The spellthief hurt. Everything hurt. Bones she didn’t know she had seemed to be broken, her muscles deadened with pain. Her head was pounding with every beat of her heart. The smell of bacon and bread was the only thing that didn’t ache, but breathing it in made all of the pain worse. She wasn’t sure if she could move at all. And worse still, came the sound of chuckling near to her head. “So, awake at last.”
She wanted it to be a nightmare, wanted it to be some blackened, ugly memory, but the next wave of pain disproved the theory. An anguished groan forced out of her aching lungs, left her lips, as it hurt to even move them.
“I put you back together as much as I could, little thief,” the arcanist was saying, “you will recover. But I see you were so worried about losing that you just had to run.”
It had to be a nightmare. Her eyes shot open, and she was blinded by the room’s light as it overloaded her senses, turning day to night as blackness opened up beneath her again, reaching up to claim her... But then a warm, healing pulsation drove the dark away, and her breath wheezed in her throat.
“No, no, you’ve had more than enough rest,” he said to her, hand on her side, somewhere past her closed eyelids. “The candles, the incense... I’m not stupid, but I couldn’t have imagined you would be crazy enough to try all of that.”
Her next breath was slower, and a little larger against the weight of her stiff chest, and the next felt a little less worse. She was too worn to object, to think about protesting, even to try and move her fingers. Much less to form them into a fist. So she laid there and tried not to think about the pain.
“Of course,” the arcanist said, “I had to take back the papers you stole. Again. And had to make sure you weren’t hiding anything else, so those clothes had to go. Again. You did yourself a great deal of harm.“
It all felt like a fucked-up tapestry of moments to her, with barely any thread connecting the disparate sections. She remembered leaving the room, but not how. She remembered the alarms, but not why. She remembered the frozen man, the wall, the rain... the awful fucking rain.
“You’ll be fine. Garrett, on the other hand...” He sighed, and she heard him stand. “And Henry. Poor Henry. I’m sure he’ll be up to see you when he wakes.”
One of her eyes winked open, again blinded by the light, but the other followed suit, ignoring the pounding drum that sounded in her head. “What,” her voice was almost completely gone, it hurt to move her throat, and anything in her mouth, “happened?”
“To you?” The arcanist turned back to her, an eyebrow raised. “You fell. You exhausted yourself, first, and then you fell from the wall. Henry saw you drop and climbed down. Helped keep you alive until I returned.”
“... I don’t remember,” she whispered, breathing hoarsely through her open lips.
“You were completely tapped dry. Not a drop of power left in you. Your hands, by the way? An absolute mess.” He turned away, wandering the room.
The spellthief tried to move them, but she couldn’t. She moved her eyes, and they were wrapped tight with white bandages. “How?”
“How what, exactly, little thief?” His voice was edged with irritability, which made her shrink. At least before she had felt like a welcome intruder.
“... how are my hands?”
“Ever the thief,” he chuckled, “need to know if you can still lift goods from a pocket. They are burned, and badly, but not broken. They’ll heal,” he stood next to the bed, letting his fingers rest on her thigh.
She blinked. Her awareness of the pain pulsed and faded with each moment, as if the ache all over was too large for her mind to grasp in entirety. “They were on fire.”
“Henry said as much, when he gave me the report. The rain took care of that.”
Her eyes flicked up to meet his. “... did you make it rain?”
“Not to keep you here,” the arcanist laughed. “I did not specifically make it rain, no. I shape patterns, long-term weather over seasons, over years. So, I suppose, I probably did. But there was no malintent.”
“Oh.” The spellthief moved, and her shoulders hurt like hells. “Sorry,” she murmured.
“I understand, and there is no need for that apology. Do you feel well enough to eat, little thief?” Her lips pursed, and she nodded a little. He brought a half-full cup of water to her lips. “Drink, first. It’s clear, no potions.” She watched his eyes as she swallowed, and swallowed again. Her throat burned, but it felt better. “Why run, little thief?” he asked, pulling the cup back. “Why try to get away?”
Another swallow, and she frowned. “... because I had to.” Even to her own ears, she sounded unsure.
The arcanist lifted a slice of well-cooked bacon to her mouth. Her mouth salivated at the scent. “Somewhere important to be? A meeting to keep?”
She shook her head, winced at the pain in her neck, and opened her mouth for a bite. Chewing hurt. “No. Just... I-I can’t live like this.”
“You will only be my guest a few more days, little thief. And now, of course, until you have recovered.”
Her face paled. “You’re going to keep me here forever, is that it?”
“Could you stop me, if I wanted to? Your legs aren’t broken, but can you move them?” He smirked. “I don’t need a thief. And if I did, I would prefer to keep one who could stand.”
Again, the spellthief felt small, and she turned the subject away. “What happened to the frozen man? The guard that I...”
“Garrett,” he answered. “I thawed him from your spell, treated him for frost burns. He’s taking some leave to heal.” The arcanist turned toward her, his face darkened. “Better than if you’d roasted him, surely.”
“I didn’t mean to...” She wanted to move away from his accusing gaze, but she was immobile. “It just happened. I didn’t want to hurt him, and so I tried not to, and then...”
“... and then you did the only thing you could think of. You need training, little thief, or someone is going to get hurt. Someone besides yourself.” He shook his head. “You’re dangerous, and not because of dangerous intent. You’re just reckless.”
“Could’ve cast better if you hadn’t drained my focus...”
“And if you hadn’t run, things would not have gone how they had. Or if you had hidden, instead, or if you had just surrendered.”
“You lock me in a cell, what else can I do?” She sat up quickly, too quickly, and fell down with a moan. Her eyes saw stars. She felt dizzy.
“Accept your fate, take what you’ve been given, perhaps not lock my guards inside your enchantment circle or freeze them in my halls. Stay put.”
Her brow furrowed. “... enchantment circle?”
“You built a circle, here, with those candles. Lit the incense. Placed them all just right. It gave you the power to do what you did? Do you not remember?” Confusion stayed on her face. “You did hit your head fairly hard.“
She blinked. Was it a circle? It hadn’t felt like a circle. She didn’t remember planning a circle. And she’d been casting without one. She didn’t even know how to make something like that. She just stared at him, perplexed.
“I can see that we will need to discuss this further,” he stood. “And you need to mend. How are you feeling?”
She would have needed runes if she meant to make a circle, and she had nothing to mark them in. But she didn’t remember lighting the candles, either, or the incense, or placing them around. She didn’t even know if he was telling the truth, and she turned to him, having not heard what his voice said. “What?”
The arcanist stroked her cheek. “How are you feeling?”
Her skin tingled under his touch, flesh filled with a sensation that wasn’t suffering, for once. She tried on a smile. “I’m alright...”
“... except for all the pain?” He smiled back at her, and she nodded. “You will heal. I will accept nothing less than your body returning to its proper state, the way you came into this tower.”
She watched him, eyes moving between his lips, his face, his ears, his neck, everywhere. “... you saved me.”
He nodded. “Do not let it go to your head, little thief.”
“... thank you.”
“You are welcome. Next time, I might not.” He chuckled, and she giggled back at him, which turned into a cough, and turned into a half moan, half groan, as she fell back into the pillow with eyes closed. A hand pressed to her forehead, a word muttered in her ear. Warmth and magic flickered, and then, oblivion.
‘Arkana utah mo’la vaganeshe,’ the letters read, and the arcanist copied down their translation to his notes. He glanced back and forth between pages as he wrote, listening only to the scratching of his quill and the soft sounds of breathing from across the room. She’s lucky to be alive, he thought to himself, for such a worthless little stunt. Clever, certainly, but foolish.
That seemed, to him, to be her general state. He hadn’t had time to examine the circle she’d made, but he knew it when he saw it. Siphoning power from another’s magical connection was dangerous, especially when the other had little to speak of, like Henry. The guard was no sorcerer; now he only needed a day’s rest. The arcanist was glad that the thief had not gone farther.
But he did have to admit, the plan had nearly worked. He would have to visit the laboratory, later, to see what she’d taken. But then he heard different noises, and a pained moan. He walked to the girl’s side, putting a hand on her shoulder as her eyelids fluttered. “Back among the living, little thief?” He asked, with a wry smile. “I didn’t know how long you’d be asleep, so I brought my day’s work.”
She sounded weak. “How,” she started, stopped, and spoke hoarsely again, “how long was I out?”
The arcanist paused, reached for the tower and felt its timing mechanism with his mind. “Four hours.” He brought a cup to her lips and watched her drink. “How are you, aside from the thirst?”
She was quiet, and he watched small movements of her muscles where she lay. Where before the only blemishes had been a few stray scars, now there were plenty more, with long patches of bruises, battered skin and muscle, all of which would take time to heal. She might look somewhat pieced together, when all was said and done, but if any body could make it look good...
She did look good, considering how he’d found her the night before. He didn’t want to bring that image back into his thoughts. He focused instead on her face, nearly unharmed. “Fine as a midsummer’s dawn,” she said, and he chuckled.
“I might even dare to believe you, but I know the injuries to your spine, ribs, arms, neck, and head must still be vexing. You’ve damage just about everywhere. This is no time for posturing, little thief, not when I can help.”
She nodded, and an elbow twitched imperceptibly. “... my arms are shot. Breathing hurts. Head hurts worse. I don’t think I could stand,” she paused, and what little color was left drained from her face. “Nope, definitely know I can’t stand.”
“Why is that?” the arcanist asked, leaning closer, eyeing them. Her back had taken most of the blow, not her legs.
“... I can’t feel my feet,” she said quietly, “or move anything below the hip. I can’t even feel the sheets, it’s... it’s all just aching.”
He reached out, but then hesitated. He turned his eyes to hers. “May I?”
Her look was a familiar one, and any day before it would have meant his death, shown the rawness of her ire, but now it only showed her tiredness. “Please. I would like to keep them if I can.”
“Oh, they won’t be lost,” he smiled, and his hand landed on her thigh. “You might be surprised to learn that in the mess you made of yourself, your lovely legs were largely undamaged.” He focused for a moment, sent magic probing through her body and muscles. “No, the cause is higher, I think. There’s nothing at all wrong with these legs.” He let himself chuckle further, and watched her grimace.
“Fine,” she said harshly, “where is it?”
“Well.” The arcanist bit his lip. “I will have to turn you on your side. I know that you’ve got a spinal injury, and I suspect that it’s the source of damage. It might be a bruise, and the feeling might return after a rest, or... it may be more serious.”
The thief swallowed. “Ah.” Her body quaked, as she tried to turn herself over onto one side, and failed pitifully. “F-fine. Turn me over yourself. I want to know if I’ll...” She trailed off. She looked afraid.
“I’m sorry, little thief, but this will hurt. Your arm and shoulder are in shambles, but I can’t numb them if I want to trust my observations.” One of his hands found her hip, the other her side, and he slowly, but forcefully, rolled her towards him. Her eyes shot open, and he was sure that she wanted to scream, but the noise only came out as a hiss, then a moan as the weight settled down. He saw her gaze fluttering, eyes beginning to roll back, and quickly moved his hands to her stomach and forehead. The healing glow came quickly, fighting back her nausea and chasing off the faintness. “Easy there, stay with me,” he murmured. “Let’s keep you here until the shock becomes a dull roar, if we can.”
She groaned, breathing hard and fast, but strained. “Shit, would you just do it already? Get it the fuck over with.”
He was more than happy to oblige. The arcanist moved quickly around to the bed’s opposite side, kneeling up on top of it behind her and putting a hand on her side. “I should warn you,” he murmured, “this spell can have some... interesting effects. Just so you’re aware. I’m going to be tracing your nerves, and some find it a bit of an intense experience. Not painful, I assure you.”
He let himself smile, now that she couldn’t see his face, and carefully placed a finger above her backside, right onto her tailbone. He said the words, and watched as the magic coursed through the finger-width connection. A startled sound from her lips, then, a contented sigh. She’s had a rough time, he told himself, a little pleasure won’t hurt. Or more than a little. He was distracted by her reactions, of course, but was able to focus; and sure enough, there was a break, a little interruption of the flow between her neck and her feet, and he set to work on correcting it.
“Who...” the thief breathed, and he watched her wriggle, bringing another moan out from her lungs, sending buzzing shivers through the bruised and battered muscles, gooseflesh onto every inch of her skin. Flush onto her cheeks. “... taught you to heal?”
It was a struggle to keep from displaying his excitement. “I spent several months among the Elurien, specifically to learn some of their more... potent techniques,” the arcanist said, gritting his teeth a moment in concentration. “They teach a very sensual method.” He heard his breath coming quicker, both from the exertion of the magic and her obvious enjoyment. The memories of those months couldn’t be kept at bay, and he could feel them swirling around as he worked through the spell, and felt his own variety of tingling and gooseflesh.
“There,” he sighed, finally. “Your spine is healing. It’ll be a day or two before it’s complete, but your feet will most certainly be yours soon enough.” His hand remained in place, as did the power he let pour into her.
“I could get used to this...”
“It’s... not meant to be gotten used to,” he muttered, and swallowed hard. This is terribly unprofessional.
A smile was dancing over her lips, he could see, and the blush on her cheeks growing hotter beneath his fingers. Wait, when had his fingers come to her face? “I know...” her lips pouted, “this must be terribly draining on you, if I feel this good...”
“You’re not actually any better—well, your spine isn’t...” he paused, breathing deep, trying to regain control. “You’re just feeling...”
“... better,” the thief purred.
“I should... put you back,” he said.
“But you haven’t yet, does that mean...” She was cut off as her arms moved, making her moan as what should have been spikes of pain were transformed into pulses of pure pleasure. A sensation which he felt, too, both as a side effect of the magic, and as a natural effect of seeing such a beautiful woman deep in the throes of power and ecstasy.
“It’s been a... been a while, since I’ve used this magic...” He heard himself moan a little, saw that his hand was gripping, squeezing her ass. “I wasn’t... wasn’t prepared for the consequence.” He still didn’t move. Moving might break the spell, and she was feeling better. And then some. He could see a nipple peaking.
“A-are you...” the words drifted from her lips, hot with her breath, “can you... do you feel...?”
“I do. Not like... well, like you, but...” When had his hand begun to stroke her thigh? “I should stop.”
“No,” she said quickly, imploringly, nearly begging, “please. Just a...” She moaned, turning her head up to his, her expression blissful and lustful. Her hips were moving, forcing more pleasure into her senses, sending still more arousal into his. “L-little longer, I, I feel so good...”
She was panting, aching, needing. He could feel it. His mind ran through the calculations, about how long he would have to break the connection, get her onto her back, how he would re-establish it, what he would do... And almost as soon as he’d thought of it, he’d rolled her over, put the hand and its searching energy back onto her body, letting it flow through her as he massaged her breast.
He watched the surprise on her face, then the warmth melted that look, and a long bout of trembling shook through her. She stared up at him, through half-lidded eyes and widely dilated pupils.
“I really shouldn’t,” he muttered, “you’re injured.” But it didn’t stop him from putting his knees on either side of her hips, or from putting both hands on her breasts, or from leaning within an inch of her face.
“I need this,” she breathed, she begged, “you want this... Give it to me,” she said, and he felt desire thrumming inside him at the words, at the entreaty, “please.” As his hands squeezed, as his brow creased, he felt more heat beneath his palms, and saw, for the faintest instant, a flicker of light in her eyes.
He blinked. What was that? The energy, the power. She couldn’t possibly be...
He blinked again. My robe. It was gone.
His touch grew faster, as did his breathing. “What’ve you done,” he mumbled, and felt the hairs on the back of his neck tingling. Her skin was hot underneath his hands, not with mere warmth, with a physical demand that he keep squeezing, kneading, pressing and pleasing her body. He saw her arms lifting around him, fingers lacing around his bare back.
Fingers. The wrappings were gone, and she was pulling him closer. Her mouth was a wild, lustful grin, her eyes were bright and hungry, staring into his, full of need and encouraging his own.
“What are you...?” he began to ask, before lust overtook him. He dove in and kissed her, deeply. His clothes were gone. His body was on fire. Something felt wrong, but it wasn’t going to stop him from thrusting inside her again, and—
Hang on, again? He was surrounded by thrill as he slid his cock through her wetness, as he squeezed her chest and made the magic shine bright within her. And his hips were moving on their own, he realized, with his hands moving on their own, sliding down to clutch her sides as he shoved forward again. “Y-you’ve done something,” he stammered out.
“You did this,” her voice rocked with her body, “made me want this... have to... need it...”
“No,” he gasped in motion, “you couldn’t have... unh, un-less you could...” He moaned, stunned by the feeling as the wider realization started to hit.
The gods-damned circle was a trick. She’s channeling. She has been. She’s doing it right now. His hands danced carefully around her injuries, as his body filled with heat and lust and pleasure, as he continued to touch, to kiss, to fuck... She’s made you hard, she’s made you hot—does she even know she’s doing it?
He stared into her eyes, looking for some sign, some hint of her intent, but he only saw flashes, flickers of light being reflected... wait, why?
He looked down. Her hands were at her sides, twitching and writhing, and he saw orange lights, careening madly across her open palms, tiny little flames. Growing, multiplying, spreading up and off of her body in a beautiful torrent.
The bed’s on fire, he realized, the gods-cursed bed is on fire. And here I am, fucking my prisoner, and I can’t stop myself, and shaping magic meant for healing and turning it to one replacing pain with pleasure and the bed is on fire and I’m not going to last and...
The thief’s eyes shot open wide, moaning, marveling in the light, the magic in the air, the magic in her body, the sense in both, and he first saw, then felt, the electric, energetic waves of her orgasm, pulsing through each nerve connected by his spell, feeling it as he thrust again, and then, feeling the rush overpowering his simple spell, flooding back, rebounding through it and forcing its way through, through the magic, through his finger, and the bolt of pleasure hit him everywhere at once.
There was nothing besides her. A shuddering breath sent him over into orgasm, loudly moaning as his eyes fixated and focused on hers, hands holding tight to her hips, completing the circuit of power and momentarily blanking out everything that wasn’t pleasure and joy. He gasped, continuing to pour into her, his focus widening and his awareness returning, quickly shifting the energy of his magic to shield them from the flames that rapidly engulfed the blankets. He felt it, that she had left the door open to a realm of magic, and that power had come through it. With nowhere else to go, it was flooding their surroundings, suffusing the air with magic and energy, pushing against his refracting barriers of light as he held her, even as more flames still licked and lapped at her skin. Her face was a dreamy, melted mess, barely conscious, giggling as she watched tongues of fire curl and press against her.
Leaving her unharmed.
“Well, isn’t this interesting,” he said, a smile on his face, beginning to soften within her. “I believe this is something which warrants further study.” The arcanist looked to her once-bandaged hands. The seared, burnt flesh was now merely scarred. “I’ve never seen flames heal before.”
She giggled at him again, wiggling beneath and around him. “Don’t worry,” she whispered, “they won’t bite.” And now that he could think clearer, there was something quite strange. There was magic, certainly, in all of the fire, but he could feel no heat from the sprawl, see or smell no smoke billowing and clouding the room in gray. If anything, it smelled like a hearth, faintly of woodsmoke, and popped and crackled happily around them.
His hands ran up her sides. The bruises were gone. He looked to her arms, and they were unblemished. “There’s something... odd happening here. Bizarre interactions...”
The thief lifted a hand to his cheek, and it was hot. Uncomfortably so, and he flinched away. “It’s not bizarre,” she stuck her tongue out, “you’re bizarre.” Her eyes were fluttering, looking sleepy, glittering with light.
“The magic. It’s gone... strange.” He looked back to her, briefly getting caught in her eyes. “What are you doing?”
“What are you doing?” She retorted. “You’re the one making me feel all good... wanna go again?“
The arcanist pulled his hands up, breaking the... well, breaking one connection, and ending the spell. She deflated beneath him, and the flames began to sputter out and shrink. “Again? Might take a while,” he said. “Also, the bed is on fire, you’re channeling magic, and your body seems to have healed in the flames.“
Her breath was quieter, smaller, less full and all-encompassing as it had felt before. The glimmer in her eyes faded to faint, but persistent sparkles. A groan escaped. “Why’d you have to do that...?”
His hand stroked against her cheek. “Because unknown interactions are dangerous interactions, little thief, and I’d rather not have us both killed here in a moment of passion.”
“S’not gonna kill,” she answered, and one hand lifted up. Some of the fires jumped, pooling into her hand, but the rest didn’t. She seemed to be concentrating, but then the flame in her hand spilled out as liquid, down across her skin and collected at her side. Now he could smell the burning. “Oh, no.“
“Well,” he smiled and maintained his protective spell, “it seems you’re about to destroy a little more of my furnishings,” he said dryly. “Not to worry, we are safe in the midst of it.”
The thief was stammering, her head snapping left and right between the fires. The gleam in her stare was gone, but she hadn’t noticed that yet, and looked to be trying hard to control the runaway heat. “No, no no, not again...” She winced with pain as she tried to sit up, and fell back, eyes looking up to his pleadingly.
The mattress was a lost cause, there was no doubt of that, but the frame, and carpet, could be saved. He extended the protective spell out, smothering the flames and snuffing them easily. “Relax, little thief. I’m not going to let my tower burn.”
Her lips opened to make some explanation, and she took a breath... but she blinked, and her eyes stayed shut.
Slowly, carefully, he disentangled himself. “It seems someone needs her rest,” he said, standing at the bedside. A thought summoned a water basin and washcloth to his side, and he cleaned up and thought aloud. “Well, little thief, we seem to have got ourselves into an unusual mess.”
A pass of his hand over her eyes deepened the sleep, and her breath became slower still. Eyes shut tight, lips parted open as she relaxed in dreamless slumber. The arcanist paused, contemplated the sight, then put his hand to her forehead, working a spell deep in her mind. “Open to me, little thief,” he whispered with a smile. “Respond to me.”
Another long breath left her mouth, but it changed in tone as it did. Her eyelids drew themselves open, as if tugged on by invisible thread. The eyes behind stared up and ahead, past the side of his face, through the ceiling, up and toward some invisible wonder. They stayed fixed, her mind asleep, even as they glowed faintly with the charge of his enchantment.
“Good, little thief,” he chuckled. “Now, let us discuss what just happened, shall we? You woke up from sleep, what do you remember after that?”
“You were reading something,” her lips replied, the voice drifting out of them irregularly soft and low, “everything hurt.”
“Yes, and you told me what was wrong,” he said. “And I went to check on the damage to your spine. What then?”
“You rolled me over, and it hurt like hells,” her mind answered matter-of-factly, absent of bite. “You touched my back, and...”
“And I worked in to your nerves, to see where the damage was, and started it on the road to repair. And then?”
“It felt so good,” he swore there was a note of longing in the blankness, “and I didn’t hurt any more. I felt so whole, but I needed... more.”
The arcanist thought a moment. “Yes, yes, what then?”
“You were touching me. I didn’t want you to stop. I wanted you to touch more, and you did.”
His fingers rested on her temples, and he looked into her unseeing eyes. “Ah, no. You wanted more. You wanted more and more, and drew more and more of the power in to yourself.” He envisioned the memory he wanted to write into her mind. “The pleasure grew, and grew...”
The light in the thief’s eyes changed in response, and her lips were moving again. “I wanted more and more, and drew more and more of the power in to myself. the pleasure grew, and grew, and... you were on top of me, inside me, it felt so amazing.”
“Mmm, yes, I...” He stopped. “No. You were imagining me on top of you, inside you. You were fantasizing as I was working on your back.“
Another pulse of energy, he felt the memories knitting into a new shape. “I was imagining you on top of me, inside me. I was fantasizing as you were working on my back.”
“The fantasy worked with the magic, and you grew more and more aroused...” His breathing grew faster, as he began to get more turned on himself, “until the combination of magic and fantasy made you orgasm.”
“Yes,” the voice answered after a pause. “I remember.” The eyes stayed vacant and empty, the rest of her body still lost in slumber.
“The energy was too much for you, and you blacked out, while I continued my work,” he said with a degree of finality.
“Yes. I remember. I blacked out, and I remember nothing more.”
He lifted his fingers away, letting her eyes close with a pass of the hand over them. “Deep asleep, little thief.” Her body agreed, and soon the soft, deep breaths returned. He crossed the room, opened the wardrobe, and drew out his undergarments, clothes, and robe, quickly dressing again, trying not to look at the beautiful woman in the burnt bed as he returned to the makeshift work desk where the forgotten breakfast was cooling. Where a new mystery could be explored.
Hours passed by. At some point, she made progress in realizing she was asleep. Or awake. Everything was dark, quiet save for the turning of pages, the scratching of a pen, the steady sighs and snores of her body breathing.
The aches came back. Dim at first, then blossoming through her weary muscles and nerves, like watching the leaves of an old tree redden and wither and fall in hastened motion. She grunted, and heard the arcanist cross the room with a surprising speed. “Well, well. Awake again, little thief?” he asked her, his voice beside her ear, “Looking for more furniture to destroy?”
The voice made her eyes flutter open, rather than keep themselves wrenched closed. His stare was waiting. “How long was—” The spellthief’s throat was drier than everything, and a hacking cough started instantly. The arcanist gave her a glass, and she took it.
“Six hours,” he said as she drank and opened her eyes again. “After all that excitement I’m not surprised.”
Her fingers squeezed around the glass. Excitement. The memories were slow and halting, but something felt strange. “... when is it? Is it the evening?“
“It is,” he nodded, “tell me how you feel.”
Her hand kept a tight grip on the cool glass. “Better, I think.” Which was true. She felt like she could be doing a lot more than just sitting in bed, in fact—
Her eyes widened. “My hand.” She turned her gaze down to it. No bindings, scarcely any scars. It barely hurt at all.
“Yes, I was wondering if you could explain that,” he said dryly, still down on one knee at the bedside. “The flames that consumed my bandages, and half the bedsheets, seem to have healed, rather than immolate you.”
“Flames?” The expanse of soft, puffy white sheets had a gnarled scar of black singed into it, tendrils creeping out this way and that from where she was lying, right in the center. If she’d stood, there might’ve been a perfect outline of her figure emblazoned in black on white. She let out a yelp, and nearly dropped her water.
“Yes, flames.” The arcanist continued simply, letting her work through her reactions at her own pace. “You became somewhat... agitated, during the probe of your back. The flames erupted shortly thereafter.”
Agitated. She swallowed hard, a shudder working its way down her spine with it. “I... don’t remember what you’re talking about, I don’t know how this could’ve happened... " She knew exactly how this could happen. Well, not exactly. Her mind was chasing itself in circles. What in the hells did he do to force the flames out like this?
“You don’t remember.” He smirked at her, voice dripping with sarcasm. “You don’t remember the Elurien healing magic? It certainly sounded like you’d find it memorable.“
“Sh-shut it!” She stammered at him, taking another drink to try and cool the rising blush. “I remember that part, of course I remember that part. But after...”
“It seems that it was a bit too much for you. Your hands erupted into flame, as did the rest of you soon after. I did all I could to save the bedding.”
The spellthief swallowed, and swallowed again. Her mouth was still dry. “They... they did?” She tried to keep her voice curious and steady, but it was a weak effort even to her own ears. “That’s very strange. Isn’t it? I-I mean I’ve never studied Elurien magic, I didn’t know that could be an effect.”
“I have.” He took the glass back from her. “It’s not.” The arcanist turned and crossed the room, filling up the glass before returning. He held it out to her, but she saw that it was just out of her reach. “So. Do you know what would have caused this?”
She reached for the glass, but dismayed when it drifted away an inch. “I have no idea,” she said indignantly this time, “but it’s probably your furniture’s fault. Everything in here is too combustible for my liking.”
He rolled his eyes. “The bed didn’t self-ignite. You did. Rather spectacularly, I might add. And what’s more,” he took a half step closer, the glass still kept away, “you also caught fire.“
Her eyes darted to the hand again, flexing the fingers and only wincing a little. “... you would know better than I. I’ve been out cold for a full six hours, just like you said. Why should I know anything?”
“I think you know more than you’re saying, little thief. I think you know what burned my cabinet, too. And I think, perhaps, that you ought to finally tell me.”
The spellthief chewed on her tongue. This was the last card she had. One of the only secrets she had that might be worth something, and he was clearly interested. From the library, from his obsessive studies, she knew what lengths he might go to to find the truth. If it’s going to come out... better to be on my terms, and better to get something from it.
“If, say, I did know something,” she was thinking quickly and speaking faster, “I might want something from you in exchange. You deal in knowledge that isn’t yours, clearly you understand my meaning.”
He chuckled, kneeling again and brushing his hand across her cheek. “If you do know something, little thief, what’s to say I can’t just take it? After all, you steal things that don’t belong to you. Clearly you understand my meaning.“
She shifted her head away from his touch, trying to tease him into doing it again. “We made a deal. No tricks in my mind. You keep calling me a thief, but I’m honest, and I think you know this.”
Another low chuckle. “Should we ask Henry about your honesty?” The arcanist looked at her critically, “Should we ask him about the quality of your character?”
The color flared up on her ears as his hand stroked along her side. “Henry knew what he was doing. He saved my life. He’s a good man, and, he thinks I’m good too...”
“He’s rather deeply hurt, I should say. He certainly did think you were of good character. I think he feels rather used—and I can’t blame him. Could you?“
She felt ice running through her veins. No, that can’t be true. He helped me. He chose to, he wouldn’t have otherwise.
“I,” she started, but the words stumbled in her head, “no, I didn’t mean to...”
But I did.
She’d thought, felt, moved, and trapped him inside. “... it’s not like I tried to hurt him. I had to go, a-and he knew that, he wanted me to, didn’t he?” Her eyes met the arcanist’s, and she cursed herself as she felt them dampening.
His eyes widened in response. “Well, if that’s the case, I can’t exactly keep him on as a guard, can I? I can’t have a guard letting the prisoners out deliberately.”
“N-no,” she stammered quickly, “that’s not what happened.”
“Then what did happen?” He smiled, and she felt the trap close in.
“... it was my fault,” the spellthief admitted, with resignation weighing on her words, “I was the one that trapped him, but it could’ve been anybody. He hasn’t done anything wrong.”
“That’s the way he tells it, too.” The arcanist nodded, “But surely you can see how that might... affect him?”
“... I do,” she said quietly. “This is all my fault...”
“It is. But,” he squeezed her shoulder, wearing the same expression, “I can fix things, some. Tricks, as you say.”
“What?” She startled away from him. “That’s wrong, you can’t just change his mind, that would be...”
Worse? How badly must he be blaming himself right now? Even if he sees that I’ve healed, it won’t stop weighing on him. Her mind conjured up images unbidden, the look of terror on Henry’s face as she climbed, as she fell, chasing down after her, holding her broken body in the rain. There were tears in her eyes. She tried to blink them away, and felt them on her cheeks.
“It would heal your hurt, and his, would it not?” The arcanist said with a kind note in his voice. “It wouldn’t be changing his mind, only his perceptions, his feelings. Altering the outlook. He would feel better, and so would you, and I would have a guardsman who could trust himself again, and who wouldn’t cringe at the thought of trying to keep you safe.“
The words sounded like madness to her, and every part wanted to reject them, but she couldn’t keep from feeling like they were true. “... I take it you haven’t asked him, himself.” She sniffed, rubbing an eye with the back of her wrist.
“Would only defeat the purpose.” He shook his head. “This would be for you. For the happiness and safety of my guest. Of course, I might want something in return...”
“Hells,” she cursed quietly, not caring that he could hear. “You want me to live with this, the mistake I made and the choice you’re telling me to make now.”
He shrugged. “Only if you want to. But I rather think you don’t really want to have that adventurous escape vanish from your mind, do you?”
“Of course not. How can I just decide this for someone? How do you do this so effortlessly?”
“This?” The arcanist put a hand to his chest and set the water glass down, “This is nothing. This isn’t a big change. It’s... editing out a mistake you made. Altering a few wrong words. It’s not rewriting someone entirely.” His head shook again. “Just a little change that makes everyone happier.”
“If this is small to you, you’re sicker than I thought,” she rumbled. “He’s a person, he has a right to his feelings and his own damned mind. What do you think he’d say if you asked him?“
“He’s committed to his work. It will help him do that better. Of course, you’re leaving after just two more days, so it’s not like it will bother you much. Henry, on the other hand...” He sighed. “He’ll grow colder. More suspicious, less comfortable with my other guests...”
“Don’t act like this doesn’t bother me!” She snapped at him. “I... I don’t want to make a good man bitter. There are too few of them in these days.” She glared, to make her meaning known, but then she softened. “... do you really think he would want it?”
The arcanist nodded. “I know him well. He would. But will you give me what I want, in exchange?”
He had no reason to lie; it’s not like he couldn’t get what he wanted from her without the charade. And he did know Henry. And Henry knew him. Trusted him. Believed that he did good work, took pride in his own work, and... the old guard might be the only hope someone less brave than she might have, when locked in this room. The spellthief felt herself defeated. “I’ll tell you everything. Just don’t change him in any way else. I want to see my friend,” she nearly choked on the word, “and I want him to be able to look me in the eye.”
“Of course. I wouldn’t recommend doing anything to betray him again, though,” the arcanist cautioned, “because traces will be there. I’m only shaping and shading, not cutting out entirely. Changing little sections of perception, to convince him that this was out of character.” He stroked her cheek again, softly. “He will still adore you.”
Her blush returned, and she moved away again, coldly. “I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this so he doesn’t have to live with my mistake.” And he wouldn’t have to. But she would.
“And the information I want, little thief?”
She hesitated. He’d be able to tell if she tried to lie. “... ask me what you will, and I’ll answer what I know.” Her body slumped back into the bed. “Truthfully.”
The arcanist smiled at her. “What is the source of the fire, that burned my cabinet, and my bedsheets?”
She swallowed, and her voice came out small. “That... would be me.” She kept her eyes open, but they were fearful; she was suddenly aware of the reprisals that could come from admitting such things.
“And what causes it?” He asked, not a hint of anger in his voice.
“... that’s harder to explain,” she murmured, “I don’t really know myself, but...” She lifted a trembling hand, breathed deep, pushed past the shakiness in her chest. She let the feeling come back, welcomed the numbness as it enveloped her mind and senses. Losing herself to the magic was a more agreeable thought than thinking of the aches. She saw the flame in her hand. She felt its heat radiating. She smelled its smoke. The fire is in my hand, she told herself, the fire is in my hand. The fire is in my hand. The fire is in my...
She didn’t notice that her eyes had closed, but she opened them again to see the light. A little ball floating above her palm, suspended in the air, spinning lazily as it warmed her. She couldn’t help but smile.
“That seems very familiar,” the arcanist said, watching the floating point of light. “The spin of it, the movement. You don’t know, you say?” He turned back to her for only a moment. “When did this start? How?” Then his eyes closed before she could answer. “K-five, A-twelve.” He nodded. “Pardon me a moment or two?”
“Um,” she still strained to keep the light steady and spinning, barely able to dedicate what little focus she had left to answering him. “S-sure, but I don’t know if I can keep this up for—”
“Let it go,” he said, almost dismissively. “I may need it later, but for now, I want my research.” He turned aside and walked away to the table.
An exhausted puff of air left her lips, and the flame vanished. Her arm went limp, but her fist clenched around the warm air that was left behind. “What,” she muttered between heavy breaths, “that’s it? Is that all?” Anger flared in her mind. All of this hardship and worry and pain, all for that? Flecks of red and orange were in her vision, the tired breaths sounding like a growl.
“You hunt for information, little thief, but you don’t know its worth. This is a very important piece of a very large puzzle.” He bent over his notes, and she watched helplessly from the bed. “Yes, K-five, book three, A-twelve, book nineteen. You really don’t understand, do you. Huh.” The impassivity infuriated her.
“No,” her fists tightened, “I don’t.” She felt the air around her growing hotter as she stared daggers at the arcanist’s eyes. “Explain.”
He crossed back toward the bed, and then was holding up her amulet in his left hand. “What is this, exactly?”
“Mine,” the spellthief snarled, and her palm opened wide to reach out for it. The silver sphere pulled just slightly toward her in response, and he looked down at it with mild curiosity.
“Yes, little thief, or whoever you stole it from. Regardless, what is it?“
“Don’t insult me!” She sat up straight, glowering at him. “It was given to me, it’s mine, and I want it back.”
“In time, in time. Patience, little thief. Tell me what it is.” He took a step closer, watching her reactions carefully.
“It’s my focus,” she insisted, “and your holding it is really pissing me off.” Not just pissed. Angry. Everything of the past week, the fires, the fall, the imprisonment, all of it was boiling over at once. She clenched her hand tighter, and the arcanist looked down in surprise, wincing as the silver chain began to glow with heat in his grip.
“It is,” he made a motion, and the thing vanished, “and as you should know, I can’t tap into it. However,” he looked back to her, “you’re tapped into mine.”
“Yours?” The spellthief found herself half-chuckling, her voice still seething with barely contained rage. “How in the hells would I manage that? Trying to lay everything on me again, are you?”
“Well, the how of it is what I need to study. But of course, since you’re tapped into my tower...” He stepped a little closer, past the foot of the bed, “that should mean I can control your power through it.“
“Tapped into...” She shook her head violently. “You’re not making any sense. You’re just trying to confuse me. Give me my focus,” she sat up higher, “I’m leaving.”
“You’re not going anywhere. Not for two more days, at least. Your back hasn’t healed, and we have an agreement.” She saw something change in his eyes, and then the fire building inside her began to twist.
She tried to move her hand, but it refused, no matter how much she tried to tell it to rise. “Why you little...” She inhaled, and the heat in the air mounted even higher, bearing down on the arcanist and herself like a dense, hot fog. “Let me go,” she stared him down, “or I’ll burn my way out.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” he said with little concern. “You are sitting within my focus, little thief. This whole tower does my will, and while you’re using it for your power, so too do you.” The heat around her started to shift and contort, becoming a haze of warmth, a sweet smell, a gentle lullaby, an aura of soft red light. “Your fire will not harm me. Your fire will not harm me.”
“Shit,” she felt the words sinking into her, felt the control slipping, “shit,” she strained with every muscle, unable to make them work, eyes flying madly from one hand to the other, up to his face like a cornered animal, the blazing yellows and oranges fading to dull reds and ambers in her eyes. “No, no, no...”
“When you use magic within my tower, you are using my tower to guide it, to power it, and your magic—and you as well, interestingly—is open to my alteration.” He chuckled, “I will need to do a lot of research. You, though, I think you ought to be calm, little thief.“
She gasped in a breath of air as if to bellow it out, but it just drifted away with a quiet wheeze. She tried to exert her will into the air, into her body, into anything that could combust, but it only strengthened what was growing around her. The redness warmed her body, the overpowering scent and aura of calm permeated everything, dulled her senses, flattened the fine point of her anger to nearly nothing. She felt like she could be sullen at worst, nothing more. “This can’t be happening,” she mouthed.
“Relax, little thief. This is a potent lesson, for us both. Lie back. This isn’t a bad thing, I assure you.” He looked on eagerly and moved to her bedside as her body leaned back, out of her control, though not unpleasantly. “Are you hungry? Thirsty? Is there anything you need at all?” His voice was sweet, soft, musical to her ears as his hand ran back through his hair. “I only have two days. A shame.“
Her body was relaxing, unmoving, but no longer resisting it. Laying down had sounded nice. It felt nice. Relaxing made her feel nice. The fires behind her eyes were dying down. “I... I need to drink,” she said quietly.
He brushed her hair, his touch sending tingling waves over her skin. “You will have it. And food, if you want. And anything else you need, over the next two days. I’m afraid,” he shook his head in mock-sadness, “that I may lose our little wager, since I’m rather differently-focused at present.”
She blinked, uncomprehending as he laughed to himself. “Oh,” she said calmly, “alright.” She drank from the cup pressed to her lips. She swallowed cool gulps, quenching her thirst, soothing her body as the dull pain replaced the exhilaration of flame.
“It’s fascinating, isn’t it?” he asked her, letting her swallow more, “That you might be able to use my focus? There are a few documented cases, but those were deliberately made, deliberately cultivated. This seems more... spontaneous, unusual.”
Tension faded further as the spellthief exhaled. “You should know... I’m not as well read as you. I don’t understand.” It felt strange to talk to him so calmly. Rage normally sparked itself at any provocation, but it was like there was nothing for it to kindle with.
“Nor do I. Perhaps in the next couple days, we might start to.” He patted her shoulder tenderly. “When you burned my cabinet, and when you set the bed alight, you were using my tower to channel the magic. Just like you’ve used your amulet before.”
A smile flickered onto her lips, and she had to work to make it disappear. “But why? I was just...” She gestured with her right hand vaguely, and looked at him as though he should know what it meant. “Reaching for it. But I didn’t mean to... to tap into...” Her brow furrowed. “... you live inside your focus?”
“It saves time,” the arcanist said with a casual wave of his hand. “And allows me to build up, direct, and examine the more massive spells that I spend a lot of my time with. But to answer the first question, there’s a lot I don’t know yet. I thought you might’ve used an enchanting circle, siphoned Henry’s power into yourself, or drawn off some hidden focus, but this is truly strange. In your reaching, you managed to tap in to some part of the energy of the tower... somehow.” He stood. “It’s not a very satisfying answer, I know, not yet. I want to find out why, ultimately.”
“Why?” The spellthief asked again. “Why do you care? I’m just passing through, and you...” She shivered, “you can make sure I don’t hurt anything.” That was a good way to put it, though even still, the sensation of meditative calm was thick, palpable, and powerful.
“Why don’t you care?” He swiveled on his heel. “This is a magical curiosity, a new phenomenon! This is what I study, what I live for, little thief. I will make sure you don’t, as you say, hurt anything, but the thought of this strangeness, of such an unexpected occurrence, and the thought of, well, of you, just passing through...” He shook his head. “I’m babbling, I’m sorry. Just passing through or not, this is extremely unusual, and I must know as much as I can about what’s happened.“
She just sort of stared while he rambled, smiling a little. “It’s alright, you’re funny when you’re fascinated.” Then she blinked, and stammered as she heard what she said, “I-I only mean that, I’m not a magical scholar, this is unexpected, but, I... don’t see a point. You’re talking about me as if I’m a new project for you, like I’m the curiosity.”
He stepped closer, seemingly unaware of the misstep. “Not you, no. Well, yes. You. But not you, yourself. Ultimately, I suppose, it is you. You are a curiosity, little thief, and I would do much to keep you here, but a deal is a deal. In the meantime, though, you’re in an excellent position for us to unravel this mystery! An excellent position for a great deal, actually.”
She blinked slowly, trying to turn the words over in her head. “... you’re the one that wants to unravel, though, not me. This... this doesn’t benefit me. It just helps you. Doesn’t it.” She sat up straighter. “You want to use me. You want to treat me like all your other research.”
He was back at her bedside. “I want to learn. Think of the new knowledge you could steal, when I have.” He chuckled. “Or, if you prefer, I could go back to focusing on changing your mind, and you could leave here with nothing. It may well benefit you, besides. You could learn to use this tower as your own focus, to refine your talents and skills and learn to be a better sorceress for it all.“
“But I don’t live here.” She shook her head. “I don’t want to learn that. I already have a focus, one that you’re keeping from me. I don’t want you to...” She struggled to pull the words out of her mind, out through the blanket of calm, “t-to make a profit off of me.”
The arcanist’s hand brushed along her cheek with a smile. “It may well benefit you, besides,” he said again, as she blinked heavily, “you could learn to use this tower as your own focus, to refine your talents and skills and learn to be a better sorceress for it all.”
The tension in her jaw faded, muscles all relaxing. She nodded faintly. “I could... learn,” she whispered.
He nodded back at her. “You could, indeed. There is much you could learn.” His power continued to seep into her mind, thickening the calm, leaving her thoughts stuck in it and slowly sinking. “And much you would enjoy learning.”
Her head continued to nod, while all manner of thoughts fumbled in her head. I enjoy learning. He has knowledge. The more knowledge I take, the better. Her face settled on a bit of a silly smile, breathing nice and deep.
“You want to help me study it, don’t you,” he spoke to her, smiling at her vacant expression.
“I want to help you study it,” she nodded back, letting the thought settle.
“You will cooperate, won’t you?”
Another lazy, smiling nod.
“Very good, little thief.” His hand played in her hair, rustling through it and rousing an appreciative giggle and yawn from her body. “You are tired, aren’t you?”
“I am tired...” She affirmed, blinking heavily into his eyes. She didn’t feel strange. Only calm.
“Then,” he smiled, “you will rest, won’t you?”
“I will rest,” her lips echoed, and the next heavy blink dropped her head back onto the pillows as her body relaxed even deeper. A hand brushed across her forehead, a word was heard in her ear, and she smiled as the tingling of enchanted sleep washed away her wakefulness.
“Yes, yes, I understand,” the arcanist grumbled at the text before him, “they must be bound, they must be centered and completely affixed, I know this, but what if one isn’t?” He sighed and aimlessly flipped the page back and forth. “You were a genius, Morton, but even you couldn’t foresee everything.“
A knock on the door turned his attention away, and he quickly shut the book, then crossing to the door. The smell of hot soup, for the convalescent, drifted in and quickly filled the small room with a wonderful thin steam, and he squeezed the old guard’s shoulder kindly. The arcanist moved to the bedside, as Henry busied himself with bowls and utensils. “Hello again, little thief,” he uttered, rubbing her thigh slowly and watching as her body stirred awake from the sound and the smell. “Careful with the legs, they’re still on the mend.”
She said something he couldn’t hear, and he was glad to see her toes curling, even just a bit. Her eyes flicked open, then wrenched shut again. Her lips came open next, “... whass for dinner?”
“Soup, chicken soup,” Henry answered as he came up to join them. “Good for the injured. My mother’s recipe. I mean, I didn’t make it myself, but my mother gave me the recipe, and I gave it to the cook, because really, I’m not good at much but cooking things on a campfire, and even then it’s...” The arcanist set a hand on his shoulder again, and the guard sighed. “... sorry, I mean, I didn’t intend to ramble.“
The thief’s eyes opened up again, with more of a smile behind them—but as they crossed with Henry’s face and lips, they took on a note of worry, and the arcanist saw her look pleadingly towards his own eyes. He only held her gaze. Of course, she’d be silently panicking, not knowing if it had been done, unsure where to tread... He figured that she could use some uncertainty as a lesson.
“What’s the matter, don’t recognize me?” Henry chuckled, a little tremble in the words behind his laugh, “Oh, don’t tell me that you hit your head that hard. I mean, I knew a man, a merc, once got his brains rattled with a mace, he seemed completely normal after he woke but he couldn’t recognize any faces no more, his own mother had to...” Another squeeze on Henry’s shoulder, and the arcanist shook his head gently at the guard. “... sorry,” Henry shrugged.
The thief managed to push herself up, some, and prop up her back, though from the brief flash of pain, the arcanist could tell that even that much was a trial for her. She forced on a smile and fixed it towards her guard. “Of course I recognize you. I...”
“You do!” He smiled brightly, “You do. Oh gods, that’s a good thing. I was so worried when you fell, miss. I mean, what a terrible mess, you were all...” This time, he caught himself, and exhaled before he went any further. “I should, ah, I’m sorry, the soup’s right there. I’ll get you both a bowl.” He turned away, and as he did, the arcanist felt safe enough to give the girl a short smile, leading her to finally feel some relief.
“Henry,” she began, “I’m sorry about... all that, the mess, and, well. This.”
“Oh, miss, it’s fine, I mean I understand, we all have those moments.” He moved back across the room with a bowl in hand, passing it to her without a spoon to use. “I’m just glad you’re all in one piece, you know, that the boss here could put you back together.” She took the bowl from him and nodded carefully.
“He told me you saved me,” she said. “I don’t remember that part.” The arcanist handed her a spoon from nowhere, and stepped away to take his own bowl, listening to the two talk.
“Oh, I mean, he must just be trying to be modest or something,” Henry explained. “I did the best I could, but an old soldier’s battlefield training isn’t nothing compared to what magic, I mean, real magic, can do. I mean you hit pretty hard, miss, you were hardly breathing.“
She giggled at the news. “I don’t know if I’d be here if you hadn’t, well, been there. I did hit pretty hard, and it was...” The thief trailed off again, but this time she caught herself before anyone could intervene. “It was bad. Thank you.”
“I’m just glad to see you looking so good, miss.” The arcanist turned to see the guard nodding, before blush began to grow as he realized what he’d just said. “I-I mean, so healthy. You didn’t look like you were ever going to be out of bed, just this morning.” The arcanist walked over and sat himself on the footboard. “I was put off duty today, I mean I did need a bit of a break, but I wanted to see if you were, I mean, how you were, miss.“
The thief giggled again, and Henry was amused to see her own rosy tint. “I’m glad you came. I guess I...” She glanced down at her naked body, faintly bruised and bearing a few old scars, but hardly any of the damage from the morning. “I guess I got lucky. That, and,” she finally looked to the end of the bed, in his direction, “he does some fine work.”
“Truly amazing,” Henry nodded in agreement, “I mean, I’ve seen him do some before, and he’s patched up my bones and breaks a couple times, but I mean, you were... ah, you probably don’t want to hear more about how bad you were hurt, right?” She shook her head.
“Maybe another time,” she said. “I do love a good horror story.” The spellthief fidgeted a moment, then looked up. “I really am feeling better, Henry. Besides the legs, I feel like I could walk out of here.” The arcanist sipped loudly at his soup, and she caught the cue. “Which I won’t,” she said quickly, “not until my stay’s over. You don’t need to worry about me.”
“Oh, of course miss, I’m just glad you’ll be here. I mean, I’m happy you’ll be around, even if... oh, I’m just making a mess of it now. Mind if I come up to see you tomorrow? I mean, to visit? Long as you’re not busy?”
“Please,” she said happily, then finally remembered to taste some of the soup. Her grin widened naturally. “I might be out of this bed by then, and I’d like to see you, too. Aside from which, it’s nice to talk to someone that isn’t,” she pointed her elbow toward the arcanist, who smiled wryly, “this one.”
“Ah, the boss has always been good to talk to, at least for us who work for him, miss.” Henry smiled and took a few steps back. “I’m going to head back to my bunk, I’ll come by soon.”
“Soon,” the thief said, and the arcanist walked the guard to the door, opened its handle-less surface, and closed it behind him. She sighed loudly, as the two were alone.
“There.” The arcanist said, walking back to her and standing by the bed. “Satisfied?”
Her smile had disappeared in the interim, but she didn’t have much heart in the glare she gave him. “I don’t like it, but it’s better than the alternative.” She frowned, and had more soup.
“It’s far better for us all, including Henry,” he said, and took a seat on the bed while he drank his own. “How is the soup? And how are you?”
“Good,” the thief answered. “Fine, I think. I can feel a little below the legs. Can’t really move much yet, and everything else... everything else just hurts.”
“That’s normal,” he nodded. “The soup should help some.” He went across the room and set aside his bowl, trading it for Morton’s book of treatises instead. “I’ve been researching this particular... situation,” he told her. “It’s interesting, definitely.”
“You know why it’s happening?” she asked over a spoonful.
“No. Not yet. I hope that I can find out.” He flipped the book open to one of its colored tassels, reading the passages. “The why of it must be fascinating, but even then, how it can be manipulated, how it can be shaped, too, that’s worth looking into.” He saw her shrugging out of the corner of his eye.
“Does the how matter so much? Or the why, frankly.” She winced as she reached around with the bowl, trying to find someplace to set it (what with the lack of a bedside drawer), before he waved his hand and the empty dish disappeared. “I know it works,” she said to him, “I know I can do it... I just don’t really see what else there is to it. I can cast now,” she shrugged again, “but all that means is you’re keeping a closer watch on me.”
“Does it matter?” The arcanist chuckled. “Of course it does. If we know how you do it, we can replicate it.” He traded the Morton for a few sheets, scrawled over with his incomprehensible writing and sketched diagrams. “We’ve got a lot to go over, little thief.”
“Why?” she asked, and he could hear her irritation bubbling up. “I can replicate it just fine without your tests. I’d do it again, if you really wanted, but I think you’d rather not take notes on ash and char.”
“Sure, you can do it again, but it’s chanced.” He came to the bedside, absentmindedly looking between her and his notes. “It’s uncontrolled. It needs to be focused, directed. Studied carefully.”
“Why?” she insisted again, and he felt irritation, now growing from himself. “I get why you care,” she said more calmly. “You’re... manic would be a poor choice of words. Obsessive. And you think there’s something you could make a profit off—” She stopped herself when his eyes met hers, and she smoothed her voice out further. “Monetarily or intellectually or otherwise. What’s in it for me?“
The arcanist closed his mouth into a frown. She’s no scholar, that’s for certain. “Well, if you learn how to properly use my tools, and my focus, that might give you an insight into those of others. I’m sure I’m not the only practitioner you’ve got a need to burgle.“
Her lips pursed. “That’s not necessary. I’ll have my own focus again at that point, so unless I do something as idiotic as getting caught in traps like yours again, which will never happen, I won’t need that.”
“Never?” He raised an eyebrow and half a smirk. “Strong words. But let’s also accept that your focus, clever thing as it is, isn’t near as powerful as mine.”
“It’s not like I plan to be levelling towers, burning libraries, or whatever else you think I might do. Why would I ever need, ever want this much power? It’s...” He watched the look in her eyes get a bit distant as she changed her frame of focus, surely sensing the power humming all around her mind, close enough to touch it, to caress it... He shifted on his feet, and she looked back to him. “It’s disturbing.”
The arcanist sat down by her feet. She wasn’t wrong about the need for power. “All the more reason to learn to control it, though, to really channel it. Not channeling magic, not specifically, though...” He looked down to his notes, before she cleared her throat and brought his attention back up. “Besides. That focus of yours simply screams magic; wouldn’t it be nice to be able to walk in without anyone knowing you’d be using their power?“
“It’s only screaming when the eye is open,” she explained, and he pursed his lips as he thought of it. He’d seen the mechanism inside, a clever work of artifice, a lens to control the flow and outpouring of power from within, or to seal it off to just a faint whisper. He hadn’t been able to work it closed yet, which had kept it from regaining much power at all in the past days. “You just caught me at a bad time. But it’s not much safer to use someone else’s focus, can’t you tell that I’m casting with it?”
“When I’m looking for it, yes,” the arcanist said. “But it would be just one more stream among many, most of the time. Because I know what to look for, because I know it’s you, and because I can find your little thread.”
“But it’s still dangerous. You can...” She blushed, and seemed to think better of whatever was on the tip of her tongue. “Affect me. I wouldn’t open myself to that from someone less scrupulous. And my stream could be caught in any kind of chaos, should they work any powerful spells of their own.”
“All the more reason for control, again, so that you don’t wind up tapping in to the source without being aware.”
The thief took a few moments to think about this. “What would I even do with all of this?”
“I don’t draw the whole of my energy, all the time.” He glanced over at her, his eyes more occupied with his sketchings. “I didn’t know you were doing a thing, until I’d worked it out. And with how singular this ability of yours seems to be... I hardly imagine anyone would work it out before you’ve come and gone.”
She nodded slowly. “But if I could learn to know where you’re looking and when, I could keep myself out of sight. Keep my own focus sealed up, use yours for whatever I’d need. Or anyone else’s.”
The arcanist nodded in reply. “Now you’ve got it. The possibilities are rather amazing.”
She squinted at him. “You would give me the skills to let me better dupe your allies? To let me bring more spells out to peoples’ eyes?”
And then, he hesitated. “Ah,” his teeth closed around his tongue while he thought on it. “Perhaps we should be careful. We do not want to antagonize too many others, do we.“
“I mean,” she started quickly, drawing his eyes as her body bounced up and her lips moved fast, “it’s not like that’s not going to happen anyway. You’re not going to keep me from doing my work. This is just a bonus. You can research it, I can learn. Better for us all.”
He smiled. “Better for us...” His lips twitched down, and eyes squinted with it, as he felt a subtle sensation on the side of his mind. “Don’t try my own tricks on me, little thief.” He waved his hand, dismissing the sketches and notes away and cutting her access to the flow of power in the same motion. “This is something of mutual benefit as it is.”
She blinked at him with surprise, and blushed further, which felt like even more of a mystery. Was that intentional? A reflex? I can’t just be imagining things.
“Well,” she muttered, “since it’s as mutually beneficial as you say, perhaps we should see about your experiments. See what we can discover.”
“That,” he replied, “is my intention. Tomorrow. We both need rest, I think.”
“Ah. Well, tomorrow it is.” She pursed her lips and gave a small nod.
“I will sleep in here, of course,” he rubbed her bare thigh softly with his hand. “In case we need anything in the night, and in case you decide to use my tower as a channel again.” His smile at the thief was funny, and he felt it.
“Thank you,” she smiled back at him, then stammered. “I-I don’t plan on using any magic.”
The arcanist slid himself further along the bed, up to her hips, close enough to let his hand move across her cheek. “Do you often plan on it? Have you made such plans, since you arrived?” Her skin was warm beneath his fingers, even as she shivered below him.
“I wasn’t going to escape without any magic, or without any plans, and I couldn’t have possibly gotten through that garden or down the wall without...” She shut herself up, and he looked at her kindly.
“And so you went to get your own focus.” He stroked her cheek softly, without a need for magic. “Resourceful, to be sure. But before you had your amulet, you worked magic in this room.” Her jaw worked around, and she gave the smallest nod. “I’d thought before that you formed a circle from which to draw your power. But now I think otherwise. Tell me honestly, little thief... did you intend to, or was it accidental?”
She frowned. “Why does it matter?”
He shook his head just slightly, smiling into her expression as his hand shifted, her eyes fluttered and blinked and opened again. “Did you intend to, or was it accidental?”
“... bit of both those, maybe,” she whispered, and he saw the ripples of excitement spreading across her flesh, making his own body shift at her side.
“Then you understand why I must watch you very carefully,” he said, running his fingers up and into her short hair, sliding through it, ruffling it softly—which made her lips give a giggle, brightening both their smiles.
“Because I intended it? Or because I didn’t?” she shyly inquired.
“Both, little thief. If you use this power without intent, I must be there to keep us safe. And if you are to use it with intent, I must be there to stop you.”
The spellthief looked around the space, as though someone else might have been there to witness how ridiculous she felt he was. “Don’t worry about my casting anything dangerous, I’ve no intent for that. As for myself, I can keep me safe just fine. You’re just worried you’ll wake up on fire.”
“Wouldn’t you be?” He chuckled, and released his grip on her connection, watching the aura of energy settle back over her with a wriggling of muscles. “You’ve done a fair bit of damage.”
“Not to people,” she said. “Not unless I’m threatened. And you’re not threatening... not of that kind.”
“And how am I threatening, then?” he asked, and he glanced downwards. His hand was on her side. When did his hand find her side?
A gentle laugh left the thief’s lips. “You have all this power, all around you all the time, and you know how to use it. You won’t,” her voice went lower, “not on me, but it’s always present. I can feel it now.”
“I released my block on your flow to it, that’s all.” He stood and paced away from her, before his hand could end up somewhere else unexpectedly. “Keeping you away from it would be too difficult, and too draining for what it’s worth.”
“Whatever happened to my being dangerous?” She raised an eyebrow and had a smirk on her face, one that made him suppress a shiver. “Letting me off the leash seems to invite that danger.”
“You’re not off the leash,” he answered, tensed. “I’m watching. It’s merely that keeping you locked down would be a distraction.“
“Isn’t that what I’m for?” The thief grinned. “Distraction? Why else were you keeping me around, before all this?”
Her body was moving again, and he made himself turn away as her chest and hips shifted invitingly on the bed. Patience, now, he urged himself.
“Couldn’t have been for my stimulating conversation,” the thief mused aloud. “Everyone does need a break now and again.”
He stopped his pacing and turned back to her. “What do you mean? What are you implying?” His voice was curious, not accusatory or upset, but packed with more emotion than intellectuality.
She tossed her head lightly, and the arcanist fought to keep his eyes from marveling. “I’m implying that you kept me locked in here for something. Something beyond your little game of convincing, something beyond what secrets you might think to learn from me. I’m a diversion from you, a break from your work. But now,” she gestured behind him towards the table loaded with papers, “it seems I’m work too.”
He swallowed. “You are definitely a... pleasant diversion,” he admitted. “And I didn’t anticipate that you would be such an interesting guest. Professionally, of course.”
“Professionally,” she echoed. “Is that the only way you see me now?” Another wriggling of her torso, pushing her back into the pillows and shaking, jutting out her chest. He couldn’t help himself from a glance, and when his eyes turned back to hers, she had a raised eyebrow still, a curious look that compelled him to answer.
“I... certainly not,” he shook his head, a faint heat in his cheeks, “not only that.”
Her smirking grew. “What other way, then?”
“It isn’t important.” He said it quickly and took a step away, composing himself as he faced the far wall. “I merely enjoy our little conversations.”
“Must be important enough to conceal it,” she practically sang the words, and his head turned around before he could stop himself. He knew he couldn’t hide the tingling in his cheek, the look in his eye, as much as he knew she couldn’t either.
“Conceal?” He said, and the same smirk danced over her face.
“Haven’t you noticed that you’re being evasive?” She asked with mirth, “I don’t need my amulet to see it.”
The arcanist frowned, still flushing. “I have work to do,” he said dismissively, but he turned towards her, rather than away.
“Sure you do,” she nodded. “Studying me, professionally?” Another, definitely deliberate movement, the thief folded her hands behind her head, letting her elbows splay outward and baring her chest wide.
“What do you intend with this new game, thief?”
“Game? I hadn’t intended a thing. Would that be as dangerous as my intending with magic?”
His hand moved, the gesture came faster than he could think. “What do you intend with this new game, thief?” He heard a note of strain in his voice, and felt how much he savored his long look at her dazed, enchanted, spellbound state, before it vanished with a wider smile.
“I think you’ll be keeping a very close watch on a couple of my intents,” she giggled, and the gesture was on his fingers just as she wriggled again, and he took a long drink of her looks as her eyes flickered shut.
“What do you intend with this new game, thief?” he asked as they opened again. He’d come three steps closer, almost at the edge of the bed.
“You might be surprised. You know what can happen when I plan.”
“And do you plan to use my desire against me?” The words came out before he could stop them, but there they were. He took a step closer as her blush brightened, and she blinked of her own accord.
“Well that’s the game, isn’t it?” she asked, warily as he leaned over the bed, his hands gripping the footboard.
“The game?” the arcanist smiled, “Do you play games, little thief?”
Her hands moved behind her head, and she held the arcanist’s stare carefully. “Only when there’s a prize to be won. Else it’s mere play, or professionality.”
He didn’t back down, or move, and he felt as though he couldn’t have even if he wanted to. “What prize do you win, by all this?”
“That... depends which game you mean,” the thief began slowly. “Our little wager? The research I deserve to take. Your new obsession? Power, a new skill. This... budding little thing that we’ve not yet named?” She paused, and her eyes flickered down and away from his face, along his shape and neck and then back again. “I think that we’re both still thinking on it. Testing the rules. And we can’t see the prize unless we know how to play.”
He forced himself to stare at her face, to hold his position, but his eyes darted anyway, and he had to wrench them back up. “You will win the wager, I’ve told you as much. You don’t need to play games with my research, I will do it and you will gain, and so...”
“So,” she giggled at his lapsing glance, “seems like I’m just going to keep winning.”
The arcanist swallowed. “Do I dare suggest that this may be a game with more than one winner?” His eyes watched the color on her face deepen.
“It’s our game, and there’s no spectators. I think that we can do it however we like.”
“And how, little thief, would you like to, ah...” He chuckled back at her, “how would you like to do it? How do you prefer to play?”
A smile returned to her lips. “Now that’s hardly fair. I don’t ask you to show me all of your cards at once, do I?”
“No, no.” He shook his head and leaned closer, trying to keep his lips set, “You merely seek to steal them.”
“Always with you and your work,” she shook her head. “I’m liberating those. There’s only a few things I’ll steal outright.”
Both his eyebrows rose up. “Such as?”
“Depends on the quarry.” She moved her hands in front of her face and began to examine her skin and nails, while he struggled to keep the eye contact she was avoiding. “Secrets. Attentions.” She grinned briefly. “Hearts, sometimes.”
“Well,” he said, “you’ve got my attention. And you’ll have some of my secrets too. I think, though, that you’ll find my heart a much more guarded treasure.”
“Well,” she spread her hands apart, drawing his glances downward, “you’ve seen me at work. I think you’re well aware of my skills in thievery.”
“Which skills,” he cracked a smile, “the ones which got you caught? The ones which saw you tumbled off the wall and onto the ground?” He edged closer around the bed. “Generally the better thieves aren’t seen to have their skills assessed.”
“The ones that duped your guards and garden,” she smirked, back to his gaze as he slowly came closer, “the ones that brought me inside, where all else’ve failed. And,” she chuckled, “I think you rather like the sight of me.”
“You are among the prettiest I’ve seen,” he agreed, and let his eyes wander freely while he spoke, drinking in every inch of her. “I have definitely enjoyed your presence, though I do think a part of you enjoys being here, as well.”
The thief was silent for a few moments. “Perhaps,” she murmured, and let her sight have a sip of its own then, slipping down his robes as though she could see beneath, “there’s a few enjoyable things in this place.”
“I learned more than healing from my time in Elurye,” he said, reaching out to caress her nearby hand—but it drew back out of reach, naturally, falling to rest on her stomach with the other.
“I’ve never been to Elurye. Perhaps you could show me a few things.”
He slid forward to the bedside, resting a hand on her thigh again, gently rubbing and smiling down at her. “How do those legs feel? Wouldn’t do to hurt your back any further while it’s healing.”
She sucked in a breath and glanced downwards toward his hand, but her legs didn’t move. “Perhaps it would be better to see how they heal,” she looked up to his face again, “they could use another night’s resting.”
“Well,” he said, sitting on the bed beside her and moving his hand to her shoulder, “perhaps something more like this would be to your liking.” It took a moment to center himself, but the spell filled his hand quickly, then rushed into her skin, flooding her nerves as it flowed out in a wave through her, sending gooseflesh wherever it went and shuddering out from her lips and lungs, lips which her tongue slowly began to lick.
“Doesn’t feel like healing,” her eyes returned to his, half-lidded, fluttering faintly as he kept the energy pouring inwards.
“What does it feel like, then?” He increased the flow, watched her body react, listened to her deep, happy sigh, saw her hands moving slowly across her skin from the corner of his eye.
“Feels like...” The thief’s expression focused, eyes shutting as she thought and fought to think through the bliss, clearly on the edge of being overwhelmed from it. He could feel the hairs on his own skin rising, tingling on his wrist and forearm while his fingers moved. He preserved the link, his touch never leaving her skin as it wandered across her collarbone, down the center of her chest, circled around and landed on her left breast, gently massaging it, shivering from the sound of her quiet moan.
She was trying to keep her eyes locked on the arcanist’s between the heavy blinks, wetting her lips again, feeling his control all around her—he could tell, he could feel her testing, probing, pushing out against his power that enveloped her. Her gaze went to his hand on her chest, watching it squeeze and circle and tease, near fully absorbed by the pleasurable motion and even more pleasurable sensations through her whole self.
He saw her eyes move up his arm, over his shoulder and to his face, as he tried hard to keep the spell steady, sweat on his brow, lust in his eyes. He saw her hand lifting, drifting, floating through the air, up to his head, buzzing with energy, touching his cheek—all at once, humming, vibrating energy washed over him from head to toe in waves, he couldn’t suppress a moan of surprise as it hit him. He recoiled back and to his feet involuntarily, releasing his hold on her and breaking the connection, though still feeling the magic pulsing in his hand, insistent, demanding to be used, begging him to lower it down onto her chest as he breathed hard, trying to process what in the hells she’d just done.
“What... was that?” His free hand rose to his cheek where hers had just touched, feeling the flush of warmth and an aftershock of pleasure.
The offending hand twisted gently in the air before him, between their faces, a smile tugging at the thief’s lips behind it. “What was what?” Curiosity? Mischief? Arousal?
“What did you do? And how? I was watching your connection to the tower, there was nothing...” The arcanist’s voice was full of warring arousal, curiosity, and worry, looking with confusion from her hand to her face.
“What did you feel?” She asked, and the threatening hand came to rest on the sheets. He didn’t move his from its place, hovering just above her breast.
“What I suspect you felt. The shockwave of arousal, of sensation... what did you do, little thief?”
She giggled at him. “You asked me what it felt like. You got your answer, didn’t you?”
“You do know,” a smile won out, and he sighed at her, “there is a reason the gods invented language, yes? Glad I didn’t ask how it felt to hit the ground last night...”
She beamed openly, and seemed to be calming down as well. “Sometimes words alone fail. Sometimes an act can speak far louder than any one phrase.”
“An act, like so?” He said, letting his hand fall back onto her chest, though with no magic coursing through his touch this time.
Her mouth opened with a quiet sigh, lips shifting while her body adjusted to the weight, watching his eyes. “No fear of being burned?”
He glanced to the ruined sheets around her. “If I know it’s coming, then I can handle it.”
“I’ll have to work to surprise you then.” She nodded. “Seems like I’m off to a fine start.”
“I certainly didn’t expect you to come wandering through my window a week ago,” he murmured, stepping closer to the bed again.
“Most men don’t expect me to come through their windows,” she smiled, “but it’s usually a good surprise for them. Never given such a surprise to an arcanist before, though...”
“There are some advantages to my knowledge and learning,” he chuckled, sliding closer still. “And advantages to them not being available to everyone you’ve seduced, just to gain a little leverage.” He sent a little spasm of pleasure into her from his hand.
She swallowed as it ran through her, found his stare again as her eyes opened. “That’s what you think the prize is? Just leverage?”
“Oh, I am certain that there’s some pleasure in it for you,” he said. “But honestly, I am a man near twice your age, I estimate, of no particular charm or interest. I have things you want, and I don’t doubt that you are well trained in all means of getting those things from me.” He gave her another jolt, and listened to her shudder with some glee.
“You do yourself a disservice,” she said, her breath coming quicker. “I’ve seen plenty of arcanists, and you’re a sight more interesting and charming than most. Not good for the skin, living up this high, and not good for the figure with your own private kitchens, either.“
He moved his other hand, letting it join the one on her chest and begin to trace lines over her stomach. “Thievery does seem to lead to an attractive and athletic body shape,” he said, as his fingers danced near her hips. “I think you do a disservice to some of my esteemed colleagues, though. Magdara Seilund, in particular, has given some fascinating lectures on the use of military formation in connection with sorcerous patterning, and she has rightly had her fair share of suitors.”
“Seilund is quite a fox,” she admitted, grinning again, “wouldn’t mind spending an evening in her tower.“
“She’s got a rather nondescript building on a military barracks near the frontier. She works far more with people than with plants and construction, unlike myself.” He leaned closer to the thief, looking into her eyes, mere inches away. “And while I might enjoy an evening in her company, perhaps some fine food and wine, I gather that she would be much more interested in passing a night with you than with me.”
She chuckled gently, flushing beneath him. “Well, I suppose you’ve enjoyed an evening in my company instead, then.”
“Which I would definitely prefer,” he nodded, chuckling as one of his hands slipped down between her thighs. “You have a certain energy about you that’s near irresistible.” In fact, twice, already, I haven’t resisted.
She sucked in a breath, and he felt her hand closing around his own down there, holding his fingers in her own small, rough and calloused ones. “Wouldn’t want you to wander into anything too quickly, then. We both have our traps.”
“Rushing such things would not do,” he agreed, leaning closer still, feeling the heat of her breath, of her skin, “but I don’t think that any trap you have might hold me.” His cloak vanished off of him with a shrug, making her eyes widen as he edged towards nakedness, too.
“Well,” the thief breathed, and he felt his hand being pulled along slowly, “I suppose that we might find...” She hesitated.
He paused too, an inch, half an inch, from kissing her on the lips. “We might find what?” he asked with some concern in his eyes and voice, watching hers carefully as they darted downwards. His followed soon after, down to where her hand was wrapped around his, just above her crotch, the tips of his fingers tickling against skin and hairs.
“Shit,” she breathed, near anguished, unmoving underneath him.
“What? What is it?” He looked back to her face with worry, pulling his mouth away from her while her eyes closed, and she inhaled sharply.
“Trapped in a tower,” she grumbled resentfully, “trapped in this bed, half-crippled, half beaten to death, can’t move my fucking legs, can’t even feel my own gods-damned cunt.” Her head dropped back, she exhaled, and she jerked his hand up and away, dropping it onto her hip, where she could actually feel it.
The arcanist glanced back down, saw where his fingers had landed, and sighed with his own disappointment. “Numb?” He asked carefully, and saw her nodding barely.
“Not even a tingling,” she groaned, taking both of her hands away from his and balling them into fists at each side. She opened her eyes, and looked weary.
“May I?” He spoke slowly, brushing his fingers where she’d lain them, “No secrets of the Elurien, I promise you.”
“Do what you must.”
She closed her eyes again while he brought another spell to his lips. His fingers dug in lightly, and he felt all over her body at once, every surface and nerve and tendon and bone, even in her deadened and unmoving legs, through her sensitive and sensitized intimate places. Soft whispers of magic rubbing back and forth, testing, observing.
“This is important, little thief, do you feel that?”
“Everywhere,” she answered, and he pulled away entirely, ending the spell.
“Not permanent, then. Barely temporary. Just a part of the healing process—a rather...” Was it badly-timed? Well-timed? “... interestingly-timed part of it. I wouldn’t say it’s normal, but it’s not unnatural, and it’s not dire.“
She sighed again, but didn’t say anything. She was staring up at the ceiling, the lines of her face having hardened, the color having drained. Her eyes moved to his slowly, and all the fire had gone out of them. A shame.
“It’s a dangerous game we play, little thief.” He patted her thigh in the now-familiar gesture of comfort, before realizing that she probably couldn’t feel it.
“It is. And a long one.”
“I will return to my work, then, and keep a close eye on you.” He winked as he stood, and, before walking to the table, said without turning, “Make what you will of the information about Magdara Seilund.”
“I will,” she spoke quietly from behind him, and he heard the perplexion in her voice. “Where will you sleep?” She piped up a moment later, as he sat in the chair, and looked back toward her.
“I will have a cot brought, when I am tired, and placed where no knives will mysteriously find their way into my back,” he replied, but there was no bite in his barb.
“Oh,” she said quietly, as if this saddened her, “alright.” She shut her eyes, and slumped into the bed.
He waited a few minutes, watching her, listening to her troubled breathing, before turning back to his work. He waited a few more before asking, as if speaking to no one, “Are you tired, little thief?”
“Yes,” she called from the bed, as she lay yet awake.
He didn’t even raise his head, and his pen kept scratching across the page as he said, “Then sleep.” He heard the wakefulness drift away from her lips and mind, and let himself sink into the work to keep from pondering the strange, unexpected events.
Just as soon as the spellthief felt like sleep had overtaken her, and her mind could have sunk into a warm and soft dream, a voice cut through the dark and endless quiet. “Little thief.” A hand on her head, a weight lifting away from her mind and her eyes. Words not said with any urgency or panic, nor any command or magic. “I need you to wake now,” he said calmly, as her eyes fluttered open and her body awoke to the same bed, the same room, and the same face hanging above her own.
“What time is it...?” she murmured, and he shook his head while he pulled her body up to some posture resembling sitting.
“Midnight, or thereabouts. I had nearly forgotten my medical training,” the arcanist chastised himself, “we must exercise those legs, make sure that the nerves are recovering as they ought to.”
She stared at him a moment. “... this isn’t some dream, is it?”
“This is very real,” he assured her with a smile.
“Then you must not have gotten any rest, if you’re talking this strangely.” She said to him and let herself sink back down into the pillows below her. “It’s too late at night for this, and my legs are in a terrible state. Let me be.”
“I have means of putting off my rest, little thief. Don’t worry about me.” He rubbed her shoulder softly, and she cursed herself for how nice it felt. “Your legs, I must say, look incredible, even if they feel quite the opposite. And what’s more, it is a beautiful night outside, and I think the both of us could use some fresh air.“
She felt the heat creeping up her neck before she’d even decided if he was complimenting her, or merely assessing her condition. It was probably both. “I’d love to join you on a stroll, but...” She waved a hand toward her feet, “Paralytic, remember?”
Then, in a swift movement, his hand jabbed toward her thigh and pricked it with something sharp, making her yelp—because she could feel it. A string of curses left her lips while she rubbed the spot... It nearly felt normal. Knees a touch less, as her hands moved downward, calves less still, feet a bit worse yet, but not numb. She didn’t dare put a hand between her legs.
“Wiggle your toes.” He smiled at her as she glanced up, then looked down with interest while she watched herself try. She could feel what should have been the movement, but what happened didn’t quite match. Each of the toes only gave a twitch, when they should’ve been dancing madly. “We have to build on that,” he said, “to help the nerves rebuild properly and everything to regrow as it should. Now sit.”
She complied as best she could with only some grumbling, but the work was slow. All the soreness and pain and bruising roared back to her thoughts, though she pushed through it, and let both legs dangle off the bed and toward the floor.
“Very good,” he squeezed her shoulder again, then his hand was moving downward, then the other was moving toward her eyes, she felt a flare of magic, a rush of warmth, heard some word, and then she saw only blackness.
And just as swiftly as it had come, the slumber drained out of her, washing from her mind and body with slow movements of her face, slow shifting of her hips, and a slowly growing glare as her eyes opened. “... what in the hells did you just do?” she muttered, squinting at his eyes... which were far closer to her own than they’d been moments ago. Her face turned down—to see that she was standing. A gasp sprang free, and she looked sharply back up at him.
“Got you on your feet,” he said, smirking into her confused and maddened expression, while she still felt his hand placed an inch above her bottom. “Did what I need to do, to be sure that you get the exercise you need.”
“I meant the spell, you idiot,” she growled, “you could have just given me your arm, or...” The sense that had been bubbling up came to the fore of her awareness. A familiar one. A shiver ran through her spine, outward from the arcanist’s hand. “What are you doing to me,” her voice was barely above a whisper, slowly turning her head to meet his look while her body remained. Locked in place. Perfectly still.
“A little manipulation, to make the walk easier.” He grinned, “Have you ever had cause to use, or to experience, sorcerous puppetry?”
“No,” the spellthief said severely, “and I’m not all that glad to, now.” She started to struggle against the hold that her own body had on her, but this drew a sigh from his lips, and his hand darted toward her eyes again—she heard the word, and the room fell out from beneath her as she tumbled into dark.
She dreamed that she was standing there, asleep on her feet, the arcanist having a chuckle at her expense before he whispered in her ear, “Up, up, up and awake now, little thief. We have much to do, you know.” Her skin shivered at the sound, and her eyes fluttered up. His face was right before her own, and she could see the bed behind him. She’d moved. Another shiver fought its way out of her mouth, encouraged by his soothing touch on her back.
“It would be best for the both of us if you did not struggle, in this,” he explained, and if she’d been able to, she would have slapped him.
“We had a deal,” she hissed, “I told you not to use magic on me, and here you are with two spells at once!”
“Ah,” he shook his head, still wearing an infuriating smile, “no, you told me not to use mind magic on you. And had you learned anything in my library, you would know that puppetry is quite distinct from magic of the mind.” He moved his hands, and her arm bounced up in front of her face, fingers swaying and moving under their own, no, under his power. “I simply ask your body nicely to do such things for me. Your lovely mind has no involvement at all in the matter.“
“Then why in the hells do you keep—”
“Putting you to sleep?” He finished, amused. “Because I’m aware that that lovely mind of yours is quite resistant to these movements, as much as I know that your body enjoys them.” He chuckled again, and she felt the skin of her cheeks burning red. “I must be careful with your body, you are still healing, after all. So, if you would rather I not cast any spells on you at all—”
“I would,” the spellthief snarled, and then with a simple shrug, he took his hand away from her back. Every muscle that had been holding itself rigid and taut suddenly gave in, and she tumbled to the floor with a yelp, skipping her palms and tumbling into a heap. She groaned, and then his hands came around her, without any spells this time, pulling her body upright as she hung limply from his arms.
“Your choice,” he said calmly in her ear, and she only sighed.
“Fine,” she muttered, “do it. Just don’t be strange.”
“Strange?” He laughed in her ear, replacing his hand, “Whatever do you mean?” The magic shuddered back into her with his touch, filling her drained muscles with otherworldly energy, strength from without rather than from within. Her body righted itself as his sorcery took over for her, and she couldn’t help a small smile at the relief.
“Don’t forget that I can burn you to a crisp any time I want.” She tested the magical hold against him, for only a moment, and then she heard his tongue clicking, saw his head shaking dismissively and his hand moving toward her, but then it all became distant, fuzzy, dim and then dark. She floated in this dream, in this darkness, held and filled with magic, eyes shut and breathing deep the rejuvenating, life-giving streams of power. She felt at peace, deeply, and lingered there for what felt like hours until she heard snapping in front of her face, and she opened her eyes again.
“I think you might be enjoying this.” He smiled as she awoke, and she had to stifle the impulse to spit at him. She knew that he was enjoying it.
“Do you have a reason for all this,” she said dryly, “or are you just torturing me?”
“Look around, little thief,” he rubbed her side with his unpowered hand, and she swiveled her neck freely about the room. She wasn’t where she’d been standing before, or where she’d been standing the time before that.
Her arm wanted to move to her forehead and rub away the dizziness, but it was still held fast. “You’re... walking me in my sleep?” she asked, and he nodded to her.
“I am,” he said. “For the sake of demonstration, let me show you.” Her foot stepped forward, startling her, but he shushed her panicked exhalation and squeezed her shoulder, the warm hand on the small of her back feeling like comfort. “Easy now.” Another step, she held her breath this time. It was impossible not to react against the steps, as she took another, and she swore. “You see? It’s harder for me, too, when there are two sets of thoughts trying to tell your legs what to do.”
“Yeah,” she took another breath in after a second quaking step brought her to attention, “I get it. But putting me to sleep... that’s still mind magic.” She glanced at him, though she felt her indignation dissolving.
The arcanist shook his head. “Sleeping is a natural and physical process, little thief. Had we no bodies to support, the mind would be awake and thinking and acting at all hours of the day. But we are cursed, in my case,” he gestured up and down his figure, “and blessed, in yours,” he smirked as he looked down her torso and legs, “with the shackles of mortal flesh. It is not magic of the mind to put you to sleep, I merely remind the body of its need to give in to it, to surrender to slumber, and to...”
His hand drifted up out of nowhere before her eyes, she gasped, and she sank as the spell hit her. Plunging back into black and calm, she yawned in her sleep, and her mind drifted, suspended in a magical current. She saw herself again in her sleep, upright and dreaming, taking gracious, flowing, slow steps around the room as the arcanist followed, whispered encouragements and magic in her ear, his hand holding her safely and warmly. She smiled at the sight, of her limp arms dangling, the dazed smile below her soundly shut eyes, at the words she couldn’t quite hear clearly that he was murmuring into her mind. Some part of her was certain that they were lovely words, even still. Lovely, relaxing words. Lovely, relaxing, soothing words.
“Soothing and calming words, lovely and relaxing, little thief,” he said as the heat around her changed and shifted, “soothing and calming, there you are...” His hand brushed through her hair and he smiled into her waking eyes. “Welcome back.”
The spellthief blinked slowly. “It... didn’t really feel like I left that time.”
He chuckled softly, and stroked over the gooseflesh on her neck. “A side effect from the sleeping magic. The dreams, in this case, can manifest themselves in a few ways. One might dream of something entirely random. One might not even dream at all, but one might also feel as though they are watching themselves, seeing their body from afar.”
She nodded lazily at him, as her lips yawned. “That’s very good, little thief. You’re doing so very well,” he praised her, and she blushed, “so very well, in fact, that I think we may be ready for our walk.” He moved out of her face, and the door stood before her. She swallowed, and just slightly fidgeted against the spell. “For my sake,” he reminded her gently, “please do not think too hard about running away or endangering anyone’s lives again.”
“Sh-shut it,” she stammered, and the dark came over her eyes, the word was in her ear—and then she blinked awake again.
The air was different, they were in the hall, standing before the stairs leading up and down. She struggled with the sudden image. “I don’t remember...”
“Anything?” he finished for her, and she nodded, now aware of how close he was to her. “Perfectly normal, little thief, do not worry. But as for these...” He spread his hand out past her, to the stairs spiraling downward. “I think that we will need a far more conventional method of movement.” Without warning, his hand shifted down to cradle her backside and he tilted her forward into his other arm, lifting her up in front of his chest. She blushed brighter.
“Comfortable?” he asked.
“... yes, that’s better,” she said quietly, embarrassed but unable to look away from his face.
“Careful,” the arcanist winked, “it almost seems like you might enjoy this, too.”
Slowly but casually walking down the stairs, even this felt like there must be magic in his movement, but with it still filling her body, she couldn’t tell for sure. Finally, the spellthief managed to tear her eyes away and watch the wall, counting each step they took in her mind, and whispering them wordlessly on her lips.
“Now, now,” he clicked his tongue again, and she looked up to him from corner of her eyes, “can’t have you learning too many things on this little adventure.” She started to object, but the breath left her lips wordlessly, just as the dark overtook her once again, his warm hand pressing over her eyes, and a deep breath took her down.
They were walking down, down, down the stairs, the corridor winding endlessly around the infinite tower. She clung close to his body, held in his arms, and he smiled brightly in return. “It almost seems like you might enjoy this,” he said to her. It sounded so familiar, and her body giggled so sleepily. The walls around them shifted and swam, and so she focused instead on his deep eyes, watching them twinkle and sparkle in the glimmering, flickering torchlight. She heard herself sigh deeply, felt him squeeze her rear, felt herself flush, felt the strong arms close around her tighter still, felt his breath against her cheek, saw the spell in his eyes, and felt the world return around her.
Reluctantly, she opened her eyes to it. And she blinked. Outside. Breath came slow and long through her lips, exhaling pure happiness. Her head looked up, the sky lit with a thousand stars. But before she could enjoy it too much, she was reminded of the hand pressing into her back, the numb, happy tingling in her limbs. She stared longingly. So close, and so far.
“And where have we landed today?” The arcanist asked no one, standing at her side and looking around the hedge-enclosed glade. The moonlight gave everything a soft, pretty sheen, and he nodded with a smile at her. “The stars are bright tonight, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” she admitted, and looked up to them again. Twinkling wonderfully, not a cloud in the sky to disturb any of them. “The whole thousand of them.”
“The Milleniad,” he nodded again, smiling as she turned her head to his with surprise. “What, have you forgotten already my time spent in Keldia?”
“Of course not,” she snapped, “I’m just surprised to hear that a Damean knows the Milleniad.”
“I don’t know it,” he said with some bashfulness, what looked like a light color in his cheeks, “I’ve meant to for some time, to memorize each star and god and story like the Keld, well, like you do, little thief.“
She shook her head. “I never memorized the thing. My family had a shrine to... Nolttum,” she recalled.
“We should walk,” he said, then smirked, “but do hold that thought.”
She was about to ask his meaning, and then the wave of magic washed over her, she sighed deeply, and floated back up into her dreams. They were walking side by side this time, through the garden she knew was endless, a never ending and twisting maze that went for miles and miles. The path ahead was straight, yawning, even frightening in its infinity—but the warmth of the spell and the hand on her back strengthened her spirit, encouraged her easy, comfortable steps. “Nolttum,” the arcanist repeated at her side, while she watched them walk, “God of toils.”
“Hard work, dedication, all of that nonsense,” the spellthief imagined herself saying, dreamed herself shaking her head. “I always said a few prayers to Aryatae. Goddess of good fortune.”
She heard his chuckling, felt it deeply through the layers of his spell. “Well, then I must ask, has Aryatae turned her back on you? Or has she given you her favor?” The spellthief neglected to answer. “That’s no matter,” he assured her. “I’m not a man given to too many superstitions, though we all have our own.”
“We do,” she said, and the chill breeze blew through her, shaking the walls of leaves at their sides and making them dance, shimmer, and dazzle with the dancing moonlight. “I haven’t thought much about the gods lately.”
“I haven’t thought much about them in a very long time, I will admit,” the arcanist said, and these words made sense to her. “I prefer to keep myself grounded in what I can understand, rather than in what I can, by definition, not.”
She giggled at him, and felt, saw her body coming close to his side, walking together in step. “Though, as wonderful as I’m sure this is,” he said, sounding closer to her ear than he was, “I think you should wake, little thief.”
Wake? She blinked, and when her eyes reopened, the endless path had vanished, and was replaced by a single, pale, silvery flower, illuminated in a small clearing before her. She was back at a distance from the arcanist, and he smiled at her bewilderment. “I will admit to giving the magic a nudge. I figured that you would enjoy having some input and recollection of the conversation, even as you slept.“
She blushed. “You’re making this more confusing by the moment... how am I to tell if I’m awake, now, or if I’m dreaming?”
“Perhaps that’s the fun of it. But I assure you, you are very much awake. I could try that needle on you again, if you’d like to be sure.”
“No, thank you,” she laughed. “If I’m awake, though, then you’ve a reason. I’m assuming it’s this?”
“A moonflower.” The spellthief hadn’t heard the name before, but then the arcanist waved his hand, and carved runes, graven by a sorcerer’s hand, lit up on the few trees circling the flower, bathed with a magical light, the same as the flower itself. “Stunning, no? It’s one of my own creation.”
“It is. The runes, though... are they for growing?”
“Growing, guarding, glowing.” He swiped his arm and the light faded out from them, turning his head back to hers. “Some other properties as well. Mainly, keeping parasites off of it. They’ve been a problem with the last few, and I’m still trying to get the thing to grow naturally on its own...” He sighed and shook his head. “Look at me, rambling again. I’m proud of it, regardless.”
“You should be.” A smile grew on her lips. “I hope it grows into something more, but... even if it doesn’t, it’s at least pretty for a time.”
The arcanist looked surprised. “Why, I think that’s the kindest word you’ve had for me this week.”
She crossed her arms and smiled wider. “What, I’m not allowed to be kind, now? It’s a nice flower. That’s all. It’s not like I suddenly believe you’re so wonderful or noble or brilliant. You’ve just grown a pretty flower.”
“Still,” he said, smiling back then, “a kind word. That’s new.” She let her eyes stray to his cheek, and saw a bit of a color in the silvery light. “I do what I can,” he said, sounding more flustered.
“You seem capable of doing a good many things,” she giggled.
“As do you,” he nodded to her. “You didn’t notice when I took my hand from your back. You’ve been standing on your own for a good minute.”
Her brow furrowed first, then she blinked, and looked down. No hand, standing under her own power now. No hum of magic, no warmth surrounding and filling and numbing her at once. A sigh came out like a shudder, the night air feeling new again. “I... suppose that I am,” she marveled. “Didn’t know that I could do that.”
“I suspect that there is plenty that you don’t know, but that you will still accomplish.” He extended an arm for support, and she took it gladly. “Later today, we will see about some of those.”
“You’re seeming less afraid of being immolated by the second,” she smirked, as they turned back into the normal, somewhat rational maze of hedges.
“I was never afraid of it,” he chuckled. “Perhaps on guard, at best. You don’t seem like a killer.“
“Good. Because I’m not one.” She smiled, and tightened her grip on his arm. “I’ve got it under control enough, you don’t have to stay at my side all these hours, you know.”
“Oh, so I should leave the thief and would-be escape artist alone in her room, without supervision?” He laughed. “No, I don’t think so.”
“I’m done with escaping,” she insisted, “it’s too much effort. And unless you catch me pocketing your silverware, I’m no thief.”
“My silverware isn’t worth a lot.” They turned a corner, and the tower rose back into view. “I sold most of my goods of any material worth years ago, before I went traveling.”
She couldn’t not stare at the thing. The spellthief looked up and down the shadowy spike, sensing its power even from outside, until her eyes met the dimly-lit window of the belfry. Her stomach churned. If she were dreaming again, she would’ve felt the exhaustion, the daze, the rain, the slipping, the falling... How in all the hells did I think I could do all that?
“It was in Elurye that I first learned the benefit of botany,” he helpfully stirred her out of her pit of misery. “I found a passion for it, a way to direct my energies. And when I returned to Damea... found this place. Used the last of my money to petition the king for the land, and, well...”
She pulled her gaze off the tower, and moved closer to him as they took another step. “You sound like you’ve traveled far.”
“Across the continent, out over the waters. It was a great joy in my youth, but...” The arcanist sighed longingly. “Time takes its toll. My duties keep me here, most of the time, in the garden or in the tower, or in the city. I don’t really have the urge to go elsewhere, these days.”
“Never?” she murmured, “I can’t imagine that. I’ve hardly been anywhere... Down in the Dolwatch, for a while, but that wasn’t... it’s not the same as when you travel. I went to the capital, once, too, but, gods, I want to see the oceans.”
“Well, I do miss some of the places I’ve seen. A few of the people I’ve met.” She saw him smile wistfully. “Adventuring is a lovely thing, but it is dangerous, and it is tiring.”
“One can have plenty of danger in their own country. No need to travel to get any of that, but... still,” she sighed, “I’d love to see the Glittering Coast. I hear they have some of the biggest cities, the tallest buildings in the world.” She blushed at the sound of her voice, like a child’s wonderment. “I can’t even imagine it.”
“Then you can’t imagine the smell, either. People, animals—both live and dead, chattel and butchery—torch and lantern smoke, oil, trash, offal... Ugh, and the noise. The crowds, of course, make it a pickpocket’s heaven, for you,” he grinned, and she rolled her eyes. “There is a charm to it all, but I’m much more fond of the calm and quiet. Our land of Ephaos has its beauties, but these days I take more pleasure in the solitude. The coast itself, though... A thing of great natural beauty. I’ve walked its shores end to end, more than once.“
“There’s nothing like that here. Or in Keldia. It all seems so... boring, lifeless,” she said.
“In Damea, it is said, one must build their own life. And so.” Again, the arcanist looked around the garden as they came to a stop. “But Keldia,” he sighed, with more regret than she expected from him. “You are probably too young to remember. There was the Grand Library, but it was a victim of the war. There were monuments to history in Keldia the sort you would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere; perhaps a third remain, and half those are badly damaged. When you have a thousand stars to dedicate your art to, you make a lot of it.”
He chuckled, and went on, “I eventually left Keldia, after spending much time in the reconstruction, because I could no longer stand the destruction—not just of the monuments, but of the people. I had to fight, damn near literally, to keep soldiers from looting the harpers’ guild in Cecela. So...” his voice grew quieter, “Once the worst was over, the danger passed, I just... I left. I sold what I had and...”
She watched his sad eyes, and felt a stirring behind her own. Homesickness for a place she’d never known, could never know today. The words had stirred imaginings to her eyes, but she would never truly know them. Worse, still, destruction and fire, pillaging and looting, things that should stir a burning rage, but... things that she hadn’t ever lived. Not really. Things she would never understand.
A part of her felt thankful not to have the memories over which to cry. “You went to see the world?”
“If you breathe a word of this to anyone, I will deny it, little thief. The terrible sorcerer who lives in this tower is supposed to be heartless.” He chuckled again, and leaned back onto the hedge of leaves. “I traveled, to see if I could find any beauty to match that which was lost—and to see if I could find any way to bring it back. The naïve hope of a younger man.” He shook his head.
The spellthief couldn’t help but feel pity. He’s not heartless, not at all, she thought to herself, he’s not malevolent. He’s just misguided. He sees things the wrong way, and he does good the wrong way, but... is there a wrong way to do good? He’s truthful, honorable, gentle, humble and kind, and generous... but how can he not see all these things the right way? If I’m supposed to believe he’s heartless, then what am I to him? To anyone else?
He made a noise, and she let the question out of her lips. “Am I supposed to be heartless?”
He only shrugged. “I have known few who are, truly, heartless. You have a cause, and your heart, no doubt, belongs to it.” He smiled warmly. “There was a time when I might have seen as you do. I certainly admire your passion, if not your position. Again, speak a word of it to anyone, and not only will I deny it, I’ll strip it from your mind so that you can’t say it again.”
“You... understand, then? Why I do it?”
“I don’t think that you understand what you seek to do. But do I understand why? Of course.” He moved away from the hedge and close to her, rubbing her back. “Knowing why doesn’t make me believe you right.”
“Of course I understand,” she snapped at him defensively, but didn’t move away. “You just misunderstand the outcome. You think the worst. The war, I’m here because of it. And I hate the reconstruction and the crown behind it with a passion. But at least I haven’t let it all make me so damned cynical.”
He didn’t rise to her bait, though, only smiling through the dark. “I’m here, too, because of the war. I’ve seen what the misuse of knowledge does, in war, in peace, in the hands of those who think they know what they’re doing.”
He looked up to the stars. “There was a city, in the north of Keldia, far, far from the border. Alixira. Small place. Gone. Wiped from the map. The story you will have heard, if you’ve heard of it at all, is that a small army, either of northern barbarians or of Dameans, unleashed a magical weapon, which destroyed every man, woman and child. Are you familiar with this?”
“Of course I am,” she muttered, “my father would come back from nights spent drinking, shouting to everyone who would listen. Alixira ciel’madak.” Gone and not forgotten. Grudgingly remembered. Spitefully mourned. The meaning would have depended on whether he was raging, sulking, or in tears.
“Never forgotten,” the arcanist repeated with a shake of the head, “except for what truly happened. It was no barbarian horde, no vindictive Damean division, that annihilated that town. That was a young wizard who had convinced his leaders that with resources and access, he could develop a weapon to strike back at the invaders. A weapon which he never completed, because the forces he unleashed in the forging of it destroyed him, the town, and everything for five miles around.”
Her heart was sinking into her stomach, even while bile simmered up into her chest. She kept her eyes down on the grass. “What’s your fucking point, then? And how would you even know that?”
“His proposal is in the Akkadem. Along with the notes from those who approved it—who have a very strong motivation in keeping those rumours of Damean or barbarian involvement circulating.”
She looked back up to him, the anguish in her voice coming out strongest of all her confused emotions. “Is all of that what you think I’m after? People dying and everything ruined? I don’t want that, that’s not what I hope for, I...” she groaned, “it doesn’t have to be that way. People can learn, we can be better and smarter and safer, so don’t we deserve even just the chance?”
“The problem is, little thief, with the work I do, someone might easily create a crop blight which could starve a whole nation, or a poison alga which might destroy a river. They might warp weather patterns in ways that could impact the entire world for decades. All in the name of trying to help. To say nothing of what someone malicious do with it.” He sighed. “I work with very slow, but very sensitive systems. Someone simply grabbing a spell I’ve made and using it, for anything, could be catastrophic, on scales far greater than a lost town.”
It was a fight to keep her rage quiet, but she tried to consider it. It was dangerous work, of course it was dangerous. How could it be anything but? “Then why not make better, safer, smaller spells?” she asked, “Why not solve those catastrophes before they can happen? It’s only so dangerous because, you’ve never envisioned it being in anyone’s hands but your own. Isn’t it just as dangerous to create and work these spells, then, knowing it means ruin if anyone else does it?“
“The garden you see here is not the result of small spells. The small spells make things like the poison ivy you nearly stuck your hand in twice, or the vines which you so carelessly scorched on your entrance.” He shook his head. “To do what I do, which is to the benefit of the nation and, hopefully, to all of Ephaos, is to work in greater spheres. Everything I publish is tried, tested, made safe, with detailed instructions on their use. My notes, on the other hand, my drafts, my experiments, could be used to go in those very different, very catastrophic directions. I cannot make someone use my work safely, little thief, and so it is with any such work, but I can give them all the tools to make it as safe as possible.”
She shook her own head at him. “You’re irresponsible. You’re trying to take the weight of a country, the whole world on your back. That’s work for the gods, not for men—and certainly not just one man. Did the crown put you up to this, or are you just doing it of your own will? Putting all our lives in the balance for your little project? What happens if you make a mistake?“
He turned to face her, but his look was unreadable. “One of the advantages of working in slow, careful systems, is that I can see my mistakes and work against them. And I have—the garden is evidence of that. As for gods, well, it is a prerequisite of being a proper sorcerer—for that matter, for being human, in a lot of cases—to be at least a touch arrogant. The crown gives me the land. I deliver crops, favourable weather for trade, and research, in exchange, and I get to control how my work is used. My mistakes are my own to repair, and I have, when they’ve happened.”
He smiled faintly at her, which only worsened the pain in her gut. “Would you not love to see the fields of Keldia green and blooming again?”
“Of course I would,” she said pleadingly, “more than anything. I wish no one would go hungry, no droughts would blight the land. But asking for one man—no, not even asking. You can’t just... go and do all of this. Nobody knows, nobody’s given you permission. Nobody’s asked for the sky to be meddled with. How can you do all of this with all of the danger?“
“This is why my work is incremental. Careful. On a large scale, yes, but very small. You would be surprised what an extra tenth of an inch of rain can accomplish, a touch more of one sort of energy in the soil, a little change in the heat. And, little thief, if you think I am the first, or the only one, to do such things, then you are rather naïve, yourself.” He chuckled. “How often has a farmer sent a coin to the local hedge-wizard to bring the sun or the rain, to guarantee a crop?” He reached for her arm, but she took two hobbling steps away, pushing herself against the hedge for balance.
She crossed her arms, eyes flicking toward and away from his with each moment. “You’re the first for a scale this large, and the first for such a long time, and, I don’t care if you think you’re careful or not. Or for your trying and testing, your safeties and increments—you’re putting everyone at risk in the name of some madly hatched scheme.“
He shook his head again, taking a step toward her that made her edge away. “You need to know your histories better, little thief,” he said calmly, “I’m basing my work on the grand designs of Elurien mystics, of Takarae shaman, even of your own Keldian academics. The only thing I’m doing that’s unique to me, if it even is that, is that I’m doing it alone. I have the crown’s support, but no army of apprentices to work my will. I’m near certain, though, that my efforts are supervised by my colleagues.”
“You’re just a fool,” the words were hot on her lips, “I can’t believe I thought you were different.” The heat grew in her mind, in her body, but she couldn’t care. “You’re trying to make the whole world your little garden. But people aren’t like plants—people don’t want their livelihood, their dinner tables, their whole lives in the hands of one mad sorcerer. Have you been spending so much time in your fucking tower that you’ve forgotten there’s real people at stake? Not just numbers and ledgers, not just plants for you to toy with and know what’s best for, people.”
He was still infuriatingly calm. “People are the reason I do what I do. I’ve seen the desperate poverty of the reconstruction, or of some places in the north. I’ve seen the damage that war can do. I’ve seen the desperate, the hungry, the devastated. Families torn, refugees lost, homelands destroyed. If I can provide food, then I will; letting half-formed ideas and hastily scrawled incantations out in to the land will not help that end.”
He turned, not fully away from her, but to an angle, and looked up at the sky. “’There is no guidance from above, that is not found on earth in the heart of a friend.’ Words inscribed over the doors of the Great Temple in Elurye. I do what I do, and how I do it, for my friends, for people high and low that I’ve met on my travels. For Garrett, the man you nearly killed, for Henry, and yes, for the crown, and for Keldia, and even, perhaps, little thief, I do what I do for you.
“And,” he held up a hand and continued quickly over her objections, “you will argue that you didn’t ask for my help, and that’s true, but that’s not going to stop you from taking it. It’s not going to stop your refugee family or their neighbours from eating bread made from grain that I helped develop, and topping it with fruit harvested from trees that had a perfect growing season due to my meteorological work. And it’s for those people that I do this. This is my passion, thief, but a passion is no good without benefit to others.”
The only sound was her breathing, and a faint rustling in the night breeze. The fire inside her smoldered, turned to embers, and fizzled away. She stepped away from the hedge, and walked, achingly and awkwardly, in a random direction. Anywhere but here, anywhere but near him. She held her head low, as if it would hide her confusion, her uncertainty, her shaken convictions from him and from the world. She didn’t look back, but she could feel him watching her, even as she rounded a corner. The breeze gusted against her wet cheek, her entire body shivering and wracked with emotion and pain. He’s helped them, she uttered in her mind. But father would sooner starve than take the help of some Damean arcanist. If he knew, what then? And what about mother? Her stomach twisted even tighter. She kept walking, thoughts and body numb with ache and strain.
Motion in the leaves caught her eye for only a moment. One of those winding vines. She swallowed hard, reached her hand out to burn it... but she didn’t think she could bring herself to, even if she had the strength. She stumbled around another corner, barely catching herself from falling on a branch. She sank down to the grass anyway. The vine slithered to eye-level and waited, pointed over her left shoulder, quivering. It began to lower inch by inch toward the hand clutching the branch. “What do you want...?” she murmured, and shuddered at the pitiful sound of herself, too near to a choked sob on her breath. A fool couldn’t dream up talk like that. You can only ever think the worst of a good man.
The little vine hesitated, then nudged at her fist, until she released her grip and brought out her open, silver-lit palm. The plant pushed against the center of her hand and rubbed back and forth slowly, before snaking around her wrist gently, with no restriction. Her heart pounded in her ears, louder than thoughts. Stopping him would leave the world worse. Why can’t I just be happy that it’s better? ... because he’s still just one man.
The vine kept wrapping up her arm, threading loop after loop around her, stopping near her as the tip slid up to eye level again. It moved slowly toward her cheek, as she watched from the corner of her eye. No one should be able to do so much alone. The vine touched her face, and brushed away a tear. It nuzzled against her cheek, as much as a vine could nuzzle anything, anyway.
A shuddered breath, another tear rolling down, leaning her head into the faintest, gentlest touch. “Oh, gods...” The vine brushed the tear aside, and wound itself around her shoulders, squeezing lightly. “... thank you,” she whispered, smiling for a moment in spite of herself with her face still wet. Maybe someone should’ve stopped him... but maybe they shouldn’t have. But it’s in motion now, she thought. It’s in motion, and... I don’t have the strength, or the devotion, or the cruelty enough to stop it.
The vine rubbed up and down her shoulders, squeezing her as much as it could, while the breeze turned to a chill wind. She shivered, with no fire present inside to soothe her bones or forestall the chill. She huddled up against her legs, backing against the hedge, pressing her face to her knees and sobbing quietly. Everything ached. Everything hurt. The wind coaxed up gooseflesh, the vine tried to rub warmth into her bones.
Am I weak for that? she asked herself, and she didn’t know the answer. The vine came closer, a touch tighter, wrapping around her neckline twice and down both arms, encircling her loosely, perhaps trying in a futile attempt to keep the wind at bay. The choked feeling in her chest started to loosen, but tears still trickle. It’s so late. Too late for thought. She wanted to be warm, around the hearth with friends. Or back in the warm, thick embrace of the mountain. Or even in her room, inside the tower. Or beneath the thin sheets of a simple bed, hearing the sounds of mother’s needles and thread. She shuddered, hugged herself closer, losing the battle to keep her eyes open.
And, after a time she couldn’t keep track of, there was a rush of warmth and a stronger wave of sleepiness that passed through her. Strong arms lifted her body, careful hands cradled her. She felt herself moving, but she didn’t open her eyes, only curled up in the arms and hands, coming close to the warm chest and shivering still. “Where are we going...?”
“Back,” he said simply. “You’ve had your exercise, now it’s time to sleep.” The words seemed more resonant, more powerful. Her body sagged in his arms.
“Okay,” she whispered, even more limp than before, “I’m sorry.”
“Shh, it’s all right,” he murmured. “Just rest now. Talk in the morning.”
“I’m a fool,” she said and sniffled, “I’m a mean fool.”
“Not now, little thief. Right now, you are sleepy. Very sleepy.”
Sleep. Warmth flared inside her again. “... I’m sleepy,” she nodded, even quieter.
Lips pressed against her forehead. “Then sleep now.” A faint smile flickered on her face, and then it was gone with the rest of her mind into blackness.