Wind Magic by Nicolette Jinks

The portal stopped in the absolute middle of nowhere in desert shrub lands, a far cry from any place I knew in the magical world. Granted, there was a road, a two-wheel dirt track but nobody had driven by.
Wind Magic
Wind Magic by Nicolette Jinks
My watch read 2:45. I watched the very distant headlights make their way towards me over rough desert terrain in a jostling crawl. “Fera!” Railey appeared with a giggle in the night air, the noise increasing as her ghostly body formed before my eyes. Moonlight slid down an exposed hand, then off darkish pigtails which hadn't changed in decades. She sat cross-legged in midair over the top of a roughened boulder. The light of the stars just outlined the shape of her pale daisy-patterned dress, the dress she had been buried in if I recalled correctly. As always, she appeared her usual twelve-year-old self although she was the same age as I was. “Hey, you. What's so important that I'm breaking house arrest?” I asked, hands on my hips in a mock scold. I was glad to see her after so much had happened, and she appeared to be healthy with a steady presence unlike anything she’d had for years. Brilliantly white teeth grinned down at me. After the whole tear-filled good-bye, Railey had departed from my presence to go into the greater world beyond. She asked, “What trouble have you been up to?” My smile fell. I forced myself to not explode on her. What have I been up to? Here we were in the middle of no where, me breaking the rules, her out of what was supposed to be her resting place, and she was asking me what I’d been up to? “I don’t have time for this.” Reaching into a pocket in my spider silk dress, I withdrew a piece of short white chalk and knelt to the ground to start a portal home. Railey flooded my vision with her instantly cold shadowy body to force me to listen to her. “We're going to steal Cole's prisoner!” I gaped at her and the way she'd learned to animate her pigtails into performing swirling tricks. Her pigtails moved all on their own accord with this declaration, wriggling up and down and in spirals. To call it distracting would be an understatement. A dozen questions went through my head, but the two which came out were, “What? Why?” “Shh, it's a secret. You can keep a secret, can't you?” While I contemplated how to answer a ghost who had gone a little bit nutty, she leaned backwards into a gentle roll, making three full rotations before she stopped moving. I’d never been around a ghost who had crossed over and returned to the living world again, so I had no way of knowing if Railey was sane. A vision of Death contacting me to hunt her down filled my mind. It was not a pleasant thought, nor did I know what I’d do in that situation. “Railey, are you sure it’s not you that I’m stealing?” “What?” “You didn’t break out of the land of the dead or anything, did you?” Railey cackled as if I were the one who had gone bonkers, and maybe she was right, maybe I had. She lifted her voice in a distinct mocking tone which she knew would irritate me. “Well, then, I won't tell you why we’re stealing Cole’s man. Simple as that.” Angry, I assumed her tone in return. “Well, then, I won't do it. Simple as that.” “Death says you have to.” “It's not like I'm a child and he's my mom, Railey. Being out here is risky. If you're wasting my time, I'm going home.” “Well, aren't you quick to forget that you owe him your afterlife. An afterlife which, I might add, he can revoke at an instant.” Dang, she had a point with that. What felt like ages ago, I’d died and been resurrected for the purpose of being Death’s proxy to stick my nose into his business for him. The fact that his business and my business overlapped made this arrangement bearable, but I didn’t appreciate being reminded of the situation. I heard the growing hum of an engine drawing closer. I wouldn’t think about her implied threat right now. Instead, I focused on the practical aspects of this wild goose chase. The half-mad ghost and the car approaching. The bed at home I really wanted to be passed out in. The warm embrace of Mordon’s arms. Maybe I should tell her where to stick it and go home, at least I’d get a few hours of decent sleep. Silently I held out my hands and looked at the assortment of rings and things. Gleaming with dark beauty, Mordon's brood-ring rested on my finger. With it came a stab of regret for having lied to him to come out here, all alone and without a clue as to why. I needed to make it worthwhile. The ghost tapped her foot against the ground, stirring up little puffs of dust. I crossed my arms at Railey’s impatience. “How do I know you're speaking for Death?” “I'm here, ain't I? I crossed over, didn't I? Not goinna be able to show up in the Living Realm again without his say-so. And he don't like doing it none, but he knew you'd listen to me, so shut up and pay attention, Fera. I ain't got long.” How fallible or infallible her logic was depended entirely on how true her statements were. I hadn't a clue. She wouldn't be beyond feeding me lies, but what she said seemed plausible. “Alright. What is it that Death wants me to do?” Railey pointed at the road where the headlights were drawing near. This close, I guessed that they belonged on a large vehicle—perhaps a truck or SUV. “In there's the prisoner. I’ve been following them all day. Now listen close, this is very important. Whoever is inside is really, really big. Death needs whoever-it-is to be able to roam free.” I frowned. “One of his agents?” I was an agent. One of many, if I understood the little clues Death gave me correctly. Not immortal, not by a long shot. If anything I was kept on a shorter lead than the average person, since I was already on my second life. Curiousity roused beyond my sense of reason, I tucked the chalk back into my dress pocket. Then I grabbed a smooth-enough stick and used it to spear my hair into a disorderly bun. No point in going into battle with hair obscuring my vision. Railey tipped her ear towards the road, shook her head with a puzzled frown. “Nah, Death don't go through this much trouble for an agent. If it were you, he'd send a Shade around once he knew you were stuck for good, but that's all.” She drifted through a waist-high sagebrush to get a better view of the coming vehicle. It had stopped, its people were yelling at one another. They sounded as if they’d had a very long night and still had a very long day to go. “A Shade?” “Big bullies in the Resting Realm. They don't let me do a thing that's fun.” They sounded more like peacekeepers to me, but I didn’t know enough about this Resting Realm to say for sure. I tugged my spider silk dress out to form sleeves, pressed the cuffs to be tight against my skin. Whatever protection it gave me against spells would be nice. I said dryly, “Great, so instead of sending me someone useful, Death sends me you.” Railey shook her finger at me. “I told you, he needed somebody you know. It ain't his fault you're bullheaded.” “And so, whoever this mystery person is, they're the Commandant's prisoner.” I mulled the fact over in my head. There, not far from us now, was a container filled with answers to my pesky questions. Amongst them, why he or she was wanted by the Commandant. Commandant Cole's title was new and presumably less-than-fairly gained. Cole and I loved each other the way a mongoose and a cobra did, and had about the same relationship. Had he not killed me once to hide his obsession with discovering spells so nasty that they'd deliberately been forgotten, I would probably just have a negative gut feeling about him. “Why does he want this guy? Something to do with the Unwrittens?” Railey stamped a foot impatiently, this time failing to stir up even a hint of dust. “Why don't you free the man and ask him? Come on, they're nearly here!” The headlights were indeed much closer now. If we were going to find a way to stop the van—yes, it was a van, of a dark color—then we needed to get our act together now. “So, do we find a way to unlock the door and make our escape with the prisoner?” I asked. “I think it's best if we eliminate the guards and steal the vehicle,” came a deep, rich voice. A cold rush of adrenaline hit me. I knew that voice anywhere, absolutely anywhere. Usually it was right beside me, through thick and thin, and at this moment it was the last voice I wanted to magically appear. “Mordon?” I looked around for him frantically. His form solidified in the night. He seemed bigger than his relatively moderate frame truly was. The lighter pattern in his red hair stood out brilliantly against the deeper hues. The dramatic lighting rendered his expression very scowling. Even royally miffed, Mordon stole my breath away. Slightly funny-looking, maybe, but there was power that radiated from his presence. I was drawn to him as a wolf to the moon. What had me in speechless admiration, though, was wondering how he had concealed himself. Others repeatedly told me I was hard to pursue, and evidently Mordon had done so without my knowledge. Competence got me intrigued. “Did you manage a bit of wind magic to get Whiting’s Cloaking spell to work?” I asked, astonished. As much as the fire element was the bane of my existence, wind was the bane of his. He held up his right hand where he held my invisibility ring between thumb and forefinger. “Oh, that's where it went.” I was glad I hadn’t lost it to the endless depths of my storage chest. I’d spent a frantic ten minutes turning my jewelery drawer upside down searching for it before I gave up and came here without it. Mordon’s theft explained how I’d mislaid it. Not that I was annoyed with him—borrowing a trinket from my necklace without alerting me to its absence was a very impressive feat in itself. “I thought I'd follow. Seeing how I didn't believe you were going to keep from this meeting.” “Oh.” I smiled at Mordon, still feeling guilty for deceiving him. Railey clapped her hands eagerly. “Three is perfect! Fera will be the distraction. You wear that ring and take care of people from behind. Just be sure you get in the van before Fera drives off.” I tried an apologetic smile in Mordon’s direction. It didn’t feel right. He studied me for a long heartbeat, and I thought for certain he would refuse. With a sigh, Mordon frowned. “Let's do this.” Chapter Two Railey stood by the side of the road in the shape of a big deer. Our plan was to have Mordon hit the windshield with his invisible tail at the same time they hit Railey. Then I was to cause chaos and lure everyone out. Basically, I was to be the scapegoat, the thing to take attention away from Mordon. I tried frantically to come into contact with magic. Other sorcerers found their magic easily. It grew with them from childhood, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. I had lost access to it at an early age. Regaining it as an adult had been like dog paddling and learning to backstroke before coming to a fast spot in the river. More often than not, I could connect with my magic and bring it to do my bidding, but sometimes I couldn't. This was one of those times when I felt distant from my element. I just felt normal, as if I had no magic at all. Patience, Mordon's advice rang through memory, don't be so hard on yourself. Half-feral magic such as mine tended to work at random intervals. I just had to keep trying … Suddenly, it clicked. As if I were groping about in the dark with my hands, I felt the wind as it moved over the landscape. I felt the pillow of air which rolled over the van's windshield and down the sleek armored shell. “Now!” I urged Railey. Mordon's tail sliced through the air. Glass cracked, spider webbing across the passenger's side. The van slammed to a stop. Voices erupted from inside the cab, followed by the beam of a flashlight and the glowing orb of a sorcerer. From the resistance the van gave to the push of the wind, it was heavy and designed to withstand combat. Spells were scraped into the paint felt like wounds in the van's smooth surface. One was a protection rune, one was for speed, but the others I didn't know by blind touch. One person bailed out, examined the van, then searched for the deer they must have hit. “Nothing's here! Check the back.” A man put his hand flat against the hatch door and lifted, bringing the door open as if he'd stuck himself to the car. They'd removed all other handles and methods of entering the back of the van. Clever. “Rush him!” At Railey's words, my heart thudded in my ears and I shoved with the wind. It gathered its strength as it bolted down the peak reached maximum velocity at the flattened ground, and it hit the man. He tilted to the side, his feet left the ground, and he crashed against a rocky outcropping. It was as if someone had rammed him around the waist and tackled him to the ground. That would have been a nifty trick if that was all that had happened, except the wind had gotten carried away in my panic. It had also hit the van. Heavy though the vehicle was, it still rocked to the side so the wheels nearest me rose from the dirt road. My breath stilled as the wind bucked against it. Did I want the van to tip over or would that be worse? In the end, it teetered then slammed all four wheels back to the ground. An outraged yell came from the van and the driver's door opened, admitting a severe-looking woman into the night. Railey yelled in return and charged down the hill. She shouted over her shoulder, “Shift and get your butt in gear!” With the excitement of being around her again coursing through my veins, I found my skin thickening and becoming scales. Assuming a second form didn't come easily for me, but this time it happened smoothly, calmly, like a trickle of water sliding over a polished rock. Scales formed over skin, wings blossomed into existence. It was just me, feeling a bit of strain as if I was touching my toes after I hadn't done it in a couple of days. A little uncomfortable, a little tug on tendons and across muscles, but not anything that strained or hurt. I could feel the wind on the webbing of my wings. “Get down here, she's a vampire!” Railey yelled at me. The woman stood by the van, examining the night with narrowed eyes, as if it was a lot harder for her to see than me. “Hurry!” The woman heard Railey and reached for the door. Railey beat her to it. It snapped shut as she touched it. The man was moving now, too. With a snort, I took wing and swooped into the scuffle. A flash of metal, a concussion wave as a gun fired. I got a face full of buckshot. By virtue of the point-blank range, all the projectiles hit my snout and jaw, saving my eyes if not a tooth or two. It felt like a punch in the nose, a lot of pressure in place of pain. How deeply it penetrated past my scales, I didn't have an idea, but I'd be surprised if my natural armor had been completely useless against a shotgun. Once it registered in my mind that I'd been shot—I'd been shot!—anger overtook me. Terrifying images ran through my head about what I wanted to do. Rend, tear, disembowel. I saw in perfect, unthinking clarity, the way her expression changed when I finished my lunge right before my jaws closed in around her. She spun, her escape limited by having her back to the van. I got her arm. Teeth sliced through tissue and struck bone. A gush of blood spurred on the desire to do more damage. The vampire screamed an outraged cry and floundered for an instant. Her arm cut through the air. The barrel of the shotgun rammed against my nose. The first time I hardly felt it. The next blow sent tingling, disorienting pain through my face. While I blinked the fuzzies away, she hit me again. I reared back, taking her off the ground, and shook her left and right. Her body slapped me first on one side of the face, then on the other. I glimpsed her reaching for a pocket and knew I didn't want to find out what she was going to grab. Mordon seized her in his teeth, threw her hard. She slammed into the ground well beyond the reach of the truck. I roared in triumph. It wasn't a low, rumbling roar the way that Mordon's voice was. No, this was a higher, piercing noise which would have made human-me grit my teeth and cover my ears. Remembering that there had been two of them, I slapped my wings twice and hopped to the place I'd last seen the man. A ditch of rocks and sagebrush greeted me. No sign of where he'd gone. I sniffed the air, caught a trace of his scent leading away from the van. Indecision froze me. If I went after him, the vampire might return to drive off with my quarry. If I didn't tend to the man, he might come up on me unawares. There was nothing to help it. I was here for the prisoner, not for a massacre. I returned to the van, shifting back to human instinctively. The shift happened in seconds, hide softened to skin, wings gone. Mere feet from the van. A wolf slammed into my torso. I fell to the ground, pinned by his man-sized body. Teeth were only part of his weapons. Those hard claws hurt. He dug at me, scraping up my skin and leaving behind raised red welts. I defended my head against his teeth using my arm, and he bit. Remembering previous encounters with guard dogs, I grabbed the back of the wolf's head and shoved my arm hard into his mouth. As soon as he realized that I was holding him, his eyes widened and he tried to free himself. I watched in breathless horror as his fangs indented into my flesh, but I'd gone into a demi-form with thick skin and distorted dragon vision. Strength flooded my body I wrapped my legs around his chest and twisted his head so he was forced to the ground. Despite his flailing, scratching legs, I worked myself on top and rammed my knees into his ribs. It'd be ideal to get a knee on his throat, but his writhing made that impossible. Instead, I'd have to put all my weight on his lungs and hope to make him black out. A hand snared my hair and I was yanked off the wolf. The vampire. I rolled to absorb the impact and got a rock against my spine. Stars shimmered in my vision. Her arm looked terrible, a mangled mess with exposed bone. Her eyes radiated intent to tear me limb from limb. The wolf lay stunned. The woman hissed as she reached for me. On her belt she wore one of those roll-up lanyards with keys attached to the end. I plunged deeper into my demi-form and met her attack with one of my own. She knocked me wide, sending me straight for the wolf. He scrambled out of the way. The vampire seized my shoulder, the one I'd injured in the past. I felt nails pierce my almost-scales. A banshee-wail screamed through the night, so ominous that even the vampire turned her head to find the source of the noise. Railey charged them both. She didn't appear as herself, I only knew who she was by a sense of familiarity. She was the stuff of nightmares, all jagged points and rotting flesh and crawling insects and anything else that might have kept me paralyzed in the center of bed at night. She was the last thing anyone wanted to be faced with. To fend off the new terror, the vampire shoved me and joined the wolf. Noise came from all three of them as I hurried into the vehicle. I felt the hair rise up and down my arms. A hot tickle traced down my spine, and my breathing stilled as I wondered what was going on out there and if I should interfere. There was a chance I would make it worse. The door slammed shut beside me, rocking the van from side to side as someone scurried inside. “I'm here, let's go,” Mordon said. He was human and visible, breathing heavily. Blood smeared his jaw but I didn’t see any skin breaks so it had to have been from his opponent. With a stroke of luck, I got the keys in the ignition the first time I tried. The survivors didn't know that I'd taken the keys until I turned on the headlights and drove down the dirt road as fast as the van could take the bumping ride. “Where were you?” I demanded, the aftershocks of adrenaline still stirring through my body. “I got your runner.” I nodded grimly. “Good.” The van jolted over bumps so fast that Mordon braced himself against the dashboard. I gripped the steering wheel to keep my feet from flying off the pedals. Curse these unpaved roads. The van hit three washouts in a row, each one sending it a little higher into the air. Once I was assured that we’d put enough distance between us and whoever was outside, I eased up on the gas pedal. The van still rode roughly, but not nearly as bad as before. Whoever had been driving this thing prior to me had been taking the roads too slow. Odd as it seemed, there was a sweet spot for how fast to drive for the smoothest ride possible. A lifetime of driving the back roads with my parents had taught me that. Mordon cleaned his face with a handkerchief, then tapped gingerly on my own face. It stung. “How are you, love?” he asked. “I think I’m fine. How does it look?” “It’s healing. Just a scrape.” “It didn’t feel like just a scrape when I got shot in the face.” “They didn’t penetrate your scales.” Mordon turned the handkerchief so a fresh, damp side touched my skin. “In a few hours, the worst you will have is a bruise.” I slowed down just a little bit more. My white-knuckled hands released their death grip on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, making a sticking noise as I worked my fingers free. At long last, I felt the pounding of my heart ease and my breathing return to normal. My whole body still vibrated with the aftershock of this heist. That had not been what I’d expected tonight. Granted, I hadn’t known what to expect, but it certainly had not been that I’d end up kidnapping a person Cole had kidnapped first. Assuming that was what had happened. The landscape rolled by the window as the sky dipped into a moment of pre-dawn darkness. I swallowed hard. Time for answers. “Railey, Railey, Railey, what did you get me into?” I asked, summoning her presence by naming her three times. Then I realized she was no longer bound to me, so she might not come. “Aww, did you have to? The wolf was crying and everything,” Railey said, not appearing visibly although she was evidently sitting in the middle between us. “Why couldn't you have snared someone else for this?” A glance at the middle seat showed that she was taking a weak, wobbling form. I almost felt bad. She had saved me back there, but I couldn't help it. I hit the steering wheel. “I have a life now! It's fine for me to help Death out and all, but couldn't he get someone else to do this? One of those other mythical, magical agents I've heard about?” “You're the only one he trusts,” Railey said and wrapped her arms around me. Icy chill sunk down through my neck and collar bone, freezing my breath in my throat. I'd have tipped over from the piercing pain if not for my grip on the wheel. The road separated into two roads I couldn't focus on. I stopped the van short and tried to get hold of myself. When I blinked life back into my eyes again, Railey was gone. Fear gripped me. “Railey? Railey!” Soft words hummed through the air. “I have to go, Fera.” And then she was gone. I sat there, thinking on what she'd said, and wondered, what now? Chapter Three Fifteen minutes of bumpy road later, we discovered that the door had closed on the back of the van. But of course it had, I thought bitterly, what with all that jarring and jumping the van had done down the road. It would serve us right if our cargo had jounced out before the door had a chance to close. I sighed, and hoped that was not the case. The blackness of night was already softening in the west, spurring a tingle of panic down my back. What was the time? My legs were stiff from the too-long distance between seat and pedals, but they felt better after I walked to the far end of the van. Being enchanted, the door wouldn't pop open with the twist of a handle. I frowned, glaring at the crisp silver marks scratched into the vehicle’s matte midnight-blue paint. “We've got a problem.” “What?” “The back door is sealed. I'm pretty sure Griff made those runes.” Mordon inhaled through his nose and released the breath as a sigh. “You can't seem to get away from your ex, can you?” “Nope.” “Let us view the bright side. It is better that you know him. We'll stand a solid chance of getting in.” “Let's hope you're right.” Because it would be a matter of time before the werewolf and vampire caught up. And even less time before the Constables discovered that the home I was supposed to never leave was empty. Seeking the simplest solution first, I thought I could use my dragon-form to coerce it. I dug my claws into the place the door met the van body. A circular rune shimmered and a jolt of red electricity bolted across the top of the van. My talons would not sink into the van itself. Not even when I tried to punch one through the top like a demented can opener. I leaned back, staring at it with a mixture of appreciation and irritation. After several minutes of tracing over the scraped symbols with a fingertip, catching skin on burrs in paint and metal alike, I took a step away from the monstrosity. The night—or morning—had gone eerily silent with only the faint buzz in my ears to tell the time. “Try an unlocking,” Mordon said. I cocked my head to the side and tried unfocusing my eyes. “Onloocan,” I whispered. A warm tingle spread through my skin, focusing on the finger with my ring on it. The air thickened, and I felt the hair on my neck rise. A faint blue light swirled around the lock. It sought entry. The lock flared red and repelled my unlocking spell. Mordon sucked in a breath. If I’d accidentally set off an anti-tampering spell, then whatever happened next would not be good. This was one of those cases where I could accidentally compound the problem. I gritted my teeth and waited. The sweat on the back of my neck cooled. A rustle of wind up the desert made a tumbleweed spin along the road. Nothing more happened. None of the other symbols were agitated. It seemed like I hadn’t bothered an anti-tampering spell, but I wasn’t familiar enough with the scratchings on the van to be able to tell if there even was on cast or not. Letting out a relieved breath, I thought again. What else could we try? What sort of thing would Griff do? “Think it is protected by a ward?” I asked. It wasn’t very like Griff to think defensively. He was a tricks, riddles, and puzzles man. He liked a challenge, not a certainty. “It may be,” Mordon said, a furrow forming between his brows. “Are you thinking ward-piercer?” “Yes.” I started to lay the spell out on the ground compacted from wheels and too-dry wind. The ward-piercer had been something that I’d rigged up out of sheer desperation as a dungeon riot had gone wildly out of all control. There was a simple area-attack spell which took raw power and used it as a hard shove outward. This by itself was ideal for gaining someone a little bit of space from a group attack, but since it was so general it wasn’t very potent. By adding in a specific directionality to the spell, it would unleash all its efforts in one place. Soon the area attack was pointed at the van door’s handle. “Let’s try it.” The wind stirred over the sagebrush and cheat grass, blowing up dust. It swirled in a circle about me, forming a towering funnel with bits of tumbleweed and a plastic potato chip bag spiraling high above. I triggered the end of the spell. The wind plunged down, filling me with raw power. The van’s symbols burned copper red, then dimmed. The wind faltered. It pushed again. The symbols flared. Everything fell quiet. My hands shook, my heart pounded. I felt as if I’d sprinted across the road instead of driven here. When I regained my breath, I climbed to my feet and forced my legs to work. A trembling hand touched the door. Still locked. Gasping, I could hardly believe it. So far that spell had never failed me. But Griff was clever, and his handiwork superb. “Nothing.” Exhausted, I leaned against the van. At least the symbols weren’t easy to anger. This could have gone very wrong. Hard, crusty ground crunched under my heels. What other ways can I try? I thought of my family, what they would do should a suspect disappear or a demon vanish into thin air. Suspects had hideyholes right in plain sight, demons knew how to blend in with their surroundings. Hideyholes could be found by dusting for drafts with lots of patience. Demons may be able to trick the eyes, but not the nose. They smelled distinctly different from anyone else in the crowd, unless they had some eau de human on hand. The trick to succeeding in these situation was to understand what was convenient for the other person, getting in their head, thinking like them. My quarry was a gryphon who could shapeshift but preferred his winged, taloned body. Worshiped it, actually. As he didn’t have hands, he’d do something not requiring fancy finger work. His claws would be his tools. Perhaps his beak, too. Mordon shook his head. “There must be a way in. A pass-code?” “Oh, I’m sure there is a way, and it has to be quick and easy to remember.” I froze. There was something. A really dumb something. I knocked, using the classic 'shave and a haircut' routine. I laid my hand flat onto the door. There was a hiss, the symbols flared once, then died. And the door glided open with the motion of my hand. “Yes! I did it! I did it, I did it.” I fell into a little song and bouncing foot-to-foot dance. “Hey, Mordon, I...” He did not look pleased. Actually, he was rather pale. He was also staring right through me. The inside of the van was set up as an ambulance. It was painted an unforgiving, stark white which set off the array of medical equipment, boxes, and stainless steel implements. Blood smeared most surfaces, an arterial spurt marked the roof and down the side. It smelled strongly of iodine and I had a hard time telling what was blood and what had iodine’s orange tint. A patient was strapped to the table in the center, and from all the fluids staining the blanket wrapped around him, he wasn't doing too well. “Uh, Mordon? What do we do?” “We leave him as he is and go home.” “Bah, he's not that badly off. I'm sure a good healer can set him to rights.” I was sure of absolutely nothing, but I had not expected Mordon's reaction. He was cold, his expression an emotionless void. Very unlike him. “This is who you were supposed to save?” “Yes. I don't see anyone else around, do you?” Mordon pursed his lips, refusing to budge. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the patient. I said, “Look, you've never shied away from helping someone in need before. He needs help. And no matter why Cole wanted him, I'm sure that Cole planned on using him.” Mordon shook his head without offering another word. I resisted the temptation to fight him. The patient was looking very pale, particularly in contrast to the dark silk straps on his body. Mordon took a step back from the van, reaching into his pocket to retrieve a piece of chalk. I wasn't sure where he planned on using them out here, considering that there wasn't a good place to draw—unless it was to make marks in the hard ground. I watched him closely, not sure if Mordon was going to leave the man or not. “We will take him to your home. Lilly will mend him.” “Lilly? Shouldn't we get someone a bit...well, a bit more?” Mordon glanced up from finding a level spot on the dirt, a wry half-smile on his lips. “You haven't had the chance to see her work. It was a pity she decided to take the judiciary job. She's got skill, a lot of it.” We climbed into the van. A silver chain wrapped the leg of the stretcher to the floor. Before I could ask, Mordon grasped the chain in one fist and yanked. The metal loop the chain went through popped away, it hadn’t been welded well. I couldn’t get the stench of iodine and rubbing alcohol out of my nose as we hauled the man out of the van. Wheels clattered over rough ground as we moved him into the center of the circle Mordon had made. The air tasted of dust, and in the distance I heard the rumble of a motor. “Why didn't she become a full-fledged healer?” “From what I've heard? She didn't want to ever kill a patient.” I held the stretcher steady as Mordon worked on his portal in silence. He was faster with coordinates and adjusting the algorithms for the addition of the rolly cart and patient. Not to mention he was far more accurate than I was with my tendency to transpose, add, or remove numbers at random. A true joy, that was. I considered the patient. I’d have to see about sterile bandages, and the healer. Once he was awake I’d be in my potions domain, but for now I didn’t know what to do with him Was I to keep him in my home? Correction—Mordon’s home. The building belonged to him, even if it had been unoccupied prior to my arrival. At one time I had heavily relied on Mordon and the rest of my coven to maintain my independence and restore my identity. Regaining magic had turned my world inside out, but they’d been willing to help. Since then I doubted I had been of too much benefit. At least I kept their lives interesting. This stunt tonight was a great way to provide lighthearted entertainment. I needed to start thinking seriously about that vast unknown called The Future. My days of living solo with Railey were behind me. It was what I’d wanted, what I’d hoped would one day happen: to connect with the magical world. To find a spouse. The whole nine yards, with family and a home. What a way for my curiousity to hijack the dream. I’ll be lucky if I can hide everything in time, if I don’t end up arrested, or stuck as a fugitive. It was Mordon’s silent acceptance earlier that rattled me the most. No angry words. No grumbling. No guilt trips. The burden of Cole’s prisoner he shouldered with the same steadiness that he shoulder all responsibility with. Even when it had to add to his strain. That was the last thing I wanted to do, to add to his worries. Now, I was really beginning to think Mordon had been right. What on earth was I going to do with this guy? Chapter Four Owing to my recent botanical acquisitions, there wasn’t much floorspace left in the sun room, so we had our patient situated in the seating area near the minty kitchen. Everything smelled of the sour taint of the dungeons, of iodine, and increasingly of the saucepan of rosemary I’d set to simmer as an aromatic. When the others arrived, I would find out if the winds from the walls were as obvious to other people as they were to me. Each smelled faintly of its origination: the dust of a ripening grain field, the wet vegetation of a river pouring over rocks, the sweet tang of an orchard in the clouds, the decomposing matter of a forest. I wondered if they’d notice the illusion hiding my portal wall. At a glance, my plain walls had seen the application of acrylic paint and an amateur’s attempt at a serene countryside mural. It was quick work, the majority of the wall nothing but penciled-in outlines, a few places with rough colors blocked out: a red barn in a yellowish wash meant to be a wheat field, a sponged-in mass of fluffy clouds, a half-formed canyon with steep cliffs, a hazy swath of blue-green intended to be a woodland. They had nothing on Bob Ross’s happy trees, but perhaps one day I’d learn better how to imitate his techniques. That barely begun mural gazed down at me and my patient. Skills of the Thaumaturge was propped open wide to a blank page, me scribbling quickly to capture the tattoo and marks on the man. Previous spreads were filled with symbols and spells. Thus far the book had remained silent, no doubt a result of centuries of working with busy sorcerers. I was so preoccupied analyzing the man's Celtic boar tattoo that I did not notice the entrance of others until a hand fell on my shoulder. I jerked, tumbling backwards and glimpsing Leif. “I see we were too late to stop your escapade,” Leif said, his tone bemused rather than upset. I supposed that made sense, given that everyone would know by now exactly what I was going to be up to in a circumstance like the one Railey had given me. A letter from a ghost? Too good not to check out. His voice was as crystalline as his blue eyes and every bit as piercing. It aged him well beyond his years. In the dark of the early morning, his ears seemed pointier and his cheekbones harsher. In our coven, he was spokesman and tie-breaker. He was also my old friend, a judge in Merlyn's Market, and impossible to really lie to. That was the danger of letting someone know you well; they knew you. I tugged my shirt into order and sat upright. Since showing up weeks ago at this coven with a pathetic memory-loss story, I had shared the coven’s communal living quarters. This private house of towering plants was connected to those living quarters. Years ago it had been a fire watch station headed by a solitary drake, but with the addition of a tower on the highest part of the not-so-distant castle, the watch house had gone out of use. Now it was mine, in all its mint-green-appliances glory. Despite a promise to myself that the plants in the sun room would one day croak, that prediction proved to be true only for a single amaryllis. Even so, I thought the plant may possibly be dormant, not dead. “Leif,” I said. My heart was slowing back to its regular temp again. He'd given me a bit of a scare. Even my skin was thick and ashen, caught in between its peach tone and the silvery scales of my dragon form. Mordon handled surprises better than I did. “Who else came with you?” “Lilly and Barnes. Is Mordon here?” “Last I knew he was getting an emergency medical kit from King's Ransom.” Leif nodded. “Can you turn up the light?” I flicked my fingers, stirring magic through the air to fan the gas sconces into a brighter flame. Leif knelt by the man with a slackened jaw. “Barnes, come here please. Do you recognize him?” Barnes approached, his handlebar mustache twitching as he studied the patient. “Well, well. I wonder what's 'e doing alive?” The Constable was a man I didn’t know too well. He managed the law amongst sorcerers, restricted to those areas where magic was allowed to flow without censure. I liked him well enough, and I thought he liked me, but he tended to keep his mouth closed even with the generous application of brandy. Constable Barnes was a bit rectangular and very solidly built. Tonight he wore a heavy smoking robe and pretty much appeared as if he had walked out of a museum exhibit. He was Lilly's guardian, and not a man anyone would be entirely sane to cross. I regarded him with impatient curiousity. “What do you mean by that? Something to do with that stab wound in his gut?” “Everything to do with the stabbing. The dungeon doc said there was nothing to be done for him,” Barnes said. He touched the man's arm and withdrew. His mustache twitched again. “Well, I'll be a centaur's uncle. He is alive.” Mordon entered into the fray, elbowing people to the side and bearing an old-style surgeon’s kit, the compact kind that field doctors used on the battlefield. Lilly knelt beside him, muttering incoherently to herself. This morning marked the first time I was not even a little envious of her beauty. Lack of sleep did not settle well with her near-ethereal skin and slight, willowy body. Nor did the pressure of a man bleeding on the floor contribute towards a pleasant mood. Lilly and Leif were siblings, cruelly forced together in Merlyn's Market despite both their efforts to go their own ways upon reaching adulthood. They managed to survive the inconvenience by banding together in a place where the law wasn’t always smiled upon. Lilly touched the chain on the man’s wrist, frowning. “Leif, do you think we can re-enchant this?” “What is it?” I asked. Leif knelt beside her, running his fingers along the chain’s links. “It’s a silver chain. Made by moonlight and quenched in holy spring water. Usually only the person who put it on can take it off again.” “I hear a but.” “Yes. But, two Market authorities should be able to override it.” “Lucky for us.” “Not considering that it’s a standard tool for restraining annoying people,” Leif said as both he and Lilly took hold of the chain. They pulled, and a link opened. Lilly removed the chain, Leif got up and dusted himself off. “He should be dead.” Lilly shook her head and pressed absorptive padding over the wound. “He's been treated already. The best we can do is keep from jostling him while the last healer's spells finish what they're doing.” I stepped off to give her plenty of room to work, motioning for Leif to join me. I tossed the discarded rags into a bucket enchanted to wash clothes, rinsed my hands free of the blood in the sink. My pot of honeybush tea was ready, so I passed out cups to those who wanted it. My attention shifted back to Leif. All at once I felt weary and hungry, even as I had no appetite. Softly, I asked him, “You said you knew the man?” Leif gave the guy on the floor another glance. Circumstances were clearly not as he'd anticipated them being when he had come to confront me about my nighttime wandering. “His name is Lucas Bucksley. Do you happen to recognize him?” I squinted, examining the man again. My attention caught on Lilly as she warmed a wax strip to tack bandages on his skin. I shrugged. “He's kind of familiar. I think I've seen him—oh.” A memory fell into place, perfectly clicking in retrospect. “Oh. He was the one who bothered me in the courthouse waiting room.” Mordon snorted. “Why do you think I wanted to leave him?” I gaped at Lucas Bucksley. They seemed in my eyes to be two entirely different men. “I swear I didn't recognize him before. It was like he was a stranger.” I couldn't stop staring. “Are you sure?” Barnes folded his arms in certainty. “Following the attack on you, he went right to the dungeons. Word got around. Dunno if 'twas someone defending you or an employer showing the penalty for failure, but Bucksley was stabbed as you see. Dead, too. He left in a coroner’s bag.” I frowned. “Then how did he end up on a transport rig alive?” Mordon said, “He was not dead. It had to have been staged to get him out of the dungeons.” “But he's near dead as it is,” I said. “It was a less than perfect plan.” “That's a nice way to phrase 'suicidal'. I don't know, something feels off.” Arguing with my coven about semantics would get me nowhere. “Dead or not, where was he going?” Barnes said, “That depends on who was helping him.” I nodded. “Fair enough. Leif? Any ideas who would be able to pull off an escape like this?” Mordon stroked his chin in thought, gazing distractedly through Leif. Leif tapped his fingers on the back of a chair. Leif said, “They would have to have money, enough to bribe the correct people in the prison population. And then enough to pay off or blackmail the resident doctor. Then access to the morgue. And the cost of getaway vehicle, and whatever crew was required to man it. That degree of power is only held by oh, between two and three hundred people within the sorcerer's ranks.” “Fantastic,” I said, trying not to sound too sarcastic. “This pool of people would also happen to have enough money to not leave a paper trail, I take it?” Mordon frowned, and we all knew very well that a paper trail could end in a false lead. Assuming that a paper trail did indeed exist. Lilly stood, cleaning her hands on an antiseptic-doused rag. It smelled of vinegar and lemons. And blood. “I think I may have a good lead for you,” she said. “I found ink glyphs drawn on his ribs. Whatever spell it is, it isn't any healing spell I have ever seen.” “Oh?” I asked, intrigued. Five heads collided as we all went to look at the man at the same time. Rubbing my brow, I grumbled and angry word at Mordon, who returned the favor. A figure-eight was sketched crossways over his chest, one half of it was finished with strange yet familiar symbols. It was not a completed spell, one of the letters was cut off midway. Our arrival must have stopped whoever was casting it. Then I knew where I'd seen those symbols—or at least a fairly close approximation of them. “It's Cyrillic. The letters,” I said. Mordon touched part of the unfinished edge. “Whoever did this was not confident in writing it, either. They traced it first in chalk.” He held out his hand with its rings. “Do you have some of my disenchanted paper near at hand?” I did. I got it from the kitchen drawer—or I tried to. The child-locks prevented it. Desperate, I yanked and wriggled. As Mordon was starting to stand to help me, the drawer opened. I brandished a scroll triumphantly. Mordon accepted it without even a raised brow to rebuke my harsh treatment of the cabinets. Carefully, he transcribed the spell onto the parchment. Were he to commit it to any ordinary surface, there was a chance of accidentally casting the spell—even if it was incomplete. Little could be worse than the results of an ill-formed spell. When he had it down and Lilly was carefully scrubbing the marks off the patient's chest, Mordon asked, “Do you recognize it?” I shook my head. Lilly said nothing. Barnes tipped the parchment for a better angle. “A binding spell,” he said. I sighed in relief. “You know it?” I'd been concerned that it was one of the Unwrittens, a spell so powerful it had been intentionally forgotten. Or attempted to be, at least. “I know it. It's used for kidnapping,” Barnes said, his mustache twitching again. “Wait, so if he was escaping, then why is he covered in a binding spell?” “Cause he was kidnapped,” Barnes said. “Right, but why kidnap the guy and spend a whole lot of money doing it when you could spend a lot less just to hire him? I'm positive he was not concerned about morality.” Nobody had an answer. “So, any clue who could translate these? Or be able to narrow down our list of two-to-three hundred suspects?” I asked at last. Mordon cocked his head, the barest hint of a smile on one corner of his mouth. “Your lover in Selestiani.” I groaned. “Oh, good grief, don't foist me off on Valerin. I really do think he's smitten, poor man.” “Mordon has a point,” Leif said. “Julius Septimus would be able to answer your questions, if Valerin can't.” “And Julius could ask the First Order if need be,” I said. I had to admit it, this idea made sense. “Why am I the one everyone wants to be friends with? I'd rather not do the asking.” “Grow up,” Leif said. “You grow up.” He grinned, the expression a bit surprising given all his due seriousness. Then that happiness faded, and I felt a jolt in the pit of my stomach as he checked to see that the others had drifted off in Mordon’s direction. “Can I speak with you for a few minutes?” Leif asked. “Sure, if you want.” Leif sat close to me and spoke softer than he usually did. “The Market is changing.” Leif rubbed his bald head, bringing my attention to the way he paused when his fingers touched his ears. “I think I will be in the middle of it.” “Why? Just because you are part of the judicial system doesn’t mean you can’t avoid it,” I said while deadheading an indoor cyclamen. “Unless you want to be in the middle?” “Have you ever read up on my rulings?” “No.” “Everyone knows me as the moderator. When I take a firm stand, it is with strong evidence, not wild speculation. They trust me to do what’s right.” He stopped to retrieve something from his pocket. A pendant. I rolled it over in my hands. It was a pastel purple vial about two inches long with a decorative note inside it. It said in a grungy typewriter style Drink Me. Leif explained, “I want you to add that to your charm necklace.” I moved my hair out of the way to reach the clasp. “Alright. Since you got it already.” The miniature bottle slid into place alongside my other rings and trinkets. “But what is the reason behind this gift?” It weighed on my neck, as if heavier than it really was. “What makes you think I didn’t just come across something pretty for my almost-sister?” he asked while rubbing his scalp again. If anything, he appeared even more distressed now than he had a second ago. I wondered why. “Leif, stop toying with me and spit it out already.” With visible effort, he placed his hands in his lap in a clear bid to keep himself clam. He reached for his shoe, hesitated, and thought the better of it as voices of the others grew louder. What did he want to keep secret from them? He said, “It’s a Message in the Bottle. Hardly original, but often used for lovers to send short notes. Remember that if you’re questioned about it.” His words tickled my spine and made a tiny shiver run across my skin. Something was definitely wrong with this picture. Leif and I had never shared any kind of chemistry between us, and the expression he had now was detachment. Cool, liquid, as if he’d been singled out for questioning by a Constable and was determined to not give anything away. “I have its mate in the hollow of my boot heel. To send a message without any fire, write on the back of Drink Me. Once it is in the bottle and he bottle is stoppered, the message will disappear from your paper and appear on mine. It’s a Carbon Paper enchantment. I can do likewise. It’ll be erased once the paper is returned to the bottle.” What! He knew about these things long ago and only now was bringing it to my attention? My blood sizzled in my ears and I had to resist the urge to snap at him. With a tense voice, I said, “This would have come in handy back when we first knew I couldn’t burn messages.” “It’s taken me this long to find one. Demand is high. They’re all the rage with moonstruck tweens, and the people who make them are swamped. The knock-offs stop working unexpectedly, and sometimes go to the wrong bottle.” Fair enough, I supposed. “Why do you seem so secretive, then?” “Because these bottles are untraceable. Once a message is gone, it’s gone. If one bottle is lost, the other is useless. There’s no way to find it. There’s no telling where the mate is or who has it. It’s sold for lovers, but it also makes the perfect way to send and receive intelligence.” Intelligence, as in spying. That Leif wanted to start a spy network should not have come as a surprise, but I wondered if that was what he really meant or if I was just getting too enthusiastic with my imagination. The others drew closer still, stopping to comment on how I was going to ever replace my stash of dried mugwort. Leif stood, dusted off his trousers even though there was nothing on them. “Do you understand?” Oh, I understood. Leif was going to get into the thick of Cole’s new government, was going to find information, gather evidence to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Commandant Cole was covering up something, or that he was corrupt. My heart squeezed at the thought. “Do you understand?” “There’s nothing I can say to stop you?” Leif shook his head; his fists were shaking. “What is it?” “Say you’ll be there. That you’ll do this.” My mouth went dry, but what else could I say? He was a second brother to me, and I owed him. “I’ll be there. But do take care of yourself.” “You as well.” Leif returned my grin. Then it faded. “Fera, I think we should let him rest. There's something else we must discuss.” “Oh?” I didn't like that tone. It was very foreboding. He nodded. “Let's go to the common's lounge. I'm afraid you won't like this.” “Leif,” said Lilly, but he motioned to the man on the floor. “If word gets out about this rescue, we won't have time. We need to talk to her now. There won't be any time later.” Concerned, I checked Barnes' reaction. He was in on this, too—however, Mordon's brow was pinched in confusion. “What's it about?” I asked. “You.” Chapter Five Report: Militant Creatures Kidnap Baby Girl from Foster Parent in Merlyn's Market, Causes Riots Five militant Creatures reportedly kidnapped a baby girl from a foster parent who resides in Merlyn's Market, an incident that put domestic staff in danger and left a vacation home in ruins. The child snatching took place nearly a week ago, but has received almost no attention from news outlets. Until today. However, members of the domestic staff have been circulating what happened in public commentary pamphlets, with an insider from the Council relaying that the baby girl was an orphan taken from an unstable woman who tried to claim guardianship over her. The militant Creatures were of strong, pure bloodlines, at least three of which had dragon-forms. The baby girl was in her caretaker's holiday home in the Sawtooth Mountains when the Creatures broke in and stole her from the cradle. They then attacked the master of the house and destroyed most of the interior. The female Creature reportedly stole the child, assaulted the master of the house, and left the home ablaze. The domestic staff report “spells going everywhere” and “feeling terrified for (their) lives”. A riot with over 50 people broke out yesterday. They targeted Creature vendors and vandalized the booths. Many Creatures chose to leave as crowds shouted, “Equal justice, equal time.” “We need to know why this has gone unreported. Why are Creatures permitted to do these things without facing the law? The Council is covering this up because revealing it is 'discriminatory',” says one of the rioters. “What they're doing to our lives, it's not right.” No, it isn't right. It is time the Creatures face the same rules that humans do. This baby girl is probably going to be sold for a bride once she's of age, a common practice amongst Creatures... The article continued on for some length. I skimmed over it, astonished by the blatant lies they were writing. Bride-selling happened, yes, but it was a crime amongst the Creature communities. I said, “This is crazy. People don't actually believe this, do they?” I did not expect an answer. In my experience it is a universal truth that anything known to be a ‘thing’ is a ‘thing’ that is believed in by a shocking number of people throughout the worlds. Sometimes these beliefs were good, or at the very least harmless. Sometimes, though, this was not the case. And this article in my lap? It’s whispering message stoked fear and encouraged severe backlash. I sat on the carpeted floor in front of Mordon, newspaper in my lap, Mordon rubbing my neck at my insistence. From this angle I could barely see Lilly in the dining nook and hear Leif gathering cups for us in the kitchen. Doors to each of our individual residences lined the walls; presently I was facing Lilly's seaside cottage. My own double french doors were behind me. Mordon’s book on Latin was on the lamp’s table, the same place it had been for weeks. Barnes answered, his head outlined against a gas light burning in its sconce behind him. “It is a controversy.” I sat stunned, then outraged. “But half of the Council has Creature heritage!” “Any rational person says they don't count. It's not the mixed-bloods who are the trouble, it's the purists who are insane.” “But they aren't. It's a backlash against Cole.” “Who happens to be their leader, and who can ensure that whoever prints what he wants is given ample incentives. It's a method of controlling the crowd.” “Surely there are independent papers.” “Who reads them? Or takes them seriously if they do?” Barnes asked. I slapped the paper down in disgust. “Normal people can't possibly think like this.” An uncomfortable silence met me. I gazed distractedly at a pink vase with its peach alstroemerias and purple spikes of butterfly bush. It rested on the ledge of an octagonal window above the stairs leading to King’s Ransom. I focused on the red lips of the alstroemerias, trying to calm myself. Mordon squeezed my neck once. Softly, he said, “It doesn't have to be all of them. Just enough to follow orders and rally the rest.” “But violence? Riots? Over what? How?” Barnes frowned, easing into his armchair across from me. “Cole has been known to be less than hospitable to Creatures throughout his career. Brutal, even, but he is denying his own statements. He has people who believe that he was misquoted. And those who are not so sure about what is true will be swayed by whichever story they hear repeated time and again.” I snorted and folded my arms. “So much for truth winning out.” Mordon said, “The average person relies on other sources for information as well, and they believe those sources tell the truth. It is why propaganda works—through telling stories. Stories that make people fear, stories that make people believe. News is about feeling, not about fact. This is why news is seldom happy or about educational programs.” “But you read papers. All the time.” “As a study. The attitudes and behaviors popularized in papers consistently reflect in the attitudes and opinions of those who read them.” I sighed. “Fine, so things are bad for Creatures right now. What's this got to do with me? It's not like this terrible piece of journalism spelled out who I was. Do you think the riots will get worse?” Mordon leaned back into the sofa which creaked beneath his weight. “That depends on where Cole guides the people.” “So he may calm them?” Mordon grunted. I felt my stomach churn. I picked at the cream carpet, wishing it was rolled up so I could scratch at the casting circles painted on wood instead. Leif knelt beside me. “Fera, do you trust me?” I gave him a studying stare, wondering what he really meant by that. “Yeah.” “I have access to Cole's inner circle. I know what they're saying. They're on fire. They want safety and security, and certain sacrifices must be made. It will be very bad for you if you get caught in the Market again.” I couldn't believe what I was hearing. “What? Why?” “Because you're opposed to the Commandant.” “With good reason.” “Would you be willing to pretend to follow him? To make a public statement to that effect?” “No.” “Then what would you do?” “I'd fight his game his way and throw the book in his face. He can't get away with shutting me up.” Mordon laughed. “Ah, but can you hire the Blackwings like he can?” The mercenaries would definitely be a problem, particularly with their ability to capture talent at any given time. Against them, I was outclassed. “I can trick them.” “At every turn?” I fell silent, taking in what they were saying. “Cole would step up the attempts to kill me?” Leif shook his head. “Not obviously, but nor can he have you undermining his efforts.” “I won't be chased off.” Leif put his head in the crook of his arm, letting out a slow breath. “It's not time to get stubborn, Fera. Give it a break for a few weeks. It may settle down by then.” “Suppose I do give it a break. Where do I go? What happens to the coven?” “Fera, we aren't disbanding.” “You said it yourself. You're near Cole's inner circle. We can't give that up, and I can't pretend to go along with Cole’s lunacy. Something has to give, or you're at risk, too. All of you.” Lilly said, “Fera, you're over reacting.” “If I'm at risk walking through Merlyn's Market, then so are you—that is, if you continue to have an association with me.” “That's not what we meant,” Lilly said. Barnes propped himself up. “She's right.” “Barnes, not you, too,” Lilly said with a groan. “If it is not safe for her, it is not safe for us to be friends with her. The question is, are we the ones who are over reacting? One riot means little.” Mordon held up his hand until everyone fell silent watching him. “I think time will tell the truth of this. Perhaps we are over-responding. Perhaps not. I think the best thing to do at this time is to wait a little while, and keep Fera busy. She hates being bored, I can't say I blame her. It happens that the Kragdomen Colony is asking to see her in residence, and that they are able to provide care for the man we rescued. Once he is healed in a few weeks, we can re-evaluate the situation in Merlyn's Market.” The others were quiet, but I knew they approved of the idea of sending me away to Kragdomen for a while. Why not? There was a lot of truth in Mordon's statement. My principle reason for refusing was petty: I didn't want to be chased out of Merlyn's. Something savory smelling came from the kitchen—an egg and ham dish, baked. Leif must have broken away earlier and slipped the casserole into the oven. The prospect of food made me less obstinate, though the honeybush tea earlier had curbed some of my irritation. “Fine,” I said begrudgingly. “I've wanted to start spending more time there, anyways.” Mordon relaxed instantly. He must have been prepared for a prolonged argument. Was I really so block-headed? Guess he thought so. “We'd probably best move our patient as soon as we can,” I said, noticing how the carpet scratched my knees. It felt good to have a plan in motion now. I hadn't realized how worried I'd been at his presence being discovered. I got to my feet, stretched, and caught Mordon's smile. “Don't look so pleased with yourself. I might kick up a fuss just to prove you wrong,” I said. It succeeded in making him grin large enough to show his teeth. The others got up, too, Barnes humming a cheery folk working song. We were making our way to the kitchen when a knock stopped us dead. We all went quiet, peering at the spot on the wall where a door had appeared. It was a massive oaken entryway. I'd never seen that particular entrance before. Rigid formality poured out of it, promising a nightmare of headaches and the threat of an inspection. “Friends of yours?” I asked nobody in particular, blissfully in denial. “It's the Council,” Barnes said, squashing my hopes in three short words. There was another knock. No one moved to answer. Hesitantly, I asked, “Can we get away with not letting them in?” I knew the answer was no, but it didn't hurt to ask. Leif let them in. There was a Constable in a blue coat, a prison worker who wore a black uniform, and a magistrate in a gray cowl. The magistrate withdrew a scroll to read from. He spoke for a long, long time and wouldn't let anyone leave. The gist of it was this: They were going to search my house. Without our interference. Right now. Chapter Six By noon we stood in the overturned ruins of my home. Amongst the wreckage it was impossible to see what they'd seen when they had first entered, but I still couldn't wrap my brain around their report. “They found nothing?” Barnes shook his head. “No spell traces, no bloodied rags—no escaped prisoner.” No escaped prisoner. No trace of him at all. No blood, when before there had been. To call it a miracle would have been wrong—it felt wrong in this case—but what else could I call it? Either the man had come to his senses and snapped everything into decent order quickly, or someone had arrived to take him away. Neither seemed probable. How would any of his friends know where he was when his pursuers did not? How would he recover enough to do what needed done? Unless, that is, his pursuers had found him, and borne him away again. If that was so, then why on earth wouldn’t they leave me a house filled with incriminating evidence? I had no answers. None, other than the thought that there was something far larger going on than I had ever thought possible. Stunned silence followed me as I investigated the wreckage the men had wrought on my home. It stank of spell burn, a combination of black powder smoke and motor oil which had us trying to crack windows wherever possible. Lilly approached me with something herbal in a cup. “Here, take it.” I eyed the infusion warily. It smelled herbal, and not in the distinctive flavor way I liked. This was the compounded mash of a dozen, or two dozen, plants all ground together in a large vat to be sold in a large pharmaturgical shop. The end result was a product whose properties varied widely from the intended uses of the individual components. Sniffing it again, all I got was a muddied hay flavor with hints of pollen. “What’s it do?” “It’ll make you calm down.” “I don’t want to calm down. Look at this place!” The things that had been in my storage chest now littered the house. Twisted bras, scraps of underwear, wadded piles of tunics, shirts, dresses. And socks. So, so many socks. They seemed to have taken the disruption in their order as a cue to reproduce. Plants had been uprooted in search of whatever incriminating evidence might have been hidden beneath them. They’d found nothing, but now I knew where not to attempt hiding things when I truly did have something to hide. There weren’t many options left, not even under the floor, since a section of the bricks in the sun room had been taken up and dug beneath. Soil scattered throughout the house, the thickest layer in the sun room itself. In the kitchen I found a shattered earthenware round pot, its trailing ivy decoration around the rim broken clean off the rest of it. A sock was inside the broken bit. I found another sock the sink. It wasn’t a mate to the one in the pot. Lilly spoke her first words to me ever since we'd heard the angry report. “Fera, how did you do it?” “Oh, come on—what could I have done? It wasn't like I could have snuck in here while I was with you guys, picked him up out from under their noses, and dropped him off someplace safe.” I didn't know if I should be charmed at her faith in me or annoyed that I hadn't actually done anything. Lilly sighed dramatically. “What else could have happened?” Mordon raised a single eyebrow. “Did you happen to make our portal this morning a one-time use?” I stared at him, realizing how the man had escaped. Which wind had he noticed? Where had he gone? And, most importantly of all, did the others know that I’d gone on a little bit of an anxious spell-casting bender that night? “Oh. Uh. No. It's still here. But how would he even know where to find it, nevermind get through it on his own?” Mordon said, “You have succeeded similar feats in the past. We did not have him restrained in any manner. Aside from his physical condition, he could have walked off.” “Sure, if he wasn't a normal person,” I said. “The alternative is that someone who wasn't us cleaned up and took him away, and didn't tell the inspectors about it. If that someone was linked to Cole, they would have left incriminating evidence. Which they did not do.” “So, we're looking at a friend of our victim? Someone who knew where he was and how to get in here?” The odds were stacking up against that. Mordon shrugged. I rubbed the back of my neck in an attempt to ease the tension which had been building since the inspectors had first arrived. My whole body still felt on edge. I paced restlessly along the house, feeling caged in and without direction. Belatedly, I started to clean. What else was there to do? I began with a clothes hunt, piling tunics on one chair, trousers on another, dresses on the table. Socks soon went onto the dresses. Mordon watched as I found yet another sock in the dining room potions closet, hanging from a bottle of feverfew syrup. After a moment of lingering, the others helped. Lilly discovered a teapot, miraculously whole but missing its lid. I discovered a green wine jug with a crumbled cork, a thing I supposed could have been mine although I didn’t recall it. The sun brightened through the windows but did nothing to elevate my depressed emotions. What took the investigators ten minutes to trash took us fifty minutes to put to rights. A sandy dust covered all surfaces. “It is a disarming powder,” Barnes explained. “They call it Hit Grit. Wards turn to flame.” “Does it kill the wards?” I asked. “Maybe. Or maybe it just says that it’s there. Depends on the warding spell.” “Huh.” “Here,” Lilly said and handed me a wad of letters which had been crumpled, smoothed out, and refolded again. “That is the last of them.” I nodded, piled them with the other torn pages, and opened my kitchen drawer. I froze. “They broke the child locks!” Granted, I hated working around those stupid things, but did they have to destroy the enchantment my brother had done for me? It stung as though they had sent a deliberate message about how I wasn’t going to be needing them, anyway. The loss of Anna panged unexpectedly, and all I wanted to do in that second was hide until I could get control over myself again. It was stupid to be upset over her. She wasn’t dead, in fact, she was with her rightful caretaker which was the entire reason for taking her in the first place. It was still a sore wound, though, one that preyed on the lingering fear that a miscarriage had instilled deep inside. That I wasn’t enough to be a mother. And with Mordon and the rest of the colony depending on a baby boom to bolster their numbers, this fear nibbled away at me with renewed strength. Losing Anna had fed that whisper so that it was impossible to pretend I didn’t have it living inside me. Leif tested several other cabinets, frowning slightly. “They must have thought you were hiding something.” “Yeah, chemicals from grabby little hands.” I snorted, trying to get a grip on myself. “At least I don't need to put them back on again.” That stung worse than I thought it would and brought the pinch of tears to my eyes. All at once, Mordon was staring at me with a concerned furrow between his brows. Thank goodness he knew the truth, all of the truth, but the last thing I wanted him to do was say something that would make the others want to know. I blinked twice to chase away the tears and proceeded to dive into the various drawers; anything to avoid having to look at him again. Something dark and shiny caught my attention against the back of the drawer. “Why, hello,” I said to the all-black envelope. “How did they miss you?” Oh, yes. I never thought I’d be so happy to see his telltale stationery and face whatever terrible thing he’d written inside it. It was the perfect distraction to keep from going into a sleep-deprived baby-missing meltdown. “What is it?” Lilly asked. Mordon recognized the iridescent sheen, the ink made of light reflecting on the address. “A letter from Death.” Outside, we could hear very clearly a whippoorwill singing as I inspected the letter. It slid out of its envelope, a glistening letter with its hard-to-read ink that revealed itself when tipped at the perfect angle. “Feraline Swift, I regret to leave you hospitality so soon and with so little explanation, but I will tell you what I can. “Unfortunately, I am as mortal as any person. My body is that of the last man whose soul I ferried to the world of the dead. I can still perform my duties, and so I must. If I do not remove the dead from this world, they will remain to haunt the living. This would be bad. Should I be captured or killed, I will not be able to perform my duties. Both must be prevented. “There is a ritual which will return me to my proper place, unbound to a physical body. It was once called the Broken Feather Rite, performed for mystics and seers. Now it is amongst the magic which was lost upon the falling of the Veil. Find it. Before the date stipulated, if at all possible. -Death.” Well, thank you Mr. Death, a mysterious ritual to investigate and perform before your little date ends up killing who knows how many people. I’d bet that no one knew offhand how to perform the rite, either, or that it would take me on quests all over the world with its strange requirements. I turned the page over in my hand to make sure nothing else was written on it. Nope. I was on my own with my coven again. The page Death had written upon began to lighten, the words disappeared with the next glint of light. This was another staple feature of Death’s stationery. Should I ever end up holding a letter by the end of reading it, I would know it wasn’t actually his. The page fell apart into crow feathers, leaving behind one of my old appointment cards that had come as a sample in the mail. Date & Time: November 11 at Noon Venue: White Poppy Square Purpose: Death's Party Notes: Come early, come prepared. Or I will be very busy indeed. Lilly spoke first, “Fera? Does that mean that prisoner was Death? We saved Death?” “Yes,” I said, still feeling a little surprised myself. “I don't know how I feel about that. Maybe we'd be better off if he...you know, if he died.” I faced her for a moment. Not that her comment should have been out of the ordinary, indeed, many people would wonder the exact same thing. I wasn’t sure that keeping him alive was the best thing. All I knew was that deep down, I had to do everything I could for him. What hurt was to stare into her eyes and wonder if I would be on my task alone. The others were in silent agreement with her, their heads bowed slightly as they avoided my gaze. No doubt they were thinking of all the people they'd lost. It made my blood heat to have them so oblivious as though none of them had heard the letter. “Death doesn't kill. He's a glorified taxi service. Getting rid of him won't spare anyone.” Leif said quietly, “If that is true, then why was he trapped in a body and deliberately captured?” “Probably because we all think that he's a grim reaper out to snatch away loved ones.” “You're giving his word a lot of credibility,” Leif said. “He may be lying.” “Sure, he may be. I think he's telling the truth, though.” “Why?” Why? That was a good question. I couldn’t put my finger on an exact answer, other than I knew that Death had no reason to lie to me. He’d been doing his work for who knows how long, and there had to be a reason behind that. The feathers rustled in my hands, all stiff and now-dusty, already beginning to age and decompose. “Because he doesn't have very many friends.” A pause as my words hit home. Leif nodded. “I don’t like it, but I think you’re right. We’ll do what we can, but you have to be careful. Listen to me. Avoid the market. Live with Mordon for a time, and for pity’s sake, get some rest. You’re ready to fall over.” “Don’t you want to know what we’re going to do?” Leif answered me with crossed arms. “I think you need to take the day and sleep. The rest of it can wait until later.” “That’s your condition for helping me, huh? Make me zonk out?” “My condition is that you be in a condition to not make grievous mistakes which can and will endanger others.” I knew he was right in his request, but I didn’t want to accept it when there was so much to do and so little time to do it in. “Fera.” Leif reached for his wand pocket, didn’t take it out. Yet. “You know that drowsy driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. Spell casting is far more dangerous.” I snatched the cup Lilly had set on the kitchen counter, paused before taking a drink. “I want somebody to stick around to watch my unconscious body.” Lilly tsked. “You won’t be unconscious. You won’t even sleep unless you take a moment to relax.” Mordon held out his hand, cutting off a continuation of her defensive. He said, “I’ll stay. Everyone else, see if you can find mention of this Broken Feather Rite. I doubt it’ll be easy.” One by one, the others left. I still hadn’t taken the potion Lilly had made. When we were alone, Mordon put one hand on either side of me and he put his forehead against mine. “What are you worried about?” he asked. “I hate medicated sleep. It feels wrong.” “You mean you dream.” He kissed the corner of my mouth, whispered in my ear, “I’ll be here.” “But I don’t want the others in the colony to know. It’s one giant house, essentially. What if they hear?” “They won’t hear today. And later, I think you’ll find that you are not alone in your struggle.” The warmth all gone from my fingers, I brought the drink to my lips and swigged it quickly. Mordon took my hand and guided me to the pile of blankets on the bed. Once I was nestled against his body, Mordon whispered a spell which shut out the light. “Close your eyes. If you’re still awake in fifteen minutes, we can go dig up the garden with Nest,” he said. “Okay,” I said and closed my eyes, hearing the steady drum of his heart echoing through his chest. Chapter Seven I tossed and turned, though I couldn’t remember the exact details of the nightmare. It was dark, and there were a bunch of “us” running down a path that no one could see. Things were chasing us. Hell hounds sometimes, with glowing eyes and feet that padded the ground after us. Other times there were balls of light, will-o-the-wisp style, which would lure my people away from me. I would yell after them, yell at them to come back, to follow me, but it was too late. They would go down screaming, and I would listen to their bones crunch and their moans even long after they were gone. When at last the clouds parted from the moon, I took my first follower by his shoulders and shook him. Help me, I tried to say but no words came out, help me. But no matter how hard or how loud I tried to say it, the words wouldn’t come, and the things in the dark came closer, closer, and my companion left, abandoning me just as all the others had. I was surrounded by moans, by the stench of rotted fish, by glowing eyes and the moon turned into an orb, and I was alone. I tore at my hair, and I screamed for them to come back. When the monsters came for me, I grabbed for a stick and yelled, and no sound came from my lips. I tried again. And again. And finally, a whisper burst from my throat. Try as I might, I was frozen and held rigid. Paralyzed. And I realized I was in my room, alone, drenched in starlight and sweat, shivering with the blankets on the floor. Only one sheet had remained on the bed, and with a shaking hand, I reached out, snared it, and wrapped it up close. I couldn’t bring myself to reach over the bed. Under the bed was dark. I didn’t know what was down there. Even as every rational part of me said that there was nothing in my room, I shuddered and hugged myself, folding the sheet over and layering the sheet over my body, bringing it up to my chin and stifling the tears until I saw where a pile of my clothes was casting a shadow, one that looked like a hound with red, glowing eyes. It snarled, its hackles raised. I fought through the heaviness on my body and bolted to my feet, leaving the bed in a tangle. “Fera?” Mordon was suddenly in the room, on top of the tangled covers, his voice slurred and sleepy. There was no hound. There was not even a pile of clothes to resemble one. I remembered that it had been daylight when I’d gone to sleep, and that we hadn’t made the bed. My clothes, however, had been restored to their proper order everything neat and picked up. I yanked open a curtain. Mordon's darkness spell dissipated and I was standing in bright late afternoon sunshine. Mordon rubbed his forehead in an attempt to wake up. “Were you dreaming?” “I heard growling.” Mordon blinked hard, and I regretted waking him up so abruptly. Still, confusing as it was, I knew that there was no monster in this room with us. “You were gone. And the house looked different.” I shook my head, confused. “I heard noises. Not like dream noises, but actual real sounds.” Mordon yawned and got to his feet stiffly. “Could you move?” “I am moving now.” “When you heard the growling. Could you move?” I frowned, shook my head. “No. But I swear I was awake.” “Fascinating.” “What is?” “You were hallucinating.” “I wasn’t.” “Do you know about dreamwalking?” “Is that where you enter someone else’s dreams?” Mordon was too sleepy to furrow his brow, instead he yawned again. “Not that. When someone is asleep and they move around as if they were awake?” “Sleep walking?” “Yes. You know about sleep walking?” “I wasn’t sleep walking.” “No. You were the opposite. When a person sleep walks, their body moves as if they were awake yet their brain is asleep. What you did was the opposite. Your body was asleep, and your brain was awake.” He paused to run his hand through his hair, combing out some of its disorder. “Or, rather, your brain was starting to be awake. You experience your dreams as if you were awake, but your body is still dead asleep.” “How do you know this?” “A year learning everything I could in the infirmary. We had a night-guard who would sleep hallucinate about trying to quit smoking cigars and how he could not manage it, even though the smoke was literally suffocating his family. He could be very distressed about it.” Mordon smiled wryly. “The amusing part to this is that he did not smoke at all.” I sank onto the bed beside him. Mordon stroked my back. The winds about us were nearly still, bringing just enough of a breath through the windows to cause the curtains to gently sway. It smelled of early morning fog leaving dew in its wake as it rolled down the hillside into the canyon below. Peaceful, restful, soothing. But it wouldn’t last once the sun peeked over the rim and burned through the glistening dew drops on the windowsill. Then, just like that, the smell was gone, and I realized this was an afternoon breeze. The scent was that of the creek, not that of fog. I blinked in weary confusion, reminded suddenly of the changes yet to be made today. “What did you do for him?” “Moved him to daylight hours and reduced the length of his shift. Aeron thought his body couldn’t cope with the strain of a night patrol, and I thought he didn’t like sleeping while his family was awake. I think it made him feel as if his job was making him miss out on his children, instead of providing for them.” “And so, you changed up his schedule? You didn’t expect him to adjust or toughen up?” “What is the point of life if not to be enjoyed? Why encourage having children unless the parents are available for them? We found another night-guard, someone who hated getting up early in the morning.” “So you think these hallucinations were subconscious fears.” “Dreams can be. What was yours about?” For a second, I thought about telling him about the monsters, but I realized it was simpler than that. Far simpler. “I was abandoned and alone.” “Never. Not so long as I am around,” Mordon said and curled me against his side. He added softly, “We should leave soon.” Mordon’s finger snagged on my necklace, withdrawing it from its concealment under my shirt. He recognized the bottle on sight and grinned. “Who gave you this? An admirer? Not poor Wolds, you’ve broken his heart already.” Oh, crap. Did I tell him? Leif had been so quiet. I had the impression that he hadn’t wanted anyone else to know about what we were planning. What came out of my mouth was a giggle, shrill and very fey-like, thankfully my normal laugh. “No, not an admirer. So sorry to disappoint you.” “Ah, it’s too bad.” Mordon nuzzled my neck, laced it with fierce nibbles that underscored his desire for something rough and thrilling. “I would love a suitable competitor.” “Bah, I hate the idea of being a prize.” “You’d aid me. Wouldn’t that be an amusing way to build our communication skills?” I giggled again. “Not for the poor man against us.” “Or woman.” “Yes. Or woman.” Mordon added, “Of course … if you’re open to the idea.” “What idea?” “We could make it worth their time to lose.” I smiled as I understood what he was implying. “You’ll corrupt me.” “Well, if you’re going to think about it in those terms.” “What terms do you think of it in?” “Like adding salt and pepper.” “Salt and pepper,” I repeated. “If you don’t like the idea, that’s fine.” I shook my head. “It’s just never been an option before. I don’t know what to think.” Mordon propped himself up beside me and said with a wicked grin. “Perhaps you should explore the idea with this thought in mind: we’re going to live with each other a very long time. It wouldn’t do to spend it in any boredom.” “Come, now, how could it get boring when you teased me about playing rough yet treat me as if I were a kitten?” “I can’t have you saying that I’m a liar, can I? If I can make you beg, you have to tell me who gave you the bottle.” He crouched, extended his arms out as if to catch me. Dodging to the side, I kept my hands out in front to keep him at a distance. A big smile cracked across his face and he faked a lunge. I shrieked, shied away. He grasped for me, I slapped his forearms with open hands to keep him from taking hold. This quickly descended into a game of slapping wrists, ending only when he rushed me and I was suddenly enfolded in a bear hug. His arms kept mine pinned against my sides, and he picked me up so my feet pedaled the air. He kissed my hair with exaggerated noises until I stopped laughing enough to say, “When you asked about women earlier, you were right.” “Yes? Is she witty and attractive?” I giggled. “Not in the way you’re thinking. It’s Lilly. Leif picked a pair for Lilly and me so we can keep in contact. You know how she is.” “Yes. She’ll have all but forgotten by next month.” “I hope not.” Mordon chuckled, softening in my arms, smelling of sweat and contentment. “Of course not.” My stomach churned in discomfort at the lie’s ready acceptance. While I hated to deceive him, what would I do if later Leif’s life was on the line? Chapter Eight The sunroom door led out to a wooden deck overlooking a great, sweeping valley in the bottom of the canyon. On top of the far rocky rim, desolate scrub lands dominated the relatively flat area; on our side of the canyon, the rim was broken into sharp hillsides interspersed with sheer drops which hinted at one time both sides may have been cliff-like. Then again, perhaps it had always been this way: one side a sharp plummet, the other side partway between a mountain and a hill range. No matter what, the river through the middle of the green pastures was certainly the culprit for carving out the great gouge. “Watch your step,” Mordon warned. One of the steps dismounting the deck had cracked through, and so had to be skipped. “Yeah, yeah.” I took his offered hand. As I stepped off the deck and onto a narrow game trail cut into the dirt, I imagined the strength of the river that it must have once been, to saw its way through solid rock and wear such a deep river bottom. The thought made my head swim, because it meant that what was now a strong river would have been but a rivulet in comparison to its ancestor. How long had the current residents been sheltering here, away from the public eye, hidden from those who would hunt them? I didn't know how I was going to fit in. Something akin to terror held me in place as we walked through the wooded area towards the Kragdomen Colony. Mordon paused, leaned against a tree, and just admired the view with me. Kragdomen rose out of the cliff side, both carved into its natural caves and build up with stone masons and carefully cut blocks. The builders gave preference to the Gothic architecture with pointed arches and lead-lined window panes reminiscent of those which belonged in a church. Being here, this time as a resident, changed my outlook. Before, it had been a castle, a place teeming with strange people and mysteries. Now it was to be my home, massive and needing care with an eye to the future. So many of its corridors warranted exploring, and so did its history. But there was pride in being accepted to living here, too, and joy. And fear. Before, if someone didn't like me, it didn't matter. Now I sought acceptance and felt keenly the gap which was between me and the people who had grown up in this place. At the moment, there weren't people lingering outside on the ramparts or out in the fields below. For that matter, the skies were clear, just a robins-egg blue with little tails of cirrus clouds dispersed between clumps of white fluffy cumulus. “Not ready to go yet?” he asked after a few minutes. “I don't know if it feels like I'm coming home permanently, or if I'm intruding.” “It feels a bit strange to me as well.” Mordon smiled and started to say something else, but coughed instead. “Not how you planned bring home your bride?” He slung an arm over my shoulder and gave me a tight squeeze. “We can call it a break in tradition.” I chuckled, not out of amusement but because I felt obligated to. For his sake. Still we didn't move, we just held there, waiting...no, not waiting. Being. It's a different thing to wait than it is to simply be. Gradually, we continued on the trail. Twenty minutes later we came through the wildest part of the gardens that Nest tended. I’d come through here in the past, unaware that it represented the well-being of the people in the colony. Each person had a plant they were tied to. Nest knew who was what, but she told no one else. Except once, she’d told me a name. “Wait,” I called to Mordon. He stopped in his tracks, intrigued rather than alarmed. We’d come to the pair of rosebushes. One was a deep, true red; the other, a silvery blue. Both arched over a bench, but I could not have reached that bench today. A dense vine climbed over rock and trail, enveloping the bench entirely. The worst of it was that it assaulted the red rose bush as if strangling it. “What is that?” Mordon asked. “Morning glory.” I checked the leaves. “The wild kind is called chokeweed or bindweed.” “Is this the wild kind?” “Guess we’ll know if the flowers are small when it blooms.” I grabbed a handful of it and yanked, feeling the satisfying rip of roots releasing topsoil. Before I could grab another handful, the space left vacant was regrown right before my eyes. I wondered what to do now. “That would be why Nest hasn’t weeded it yet.” I threw the weed on the ground. Mordon nodded, his brow furrowed in thought. I didn’t like this. Someone, or something, was going to cause trouble. We made our way to the nearest stone tower. Mordon ducked into a low door, and we walked through a round room with gardening tools lining the walls. Up a few steps, we entered a hallway with glassless narrow windows. Our feet scuffed, echoing through the slender hall made in the walls of the castle. An opening let us out into an alley against white daub-covered buildings. Presently we stepped into a street with timber frame shops whose upper stories hung a few feet over the river rock cobbled street below. The daub in between brown timbers was painted in varying shades of white, cream, and green. Rectangular-paned bay windows jutted from the face of a single stone building at the far end. Signs swayed from iron arms, advertizing various goods. “Wow!” I felt as if I’d walked into a Victorian shopping scene. Mordon slung an arm about my waist to pull me close. “Have I never shown you the Shambles before? How negligent of me.” A group of sixteen-year-old boys sauntered by, laden with books in linen satchels. One punched the other in the shoulder, starting a bit of horseplay. I stepped to avoid the smallest of the group, and others noticed Mordon. Mordon raised a single eyebrow. They straightened up in a heartbeat, breathing a little hard, and bowed to him. “Lord Mordon. Lady Feraline.” “You young misters are behaving like hatchlings.” “Yes, sir. Sorry.” “Are you going to your apprenticeships?” “Yes, sir.” They waited in clear anticipation, wanting to know if they were in trouble. “Best hurry,” Mordon said. They dipped heads and bolted. Mordon put out a hand to the smallest boy, stopping all four. “Mister Woods, you are taking a very long route to the glass maker’s. I advise against it.” The boy resisted giving lip, simply saying, “Sir,” as he turned to go back the way he came. The remaining boys continued without excess exuberance. “Killjoy,” I teased Mordon. He smiled, held out his arm for me to take. A nearly-adult girl in a clean apron stood with a tray of quartered muffins before a buttery-scented shop whose windows advertised Fields’ Bakery and Confectionery – Finest in Stock. “Uncle Mordon, we got blueberries from Ferdinand today.” She held out a plate with exploded berries embedded in a white muffin with lemon rind. “Thank you, Kit,” he said and gave one to me. If I was expecting sweet, I got tart. Kit would have said more, but was soon distracted with other people. Once we were beneath a sign for a toy dealer, I asked, “I didn’t know you had a niece that old. Nieve’s child is an infant.” “Kit isn’t tied by blood. She came as an orphan at about four years old. The Woods family found her by the dam which is a few hours flight upriver. We never found anyone missing her, and we suspect her mother committed suicide. The dam is a hotspot for that. So she was raised with the Woods, but she would speak to me alone for years. She called me Uncle. I think she thought I was someone kind from her early years. She still doesn’t like conflict or raised voices, so I believe her early life was not happy. The transition here was difficult, and I never tried to stop her from calling me Uncle.” “Oh.” I glanced back to find her laughing with a middle-aged couple. “She knows the truth now?” “Yes, but it changes nothing. She’s not a shifter, but she does have a knack for weights, measurements, recipes. I think she may be a bit fey.” “Possibly.” “We could do to have more diversity.” I gazed around at the relaxed people tending to their grocery lists, checking the windows of delis and produce shops. I realized I’d found exactly what I thought I wouldn’t—a bakery in the heart of the Colony, a population whose tastes ran adverse to sugar and sweetness. Was this simply because there wasn’t an influx of people to bring in new products and ideas? “Several of the feys decided to stay after the Wildwoods burned,” Mordon continued. “They’ve set up shops. One sells clothing—spider silk and the like. A couple others opened an apothecary, they hope to work closely with you. The rest banded together for a garden supply. They’re being received well. By most people.” “Let me guess. Some people aren’t happy with the ‘interference’?” “You can’t satisfy everyone, and civil progress has historically always been unpopular,” Mordon said, guiding me off the Shambles and towards the center of the colony. “In a few years, everyone will see their lives aren’t over and will continue as normal when they have a new topic to anger them.” We stepped into a full-blown market where farmers sold their produce on tables and hobbyists displayed their colorful treasures. Musicians played violins, metal drums, and flutes. A whooping, whirling dance floor occupied the area around the castle well, drawing a crowd. Mordon led us around the noisy crowd, approaching a mammoth building with stone columns. Though the town square had been transformed by the weekly market, the Mead Hall was as it had always been. Inside, giant windows were filled with stained glass and the massive chandelier high overhead rotated slowly with its many crystals. Benches and chairs lined rough hewn tables. People got their food from a cooking fire in the middle. I was met with a waft of roasting lamb—and something else, something nutty and green. Soft voices rose and fell in conversation from a cluster of six people at a table, drinking brew or ale in this odd time when some people were in the middle of their work while others were ending a long summer night in the field. Candles burned in nooks and crannies, seemingly kept alive no matter what the hour. Wax had been allowed to build up in layers: purple, red, white. Chimes hung in the entryway, tinkling from time to time. A big, burly man got up from the table. “Mordon. Glad to see you, boy.” “And you,” Mordon said, clasping his father’s forearms. “Sit with us, and you as well, chicklet,” Aeron said. He introduced me to others at the table. “We were thinking we have a Watcher ready to go into the wide world,” Aeron said. “Excellent,” Mordon said. “I was thinking it was time to return.” That caught my attention. “You’re giving up King’s Ransom?” He shook his head. “Temporary closure. The recent market troubles are coming to a head, and I think it’s best if I’m not there to stir the pot. Once matters calm, I can hire a manager.” Aeron nodded once, his eyes moving to me as he addressed Mordon, “So, you plan on staying home?” “I think it may be for the best. I’ve made no secret about my ties to Kragdomen, and I think our next Watcher would be best served if they kept a low profile.” “Agreed. And does this mean we are to celebrate a mating flight?” Mordon stilled, thinking. “I do not see why not. Fera?” I shrugged. “I’m totally ignorant, but it sounds self-explanatory. I guess so?” “If you would like to settle into a permanent place here, we make a mating flight in view of witnesses. If you don’t want competition, then we don’t have to arrange any.” “Uh. I don’t think I’d stand up too well against competition,” I said frankly. Mordon chuckled and I realized my mistake. “Oh. Um. Uh. I think not.” I remembered the chokeweed on his rosebush in Nest’s garden and wondered if this mating flight had anything to do with its upset. “We can go very basic. A simple flight with the two of us one evening. Have them throw a couple more lambs on the spit for a feast, accompanied by the usual ceremonial cream brew. It will be the least fussy flight in ages.” I relaxed instantly. “Sounds good.” “We’ll go in the air a couple times to build up your wings. Do you think we should set a formal date in a week or two?” “A week. Just get it over with. Formalities.” Aeron turned to the others. They shrugged. A week, two weeks, a month. It didn’t matter to them. Aeron began to talk about the coming wheat harvest, about how much hay they would have to store up for the livestock for winter, about what the surplus was that they could sell and where. Beneath the table, Mordon took my hand and gave it a squeeze. The butterflies in my stomach calmed fractionally. As we stood to leave, Aeron faced us again. “Why don’t you take Fera out and around? Show her the currents and scenic flights.”

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