And it will probably take more healing still, before the benefits of this choice can be reaped.
The arcanist allowed himself a small smile, even as a long, aching moan drew itself out of the little thief in her bed. She had slept just as deeply as one would expect, when one’s evening consisted so fully of mental raveling and unwinding. Of course, he’d had scarcely any rest of his own, and was nursing a small headache. But it was nothing, he was sure, in comparison to hers. He was in his chair, holding his tea, wearing his robes and a smug look. “Good morning,” he said in an unmodulated voice, watching her fingers caress her temples. “How are you doing?”
As weak as the spellthief had looked, something seemed to deflate even further. He heard a muttered curse, and she spoke, though she didn’t open her eyes. “Like some demon spent the night graving enchantments on my skull,” she rasped.
He stood, making a sound in so doing, and moved towards the table. “Would you like some tea,” he asked, not being quiet in any sense of the word. Not being deliberately loud, of course, but certainly not whispering.
“No, gods damn you,” she hissed, and stifled a moan at the pain of the words rumbling in her head. “I want fucking quiet.”
The arcanist just smiled, and poured a cup of tea from some distance in the air, making more than a minimum amount of noise. “I think you might like some tea,” he said, clinking the cup onto a saucer.
“Fuck you,” she groaned, before smothering herself with a pillow. Heavy breathing, sensitivity to sound, and light. Irritation. One hell of a hangover.
“This will help,” he said, the first notes of compassion creeping into his voice. He couldn’t help it. As much as he enjoyed toying, he hated to see her in such a state. “Truly.” His body brushed against hers, sitting on the edge of the bed.
“What,” a grunt sounded, almost like half a chuckle through the silk and feathers, “no offer of some lovely mind magic that fixes this?”
“If you want,” he began to say, and began to let power brim up in the air around him. But this mental intrusion made her groan, anguished, and he made the energy dissolve. “I only mean to help, little thief.” He put his hand on her bare knee, “It will help.” Finally, the thief relented, slowly pulling the pillow off her face and cradling it behind her head. She took even longer to open her eyes, and winced several times in the process of it. The arcanist chuckled, holding out the saucer. “A bit of excitement last night, was it?”
She blinked at him, meekly. “... uhh...” She sort of nodded, sort of stared, until she reached and took the teacup from him. “It... was?”
He nodded. “Tell me, little thief. Do you remember discussing my travels?”
“... a little,” she admitted sheepishly, forcing a gulp of tea down at his suggestion. “Something about a... triangle thing, and... was there wine?” Her free hand went to her temples, wincing again.
The arcanist was already up and pacing. “There was wine,” he said, “and you... indulged.” It wasn’t exactly a lie. “And I have come up with a reason for your being able to work with my foci.“
This got a reaction—she sat up straight and nearly spilled her tea. “You did?” A pause. “Wait, your foci? Not just the big one?”
“Do you not recall the staff?” He waved toward the corner of the room, where the object in question was leaning against the wall, undisturbed. “Goodness, I thought you more able to hold your liquor.”
She blushed, faintly, and had more of a sip. Clearly embarrassed, from the tone of her low voice, “I thought that we were going to use it in the morning, not overnight...”
His head shook. “You insisted, little thief. And how could I refuse?” A grin flashing her way, and one mirroring back from her, even if it was smaller.
“I can be persuasive.”
“You can be very persuasive, it’s true.” The arcanist paused, looking her up and down a moment. Watching her grow expectant. “It’s all because of your cat.“
Her brow quirked down. “Missy?” Naturally, of course, at her call the cat jumped up through the bed and sat at her side, and the spellthief stroked her fur absentmindedly. “Seriously?”
The arcanist nodded, and turned away. “Do you recall, little thief, when we first met, that I could quite easily hold and pet your familiar?”
“Yeah,” she said from behind him, chuckling, “it pissed me off, if I recall correctly. You were smug about it.”
“That was no spell of mine. Nor, I think, of yours, unless you’ve been playing me for a fool for some time.”
She herded the cat onto her stomach in a protective motion. “I’m not sure what you’re getting at...”
“Missy found a whole tower full of interesting people to be affectionate with, insects and rats to chase, and, of course, a well of power deeper than anything she’s ever experienced.” The arcanist reached out, and quite easily stroked the cat’s cheek. “She did this, and since she’s connected to you...”
“... that doesn’t make any sense. She’s... she’s a cat. Not some crazy magical conduit... right?” Noisily, the spellthief downed the tea and set it aside.
“She’s a familiar, little thief,” he said, with a second stroke of the cheek that concluded with a not-entirely-accidental brush against the spellthief’s breast. “She’s a magical being, first and foremost. She has the shape and temperament of a cat, but that’s not all she is.“
He saw a suppressed shiver, smirked at it, and then she spoke, “But familiars don’t do that. They’re personal. She comes out of my focus, out of me, not out of you or yours.”
“Yes, and that’s why you can access my power. But she made this decision. Your focus is in the tower, so she’s here. And it would seem that she’s learned a new skill, while we’re at it.” He didn’t even try to disguise the touch, this time.
Her eyes flicked between his face and his hand. “So it’s because our foci are... together? Inside each other? And Missy,” she tickled around the scruff of Missy’s neck, “she’s not just making a jump between them, but between... us?”
“It was initially because of that, I think. But last night, you drew on my staff. And it was for only a mere moment, but Missy was there, as well. Toying with it. And, so...” He shrugged. Cats. “I think, if she is so motivated, that she could do this with any focus.”
The spellthief blinked up at him. “... huh.” Missy seemed blissfully oblivious to it all, just purring in her owner’s lap and being, generally, a cat. “She’s that special?”
“I think so,” the arcanist smiled. “How’s your head?”
Another blink, and another pause. “Huh. Better.” She turned to the cup at her side, looking confused that it was already empty. “What was in that?”
“A few choice herbs, initially imported from a few choice places, regrown here and refined for strength.” He sat again on the edge of the bed. “Best hangover cure I’ve ever bred.”
“Well shit,” she laughed, “if I was a real thief, I’d be taking this stuff instead of books.” Yet another pause, more thoughtful this time, and her sight came back to his. “... thank you.”
He reached out and put his hand to her cheek, thrumming with a contained spell that he could finally release into her, one that might subtly change her answer. As obvious as it was weak. “And have I convinced you to see the world through my eyes, yet?”
“Y-yehhnno!” She fought the reflex off successfully with a shake of the head. “Don’t touch me like that,” she murmured with her cheek turned away, though not far enough away to hide her embarrassment. Instead, his hand came to rest easily on her shoulder.
“Then I believe you’ve won our little wager.”
He saw in her eyes doubt, confusion, distrust... “You’ve... given up that easy?” She chuckled, but it was weak, mirthless.
A gesture, barely, grazing against her skin. He watched her blinking, and he grinned. “Then I believe you’ve won our little wager.”
The hesitation was still the same. “... you don’t sound too disappointed about it.”
“You have—well, Missy has—shown me a completely new consideration in magic. I may lose a few books, but with this knowledge, there’s much work I can do.”
“I’ll have you know, I worked plenty hard in showing you that stuff. Nearly died.” Again, what should have been humorous sounded hollow.
“Nearly burned down my tower,” he agreed. “But what’s wrong, little thief?”
She put a smile to her lips and kept her stare away from his. “Nothing’s wrong. I’m gonna get what I came for and I’ll shove it in your face.”
The arcanist’s hand reached under her chin and tilted it upward, to look him in the eye. Power held her gaze, his eyes glimmering. “Speak,” he said gently.
“I...” She started, staring, searching, “can’t help but feel like it’s not much of a victory, that’s all...”
“Speak.” A kind urging in his voice and his smile.
“Well, there’s... I did almost ruin your home, and I hurt Garrett and Henry, and I hurt myself, and...” her voice grew smaller, the longer she trailed off. “My jobs are supposed to be simpler than this.”
“For every complex problem is a solution that is simple, direct, and wrong,” he replied, hands gently rubbing her shoulders as the spell melted away. Gooseflesh prickled beneath his touch.
“I don’t want to be the simple solution. It’s not so easy, I can see that now.”
“You, dear thief, are anything but simple.” Imperceptibly, perhaps unconsciously, he inched closer.
“I’m happy you think that. You’re not so simple either, you know.”
“That almost sounded like something other than an insult,” the arcanist said, taking her hand in his. “I have only a short time left before I’m to turn you loose. What do you suggest we do with it?“
He felt her fingers squeezing against his own, and he swallowed, dry of mouth. “You could always let me out early,” she said.
“Oh, no, I’m not letting you away a moment before I have to. I would gladly keep you longer, were I a more dishonorable man.”
“If that’s the alternative, I think I’ll settle for taking my leave in the morning.” She paused. “It’s morning now, isn’t it?”
“It is,” he said, still holding her hand. Still very close. “I will gladly keep you another night.”
“I’ll gladly be kept, I suppose,” she said shyly.
“Will you, truly?” Leaning closer to her. A small flurry of activity nearly broke the moment, as a cat-shaped familiar darted beneath the bed. She giggled, and blushed a shade deeper.
“You are a model host,” she winked.
“You are... less than a model prisoner, I must admit.” Barely a space between their eyes to breathe.
“I’m starting to think you like that about me.” Words warm against his cheek.
“There is much about you to like.”
“The feel of your hand in mine,” he began. “The look of you. Your energy, your attitude. Your strength. I could continue.”
“Unless you’d like to see my cheeks burst into flame, I don’t think you should.” She laughed, but there was something rising beneath it, along with the fire in her eyes.
His free hand touched one of those cheeks. “You would still be beautiful.”
“And when the whole bed was on fire, with me in it?”
“Radiant,” he replied breathlessly, tightness in his chest and constriction in his throat.
“In the literal and figurative, I presume. Want me to do it again?”
“I want you to do any number of things,” he answered, hand on her cheek drifting downward to rest on her breast. “What would you want me to do?”
Her chest rose beneath him, swelling with air and unspoken thoughts, the wily look in her eye. “Any number of things,” she answered, automatically.
Again, the power in his eyes gained a vessel to pour into, as he held that look with his. “Speak,” he said, massaging her breast.
“T-to do what you’re doing now, at the least,” she stammered out quickly, eyes bound in place to the golden light in his.
“And if I wanted to control you further?” he asked, heat in his voice.
She nearly choked. “I-I meant your hand...”
He continued to massage. Continued to keep her stare. “But if I wanted to?”
Swallowing down. “... well I doubt that I could resist you...”
“Would you want to?” Power, trickling from his fingers into her chest below. Sparks of pleasure and delight, making her breathe a sigh.
“Would depend on the magic,” she muttered.
“If I made you helpless before me, inviting, even encouraging?”
Chewing her tongue before a response. “I imagine I could be that way of my own will.”
He let the energy roam freely, not yet giving it a spell to take her with. “But would you prefer to be enchanted?”
“I’ve... never had the pleasure of being so bewitched.”
The arcanist had to chuckle. “Shall we try?”
With hesitation, and with evident difficulty, she pulled his hand off her breast. “Perhaps later,” she said as her head inched away.
And just as quickly, he leaned in and planted a single, gentle, chaste kiss on her lips. “Perhaps later,” he whispered, maintaining the closeness. “There may be one or two things to be done, in the meantime.”
Her cheeks were redder than he’d yet seen, and her neck whipped down and away to hide the astonishment, embarrassment, and enjoyment he’d already seen. “P-perhaps,” she echoed. A deep breath, and she drew herself up straight in some attempt to save face, folding her hands and looking ahead in defiance of the redness. “We should get to work.”
With a shake of his head, and a touch of his fingers, and a flare of power whispered before her mind, her eyes grew distant. He leaned in, to speak his spell into the deepest parts of her thought. “You will not remember this very moment, but you will remember everything leading to it. And what led to it, well, that will occupy your thoughts as we move through the day.” He took a long look at her fixed, blank expression, before releasing his spell and leaning back. “If that’s what you’d like,” he said in a normal tone.
It took a few more moments for the haze over her to clear, moments he greatly relished in. “Yes,” she said after it was done, “I mean, it’s the right thing to do. I’ve wrecked your peace and quiet for a week, helping you learn something is the least I can do.” She crossed her arms and rolled out of bed with him. The two shared a smile.
“I’m going to let you have the power, are you ready?” he asked her, and she nodded. Just a trickle would do, at first. It would be beneficial to see how she grew accustomed to it. He led her over to the table for breakfast as they talked, and the trickle widened into a stream. They dined on meats and eggs, and the stream widened into a river. They talked on dreams and magical sensations, while she wandered the room looking for the source of the flow, and the river widened into the whole ocean. Her finger shot out, triumphantly, to a point above her head.
“There?” she asked.
“You’re thinking too physically, little thief,” he waved his hand and banished the phantom flow.
“I don’t get it,” the spellthief whined, “first it’s here, then it’s there, now it’s, this,” she waved her hands around her body. “It’s too big. What’s the point of this, anyway?”
“Well, to teach you a lesson about how structured power works, I suppose,” he shrugged, “but much more importantly, to distract you so you don’t realize that you’ve got the full measure of my pattern at your disposal,” he said, smiling as her jaw slowly yawned open.
She glanced to her feet. She put a hand on her head, twisted the other in the air as if sampling the waters. “Strange, it doesn’t feel so bad now.”
“Now that you’re not fighting it,” the arcanist added. “It’s no more or less constant than before.“
“It was a pain in the ass before.” She snorted and sat back down in her seat, putting aside what was left of the plate she’d demolished. “And it’s still strange. Not so strange that I feel I’ll collapse, but enough that I might get nauseous.”
“Well, don’t pull at it!” He pointed a finger at her, laughing. “Let it guide you to do what you want it to, how it wants to do it. You only need to think about the end result, not the way it gets there. Also, you mean nauseated,” he made a show of looking her up and down with a smirk, “I definitely can’t imagine you being nauseous.“
She sneered a look of her own his way, which showed she knew how much of an obnoxious ass he was being. “Well,” clearing her throat, “now that I’ve got all this, what am I going to do with it?”
“That is, I suppose, up to you. But you’re still deeply tied to the source, which means I can control you just as well as I control it.” The arcanist was sitting back, smiling, watching the scene unfold. She was looking at him with some confusion, naturally, and was just as naturally unaware of the movement of her hands. At least, until they settled on her chest, lifting her breasts to press them closer together.
“H-hey,” she started, and he could feel her attempting to look down, even though she’d lost the ability. Her face reddening, her fingers began to tease her nipples. “Would you—” The protestation stopped before it could begin, as her face fixed itself into a sultry smile, hands shaking and squeezing, hips gyrating in the seat, until he allowed her lips to open again.
“Fine, I get it, you’ve had your fun,” she muttered, though it sounded more like a purr through the seductive expression. A wave of his hand, and her body was her own again, though she did take a long moment before dropping her hands.
“I would be very curious to know if, with a less potent source, you would be so vulnerable. You’re basically living in the middle of the beating heart of a magical pattern, at the moment.”
“I’d like to have that information as well, though I imagine for different reasons...” Her eyes still were drawn to his, even with the redness climbing her throat.
“You seem to be flushing a fair bit this morning, are you well?”
“Fine,” she said quickly, eyes darting away.
And then blinking, with a wave of his hand.
“You seem to be flushing a fair bit this morning, are you well?”
Her eyes fixed back on his. She swallowed before answering, “I’m... just overwarm, maybe.”
“I could cool you off some,” he said, and to demonstrate the point, with a whispered word an arctic breeze blew in her direction, fluttering through her hair, twisting around the peaks of her nipples, bringing hairs to rise everywhere as she shivered.
But she didn’t just sit and stomach it, she had the the power at her own disposal. Asserting herself with a deep, chilly breath, he felt her pushing back against him, making a clumsy wall out of the wind itself, deflecting it off in two directions.
“Impressive,” he chuckled and stood. “And if I...” He made a ponderous movement, creating his own barriers of air on either side of her, making the chill rebound against her sensitive sides. Though the iciness was no longer as strong; that wasn’t the point of the conflict.
“Well, then, I can just...” She was reaching, her face scrunched up. “Can’t be in two places at once, so, maybe...” Her wrist lifted in the air with the rest of her body, arcing the original wall back to shield herself. A shield he cut through again, easily, with a battering gust.
“We could be at this all day, you simply moving further and further back,” he reminded.
“Or you could admit your loss,” she smirked, and to his surprise he began to feel the chill—she’d curved the wind into a concave shape, making it fill the space between them like a bowl before being shot at his front. And she’d made it colder, too.
He grinned into it, muttering a few choice words... and when the spellthief’s eyes were open again, she’d been placed in the path of her own trap, with the arcanist smirking, now, from the room’s corner.
Confusion and convolution were mixed on her face, only making him smile wider. “You’re cheating,” she scowled, wiping the wind away with a sharp swipe from her arm and stomping his way.
“You think the one you came to steal from would play fairly?” Pointing to the ground at her feet, the arcanist watched as she became more aware of the resistance in the floor, her feet moving through it like thick mud. Not that there was any mud, she simply believed that she was slowed.
But this didn’t last; she smoothed her hair back, licked her lips before, faster than thought, lightness sprang into her body with the rush of magic, and he saw her dart over the bed, bounding in one leap behind him, putting the chill wind against his bones.
“Now you’re getting it.” He chuckled, nullifying the cold with a simple shielding spell and spinning on his heel. “Should I stop holding back?”
Strangely, though, his eyes were drawn to a small movement of her fingers, a circle traced around her nipple, and then she was gone. He glanced around, not at his side or behind him. But her giggling sounded from all around.
“Enjoying your newfound resource?” he asked, and felt for the flow... before grasping out with his hand and grabbing her shoulder where she stood, dispelling the enchantment through touch alone.
“Should I not be?” Her hand moved, tapped him on the shoulder with a touch that made his nerves first tingle, then tickle, and then go completely numb. His arm was unusable in seconds, and she easily slid out of his paralyzed grip as the sensation spread toward his chest. “I thought fun was the point.”
“It can be,” he said, matching her grin. His good hand swept forward, delivering a brush across her ribs, enchanted, sending a wave of energy through her body that hit every nerve at once, like a thousand little fingers tickling the most ticklish parts of her being.
She reeled back, fighting the laughter, “Ah, aha, ah, fuck,” stumbled into the bed, taking deep breaths to try and ward the spell away. The arcanist took a breath, too, and breathed out a heavy mist of blue-tinted air, surrounding her body, filling the room, seeping into her mind. Chasing the thoughts of a spell away from her fingertips, scattering her focus in all directions to the nerves still writhing beneath his spell. But she managed to recover, and through the fog he saw a flash of healing, and bright clarity shining out of her eyes toward his.
The arcanist smiled. He held her gaze, magically, and twisted the clarity into still more stimulation. Her senses became more than just clear, hyper-aware, thoughts bouncing between the muscles in her body, the smells and tastes of the food across the room, the sight of his torso steadily locking up, footsteps on the floor, a muttered word on his breath... It took no small amount of energy for him to fight through the shared experience of sense. But he stared her down further, meeting power with power. The paralyzing was working to his advantage. He had no need to focus on muscles or strength; the ground would hold itself, he only needed to overpower her energy.
A deep breath, felt across his skin even from such a distance, and a broad tide crashed out from her, dissipating the mist, leaving only their locked eyes, wills pressing against each other. His filled the space between them, slipping through the onslaught like water through a cracked wall, insisting on itself. There was nothing in that will, not yet, only a playful push to win a friendly match.
One she fought tooth and nail to resist. Building up walls from the magic, only for him to slip above. Building them higher, only for him to come around. Wider, only for him to seep through the inside. He pressed, and pressed further, but then, to his shock, he felt a press against his back, a physical shove, and he fell on top of her, concentration shattered.
She caught his arms, to his confused delight, and managed to haul him up onto the bed before he fell any further. Testing his muscles, he couldn’t move an inch. Couldn’t even feel an inch of himself. But he could see just fine, and his body was clearly pressed up against a beautiful young thief’s in a burnt-up bed.
Her face was dripping with sweat, breath panting in and out of her lungs, eyes grinning into his. He could only watch, expectantly and curiously. With a thought she could free him... but she hadn’t yet.
She at least seemed to notice this, while her eyes wandered off his face and onto his shoulders. He was aware of movement, the sound of her legs on the sheets and against his robe. They were spread around him. But before he could think about speaking into her mind or casting a spell, the tingling everywhere rose to a tipping point, and he felt himself released with an involuntary gasp.
The spellthief crawled out from beneath him, up to the head of the bed, still grinning and sweating, and very much blushing. “Was that holding back?”
He chuckled, once he’d gotten his body back completely. “It was, little thief. But not by much. You’ve studied well. If you ever consider a career in arcane artistry, I could make an opening for an apprentice.” This earned him only noisy laughter.
“No, thanks. I work alone. And for another, I’m not easily taught nor do I want to be taught. And another, as you well know, I’m impossibly set in my ways and find my current profession to be, well, the best.” Her tongue clicked. “Oh, and you’d be a horrible teacher.“
“All true.” He grinned at her. “I could put you in the garden to lure passers-by,” he said with a downward glance. “You would be very difficult to resist.”
“Gods help me, you are a lech.” The spellthief got up and paced away, dropping into the arcanist’s usual chair, but smiling still at him.
“Should I not be, with such a prize in my possession?” Standing up, brushing himself off, “Smart, fast, strong, fun and feisty, astonishingly beautiful... can you really blame me?”
Her eyes rolled. “If you’re expecting flattery, you should know those chances sink ever deeper, the more you call me a possession.”
“Temporary, I assure you. We do have a deal.”
“I’m not a temporary possession either,” she scoffed. “I’m a prisoner, yes, but I do have some standards.“
A smile crept unconsciously to his face. “Such as?”
“Such as not taking any shit from a man like you, when you talk like so.”
“And how should I talk? What should I say, little thief?” He took a few steps her way.
“Something less crass. Try poetic, even.” She shifted in his seat, and her legs dangled over the chair’s arm. “A tavern drunk calls the barmaid his prize and his possession. You don’t look drunk, or in a tavern. And I’m no barmaid.”
“Poetry is for poets, trying to impress. Should I be trying to impress you, now?” He stopped, two steps’ distance away. His voice grew soft, “And why, little thief, would you like me to be impressive?”
A shrug couldn’t hide her shyness. “People tend to kiss the ones they’re impressed with. I should think you might like that, and might take some steps to achieve it.”
He managed to hold his expression steady, but could very well feel his color rising too. “Oh, I would definitely do so. If I thought, for one moment, that you would be interested in receiving such affections. I would be hard-pressed to think of a lovelier woman I’ve kissed, or, for that matter, laid eyes on.”
“I would have thought that some of my... previous conducts might have engendered such an impression.”
The arcanist laughed quietly. “Never has a woman with the grace of the willow set fire to so much of my home and expected me to see that as sexual interest.”
She laughed with him, the noise sounding wonderful in his ears. “I didn’t intend any of that. But I have intended other things.”
“And you’ve also discussed how much you’d like me hanged from the highest tree in the forest. Which, if I’m being poetic, would be nearly worth a night of your kindest affections.”
“If only I had two nights remaining, then perhaps I’d take you up on that.” She stood, stepped up, and playfully shoved him before returning to her own chair.
Utterly destroying the mood in the process. He fought down a lashing remark.
“We’ve got work, don’t we?” she asked.
“I have much to digest and consider, and a lot of research to do.” It was a challenge now to keep his calm. “Do you have anything you would like?”
She sighed, aloof. “Anything besides watching you read and write. And I’m not going to write for you.”
Fine, he muttered inwardly. “You could spend some time in the library,” he offered aloud, “you have to select your ill-gotten gains, after all.“
“What, go all the way there and leave you alone?” The spellthief looked skeptical. “Too much work, besides. Let’s say that you were me, what then of your collection would you take?”
His lips pursed. “Well, nothing, since I know the value of the collection, the usefulness of academic text to the general population, and the potential danger of anything that is useful to the people at large.”
“... if you were me,” she repeated, “and if you lacked all of that apparently very important knowledge.“
“I’m not you, little thief. I’m not half so pretty, I’m a good,” he squinted, “eight inches taller than you, I haven’t your natural talent nor your ability to steal another’s power. Perhaps I could know better if you told me more about this organization you belong to...”
“No.” She cut him off with a motion of her hand, even though he was clearly teasing. “I suppose I’ll have to go myself, if you’ve deemed it so necessary to try and thwart my efforts with your own.”
“Thwart your efforts?” His hand went to his chest, and at least some of the disbelief was earnest in his tone. “There’s no thwarting going on. At most, I’m curious if you can even find enough useful books to fill that net of yours.”
“Anything has use, if it’s not your dry botany journals.” She was stretching lazily in her seat, while he tapped his foot.
“I could direct you to the most obscure corners, to find the oddest pieces in the collection,” he offered. “Nearly useless for everyone.”
Hopping up, she gave him a glare. “That would be so useful, in showing me which of them to completely avoid. But a waste of time given the effort.“
A breath left his lips, he felt the heat in his face, and he glared back. “Well, then, little thief, what would you have me do? I have offered poetry, as you asked. I give you the run of my library, you do not want it, despite this being the entirety of your goal. You think that I was born yesterday, that I’m some child, some corner grocer to be your next mark?” The distance between them closed. “It will be a very, very cold day in Doloc before I let you play me, little thief.” An ‘again’ very nearly slipped in there, covered swiftly, at least, with a breath. But the anger wasn’t directed entirely outward.
“Play you?” she scoffed, affronted. “How am I supposed to be playing you? You’re the one who locked me in here.” She stepped back, and he stepped closer. “You’re the one that’s playing. You kiss me, you rage at me, you wax and you wane like the moon in the sky. How is this my doing?“
Ignoring her, he kept pushing. “I’m not some... some lovesick farmer’s child to be led by the hand, no matter the prize, and you... you’re better than that. You needn’t toy like some concubine from the south, working games within games. I thought we had reached an understanding. Your whole mood, your condition... but no. Just another ploy. What more do you want? You’ve won the gamble, you can take from the library without penalty!”
“What are you even—” Her head shook firmly, and her expression was defiant as ever. The inflexible, inhospitable rebel coming out to play again. Showing her true colors. “This is ridiculous. You offered the books to me, yes, and I’m going to take them, why would I ever...” She was losing speed, though. The words should’ve had fire, but they sounded like dribble falling off her lips. Transparent. Empty. Meaningless babble.
She was blinking at him, puzzled. He was still fuming, and couldn’t yet stop. “Look at you!” he shouted. “You should see yourself, even now, you’re...” Struggling for the word made him feel more incompetent still, as her gaze bristled with fear. “You’re playing me even still, little thief, you are not innocent in this. You’re better than this.“
She looked stunned, though. And not just at him, at herself. Her body quivering as if revulsed from the inside out. “... playing you,” she mouthed, “I-I can’t believe... I never meant to, to do... I didn’t know that I was... playing you,” she swallowed, still backing away from him. “It was just, happening, and... oh, gods, I am doing it, aren’t I,” she looked to him, “y-you think I’m doing it now, don’t you?”
“Another one of your games, thief?” The fury was still there, the heat in his body, in his voice and his mind. But it was like a sharp point, cutting against a grain that made it keep slipping away. “You expect me to believe this act, too? Playing innocent when you’ve been caught?“
His words quavered. “Well?” He looked at her. Took in the sight.
She’d backed—she’d been backed—all the way into the corner, walls on either side of her, small and trembling before him. She looked confused, and worried. Not a cornered predator, but prey.
“I’m sorry,” she said, words tumbling out, “I thought I was... b-because I didn’t know how to, do, this, and, I wasn’t thinking or I didn’t want to think and... oh, fuck it.”
Something came over her; he saw it in the set of her shoulders and the look in her eye. Her expression warped, only for a moment—
and in that moment, she closed the miniscule gap between their bodies, her hands cold and clammy against his hot neck, her chest pushed against him, her lips pressing against his—
and the moment broke just as quickly, she was in the corner, he was standing over her, and the only trace was her taste on his tongue, and the memory flashing again and again in his head. And something had changed in her posture. She wasn’t cowering, she was tall as she could be. Fists clenched. Even a hint of pride in her stare and fixed lips.
Surprise, confusion, even anger contorted on his expression. He blinked. And again. Stunned. His mouth opened to speak, then shut.
There was no deception in that kiss. No concealed malice. There was... fear, though. Not the fear of a captive, looking only to win the favor of her captor, but the fear of openness, of vulnerability, the fear of allowing the first cracks of daylight in against the shadowed emotions. The fear that... he, too, felt himself guarding against. He looked at her, naked, tall and proud and intent, but not, not now, not angry, not defended, and for all his words and his strength and his force of will he was the one feeling vulnerable.
Or—no, he was vulnerable. But he was not the only one.
He met her eyes, a word coming finally. “Explain.” It was not a demand, despite the phrasing, but a request, a scholar’s need for information.
“I’ve fucked up,” she said, and her eyes went to the side. Less guilt, less weakness, but the timidness and shared fear was even stronger. “I.. well, you said it, I suppose,” a grin flickering, “I’ve played you, and, at the beginning I meant to. Because that’s what you do. That’s what the rules are. You infiltrate, you impose yourself, you ingratiate yourself, and you...” She sighed and looked back on him.
“You do all those things and then you get what you want. And I... I do those things, just automatically, just like that. And I was doing that because that’s what I do, but I never just stopped to think, since... since, I... I need to think about it, now. But that,” she motioned between the two of them, “that’s something that’s... well, maybe not a promise, but, s-something close, anyway.”
He felt the corners of his mouth threatening to break the confusion, as they took a genuine smile. “I do believe, little thief, that that is as near an apology as I deserve.” He chuckled dryly, a dark assessment of his own state of guilt. “You are better than that, as I said, and I stand by those words. I think, perhaps, this is something of a deeply uncharted space for us both, yes?” Without waiting for an answer, he continued. “I believe we—we both—have business in the library. You need to let me know what you want to steal, after all.
“And,” he added, already on his way to the door, “I will not hold you to that promise, if you do not wish it.”
But if you want me to... The words hung unspoken, but very, very real, as he held open the door, and as she passed through it. She breathed deep of the hallway’s fresher air, something more of a smile coming onto her lips with it. Something changed in her again, he saw, and in the passage’s dim light he caught a few furtive glances being shot in his direction, quickly looking away as soon as his gaze would note them. Like a skittish little thing from the academy.
The intensity was different now, thicker, even with the fresh breeze clearing away the weight. It wouldn’t clear away the heat. And neither would her shy voice squeaking, “L-lead the way?”
The arcanist shook his head. “We walk this path together.” He walked alongside her, guiding, yes—It’s still my home, after all—but matching her step for step toward the library. “And the closer, I think, the better it can be for us both.“
“Right,” she nodded firmly, and looked straight on ahead. Then she laughed. “I don’t know what in the hells I’m doing. Just so you know.” He felt a playful elbow bash against his side.
“And that,” he said, opening the library door, “is why you have a guide.” With a thought the lights flared up to a brightness suitable for reading, and he ushered her into the wide room with a smile. “But I don’t know where to lead, if you won’t tell me what you’re after.”
He watched as she stalked forward, perhaps imagining a certain bounce to her hips, perhaps seeing it, before she turned and sat against one of the long tables. The crunch of paper made him wince. “I thought that was obvious, what with all the kissing going on.”
An eyebrow rose. “What you’re after in the library,” he clarified with a short laugh. “And I’m pretty sure you’re not ready to make good on that almost-promise; until you are, it’s... let’s say unwise to suggest otherwise. Dangerous for us both.” Surprising himself, his tone and expression stayed light, even with the weight of the words.
“R-right,” she blushed, again, and turned her whole body aside. Deep breath, in and out. “Well, the fundamental texts are easier for us to distribute, to teach with, but at the same time, we have to gather up the more advanced books to build towards, which is just, ugh.” She looked at him for some sign of sympathy, but he just grinned. “It’s the most tedious part of the job,” she explained to him. “And I don’t normally have such good lighting, such ample time, and such wide choice.”
“I carry very little of the basics,” he said, thinking and pacing. “There,” one finger pointed to a shelf near the corner, “you’ll find some interesting discussions on the theoretical approaches to magic from all nations across the continent, it’s the five-volume collection over on that shelf. It’s about the only good method I own that might help beginners. Most of what I’ve learned for starting was rather hands-on.”
“Is that Righton’s?” Her face glowed with a light that he recognized—one quite similar to the impression he’d received from past glimpses into the mirror. She ran, while he was distracted by the thought, and loaded the whole stack of five into her arms with a heave. “It is,” she smiled at her paydirt, “we’ve only ever found two and four, I almost bought one of them myself last month, but the guy was...” Whatever derisive curse was on her lips was, then, drowned out by the heavy thump of books against wood.
“Righton’s, yes, annotated,” the arcanist added with a small swelling of pride, “by Maethis. Edited by the same, I think. Righton himself couldn’t figure plain language for half of what he wanted to say, and while I appreciate the academic slant, Maethis makes it somewhat bearable when trying to explain to a non-scholar. I’ve kept it around on the off-chance that some day I’m offered a fresh student.”
Something clicked in the spellthief’s head. “Wait a moment, you’re an arcanist,” she said, placing her palms on top of the stack.
“I am. Have you just now realized this?” he laughed.
“No, I—that’s not what I meant,” she groaned, “you’re an arcanist, shouldn’t you have a student already?”
He shrugged simply. “I suppose. It is fairly common for us to take our apprentices from the universities.”
“So, do you?”
“Do I...?” he intoned.
“Do you have an apprentice?“
“Why,” he chuckled, “are you eager to fill the position?”
“No,” she spat. “Just tell me.”
The arcanist sighed. “Yes. I do.”
“Then, please, tell me how I’ve seen neither head nor foot of them in my entire stay?“
His face lit with a grin. “Oh, but you have.”
Her lips pursed. “No, I’m fairly certain that I would have noticed that.”
The arcanist was fighting down further laughter. “No, little thief, I am quite certain that you two became acquainted. Very closely acquainted.“
“Cut this out and get to your point already,” she sighed from around a palm, pressed to her face.
He cleared his throat. “You met her, in the garden.”
The spellthief blinked. “In the garden? But I didn’t meet... No,” she said.
“Yes,” the arcanist said.
“You aren’t telling me that—”
“Melody is my apprentice,” he said, nodding and finishing for her.
Her jaw hung loose, until she could form a coherent thought. “But that’s impossible—she’s not...”
“Human?” He smiled at her confused expression. “She very much is. Melody has been assisting me with certain magical experiments, now that her term as my apprentice is nearing an end. Practical, hands-on experience with new works of spellcraft.”
“So, her legs, they were...”
“Enchanted, in various ways. None of which I can describe in complete detail to you, of course,” he winked, “but suffice to say, her appearance was as such through a concoction of my spells. Her legs were connected quite completely to the root system of the garden, and through it, much of its latent magic and foliage was brought to her command.”
The spellthief had, at least, managed to get her jaw closed. “Then why did she try to trap me? And the singing, and the, having my face,” she shuddered.
“I gave her altered mind a simple task,” he explained. “Keep out or ensnare any unwelcome visitors for the week that she was planted there. You are an intruder, little thief, though I hadn’t expected her to come under any real test of her skills. I thank you, for that,” he chuckled.
“But,” she protested, “she said that there were others, ones that she’d... ensnared?”
“Guards and servants that I’d sent into the maze, to enjoy her little performances. Volunteers, of course, their minds fully reordered afterward.”
The spellthief dropped into her seat wearily. “This doesn’t explain why she had my body. And my face. And my voice.”
“That would be a question for Melody herself, were she not on a holiday at the moment.” He smiled, “She’s quite skilled with her own enchantments. Illusions, entrancements, the sorts of little tricks you detest me for. I imagine, though, that she decided, in whatever amount of consciousness she had, that you would be most amenable to, or most bewildered by, seeing and speaking with one so familiar, but so distant, also.”
“This is too much.”
“It is precisely enough, little thief. I think that the two of you would get along quite well.” He strode to the center of the room and stood across from her beleaguered visage. “Have you any further questions?”
She shook her head. “I think more might make me sick. I’ll just settle for these,” she put her hands on either side of the stack of Rightons, “and, hopefully, hundreds of students will have you to thank for what’s inside.” Her expression turned smaller, a more tender thing as she smiled at him, then as she began to pore over the first volume. “Thank you,” she said.
“Why thank me? You’re the one who’s stealing them.” His laugh echoed through the shelves, joined by hers while he paced down an aisle.
“Is it really stealing if you’re just giving them away like this?” Another soft, noisily flipping page. “It’s more like borrowing.”
“The difference is in the intention,” he pointed out, “and in what your friends will think of it all. To the world outside this garden, you will have stolen them, I’m sure.”
“Well, yes.” Another laugh, another page. “I am a cunning spellthief. And you are an oppressive arcanist. Best that notions to the contrary stay secret, no?“
“Can’t go around having people think I’ve gone soft.” For some reason, as his hands slid over leather spines, he found his eyes sliding back to watch her. For there was much to see, with an open-backed chair, from the shifting in her shoulders, the motion of her spine, the rubbing of her hips and buttocks against the seat... He cleared his throat noisily. “You work with other spellcasters?”
“What?” She turned her head back to give him a critical look.
“Just a question,” he spread his hands and smiled, “I’m not seeking to expose anyone. I’m just curious.” She held the stare, until she shrugged and turned back to the book.
“Mmh, of course. I don’t know how anybody could do this without magic.” She knocked her knuckles against the table and turned another page.
“I was more thinking that, if you work for a revolutionary organization, and you’ve disappeared for a week, and you suddenly return with spoils of war... would they not take great pains to assure that you haven’t betrayed them?” he asked, somewhat grimly.
She cursed, but it was muffled by her hands holding her face. “I’ve been trying not to dwell on that, but... it’s bound to happen, since it’s not, really, normal or trustworthy to return from nowhere after a week of being presumed dead. Can’t just walk in as though nothing’s happened, and they can’t let me.”
“Nor can I,” he agreed, “not while the secrets of my tower might be exposed. But there... there might be a solution to that.”
“What,” she chuckled, “take off from Damea and flee to some other corner of Ephaos?”
He shook his head. “You have never traveled in such a way before, and, besides, this method would be much simpler.”
“I’m not sure that I like the sound of that...” She muttered from behind her palms.
“Oh, don’t worry.” He allowed himself a grin. “It’ll simply take a little light reading.” With a passing thought, the trap sitting on its pedestal activated. The flow of energy was immediately clear to him, but by the time she would notice, well... “The book I keep on the pillar in the center of the room will help,” he said, stoking her curiosity to fuel the spell. “That is, incidentally, the one which I can’t let you steal, now or ever.”
If she had been watching the flow, or anticipating the change, she might have sensed the bright flare of energy and the shadows it cast over her mind. But she clearly was not. “Can’t let me, because...?” Her voice dripped with interest, both fuel and fire for the magic, her eyes peeking through the cracks between her fingers.
“Oh, it’s far too dangerous,” he smiled wider, and came from behind to rest his hands on her sharp, thin shoulders. “The magic therein simply can’t be unleashed on an unsuspecting world.“
If she had been aware, or doing more than listening and thinking, she might have felt his hands massaging her muscles. But she clearly was not. “... uh huh?” she said distractedly, arms dropping to the sides, eyes pointed directly at the tome.
“Especially,” he continued, murmuring into her ear and mind within, “the secrets hidden on page thirteen.” The emphasis had its intended effect, he could feel her body shivering, even hearing a half moan at the memory he put his grips into. “I suspect you’ll want to go over them in detail.“
The arcanist stepped back and watched as, without knowing, without feeling, she stood from her chair and took long, almost mechanical steps down the length of the table. Each movement of her legs bringing her closer to the prize. “... right,” she said idly, eventually.
He considered a response, but found it more prudent, and more fun, to simply watch and wait. He followed after her, admiring her posture and form, all the way up to the base of the lectern. Slowly, the spellthief slid into a crouch, creeping on her bare feet around the plinth, up its steps, wincing at the creaks of wood taking her weight. Falling right back into her burgling habits. He followed after her, and she showed no sign of hearing. At the top, her fingers drifted forward as if drawn by a string, brushing through the closed book’s fore edge. They stopped, right on the mark.
“Page thirteen,” he heard her gasping with amazement, standing behind the spellthief with his hands on her sides, gently, as she pulled the book open, and the spell unfurled into her view. To him, standing over her shoulder, it looked perfectly ordinary. A page with symbols and words, a diagram on the right side. But in her mind, he knew that she would be faced with hundreds of hidden messages, twisted phrases captivating all thought, drawing her deeper into herself and into the patterns she imagined. A step to the side allowed him to watch her eyes, flicking with randomness across the page in patterns only she could see, almost as though she were asleep, dreaming. Her fingers had drifted up to the page, tracing, caressing, rubbing the words almost sensually with her delicate touch. His hand came to rest on her back, and traced lines of its own.
“That’s right, little thief,” he whispered calmly. “Read deeper, and deeper. The secrets must unlock with the next words, the next puzzle will unravel the whole thread...” Slowly, almost idly, he moved his hands to stroke the crests and valleys of her ribs.
Now to set to work, he thought. With her mind thoroughly occupied, he let the energy from the tower flow back in, and with it, his control. He watched for the right patterns in the book, the right movements, the right ideas in her mind.
Letter to shape. Shape to idea. Idea to thought. Thought to memory. It took time, for the mental interpretations to layer so deeply that everything became an abstraction. Everything was another pattern to her. Climbing the window was falling from it. Holding the wick was lighting it. Receiving a kiss was giving it. Reading the book, as ever, was reading it, was reading it, was reading it.
He pulled himself out of the whirlpool of her logic with great effort, and found that his hands had come to her waist.
There would need to be a similar overlay, one set of memories that were hers, another which would be apparent to any who would try to delve in to her mind. She couldn’t fear or resist the scans, after all, that’d be a dead giveaway. So, a simple structure, a labyrinthine circuit which duplicates itself over and over, an easy thing to believe, when it’s so plainly visible: what she says happened, happened. Nothing to hide, nothing to fear. A simple enchantment crossing over itself time and time again. He glanced forward, and saw that her finger had found the trick already—tracing a single circle, endlessly over the page, as he noticed the corner of her lip glistening in the light, wet with unnoticed drool.
The arcanist shivered. His hands had drifted forward, stroking the length of her belly, from hip to chest. He shook his head, still weaving the spell in tandem with her thought. Any who tried to dig deeper into her recollections would only find more confirmation, following the line of enchantment around until they believed it, deeply believed it, themselves—and would thus spread the same enchantment to anyone who might look into their mind for the same reasons. And on it would travel. Anything she told them that happened in that week would be affirmed by any mental magic they could muster to check.
Unaware, he’d started to grope her breasts. He felt her arousal. He felt his own arousal. It was a natural conclusion. The edges of the spell began to settle in place, fixing with the hardening of her nipples beneath his fingers. Giving her the best protection possible against anything her revolutionary friends might use to confirm her story. A thread, winding and looping endlessly through thoughts and memories, slowly pulling itself taut. Slow, steady breaths drawing the enchantment deep, deep down. A thread, to follow from the surface into the dark. Down, down, and down. Circling, circling, and circling.
A kiss, light, gentle, on the back of her neck, as he once more dammed the floodwaters of power that poured from the tower through her. Another, and another, and...
What am I doing? His hands were still calmly kneading her breasts. He willed them to come to a stop. To her credit, the spellthief continued her own circling caress, staring numbly at the page as she did. So deep within the page, so far abstracted from the words, the loop of thread was all that was left. This is this. That is that.
I told her that I wouldn’t make her act on that promise, if she didn’t want me to... His breath, warm, hot, even, ruffled her hair slightly. His hands had stopped their motion. But they hadn’t left. And his flesh was crying for a response...
She was so blissful, though. Unaware of a thing, besides what was. Knowing and learning in the same moment, never-ending, never-slowing, and never-quickening motion. Not a moan, not even a sigh to give him a tacit permit. Just breathing. Just thinking. Just circling.
A few days ago I... but no. Too much damage could be done now. With some regret, he stepped back from the pedestal, leaving her to drink deep of the secrets on page thirteen.
Circling. And circling. And circling. The thread winding ever deeper. Mysteries and secrets and wonders awaiting, and only... something touched her on the arm.
The spellthief wheeled around, half glaring and half perplexed, coming face to face with the arcanist. She didn’t notice the sound of the tome shutting itself behind her. “What are you...” Her lips pursed, and she pointed a finger into his chest. “What are you trying to pull?”
“Pull?” He looked confused, but he was wearing that infuriating grin. “You’ve been reading for a good two hours at this point. Have you found what you need?“
“Two...” Her eyes blinked several times. Two hours? “That can’t be right.” She hazarded a look back, but the book was closed. Nothing called to her, not curiosity nor enchantment. Her eyes narrowed on him. “You were... telling me you had some solution,” she recalled.
“And I do,” he said, with more of a genuine smile. “You don’t want your memories of this week to be deeply read, yes? Are you familiar with a Callorhan circuit?”
She crossed her arms, but felt her expression softening. “I’m not familiar, and I expect you’re about to make me familiar?”
“I certainly can, in great detail, but the short answer is that it’s a trick of the mind. Someone looking into your memories will only find exactly what you’ve told them. The ‘circuit’ is such that what they see reinforces what you’ve said, and what you say reinforces what they’ve seen in a scan. Much like a chariot racer going around and around on his track.
“But. Be aware that it will only reflect what you’ve told someone. If you decide to make one of your clever ironic comments,” his voice rose, and she recognized the tone as a poor, girlish imitation of her own, ”’Sure, I was taken away by a dragon, who mistook me for a princess of Tanfar, only to be rescued by finest knight in all the land...’” He grinned. “Well, that’s what they’ll see when they look into your mind.“
Her expression did not soften any further. “You think I’ll mess up a cover-story?“
“You wouldn’t,” the arcanist replied. “What I’m saying is that you have a tendency to be a touch... acerbic, when challenged. A Callorhan circuit does not deal well with sarcasm.” He took a step closer, and the space on the podium suddenly became very small, and very hot. “I hope you appreciate it.”
With his eyes bearing down on her, and his body mere inches away, and her own body as naked as ever, she cleared her throat and sidestepped past him to bound down the steps, just barely brushing her nude front against his arm. “I’ll be grateful, if it works. It is your mess to be cleaning, since you didn’t just let me leave before suspicion could grow.“
She heard him say... something, behind her, and then faster than anything his hand was on her shoulder, shivers were dancing through her limbs and hairs were all atingle. She couldn’t move. “If you had been good enough to get past me, we wouldn’t be in this position to begin with.” His voice, his breath was hot in her ear, and she felt the magic release as soon as his lips closed.
She broke away with a jump, coming quickly back against the table... but to her surprise and embarrassment, she couldn’t muster any offense. She was startled, certainly. Surprised. A touch of fear. But a smile was still licking around her lips, dripping into her words. “I’m only here still because of the weather, not because of you. I’m not about to fall to my death again.”
“Well, when the time comes, little thief, why not walk out the front door?”
“That thing?” She laughed. “I don’t trust machinery.“
“That clever little focus of yours seems to have some,” he snickered.
“It’s different when it can hang around your neck, instead of ten feet overhead with a hundred tons of stone.”
He laughed, and she did, too. “How much more can you carry, beyond Righton’s?” he asked, a glimmer in his eye. “That netting you wore doesn’t look so strong.”
“More than you’d think, clearly.” She raised an eyebrow and matched his smile. “I could show you, if you’re that curious.”
“I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough.” He straightened up, glanced around, then pointed to a nearby shelf. “I have a text on herbalism, there,” he snapped his fingers and a spark of light whipped out from his hand into the stacks, “that might be some semblance of use. It spends a lot of time on the basics.”
With a giggling grin, and a feeling not unlike that of a moth in the night, her legs shot after the sparkling speck, and her arms soon became heavy with ancient words.
“What abooout... hm, illusory magics?” she called out from inside one of the aisles, and from behind the large pile of books occupying his vision.
So much knowledge, he sighed inwardly. In a way, perhaps this is a good thing. More space for more books.
“Some of the more theoretical texts would be good as well, though not too opaque, though, not too dry either...”
“That one will do you no good,” he said, with a wave of his hand. There was silence from the thief as her mind processed the subtle command, until he heard a muttering, and a heavy shove as the book went back into its place.
And another one came off the row. ”Diluvian Divinations,” she snorted. “You’ve actually read this shit?“
“Every word. I don’t keep them here to look pretty.” He said. “But that’s rather the point, like I said. These are academic texts, theories for advanced scholars of magic.” He conjured another spark and sent it on its way. “Illusions are a row over, north side.”
Hacking, choking on the cloud of dust that the tome’s pages conjured up in front of her face. “For the gods’ sakes, I don’t think you’ve ever even touched this one.” She leaned backward, enough to catch his eyes from around the corner.
“Which is it?” he asked, still reshelving some of the titles that’d been rejected from pass number two. “Looks like you’ve gotten into my botany books.”
Another cough, blowing away cobwebs and, probably, fairly toxic mold. “It says... ugh, let me,” she shoved her forearm back and forth over the cover, squinted into the faded inscription, and...
“Of Vivomancy and Climatology, A Study On blah blah blah blah, by... Vejnarik Montiraire.” Her neck cocked to the side. “Huh. You know anything about that?” she called to the arcanist, who was also quiet, “Very Keld first name, very Damean book and surname?“
“It was a Damean habit a generation or two back,” he explained, his muttered, derisive voice moving along the shelves with the sound of his feet. “Damean parents, especially those who were wealthy, or well-connected, or worldly, found it... well, quaint, to give children names from other cultures.“
“Yeah,” she scoffed at this, “but Vejnarik? Do you think they even—“
“No,” he interrupted, “I would presume that they did not. I had friends, growing up, who had names from some of the Marcirian regions, or some in the Dolocite language. My first attempt at a relationship was with a young woman named Elurye.“
“Ugh.” The spellthief spat on the ground and shoved the thing back into its place, to the jubilance of another dust cloud. More choking.
The arcanist frowned. “You’re sure about this?“
“Why would I not be?” she grinned, stretched out from head to toe on one of the long tables, hands folded behind her head.
“You know you’ll be asleep for five minutes. That’s the point of the spell. Sure,” he spread his hands, “the dreams are vivid—very vivid—but I have serious doubts as to whether they can actually provide useful visions of the future.“
“If it doesn’t work, then it’s five minutes. I could use the break, and you could...” she trailed off, her eyes meeting his shyly.
“Are you sure you want to leave yourself so exposed?” he chuckled with crossed arms. “You’ll be completely insensate. Or... is that the intent?”
A laugh. “Oh, fuck off, you little...” She blinked. Her gaze was fixed on the tips of his outstretched fingers as he slowly circled them above her face, each one glimmering with a rainbow of color. “Little, uh...” Eyes unfocusing, rolling up toward fluttering lids. “Little, little bit of... mmm... pretty, um... colors... " she exhaled, and her eyes finally snapped shut. “... pretty sleepy...”
He allowed himself to imagine several situations which would compromise his morals for all of five seconds, tolerated his growing arousal for another ten, and then the sound of her snores drove him to turn away with a groan.
He crossed his arms over the text against his chest, nodding knowingly. “Why the sudden interest in Elurien healing texts?” his voice lilting with curiosity. Her eyes were locked onto its cover.
“Those... techniques,” the spellthief said carefully, “were so effective on me, so... they merit further study, wouldn’t you agree?”
The arcanist smiled, and gestured his right hand ever so slightly. “Why the sudden interest in Elurien healing texts?”
A slower blink than the last time, even more languid than the six times before that. “Because...” Her face screwed up, “Damn it, just let me see it for two seconds!”
She darted forward to grab at it with reaching hands and bared teeth, and he leapt back with a yelp, panic surging until his fingers finally found a spell to sate her.
“See?” She made a show of putting on a teasing tone to match her expression, as she paraded her way, quite literally, into his study. Still in the nude, much to her chagrin, but now bound up in her tightly woven, perplexing mass of leather and straps and bits squeezing into flesh every which way. Not to mention the dozen books fastened, strapped, and shoved into place all around her torso. Except, of course, over her nipples, which were conveniently stiff from the process of donning the leatherwork contraption. Still moving without difficulty, she stood in front of him, hands on her hips, smirk on her lips.
He gave her a slow, long look from head to toe, nodding his way up her body. “I am impressed. And, I admit, somewhat surprised.”
“It’s good construction,” she said, pivoting slowly on her heels to put her backside before him, “the studs are enchanted, along with the fasteners, and the whole arrangement is... are you even listening?”
He made his jaw close, nodding quickly with redness on his face. “You were discussing studs, yes...?”
She squinted at him. “Studs and...?”
“Uh.” He took in a breath to say something else, and when she saw where his eyes went in so doing, she spun around and marched out with a huff. “Fasteners,” he said to her departing form.
She threw the door shut, neck flushed like his.
“And breathe out, nice and slow... do you feel the energy flowing around you?” His voice had an edge of tiredness in it, with this latest repetition.
She felt it, as she had dozens of times already. Of course she felt it. Rising up in a sphere of sense around her body. Exhaling. Routine, by now; she didn’t think she could stop her body from breathing and feeling it if she tried.
Her eyes swung over to his, half-lidded as they had been for... however long it had been. “Yes,” she said.
“Good. Fine.” The arcanist sighed. “Can you turn it to cold, or to static, like I did earlier? Just think about shifting the way the source and the flow interact to...”
“Flow and source, I get it, yes, you can shut up...” she muttered, beneath her breath and beneath the energy as, in exactly the same way, she reached with the power, through it, manipulating the flow to wash around itself. A sphere within a sphere.
Draining. She sighed, again, and the air bubbled around them both, tickling skin, buzzing against senses with restrained energy. Like liquid washing constantly across her back. And then it was gone, completely, leaving her to sag in the seat, exhausted. Her eyelids fluttered open, and saw his staring back.
“Every hair on your body was standing on end, and there was enough charge around you that if I’d left it, you might have created your own small lightning bolt.” He exhaled, in the same tone as her own annoyance. “That’s it. That’s enough. We’re both tired. We’ve been in here too long. And I don’t know about you, but I need a walk. Care to join me?”
She nodded, weakly, and although drained by the sudden loss of magic, it was almost a relief not to have so much feeling in her senses. She put together some sense of dignity as she stood, but took his arm when he offered it.
“Long day,” he said. “Would you like to know how to get out the normal way, this time? Or would you prefer it to be uncertain?”
The spellthief practically fell into him, and gave a tired smile. “Enough magic for now. I could kill for some air, and grass, and sun...”
“I won’t ask where you’re keeping the knife,” he responded, leading her out. She felt a corresponding squeeze on her bottom, despite his hands being nowhere near it.
Shivers. Good ones. Not recoiling from him; if anything, she drew in closer, bringing an arm slowly around his back as they ambled out of the library, into the hall, and on down the stairwell. “Learn anything from... all of that?”
“Some, yes, but I want some time to work through a bit before I draw any real conclusions.” He yawned, and she felt him leaning more against her, though whether out of tiredness or affection, she wasn’t really sure. “Did you?”
“I learned that an arcanist’s work, when done properly, is utterly unenviable.” She chuckled. “If my compatriots had a taste of that, maybe we’d go about this whole business differently.“
“You’ve had just the barest sample of it. I do this every day of the year.” He laughed softly with her and led her down a new hall (at least, new to her memory), past the guards’ barracks. She didn’t expend any energy tracking the steps or the sights of the path.
“If there’s one thing I can admire in your profession, it’s that damned tenacity,” she said. “I’ve had scarcely more than one job each month. Still have to train, though, and go to the meetings, and the festivities, and the less-formal gatherings, and the tactical preparedness sessions...”
“Have you ever had something you felt strongly about, and you just couldn’t stop working at it?” He led her to a door, which opened to a set of stairs, and an even longer, darker, strangely twisting hallway. She resolved not to pay attention to it, for she felt her mind would thank her. “For arcanists, that thing is learning about magic.”
“I feel the impulse,” she said, “but I don’t have the will or the want to make those discoveries happen. To learn what’s there and practice it, and make it mine, that’s its own kind of discovery. Unique to me, even if it’s the same spell written in the same book as someone else.“
“It is, and that’s what a lot of us are after; the difference is that we want to build on each others’ work, broaden everyone’s knowledge, make everything bigger and better.” He opened a door, which seemed to have melted out of the wall itself, and orange evening light blinded her as they step out, and each took a deep, long breath. “Oh, that’s lovely,” he sighed.
“Yeah,” she took another breath, and squeezed her arm against his side. “... I want to do the same things, about magic. Just without, you know, the endless monotony of actually doing it.“
“The fast way, by stealing what others make.” No bite in the arcanist’s tone, just a little joke between friends. One which she obliged with a wink, slipping away from his side to squish her toes in the grass and stretch her arms in the air.
“If it keeps everybody else from that torture, that’s a bargain I’ll take any day.” She saw her shadow in the corner of her eye, long and lithe in the sinking sunlight. She imagined that he was taking in a similar sight, and allowed her body to sway some with her back still turned to him. For some reason, she did feel pretty inclined to stretch. Muscles all sore from sitting so long, she bent side to side, over at her waist, worked all the kinks out of her shoulders and hips. And then her hands felt like stretching, above her head, as her hips softly bounced with the movements in her arms. Craning her neck back, she smiled at him, as he leaned against an old oak. “It’s pretty out here, in the daylight.”
“The view is incredible,” he agreed.
The spellthief felt her brow rising, as her hands twisted around with her turning waist. “We’re... in the middle of a hedge maze, you know. The view is leaves.”
“Were you standing where I am, you’d agree.” She felt herself blushing, while she slowly turned to face him, stretching her arms behind her back. Arching her chest in his direction. He nodded appreciatively. “Most incredible,” he murmured.
“Don’t get too caught up in it,” she teased, “you did bring me out here for a walk. I might just bolt for it, so close to freedom like this.”
“Try it,” he grinned, “see how far you get.”
“I don’t want to tire out your poor old legs,” she chuckled, letting her arms dangle and tapping her foot. “Come on. There’s not that much sunlight.”
“Then we shall make the most of it.” The arcanist stood, stretched, and walked to join her, easily taking her hand in his grasp, to her surprise, and some delight. “Anything in particular you’d like to see?”
She giggled. “Anything, as long as it’s not the inside of something carnivorous.”
“The plants do tend to smell.” His hand squeezed hers, and she squeezed it back. “Let’s go see the new blooms.“
They walked through the garden arm-in-arm, mostly in silence, in the dying light of the day. He showed her the new growth, explaining the purpose of the plants as she half-listened, thinking. He showed her the ever-shifting pathways, and how to navigate them. He showed her some of his vines, which were delighted to make her formal acquaintance. Until finally, they wound up at the base of the tower, near, she knew, where she had fallen days before.
“Hm,” the arcanist said, pausing. Staring up at the tower in the fading light. “This side seems a little... bare, don’t you think?”
The spellthief didn’t look down, for fear of seeing an impression sunk into the earth or scorches in the grass. Even looking up was a test. From on the ground, a sinking vertigo swirled around her head, and she searched the stones above for any trace left by her departure. It was all just gray. She glanced to him. “Sorry, what?”
“I was saying, the tower seems... bare. Naked. Imposing. A block of grey amidst the greens and reds and blues.” He stepped towards it, beneath the window. “Hm.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Naked, huh. If this is some joke at my expense...” She stared upward, to the window of the belfry, a loop of white rope tied strongly to its base. Henry, she sighed inwardly.
“What? No, no joke.” He smiled at her kindly, her attention drawn back to the earth and his gaze. “I was just thinking... I have the perfect strain of fast-growing ivy that might look lovely right here, under the window. What do you think?”
She blinked dumbly, mind working as she looked back and forth, up and down. “I, uh... well, I suppose,” she said slowly, “all the gray is a little daunting... but ivy tends to creep up, doesn’t it?”
“Hm, I suppose it does,” he replied lightly. Innocently. “Why mention it?”
She glanced around the small clearing. “Well... one could get more... rats.”
“Yes, rats. They can climb, you know. There might be holes in the wall.”
“It’s a rare rat that can come through the garden unscathed, let alone still have the presence of mind to climb the wall or sneak in through a hole. I doubt very many could manage it.”
She nodded. “No, I don’t think many could. What’s one little rat?”
He looked knowingly at her. “It would look good, don’t you think?”
She bit her lip, nodding furtively. “It would look beautiful. And a testament to your abilities as a grower.”
“And I don’t think it would take more than, oh, two weeks, for the ivy to reach, oh,” he put a hand on his chin, a look like he was simply guessing, “say, the bottom of the window.”
“Is it strong?” she asked, raising the curiousness in her voice. “In case of... the wind, would it be torn down by some force?”
“It would take one of the great gales of the ocean to destroy it,” he said. “Why, I suspect it could hold up someone twice your size, easily.“
The spellthief stepped closer, putting a hesitant hand to the cold stone. She felt a steady hum, through the material, through the world, in the back of her mind. “And... how long might such a vine survive? I know some of which can withstand even the winter’s chill.”
“Oh, years,” he said, watching her from the corner of his eye. “Even if it withers, the roots run deep, and it usually regenerates in a few days.“
“... hm,” she murmured thoughtfully. Another look up the height of it. “A shame I wouldn’t be around to see such a thing. What with you being an arcanist.”
“A shame, indeed. What with you being a spellthief. Once we part tomorrow, it seems certain that you won’t see the garden again.” He gave her a hint of a smile, one she faintly returned.
“I should be more concerned with never prowling your library again, or never interrogating you for your knowledge again.”
“Yes, it is too bad that you won’t be doing that.” His tone was dry, but his smile was wide. “If you were to return in say, a week or so, you’d find a fully-grown ivy here, in the darkest green, with lovely little white flowers.“
“Just, I’m sure, as it would be were I to return in... a month’s time, perhaps. Those flowers need all the time they can, to fully blossom.”
“Not,” he grinned, “that you would ever return.”
“Not in a million years.” She boldly came to his side and slung her arm around him yet again. “I plan to enjoy it while it lasts. Which means, above all else, having one last, deliciously free meal.” He laughed, and she laughed too, and then her stomach turned inside out as the garden dissolved around them.