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Magiere sensed the instant of dawn, though the inn's small room was dark and shuttered. It called her from sleep. This first night with Leesil in her arms lingered in her memory, his shoulder beneath her cheek and her outstretched palm on his chest beneath the blankets. She still feared for him, but perhaps if she kept him always this close, she could keep him safe even from herself.
A more troublesome thought wormed into her awareness. She fought it down, recalling the scent and taste and touch of Leesil in the night, until they'd settled into warm slumber. But the thought wouldn't leave, and perhaps in part it was Leesil's closeness that fed it strength.
Two mothers waited. One dead, but the second soil lived, or so she hoped-for Leesil's sake.
Magiere opened her eyes to see her fingertips peeking from beneath the blanket's edge across Leesil's chest. When she lifted her gaze past his shoulder, still bandaged from their battles, she found his amber eyes looking down at her.
"You're awake," she said.
"I like watching you sleep. It's the only time you're peaceful."
Did he always have to make jokes? Magiere tried to sit up, but his arms closed around her.
"Not yet," he said. "It's early. I don't think the sun is even up."
"It will be soon," she lied, and relaxed back against him.
Her dhampir nature had grown more pronounced in recent days. She felt the sun's presence even when indoors. In the night, the heat Leesil stirred in her made her heightened senses open wide. With only a sliver of moonlight through the window's shutter crack, she'd clearly seen his white-blond hair, narrow face, and lithe body. His amber eyes, almond shaped from his half-elven heritage, were locked upon her. At most times, her unnatural senses frightened or sickened her for what they revealed, but in that night, she hadn't cared so long as all she sensed was him. She was in Leesil's arms, and little else mattered.
Except for two mothers, who'd each left her child with a dark and bloody heritage.
"Did you sleep all right?" she asked.
"A little," he answered.
She knew he might be lying. He often had trouble sleeping, now that he'd stopped drinking. This, as well, was linked to a mother he'd thought dead for years. Magiere peered about the room.
"Where's Chap? Did he stay out all night?"
Leesil smiled. "For once, he showed some manners."
Magiere scowled. She rolled over to reach for the sulfur stick on the bedside table and lit the one candle resting there. The night before, they'd taken this room at the first inn outside Bela, the capital city of Belaski. The three of them had often slept outdoors in past years. Their dog, Chap, would be well enough on his own, but it bothered Magiere that she hadn't thought of him all night.
She rolled back to find Leesil leaning up on one elbow above her. He slid his fingers between hers, a striped pattern of flesh in the mingling. Half-elf and half-undead, they were a strange contrast with his golden-brown skin and white-blond hair and her blood-tinted black tresses and pale flesh. A mischievous smile crossed Leesil's lips, and Magiere lost all concern for the moment. Chap could wait a little longer.
The candlelight revealed their surroundings more clearly.
It was all simple, neat, and pleasant, but it wasn't home-wasn't the Sea Lion tavern in Miiska. Her falchion leaned against the bedside table, close within reach beside the bed on which they lay. Their travel chest and belongings sat under the window, reminding her that soon they would be on the move again.
"What?" he asked.
"Another journey," she answered.
Leesil settled back on the bed, comfortably close as he brushed stands of hair off her face.
"The sages gave me some supplies, but as we get farther north and into the Warlands, restocking could get difficult. More so as we move on to the northern mountains and the Crown Range between there and the elven lands. We'll need more before we leave."
Magiere hesitated. How could she make him face her new choice?
In youth, he'd fled from slavery as a warlord's assassin, knowing his escape would cause his own parents' execution. For years afterward, he drank himself to sleep each night to smother guilt-spawned nightmares. Even Magiere hadn't known, until he'd confessed but a few nights ago. Then an assassin named Sgäile-one of the elven anmaglâhk-had come to take Leesil's life. Leesil's mother had betrayed her own caste by teaching him and his father the anmaglähk's cold-blooded ways. The assassin changed his mind and let Leesil go. From this encounter, Leesil suspected his mother still lived, imprisoned all these years by her own people.
Now that he had hope, Magiere had to make him wait even longer.
"Before we seek your mother, if she still lives," she said, "we need to go to my home village in Droevinka."
She'd fled from there nine years ago at the age of sixteen, and the thought of returning made bile rise in her throat. Her discomfort vanished when Leesil's smile faded.
He rose up in the bed. "If she lives? What does that-?"
Magiere quickly covered his lips with her fingers as she sat up.
"I didn't mean it that way. I want to believe as much as you ... but I had a mother, as well, and a past neither of us knows. I need answers, too."
Twice they'd been manipulated into battles with the undead. The last time they fought, in the king's city of Bela, had left them both with more questions than answers. Magiere learned more of her nature-dhampir, hunter of the dead-in being coerced into ridding Bela of its undead predators. In the end, Welstiel Massing, whom she'd once thought an ally, revealed himself as a Noble Dead akin to the ones he'd pitted her against. He'd staged the encounters to train her for his own purpose in acquiring an unknown artifact supposedly guarded by ancient Noble Dead.
Welstiel had been less than forthcoming or even knowledgeable about her origin, but his actions stirred Magiere's desire to know.
Leesil's eyes betrayed a twinge of dismay as he looked at her. "No ... no." He shook his head. "It's been too many years-"
"Please, listen," Magiere cut in. "This isn't just for me, but for both of us. There's so much we don't know about my past compared to yours."
"And we'll get answers," he said, "but the living come first."
"I wasn't made by the living!" she snapped. "An undead used my mother to make me-to kill its own kind. I need to know why."
Leesil fell silent. Guilt over lashing out at him made Magiere calm herself before continuing.
"Before we can head north through the Warlands and beyond to the elven territory, we must travel eastward and inland, around the Gulf of Belaski. That's halfway to Droevinka and my past, so close to my answers and less than a third the distance we will travel north."
She put her hands upon Leesil's cheeks and leaned in close until her forehead touched his. When she lifted her head again, he stared downward, not looking at her. His expression softened as his hand slid down her cheek, her long neck, and across her breastbone, and finally gripped her hand.
"All right, it makes sense. If my mother is alive after all this time, likely she's in no danger. It makes no odds if we take a little longer to reach her."
Magiere scooted forward and wrapped herself around him, flesh to flesh, and held him. He understood, but it made her feel no better for having forced it upon him.
"And I swear," she whispered in his ear, "once we learn what we can for me, we'll hurry north for your mother."
She pulled back enough to look into his sad but resolved eyes. Although she spoke calmly, the scope of their impending journey left her feeling small and lost. He was about to answer when the thud of a door and running feet echoed from somewhere out front in the inn, and footsteps grew louder.
"The innkeeper is up and about," Magiere said, wanting to push away the outside world a bit longer.
Leesil shifted her out of his lap and reached for his breeches as he swung his legs over the bed's side.
"No," he said. "It's probably-"
The little room's door burst open and slammed against the wall.
"Magiere ... Leesil! I'm coming with you!" Wynn cried out, and she twisted the latch and shoved the door open with both hands. "Domin Tilswith gave me leave!"
The instant the door struck the wall, Wynn Hygeorht, apprentice for the Belaskian branch of the Guild of Sagecraft, stopped cold.
All her excitement drained away.
Leesil clutched a blanket as he grabbed for his breeches, his wiry torso dark gold in the candlelight. Startled, Magiere jerked the blanket back over her own specterlike body. The blanket snapped from Leesil's hand, and he lost his grip on the trousers, as well. His amber eyes widened, and Wynn's cheeks flushed as all thought scurried from her mind.
Leesil stood before her, stark naked.
"Oh ...," Wynn stammered. "Oh ..."
The door recoiled from the wall and struck her shoulder, and Wynn stumbled back into the opening. A low grunt made her glance down long enough to see Chap standing beside her. A few burrs and twigs stuck in the dog's long silver-gray fur, and his crystalline eyes widened as he looked into the room.
Wynn lifted her head again, and embarrassment overwhelmed all good sense.
"Forgetful gods, Wynn!" Magiere snapped, still clutching the blanket as she stood up. "With all that learning, didn't those sages teach you to knock?"
With a sudden inhalation, Wynn slapped her hands over her eyes at the sight of an exposed Leesil and an incensed Magiere heading straight for her. In less time than it took to announce her presence, she had lost the good graces of everyone she intended to join on the coming journey. How much worse could this possibly become?
"Get out!" Magiere snarled.
Wynn fumbled for the doorframe, too mortified to open her eyes. Two large paws thumped against her rear, and she stumbled into hallway. She heard the door slam shut behind her as she caught herself on the passage's far wall.
When she turned about to peek between her fingers, Chap sat before the closed door. His translucent blue eyes were filled with something akin to an elder's disappointment. Wynn slid down the wall to slump upon the floor.
"You should have warned me," she said.
Chap cocked his head, unblinking. His expression was too much like that of an old master sage waiting for a slow pupil to see the obvious answer to a stupid question.
Wynn stared back at the closed door. "Oh, my," she groaned.
Chap grunted and licked his nose.
"Oh, be quiet," Wynn snapped.
Leesil belted on his breeches and pulled his shirt over his head. "Well, now neither of us has any secrets from Wynn."
"You knew she was coming," Magiere said in the same biting tone she'd used on Wynn.
Leesil saw the accusing wrinkle of Magiere's brow as her own white shirt dropped around her neck. It was difficult to decide which response would spare him the worst of her coming assault. An uncovered lie would be dangerous later, but so was the truth in the moment.
Looking at Magiere's uncanny beauty, at her black hair loose over her shoulders, and her pale face and dark eyes, such a choice was exasperating. Only the day before, he'd thought their previous night together could never have happened.
As much as Leesil adored her challenging nature, and even goaded it at times to watch her smolder, this wasn't the time for another clash with Magiere. And worse, with the lingering memory of her pressed against him, he couldn't think of a convincing lie.
"Yes, I knew," he admitted. "I gave Wynn a necklace to sell, and she's brought us the coins from it."
"Necklace? What necklace? Leesil, what did you-?"
"I took it from Sapphire's body before we burned her corpse in Bela. We've a long way to go, and we're not going to get there on your bad temper and my charm."
He jerked the door open before she could come at him again.
Chap sat before the open door, his tail thumping. Wynn slumped against the far wall, her face buried in her hands. Barely twenty years old Wynn had a round face and brown braid hanging over one shoulder, and the sage's traditional long gray robe had been replaced with a shorter one that hung to the thighs of her new breeches.
Her little hands slid down from her eyes and she peeked up at Leesil, her olive cheeks flushed, and she covered her face again.
"You two get in here," Leesil ordered.
Chap trotted in, and, at the sight of Magiere's stern expression, he slipped past the travel chest and out of the way. Wynn entered more slowly.
"I am so truly sorry," she whispered.
Magiere crossed her arms. Leesil tensed as he shut the door, waiting to see if she would continue with him or turn her ire elsewhere.
"What's this nonsense about coming with us?" she snapped at Wynn. "You're supposed to be on your way to Miiska with our payment from Bela's city council."
Leesil and Magiere had been well paid for their services. Wynn had promised to take a bank draft to Miiska with a letter to their friend Karlin explaining their plans and other matters.
"Domin Tilswith will go in my place," Wynn blurted, plainly relieved that her poor manners seemed forgotten. "Your town council can begin building the community warehouse. He asked me to travel with you to the elven territory and serve as your translator. The elves here are different from those of my continent, so reclusive and secretive, and-"
"You're not coming with us," Leesil cut in, astonished. Wynn was little more than a sparrow barely out of its mother's nest-too innocent and naive to get involved in what he and Magiere didn't fully understand. "Now, did you sell the necklace I gave you?"
The young sage stood silent. With only a brief hesitation, she frowned, pulled a pouch from her robe's pocket, and handed it to him.
Leesil looked into it and found a fistful of coins, half gold and half silver, and mostly sovereigns. It was more than enough to see them through the coming seasons, or so he hoped.
"I received a good price for it-and I am coming with you," Wynn said. "Domin Tilswith assisted you both more than once and gave you shelter in Bela. He wishes me to-"
"I doubt it was his idea," Magiere scoffed.
"We have other more immediate plans," Leesil said. "And when we do turn toward the elven territory, it may well be winter. Wynn, you aren't fit for such a journey, and we don't have time to coddle a scholar on the road."
Wynn straightened her back, head up, embarrassment replaced by stubborn indignation. Leesil had seen this more than once during their time in Bela.
"And how will you get your answers?" she asked.