Shadow Magic - By Jaida Jones



On the seventh and final day of mourning for the loss of the war, my brother Iseul came to my chambers to tell me that our father was dead.

I had been expecting the news for some time. There was ritual ensconced in the hour of his death—this, on the seventh hour of the seventh day—which made it all the more unsurprising to see the truth in my brother’s eyes, lining his mouth and hardening his jaw. The news was no shock to us. Our father had taken his life in apology for our defeat at the hands of the Volstovics, as we always knew he would; all we could do now was join him or suffer his legacy. For either of these, we were equally prepared.

My brother came with black robes and no kohl to line his eyes, rather than with knives of ceremony. I saw then that his decision had been made. In this as in all things, I would follow the path my brother had chosen for us.

Outside the window, just past the quiet gardens of raked sand and contemplation, loomed the broken roof of the magicians’ dome, like the rounded edge of a broken sky as seen from above, where the gods once sat and watched over us in dominion. It was far enough away that it looked almost like a shattered bowl overset, or a forsaken cup of tea dropped by clumsy hands. What remained of the dome was charred. Here and there the blue stone sparkled, but it was no more than feeble protest in the bleaching sunlight.

The destruction of the dome had been a particularly crushing blow to our people, though perhaps not the one the Volstovics intended. We were not a society based heavily on magic; war had forced our hand in advancing the skill of our magicians. And though in later years the dome became a perfect gathering place for the magicians, it had first been built as a temple of worship for our gods. Its demolition had been a huge blow to the morale of the people, as a symbol more than a practical structure.

Iseul pushed his fingers through his hair, each heavy braid a commendation of his prowess as our father’s general. He was on the verge of pacing, but practice kept him fearsomely still.

“The delegation arrives tomorrow,” he said. “We shall meet them as planned.”

The entire city must have known by then—or would soon know—of my father the emperor’s death. From somewhere deep in the green garden just below my window, I heard the sudden throaty wail of a songbird, trembling upon the air. The sound echoed the faint trembling of my brother’s fists, and I averted my eyes.

The dew had barely left the leaves.

“We’ll meet them as though nothing has changed,” I said, with the hint of a question.

Iseul’s eyes flashed in anger. “Nothing has changed,” he insisted.

I sank to my knees before him at once when the look in his eyes betrayed the lie. Everything had changed. Our father was dead and my brother the emperor in his stead, and I had shown grave disrespect to my new lord by neglecting to bow to him; shock had overwhelmed all memory of protocol. I struggled with my shame and could not lift my eyes.

“Mamoru,” Iseul said, in place of how he had once addressed me. Brother. “Do not do this. Rise.”

“I swear to serve you,” I said, instead of obeying him. This old custom was more important even than brotherhood. We were no longer two princes, and I had wasted too much time already without acknowledging his new place as emperor of the Ke-Han. “In seven ways I shall serve you. In seven ways I shall offer my life to you. In seven ways, if it is in my power, I shall die beneath your blade, as your blade, for your blade. May your reign be prosperous and long.” Then, closing my eyes, I strayed from the words I’d known since before I could form them with my own mouth, the prayer with which I was born. “May the people love you as I do,” I whispered. “Iseul—”

My brother held up his hand, fingers spread wide. As always, it was a small sign, but the shame I felt was assuaged by the openness of the gesture. If my brother’s fingers had been all together, I would have sensed his anger at my actions, but I had never given my brother cause to close his hand and his heart