Lanterns lit the city like a million stars fallen from the sky. The light reflected off polished marble walls and threw the runes engraved there into sharp relief. At the gates to the under-city the lanterns ceased. Their light never fell past the dark guardians, jackal-headed beasts carved of star stone who came to life to eat those denizens of the under-city who dared to cross into the light.
Down that way, in a warren of mud buildings baked hard by the sun, lived the powerless. The people with no family name, no power, no chance to duel for the emperor’s throne. Down in the dregs of humanity was where Rion went, jumping over the gates with a push of magic and landing on the dusty street beyond without a sound.
Here and there weak candles lit windows covered by tattered clothes. Voices floated through the darkness, fishermen mumbling to themselves as they prepared to hike down to the river Esen as the sun rose in a few hours. Everyone else was asleep. Still, Rion pulled a veil of magic over himself. The scion of the Tahtali house shouldn’t be seen here. He shouldn’t be anywhere near this part of the desert city, but he could no more stay away than he could breathe underwater.
At last the narrow streets led him to a small plaza with a communal well that reached deep into the mountain. Here was one corner of the lower city that could belong to the city above, one corner of where hard mud was carved with flowing glyphs of power. He traced a name he loved better than his own and looked up to her window. “Emalia?”
Lantern light flared purple behind a curtain of silk. A silhouette appeared and then the curtains were drawn aside to reveal the face of his beloved. Dark hair fell around the face of goddess and every thought save one scattered. Twelve days had passed since he’d last seen her, last felt her touch, heard the whisper of her voice in his mind.
Emalia’s thoughts didn’t seem headed in the same direction. Her lips twitched into a wry smile he knew from a thousand fights in the dueling rings at the citadel. “Why are you courting death?”
“Because I haven’t persuaded you to come live in the city proper yet.” A wisp of her magic coiled around him, exciting every nerve in his body. “Let me come up.”
There was a laugh as the curtain fell again, and then the sound of stone grinding against stone as she lifted her wards. His heart raced in anticipation. The bastard daughter of a bastard. An outcast with no name. But her magic. Her mind! From the first time she’d spoken in the square in the magi’s class he couldn’t look away.
Three years had been wasted trying to tease her family name from her, trying to buy her in the time honored traditions of his ancestors. One night in utter despair he had wandered the dark city, seen her, and followed, intent only on finding her family name. She’d led him here, into the very heart of darkness, and in a breath he’d thrown away everything for her. The emperor’s law decreed that no unnamed child with magic should live. Yet Emalia lived, and he had not the heart to turn her to the emperor.
Two more years had passed while he jealously guarded her secret. Two years of yearning for her before he confessed everything to her in the desert under the light of a waning moon. Two years of fearing he would lose what he could never call his own.
And now twelve days apart felt like the cold fingers of death.
Emalia opened the door to her shop wearing little more than a gauzy tunic that dropped to her knees. Even the insignificant candlelight pierced that thin veil revealing a body that would tempt any man. “Weren’t you supposed to be in the western desert for another fortnight?”
“I was, but I was called back early for a trivial matter. I’ll leave again in the morning.” He reached for her, needing to hold her, needing to have her with him as desperately as a fish needs the sea.
“A trivial matter? I heard you dueled with Kherei and left him blind. He’s not unpowerful.”
“He’s a foolish boy rushing for the title of magi by challenging those he thinks weaker. His eyes will heal in a month or two and the time away from the citadel will be good for him.”
She crossed her arms. “He would kill you if he could. Would you make me a widow before you make me a wife?”
“My love, my steadfast star and only light!” Rion picked her up and swung her around. “Only one magi in this city could ever beat me in dueling arena, and you are her. My perfect rival, Emalia.” He kissed her, drinking her in, feeling the pulse of her blood as it coursed through her, feeling her magic seep through his skin until they were one. Every touch shared. Every thought in perfect unison.
They danced up the stairs, the memories of a thousand nights spent just like this woven into every step. Her tunic dropped beside his armor. The brush of cold air on her skin made him shiver. His hunger fueled her passion. By dawn’s light both had forgotten where the individual ended and the lover began.
Emalia rested her head on Rion’s shoulder, lazily tracing a scar on his chest. “You are worried.”
“There’s trouble brewing in the city and I have to leave to patrol the desert with you behind.”
She laughed. “I’m in the lower city. Who would come down here?”
“Someone who thinks they can gain power by denouncing you? Someone who thinks they might challenge a magi to win rank? Some fool man who thinks you are unwed and free for the taking.”
Emalia propped herself up on one arm to look at him. “Let them come. If the emperor charges me with being a false magi I will challenge him to a duel. Let the challengers come praying to their false gods for titles, I will kill them. Let the swains come with their poems and flowers, they will never have me while I live.”
“See? I could come back to the city in smoking ruins. Then I would be forced to conquer another because I cannot let you live in a fallen city. And from there, what? Once I lay one city at your feet it may well become a habit!”
“Will you lay worlds at my feet, magi? Will you give me every breathing thing to rule as I please?”
“If you so wished, it would be done.” They kissed, saying more with a touch than any words could ever convey. He knew what she wanted, felt every beat of her heart, and did not doubt she could have the world if she so wished. But his morning and evening star desired no more than his love. She never sought power, only knowledge, and so the world was spared from bowing before an immortal goddess born the bastard of a bastard in the time before time began.