Lhind the Firebird
by Sherwood Smith
The dramatic conclusion to the Lhind young adult fantasy series!
When Lhind’s beloved Hlanan is taken by Shinjan slavers, she leaves her self-imposed exile to rush to the rescue. But first she must face a dragon, and learn world-changing truths about herself.
Meanwhile, halfway across the world, imprisoned Hlanan labors to liberate fellow slaves of the evil Shinjan empire. Before they meet again, both must explore the difficult dimensions of honor, trust, and love.
Failure means death. Success, bringing down two murderous tyrants–and forever changing the world.
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So far, my story has been pretty much all about me.
For most of my life that was all I had—me. I was content enough, even if I often went to sleep hungry, and rarely in the same place for very long. I’d change clothing once a year, always something stolen off a drying line. Some discomfort was a fair trade for freedom.
But then I met Hlanan, and began learning things. Like, theft was bad. But the reward for this exasperating lesson was the gradual discovery of what it meant to have friends.
Then I discovered family.
Two families. Two very, very different families.
Now I had food to eat any time I wanted. I had a home, and a bed to call my own. I could bathe ten times a day if I liked. But I was not content, though I tried mightily to be. Unlike those old, hungry days, I was broken.
Before I go on with that, I’d better start with Hlanan, because this time, the…let’s call them adventures, ha ha, didn’t just happen to me.
Of course adventure has always happened to others, too, but one of the first lessons in learning how to have friends, and family, was the discovery that what I did affected others. Also, what happened to others mattered to me.
Especially to Hlanan, my first friend. Sweet, scholarly Hlanan, who tries to see the best in everyone, who can rock with silent laughter at unexpected times. Whose kisses—discovered not long before we parted—were as powerful as any of the magical talents I was born with.
Let me begin the day that he—Hlanan Vosaga, youngest of the Empress of Charas al Kherval’s four children—left his small bedchamber and went out into the hall, pausing when he saw two sealed scroll-notes and a letter sitting on the tray outside his room.
It was common for palace residents to leave scraps of paper scrolled for one another, but who would send a sealed letter on heavy paper, which had to be carried by hand, instead of through his magical notecase?
He opened the letter first. There, in a very formal, stylized script (probably, Hlanan guessed, from the hand of a scribe), someone requested Hlanan’s service. It was signed in a beautifully elaborate signature with four names—so elaborate he couldn’t make out any of the names.
What service? Scribe work, of course—had to be. Few knew of the other callings he’d tried and set aside. Brief, bleak humor sparked at the idea that the scribe who wrote this magnificent hand had to employ that skill to request another scribe for whoever wrote that incomprehensible signature. But not everyone from overseas knew any of the various languages found in the Charas al Kherval—at most they might have the basics of the common tongue, Elras.
As Hlanan laid aside the letter, he wondered who Four-Name was, and who would have recommended Hlanan. He wasn’t with the scribes now—he had been studying magic with the healers for the past year. But he’d served as a scribe off and on since he was a teen, and he still went around in his scribe robe because it was both comfortable and anonymous. No one paid any attention to scribes unless they needed one.
He set that letter down and glanced at the scrolled notes. The first was an invitation to the wedding of a fellow scribe student from ten years back, and the other’s dashing hand was instantly recognizable: Hlanan’s half-sister Thianra, writing a single line:
Remember you promised to take breakfast with me. Do not be late!
Hlanan breathed a laugh, knowing that there had to be a message twin to that in his notecase. And if for some reason he didn’t turn up, she’d deliver a third message in person, then drag him to the musicians’ wing by the back of his collar.
He glanced at his desk where his magical notecase lay. A pulse of duty prompted him to check it, but he turned away again. Who would write to him but his mother?
And what could she want but to express her disappointment, to scold, to list her logical, practical reasons—
I think I have to go back a little. If you know the history of the Kherval Empire, skip over this next bit.
Imperial tradition in Charas al Kherval decrees that the ruler’s children be raised as commoners until the ruler should choose an heir—if he or she chooses one of their offspring at all. Imperial offspring all want the crown, or so history says, but in the Kherval, future rulers are expected to earn that crown.
Humans being humans, not everyone who wants it deserves it, and the opposite is true. As a boy, Hlanan hadn’t given a future wearing the imperial crown two thoughts. He hated the tedium of court ritual, dressing in elaborate court clothes, and speaking in the equally elaborate formal court mode.
He wanted to see the world for himself, and so at age ten he slipped away from the summer labors he’d been sent to learn—and incidentally evaded the guards who had kept him safe all his short life. He ended up wandering the most dangerous harbor on the continent, staring around as if the world were a stage. That splendid sense of spectacle ended abruptly when Shinjan galley slavers on the hunt for new slaves yanked him off the street and threw him into one of their galleys. The others so grabbed were marked as slaves with magic-laden tattoos and put to work.
He hated remembering those days, for so many reasons: the cold, the careless cruelties of the masters, the eternal hunger, and above all the misery of knowing that slaves’ lives were easily discarded and no one cared.
He’d considered throwing himself overboard to drown before he made a covert friendship with a boy a couple years older, Ilyan Rajanas, who turned out to be a prince sold to the slavers by a nasty relative who coveted the princedom Rajanas was heir to. The two made life bearable for each other until Ilyan Rajanas saw a chance at escape from their burning ship during the terrible Battle at Athaniaz Island, between the Shinjans and the equally powerful empire of Sveran Djur.
Ilyan had been training in the martial arts, unlike Hlanan. He led, Hlanan followed. In the chaos of the battle, they made a successful escape, along with a few other galley slaves. One of their first moves after they reached the shores of the Kherval was Rajanas’s insistence that they seek a mage powerful enough to remove the magic-laden tattoos marking them as slaves. The magic worked into the ink would trace them for anyone knowing the spells.
Until he was taken, Hlanan had thought little beyond evading lessons he didn’t like. At the mage’s, he surprised all three of them—himself included—by keeping his tattoo, once the mage cast a permanent block on the tracer so that the Shinjans couldn’t track him by magic. He hadn’t understood his own motivation at the time, except as a goal to learn enough magic to remove it himself, but he’d come to see the tattoo as a reminder of all those hapless slaves who, somehow, someday, he wanted to rescue.
After that he made his way back home, throwing himself into studies. Once the empress let him loose again, he embarked on a number of apprenticeships, including scribe, but he retained a lifelong interest in magic.
All right, history covered. . .