Chapter 5 Knives Are Out

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-Ticca-

Enjoying the sweet and salty flavor of the sweetmeat, Ticca strolled through the marketplace. As she compared the morning’s purchases against her list of needed items, she smiled. Her new pouch had two separate compartments with identical sets of items. The exception was that one had practically nothing of value, while the other held the important items. She was particularly pleased with the set of journals she’d found. It would take a little work to transfer her notes, but it would be worth it. The sun was warm, and all her main objectives for the day were dealt with. She considered the future.

I should go back to the Blue Dolphin and put my dagger out. But I think I can afford to take a short break. I have been working for years to get here. I think I deserve a break.

Ignoring most of the barkers vying for her attention, she thought maybe she should get a few extra supplies, since she had a safe place to store them.

Always a good idea to be prepared to leave on short notice.

Her eyes were dazzled by a flash of bright light, and her ears started ringing from a sound like a loud thunderclap. Something hit her hard from behind, and her skin prickled at the contact, even through her leathers.

That feels like the magic Sula made me use.

She was pushed forward with considerable force, and her feet automatically shuffled, keeping her balanced. Her heart started racing as the memory of the previous evening’s sneak attack made a pang in her stomach. She dropped her pack as she executed an about face, into a battle-ready crouch, with knives in a defensive position.

Dagger in one hand and a knife in the other, she took in what had hit her. Instead of the expected opponent, she saw the back of a skinny, medium-height man. He was turning around, facing away from her. His cloak was smoking from whatever had happened to his back.

Must have been blown into me, but by whom or what?

Lowering herself and stepping an inch to the right, remaining ready for a fight, she was able to see past the man who had run into her. Fifteen feet away and closing was a Knife, or someone who really wanted to make that impression. The Knife was using an ebony rod, which he pointed at the other man. Looking at the singed cloak in front of her, she thought, This guy must be a wizard, to have withstood a surprise magical attack. That feeling when he touched me must have been his shielding. My Lady! This is an assassination attempt against a wizard in the middle of the market! Who would dare try this?

Nearby people began to react to the events, most bolting away, screaming. The few remaining, which were watching the events like a busker act, changed their minds and also ran when lightning leapt from the rod, striking the wizard. He was pushed further back, and Ticca deftly stepped backwards with the motion to keep a workable distance between them. The hair on the back of her neck stood up, and her heart raced from being in the line of fire. This is not a good place to be. She saw there was no cover other than tents. Those tents aren’t going to stop a missed shot. Maybe behind this wizard isn’t such a bad spot. He’s holding up to the abuse pretty well. The Knife was also impressed, and he scowled. More than you bargained for, I bet. Now, for the execution everyone always says happens when wizards are crossed.

Slowly, almost arrogantly, the wizard lifted his hands. The Knife’s eyes showed a touch of fear. The Knife tried to move, shouting, “Urdu!” In a last desperate effort, he threw his knife at the wizard, but he wasn’t fast enough. Nice try, but I doubt anyone can move fast enough. Throwing stuff at wizards just makes them madder.

As expected, an over-the-top reaction came from his hands in the form of a blaze of orange and red lights. His right hand had targeted the center of the Knife’s chest, and his left, the rod. In an amazing burst of blue fire, the rod exploded as the screaming Knife was engulfed in red flames. The exploding rod blew the right hand and forearm away, leaving a stump of an arm. Small bits of meat and blood rained onto the stall fronts.

Ticca’s stomach threatened to eject the recent meal, and she had to swallow hard to stifle the sick feeling the slapping meat sounds gave her. She wanted to stop watching, but the scene was too amazing. She held her mouth tightly closed, resisting the gagging sensations, as the Knife fell to his knees, crying out in agony, before melting into a charred pile, roughly resembling a man.

My Lady, I hope I never have to fight a wizard! This is unbelievable, and it happened right before my eyes! Staring at the smoldering remains, Ticca was unprepared when the wizard fell backwards, the knife protruding from his chest, with blood running out of the wound, over his clothing and onto the ground. His arms and chest were blackened and smoking. Is he dead, too?

“Lebuin! Lords, no! Lebuin!” An older man ran to him, kneeling and picking up his head. “Guards! Anyone, help! Please, Lords, we cannot let him die!” The man turned around, and his gaze fell on Ticca. Eyes filled with tears went to the dagger in her hand, and then to her. She hadn’t moved and was still in a fighting posture. “Dagger? Are you a Dagger?!”

Straightening, she sheathed her knives. Stepping over to the fallen wizard, she answered, “Yes.”

“Are you under coin? Name your price! He can pay! Please help!”

She glanced around and saw there was no one else even remotely close. People milled about at the edge of the scene, and many others were gathering to find the source of the commotion. Temple Street is not far. She looked at him again. Lady, is he thin! I bet my saddle gear weighs more than he does. Turning to the older man, she realized he was about to grab the knife sticking out of his chest. Ticca snapped her hand around his wrist, pulling it away from the knife. “Don’t be a fool. If you pull that now, there is no chance he’ll live. I accept the terms.” Pointing at her pack, she added, “You bring that, and don’t fall too far behind.”

Squatting down, she lifted the wizard into her arms. She stood and measured his weight; he was almost as light as he looked. I can do this. For his life, I have to do this. Lady, lend me some strength. She ran full speed for Temple Street, shouting oaths at anyone in her way, effectively clearing a path and giving her precious oxygen.

Exiting the market directly onto Temple Street, she continued to cry out, drawing as much attention as she could. Most people turned and watched, and anyone in her way stepped aside. The wizard felt like he was getting heavier. Okay, he weighs more than my gear, but not by much. Sweat ran down her face and back, and her breathing became harder. Her muscles complained, making her glad the Temple of Dalpha was the second temple on the street and that the hospice entrance was on the market side. Taking the wide steps two at a time, she yelled for help as she barreled into the main room. Two acolytes jumped at the sound and pointed to an empty cot, rushing to meet her there.

Laying the man on the cot, she stepped aside and leaned against the wall, breathing hard. One of the acolytes ran out, while the other began examining him, careful of the protruding knife. Ticca watched and decided it might be good to let them know what he was. Trying to keep her breath under control, she managed to get out, “He’s a wizard. He was attacked in the market.”

The acolyte nodded and looked at the doorway. A tall man in rich robes hurried in with the other acolyte. He went back to caring for others while the tall man came directly to the wizard’s bed. Ticca listened as the two men spoke in the unfathomable medical jargon those types favored. Good Lady, how many possible treatments can there be? The man is bleeding to death! She noted that the blood didn’t smear or soak into his clothes, but instead, pooled or ran off it, staining the bed. The older man who’d hired her finally came running into the room with her pack. She waved, and he came over, trying to catch his breath.

After what felt like a full mark of talking and prodding, but was only a minute at most, the healer shook his head sadly. “I am sorry, lady, there is little we can do. This is too grave a wound. I doubt if he’ll even wake up.”

The man next to her snapped straight. “Surely, you can heal him. This isn’t a simple hospice. Please, you must save him!”

The healer laid a hand on the man’s shoulder. “I am sorry. This wound is beyond our abilities. I will do all I can, but I doubt it will be enough.”

The man snapped. He pushed the healer’s hand from his shoulder and bolted through the inner doorway, yelling, “Lady, save us! Lady, save us!”

The healer motioned for the acolyte, who was looking to him for guidance, to follow. He ran after the old man, calling out for him to stop. Turning back to Ticca, he shook his head. “Are you all right, m’lady?”

She nodded. “I’m just the hired help to get him here to save him. What if he woke up? I have heard wizards can heal themselves.”

“Alas, very few can do so. And I seriously doubt he’ll ever wake again.”

If he doesn’t wake, then I probably won’t get paid. Not that it was really that big a deal. She mulled over staying or not, as the tall healer turned his attention back to the patient.

Ticca watched as he retrieved a basket filled with bandages and surgical tools. He then cut open the clothing around the knife before laying out a number of bottles on a small table. Taking a long thin, hollow reed that had a bulb on one end, he squeezed the bulb, inserting the end of the reed into one of the smaller bottles. He then inserted the tip into the wound next to the knife and squeezed. The wound began to bubble pink-white liquid, mixed with blood. The healer then took a longer, flexible reed and pushed it down the wizard’s throat. He used another bulb to push fluid through the reed. The wizard coughed as the healer pulled the reed back out.

Waiting for the coughing to stop, he checked and frowned deeper. The wound had stopped bubbling out the pink foam. He took yet another small vial and moved to a position where he could pull the knife out and pour the contents of the vial on the wound at the same time. Just as he grabbed the knife, a cry came from the doorway, “Healer Antis, STOP!”

Annoyed, he turned, and as he saw who had addressed him, he went white. The healer straightened and bowed his head. “Your will, Great Lady. I am doing all I can to save this man.”

Curious, Ticca leaned around him to see the newcomer better. It was a noble lady, followed by several other acolytes. She was Ticca’s height, with a round pale face and long thick, curly black hair. She was in a long forest-green robe, decorated with flowers and fruit hanging from the borders. She also wore a dark green mantle, drawn from behind, over her shoulders and up from behind her waist, knotted in an X on her chest. Her arms were bare and muscular. On her forehead, was a slim silver tiara with an oak tree for the centerpiece. Balanced in her hand, was an oversized, delicate-looking egg of gold, silver, and gems. The egg was not solid. She could see through it, as it was a complex mesh of gold and silver threads. As she strode up to the bed, Ticca noticed that the device was an intricate sculpture with small leaves and vines. What was wondrous was that the device held a glowing, yellow sphere of light that felt warm and comforting, like lying out in the sun on a warm day.

The healer openly stared at the device. “Great Lady, you would gift this mage with Dalpha’s Light?”

The lady smiled. “This man is a direct servant of Lord Argos.” Looking back at the doorway, she added, “I was told of his need, asked to assist, and personally deem this a righteous act of charity.”

Ticca glanced at the doorway and straightened up at the hint of a green skirt, cream-colored blouse, and auburn hair, slipping back through it. Was that Sula?

Stepping out from behind the lady, the worried older man who had cried for help looked at the wizard. Taking note of the gesture, she turned her attention to him, as well. “Yes, well, you have done an admirable job so far. Let us finish this together. I need assistance.” The five acolytes with her moved to positions around the bed. She moved to stand next to the wizard on his right, leaving the healer where he was. Everyone but the healer knelt. Ticca, deciding it was best to not look out of place, also knelt.

The older man stepped up. “May I assist?”

The lady smiled. “Any servant of Lord Argos is welcome. Kneel at his head, hold it steady, and offer up any prayer you may have.” He took his position as instructed.

Then the lady held the glowing egg over the center of the wizard’s chest and began to vocalize, a pure, beautiful melody of sounds. All the acolytes present knelt and joined in. The glowing light grew brighter, until Ticca had to look down. The warmth of the light was wonderful to feel, and Ticca felt uplifted and joyful at the sounds of the chant, the warmth of the light, and even the light’s intensity.

When the light became too much to bear, she closed her eyes and felt a presence growing closer. The world twisted and fell away.

- - -

The sun was full in her face, its warmth comfortably baking her. Sighing, she knew she should finish the work, but it was so nice. A short distance away, the children were playing with a fox. Their laughs were like delicate silver bells, ringing joyfully through the glen. Sitting up, she opened her eyes. Before her, the boots had not miraculously finished themselves. The table was organized with her leather tools and materials. I really should finish those boots for him. But then I’ll have to get him to wear them. Laughing at the absurd look she knew she’d get for suggesting he discard his favorite boots, she picked up the almost completed journal.

Marks flowed by as she wove the materials together into another fine journal. She enjoyed the feeling the energies of her people and the world gave her as she worked. The energies bound the woven paper, leather, and resin glues into a single whole object. She smiled as she carved the intricate looping knot patterns into the covers. She held the finished journal up and inspected it in the late afternoon sun. A beautiful work; it will make an excellent gift for our guest.

Taking the journal with her, she left the boots for another day and moved through the forest village, to the gathering place. Laughter, music, and talk could be heard long before getting to the feast. The tables were set out in the open with large fires at each end. The smell of roasting vegetables and meats made her mouth water. Naturally, the Shar family had brought significant amounts of sharre to the dinner and it was being enjoyed by all. At the high table, sat most of the family elders.

She took a place at the makers’ table and enjoyed the entertainments. Dancers, acrobats, and bards flowed throughout the evening as easily as the sharre and platters of food. As the festivities went on, she kept looking for her love, but she could not find him. He wasn’t with the servers. He must be here someplace. How could he miss this? Then she noticed one of the masked acrobats, dressed in flowing saffron silks, and her heart told her it had to be him. She clapped and yelled as his troupe performed amazing feats with ropes, knives, and balancing.

At the climax, she laughed as he showed off, performing the difficult knife dance of the firebirds, with his silk costume streaming in intricate patterns. She even gasped with everyone else when he ended it with a mighty show of knives and torches spinning so fast that the mirrored edges flashed like the stars in a windstorm of fire. He ended it by throwing all six knives high in the air and letting them come down, blade first, around him as he bowed. The knives passed his head and arms close enough to flutter the sleeves and his long hair. He remained looking down until the last knife had passed, embedding itself at the end of the neat row of hilts at his feet. She blushed when he winked at her as he exited.

As the evening wore on, the time came to present her gift. She stood and made her way to the high table. Giving appropriate nods to the heads of the families, she stepped up in front of the great mage. He looked to be about middle-aged, for a human, though she knew that he had been coming to their forest for more years than most humans could hope to live. He looked at her and gave his deep, full-bodied laugh. “My word! Can this be Kliasa, who bounced on my knee and wouldn’t let me stop?”

She blushed and bowed appropriately. “Great Lord Magus Vestul of Argos, you do me honor to remember me. I have made this for your honor and for my family’s thanks to you for helping end the war and save our forests.” Placing the journal on the table, she bowed again.

The great mage seemed embarrassed by the act, and his eyes showed a hint of tears. Magus Vestul reached out, picked up the journal, and inspected it, as she awaited his word. He inspected the binding, cover, and materials, and then he noted the engraving of Lord Argos’s seal on the front. His hands almost lovingly traced the patterns. “This is a wondrous work! I am most pleased with this gift. In fact, I declare this to be my most prized gift of the feast. I shall use this only for the most important research and notes and will treasure it for all my life. Thank you, Kliasa, daughter of House Elaeus.” He stood and put the journal in his pouch of leather with the silver disk clasp. “It fits perfectly.” Smiling, he reached out. “May I have the honor of the Moon’s Dance with you?”

Glancing right, the matriarch appeared to be so proud she would burst. She nodded, bowed, and accepted. The Magus was amazingly graceful as he danced the Moon’s Dance with her. At the end, he gave her a fatherly embrace and whispered in her ear, “I think someone is awaiting the next dance.” Winking, he motioned with his head to his left. As she turned toward that direction, she saw her love smiling and clapping to the music, but his violet eyes were following her every move.

She walked with the great Magus, who had a slight limp, back to the head table. He waved his hand. “Don’t worry. It is just that my feet are killing me! These shoes are too tight.”

Kliasa smiled. I’ll fix that on your next visit. Bowing a farewell, she said, “Thank you for honoring us, Great Lord Magus Vestul of Argos.” She turned back to the dance circle, searching for her love.

He was there, waiting. He had changed back into green leggings and the horrible boots. I really need to finish those boots for him. Maybe I can steal those ugly worn things when he is asleep. I bet his grandmother would help me. She approached him, and he bowed. “You do me honor in allowing me to follow our Great Lord Magus.”

She took his hand, and he pulled her close. His warm breath sent shivers down her spine as he said softly in her ear, “Your gift really was magnificent. It must be your finest work ever.”

She closed her eyes and let the exhilaration of pride lift her to great heights as her heart pounded in her ears, and his breath warmed her soul.

- - -

A soft voice came to her. “You may stand.” Ticca opened her eyes, her heart still racing. She looked around, confused. This is Dalpha’s Temple. Something just happened. I was dreaming again.

* * *

-Lebuin-

There was only the void, but Lebuin wasn’t afraid. There was no sensation…just thought. Where am I? Is this death? Time passed, or maybe it didn’t. He considered the situation. He recalled being attacked by an assassin. The memory of it became clear in his mind. He was able to examine it in detail. The girl, the energies, his responses, the details of a man burning into a pile of coal.... It was all clear to him, down to the ash floating in the wisps of smoke.

What was the reason for it all?

More images. He recalled classes at the Guild. He remembered marks spent poring over old tomes. He also remembered other classes, where there were more than just a student and teachers. Memories he had forgotten came back, as if he were reliving them. The time when he was five, and he started exploring the Guild. He found he could use magic to unlock the door the teachers used. There was a lot more to the place than the little wing where he lived. He spent weeks, sneaking around and exploring, before he was caught. Instead of being angry, they left the door unlocked, with the condition that he not play with the other kids unless two teachers were present. He was young and didn’t listen.

One of the bigger children pushed him, as they will do. He had gotten mad, and magic flowed. Magi had come pouring out of every doorway at the sounds of screaming, and five of them quickly blocked his view of the results. They had rushed him off, chastising him for not listening, but kindly making him feel better. He hadn’t thought of that event since, but after that, none of them would play with him, and most ran away when he appeared.

Replaying the memory in detail, he saw that the five mages who had taken him away all had fear in their eyes. It wasn’t until the Grand Magus had appeared with some candy to soothe him that they relaxed. Reviewing that memory with his more experienced and adult point of view, he knew he had released a tremendous amount of energies — more than should have been possible for such a young child. Three of the other children had been seriously wounded by the backlash. The older boy who had pushed him looked like Magus Cune, except much younger. He had seen that boy thrown back into a wall, like a doll, before tears had blurred his vision. The young Magus Cune had rushed out in the yard, screaming for help, as he picked up the limp body of the boy. My Lords, did I kill Magus Cune’s son? Is that why he hates me so much? Going over his memories, he couldn’t find any others of an older apprentice that resembled Magus Cune.

They had kept me isolated for everyone’s protection. That is why there were always Magi nearby. The other apprentices must have been talking about me for years. Fear in the eyes, smiles on the faces, always soft tones, always careful handling. It wasn’t until he had matured and gained control of his emotions that they slowly began to relax, to trust. Eventually, they put him in the regular programs. They needed to train me, but were afraid of the results. I was so isolated. No friends, no companions. Just the older mages and my family. The thought of his family brought images of his father and his real mother; she sang a strange lullaby in the void. If he could, he would have smiled at the memory.

More memories appeared. He remembered how she prepared his meals and how she always sang as she worked. She was an amazing seamstress. She wove her own cloth, singing songs to him in his cradle. He remembered her talking with his father, both of them buzzing with happiness about her pregnancy. For nine cycles, he had shared his mother’s joy and happy songs. But the songs were in a language he had never heard since. He wondered what language it was.

A presence joined him. He didn’t know how he knew it, but he did. He wasn’t alone.

“Lebuin, hold, you must hold.” It wasn’t a voice, but it had a sound, if sound could move in that place. It also had emotion. Lebuin could feel the anguish, worry, and sorrow that the other felt.

“Where am I?”

“Between. You must hold. You must fight back. Lebuin, hold.” Anguish and a deep regret at having to make the request came, as well.

“I don’t understand.”

“Look for the thread. Hold, you must hold.”

Concentrating, he tried to see, but there was only the void. “I can’t see anything. Hold to what?”

“Open yourself, and you will find the thread.” Like a sharing of memories and experiences, he understood then that he had to share himself with the place. After it had been explained, he realized he was shielding himself unconsciously. As he opened himself, the void was replaced by a mesmerizing swirl of colors, feelings, and energies. It was beautiful; he relaxed and enjoyed the flows.

“Hold, you must hold.” Lebuin recognized love under the anguish and guilt, and he knew the presence was deeply concerned for him. It was a bright swirl of energy with four tendrils wrapped around him, as in an embrace. “Do you perceive?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Here. You must fight, follow this, you must hold.” And with those words came understanding.

Finally, he saw the faint, silvery thread. It looked very fine, like a spider’s thread. He didn’t have a body there, yet the thread came out of him, and it stretched off into the distance. The thread was playing out like a fishing line. He tried to grab it, but nothing happened. Thoughts are what rule here. This is not a physical place. He tried again. He used his will, as he would to use a telekinetic formula. It worked, and immense pain flared through his mind. He screamed, but no sound came. He felt the burns on his arms and chest, and worse, the knife in his chest. He let go, and the pain vanished.

“Hold, you must hold.”

“The pain is too much. I’m dying. It’s done.”

“No. We act.” He understood. Many entities were pushing at agents, urging haste to his aide. He understood that was immensely dangerous to all. The presence was being careful to not share how. “Hold. You must hold.”

“Why? What is going on?”

“In time....” He understood that something important was coming, and it needed to be in the flow of things. The entities were trying not to cause a catastrophe, while trying to avoid a catastrophe. “You have it in you. Hold, you must hold.”

He grabbed for the thread. The pain was almost too much. He held.

“Hold. Fight. Follow it back.”

He yelled, although there was no sound. He cried out, and he pulled. It took every ounce of energy and concentration he had. As long as he held the thread, he could feel everything. Someone was carrying him, bouncing along. The knife in his chest moved, causing even more pain. He screamed and pulled, screamed and pulled.

“Yes. Fight. Hold.” Pride and love, as well as guilt and anguish mixed in the entity’s communication.

The pride and love gave him energy, and he used it to hold on.

Someone was tending to him. Something moved the knife. Pain, too much pain. I wish screaming did something. This is too much.

His mind focused on the task of pulling. Worldly things began to come to him.

Pull — Pain. He could smell the medicines and linen bandages.

Pull — Pain. He could feel the stiff cot under him.

Pull — Pain. He could feel that his left boot was tighter than his right.

Pull — Pain. His awareness of the presence faded slightly.

“Don’t leave me.”

“I will not. I will remain until conclusion. Hold. Fight. She comes.”

Other presences. There were three new entities. Two, he knew to be in both realms at once. One was female, very powerful, and yet, he was comforted by her closeness. The second was male, also very powerful, and he understood they were there to help. Last, there was another powerful being, and she existed only in the physical realm; she also was comforting. Lebuin tried to look at them, but he could not see them with the senses of the physical world. He could only feel their presences. In trying to see, he found two other entities, both female; one was in the worldly realm, and the other was in that realm. Both of the women were powerful, but not at the level of the others, and they were both watching.

Warmth washed over his body, the pain eased, and without warning, the knife was removed. The warmth in his chest blazed into a searing heat. He screamed as a disorienting twist brought him out of the void and into the world he knew.

As he lost the sense of the other realm, he heard the entity’s parting words. “Well done.” He felt a tremendous flood of pride from the entity.

* * *

-Ticca-

A couple of acolytes were cleaning blood from the floor, and two others were helping the healer, who seemed like he was drunk or about to pass out. Towards the inner door, the old man was still kneeling at the wizard’s head, obviously praying. Standing next to Ticca, was the Great Lady of Dalpha, with four other acolytes in attendance. She held the golden forest egg, which still glowed with a warming, soft white light.

Shaking, Ticca stood up. What happened? Did I pass out? As her eyes went to the wizard, she saw there was a scar on his chest where the knife had once been, and his chest was rising and falling normally. He would’ve appeared as if he was taking an afternoon nap, if it wasn’t for all the blood that surrounded him on the bed and floor. “I’m sorry, Great Lady. I didn’t mean to be inattentive.”

The tall woman looked her over, stopping at the dagger hanging on the front of her belt. “You are a Dagger. Are you employed by Journeyman Lebuin?”

“By his servant, I think. I am not exactly sure. Things moved so fast.”

The Great Lady placed a hand on Ticca’s shoulder. “You are touched by Lady Dalpha and Lord Argos. I believe greatness awaits you. And you are…?”

“Ticca of Rhini Wood.”

“I know Rhini Wood. Are you related to Faltla?”

Ticca’s eyes snapped to her. “Yes, he is my uncle. You know of him?”

Smiling widely, she said, “I knew I had seen your dagger before. It’s his dagger, isn’t it?”

With pride, Ticca nodded and touched the knife.

“I know Faltla personally. He was a great Dagger until he lost his arm and toes in the war. I was a healer then and treated him and many of his companions. In fact, I was the field healer that sewed him back together and brought him here when he was injured in that last battle. Did he train you?”

Ticca was shocked. “Um, yes. He trained me from a babe in the ways of tracking. When I was eleven years old, my father died, and I stopped pretending I wanted any other life than that of a Dagger. Uncle taught me everything he could. When it was obvious I had talent and was going to do this, he called on an old friend to train me, as he could not.”

“Who did he call on?”

Scanning the area, Ticca noted who was listening. “I cannot say. I called him only Trainer.”

The Great Lady drew a line with her finger from Ticca’s left ear, down to the base of her neck, and said softly, “With wiry silver hair?” Ticca tried to hide her surprise. “Indeed, you will do well here.” Looking at the wizard, she said, “Yes, I believe this is right. Ticca, when you come to the end — and you will know when that is — should you still live, please come back and see me. I wish to know the results, and I do wish to hear of your uncle.”

Ticca nodded. That sounds ominous. But this is already a surprising couple of days. What more can happen?

“When Journeyman Lebuin wakes, he will be weak. He will also be unable to use magic for a time. Please tell him to not push it too fast. Mages are a stubborn lot and often injure themselves by trying to control their magics too soon. We have done all we can. He will live, be healthy, and in time, be able to do all he could do this morning and likely more.”

The Great Lady touched Ticca’s shoulder. “Ticca of Rhini Wood, although you already have been touched by Lady Dalpha, I give you my own blessing. Be well and come back when you can.” She then walked away through the inner door to the Temple.

Ticca turned toward Journeyman Lebuin and saw that the old man had stopped praying and was watching her.

“You said something about payment?”

Laughing, he said, “You did get him here pretty fast. Yes, but I have little of my own. You may have it all if you desire.”

Shaking her head, she pointed to the sleeping mage. “He can pay when he wakes up. If he cannot use magic for a while, I think he would like my services, especially if there are more Knives out to cut him up. I doubt he’ll get so lucky a second time. So for now, I’ll assume I remain in his service through you. What is your name, by the way?”

The man stood up and formally held out his arm. “I am Ditani of Agash, servant to Magus Vestul and currently in service to Journeyman Lebuin while we hunt for Magus Vestul.”

Ticca looked at him as if he had two heads, making him look nervously back. Magus Vestul, like the one in my dream? Taking his arm, she said, “I am Ticca of Rhini Wood, Dagger in your service.” Letting go, she squatted by him as he knelt at Lebuin’s head. “So tell me, what is going on?”

Ditani told an amazing tale. Ticca memorized the whole story and probed for more details. In the end, she was still not sure if Magus Vestul was the one from her dream. She wasn’t even sure if her dream was real, but it felt real. “Well, I think you have found the right Dagger for your needs. Why don’t you stay here and tend to our employer, and let me do what I do best, meaning track down your missing Magus Vestul?”

“That sounds like a good plan to me.”

“I need some coin to grease the wheels.”

With a nervous shake of his head, Ditani pulled out a neat coin purse. “I have not much.”

Ticca eyed the pouch. Lady, I cannot take this poor man’s last coin. Then spotting the belt pouch still on Lebuin, she asked, “Lebuin has already dropped coin to help, yes?”

“Yes, he paid Genne three chera to learn who was asking after Magus Vestul.”

Trying not to laugh, Ticca glanced at Ditani and then at the sleeping Lebuin. “Three chera! Are you serious? Lady, help me, that is ridiculous. I’ll have to have a word with Genne and get some back. That was far too much.” She flipped Lebuin’s pouch open and pulled out the coin purse.

“Ticca! You cannot do that!” Ditani sputtered.

“I’m not taking it all. Just…” As she peeped inside, she almost choked on the amount of silver it held. Oh, my! He must be really rich. I’ll have to think about what to charge him. Of the many coins, she spied a number of silver crosses. “…two crosses.” She plucked out the two coins and put the purse back in Lebuin’s pouch as Ditani stuttered something at her.

“Listen, you can have an accounting of it. Plus, I should have an upfront fee. We’ll get this all sorted out later. First, I need to change these to smaller coins. Stay here. I don’t want him traveling outside unprotected. When I get back, we’ll go to my room at the Blue Dolphin and talk the rest of this through.” She stood and reached for her pack.

“Wait, did you say your room at the Blue Dolphin? You live there?” Ditani’s tone had shifted to a near whisper as he examined her again.

“Yes, I have a room and table. Anything else, or can I get to work?” Ditani thought about what Ticca said, and then, for the first time, she saw him smile. He looks a lot better with a smile. Funny, how so small a thing can change a character so much.

With eyes on the sleeping wizard, she thought, When he isn’t burning people to char, he’s kinda pretty. I think I’m going to enjoy this commission. Pointing to Lebuin, she added, “I’m serious. Don’t let him leave here. I’ll be back in a few marks.” Grabbing her pack, she strode out without looking back. This should be easy. A great mage cannot just disappear.

When she peered down the street, she saw a detachment of guards walking towards the hospice. And now, I earn my coin. Swinging her pack over her shoulder, she took up a position at the top stair, right in their path. She stood with authority and rested her hand on her sword hilt, putting on the practiced ‘military commander’ face she had been taught. As the guards climbed the steps, Ticca spoke first, taking the initiative away from the captain. “Captain, glad you made it here. Have you taken care of the trouble in the market?”

The captain scowled at her commanding tone and stopped, giving her the once-over, his eyes landing on her dagger. Staring directly at her face, from his position two steps down, his expression remained as he took another step up, but did not step to her level. Good boy, stay in the junior position. That will make this easier.

“Ma’am, were you the one who took the wounded mage away?”

Nodding, she took in the other five guards. Bringing a lot of backup with you. Must be worried. I would be, too, if I had to follow someone who made that pile of char in the market. All of the guards looked stern and tense. They are expecting a fight. A proper explanation should put us all at ease. “Yes, I witnessed the whole thing. A Knife attempted to kill the Journeyman with a hard attack to his back. When confronted, the Knife stood and tried a second time. The Journeyman defended himself, but was wounded badly enough to need assistance. He hired me to get him here and to deal with the situation.” A bit of a stretch, but I don’t want anyone to know how bad his condition is.

The captain considered the explanation and then eyed her dagger. “Can I find you again?”

She gave him a long, cold stare as if he were stepping over the line and should know better. I need the Knives to come after me first, so this is a good opportunity to let them know I’m in the way now. “I’m Ticca. You can find me anytime you like at the Blue Dolphin. Just leave a message with Genne.”

He weathered her look well and wasn’t fazed. “Show me your key.”

Smart and brave lad, this one. Need to get to know him a bit better. He’ll be promoted soon. She covertly set the clasp to the right point while toying with her sword with the other hand. The guards were following the sword’s motion. Opening her pouch, she produced the key. Their eyes, including the captain’s, went wider, seeing the special key. “Anything more, Captain?”

He considered it. Now, he isn’t so sure which way to jump. “May I know the Journeyman’s name?”

A fair question, and whoever hired the Knife already knows who he is. Plus, they’ll know he hired me by now. There is really no need to conceal it. “Journeyman Lebuin of the Guild of Argos. He is of this Guildhouse. As long as we are exchanging names, I didn’t catch yours, Captain.”

He smiled. “Forio. I’ll report this as reasonable defense. Thank you, Ticca. Mayhap I’ll see you again.” The guards visibly relaxed. Forio turned and motioned for them to follow.

And that takes care of any further interruptions for the afternoon, I hope. She watched the guards turn back towards the market and walk out of sight before she moved. With authoritative steps, she strode down the stairs and turned toward the market. First, I need to turn this coin into something spendable. Next, I need to talk to the people this Magus Vestul went to see.

* * *

-Lebuin-

Voices floated into Lebuin’s dreams. The first, a melodic female voice, spoke softly. Groggy, he only caught the end. “…unexpected.”

A male voice answered, also melodic…a wonderful tenor with an odd accent. “Yes, but in this case, the unexpected could be a sign that we are finally on the right path.”

“This was too close, and I had to ask.”

“Me, too.... Time will tell.”

“That is my worry. Shhh, he awakes.” The female voice came closer, and he felt her warm breath on his ear. “Shhh, Lebuin, rest now. All is well.” Then she sang in a language that reminded him of the songs his mother used to sing. He couldn’t fight it; he fell back into sleep, feeling warm, safe, relaxed, and happy.


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