The Sphere of the Winds
The Floating Islands 2
by Rachel Neumeier
Trei, Araenè, and their friends saved the Floating Islands once, thwarting the Toulonn Empire’s attempt at conquest. But the Toulonnese haven’t given up, and the same trick certainly won’t work a second time … especially when the Islands unexpectedly lose their special connection to dragon magic.
Then it turns out that Toulonn is not the only, or the worst, enemy the Floating Islands face. As peril grows, Trei, with his connection to Toulonn, and Araenè, with her unusual style of magic, will need all their strength and resolve if they are to find a way to safeguard the Islands once more.
The long awaited sequel to one of my favorite Neumeier books, The Floating Islands, did not disappoint. The world expands to beyond Toulonne and we learn that those who might be enemies could also be allies. I love this about Neumeier’s books – people are not always what they seem and sometimes those we think our foes could also be our friends. As a greater danger from a far threatens the islands, Trei’s knowledge of the customs he grew up with prove instrumental to saving his new home. Araene’s struggles to master magic reveal an entirely different approach to magic than what the mages thought they knew. The continued rapport between the cousins is so compelling to follow – they both are navigating complex happenings but always remember to find each other. I definitely hope for a trilogy for the world of the floating islands!
— Amazon reviewer
Araenè opened a door at random and glanced through it at the bare room thus revealed, maybe fifteen paces or so across, unfurnished except for a single chair and gauzy draperies blowing in the warm breeze. The room’s windows were narrow and numerous, so there was a lot of gauze. Pink gauze. The chair, carved with ornate swirls and ripples, had been painted pale violet. Its cushions were a deeper purple. The walls were a sky blue. The combination of colors in the small space was a little … well, it was a little …
Ceirfei, peering with interest over Araenè’s shoulder, murmured, “Sugar cakes.”
Araenè had to laugh. That was exactly right. The room was exactly like a plate of cakes rolled in pastel sugars, the sort given out to children too young to have any subtlety. She shut the door, gently, and looked up and down the wide white marble stairway upon which they’d found themselves. “This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” she admitted, glancing sideways at her companion, “when I said I’d show you the hidden school.”
“Well, we certainly are seeing some new parts of it,” Ceirfei said, in a very serious tone that was like a smile.
He wasn’t nervous. He didn’t mind being lost. Araenè was relieved. If Ceirfei wasn’t nervous, she didn’t have to be, either. Embarrassed at her inability to find her way to places she knew, maybe. But not nervous.
She opened the door again. The room was still filled with pink gauze and blue-painted walls and that ridiculous violet chair.
“Up?” asked Ceirfei. “Or down?”
They’d already explored a series of chilly, windowless rooms far underground: one with long shelves stacked with delicate porcelain plates and platters and bowls, far fancier than the ones anybody actually used; one with all sorts of fancy scented candles shaped like animals and birds and fish and flowers; and one with, prosaically, about a hundred sacks of rice and bundles of noodles. Araenè had hoped that last one would lead them back to the familiar kitchens, but instead they’d found themselves entering a long, hot gallery with dozens of high windows that let in the rich afternoon light and the sharp briny scent of the sea. Finally they had come out of that gallery upon this wide spiral stairway. The gallery seemed to have let them out right in the middle of the stairway, because from this landing, it coiled endlessly up and down a perfectly smooth shaft of white marble, with nothing visible above or below but more loops of wide, shallow stairs and the occasional landing. Looking down made Araenè dizzy and looking up made her tired, but the pastel-sugar room didn’t seem to hold much promise. And going back along the gallery would be boring.
Araenè had meant to show Ceirfei some of her favorite places within the hidden school: not just the kitchens, but also the aviary where the little birds flitted among potted trees and flowers, and the room of glass, and the hall of spheres and mirrors. But today she couldn’t seem to find any door that would cooperate at all. Not even the “friendly door,” Akhan Bhotounn, which was nearly always accommodating. Araenè might have called out to Master Tnegun for help, but if she did that, she would have to admit, not only to Ceirfei but also to her master, that she couldn’t find her own way back to familiar places. She didn’t want to do that. She was already slow to learn things the other apprentices all seemed to absorb as naturally as bread absorbs melted butter.
Besides, she wasn’t really nervous, yet. And Ceirfei didn’t seem impatient. That made sense, actually. He was never very eager to return to his family’s home, though the Feneirè apartment in the palace was beautiful and filled with every luxury, with servants to do all the work and bring you things.
Araenè never commented on the way Ceirfei preferred to visit her at the hidden school rather than ask her to come to the palace. She knew all about needing to get away from your home and family, so you could be yourself instead of the person everybody else wanted you to be. And no one worried much about chaperones or propriety, so long as they stayed in the hidden school—Master Tnegun and the other mages being presumably capable of keeping track of one young apprentice and her visitor. Even if her visitor was a Feneirè and the son of Calaspara Naterensei herself.
Araenè glanced at Ceirfei again. He still had that particularly sober expression that meant he was actually thoroughly amused. If he wasn’t worried about his parents’ fretting, she didn’t see why she should be. Really, Ceirfei was lucky in his parents. Mostly. In some ways. Anyway, he was lucky just to have a home and a family to go back to. Not that she would ever say so.
Besides, if it got too late, so that Ceirfei’s mother might miss him or Master Tnegun might miss her, or if they stumbled across anything frightening, she could call out then.
“Up,” she decided, because she knew Ceirfei would prefer it. He was a kajurai, and kajuraihi always preferred heights to any kind of secret subterranean chambers. “Up would be better?”
Ceirfei looked at her, knowing exactly what she was thinking. The corners of his eyes crinkled. “Definitely up,” he said gravely.
Araenè couldn’t suppress a laugh. Embarrassing to be lost? Maybe; but if she had to be lost and wandering through unknown parts of the mages’ hidden school, well, there was surely no one better to be lost with than Ceirfei. “Definitely up!” she agreed, and ran ahead of him, taking the shallow steps two at a time.
Steps and steps, white marble underfoot and white marble walls, with a cool breeze blowing down from above. At first, the spiral stair didn’t seem to lead anywhere at all. There were no landings for the first four or five turns of the stairway. Araenè dropped back to a more sedate pace, breathless and starting to feel the strain in her calves. She might have suggested they go down, but no, she’d selflessly offered to go up … Ceirfei caught up to her, gave her an amused sidelong look, and took her hand in his.
He wouldn’t have done that if there had been anybody else nearby. Araenè, suddenly breathless for a reason that had nothing to do with running up stairs, decided that getting lost had actually been a clever idea. Then she wondered whether Ceirfei thought she’d gotten them lost on purpose. Then she wondered whether maybe she had gotten them lost on purpose, without even realizing it.
Surely not. Anyway, too much thinking was definitely not good. She pointed ahead, to the upward curve before them. “There’s another door!” She wasn’t sure whether she was relieved to see it, or not. She wanted to get them back to the familiar parts of the school … or she mostly wanted that.
“That’s fancy,” Ceirfei said, looking the door up and down. “Shall I open it? Or do you want to?” He didn’t sound confused or uncertain or breathless. He just sounded interested in finding out what lay on the other side of that door. But he didn’t let go of her hand, either.
“I’d better …” You never knew what you might find, opening doors in the hidden school. Araenè touched the latch carefully. It was made of crystal, to match the door, which was all ebony and crystal and very fancy indeed. The kind of door that looked as though it really should open to something more interesting than sacks of rice. But the latch didn’t feel hot or cold, or shower her fingers with sparks, or do anything but click down.
Araenè opened the door carefully, ready to slam it again if she found a basilisk or a coiled serpent or a roaring fire surging toward her or anything else alarming.
But the room on the other side didn’t match the fancy door at all. It was a tiny square room, which contained nothing but layers of dust and a single unstrung harp resting on a stool in the middle of the floor. Dust had poofed up as the door skimmed across the floor, and now settled again slowly. The air smelled of age and solitude, and somehow of darkness and silence.
“Hmm,” murmured Ceirfei, peering over Araenè’s shoulder.
The harp, framed in the bar of light that fell in through the open door, was extremely elegant, carved of some dark red wood with ebony inlay. There was no dust on the harp at all. Araenè suspected that it might actually be strung with the winds, or with musical notes that played without strings, or maybe with the voices of the forgotten dead. It looked like that sort of harp, somehow.
She closed the door again and said out loud, in her firmest tone, but without a great deal of hope, “You know, the kitchens would be better.” But when she opened the door a second time, she found exactly the same dusty room and exactly the same stool. Only, disconcertingly, this time the stool was occupied not by a mysterious stringless harp, but by a little dragon, perched perfectly still, its silvery-dark wings half open and its fine-boned head turned toward the door, its yellow eyes glittering.
Ceirfei, hearing Araenè’s indrawn breath of surprise and alarm, drew her swiftly back and stepped in front of her. Araenè was too startled to protest, but then she blinked and saw that the dragon wasn’t real after all. It was made of polished hematite, its glittering eyes of a striated brass-yellow mineral that, after senneri in the hidden school, Araenè identified automatically, even from a distance, as chalcopyrite.
The dragon’s long serpentine tail was twined all through the legs of the stool, its body curled upright on the seat. Its wings fell in graceful curves to either side. Its claws and quills and the margins of each of its carved feathers had been painted with gold and sprinkled lightly with powdered pearl, like sugar on an elegant pastry.
“You and dragons!” Ceirfei said. “That’s … it’s quite a good carving, isn’t it?”
“Too good,” Araenè said, not quite shakily. She was sure it was just carved hematite, but on the other hand, if this little dragon turned its head, she decided, she wouldn’t scream or run away. She would very quietly and sensibly close the door, and very calmly call Master Tnegun. She’d have every justification, if the dragon moved. You were supposed to call your master if you got into trouble. There was a rule about that. Along with the one about not speaking to dragons.
On the other hand, it was stupid to be afraid of a statue carved out of hematite, no matter how real it looked. She half wanted to go into the dusty little room and lay a hand on the curve of the dragon’s neck, to convince herself and maybe a little bit to show off for Ceirfei. But she hesitated, and Ceirfei reached past her and gently closed the door before she could make up her mind. “Up?” he suggested. “This was worth seeing, but it’s not … I mean, this stairway must be leading somewhere, right?”
“In this school, who knows?” But Araenè was willing enough to turn her back on the ebony door and run up the steps, one long curving spiral turn and then another. She was no longer tired or stiff. She could hear Ceirfei behind her, matching her steps.
There were other doors set into the stairway, but as though ruled by some unspoken mutual agreement, Araenè and Ceirfei passed each one by without opening it. The stairway spiraled endlessly upward, but it couldn’t actually be endless, and Araenè could tell that Ceirfei was as determined as she to find that end.
At last, unexpectedly, they turned around one final curve. The ceiling arched overhead, a low, flat dome of white marble, and below that, the stairway ended abruptly. There was a door there on the final landing, an ornate door of glass panels framed by silver scrollwork. The door must have once been really beautiful, though now the glass was pitted with age and the silver tarnished.
Araenè found she liked this door and at the same time felt sorry for it. It seemed a shame everybody had neglected a beautiful door like this one. At the same time, thinking of stringless harps and carved dragons, she was a little afraid to open it. Nevertheless, she put out a hand to its knob. This was a lacy confection of silver filigree that looked too fragile to bear even a gentle touch, but it felt strong and cold under her fingers. “Ready?” she asked, but turned it without waiting for an answer.
The door swung open easily and soundlessly, to show one of those common mysteries of the hidden school: though they had gone up and up and up, they nevertheless found, stretching out before them, a huge and brilliantly lit chamber that had been carved out of stone so far underground that the carvers had come right out the underside of the Island. There was no floor, exactly. Wide tiles of red stone, not spaced evenly but arranged in a complicated pattern that crossed and re-crossed itself, each floated right out in the open air. There was plenty of space between the tiles for light and a warm sea breeze to come up into the chamber. Araenè could glimpse the sea far below, with ripples of white-edged foam making lacework of its azure surface. Gulls flew, crying plaintively, through the empty air below the floating tiles of the floor.
Despite the height, the sense of light and warmth and space was so welcome, and the thought of going back down the long, long stairwell so daunting, that Araenè stepped through the glass door without hesitation, before she even turned to look questioningly at Ceirfei. But of course he loved heights, and followed her without hesitation, looking somehow relaxed and pleased even though he hadn’t seemed particularly tense or worried before. “Beautiful,” he said, looking around. “All this space! Do you know what this place is? Or what it’s for?”
Araenè shook her head, turning to gaze again out over the floating tiles. The tiles were each easily big enough to sit on, even to stretch out on if somebody were bold enough to nap on a stone tile floating hundreds of feet above the sea. Araenè doubted she would ever be that bold, though now that they’d stopped, she was tired. And her feet hurt. She wanted a nice comfortable couch and a steaming cup of tea with honey. She thought again of calling for Master Tnegun.
But Ceirfei looked happy. If she called her master, she’d be admitting the day was over and Ceirfei would have to go home. She could see he didn’t want to. And she could see from the light coming up between the tiles that it wasn’t really late. Not really late. Not yet.
If this had been a new tangle of Third City alleyways she’d just found—if she’d been dressed as a boy and free to explore just as she liked—Araenè wouldn’t have hesitated. It was stupid to feel adventurous and daring only when she was pretending to be a boy. She tried to feel adventurous and daring right at this moment, but couldn’t quite manage that.
It was a long way across this … place, but she was almost sure she could see another door on the other side. At least one. She was sure that was the door they really needed, because arranging things that way would be just like the hidden school. She tried to see if there was a way they might follow the complicated interlocking pattern of the tiles all the way over to the other side of the chamber. One line of tiles led out into the chamber from where they were standing, then another turned and led away to the right, and then the pathway branched, but she thought it led farther toward the opposite side from there. She wasn’t sure. The tiles practically formed a maze … and with that thought, she realized at last where she was. “It’s the labyrinth!” she exclaimed. The labyrinth had been carved into the deepest level of the hidden school, where she had never come. When the other apprentices had told her about the labyrinth, she’d envisioned a series of narrow passageways buried in cold stone. But, of course, the deepest levels of any Floating Island really were likely to come out just like this: with a fine view of the open sea.
“A labyrinth?” said Ceirfei, interested and pleased. “Aren’t you supposed to find your way to the center of any labyrinth? That must be the center, way out there: that set of eight or so tiles, all together in a square. Where that plinth is standing, do you see, with that glittering thing on it? What do you suppose that is?”
Almost despite herself, Araenè was starting to share his enthusiasm. The tiles were wide enough. A child could walk safely along them. Certainly any Island child could. She’d never been afraid of floating bridges in her life, and wasn’t this exactly the same? “Aren’t you supposed to turn right on the way into a labyrinth, and left on the way out?”
“We can try it and see.” Ceirfei stepped out onto the first tile in the nearest row and held out his hand in invitation for Araenè to join him. She didn’t hesitate. Even if those tiles had been narrow and widely spaced, she knew he would never let her fall.
“This isn’t working at all,” Araenè said, exasperated, after they’d turned right eleven times in a row. They were farther from the center than ever, way out along one side of the labyrinth, faced with two obvious dead ends and a third path that would only take them back toward the wall where they’d come in. She turned in a full circle, trying to visualize the maze from above. “If you had your wings …”
“That would be cheating.” Ceirfei sounded altogether too cheerful.
He was enjoying himself. Probably he very seldom had a chance to get lost in a magical floating labyrinth. Probably his mother wouldn’t approve. Araenè gave him a jaundiced look. “I’d be happy to cheat! Anyway, cheating is just a way of winning when nobody’s looking.”
“That’s one perspective, certainly.”
Araenè ignored his amused tone. She turned slowly in a circle once more, examining the rows of tiles. Something about the pattern of tiles looked wrong. She frowned, concentrating. They’d started over there, and come that way, and turned right, so they’d gone that way … only that was wrong, because they’d come immediately to a left turn, which of course they’d skipped, and after that to a three-way intersection, and of course they’d turned right, but she could see perfectly plainly that if they’d turned right there, they’d have immediately come to a dead end. Which they hadn’t.
“They’ve moved!” she said, outraged. “The tiles have been rearranging themselves when we aren’t looking! Talk about cheating!”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes!” Araenè stabbed a finger at the intersection that gave it away. “That’s all wrong! We came that way, but it wasn’t like that! Those tiles are all different. And look, those over there, see that spiral that goes off in that squiggle? That wasn’t there before, either!”
Ceirfei put a hand on her shoulder, a calm-down gesture that at the moment Araenè found infuriating. She thought she had a perfect right to be angry at this stupid labyrinth, where it looked like you could win but then tiles moved so you would lose. Araenè stepped away from Ceirfei and called, in a good, clear voice, “Master! Master Tnegun! Help! I’m lost!”
Then she waited. Ceirfei took her hand again. This time Araenè didn’t move away. Far below, the gulls cried. The wind had died, so the sea lay flat and featureless. The lowering sun gilded the water and sent light reflecting up past the tiles to strike glittering notes from tiny crystals in the stone of the ceiling and walls.
Nothing else happened. Master Tnegun did not come, and Araenè and Ceirfei remained exactly where they were, standing way out in the labyrinth, with nothing but air and ocean underneath their feet, and the sun sinking toward evening. Araenè tried to imagine finding the way through this labyrinth in the dark. Then she tried not to imagine it.
“Master!” she called again. Her voice scaled up, embarrassingly childish, and she bit the word off. She couldn’t believe he hadn’t answered. The masters were supposed to help if you got into trouble. That was the rule. She shouted one more time, “Master Tnegun!”
But there was still no answer, and the sun was sinking into the western sea, the water below turning slowly from gold to blue and then to azure before shading off into pewter-gray. The white gulls were gone. A black one flew past beneath, its voice sharper and somehow colder than the voices of the ordinary gulls.
Araenè knew they should sit down exactly where they were and wait for rescue. No one would notice if she missed supper, they would only think she’d decided to eat in the kitchens or in her room. Master Tnegun would only guess something was wrong when she missed their tutorial in the morning. But very soon, someone would miss Ceirfei. He was always supposed to be somewhere, doing proper things, being a good example. He was always representing his family. It was very tiresome for him, especially since he just wanted to be a kajurai, but it did mean someone would miss him soon. His mother would make inquiries, and then Master Tnegun or one of the other masters would come find them. It wouldn’t be long.
And then everybody would know she’d gotten lost in the hidden school and hadn’t been able to find her way back. That she’d failed to summon any useful door. That she’d been too stupid and stubborn to call for help—or worse, they’d all find out she hadn’t even been able to make her own master hear her when she called.
She wanted to stamp her foot. If she’d been by herself, she would have stamped and screamed and thrown things, if she’d had anything to throw. But Ceirfei was watching her, a humorous quirk to his eyebrows, not really worried even yet. “Better to get out of this ourselves,” he observed. “How can we do that? If I had wings, I could fly up and look at the labyrinth from above. What can we do instead?”
Being expected to think of something clever somehow made it easier to stay calm. Nodding, Araenè tried to think of something clever. Ceirfei was right: if they could see the tiles from above, the way a bird or kajurai might, they should be able to run through the labyrinth really fast before the tiles could move around again. They could be to the center and out again and right through the far door before the light failed. If they could only see the right path—she stopped, blinking. “Vision,” she said out loud. “Flying high isn’t the only way to see things from above, you know!”
“And you have a gift for vision, don’t you?” Ceirfei agreed encouragingly. “But don’t you need a glass sphere?”
“I’ll get one.” Araenè knelt down on the red stone of the tile, concentrating. She’d summoned things before: chalk, a feather, a book … on one memorable occasion, a glazed pot full of custard. Cesei, youngest of the apprentices, had deserved it, too. Even Master Kopapei had agreed with that, although he’d still forbidden her to have any sweets for a whole senneri, since she thought so little of them she dumped them on other students. She still blushed to remember his tone.
But a custard-filled pot was certainly at least as heavy as … she closed her eyes, put out her hands, and caught a glass sphere as large as both her fists. It fell right into her hands, but not only was it heavier than she’d expected, it felt as though it had fallen from a considerable height. She snatched after it with stinging fingers, but her wild grab only sent it flying. She said, vehemently, a word girls weren’t supposed to know, much less say out loud.
Araenè thought the sphere would come down on the tile and shatter, but it didn’t break after all, only struck the red stone with a ringing sound, and rolled. She stared, horrified, knowing it was going to roll right off the edge of the tile and fall. She wasn’t at all sure where to find another sphere of glass already primed with the proper spells for vision—she didn’t want to use obsidian, not with night coming—
Ceirfei flung himself after the sphere, catching it right at the edge of the tile. For one appalling moment, Araenè thought he might skid right off the edge and fall, kajurai or not, but he caught himself in the sharp breeze that suddenly swept up and around the tile, and wound up kneeling at the very edge of the tile, holding the sphere smugly up for her to see, apparently completely oblivious of the empty air waiting for a misstep.
Araenè gritted her teeth and didn’t say anything at all. She thought that after all this, she was really due a cup of steaming chocolate to sooth her nerves, and maybe a buttery pastry filled with toasted nuts and honey. But after one moment to sit and feel sorry for herself, she held up her hands, mutely, for Ceirfei to give her the sphere. He sat down to watch, even after all this looking perfectly relaxed and comfortable, as she prepared to release the spell for vision it held. She held up the sphere in both hands and stared down into the smooth glass, which was cool and heavy and transparent as water.
An affinity for vision. That was what Master Tnegun said she had. An affinity for doors and fire and vision. Spells for vision were always best stored in glass or crystal or obsidian. Only crystal took a lot of work because it was so heavy it sort of pushed vision off sideways, so it was hard to see what you wanted to see. And obsidian tended to give you dark visions, especially at night. So glass was the best for straightforward scrying. Anybody could work with glass. This sphere held plenty of magic. It tingled with ginger and pepper. The ginger was sweet and hot and very prominent, so Araenè knew that the sphere held all kinds of spells for vision. The pepper might be a spell for light—a sharp burst of brilliant light, she thought; not very useful when she would really prefer a soft and steady glow that would last for a while.
She released only the very easiest and most obvious spell, the one closest to the surface: the one for plain, ordinary vision. Because she knew exactly what she wanted to see, she could immediately make sense of what the sphere showed her. What it showed her was the labyrinth, of course: from above, the way a kajurai might see it. She could see rows of tiles going left and right, intersecting and separating, forming square-cornered spirals and crooked paths that started off one way and then went a completely different direction. The labyrinth looked even bigger and more complicated from above than it did when you stared out across it from the side. She could see that the center was actually sixteen tiles, twice as big as Ceirfei had guessed, and that the plinth rising up from its exact middle was taller than she was and square-sided, though she still couldn’t see the object on the plinth well enough to know anything about it except that it glittered.
She could see herself, too, and Ceirfei, which was an odd feeling. They looked surprisingly small in the middle of the complicated geometry of pathways.
And she could see how, behind them, a scattering of tiles suddenly dropped away sideways and down, slid underneath other tiles, and rose again, clicking that whole section of the maze into a different pattern. She glowered into the sphere. “That’s not fair!”
Ceirfei laughed, and after a moment Araenè smiled, too, though unwillingly. “We’ll cheat right back,” she said. “It moves: fine! Let it! Looking down from above, we’ll still see which way to go. Look, we should go that way, don’t you think? And then the first left, and then over here, we should go this way.” She traced the path she saw with the tip of her finger, looking up to see if Ceirfei agreed.
“We’d better hurry,” he said mildly, rose, and offered her his hand.
Araenè took his hand and let him lift her to her feet. He was right about needing to hurry. A moment ago, it had still been light. But now, though a grayed-lavender glow still rose past the floating tiles, reflected from the distant sea, each tile looked dusky red-violet at the edges and nearly black at the center. Araenè could still see the edges perfectly well, but it was abundantly clear that this would change as the light failed.
“They’ll be missing you soon …”
Ceirfei shrugged. “I won’t—” he began, and stopped.
Won’t let them blame you, he’d meant to say. Araenè knew he’d pretend exploring the labyrinth had been all his idea and not an accident. He wouldn’t say a word about her getting them lost. His mother would think Ceirfei—would think she—everyone would think the two of them—Araenè clenched her teeth. Without a word, she shut her eyes and released the light trapped in the sphere she held.
A sharp burst of brilliant light, she had thought. She had been right. Her eyes watered with the intensity of light, even though they were closed, and she heard Ceirfei swear, which ordinarily he didn’t. The light burned hot, too: not fire-hot, but with a forceful warmth she suspected would leave her with tender skin on her face and hands and arms. Slitting her eyes open, she shielded her face with her hand. The light burned high up under the rough-carved stone of the ceiling, hard and white and far too bright to look at directly, casting a harsh radiance across the whole of the labyrinth.
“A warning, next time!” said Ceirfei, blinking and rubbing his eyes. “Now I can hardly see!”
“Sorry,” Araenè said, embarrassed because of course she should have warned him, annoyed because she was embarrassed. She took a step forward. Then another. Then she glanced down at the miniature maze she held in her hands, contained in the glass sphere. The right path was fairly easy to make out. She could see how this whole corner of the maze linked into the part nearer the center. She could find her way, if she was patient and didn’t try to rush forward too quickly. She took Ceirfei’s hand and led him forward, with the sphere held up in her other hand so she could look into it as she went.
Turn and turn and turn. She had the idea that there was a pattern to it, but she couldn’t quite recognize what it was. Left and then left again while the light faded, and then right, three times; and then there was a short right that seemed to be a dead end, only it really bent around to the left, and then the light hovering above them began to flicker like a candle blowing in a breeze just as the sound of their hurrying footsteps took on a different, duller sound and they came at last out from the complicated pathways into the center of the labyrinth.
The hard white light had become a dim yellow in just these few moments. Yet even though she knew they dared not linger, Araenè couldn’t resist a glance up at the plinth as they passed it. She didn’t mean to stop. But she hesitated, and Ceirfei dragged her to a full stop, and they both stood for a long moment, staring.
On the plinth was a crystalline sculpture in the shape of a dragon, stylized but clearly recognizable. Yes, there was the fine head, and that glittering fall of delicate needles represented the quills, and that curved bit, shimmering in the light, was undoubtedly a half-opened wing. Supported by the dragon’s claws and the tip of its coiled tail was a small sphere that, at first glance, closely resembled the one she held in her hand.
“Another dragon!” Ceirfei sounded amused and pleased. “Araenè, is there any dragon in the hidden school you haven’t found? And this one’s a proper dragon, isn’t it, a dragon of sky and wind. Look, you can see right through it. I wonder who sculpted this? This is no casual afternoon’s work: I’ve never seen anything to match it even in the palace.”
Araenè stretched up on her toes to study the dragon’s sphere. It might have been glass, or perhaps quartz, or barite. It didn’t seem as heavy as quartz, and barite was usually striated. But she didn’t think it was glass, either. It looked fragile as a soap bubble. It was so perfectly flawless that it would have been invisible if the fading yellow light had not glimmered off it.
She somehow had the idea this sphere might be hollow, but it couldn’t be, because spheres made to hold spellwork never were and she could tell immediately that this sphere was stuffed full of spells. It was practically a confection of spells, tingling with cardamom and palm sugar and rosewater and vanilla and jasmine and a tiny bit of pepper, everything perfectly balanced. Only behind all the bright sweetness something else glittered, something she didn’t recognize, something fierce and wild, with an unusual bitter edge.
It wasn’t perilla, although, like perilla, it was minty and musky. It definitely wasn’t anise, though it was also like anise. She almost thought she didn’t like it, though she wasn’t sure. She thought perhaps the whole balance of the sphere might have been thrown off somehow, if that difficult flavor hadn’t been behind the rest. She reached up to touch the sphere, curious and fascinated, and the dimming light of the spell ebbed suddenly and then failed completely.
Araenè’s legs folded under her and she sat down where she stood. She didn’t want to think of what it would have been like if they had been racing through the other side of the labyrinth and then the light had suddenly flickered out like that. She swallowed hard.
“A little too much like being in a play,” Ceirfei commented above her. “A farce, I imagine, rather than a tragedy … are you all right? Can you make more light?” He must have crouched down by her, because his hand pressed hers in the dark.
“I can’t. That was the only spell for light in this sphere,” Araenè said stiffly. “They’ll have missed you by now, I expect.” She ought to apologize for that, too. She was sure Ceirfei’s mother would never permit him to visit the hidden school again. If he even wanted to, after this.
“I might have decided to have supper with Master Kopapei and the other mages.” Ceirfei said, wry and resigned. “Not with you, of course. That would be inappropriate.”
He sounded so prim that Araenè had to laugh. She opened her eyes on the darkness of the labyrinth. It was not utterly, completely dark, which was some comfort. A little, a very little light glimmered faintly up between the floating tiles, starlight reflected off the distant sea, but that wasn’t the only source of light. After a moment, she tipped her head back to gaze up through the shadows toward the top of the plinth.
The fragile sphere glimmered with light. This was nothing like the harsh brilliance of the light she had released from her ordinary sphere. This was like moonlight: soft and silvery, cool against the face, casting velvety shadows across the dark tiles. The glimmer wasn’t nearly as bright as even the quarter moon, but it was light and it was right there.
Araenè got to her feet, reached up, and touched the sphere very gently indeed with the tip of one finger. It didn’t pop like a soap bubble. It felt cool and smooth and somehow alive. Cardamom and pepper tingled across her fingers and tickled her hand and the back of her throat. The fragrance of roses seemed to fill the whole labyrinth. The other flavor behind the rest seemed gone, now. Or, no. She could tell that flavor was still there, musky perilla-and-anise. But whatever magic that was had sort of turned sideways and out of sight, tucking itself away far behind the other spells. She had no idea what it might be.
But she knew how to delicately tickle the pepper until the soft glow increased and intensified: bright as a quarter moon and then a half and then a full moon, until her shadow and the shadow of the plinth lay out black and sharp-edged behind her. Holding her breath, she lifted the fragile sphere, as carefully as she could, from its resting place on the plinth and held it in the palm of her hand. It seemed almost as weightless as air, as a feather. It truly didn’t seem like glass, but she couldn’t imagine what else it might have been made of. Solidified moonlight? She could almost believe it.
“Clever,” Ceirfei said. “Beautiful. I knew you’d think of something.”
He sounded as though he meant it, though Araenè knew she didn’t deserve any compliments. She said absently, “I didn’t put it in there. I mean, it was already there. There’s a lot of spellwork in this.” Vision, she thought. Vision, or something like vision, and something else like luck, all wrapped around with something else a lot less familiar.
She held the dragon sphere up and gazed into it, finding that not only could she bring a vision of the labyrinth into it, but also that the sphere’s own pale light bent through the vision and somehow tangled around some of the pathways at a sharper angle than around others. She could see at once which path was the right one. She could, for the first time, see exactly what turnings to take to get out of the labyrinth. And she could glimpse, beyond the labyrinth, the waiting doors, three of them, all the same, only the light bent around just one of those, too.
One of the spells hidden inside this sphere must be a spell of finding your way. She could hardly believe she could be so fortunate. Although, after this whole wretched afternoon and evening, the hidden school owed her a little good fortune.
But was it really all right to just take this special sphere out of the labyrinth? Nobody had ever said anything about a sphere in the labyrinth. She was a little afraid she would break it, though of course it couldn’t actually be anything like as fragile as it looked or it couldn’t hold all those spells. Anyway, if Master Tnegun hadn’t wanted her using any random spheres she happened to find, he might have come to find her when she called him. Besides, if the masters wanted this sphere on that plinth, they could perfectly well put it back.
But it seemed somehow wrong to leave the stand on top of the plinth just empty. Araenè impulsively picked up the ordinary glass sphere she’d summoned and put it carefully in the crystal-dragon stand. She stepped back and looked at it. It looked very solid and coarse after the other sphere, but not actually wrong. It looked better than an empty stand. She thought it would be all right, for a few minutes or a few hours or overnight. “All right,” she said. “All right.” She glanced at Ceirfei. “Can you see? Is this all right?”
Araenè returned his smile. Then, holding her new sphere in both her hands and putting her feet down carefully, she led him from the center of the labyrinth and set her foot on the first step that would take them both through the sharp-angled and changeable pathways to the far side of the labyrinth.