"You'll do well to keep your gaze masked," Sanele said as guards parted on either side of his manse's gate.
Wenyanga trailed him under the tall sandbrick arch. Each guard's soul spun in a slow, firey circle around their core. Only a single ring each. Petty-level warmages, the base form of magic-practising warrior. Sanele's three rings marked him as a Perfect warmage, one of only three in the desert, and an impressive one even in Wenyanga's... hard-earned standards. But he had more two-ringed Refined warriors than they could bother to keep up with.
And yet your weakest guard the gate.
It wasn't difficult to understand why.
The chief's front yard was a simple wonder. Wide, flat tiles of polished stone marked the central walkway. On either side were large squares of desert sand combed in intricate whorls. The one on the left depicted a monarch vulture with wings large enough to shade a village, picking at the open belly of a dead dragon. On the right, the chief's artists had combed out a wonder in the sand: Sanele sitting in a trance pose, legs tucked under his bowed body, the three rings of his soul spinning.
Though there was a breeze, not a speck of dirt blew away from the two sand gardens.
It would have been quite amusing that someone as hot-headed as Sanele could muster the spiritual control to maintain two sand gardens, especially with a soul as clumsy as a warriors, if not for the white light spilling out of every window of his manse. Wenyanga shut their stoneiris tight, and the light ebbed. If Sanele died, his Perfect soul would rip an inferno through half the manse before any of his soul artists could contain it. But if a Judge died, here in the middle of town...
Wenyanga laced their fingers through Thula's.
"What do you think?" she said as they walked through the giant arch of the front door. She carried her medical bag, which was to say she had a hollow log twice as large as she was strapped to her back.
Wenyanga shrugged. Beyond the manse walls, mourners still sand. "It's a shit day for a catastrophe, all things considered."
Sanele turned as if to silence them, then seemed to think better of the commotion. He still flared his soul in warning, so slightly that any of the Petty-level guards wouldn't have been able to sense it. Wenyanga permitted it to send a spike of fear through them. Beside them, Thula shivered.
"You'll want to stop flexing your soul so close to a dying Judge," Wenyanga said.
There was no one in the hallway, in fact, Wenyanga suspected there was no one actually inside the manse. Sanele still flinched. Ah... that told them all they needed to know.
"You could have told me they were here," Wenyanga said as they crossed the wide, deserted lobby. Silk curtains swelled with the warm morning air. "If a fight breaks out, I don't think I'll be able to protect you."
Sanele threw open two curtains that separated the lobby from the back stairway. "Artist Thula is a civilian; they won't harm her."
"I was talking to you, Chief."
His shoulders tightened, but he didn't turn. "If you wouldn't mind setting your ego down for a few hours, the three thousand people in this town would greatly appreciate it."
Let's be honest, he's hoping they never find out they have anything to be grateful for. The death of a Judge is halfway to an apocalypse, but the question of what could kill a Judge is just plain awkward.
Sanele led them up wide, winding stairs that took them to the third tier of his manse. It was much cooler on the landing than it had been in the lobby. Silk curtains billowed between smooth pillars, the only partition between the hallway and the second story roof below. When a breath of wind split two curtains, Wenyanga caught a glimpse of the town, citizens packed in around the square dressed in bright cloth, wailing songs. They were all packed in so close that it took Wenyanga a moment to find the empty pyre in the middle of the crowd. Someone had thrown themselves over it, weeping with an open mouth that showed teeth, eyes shut in agony.
The wind ruffled the heavy white cloth of Wenyanga's mage robes, and a frown twitched at the edges of their mouth. They must have let go of Thula's hand at some point, because she turned and fixed them with a worried look. Sanele had come to a halt three paces ahead of her and turned too.
"Beloved," Thula said, "are you alright?"
"Call off the funeral," Wenyanga said to Sanele. "That's my condition for helping you."
"They have as much a right to mourn Tello as you do," the Chief said, growing angry again. "And your services were requested, but I will not hesitate to turn them into a command, Wenyanga."
"If you want to force me to help, call the Paramount."
Their eyes locked with Sanele's fiery gaze. Again, that burning sensation between their eyes, the show of a Chief's power. Wenyanga unveiled their soul, just a fraction, like peeling the corner of a bed cover. All three of Sanele's rings dimmed, and he blinked in shock.
"I'm not a Petty mage who can be whipped by a Perfect's ire, and Tello protected your people, he was not loved by them. I won't ask you to beg for my help, but I won't beg for you to call off this charade, either."
He did not love them, not as he loved me.
Sanele's soul struggled to flare to its prime brightness, and each attempt brought on an invisible force that weighed down the air in the hallway. His voice, at least, was the very melody of authority. "Call out the Paramount all you like, sulk and posture all you like, be angry in your grief... but do not play with the lives of my people. I will cut you down right here for your bravado alone."
Wenyanga's eyes were still on the pyre, their voice soft. "If you want bravado, let's go sit on the Judge's liver when his soul explodes with enough heat to turn this town into a glass floor. Whoever walks away wins."
"Dying is easy, Chief, so easy some of us can do it more than once." They veiled their soul again, and Sanele's flared when the pressure lifted off of it. He scrambled to contain his unshackled spirit. "But only some of us."
Sanele stared at them for a long moment. "Tello spoke of you like some genius of the old era. What... what are you?"
"Serious," Wenyanga said, "about my request, that is."
"Tello was our Champion. He was our protector from the beasts of the desert. The only reason I had to request a Judge in the first place was to protect us until I could find a suitable Champion to replace Tello--"
"And that worked out so well for you."
"--but replacing someone of Tello's talents... his soul had four rings, Wenyanga. He could have been the bridge to take this Chiefdom to the next level. These people did love him. I loved him. Why would you hurt his memory so?"
Wenyanga was halfway to balling a fist that when a door in the hallway was thrown open. Thula settled the massive log on her back down and kicked it through the door, then turned to glare at Wenyanga.
"I'm helping the Judge. When you're done posturing, do me a favour and help, beloved."
The tangle of accusations on the final word. Wenyanga didn't have enough years left to unknot them all. Sighing, they walked towards the door.
When the old mage passed Sanele, they whispered, "Five."
"What?" the Chief said asked. He was still slightly rattled, but his rising anger was helping him find his balance.
"Tello's soul had five rings," Wenyanga said without turning back. "Call off the funeral, if for nothing else than to get people to safety in case we fail."
"What are the chances you'll fail?"
I trust you, Tello's memory said at the same time.
Wenyanga braced themselves with a hand against the doorframe. "Call it off, Sanele."
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