What’s the point in being the best if I can’t be as good as that guy?

Ionas Pachin, later Grand Warlock

 

 

Sarea sat in the shade of the ritual pillar in Nettinam’s central courtyard, playing with fire. Snap. Flame around her hand. Snap. Flame gone. Snap.

Tricks. He’d teach her tricks. When he hadn’t said a word about anything else –

Give me sunlight. Let me in.

She faltered, dropping her hand. It’d seemed so real, that burst of light. It made the demon hounds run. But he wouldn’t even teach her the circle he used to protect them at night, and now he wanted her to learn tricks? How could she be of any use if all her only weapons were throw fire and sparks? She needed to do something. Three people dead –

Not thinking about it, she told herself, and flopped back on the grass. She played with her necklace, staring up into the interlaced tree canopy. Sunlight. Why that? Could it be as simple as light purifying darkness?

“Isn’t every day you find a pretty girl just lying around,” Jesse said. He leaned over her. She lashed out with her foot. He yelped, grabbing his leg and hopping backwards.

“Don’t startle any girl,” she said, and sat up. “It’s bad for your health.”

Jesse laughed, standing still and solid. “I can see that.”

“What do you want?” she said, folding her arms.

“Just to talk about anything you might’ve heard,” he said. “A little trading of rumours. Nothing fancy.”

She frowned up at him.

“Maybe it won’t hurt to talk to a little piece of home,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Not many get out. No one believes me when I tell ’em how things bad it gets back there. The raids, the way the Instigator patrols get tighter and tighter every year…”

“The way you only find a way through when you’re desperate,” she said quietly. “When -”

She shut her mouth with an audible click. When something dark and secret spoke to you from the marsh pit. Like a dream, it reached into your head and gave you a whisper of truth, a chance, the briefest glimpse at power the Instigators couldn’t do a thing against. She’d never heard the voice. Her father used to spend hours sat on the edge of the pit, staring in. Staring at the place her grandfather died.

“Sarea?”

She blinked, looking up. “They’re not good memories,” she said.

“If it’s demons,” Jesse said, “The Instigators’ll leave the city.” She heard the fear in his voice. He looked away from her. “Maybe they ain’t mad, Sarea. Maybe there’s something to all this. You were on the road.” And then he hit her with a tree-bark brown stare. “Did you see something? Hear anything odd?”

She shut her mouth and shook her head. “Just talk about wolves,” she murmured, and looked at her feet until he went away.

The Instigators used to say if you tattled on someone, they’d give you things, and they never lied. Some people got out when they told. If you were out and tattled on someone, what’d they give you then? Best not to talk about demon hounds and fire in the night. Sarea hugged her knees to her chest, burying her face against her arms. Durabilis. She might prefer death to Durabilis.

:-#-:

Word travelled fast when all the men were at work and the women at chores. No matter what Betty Singer said about magic, even the standing room in the Guiding Star was taken before Ionas took to the minstrel’s stage. Crammed in a corner in front of the stage, Sarea huddled up, miserably hot. Watch the tricks, Ionas said. Pick the one she liked best. She couldn’t even take her coat off, for fear of showing the bandages that kept her cuts clean.

A cheer rose from the crowd when he bounced up, bowing. Somewhere the minstrel started playing. Finding room to play in this mass must’ve been impossible.

“Good mistresses and burly gentlemen,” Ionas said, beaming. “I’ll let you in on the secret no wizard wants you to hear. Magic is all about intent.” His gaze flicked to her. She furrowed her brow. Was that a lesson?

“And I intend to shine!” Ionas threw his coat open. Light exploded out, spiralling in every colour of the rainbow above the crowd, dancing with each other. She blinked, looking away from them, and found him dressed in the oddest clothes. Black trousers, and a black something-like-coat, with a white shirt and what seemed to be a black bow at his throat. He pulled a tall black hat off his head and tapped it with a… black and white stick?

He grinned down at Sarea, tipping the hat upside down. A fat white rabbit fell out, looked around, and hopped onto someone’s head. She stared wide-eyed. That looked solid enough, but how had he changed his clothes? And what did he mean about intent?

People were catching sparks in their hands. At the front, the rabbit hopped from head to head, chased on all sides by grabbing hands. Ionas laughed and clasped his hands, his gloved hands, and when had he put his hat on his head?

“But those are trivial things,” he said, and the inn disappeared. A great grassy plain stretched out around them, stalks of grass sticking up between people, a chilly wind blowing amongst them. She felt it on her skin, ruffling her hair, cooling.

“This is your sight seeing tour for this evening,” Ionas announced. His fancy clothing had disappeared, replaced by a more respectable form of his real clothes. He seemed to stand on a boulder. “I will be your guide. Welcome to the grasslands of Lenife!”

Sarea breathed in real country air, scented with flowers instead of stale beer. Maybe he isn’t mad, she thought. He just comes at sanity from a different place.

Then he bounced on his heels. “I met a girl here,” he said. “Eyes like cherries and skin peach-soft. She rotted away one winter and never grew back.”

No, he’s mad, she decided.

But now, she could understand why someone might travel. Why the horizon called people like Master Junker, may his spirit rest, until they walked right up to the Wall and had no place to go but home. Every step forward led you to places like this, infinite and beautiful.

Or to the strange and eerie, like Ionas. The horizon could break you, too.

 

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