The peasants are always having a fit over something. Tell me when they have a flag.

King Nunincule

 

Sarea opened her eyes and stared up at rafters. Her arms ached, her bed hadn’t been unfolded properly, her dress didn’t have any sleeves, and the door was wide open, sunlight and cool air filling the cottage.

So not a hallucination, she thought. Or a bad dream.

She sat up, holding up her arms. Someone had tried to bandage them, or at least had wrapped strips of cloth around them loosely. There wasn’t too much blood, which wasn’t so bad, but… she tugged at the bandage on her left arm. It unravelled smoothly. Right until it stopped. The bandages were stuck to the cuts.

Not cuts.

Don’t think about it, she told herself.

A shadow blocked out the light.

“Not good?” Ionas said.

She frowned at him. “You made me sleep.”

Ionas shrugged, stepping in and sideways. The full force of the sunlight hit her. She winced, squinting at him.

“The first time you do anything big is tiring,” he said. “Fire’s easy, but exhausting. I didn’t have to do a thing.”

Did that mean he would have? She didn’t want to ask. She said, “I could have -”

“Hounds go for the stomach or the throat, Sarea. Nothing you can do.” Ionas looked away. He’d managed to stand wholly in shadow, as if the light would harm him. “If you want to talk -”

“I want to replace these,” she said, tapping her left arm. “I’ll deal with the rest later.”

He looked at her sharply.

“The entire village will know I can use magic by now.” And if they knew, they wouldn’t keep silent about it. “I’m going to have to leave, and soon. People are dead because of me.”

He flinched. “Not you,” he protested. “Sarea -”

“How many?” she said.

He sighed. “Three.”

Three families who’d struggle through the year without an extra pair of hands to work and earn, or huddle up with to keep warm. Three men who might’ve been alive if she’d just run into the dark, away from everyone. If she hadn’t even left her cottage at all.

Guilt was a familiar bitterness, at least.

Sarea breathed in and out slowly. “They’ll need to be soaked off,” she said. “The kettle -”

“Magic,” he said, wriggling his fingers.

How on earth was magic going to summon clean water out of clear air? It seemed outlandish, for a moment, before she remembered that she’d managed to do the same with fire… last night? She didn’t know. She didn’t want to ask. She wasn’t tired now, anyway. Just a little dull around the edges.

“Please,” she said. “Boil the kettle.”

He nodded slowly. “As you say.”

:-#-:

Ionas had absolutely no idea where Sarea produced a bowl from. All he did was encourage the fire to burn a little hotter, turn back around, and there she was, sat cross-legged on the floor in full sunlight, a bowl sat between her knees.

How many little nooks and crannies could a one-room cottage have?

The kettle whistled behind him. She looked up at him, frowning.

“I didn’t boil it with magic,” he said, grinning. She shook her head, staring at the floor.

He raised his hand, summoning the tiniest touch of magic. The kettle floated up in front of him, steaming fiercely.

“I imagine it has to be cool enough to use,” he said.

“It does,” she said softly.

Right. Cold. He flicked his fingers at the stupid metal thing, then touched the back of his hand against the metal. Warm, anyway. He sent it over to her and mimed holding it, pouring it into the bowl. The kettle obliged. Sarea reached up and took it, snapping his spell.

“Don’t,” she said, but didn’t look up at him.

“Worth a try,” he said, and sank to his knees.

She repeated, “Don’t.”

Don’t what? Use magic? She didn’t have any of her glow, just a faint shine around her body. That couldn’t be good. And if he lightened up her mood, he’d brighten up her magic, something that ought to be bursting to get out after finally being used. It’d worked for all the others. Even the first thrice-damned medic.

At least she didn’t remember his light trick.

Sarea finished pouring water and set the kettle down.

What could he do to help? There hadn’t been so much as a shocked gasp from anyone since he’d brought her home. No one came near, except for Anerin Junker, on her way out with food for the families of the dead. He’d kept guard outside the cottage door, just be sure she was safe.

Left arm in the bowl, Sarea waited, staring at the floor.

Ionas curled his fingers. He said, “Can I help you?”

“I’ll be fine,” she said.

Patience, Pachin, Patience. “I’m not all that good at it, I admit,” he said. “People can learn, you know.”

Her gazed flickered up. “Can I?” she said.

“I will give you everything I have,” he said. “All my secrets, all my tricks. I can give you the power to fight.”

She stared at him. “But?”

“You can’t save everyone,” he said steadily. “People die.”

Sarea gave him a tight, thin smile. “Yes,” she said. “They do.”

He raised his eyebrows, leaning forward. Now there was a hint of something he really wanted to know…

“Come here,” she said. “I’ll show you how to deal with this properly.”

This? Oh. The bandages. For lack of a quicker option he crawled over, settling in front of her. The water was pink. She peeled the bandage off and dropped the stained cloth beside her.

Ionas winced. The claw marks looked worse now, somehow. More like gaping gashes and less like cuts. Maybe it was the daylight. They still bled, drops of blood welling up.

“They’re shallow,” she said. “They’ll heal quickly enough.”

“And look interesting later,” he said, grinning at her.

She snorted. “You’ll have to invent the tall tale to go with them. People don’t believe in demons any more.”

 

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