Chapter 12

O’ the twinkle in her eyes,
want of any gem belies,
O’ but to see them alight,
on a gift ever so bright,
promise all the stars above,
give a token of your love.

– Old Merchant Rhyme, 210 E.R.

Seasons in Thebes

Rhaeus 27th, 648 E.R.

A tall somewhat gaunt man approached a trio of druids, and looked rather dubiously to the two wolves following them.  “I swear if I’d not been looking for them, I would have missed the wolves.”

“I’ll thank you for considering our residence here for a while, most likely the winter, particularly under that condition,” Landri said, and offered her hand.

The farmer considered the gesture, and shook the offered hand.  “Frankly I can use all the help I can get.  Though forgive me for asking, my dad was an enchanter and sometimes I feel things; are they dire?”

“Yes,” Landri said guardedly.

“If anything it gives me some comfort.  I know another druid with a dire beast, a bird though.  Maybe less threatening, but biggest damn thing, never seen anything else quite like it.  Never makes a move his master didn’t permit, though it could catch and swallow a racoon whole.  Called it Cadwell of all things, no idea why, never did answer any question on the point.  Goodness, I keep forgetting they are here.”

“Yes, they tend to…blend in to the background,” Landri agreed.  “If it wasn’t for Shadow always being under the girl’s foot, I think we’d all forget they were here.”

“What’s the other one’s name?  Such a pretty white.”

“Lunka,” Kianne answered.  “It means moonlight in Sylvan.”

He gave her a curious look.  “Fitting.  Well, as long as they are well in hand, and won’t trouble the animals you are here to tend, I won’t mind.  In fact if they can keep an eye out for an egg thief that’s been bothering my chickens, all the better.”

“I’ve met Cadwell, and Emet by the way,” Landri offered out of hand.  “Only reason I’ve even consented to the madness of the girl keeping these wolves.  Not that she has given me the least choice in the matter.  Did Emet ever tell you his theory, that he’s really the pet?”

“Yeah, that’s the guy alright, loopy.  Did wonders for egg production when ever he was with us though.”

“I won’t promise wonders,” Landri offered.

“Just so long as you are worth my time.”

“I think that can be managed well enough.  That bird, did you know is only twice so big as it should be?”

“Really?”

“Oh yes, they are quite common up in the Clarion Ascension, whole wild herds of the things roaming the savanna, even sometimes migrate into eastern Palentine.”

“Yeah, I suppose herd would be the right word.  Much too big to flock.  Can those fly?”

“No.”

“Funny that, Cadwell could.  Not much, or far, but enough to get up on the roof and lounge about in the summer sun.”

“Must have learned that after I knew him,” Ladri said curiously. “How long did Emet stay with you?”

“Oh, never all too long at any given time.  Maybe a year though, if you added it all together.  He stayed half the summer once.”

“Who’s he sweet on?” Landri asked shrewdly.

The farmer didn’t look pleased.  “One of the farm hands.  I look the other way.  Not my business.”

“I was afraid it might be your daughter, he’s had trouble before.”  Landri nodded.

“Oh, she’d like that, she would, I’m sure of it.  Fortunately Emet has always had a good sense of what I will, and will not tolerate.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 29th, 648 E.R.

Kiannae urged a lost lamb back into its makeshift pen, which it entered far more readily after one glance from the white wolf that had helped shepherd it. The farmer had relented that the wolves seemed well in hand, and adept at the task, at least under the watchful eye of Kiannae.  He had however concluded that on multiple counts the whole affair of wolves that he could not seem to keep his own eyes on, herding his sheep, was far too unnerving to be around to half witness.

Kiannae wandered to the edge of the temporary lake covering the near field.  She sat down, and stared out over the drowned expanse.  It was a strange melancholy sense it gave her.  She wanted to ascribe desires to the elements, that they were no more pleased with their condition than her.  She heard footsteps beside her, and glanced up at the farmers daughter, who Lunka and Shadow eyed suspiciously, but did not growl at.  The young woman crouched and reached out, and though Kiannae thought to say something Lunka showed no signs of rejection, and let her stroke her muzzle.

“Such a pretty wolf,” the young woman said.

“She is striking, I’m surprised you can even keep your eyes on her though,” Kiannae offered.

She laughed.  “Yes, father complains of it so, but it doesn’t work on me.  Maybe it’s that I’m as wild as them,” she chuckled.  “I think they are the only things that have caused father more distress than me.”

“Are you trouble?” Kiannae asked with some amusement.

The girl shrugged, and sat down next to her.  “I don’t think so, personally.  He has different opinions though.”

Shadow sniffed her curiously, and curled up next to Kiannae, and dropped his head in her lap.

“I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced,” Kiannae offered.

“Kiannae right?  Name’s Lacie,” the girl offered the hand not petting the wolf, and Kiannae shook it.  “Father wants me to marry, I want to see the world.  I’ve been trying with every caravan to come through town to convince some trader or mercenary to solve both our problems.  Had some fun, but not any luck getting out of here.”

“Heh,” Kiannae said uncomfortably at the candor.

“Too frank?” Lacie asked.

“No, it’s fine.  I’m not one to judge, just…  No, never mind.”

“That boy Zale follows you around almost like these two,” Lacie pressed.  “You and him?” she asked.

Kiannae gave her a funny look.  “No, not that it is any of your business.  I’m not…I’ve never.”  She sighed.  “I’m more trouble than I’m worth, and I swear so is everyone else in my life.”

“You don’t seem so bad to me,” Lacie chided.  “Though I guess I like trouble.”

“I can understand wanting to get out of here,” Kiannae said.  “Though I was always happy at home, till it all went wrong.  Now.  Now I just feel like I want to be on the move, not stuck in one place.  Being in one place makes me feel like the troubles that chase me will catch up.”  She glanced out over the water curiously, and an odd smile crept across her lips.

“What’s that look?” Lacie asked curiously.

“Do you want to see me try something dumb?”

“Do I?”  Lacie questioned with an odd mix of interest and uncertainty.

“Well, I doubt it will do any harm, but if I mess it up, it could be embarrassing.”

“In that case, sounds like fun.”

Kiannae stood up, displacing Shadow, and kicked off her shoes, stepping into the cold wet mud at the edge of the water.  She took a long slow breath, and stepped forward.  At first it did not look like much, until it was clear the water though it rippled around her, was nearly a foot deep beneath her, and she was standing on the surface.

“How are you doing that?” Lacie asked with a laugh.

“Carefully,” Kiannae said, with metered breaths, and then suddenly spun on her toes, and the water around her swirled tentatively.  “Almost,” she muttered.  She took a deep breath, let it out, and with another twirl the wind and the water moved in perfect sync, rising in a crest that came up like a strange round wave, and then split around her before becoming a column of water that rose into a tall spiral, drawing the water out of the field like a cyclone in slow motion. It reached a height a good ten feet across and fifty tall, then suddenly stopped, a glimmering frozen pillar glinting in the sun as all the borrowed energy caught up with it

New water slowly flowed in to fill the field around Kiannae’s feet.  There was a slow clap behind her, and she turned to see Lacie with a laughing smile.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Kiannae moved out of the way of the rising water, and took a seat back beside Lacie watching her work amount to very little in the face of the vast flood.  She shook some mud off her feet.  “I’m not sure how much good I can really do with it.  This goes on for miles and miles in every direction.  I could clear the field, but then what?  It just floods again.”

“What if you froze a wall around the field first?” Lacie asked.

Kiannae gave her a funny look.  “That’s not a bad idea, actually.”

She got up, and grabbed her shoes.  She stepped up to the water’s edge, rinsed her foot, and shook it off before putting back on one, and repeated the process with the other.  She rolled her shoulders, and started forming a spell line in front of her.  Freezing the water as she walked forward out onto the wall of ice she was making.  Several brilliant orbs of orange light formed around her to store as much energy as she felt she could hang onto.  Each orb grew more taxing however to maintain.  Halfway around the perimeter of the field she looked back, and questioned the plan.

She offered the energy to the wind and the water, and again formed a column of water, but this one dissipated in steam as it swirled out into the flood plain.  Restored to neutral she began again, continuing her wall around the field.  Nearly exhausted she tried again, forming another column of water nearly twice as high and thick as the first, and nearly clearing out the field.  It however refused to freeze or evaporate with ease until she kept it suspended there a good five minutes.  After which it was all she could do not to drop to her knees in the mud.

She trudged back to the former shore line, not looking up most of the way only to find a farmer hat in hand, and his daughter looking smug.

“Told you she wasn’t just another druid, father.”

“I truly don’t know how I can repay you,” he said a bit bewildered.

“So, can I marry a druid father?” Lacie pressed.

“This isn’t Lycia girl,” the man growled.

“I mean the boy,” she cut back.

“Oh, yes, if you could take him off my hands that would be repayment in full,” Kiannae teased, but found she didn’t like her own jest as much as she thought she would.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The following weeks the rescued field was planted with a late crop, and Landri hurried the initial growth.  It was not a lot all together, but as long as it grew before the snows got heavy it would save the farmer buying grain for himself for the winter, and leave some small pittance to sell cheaply to his neighbors.  He had clarified that he was indeed not sure how he could repay Kiannae for her part.  He had promised what little he could afford to Landri for their services, and that itself was not much.

Landri held the purse strings of their small band, and they were not worth much even then.  A pence here and there was Kiannae’s allotment, and she spent it readily to have some small pleasures she missed.  A pastry or two, some fragranced soap, and a brush for her hair.  A robe however became a necessity as her old one became too short, and tight.  It was the second robe she had outgrown since joining the druids in Lundan Grove, and it became apparent to her she was overtaking Zale in height.

The new robe began gray, but the farmer did find some brown dye that almost matched her old one.  Her golden belt still served her well, and with some work she managed to re-apply the various enchantments she was accustomed to in her garments, to keep the robe relatively clean, and resistant to tearing, burning, or being cut.  The village enchanter was curious enough of the girl who had cleared a field of the flood that he offered to check her work for free.

Kiannae dodged most of the man’s prying questions, and his offer to take her on as an apprentice as politely as she could.  She informed him that she tended to use magic sparingly because of her condition, which had only lead to more questions.  There were also several other farmers who asked if she could do the same for them, and though she was inclined to oblige Landri made a habit of chasing them off, and chiding her for even thinking of doing more magic on that scale.  Particularly with her needing to re-freeze her ice walls daily to prevent them from melting under the late summer sun.

Lacie did indeed make a few bids for Zale’s attentions, but Zale did not seem at all pleased.  Which Kiannae found amusing to watch, until the young woman gave up, and decided that Kiannae was her new best friend, and clung to her side enough that Shadow grew jealous, melancholy, and aloof.  Lunka however was more personable around her, and often would stay close even as Shadow wandered, or sulked.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 2nd, 648 E.R.

Kiannae calmed the chicken in front of her almost absently before putting her hand under, and grabbing one, two and three eggs, which she placed into a basket Lacie was holding.

“So much easier for you,” Lacie said.  “I understand you can’t teach me to do the rest, but maybe just that?” she pressed hopefully.

“Landri could surely teach you better, best I can offer is really just to feel what I do,” Kiannae said irritably.  Lacie was a nice enough girl, but her pestering for Kiannae to teach her magic, or druidic practices grew old.  The girl had some gift, and aptitude for sensing things, but not apparently to know when she was pushing too hard.

“Is it really that simple?” she asked.

“For me at least,” Kiannae shrugged, and did what was by far the hardest part, nuding the process ahead on laying the next egg about six hours.  She moved to the next chicken.  “I make no promises it will be as easy for anyone else.”  Another two eggs from that chicken.  One from the next.  Three from the fourth.

“Can I try?” Lacie asked.

“As you like,” Kiannae stepped back, took the basket, and the opportunity to stretch from all the hunching over.

Lacie stepped up, and her presence shifted.  It wasn’t quite right, but the chicken already a docile farm animal did not stir much as she reached under for the first, and second egg, but flapped a bit on the third.

“Not too bad,” Kiannae said.  “For a first try.”

The second went better, but the third chicken was having none of it, and even Kiannae could not seem to calm the bird.  A growl outside made both girls stop, and move quickly to check what was going on.  Lunka had her muzzle buried in a corner behind the hen house, but couldn’t quite seem to get to what she was after.

Kiannae conjured a light, and sent it drifting into the hollow where a racoon could be seen to be scrunched up in the crevice.

“Peggy?” Lacie said worriedly.  “Please tell her to leave her alone,” she implored turning to Kiannae and grabbed her arm nervously.

“Leave her be Lunka,” Kiannae said hesitantly.  The wolf gave her a displeased look, but slunk away, keeping her eye on the crevice.

Lacie snatched an egg from the basket, and set it in front of the opening where the racoon was hiding.  Kiannae felt the girl’s aura shift again, more naturally.  Far more naturally in fact, such that it seemed something well practice.  The racoon slowly crawled out to the edge of the hen house, and plucked up the egg, and stepped back in.

“She has kits,” Lacie said.  “Or at least she did.  I hadn’t seen her since the flood, but I know its her.  Can we please let her go, and not tell father.”

“So this is the egg thief?” Kiannae asked.

“Yes,” Lacie sighed.  “I wasn’t sure of course.  I was giving her eggs before the flood, but she’s been stealing them since I guess.  Come on Peggy, you can come out.”

The racoon inched out, and then bolted away with the egg.  Lunka moved as though to follow, but Kiannae gently said “No,” and the wolf sat, and watched the racoon go.  Licking her chops.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 34th, 648 E.R.

“Girl,” said an aged man sitting alone in a bare looking shop front.  “Girl!” he tried again more loudly.  “Unna!” he finally exclaimed, and Kiannae turned hesitantly at a word she had riddled over many times.

“Do I know you?” she asked uneasily of the man, and considered his empty shop front, and the table he sat at.  It seemed terribly nondescript, with little hint why he was sitting there.  She rested her hand on Shadow’s head, to insure he was calm.

“I thought that unna might get your attention,” he said smiling mischievously.  “I’ve met but two of the unken in all my years.  Half-bloods,” he laughed, and shook his head.  “To think, that is the polite Sylvan word for it.  Difficult lot.”

“I’ll take that as a no, I do not know you,” she said incredulously.  Then she noticed a stack of cards by his wrinkled old hand.  She immediately stepped back.  “I do not meddle with seers,” she said plainly.

The man plucked a small silver coin from his pocket, and set it on the table.  “A shilling for your time,” he said with wry grin, then glanced for the first time to the dark furred wolf at her side.  “My, you keep interesting company.”

Kiannae grimaced, and stepped closer.  “For one minute,” she said tersely, “and if you trouble me too much, you will get to know my company, far better than you might like.”

“As you will,” he said uneasily, and pushed the coin forward.  “Though when you want the second minute, I will have that back, and another like it.”

Kiannae took the coin, and crossed her arms, ready to ignore every word out of the man’s mouth.  She didn’t have another silver to give him, and that spoke poorly of his implied abilities.  That, was actually comforting in her estimation.

He shuffled tersely, and plucked a card from the top of the stack, and set it face up before him.  “Your key is the storm,” he muttered.  “Upside down.  A card of trouble, and change, but you strive to set it right.”  He shook his head, and plucked the next, which he set below it.  “The child,” he looked up at her, almost as though assuring himself of something.  He seemed dubious of whatever he found.  He pulled another card, and set it to the left.  “The tower, upside down.  A life cast aside, a past pushed behind, an order rejected, and another half embraced.”  He set the next right.  “The Starred Crown,” his face almost twitched, and he looked up again.  His expression little more pleased than Kiannae’s.

“Minute’s up,” she said flatly, and turned to march away.

“Another silver!” he called after her ernestly, “Stay.”

Shadow growled.  Kiannae glanced back at the man, her fists clenched.  He had indeed set another silver coin before him, and was glaring at her with an intensity that gave her no further confidence.  She eyed the silver, and considered that nothing had been said that she did not feel she had heard before.  She did not really have to listen.  Another silver, just for standing there.  She stepped back towards him, and plucked the coin from his table.

“You’ll not be getting this back,” she said plainly.

“No, I won’t,” he agreed.  He shook his head, and pulled the next card.  “The road in twain,” he murmured, and set it beneath the child.  “Upside down,” he added, and grabbed the next, and set it to the left.  “The Thief.  Upside down.”  Another card to the right.  “The Fool, upside down.”  He scratched his head frustratedly, and plucked one last card, to put beneath the rest.  “The flame,” he said, though the card depicted a dragon made of fire.

He looked at her with doubt in his eyes.  It did little to instill confidence in whatever might come out of his mouth next.  “What you think stolen, will return,”  he intoned.  “Beware the road before you, for what follows still lies ahead.  All paths converge, and your road narrows.  There is fire, war, and the hand of dragons.  The storm has called, and you would not answer.  The storm will call, and you will not answer.  Half your world is upside down.  Everything fate has tried to hand you is reversed.  Every step you have taken for a purpose, by some design, but who’s…I cannot say.  If there are gods, if there ever were, one has taken to following you like a puppy.”  He glanced down at the wolf eyeing him suspiciously.  “Give or take.”

“Is that all?” Kiannae growled.

The man sighed, and shook his head.  “This,” he tapped the fool.  “What seems madness is intent.  The Fool reversed, knows what he does.  The fool sees clearly, in a world that is mad, but the world sees only acts it cannot comprehend.  Do you know why they say, that the fox is crazy?  No, let me be more clear.  Why it is said, to be crazy like a fox, is clever.  A fox will sometimes runs towards a pursuer, doubling back on the chase, to escape.  It does something seemingly mad, for an entirely clever reason, and it even works…now and then.”

Kiannae glared at the man a long while.

“I’ve only once read a fate nearly half so strange,” he said picking up the cards, almost disappointedly, and looking up at her with an odd wonder.  “A girl of Carth, who stole a man from his precious seat on the council.  She was no more common than you.”  He nodded.  “Thank you.  Come again, if you want to hear more.  There is a great deal I could tell you, a great deal that could help you, even make you happy, but I know you won’t listen.  Not even if I were to pay you, and I’ve done more than enough of that tonight.”

Kiannae turned, and walked away, adding two silver to her near empty coin purse.  It wasn’t so bad, she tried to convince herself.  To have listened to nothing more than she had heard before, and come away two silver better for her trouble.  That, was what she told herself, but she didn’t believe it for a moment.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“You look glum,” Zale said as Kiannae opened and closed the door to the small workers cabin they were sharing with Landri, who seemed to be out.  Lunka raised her head slightly, and gave Zale a pointed glance.  He resumed scratching behind her ears.  The normally standoffish of the two wolves had, if not taken a liking to Zale in close confinement, at least discovered she could intimidate him into scratching her ears, which she would sometimes growl over if he stopped.

“Don’t I always?” Kiannae cut back.

“You seemed in a good enough mood earlier, to be going for a walk in the snow.”

“Or I was in a bad enough mood to need my space,” she suggested.

Zale sighed.  “I’m not trying to attack you, if you don’t want to talk about it, I’ll keep my peace, and continue to appease the real mistress of this house.”  He nodded to the wolf whose head was rested on his lap, her eyes glancing to Kiannae, her body curled up behind him.

“What, you wanted a girl who was interested in your attention, there you go.”

“She only likes me cause she can get what she wants out of me,” he joked playfully.  “Much like that girl Lacie you sicked on me, who wants a husband to get out from under her father’s roof.”

“Yes, wonder what that feels like, being offended that you are desirable, only because you are there.”

“Just ‘cause one doesn’t have a lot of choices, doesn’t mean they are always in want of options,” Zale cut back.

Kiannae couldn’t tell if he had really stopped caring on that jab, or if he was just playing at backwards compliments the way he had learned worked even slightly on her.  Flattery was easy, she had long concluded.  Flattery always sounded like the honied words of those at court who clearly did not like the people they were speaking to.  A backhanded compliment, without actually being an insult, was clever.  Kiannae liked clever.  She liked to think she was clever.  She fumbled with her coin purse with mixed opinion on the matter.

“I got accosted by a seer in town,” Kiannae said.

“Accosted?” Zale asked dubiously.  Shadow walked up, sniffed his sister, and gave Zale a dubious look.  “Like grabbed by the arm or something?  I’ve seen it, never happened to me though.”

“Not this time,” Kiannae shook her head.

“This time?” Zale seemed slightly more bemused than concerned.

“Just something from when I was a kid.  I told you there is prophecy chasing me.  I really wish I hadn’t let him talk me into listening.”

“They have to be good at that, if they want to get paid,” Zale offered.

“Well, he was terrible then, cause I didn’t pay him,” Kiannae chuckled knowingly.

“Oh, bad luck that,” Zale laughed.

“The world has grown so superstitious,” Taloe said appearing in a corner, his attempt at clothing slightly more awkward than before.  Still enough to be less embarrassing, and for the first time Zale considered that might have been his meaning on their past meeting.  Not for his benefit, not even necessarily for Kiannae’s, but his own.

“I won’t deny that,” Zale countered, “but I was just relaying the superstition for fun.  It’s considered bad luck not to pay sears, but its not like they lay a curse on you.”  He glanced to Talo, and let that sink in as a jab.  “No, my mother had a theory, and I rather like it.  If a seer is wanting your attention enough to not demand payment, then you are the prize.  They want to read someone whose fortune is worth telling, to see more clearly.  Honestly, I think even that is superstitious myself, but more sensible than bad luck.”

“What if they pay you?” Kiannae asked with ill humor.

“As if that would ever happen,” Zale said dismissively.  “Seers are the most miserly, sneaky lot.  I mean, I did see one once, lured people in with the promise they were important enough he would pay for their time.”

“He ever pay them again when they tried to walk away?” Kiannae asked with a frown.

“No, of course not.  Got three more pence out of them by the end, plus the original half back.”

“Pence?  He gave me a silver, and another to not walk away when he irritated me.”

Zale threw his hand through his own hair, leaving an untended wolf who gave him a funny look that he ignored.  “You are messing with me,” he said narrowing his eyes, and glanced to Taloe to check his expression.

“Do you doubt her?” Taloe seemed unamused.

“I sure do, and I don’t put it past the both of you to be conspiring to mock me.”

Kiannae fished the two silver out of her purse.

“I’ll also believe you stole those, or borrowed them off Landri, who is then also in on this, before I belive a seer gave you two shillings for your time.”

“Well he did, spouted off a bunch of garbage I’ve heard before.  Though a god following me around like a puppy, that was new,” she gave Taloe a look.

“I’m no god,” Taloe objected.

“No, just the last scrap of a curse, on a lake.  Your word that, curse.  A force of nature that has taken up the face of a boy.  Are you him?  Are you the boy from the story, or are you just borrowing his memory?”

Taloe looked hurt, and swirled away into nothing.

“That…” Zale took a breath.  “That wasn’t nice,” he managed to get out.

“Since when do you defend Taloe?” Kiannae cut back at Zale.

“Since now,” Zale said, “I guess.”  He took a breath again, and stood up, displacing the wolf that had grown annoyed by the lack of attention.  “I don’t know what that seer said that has you all bent out of shape, but just don’t.  Something about a god?  He’s not a god, and I’m sure of it.  Do you want to know why?”

“Why?” Kiannae demaned.

“He’s embarrassed!”

Kiannae scrunched up her nose like the first time she’d been fortunate enough to taste a grapefruit, which were hard to come by in Avrale.  It had however been bitter, and she knew she was expected to like it.  “Embarrassed?” she finally asked.

“He’s started forming clothes.  He said he would try, of course, way back when, but last time I saw him, when he said it wasn’t for my benefit.  I don’t think it was for yours either.  He’s made of water, he’s pale, and blue…if, if he even forms blood, it would still just be water.  He can’t blush.  Have you considered he’s been embarrassed all this time?”

“Is that true?” Kiannae asked of thin air.

There was no answer for a long uncomfortable stretch, and Taloe reformed where he had last stood.  “Of course it’s true,” he said irritably.  “How would you feel?  To wake up.  Not remember who you are, but be sure you should not be naked.  To have to appear unclothed before some strange…” he grimaced, “boy who was quite attractive to you, but you know you are with someone, or were, or have just lost them.”  He put his face in his hands.

“And have you looked?” Kiannae asked, the potential of justified anger offering her some defense to cling to.  “Did you think it would be fair?”

“That I have not looked, does not mean I have not seen,” Taloe answered thin lipped.  “I can prevent myself seeing what you have, as well as you can prevent yourself glimpsing futures that mock you.  I’ve seen your own reflection, nothing more.”  He looked away.

Kiannae’s cheeks turned deep red.  “How dare you?” she snapped.

“He just said he doesn’t get to control it,” Zale offered in his defense.

“Oh, no, you do not get to defend him for peeping,” Kiannae said, and marched up on Taloe.  “In the river, the water.  I have wondered, and I have not wanted to know, was that you?”

“No,” Taloe said, but there was hesitance behind it.

“Was, that, you?” Kiannae repeated.

“It was you,” Taloe said almost angrily.  “You, but you were lost, not there.  You were at one with the water, and all but absent from your body.  I felt it, twirling through the water, feeling it on your skin.  I cannot normally feel what you feel, but when you commune with the elements deeply enough, I feel all of it, every bit, I feel what it is to be in your skin, unless I take my own form, and that only diminishes it.”

“Were you the presence?” Kiannae demanded.  “Were you what I felt in the dryad grove?”

“No,” Taloe said almost fiercely, and trembled.  “It terrified me, as much as you.  I have not spoken of it, because it terrifies me.  It would have destroyed me, almost as certainly you.  That power was something that does not belong in this world.”

“Was it her?” Kiannae asked more nervous than angry for a moment.

“No,” Taloe said, but he had less conviction.  “No, it was not her, but she did not fear it.  That was where she gained the power to manifest.”

“She?” Zale interrupted uncertain what he was hearing, but not liking it.

“Not your concern,” Kiannae snapped, shaking her finger once at Zale, and turned back.  “Do I need to worry about her again?” Kiannae pressed.

“No.  She does not have the power to manifest any more.  Not without stealing it, and she is weakening.”

“If one of you doesn’t tell me what ‘she’ is, I am asking Landri for answers,” Zale interrupted.

“Another spirit,” Kiannae said with a grimace.  And her shoulders slumped.  “An angry one.”

“She is dying,” Taloe said.  “Her struggles are tearing her apart.  I only wish I could give her a kinder end.”

“You are sure?” Kiannae demanded.

“I can feel it, it is not pleasant,” Taloe said sadly.  “If you do not offer her a power like the one from the grove again, there is no danger.”

Kiannae turned to Zale, and gave him a pointed look.

“Fine.  Fine.  If she’s really not an issue, I’ll keep quiet.  Please don’t let me regret it.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Styver 22nd, 648 E.R.

“Did you know they call it the season of gems here?” Zale asked as he and Kiannae strolled down a snow covered lane together.  Her constant Shadow for once had relented to keep to the woods, another then pestering her with trivia in some hope to entertain her.  Lacie had also declined to join them, having muttered something about wheels that had amused Zale thoroughly.  Kiannae had guessed a meaning to the half heard expression, but had little interest to confirm it.

“Because of the snow?” she asked drolly.

“Or the clear glimmering night sky?” he said twirling ahead of her, gestured up, and turned his head to the stars.

She laughed.

“Or perhaps,” he spun around once again, and gestured to not one, but two little shop fronts for jewelers side by side.  “It was just the clever ploy of hardworking traders to get you to buy more jewelry.  For it is customary, to buy the girl you fancy jewels to warm her winter nights.  To offer her the all the stars from the sky.”

“And you wish to buy my affections?”  She chided, though it was more playful than offended.  She was somewhere between relieved and frustrated that Zale had seemingly resisted the other girl’s best efforts to steal him away.

“Oh goodness no.  I knew you would have no respect for me, if I tried that.”

“Hardly a change there.”

Zale ignored the dig.  “Still, it is tradition to browse, and who is to say a lady cannot buy for herself, particularly on her birthday.  Certainly not this one,” he nodded to the woman in the shop.  “Oh no, the merchants wouldn’t pass that up.”

The attendant at the shop did not seem terribly pleased by Zale’s spiel, but nor was she ready to presume there was no chance of a sale.  She’d seen plenty of difficult flirts like the pair lead into purchases.  Being difficult, after all, is only charming when it is worth it in the end.

Kiannae gave him a dubious look, which he returned with a smile that said he remembered full well when her birthday was.  She stepped up, and shrugged to the shopkeeper before looking through the array of rings, amulets, earrings, cuffs, and bracelets.  They were far from poorly made, the stones all glimmered, but few were of the clearest quality.  She glanced up at the impatient glare she felt from the shopkeeper, and flashed her an uncomfortable smile.  The shopkeeper’s expression changed suddenly, and she leaned forward.

“Come, come closer, please,” she said with a gesture, and Kiannae backed up cautiously.

“Please, let me see your eyes dear,” she repeated.

Kiannae considered just walking away, but curiosity struck her suddenly.  She stepped closer, and the attendant leaned farther forward, adjusting a jewelers eyepiece.  “Goodness, I’ve paid fortunes for gems half so pure,” she tsked.  “Too dark to tell from the shape, but no color that vivid could be anything other than Sylvan.”

Kiannae stepped back again.

“I don’t mean to make some trouble about it, quite the contrary.  Just wanted to see them closer.  Eyes like that…” she tsked again. “I’ve got some fine bright little emeralds.”  She turned, and rummaged a bit.  “Not much more than chips really, but they sparkle so.  She held out two cuff earrings with two green little emeralds in each, one in the thin wire cuff, one dangling below it.  They were gold to match a belt that had seen better days.

“They are lovely, but I couldn’t possibly afford them.”

“It is in fashion to wear just the one,” she offered.  “Right or left.”

“Right I suppose,” Kiannae started, and reconsidered,  “No, I still couldn’t afford it.”

“It’s not the best gold,” the woman insisted, “and the gems are more pretty than expensive, just try one on.”

Kiannae sighed, and took the right cuff, and clipped it on her ear.

“Turn, show, let the young man see.”

Kiannae checked her reflection in a mirror.  “What do I care of his opinion?” she teased.

“Oh you like compliments,” Zale countered.

Kiannae turned, and glared at him.

“Lovely, needs more brilliance to match the eyes though.”

Kiannae groaned, and rolled her head back to the shopkeeper.

“He’s not wrong,” she insisted.

“I can’t even afford these, I am sure,” she insisted.

“How much can you?” the shopkeeper questioned.

“A silver maybe,” Kiannae said, glancing into the mirror again.  She did like it, but she didn’t permit herself to think it would be enough.

“The gold is worth that much, the gems half more, my work…”

Zale set a silver coin on the counter.

“No, Zale,” Kiannae protested.

“I’m putting down the half,” he said.  “So I’m not buying it for you, am I?”

The shopkeeper looked between the two, like she was being put on, but finally convinced herself the squabble was what it appeared.  She shook her head, and sighed.  “I’ll give you back three copper sal.  She said.”

“Done, as long as the lady is putting her money down.”

Kiannae sighed.  “Fine.  She plucked her last shilling from her coin purse.”

The old woman produced three small copper coins which Zale took, and Kiannae stared a moment more in the mirror.  Convinced she nodded to the woman, and turned to leave, giving Zale a glance.

“You are terrible,” she finally said a few steps away, but it was more playful than chiding.

“I don’t know, I’d think some young women might disagree,” he offered.

“Ah, but this is the one you are dealing with,” she countered and poked him in the shoulder.

“Are you saying we have some kind of deal?” he cut back.

She mulled that over a moment, before offering up, “This would not be enough.”

Zale balked, and she smirked as she turned back around.

“What, do you think I’d be so offended by the idea?  That a woman in a position of power would sell her affections?  Certainly not so cheaply.”  She laughed and spun as she walked down the path.  “I mean truly.  Imagine a man who accomplished that feat, selling his attentions to the pretty ladies of the world.  He would be a hero, a god among men, to you men at least.  A woman though, no she is just a whore, or if you are being polite, courtesan.  Well, I’d rather her a hero, thank you.”

“Heh,” was all Zale could manage, far less than certain what to do with her words.

“But no, for the pleasure of my company, you will need to do much better.”

“I’ve already the pleasure of your company,” Zale countered.

“Oh, no, no.  I think you’ve just got the deposit down on the pestering of my company.”  She turned and shoved him gently before running off.

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