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Authors: Licia Troisi

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BOOK: Sennar's Mission
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Sennar carried nothing but a sack bearing a few books and some clothes. He hoisted it over his shoulder and stepped out into the open air.

Beneath his cloak he wore a black, foot-length tunic with an intricate red pattern that swirled inward to form a large, gaping eye on his abdomen. He hadn’t adapted to the climate in Makrat yet. In the Land of the Sea, where he’d been living, the springs were mild, and the Land of the Wind was perpetually hot. But here, in the Land of the Sun, where the Council of Sorcerers were meeting this year, spring was almost as cold as winter, and the sultry, suffocating summer heat came out of nowhere. Sennar shivered and pulled his hood up over his long red hair.

He was nineteen years old and he was a sorcerer. A marvelous sorcerer. But no hero. Nihal was the one who threw herself in death’s way without hesitation. Sennar was always behind the scenes, strategizing. And now that he had the chance to do something for their tormented world and its people, he was frightened. The moment had come, after months of military summits and meetings with the sorcerers on the Council. He would leave and set sail across the seas toward a continent that, for all he knew, might no longer exist.

Alone—so the Council had decided.

I’m a coward
.

Five hundred years had passed without any word of the Underworld. His mission was to find his way there and convince the king to aid the Overworld in a seemingly endless war, the war against the Tyrant. In the growing light of dawn, it struck him as a hopeless mission.

His horse was saddled and ready. He hesitated a moment before mounting.
There’s still time. I can go back to the Council. Tell them I made a mistake, that I changed my mind.

He took one last look around. Not a soul in sight, the entire city immersed in slumber. He had to leave without bidding farewell to anyone. Out of habit, he reached up and ran his fingers over the scar on his cheek. Then he spurred his horse and set off.

His first stop would be the Land of the Sea, where he’d look for someone willing to brave the ocean with him.

It was the land of his birth, the land he’d left at the age of eight to follow Soana, his teacher, to the Land of the Wind. The trek was so long and arduous he’d rarely been able to return.

It had been two years since his last trip back.

He was at a crossroads, and he felt the need to see his mother again.

It was late morning when he arrived in his village, Phelta. The sky, black and swollen with rain, hung menacingly like a dark cowl over the few houses of his birthplace. The streets were empty. Everyone had holed up inside to wait out the downpour most likely. The air was humid, and Sennar breathed in the heavy odor of the sea that penetrated inland.

The village was a cluster of small, brick-walled, thatch-roofed houses, typical of the region, encircled by an imposing wooden fence. It was a humble-looking village, with no more than two hundred residents in all. The houses were crowded one on top of the other, like scared children in enemy territory. Sennar had very few memories of the place. He’d been born there, but it wasn’t long before his family took to the battlefields, coming back only a few times a year, whenever his father was on leave. Only then could he see his friends again and piece together his tattered relationships. But this was his home. His native soil, his Land.

Before going to his mother, Sennar decided to take a walk through town, to make it his own again, to feel its stone roads under his feet, to inhale its scents, to touch the weathered plaster of its houses. He lost himself wandering through the winding alleys, stopped in the tiny central square where they held the market on feast days, lingered on the pier, a thin tongue of wood suspended out over the ocean.

Suddenly, he saw the village as he’d seen it as a child and he was overwhelmed by a multitude of buried memories: fleeting glimpses of games in the street, of lost friends, of small joys. Things forgotten, perhaps with too much haste.

Sennar was anxious and excited at the thought of seeing his mother again. As he stood before the door, he could hear the clinking of silverware coming from inside. He hesitated a moment, then knocked.

A petite, freckled woman opened the door, much aged since the last time Sennar had seen her. She wore a simple black dress—the sort a poor woman might keep, her only scrap of clothing, infinitely mended—which she had improved with a lace collar. Her hair had once been the same fiery red as her son’s, but her mane, gathered up into a loose bun, was wisped with white now. Still, her eyes were girlish, a bright and cheerful green, and they glowed at the sight of Sennar.

“You’ve come home.” She wrapped her arms around her son.

Fresh flowers on the table, embroidered doilies on the furniture, the impeccable cleanliness. Sennar recognized his mother’s touch at once.

She was already at the stove, loading it with wood. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? I’ve got nothing to give you but the crumbs I have on hand. This is a special occasion. We should celebrate!” Meanwhile, she bustled about the kitchen, opening cupboards and seizing pots.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” Sennar reassured her.

It was a joy to see her busy at the stove, and he imagined himself a child again, his father still alive, his family all in one place.

As she cooked she chatted incessantly, asking of his life, telling him of her own, lingering over trivial, everyday things—the kind of talk Sennar missed.

When lunch was ready, they sat down at the table. His mother had always been an excellent cook. Even with meager ingredients, she could whip together a king’s feast. She’d prepared a vegetable-and-fish soup, with walnut bread to sop it up.

Now that they were seated before their steaming plates, in the peaceful calm of the house, she could finally take a good look at her son. “Look at how you’ve grown. …”

Sennar’s cheeks flushed.

“You’ve become a man … a councilor …” Her eyes welled with pride. “It’s still so strange to me, the whole idea. You must tell me. How do you live, how have you gotten by?”

Sennar told his story, despite his suffocating sense of remorse. Even though years had passed, even though his mother had never once expressed resentment over the decision he’d made, Sennar was convinced, deep down, that he’d abandoned her, and his sister, too. And what was worse, by leaving home to follow his dreams, hadn’t he allowed Soana to carry him off to a land unmarred by war? It all seemed too much like an escape to him, an excuse to run off. When he was finished, he took her hand. “And you, Mom? How are things with you?”

“Things are the same as always. The lacework’s still selling, though not as much as in the past, and we’re still up to our necks in this war. But I can’t complain; I make enough to get by and manage better than most. I live a full life, you know? Friends are always coming by to visit.”

Sennar lowered his eyes. “And Kala?”

“Kala’s just fine. I miss her, of course, but I see her often enough.” She took her son’s face in her hands. “Sennar, look at me. Don’t you mind what your sister says. You made the right choice. I’m so proud of the man you’ve become.”

“I have to see her,” Sennar said.

His mother looked at him gravely. “What is it, my son? You seem … I don’t know … out of sorts, not yourself.”

“It’s nothing, it’s just that … I have to go on a voyage, a long way away from here. That’s why I’ve come to see you. I’ll be gone for a while.”

He was reluctant to tell her the truth. The important thing was that he’d come to see her one last time. The rest didn’t matter.

His mother studied him carefully, trying to read his troubled face. Then she lowered her eyes. “She’s living on the other side of town now,” she murmured, “in a house along the shore.”

Sennar set out on foot. The sky was grey and stormy and heavy with rain. The sea stretched out immensely before him.

Waves broke violently over the dock, submerging everything they touched. It was the powerful sea of his youth, the same sea he and his father had pulled fish from on holidays. The same sea he’d dived into happily. Now it seemed angry—angry at him.

Sennar set off along the jetty. The breakers rose up like mountains, but he wasn’t afraid. He let a wave crash over him and stepped out unharmed, encircled by a blue barrier, a magic force field he’d conjured with a simple protective spell. “You’ve been vanquished,” he said, laughing to himself. Then, in the distance, he saw the house. Cold and rain-soaked, he shuddered and felt his courage slip away.

When he arrived, he paused and looked around. Maybe he could stop by the tavern first. It was nearby, after all, and he needed to drop in sooner or later. He put off visiting his sister and changed course.

An elderly man with a white beard and a sunburned face was struggling to push a barrel toward the doorway, all the while cursing the rain.

Sennar recognized him immediately. Only Faraq could brew up such a concoction of swear words. When he drew near, Sennar shouted, “You need a hand, there?”

The man turned with a start. “Are you out of your mind? You want this barrel to flatten me? Who the devil are you?”

Sennar held back a smile. The grumpy old innkeeper hadn’t changed a bit. “You don’t remember me?”

Faraq looked him over, and then slapped his hand to his forehead. “Of course! You’re Sennar, the sorcerer. Good grief, I’m really getting old! Last I saw you, you were just a kid. Now you’re taller than I am.” He laughed heartily and dealt Sennar two cheery slaps on the shoulder. “Now why is it we’re out here like sponges soaking up the rain? Come on inside.”

The tavern was nothing like what Sennar remembered. It seemed to have shrunk. The sorcerer took a seat at one of the heavy wooden tables and Faraq disappeared behind the counter.

“This calls for a celebration. And with this weather we’ll need something strong,” said the old man. He came to the table with two glasses and a bottle of purplish liquid. “Welcome back, kid.”

Faraq raised his glass and tossed the contents down in one go. Sennar looked over at him. On his last visit to the inn, Faraq’s hair had just started to grey and the network of wrinkles around his eyes had been barely visible, and even then, only when he laughed.
By the gods, how long has it been?
Sennar took a sip from his glass. It was enough to set him coughing, his throat in flames.

“How is it a man like you can’t handle a little Shark?” Faraq shot out, laughing.

“It’s the first time I’ve had it. Where I live now, this stuff doesn’t exist.”

It was strong liquor, Shark. Tradition held that every boy on his sixteenth birthday was to be taken by the men of the village for a drinking bout at Faraq’s tavern to celebrate the passage into adulthood.

“You missed out on a few things, leaving the way you did,” Faraq joked. “Though I heard you made a career for yourself. Serving on the Council, right?”

Sennar nodded.

“He’s a talented one, our sorcerer!” Faraq slapped him hard on the shoulder.

Sennar was glad to be back among his straightforward kinsmen, with their roughness, their spirit. He loved his native land.

After a number of glasses—Sennar couldn’t keep track—Faraq asked him why he’d returned. Sennar, his face flushed with alcohol, told him the entire story.

Faraq was staggered. “It’s sheer madness, Sennar. Scores of people have tried to reach the Underworld. And you know what? They never make it back.”

“I know, I know. But that’s my mission, and there’s no turning back. I just need to find someone crazy enough to bring me out there. And I’d like you to help me find him.”

“There won’t be a soul willing to do it.”

“In which case, I’ll have to go on my own.”

Faraq stared at him. “I can’t figure out if you’re a lunatic or a hero.”

Sennar laughed. “I’m a lunatic. What do I know about heroism? I didn’t even have the guts to tell my mother what I’m about to do. In fact, don’t you say anything to her, either. I wouldn’t want her to worry.”

Faraq shook his head. “As you wish.”

“So, will you help me?” Sennar asked, getting to his feet.

The old man downed his last sip and walked Sennar to the door. “I can’t guarantee anything, but come back tomorrow.”

The rain was still falling. Sennar set off toward Kala’s house, this time without hesitation. He knocked. No response. He knocked again. The door opened suddenly.

“Who the devil’s knocking out there?”

It was Kala, without a doubt. Sennar remembered her as an immature girl in her twenties, but here in the doorway stood a fully formed woman, her round face framed by a tumble of auburn curls. For a split second they stared at one another, frozen. Sennar watched the anger mount slowly in his sister’s pale eyes, the same blue as his own. Then the door slammed in his face.

“Kala. Kala! Open up!” Sennar pounded the door with his fists, rainwater pouring off his clothes. “In the name of the gods, I need to speak to you! This could be the last time we see each other.”

“Bless the gods if I never see you again!” Kala yelled from inside.

“Fine then. I’ll just wait here until you decide to open up.”

The door swung suddenly open.

“If you don’t get out of here, I swear I’ll call the guards.”

“Go ahead. I have nothing to lose.”

Kala made to slam the door again, but Sennar blocked it with his arm.

“Move your damned arm or I’ll cut it off.”

“I only want to talk.”

From behind Kala’s skirt a little girl’s curly head peeked out. “Who is it, Mommy?”

“You, get inside,” Kala ordered. “Go on now, there’s no place for you here,” she hissed at her brother.

Sennar stood there, his jaw dropped. “I have a niece. I have a niece and you didn’t even tell me!”

“For heaven’s sake,” Kala blurted, exasperated. “Come in, then, come in.”

Sennar entered, dripping rainwater on the wooden floors of the large central room. He looked around. A fireplace warmed the house, and a bouquet of white flowers graced the dining room table. The little girl stood a few inches away, staring up at him, wide-eyed.

“Mana, I told you to get out of here! Are you deaf?” her mother scolded her.

BOOK: Sennar's Mission
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