Chapter 41: Underwater

Cinis, Jessica

Cinis sat on the back of the raft, trailing his feet in the water so that two low, v-shaped wakes followed the raft.

This was the farthest he had ever been from Querkus. One week ago he had been polishing bottles behind the bar, cutting vegetables for dinner, and awaiting lessons with Reardon. And now, everything had changed so drastically that he found himself even missing his history lessons.

He frowned, looking back toward Jessica as she studied the map. Surely she could get him to Cardinia, but he wondered what would happen after that. Would they confine him for his own protection and not allow him to leave the city? Maybe she was lying, and they would never let him avenge Rearden. Should that be the case, he could always sneak off when they arrived in Granttan. Surely he could find another tavern where he could work while he learned more about Rorcul and planned his next move.

Just a few minutes before, they had caught sight of Anarchen, the low profile of roofing and smoke from stove fires just visible in the distance. Cinis and Libus had looked to Jessica expectantly, waiting for her to renew her argument about disembarking early. But she had remained quiet, her eyes staring ahead at the seemingly never-ending river.

Libus had temporarily moored the raft and headed ashore for news, claiming he was good friends with the town’s smith, a man whose words poured out of his mouth faster than clangs rang from his anvil. Until he returned, Cinis reclined on the floor of the raft while Jessica sat with her back against an empty crate. Cinis caught her eye and rested his arms across his chest.

“So, are you going to tell me what’s going on? Or am I going to have to solve this mystery by myself?”

Jessica sighed. “There’s a lot to say, yet precious little that I know for certain. I don’t really know where to begin.”

“You owe me something. In the past few days, my only living relative died, and apparently I’m now the subject of some country-wide manhunt. Tell me what this is all about, otherwise I’m walking ashore right now.”

Cinis saw Jessica’s face tighten for a half second. Good, he thought, that’s one thing I know. She needs me for something. That’s leverage.

“Start with Rorcul. Who is he?”

“Nobody really knows who he is. We believe he’s connected to a Lord in Corsus. But what, that I can answer. He’s a Shadow assassin, and an effective one at that. As you know, he’s already killed enough to prove that point. You escaping was more of a fluke than the norm. All of his victims were under heavy guard with their every move monitored, whether they knew it or not. And each died by his hand. Additionally, my fears were confirmed when I listened in on him bribing the king himself with these, one of which I managed to sneak away.”

She fished into a pocket and pulled out a small sack, handing it to Cinis for his inspection. He poured a small pearl into his hand, dark black in hue, and inspected it as Jessica continued speaking.

“The only place where these can be harvested is Corsus, and deep in Corsus at that. This isn’t from a borderland—these are from deeper than the heart,” Jessica explained.

“So Corsus has reason to kill me?” asked Cinis. “How did you know I’d be next?”

“Well, there’s actually a list.”

“A list of what?” Cinis asked flatly.

“You and fifteen others. That is, if you count the ones who have already been knocked off. Coincidently, fifteen of them.”

“All of them? I’m the last one of the list, and he’s killed off the other fifteen? Damn it, how are you supposed to protect me if you let the other fifteen die?”

“Look, this is the reason why I didn’t want you fighting him. We’re doing our best, and this time we’re ahead of the curve. You’re actually the first death that I’ve been involved in. Well, to rephrase that with optimism, not death, but life.”

Cinis laughed. “Look, Jessica, I’m convinced you both have the wrong person. I’m not rich. I’m not royal or talented.”

“We don’t even know if that’s a requirement! Perhaps your influence is so small that you’ve already contributed your part. Either way, the point is moot to you,” Jessica said. “All that matters is that he still wants you dead. And if we can draw him out to Rhymenia, maybe we can learn more. But—”

Suddenly she cocked her head, sitting stock still and lowering her voice to a whisper. “Did you hear that?” she asked. “Footsteps!”

From his laying position, Cinis looked through a crack in the boxes, peering toward the shore. Not twenty feet away he spotted a glimpse of advancing purple cloaks, Libus walking backward in front of them and waving his hands frantically.

Jessica held a finger up to her lips and, taking Cinis’ hand, slowly lowered herself over the edge of the raft into the water. Cinis followed, his feet on the bottom of the river, not trusting his limited swimming skills in the current. Taking a deep breath, he followed Jessica underneath the raft and found an air pocket between two of the lashed logs just large enough for the two of them. He peered upward through the crack as two sets of feet boarded the raft.

Chapter 42: A Taste of Whiskey

Cinis, Jessica

“Where’s your search warrant? You have no right to board, this is my property! I’ve taken this raft up and down this river the past four years without causing the slightest hint of trouble,” shouted Libus’ angry voice from above.

“Listen here,” responded the gruff voice of a palace guard, “hold your tongue before I cut it out. These are orders straight from the king.” He began rifling through the cargo, kicking crates and unceremoniously dumping a large sack of apples to the deck. His foot stepped on the crack just above Cinis’ head, blocking out the light, and a thick layer of dust descended on him as he stifled a sneeze. He held his breath, his muscles tensing as Jessica shook her head.

“You said you were traveling alone?” asked the guard, sifting his way through crates.

“Yes. I don’t care much for visitors, especially those uninvited.”

The guard ignored the comment and issued a command to his counterpart.

“That crate, pry it open. That’s big enough to fit a body.” Nails screeched as the lid was removed, and the guard continued speaking, pulling items out of the crate and scattering them on the raft floor.

“Linen, silk, cookware. That’s a strange assortment.” The pot hit the deck with a clang as it was dropped. “More silk. Hey, what have we here? How—” The guard gasped as Cinis heard a new sound, a gruesome thump, followed by something similar to a hundred beads being dropped at once. The guard’s body collapsed to the deck above, blocking their view, and Libus’ voice called out.

“Cinis, Jessica! That’s our cue to go, now!”

Quickly they resurfaced and boarded the raft, dripping wet. Libus was holding the crowbar that had been used to open the crate against a struggling guard’s throat as his superior lay on the deck, unconscious from a blow to the head.

“Don’t just stand there!” hissed Libus as the guard tried to call out, and he tightened the crowbar, cutting off the sound, which made its way out as a strained gurgle. “The silk, get the silk and tie him up. And you, stop struggling, or you’ll be going the same way as your superior. Do you really want that?”

“Tie him up?” Said Cinis, “Why should you tie him up? We’ll take him as a prisoner, or finish him off now. It’s not as if he doesn’t deserve it.”

Jessica froze, as Libus’ gaze fell upon Cinis.

“Boy,” He said, eyes squinting, “Don’t be so quick to pass judgement. I understand you are angry, and rightfully so, but killing him would be both unnecessary and imprudent. Now go on, the silk.”

In moments Jessica had the unconscious guard bound with strips of silk that Cinis had ripped apart, he helping her tie the knots and making several unnecessarily tight, and together they dragged him to shore before returning to Libus and the second guard.

“Now look here,” Libus said to the guard, “I know as soon as we set you on that bank you’ll go crying to your superiors. And I know that if you go missing, they’ll assume the worst, and we’ll have a swarm on our hands. So this is what we’re going to do. Cinis, there’s a bottle of whiskey in the crate he emptied, along with a pot, fetch them both. A shame to waste it, truly, but it must be done. Jessica, bind his feet, we don’t want him running off.”

“I swear I won’t tell,” gasped the guard. “I swear it! What are you going to do with me?”

“Unfortunately, we both know that’s a lie. So tell me, do you drink?”

“Drink? Well, no, I can’t say I—”

“All the better! Looks like we have a man with no tolerance!” Libus said as Jessica finished tying his feet, and he let the guard fall to the raft floor.

“What are you thinking?” hissed Jessica, as Libus uncorked the whiskey bottle and took a swig before pouring half the bottle in the pot.

“I’m thinking we don’t get caught,” he answered, and he handed the pot to the guard, reading his name badge and tapping the crowbar against his palm. “Here’s the deal, Ansell. We either kill you here, or you drink this pot of whiskey. All of it, understood? So, what’s it going to be?”

In response, the guard started sipping from the pot, coughing as he struggled to swallow the liquid.

“There we go,” said Libus, tipping the pot upward with his foot. “All of it. Now, tell you what, Ansell. I like whiskey myself, and I’m in need of a drinking partner, so we’re going to share a few more sips while we wait for that to kick in.”

The guard groaned as Libus pushed the bottle toward his lips.

“This is ridiculous,” complained Jessica, hands on her hips.

“I agree,” Commented Cinis, eyeing the crowbar in Libus’ hands.

“Sorry, I don’t mean to choose favorites or make you jealous, Jessica you can be my drinking partner next. Cinis, frankly, you’re too young, though I don’t doubt that you’ve had your share of alcohol.”

“Not that,” said Jessica, as the guard took another swig. “You’re getting drunk while we should be fleeing.”

“Correction,” replied Libus, a finger in the air, “I’m getting the guard drunk. The very guard who is going to rush back and try to rouse the troops, but won’t be able to walk in a straight line. Tell me, Ansell, what is the punishment for getting drunk on duty?”

“Lashings,” mumbled the guard, his voice already slurring.

“Right, lashings. And in the state that you’ll be in, it could be worse. Maybe even death, considering that in your drunken rage you hit your superior with a crowbar!”

“I didn’t do that!” exclaimed the guard.

“Then why are you drunk, Ansell? Think about it. Are your counterparts really going to believe you? If I were you, I’d walk on back, and sleep it off. Make sure that the other guards see you, so they don’t come rushing down here to find the body. By the time he wakes up, he’ll be so disoriented you could claim he was drunk with you and passed out on the bank. Up you go, one last drink!”

A quarter of the bottle was left when Jessica untied the guard’s legs, and they let him ashore. He wobbled as Libus shooed him forward, quickly disappearing as he walked back toward the town. Then Libus took the bottle of whiskey and sprinkled it over the unconscious guard before untying the silk then the ropes holding the raft in place, and leaving him alone on the bank.

“You’re just going to let him walk?” Asked Cinis, fists clenched and voice rising, “After what they have done to you? After what they’ve done to us? Libus, you were not supposed to join us, and we never put you in charge to make the decisions.”

“Until your head is in the right place, I’m declaring myself as the one in charge,” replied Libus as they floated away. He cut Jessica off as she opened her mouth to object, “I nominate you, Jessica, as co-leader. Listen, there are now two drunk guards. One with a wild story to tell after he is caught trying to sneak back drunk, and the other so drunk he passed out on the bank. They’ll be the laughingstock of their troop, and we’ll be long gone before the truth comes out. Use your head, Cinis, or your heart will have us killed.”

Chapter 43: Pearls

Jessica, Cinis

“So much for going through Anarchen unnoticed,” remarked Jessica dryly. “Weren’t you the one who originally said we shouldn’t stop there?”

Libus glared. “We have until tomorrow morning at worst before they discover what actually happened. By then, you should be outside the city limits of Granttan, posing as a pair of weary travelers on the road. It was a slip up, and a necessary risk.”

“So I take it news of me has spread?” asked Cinis from his position sitting at edge of the raft, picking at the wood splinters. He fingered the two knives at his belt, wondering if he should have used them minutes before. “If they’re going to kill me, Libus, I’d rather give them something to remember me by than go quietly.”

“Violence will come soon enough, boy, and until then I’d prefer to keep you from committing involuntary suicide. Oh, they’ve heard of you alright—you’re famous. There’s a warrant out for your arrest, for treason against the king himself, and they’ve got you described down to your boots. Brown hair, medium stature, smells like stale beer, surly, and vicious to the bone. Plus a sizeable reward out for your arrest, the crown of the king himself, to be traded for your body, dead or alive. On that money, a man need not worry about working for quite some time, though I suspect the king offered that bounty simply so he could have a newer crown made.

“I’d say, though, my smith friend thinks you’re quite the hero. He has long been regarded as one of the best smithies within Quarkus’ vicinity, and as such he’s had the displeasure of working with the royal guard. Nasty bunch for business, he says, and he hopes that our treasoner here managed to put a dent in a few of the breastplates he sold ‘em. Plus, the guards stationed in Anarchen since your warrant was put up have driven the town as a whole to near revolt. I’m sure there’s plenty who would be willing to buy you a drink, and just as many who would likely share your sentiment in braining them. I would have tried to get more out of him, but at that point the guards were walking toward the raft, and I had to take action.”

“Take action?” inquired Jessica, enraged. “Why did you attack them? We were hidden and there was no provocation. Now, as soon as he’s found, it’s going to be obvious that we were here and they’ll be hot on our trail. For declaring yourself as leader, you’ve shown little promise.”

“Do you want me to leave? I saved you both from Querkus, the least you could do is give me some trust, Jessica. And I didn’t have a choice but to act, ” said Libus. “Look.” He reached his hands inside the crate that the guard had pried open and inspected, pulling out a handful of black pearls and letting them slip through his fingers.

“The whisterwood crates,” breathed Jessica. “They were smuggling the pearls in the crates. Pearls that Rorcul was going to use to bribe the king.”

“Is that so? We’ve stumbled across a small fortune of them,” answered Libus, dropping the remainder of the pearls from his hands like hot coals.

“That’s perfect, then!” exclaimed Cinis, scooping out a handful. “Not only did we steal from Rorcul, but now we have enough money to pay our way to Rhymenia. We can buy weapons, disguises, and proper passage. Maybe even hire someone to help us finish off Rorcul, too!”

Libus turned to Jessica. “Is he being serious? Boy, if you don’t start using that head of yours soon, I’ll be surprised if we even make it to Granttan. I know Rearden invested heavily into forcing knowledge through that thick skull.”

“He’s right, Cinis,” said Jessica, “the pearls will be highly traceable, since they only come from Corsus, and by simply revealing that we have them, we will be painting targets on ourselves. It would be more than suspicious—it would be like shouting Rorcul’s name in every town that we walk into, and leaving notes behind for him at each inn. Furthermore, if you don’t put aside this quest for revenge for the time being, you’ll endanger us all. And I can promise that you won’t succeed in killing him, no matter who you hire.”

“What makes you think that? I held up to Rorcul just fine in the palace gardens!”

“You fled like a cat with a tail between its legs,” answered Libus. “Though that was, of course, the appropriate course of action.”

“It wasn’t my choice,” Cinis shouted, “and it certainly isn’t now! I could take him, I know how to fight. I stood up against his demons. I found the tunnels to escape. Give me a proper sword, and I’ll finish the job that apparentlyboth of you are to scared to do!”

For a moment, all was silent on the raft as Cinis’ chest rose and fell from the outburst. His cheeks turned red, not from the exertion, but rather from embarrassment. From knowing the fragility of his words, yet refusing to take them back.

“Do you really believe that?” said Jessica, her voice soft, walking to the center of the raft and sitting down with her legs crossed, closing her eyes. “Let’s see it then.”

It’s time he learned, she thought. Time to put this foolishness aside. Time to show him what he’s up against. She recalled Cesaro’s words in her mind, from an evening when she had watched him working magic so far beyond her own skill that she could not discern his methods. He had smiled, reached his hands into a raging furnace, pulled forth a red hot sheet of steel between his bare fingers, and coaxed molten roses to spring forth from the metal as if it were fertile soil.

“A mouse does not know it is a mouse until it meets the elephant, Jessica,” he had said as the first rose bloomed and died, its petals falling with soft clinks to the ground. “It is often best for the mouse to forget his size, but even the elephant must stomp his foot on occasion, and the mouse will remember.”

“See what?” retorted Cinis to her challenge.

“Let’s see you kill him. Go on then, I’ll be practice. Pretend I’m him and strike me down. Surely it would be easy for you, since Rorcul frightens me, but you think you can best him. Libus, hand Cinis the crowbar the guards brought, if you please. It should serve as a sword for lack of a real one.”

“Pull your punches,” said Libus, handing Cinis the crowbar. “We can’t afford a serious injury here.”

“I’m not going to actually hit her,” Cinis answered, his hand gripped tight against the hard metal.

“I wasn’t talking to you, boy,” Libus responded. “I was talking to her.”

Chapter 44: Sink or Swim

Cinis, Jessica

“I’m waiting,” taunted Jessica, unmoving. “By now, Rorcul would have had you stuffed and displayed on the mantle, assuming he didn’t toy with you first.”

“It wouldn’t be fair,” said Cinis, “you’re defenseless.”

“You’re right, it won’t be fair,” said Libus. “Go on. Let’s find out what you’re made of.”

“No, I’m not going to do it,” said Cinis, his arms crossed across his chest.

“Just like you didn’t save Rearden’s life,” goaded Jessica, and Cinis tensed, his eyes flashing.

“Fine, then!” he shouted, and swung the crowbar, aiming at her left bicep with just enough force to make it sting. Just before the metal made contact with her skin, Jessica shifted just enough for it to barely miss, and Cinis stumbled past her.

“You’re going to have to swing harder than that if you want to kill Rorcul,” she said as Cinis whipped around, the raft rocking in the water as he lunged again.

This time he put his weight behind the blow, stepping into the motion as his body twisted. This time Jessica moved before his swing began.

She tilted, rolling toward Cinis and taking his shirt sleeve in her hand mid-swing, arcing her foot toward his weight-bearing ankle all in the same motion. As her heel connected, she pulled downward on his sleeve, his forward momentum sending him careening toward the leg that she had knocked out from underneath him. Twisting, she let his body roll over the top of her back, her movements as fluid and graceful as Cinis’ were uncoordinated.

With nothing left to support him, Cinis flew through the air, sailing past the edge of the raft and splashing into the water beyond, the crowbar following him into the river. Seconds later, his head broke the surface of the water as his limbs flailed and he gasped for air, his hand reaching out and just barely missing the edge of the raft.

“Are you going to help him?” asked Libus as Cinis slid under the water again, thrashing until he was able to take another breath.

“In a moment,” Jessica responded, watching. “I want him to remember this.”

Cinis surfaced as they watched, lunging forward to grasp the edge of the raft and pull himself closer. He gasped, spitting out a mouthful of water and coughing, a strand of rivergrass entangled in his hair. Jessica leaned down toward him, her face an inch away from his, and spoke.

“Know without a doubt, Cinis, that I would win in any fight between us. I’m not saying this to boast, or to scare you, I’m saying it because my master informed me that Rorcul would best me, which surely means he would best you.” Then she placed her hands over his and squeezed. “Every. Time.”

Cinis yelped as she wrenched his fingers upward and flung him back into the water, panicking until he took hold of the raft once more, pulling himself back to safety and onto the wood.

“Now that that’s settled,” Jessica said, then she paused and turned to Cinis. “It is settled, isn’t it? Do you understand?”

“Yes,” he said through gritted teeth, but his mind turned back to Libus’ book, where he had written his name in blood not long ago. She’s right, I’ll wait until I’m trained, he thought, but if I have the chance to strike, I’m taking it. And there’s nothing she can do to stop me.

Then Cinis looked toward the bank, his brow furrowed.

I’ll need to plan for when I leave both of them. Maybe I’ll wait until I’m closer to Rhymenia, maybe take some of the black pearls with me and use them to learn to fight. If she’s right, then spending them will attract Rorcul from wherever he may be, and I won’t have to hunt him down. Rather, I can use them as a trap, as bait.

Jessica spoke again, interrupting his thoughts.

“As I was saying, now that that’s settled, we have the problem of the pearls. If these were being shipped by Rorcul, then there’s no doubt that he will soon realize they are missing, if he hasn’t already. So not only is there a manhunt for Cinis, but also for a small fortune, both of which happen to be on this raft.”

“They’ll be searching downriver for the pearls,” interjected Libus, “so if we stop at Granttan to head ashore, we’ll likely be found.”

“Agreed,” said Jessica. “In fact, the river will likely be blocked at Granttan, making it impossible to pass. I suggest we go ashore sooner, in the forest, and walk until we find the road.”

“Which many would say is an even more dangerous path,” countered Cinis, shaking the water from his hair.

Jessica laughed. “Maybe if you’ve spent your whole life in the city. I’ve had my share of experience off the road.”

“So did the merchants who thought they could cut through the forest when carrying a shipment of wine Rearden ordered two years ago,” said Cinis. “They were never found, and neither was the wine. Expensive stuff, too.”

“I’m siding with Cinis here, Jessica,” Libus said. “I’ve heard stories as well of good men who have gone missing, men who had experience and were not green. I say we avoid the forest until just before Granttan, where the road is closest to the bank. The good news is that Rorcul’s men will not be able to cross through the forest either, so we do not need to worry about arrows from the bank.”

“I didn’t take you for the superstitious type, Libus,” responded Jessica.

“As I said, there are stories about this stretch,” he said, looking toward the darkness between the trees. “Enough stories that rafts refuse to beach for sleep and choose instead to work straight through the night. It’s no secret that men have gone missing.”

“Most likely they got lost,” Jessica said, looking back to her map. “But to be sure, let’s keep going for another few hours, until the road bends inward back toward the river. The distance through the forest will be least there, just before Granttan. Like you said, Libus.”

“So now that that’s decided, what do we do now, wait?” asked Cinis, looking wistfully toward the water where he had dropped the crowbar, which would have served as an adequate weapon. “Should we prepare in case we are attacked?”

“Not much we can do to prepare, boy, considering that, if they find us, we will be drastically outnumbered,” said Libus. “So yes, we wait, and we drift, and we hope they don’t anticipate us heading ashore before the city. Oh, and one more thing, before I forget.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small pouch, the fabric an inky black.

“Jessica, it’s not just seasoned men who don’t make it through the forest. Often it’s those carrying magical devices, specifically that exist for somewhat dubious purposes. Inhabitants of the forest often don’t take kindly to those, as legend says, considering them to be a blasphemy of powers they hold sacred.”

Stretching the mouth of the bag, he held it out to Jessica, several other objects clinking together on the inside.

“Your earrings, if you will.”

Chapter 45: The Veil

Cinis, Jessica

“My what?” said Jessica, her cheeks turning red as she stepped back from Libus.

“Not all of us have spent our entire lives within the neutral city, Jessica. In fact, I’ve only spent a small portion of mine there, and recently at that. Which means I can recognize a magical item when I see one, especially if I have to see them everytime I look at your face. Not that looking at it is any displeasure, of course.”

“What are you talking about, Libus?” Cinis said as Jessica glared. “Are they fake or something? Like the gemstones are disguised glass?”

“I’m not cheap, they’re real,” snapped Jessica. “But even so, what makes you think they are magical, Libus?”

“A glimmer here, a glitter there. There are signs even for those ungifted to recognize such items. I’ve seen enough of them in the past to know to look for them and to be wary of them. I do admit they are especially well made, and if you constructed such an object, then I have drastically underestimated you. To accomplish such a feat at your age would be astounding, assuming you are your age. Which is another reason they should come off, Jessica. I want to see what’s underneath those earrings, besides ears.”

“What exactly do they do?” asked Cinis, wringing out the water still clinging to his shirt, and backing away as he remembered the way Jessica had made her crate come to life. And the way she had seemed to move too fast when he attacked her, faster than should be possible.  This time, he would be ready.

“Why should I trust you if you have a veil?” Jessica demanded of Libus, who smiled and shook the black bag. The bag itself appeared to be made of silk, the drawstring the same material as the fabric. Near the mouth of the bag, his fingers appeared darker, as if the light itself was sucked into the pouch, or as if it behaved the opposite as a candle darkness, instead of light, emanated from within.

“Why should I trust you if you know what a veil is?” Libus answered.

“What does a veil do?  And how is it worse than the earrings that you’re wearing, Jessica?” Asked Cinis, now several feet from the two of them, his hand on the top of a nearby crate. If matters turned for the worse, he could use it as a shield, or a weapon, or to use the wood’s buoyancy to help him float away.

“As Libus mentioned,” said Jessica, turning to face Cinis, swaying slightly as the current picked up and their raft turned around a bend in the river, “there are those that can sense magic and magical objects. Typically, the less advanced the magic is, the easier it is to recognize, though keen and attentive eyes can sometimes see past even the most carefully woven spells. Think of it as a sense—for instance when I speak you can hear me. When I am nearby you can feel my body heat. Magic has its own way of speaking, and those that are trained can hear or, more accurately, feel it.

“For shady reasons,” she said, with a look toward Libus, “you may want to hide that magic, or muffle the noise that it makes. A veil is capable of hiding it or silencing it nearly completely. And a veil can only be made using dark magic, by weaving shadows themselves together.”

“Like how Rorcul tried to kill me when we were escaping?” asked Cinis, glancing at the veil and his hand gripping the crate lid tighter, shoulder muscles tensing.

“Exactly like that. Which is why,” she said, her voice accusing, and her shoulders squared against Libus, “it concerns me that Libus not only has one, but also led you to Rorcul inside the palace gardens in the first place.”

“Don’t forget I also delivered you from him,” said Libus, “and am continuing to deliver you as we speak. You are correct, Jessica, that only dark magic can create a veil. But I never created it, rather I liberated it from someone. I can work dark magic as well as Cinis can swim. Not only that, but I am wearing no disguise. If there is anyone who should be suspected for not revealing their true form, it is you, Jessica.”

Jessica’s eyes narrowed, and the hairs on Cinis’ arms pricked in anticipation. She bit the inside of her lip, and the sounds of the forest intensified to fill the silence of their conversation—the shriek of a falcon sounding high overhead, frogs croaking low on the bank, and rodents chattering in the dark gaps between trees. Fish rushed under the raft, one or two slamming against the wood in their trek upstream. And as Libus met her stare, Cinis became aware of a new sensation, a smell that just barely tickled the inside of his nostrils. The smell of his hands after he cleaned the metal on his daggers, or after he counted out coins from the tavern at the end of the night.

“Fine,” spat Jessica, reaching up to her earlobes and flicking open the clasps that held the earrings in place. And Cinis gasped, nearly falling backward as her transformation began.

A seam formed down the middle of Jessica’s face, taut lines stretching from her nose to her ears and pulling outwards. As she pulled the earrings away, lines of light twisted apart, rushing toward the earrings and pulling Jessica’s features with them.

First, the color drained from her hair, the dark brown flushed away to be replaced by blonde that had only peeked out through what appeared to be sun-induced highlights a moment before. Then her eyes flickered, the chestnut irises flooding to blue as she blinked away the pigmentation, followed shortly by a morphing of her facial structure as her cheeks and jaw pressed inward, narrowing her features in a way that aligned fittingly with the shape of her body.

Chills ran up Cinis’ spine as the transformation completed, and he realized where he had seen her before, only a few days prior.

“You, I saw you in the tunnels,” he stuttered, keeping his eyes on the earrings which now gleamed in the sunlight, “only I thought there were two of you!”

“You knocked my earring out when we collided,” answered Jessica. “Both of them have to be in for them to work.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said, his heart racing. “Now you look—”

“Like an angel,” finished Libus.

“An angel?” Cinis repeated,. “I suppose that’s a compliment, but I was going to say—”

“Not that type of angel, boy, and quit gawking,” Libus interrupted shaking his head. “By Corsus, for all that Rearden taught you of number and reading, he could have interjected some culture into your education. An angel is what those of Air Magic descent are called. Blonde, slim, sky-blue eyes, pointed features. The spitting image, Jessica, so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if you were descended from nobility. Quite interesting that none of your magic has been typical of what I would expect from an angel.”

“You’ve kept your own secrets,” said Jessica, dropping the earrings in Libus’ veil. “And I’ll keep mine. I’ll be wanting those back when we are back on open road.”

“Of course,” said Libus. “Rest assured, I only steal from those who deserve to be stolen from.”

“So comforting,” said Jessica dryly as Libus closed the pouch, and her earrings disappeared.

Then they continued floating down the river, Jessica sitting on a crate and consulting her map, Libus staring at the forest line, and Cinis trailing his back to the water, wondering what else he did not know.

Chapter 46: Tymik

Cinis, Jessica

“By tomorrow afternoon, we should reach Granttan,” said Jessica as the sun began to set. “Until then, we should rest and set watch.”

“Of course,” said Libus, already reclining on linens salvaged from the cargo. “But first, there is time for something else.”

“And what would that be?” asked Jessica.

“What I promised Cinis long ago, when we were still simply acquaintances,” responged Libus. “Tell me, Cinis, do you remember?”

Cinis thought back to when Libus had given him the knives, when the tax collector Avalinious had come to the tavern, and what Libus had said as he gave him the coin.

“You said you would teach me,” Cinis said. “That you would give me an education.”

“Yes,” whispered Libus into the falling night. “An education. As I said, Rearden did well teaching you the inner workings of what mattered within Querkus. But outside of that, he taught you little. And that is what I intend to teach you.”

“What do you mean, exactly?”

“There is much you need to learn, Cinis. Despite what I’ve said, you’re not stupid or dull. You’ve just never been exposed to the outside world. But I’ll begin with the simplest first. A bedtime story, which fits well into our current situation. Our explanation of how the world came to exist in its current state. Let us start at the beginning.”

And Libus began to speak, his voice melding with with rushing water as Cinis listened. Jessica repeated the story in her mind, where it was engraved from the thousand times she had heard it.

***

Many years ago, before Corpia was divided and the races named, there existed but one people, the ancestors of all who walk the land. Their powers were incredible—by their hand were the mountains raised, rivers carved, and the stars shifted into the constellations. Solely and unopposed they ruled the land, and Corpia was said to be beautiful like no eye has seen since. They were the keepers of the secrets of old, guardians of that which is pure and true.

But they were not alone.

There were other forces, demons of power that became present in Corpia, forces from outside that were not of this place, though whether they were from the sea, sky, or earth it is not known. A great war was born, a war that lasted for centuries with casualties great on both sides. And in this war, the great secrets were lost, the demons banished, and the guardians faded. Out of the ashes, a new world was born, a world that was merely a shadow of its former glory.

But this world, too, was troubled. A great demon had escaped the wrath of the guardians and lay hidden for years as his strength returned. Without the guardians, Corpia’s defenses were weak against this demon, and the wars resumed. For years the people wallowed in despair, watching their land slowly fall under the rule of the demon, until a hero emerged from their midst.

Tymik, the greatest mage the since the guardians.

He escaped the demon and wandered the earth, where he slowly rediscovered seven of the lost secrets whispered to him by the spirits of the guardians. Returning to fight the demon, he destroyed him with the seven secrets in a battle so monumental it was said the earth itself trembled in fear, and he was crowned king of Corpia. The fairest lady of the land, Myria, became his wife and queen, and together they ruled and healed Corpia.

Soon Myria gave birth to a set of twins, and Tymik took each child and, taking them to his room, whispered one of the guardian’s secrets to each, those of Light and Darkness. The secrets entered their beings, changing the children into representations of the secrets and giving them great power. As Tymik continued to rule, Light and Darkness aged and grew jealous of their father’s great powers, of which they each only possessed a seventh. Then Myria again became pregnant with child, and Darkness schemed to steal the secret that was to be given to this child.

“Come,” said Darkness to Light, “let us sneak into our father’s room and listen to the next secret.” Light, being too prideful to allow Darkness to possess a secret he did now know, agreed, and they heard the next secret, that of Earth. When the next child came, they hid again and heard of Fire, then Water and Air. But as Tymik was about to grant the seventh secret to the seventh child, he stopped and instead addressed them from within the room.

“Light and Darkness,” he called, “since the beginning, I have known that you have heard the secrets of your brothers and sisters. You have taken what was not your right. As my eldest children, you will become leaders of my lands and I would have revealed them to you. But now as punishment, I will hold back this one last secret from you, the secret of Life, and share it with your brother only. You will be subject to death instead of immortality, and in this way your reign over your brothers and sisters will be restricted, as you have shown you are impure and cannot reign over them forever. Each of you know five of the secrets and are equal, neither greater nor lesser than the other, and will therefore each receive half of my lands.”

He then whispered the last secret so that Light and Darkness could not hear, the secret of Life.

Light and Darkness then became the ancestors of the royal races, the kings and queens of Corpia. Their successors became some of the greatest leaders, warriors, and poets, and though their numbers were always few, they held great power.

Earth, Fire, Water, and Air then formed the great races with abounding numbers. Their children built the great cities and civilizations while forming a great populace to inherit them.

Of Life, his end is unknown. Some say that his offspring mingled with the other races. Others, that Life never existed at all, and that Tymik never shared his last secret.

Chapter 47: Moonlight

Cinis, Jessica

All was quiet as Libus finished his story. Below them the raft trickled forward, while above the stars were beginning to twinkle as the sun set. A soft breeze blew through the forest, the sound of rustling leaves reaching them from the bank as well as the first hoots of owls.

“We’ll need to set watch,” said Jessica after several minutes, “just in case we we are pursued.”

“There is no just in case,” responded Libus. “Rest assured, we are being pursued. The only question is whether they are fast enough to catch us. I’ll cover for first watch.”

“Actually, I was going to take that,” responded Jessica. “After today I could use some time to collect my thoughts.”

“If you insist,” said Libus, and he rummaged through a nearby crate, removing a blanket. “Just don’t let the river lull you to sleep. I will claim third watch, to make sure that they don’t approach with the dawn.”

“That leaves me with second, then,” said Cinis. “In the middle of the night, at the center of the forest. Are you doing this on purpose, to try to give me the safe watch?”

“The safe watch,” said Libus, “No, yours is likely the most dangerous. And if danger should strike then, we will have very little chance of escaping alive and will likely be killed on the spot. So with that note I’m retiring, as I would rather be killed in my sleep than while awake.”

Cinis followed his lead, finding another scratchy, wool blanket from the crates and reclining on the raft’s wood, a sharp knot digging into his right shoulder blade as he shifted. He shut his eyes, the light of the stars above leaving imprints on his retina, and the sounds of the forest too quiet for his liking. In the city, there had always been some form of noise, whether it was the cats scrabbling over garbage at night, the carts passing through the streets, or the ramblings of the homeless who appeared after dark. But here, the sounds were more subdued. And despite his best efforts, he found it difficult to sleep.

He lay there for a half hour, perfectly still and breath regular, waiting for dreams that never came. Every so often he cracked an eye open to spot Jessica in her perch on the crates, her now blonde hair trailing in the light breeze, and her angular face unfamiliar to him. He had just started to grow accustomed to her old form when she had changed, and now she felt like another person entirely. A complete stranger. Though he had to remind himself that he had hardly known her for any time at all.

How do I even know that this face is real? he thought. What if it is just another layer? What if there is more underneath, something that even Libus could not spot?

And as he thought, she stood on top of the crate, and he silently watched as she stepped down to the boards without making a sound. Then she walked to the back of the raft, staring off the end into the night, where the reflection of the moon danced off the rippling water. Reaching a hand high into the air, she lifted two fingers to point at the night sky, slightly shifting her position as she craned her head over the water, her eyes searching as the wind pressed her clothes against the contours of her body, somehow making even her heavy gardening clothes appear elegant.

In a sweeping motion she dipped down, her movements fluid, like a bird swooping down from the sky, and trailed her fingers through the water, her fingers leaving the rushing water with a flick, sending water droplets splashing several feet upstream. She repeated the gesture, pursing her lips and loosing a low, barely audible whistle that seemed to come from the river itself. And when she finished the motion, Cinis felt a slight lurch as the raft accelerated, and the water just off the back of the raft roiled and flashed with silver reflections of sparkling moonlight.

Then Jessica resumed her post atop the crate, Cinis still watching her as the raft moved at nearly double its original speed, though she failed to move again besides the occasional stretch or yawn. And he turned his head slightly, stretching to see what was in the water below, but failed to make sense of the swarm of dark shapes wriggling underneath.

***

“Cinis,” hissed Jessica as she shook him awake, and his eyelids opened with reluctance. “Cinis, get up! It’s your watch. I’ll need rest if I’m to get us through the haunted forest tomorrow. Don’t make me splash you.”

He opened his eyes as she pulled the blanket off him and wrapped it around her shoulders. Shivering, he stood and took her spot at the top of the crates, groggily alternating from looking down and upstream for movement as Jessica settled into position for sleep.

He peered toward the edge of the raft, trying to see the movement that had been there earlier, during Jessica’s shift, and wondering if perhaps he had imagined it. Instead, the water appeared nearly motionless as it kept pace with the raft. Even the banks seemed still, gliding by at a slower and slower pace.

He yawned, biting the edge of his lip to push away sleepiness, knowing there was still a long night ahead. For a moment he was so focused on not falling asleep that he failed to notice the sound that was growing around him.

He froze when he heard it, the sound permeating the air around him, saturating the night itself. And underneath the raft, dark shapes raced by, splitting around the raft to swirl in a growing circle in front of him. The shadows danced with the sound, to the musical notes that skimmed across the water, and the voice that was now singing.

Atop the shapes moonlight drew together, racing across the water to form a thick, silver puddle that bulged out from the center, slowly growing upward until the silver split and fell in ringed folds down to the surface.

And a figure rose from the water, dressed in a gown of moonlight, and gazing with clear eyes that focused on Cinis.

Chapter 48: Current

Cinis sat, transfixed, as the music took hold of him. Notes trickled in time with the river’s ripples, light as a cloud then cascading like a waterfall. The singer was female, her voice soft and beautiful. A familiar feeling washed over him, the same feeling he always experienced when he was deep in the tunnels below the city. What happened next did not surprise him—he already expected it.

The voice changed, flickering with an infused power that commanded the waters below. The figure stood atop the river, which shone and glimmered as patterns swirled across its smooth surface.

Her black hair flowed down past her shoulders in much the same way as a brook bubbles over the shoulders of mountains. Her eyebrows were arched, her nose sharp, and her eyes an unnaturally deep blue. White frills, the color of foaming wave crests, accented her moonlight dress, and the small, silvery fins of fish circled at her feet. Cinis remained still, facing the creature that he knew not to be human, and he felt a fear deep in his heart for the power before him. Not a fear of his own personal safety, but of respect and reverence.

The singing ceased, and she spoke, her voice maintaining a steady, musical rhythm.

“My pets alerted me to your coming, young one. I heard your calling, and I have come.”

“There must be some mistake,” said Cinis, and he was surprised by the musical quality in his own voice. “I never called you. I think my friend may have,” he motioned to Jessica, “but I don’t even know your name.”

“Just as spring calls the rain, and winter the snow, you have called me. Your friend, a one you are lucky to have in your midst, called my pets to your aid. But it is your being that called me. What brings you to my waters?”

“We are headed to Cardinia,” he said.

“The blended city?” she replied. “What business have you there? You are not clear, young one. I see you like I see a muddy puddle. I know what you are, but who? And from where? These things I cannot see, for something obscures you like tinted glass. Come, come with me beneath the waters, and let us see who you really are.”

He felt the music in her voice pulling at him, the notes wrapping around him, leading him toward the edge of the raft.

“Come with you where?” he asked, stepping forward, his feet carried by an invisible current.

“Beneath the waters,” she said again, reaching her fingertips forward, the translucent skin bearing the same color and texture as ice. “Come with me, child. I feel rough edges in you—anger, spite, bitterness. Come, let the river wash them away. Let it smooth your edges like the stones of the riverbed. Come, forget Rhymenia, forget the above world. You’ll be safe here, you belong here and have so much to learn. So much that I can teach you.”

“Teach me what?” he asked, sitting down on the edge of the raft and lowering one leg into the water. It felt warm and welcoming, and the figure smiled at him as he sank down to his knee.

“Many things, young one. I could teach you the ways of water—you have potential, the power to master it. And you shall never find a better teacher than myself. More than that, however, young one. I am old, far older than any you have ever met, with memories to match my age. I have known your kind before, known where they have fallen astray, known what they are capable of and the wrongs and rights that they have committed.”

“What do you mean by my kind?” he asked, and besides the musical quality, a slur had entered his voice, as if he were already speaking underwater.

“There are ears all around,” she responded. “Birds and trees and bears and men. Others who would not be nearly as friendly as I would to you.” She smiled softly. “But your fathers once did me a great favor, a favor that I cannot forget, and which I am obligated to repay.”

Cinis was now waist-deep in the water, his legs like lead weights, dragging him down, his fingers loosening on the edge of the raft as he lowered himself deeper into the current. In a way, it reminded him of the tunnels beneath Querkus, and he closed his eyes, accepting the pull, the water now up to his chest.

“What sort of favor?” he asked, and for a second he wondered where he was.

I should be at the tavern, he thought. Rearden will be upset if I’m late for class, or if the dishes are not done for the customers. Have we paid the taxes this month? I don’t remember doing it, and what if we forgot? Why am I wet?

“He set me free,” answered the figure, and Cinis felt her finger graze the back of his neck, an electrifying impulse extending from it as the music screamed in volume, a sense of power far beyond him, like the smell of ozone after a nearby lightning strike. “I intend to do the same for you.”

He drifted toward her, two fingers still clinging to the raft, the water cradling him.

“Ok,” he answered, and he let go, just as another hand grasped his wrist and he opened his eyes.

“No!” shouted Jessica, her eyes wide and grip so strong that it cut off his circulation. “Cinis, no!”

She raised her gaze to the figure in the water, blue meeting blue, calm meeting ferocity.

“I don’t know who you are,” she hissed, “or what you want. Cinis will be coming with me, and I won’t let him go without a fight.”

“A raindrop against a river is not a fight,” responded the figure as the silver fins beneath her quickened.

“I don’t care,” countered Jessica, staggering her feet in a fighting stance, her fists clenched as a branch grew from the wood of the raft and twisted itself snugly around Cinis’ forearm.