“What the hell were you thinking?!” Arran raged at Jiang Fei.
They were back at the inn, and it had been over half an hour since Stormleaf had left. They had patiently waited until they were certain they weren’t being listened to, but now, Arran could finally vent.
“I was thinking a little lie was better than letting us get killed,” Jiang Fei said flatly.
“A little lie?!” Arran was dumbfounded. “You agreed that we would travel with him! What are we going to do? How can we stay hidden if they’re right there with us?!”
“It was the only choice,” Jiang Fei said. “Even without finding Realms, we were too suspicious. And the Academy…” She sighed. “They would rather kill a few innocents than risk letting an enemy escape.”
Arran wanted to protest, but he thought she was probably right. Still, it took him some moments to calm down. When he finally regained his composure, he thought about what Jiang Fei had said that night.
“What you said about the Jiang clan…” Arran asked with a frown. “Was it true?”
Jiang Fei hesitated before finally speaking. “Some of it. I really am a member of the Jiang clan, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Then why were you at the monastery?” Arran asked. “Doesn’t your clan train its own members?”
“I wasn’t talented enough,” she said. “Not for the clan, at least. They still would have trained me, but eventually, I would have been expected to marry someone from an allied clan.”
“You weren’t talented enough?” Arran was baffled. “But your skill at magic is phenomenal!”
A slight smile appeared on her face, but she shook her head. “Clans like ours expect more than just a small bit of skill. The most talented youths are the future leaders and elders of the clan. The rest of us… we are expected to marry into other clans, to secure allies and strengthen the clan’s position within the Empire.”
“But how did you end up at the monastery?” Arran asked.
“I wasn’t satisfied with a future as a wife to strengthen the ties with some other clan,” she said. “So I ran away, hoping that by the time I returned, I would be strong enough to become one of the core members of the clan. I knew Windsong was taking students, so that’s where I went.”
Arran gave it a thought. “Is that why you always work so hard?” he asked, recalling how obsessive Jiang Fei had been about her training.
She nodded. “I can’t afford to waste time. Not if I’m going to choose my own path.”
Arran finally understood. For Jiang Fei, magic wasn’t just a powerful tool; it was the only way she would be allowed to choose her own destiny.
They talked more that night, with Jiang Fei explaining a little about the major clans to Arran. Until now, he had known nothing about them beyond the fact that they existed, and he was surprised to learn that the major clans were one of the main powers within the Empire.
The more he learned, the more he understood just how little he knew about the Empire.
Well into the night, they finally went to bed, although it took Arran several hours just to fall asleep.
The next morning, they were awakened by the innkeeper, who informed them that the Academy mages were waiting for them outside the inn. The woman spoke of them in hushed tones, and Arran could tell that she was terrified of the Academy.
As well she should be, he thought.
They packed in a hurry, and Arran realized with some annoyance that because they would be traveling with the Academy mages, he could not store the things they had bought the previous day in their void bags.
By the time they left the inn, he was packed like a mule, wearing the armored coat and carrying not just his weapons but also the clothes Jiang Fei had bought the day before.
Outside the inn they found Stormleaf waiting with the other two Academy mages, over half a dozen horses at their side. Upon seeing Arran laden with weapons and bags, he laughed loudly.
“Your poor servant seems to be over-encumbered, Miss Jiang,” he said.
“He insisted he would need the weapons and armor for the journey,” Jiang Fei said. “It’s only reasonable that he should carry them.”
“Indeed,” Stormleaf said. “But I think we will travel faster if we release your servant from at least some of his burdens.”
Arran was relieved to see that they had several packhorses, and some moments later he found himself relieved of the bags he was carrying.
“Do the two of you know how to ride?” Stormleaf asked, gesturing toward two of the horses.
“Of course,” Jiang Fei said immediately.
“A little,” Arran replied with some hesitation. He had ridden occasionally as he grew up in Riverbend, although the last time he sat on a horse was some years ago. Still, the thought of not having to walk was an appealing one.
Arran soon discovered that travel on horseback wasn’t nearly as comfortable as he had hoped. The first day wasn’t too bad, although it did leave his thighs and backside sore. The second day was worse, as he had to ride despite already being sore. By the third day, he found himself wishing he could go back to walking again.
It took a week before Arran started to become more comfortable riding, although he still much preferred walking on his own two feet.
Meanwhile, he found that travel with the Academy mages was even more boring than it was terrifying.
At first, he had spent every waking moment worrying that he could be found out at any moment, but he discovered that none of them had any interest in him whatsoever.
Each day, Stormleaf and Jiang Fei would ride in front, with Arran and the two Academy mages following behind them. The only time the two would talk to him was when they ordered him to water the horses or do other tasks. Mostly, they barely even acknowledged his existence.
While he was too afraid to use Shadow Essence during the first few days, boredom and frustration eventually won out over fear, and he started to examine the Shadow seals on his Fire and Wind Realms as they traveled.
Master Zhao had told him that other mages would be unable to sense his Shadow Essence, and although he was reluctant to stake his life on the man’s words, his only other option was to do nothing.
Knowing the dangers that awaited him at the Shadowflame Society, he could not bring himself to waste time like that. He would need to be prepared, and the only way to do that was to practice now, so that at the very least, he would be able to open his Realms before he arrived.
Initially, he only examined the seals, focusing his mind on them while trying to discern what they actually were. It took him some days, but eventually, he started to see more clearly how they were made.
The seals were like intricate knots, formed from thin strands of Shadow Essence that wrapped around each other in what seemed like a tight weave, completely covering his connection to the Realms.
Once he understood a little more about the seals, he started to poke and prod them with Shadow Essence, trying to see if and how they would react.
He discovered that there was little difference between his own Shadow Essence and the Shadow Essence from which the seals were made, and he could tell that if he just figured out how, he would be able to manipulate it.
His progress was slow, but the journey was dull and he had little else to do but practice while they rode.
As the weeks passed, he steadily grew more proficient at manipulating the Shadow Essence that made up the seals. He was still far from being able to remove the seals, but he could sense that given enough time, he would eventually succeed.
Not that he was in any hurry, of course — before they parted with the Academy mages, he wouldn’t dare risk trying to undo the seals.
Around three weeks into their journey, Arran was spending yet another evening sitting quietly while he worked on his control over the Shadow seals, ignored by the others at the campfire.
“Miss Jiang,” he heard Stormleaf say. “In the weeks we have spent traveling together, I have given some thought to your situation. I believe I may have a solution.”
“Oh?” Jiang Fei reacted calmly, although Arran thought he heard a hint of worry in her voice.
“I have a proposition for you,” Stormleaf said.