The smile on her face was contagious, as was the peacefulness of her slumber. The arcanist yawned, stretching, sitting himself on the edge of the bed as he watched her. The scent of bacon wafted throughout the room, and he longed to partake in that, as well. So busy. His eyes returned to the spellbound, sleeping thief.
It had been a shame, her rejection on the last night. He’d figured that she was ready to accept his push on her thoughts and run with it as though it were her own. He sighed. There would be chances for that later. He was getting closer, and that was what mattered, to that, and to the answers to a dozen questions he was endlessly curious about.
There was also the fun of it. He smirked, and recalled her expression each time he cast his spell, the droop of her eyelids, the yawn on her lips, the blank, dazed, thoughtless stare as those deep, dark eyes opened up again. His hand ran through her pale hair, rubbed behind her ear, and settled on her shoulder. “Little thief,” he whispered, “wake now, little thief.”
The change in her countenance as she rose from the dreams nearly shattered his reverie. Her soft look turned neutral, then to a discomforted frown. Her shoulder tightened beneath his hand, legs pulling together as she turned her head up. “What?” she asked, quiet and soft, as her eyes began to open.
“I have brought breakfast,” he smiled down at her. “Dreams can wait. I cannot. I have much to do, and a great deal to discuss.”
She shook her head slowly, scooting her body back and away from his hand as her eyes opened wider. “Am I going to be tormented this way every morning?”
The arcanist chuckled, shook his head, and his fingers performed their practiced dance. “Dreams can wait. I cannot. I have much to do, and a great deal to discuss.”
He watched her blink, then, and her meek attempt to sit up straight. “You want to... discuss something?”
“We do have business, little thief,” he grinned, “and I have something of a proposition for you, if you would indulge me.” He stood, and gestured towards the table. “Care to join?”
She blinked heavily again, and seemed to decide that the food would be worth it. Then she stood, though it was more like a stumble—she very nearly careened into him before catching her balance.
“You seem a little unsteady,” he murmured with concern, finding her side then walking her toward the seats, “are you entirely well?”
She nodded as she sat, quickly maneuvering out of his grasp. “Mhm,” she assured him, “just tired.” She started into her food soon after, with the same ravenous appetite.
“What, might I ask, tires you?” He sat as well, folding his hands and watching her. “You were sleeping sound as a rock when I entered, and seemed to have been so for some time. Is there anything to be done that might help?”
The thief glared at him. “These things happen when you interrupt that sound sleeping after entreating upon me with wine at late hours.”
“I’m aware that you cannot see the sun,” he smiled, “but I assure you that it is high now in the sky. You can’t have been sleeping less than nine hours, surely.”
Hesitation. Then she reached for yet another bite. “I’m just tired.”
“And hungry as ever I see.”
She shot him another look.
“Regardless.” The arcanist shrugged. This would go nowhere, with or without his little spell. “Have you had a chance to re-evaluate your views after our discussion?”
“I’ve been busy sleeping, as you so clearly pointed out.”
He thought a moment, then made his gesture. “Have you had a chance to re-evaluate your views after our discussion?”
She blinked, ignoring him. Then the magical pressure to respond won out. “No,” she answered, “you haven’t changed my mind. You’ve offered me nothing new.”
“I have nothing to offer besides reality, little thief. Well, perhaps a little more than nothing.”
The thief’s eyebrows rose, but it was a skeptical look. “This that proposition you mentioned?” she asked around a mouthful of scrambled eggs.
He nodded at her. “You want knowledge. I have it. Would you like time to spend in the library?”
That caught her off guard, he was glad to note. Her dumbfounded expression was a treat, as she gulped and cleared her throat. “The library,” she repeated, “you think I can be trusted in there?“
“I think you can be trusted to a degree, yes. But I also think that you might learn something, and that you might enjoy it more than sitting about here, setting fires.”
“I have not started any fires.” She made a face, then took a swig of piping hot tea as if it was simply tepid water. “But I’m not going to turn down a chance to stretch my legs.“
“Nor should anyone deny you the opportunity,” the arcanist grinned. “The library can be made available to you, but my chamber will, of course, be off limits.”
Her cheeks reddened. “Fine. Then I’ll have a look this afternoon, unless you’ve got some objections to that.”
“I do not,” he said, “I’m sure you’ll find something quite... captivating,” he snickered to himself. “Now, little thief, has your view of me at least softened some? Or do you still insist that I am a devil?”
She sat back, crossed her arms, and sighed at him. Or perhaps at herself. “You’re not a devil,” she admitted. “You believe what you say, that’s better than many. You’re decent, and deluded. Self-centered, and greedy.”
“I’ll grant you decent and self-centered,” he smiled.
“That doesn’t make anything you do right. It just makes you worse for acting so irresponsibly, taking so many harmful actions”
“These actions you speak of are hardly actions to begin with. Not publishing my research, not making it available to all and sundry, is hardly taking action for or against anyone.“
“It’s action against everyone,” she argued, “why can’t you see that? Your inaction brings us all down, while only lifting up the nobles and the royals and making their crowns even heavier.“
“My action, in this sense, would cause far more damage than my inaction grants benefit,” he said. “True seekers of knowledge would understand that my works, my discoveries, are either too dangerous to be widely shared, or too esoteric to be useful.”
“True seekers.” She snorted. “And let me guess, you’re the only one worthy enough to decide who is and isn’t one of those.”
He raised an eyebrow seriously. “When my research is completed, it is sent to the Great University and the Academy to be verified, certified, and catalogued. It is not I, alone, judging the dangers and weighing their benefits, although I know very well those dangers. Most wouldn’t know what to do with my research anyway,” he explained, “perhaps I can suggest my expensive notes on the life cycles of the dandelion for some light bedtime reading?” He heard the sarcastic bite in his tone, and thought it wise to temper it back.
“Ah, the Great University, the pinnacle of knowledge!” Her voice was even thicker with sarcasm. “That’s just a social club for all you rich idiots. All that verification and certification and catalogification’s a farce. What kind of library demands the wealth and status of nobility to even step inside, let alone to just read? And how many nobles even can read?“
“A central depository and collective of information, and a place for its interpretation. A place where people know and understand the dangers of knowledge, and the value of keeping it close. I trust you’ve never been,” he shrugged.
She was indignant. “I’ve never been because I’ve got no business in the capital, a city full of snakes. Keld refugees aren’t exactly made welcome.“
The arcanist scoffed. “These are the words of someone who chooses to believe the worst and cry in anger, rather than trying to find your own truth. The Great University has no weight placed on one’s origins, one’s background or skin. It is not beholden to any nation, little thief, it doesn’t care for Damea any more than Keldia. It exists to gather, test, and disseminate information—information documented, challenged, and verified, to people who have also been challenged and verified.“
“Sure,” she shook her head, “let me know the next time you see someone with skin like mine walking through those halls,” she raised a pale arm between them, the other hand stuffing her mouth with more food to talk around, “and not just some token ambassador.”
She kept going, even as he tried to cut in. “Your library is five minutes’ walk from the palace. Who do you think funds your research of flowers and dandelions? Who paid for the stones in the library’s walls, the wood of its shelves? Who gave you this plot of land, this bleak and ugly tower? And where do you think they get all that money? From us. From people on the ground, instead of up in the air like you.”
The arcanist felt himself scowl. “No one gave me this tower. I built it. I funded my own research, first selling my family business to do so, and now with the fruits of that research. And,” he rose from his chair, “despite the efforts of previous monarchs, the king does not interfere with the neutrality of the university.“
The thief was smiling now, a wicked little grin below him. “Built it with your own two hands, did you? Too afraid to be challenged by anyone real, just playing instead with the puppets and lackeys in the library? Getting the king’s stamp of approval on all your work, a pat on the head and a word of praise for his good little dog?” She set her empty plate down on the table. “Come now, if you cared about challenge, you’d be surrounding yourself with your nay-sayers, the ones who’d think that building a tower in a hedge maze in a swamp was folly. Whatever happened to your friends, hm? Leave them all behind on the ground? Ever even have any? Awfully lonely up here, I expect you left some lovers to chase your silly little dreams, too.”
“You assume so much, little thief,” he sighed, rubbing at his forehead. “I hide from no one. Anyone who has business with me can make an appointment. But you,” he turned to her, “I wonder. What would your parents say of your profession? Or do you run from them. Do they know? Do the seamstress and the day laborer have any idea what’s become of their daughter, the one they gave so much to see brought safe away from the war? What would they say?” He pressed, “What would your friends, your family in Tolfdor say? Why do you run from them, little thief? What are you trying to hide?“
Her whole face was red, staring daggers into the floor, jaw and lips locked as tightly in place as the arms around her front.
“Ideology is a poor companion for a meal,” he shrugged, walking for the door. “I must be off soon. Would you like to see the library, in daylight this time?”
She didn’t acknowledge him, didn’t move save for the labored breath she took as he looked over his shoulder. And so he declined to acknowledge her. Without opening it, the arcanist walked through the door, and pushed it shut, and then, with a pop in his ears, he was away.
He listened a moment to her room. No, to her cell, as he stood alone in his study. He heard her breath shudder, heard the noise of the chair as it was pushed back. Loud, angered footsteps thudding on the bare stone floor. A soft complaint, a grunt of anguish, then a thump as she hit the bed. Half a whimper, low and quiet as she spoke to herself, muttering indistinctly between sniffs and sobs.
He frowned, and kept listening to the noise. He’d found a point of pressure, yes, but he didn’t like to think of himself as cruel. She was an interloper, and she had information. These things had to be done to get that information. And, besides, it wasn’t like she hadn’t been pricking him at every opportunity.
The noises of her sadness faded away as, he assumed, the bed’s spell overtook her. “Good,” the arcanist said as he set to work, real work. The kind she couldn’t deter him from. Though, as they often had in the last few days, she did begin to distract him from it. Certain images. Certain thoughts. Certain... He hesitated to think it. Fantasies.
“She’s a guest. She’s a captive. She’s here to be learned from, to break a dangerous movement.”
Then why give her fantasies?
“Because that’s how it’s done,” he muttered to the inward voice while sketching a rune, “create the attraction, encourage the attraction, exploit the attraction...“
And then fuck the attraction.
He couldn’t exactly disagree. They were crass terms to think in, but, this was where his mind was. He sighed, set his quill down, and set his hands to removing the robe which, while unrestrictive for spellcasting, was quite restrictive for the arousal occupying his attention.
He had caught a thief, yes. He had caught a revolutionary. And she was naked, and she was gorgeous, so there was really no reason why he shouldn’t want to fuck her, if she was now feeling the same towards him. Had been feeling it, he reminded himself, you only brought what was there to the surface. Perhaps there was a reason. But he wasn’t about to spend time searching for it.
The spellthief woke suddenly with a growl in her stomach. She couldn’t remember how she’d ended up in the bed, but she was glad for it. Better than being pissed and miserable for a few hours.
Fresh food was on the table, and her eyes saw it instantly. Bread, two sorts of cheese, salted meat. A note was sitting with it, and she grumbled at the thought of whatever it might contain. A few seconds passed before she sighed, and crossed the room to snatch up the note.
‘Alas,’ it began just like the last, ’I cannot join you for lunch. Another matter propels me forward. The guard has been informed of your permission to use the library. I have brought what you asked for,’ she glanced aside and saw a small crate near the door, ’and please enjoy the meal. I’m certain that you are hungry. — V’
She sighed, read it again, and then again, while she loathed the palpable sadness that settled in. It wasn’t just that she’d been driven to rage and tears and loneliness some hours before. And the food was delicious, and it fed her need for energy, but it was lacking a distinct something. Someone to sit across from, someone to smile at, someone to share with. Hells, she thought, even someone to threaten. The spellthief cleaned the plate quickly, then rapped her fist against the door.
“Yes, miss?” A familiar voice asked from the hallway, “Can I help you?”
She began to beam immediately, smiling at the door. “I think that you might be able to. I was told that I could use the library, but it seems the door is locked.”
“Odd, miss, he told me the same. I mean, I suppose I might unlock the door for you.” She could hear—feel—Henry’s smile through the door.
“Oh, you might?” She shuffled out of the door’s path as the locks began to open, “That would be so very kind.“
“Won’t be a moment, I assure you.” The first lock clicked. “I mean, it’ll be a great honor, miss.” The second lock came free and the door opened. The corridor outside was lit with the same globes as her cell, but the change of space made it seem so much brighter. Fresh air met her lips and nose, and she took in a deep breath.
Her eyes opened, noticing Henry standing in the doorway, trying not to look hard at her. “Thank you,” she said softly.
“You’re welcome. Ah,” he paused, “I’m sorry, miss, but if you could give me your wrist?” The guard held out a hand. “He insists on this.”
She looked askance at him and casually shifted her arms behind her back. “What for?”
“I mean, it’s not shackles, miss, it’s just... ah, well, I suppose it is just one shackle. I don’t right pretend to know a thing ’bout any of this magic,” he shrugged, and held up a thick metal bracket.
“Did he... say what it was for?”
“Just something about the books and the library, miss,” he said, “I mean, I don’t know more than that, but you’re not the first guest I’ve put this on, and none o’ them came to no harm.”
She stepped closer, and gave him her arm. “Can’t go in there unless it’s on me?”
“No, miss.” He took her hand gingerly in his, cuffing the manacle around her wrist with an unimpressive clank. “I’m sure it wouldn’t stop no lockpick, but I don’t know where you’d be keeping a...” He swallowed, and went bright red.
The spellthief giggled, and stepped through the precipice into the hall. She let her eyes close as the light and air washed around her, then turned, seeing the old guard still sneaking glances at her. “Would you lead the way?” She smiled, blushing a touch more herself and holding out her unladen wrist.
Henry took her hand and held it a moment, looking a little lost. “I... yes, miss, of course.”
She squeezed his hand tight, and moved close to his side as they walked in silence. “Here we are,” he announced eventually, his voice strained as they stopped before the door.
She unlaced their fingers and watched him pick out the key, identical to all the others, but recognizable by its teeth. It slotted into the door and turned, unceremoniously. “I’m to wait outside, miss, but, I mean, if you need anything...” He shrugged in a way that was beginning to look very familiar to her. “Oh, and the boss said to remind you that his room’s to stay locked. No goin’ in there.”
“You’re not coming in? Couldn’t you please?” She put on her best smile and cutest eyes, even if she wasn’t sure why. Something about Henry’s blushing, his chivalry, and his kindliness made her feel... Made her feel like an ordinary pretty girl that ordinary men could ordinarily fawn over, without any purpose or motive besides the fun of it, and the natural attraction. She wasn’t planning to use that attraction, she didn’t even like to consider it (she’d seduced older men before, but this was Henry), but it was still a possible out. And so, she teased, for fun more than anything else. “It’s much better to read with company.“
“I mean I have my orders, miss, and I... and I don’t, I mean, I never learned.”
She stepped into the open doorway and nodded. It hadn’t been that long since she’d learned to read, and really, there was no shame in it. Save for the shame that came from people like the arcanist. “I understand. Still, you’re just outside?”
“Just outside this door, miss,” he smiled after her. “I’ll knock and let you know if I’ve got to move.”
She grinned back at him. “And I’ll knock when I’m ready to be going.” A few more steps carried her into the dim library. No windows here to carry in fresh summer air, she was surrounded on all sides by the smell of paper and mustiness. The door closed behind her, but wasn’t locked. The spellthief cracked her knuckles above her head, and moved to the closest long table.
Nothing. “Hells,” she groaned, after an agonizing time spent at each of the wooden slabs. There were no handwritten notes, no unique spellbooks, nothing of any interest to speak of. Maybe a third of the papers sitting out weren’t written in Damean, or in Keld, so they were useless. Another third were financial records, either from the arcanist’s old business or his current one. And the last third was the worst of all, notes and research, yes, but all of it worthless. Climate data. Growth rates of sunflowers. Average number of minnows to an average-sized pond. Life cycles of ivy, how to get it to cling better to trees and walls. Hells, even stunning amounts of information on blades of grass. The spellthief was certain, now, that his lending her access to the library was just a new form of torment. But her eyes strayed to the tall lectern from her seat, and she found herself walking towards it. As she rounded a corner, she could see the cover of the book on top of it, pulling at her thoughts, dredging up the memories of poring over it days before. She had promised herself to come later and give it a full analysis. Why not now?
“No,” she stopped herself on the second step, shaking her head and walking back down from the pedestal. It could take all evening to read through it. She would check the shelves first.
“When constructing such an object,” she muttered to herself, reading from the hundred-and-seventy-fifth page of Magic and the Human Mind, “it is vital to consider what your victim might be searching for, whether or not they will be spending time in the place with it, and how long they will be able to be held in that place without losing their own concentration...” This was the first book in the stacks whose spine bore words that she could recognize, and words which seemed of some importance. “It is, after all, a trap of the most clever sort to keep an interloper in place as long as possible.” She stared at it. “Interloper,” she chuckled, turning the page back. Just as expected, the text described a stunning spell, and her body chilled at the thought of the chamber door just across the room.
‘... be understood only when read without concern for the actual meaning,’ page two-hundred-and-forty-eight began, ’so the only way to glean any information from the text would be without expecting to find any. In this way, even the most valuable of secrets may be left in plain sight; the victim, expecting words of significance, will be far too entangled in trying to make sense of the matter to realize that what they read is precisely what they seek.’
Her eyes widened as she read. The words on the page she’d randomly scanned felt prescient, and stirred her thoughts of the book on its lectern. Certainly it couldn’t be talking about that book. It must be so dense with secrets, how could anyone look at it and expect to find nothing?
‘These sorts of devices can be, to some, so irresistible that the victim themselves will do the work,’ page two-hundred-and-forty-nine explained, ’imagining the secrets you might be hiding, wondering what you might wish to keep form them. The power of such objects, appealing, as they do, to human curiosity, is near-limitless.’
She frowned. What if there was nothing inside? No, no. Clearly not. It must be some double trick, she thought to herself, making it seem as though it’s empty, when it’s secretly hiding something only he can find. There must be some secret in unlocking it. She realized, then, that she’d been moving, her legs carrying her forward while unawares, still holding the text in both arms and reading as she paced.
‘A well-crafted spell of this nature can attract someone so well, so subtly, that she might not even be aware that she’s enraptured, that her own feet carry her towards the device, that her own mind brings her ever closer to her own thrall. The combination of curiosity, imagination, and magic is truly potent.’
This is far too strange, she thought, and very nearly walked straight up to the lectern to get her answers. But the book in her arms seemed to hold so many of the spells the arcanist had worked into his traps, and she was certain there would be more within. She sat down with it, and continued to read at random, turning the corners of pages wrinkled and nicked with signs of obvious wear, and repetitive use.
The book offered design after design, applications of spells in different configurations and traps, discussing the theory and the reasoning of their successfulness. But each entry ended with some variation of, ’of course, an experienced spellcrafter needs no explanation as to how to build such an enchantment.’ She came to resent the line, the more she saw it. She might not have needed the missing explanation, were she an enchantress. But she was not.
Though... maybe the lectern has what I need, her mind suggested, as she glanced over. It certainly seems to hold a place of honor. Fitting for a man so enamored with the mind. Where else would he keep the essential secrets to his craft?
The more trained and analytical part of the spellthief’s mind considered that it might be a trap. Big library, big obvious book. It screamed trap. But an even louder part of her just shrugged, and reminded her that she was never not going to look at the book, trap or not. She left Magic and the Human Mind behind, turned to a page on enchantments which could bend and shape light to other spells’ benefit, and mounted the steps of the lectern without thinking. The bound, featureless cover of the book, and the thought of all the secrets hiding within, made her salivate. She saw her hand reaching for it, and paused. It could be a trap, she thought again. But if it were a trap, why would it be so obvious? I wouldn’t fall for an obvious trap, would I? Hardly not.
She was three pages deep a moment later, eyes scanning the open pages for anything that made sense. The patterns and shapes might’ve been runic circles one moment, and might’ve been hand positions the next. The small bits of print that did resemble letters seemed to dance and rearrange themselves each time she looked back to them from someplace else.
Five pages deep. None of it was making sense. But it had to be encoded, somehow, in some way that only the arcanist could see. Some geometric method? A cipher?
Something on page eight seemed to refer back to something on page four, but page four was a mess of confusion. She shifted her feet, trying to decide whether to turn back to page two, or keep reading page eleven.
Page thirteen, the references were growing denser. It felt like much of it was just foreshadowing of what’s to come, signaling what might be going on deeper and deeper in the text. Or maybe alluding to what she’d already read.
Page thirteen. The references were growing denser, it felt like much of it was just foreshadowing of what’s to come. She reread it again and again, and again, trying to suss out the secrets, making whatever sense she could of the words that were coming to mind while her eyes drew a loop around a rune.
She turned the page again. Page thirteen. The references were growing denser, it felt like much of it was just foreshadowing of what’s to come. It all seemed familiar to her, as though she’d seen it in a dream, heard it whispered in words she couldn’t understand, or tasted it in some meal that she couldn’t place.
“Again,” the arcanist whispered into her ear. “Read it again. The references grow denser, it feels like much of it is just foreshadowing of what’s to come. So much of it feels like you know it, doesn’t it, little thief?” He smiled, hovering over her, watching as she breathed slowly and stared at the pages. “These words, these drawings, like an old friend. Safe. Comfortable.”
Page thirteen. The references were growing denser, it felt like much of it was just foreshadowing of what’s to come. Something was stirring in the back of her mind, some old, deep memories. Old friends. Speaking to her, deeply to her core, though she couldn’t understand what they were saying. Only how they sounded. Calm and soft, gentle and kind. Safe. Comfortable.
“Now close your eyes, little thief,” he whispered, “picture page thirteen in your mind. See it perfectly, clearly, and read it over again. The references grow denser, it feels like much of it is just foreshadowing of what’s to come. Even with your eyes closed, knowing that you are reading the book, puzzling out a meaning.”
Her eyes slipped shut, but continued to move beneath the closed lids. Scanning, twitching this way and that to follow the images and words however they moved in her mind. The rest of her body remained bound in place, one hand holding the corner of the next page, ready to turn it, the other hanging loose as she breathed calm, soft, and slow.
“No awareness, little thief.” He let magic sink into his words, let it seep into her distracted mind as he watched, and placed a hand on her elbow. “There is nothing but the page inside your mind. You see only it, you think, and feel only it. Nothing but the symbols, the dancing patterns, the singing words. They twist and turn and resolve themselves into further puzzles, further curiosities.” He paused, breathing a little harder as he watched her unmoving body. “You’re begin to daydream, as you work towards a solution.”
A sense of calm was permeating the sounds and feeling of the text yet again. She wondered what the arcanist was doing now. What might happen, if he were to enter the library, and if he were to see her deeply scouring his book of secrets.
He saw the spellthief smile, and let his hand wander down her back, lightly dancing over her spine. “No harm in indulging a little fantasy here. It’s safe. You’re alone. No one will ever know what you were thinking about.”
“Learning a few of my tricks for yourself, are we, little thief?” A shiver ran down her mind at the thought of his words, hearing them clearly in her ears, as though they were springing off the page that she was listening to. “I wonder what you might accomplish with that... freedom, first, or a chance to indulge a little fantasy? A chance to get what you crave? It would be safe. No one would ever know, would they?“
His fingers were lightly caressing her backside as he leaned closer. “The puzzles resolve themselves, don’t they, little thief? The answers so clear, the solutions so obvious. You must learn more. You must dig deeper, deeper into the text, deeper into the fantasy...”
The spellthief could feel the smirk on his lips, the hotness on her cheeks, even while so totally absorbed in the smell of the book, the taste of its ink as she pored and pondered even deeper. “Fortunately for you, there’s no need to spend years studying such spells to have what you want. To have what you need.”
The arcanist watched, as her free hand started moving, drifting near to her thighs. “You have so much time, now that the answers are before you,” he assured her. “You have the time to indulge. No one is here. No one can hear you, no one can see you.” One hand gripped her bottom, squeezing into it forcefully, while the other caressed her flushing cheek.
“Hesitant, are we,? Embarrassed to admit your desires? It’s okay. No one is here. No one can hear us. No one can see us. You can indulge your fantasy. I could even make you forget it’s happened, again and again and again...”
He waited until her fingertips brushed between her legs, teasing her most sensitive flesh, before drawing himself away. Whether she would indulge herself entirely in the fantasy now, or whether she would let stay burning with need a while, either way, his purpose would be accomplished. The arcanist withdrew his hands, spoke a word, and the scene in front of him melted away, bringing him back to his research.
“Come now, little thief, show me what it is you want... very good.” The look in his eyes, his body, his scent, the feel of his skin. Page thirteen. The references were growing denser, it felt like much of it was just foreshadowing of what’s to come. Her hand was touching, teasing, her breath was coming faster.
The page sounded so right. It looked so wonderful. It was like it understood her. Like it knew her. It knew what she wanted, knew what she needed and craved. If only I knew someone who could teach me to truly read it, her thoughts moaned, maybe if I’m good, he’ll tell me its secret. The thought made her squirm with delight. Maybe if I’m good. Maybe if I please him. Skin parted, fingers danced, a light moan escaped her lips. Ideas became clear, images resolved to patterns, patterns on patterns as the references grew denser. Meaning condensed, twisting itself into more meaning still, again and again, meaning into meaning, understanding into knowledge, knowledge into meaning, so clear, so immediate, so obvious. A spell to be woven into every page of a book. A book to capture a mind and hold it bound, open, paralyzed by its own curiosity. A mind to be fascinated, held captive, enthralled without realizing, ensnared without remembering. And meaning was slipping away. She could see it, she could feel it through the patterns, her fingers were moving fast, she could see... see her own understanding fading, her own knowledge crumbling to pieces. She knew that she had known, knew that she had known the answers. The puzzles had solved themselves! It wasn’t fair that they should have vanished like... like... something that vanished, should have vanished, and... A flash of frustration, irritation, anger flared inside her at... at something... there was something, something to do with... something, something in the book, yes. Her eyes opened, and she turned the page. Fourteen. There had to be something there that related back to... something.
“How is the research going?” he asked with a smile.
He watched the thief’s nascent understanding collapse like a house of cards, before she could even understand that she had begun to understand. Her eyes blinked at the page, now surely nonsensical. She sighed slowly, putting both hands on the lectern, looking up towards his waiting smirk. “It was going well, no thanks to you.“
“I imagined so, when I found that you hadn’t returned for supper. Surely you’re hungry?”
She blinked again, and even from across the room, the arcanist could hear her stomach’s complaint. “... I was wrapped up in the work, that’s all.”
“Of course,” he said simply, still smirking. “Come, then,” he beckoned her down, and what remained of her attention on the book was released.
“Did you learn anything of interest, little thief?” he asked, smiling broadly as she stepped to his side and glared.
He knew that she couldn’t see the gesture, hid as it was behind his back, just as he knew that her mind didn’t register the blink her eyes made. “Did you learn anything of interest, little thief?”
“Only that you’re as much of a businessman and botanist that you’ve claimed to be.”
Both his eyebrows rose together. “Did you doubt that?”
“I’m not inclined to believe half of what leaves your lips.”
“Then perhaps that will have to change,” he mused, then shook his head. Better to let her keep the doubt, for now. “No matter. I have brought dinner, and it is waiting in your chamber.“
She gave him a look. “Why do you insist on standing there, then? Am I to eat alone, untormented, twice in one day?”
“I didn’t know you cared,” he responded dryly, following her as she marched on ahead.
“I don’t,” she replied, and hauled the door open, not waiting up for him.
“Henry kept his post admirably, by the way,” he said from behind her, closing and locking the library. “He seems to have taken a shine to you.”
He saw the thief’s blush, even as she walked faster towards her cell to hide it. “He treats me nicely.”
“He treats everyone nicely,” the arcanist replied, “yet another reason I brought him into my employ.” He stepped up past her, and held the door open, no need for a key. “After you.”
She only tapped her foot, not stepping in. “Have a trick for this, too?” She raised her hand, where the black manacle was waiting.
The arcanist shrugged and snapped his fingers, making the iron weight open and fall to the ground with a clang. “Better?”
She rubbed her wrist and entered the room, not bothering to thank him. “What was it for?”
“This and that,” he followed her inside, “mainly it would keep you from my chamber, and keep you from taking anything out of the library.”
“Of course.” The thief sat down, crossing one leg, “I expect I’d have been petrified if I tried, or maybe I’d have just gone and turned myself in to the guards, or simply fallen asleep on the spot. I read your little trap handbook.”
“And?” He smiled at her, taking his seat across the table, where their meal was indeed waiting.
“You’re a bit too obsessed with these spells for my liking,” she said.
“I don’t recall asking for your approval,” he pointed out to her, and took his own plate.
“I don’t recall asking to be imprisoned, and yet, here we are.” The spellthief picked up her plate and began, quickly as she always did, to devour it whole.
“I don’t recall inviting you in, little thief.“
She paused only to level a stern stare his way. “And I don’t recall asking to be lorded over by spell-hoarding, greedy tyrants.” She licked her fingers, before picking up another piece of meat.
Let’s see if there’s any humility hiding behind your façade. He leaned forward, and before picking up his glass, traced a small, circular symbol on the table. “I don’t recall inviting you in, little thief.“
He saw her eyes flash with a faint sparkle of yellow, before returning to their normal brightness with a blink. “I... I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong,” she murmured, shifting in the seat, setting the plate aside. The effect of the spell was instantaneous, and it was time to press.
“You broke into my home and my workspace with the intent of stealing. I know,” he waved away her noise of objection, “you do not see it as theft. But I do. And who wouldn’t? You might have caused serious harm to my guards or servants, or damage to my property.” He couldn’t help but glance in the direction of the ruined cabinet. “Are you so sure you’ve done nothing wrong?”
She crossed her legs, her body shrinking in on itself defensively as she cast her gaze around the room. It lingered on the wreck. “The laws that make it wrong, they... they’re not honest ones,” she spoke haltingly, her tone devoid of fire or revolutionary fervor. “I haven’t hurt anyone, I haven’t taken anything.”
His eyes met hers, and held her there. “You eat my food, live in my home, destroy my furniture, use my library,” he said without heat or malice. “You are made as welcome a guest as I can make you, and yet, our first interaction was you, breaking in to take from me. I have given freely what you would have stolen, yes?”
“I-I didn’t destroy anything,” she stammered, “I’m only here at all because you’re keeping me.” She paused. “A-and you wouldn’t share the writings and books I’d take, the ones that matter, the ones that you shouldn’t be keeping.”
He smiled indulgently. “Little thief... did you, did anyone, ever ask?”
Her arms crossed inward, drawn by the same force of meekness and docility that had overtaken the rest of her body and mind. “I... well, no...” she murmured, “y-you wouldn’t have let me, or let anybody, it’s too dangerous, I mean, you think it is, and you think it’s your property, and...” she trailed off, as his lips opened again.
“I think there’s more to your breaking in, without asking,” he said. “I think you enjoy the thrill of it, little thief.”
Just outside the focus of his stare, he saw her legs tighten, rubbing together ever so slightly. She held her lips shut.
“I think,” he chuckled, “that part of you wanted to be caught.” His fingers made another quick, faint, powerful dance of an enchantment against the table. “Not all of you, certainly, but there’s some place in the back of your mind that wants this, isn’t there?” He chose his question carefully. “Some corner of your heart that’s truly, deeply enjoying this, yes?“
The thief swallowed hard, legs moving slowly, blush creeping up her neck and filling into her cheeks, urged onward by the latest spell: one of focus, of fantasy, and one that would prey wonderfully on the embarrassment. “N-no, that’s, that’s ridiculous...”
He saw the obvious signs of arousal, and allowed a smirk for a moment. Perfect. A simple gesture, and... “Some corner of your heart that’s truly, deeply enjoying this, yes?“
The spellthief’s next breath came slower, catching in her throat as her eyes opened again. “I... I don’t know what you mean...” She said slowly.
A little more... Another quick motion, simple, easy. “Some corner of your heart that’s truly, deeply enjoying this, yes?“
Another blink of her eyes, he saw the chill running through her, the gooseflesh gathering on her skin. “... maybe,” she whispered.
His breath caught in his throat, and he felt the stiffening between his legs. “Tell me,” he whispered, with a tug of magic into that deep, deep place in her mind.
“I-it’s just a fantasy,” she began to say, tripping over the words as they fell from her mind, “k-keeps me together, keeps me grounded and sharp when I’m breaking in and...” She stopped abruptly, bright red in the face.
“Continue,” he said, his insistence thick with a note of urgency.
“... well, it makes me...”
His eyes pierced her thoughts, his words resonated with power. “Go on, little thief.”
“... it makes me hot,” she said, now staring at her dark eyes, wide open to his words and magic..
“Little thief, this has been a fantasy of yours, hasn’t it?” He knew the answer, his spell strengthened. “To be helpless, under the gaze of your sorcerous captor?”
“Nnh,” her lips tightened, her body and mind tried to protest... but she couldn’t form a word of denial, under the weight of his gaze, his spell, the arousal pressing hard onto her body. Held helpless, vulnerable, bare and open to him. “Yes,” she breathed, and seeming stunned by her own lips.
He stood, and twisted another spell to puppeteer the thief onto her feet, to make her neck and head look upward, his magical stare steady in her vision. “Tell me, little thief. Tell me how you feel right now.”
Her arms dangled at her sides. Heat in her lungs, heat on her lips. The air between the two was thick with magic, filled with arousal. “I-I’m... helpless...” She answered into his eyes, “... aroused... and I can’t,” her head just barely shook to the side, “I-I can’t do anything but... give in,” the words formed themselves, her eyes widened.
“And what,” he moved closer, “deep down, in that dark corner of your mind, what do you hope comes next, little thief?”
He heard the tremble of breath in her throat. “I hope that you would take me.”
The arcanist’s hand held her cheek. “I can make that wish a reality.”
Her body reacted, heaving a simple, hungry sigh at his touch, her reflexes dulling, her responses being slowed, her inhibitions and misgivings being stilled by the spell wrapping a net around her thoughts, as he allowed only one single idea to rise higher and higher out of the fog in her head, speaking it clearly behind her eyes and on her lips.
“I need this.”
His other hand found the small of her back, pulling her forward, pressing his lips into hers. The pent up energy of four days’ and just as many nights’ worth of having her naked, helpless, captive, all of it burst forth as he kissed her deeply, needily, leaving aside his thoughts and plans and machinations. Her body reciprocated just the same, driven wild from the thoughts he’d planted, the seeds he’d sown, the ideas he’d grown, pressing herself against him as her arms wound around him, pulling him close, tasting his lips, her hips sliding and moving with his.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, his thoughts stirred, as he called up a spell through the heat of the moment, the need was supposed to be a leverage against her, a point of access to break her resolve. You’ve done this before, why make a mess of it now? His fingers gripped her ass, twitching out a pattern, and the spell cast itself—his robes vanished, leaving him naked, his erection pressing into her side. She moaned at this, pulling him closer still, flesh against flesh, both bodies tingling with excitement and aftershocks of magic. Her nipples made pleasurable lines against his front, as the two kissed, felt, fondled back and onto the edge of the bed. He made the sleeping spell dissipate—no need for this now—and pulled her in close, gently taking a nipple into his mouth, sliding his tongue around it.
Another moan flowed free from the spellthief’s lips, her right hand moving slowly up his spine. Her left closed around his cock, stroking it without a moment’s hesitation or notice. He gasped, and moaned against her chest, letting his head rest against her as her hand worked slowly, expertly, up and down in long even stokes, her fingers dancing in his brown hair.
It has been a long time. His eyes closed, another gasp leaving his lips, and he let his hands roam over her body, fluttering along her thighs, bottom, sides, back, anywhere he could reach.
The pace quickened, his eyes shot open with surprise, before she slowed again, grinning into his eyes and giggling lustfully. A moment’s thought, and the arcanist lifted her body, with both his hands, pulling her up and onto the bed with him, letting her breast fall back between his lips as she cried with delight. She found a different grip, a different tempo, propped herself over him with an elbow and her knees bent, let her fingertips graze, slide, and tease around the tip.
He freed his mouth to speak and gasped. “Do you...” Another breath sucked in. “Kendarine?” She held still. He thought she might say no. His mind whirled. There’s a bag of it in the storeroom. Ten, no, fifteen, gods, twenty minutes to brew, can’t afford an accident like that when—
“Mmh,” she shifted over him, pulling her hips back and angling his shaft around, sliding the head teasingly against her wet slit. “I always take some, before a job. Whenever I could be...” She purred to him, full of lust and want.
Quickly, he pulled her down, firm but gentle, piercing her lightly, watching her face twist with pleasure, feeling the tremors moving through her muscles. Fragments of spells to work appeared in his thoughts, but they vanished with her pleasured exhalation, and his own rush of pleasure as she worked her hips lower, and lower, all the way down and inside of her. Idiot, he said to himself, gripping her thighs and craning to kiss her again, you had her in your thrall. You had her begging, needing, and you gave in!
The arcanist silenced the nagging voice and thrusted up forcefully, watched her buck up and down, kissed her lips and tasted her tongue as they met again, one of her hands behind his head and the other gripping his shoulder. He caught her gaze again, grinning, eyes wild with contained power and hunger. “No resistance,” he whispered, and watched the simple spell melt into her mind. Her lips hung open, her eyes stared ahead into his, and her mind quieted itself at the words, even as her senses were screaming to follow his roving hands’ touch, to fuck the hardness inside of her sex. A hand found her breast, caressing, kneading, as the words, the magic, poured out of him almost unbidden. “Fuck me,” he breathed.
“Yes,” she answered blankly, and her hand grounded itself into the bed, pulling her hips upward, then downward, up and down his cock, warm and wet and tight around him. Every thrust she made sent visible pleasure arcing through her, pulsing with the golden glimmering of magic in her eyes.
He moaned, panting with every movement, holding her steady as his hands wandered, explored, teased her skin and nerves. He knew she couldn’t fight him, knew she couldn’t want to. He watched her eyes alternate, gleaming first with floods of pleasure, then flattening with the empty light of enchantment that bound her body and mind to him.
Her thoughts were nowhere else, only there and in the moment, fully contained and controlled as she rode up and down, again and again with her bouncing hips, moving faster, pressing harder, matching his fast, loud breathing with her own.
Knowing her closeness was equal to his own only hastened the inevitable. The arcanist put a hand to her cheek, holding back as much as he could. “With me,” he managed to rasp, on the edge of losing control.
“Yes,” the spellthief whispered, in a slow, lingering, aching moment of the spell’s sway, before being thrown again into the fullness of arousal, moving with reckless abandon, knowing deeply that she couldn’t, wouldn’t resist, wouldn’t fall past the precipice until his moment arrived.
Rapidly, he put a hand to the back of her head, pulling her into a deep kiss as his hips pushed into her one last time, moaning into her mouth, pressing into her body, exploding inside her, filling her, his nerves going numb and wonderful from the pleasure. He felt her body tense, relax, tense, pulsing around him as she cried wordlessly, her whole body seizing, shivering, trembling with waves of pleasure and ecstasy in her climax. He held her close, warmly, safely as she came down from it, stroking her back, her sides, her hair, smiling into her dreamlike, beautiful expression.
A few moments passed, and he regained enough energy to speak. “That was... it was wonderful, little thief,” he whispered.
The energy of her body, the lingering heat of the arousal and pleasant high of orgasm, combined with the weight of his spell leadening her mind, let only a few thoughts bubble to her lips. “Thank you...” She smiled, eyes closed.
He walked his fingers along her spine. “You’re welcome,” he chuckled. “In your fantasies of being caught, what happens after the sex?”
The thief giggled lazily, moving herself against his front. “I haven’t gotten that far... is this where you let me leave?”
He shivered at the motion, winked at her slowly opening eyes. “Maybe it’s where I keep you, locked up here in the tower.”
“I’m not suited to this luxury,” she breathed slowly, “I’d go fat within a week.”
“You’d look good with a little meat on the bones, too,” the arcanist snickered, tickling at her ribs. “Not that you’re anything short of stunning now.”
A full giggle this time, squirming at his touch. “I’m sure you’ve had plenty better... probably in this same room, this same bed.” Her eyes gave him a look, for once a playful one, lacking hate.
“Never another in this tower,” he shook his head, “I save that, when I bother, for my trips into town.”
The spellthief cuddled up closer against him. “Somehow I doubt that. I heard a rumor that I’m just your type, that there’s been plenty of other girls, and I wonder how such a rumor might’ve started...“
“Not in the tower,” he muttered, nibbling at her ear.
A light squeal, and she buried her face toward his neck. “Still don’t trust you,” she said with a singsong tone.
He surprised her, rolling her over, hands on her shoulders, looming above her with a somewhat wicked smile on his face. “Maybe there’s something I can do about that...”
She blushed brightly, shrinking beneath him. “I don’t know what you mean...”
The arcanist’s eyes found hers again. “Would your fantasies include being made to believe the words of your captor, little thief?”
“P-perhaps,” she stammered out, after a moment spent staring.
“Then perhaps you will,” he leaned closer. “But that being said, we have a bet, do we not?”
The thief nodded slowly.
“Are you prepared to admit defeat?”
“What?” She recoiled, shaking her head, snapped out of it by the question.
He laughed. “I didn’t think so. Nor am I.”
“There’s still... three days left, for that, I think, but...” She swallowed. “What happens now?”
“I would say that I have... something of an unfair advantage, wouldn’t you?”
“Only in that I’m locked in your tower, and you’re not rotting in my crawlspace.”
He laughed again. “What happens now, I think, is that this becomes fantasy, a dream.” His gaze grew more intense. “In the interest of fairness.”
“What?” She repeated, managing to blink twice. “I-I told you, you can’t use magic on me...”
“Something I never agreed to,” he winked, “but that, too, you don’t need to remember.”
Her weight shifted beneath him, struggling against his hold and stare. “You can’t do this.”
“Yes, I can.” He let a chuckle escape his lips. “No resistance,” he said lightly.
Her lips parted, but no words emerged. Her widened eyes went half-lidded, staring vacantly, as the pressure beneath his hands faded. Her struggling ceased, her mind quieted.
“That’s right, little thief,” he cooed, “very good, very good indeed. Now listen to me closely, I have your full attention...”
The spellthief blinked and realized that she’d been staring at her plate, chewing her chicken lazily, without thinking of anything. Her brow furrowed. She felt disoriented, a touch unsteady—thankfully, she was seated. Had the meal been drugged? She couldn’t say, and figured it didn’t matter, as she looked up, into the arcanist’s smile. That’s right. She was chewing. He was being annoying. “I’m sorry, you were saying?”
“I said,” he looked at her calmly, “did you, or anyone, ever ask whether I would share my work? To see what would and would not be safe, useful, worthwhile?”
“Of course I didn’t ask,” she fired back, “there would be no point. You said it yourself, you won’t share anything outside your circle of, hm, accredited royalist bootlicks.“
“You have an answer for everything,” he said, unruffled. “You didn’t ask because there would be no point. Which of course, you don’t know, because you didn’t ask.”
“And you don’t?” The spellthief grit her teeth. “Fine,” she said, “would you please allow me free access to your spells and texts?“
“Have I not granted you enough access, in your visits to the library?” he asked.
“No,” she shook her head, “you haven’t.”
“I’m afraid I do not know what more I could offer you, then,” he spread his hands, still smiling.
The spellthief groaned. “Your own obstinance besides, I won’t make dealings with tyrants.”
“Do I tyrannize anyone? Does Henry seem particularly terrified to you? No slaves, no serfs, I merely wish to do my work in peace.”
“You should hear the tavern gossip about this place.”
“I started most of the tavern gossip about this place,” the arcanist chuckled, “nothing about stealing children or eating babies, though. The workings of the commoner’s mind are strange, even to myself.“
“You can freely admit it,” she said through chewing, “you hate commoners. Nothing to be ashamed of, we’re all smelly, disgusting, and thieving peasants who can’t tell fangroot from elenvine.”
He looked amused. “I have nothing against the common folk. It’s to make their lives easier and better that I do most of my work. It’s why I was so heavily involved in the Reconstruction; I saw the suffering firsthand. And,” he leaned closer, propped an elbow on his knee, “why should you know fangroot from elenvine unless you’ve need to? The same way I don’t know which end of a plow to stick in the ground. It’s just not necessary information.”
“You don’t hate commoners,” she scoffed, “but you keep life-saving magic hidden away for your own profit. You silence cries for aid before they can reach lips, you stifle the growth of knowledge, and you have the nerve to imprison someone who actually does some good. It sounds to me like you just love commoners.“
A smirk tickled around his lip, but she saw it quickly vanish. “I imprison a burglar and a thief for invading my home. One who might say anything at all to free herself. Now how do I know that you’re being truthful, little thief? Maybe you’re just out to make a profit yourself.“
Her eyes rolled, she blew air from her lips with contempt. “Keep talking like that, when you can’t do a thing to verify what good you say you do, either. Because it’s dangerous, or whatever in the hells you tell yourself.“
“You still have some days here,” he said, “I could teach you much about the principles of magical botany and biology yet. I might even be able to convince you that I’m not some hellspawn, dead-set on terrorizing you in your perfect innocence.”
She rubbed her forehead. “You’re not going to convince me of anything.”
“Then perhaps we should talk about more pleasant things?”
Her expression hardened towards him. “Perhaps you should let me out of here, that would be quite pleasant.”
His fingers danced in the air, her eyes slowly blinked. “Then perhaps we should talk about more pleasant things?”
What was she saying? Ah. Pleasant things. “You seem to have something in mind,” she said as her face softened.
“There are a great many more pleasant discussions, I’m sure, but I do wonder. How did someone so obviously... skilled, educated, and, I might add, beautiful, wind up entangled with revolutionaries? What brought you to this point, little thief?”
“That’s none of your business,” she said quickly.
Her eyes flicked closed as his hand gestured. “What brought you to this point, little thief?”
That disorienting feeling again, one she couldn’t place. They opened again, and she tried to think clearly through it. Can’t just tell him. Can’t tell him anything. He’s clever and sharp, even without spells. Can’t compromise the cabal.
“I work alone,” she answered after her pause.
His interest was clear, from the quickness of his response. “Then what brought you to be working alone? How did you wind up here?”
Good, she thought, he’s bought it so far. “I wanted to put my training to a better use than burglary, or taking payment for petty magical tricks.“
“And how did you come by that training? What took a penniless refugee child and transformed her into the trained, educated, sorcerous burglar I see today?”
“I had a mentor.”
“Anyone I might know?”
She shook her head. “Can’t tell you that,” she said. “It’s a pact.”
The arcanist paused thoughtfully, then moved his hand. “Anyone I might know?”
There was a blink, and that aching pounded on her temples for a moment. “Doubt it.”
He smiled and nodded, moved his fingers again. “Anyone I might know?”
Another blink, another ache. “No,” she said, “no, you might, but I couldn’t tell you.”
“And why is that, little thief?”
She let out a breath, worn. “We have lives, sometimes friends, sometimes families. This shit gets complicated if our names were known.” She turned her eyes up to meet his, exasperated. “You can understand at least that, can’t you?”
“I’ve been involved in spycraft more than once, I do understand. Anything said in this room will be heard in complete confidence, little thief.”
“Even if your word was worth anything,” she injected, “I couldn’t tell you. That would mean my honor.”
“Just an assurance, and not a request. If anything were to slip out in exhaustion, or under the influence of wine, you needn’t worry at the consequences.” He set his plate down, took hers from her hands, and sat back in his seat. “Then,” he asked, another question in his endless train, “why train as a spellthief?”
“It’s what I’m good at,” she shrugged, “uses my skills, gives me a good purpose to work to. Good changes I can make.”
“So that’s it, then? Got educated, I imagine you left home, found a mentor, and now you steal for a living.”
“I have buyers, and I have fixers. I don’t steal. It’s liberating.”
“Liberation, stealing, the law sees no difference.”
“The law’s a pile of shit,” she grumbled.
“It may be,” he nodded, “but that does not warrant a brazen defiance of the basic sanctity of one’s personal property. An idea you defile still more,” he looked toward the cabinet, “with your attempted arson.”
“I did not start that fire,” she seethed. “I’ve had it up to here with you.“
“Fortunately, up to here on you is only about up to here on me,” he laughed, indicating a spot on his body mid-chest.
“Fancy yourself a comedian?”
“Trying to make the best of the situation, that’s all.” He stood up and stretched his arms out above his head. “I will be going soon, I have business in town. Do you have need of anything else?”
The spellthief perked up. Business in town? She thought, then realized, and then her mind began to race. The nearest town was miles away, he would be gone an hour at least. No, more than that, with business and a long road both ways. But there’s got to be alarms, one of those sounds and he’d just wheel back around and catch me in the act. She looked up, keeping her face still. “Little more than a night’s rest.“
“Of course,” he yawned, “I do have work to take care of before I leave. As usual, if you need anything at all, the guard will be outside.”
“As ever. I won’t need anything.”
“Except perhaps a rescue, again,” he chuckled.
“Only if your tower goes up in flames, again.”
“Fancy yourself a comedian?” His eyebrows rose, smiling, and she saw his eyes wander down her figure.
“Only the truth,” the spellthief scoffed, and blushed as she covered her chest.
“Jesters tell the best and sharpest truths, little thief,” he smirked, and then was gone.
She shivered as his words lingered in her ears, before she let her arms drop from her chest. The spellthief stood up, and took to pacing. Nearest village is near half an hour on horseback, but the nearest town is an hour’s worth in the other direction. He said town, but he could have meant the village, to meet some contact or other, but there’s no way to tell the time, and...
As her eyes strayed to the bed, the line of her thoughts began to stray, and she found herself wondering both about what the arcanist might be doing, and about what he could do. She tried to shake it off and knelt before the storage crate, but as she began to rummage, her thoughts found themselves imagining how impressed he would be, how amazed by her cleverness and resourcefulness. How his face would look, and, imagining lower, how on earth she could imagine his bare chest so vividly. It had to be someone’s well-proportioned torso, just placed over his body in her mind.
And her thoughts drifted lower still, and that image too must’ve been borrowed from someone else’s body. Attractive, even still, she thought, and pulled out a set of candles, incenses, and burners. She didn’t need to open the small packages to smell that it was clovenleaf, and that there was plenty of it. Three burners would be enough. And as she found candlesticks, her thoughts began to think less of the physical form, who it belonged to, and more of what it might do—and how she could best use it to her advantage. If she were to touch there, kiss there, press this to that spot... Detached thoughts, of course, and routine ones. She knew how to seduce, and how to do it well. But she wasn’t entirely detached.
“Too long,” she muttered, and quieted the thoughts. Her right hand was holding a candle, the left was poised above it. She closed her eyes, and listened to the calmness of her mind... but that only left room for images, sounds, touches, tastes, smells, each of her breaths carrying a new idea, a new plan, a new imagined sensation. All of them stimulating.
And yet, all of them utterly useless for her purpose.
She shook her head, and the next thought she had was to indulge the arousal and get it over with already. But that, too, was unproductive, and she banished it away. Emptiness. Calmness. Quietude. Presence and nonpresence both. Emptiness and fullness. Purpose. Her mind circled around and around the ideas, the feelings, without words and without sounds. But so much without only made her imagine being with, close and at oneness with a warm, physical presence. A warmth she focused hard on, even as she felt the heat of flame and wax on her hand. She let her eyes open slowly, smiled at the flame, and let out the breath she’d been holding. Candle to wick, another one lit. Candle to wick, another one lit. The process was almost as meditative as the spellcasting, and time seemed to quickly pass around her. Soon she was surrounded by at least a dozen flames on a dozen candlesticks, all of them flickering brightly, casting a strange glow in the stagnantly lit room. And that’s the point, the spellthief reminded herself, distract, disorient, and strike.
She cast a look to the door as she scattered the candlesticks through the room, and wondered what kind of guard would be behind it when she made her move. Probably a man, though she’d heard at least one woman. She didn’t much mind either option. A woman might be more skeptical, take more convincing, maybe even draw a sword. But she was quick, and she knew that she could beat a blade with a few swift kicks. But a man? She was certain she could make that work, no need for any violence. A wink and a smile, legs spread wide, an open hand beckoning? Simple.
The spellthief took a strong breath in, as she opened the box of clovenleaf. Soporific, for sleep. And then a whiff of hinasflower from another box. Banahkia, for lust. Both intoxicating. She remembered placing them into the burners, but not lighting them. And she saw herself setting the burners down, adjusting the candles, summoning more little fires to light the room. She felt tired. She felt faint. She was on the floor, and she felt dizzy. Half in reality and half out, as she looked around.
The candles were burning, the incense was strong. A deep sniff of clovenleaf soothed her nerves, stilled her worried thoughts. A familiar scent, a safe scent. The spellthief managed to sit, for two long and restful moments before a huge noise sounded, rattling the floor and making every candle flame waver. The bell clanged, and clanged again, and through the din, there was the unmistakable noise of the stone gate rising, grinding against the walls and reverberating through the tower. The candles trembled, as the ringing faded down to the whine between her ears. This is it, she braced herself against the seat, staring at the door and listening to the gate rise. Then it stopped. She could have sworn that she heard a horse’s whinny, and then the gate was descending. Deep breaths, she told herself. just another job. You can do this.
The spellthief stood, paced, sat on the edge of the bed. Nerves took her, and then she was rolling a ball of flame around in her palm, to keep herself busy, to keep herself from losing focus. She waited as long as she could manage through the excitement, and fought to keep her breaths steady. And then she had to convince herself to speak. Mouth open, then closed. Clearing her throat. Thinking of the words. Forming them in her mouth, opening it. “No turning back,” she whispered, and cleared her throat again. “Guard?” She called, then called again, thickening the sound of her voice and clenching her fist around the little flame, “Guard?” The spellthief heard a noise, and continued. “Could you please help me, guard?“
From outside the room, she heard a familiar voice—“Miss? Are you alright?"—and the sound of Henry fussing with his keys, which was enough to make her bolt upright. Henry?! She took two steps to the door, looked around the room with panic. I can’t seduce Henry, she moaned to herself. But he was opening the door. And he wasn’t stopping. She crossed the room, pushed herself to the wall, just where the hinges and stones met. She couldn’t fight Henry, either. She knew that she couldn’t. She wasn’t sure if she could win, but she knew that she wouldn’t.
“Just a moment, miss, I’m coming in,” the guard assured, and the first lock clicked. No doubts, then, no hesitations. She focused herself. She would have to try. The second lock turned, the door began to move. But I can’t hurt him, I can’t, she argued, I just need those keys, and I need to get out of this room.
The heavy door swung toward her, and she felt magic condense around her, tingling on her skin, coursing through her veins, flame and heat filling her vision and senses. She heard the old guard’s feet step inside, and the magic bent to her will. Fire brightened. Body moved. Henry was in the room. She was moving. The keys were in her hands. She was outside the room. The door was closed. Dizziness overtook her as reality melted in, and she tried to catch her breath against the door. She looked around. She was outside. “Miss?” A bewildered voice called behind her, muffled through wood, and she looked to her hand. Keys on a loop. “Hello?” She turned, backed away from the door, picking up speed.
“Mrow?” Missy moved through the wall, chasing after her, and the spellthief smiled as she saw the blue glow.
“Miss?” Knocking on the door, and the spellthief ran. Two doors down, she stopped, put both hands to the door and pushed.
This is a mistake, her thoughts whined, what about Henry? He could be dismissed, or worse. I could be ruining his life. What would the arcanist say? How disappointed would he be, to see me running? Running away from my— The door opened, and she let go of it with a gasp.
“Hello?” More knocking, Henry was still calling out as the library door swung shut, “Is anyone there?” The door closed, and darkness swam around her. The conjured doubt had faded, and she moved quickly. In the dark, she saw the lectern, knew its position by heart, and she felt herself moving towards it. Just one look. She almost climbed the step, but Missy interrupted, scratching at her ankle and meowing impatiently. The spellthief lifted the familiar in one arm, kissed the back of her neck, and turned to the back room. She tried the handle, and of course, it was locked solidly. And as her hands began to fumble with the keys, she noticed, it was not closed solidly. Light was spilling out through a crack, and a slipper was wedged into the frame. She threw her body against it and pushed into the room.
It was still, mostly, a disaster. The same candle was lit just as it had been on her first night in the tower. Papers had been lifted from the floor and shoved to the desk, and on the shelf next to it, a small, blue-colored bundle. The spellthief dropped Missy and grabbed at it—her cloak, her clothes folded inside, and her rigging with it. But it was too light. She unfolded the cloak, and all its pockets were empty. All, except for a rounded weight in one, which Missy nudged out. The amulet dropped to the ground, and the spellthief picked it up with a cry of joy and concern. It was undamaged, pristine, even looked like it had been polished, cleaned, cared-for. It dangled from its chain, cool metal pressed against her cheek, and she felt for it in the space between her thoughts.
It was there. Quiet, faint, barely more than a fuzzy place in her mind, but there. She sighed, looked into the sapphire at its center, and pulled the chain around her neck. The hum of the eye and its open iris put her nerves at ease, and never had a shirt felt more comfortable. And the leather straps of her web on top of that were like a tight embrace. She pulled her cloak around her, stuffed the undergarments into a pocket, and closed the iris of her focus. She didn’t need more power bleeding out of it, and she had plenty of magic to spare now, anyway. The rigging was empty, of course, but papers were all around. She grabbed them at random, stuffed them into loops and holes and latched them into the leather web. Bedside tomes tucked under her arms, sheaves of paper around her waist, but she couldn’t see much more in the dim light. The rest could be worthless, and the bookshelf did look appetizing.
Her focus returned as she lifted a hand, she breathed, and a little ball of blazing light appeared in her palm. And then she was surrounded with more light, the entire room bursting with brilliance, blinding her. There was a strange sound all around her, louder than the glow filling everything, but not just in the room. In the walls, the floors, all of them spilling with bright white light. The gods-damned tower was alight, humming with power and noise.
“Seriously?!” She shouted in disbelief, grabbed two books and ran, Missy sprinting behind. Out into the library. Everything was illuminated. No shadows, no places to hide, everything bright and humming. The book on the pedestal called to her, begging her attention. The mystery. Surely a minute would be enough.
“No, no, no!” The spellthief turned away from it, towards it, and then just ran for the exit, books looped into her webbing. She pushed at the door—bad idea, terrible plan, stop running, just wait, it can only get worse—and nearly fell into the brightly lit hall.
The humming was even louder, and Henry’s voice rose over it. “What’s happening out there? Miss?” Frantic knocking. “Is anyone there?!” She sped down the hall, stopped outside her cell, disoriented and filled with panic.
“Henry,” she called over the sound, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do this, I... it wasn’t supposed to happen like this, but—I need help, please, I have to get out of here. You have to help me.”
“Miss, please, you know I can’t. I can’t let you out of here,” his voice was as panicked as her own, “please just, just come back in. I mean, you can let me out, you have my keys.”
She wanted to. She wanted to so badly. To just return to the cell, to make the noise and the brightness fade, to stop her head from spinning and have the embrace of sleep, or warm arms, or soft words take her worries away. Her head kept pounding, her breaths heavy. “I just need to know where he works,” she pleaded, “where he keeps his reagents. His components. The alarm’s already sounded, and, and they’ll get you out, I just need you to help me now. I can’t live like this, I can’t stay here, I... just, please,” she begged into the drone, putting her forehead to the wood.
His voice came, shakily. “The laboratory is down the stairs, end of the hall. I... I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, then said it louder, “thank you, I... I’m sorry.” She stepped away, “I-I’m so sorry.” Her heart pounded, her eyes watered, and she ran again towards the belfry.
“So am I, miss,” he said, and stopped knocking.
The hallway went straight to the stairs. She turned away and raced down the steps. Fifteen, twenty, thirty two, she lost count by the time she reached the first door, steadying herself as much as she could. She heard voices echoing from below, further into the winding staircase. Carefully, she opened the door, and shut it quietly behind her.
“Hey!” A tough voice shouted, and her head whipped around—a man in the corridor, pointing, taking a step, reaching toward a sheath. Reaching for a blade. Everything slowed down. Shit, her thoughts only sped up, shit, shit, shit, she froze in the doorway, panicking, no time to think. Her hand thrust forward, her eyes wrenched shut, magic poured through her before she knew what she was doing. Please, don’t hurt him, she pleaded to the sensation, anything but fire!
Cold. She felt cold. Her body conducted it, and she felt it blast out of her hand and into the hall. The spellthief opened her eyes to see the guard fixed in place, frozen solid, frost forming on his uniform. Her mouth was hanging agape, but there was no time to stare. She ran past the man, marveled at the long trails of ice splaying out behind him. He’ll be okay, she thought, she hoped.
Two doors at the end of the hallway. One padlocked, one not. She found the keys, raised them to her eyes, but they were all identical. No time. She put a fist around the lock, squeezed tight, groaned as dizziness hit her in a wave with warmth, heat pounding out through her this time, and forced it into the lock’s mechanisms. The thing that was solid metal was then not, melting into liquid, dripping with an acrid smell to the floor.
The spellthief flung the door open, slammed it shut behind her and heard the clinking of bottles in the dark. Darkness. Her fingers twitched, and another ball of flame was in her hand. Rows on rows of bottles, vials and flasks lined the wall, a long workbench beneath them, boxes and crates and kegs stacked around the room.
Still the sound was around her, and she wondered if it was meant to create stress, panic, urgency. She figured that part was just her. The room was dark, of course, to keep out the light—reagents could react easily to any stimuli. But there was no doubt, despite the meticulous order, this was the laboratory.
She forced more heat into the flame, another wave of dizziness, read the labels in the flickering light, and then started grabbing. Different vials, one after another, a sprig of this, leaf of that, this powder and that chemical, spiders’ silk, earthen essence, muldr—she stopped, squinting at the vial of distilled, enchanted earth. It was near empty, there was no more on the shelf. She dropped it into the pile of glass. “Shit,” she groaned, “helps with pain, helps with, binding...” The spellthief settled on thelzite and an extra portion of thistle stem. It would hold. It might hurt, but it would hold. More sound in the hall, and she hazarded a look out the door.
“By the gods...” A guard was marveling, holding a torch near her frozen colleague, the other inspecting too. She shut the door. Shit, shit, she uncorked every bottle, ripped open every little packet, and dumped the mess of powder, liquid, and fragments into one hand, crushing it, kneading it, coating it across her screaming skin. She needed a window. She almost tried to melt through the wall, but the thought made her head and body ache from the imagined strain. She grabbed a few more papers and stuffed them into the web, as she muttered obscenity after obscenity, and then was startled by a ‘mrow?’
Missy was on the shelf, then off it, then on it, winking in and out of existence with each flash of blue. She winked out again, then knocked over a container as she came back. The spellthief lifted it, squinted at it—powdered sendrans. Of course. She uncorked the bottle with her teeth, nearly retched at the smell, and spread it over her cloak. The second spread across her rigging, shirt, front and face, the third covered her legs. She emptied the fourth over her head and hair just as she heard a noise outside the door, and she edged back into a corner as the light and sound flooded inward. She cursed, quietly, and banished the orb of flame, and Missy vanished too.
“Someone in here?” The guard murmured, leaning into the now-darkened room, then stepping, then bringing their torch in, too. The spellthief held her breath as the woman looked around, prayed as she moved closer, shut her eyes as she seemed to stare straight into her own. “All clear,” she called behind her, and walked out.
The spellthief took a step to follow, swayed, and stumbled to the wall. She was tired. Were sendrans soporific? She couldn’t remember. Her feet were going numb, even in the boots, but she slid out into the hallway even still. Must be the magic. She was careful and calm with her steps, despite the nerves. And despite the other guard looking directly at the door, despite the bright lights, he didn’t seem to notice her.
“Alright, Garrett’s got to be left to the boss, I think,” the man shrugged, reminding her of Henry. “Torch ain’t doin’ nothin’.” The spellthief kept still, watched as the guards conversed, then followed as they went to the stairway and headed down.
She headed up. There were more steps than before, she thought, or maybe she’d come a different way. Only one way in, she reminded herself, and only one way out. The thought of climbing made her stomach lurch, she had to stop. But voices behind her made her start again, faster, not caring any longer for silence and stealth. The noise was a constant ache, the light made her vision blurry and shifting. But she kept moving, kept climbing.
She finally made it to the belfry door, stumbled through it and crossed to the window. She lifted her hood, breathed in the clean air. It smelled of dew. She smiled, and wondered if it had rained that morning. Shakily, she lifted herself up to the sill, and made a determined effort not to look down as she turned around in her crouch. Henry was down the hall with another guard, and she watched as they talked, as her hands squeezed together and spread the alchemical mixture across her palms. She couldn’t tell what they were saying, but Henry sounded sad. And that made her sad. But the adrenaline was far too strong, and her palms were just sticky enough.
The spellthief focused her thoughts, felt her whole self untether, and forced magic between her hands. Heat blazed, light glowing through her skin and the cracks between her fingers, and she heard herself wince painfully as she kept rubbing them, spreading the reacting liquid all over. She pulled her hands apart, pouring still more heat in, stared at the sizzling, bubbling mass on her hands. The boiling surfaces of her hands. The stink of flesh and burn reached her nostrils, overpowering the smell of mushroom, and the pain came next, sharp, drawing her focus wholly.
An ill wind blew behind her, she felt it tingle across her scalp and shuddered. Her leg moved half on its own, shaking, her body balancing itself while she struggled to find a foothold. She thought she heard someone coming closer, incense in the mix of smells, but then she dropped down from the window.
Both hands stuck to the tower wall, hot, boiling with pain. She tugged, and one came free unexpectedly. Maybe the humidity. Maybe the thistle. She stuck it back and forced out still more heat, until her hands wouldn’t move an inch.
And then the rain began.
Light, cooling, washing the residue from her clothes, ruining footholds. The spellthief let her left hand cool enough to pull it away, then slapped it back down lower. She pulled at it with her wrist, and it held. Right hand, cool, hot, stuck. Left hand. Right hand. Legs moving in tandem.
She forced herself to focus only with the rhythm, only with the heat flowing in and out of her body and mind, the pain driving away all other thoughts. She imagined that she heard Henry calling for her, shouting, “Miss? Miss?” A loud crack of thunder muted it, and it rained harder still. Couldn’t think about it. Had to keep climbing.
Left. Right. The rain made the stones slick, she felt herself slide an inch. More heat. Her body was a constant ache, a growing numbness to her thoughts as the light in her hands was brighter than ever. She thought she imagined a vine coming for her, weaving from the ground into the sky, maybe it was just the shadows. She felt tired. The rain washed over her, the footing was more slick. Thunder kept distracting, wind kept yanking her cloak. She began to doubt that this was a wise decision.
But it was the only decision. No turning back. Right. Left. Maybe I’m halfway down, she wondered, and looked. Everything swam and wavered, her thoughts, her body, her grip on the magic. Not halfway. Not halfway. Left. Right, and the heat was so powerful, too strong, she knew the essence wouldn’t have even helped it. Right, left, have to get down, right, have to keep climbing, left, get through maze, right, into forest, left, onto road... She’d forgotten to place her hand back, she realized she was dangling by one. Every muscle strained, screamed as she collided with the wall again, held it tight, lowered herself just another hand. Another uncertain hand. Too uncertain.
It was the acceleration, not the sensation of losing her grip, that made her realize the handhold was gone, long gone, and she was nowhere near the wall. She was falling. Hurtling. She pulled at her magic, at the shouting, constant, howling pain around her, and watched a pitiful tongue of flame fly from her fingers, toward the window, latching onto it, gripping it, pulling, but it could do nothing. The flickering, tiny stem traced all the way from the window to her hand, and she blinked, realizing that her hands weren’t glowing, no, they were on fire, and she was falling, and wind rushed in her ears, and everything went dark.