.”
“I’m just—I’m trying to understand,” Tatsu said. “Understand my father, I mean. The Queen of Chayd knew about me and my heritage, but I don’t know how.”
“Your father probably went to the crown for protection. He was Chaydese, so the kingdom would’ve been compelled to help him. Without magic, you really weren’t much of a threat to them.”
Then Yudai chuckled, and his fingers tightened around Tatsu’s shoulders. “Until you were a threat to them, and in a way no ruler ever could’ve predicted.”
Not for the first time, the full weight of his transgressions hit him, but it seemed to knock more of the wind from his lungs than it usually did. Tatsu struggled to find his breath and right himself in the forest that had suddenly flipped upside down, leaving him with nothing to hold on to.
“Phehon,” he said as he squeezed his eyes shut.
“The Chaydese word for treason. I’m a traitor to the crown now.” He ran a hand through his hair as laughter bubbled up in his chest. “A traitor, most likely bastard-born, abandoned by my mother and fearfully isolated by my father, exploited by the queen I then betrayed to save the life of a man I hardly know.”
“Prince,” Yudai corrected. “A prince you hardly know.”
“Oh, of course, that makes it all better.”
“I feel as if you sometimes forget that fact.”
Tatsu snorted and pressed his fingers against his temples. “I sincerely doubt you’d ever allow anyone to forget that.”
He did feel slightly better, though, and the tension in his chest eased somewhat. He leaned back against one of the trees wrapped with sweet-smelling vines. Staring up at the stars twinkling between the leaves, the rock in his stomach didn’t sit quite so heavily. Each moment he was still breathing and still free, the guilt faded away into a low hum in his veins.
“Well,” Yudai said. “It could be worse.”
“That’s true. Tomorrow morning, we could wake up to find you’ve drained this whole mountainside.”
Yudai narrowed his eyes.
“That’s not funny,” he said, but the lifting of his lips gave him away.
“Go to sleep, Your Highness.”
Yudai grumbled for quite some time while getting himself comfortable amidst the grass, and Tatsu stared up at the moon, wondering if somewhere, somehow, his mother was doing the exact same thing.
He woke to a strange silence, the suspicious absence of humming insects and singing birds a warning. Senses on alert, Tatsu pushed himself up to take stock of their surroundings, but it took a second for his eyes to adjust.
No birds twittered in the leaves above them. Over the closest ridge leading down the mountainside, however, a few jays sang out in the middle of their morning serenades. The hush seemed to be limited to their immediate area, and when he looked left over the remnants of the fire pit embers, Tatsu saw why.
The outline of Yudai’s sleeping form had burned into the ground, resulting in an expansive human shadow filled with withered grass blades.
As Tatsu struggled to form words with his too dry tongue, Yudai stirred awake and sat up with bits of the decayed turf clinging to his hair. He glanced to either side, and while his expression didn’t change as he absorbed the morning reality, his shoulders stiffened. When his gaze met Tatsu’s, his eyes gleamed.
“You said that when you found me in the castle, I was surrounded by black-market toxins.”
“That’s what Alesh said, yes,” Tatsu agreed.
“And we need to decide on a destination before the oncoming season change decides for us.”
Tatsu nodded, unable to follow.
Yudai bent over and ripped up a handful of the dead grass, apparently unafraid of the lingering effects the siphon always seemed to leave behind. Clumps of dirt and scraggly roots crumpled out from between his fingers to settle back onto the black-streaked ground.
“Then we go to get answers about what those poisons really did to me,” Yudai said, full of finality, with all the weight of a man expecting to get his way. “We’re going to Joesar.”