And So it continues...
It wasn’t love at first sight. Asron Prekasnaya doesn’t believe in such rubbish. It creeps up over prolonged exposure, like an allergy. It becomes an inconvenience that turns you away from your work, and should he ask many of his fellow colleagues, it should be avoided if at all possible. Although, like an allergy, some are more prone to it than others. Asron always figured that should the bug ever find him, it would be with a practical woman—someone of equal station to an acolyte wizard. They’d build their love on a solid foundation of expectations, and temper it with proper West Mantonese sensibilities.
It didn’t happen that way. For Asron, love took him like a sickness. The symptoms creep up. Just as one might have the occasional cough, he would spend more time than usual thinking about her, wondering if she would come in that day, or what she might think of his current projects. He might play over a joke in his head, thinking of just the right way to tell her. He’d smile thinking of her response. It never occurred to him that he might be coming down with something until one night, when he awoke in the throes of sickness. He couldn’t deny the symptoms as he lay there.
He was in love.
With her of all people.
And a privateer too if you would believe her, though the Mantonese referred to her type as a pirate. Elena’s vessel had been captured off the coast of Duran, raiding trading ships in the Coral Basin. Unlike her fellow raiders, she was lucky enough to be branded a second tier slave for her being a woman, but she was no lady. Her body bore more scars than all of Asron’s acolyte class combined. Her manner would have the wizards cowering if not for their authority over her. She was a caged tiger who slashed at her tamers more than enough to warrant selling her. It was Asron who convinced the others to keep her. “A slave needs spirit to cope with cleaning the summoning pits,” he said. He’d believed that himself too. Although admittedly, he’d grown fond of their late night banter, when he was working late and she would clean the pits and scrub the floors. Though seeing the curves of her body as she toiled might have played a part too. She was beautiful, though not in a traditional way.
Their nights grew less productive as they spent more time sharing with each other. She’d tell him tales of her high seas adventures. He’d show her magics, simple things, but they’d impress her nonetheless.
“If I had sorcery like that,” she’d say. “I’d have been the queen of the Basin.”
He believed her.
She had been the one who finally revealed his fever to him. It was one night together. He’d helped her to finish her menial work so they’d have more time in his office drinking and talking. The topic had been about she’d come to be a privateer.
“I didn’t have a choice,” she’d said. “You learn to fight and to take. Never give. Never show mercy.”
“It sounds like an awful life.”
“I’d take it any day over this… this…” Elena fluttered her hand, “hand and foot, morning and night maiden work. I will escape here. I will ride the seas again. That is my life.”
“I could report that,” Asron replied. “A slave threatening to run.”
“You wouldn’t,” she said it as a simple fact.
“Oh? Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because I would take you with me. The Basin life would become yours. I see it in you. In this place you are a mouse. A tiny, tiny mouse. On the sea you would grow.”
“Into a big mouse?”
“Yes. A proud mouse.”
“Perhaps I’m happy as a small mouse.”
Elena regarded him, long enough that he became self conscious. “You did not hear me, little mouse. I did not offer to bring you. I will take you, kicking and screaming. I take. It is my way. You will thank me later.”
“You always take what you want?”
Her stare continued. She shot down the rest of her drink and rose. It seemed she towered over him, and yet her eyes were still on his. With her foot, she pushed him down until he was laying upon the floor. He couldn’t bring himself to resist. His mind was too occupied with the sight of her legs, and their smooth, shapely muscle. He thought also of her feet—of their smell, and the rough calluses upon upon his cheek. It was then he realized his symptoms for what they were.
“Yes,” she said. “I take what I want.”
That night, he learned what she meant.
“There’s nothing written on the pages, is there?” Elena said. She craned to look closer, but made no move to get up from where she sat. “No. There are just lines of nonsense in that book.”
As she watched, the illusory version of Asron turned the page of his illusory book, revealing another sheet of blurry gibberish. The he scrutinized the page as though deep in study. Behind him, an illusory Elena scrubbed the floors with frothy soap. For a while now, both illusions had been hard at work while their real life counterparts enjoyed their tryst upon a summoned mattress behind Asron’s desk, out of view from most of the abandoned mage’s study. Afterward, they relaxed together, bare and unashamed. Asron lay upon the mattress. Elena sat upon his chest with her legs outstretched. Over the weeks, he’d become her favorite throne.
“And look at my mirage,” she said. “I can’t make out any soap bubbles at all.”
“Illusions aren’t exactly my forte.”
“I don’t think anyone would fall for these? You’ve only got to look at these eery things to know they’re fake.”
“But no one will. That’s the idea. They’ll glance. Nothing more. They glance and they’ll leave us to our work. They won’t come looking for us.”
She grinned down at him. “Are you afraid, little mouse? Worried what they think if they found you beneath such a lowly slave?”
“I’m afraid of what they’d do to you.”
“This is a tower of frail, little men. I am not afraid of them.”
“You should be,” he replied seriously.
“I never will. I guess you’ll just have to look out for me.” She looked back at the silent images. “Besides, how will they ever find us when we have such masterful mirages to cover for us.”
“Oh, lay off. As though you could do better.”
“If I were a frail little book mice like you, perhaps I could. I’m sure it’s not that hard.”
“_Not that hard?_ It me three years of study to make magics like that. And I was a quick about it. Most take five, or even ten. Many never figure out magics at all and become cursed to a shameful life of scribing. Illusions are about creating and holding phantasmal field. Then you create a lapsed Feldman connection between that and your own mind. That’ll influence the field, but even then nothing will manifest unless you…”
She was looking at him with an amused smirk. He realized he’d slipped into the technical aspects of illusions, no doubt reaffirming her Book Mouse stereotype.
He tried again. “Look. You have to do a lot of complicated stuff, then you have to imagine what you want to create with as much detail as you can. So you have to be both smart and have a vivid imagination.”
“Can you imagine anything?”
“Anything at all.” Asron moved his hands before him in a well-rehearsed fashion and muttered words in an strange language. It was a difficult task with Elena’s weight upon his lungs, but he managed. Nearby, a creature appeared. It was a monstrous boar with a conical, armored head which ended in a fearsome point. It was a Bulette, a terrifying predator known to completely consume its prey. Asron had never encountered one before, but he’d seen enough pictures to create this. Unfortunately, the spell hadn’t turned out as well as he’d hoped. This wasn’t fearsome. It’s lack of detail was apparent even at a glance, and its silence was even more telling. Anyone who’d seen the real thing would instantly know this for a fake.
Elena, however, was delighted. She reached for it. Her hand passed through nothing. “Impressive. What I wouldn’t do to be able to bring my imagination to life like this.”
Asron considered this. Dispelling the image, he reached for the top drawer of his desk. With her upon him, it was a struggle, but he managed. He presented to her a thin wooden stick with designs upon the shaft.
“It’s a wand. We create them as part of our practice. We can use them to cast certain spells with ease. This one is for silent images like these.”
This got her attention. Taking the wand, she swiveled and wreathed her legs about Asron’s head.
“How does it work?”
Asron reached around her thighs to guide her arms. He had her point the wand toward the floor.
“It’s simple. Just hold it like this, then imagine something as vividly as you can. Now put that image at the very front of your mind as though it were right behind your eyes. If you were to look down, it would tip and fall from your head. Got it?”
“I think so.”
“Once you’re sure you’re imagining it as vividly as you can, say the word Litzor Machasha.”
“Okay, Litzor Machasha.”
Her pronunciation was poor, but it was enough to trigger the wand. A man appeared, or rather what was supposed to be a man. The image was more nondescript than any Asron had seen in ages. The skin and clothes were so blurry it was hard to tell where one started and the other ended. The face was a face only to the most squinted eyes, and the proportion of its limbs was downright creepy.
“Oh, I see now,” Asron said. “You are indeed a natural born illusionist. The Dark Throne’s mages guild should be ashamed.”
“Oh, enough, mouse.” Elena jostled. Her small hop pushed air from Asron’s lungs, bringing about a few dry coughs.
“But do you see what I mean?” he replied. “It’s hard to hold so much detail in your head. You never realize how much your mind glazes over until your imaginings are out in the open.”
She lowered the wand, and her previous image dissipated. This time, she held it up high and concentrated. Her face scrunched in a way Asron would never forget. A silent minute passed. Then she pointed it and spoke the words. “_Litzor Machasha_.”
The illusion was of them, together, as naked as they were now. In it, she was doing something to him that he had never fathomed before—something humiliating, and yet enticing. Every inch of the sordid act was in exquisite detail. It was the kind of quality masters might hope to produce. Though what alarmed him was that she’d created the illusion right in the middle of the study where anyone could glance in from the hall and see.
Asron stared in awe for many moments before coming to his senses. “Take it down! Take it down!” He groped for the wand.
Elena kept the wand pointed while holding it aloft. She used her thighs to pin his arms down. “It’s not so hard after all,” she said ponderously. “You only need an imagination for the right sort of thing.” She evolved the image into a few different acts while Asron squirmed beneath her. Only when she was good and ready did she lower the wand. The image faded.
She looked down her body at the face between her legs. Her grin was like that of a prideful cat. “What do you say now, little mouse? Now tell me that I’m a master illusionist.”
“Sure, you are. All you need is a wand to do the hard work for you.”
She lifted her legs and rested her feet upon his face, squeezing his cheeks. Her full weight now bore down upon his chest. “Tell me. I’ll not let you up until you do.”
“Okay, okay. You are truly a master illusionist, as formidable a one as you are a pirate queen upon the Basin.”
She basked in the compliment, then replaced her legs to either side of his head. Only then did she allow Asron to snatch the wand from her. He replaced it back into the desk. He tried to get up, but she didn’t budge.
“Perhaps it’s time we got dressed,” he said.
She looked at him in mock confusion. “Dressed? I am not done, little mouse. Did you not just see what I have in mind?”
He looked at her in disbelief. “_That?_”
Running her hand through his hair, she clutched a handful to get his attention. Her other hand crept behind her to between his legs. “Yes. That.”
It was simple enough to tell that something had happened when Asron came into the study that morning. Even at that morning hour, with the sun brightening the otherwise somber rows of desks, the place always had a still about it. Only the turning of pages or the occasional cough would upset the quiet.
Not today. He arrived to find many of his fellow initiates missing. The rest were clustered together at desks murmuring like schoolyard children. No one was working.
Asron was not above gossip. After dropping his books at his desk, he joined the group.
“There’s a traitor,” people were saying.
“The Dark Throne is launching an inquiry.” “They say Thamun Gray is looking at everyone.” “They think there might be another rebellion.” “No, it’s nothing like that. One of the higher studies got in trouble with the town. They want justice.”
All that was clear was that no one had any good idea, only that one by one, every one was being questioned, including the initiates.
Asron’s turn came minutes later. A minister entered the study from a private office and crooked a finger at Asron.
“What’s this about?” Asron asked once he and the minister were seated privately.
As the minister sat, he gave a mixture of a stretch, yawn, and a groan. “Oh, locals. The townsmen down in Marston Landing are making a fuss about this and that. Master Gray has started an inquiry just to shut them up.”
“Oh, last few weeks we’ve been having some trouble with slaves giving us the runner up. The town, us. We’ve been looking into a possible smuggling ring, but now the townsfolk are pointing their fingers at us, saying we’ve been aiding in the ring. A couple farmers are saying they saw their slaves working the field one minute. The next, they were gone, and they had too far a head start for the hounds to catch them. Others say they’ve seen slaves look as though viewing them through a foggy mirror, and that they disappeared when they got near. Others say they were attacked by monsters that were there one minute and gone the next. When they’d return, some of their slaves would be missing.”
“That’s how they’re describing them, and they’re blaming our magic instead of that rot-gut Cabbershire whiskey they insist is any good.”
“Why would a wizard help slaves escape?”
The minister gave a helpless shrug as though to say, you’re preaching to the choir. “But we’ve had our own share of runner ups in the last few weeks, so here we are. Shall we get this over with? Have you been aiding any slaves in escape?”
“Do you know of anyone who may be?”
“Do you have any information which you think may be relevant to our investigation?”
“Can you account for your whereabouts for late nights after sunset for the last few weeks?”
“Not for many. I’ve been working on a project which has kept me late in the study. No one else is here?”
“There may have been a slave or two here at the time.” That would be Elena, in most cases. And she could certainly attest that he was here, but not for reasons he could share with a minister.
“Hmm. How about four days ago on the day of Reflection? Or the day before that?”
Asron thought. “Actually, yes. I can. I was in the Summerset Hall with some of the scribes. I was with them until late. We retired together.” Odd, that on those particular days he could. He’d worked late in the study after the others had departed, but the slave who’d come had been a timid woman who’d hardly glanced at him.
“You’re not the usual slave?” he’d asked.
“I’m sorry, sir.” She’d said sir with an accent of someone from the Baridiman Coast. It cam out almost more like sour.
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know, sir. I’m only doing as I’m told.”
“Will she be back?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
Asron hadn’t pressed. A Dark Throne mage’s initiate wouldn’t care. And for the first night after weeks of dalliances with Elena, he left the study while the sun was still up. His colleagues had called it nothing short of a miracle. Since, there had been several days like that. Asron had asked Elena about.
She’d shrugged. “The elder ones come and give me other cleaning jobs. I cannot help it.”
“What kind of jobs.”
“Don’t worry, little mouse. I will always come here when I can. That is, when I have any say over my life.”
That had been the end of that discussion. How helpful it was that this minister’s days of interest fell on days such as those. How helpful indeed.
“That’s about all I need,” the minister said.
“That’s it. I need you to return to your dorm for now. At noon everyone will be welcome to return to work.”
And so Asron did. People back at the dorms had all been questioned, so everyone knew what this was about. Hence, no one gossiped. Missing slaves were nothing new. They came, they went. Only the wardens truly cared. Outwardly, Asron was just as unconcerned as everyone else.
But when noon came, Asron returned to his desk. He sat. He looked to see if the ministers may still be about. Then he opened the desk’s top drawer. His wand of silent image was missing.
Many people misunderstand how invisibility works. They imagine skin and cloth turning transparent, as though to foil the invisibility, you could cast flour upon the hidden person. This is foolishness. Anyone studying beneath the dark throne (or any magical institute for that matter) quickly learns the fallacy of that approach. Your eyes would be invisible. How would light interact with them for you to see. And if you could, would your eyelids become useless? If you at food, would that food be visible within you?
The essence of invisibility lies in a field that projects around the subject, within a few inches of their skin. Outside the field, all within cannot be seen. If you’re within the field, it’s as though there were no invisibility at all.
Which is why, despite his invisibility, Asron felt exposed as he waited in the dark city alley across from a dilapidated church of Chauntea. To him, he was there for any of the many drunks and disreputable sort to see. Every time, he felt himself lean into the shadow as though to avoid their gaze.
This was not a part of town that any member of the dark throne’s mage’s guild would want to enter, particularly at this time of night. Everyone here traveled with a dagger in their belt and an eye on their back. Many would have no qualms about using that dagger on a privileged sort like himself. Yet repeated castings of Locate Object had pointed him to this church. And so he waited.
The clopping of hooves came first. From down the street, a hooded carriage approached. It’s rider hid himself beneath a cloak, yet Asron could still make out the gnarled old man beneath it. Stopping before the church, he climbed down and opened the back. He and an unseen man in back unloaded barrels, which they carried to the church door. From their heft and markings: sacramental wine. Asron watched. He could sense this group had something to do with it.
Another group approached from down the street. Four hooded figures. He remembered they’d passed before, yet hadn’t stopped. This time they did. They looked up and down the street for anyone watching. Asron cringed into the shadows again.
There was hardly a grunt of acknowledgement between them. The carriage owners kept unloading wine while the hooded figures collected at its side. They brought out a harness from inside the carriage. One climbed underneath with it and started securing it to the bottom of the carriage. Two others dropped their hoods.
One was a man, strong and tall, rough in features. He was the sort who’d come out of a tavern with a woman under each arm. They see challenges where there are none, and abhored books or anything remotely cranial, especially those like Asron who live for that. Upon his cheek were three marks of a slave; they suited him.
The other was a woman. There was nothing notable about her apart from the skittish glances she made and the two marks upon her cheek.
Both the slaves had the same rusty skin tone of someone from the Czar Rosa Isles, where pirates from centuries ago had mingled with the natives when they made that coast their haven. It was the same skin tone of Elena. It couldn’t be a coincidence.
The woman crawled underneath the wagon. The wine traders worked with her to fasten her to its underside. It was awkward work, and took many minutes, but when they were done, one could not tell she was there from looking at the carriage.
From up the street, another carriage approached. It was a guardsman wagon. Its torchlight was only just visible through the fog.
The group’s reaction was immediate. The man hid behind the carriage. The last hooded figure produced a thin wooden wand which Asron recognized immediately, just as he recognized the muscular yet lithe hand that held it. She held it aloft for so long, Asron wondered if she was even planning to use it.
But then she cast. Her, the wine couriers, and carriage disappeared as a larger illusion encompassed them all. It was of another, larger wagon, only this was not a cheap transport carriage, but an aristocratic stagecoach with gold leavening and rich wooden paneling. Velvet curtains hid the interior. And faux guards sat on either side of the stage coach.
It was sloppy work, even from where Asron stood. The details of the axles and horse reigns all blended together. That kind of technical detail was often glossed over and easily missed by observers. But then the guards looked strange, and the velvet curtains had no texture. The gaps between them revealed pitch black nothing. Worst of all, wheels of the real carriage were visible beneath this one. Even a glance would reveal something fishy.
Despite Asron’s feelings on this matter, this pleased him. It seemed Elena’s vivid imagination did not extend past her carnal desires. She wasn’t quite the illusionist master that she bragged to be.
The guardsmen neared. The faux coach nodded and saluted. The guards saluted in return and continued on their way. When they turned the corner, the illusion faded. The wine couriers got back to work. The slave man came back around. Before he crawled underneath where the last hooded man was already readying the next harness, he hugged Elena. She returned the hug.
And it lingered.
Asron crossed the street toward them. The man was just about to climb underneath when Asron spoke.
“What’s going on here?” He dismissed his invisibility as he spoke.
Startled, they spun toward him.
“You’re smuggling slaves away? Using my wand? Is this the entire reason you got close to me?”
The tall slave man stepped toward him. There was fierceness in his gait. Elena stopped him, then held her hand up to stop someone behind Asron. He glanced. The old wine courier had come up behind him. Metal glimmered in his hand. Only then did Asron consider the wisdom of his confrontation.
“Come with me,” she said. She tried to pull him away from the others.
“No. Explain to me now what the meaning of this is. Those night… were they a farce?”
“Elena…” the wine courier said in a warning tone.
“Let me handle this,” she hissed, then gestured to the tall slave. “Get him fastened. I need a moment.” This time when she pulled Asron, she didn’t not yield to his resistance. His strength was nothing to hers. In the alley beside the church, she faced him.
He spoke first. “Do not lie to me. I know exactly what it is.”
“I won’t. I’m helping them escape. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to put you in danger.”
“_In danger?_ My name is on that wand you stole. I will be imprisoned if they find out. And they will find out.”
“No, they won’t. And I would not let this fall on if they caught me. If they catch me. I plan to tell them I saw you practicing with this late night, and I took it. We have never talked.”
“And you think they’d accept that? They would interrogate you, Elena. They’d interrogate me.”
“Which is why I left you out of this. I know you are not accustom to danger. I shoulder this risk.”
“What… why? Who are these people to you?”
“They are my people. I know them or of their families back home on the coast. Like me, this is not a life for them. We are returning home to our lives. We will live upon the sea again.” Her hand came to the side of his face. “I was only trying to protect you by hiding this.”
He shoved her hand aside. “Don’t feed me that nonsense. This is madness.”
She scrutinized him. Suddenly, her expression turned to fury. Grabbing his lapel, she pushed him back until he fell on his seat. She crouched over him and glared. “You will stop this, mouse. You are angry. Stop sulking and tell me why. It cannot be because I’m smuggling these people. I have told you time and time again that I will escape and find a new crew. Surely you are not foolish enough to think I nothing but my words, are you?”
“No, no,” Asron stammered. “But I—“
“And surely it is not because of a little wand. I told you why I took that. You showed me how to use it.” She pulled it from between her breasts and dropped it on his lap. “Are you petty enough that you’re angry over a little wand? Have it back if you must.”
“No. This is dangerous.“
“So? I thought you understood that I am a risky woman. Being with me means danger. But if you are really that scared, then have your wand back. I will not give your name if they should catch me. They’ll tear out my tongue first. You’re fine.”
“And you’ll keep doing this? What if it’s you whom I’m afraid for?”
“Me?” Her eyebrows raised. “So you’re protecting me, little mouse? From those old men in your tower? You’ll protect me by keeping me in my cage?”
Asron kept a sullen silence. He knew there was no right answer to that.
“What is it really, mouse? Tell me why you are really angry.”
He didn’t reply.
“Are we okay, Elena?” The male slave had come to the mouth of the alley. “Do you need help?”
Elena looked at him. “I’m dealing with this.”
“We need to get moving.”
“In a moment.” she turned back to Asron. His eyes were on the slave. She followed his gaze, looking from him to the man.
“Oh, I see,” she whispered. After a pause, “Go ahead, Duston. Take off. I’ll finish up here.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’ll see you in Duran.”
The man hesitated before heading back to the carriage. They finished fastening him to the bottom of the carriage, and after a minute, they pulled away. Elena crouched over Asron the entire time. She spoke only after they were gone.
“I see I need to make something more clear to you,” she said. “I have many friends, mouse. I work with many, many people. Some work for me. Some with me. But you, little mouse, are different. You are mine. You belong to me. Do you understand?”
“Then you understand that when I leave to return to the sea, I will take my possessions with me. Unless you would rather I left you behind.”
“No,” he replied. “I want to go.” His voice was hushed. as though he realized it was the first he’d said it knowing it was more than just words. She would leave. It was not a fantasy anymore. He would go with her. An absent part of him thought of the future the Dark Throne’s guild offered. It thought of the prestige, of the titles, of the comforts. That part drifted away right then. It would never return.
“Yes, you do.” She leaned forward until her face was above his. Her breasts swayed inches before him. “Because you know that is the life you deserve. You know you belong to me. You will always belong to me.”
“Yes,” he said dumbly.
“I’m going to keep helping my people. You understand that, right?” Her fingers were in his hair.
“I will keep you out of it until it is our time. I know that you’re a timid little mouse. I’ll keep you from the danger. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Hooking his chin, she pulled his face up to look at her. “Or perhaps you’re not so timid after all? Perhaps you’re braver than that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think you know what I mean. You say you want to protect me? Then you can help me.”
“Are you serious?”
“You are a wizard, are you not? A clever little wizard. I might know how use a wand, but we know that’s hardly magic. You, though. You are a true wizard. Talented in ways even I’m not. How effective will we be if we worked together, side to side. Or rather…” She pressed him to her body. Her breasts caressed his face. “top to bottom.”
Her breath was heavy when she pulled him away to look him in the eye. “How about it, mouse? Will you help me? Will you serve me?”
“Yes.” His voice was just a whisper. “I will serve you.”
She stood upright and looked down on him. Her fingers raked along her thighs, pulling up the hem of her tunic. She was revealed to him, and as he stared, she draped one thigh over his shoulder and pulled his face into her.
“That’s my little mouse.”
A transport wagon came up to the riverside outpost of Briars shed, a town not far from Marston Landing. It stopped before the gatehouse leading in. Two guards approached the royal escort manning the coach.
“What have you got?” one asked.
“Slaves. Dark throne has turned it nose up at these.”
“Where are they headed?”
“To the block in Villory. They’ll get one more chance to impress buyers there before they land themselves in the mines.”
Not caring, the guard grunted. “Shipping order.”
The royal escort fished around behind him, as though he didn’t know exactly where the shipping order was, or that he hadn’t scanned over it again and again for any possible flaw that might reveal it as a forgery. At the same time, he was careful not to move around too much. The long-tailed coat of his uniform might pass through the wood of the wagon. Or it may fold upon itself in a way fabric should not, for the uniform was not actually there.
It was an illusion, one of many Asron had used over the past months. He’d gotten quite good at them actually, even going so far as to shift his academic focus over to illusion, but that didn’t mean they were perfect. It only took one mistake to mark them out.
Finding the order, Asron handed it over, though he couldn’t help scanning it over one more time. It should be fine. The arcane mark at the bottom was genuine. Asron had stamped it himself in the dead of night after having snuck into the Chancellor’s office at the waygate’s plaza. But the real danger was with the details of the shipping order. Asron had checked and rechecked, but if anything were wrong, it would make the guards seek clarification. That would quickly lead this smuggling operation into Plan B.
“We’re going to open the back and inspect your cargo,” the guard said.
The other guard went around back. Asron could hear the latch unfasten. The first remained by Asron, pouring over the shipping order.
That’s when Asron felt a hand slip around his waist. It snuck through the folds of his coat and stroked along his thighs. Soon, it found what it was looking for between his legs. Then something pressed against his back. He could tell not only that they were Elena’s breasts, but that there was no fabric covering them. She was invisible, prepared should anything go wrong, but she’d taken advantage of her privacy to disrobe, at least partially.
This realization brought about a reaction that Elena could no doubt feel in her hands. Asron had to concentrate act normal before the guard.
The back wagon door slammed. The other guard came around. “Eight third ranks. Six second. Eleven men. Three women. Eleven human. Two half-elf. One half-orc.”
The first guard grunted. This matched up with the shipping order. “That’ll be four and a half Ithili.”
Asron sorted through his wallet for the appropriate notes. They glimmered in the torch light. As he handed them over, the fingers between his legs curled like talons and squeezed. He managed not to hiss, but he did stoop as though bowing to the guard. There was a small chuckle by his ear.
The guard did not notice. He fetched the appropriate change and waved them through. Asron ushered the horses forward. The feel of Elena’s body against his pulled away.
Shortly, he arrived at the outpost docks. At this hour, no one was here, and it was out of view and earshot of the guards.
“I at least hope you’re enjoying these games of yours,” Asron said playfully. “Elena?” He felt around. She was not on the coach anymore.
“It brings me endless delight to see you squirm.” Elena dismissed her invisibility. She was standing by the wagon now. Her commoner’s robes draped from her sash, leaving everything above her waist exposed. Asron nearly told her to redress, but his eyes were distracted by the sight. He looked over the battle scars upon her body he’s grown intimately familiar with. His gaze followed the tattoos which decorated her torso. One curled about her breasts. Another snaked down her belly, disappearing beneath her sash. He knew how that tattoo ended.
And then he noticed she was counting money.
He hopped down. “Did you take that from the guards?”
“I don’t see why we should have to pay for our freedom. They took it. We’re taking it back.”
“They’ll notice, Elena.”
“Nah. They had plenty of money there. I only took what you paid.”
He frowned. “And I thought we agreed you would stay invisible. There’s no reason for you to take the risk.”
“I want our men to see me,” she said, gesturing to the wagon. “I want them to see the woman who returning them to the glory of the ocean.”
“They’ve already seen you, and they’ll see you again in Duran. I’m worried about the guards seeing you.” His eyes darted to her bared breasts.
She looked at him and grinned. Stepping close, her hand again snuck between his legs, Her breasts pressed against him. “If I were invisible, where’s the thrill in doing this? It’s the danger that makes it fun.” Her leg lifted and curled about him. “_Anyone_ could see us right now.”
He thought of playing along, even knowing there were fourteen nervous slaves almost within reach. But then Elena glanced behind him. After a quick kiss, she shrugged her robes back over her shoulders and tucked away the money.
On the river, a ferry approached. Aboard it was Felix, the old man who Asron had first seen carrying wine to a church. That man had come within a breath of putting a dagger between Asron’s ribs. Times had changed since then.
Elena opened the wagon and escorted the slaves to the dock. As the ferry pulled up, she talked with each privately, clasping hands and giving hugs. They all looked to her as a savior and a leader. Why wouldn’t they? Anyone could see her energy just by looking at her. They knew this was a woman they could serve under, as many would aboard her ship when the time came. With each smuggling of slaves, her crew grew.
And Asron would be a part of that crew. Wherever she went, he would be there, standing behind her. He would be the court wizard to his queen. Or her shadow, always at her feet and always watching out for her. When she’d sit, she’d sit upon her shadow. When she’d lay down to bed…
He snapped out of his revery when Felix tossed him a rope. He tied it to the dock and pulled the ferry in. Asron climbed aboard and helped Elena escort the slaves aboard. They thanked her as they passed, and they thanked Asron too. It was strange seeing genuine gratitude in the eyes of these people. They were pirates, and soldiers, and fighters, and thieves—the kind he would have had nothing to do with just half a year ago. And now he was their friend. He would fight alongside them one day. He would live with them as comrades.
“Remember,” Elena said to them. “Wait in Duran. Trust in my contacts. I will come, and when I do, we will rise again. We will not just be free. We will thrive. We will grow. We will take from those who thought they could take everything from us. We will show them why they do not tangle with Csar Rosa. Those who tangle with the leopard will be torn to pieces!”
They cheered. Quietly. Asron got off the boat and untied it. With a nod and a tip of the hat, Felix departed. Elena and Asron watched as the ferry became a speck down river. Then something pressed on the back of Asron’s knee. He knew full well it was Elena’s foot. He kneeled. The foot then pressed at his hip, pushing him on his rump. She stood proudly above him now, her foot resting on his shoulder. His view of her was magnificent. With one final push, he was laying upon the dock. Her toes played along his body. They teased his lips. They toyed down his chest. They reached his belt, then wriggled under his coat.
The first touch was electric, even through several layers of clothing. There was no other place in the world he’d rather be right now than beneath the rough, callused soles of her foot.
There was a commotion up by the guard house. Instantly, Asron was up. Elena foot was back in her boot. There must be a dozen people up there. At this hour, and so suddenly, that couldn’t be good. Together, they raced from the dock and toward another exit of the outpost, but men were there too. Even where the wall met the river bank, men had collected. Hounds howled.
It was a raid, and it must be for them. Had there been something wrong with the papers? Had someone seen Elena? Had they noticed the Ithili that she’d taken back? Had one of her contacts ratted them out? It didn’t matter. The place was surrounded. People were pouring in. Elena pulled him into a stable just as men entered the main courtyard.
Asron faced her. “Stand still. I’m giving you my last invisibility.”
“No.” She clasped his hands before they went through the somatic motion. “Use it on yourself.”
“Elena. I’m already disguised. Please.”
“That will not work and you know it. Use it. I’m ordering you.”
She caught his chin and forced him to look at her. “Do not argue with me. If they catch me, I am already a slave.”
“But your life can get so much worse.”
“Now, little mouse. Trust in me.”
Reluctantly, he cast his spell. For a moment, he considered casting it upon her anyway, but she would never forgive that. He felt a cold stillness as an invisibility field enveloped him.
Elena pulled him in and kissed him, then walked toward the arriving men. He wanted to pull her back, but by now it would only reveal him too.
They circled about her. Bloodhounds strained against leashes. Their carriers struggled to keep them at bay. Elena cowered, though anyone who knew her knew it was an act.
“Where are the others?” a hunter barked at her. He was a stern man, old with gray sideburns framing his face. His eyes had a coldness that came from a life of hunting down property—and of executing and maiming that property for having the gaul to think they might be something else.
“What do you mean, sir?”
“You no damn well what I mean? The slaves. Where are the rest of them.”
“They left, sir. On a ferry.” She pointed across the river to the dock of Briar Shed’s sister town. The details were close to the truth, but not enough to send them in the right direction.
“Why didn’t they take you?”
“I don’t know. They made us get in a wagon. When they brought us out, there was a large man. He looked us over and said he didn’t want any females. So the others told me to run away, but I didn’t know where to go.”
The hunter studied her. Then quite suddenly, his hand lashed out across her face. She stumbled back.
“That, slave, is for looking me in the eyes and not showing proper respect when addressing a hunter. That is not for your lies. That punishment will come later.”
In all the plans that Asron and Elena had made together, they had never let anyone get hurt. It was Asron’s personal requirement. But at that moment, more than ever, he considered breaking that rule. The thought that this hunter would take Elena in made him sick.
His mind raced. There had to be something he could do. He had a few spells in his repertoire. Maybe an illusion could distract the other men and scare the dogs. In the confusion, he and Elena could escape.
“You will tell me your story again, slave. This time, if you lie, you will bleed.”
Asron took a step forward.
“Oh, Thurston. That’s quite enough of that, I think.”
Everyone turned. Coming down the road from the guard post was an aged-old man with a limp. Every right foot step, all his weight came down upon a silver gryphon cane. Beside him walked his wife, a half elf woman of unbelievable beauty and youth. She held his arm, and walked close enough to catch him should he need it. Anyone from the mage’s guild would immediately recognize him as Thamun Gray, the Tower Magister.
“This slave is withholding information,” Thurston said. “The smugglers are making their escape as we speak. I need answers.”
“The smugglers are gone, my boy. They were gone before we even got word. Take what we have and be grateful, and let’s not forget ourselves. Treat the child with respect.”
“She is lying to me.”
“That may be so. Or it may not.” Gray turned to looked about the outpost. For one dead second, Asron swore Thamun looked right at him. His heart froze mid beat, but Thamun’s gaze continued on.
“There is nothing more here, I think. And I don’t care much for this chill. Take the girl. Question her with honey and kindness. You might be surprised at the result, I think, compared to your usual methods.”
“Do not tell me how to do my job, Magister. This is your slave, is it not? Your slave. Involved a smuggling operation, using your casters’ magic. This is my jurisdiction now.”
“But as you say, she is our property, and I would thank you to treat our property with respect. She is young. She is scared. She is not your mastermind. Go now. I wish not to linger.”
Thurston favored Thamun with a sour look. He carried Elena off. Thamun waited while everyone else departed. Soon he was alone. Asron half-expected Thamun to address him, but no.
“Hold tightly, my dear Telwadil.”
The young woman clutched him. He cast a spell, and Asron was alone.
He came so close to never seeing her again. It was only through sheer luck that he caught her as her transport wagon was leaving the village square the next day. Rumors had gone through the initiate ranks quickly. The hunters had captured a slave left behind by the smuggling ring. It was one of the tower slaves, and the tower had sold the slave off to the silver mines down south in the Kreshnan dunes. Asron almost hadn’t believed it. The guild would never sell off a witness like that so quickly.
But there she was. Curled up in a cage upon the wagon. Thurston had not shown her the honey and kindness Thamun had requested. Her face was a mess. Her back bore a network of crisscrossed lashes, and there was another mark upon her cheek to match the first two.
Until that moment, he had never imagined anything could crumple Elena’s spirit, but in that cage, she was broken.
Many people were circled about. There were other slaves heading off too, but everyone was here to see the captured slave. The smuggling ring was still out there, people said. This girl had known nothing, but she was a spectacle for those with nothing better to do.
Asron had worried she would not see him, but in time her head lifted. Their eyes met. There wasn’t an ounce of recognition. It hurt him to see that, but he understood why she had. In all her interrogation, she hadn’t once implicated him, just as she once promised.
There was so much he wanted to say to her, and to hold her one last time, but as he looked at her, he saw the slightest shake of her head. It wouldn’t be worth it, it said, and that was that. No goodbye. No last kiss. Just… It wouldn’t be worth it.
But Asron did have a message of his own. In all the noise and commotion, no one noticed the small movements of his hand and the whispering under his breath. His finger pointed to the roof of her cage, and the spell was done.
The wagon left the square. He watched as it turned into a dot upon the horizon. Then everyone returned to their lives.
Asron didn’t know if his spell would ever take effect. For all he knew, Elena would be moved from that cage first. She may never know that he tried to reach out to her. But if she wasn’t moved, and there was a time when no one else was around to hear, and she was awake to get the message, then, and only then, would the magic mouth relay Asron’s words.
“I will come for you.”