Excerpt: Seeing is Believing

Jailbreak

Ty was half-asleep when the hand closed over his mouth. He woke up immediately, tensing but otherwise not moving. Blinking into the darkness above his pallet, he tried to make out the person kneeling there, with no success.

“Don’t make a sound,” came the soft whisper. Unsurprising really, considering the hand across his mouth. His uninvited visitor wasn’t a guard then, unless he was a guard doing something he ought not—but the guards never cared how much noise he or they made when they visited him in the dead of night.

He hadn’t heard the door open, Ty realized abruptly. The door was a massive, iron sheathed construction that creaked and scraped and wouldn’t open more than halfway on its best days. If it had opened, he would have heard it.

“You gonna be quiet?” The man whispered again, impatient for some reaction from Ty.

Ty nodded slowly, shifting upright on his pallet as the man lifted his hand away.

“How did you get in here?” Ty asked, keeping his voice soft. The man slapped his hand back over Ty’s mouth harshly.

“Shhh,” the voice admonished, the hand slipping away again to get a firm grip on his wrist. “Later.”

Ty half-stumbled and was half-pulled to his feet, his rescuer dragging him to the far corner of the tiny cell. It seemed even darker over here, and Ty couldn’t help flinching when the man sent a shower of sparks raining to the floor. Seemingly from out of nowhere, but Ty wasn’t completely stupid. There was no way anyone could get to his little cell without magical means or a good amount of bribery.

So his liberator was a mage. Ty barely had time to wonder who the hell wanted to see him free and had the funds to hire an illicit mage to do it, and then he was yanked into the dark portal the mage had created in the corner.

*~*~*

They stumbled out directly into a thicket of bushes. The mage cursed loudly, stomping his way out of the vegetation and pulling Ty along. There was more light here, from the moon and the stars, but he didn’t get a chance for more than a glimpse of the mage before he was being pulled further into the forest.

“Ari!” the mage shouted, far too loudly and close to Ty’s ear. Ty stumbled again, the ground uneven, but the mage didn’t slow, just pulled him forward and shouted again.

Twisting his arm free, Ty stumbled back a few steps until his back ran into a tree. The mage turned to him, a frown turning his lips down.

“Where are we?” Ty asked first, deciding that was the most important question. Though close on its heels, “Why did you free me?”

“In a forest and because I was paid to,” the mage replied quickly, both singularly useless answers. “Come on, we have to meet up with the rest.”

“The rest,” Ty repeated, crossing his arms and not taking a step.

“Yes, the rest of your merry band of rescuers,” the mage replied smartly, stepping towards him. He stepped into a patch of moonlight, giving Ty his first good look at him. His hair was slightly mussed, light in color and tied back behind his head. His features were regular except for the long scar that traced diagonally from his left eyebrow to the right side of his jaw.

The mage took advantage of his distraction, crossing the rest of the space between them and grabbing his arms. Ty resisted weakly, but it wasn’t as if he could really get away from the mage. Even if he did, he was in no position to do anything more than starve or get recaptured. Perhaps one of the “merry band of rescuers” would be more forthcoming.

It took a good half hour and a dozen shouts in his ears before they found the small camp set up by the mage’s compatriots. If Ty hadn’t already been convinced of the group’s less than legal standing, the camp would’ve made him even more suspicious. There were two more men, four horses, and no campfire.

There was actually nothing to indicate a camp at all, except that the horses were tethered to the nearby trees and the two men were sitting on the ground, staring at what looked to be a flat, circular serving dish. It was giving off a faint glow, bathing their faces in soft, silver light.

“I thought you said no more scrying,” the mage said accusingly as he dragged Ty into the tiny clearing.

“He’s reporting, not scrying,” one of the men replied absently, climbing to his feet. “Any problems?”

“Nope,” the mage replied cheerfully, finally releasing his grip on Ty’s arm. He hadn’t let go the entire trek here, but Ty was too busy catching his breath to really care. Glancing across the clearing, he saw the glow of the dish fade. “The guards won’t notice a thing until the morning.”

“Good, that will give us time to get further away,” the third man declared as he approached. “Caj, get them something to eat. Can you ride?”

Ty nodded, swallowing a protest. He was exhausted from the trip through the woods, and they were going to make him ride—likely for the night, if they truly meant to get away from the city, which couldn’t be very distant if they needed to get themselves away during the night before a ruckus was raised about his disappearance.

“The portal got us close enough,” the mage was saying, and Ty decided that he wasn’t in charge, and neither was the man handing him a heavy roll. “But I’m completely out of reserves.”

“As we expected. It shouldn’t matter—”

“Do I get an explanation now?” Ty interrupted, drawing the attention of all three men. “Who are you and why did you free me?”

“Well, isn’t that grateful sounding,” the mage said, looking amused and dangerous. His eyes glittered in the moonlight and the scar across his face stood out vividly. Ty glared at him, unimpressed and tempted to throw the roll at him.

“Reid,” the one in charge said sharply, and the mage—Reid—shrugged and applied himself to the food handed to him.

“My name is Ari, that’s Caj, and he’s Reid,” Ari introduced himself and then pointed to the two men with him. “We rescued you because of your magic.”

“What about it?” Ty asked, confused because that wasn’t at all what he’d expected, especially with Reid’s comment about payment for rescuing him.

“We’re members of the Vasijile,” Ari said, almost gently, and that made sense. The Vasijile was a rebel group that protested the use of suppressants in all but the King’s Mages. They frequently “rescued” mages in prison for breaking the edict against using magic unlicensed or for not taking their suppressants. Likely they thought Ty was such an offender.

Ari took his silence as acceptance and turned away to confer with Reid. Ty frowned thoughtfully, debating whether to enlighten them—but he’d been in that cell for longer than he could remember. By his reckoning, almost a year, though that could be wildly off. He wasn’t going to throw away his rescue just because it wasn’t for the right reason.

*~*~*

They didn’t ride the entire night through. Ty was well aware they stopped because of him, but he refused to apologize for not having rested before the trip or not having the stamina to do a nightlong ride.

They stopped sometime in the small hours of the morning, closer to dawn than Ty thought he’d last when they had started out. He all but fell off his horse and into the bedroll Caj hastily set up for him. He fell asleep quickly, the bedding no more comfortable than the pallet in his jail cell.

When he woke up, it was bright again. He didn’t immediately move, aching from more movement than he’d had in ages and the strong urge to just go back to sleep. He could hear movement around him, the horses stamping their feet behind him, the crackling of a small fire in front of him, and the quiet murmur of voices too far away to be anything but indistinct.

He couldn’t get his mind to shut down, now that it was awake. Ty sighed, shifting a little. He should get up and demand more answers—like what they planned to do with him now, and maybe later, when they’d gotten far enough away from the city. Not that Ty really expected much of a search effort, not when it was obvious magic had spirited him away.

Perhaps they’d even blame the cooks for not properly seasoning Ty’s food with the suppressant that kept his magic locked away, even if that wouldn’t explain how Ty had managed to get away without ever having learned how to use his magic at all.

“You should get up.” Reid’s voice came from too close and Ty tensed, wondering how the mage had managed to sneak up on him. He could have been right next to Ty the entire time without Ty realizing.

“Why?” Ty muttered, but he was already shifting to get up. It wasn’t as if he was going to get more sleep with Reid hovering right behind him, and Ari and Caj’s soft conversation nearby.

“We need to get moving again,” Reid informed him cheerfully. Ty stared at him, frowning as he slowly dragged himself out of the confines of the bedroll. The scar across Reid’s face was even more livid in daylight, which meant it had to be recent. Reid raised an eyebrow pointedly—the eyebrow the scar ran through—and just smirked at Ty.

Ty dropped his gaze a little guiltily, but didn’t say anything as he carefully rolled up the bedroll. At a loss what to do next, he glanced back at Reid to find himself the subject of Reid’s stare. It was only fair, Ty supposed, since he’d stared earlier, but the smirk on Reid’s lips was just infuriating.

“What?” Ty finally asked when Reid didn’t look away or say anything.

“Unusual hair,” Reid declared, reaching forward quickly and tugging on a dirty, tangled bit of Ty’s hair. Ty flinched back, annoyed because his hair was well within his boundaries of personal space. Flushing, partly from his reaction and partly because that wasn’t the first time he’d heard such a comment, Ty crossed his arms and glowered.

Reid just laughed, almost tauntingly, and ducked past Ty to scoop up his bedroll. He casually strolled over to the horses, and Ty wrestled with the urge to … kick him in the shin. He’d probably be laughed at for his trouble, though. Still scowling, he turned his back on Reid, only to almost run into Caj.

“Eat quickly,” Caj instructed, handing him a steaming bowl of what looked to be porridge with a chunk of bread resting on top. Ty took the bowl with a nod of acknowledgement, watching as Ari put out the fire.

It was obvious they’d been waiting for him to wake, so Ty ate as quickly as he could without choking, not wanting to hold them up any further. He wasn’t sure how far they were from the city, but he now that he’d had a bit of sleep he was rather sure the guard wouldn’t find it sufficient to throw him back into his tiny cell—they’d probably just execute him instead of keeping him imprisoned for life.

Reid led a horse over to him, the gentlest, but Ty didn’t protest. He wasn’t sure he had the energy to handle a more spirited horse. Given how docile the mare was, Ty wouldn’t be surprised if they always used this horse for liberated mages who didn’t know how to ride.

Swinging into the saddle, Ty urged his horse into following Caj’s, settling easily into the pace of the ride. Reid was behind him, with Ari riding ahead. The next time they stopped he’d ask where they were going and how long it would take to get there … and what the plans were for him—surely they didn’t break mages out of prison just to let them loose on the world again.

Ty didn’t let himself think about it for too long, distracting himself with the scenery around them. They were following a thin dirt path through the woods, not a main throughway at all. There were signs of wagon wheels long past, their grooves dug into the path’s edges.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been outside. There was something depressing about that, but Ty ignored it, focusing on the sunlight warm on his back and the soft breeze that ruffled his dirty hair. What he would give for a bath and a proper shave. Not that he had anything.

Reid’s horse moseyed its way forward, walking next to Ty’s. There was barely room for both beasts on the path side by side, but Reid didn’t seem to notice or care. Ty looked askance at him, annoyed all over again when Reid gave him that damn infuriating, haughty stare that should have been ridiculous, especially with the scar distorting his features.

Only, defying reason, it wasn’t. Ty scowled in return and nearly nudged his horse to go faster. That would mean running into Caj though, and Ty wasn’t that desperate to get away from Reid. The man had rescued him. Ty probably should thank all of them, even if he was still feeling like there was some catch he didn’t know about yet.

“Does it run in the family?” Reid asked, blatantly eyeing his hair again. Ty rolled his eyes, utterly conscious again that he was filthy.

“Surely you’ve seen another redhead in your lifetime,” Ty said slowly, trying to keep his annoyance out of his voice. He rather thought he’d failed though, with the way Reid seemed smug and amused.

“Not one so…” Reid trailed off, studying Ty thoughtfully. “Dirty.”

Ty glowered, wondering if Ari and Caj would return him to the prison if he knocked Reid off his horse.

“I apologize for my current hygiene, but I would like to see you spend months in prison and come out clean.” Ty snapped each word, clear and succinct. He set his jaw, turning his gaze to focus on the back of Caj’s shirt. If he looked at Reid, he might actually push him off his horse, and he didn’t think that would do anyone much good, except perhaps Reid—and then only if he hit his head on the way down.

Reid laughed, loudly enough that Caj glanced back at them curiously. Ty ignored him too, not willing to explain why Reid was so amused.

“You’re upper class,” Reid declared when he got himself under control. “Oh, you must have loved prison.”

Ty grit his teeth and ignored him, hoping that Reid would get the hint and fall back again.

“It explains why you can ride,” Reid continued thoughtfully, giving no heed to Ty’s obvious displeasure at his continued company. “Though normally they’re nicer to the upper class who don’t take their suppressants, or they take them for King’s Mages.”

He paused, obviously waiting for Ty to explain. Ty didn’t bother—he hadn’t done anything magical to be imprisoned, but he wasn’t going to tell Reid that. The bastard would probably demand to know what he’d done, and Ty wasn’t telling anyone that.

“Hey,” Reid said, reaching out and tugging on the sleeve of Ty’s prison-issue shirt. Ty startled, nearly unseating himself to Reid’s laughter. “You shouldn’t ignore me.”

“Why not?” Ty asked angrily, carefully shifting his seat so he wasn’t in danger of falling anymore. “You aren’t exactly being a pleasant conversationalist.”

Reid snickered and Ty scowled, looking away. He looked back, hearing the shift of clothing, in time to smack Reid’s hand away from tugging on his sleeve again.

“If you are such a simpleton that you cannot entertain yourself, I advise you go talk to Caj,” Ty snapped, earning a slow, smug smile.

“I am entertaining myself,” Reid informed him, turning up his nose haughtily, and Ty tightened his grip on his horse’s reins to keep him from reaching out and shoving Reid off his horse.

“Quiet,” Caj called over his shoulder, and Reid’s smile melted away, replaced with a more solemn expression than Ty would have credited him with. Caj stopped his horse and Reid and Ty followed suit.

It took him a minute to hear the sound of hooves, fast approaching. Caj twisted around to look at Reid, signaling in a way Ty didn’t understand. Reid nodded, frowning in concentration. He stretched out his hand and a shower of sparks, less intense in the daylight, rained down from his fingers.

Nothing happened, and Ty shifted uneasily. Reid straightened, nodding again to Caj, who turned to Ty and held a single finger up to his lips. Reid raised an eyebrow mockingly, likely remembering Ty’s unwillingness to stay quiet when Reid broke him out.

Ty glared, but didn’t say anything, sitting as still as he could. The approaching horses grew louder as they neared, and Reid cursed under his breath, showering more sparks as he did something else. Ty’s stomach flipped—wouldn’t it be just his luck to be freed for a day, annoyed to death by an infuriating mage, and then dragged back to his cell to spend the rest of his life in a windowless cage where he almost welcomed being roughed up by the guards, simply because it meant that someone still remembered he existed.

Reid flashed a few sharp signals to Caj, whose lips pressed together tightly. Caj carefully loosed the sword he carried, his eyes focused on the path behind Ty and Reid.

Another minute and the horses were in view. The riders wore the dark blue of the city guard, except for one prominent exception, a woman in a deep scarlet—a King’s Mage.

The horses thundered to a stop a few feet away, the lead guardsmen studying them intently. Ty waited for them to charge, or demand they surrender, but neither happened.

“I don’t see how they could’ve gotten through this way, ma’am,” the guardsman pronounced. Ty stared, but then, Reid had cast some sort of magic. Glancing at the mage, Ty frowned in concern. Reid was pale and sweating, mouthing curses and gripping the mane of his horse tightly.

“There’s another path near here,” one of the guardsmen in the back spoke up tentatively. “They might be on that one instead.”

The King’s Mage guided her horse closer, and Ty wondered what she saw when she looked straight at him. She stared at them for a long minute, and Ty held his breath, waiting.

“Let’s go then,” she ordered, and their horses were moving quickly again, back down the path the way they’d come. Reid waited until the noise of their passage was almost completely gone before gasping loudly.

“Go,” Reid said wanly, gesturing forward.

“Are you okay to ride?” Caj asked with concern. Reid was pale, his scar more livid than usual, and he was leaning heavily against his horse.

“I’m fine. I won’t be of any use if they come back.” Reid stressed the last, nudging his horse into motion. Ty watched him with concern for a moment—Reid might be a jerk, but he was one of Ty’s rescuers, and he wouldn’t be sagging so much if it weren’t in protection of Ty.

“We need to catch up to Ari,” Caj said after a moment. “Can you two ride any faster?”

“I can ride as fast as the horses can go,” Reid declared, sitting up straighter. He still looked pale, like he might pass out at any moment. “Ty?” He asked slyly, challengingly, and Ty couldn’t help but roll his eyes at the blatant attempt to rile him.

“I can ride as fast as you need me to,” Ty said, directing the comment to Caj. He could ride faster—whether he’d be able to walk at the end of it was another matter. At least if Reid had the energy to be a jackass, he likely had the energy to ride faster.

The Western Witch

Nesfir was on one of the many hunting trips he took during the summer when the witch arrived in Shakartha.

Shakartha was usually a quiet little town, peaceful and mostly self-sufficient. They were close enough to the Great Forest and far enough from the major merchant routes to dissuade most visitors. Occasionally they got a peddler or two, but nothing serious.

A handful of the village families farmed and an equal number hunted. The Wilkars raised sheep and once a year a trip the town sent an expedition to Risalka, the closest city, for the things they couldn’t make or get from the peddlers.

They weren’t important, they weren’t rich, and they weren’t interesting, and Nesfir had no idea how they’d attracted the attention of a witch.

Still, the witch hadn’t entered town performing magic left and right, so maybe he wouldn’t cause trouble. The witch had even gone so far as to distance himself from the village too, which boded well, since he wasn’t overtly trying to take over the town.

Still, Nesfir had to check it out for himself. He hadn’t been made the youngest mayor Shakartha had ever chosen at the ripe age of twenty-eight—one year younger than the previous youngest—by letting things be. That was why he was currently trekking along the edge of the forest, looking for the tiny cabin that had—according to one of the farm girls—’appeared like magic’ last week.

Everyone had an opinion already, of course. Some wanted Nesfir to kick the witch out; others wanted him to stay with the hope of using his magic to ease their lives. Nesfir was torn. On the one hand, a witch could be quite practical to have around, especially if, as Nesfir suspected, he was a conjurer. On the other, it could be quite dangerous, no matter what type of magic the witch had. He had the scars to prove that.

Rounding a clump of trees, Nesfir finally caught sight of the tiny construction tucked close to the forest. Not the smartest place for a dwelling, but the witch could presumably keep the beasts away. Nesfir didn’t hesitate, but walked right up to the cabin. Slowly.

He kept an eye on the trees, just in case the witch was outside. Nothing happened or appeared as he reached the small cabin, though, and Nesfir took a moment to get a good look at it. It was made of wood, constructed with thick logs and bigger than Nesfir had first thought. There would be space enough on the inside for at least two small rooms. Not much space for a family, but plenty of space for one person in a hurry to build shelter.

Nesfir knocked loudly, forming the words of a greeting in his mind. He’d be friendly until the witch showed whether he was going to be amicable or hostile.

Then the door opened and his friendly welcome flew from his mind.

Attracting a witch was one thing. Attracting a western witch hadn’t even crossed Nesfir’s mind. Nesfir opened his mouth, but quickly shut it when nothing came out.

“Can I help you?” The man asked flatly, his oddly slanted eyes narrowing into a glare. Nesfir cleared his throat, trying to regain his equilibrium and to not stare at the strange shape of the dark-colored mark beneath the witch’s left eye.

“My name is Nesfir,” Nesfir introduced himself, feeling like an awkward teen again under the witch’s flat gaze. “I am mayor of Shakartha and come to extend our welcome.”

“Uh-huh.” The witch didn’t sound at all impressed, and Nesfir didn’t really blame him.

“And to make sure you mean us no harm,” Nesfir added, trying not to show anything on his face. He held the witch’s gaze, firmly telling himself he had time to study the witchmark later.

“Of course.” The witch scowled, glaring at Nesfir with palpable annoyance and a hint of unhappiness. Nesfir wondered how many times he’d had suspicion cast on his intentions like this.

“We’re very peaceful people,” Nesfir continued as he’d planned. “If you give us no grief we’ll return the favor.”

“I’m sure. How long do you think it will be before I’m blamed for every little mishap your town struggles through?” he asked with irritation, as if Nesfir was a small child who had no grasp on the way things really worked.

“Never,” Nesfir replied confidently. His fellow villagers were more practical than that. They knew what a bad witch was like, after all.

“Right,” the witch said, disbelief evident in his voice. “Was that all?”

“I’d like your name,” Nesfir put forth boldly. “And to extend an invitation to this month’s town meeting. We’ll be having it tomorrow evening in the town square.”

The witch stared at him for a long moment, and Nesfir fought the ridiculous urge to fidget. He was more than thirty years old, for god’s sake.

“Asahi,” the witch said, his gaze never wavering. Nesfir nodded, giving Asahi a pleasant smile.

“Pleasure to meet you, Asahi,” Nesfir greeted. “I hope to see you tomorrow evening.”

Asahi didn’t reply, simply shut the door loudly in his face. Nesfir sighed, smiling wryly. That had gone well.

*~*~*

Asahi let the bar thump into place across the door, frowning irritably. He’d been expecting pitchforks and torches to burn him out, so Nesfir’s greeting beat that at least, not that he believed the welcome of it. Likely Nesfir was scoping out the territory, looking for weaknesses.

Asahi directed his scowl at the empty room. He’d tucked his bedraggled bedroll into one corner, and the small pack he’d brought with him all the way from home was propped next to it. There was no point in making furniture or anything more comfortable when it was too likely he’d be forced to leave it or watch it burn.

Asahi sighed, tucking a stray lock of hair back. Pacing across the room, he sat down heavily on the bedroll that could’ve used three times as much stuffing as it actually had. He should go now, save himself the trouble. Maybe if he got deeper into the woods they wouldn’t find him.

Except he hated running, and this was the best little cabin he’d made yet. Empty and dark because there were no windows yet, but it was weatherproof and sturdy. He could make windows, and maybe a proper bed, and a real table with chairs … except that he wouldn’t be here long enough. Making furniture would be a waste of energy.

Asahi frowned, running his hands through his hair and wincing at the grime he could feel clinging to it. He wouldn’t go to Nesfir’s meeting. He didn’t need to hear what they would say about him, even with him right there.

For today, he’d go and find somewhere to get clean. He hadn’t had a proper bath in too long, and since it looked like they weren’t going to run him off right away, he’d get that in first. Then he’d figure out what to do about his dwindling food stores. He’d be able to get by for another day or two on what he had, but then he’d have to cook something, and the way he cooked, that could very well save the villagers the trouble of burning down his little cabin.

*~*~*

Asahi coughed again, his eyes watering as he pushed open the nearest newly spelled-into-existence window open further. The smoke poured out and Asahi ducked his head, making a face as he surveyed the ruin that had been an attempt at soup. The pot he’d been making it in seemed to have survived, but the insides of it were a charred ruin and Asahi glared, wiping at his eyes irritably.

The worst part of leaving home had to be relying on his cooking to survive. Truly, he would have starved if he didn’t filch food from every town that ran him out. Only after they ran him out of course—Asahi was scrupulous and optimistic even when he tried to not be. He wouldn’t ruin even the slightest chance of being allowed to finally settle.

As the worst of the smoke cleared out, Asahi moved about the cabin and pushed open the rest of the windows. They were decent enough for emergency spell casting, and Asahi mumbled the spell to refine the glass as he moved. If he was going to have windows, he was going to have nice windows.

Returning to the fireplace he’d created earlier, he scowled at the black sludge inside the pot. So perhaps there could’ve been a little more water. He hadn’t expected it to disappear so quickly, and he’d only gone outside for a few seconds.

Asahi sighed, starting a transmuting spell. The pot and the sludge inside elongated and rounded, turning an ashy brown color. Asahi carefully picked up the perfectly round log and tossed in onto the fire, wiping the ash off his fingers onto his pant leg.

It would be so much easier if he could conjure food. Asahi made a face, leaving the side of the fireplace to cross over to his pack. Pulling out a little chunk of the jerky he’d been avoiding eating, he bit into it viciously and tried not to break his jaw trying to chew it.

Staring around the cabin morosely, Asahi chewed a little slower. This was the last of his food—he might as well make it last. Inexplicably, his thoughts turned back to the little town’s mayor. Nesfir, he’d said his name was, and really, these eastern countries had the oddest names.

He’d stared a little, but Asahi was getting used to that. Touching his fingers lightly to the mark on his cheek, he smiled. It would only be a little complicated, obscuring the witchmark into something else. But he was proud of his accomplishments back in Osamu, and he wasn’t going to let a bunch of bigoted easterners change his mind.

A sudden knock jerked him from his thoughts and Asahi frowned, hesitating before crossing the small cabin. Tucking the jerky in his pocket, Asahi pressed his ear to the door and listened.

Everything was quiet though, so either there was only one person—one quiet person—out there, or there was excellent mob control. Since Asahi had yet to meet a mob that could keep itself silent enough for an ambush, he carefully opened the door a crack. He wedged the toes of his boot under the door, determined to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to get inside.

“What?” Asahi asked, well aware of how rude he was being. He didn’t really care though—no one in this country had given him any politeness.

“Good afternoon,” Nesfir greeted cheerfully, with a smile, and Asahi stared at him suspiciously. He didn’t seem at all put out by Asahi’s rude greeting, making Asahi wonder what he was up to. He was alone, at least, so he probably wasn’t going to try to run Asahi off yet, unless the basket he was holding was some sinister sort of weapon he was going to try to beat Asahi to death with.

If that wasn’t paranoia at its finest, Asahi didn’t know what was.

“You missed the meeting,” Nesfir said, actually sounding a little reproachful. Asahi scoffed, leaning on the door. There was no way Nesfir actually expected him to show up.

“I make it a point to bring the news to those who don’t make it,” Nesfir informed him cheerfully, unperturbed by Asahi’s silent disbelief. Or simply ignoring him.

“You came to bring me the news,” Asahi repeated slowly, infusing his words with as much skepticism as he could. That was a poor excuse to keep an eye on him.

“Well, that’s not all,” Nesfir conceded with a smile. Asahi waited for Nesfir to elaborate, completely unsurprised. Nesfir held the basket out to him, his smile only widening when Asahi gave it a suspicious look.

“What is it?” Asahi asked, not bothering to take it. That would mean opening the door further, and he wasn’t going to give Nesfir any hospitality until he was convinced the man’s motives were pure, which might take a while.

“A housewarming present,” Nesfir declared, edging closer. Asahi favored him with another suspicious look, but curiosity got the best of him. None of the towns he’d tried so far had given him a housewarming present. Hesitating for a moment, Asahi shifted the door (wedged toes and all) back the distance it would take to bring the basket inside.

“The Miclai’s provided some fresh milk. Mrs. Flekan’s daughter made some of her apple twist bread. There are some fresh vegetables from one of the town gardens. Half a pie from old Mrs. Kenshaw…” Nesfir trailed off, looking thoughtful. “There are some other things, too, but I didn’t really get a good look before I left.”

“Right,” Asahi muttered, setting the basket down to the left of the doorway. Nesfir was looking past him into the cabin when he straightened, but quickly turned his attention back to Asahi with a smile when Asahi was standing again.

“We discussed only a few things at last night’s meeting,” Nesfir announced, and Asahi blinked, startled. What did he care?

“Ellac is going to do chores on the Cinades’ farm until he pays back the price of the window he broke,” Nesfir continued, as if Asahi knew and cared who those people were.

“It was decided a fox had been getting into the Carali’s henhouse. Jashen is organizing a foxhunt. If you’re interested in joining, you can let him know,” Nesfir paused, and Asahi gave him an incredulous look that only made Nesfir laugh. “Well, if you change your mind, the Carali’s house is the pale blue farmhouse on the east edge of town.

“The issue of witches was brought up, of course,” Nesfir continued without pause or change in tone. Asahi still tensed, folding his arms and giving Nesfir a dark look. Really, there had been no need to go confusing the issue by bringing up unimportant things first.

“It was decided to let your actions decide whether you stay,” Nesfir said, his voice suddenly solemn and quiet. “Unless you do us harm, you can stay without challenge.”

Asahi snorted. They would decide when they got rid of him. Probably mid-winter, to have a better chance at actually killing him.

“Oh, and Ptima and Allika are getting married next week,” Nesfir said, abruptly cheerful again. “They’ve invited the entire town, which includes you now.”

Asahi rolled his eyes. He wasn’t buying the ‘welcome’ routine. Still, it was a little better than being immediately set upon by a mob of unruly and unhappy villagers bent on doing their best to get rid of him for good.

“Was that all?” Asahi asked, impatient now for Nesfir to go away. He needed to think on this and try to figure out whether the welcome basket was safe enough to accept and partake of.

“You’re a conjurer, correct?” Nesfir asked, and Asahi stared at him, taken aback. Except that he was an idiot—of course it was obvious, with the cabin. Still, most people took one look at the witchmark and started crying for a mob.

“Yes,” Asahi answered warily, his fingers itching to touch the mark on his face. Nesfir just smiled at him, shifting in place on the stoop.

“There are plenty of things around town that a conjurer’s touch would ease, if you’re interested,” Nesfir offered, tucking his hands into his pockets. The smile never left his face and Asahi frowned, suddenly struck by boyishness of the posture.

“What kind of things?” Asahi asked before his mind caught up to his mouth. He shouldn’t be indulging Nesfir’s jokes.

“Wells,” Nesfir replied promptly. “Construction of houses, fixing roofs, windows, replacing expensive glass and other things—”

“You’re insane,” Asahi decided, scowling before realizing what he’d just said. His eyes widened, but before he could do anything to recover himself, Nesfir laughed.

“Is that a yes?” Nesfir asked, grinning at him. He didn’t seem offended, and for all Asahi knew he’d taken it as a compliment.

“No,” Asahi snapped, sliding the door off his toes.

“If you change your mind—”

“I won’t,” Asahi told him flatly. Stepping back slightly, he shut the door on Nesfir’s still-smiling face. Not the smartest idea, he knew, but he didn’t need to deal with Nesfir’s attempts to fool him into complacency.

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