Authors: Naomi Kritzer
Witchlight flared, blindingly bright. I leaped back, but hands seized my arms and jerked me inside. The door slammed shut behind me. I blinked in the dazzling light, staring into the rigid face of the man who had grabbed my arms. He wore the uniform of the Circle Guard. Beyond him, I could see four more men in the same uniform, seated on the beds, crossbows leveled.
At the very end of my bed sat an older man in a scarlet robe, with chill yellow eyes. He rose, his lips tight. “It’s the roommate,” he said. “Bring her here.” He indicated the floor directly in front of him.
“Sit,” the guard said, shoving me toward the man in scarlet. “And be silent.”
My knees shaking, I sank to the floor. I could hear my heart pounding. With a flick, the man in scarlet dispelled the witchlight and sat back down. We waited in silence, staring at the door in the fading daylight.
They had to be here for Mira.
I could hear the man in scarlet behind me, his breathing calm and even—like this was something he did every day. I had looked at him only for an instant, but his yellow eyes were burned into my mind. I shuddered, and felt his hand close over my shoulder like a claw.
We heard footsteps approaching the door. I felt a
gloved hand cup my throat. My stomach lurched with the desire to escape, but I bit my lip and remained still. I could hear the soldiers tense, then rise. The door started to swing open.
“Run!” I screamed to Mira. “Run!”
FIRES OF THE FAITHFUL
A Bantam Spectra Book/October 2002
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2002 by Naomi Kritzer.
Cover art copyright © 2002 by Franco Accornero.
Map by Hadel Studio, Inc.
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For God so loved Her only son, She redeemed the world
—The Journey of Gèsu, chapter 4, verse 19
ira arrived at the Verdiano Rural Conservatory for the Study of Music the same week that the song did. In retrospect, if either Mira or the song had appeared alone, I might have understood things sooner. But I was distracted from the song by my new roommate, and distracted from Mira by the puzzle of the song, and I didn’t learn the truth about either one until it was too late to do anything but try to contain the damage.
When I heard that the conservatory had taken on a new student—a sixteen-year-old girl—I knew she’d be placed with me. My old roommate, Lia, had left Verdia with her family months ago, tired of famine and war. I’d gotten rather accustomed to the extra space, and the Dean would be pleased to remind me that it wasn’t really mine. Sure enough, I returned after ensemble practice to find the stranger in my room, her meager possessions strewn over the bed I’d reluctantly cleared for her. She had her back to me, and as I paused in the doorway before saying hello, I realized that she was
trying to light a candle with flint and steel by striking them over the wick.
“You’re never going to get it lit that way,” I said. I startled her more than I meant to; the flint and steel skittered across the stone floor and she whirled around to face me. I held out my hands, one empty, the other holding my violin case. “I assume you’re my new roommate,” I said. “My name is Eliana.”
Her eyes flicked past my shoulder, just for an instant, looking to see if there was anyone behind me. Then she looked me over—her gray eyes taking in my short hair, square jaw, shapeless gray robe. I’m very tall for a woman—almost as tall as most men. I’d heard that the boys called me stuck-up; I knew that many people at the conservatory found me a little intimidating. As my new roommate sized me up, I had the eerie sense that she … approved.
“My name is Mira,” she said, and gave me brief flash of a smile. “I’m pleased to meet you.” She ducked to pick up the flint and steel.
I hung up my cloak and put away my violin. There was a violin case on Mira’s bed as well, tightly buckled and dusty from the road. “You play violin?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
I hoped she was decent with her instrument; sharing a room at a conservatory with a bad musician could be almost unbearable.
Having retrieved the flint and steel, Mira held them out to me. “Please, would you show me how to use these?”
I took the flint and steel out of her hands and set them on her bed, then scraped some lint off my robes. “You need something that lights easily to catch the spark. These robes they make us wear must be good for something, right?” I glanced up and she smiled cooperatively. I put the
lint in the cupped edge of the candle holder and lit it with a spark from the flint and steel, then lit the candle from the burning lint. “There you go.”
“Thank you,” Mira said, and set the candle in the windowsill. It would blow out in a minute or two. She really had
idea how to deal with a candle.
I studied Mira in the flickering light. She had some of the palest skin I’d ever seen—she couldn’t have come here from a farm. But she was well fed—given the famine, she couldn’t have come from any town in Verdia. She was clearly my age, too old to be just starting at a conservatory, but her hair was freshly cut—she couldn’t have transferred from a conservatory in another province. But it was the candle that really had me puzzled.
I was always reasonably adept at magery, probably because playing the violin had honed my ability to concentrate. I couldn’t draw magefire down from the sky to melt stone, of course—I wasn’t Circle material—but I could light a hearth fire from damp wood with a moment’s effort, which impressed most people well enough. Still, even a child could kindle witchlight to light a dim room—or, if she didn’t want the distraction of keeping the witchlight glowing, she could light a candle with her cupped hand. Even my half-wit friend Giula could do that much. There were people who
use magery, but very few—and they would have already known how to light a candle the hard way. The only real reason I could think of that Mira might avoid using magery would be if she were trying to conceive a child. Using magic decreased fertility; that’s why my mother had taught me how to use flint and steel, even though childbearing was the farthest thing from my mind at the conservatory. I wondered why Mira’s mother hadn’t taught her the same thing; maybe Mira’s mother was one of
those women who had children whether she used magery or not.
The wind blew out the candle and I watched as Mira fumbled for a moment before she managed to get it lit again. I set it down on the table beside her bed.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Cuore,” Mira said. Then she hesitated for a moment and added, “Most recently.”
“Cuore?” Whatever answer I’d imagined, that wasn’t it. I tried to hide my surprise. “How are things up there? They say the famine is affecting everyone …”
“Not Cuore.” A sardonic smile flashed across Mira’s face. “The home of the Circle, the Fedeli, and the Emperor will always stay well supplied.” She turned away to hang up her cloak on a peg by the foot of her bed. “How are things here?”
“Not too bad, not at the conservatory. This part of Verdia didn’t see any fighting during the war; my friend Bella and I used to go up to the top of the bell tower to look at the countryside beyond Bascio, and we never saw so much as smoke, let alone magefire. Food was a little short during the war, but at least it grows here now. The famine areas are closer to the Vesuviano border, where the fighting was—we don’t waste much, but we don’t go hungry, either.”