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When Cinis woke, the sun was already climbing into the midmorning sky. He yawned as the light warmed the exposed side of his face and the scratchy blanket pricked the other. He couldn’t remember falling asleep, only watching Amellias disappear as droplets of water rushed off his shirt and skin to follow her back into the river. In his pocket he felt the vial and bottle that she had given him, pushing against the ring that was already inhabiting the space and digging into his thigh.
Libus was washing himself with river water and a small towel on the other side of the raft, carefully inspecting himself with a mirror that he had taken from one of the cargo crates, turning it to view a spot just above the stubble on his left cheek. Jessica had occupied herself in the center, laying out three cloth bags, filling them with items from the cargo and mounding other useful objects around them including a new pair of boots, a small sewing kit, extra containers for water, and a collection of spice jars. But as he turned toward her, he saw her staring back and quickly sat up.
“What happened?” he said, fishing into his pocket and pulling out the jar and vial. “Who was that last night?”
“What happened is that you almost started sleeping with the fishes,” said Libus, snapping the mirror closed, “literally. You might want to check your neck for gills and your toes for webbing, because too much longer around her and they would have become fresh members of your anatomy.”
“Like Libus said,” added Jessica, “whoever that was, she was powerful, and she was trying to take you with her. It’s likely my fault, since I sped up the raft by calling fish to push it—her pets, as she called them—and she probably felt me doing it.”
“A good thing that Jessica woke up and woke me up, because otherwise we would have thought you had fled in the middle of the night. And a good thing, Jessica, that you did not try to fight her, as it would have been like trying to fight your way up a waterfall. You would have made excellent fish food. The Ladies are no force to be laughed at.”
“I could have at least escaped, Libus,” said Jessica, and he laughed.
“Only if she let you! Like I said, the Ladies are powerful. More powerful than anyone you have met. They’re pure elemental forces, and as such, their minds and beings are completely muddled by the magic of the elements. Warped, sometimes to the point of insanity. I’m sure you’ve seen Angels with wings, Jessica—the Ladies are extreme versions of that. Each of us has some of the elements within us—air in our lungs and blood, water throughout, fire in our spirits and digestion, earth in our bones, light in our minds, and darkness in our secrets. For the Ladies, and other elemental beings, that’s imbalanced to a dangerous degree.”
“If they are so powerful, how could she have been trapped in this?” asked Cinis, raising the bottle. “She wouldn’t even fit!”
“Cinis, if you were to get in a fight with a bear, no weapons of any sort allowed, who would win?”
“Well, the bear of course, but I don’t see how that applies.”
“It applies,” said Jessica, taking the bottle from Cinis as Libus nodded, “because even though a bear would rip you apart in its home territory, it can still be caged and controlled with proper preparation. See the writing on this bottle? That golden ink is atriel, a magical substance, and the writing is an enchantment to bind and contain, specifically for water. This is incredibly hard to do, since vrael and atriel are notoriously hard to work into any shape beyond the most simple and blocky of forms. I would assume that they could trap her because the bottle traps her essence, or water—Libus?”
“Correct, or I would assume so,” he said. “They would only have to catch a few drops of her, or a strand of her hair, or a cut of her moonlit dress. And because the enchantment is primarily one of water, the worker would primarily need to design it around Water Magic, which makes the process considerably simpler.”
“Interesting,” said Cinis as he took the vial out and studied that as well. “But what was that whole bit about trading? That she said she owed me this, and you gave her pearls?”
“The Ladies, as well as other natural entities, are often extremely particular about debts,” answered Libus. “It’s a natural property. Think of it this way: Should you lift a brick, you steal it momentarily from the earth, but eventually that brick will fall and the debt will be paid. Or throughout its lifetime, a tree collects sunlight, which is released if the plant is lit on fire. The Lady felt she owed you for the actions of your ancestors, which meant that she had to repay the debt, which to her meant taking you under her wing for protection and who-knows-what-else her twisted mind dictated. So by giving her the pearls, which are quite valuable, especially to her since they are water-born objects, I placed her in my debt. A dangerous move, because she knew precisely what I was doing and could have easily just killed me for my insolence. Tricky entities, Ladies, and you should always use utmost caution around them, if you’re ever lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to meet one again.”
“Interesting,” said Jessica. “On two accounts.”
“Which are?” asked Cinis.
“One, that you know all this, Libus. Strange that a thief from the inside of the neutral city, where magic is banned, would be so well versed on theory—particularly about the Ladies, which is not formally taught.”
“Such is the life of a vagabond,” countered Libus, staring into the sky. “I pick things up here and there. All you have to do is listen when no one expects you to. Besides, Jessica, I’ve told you that Querkus was only the most recent chapter of my life. And I prefer social injustice worker to thief—the connotations are quite different.”
“I still prefer thief,” Jessica responded, her eyes moving to the pocket where Libus kept the veil that held her earrings, “and maybe liar as well. But secondly, it’s interesting because one of Cinis’ ancestors freed her, which explains why he might be hunted. Maybe there is some magic in him, after all.”
“Don’t you think I would know by now if that was the case?” asked Cinis.
“Yes, I woke up to the waters of the river splitting before him, rocks around his head, and fire spouting from this mouth, all while he flew in circles above us,” Libus mocked.
“I mean, he’s spent his whole life in Querkus, it’s not like he’s had much of a chance to exercise it.”
“There should have still been signs,” Libus responded, “Unless, hmm, well unless he was a simple mage.”
“A what?” asked Cinis, and Jessica groaned. “What does that mean? I still stand by the fact that I’d know by now if I could use magic. There are countless times I wished the tavern dishes would clean themselves.”
“A simple mage,” repeated Jessica. “Cinis, typically those gifted with magic have a specialty, which is often hereditary. For me, it should have been air. This is a certain intuition, a jump start at that particular element, though the others can be learned as well. But a mage, while being gifted, has no intuition. He has the power, but no channel to use it until he develops it on his own.”
“What she’s saying is that you’re the magical equivalent of a student who drools onto his tests instead of writing on them,” interjected Libus.
“So eloquently put,” said Jessica as Cinis’ face fell. “But it can be overcome. Still, I’ll be administering tests as we travel.” She reached into her bag and pulled forth four objects, placing them on the floor of the raft. A piece of charcoal, a vial of water, a small diamond, and a clear glass orb. “I found these in the cargo; they will help us see if you possess any sort of intuition. Plus, with that bottle with atriel writing, holding it should help amplify the effects of any dormant skill you may have.”
“Maybe,” said Cinis, staring past her and Libus, “but there’s a third thing now. I think that will have to wait.”
“And what is that?” Jessica asked, crossing her arms. “It’s important that we find this out about you so we can start training.”
“That.” Cinis pointed back upriver. “We’ve been found. That crowbar would have been useful right about now.”
Jessica turned, eyes widening as she looked behind them. Four boats, filled with eight men each, had just emerged from a distant bend in the river, each paddling forward with at least twice the raft’s speed. Unlike the raft, they were built for agility, their crescent hulls parting the water easily and allowing them to glide upon its surface.
From the lead boat a figure pointed and shouted, his voice too distant to be heard, and the speed of the oarsmen doubled as the other men dipped below the rim of the boats, returning with bows strung in their hands, nocking arrows.
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