He was aware, on some level, that a town was not a barracks. Tents and bunks were traded for houses and beds. Fortifications and ramparts were traded for chimneys and thatched roofs. And yet he was still amazed at how different it all was. There was no ever-present smell of leather and steel, only that of fresh bread, strange spices, and the occasional collection of refuse to be skirted around on the street. Enseran was, by all his observations, not a barracks, nor even a garrison.
This would explain why he was utterly lost.
He had been given an instruction, a name, and an address, and yet it seemed that every turn he took brought him away from his mission, into some strange corner of city-dwelling life. First a hunch had led him to a meat market, then a guess had directed him to a far less savory market, and now his weary feet were carrying him into an expansive plaza, its fountain bubbling beneath an already pink-colored sky. He had tarried too long. Straightening up against the breeze, the man placed one hand to hold his flat cap to his short dark hair, glancing down from the evening sky to the businesses encircling the square. Most had closed, or were now closing. Most, but not all, and it seemed that luck was on his side.
He crossed the brick-paved street with brisk and orderly steps before giving four purposeful, rhythmic taps against the green-painted door. He stood back. A gust of wind pushed about his coat, knocked his hat from his head, and he crouched smartly to retrieve it... only to hear the jingling of a bell as the door swung open.
A woman, standing in the doorway, a dark apron, a ragged cloth held in one hand, two brown eyes, a raised eyebrow, and a confusing swath of orange hair all greeted his gaze curiously. Her eyes turned to the sky behind his head, while his moved to her forehead as he straightened, in habit born from years of training. “You in the right place, sir?” She moved to hold the door open with her hip, filling the frame while blocking his entry.
“If you are the focalist Cressidia, then, yes, I am.” The man spoke in a clear, largely unmodulated voice. “I am sorry for this late call, but your shop appears to still be open. I do hope this is no intrusion.” Nothing about his tone suggested that he had any such hope, or even that he was particularly sorry.
The woman’s eyebrow arched higher, and with startling speed, she leaned out from the doorway and craned her neck toward the large window facing the plaza. “Well, you tell me, sir, does that look like it says Cressidia’s Concentra to you?”
He turned, as she directed, a motion not only of his head but of his whole body, necessitating the repositioning of his feet. “It does indeed, ma’am,” he said, turning back to her. “Might I presume that you remain open for business? I am here on a matter of some urgency.” A sudden gust of wind blew his cap off again, and it flew past her shoulder, thudding against and the door to fall onto the floor. He paid it no attention, his stare boring even deeper into her brow.
“Well.” The woman—Cressidia herself, he assumed—grinned at him, taking a step back as she pushed the door open farther. “You’re at Cressidia’s, alright. Open sunup to sundown, and it ain’t sundown just yet.” She spun on her heel, gesturing her arms in the dark room around her, and light began to flicker from the ceiling, dim at first, but beckoning him inside as the brightness grew. Collecting his hat, the man followed.
Before he entered more than a step or two, though, he assessed every surface of the space, letting his gaze travel quickly from point to point. The source of the light was sorcerous, as he should have expected, but stranger than usual. The magus’ tower on the barracks used some sort of softly-lit spheres, as did the few other places he’d been which had used magical lighting; he did see a few of these overhead in the array of blown-glass, but there were also more oblong shapes, long tubes that writhed like snakes and forms that he couldn’t assign any name to at all. All of these were glowing, illuminating a comfortable, if somewhat untidy room: plush rugs strewn at random, several chairs of odd shapes and sizes, and a countertop to his right, where the focalist was taking her rag to a particularly troublesome smudge.
He chose to enter and hang his hat, unbothered by the door swinging itself closed behind him. He came into the room, not too far, and waited, keeping his eyes on her brow even as she spat, groaned, and eventually flung the cleaning cloth away without even moving her arm. He’d learned that sorceresses could be... eccentric.
She leaned forward, elbows on the counter, watching his stare while it refused to meet hers. “It is an honor, ma’am,” he said without particular emotion, and with a light nod.
She nodded right back, and he could see that her smile was wide, bright even in, or perhaps because of, the dim light overhead. He was also aware of her eyes moving, performing her own assessment of every one of his surfaces. “Same goes for you, Mister...?”
“Opmyr, ma’am,” he said. “Marshall with the first Damean engineering corps on the Armhalt garrison. Am I correct in presuming that you would be the proprietor of this establishment, the focalist Cressidia?”
“Cressidia’s me, I’m she,” the woman said with a grin, “here to claim an order, Mister Opmyr, or place an order? Unless,” she stood a bit taller and motioned a hand to the rows of boxy shelves behind the counter, “you’re window shopping, and you see something you can’t live without?”
“Marshall,” he corrected her without a hint of reproof or offense in his voice. “To place. I am in need of a certain item, built for a certain purpose, and I admit that my magical training is somewhat lacking. You were recommended to me highly by my superior, for this reason. Do you have pieces that function to augment a certain form of magic, above others, available for general purchase, or do they tend to be special orders?”
“Marshall, yes,” she murmured to herself, her eyes seeming to lose themselves in a spot on the counter before they jumped back up again with a smile on her face. “Sure, got plenty.” With yet another unexpected motion (these were beginning to feel routine to him), Cressidia swiveled to examine the display, sending her bright mass of orange curls bouncing through the air. The focalist seemed to grab a few items at random, setting them on the counter without looking.
“Bangles here, good for elemental evocation. Staff crystal, eh, meant for water magic, but really, could use it for earthen spells just fine, would hafta make adjustments of course, and... ooh, here’s one,” she turned around, thrusting a very loose mound of golden wire towards him, “good for precision work, lot of control, see, you thread it around a shoulder and the elbow, then...” She made the effort for a few moments to pull the contraption around her arm, then took a look at him, and set the pile down, unwound. “What, ah, what kind of certain purpose are you needing this focus for, Mister Opmyr?”
“Marshall,” he corrected her again, almost automatically. He had been able to take in her speech stoically, admittedly somewhat lost. Military training included magic, of course, but only to a certain level. Some would pursue it much further. Opmyr had not. And so his eyes drifted between the objects before him, examining them as one might examine a row of daggers. Each sharp, each metal, each deadly, but each bearing a different purpose, purposes which Opmyr could not, on his own, ascertain. Yet purposes he was bound to thrust himself into.
He took a short breath, feeling his facial muscles move: a furrowing of his brow. It would have looked a tiny change on the focalist’s animated face, but he felt it marring his cool expression like a ripple through an undisturbed pond. “I am in need of a focus which will help me secure a degree of mental control over my subordinates,” he said.
Cressidia’s smile remained fixed, but her left hand moved faster than thought, slipping beneath her work apron. “Are you, now,” she said, finding his gaze and holding it. The marshall didn’t need any further training in the arcane to feel the wall of magical wards rise up around her, enclosing her body from his like a phalanx of shields, only within a space beyond space. He hadn’t even the time to breathe, much less utter some spell. “Bit of an... uncommon request, sir,” she observed.
He gave a curt, affirmative nod. His own hand slid inside his coat’s breast pocket, near to his heart. “I would not know if it were, ma’am. What I do know is that if you intend me harm, I will resist, and while I would almost certainly lose in a magical duel, my superior knows where I’ve been sent. I also think that, were it to come to that, I would be able to do some damage to your fine wares in the process.” The left corner of his mouth quirked slightly upwards, as his fingers twitched around the buzzing token in his pocket. “That said, I do not fancy your chances in a physical brawl. We may be of a similar height, but I think that my training would give me a slight edge.”
Surprising him, a laugh left her lips, in spite of the edge to his own voice. “Trained in magic or not, I’d never pick a fight with a military man.” She lifted her hand up from the front of the apron, pulling out a glinting chain, with an odd spherical bauble dangling from its lowest point. Clearly a focus, but strangely shaped, with sets of rings within rings connected by small spindles, little gems here and there sparkling in the light. “Wards’re just a precaution,” she said, “you know how long I’ve had this shop?”
Opmyr didn’t yet relax, but the hint of his smile remained. “I do not, ma’am. I could hazard a guess, if I had to,” he replied.
His eyes felt drawn off her forehead, where they had naturally settled, to the object in her hand, or rather, hands, as both had come together around it. Cressidia’s fingers were making quick motions, twisting and manipulating the rings to spin and shift around and within one another, reminding him of an armillary sphere. It was simple fidgeting, he could tell, not some preparation for an assault. But still, her working fascinated him. “A long time, ’s my point,” she said after a moment. “Never once, not once, have I had someone just come in and ask for a focus like that.” She leaned back against the shelves, fingers still fiddling. “Fulfilled orders for the crown before, certainly, but nobody’s had the stones to just do this.” She grinned.
He let his hand relax. “I am unfamiliar with the...” A pause, “... customs and courtesies of purchasing such objects. My own device was military issue.” She would have made enough to know exactly what that meant: that in the interior breast pocket of his jacket was a solid piece of brass, small enough to be hidden in the palm of his hand.
The focalist shrugged. “I wouldn’t expect you to be, Mister Opmyr. But since you’ve come here in person, and since you’ve gotten a recommendation from a superior, and since you’ve come into a focalist’s knowing little to nothing about foci, I imagine this is a personal project, and not one stamped by the royal seal?” she asked.
“Marshall, and it is not personal, no,” he said, face returning to a practiced neutral. “It is of personal interest, but the request only comes from my commander. I am to be compensated, I will need a written receipt, and you will receive payment from my personal funds on hand.” As a man of the bureaucracy, he understood plainly her interest in being paid immediately, and not at the leisure of the crown.
“Well, that’s certainly good news—but have you a request form?” she asked. “Anything in writing on this, anything from your commander?” She moved closer, still behind the counter, the sound of soft shoes on hard wood reaching his ears.
“No ma’am,” he answered. “Not that I brought with me. This is at my discretion and hers, and is a matter of some urgency. Nothing, of course,” speaking a hair too quickly, “that would raise calls to question our or your security, ma’am.”
“Well.” Cressidia said, and stopped toying with the ringed sphere, folding her hands together at the wrists below her chin. “That makes this a bit difficult for me. You see, I’ve got plenty of foci that could cast such spells. But you, and your commander, you want one of specific potency for them?”
Opmyr nodded, once, curtly. “That is the case, ma’am. It is needed in the course of my duties.”
“Have you... practiced, such spells, before? Studied them?” She smiled, looking him over again, but it was less casual of a gaze than it had been moments before.
“Only in a very limited capacity, ma’am.” He shuffled from one foot to the other, a touch uncomfortable. “Are these questions necessary? I merely wish to make a purchase and to let you conclude your day.”
She seemed surprised. “Well being frank, they’re very necessary. You’ve studied some modicum of mental magic, haven’t you? It’s not the most well looked-on fields of the arcane, and for some mighty good reasons. A wonderful craft, a beautiful one, yes, but a strange one. Easily abused. I can’t have such abuses on my hands, can I, Mister Opmyr?” she asked.
“Marshall,” he said, standing tall again, “and you would know better than I about such abuses. I have a measure of training in all fields necessary for my work, which includes needed defenses against charms and confusions, as well as some capacity for placing my voice in the minds of my subordinates.”
“Which is what you’re looking to do on a larger, stronger, and more precise scale. Which is why you came to Enseran, and which is why you came to me. Am I right in this?” Her hands lowered, putting a couple of twists into her bauble.
His eyes followed them as he nodded, and stayed with them as he spoke. “That is, in short, what I am requiring, yes.” His words were chosen carefully, sharp as swords, ringing in the tension between them.
“Well.” Cressidia shrugged, and her hands were on the counter. “There’s a few ways we can do this. I can set you up with a focus that’ll do the task fine, but not perfectly. Or you can try and manage with your standard-issue, but I don’t think that’s even an option for you. Or you can try and find a competitor willing to first craft then sell such a focus, though with your urgency, that’s in a bit of doubt too. With me so far?” She grinned.
Opmyr nodded stiffly. “Last choice,” Cressidia said. “I’ll have to hear about it in long, not in short. I’ll have to see if you’re telling the truth. If you are, I’ll see what I can do. If you’re a liar, well, you’ve already said you’ll lose in a magical brawl. And if you’d rather not have yourself tested, then you can pick any of those other ones. But you won’t get what you need.”
His eyes rose slowly from her hands to, for the first time, meet hers directly. “I am not a negotiator, ma’am, but I was told that, for this purpose, you are the best, and not to accept any less than the best. There is no reasonable test that I cannot pass, but you must surely know that there are matters of a certain sensitivity when one is dealing in military...” He paused, and his brows came together, in what might’ve been a frown if the rest of his face would agree with them, “Matters.” The repetition of the word grated on them both.
“Your superior ought’ve mentioned my discretion, too,” the focalist said around a self-satisfied smile. “I’ve had the royal stamp on my crafts for a time. Worked on a few arcanists’ projects, even. The secrets of the crown are safe with me,” she tapped a finger to the side of her head, smiling wider, “and so’re yours, sir. I’m most curious to your intentions, though it’s your choice to tell me.”
His nose wrinkled slightly and he waited in silent consideration a moment. “I have been informed,” he said, even more slowly, “by my superior, of your discretion. Your reputation is... without reproach, in this regard. May I be... necessarily vague?” He shifted on his feet again.
“Your definition of ‘necessary’ might change, once the spell’s on.” Cressidia smirked. “Magic tends to loosen lips, even if that ain’t the proper intent. I’ll just be asking you for the whole truth, whatever your head deems that to be’s what’ll come out.”
Another shift. “Ma’am... I am, trained, to resist such machinations. Military secrets, and such, you must understand.”
“You’ll just have to untrain yourself, then!” she laughed and shook her head. “Really, it won’t be so bad. All’s voluntary. Your choice, Mister Opmyr. Focus or no focus?”
Another pause. A nearly imperceptible movement of his eyebrow. “I have my orders, ma’am.”
“And I need a straight answer, Opmyr.”
“Marshall,” he said, his neutral mask reassembled. “I am to obtain such a focus as we have discussed. What you propose is... acceptable.”
“That’s settled, then!” Cressidia clapped her hands together with glee, and instantly, he felt the air around him shifting, thickening. A few of the gems in the rings of her focus were glowing. “Tell me about your orders, then, marshall. Who sent you here?” The question made the hairs on his neck bristle.
“My superior,” he answered. Then, a moment later, “And hers.” A moment more. “Commander Anitra Sara, chief of engineers, and Magus General Magdara Seilund.” He paused, before his brow furrowed. “What did...”
“Ahh, Seilund,” the woman’s gaze appeared to grow wistful, “her focus is a thing of beauty. Not one of mine, I wish it was. The edge on it, the cut of the gem, just perfect, and the runes, have you seen those runes, Opmyr?” The question, again, sent a shiver through him.
No hesitation this time. “Marshall. I have not.” He shuffled. “Ma’am, this is... irregular.”
Her eyes made their way back to his face lazily, and she looked almost surprised at his response before smiling. “Apologies, sir. I can get a bit carried away, have to watch the tongue here. I’ll be more careful, swear it, now was this an order coming from Seilund herself or Sara?”
The marshall shivered all over, the speed and intensity of the questioning only making the viscous aura of magic squeeze harder over his sensitive skin. “From Commander Sara, ma’am, and from Miss Seilund through her.” He swallowed, feet on the edge of movement, though whether he was going to step forward or back was impossible to tell. He wasn’t even entirely sure, himself.
Cressidia nodded, some of her curls bobbing with the motion. “Why you, though,” she said aloud. “Don’t mean any offense, but you’re trying to work on something with these engineers of yours, something takin’ precision. I can tell. What is it?”
He came forward. “Ma’am there are secrets that I could n... An overall plan to better coordinate a crew of engineers, an experiment to see if there is a way to increase efficiency and reduce errors in critical situations.” His hand shot beneath his coat, not to the focus resting against his heart, but rather to his hip, where he gripped the handle of a blade.
The spell around him eased off as the focalist’s hands rose in supplication. “Easy there, marshall, let’s not get hasty now, that’s not something I went looking for.” She spoke calmly and flatly, without any rise of a question, but the words still rushed out. “You made the choice, you thought it over, you weighed the risk and the consequence, you decided to say it, even if you thought you wouldn’t say it, you did, even if you didn’t think you were thinking about it.”
His hand stayed fixed, squeezing hard on the comfortable hilt. His advance had at least stopped. “What are you doing?” he snapped, breathing heavily, “And why?”
“I am working a spell over you,” she said clearly and calmly, “a light one, a compulsion to be truthful and complete. And as yet you have been. I’m doing it because I need to know if you can be trusted, if your story is true. You’ve got no documents, no formal requests, nothing else to confirm it.” He saw her gaze drift, just a moment to his sword-arm, then back to his eyes. “Let’s not be hasty,” she added, again.
“I do nothing in haste, ma’am,” Opmyr said, not relaxing. He couldn’t tell if she was afraid. For that matter, he couldn’t tell if this woman had the capacity to be afraid of anything. Her fingers trembled, but was it fear or an impulse to act? Her tongue wetted her lips, but was that dread or anticipation?
He felt himself swallow hard before continuing. “As a marshall in the corps of engineers, I must be patient, thoughtful, and considered in my actions. If this blade leaves its scabbard, it will be a careful and deliberate act.”
“Alright,” she chuckled, “then you can be as slow as you like, but let’s not draw any weapons. I just want to ask a couple more questions, little simple ones, that’s all, then I’ll decide. Tell me if that’s acceptable.”
He stared. The adrenaline stirring in his blood, the pumping in his chest... both made the prickling sensation of magic a faraway feeling. He knew that he could overpower her. But, in the same way, he did not know why he should have to, when he felt so certain that she was speaking the truth. The marshall stepped back, but kept his scowl and hand in place. “It must be,” he said slowly.
“Okay.” Cressidia exhaled, a heavy and weary breath. Maybe she had been scared. Her outstretched hands came to rest on the counter. “Simple questions, promise you. What’s your name?”
Not a moment’s pause. “Marshall Joran Opmyr,” he said.
She smiled. Her fingers twitched. The buzzing in the air grew more pronounced, like humidity cooking up off the earth on a summer day. “Where do you come from?”
“Fort Armhalt.” He said, and a moment passed. “And originally a small estate near Largoneir.”
“Good.” The focalist nodded to him, and he felt as though she was suppressing her tendencies for his comfort... but he almost preferred her genuine attitudes. “Last question.” He met her eyes. “Did you come here prepared to use any spells of the mind on me?”
“No,” he blinked. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin, ma’am. Is that a concern?” he asked puzzledly.
“Well.” With a wave of her hand the energy in the air vanished, leaving only an echo in its wake, on his skin. “Either it is not a concern, and you’re the man you claim to be with the mission you claim to have... or it is a concern, and you are far better at this than I, and you could’ve easily bewitched me before you even came in the shop. In both cases, we might as well just get the work over with.” Cressidia’s smile grew into a grin, even at the macabre idea she proposed.
His hand had fallen from the sword, resting at his side. “Do you do such to all your customers?” he asked, a hint of a smile tugging at his lip.
“No,” the focalist gave a simple shrug. “Like I said, haven’t had cause. Nobody just comes calling for foci like this.” She turned away, still smiling brightly, and proceeded through a thick purple curtain at his left. “Come on, then!” She called from within, and more of the magical lights illuminated above to lead him through.
He swallowed, and followed her in warily, eyes once again scanning for threats. The space was a room of crafts, clearly, lit by fewer of and even stranger-shaped bits of glass from above, occupied mostly by a long workbench. “How does one normally call on a focalist?” Opmyr asked, pulling the curtains apart and closed again as he stepped inside.
She didn’t seem to hear him, for she was humming, her hands opening and closing some of the many drawers that lined each wall. Bits of steel and stone were scattered everywhere, papers and plans, half-finished drawings that looked more like works of art than schematics. Curiosity got the better of him. “This is where you make your concentra, ma’am?” he felt obliged to inquire.
“Mhm!” Cressidia chirped affirmatively, standing on tiptoes to reach a high shelf. “All of it comes out of here, military brass to real works of art.” She fished for something in a box, then pulled it down and spread it out before him. “Like, look at this!”
It looked like ordinary thread. She glanced down at it for the first time, and saw this as well. “Well, okay, look at what it could be.” She let the thread dangle as one hand made a quick dance—and then a gray shirt was hovering before his eyes, lined with gold at its seams.
“That is not...”
“Real? No, of course not.” She laughed, and shoved a hand through the illusion, making it ripple like water. “It’s just the idea of it. Wearable, fashionable, powerful too.”
Opmyr stared, and came a step closer to observe the thing. Though, in all honesty, he was more interested in how her fingers were swimming lazily through the air, how her wrist twisted as it waved through the shirt. “You would... make me a shirt?”
“No,” she laughed, and he felt himself smile. It was hard not to, at that sound. “Gold would be abysmal for this. Not abysmal, I could probably make it work, but still.” Her hands returned to the contraption around her neck, and with a subtle twist the imaginary shirt disappeared. She was still twisting as his eyes looked down, rolling the hollow ball around, and he realized the motion was making the thread spool itself around while it floated into its compartment. “You need something better,” she said, drawing his eyes back up. “Know much about gems?”
“No, ma’am,” he said, clearing his throat briefly. “If you asked me of the relative strengths and weaknesses of a variety of building materials, that I could speak to. But the tools of your trade are as foreign to me as, I think, the tools of mine are to you.”
She smiled, and once again, he felt himself smile with her. “It’s probably much easier to follow than your engineering,” she said. The atmosphere was lighter now—perhaps it was the lack of windows, or her apparent lack of worry that he could be in control of her. “Simplest terms, color commands. Red for fire, blue for water. Metals’re generally good for most casting, like that little bit of brass in your pocket.”
Though, she may still have been worried, he couldn’t be sure. “They’ve still got their strengths and faults though, did you know, with those little tokens, that it takes more effort to form fire into a sphere than any other shape?”
Stranger was that she had seemed to come to an acceptance of the idea, were it happening. “It’s fascinating, really, a quirk of the construction...”
She did seem to be the type to exist solely in the moment. “I mean, I’ve tried to have it changed, but no, they’ve been using the design for years, have to stick to it and...”
It was that, he thought, or she somehow welcomed the idea of his being in control as such. That thought made him shiver, no magic needed, though his eyes were following her fingers, as they twisted and turned and could have cast any number of spells from her spinning bauble. She was still talking. He cleared his throat politely.
“And brass, I mean, really, it’s just...” Cressidia’s head turned up, with two blinks. “You probably don’t need to know any of that stuff, though. You just need something for mind magic, yes?” She smiled, and brushed most of her curls past her shoulder.
That’s a very pretty gesture. He nodded, curtly, in reply. “Yes, ma’am, that’s right.” The corner of his mouth had turned up again, without his noticing.
“There’s a few that’re good for it.” She brought herself onto one of the wooden stools by the long bench, motioning for him to do the same. As he did, he could feel paths and trajectories being traced out, her fingers twiddling the miniature astrolabe, making a random assortment of objects follow those paths. Something flew past his head, and was caught in her hand. A small bracelet, with a large, purple, circular gem. “See this?”
Opmyr sat down as directed. “I do, ma’am.”
“Not what you need.” She tossed it away, and both of them winced as it bounced off wood and made a sound like breaking glass. “Same sort of gem as Seilund’s, your boss’ boss,” she explained, “good for most kinds of complex magic, defensive spells, bit shoddy for everything else. But not what you need.” The focalist was humming again, a pretty sound if a little stilted, the twitches of her rings making each focus pass before her eyes for inspection, all of them returning themselves to little boxes. All of them except one. She let it hang in the air, murmuring as it dangled slowly, “This one, though...”
Something with the makings of a leather bracer, its straps still unfinished, a metal guard set into it—shining in the light with some faintly etched runes, circular and angular, ancient words that he had no way of understanding. At its center a small, diamond-shaped black stone glittered as it spun. “It seems well made,” Opmyr offered, trying to contribute.
“It’s not done,” she muttered, “but... still, potential.” She snatched it from the air and spread it on the table, pointing out the gem with a finger. “That’s black opal. Strong stuff. Meant for just the kind of work you’re looking at, or something more sinister.” Her eyes met his with a glance, before turning back down to it.
“I...” He paused, unsure of what to say. “How would it work?”
“Same as your brass does.” The focalist picked it up and wrapped the thing around her forearm, just above the wrist, and, for a moment, she shuddered. Her eyes soon opened to find his. “You see? Once it’s been bound, of course, you’d get used to it, and it’d be second nature.”
“My token seems... simpler, somehow.” His hand found its way to the charm, and he squeezed it for a moment.
“That’s just necessity,” she sighed with a nod. “Those things have to be produced endlessly, you can’t have any craft with them. But a real focus, something that’s truly yours?” She set the bracer down and raised her bauble instead, “It’s just a shame if you’re stuck your whole life with something boring, something impersonal.”
The marshall’s smile threatened to spread with the rise of his brow. “And that, it’s personal? Meaningful, to you?”
“Very.” Cressidia brought it into her hands and toyed with it. “One of a kind, fully my own design. You see, here,” she indicated a few pairs of gems, each in the same color as their mates, “same cut, hewn from the same stones. The point of it all, I can rearrange the whole thing, all these bits,” she gave it a spin, and grinned, “every set of angles and positions has its different strengths.”
“That was how you...” He stopped, a little tension flaring in his voice. He took a short breath. “It is a work of great beauty, certainly, and much skill. It is fascinating to watch you manipulate it.”
“You understand,” she smiled at him. “I don’t have a need for one of these,” a gesture to the opal in the bracer, “because I can shift the configuration to have a similar effect.” She dropped her focus, letting it hang from the chain and bounce off her apron, picking the flattened bracer up in its stead. “It’s unbound, now, so anybody could use it. That’s the issue with focus-crafting, everything’s got to be unique, even your brass: there’s not a one exactly like it. It has to know who you are, since only you should be using it, you follow?”
“I do,” he nodded.
“Takes time, though, got to design, etch, inscribe all the necessary enchantments...” He allowed his eyes to stray from the plain, boring leather to the dark stains of her apron, and to the swell of some curve beneath. “... have to take your readings, too, of course, work those into the design...”
He admired the strands of her hair, some of them even now moving past her shoulders, hanging aside her cheek. “... get it all into the stone, then there’s still these runes, I mean, no idea what I was even thinking with those, must’ve been...”
Her small lips worked endlessly, below the intent, enticing focus of her soft and light eyes, her delicate nose, her rounded chin...
He was staring, while she criticized her past self with animated gesturing. He didn’t regret this staring, but he was still surprised at it. And though he was listening, and certainly enjoying her enthusiastic asides, the evening was wearing on. He coughed lightly. “I would certainly appreciate some sort of demonstration, before I make a purchase,” he said. “An investment of time and money, you understand.”
“Oh!” Cressidia startled, then flashed him a grin. “Of course.” She unfolded the focus in her lap, putting palms on either side of the gemstone. “Need just a moment to attune with it, you know how it is with these unbound ones, sometimes they... ooh,” she sighed, and he watched a tremble work through her limbs, “there you are, I think.” Her eyelids fluttered, her breath caught in her throat for a moment—before she turned, meeting his gaze and snapping him from the enrapturing spell. “Are you ready, Mister Opmyr?”
“Marshall,” he corrected absentmindedly. “Ready? For...?”
“For your demonstration,” she reminded, and already he could feel... something. He wasn’t quite sure what, and he wasn’t quite sure he disliked the chill on his back. “Are you ready?”
“Are you pl... yes,” he replied, unsure if he had cut himself off and corrected, or if she was already working some spell to alter his replies.
“Great!” She clapped, her face lighting up, but her hands stayed together, fingers interlocking. The brightened expression was still there, but she seemed interested in something behind him, staring past his right ear. Her lips were moving, whispering something too faint to hear, and he realized that she must’ve been channeling... something. Her eyes had that focused but distant stare that he’d witnessed on some of the military magi before. What should’ve been strained from effort in her brow and muscles looked relaxed, even her shoulders appeared to be drooping.
He wasn’t sure if he should speak, or continue to sit and stare. A moment, maybe a minute passed, and he tried to clear his throat, as it had been so effective in getting her attention... but he found himself incapable. He tried to speak, but merely sat, unable to muster the will. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more the physical impulses seemed to distance themselves from him. He was sitting, so he would remain sitting, for it was only polite. He was watching, so he would remain watching. To interrupt would be horribly rude.
He couldn’t speak, but his senses were still reporting at more than peak efficiency. Nothing to worry about there. He saw her sitting, whispering, staring past him. He felt the seat beneath him, the magic around him. He smelled the wood of the room, oaken, a hint of birch. He heard the rustling trees, the rambling river. He tasted the dew, the freshness in the air...
Opmyr blinked. She was no longer in front of him, for he was no longer in the room. He looked down, and saw the stool beneath his legs, but the sensations of the environment pulled his attention elsewhere. He was in a forest, but there was so much, his analytic gaze couldn’t take in the half of it. “Ma’am?” he called out warily, his hand slipping to his sword.
She wasn’t where she was, but her voice was still around him, all at once. “You see, Opmyr? Isn’t this amazing?” The sound coming from behind him, but he turned on the stool, and it was only rustling leaves.
“What is this?” He stood, gripping the pommel of his weapon. Equal parts fearful and awestruck.
“Tell me what you think it is,” her voice laughed, like birdsong, only there were no birds.
“You have... transported me... sent me away. I have failed your tests, and I am abandoned to my own devices,” he said, growing more wild-eyed with each word. “And I have failed you, which is perhaps worse.”
“Good!” She laughed again, and in the silence thereafter, he hard something chirping. So there were birds. “Well, no, not really good, per say.” And then, Cressidia was in front of him, curls streaming behind her in the breeze, wearing a simple dress and a beautiful smile. “Nothing like that, Opmyr. Remember. Black opal for mental magic. Not teleportation. Besides,” she giggled, “I wouldn’t waste a perfectly good teleport without coming with myself.”
She was gone. And then she was there, leaning back against a tree. She was gone. And then she was there, sitting up in one of its boughs, kicking her feet in the air. She was gone. And then she was there, spread on her back on the grass, writhing comfortably in the dew. She was gone. And then she was there, her body arching back and stretching in the sunlight... His breath caught. He tried to keep composure. He closed his eyes, but it couldn’t shut out the sounds, the smells, the tastes. “What you say is true,” he rasped, “and yet, I cannot help but believe what I told you.”
“That’s the point, Mister Opmyr,” she whispered into his ear, and then the assault on his senses ended. He smelled wood, oak, but not fresh, and not grassy or dewy. He felt the stool beneath him, he tasted the spit in his mouth, and he heard the faint, indistinct whispering yet again.
“Marshall,” he said with a start, rounding onto his feet, looking around the workshop. “What... where...”
“Here,” Cressidia murmured, noticeable out of the soft din, breathing a deep sigh in and out. Her body rose and sagged beautifully with the motion, and she turned a tired, bleary smile to him. “How was that?”
His eyes, naturally, drifted to her hands, which had closed around her bejewelled chain. “I...” He hesitated. “I am not compelled?”
“Of course not,” she chuckled, brushing back her hair. “You think I could keep that up at the same time as the last spell? Casting with two foci at once? Unheard of, marshall, though I wouldn’t say it couldn’t be done, just not by me. Though of course, I’m flattered you’d think so.”
He nodded, swallowing down hard. “I... think I ought to be. There is a... a clarity in it that makes me unsure that my answer would be complete, without it,” he said.
Her brow made its quizzical motion, and she spun the rings without looking. “Well,” she said. “In that case, how was that?” Hairs bristling, the same sensation covering him head to toe, a pulse of coolness across his warm skin.
“Convincing,” Opmyr replied. “Rather concerning, to be so completely fooled. I doubted even your own assurances. Interesting. Frightening. Your laughter was beautiful along with the sound of the brook.” He looked, sounded, and was surprised by his last utterance.
And by all accounts, Cressidia was, too, as a rose color met her cheeks. “That was the point, like I said. Less work, more convincing than any concoction of illusions. A spell just has to convince the mind, and it’ll get the senses to make it even more real.” Her eyes were wandering while she spoke, and so did his. “Though, the two can work quite well together.”
He noted the flush of her skin, felt the very same coloring his own. “Convince the senses fully, it’ll shape the mind’s behavior.”
Fingers twitching back and forth, it seemed more a gesture of anxiousness than idleness. “’Course, that’ll make the mind affect the senses, and you saw how that goes, but still, some just keep on writing that...”
His composure, eventually, returned. Even if her speech refused to conclude, as moments dragged to minutes. “... and, honestly, Marlowe was a hack for even suggesting the idea.” She flattened her hands on the bracer. “So, you want to try it out?” She grinned at him.
“I would like to,” he responded instantly, the magic pulsing around him as reply, “and I would very much like to control you.” He was prepared, this time, for his reply, and retained his composure.
Cressidia did too, if barely. The color on her cheeks deepened, her lips turned to stammering for only a moment, before she was able to smooth them into a cool smile. “Certainly, Mister Opmyr. Take this and settle in.” She passed the bracer. He took it, felt it warming to his touch.
“Marshall,” he said, as a little smile played about his eyes. “This might be the last time you make that mistake.” There may have even been the hint of a joke in his voice.
The focalist chuckled, but it was not the same bright and boisterous sound as her laughter. Her fingers were twiddling still, but it was not a mere tic—he felt her sorcery shifting with her movements, with the changes in her intent. “You know how to work it?” she asked carefully.
“I’m sure you will let me know if I am mistaken.” Opmyr drew the bracer around his wrist, holding it in place with his free hand. “Are you... are you ready, miss?”
Her lips pulled into a smirk, and with another turn of the bauble, he sensed some of the wards she had summoned up falling down, holes appearing in her impenetrable defense. “Show me what you can do with that, Opmyr,” she said.
He squeezed the bracer tight. “Say I’m one of your subordinates, treat me just like you want to do with one of them.”
He shut his eyes, he sought past the feeling of his brass token in his mind, and found the waiting, much wider presence of the dark opal. “See what it can help you do. Don’t be afraid of it.”
He welcomed it in, letting its aura seep into a hollow space in his mind. “It’s more power than your brass, so it’ll feel different for sure, so just...”
Opmyr felt it come into place. It was like her thoughts were simply... there, and he was able to sense their shape, if not their makeup entire. And he thought that this is how he knew, somehow, that he was able. Able to use it. Able to cast. That he did not need to know the spells Cressidia knew, that he did not need to have studied meticulously the ways to assert one’s mind, that he did not have to be so precise.
He had his will. He had his intent. He had his desire. These were what the bracer would make manifest. These were what he could impart on her. And so, when he did speak, it was after only a short moment, as all these ideas were already present and known to him, whether it was of her will or his own. He made the decision not to think on this, only to act.
She was speaking still. He was reaching with his senses. “There will be silence,” he said calmly, “that I might concentrate.”
The marshall let his eyes open, and saw her lips cease their movements abruptly. The focalist looked surprised a moment, before she smiled and nodded for him to continue. He let the flow of power be twisted this way and that, testing what was possible. It was stronger, that was certain. It made him, in its way, feel stronger too. “Wards have lowered around you,” Opmyr observed aloud. “What did they do?”
“They were meant to shield my thoughts from any reading, manipulation, or implantation.” Her voice came out in a flat tone, almost sullen, not at all matching her look of gleeful amusement. “They were meant to prevent the altering of certain attitudes or action through arcane means.”
He thought a moment, his legs shifting as her strange speech ceased. “By dropping them, ma’am, that implies that you would want, or at least would be comfortable with the thought of my reading, manipulating, or implanting thoughts, or altering your attitudes and actions, yes?” he asked precisely.
“Yes,” her voice agreed, and her head nodded openly, though still she blushed.
“Yes,” he nodded. “So, miss, would you be so kind as to tell me what your thoughts were,” his smile pulling at the corners of his lips again, “when I called your laughter, ‘beautiful?’”
“I was at first surprised by your words, doubting of them, and then, when I did recall the spell I’d cast on you—flattered.” Cressidia’s mouth smirked playfully as it closed. Her blush deepened a few shades more.
“Would you like to know,” he asked, standing, “what else I find beautiful?”
“Yes.” She swallowed, and moved in her seat. Her hands came to grip the bauble, and he thought, for a moment, that she might banish the spell before he could say another word. But she did not. The focalist merely manipulated its rings nervously.
Opmyr plucked a strand of magic like a lute string. “Then ask. I am still under your spell of truth.”
“What else do you find beautiful?” Her tone had a bit more life, eagerness, her idle hands working faster.
“Your hands. The way they move and play. The energy is enthralling.” The marshall smiled down to her. “Your hair, your curls. The look in your eyes as you discuss your craft. The blush in your cheek, deepening even now. The shape of your body, the curve of your shoulder, the rise of your knee, your hip...” He flushed a little himself. “You.”
Deepening very quickly, after that. Her fingers seemed to hesitate, considering a configuration to twist her focus into, a nonverbal spell to end it, but...
... but the next question was tumbling off of his lips, before she could. “How would you like me to alter your actions, Cressidia?” The military bearing was gone from the words. It almost sounded human.
“I would like to be made to take this apron off.” She heard her own words, and turned her eyes to the floor bashfully.
The marshall felt his breath tremble. He concentrated past his body, seeing the hook by the workshop curtain which no doubt was there just for that purpose. He visualized her walking to the door, removing her work apron, carefully and neatly hanging it on the hook, and then undoing the clasp for her bauble and hanging it, too.
It began as soon as his imagining was finished, if not faster than. He felt she could see the working behind his eyes, for she stood, and moved exactly as he had thought she would. Slow, steady steps, drawn by the compulsion to the hook. Precisely undoing the apron’s knot. Breathing hard and slow. Hanging it up and, hesitating a moment, doing the same for her focus.
A second later, free of the spell and the moment, she pulled the curtains closed tight, turned to face him. Tugging at her curls. Wearing the same, simple, cream-colored dress as in the forest.
He swallowed. “May I... alter your actions further, in that direction, ma’am?”
“Yes,” her voice answered, and her eyes confirmed it too, both at once.
Opmyr was not certain what she looked like naked. But he could imagine. In fact, he had been, for some moments already, picturing the way her hip curved, the shape of her chest, the look of her stomach beneath the... Cressidia was already moving. Or, rather, she was standing completely still, focused intently, and the bauble hanging beside her was moving. Forcemagic, an invisible gust of energy turning the rings to a new formation. The focalist stretched an arm overhead in a graceful arc, her fingers trailing lines and sparks of a mystic light, and the dress, and whatever may have been beneath, vanished.
Flushed, naked, her nipples pert, her hands struggled to find some place to fidget. Eventually, one clutched the edge of her hip, and one tangled into her hair. She cracked a small, nervous smile.
His breath caught. He drank up the sight, from feet and toes, to legs, to thighs, her sex, her hip, tracing the line of her arm to her shoulder, across her breasts, her belly, following the other arm to the divine curls on her head, and down to the smile. “I should like to...” The marshall swallowed. Closing his eyes a moment, he projected the image, just the image, of her and he in an amorous embrace for Cressidia’s mind to receive. An inquiry was written across his gaze, when his eyes reopened.
He hadn’t shown her his state of dress, so it seemed she made her own assumption. Her hands were up above her head again, like a dancer poised on her toes, then swung down in the same arc, with a different light, the focus flashed behind her, and his clothes were gone. She crossed the space in two steps, and pulled him into a deep kiss. Stunned by the change of matters, he was drawn in before he was aware of it. Clutching the bracer tight, he returned the affection carefully, but enthusiastically, as she held his lips and enjoyed them, sighing into him, before pulling apart, glancing at his hands. She smirked, an eyebrow arched with an implicit question.
Opmyr chuckled. “I am sold, ma’am,” he replied. “I do hope you can retrieve my clothes later, my purse was in my coat.”
Cressidia laughed to him, without words, and the glint of her focus drew his eyes again as she cast another spell. Something under his hand moved, and he lifted it, holding the bracer up into the light. It was held fast around his arm by her magic. She put her hands on his shoulders. He drew his spare hand away to brush a stray curl away from her cheek.
That hand held to her face, gently, shifting the course of his spell on her, scanning into her mind. “Show me...” He paused. “Show me your pleasure and mine.”
The thought burrowed itself in, and as she met his lips again, he saw her body against the workbench and his above, arms and lips and bodies entwined, her lips pulling away from his with a smile and the mouthed words, ‘How’s that?’
No hesitation this time. He pulled her off the ground, sitting her on the workbench. He kissed her lips hungrily, then her chin, neck, shoulder, pecks on her collarbone before leaning to suck on her nipple. Silent exhalations grew louder, soft noises of breath turning to sighs and moans. Cressidia’s arms were on his back, clutching his skin, pulling him closer. He could feel her gooseflesh, he could feel the exhilaration of her body and mind in his magic. His hands groping at her bottom, gripping as he kissed lower to her belly, hesitating only a moment before using a thought to spread her legs, making her shudder eagerly, her hands stroking across her breasts while she watched, and felt. He kissed the top of her mound, inhaling her scent, before running his tongue lightly along her lower lips, forcing out a moan, and then another.
Cressidia leaned back, farther and farther until she propped herself with one elbow, touching, finding his hair with her hand, tugging it and pulling him closer. He slipped his tongue inside, forcing a thought into her mind. Patience. He would not be rushed. He searched for that place that most excited, most energized, to tease with his tongue before kissing and sucking. He could feel how it pulled her forwards, how her thoughts sung with pleasure and glee, how they revolved around and around, knowing she was spellbound, loving that she was spellbound, feeling his touch, adoring his touch, feeling her pleasure, feeling that she was spellbound...
It drove Opmyr mad with desire. He twisted the power, and she was suspended. The moment of his touch, the kiss on her most sensitive place, repeating itself over and over in her mind, a constant cycle of ever-escalating pleasure blinding her awareness to the manipulations he performed on her mindless body. Laying her flat on her back. Planting her hands above her head. Stretching her out. Climbing atop her. Panting, staring at her wide-open eyes and mouth, at the endless circle of thought and feeling behind them, before positioning himself at the entrance to her most sacred place, teasing her lower lips once more, this time with his solid member. Another twist in the flow of power, and she awoke, blinking into his eyes, seeing him above her with an entreaty on his face.
She nodded quickly, wordlessly. He slipped inside without a moment’s thought, holding her hands down above her head and lowering himself to kiss her lips furiously. She moaned against him as he thrust up inside. He felt her wrists struggling worthlessly beneath his strong, forceful grip. Twisting just to feel the resistance. She could have thrown him off with a spell. She was more powerful than he. But she did not want to be powerful. She wanted this, and he felt it deeply as he thrust again, and again, filled with need and want, holding her down, tasting her tongue, pushing back against it. Feeling the press of body on body, the futile movement against his grip, spurred on by her obvious pleasure.
Another moan, and another, gasping in and out with every thrust. Every one sending a bolt of pleasure and energy through her senses, making her muscles jerk, making her mind cloud, her eyes unfocus as she craned for another deep kiss. He could feel the echoes, the impulses as they began and finished, the heat of her breath against his, the tension winding inside her entire body, ready to spring.
“I wonder...” he moaned, “if the magic can...” Another thrust, diving for another kiss, sending a powerful bolt of energy up through her. Easily. Simply. The burst brought her to orgasm, sighing and seizing with the flood of pleasure and warmth, the shock of it in her mind bringing him to his own climax, erupting with another moan, each clutching the other tight, full of heat, full of ecstasy, seeing stars as his member pumped inside her, as her body responded with tightness all around him. She managed to wrench an arm to pull him down close, smiling and sighing as he relished in his own pleasure, holding him there while the moment passed, while they both slid through bliss, until he began to soften within her.
Opmyr murmured against her ear, “I think you have a repeat customer, Cressidia.” He chuckled deeply.
She smirked, and breathed against him, giving him a sidelong look. She could have dissolved the spell herself, but...
Opmyr saw the thought forming in her mind, and dispersed it with the power flowing through the bracer. “Not before I’ve had the chance to buy you dinner,” he grinned. “I’m sure you know an inn that doesn’t close ’til well after sundown.” He felt the shivers running through her, as the vanished thought occupied her focus. She was wondering what he had made disappear, realizing what had happened, shivering again as she pondered it. “Hm? You like that?” He slowly, carefully dismounted, cradling her cheek with a hand. “With what you’ve shown me, and the power you’ve given me, I’m sure lots of other things could slip from your thoughts...”
She wagged a finger at him teasingly, still laid out on the workbench, tapping the side of her head. Her lips mouthed, ‘Only as many as I like.’
He nodded precisely. “Of course. I wouldn’t dream of it any other way. And I’ll take that warning to heart, and, since I’ll take your warning to heart...” He leaned over her, brushing her temple with his fingertips, “you don’t need to remember giving it,” he whispered. Her eyes unfocused. She stared through him, as her mind reordered itself, and soon her eyebrow was just rising to give him a wondering look. Opmyr smiled, and helped her to her feet. “Can you bring back our clothes?” He asked.
Cressidia rolled her eyes, steadying herself. Then, after a thought, she wandered to the far side of the workshop, opened two random drawers, and retrieved two neatly folded bundles from each. The focalist handed him his own, and winked as she unfurled her dress. He couldn’t resist; he reached out with the power and again stopped her thoughts entirely, freezing her in place, taking a last, longing look, and gentle feel, of her naked form, before releasing her from the magic entirely and starting to dress. “Was that,” he said with the hint of humor, “what you had in mind, ma’am?”
Perhaps the absence of the spell made her quiver even more. “Well,” she nodded with a sly smirk, the dress coming on in only a few moments. “I’d say so. And is the bracer... fitting for your purposes, Joran?”
“I imagine it will do. Of course,” he continued, “I would like to conduct more extensive testing. Perhaps after supper?”
“I agree completely,” Cressidia grinned. “You have a few days to decide, anyway.”
Opmyr paused, his pants halfway up his legs. “I’m sorry, a few days?”
The focalist laughed. “Yes, Joran, a few days. It’s a good thing I like you, you know, binding a focus would normally take a whole week. Have to test plenty, measurements, fitting, attunement and aligning, secondary checks and observations...” She chuckled and shook her head, curls swaying with her. “Anyways, there’s plenty of room in the loft, if you haven’t gotten a place already.”
“That is a very generous offer that I will be happy to accept, Cressidia.” He offered her an arm. “Shall we find somewhere to dine?”
“I know a place,” she laughed, and stepped past him, leaving him staring as she grabbed her focus off the wall, hanging it back around her neck. She was fiddling with it before she could open her lips, and she backed through the curtains with a teasing grin. “C’mon, then,” her voice called after him, and he couldn’t tell if it was intrigue, hunger, desire, or some compulsion in the air that made him jog after her.
He made the decision not to think on this, only to act.* * *