An elegant black car soon arrived at the hangar for Audra and Azarola. Audra rattled an address to the driver as soon as she slid onto the seat. Azarola stared as the tall edifices of the city approached and then engulfed them. They did not sport the bright colors of Ixpoli, the earthy mossiness of Kaerras, or the painted pastels of Kertyra and Gabessa. Instead, artful masonry in many shades of stone presented a refined face for the city. Cobbled stone streets and wide tree-lined boulevards cut the sprawl of architecture into neat blocks. “These streets are huge!”
“After the Great Fire, most of the city was rebuilt,” Audra informed, “The University was spared, but that is only because of the wide green spaces and the rivers protecting the grounds. Before the fire, the entire city was a twisting warren, if the old drawings are accurate. The people decided to take advantage of their loss and create something even grander and stronger than what stood before.”
The car stopped in front of row of stone townhouses and parked beneath leafy shade. Here, Audra and Azarola disembarked and the car left them. With the ease of familiarity, Audra strode up the steps to the front door of a house. “This is the home of my Uncle Emric. He has been gracious enough to allow me to board here. There is a spare room that you may rest in, as well.”
She knocked on the door and waited for a tall, thin man to answer. Beneath short gray hair, his eyes crinkled at the corners when he saw his niece. “Welcome home, Audra!” He peered past her to the young man leaning on a cane. “Is that your guest? Come in.” As Audra and Azarola removed their coats, he asked, “How goes the war?”
“As ever,” Audra replied, “The Directorate keeps discovering new challenges to throw at us. Uncle Emric, this is Azarola of Inexa, formerly enlisted with the Seventeenth Combat Engineering Regiment. Azarola, this is my uncle, Emric Agius of Asphodel, professor of natural sciences in the Oakenmount College of the University of Elspia.”
“Formerly of Asphodel,” he corrected, “I have not called Averna home for many, many years.” He gave a slight bow to his Inexan guest. “A pleasure to meet you, Azarola.”
“If I can consider you a friend, you can call me Az,” he replied.
“As long as you are a friend to my niece, I will do so.”
As Emric led them into the parlor, Audra asked, “Where is Nadia?”
“As soon as you called, she took some ration stamps to the market. We’ve only had meat once a week, but this is a special occasion.” Emric answered, “Oh, what I would give for some bacon. It’s been dried peas, beans, or lentils every day. Eggs aren’t rationed either, but everyone wants them.” He gestured to the plush couch and chairs. “Please, make yourselves comfortable. I’ll fetch our coffee.” With crinkling eyes, he added, “Real coffee. Nadia managed to find some a couple of weeks ago. That girl is worth every bit of her wage.”
Azarola settled onto one of the armchairs, while Audra sank into an oversized chair that fit her powerful frame well. “It’s been too long,” she muttered, “I should have made this trip months ago.”
“We would have missed you in Karifiga,” Azarola remarked.
“I know,” she answered with a weary sigh. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the upholstery.
Emric returned to the parlor with a coffee service in his bony hands. “I forgot to ask if your messenger has received anything more from Sophia.”
Azarola shook his head, “I’m trying to stay as far away from death as I can. If that’s the only place she can reach me, then I hope we meet in person before we speak again.”
The elder gentleman served coffee to his guests before he settled onto the couch with cup and saucer in hand. “I did get a little information on that Inexan matter you asked me about, Audra. There’s not a hint of anyone by the name of Rohita Bisera, but Hettie Dumont turned up a very wealthy heiress. She has a few addresses scattered about and my contact is currently looking into them. He thinks that she’ll either be at a mountain retreat or in a rather impressive townhouse in Ixpoli.”
Azarola breathed out his tension, but his hands shook, vibrating his cup against its porcelain saucer. “She’s still alive. Thank the gods.”
“You know her, then?” Emric’s head tilted in surprise. His gaze shifted to his niece. “Ah, so that’s why you asked. Well, young man, your friend is the most eligible lady in all of Inexa, but she’s been most reclusive. Last time I heard from my contact, he had not yet seen her in person and there are no photos of her in any newspaper. The only mentions of her are regarding her family’s holdings and businesses. Granted, I would not want so much of the unwanted attention as her circumstances invite.”
Azarola’s brow furrowed with his frown. “You said heiress?”
“Her family suffered a great tragedy about year or two ago. I forget the exact date. She was the sole heir to a considerable fortune.”
“But she’s alive,” Azarola repeated, “That’s more than I knew before. If she’s still in Inexa, better yet in Ixpoli, I can still find her. But first, I can’t allow the Directorate to beat me there. I can’t let them touch her.” His hands stilled and his jaw firmed. Pulling back his shoulders, he locked his eyes with Audra’s. “We’re closing those gates.”
“We’re ending this war,” she replied, “Without the gates, Averna is crippled. We’ll be able to move men and supplies faster than they can.”
Emric sipped his coffee, relishing the luxury. “For now, a moment to gather our strength. Will Paetun be joining us soon or is he bound by matters in Karifiga again?”
“He’s coming, but it will be a while yet before he arrives,” Audra remarked, “I will take this opportunity to indulge in a bath before dinner. I’m finding my own odor offensive and it will soon contaminate your furniture if I sit here much longer.” She excused herself and left the room.
After a few moments of coffee-filled silence, Emric asked, “So, what do combat engineers do?”
“Build or destroy roads, bridges, fortifications, and the like. I was a mechanic, so my job was to keep all of the equipment going out on the field.”
“You weren’t fighting, then.”
“We fought,” Azarola answered, “I don’t think we were intended to, but that doesn’t matter much when you got a bunch of fellas trying to blast you to bits.”
Monochrome photos neatly framed on the side table caught his eye. He easily recognized Audra, even those of her as a young girl. He picked one up of a teenaged Audra standing with a smaller, younger girl. “She looks familiar,” he remarked. Then recognition struck him like a bolt of lightning. “Sophia! This is Sophia!”
Emric nodded with a genial grin and Azarola set the frame back onto the table. Another photo featured Audra and a handsome man in aviator’s gear. Both stood triumphantly in front of a biplane. “Looks like the bosslady’s enjoying herself in this one.”
The professor peered over Azarola’s shoulder at the image. “Yes, that man was her fiancé, Leofric.”
“Was? They canceled the wedding?” He wasn’t sure if he could imagine Audra as any man’s wife.
A shadow of sadness passed over the older man’s face. “He died in an accident during an air race before the war. They used to be quite the team. She waited at the rally point and he never came. For two days, she searched for him, and then found his wreckage on the side of a mountain. Audra landed in the nearest field and climbed that mountain to find him, but there was no hope for her there. Then to lose Sophia…” His voice trailed away. “I don’t blame her for holding onto that delusion that Sophia is trying to speak to her through dying men.”
“No delusion,” Azarola countered, “I’ve seen Sophia. She’s out there, somewhere. If I help Audra find her, she’ll help me find Ro.”
Silence fell between the two men as Emric stared at Azarola, weighing out a careful judgment. He sucked in a breath, “Queen of the Heavens, you’re serious.”
“She’s out there,” Azarola repeated, “I’ve seen enough unexplainable things in my life to know when the impossible is real. She gave one cryptic message, though. Find the third Maedra. Do you have any idea what that might mean?”
“Audra asked me the same thing, but I don’t know what Sophia could have meant by it. There is only one Maedra, as far as I know.”
“What happened to Sophia?”
“She disappeared just weeks before the war,” Emric answered, “She simply did not return home one day.”
“Kidnapped or found some trouble on her own?”
“We suspect kidnapped, since Sophia would have sent some sort of correspondence if she left willingly.” He set aside his cup and saucer. “Audra believes that she was taken back to Averna, but we have no proof of that.”
“Well, I wouldn’t bet against Audra finding her,” Azarola remarked, “That lady’s got a reputation.”
“A fearsome one,” Emric agreed.
Azarola’s gaze traveled from one framed image to the next. If they weren’t of Audra and Sophia, then they were of Emric with what he assumed to be friends and colleagues. “I don’t see any photographs of your wife.”
“That’s because I never married,” the professor replied, “One never loves the same way twice. Some learn to love again, others do not.”
Paetun arrived later that evening, still wearing the same garb as he did when he left Karifiga. Trimmed with blue on the hems and stand-up collar, the knee-length white shirt garment advertised that he hailed from the distant land of Kurunesos. Loose beige trousers and well-crafted woven leather sandals finished the ensemble foreign to Elspia.
It wasn’t until Emric and his guests sat down around his dining table that Azarola finally spotted the elusive Nadia. She was a tiny woman, not even standing up to his shoulders, with her pale brown hair curled tightly into a bun atop her head. Every movement she made was quick and brisk as she efficiently served the evening’s meal.
“I know you just returned from Karifiga, Audra, but I wanted to make something flavorful with the ingredients that I have,” Nadia explained, “So, we have some spiced lamb served with a chickpea and egg pastry tonight.”
Azarola counted the settings at the table. “You’re not joining us?” he asked Nadia.
She paused in her retreat from the dining room “Well, no. I’m the cook. I eat in the kitchen.” Before Azarola could say anything else on the matter, she darted through the doorway.
Audra ignored Azarola’s unseemly remarks and began a different conversation with Paetun. “Before our rude interruption in Kertyra, I was going to say that intelligence reports indicate that the Directorate has largely abandoned the archaeological site we attempted to investigate earlier.”
Paetun glanced up from his plate with a frown. “Largely abandoned is not the same as completely abandoned. That’s how we were ambushed in the first place.”
Azarola set down his fork. “Is that where you got captured?”
A tense moment of silence passed at the table, before Paetun answered, “I thought I could outmaneuver the soldiers and rejoin Audra further down the dry riverbed. I thought wrong.”
“It is of little matter, now,” Audra dismissed. She delicately cut her pastry, exposing the chickpea and egg filling. The pungent aroma of cumin and garlic rose up from the broken crust. “Those were our orders from Elspia and we followed them faithfully. Despite a delay, you returned alive and well.”
Azarola cut into the conversation again, “Orders from Elspia, bosslady? Don’t you work for Inexa?”
“I assist Inexa as an act of alliance,” she answered as she spooned a little red pepper sauce onto the pastry piece on her fork. “My citizenship is with Elspia. I answer to them.”
“So, looking at some old ruins is more important than fighting?” Remembering his favorite serial magazine stories, he grinned, “Is treasure hidden there?”
“More glyphs, provided that the soldiers have not defaced the site.”
Azarola dunked his piece of pastry into his condiment cup of red pepper sauce. “So, what was this place?”
Paetun answered first, “An ancient holy crossing. Multiple pilgrimage routes intersected there when the river flowed. There is supposed to a sacred well somewhere at this site, but we weren’t able to find it before the Directorate found us.”
Audra set down her fork and added, “There is reference to sealing the well after the river dried and the routes changed. All records indicate that this event happened around the same time as the closing of the gates mentioned in the notes you translated. If this is one of Maedra’s Seals, then we may be able to learn more about the nature of the Avernan transport gates. Crippling their lines of communication and supplies is of more importance than a single skirmish.”
Looking into his coffee, Azarola’s eyebrows steepened their angle. His long fingers wrapped around the white ceramic cup. An unpleasant thought revisited him, though this was the first time he had it while Audra was near. “When I was last in Ixpoli, I used a witchgate that was a lot like the type the Avernans use to disappear from one place and reappear in another. The owner of that gate was a Senviran witch by the name of Enuri.” His tattooed and scarred left shoulder twitched at the unpleasant memories. “I don’t know if she survived the raid on her house or not. Anyways, one gate was underground, while the other was in her basement. She had these servants that you couldn’t see except through a mirror. Not that you would want to look at them. All dried out like they were made from wasp nest paper. The second time I found a magic gate, it was in the back lot of a movie studio in Kaerras. That’s to the north of Ixpoli, near the mountains. When I went through it, I was in a place that wasn’t like the world we know. Strange trees with black bark and white leaves. Purple grass. I ran from there and returned to this world. Shortly after that, Maeva made her pact with Ilelune. From what I’ve read, that’s where she got her witchcraft. I have a feeling that Inexa could have access to the same kind of gates that Averna uses, but for some reason doesn’t.”
Paetun stared at Azarola, but Audra calmly sipped from her coffee cup. “To deny the Directorate a point of entry onto Inexan ground,” she primly stated like a professor to her pupil. “Maeva advised against their use, since she suspected that all of the witchgates are much like a telephone switchboard. The gates are like sockets in the board and linked by cables. At any time, an operator can change which sockets are connected. Rather than risk the Directorate’s more advanced operators learning how to connect one of their gates to one in the heart of Inexa, Inexa is relying on machinery and radio.” She sipped from her cup again with her blue gaze on him. “You knew Maeva?”
“We were acquainted.”
“And you have passed through witchgates in Inexa.”
“A couple of times.”
“Why did you not speak of this sooner? Why not when you were interviewed by the Inexan officers?”
Leaning back in his chair, Azarola retorted, “To be fair, bosslady, I was bedridden and doped up on morphine when those fellas interrogated me. They never asked me about Maeva or if I ever walked through a witchgate. They just wanted me to tell them what happened at the camp.
“If I went on about my life story, then I would be shipped off to a nuthouse without question. I’ve seen a man turn into a dog, a little girl trapped in a mirror, the population of an entire village disappear into thin air, and I’ve sat across the table from a creature in the form of a woman with four arms!” He pressed his finger on his upper arm where his tattoo lay below the fabric of his shirt. “This was a witch’s curse! It took a priest of Maedra to pull it out through my teeth!” He caught the bewildered gapes and threw up his hands. “And I’m now a raving lunatic.” He sighed and pulled his pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket.
“No smoking while I’m here,” Audra admonished, “That’s an odoriferous habit.”
He sighed again and tucked the package back into his pocket. Foiled, he picked up his wine glass.
The brawny blonde drew her shoulders back. “Were I a younger woman, I would be inclined to think you a madman, but we live in a war-ravaged world with witchcraft and dragons. Madness is a matter of course. I shall assume that you are adept at coping with such a condition.” She returned her attention to her cooling meal. “Our priority is to find Maedra’s Seal and close the gates. Doing so will turn the tide of this war. Your translating the glyphs is key to that.”
“Well, whoever did the earlier work didn’t help much,” Azarola remarked, “And there’s an entire set of glyphs that I don’t know how to read. I’ve seen them before and they’re associated with witches, gates, and the like, but normal Senvirans don’t use them. I don’t know where to start.”
The scholar nodded at that. “At least we have verification that Maedra’s Seal was responsible for closing the gates. It’s too bad we never did find that medieval monastery. I still dream of the texts that could still be in there. I was so certain that it was at the edge of the desert near Fensa. All of the landmarks seemed to be the right ones. That herdsman stone had to be the tall rock.”
“Unless the river changed course over the centuries,” Audra remarked, “Then we may have been looking at the wrong rock. In that case, we’ll have to wait for the Inexans to push the Directorate back. I don’t want to risk your capture again.”
Azarola waved his fork towards Paetun. “That gambit to get you out of the camp took a few chunks out of my hide. I don’t think you would get that lucky twice.” He downed a bite of lamb. “So, what’s the deal with these glyphs? There’s all sorts of talk about gods and kings and gates. Shouldn’t the priests know what this all says? This is about finding Maedra’s Seal, right? I didn’t think that the Maedran priests used old Senviran, though.”
Audra frowned at Azarola’s poor manners. “They don’t. These records are from the Senvirans themselves, long ago. Tell me, Azarola, why do your people roam, scattered about the world?”
He shrugged in response to that. “We don’t have a homeland.”
“Do you know why?”
This time, he shook his head. “No, I’ve never heard that story. I’m not sure if anyone knows it, but with the way you sound, I’m thinking you do.”
“Somewhat.” She sipped from her wine glass. “The gates are likely a Senviran invention, spreading their people across the globe. From what I can tell, they were the ones who maintained the gates and levied heavy tolls on them or they served as couriers. This made the Senvira tribe very wealthy and there was some resentment towards them for owning this exclusive, fantastic route. I suspect that they cultivated and maintained a society designed to be difficult for outsiders to pass into their ranks unobserved and steal their secrets. However, when the gates closed, the Senvira tribe was shattered. After so many centuries, there’s little surprise that so much is lost.”
Azarola let this revelation settle as he cut into his pastry. “That would explain why everyone associates magic with the Senvira, even though they don’t really have any. Well, a couple do, or I should say that they did. A long story that’s rather short.”
Paetun looked up from his plate. “You say “they” when you speak of the Senvira. You aren’t of their tribe?”
“I am and I’m not,” Azarola replied, “My status is usually a matter of convenience. Whose convenience is the messy part.”
Audra set her glass down. “Then I shall apologize for my assumptions. As which do you identify?”
Without a ready answer, Azarola shrugged. “That’s a matter of convenience.” Shifting the conversation away from his murky lineage, he asked, “Sophia’s message was to find the third Maedra. Do you know what that has to do with anything?”
“Unfortunately, no.” Audra glanced to a photographed portrait of her and Sophia hanging on the wall. “For now, I will believe that it has to do with finding the Seal. In any case, it is something that we must investigate.”