Micah was grateful he was able to observe the academy before the other students arrived for the next term.
There was something oddly lulling about his boots echoing throughout the silent and still corridors. No one was around to observe his dumbfounded expressions. No one was around to witness him walk into dead ends and retrace his steps.
It had taken him days to map out and memorize the floorplan.
The building was constructed into the shape of a cross with four separate wings. One wing for each cadet year and one for the instructors.
Each wing housed study rooms, bedrooms, and large bathrooms.
In the middle of the building, there were numerous levels. Classrooms took up the majority of the upper levels, while he discovered an expansive training arena and an array of other amenities down below.
On his third day at the academy, he stumbled across the library. He had intended to visit the expansive library that morning and spend the day reading in blissful solitude.
Unfortunately, Healer Destan intercepted him in the corridors and introduced him to the massive infirmary instead.
The infirmary wasn’t exactly on his list of things to see.
“It will only be a bit longer,” Healer Kendra reassured.
Micah, dressed in a flimsy infirmary gown, eyed her impassively. “You said that over an hour ago, Healer Kendra.”
Her cheeks flushed red at his taciturn drawl. She looked at him before quickly busying herself with something on her charts.
“We are waiting for Lord Josiah. He requested to be present for the results. It appears as if he’s running late.”
Micah withheld a scowl.
He hadn’t seen his uncle since the man brought him to the academy. Besides Healer Destan showing him where he would take his meals for the day, Micah had no one to keep him company besides the ghostly presence of the cleaning staff.
“We just want to make sure we can take care of everything now instead of asking you to come back.” She composed herself and looked up at him.
He smiled thinly at her close observation.
“You don’t like Lord Josiah, do you?” she inquired.
Micah’s smile widened. “Why would you assume that?”
Kendra placed down her clipboard and glanced at the backroom where Healer Destan had disappeared through several minutes earlier.
“Just a wild guess.” She pointed to her mouth. “Your lips get tighter each time he’s mentioned. Unlike most people, who seem to either fear or respect him, I can sense your displeasure.”
He inclined his head, amused. The female Healer was far more observant than he had assumed. Either her observational skills were above normal, or he was doing a poor job of masking his true feelings.
“We have our differences,” he said eventually.
Her eyes were extremely curious. “It isn’t every day the Igni king travels to the outskirt regions to collect a student for the academy, especially considering the academy term doesn’t start for quite some time.”
“I’m interested in hearing your speculations.”
Kendra took a step back, flustered at Micah’s intense look. “Sorry.”
Withholding a sigh, Micah turned away and scrutinized the well-lit infirmary.
Everything looked so clean, so sterile. So white. He could inhale and detect the stringent cleaning solution used throughout the room. There were several metal-framed beds against the wall and Micah wondered how busy it got during the school year.
Destan was still nowhere near. Neither was Josiah.
He turned back to Kendra.
“You don’t need to be sorry for anything.” He softened his voice, slowly luring the confidence and reassurance back in her stance. “You’re very observant. I’m just curious to know what you, and most likely the royal guard, believe.”
Kendra kept her eyes fixed on the rickety bed frame.
“I’ve been sworn to secrecy, so it doesn’t really matter, does it?” She tucked a piece of loose hair behind her ear. “The royal guard would never dare to go against their vowed secrecy either. They’re too afraid of Lord Josiah. Rightfully so.”
Micah placed his hands on his lap, sensing her discomfort on the subject. It was obvious she did not know the full story, or more appropriately, Healer Destan hadn’t confided in her. She only had her suspicions and assumptions. Nothing concrete.
Yet Micah assumed she was probably close to the truth regarding his identity.
“Are you normally based at Concordia Academy?” Micah questioned, managing to change the subject and sound intrigued at the same time.
She perked up and established eye contact. “Yes.” Her shoulders straightened and she gestured towards her sky-blue robes. “It will be my second year here and my fifth year working under Healer Destan.”
“Fifth year,” he repeated, sounding impressed. “After this year, you will be a full-fledged Healer able to take on your own apprentices,” Micah surmised. “You look very young to achieve such a prestigious title. It’s extremely impressive.”
She simpered under his praise, under his gaze.
He harbored no ill feelings towards her. He just wasn’t interested. Aside from her surprisingly intuitive observations, she was predictable.
The conversation was predictable.
“I will have my hands full this year,” she responded joyfully.
That stirred his attention. “It gets busy at the academy infirmary?”
“Oh yes.” She smiled mysteriously. “Lots of students get injured.”
He watched her closely, wondering if she was simply jesting for his sake. However, upon closer inspection, he noticed her unfocused eyes, as if lost in a very fond memory. Evidently, she found pleasure in other people’s pain.
Well, wasn’t that interesting?
“Thank you for keeping Mr. Egan company, Healer Kendra.” Destan entered the main infirmary with Josiah trailing at a distance. “Though I dearly hope you are not scaring him too much before the term begins.”
She started, “He doesn’t seem the type to spook very easily, Healer Destan.” Upon noticing Josiah, she curtsied awkwardly in greeting. “My Lord.”
Micah watched the exchange with amusement.
The female Healer rushed from the room as soon as Destan excused her. Considering her turned back, he wondered if he needed to reevaluate his opinion of her. She was certainly bashful and easily intimidated, yet there seemed to be more to the woman.
His attention honed sharply on Destan as the man pulled up a chair and sat opposite of him. With Micah perched at the edge of the flimsy mattress, he felt as if he were a small child, awaiting his doctor’s stern chastising.
It didn’t help matters that he was still in his gown.
Or that Josiah remained looming just behind Destan.
Micah still hadn’t come to terms with Josiah’s admission about his mother, though he acknowledged the possible truth to his uncle’s words. As a child, he remembered the fire. Moreover, he remembered someone—Josiah—reaching boldly into the flames to pull him to safety.
Micah wondered why he refused to accept that she’d willingly burn him alive. It was difficult to swallow and he knew he’d have to face the truth one day.
“Every student is required to have a thorough physical inspection upon admittance to the academy,” Destan started professionally, though as always, there was a hint of good-natured humor in his eyes. “I appreciate your cooperation today with Healer Kendra.”
“And do all the students need to share their results with the Igni Lord?” Micah inquired lazily, looking up at his uncle. “I am twenty-one-years-old. He is not my guardian.”
Destan opened his mouth readily, though Josiah beat him to it.
“You are under scholarship. My scholarship. Therefore, so long as you are in my military academy, you answer to me.”
Micah remained stone-faced. “Touché.”
Destan cleared his throat and shifted in his chair. “I have to say, you are very healthy, Micah. We found no irregularities. You are, however, as expected, malnourished. There are supplements I will give you to correct this. I trust you are adhering to your diet?”
“Fruits for breakfast, soups and breads for lunch and dinner,” Micah responded promptly, his attention lowering to Destan’s hands.
The man cleared his throat once again, as if he could sense the unpleasant tension between nephew and uncle but desperately wanted to pretend it wasn’t there.
“Your eyes need correcting from the misuse of the eye charms placed on them. Water magic will not work, however. There is slight scarring on the retinas…”
He continued talking, though Micah found his interests focused on the rough hands of the Healer. Healer’s usually had softer hands, well-manicured fingernails and smooth skin. Destan, however, had noticeable calluses on specific fingers.
Micah looked up, unable to stifle his observation. “You were a warrior, sir?”
Destan blinked, startled.
“Your hands,” Micah elaborated. “Are rough from holding a staff.”
Water Elementals often fought with staffs. It was easier to channel the water magic with a long weapon, as opposed to the swords the fire Elementals preferred. Water was smooth, graceful, and staffs were able to replicate that continuous movement.
“It was not my proudest moment, but yes, I was a warrior in the Unda military.” The man seemed uncomfortable, his face a fascinating mix of emotions.
“At least you fought for the winning side,” Micah commented lightly, glancing slyly at Josiah.
His uncle simply raised an eyebrow at the goading.
“In war, Micah, there is no winning side,” Destan commented fiercely.
“Don’t be so melodramatic,” Josiah admonished. “It’s war. It holds a purpose.”
Micah stiffened and gazed at Josiah, hating that he agreed with the man on something.
War had many casualties and brutal consequences, yes. However, there was often a reason to go to war and defend a nation, defend its people.
Deep orange eyes met his and Micah looked away, disinterested.
“Now that we are on the topic,” Destan started brusquely, clearly changing the topic. “Hands often show us scars of our past. Brutal reminders of mistakes or perhaps victorious scars of accomplishments.” Here, he looked pointedly at Micah’s hands.
His spine stiffening, Micah curled his fingers into fists and narrowed his eyes sharply.
“I am not having this discussion.”
“Oh, but you are,” Josiah interjected smoothly.
It was an intervention, Micah thought, highly amused despite his anger. He chuckled under his breath and shook his head.
Slowly, his fingers uncurled from their fists.
“You tried to heal Ember as a child,” Destan observed wisely. “When you left the palace, Lord Josiah said you were completely unharmed. Conversely, Ember was not. You tried to remove the scarring from her face, and in turn, it scarred your hands. You have the ability to heal like a water Elemental. It is so very impressive, but it is so dangerous.”
Micah remained silent.
“Unfortunately, you do not possess enough water magic. You absorb the damage to a victim, but you do not recover yourself. It’s called Exsequor Healing, Micah.”
He knew all this.
Let them talk. Let them express their disappointment. It wasn’t as if he’d do it often. He respected and admired Master Idris enough to sacrifice himself to see him live.
A hand suddenly slapped upon his knee, startling Micah back into the present.
He looked up at Healer Destan. Gone was the good-natured Healer. Micah only saw an experienced, weary warrior.
“I anticipate that you will do great things for this kingdom, Ezra.” The hand tightened on his knee upon addressing him by his birth name. “But you are immune from quick, easy healing. Promise me you will not sacrifice your future by trying to heal others.”
No one had ever looked at him as if he would truly accomplish great things. Granted, others had admired him, fancied him, and lustfully claimed he would be something significant someday, but no one had truly expressed their utmost confidence in him.
Micah struggled with himself in the face of Destan’s battle-weary face.
It reminded him of Idris.
He found himself nodding mutely.
The hand on his knee tightened and Micah found his voice. “Yes, sir.”
Destan nodded and stood from his chair. Micah didn’t dare look at Josiah, as he was surprised by his own actions. Destan had taken him completely by surprise.
“You can get dressed, Mr. Egan. I see no need to conduct further tests. I need to speak to Lord Josiah briefly.” The Healer paused at the foot of the bed. “Make sure to see me before you leave. I have the supplements you need to take daily.”
Destan stopped suddenly at Micah’s comment.
He turned and looked at him, his eyes creased with uncertainty.
Magi were not a popular topic by any means. Most avoided mentioning sorcery at the capital, especially around authoritative figures.
“What about them?”
Micah looked at Josiah. “It works on me. Sorcery. I’m not immune to it as I am with Elemental magic.” He referred to Josiah’s magic back at Idris’ tavern, trusting his uncle to understand his reference. “Do Magi practice healing magic?”
“Healing is impossible for a Noir User,” Destan informed tautly.
Shadows shifted across Josiah’s face. “You must understand that Noir Users are destructive,” he said quietly. “They enjoy inflicting pain. Darkness. Torment.”
Micah quickly grasped his meaning. “Healing would be far too empathetic for them,” he deduced. “Virtually impossible.”
Josiah inclined his head. “For the most part, yes, but I would not say it is impossible.” He blatantly ignored Healer Destan’s look of surprise. “Noir Users do not practice healing, but it’s something a skilled Magi could explore.”
With stern, pointed looks, the two men turned and retreated across the infirmary.
Micah stood up and gradually got dressed in his academy uniform, all the while watching as the two entered Destan’s office. From the corner of his eye, he observed Josiah and Destan speaking in hushed, hurried tones.
Clearly, they were discussing him.
He fastened his belt and contemplated sorcery.
Besides simple parlor tricks, which still wasn’t very popular, the kingdom of Concordia frowned upon sorcery. Micah imagined that several people knew of Josiah’s abilities, but not many often addressed the issue.
From what Micah knew from Ember, Josiah had discovered magic after the war and before Micah’s birth. He later denounced any ties to sorcery, claiming he’d had a lapse in judgement during a vulnerable time.
Those who practiced sorcery called themselves Noir Users or Magi. Legends depicted them as being cruel and ruthless. Sorcery did not come easy to those with a kind heart. Moreover, Healer Destan and Josiah only confirmed his suspicions.
Magi were unable to practice light magic, simply because it went against their very nature.
However, that didn’t mean Micah couldn’t learn it for himself. He detested being the only individual who was immune to healing.
It made him weak. It made him susceptible to future threats.
He could not settle for that.
Unfortunately, Magi were rather scarce in this day and age. Ember had said they were once a thriving culture, but their recent inactivity indicated they had either disbanded or they realized it was imperative to be a bit more clandestine with their practices.
No matter, he anticipated there were other ways to learn sorcery without seeking out a Magi instructor.
* * * *
“I want to set a few ground rules before term starts.”
Micah clasped his hands behind his back and faced Josiah’s desk.
“Ground rules,” he repeated doubtfully. “I hope you are not referring to our unique situation. Rest assured, I will not sneak into your rooms at night or call you my Chosen in front of the others.”
Josiah’s whole body turned motionless at the sarcastic retort.
Slowly, he looked up at Micah, his eyes leisurely raking across the younger man’s body.
Micah chose to ignore the way his ears turned hot, but rather recoiled at the man’s response. “Someday, most definitely not.”
Josiah lowered his pen and reclined in his seat. He pressed a hand against his mouth as he considered Micah intensely.
“You do not know me. I do not know you. Those are the only ground rules you need to remember.” He then hovered over his paperwork once more. “Be that as it may, I’ve taken the liberty of signing you up for classes.”
“Good.” Micah nodded sharply. “I was worried I would have to do it myself.”
Josiah stared at the paper in front of him. Judging from his unfocused stare, he wasn’t focusing on anything in particular.
“You must have inherited your sarcasm from a distant relative, child,” he murmured to himself.
“I prefer the term cynicism.”
Josiah placed a hand on the desk and looked up at Micah. “Endearing, more like.”
“Now who’s being sarcastic?”
For a moment, Micah gloated for taking Josiah off guard. The Elemental had grown accustomed to Micah’s solemnity and seriousness. The man knew how to interact with that. A more open, and dare Micah say it, pleasant façade seemed to unsettle Josiah.
“Six classes,” Josiah went on to address the subject of his classes.
“Four is the suggested number,” Micah countered, his mind sharpening on the fact that Josiah seemed utterly serious. “Six—”
“Is it too challenging for you?” the man inquired innocently.
Micah’s shoulders stiffened and he held out his hand.
When Josiah handed him the parchment, he ran a critical eye over the neatly penned classes. Most classes were advanced economics. Moreover, all six courses were core classes suggested in the last year of the academy.
“I don’t anticipate you will have the opportunity to attend all three years at the academy,” Josiah informed. “I assure you, you will not be the only first year cadet taking these classes. Other noble children expect to climb the ranks quickly; therefore, they will take the most critical courses.”
“Of course they anticipate climbing the ranks,” Micah commented tensely. “They were born with a silver spoon in their mouths.”
“You were born with a gold spoon in your mouth.”
Micah lowered the course list and gazed unhappily at the older man. “Yes, well, I do not claim entitlement and expect special treatment, do I?”
Josiah seemed delighted. “Many children of noble blood have no childhood to speak of. At a young age, they are trained relentlessly to be the best. They have reputations to uphold and family traditions to honor. They are hard workers.”
Micah placed the course list upon Josiah’s desk, expertly reining in his temper.
“And then they grow into greedy, dishonest old men who are only out to protect their own reputations and who practice fraudulent maneuvers to keep their family honor,” Micah said, playing on Josiah’s earlier assertion.
The man pressed a hand against his mouth, his orange eyes aflame with amusement.
“I cannot argue that,” the fire Elemental approved. “The point I was trying to make is that you should see your fellow classmates with unbiased eyes. Catch them before they turn into those greedy, dishonest old men and guide them to your liking.”
“Is that what you do?” Micah countered slyly. “With your young, royal guards? A firm, guiding hand? The ones you refer to as your loyal servants as opposed to loyal warriors?”
A long finger pointed at Micah.
“I’m talking about you influencing the students. Alas, I am a noble child who turned into a greedy, dishonest man.” He smirked. “I’m afraid it is far too late for me.”
“You forgot old.”
“Old,” he repeated with scorn. “I may be your senior, but I am not yet an elder.”
A humorous grin crossed Micah’s lips before he could censor it. Fortunately, a knock sounded at the door before Josiah could draw attention to Micah’s naked expression.
Micah stiffened as a man opened the door. He was dressed in the ordinary, dull grey robes assigned to academy staff, the same sort of people Micah had passed in the hallways on several previous occasions.
“Dinner is prepared, My Lord.”
The man bowed and departed.
Josiah then stood from his desk. “You will be taking your meal with me tonight.”
Interacting with Josiah for an unspecified amount of time was not something Micah had on his agenda.
Nonetheless, he followed the fire Elemental, not wanting to express his distaste.
They entered a private dining room that would have been more appropriate in a small manor than a military academy. Considering Josiah’s standing as the unofficial Igni king and the Chairman of Concordia Academy, Micah assumed these were Josiah’s personal quarters.
Luxurious benefits obviously came with status. Dark pillars decorated the room with ivory paneled walls. Marble dressed the floors beneath finely spun area rugs. The furniture inside the room was both massive and imperial.
Suddenly, a fire lit behind Micah with a mighty roar.
He turned swiftly, observing the large, oppressive fireplace. He could comfortably walk inside the hearth and the flames would engulf him whole.
“Still leery of fire, I see.”
Micah’s gaze returned to the Igni Lord. “I am certain the majority of those who cannot wield the Element are leery of fire.”
“Most fear it, yes.” Josiah stood at the head of the table and motioned to the seat to his left. A silver tray occupied both positions at the table and smelt suspiciously good. “But many who do not wield it also worship it. They recognize it as a blessing from the gods.”
Micah approached the offered chair. “Ah, yes, Agni, the Fire God.”
A slow, lazy smile crossed Josiah’s mouth upon Micah’s scorn. As his eyes turned half-lidded, he considered Micah with a certain, unexplained intensity.
“Ember did not raise you to worship him.” It was not a question, but rather a statement. “As a child, my sister was a fierce and devoted believer. In the Igni Empire, those with royal blood were expected to submit to religion. It was our way of life.”
“Typically, when one experiences the trials in life, without the divine confidante they relied upon, they grow a bit jaded over the whole matter,” Micah said tensely. “Besides, how can I worship Agni and not Varuna? I am a child of both.”
“Sit.” Josiah looked pointedly at Micah’s chair. “Be that as it may, at the capital, religion is imperative just as it is political. I suggest you consider which god you wish to follow and identify with before the term begins.”
Sharp alarm coursed through Micah at Josiah’s words.
Not at the mention of worshipping a god, but by the man’s sharp, authoritative command to sit.
No matter how much he despised Josiah, every single instinct, nurtured by his mother, said proper etiquette was to allow the Igni king to sit first. He was the highest decorated man in the room.
For Josiah to stand while Micah sat first indicated the man’s reverence.
With a stiff spine, Micah sat in his chair, staring straight ahead. From the corner of his eye, he watched Josiah settle at the head of the table, exuding amusement.
Undoubtedly, Josiah delighted in taking Micah off guard.
“Healer Destan indicated you could eat something more substantial for dinner tonight.” Josiah picked up his glass of wine and continued to watch Micah relentlessly. “You probably don’t remember, but as a child, you adored fish.”
As Micah considered the plate of food, a migraine suddenly blossomed behind his eyes.
He frowned, feeling his head swell painfully.
“Judging from your reaction, I take it you no longer find it satisfactory.”
Micah pinched the bridge of his nose, a brief moment of weakness as he struggled to pull himself together. Now wasn’t the time to let a migraine overcome him.
He needed his wits about him in Josiah’s presence. The man was initiating some sort of courting. Conversely, Micah knew it wasn’t simple courting.
With Josiah, things were never that simple.
Simple actions were oftentimes twisted with the seeds of immorality. The man was watching, judging, feeling out Micah and sensing his limitations. The last thing Micah needed was to give the man any further things to critique.
Dropping his hand, he appraised the dish.
“Honestly, I don’t recall having it.” He picked up his fork and pressed the prongs against the tender fish fillet. “It smells delicious.”
Fish was strictly a capital delicacy, as there was a shortage in supply. The lemon-glazed fish sat upon a bed of long-grained rice. A batch of stemmed vegetables sat to the side of the plate, their green hue vibrant and exotic to Micah’s eyes.
As he teased his tongue with a sample, he paused, considering.
It was incredible.
“It’s satisfactory,” he said flippantly.
He took another bite, and then another, proving it was more than just satisfactory. He didn’t care how he looked devouring the meal. It was an indulgence on his tongue.
“Besides your friend from Region 20, you will be one of the older cadets entering their first year,” Josiah said. “Most enter the academy at the age of eighteen. Taking six core classes will keep you busy and get you up to speed.”
Micah impaled a vegetable and stilled.
“My acquaintance from Region 20,” he corrected stonily.
Josiah preened. “Oh yes. Acquaintance. Keegan Flint, correct? The poor, Igni boy who admires you. The eldest of five children, nearly an unheard number of offspring in the present day. I had to reward the family somehow for procreating more Igni youth.”
Turning, Micah locked eyes with deep, sadistically amused eyes.
There were many possibilities why Josiah had accepted Keegan into the academy. The fire Elemental could consider it a favor. In which case, Micah had to repay. Alternatively, he identified Micah’s affection for the other boy and planned to use it to his advantage.
On the other hand…
Micah detected the possessiveness in Josiah’s tone.
That particular emotion did not bode well for anyone, least of all Keegan. No matter what kind of affection Micah held for Keegan, he imagined Josiah did not take kindly to any sort of competition that split Micah’s attention.
Instead of voicing his suspicions, Micah simply smiled.
“That is very generous of you.” He turned back to his meal, blinking slowly to try to alleviate the painful headache. His stomach churned with nausea. “Keegan is very loyal to his people. You will find him to be a good soldier.”
The ringing in his ears intensified, as did the migraine.
“I do not doubt that.” A pause. “Are you alright, child?”
Micah set down his fork. “Why did you learn sorcery, Josiah?”
Sweat gathered at the back of his neck and he feared he could not hold down the fish. Across from him, Josiah sat perfectly still, his eyes sharp, seeing everything, observing everything. His own plate remained untouched as he favored his wine.
For a crazy moment, Micah wondered if the man had poisoned him.
“You do not look well.” Josiah stood up. “I will send for Destan.”
Micah was surprised when his voice came out firm and authoritative. Josiah raised a simple eyebrow, though he slowly sat back down. Something danced behind his eyes, a sort of grudging respect as if Micah had passed a particular test.
He didn’t dare consider what private test he had passed.
Least of all a test belonging to Josiah.
“I’m fine.” Micah feigned nonchalance as he picked up his fork and took another bite. “I’m beginning to think you are intentionally avoiding my questions about Magi.”
“Your curiosity will be your undoing,” Josiah countered quickly, almost passionately. “Noir Users are not a topic meant to have in the open. It is frowned upon severely at the capital.”
“I know that. But we are behind closed doors and many people know you harness the ability of sorcery,” Micah pointed out calmly. “If you think my actions need correcting, then correct them by sating my curiosity.”
“Did Ember not instruct you on this particular subject?”
“If she had, I would not stoop so low and ask you.”
Josiah chuckled. “I enjoy your spirit and sharp tongue.”
That was something about Josiah that Micah found charismatic. The man cloaked himself with secrecy, yet he was not afraid to admit when something pleased him. He was especially open when Micah tickled some sort of corrupt chord within him.
“Being around men who kiss the hem of your robes all day would make you appreciate a disrespectful tongue every now and then.”
Behind Micah, the flames brightened upon his admission.
“What would you like to know?” the fire Elemental inquired as he turned his attention to his dinner. He picked up his cutlery and held it aloft. “I will tell you what you want to know about Noir Users, but I don’t want you studying sorcery.”
Orange eyes flashed aggressively. “That is not your path.”
Micah was startled at Josiah’s fervent response. “You underestimate me.”
“No.” Josiah suddenly lost his fire and took a bite of his dinner. For a long moment, he did not speak. “I do not underestimate you, but rather you underestimate sorcery. You will want a taste, but as soon as you get that taste, you will want more. The temptation for power will turn into compulsion. Compulsion will turn into greed. Greed will blacken your soul.”
“Does that mean your soul was already black when you learned sorcery?” Micah drawled. “Or are you immune to the tragedies of us mere mortals?”
Micah watched as Josiah indulged in his meal, taken aback when the man closed his eyes with pleasure. Either he enjoyed the fish that much or he found Micah’s sarcastic quip humorous.
Micah suspected it was a combination of both.
“You are a delight.” Josiah opened his eyes slowly. “Just like any other, I was corrupted when I dabbled in sorcery. After the war ended, I decided to travel. I visited many regions and came across a group of Noir Users.”
Reluctantly, Micah honed his attention on the man.
Ember’s stories had never depicted Josiah in a good light, but they had always fascinated Micah. He was curious to hear about Josiah from the man’s own perspective.
“At the time, the Igni citizens were adjusting to Concordia. My father was still the Igni king and worked alongside Calder to settle the people. I felt confident enough with the situation to leave for an extended amount of time. I lost track of time with the Magi.” He paused, looking up at Micah. “They are very organized people. They have ways of persuasion and seduction into the dark. I was intrigued. Very intrigued. I wanted power.”
“More power than you already had?”
Josiah was a very influential commander and warrior during the war. Even Ember admitted as much. Though very young, his people still followed him out of respect and admiration for his skill with fire magic and for his swordsmanship.
“I had just lost a war.”
Micah contemplated. “You phrase that with singularity. It wasn’t just you.”
Josiah pressed his lips together and smiled. “Aren’t you the empathetic one?”
He cut his fish into pieces, taking a moment to continue.
“I encountered the Magi during a time I felt inadequate. I was still very young. Vulnerable. I was far more susceptible to their influence because I was weak. I thought I was with them for a few months, but in reality, I studied under them for three years. I don’t remember much. It was as if it were some sort of fevered, exhilarating dream where I learned great, but terrible things.”
Josiah’s descriptions were vague, nearly poetic with cliché descriptions of a time buried beneath hazy recollections. Was he lying to scare Micah? Then again, there was the slim possibility he was being truthful and he hadn’t remembered much at all.
“Where did you discover them? The Magi?”
Josiah's eyes sharpened on Micah. “Near the Eurus Empire.”
The Eurus Empire was located to the east of Concordia, and it accommodated the air Elementals. Usually passive and liberal, air Elementals would easily overlook rogue Noir Users.
Or perhaps embrace them.
“What made you escape their influence?”
“My father—your grandfather—succumbed from lasting injuries he’d sustained during the war. The palace summoned me back to the capital to help heal my people and to look after you. I had a new responsibility. Once I distanced myself from the Noir Users, I wanted vengeance.”
An unnerving smile settled across Josiah’s face.
“I made a few enemies with the Noir Users.”
Micah nodded and finished the rest of his vegetables, ignoring the very profound migraine behind his eyes. “Intriguing story. Someday, I hope to hear the real version, Uncle Josiah.” He looked at the man, catching his gaze. “Perhaps when I’m old enough.”
Orange eyes narrowed. “That is the true account.”
“Well, it certainly had its desired effect. I am scared senseless.”
Josiah made a noise in his throat, a very unimpressed noise. “Fool.”
Micah eyed the other man severely, placing down his cutlery. “When you can tell me the real story, perhaps I will respect your warning. In the meantime, I refuse to have such a glaring weakness. I will learn sorcery if only to figure out how to heal myself.”
“You are not weak. You are much like the Igni warriors before we united with the Unda people. We had to heal from tonics and medicines.”
“Which is why you had lost the war.”
Josiah leaned against his chair, a minor stiffening to his shoulders. “Where did you inherit your thick-headedness from, child?”
“Probably from the same ancestor who passed down their sarcasm.” Micah stared at his empty plate and maneuvered his utensils until they crossed over the dish. “Thank you for dinner, but I really should retire for the night. May I be excused?”
He could not hide his disappointment.
Josiah was not telling him the truth about his encounter with the Magi.
Micah couldn’t exactly blame the man. They weren’t on an intimate level. Divulging secrets about their past did not come until phase two of their relationship, he supposed. However, if Josiah was going to warn Micah away from something with such passionate conviction, he needed to put a bit more effort into the reason.
Micah placed down his napkin and stood. Crossing the dining hall, and approaching the door, he tugged at his collar. He was eager to bury himself in his sheets and sleep off his headache.
Micah’s hand paused on the door handle.
Turning, he observed Josiah, noticing the man continued to face forward with his back to Micah. A long-fingered hand caressed the top of his wine glass and tiny sparks of flames danced across the brim.
“There will be consequences if I find out you are dabbling in sorcery.”
Micah pursed his lips, ready with a quick insult.
Only, it died on his tongue when he sensed the foreboding threat in Josiah’s tone. The small hairs on the back of Micah’s neck stood and the flames in the fireplace grew stifling.
Throwing one last look at the motionless man, Micah opened the door and escaped into the hallway. With each step he took away from the dining room, the pounding behind his eyes lessened and the ringing in his ears ceased.
He was far more tired than he’d thought.
Rubbing the bridge of his nose, he stumbled toward his bedroom, Josiah’s threat lingering persistently at his heels.
He’d gotten accustomed to the solitude and the quiet halls.He would miss it.For over two weeks, with the exception of the academy servants, he hadn’t encountered another living soul. Josiah, Destan, and Kendra remained elusive.The three individuals understandably had other duties that kept them away from the academy. In Josiah’s case, he didn’t want to draw Calder’s—or anyone’s—attention to Micah. After all, Micah was just an ordinary student under scholarship.At first, he had been delighted in Josiah’s unannounced absence.Yet, as the days stretched, Micah couldn’t help but to think of the man regularly. Trivial and silly sentiments. He unmistakably enjoyed the man’s conversations to the point of dwelling over the possibility of seeing him again before term.In an attempt to ignore Josiah&
My hand aches.” Keegan paused. “But last night was the best sleep I’d ever had. The beds are extremely comfortable! And the showers? I didn’t think I could ever get out!”In the hall, a chorus of scornful laughter sounded upon Keegan’s admittance.Micah looked apathetically at the group of blond-haired students as they gestured towards him and Keegan. Their expressions ranged from hilarity to aversion as they watched the two scholarship students pass.Talia stood amongst their group, positioned at the outskirts, desperate to be a part of them but no doubt an outsider. She looked at Micah, her mouth scowling and her eyes averting.“Enjoy it while you can,” one of the boys remarked spitefully. “You and pretty-boy may be smart, but as soon as we start the physical assessments, you’ll be eliminated and sent back to the desert.”<
“Stop… shifting.”At the cold command, Keegan abruptly realized his knee bounced uncontrollably and he hastily stopped moving. “We’re going to get expelled from the academy,” he explained in a high-pitched tonKai Edlen had already exited the office a few minutes earlier. Besides the dark expression on Edlen’s face, Keegan couldn’t discern what had transpired inside that office. Not only did they face possible banishment from the academy, but the man inside that office also petrified Keegan to the point of nauseJosiaThe true King to the Igni peopl“We’re not going to get expelledKeegan rubbed his sweaty palms across his trousers and looked at the younger man sitting beside hiAs usual, Micah was the picture of serenity and composure. He ran a critical eye down Micah’s f
“I acknowledge what you did for me.”Micah and Keegan both turned toward the voice, their mouths full of food. Aiden approached them purposefully, having found their hidden alcove within the maze of the academy’s massive layout.Instructor Candace had called for a short recess after Kai and Micah’s duel.Food, in massive quantities, was made available for the cadets as they waited for the instructors to deliberate the teams. The observers from earlier were sent home and the students, who did not make the final cut, were told to pack their things.Having both succeeded in the trials, Keegan and Micah had grabbed a heaping plate of food and ducked out of the dining hall before the other cadets made an appearance. Micah had wanted to eat without disruption and Keegan was more than willing to accompany him.Across the room, Aiden focused intently on Micah as h
“Where is Edlen?”They didn’t seem to hear him. Otherwise, they were intentionally ignoring him.Undoubtedly, it was the latter.Micah watched Cain and Viktor fly hurriedly across their side of the room, stuffing things haphazardly into their school bags.Both their uniforms were askew, and while that was nothing new for Viktor, whom apparently favored the unkempt and nonchalant aristocratic appearance, the prim and proper Cain seemed just as disheveled.Almost as if they were in a hurry to avoid Micah completely….Next to Micah, Keegan shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t think they heard you, Micah.”Under the watchful eye of Aiden and Keegan, Micah crossed the room and abruptly cut off Viktor and Cain as they tried to exit their quarters. He appraised the two Unda cadets, sensing their awkwardness.
Another week went by, as did another.The nobles remained stubborn.As did Micah.He kept busy avoiding Josiah and concentrating intensely on his schoolwork. He also read up on modern technology in his free time and made a few more feeble attempts to get to know his teammates. All of them, with the exception of Keegan and Aiden, continued to ignore his efforts at unification. Edlen, and his three loyal aristocrats, remained elusive.If the other boy’s mission was to avoid breathing the same air as Micah, he’d excelled beautifully these past four weeks.Despite his exasperation, Micah was reluctantly impressed.Who knew someone could be so immature and childish to the point of skillful and impressive elusion? The boy and his trio of Unda cadets ate at different times, showered at different times, and stayed up late to study in living quarters belon
Once a month, Concordia Academy held liturgy.The academy expected all cadets to attend.Today was their first liturgy and Micah couldn’t imagine better timing. His team hadn’t slept well the past few nights, still haunted by their mission and their comrade’s gruesome death. News of the incident traveled quickly across the academy and gossip eagerly raged.Enduring the looks, the talks, and the accusations hadn’t been easy for some members of the team. While Micah could shoulder the attention, he knew the others had trouble dealing with Wayde’s absence and functioning under the negative scrutiny.Liturgy would at least soothe their troubles, at least for an hour or two.Micah wasn’t so fortunate.He wasn’t a religious individual. While he acknowledged the existence of the gods, or, more appropriately, the
The barbed wire was like a crown of thorns and a cruel mockery of manipulated twine. With the wire wrapped tightly around his arms, his captors lifted his limbs in a ridicule of a broken marionette, pulled by relentless and cruel strings.A punishing puppet master.Micah was past the point of scheming up poetic metaphors to his abductors’ intentions. All that mattered was that he’d lost feeling in his limbs long ago due to their painful and purposeful arranging.Positioned on the ground next to the dying and gnarly maze of the academy’s gardens, Micah could only stare blankly at the other side of the hedge. One leg curled inward and the other, by painful contrast, curled outward. His left arm stretched far above his head while his right arm angled awkwardly to the side.A fitting position for a discarded toy.He’d tried to move to a more comfortable position long ago, but the bindings were tight and the barbed wire dug agoni