Azara was going to take a big risk. She lived on the streets of Oro as a beggar-thief for several seasons after her escape from the Iceborn Isles. What she wanted now was better food.
She didn’t spend much time planning her heist. There was a big house a few blocks away from the Frost Palace, and whatever food stored there was better than stale bread and old soup bought with scrap change through begging. It excited her to think about what she would find in the cupboards and pantries of that home. Azara had almost forgotten the taste of freshly cooked meat, a common occasion during her time in the Iceborn Isles. She spent the entire day thinking of mouth-watering fantasies. Maybe she’ll even find fruits. This far north and in middle of the Season of Frost, though, even that was a fantasy too optimistic to fully believe in.
During the boring hours spent begging near Oro’s marketplace, she hatched another idea. Clothes. She didn’t care too much for warmth, with her Iceborn blood protecting her from even the coldest frosts. But her cloth pants were in bad shape, her roughspun cloak had more than a few holes and rips in it. It was only a matter of time before it became totally useless. She could find nicer clothes in that home.
Someone interrupted her thoughts.
“What’s a young lady like you doing on the streets?”
Azara looked up and saw a short, skinny man with bright eyes. Though he wasn’t wearing any furs, his clean and colourful clothes suggested he was wealthier than most people in the marketplace.
“My mother died of disease and my father died in Kal’dael, fighting our enemies,” she lied. A combination of misfortune and patriotism seemed to get her the most coins.
The man raised an eyebrow, and smirked. He took out a fat iron square from his purse, and played with it with his fingers. Azara tried not to look at the coin, but she couldn’t feign disinterest—that coin alone could satisfy all her basic needs for a quarter season.
“There’s no need to lie,” he said, and shook his head. “It’s a quite a cold day today, and you must have been sitting here since dawn. You have no warm clothes on you. So—what does all that tell me?” he said with a hint of accusation.
Azara’s heart sank. If anyone knew she escaped from the Iceborn Isles, she would be sent back to that desolate, icy military outpost. Once there, her Iceborn peers will forever hate her, and doubtlessly they’ll make certain she’ll never leave again.
“After a few seasons outside, you get used to the cold,” she said with the perfect amount of confidence and self-pity.
“Don’t take me for a fool. I’ve been studying magic for years. You’re not bothered by the cold because you’re an Iceborn,” he said flatly.
She had to act quickly. This was not a man she could lie to. She took a deep breathe. With a fast, energetic motion, she made a pulling gesture with her hand and a small dark cloud formed around her palm. Then, she pushed her hand just before the man’s face, and pushed the darkness around her hands into his eyes. She jumped up and sprinted out of the marketplace, with screams and yells coming behind her. The consequences for using dark magic were far worse than being sent back to the Iceborn Isles. He was only temporarily blinded, she reasoned with herself. She also realised the marketplace was going to be off-limits to her for a while.
Azara weaved through the city and lost anyone who tried to catch or follow her. She spent the rest of the day on her favourite rooftop, hidden from sight, and waited until nightfall. Only a few emergency crackers satisfied her hunger that afternoon. Good food and new clothes—that would make her feel better.
The sun set early as always, and Azara made her way to the big home. She could have done a great number of sneaky tricks to get into the house with her abilities. If she was feeling adventurous, she could have put on a cloak of darkness, and made herself look like a blur in the night. Or perhaps an advanced technique would ensure her success, like creating walls of darkness before every door inside the house, making every room impenetrable by sight.
Instead, she opened a window and hopped right in. She was far too hungry and grumpy for theatrics.
What she did do was pull some of the darkness away inside the unlit home so she could see better. It felt like pulling soft, dark curtains away and making it a bit easier to see her surroundings.
It didn’t take her long to find the kitchen, and there she found a bag of dried meat strips. She sampled a few and found it to her liking. A few more went into her pockets. She drank from a bottle of wine, ate bread with butter, and even found a few dried apple slices which she immediately devoured. To Azara, it was a feast fit for a queen.
She didn’t notice the faint sound of wood creaking in the other room. When a man entered the kitchen, she didn’t panic. Such situations happened occasionally, and her prowess over the dark ensured her escape every time. But she hesitated. The man held a pitcher of water, and it was a curious sight, as he seemed to be in a defensive stance.
Before Azara could do anything, the man splashed the pitcher in her direction, and quickly made several complicated motions with his free hand. The water bent and coalesced in the air, and snaked around her legs. The man made a fist and the water instantly froze, trapping her in place.
Now was the time to panic. But before she could push and pull the darkness to aid her, the man used the rest of the water in the pitcher to freeze her hands in the same way. Without her hands, she couldn’t use any magic.
“Doesn’t a thief know better than to steal from my house? Do you even know who I am?” the man said with a voice of unrestrained triumph.
“You’re that man from the marketplace,” said Azara, recognising the voice.
The man came closer to have a better look.
“Hah! You’re that Iceborn beggar bitch that blinded me. I’ll be damned,” he noticed the mess in the kitchen. “Did you come here just for the food?”
Azara wished she could do something. She heard stories of Arcons who could cast spells with their eyes, or even with their thoughts. But as far as she knew, she was an Iceborn, not an Arcon. Advanced magic was out of her reach.
“Let me go. I didn’t take anything. I was just hungry,” she said.
“Gods be damned, why did you run off in the marketplace? What did you think I’d do, report you to the City Guard? Send you away to the Isles? Tell me.”
Azara nodded. “I was afraid. I don’t want to go back,” she said honestly.
“You didn’t have to worry. When I figured out that you had some magic in you, I was going to ask you to help me.” he said, shaking his head.
“What help?” she asked.
“First, tell me your name. Your real name—don’t lie to me,” he said, and focused on her.
The man smiled. “My name is Kintoren Dori, honoured assistant to the Lord of Alchemistry,” he hummed a little, then slowly said her name, “Azara.”
She felt a tight knot in her stomach, as if something squeezed her core, and she curled into a ball. She felt nauseous.
“I have your name. I can kill you if I want,” Kintoren said. “It all depends on how I say it,” he grinned. Azara was in no position to protest.
“Your expertise as a thief is something I need. The help I want from you is to steal something from a colleague. Nothing you would have much trouble with, now that I know your abilities,” he said, and walked closer to her, “What do you say, Azara?” This time he said her name in a pleasant way, soothing her body, and the squeezing feeling in her gut relaxed completely.
She was about to speak when he interjected, “If you refuse, know that if I see you again, I can make your heart stop with a single breath,” he said.
Azara rolled her eyes. “What do you need me to do?”
Kintoren smiled again and went to another room. He returned with a piece of paper, which looked like an advertisement.
“My colleague, Uvar Sepeldar, an honoured assistant to the Lord of Dreams, has been working on a secret project. However, with the help of one of his aides, I discovered what it is. He’s working on music. Don’t look so surprised; it isn’t simple music. He calls it the Song of the North. Uvar knows sound magic, just as I do, but his knowledge of it far exceeds mine. Furthermore, he can protect himself from it, and cast spells with extreme precision,” he paused to see that Azara had absolutely no interest with his awe of sound magic.
He sighed. “I need the Song of the North. I want you to tell me what it does when it’s sung, and what his plans are,” he showed her the advertisement in his hands. “He needs someone ‘with a fine understanding of magic, discretion and good singing ability’, and that will be you,” he said.
“I have none of those qualities,” she said. “Can you unfreeze my hands and legs now?”
He waved his hand and the ice that bound her unfroze. The water ran over the kitchen floor, and Azara quickly stood up from the puddle.
“You just need to be there long enough to convince him you’re eager and trustworthy. Figure out what he wants. Then steal the sheet music and come back to me,” he said.
“What’s my reward?” she said.
Kintoren laughed. “Of course you’d ask for that. Now I know you’re willing to help. If you do what I asked, I’ll give you ten iron squares.”
“Make it twenty five and I’ll do it,” Azara quickly replied. She knew ten iron squares was more than enough to get new clothes, and food to last a long time. But twenty five was better.
They shook hands, and Kintoren said one last thing.
“Also, don’t give him your real name. His sound magic is superior to mine, so be careful of not getting on his bad side.”
Azara nodded, and couldn’t believe what she got herself into. At least she ate well.
On the next day, Azara went to Uvar’s house. He welcomed her in, and got straight to business. Her magical abilities were tested, and she passed without a problem. Her singing, however, was of such quality that she knew it could never be used, unless in self-defence. Still, Uvar seemed to be pleased with her enthusiasm, though he did comment that she was going to have to work on singing. And as an expert on sound, he would help her. Azara realised just how scarce magic must be at the capital.
For the first time in her life, she felt good. She no longer begged on the streets, as Uvar treated her to generous meals every day. Singing practice was going better than she expected, and she learned how to hit the right notes with her voice. Still, she didn’t want to push any questions about the Song of the North. Perhaps she could just keep things as they are, being an apprentice to Uvar. Food and shelter guaranteed, something she couldn’t say since she escaped the Isles.
The Season of Frost ended, and Azara’s singing improved tremendously over the time she spent practising with Uvar. She never felt that Uvar was a powerful sorcerer, and never saw any of his fearsome abilities that Kintoren warned her about. Nevertheless, she used a fake name with him: Fera.
“So, Fera, the season’s ended and your singing is wonderful. I feel it’s time for you to help me with an important project, the reason behind why I searched for someone with magic in their veins in the first place. Let’s go to my study,” Uvar said.
Azara had never been in Uvar’s study. It was always a locked door, and she never saw what was inside. Uvar unlocked the door, and hundreds upon hundreds of scrolls, all neatly organised on shelves, was the most striking sight. His desk had a dozen or so sheets spread with music written on them.
“I’ve finished my masterpiece recently,” Uvar said as he approached his desk. He lifted the sheet music and neatly stacked them on top of each other. The paper looked old, almost ancient, and the ink was a rich black. Upon closer inspection, faint blue ink, almost invisible, noted something Azara didn’t recognise.
“This is what I call the Song of the North. It’s a magical song, and whoever sings it makes whoever hears it fall in love with them,” he said proudly. He looked at his work as if it were a child that just received a prestigious award.
Azara burst out laughing. She couldn’t contain it. Uvar’s expression instantly turned sour.
“What’s the matter with you, Fera?” he said with an undertone of anger and bruised spirits.
After her laughter ran its course, she was able to speak.
“A song that makes people fall in love with you? Forgive me, but that’s hardly original. I’ve heard so many stories of men being seduced by the songs of pretty women with nice voices. And then there are all those myths about magical songs and whatnot, and the beasts that capture and steal the hearts of their audience,” she said.
Uvar regained some of his smile.
“That’s precisely why it won’t draw any suspicions. Let me remind you that I’m in the King’s Court quite often, being the assistant of the Lord of Dreams. This song is not a myth. It’s not like those you hear in stories. It’s real,” he said, and sat down.
“I’ve studied magic in Borion, that enigmatic, closed country. There, all the songs were infused with magic. Songs would pull at your heartstrings, or make you dance with joy, and the sound was so wonderful. I found out later that every person heard what they wanted to hear, and the magic in the songs was made them want something particular. The notation I’ve written here is for me, and I’ll infuse your voice and my violin with magic. Everyone who hears it, except you and I, will fall in love with you,” he said with a grin.
“And why would I want that? Seems like an awful burden to have who knows how many men chasing after me after I sing,” she jabbed.
“Because at first, you will only sing to one man: the Lord of Dreams. He always has the king’s ear, and you will influence what he says. You will then secure a hearing with the king and sing for him. Then, you can influence the King of Darros. We can steer this country into the right direction without anyone knowing. And believe me, King Orin II will drive Darros into a collision course with the Tyrian Empire if we don’t do something about it. I don’t want our country to plunge into a terrible war,” he said.
“But isn’t this song dangerous? Imagine the harm it would cause if someone were to copy it,” Azara said.
Uvar nodded. “That’s why it must remain the highest secret between you and I. You understand the dangers it can cause. But you also understand the good it can bring.”
She hesitated in saying anything for some time. Then she asked, “When is the meeting with the Lord of Dreams?”
“I’ve arranged it for tomorrow evening. You have more than enough training to do this well. I believe in you,” he said.
That night, while Uvar was sleeping, Azara thought of what Kintoren said. If she didn’t bring the sheet music to him, he would doubtlessly focus all of his efforts on obtaining it once rumours spread of her performance. She wondered what Kintoren would do with such a magical song. Then she wondered how far these political games were going to go on for with Uvar, the Lord of Dreams and King Orin II himself. She didn’t want any of it.
Or maybe Uvar will simply discard her after her role was completed? Is she replaceable? Courtly game of such stakes rarely end well for the expendable pieces. These thoughts flowed through her head that night while she tossed and turned in her bed at Uvar’s house. Such a simple idea, a song that makes people fall uncontrollably in love with the singer. How far was Uvar willing to take this?
And yet, there was a real chance to become someone great, someone famous and loved by all the King’s Court. An easy life. A life full of anything she desired. It was an intoxicating thought. She would never have to beg or steal anything ever again. Maybe she could get enough money and escape where no one could find her, somewhere warm and calm, like the sunny island of Dol. She stood from her bed, and went to go read the Song of the North again, just to reassure herself that she had it memorised before the performance tomorrow. She lit a candle and quietly went to Uvar’s study.
There was enough moonlight that she could read the Song without using the candle, and she set it down on the desk. It was a beautiful song, even without magic. Anyone who had been to the north would feel a sense of nostalgia, a sense of pride, or a sense of longing. The song seemed to touch the spirit of the listener, whoever it may be.
Azara gently held the sheets over the burning candle, and lit the Song on fire. It burned with a quiet intensity, and the rising flames released a final harmony as the paper turned to ash. The air in the study hummed and echoed in unity with the flames, and in a short while, it was over. All that remained of the Song of the North was ash, spread over Uvar’s desk. Azara opened the window behind her, and escaped into the night.