The first message arrived by raven at midmorning. Aura read it three times. Each time, she frowned a little more. Lady Etheria, the Chancellor of the Order of Enchanters, requested her presence at a gathering of enchantresses, to be held in the Valley of the Mystic Moon in three weeks. Aura had met the Chancellor twice, and knew Etheria’s requests lay somewhere between veiled threats and direct commands.
“Well, I suppose I should attend,” Aura said, with a sigh. “After all, I am the Order’s newest member.”
The wording of the request piqued her curiosity. The gathering was of enchantresses, and apparently did not include the men’s half of the Order. Aura met many enchantresses during her month long sojourn of the Valley half a year earlier. While she made some good friends among them, she found the rest distasteful and worthy of their reputation as “half-naked, overwrought harlots.” As for the Valley, while physically beautiful, she almost died four times. The gathering may give her the opportunity to gain new memories and bury some of the old ones. Attending the gathering, however, meant a five day ride by coach (if she considered a wooden box suspended by leather straps above iron wheels a coach) over paved roads (if she considered rough planks laid down on rougher clay a paved road). King Edgar should visit the continent. Then he would see what qualified as coaches and paved roads.
The second message arrived as soon as she finished that thought. This one was personally written to her. It was an invitation by Lady Naurelia t’Ardora to arrive in the Valley at Aura’s earliest convenience, to be sized for an outfit appropriate to the gathering. It was written in Miriam’s elegant handwriting. Not even Naurelia could read her own penmanship. Aura had tried. She did not understand chicken scratch.
“If Lady Naurelia is going to all the trouble and expense to have a seamstress make me an outfit, then it would be ungracious of me not to attend,” she said. With that, she sent the ravens back with her replies.
Five days later, Aura arrived in Castlebury with a stiff back and a sore bum. Miriam and Karyn met her and whisked her away to Ardora Hall in the Valley.
It did not surprise Aura in the least that her new formal outfit covered so little and exposed so much of her body. Many enchantresses in the Valley walked around naked. In public. It surprised her some that it was mostly made of gold. What surprised her the most was that it fit without needing much alteration.
“Mistress Aura,” Miriam said. “I only healed you three times. That gave me plenty of opportunity to memorize the size of your arms, legs, and body.”
Aura harrumphed. Miriam was being kind. It had been four times.
Finally, Naurelia presented Aura with the tiara of House t’Ardora. It signified the wearer was a personal student of the First Noble, the Order’s most powerful member, magically and politically. It was only marginally true. Aura never apprenticed under Naurelia, like Miriam, Karyn, and even Etheria herself. However, the First Noble had tutored her in the art of intuition. That made her an official member of the t’Ardora family as far as Naurelia was concerned. There would be no argument.
“Aura, dear,” Naurelia said. “This tiara will afford you some elevated respect at the gathering, yes, yes. You may need it.”
“That makes the gathering sound ominous,” Aura replied.
“Let me just say that you’ve become quite the celebrity since your initiation six months ago.”
“What?” Aura said with a gasp.
“Aura, dear, you accomplished more in one month than most of us accomplish in our lifetimes, which are quite lengthy. You did it with courage, curiosity, and stubbornness.”
“In other words, Aura, you were too stupid to realize you couldn’t do it,” Karyn said, grinning. “I told you that you were just trouble.”
Naurelia ignored her former pupil. “That is exactly why Leonikas and I championed your membership in our Order. We hoped that someone new, someone from the outside, someone untainted by our past, would invigorate us. You have! Your name is on all our lips. The women in the gathering will be overwhelmed by you. In turn, they may well overwhelm you.”
“Oh, merciful heavens!” Aura said. She wanted to go home right then.
“Miriam! Karyn!” Naurelia said with the full authority of First Noble. “I charge you both with keeping the crows off Aura. I have to attend the Chancellor, so I can’t shoo them away myself.”
“No one will want to arouse the ire of Miriam,” Karyn muttered.
“As well they should! When Miriam’s ire is roused, mine is roused twice, which is four times what it ought, and only half of what the crows warrant.”
Sure enough, as soon as Aura entered the Chancellor’s Ballroom in the Grahtur, all eyes turned on her. All voices lowered to whispers. Karyn and Miriam guided the timid enchantress to the wine table, and poured her a goblet of red. Aura took a sip, all the while listening to the words around her. So that’s Aura Lockhaven. She’s so tall. I didn’t know she had red hair. So, she slew the balakalat. I hear she lives on the outside. Most of the words were indeed filled with awe. Some with curiosity. Others with heroine worship. Every now and then, she detected envy.
Aura felt like a child in the room. In one respect, it was metaphorical. She was the newest member, the first in ten years. In another, it was literal. While many of the other women looked her age, she knew they were considerably older. Miriam had just celebrated her forty-eighth birthday and Karyn was sixty-seven. Some of the women eyeing her had to be one hundred or more.
Miriam and Karyn led Aura to a quieter, empty space in the ballroom. The other enchantresses began circling her like wolves around a wounded lamb. Finally, a few of the bolder ones approached and offered their hands. Then, the wolves descended, with stars in their eyes. The questions bombarded Aura like gnats on a summer day. Is it true you killed a balakalat? How did you defeat General Ekkehardt? What does Tallen Hall look like on the inside? How did you survive that duel? What is it like living in the outer world? Oh, you have green eyes! Have you met … Do you know … My name is … Can you … Please come meet …
Overwhelmed, the girl wanted to bolt from the ballroom and run all the way back to Hartshorn. Sensing Aura’s great distress, Karyn and Miriam gently placed their hands on her to reassure her.
“Don’t let them frighten you, Mistress,” Miriam said. “You mean much to them and to us.”
“When I said you were too stupid to know you couldn’t do it, I was jesting,” Karyn added. “The truth is, you have more courage than all of us put together. That counts for something. Get used to this. You’re reminding us of who we used to be, and can be again. Your reputation is only going to keep growing.”
Before Aura could reply, the door at the opposite end of the ballroom opened. All voices fell silent. For the first time since she arrived, Aura did not feel any eyes upon her. Everyone turned to face the open door, as Chancellor Etheria entered the room.