“It’s not as it seems,” said Libus, his voice flat, as Jessica’s voice flared up again.
“Oh, really? What did you do, then, to earn that mark? I always knew there was something strange about you, and it explains why you were in Querkus, too! You were hiding! A vagabond because you were forced to, not by choice.”
“I did nothing wrong,” said Libus. “What I did was not a crime.”
“Just like you were no thief, nor a gang leader in Querkus!”
“And was I wrong in doing either of those things?” demanded Libus, and he raised his hand to wipe away the rest of the concealment from the faded mark. “Surely I would have received a mark just the same for my deeds in escorting you from the city or aiding you now. If, that is, I lived long enough to get a mark during capture.”
“What’s so bad about it?” asked Cinis. “We already knew he was an outlaw, didn’t we?”
“No, this is different,” said Jessica as her mind flickered back to the first time she had used magic, to the flames that had lashed out toward her from the outcast’s hand back then. “Very different. Outcasts are the worst types of criminals, people who committed crimes so awful that they were supposed to be locked up for life or executed, but escaped. People who committed rape, or murder, or—”
“Or treason,” interjected Libus, and he leaned back against the trunk of a tree, giving Jessica a sidelong glance as he took another sip of the water. “Which is a term that can be quite widely interpreted.”
“Or treason!” exclaimed Jessica. The trees around them rustled, though Cinis could feel no wind. “In Cratus, which is no small act! More importantly, it means you’ve been hiding something from us, Libus, after you accused me of doing the same. It means you’re gifted, and since you’re from Cratus, it’s likely Earth Magic!”
“Well, you’re on to me now,” said Libus, and he yawned. “You do realize that you can stop shouting before the entire forest is alerted to our presence? And drop the fighting stance, if I wanted to cause you harm it would have been long ago.”
“Jessica, I think you’re overreacting,” said Cinis. “He’s already saved us multiple times. Escaping the city, for one. Without him, we never would have made it this far.”
“Sure, but why? What’s your end game, Libus? To sell us out?”
“Would’ve ran off with the pearls, then, or handed you off when we stopped,” said Libus, ticking off two fingers. “If anything, we are running from the top buyers. With the two of you combined, I can only dream about the whiskey I could have bought. I’d never spend a day sober again.”
“Why, then, are you helping us?”
“Funny thing about that is that I don’t have to tell you anything,” he said, and he yawned again, deeper this time. “No matter what I say, I can already tell you’re so worked up that it’ll fall on flat ears. In fact, I feel like taking a nap.”
“What? You can’t do that!”
“I absolutely can,” he replied, shutting his eyes. “Go on, report me to the authorities. We’ll see how that goes for you. Besides, maybe I’m enjoying this.”
“But Libus,” said Cinis. “I still want you to come with us.”
“Do you want to go to Cardinia?” fumed Jessica. “Because he won’t make it past their gates. I’m the only one who can get you there.”
“But he can still accompany us. He’s useful Jessica. Hell, you’re sounding like me now.”
“Listen to the boy, he’s spouting some sense,” said Libus, waving a lazy hand, his eyes still closed.
“Absolutely not. All I know is that you’ve had nothing but secrets since we met you, and now I’m not sure if I want to find out what they are.”
“Then quit asking.”
“Fine, I will! Come on, Cinis, we’re leaving.”
“Jessica, I don’t like how this feels,” said Cinis. “I really don’t think we should be leaving him behind. Besides, if you’re suspicious of him, wouldn’t you want him where you can keep an eye on him?”
“Again, the boy speaks sense,” said Libus. “But don’t worry about me Cinis. She’s right, if you want to go to Cardinia, she’ll take you there. And rest assured, I won’t bother you. Stay safe, you two. Let’s see how far you get.”
“Is that a threat?” asked Jessica, clenching her fists. “Maybe I should finish you off now.”
“Please, you haven’t the heart, and we both know how ugly it would get.”
“I bet you I’d find out some secrets,” she said as her eyes narrowed. “So what now, you’re just going to stay behind?”
“Suppose so,” he said. “Go along, before I change my mind.”
Jessica’s frown deepened as she shouldered her pack, and Cinis followed her. She walked backward, watching Libus as she left, but his breath came so regularly that even she thought he might have been asleep until he spoke.
“Cinis, the Ladies aren’t the only ones who feel obligated to pay their debts. And I still have a hell of one to pay.”
Jessica walked in front of Cinis for the next two hours, picking her path among thorns and ferns, refusing to turn around to even check if he was following her.
“Jessica,” he had said a quarter of the way through. “Don’t you think you might be making the wrong decision here? That maybe—”
“If you think I’m wrong, go follow him!” she snapped, and he closed his mouth, following her through the forest until she finally dropped her pack.
“We stop here for camp,” she said, “but more importantly, we stop here for lesson one. I’m done with secrets—it’s time we found some answers.”