“I’m waiting,” taunted Jessica, unmoving. “By now, Rorcul would have had you stuffed and displayed on the mantle, assuming he didn’t toy with you first.”
“It wouldn’t be fair,” said Cinis, “you’re defenseless.”
“You’re right, it won’t be fair,” said Libus. “Go on. Let’s find out what you’re made of.”
“No, I’m not going to do it,” said Cinis, his arms crossed across his chest.
“Just like you didn’t save Rearden’s life,” goaded Jessica, and Cinis tensed, his eyes flashing.
“Fine, then!” he shouted, and swung the crowbar, aiming at her left bicep with just enough force to make it sting. Just before the metal made contact with her skin, Jessica shifted just enough for it to barely miss, and Cinis stumbled past her.
“You’re going to have to swing harder than that if you want to kill Rorcul,” she said as Cinis whipped around, the raft rocking in the water as he lunged again.
This time he put his weight behind the blow, stepping into the motion as his body twisted. This time Jessica moved before his swing began.
She tilted, rolling toward Cinis and taking his shirt sleeve in her hand mid-swing, arcing her foot toward his weight-bearing ankle all in the same motion. As her heel connected, she pulled downward on his sleeve, his forward momentum sending him careening toward the leg that she had knocked out from underneath him. Twisting, she let his body roll over the top of her back, her movements as fluid and graceful as Cinis’ were uncoordinated.
With nothing left to support him, Cinis flew through the air, sailing past the edge of the raft and splashing into the water beyond, the crowbar following him into the river. Seconds later, his head broke the surface of the water as his limbs flailed and he gasped for air, his hand reaching out and just barely missing the edge of the raft.
“Are you going to help him?” asked Libus as Cinis slid under the water again, thrashing until he was able to take another breath.
“In a moment,” Jessica responded, watching. “I want him to remember this.”
Cinis surfaced as they watched, lunging forward to grasp the edge of the raft and pull himself closer. He gasped, spitting out a mouthful of water and coughing, a strand of rivergrass entangled in his hair. Jessica leaned down toward him, her face an inch away from his, and spoke.
“Know without a doubt, Cinis, that I would win in any fight between us. I’m not saying this to boast, or to scare you, I’m saying it because my master informed me that Rorcul would best me, which surely means he would best you.” Then she placed her hands over his and squeezed. “Every. Time.”
Cinis yelped as she wrenched his fingers upward and flung him back into the water, panicking until he took hold of the raft once more, pulling himself back to safety and onto the wood.
“Now that that’s settled,” Jessica said, then she paused and turned to Cinis. “It is settled, isn’t it? Do you understand?”
“Yes,” he said through gritted teeth, but his mind turned back to Libus’ book, where he had written his name in blood not long ago. She’s right, I’ll wait until I’m trained, he thought, but if I have the chance to strike, I’m taking it. And there’s nothing she can do to stop me.
Then Cinis looked toward the bank, his brow furrowed.
I’ll need to plan for when I leave both of them. Maybe I’ll wait until I’m closer to Rhymenia, maybe take some of the black pearls with me and use them to learn to fight. If she’s right, then spending them will attract Rorcul from wherever he may be, and I won’t have to hunt him down. Rather, I can use them as a trap, as bait.
Jessica spoke again, interrupting his thoughts.
“As I was saying, now that that’s settled, we have the problem of the pearls. If these were being shipped by Rorcul, then there’s no doubt that he will soon realize they are missing, if he hasn’t already. So not only is there a manhunt for Cinis, but also for a small fortune, both of which happen to be on this raft.”
“They’ll be searching downriver for the pearls,” interjected Libus, “so if we stop at Granttan to head ashore, we’ll likely be found.”
“Agreed,” said Jessica. “In fact, the river will likely be blocked at Granttan, making it impossible to pass. I suggest we go ashore sooner, in the forest, and walk until we find the road.”
“Which many would say is an even more dangerous path,” countered Cinis, shaking the water from his hair.
Jessica laughed. “Maybe if you’ve spent your whole life in the city. I’ve had my share of experience off the road.”
“So did the merchants who thought they could cut through the forest when carrying a shipment of wine Rearden ordered two years ago,” said Cinis. “They were never found, and neither was the wine. Expensive stuff, too.”
“I’m siding with Cinis here, Jessica,” Libus said. “I’ve heard stories as well of good men who have gone missing, men who had experience and were not green. I say we avoid the forest until just before Granttan, where the road is closest to the bank. The good news is that Rorcul’s men will not be able to cross through the forest either, so we do not need to worry about arrows from the bank.”
“I didn’t take you for the superstitious type, Libus,” responded Jessica.
“As I said, there are stories about this stretch,” he said, looking toward the darkness between the trees. “Enough stories that rafts refuse to beach for sleep and choose instead to work straight through the night. It’s no secret that men have gone missing.”
“Most likely they got lost,” Jessica said, looking back to her map. “But to be sure, let’s keep going for another few hours, until the road bends inward back toward the river. The distance through the forest will be least there, just before Granttan. Like you said, Libus.”
“So now that that’s decided, what do we do now, wait?” asked Cinis, looking wistfully toward the water where he had dropped the crowbar, which would have served as an adequate weapon. “Should we prepare in case we are attacked?”
“Not much we can do to prepare, boy, considering that, if they find us, we will be drastically outnumbered,” said Libus. “So yes, we wait, and we drift, and we hope they don’t anticipate us heading ashore before the city. Oh, and one more thing, before I forget.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small pouch, the fabric an inky black.
“Jessica, it’s not just seasoned men who don’t make it through the forest. Often it’s those carrying magical devices, specifically that exist for somewhat dubious purposes. Inhabitants of the forest often don’t take kindly to those, as legend says, considering them to be a blasphemy of powers they hold sacred.”
Stretching the mouth of the bag, he held it out to Jessica, several other objects clinking together on the inside.
“Your earrings, if you will.”
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