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Ina’s Spark

If Evina waited much longer it would be full dark, and the tavern would almost certainly have a godforsaken bard by then. As if that weren’t bad enough, by the pricking of the hair along her arms, there had to be at least five other mages in easy walking distance. No surprise, really, given King Redinado’s annual quest. That’s what forced her to the capital, after all.

A pair of drunk men staggered out of the door, golden oil light spilling out onto the rutted city street. They wandered away, singing a ditty about a wench with hair the color of the moon. But not that song, thank the Savior Mother.

She swallowed, trying to dislodge the knot in her throat. If she couldn’t even walk into a tavern, how the hell did she think she was going to survive the quest to become a King’s Wizard? Savior Mother and the Multitudes…all she wanted to do was survive. She could give a rotten fig about working for the King.

Trust your mind, not your instincts, Evina. Clenching her fists, she pulled a thin thread of power into her body, hairs standing on end along her arms. Until the quest started, there was no harm in letting other mages know that one more was in the city. Her sight sharpened and the edges of the world stood out from the darkness.

The mud squelched around her boots as she walked across the street, past wagon ruts and piles of ox shit. All she had to do was go inside, talk to one man, and walk out again.

Evina pushed the door open onto a wall of sound and a chaos of shapes. It trapped her in the doorway with the pressure of trying to sort out order.

She twisted the power that lay under her skin and shaped it with her will. The tun-tun-tira-tun-tun of her magic kept its underlying signature, but the peaks and valleys became more pronounced until they began to resonate with the world in different ways. She pulled the highs up and up and as she did

the world

slowed

down

The patrons stopped moving. Flames froze. And Evina had time.

Time to not panic. Time to calm down. Time to make plans.

Her eye caught on a candle’s flame. It sat in a globe of glass atop a squat clay candlestick. Another flame burned not far past that. Another closer to her. There were nine candles. Nine candles in nine globes on nine tables. From there she sorted out that the tables had benches, most of them obscured by a frozen mass of humanity.

In the corner, where she’d been told to find him, a well-built man slouched in a chair. There. All she had to do was cross the room and meet the mercenary. No one was going to die today. Fidgeting with the edge of her cloak, Evina released the power back into the air.

As the world sped around her, a blonde man cursed as he touched a metal tankard and got shocked by the residual magic in the air. She winced in sympathy. Master Harry would have chided her for making the man’s skin itch just because she needed a security blanket.

She straightened her shoulders and she walked the path she had planned to where the mercenary slouched. Even without the power, she could feel his gaze upon her, though his posture didn’t change. She stopped at the table and cleared her throat. “Clever Cenrod?”

His nose had been bent to the side at some point and never straightened. A puckered scar creased the deep brown skin of his forehead. He tilted his head up. “Evina the Green. You’re late.”

“Sorry.” She dropped her gaze, fixing on the six rough wood buttons on his shirt.  No, eight. There were two on his cuffs. “May I sit?”

“Probably the best way to conduct our business.”

Sinking into the chair, Evina rested her hands on the sticky wood surface of the table. The candle here had gone out. Or been blown out. “Can you start this Ammunsday?”

“Thought the quest didn’t start until Relusday?”

“Yes, at dawn, but I factored in two days to collect supplies.”

He grunted and sipped his ale. Evina twined her fingers together in her lap, wishing she had a beer so she had something to do with her hands.

Clever Cenrod set his beer on the table. “Right then. Bargain’s struck so…half up front. Half on completion.”

Evina nodded. She had better uses for that money, but it wasn’t as if she had much of a choice thanks to the king. Quest or stop using magic permanently. Still—behind her, someone strummed the strings of a lute. Evina’s shoulders crawled toward her ears at the sound.

Cenrod raised his eyebrows. “Don’t like music?”

“Just tavern songs.” She wiped her hands on her knees under the table before reaching for the money purse beneath her tunic. She’d worked all this out with him in letters, guided by Master Harry, so all she had to do now was pay him. She untied the bag and set it on the table.

Cenrod picked it up, weighing it in one hand. With a nod, he stuck out his other hand. “Done.”

Evina swallowed for a moment before she dragged her hand from beneath the table to meet his. His hand was hard with calluses and a faint grit of dirt. “Done.”

With luck and the Savior Mother’s blessing, she’d be able to rely on this mercenary to keep her safe. The longer she could avoid using magic on the quest, the harder it would be for the other mages to know where she was. And that, she hoped, would keep her alive to the end.

The early pre-dawn sky had grayed enough to hide the stars, but no hint of color foretold the sun yet. Evina walked through the streets of Kingston with Clever Cenrod at her side. Knots of people all headed toward the castle and the starting line of the quest, but they kept well-clear of her. It was a small thing, but the mercenary’s visible sword was worth that much today.

The street they were on spilled out onto the town square. Thousands of people crowded in, hiding the grass from view. Kingsmen lined a path to the wooden stage set in the middle of the square. Banners hung from it, seeming gray and silver in the early light, instead of royal blue and white. A set of bleachers backed the stage, with a canopied throne at their top. Some nobles had taken their seats, but the king’s own spot was vacant yet.

“Ho!” A pair of kingsmen with pikes barred their path. Behind them stood a matching pair of King’s Wizards in their star-dappled robes. The closer pikesman said, “Mages only past this point.”

“Oh—” The hair on her arms rose from someone else’s magic. ta-ta-tun-tiri-ta Involuntarily, she turned toward the second of the two pikesmen. “I’m…I’m here for the quest.”

“Are you now?” He met her gaze and smirked, then glanced over his shoulder to a King’s Wizard. The long flame stitch robes marked her but not a trace of magic thrummed off the woman.

A test. Moths fluttered in her stomach. She’d thought the quest would begin at dawn, but it started here and now. Evina pulled magic from the air and let it pool under her skin. “Yes.”

The pikesman grinned. “Right you are, then.” He glanced over at Cenrod. “But not you.”

“I’m with the lady.” How could anyone sound threatening from a slouch?

“Only wizards and mages past this point.”  The pikesman-wizard seemed unimpressed and pointed to the right, where spectators curved around the marked path. “Over there for watching.”

“I said. I’m with. The lady.” Cenrod’s hands rested easy on his belt and his posture did not shift but menace seemed to roll off him like magic. “She’s hired me to go with her and go with her I shall.”

From behind them a well-bred voice, with all the rolling vowels of nobility, drawled, “Must be a piss-poor mage if she can’t protect herself.”

The itching under Evina’s skin twisted and pointed in two directions now. The pikesman and, behind her, a golden youth in sweeping robes, although not so bold as to actually put a wizard’s flamestitching on them without a license. A glow manifested around his head, taka-tin-tin-taka-taka-tin, visible even to a layman’s eyes. “I trust I may pass?”

The pikesmen nodded their heads and cleared his path while keeping Cenrod boxed off.

Evina worried her lower lip between her teeth. “The call…it didn’t say anything about not traveling with a companion.”

“Poor duck. Why even bother starting?” The golden youth sauntered forward, sketching a mocking bow as he passed. “Best stay home and give up sorcery.”

The magic beneath her skin bunched, ready to snap out. Evina caught it. Teeth gritted, she let her breath out slowly and trickled some of the power away with it. She waited until the youth was farther away before she asked, “May he join me on the road later?”

“No rules against traveling with folks you meet on the quest. But at the start, it’s just you.”

“But—”

“Level playing field. You acquire a companion later, that’s fair game.”

If she didn’t have the mercenary, she’d be alone with the crush of people. And if she kept the mercenary, they wouldn’t let her past. Clenching her teeth, Evina turned to Cenrod.

He cracked his neck, seeing the decision in her turn. “I’ll meet you outside town, first fork on the Tollerton road.”

“All right.” She could do this. It was no different than walking down the road to market day or stepping into a tavern to hire a mercenary. Filling her lungs with air, she faced the road leading to the wooden stage. The pikesmen stepped back to let her pass. As she walked between them, she heard the sound of the mercenary retreating for just a moment, before his footsteps were buried under the sound of the spectators.

Even at the pre-dawn hour, it seemed as if everyone in town and from parts beyond had come to see the Wizard’s Quest begin. Clutching her bag, Evina walked down the path between the kingsmen. The hair on her arms and the back of her neck rose and scratched with a constant prickle of magic.

Ahead, a King’s Wizard waited at the foot of the stairs, with a small portable desk and a ledger spread in front of her. Seven steps led up to the stage, which was filled with a shifting mass of mages. Some of them manifested visible magic. Others stood, hands folded in front of them in quiet contemplation, or engaged in conversation with their neighbor. None of them acknowledged that they were ready to kill their fellows.

The King’s Wizard at the table lifted her head as Evina approached. “Name?”

She cleared her throat. “Evina the Green.”

Above her, a familiar voice chuckled. “Green is right. Why do you know, she tried to bring a mercenary in with her?”

“No.” A woman laughed. “Do you suppose she has a dolly tucked away in her pack, too?”

The King’s Wizard rolled her eyes and moved her quill to the next line. “Mentor?”

“Master Harriger the Treesmith.”

“Town of origin?”

She faltered here, every time the question arose. In polite conversation, she usually listed Master Harry’s small Ironville, but for an official record… “Wrightston by the Sea.”

The King’s Wizard’s head came up with a sucked in a breath. Evina kept her gaze fixed on the quill and the splotch of ink staining the woman’s forefinger, but that did not stop her from imagining the calculation spreading across the woman’s face. Her voice was softer when she asked, “Age?”

“Twenty-two.” She had been eight. That was what the woman was no doubt thinking, and she would be right.

Evina had been eight when a group of Costish marauders landed and raided her town. And she had been eight, when she had discovered that she was a mage. She had been eight, when she had been unable to control this new power and burned her town to the ground. She had been eight, when Master Harry took her in, because none in her town wanted her. Not even her parents.

Who would want a child that could destroy everything around them?

It made a pretty song, though. A song that stuck in your head and followed you around whispering its lies in your ear. Ina was a cold, cold child…Master Harry had told her songs could be a poison that way. The only small mercy was that the bard had named her Ina in the song, because it was easier to fit in the meter.

Through another small mercy, the King’s Wizard made no more comment than another soft inhalation. She cleared her throat, pen scratching across the ledger. Setting the quill down, she handed Evina a small badge, which crackled with embedded magic. “Affix this to your left shoulder. It shows that you’re Questing in the King’s name. His Majesty will arrive shortly to issue the formal challenge.”

“Thank you.”

The wizard nodded and opened her mouth, hesitating before she said. “Savior Mother’s Blessings on you.” She wet her lips as if straying from a script made her uncomfortable, then jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “Up the stairs with you.”

Evina clutched the badge in her fist as she jogged up the wooden stairs. It was happening. In her chest, her heart wrestled with her lungs, each taking up the wrong space. At the top of the stairs, Evina faltered. Mages crowded the platform, which had no rails to keep the unwary from tumbling off.  Most had gravitated toward the middle to avoid the edge, which left a border of empty planks.

Which safety did she want? Avoiding a tumble or avoiding people?

“Evina the Green…” The golden youth sauntered through the crowd, with another young noble at his heels. The other woman was as ostentatious as he was, with green sparks dancing around her dark hair. “My dearest friend, Retsea the Kinswoman, was so curious to see the mage who has a mercenary.”

Evina wrapped her fingers tighter around the badge. Kinswoman. Retsea was noble all right if the king allowed her to claim Kinswoman for a name. “You can see me, I trust.”

Retsea the Kinswoman raised a brow. “Good heavens, Folter. Your little find has quite the mouth on her.”

Before he could finish drawing breath, Evina turned to him. “Folter the Yellow? I think I would rather be green.”

“Folter the Golden.” He lifted his head, nearly rising onto his toes with hauteur.

“Of course, how foolish of me.” Evina walked straight into the crowd and cursed herself. Her temperament was never steady under the best of circumstances. And here? The press of these random strangers, with the constant pricking of small magics, was infinitely preferable to that preening coxcomb and his vainglorious muff.

“I’ll see you on the road!”

His voice carried past her, and those simple words were laden with threat. For the length of the quest, mages could kill each other without fear of reprisal. Culling the herd, Master Harry said. So to meet another mage on the road…She would not do that.

Her momentum carried her through the crowd and to the clear border on the far side. Evina let her breath out and looked down at the badge clutched in her hand. It bore a crown and forking Wizard’s flame on a blue field, bordered by a band of gold. There was no pin with which to attach it, nor did she have needle and thread on hand.

Evina snorted. They wanted it affixed by magic. How many small tests would she have to do before the quest even began? Pulling power out of the air, she saw the mages closest to her glance round at the new source of magic. One of them gave a little nod to her, as he saw what she was doing, all collegial until the quest officially began. Evina put the badge against her left shoulder and wove tiny lines of power between it and the cloth of her tunic. Thin fibers from each reached toward the other, intertwining their fibers like a honeysuckle meeting ivy.

With a sigh, she let the power snap out of her into one of the metal dowsing poles set into the corners of the platform. Even with all the people and the constant itch of other people’s magics, Evina could not stop a smile. The badge marked her as a wizard. Not yet a King’s Wizard, but registering for the quest marked her as of age and raised her from mage to wizard.

Master Harry had said that once the quest had been voluntary.

As the gray sky lightened, other mages arrived and crowded onto the platform until there were near forty of them. How could the King’s Wizards stand to live in such close proximity to each other without scratching their skin raw? Like her, most of the candidates were young and at the beginning of their careers. Their hands moved constantly, to brush at the itches of other people’s magics. A few older folks stood among the youths, with their hands tucked in their sleeves and jaws set to ignore the itching.

She had thought about skipping the quest altogether and giving up her magic. But Master Harry had said that magic would come out. Always. These poor aged folks had probably tried to give up their magic and now were stuck questing when they were old. Better learn to master it than to hide, he said.

She wasn’t so sure he was right.

Still, it was better than Seserland to the south where wizards were just killed. If she could afford the passage across the Middle Ocean, it would take her to a continent filled with countries where being a mage was safe and honorable and no one spoke her language.

A pair of bugles broke through the conversations, drawing all gazes to the king’s box. With a crackle of purple energy that raised the hair on the back of her neck, King Redinado the Eighth appeared in his box. He still had broad shoulders from his jousting days, but rumor had it that he had a paunch hidden inside magic. Behind him, wrapped in midnight blue, nearly obscured with goldworked flamestitch, the wizard Heltonia the Wiser stood with her gnarled hands raised.

She shifted her stance and a moment later, the king spoke, his voice unnaturally amplified. “My good citizens. As is our custom every year, we invite those with magical talents who have come of age, to vie for a position among our wizards.”

Invite. Evina did not snort out loud, but an invitation implied choice. This was an edict. Sure, you could ignore it if you didn’t mind King’s Wizards and guards coming for you.

“To be a King’s Wizard requires more than simply magic, for these nobles are tasked with keeping peace and maintaining the good of the land. So my ancestor Temor the First, established the King’s Quest in order that mages may prove themselves Wise. Kind. And Cunning.”

Kind. If he wanted kindness then the quest needed to be drastically rethought. Master Harry had said that in Temor the First’s day, the quest was a gentler thing.

“The quest then consists of three parts.”

All of the mages leaned forward on their toes. Evina hesitated a moment, before reaching into her pocket to pull forth her small commonplace book and a pencil. She would rather look the fool and take notes than be one.

“Only the wise may enter the sacred grove in Hemsworth Forest. Only the kind may approach the fountain there.” The King held up one finger. “And only the cunning can solve the riddle to prove that they are worthy of being raised to be a King’s Wizard.”

She glanced over her shoulder, looking for Folter the Yellow to see if he had taken note. Being kind would be difficult for him.

“For the first day, no harm may come to you. But at dawn tomorrow, any Mage on this quest who finds another on their path may remove the obstacle by any means possible. This is true for the duration of the quest.”

Around her, mages shifted on the platform as the reality of what they were about to do came home. Master Harry had said that the King allowed it because it kept the population of Mages from growing too large. Evina thought that it might be because, for all his talk about kind, cunning, and wise, the King wanted wizards who would kill in his name.

She’d done enough killing for a lifetime. All she wanted to do was to survive.

“You have until dawn of the next new moon to complete your quest.” He raised both arms, and Heltonia the Wise mirrored his stance, letting her power encircle him in a royal blue aura. “And now, my hopeful mages! Fly!”

As if he had commanded the sun, rosy golden light spread across the park, gilding everyone with the dawn. Mages began to lift off the platform, power crackling around them. Folter and Retsea were among the first to swoop over the crowd, laughing with delight.

Evina pulled power into her skin until every hair seemed to upend itself. She rose from the platform as her power pushed the earth away. She was not among the first to fly over the city gates, but neither was she the last. She counted that as a small victory.

Evina adjusted the logs on the fire with a green sapling, trying to get the airflow exactly right. The ruddy coals shifted and cracked as she reached under the logs and scraped them together into a pile.

“Why don’t you just magic the fire?” Behind her, Cenrod lifted his head from the pack he was using as a pillow. “Mother Savior, you’d be done by now.”

One of the charred logs shifted into position and the draft stoked a long dancing flame out of it. It popped and crackled as water trapped in the wood evaporated. Evina pursed her lips and gave another poke to a log near it, trying to see if she could get that one to go up, too. Two weeks she’d known the mercenary, and he still hadn’t stopped trying to get her to magic everything.

“Some of us want to eat, you know?”

“The coals are hot enough, if you want to put a potato in there.” Evina glanced over her shoulder at her travel partner.

He rolled his eyes at her, stringy hair hanging across the scar on his forehead. “Could’a been that way half an hour ago.”

She sighed and rubbed her temple, at the ache between her eyes. There was probably a dark streak there from the charcoal. She hadn’t touched her power since the quest began and she wasn’t about to start now for a potato. “I’m ever so sorry you had to wait an extra quarter hour for your dinner.”

“A half hour. Wizards can make fires instantly.”

“Fire, yes, but the coals still have to heat enough to cook something so it’s only a quarter hour at most it would have saved.”

Cenrod rolled up onto his elbow and fished around in his pack for a potato. “A quarter hour closer to food means I would already be eating—”

“Not true.” Evina pointed the tip of the sapling at him. “It would still take the potato an hour to cook, so you would still be no closer than a quarter hour to eating.”

He sidled up to the fire on his knees and shoved the potato into the coals, snatching his hand back from the heat. Without looking, he grabbed the sapling out of Evina’s hand and poked the potato deeper into the coals. Then he pointed it at her. “If I had magic, I’d use it all the time.”

“And you’d die young.” Evina turned to her own pack and the night air, away from the fire, was a cool slap across her skin. She rummaged for a bit of bread and the hunk of cheese they’d picked up in Kellyston.

“Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but mercenaries don’t exactly have a long life expectancy anyway. I seen plenty of old wizards.”

“Because they don’t do magic for things that can be accomplished other ways.” She knew the price of recklessness, thank you very much, and didn’t need to burn down another town to hone the lesson. Evina took the sapling back from him and settled on the ground next to the fire. Setting the bread and cheese on the least stained part of her trousers, she unsheathed her knife to whittle the sapling to a point. “And before you ask, yes, I could do this with magic and am choosing not to.”

“Will it…will it really kill you?”

“Not directly or immediately, no. But over time, yes, it will trim days off my life in the same way that using a knife dulls its edge gradually. You can sharpen it, but you do that by taking away a bit of the blade.” She held up her knife, which had belonged to her grandfather. The edge had been honed to a narrow slice of the original blade. “So…knowing that. Would you use your sword to trim a sapling, or chop firewood? Because it can do both.”

He gave a bark of a laugh. “More likely to break with firewood.”

“And there are spells that could break me, as well. So why risk it for eating a potato a quarter hour sooner?” She whittled another couple of pieces off to shape a rough spike. Laying the sapling across her lap, she dug a hole out of the bread and shoved the cheese into it.

Cenrod cleared his throat. “I can sizzle like bacon, I am made with an egg, I have plenty of backbone, but lack a good leg, I peel layers like onions, but still remain whole, I can be long, like a flagpole, yet fit in a hole. What am I?”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s a riddle.” He slid to lie back down on his pack. “Look. It’s easy. Riddles are about people or animals, vegetable, mineral, and ephemeral.”

Evina slid the sharp end of the sapling through the bread, pinning the cheese inside. Carefully, she held the thing out over the cooler yellow flames so it would heat slowly. “Ephemeral. Big word for a mercenary.”

“I’m Clever Cenrod, right?”

She hated him, for no reason at all except that she was unhappy and he was here. Evina hunched her shoulders and watched her bread toast.

“Come on. Gotta pass the time somehow while we wait an eternity for dinner.”

“I can kill you from here. You remember that. Right?”

He whistled. “Threats. For a riddle. You’re a cold, cold—”

“I am not cold!” Evina was on her feet, spinning to face him. Magic crawled right under her skin, itching the base of every hair on her body, begging to be let out in a torrent of fire and hate. The air around her crackled with violent, visible sparks.

“Mother Savior!” Cenrod shoved back, one hand reaching for his sword. “I’m sorry—all right?” He let go of the sword, holding both hands out. “It was just a joke. I was just teasing.”

The air crackled around her and stuck her robes together with static. Evina’s breath misted the air. It was just. A. Song. Slowly, she let her breath out in a white plume. Condensation and sweat beaded on her skin as she let the power drain back into the air and earth. “That was not clever.”

“Yeah…sorry.”

Even without the magic filling her, Evina’s skin crawled with tension. Pinpricks seemed to spring up on her left shoulder and spread along her side. She turned in that direction, feeling that toc-toc-toc of another wizard’s magic patter against her. “We need to go.”

“Go?” Cenrod’s brow creased. “What’s wrong? It’s dark. Why do we nee—”

“Because wizards can sense each other’s magic. And I was just blindingly stupid.” Evina stalked back to her pack and hauled it off the ground.

Cenrod hefted his own pack. “So, why all the bullshit about shortening your life and magic is like a knife?”

“It’s not bullshit. I use magic as little as possible by habit and by training.”

“That’s great and all, but I work better with full information. Why the hell didn’t you just straight up say that you were trying not to attract attention?”

Evina had no idea why she hadn’t just explained it when he started needling her. “I don’t owe you an explanation.”

“Yeah, sweetheart, actually you do. You hired me to do a job, which is to protect your ass and then you leave out a giant vulnerability?” Behind her, Cenrod spat on the ground. “You want me to stay on this merry little quest, then by the Savior Mother’s tits, you cannot treat me like an adversary. You hearing?”

The prickling intensity grew, and the general buzz of magic resolved itself into the pattern of a specific mage. taka-taka-tin-taka-tin-tin. Evina turned to look into the air, as if she would be able to see in the dark without magic. taka-taka-tin… “Damnation. Retsea the Kinswoman is—we don’t have time.”

“How many?”

“Just one.” She pointed, sighting her arm into the strongest emanation.

“Does she need to be dead?”

“I don’t know.” Evina moved away from the mercenary. Damn it all. As long as Retsea was in the air, they were fine. But as soon as the other wizard was grounded she could strike and she was coming toward them fast.

“All right…do you need her to stay alive to win the quest?”

“No. But—”

“Is she going to try to kill you?”

Her whole skin danced with the rhythm of Retsea’s magic. “Maybe.”

“Well, I’ll consider my question answered then. You need her dead.”

“That’s not what I said.” She turned toward Cenrod, but he had slid back into the night. “Let me—she might just want to talk.”

From the darkness behind her, Cenrod said, “You’ve been avoiding using magic for two weeks…remind me again of why?”

She ground her teeth, knowing he was right. “Don’t get between us and don’t let her see you.”

“Wasn’t planning to.” His voice had moved again.

Grimacing, Evina pulled magic into herself and outlines seemed to etch the night. Cenrod stood to her right, beyond the perimeter of the firelight. His sword was sheathed and he had a long staff in one hand.

Taka-tin-tin-taka-taka-tin

Retsea would see him as surely as Evina could. She slung the pack off her shoulder. They needed to make a stand now. “Stop moving—I’m going to hide you.”

“I’m in the dark.”

Evina sighed and did not scream at him. “Wizards can see in the dark.”

“Oh.” He stopped walking. “See. That full information thing again…”

“Did your parents not read to you?” She whipped a bolt of magic out to him, creating a dome to mask the lines of his body. She did not bother hiding him from visible sight, since the night did that well enough, just from preternatural sight.

tin-tin-taka-taka-tin-taka-tin-tin-taka-taka-tin

Retsea dropped out of the sky. She landed on the other side of the fire, cloak billowing around her. She had added flames to it. The moment she was grounded, she whipped a bolt of magic toward Evina.

Evina smacked it aside with no grace. But she was alive. That had been meant to kill. Her own magic pulsed in her veins tun-tun-tira-tun-tun and she followed through with a bolt of her own, but Retsea was already casting again and Evina had to spend her power to deflect that and—

Retsea staggered. A blade thrust out of her chest, red with blood. Blinking, she stared down at it. Retsea reached for the sword and taka-tak

Evina screamed, “Let go!”

Magic sought metal. Flinging her power forward, she prayed that Cenrod had let go.  The air crackled with power as her bolt struck true and lit up the night.

Retsea’s body exploded outward. Behind him, in the crack of light, Cenrod flinched back, throwing his arm over his face. Steaming chunks hit the ground with wet smacks and the air reeked of burnt flesh.

Gasping, Evina stumbled and bent to rest her hands on her knees. Power still thrummed under her skin. tun-tun-tira-tun-tun Master Harry had said she might have to, but she hadn’t wanted—she hadn’t killed anyone since she was a child. Her throat tightened. She didn’t—

“Are you all right?” Cenrod ran around the fire toward her.

“Don’t touch me!” tun-tun-tira-tun-tun  Evina squeezed her eyes shut and the aftermath of the magic glowed purple branching lines. “I’m not safe.”

“I’ll…I’ll be right here.”

She nodded, still bent over. Cenrod kept silent, which she appreciated, but he stayed right there and didn’t run from her. He waited, just breathing slow and easy, and the sound of those breaths pulled her up away from the smell and the crackle and the death. tira-tun-tun-tira-tun-tun Evina pushed the excess energy away from her, down into the Earth.

She straightened, bones aching, and turned from the fire. “We need to go.”

“I thought as much.” He looked toward the sky as if he could see the wizards whose magic had begun to prick at her skin. “I’m sorry.”

Sorry. Evina huffed a laugh and walked over to pick her pack up from the ground. “Be careful picking up your sword.”

“What, you mean the glowing red puddle of slag?” Cenrod shook his head. “Savior Mother, I don’t know why you needed me when you can do that.”

“I was losing.” As she bent to pick up the pack, her muscles protested with the ache of a fever. “And I’ve killed enough for a lifetime.”

“The first is always—”

“Don’t.” Evina settled the pack over her back. She could be cold. Like the song. “Full information. You know the song ‘Ina’s Spark’?”

When she straightened, he was standing with his mouth slightly agape. He’d already put it together.

“I don’t want it to get easier.” Evina glanced at the sky again towards the faint, indiscriminate ticking of distant magic. Ina was a cold, cold child…

Evina stomped along the road, following Cenrod toward Hemsworth Forest. Her pack dug into her shoulders and even with her hands tucked under to reduce the weight, it felt like her shoulders were being chewed off by a leather-mouthed beast. She could use magic to lighten the pack or to heal the chafing on her shoulders except—she couldn’t because then another random wizard was going to try to kill her.

She stopped.

He kept going and maybe, he wouldn’t even notice that she wasn’t behind him anymore. It was a stupid, petty thing, but she was tempted to just lie down in the grass by the side of the road and see how long it took him to notice that he was alone.

She clenched her fists around the pack straps. It wasn’t any heavier today than it was yesterday. If anything, it should be lighter since she’d eaten some of the food, but her whole body still ached from the magic she’d used to kill that woman. To kill. Evina squeezed her eyes shut. She hadn’t wanted to do it. Why wouldn’t they just leave her alone?

“Screw this.” She wiped her sleeve across her face and left a damp, grimy patch on it. Master Harry had tried to make her see that magic could heal—and sure, she had helped him tend to his small village. Sure. She’d healed a horse’s broken leg and kept Mistress Leggans from bleeding out after her sixth babe but all of that was just camouflage for what wizards did best.

She’d learned that when she was eight years old.

“Hey.” Cenrod’s footsteps scuffed toward her. “You all right?”

Evina glared at the horizon where the sky was cut by a silhouette of trees. “I’m done.”

“Sorry?”

“Let’s go back to Kingston and I’ll pay you what I owe you.” She turned and started walking away from the forest.

“Wait. Wait!” Cenrod hurried to catch up with her. “Hey. What’s—is it more wizards?”

“Just me.” Although now that he asked, and she was paying attention, there was a faint pricking of her skin. She sighed. “I mean, yes, there are some. North and east of us, but not close. Not yet.”

“In the forest.”

She nodded. “But it doesn’t matter because I’m done with this stupid quest.”

“I—um—Is that an option?”

“I’ll still pay you.” She shrugged her pack higher.  “Half up front, half on completion, right?”

“Thanks. But wasn’t my point. Hey—” Cenrod grabbed her arm.

She jerked away from him. “Don’t—I’m not safe. Don’t ever grab a wizard.”

Even slouching, he was taller than she was and loomed over her. “You haven’t killed me yet.”

“Give me time.”

“Easy…easy. I’m just trying to understand why we’re quitting when the looming forest is right there.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Something else you’re not telling me?”

Evina sighed and clenched her pack tighter. “No. I just don’t want to be a King’s Wizard and I should have just given up my magic rather than come on this damn thing.”

Cenrod stared at her until she couldn’t stand it and dropped her gaze to count the scuffs on his boots. She had reached five before he spoke again. He began with a sigh. “I killed her. Not you. I did that.”

Her eyes clouded with tears and her throat closed. Evina shook her head, swallowing desperately. He didn’t understand and it didn’t matter. She was done with the quest.

“You said you were losing…hey.” He crouched to put his face in her line of sight. His crooked nose seemed to twist farther with concern. “Hey. She attacked you. Right? You were losing, that’s what you said. Did I do wrong? Did you want her to kill you?”

Evina pulled her hands up to her face and wanted to reach for her magic to make a bubble of time so that she could catch her breath and not be this awkward miserable mess and she couldn’t because then more wizards would come and she would have to kill them, too and—

“Lord knows how anyone could think you were cold.”

“I hate you.”

He laughed. “Good. I’m good for that.” Beyond the enclosed space of her hands, his pack thunked on the ground, and then something gurgled. “Here. Drink this. It’ll…well, it won’t help exactly, but it’ll distract.”

Evina lowered her hands, blinking away the sting of light. She wiped her face with her sleeve again, this time adding a trail of snot to the grime there. “Why are you being so nice?”

Kneeling in front of her, Cenrod screwed up his mouth and looked off to the right, where his nose pointed. “I got several choices here. I can make a joke. I can tell the truth. Or I can lie. Which do you want?”

“Truth.”

He nodded and held the flask up to her again. “Right. Someday, I’ll learn not to offer that one, or to just make the joke…”

She took the flask and unscrewed the top. A smoky seagrass aroma wafted out of it and made her nose wrinkle.

“This is the story of how I got the moniker Clever Cenrod, which as you might be able to guess, ain’t because I’m especially smart.” He nodded to the flask. “Single malt. Just take small sips and think about where the smells take you.”

The first sip made her tongue go numb, but reminded her of sitting at the hearth with her mother by the sea. She almost lost it again.

“I was in a battalion and mouthed off one too many times. So two fellows were wanting my hide and I got them both to meet me for satisfaction on the same moonless night. Picked weapons aforehand and agreed to ‘gentlemanly silence.’ I didn’t show up. The other fellows did, each thinking that the other was me because, y’know, in the dark battalion uniforms all look alike. Dueled each other and then I stabbed the one who lived.”

Evina’s mouth dropped open. “That…that’s the story you’re telling to comfort me?”

“You asked for truth.” He gave a grin and reached for the flask. When she handed it back, he took a sip and pursed his lips, still staring off into the distance. “Folks called me ‘clever’ for getting rid of two rivals at once. I knew what they were really saying was ‘coward’.”

The wind rustled through the grasses at the side of the road and blew a strand of Evina’s hair across her face. To the north and east, two more wizard sparks flared on her skin.

Cenrod heaved another sigh and then capped the flask. “So, I’m nice to you because I know what it’s like to hate yourself for making choices that kept you alive.” He clambered to his feet. “Also, because I figure you might give me a bonus if you like me.”

That did make her snort. “You are cleverer than you think.”

He shrugged. “I make jokes. I tell riddles. But I know exactly how clever I am and it don’t matter what others think, so long as they’re wrong. Underestimate me, I can take advantage of that. Overestimate me, and they pay me more. Get it right? No benefit to that.” He spat in the grass. “So. We quitting?”

Evina sighed and faced the forest, which wasn’t more than another hour’s hike away. “I don’t want to do this.”

“Which choice will keep you alive?”

“Neither?” She swallowed and her mouth still tasted of smoke by the sea.

If she quit, she’d have to give up magic altogether and she would, if that were an actual choice, but magic was woven into her. It came whether she wanted it to or not and someday, she’d lose her temper again and it would be there. Only the next time the King’s Wizards came for her, Master Harry wouldn’t be among them. They’d give her the choice of questing or dying.

There really wasn’t any choice at all. Still. There had never been a real choice. “Let’s go on to the forest.”

Evina’s Master Harry was a Treesmith, so she knew the difference between natural growth and magicked growth. The latter had a clear order to it that matched the rhythm of the treesmith’s magic. The branches he grew mimicked the forking paths of Master Harry’s katataka-tina-tina-tina with one long branch that bore three shorter ones in ever small repeating patterns.

As she and Cenrod walked through the twisting paths of the forest surrounding the sacred grove, she had imagined something like that. Or perhaps simply a place in the forest that was dedicated to the Savior Mother and marked sacred by practice.

She was wrong on both counts.

The path that Evina and Cenrod had been following through Hemsworth Forest ended abruptly in a tall bramble hedge that thrummed with magic. It stretched up into the tree crowns and crossed the path unbroken. A foot path had been worn in either direction along the hedge, but it did not look groomed the way the path they rode in on had been.

She frowned, biting her lower lip as she studied it. If she pulled magic into herself, she would know more, but this close to their destination there had to be other wizards.

There had to be a way past the hedge or the path wouldn’t go all the way up to it. It would stop short. Whatever opened the hedge also would not require magic, or an ordinary penitent wouldn’t be able to enter. Penitent…

The king had said, “Only the wise may enter the sacred grove in Hemsworth Forest. Only the kind may approach the fountain there. And only the cunning can solve the riddle.”

Behind her, Cenrod made unintelligible grumbles and shifted his weight. Evina chewed her lower lip. Wise. What would all penitents have in common? If she could figure that out—No. Wait. That would be smart and the king had said “Wise.” What had Master Harry always said about wise men? A wise man knows that he is a fool.

If she were right, Folter the Yellow would never have made it past here. And yet…and yet, all the other King’s Wizards had survived this quest.

Crossing her fingers that she was had it figured out, Evina said, “Savior Mother, I am a foolish woman and do not know what would please you. Would you guide me?”

Between one blink and the next the hedge across the path cleared into a verdant arch. No crackle of magic touched her save for that steady thrum just at the edge of her awareness. Three strides away, the path through the hedge continued across a vivid lawn.

Evina sagged, relief filling her to her toes. “Thanks to the Mother!”

Behind her, underbrush crackled and Cenrod made a strangled yelp.

Spinning, Evina saw him grappling with a man, who had somehow managed to get one arm wrapped around Cenrod’s neck. The man wore a wizard patch upon his tunic.

She held her hands up, ready to pull in magic. “Let go of him!”

Cenrod clawed at the man’s arm, trying to dislodge his attacker, but his face was purpling. Violence might well close the door again, but she couldn’t leave him here. Evina reached for magic and it flooded, crackling into her skin.

As she did, the other wizard jerked his head up to stare at her.

In that moment of distraction, Cenrod slammed his head back into the other man’s nose. Both men tumbled to the ground. Evina held the magic, afraid she’d strike the wrong one. Rolling to his knees, Cenrod grabbed the wizard by the collar. He drew his fist back—

Evina’s skin itched with an unfamiliar chika-chi-chika-ka-ka. “Magic!”

She didn’t know what the wizard was going to throw, only that he was reaching for power.

Cenrod punched him. And again. The itch of magic faltered. Another wet smack and specks of blood spattered the path.

Evina ran forward, so she could aim around Cenrod. He punched the wizard again and the itch of magic vanished. No—she was wrong. The itch of close magic vanished, but four or five spots still lit her skin from wizards farther away.

Cenrod punched the man again.

Evina shoved her power out of her skin and into the path. Cenrod jerked as the buckle on his belt sparked. He growled and pulled his fist back again.

“We have to go!”

Snarling, he stopped, blood coating his fist and spattered across his face. “More of them?”

She nodded. “Four or five.”

“Mother Savior’s tits.” Cenrod dropped the man and staggered to his feet.

“Sorry.” She glanced over her shoulder and her knees sagged with relief. The arch was still open. “Come on.”

“Where?” He looked past her at the opening—no. He was looking at the hedge as if the opening weren’t there.

“Can you not see it?” Evina gestured, as if that would change the baffled look on his face.

Cenrod snorted like a horse. “You are jesting—shit.” His face slackened with understanding. “Magic. Deliverance and Multitudes. Fine. What do I have to do?”

“The King said that only the wise could enter the sacred grove.” How many of her fellow magicians had been stopped here like the wizard lying on the road? Evina held out her hand as the itching on her skin grew more distinct. Definitely five wizards. “Let me try to lead you.”

“So you’re wise now?” He put a hand sticky with blood in hers. “Great.”

“No, I’m a fool.” Evina pulled him forward, praying that the arch wouldn’t close with him in tow. “A wise man knows he’s a fool.”

“Noted.”

She hurried toward the arch through the hedge. As she passed under it, Cenrod’s hand twisted in her grasp and Evina grabbed him with her magic. She was not leaving him behind. The path curved as they went, until the arch vanished from sight behind hedge walls.

Somewhere, presumably in the center, water trickled from a fountain. The fountain, really. If the legends were true, this is where the Savior Mother had brought forth the Multitudes.

Behind her, Cenrod cleared his throat. “I think you can let go of me. The arch turned up right before I smacked into it. Wizards.”

Evina’s skin had stopped itching. Only the wise may enter the sacred grove in Hemsworth Forest. Only the kind may approach the fountain there… “You don’t have to come.”

Cenrod took a few steps past her and brushed a verdant green wall. “Job’s not done yet.”

“That’s…that’s kind of you.”

He spat upon the sacred ground. “Nah. I’m less likely to be killed here than out there. Plus, you’re more likely to be able to pay me if you complete this quest. Right?”

“I can find no flaws in your argument.” She took a breath, waiting for her skin to prickle with magic, but only the thrum from the hedge tickled her senses. “I’ll lead.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way, but…” He trailed off. Maybe he remembered the song that bore her name. Maybe he just wanted to get it over with. Maybe he’d learned to stop pushing her. Whatever it was, Evina felt relief when he stopped talking and fell into step behind her.

“Help!” An elderly woman’s voice wavered through the air from farther into the labyrinth.

Evina stopped, shoulder’s hunched against the sound. Could she pretend that she hadn’t heard? Not a chance. Wetting her lips, Evina turned toward the sound.

“What?”

“Only the kind can approach the sacred grove…” Evina gestured past Cenrod to the voice.

“Are you serious? You think she’s a test.”

“It would make sense.”

“Help…someone?” The old woman’s voice cracked. “I’m—I’m lost.”

Evina gestured emphatically toward the path.

“Oh for the love of tits. Does it count as a kindness if we’re being self-serving when we act?”

“Does it matter?”

Cenrod opened his mouth and glared at her. A strand of his hair fell into his face and he huffed it away. “Fine. But if she turns out to be a soul-eating demon, it’s all on you.”

“Noted.” Evina took a step back toward the turn they had taken. “I’ll remind you that you don’t have to come.”

“I know. I’m being ‘kind.’”

She sucked in a breath to retort and bit down on the inside of her cheek. Sarcasm and anger were not expressions of kindness and that applied to her as much as to him. The gravel crunched under their feet as they walked through the curves and the original turning was lost behind them before Evina trusted herself to speak calmly. “Thank you.”

He grunted.

Why had she even bothered?

Cenrod cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hey!”

Evina stopped on the path and grabbed his arm. “What are you doing?”

He tilted his head to the side, looked at her hand on his arm, looked back at her, and then shrugged her off. “Trying to help. HEY! Old lady!”

She winced, glancing around, and hissed, “This is the Savior Mother’s sacred grove.”

“Yep.” He lifted his hand to his mouth again.

“So show some respect.”

Cenrod lowered his arm and turned to her. “The King’s instructions said stuff about wisdom, kindness, and cunning. Didn’t say a damn thing about being polite.” He jabbed a finger at the path. “You know damn well we’re going the wrong way so why not get her to come to us?”

She hated him. By the Multitudes, why did he have to be right? Evina pressed her fingers against the brow of her nose. “Fine. You’re right. Gah.” She dropped her hand and tilted her head back. “Madam! If you can hear our voices, we can help guide you through.”

“Hello?” The old woman sounded as if she were farther away than when they had started.

“Can you make your way toward us?”

“I don’t know where I am…” There might have been a sound of gravel crunching. “I dropped my cane.”

Cenrod thrust his hands out to either side as if he were making a point. What point he was acting vindicated about, Evina did not particularly care. She rolled her eyes at him. “Yes. I know. She’s a test.”

“And she’s only answering you.”

“Maybe that’s because you’re being rude.” Evina peered down the path, gnawing on her lower lip. He was right, but she had no idea what it really meant. Unless was this the test of cunning? Evina held up a hand to stop Cenrod from speaking. “You can stay put. I’ll be right back.”

“Look. You hired me to keep you safe. So when I say, ‘No. This is a bad idea,’ maybe listen to me.”

Evina gritted her teeth to keep from calling her magic. If she were honest—most of her anger was because he was probably right. She loosened her jaw. “What do you suggest? Beyond just leaving her here?”

He pressed his lips together and stared down the path. Without the crunch of gravel underfoot, only the old woman’s movements broke the silence. Evina blinked. “It’s completely quiet.”

“I’m not going to shout again.”

“No, I mean…we can’t be the only people here. I can hear her moving and…” She scuffled her feet, kicking up a spray of gravel that rattled back to the path. “No birds. No other people.”

“That’s…unsettling.” Cenrod’s hand drifted to his belt and closed on empty air where his sword should be. He grimaced.

She didn’t feel the prickling of any other wizards, not even the ones that she had sensed outside, before they entered the hedge. Evina chewed the inside of her lip. At this rate, she’d worry a spot through it.

Master Harry had always told her to use her power as little as possible. Some of it was so that it didn’t wear her down too soon, and some was to avoid drawing attention of other wizards. Sure, they could only kill her while the King’s Quest was going on, but there was no point in antagonizing them at other times. Rude, he said it was, rubbing your magic all under someone else’s skin.

But there was no one else here. The sacred daughters of the grove must have done something to keep wizards from crossing paths inside the sacred grove.

“All right.” Evina laid hands on his waist, wrapping her fingers around his belt. “This might tickle.”

“I ain’t—” His words cut off as she channeled power around and through them both. “Savior Mother!”

Their feet lifted off the ground as tun-tun-tira-tun-tun resonated through them both. The hedge maze spread out beneath them in a beautiful embroidery of hedges and crystalline gravel.

Aside from the old woman, no one else moved in the hedge maze. She had half expected the woman to be only a voice. But she knelt below them on the path, feeling under one of the hedges for her cane.

Evina’s magic pushed down as she propelled them over the hedges and through the air to the old woman. The old woman knelt next to the hedge, reaching under with one hand.

As Evina and Cenrod touched down on the path, the woman spun, falling back on her rump. A branch had scratched a tear in the back of her wrinkled hand.  “I’ve got nothing!”

Cenrod raised his hands in a placating gesture and crouched down. “Easy, auntie.”

“You asked for help?” Evina took a step toward her, but Cenrod shifted to block her. She settled for standing behind him. “We are going to the center of the labyrinth ourselves.”

The woman looked to be in her eighth decade, with skin like sagging vellum and eyes the color of milky water. She wet her creased lips and blinked at Cenrod, then at Evina. “That be so?”

“Indeed. Would you care to join us?”

The old woman nodded. “Thankee kindly.” She struggled over onto her knees. “Can ye…? My cane ist under yon hedge and my rheumatism…begging pardon, but can ye fetch it?”

“Of course—” Cenrod held out an arm to stop Evina. “No. You stay back.”

Her mouth dropped open. Evina lowered her voice and hissed at him. “Honestly, of course she’s a test. What did you think would happen here?”

He glared up at her and stood too close. His breath stank as he hissed back. “Can magic change your appearance?”

“Yes. Technically. But another wizard would feel it. She’s not using magic—”

“Weren’t you saying you didn’t feel magic here?” He gestured at the hedge. “Here? In the middle of this? So let me do my fucking job.”

Evina snorted, glaring at the hedge. She knew full well that there had to be wizards in itching range. “Don’t you dare harm her.”

“If she’s an old woman, I’ll be kindness embodied. Otherwise, I make no promises.” He turned back to the old woman and smiled at her. “Just slide back, auntie, so I can take a look for your cane.”

“Tis just under there.” Scooting back on the gravel, she pointed an arthritic hand at the place she’d been searching.

Cenrod got down to one knee, bending to look under the hedge. “There it is.” He reached a hand for it and paused. Gritting his teeth, he stuck his hand under the hedge and pulled out a perfectly ordinary blackthorn cane.

A hint of blush colored his cheeks as he handed it to the old woman. “Here you are.”

“Thankee, sir.” She planted the cane on the ground and hitched her skirt up to plant one skinny leg on the ground. Much darned stockings bunched around her ankles.

“Oh for pity’s sake—” Even if this weren’t a test, she couldn’t leave the woman to struggle like this. Evina stepped around Cenrod. “Let me help you up.”

“Evina—”

She rolled her eyes at him and put a hand under the old woman’s arm. It was skinny, and warm, and smelled faintly of sheep. The rough wool scratched under her hands as Evina helped her up.

The light changed. The walls of the hedge maze had fallen away, replaced by a ring of birch trees. A light trickling of water wove through air scented with frankincense.

And the old woman straightened, her garments changing to a fine blue scattered with gold stars. Her face had altered as well—the King’s Wizard who had taken her name at the start of the tournament smiled at her. “Welcome, Evina the Green.”

Evina dropped into a bow, though what she really wanted to do was rub it in Cenrod’s face that she was right. “Thank you for your trust in allowing me here.”

“Congratulations on reaching this far in your quest.” The King’s Wizard had a smile in her voice.

Straightening, Evina turned to Cenrod. He wasn’t there. She turned a full circle, heart beginning to thump loudly in her chest. The sacred grove had other supplicants, but none of them could be mistaken for the lanky mercenary. “Where is my companion?”

“The mercenary? He did not need to enter here. He was filled with thoughts of violence.”

“He was just doing his job.” Evina peered through the wall of trees. Beyond the birches, the walls of the labyrinth had vanished. A score of people wandered along a gravel path that wound between grasses. No—wait, there were more than a score. Evina frowned. Each time she looked, it seemed as if she saw another group. How many were on the paths? Where had they been and more importantly…”Is he all right?”

“Of course.” The King’s Wizard put a hand on Evina’s elbow. “Now come. Your quest is not yet finished.”

She dragged her feet, trying to spot Cenrod among the petitioners on the paths. “What will happen to him?”

“He will be given an opportunity to show kindness, like our other petitioners. Until then, he is in the safest of places.”

Evina planted her feet. “He was showing kindness. It might not have been wrapped up in politeness, but he was trying to keep me safe.”

“Did you not say that was his job?” The older woman tilted her head to the side. “How is that a kindness?”

Evina opened her mouth to reply and the answer tripped her. She swallowed, knowing she might be damning herself. “With that criteria, my kindness is also self-serving. I was kind to you only because I thought it was a test. If he is not kind, neither am I.”

“Mm…” She turned to face Evina fully and—

They were standing by the fountain. But…but they had not moved. The water poured over the edges of the broad stone basin in an opalescent milky tumble to a shallow reflecting pool that stretched across the green space of the sacred grove. The air above the fountain steamed as it burbled. She blinked, rubbing her forehead. Evina’s skin had not itched, and yet they had crossed the space within the grove to be at the edge of the fountain itself.

Another test? What, that Evina had recognized her own selfish nature? Or that she had defended Cenrod who pestered her to the point of fury or who knew what and—

The light seemed to flexed and the shadows shifted around her. When Evina blinked her eyes clear, the shadows in the sacred grove had stretched out with the long golden light of sunset. In that taffy warm evening light, other wizards stood in a circle surrounding the fountain. Like her, they blinked and murmured, looking about themselves with confusion. Folter the Yellow was not among their number. Had he made it to the grove or had Retsea Kinswoman killed him on the first day?

On the far side of the fountain, the King’s Wizard clapped her hands. “You eleven are all that have made it to this point in the quest. You have demonstrated the wisdom and kindness necessary to get this far.”

And ruthlessness. She didn’t say that, but the blood-spattered clothes of the other wizards made it clear enough that none of them had made it here without killing at least one other wizard. She wrapped her arms around her torso, trying to hold in a shiver. Not that she had any room to talk. The wizard to her right glanced at her, and then away, as wary as she was at the presence of another wizard. If Cenrod were here—

The woman hadn’t answered her question, not really, about where he was and what would happen to him. Evina glanced past the man and searched the paths on that side of the grove for signs of the lanky mercenary. The smart thing to do would be to finish this benighted quest and then, once she had earned her place as a King’s Wizard, push about Cenrod. She’d made it here, and still had the riddle to go. She just had to be smart. Cunning, the King said.

“You have five minutes in which to answer this riddle.”

“Five?!” Three spots away, a young man sputtered.  Evina recognized him. She had seen him on the platform at the start of the quest. He had worn expensive cotton and his pride like a mantle. Now his clothes were travel stained and the patch that signaled he was questing had been stained by a deep rusty brown spatter.

“Five.” Clearing her throat, the King’s Wizard smiled at the group. “We hurt without moving. And poison without touching. We bear truth and lies, but are not judged by size. What are we?”

“Excuse me.” Evina raised her hand. She was not cunning.

Across the fountain, one of the other wizards cast a spell, which she could just barely feel as a soft brush of cat fur against her skin. His eyes bulged and he clasped his forehead. A “wisdom” spell.

Wisdom wouldn’t do here. It would take cunning and Evina had none. She swallowed. “My companion. I’m concerned about him. Where is he?”

“I told you he was safe.”

“I know, and I am grateful for that, but I still would be more at ease if I knew the specifics.” This was stupid. One of the King’s Wizards had just said he was safe. He was a mercenary. He could take care of himself. “Can you at least tell me when I will see him again?”

“After you answer the riddle, you will be free to leave.”

Which implied that if she didn’t answer it, she would be stuck here. Gah. She needed more time—time. Why not? She knew the spell and it was a heck of a lot less painful that trying to make herself smarter.

Evina pulled power from the ground and twisted it under her skin, shaping with her will. The tiri-tiri-tun of her magic kept its underlying signature, but the peaks and valleys became more pronounced until they began to resonate with the world in different ways. She pulled the highs up and up and as she did

the world

slowed

down

Water stopped trickling and hung in perfect ripples. The King’s Wizard had paused in mid-turn with one brow raised slightly. The other wizard’s face still had the contortion and—

Evina sucked in breath. The paths of the labyrinth were crowded with people. Savior Mother. They must have layered time in and over and around itself to keep all these people from meeting. Which meant that Cenrod would never find his way out on his own. None of them would.

This was a terrifying display of power—far more so than the paltry things she could do with her own magic. Was this what King’s Wizards could do? Was that how they could stand to live all together, because their magic didn’t itch? Not that it really mattered.

Not in this extended moment.

What Evina needed was the answer to that riddle. She said, “We hurt—” The sound of her voice broke the utter stillness of this tiny pocket of time. Evina flinched and looked up at the still, crystalline sky. Was that why there had been no birdsong when they came into the hedge maze? Evina shook her head, “We hurt without moving. And poison without touching. We bear truth and lies, but are not judged by size. What are we?”

Well…she could rule out people and all animals, and according to Cenrod, that left vegetable, mineral, and ephemeral. Vegetables were often poison, but they usually needed contact to poison and, more importantly, did not bear truth and lies. She pursed her lips. Probably this was an ephemeral then.

Time? Everyone referred to time passing which might not be literal but probably violated the “without moving” metaphor of the riddle. Alright, what other ephemeral things were poisonous.

Evina twisted her lips. “Songs.” She had been twelve the first time she had heard Ina’s Spark. Master Harry had hauled her out of the tavern with a hand upon her arm. Don’t listen—That song’s a poison.

Only…it wasn’t the music. It had been the words.

There was a cold, cold child aborn in Wrightston by the Sea
Without a spot of love that child worked her sorcery
And when ashore some raiders came Cold Ina made her mark
The flames leapt up too late to flee
And all felt Cold Ina’s spark

Words. Words hurt without moving, and poison without touching. They bore truth and lies, oh Savior Mother, did they ever.

She unfolded the magic she had built around herself and the world moved again. After the quiet of that extended moment, the fountain’s patter seemed more of a percussive drumming. The king’s wizard completed her turn, brows up.

Evina opened her mouth to blurt it out, but caught herself. “I know the answer, I think.”

The barest cat fur brush of magic rubbed against her skin and the sounds around them dropped away. The King’s Wizard inclined her head. “You only get one guess. You can take more time.”

Evina had taken more time. She nodded, swallowing. “Words.”

The King’s Wizard smiled at her. “Yes, dear. That is correct.” She glanced at the circle around them. “A moment, please.”

The light flickered and shifted again, but this time, paying attention, Evina could feel that delicate brush of magic. Savior Mother—was that what being a King’s Wizard really was? To have that much control and delicacy of touch staggered her. Why didn’t they just use that as incentive to get people to go on the quest and—

There were only seven wizards still in the circle.

Evina flinched. “What—what happened to the others?”

The wizard to her right shushed her, but the King’s Wizard shrugged. “They will join the other penitents of the Savior Mother as all other mages who fail at this stage do. Now, brave wizards. I am Lenzia Earthsmith and I welcome you to the ranks of King’s Wizards.”

Around Evina, exhausted cheers broke out. One young man dropped to his knees in prayer. A woman staggered backwards, with her hands over her face. Another man openly wept. Evina turned in a circle, looking for Cenrod.

Lenzia Earthsmith clapped her hands three times and drew their attention back to her. “Line up, please, so that I can anoint you and then we will return to Kingston for the full ceremony, but the anointing…that is the moment when you truly join us.”

“My companion.” Evina took a step back. “You said I’d be able to see him after I answered the riddle.”

The wizard beside her stepped closer and hissed at her. “Will you knock it off? Some of us got here on our own and are ready to leave.”

“Some of us have friends.” She lifted her chin. “I’m not leaving without him.”

The King’s Wizard raised her brow, a glow building around her. “And how would you stop me?”

“I…I don’t know. But I would find the time to figure it out.”

To her surprise, the woman laughed. “The king will be delighted to have such loyalty demonstrated, only make certain you remember to whom your fealty is owed.”

Cenrod appeared in front of Evina. He staggered and dropped to one knee. “Mother Savior’s tits and ass.”

“Are you all right?” Evina crouched next to him, sending tendrils of magic to check.

“Yeah.” He pushed himself to his feet, reaching for a sword that wasn’t there. “The hell?”

The King’s Wizard dipped a hand in the sacred fountain. “I was about to anoint these wizards, but she insisted that you be here.”

Cenrod’s brows rose almost to his hairline. “That right? And you did the whatever thingy? You’re a King’s Wizard now?”

“Almost.” Evina stood and faced the fountain. Her heart raced in her chest and she couldn’t even tell why. Fear, anticipation, excitement all seemed equally likely. “One last step, then we can go.”

With a gentle motion, Lenzia Earthsmith ran her hand through the first wizard’s hair. “By the grace of the Savior Mother, I bind you to the King’s service and will. I name you, thus: Goro Treesmith.”

“No.” Cenrod straightened out of his perpetual slouch and stood taller than she had thought. He stepped in front of Evina, with both arms spread wide to keep her back. “Wait.”

“What—”

“It’s just—” he glanced over his shoulder as the line of wizards filed past the fountain. Cenrod’s brows twisted. “I don’t know. I just…is this what you want? To be bound to the king?”

“Are you saying you’ll miss me?”

“You’re a steady paycheck.” Cenrod chewed the bottom of his lip. “But, really. Will this keep you safe?”

This was the real riddle. They stood in the middle of the Savior Mother’s sacred grove, by the fountain where legend said she brought forth the Multitudes and populated the world. If there were anywhere that Evina should be safe, it was here in the most holy of spaces.

But it had been turned into the end point of a quest. And that quest itself bore no resemblance to the stories she had heard of the first King’s Wizard. There had been just one and now…Savior Mother, she had no idea how many King’s Wizards there were now. Would being among their number keep her safe?

If Evina waited much longer all the other wizards would be anointed, and then she’d be keeping Lenzia Earthsmith waiting. As if that weren’t bad enough, the other mages were staring at her and eyeing Cenrod with undisguised contempt.

She swallowed trying to dislodge the knot in her throat. If she couldn’t even walk up to the fountain, how the hell did she think she was going to live as a King’s Wizard? Savior Mother and the Multitudes…all she wanted to do was survive. She could give a rotten fig about working for the King.

Trust your mind, not your instincts, Evina. Her instincts always told her to flee and to hide. Or to kill.

Would being a King’s Wizard keep her safe?

“No.” She wet her lips, looking at the late evening sunlight that glided over the grove, turning everything honey gold. She was one of eight wizards to survive the quest and no closer to safety than when she had started. It was the smartest choice though. This narrow path that she walked kept her alive so far. “Nothing will.”

“Well, then.” Cenrod stepped to the side, glancing back at the fountain where the other wizards waited. He swept his hair back from his forehead, exposing the old scar that creased it. “Right.”

Evina walked up to the fountain, the last in line. She counted the flames on Lenzia Earthsmith’s robe and lost count somewhere around twenty-three. A tight band seemed wrapped around her middle as the King’s Wizard dipped her hand in the fountain and brought it up to Evina’s hair.

The water drizzled through her scalp, and her skin shivered and relaxed.

“By the grace of the Savior Mother, I bind you to the King’s service and will. I name you, thus: Evina Timesmith.” The King’s Wizard smiled at her. “You think I didn’t see you doing that? Nicely done.”

It should have felt like more. To have a wizard’s name and to be anointed. To be heading back to Kingston to join the ranks of King’s Wizards. She smiled, because that was what she was supposed to do and turned from the wizards to Cenrod. She won the quest, so why did it feel like she had lost?

He slouched up to her and gave a nod. “Congratulations, huh?”

“Thank you.” And to make sure he understood that it wasn’t just for the congratulations, Evina put her hand on Cenrod’s shoulder. “Thank you. For keeping me safe.”

“My job.” He shrugged, but his cheeks darkened with something that, on someone else, she would have named a blush.

“Half up front and half on completion. I know.”

“Yep. And by my reckoning, job’s not done yet.” He spat on the ground of the Sacred Mother’s grove. “You safe?”

She snorted and glanced at the other wizards. “No.”

“Then I’ll stay.”

“Pretty sure, the ‘half on completion’ won’t cover the amount of time it’ll take to keep me safe.”

“We’ll work something out.” He stretched his arms casually, as if he hung out with wizards in holy places every day. “Unless you want to fire me.”

“No.” He kept her safe and no matter how much people had mocked her for having a mercenary, it had been the logical choice. And also…he was cunning and wise and kind. Actually kind. Evina touched his arm and for the first time since Master Harry took her in, her mind and instincts were aligned. “Stay.”

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Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of the Lady Astronaut Universe and historical fantasy novels: The Glamourist Histories series and Ghost Talkers. She’s a member of the award-winning podcast Writing Excuses and has received the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, four Hugo awards, the RT Reviews award for Best Fantasy Novel, the Nebula, and Locus awards. Stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, several Year’s Best anthologies and her collections Word Puppets and Scenting the Dark and Other Stories.

Her novel Calculating Stars is one of only eighteen novels to win the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards in a single year.

As a professional puppeteer and voice actor (SAG/AFTRA), Mary Robinette has performed for LazyTown (CBS), the Center for Puppetry Arts, Jim Henson Pictures, and founded Other Hand Productions. Her designs have garnered two UNIMA-USA Citations of Excellence, the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve. She records fiction for authors such as Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi.

Mary Robinette lives in Nashville with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. Visit maryrobinettekowal.com.

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