Try to picture this scene: a Renaissance city, with narrow unpaved streets bordered by two-story buildings of wood and brick; merchants peddling their wares, buyers haggling, music and laughter and shouts. Smoke hangs in the air; it smells of garbage and manure. A scrawny dog is barking at a passing horse and cart, while across the road a large whirring and clanking automaton invites people into a courtyard with ample motions. Overhead, little balls of light dance, gathering into swarms only to scatter again, darting through the maze of dark alleys.
Suddenly, a commotion. People are shoved out of the way by a raggedy street urchin, running as fast as he can with an armful of groceries. His breath is labored; blood trickles down from a wound in his side, but gawkers more readily notice his large, pointy ears and lion tail. His yet unseen pursuers are gaining ground. His strength is dwindling.
Yep... that's me having a really bad day.
Pain. That was all I could think of as I limped my way into the most dark, narrow alley around. My lungs were burning, my heart stung, but it was the wound that hurt more than everything else together.
And the alley was a dead end. Just my luck.
Oh well, I said to myself. Nothing to it but wait out the pursuit. Maybe they'll pass me by. Maybe they had already given up. Maybe...
Right. The blood trail.
I backed away on instinct, tripped and fell. All my hard-earned food spilled into the mud, but that was the last worry on my mind as I stared at the shape blocking out the light: a woman with big hair and a sharp iron in her hand dripping with blood. My blood.
It was cold all of a sudden, and my ears were buzzing loudly for some reason. Then it all slipped away from me.
Consciousness drifted by a couple of times, as someone carried me, then again when they were messing with my clothes. But not even pain quite managed to wake me up. Not for a while, anyway.
I was lying on a bumpy mattress with worn-out carpets hanging on three sides to protect from drafts – judging by the rafters, this was an attic. Which was much better than a ditch, I told myself as I tried to get up. There was just enough time to hear the pitter-patter of little feet getting away before pain in my side and sheer weakness sent me back to the horizontal.
With a bit of patience, I was able to prop myself up enough to see that my clothes were gone, replaced by a long linen shirt, and a thin blanket full of holes covered what the shirt didn't. There were bandages underneath, too, skillfully applied and surprisingly clean. Most of the light in the room came from an empty doorframe, beyond which were three pairs of eyes staring curiously back at me.
"Hi there!" I said. "Come closer."
They tiptoed back in one by one: a boy around twelve years of age, in clothes that barely fit him anymore despite his thin frame; a younger girl who nevertheless looked bigger and stronger than her brother; and a chubby little princess in rags, with curly black hair and wonder in her eyes, who couldn't be much more than four years old.
"Mom says you're an elf," the latter informed me, with all the seriousness and importance of her age.
"But elves don't have tails," pointed out the middle one.
"Or glowing freckles," added the boy.
"You got me there," I admitted.
"So what are you then?" asked the older girl.
I pondered how to explain the interaction between genemorphing and nanobot treatments to them, but the gap was just too big.
"I'm one of a kind," I said.
They eyed me skeptically.
"My name is Jinx," I offered. "And yours?"
"I'm Davide," answered the boy.
"Renata," added the older girl.
The youngest climbed onto the bed and hugged me. "You have beautiful eyes," she declared. "Why are they blue?"
Her sister chuckled. "And she's Agnese."
"Don't ask us how she comes up with these questions," commented her brother.
I was saved from answering by the sound of footsteps trudging up a flight of stairs. Agnese was the first out of the room, yelling at the top of her lungs: "Mommy, mommy, the elf girl woke up!"
"He's a boy!" Davide called after her, following more slowly.
"Nuh-uh! Girl!" countered Renata, and went after her siblings.
I relaxed for a bit, listening to their excited chatter right outside. There was an older, quiet voice mixing in with theirs. In the end, they got bored and trampled down the stairs. I was about to try and get up a second time, when an awfully familiar shape blocked out the light.
I covered my face with my arms. There may have been some whimpering involved, too.
It was a very long moment to me. Then I felt... fingers, brushing through my hair?
"If you're going to act like a child, I'm going to treat you like one," a gentle voice said.
I forced myself to look at the woman. She had the kind of beauty that hardships can only mute somewhat, with big bright eyes on an oval face several shades darker than mine, and strong hands that must have been delicate once.
"I'm sorry I tried to steal from your friend," I said lamely. "I didn't know what else to do anymore."
She grinned. "Ventura? That greedy ball of sleaze? I doubt if he has any friends. Now, if you'd tried stealing from me..."
"I won't! I swear!"
"You'd better not," she said, mock-threateningly, but the gash under my ribs was a reminder that she could back it up. "How'd you end up in this mess anyway?"
"I'm shipwrecked," I told her. "Stranded in a foreign country."
She nodded. "But you're no water elf. You must be coming from farther away than the Isolas."
"Much farther," I agreed. Light years, not that she needed to know. "May I know your name?"
"Sal." She smiled. "And you're Jinx, right?"
"Are you hungry, Jinx?"
My stomach chose that moment to growl.
"All right," she giggled, covering her mouth with a hand. "I'll get you something. Chamberpot is behind the bed if you need it."
Which I did, badly enough that I actually succeeded in getting up.
The soup was... warm. I kept my eyes firmly on the bowl while I ate, so as not to offend my host. Seeing how she'd just had to fight me for the ingredients, it was better than I deserved.
"Thank you," I said once the bowl was empty. "I'm in your debt."
"And I'll hold you to it," she said amiably, "but for now you need to rest."
That was more or less all I did for the next couple of days.
The children came back in the afternoon, carrying dirty, torn-up books. We sat together, and I read fairy tales to Agnese, getting her to follow the text on paper so she'd grow used to the shape of letters. Her brother and sister already knew how to read. When it got too dark for it, I made my thumbs light up. They were all "ooh" and "aah", nearly forgiving me for taking up their bed. Agnese didn't even understand why she was supposed to sleep elsewhere, so we shared. It brought back memories of childhood.
In the morning, I was feeling well enough to hobble around the attic, steadying myself against the walls. There was another room where Sal and her husband slept, and a tight space used as a storeroom, full of interesting old stuff, which the older children also used as temporary bedroom. Turns out I wasn't quite so badly hurt after all, and my augments were working on it, too; by afternoon time, I was helping Sal make new bandages. Now and then she would be gone for hours, tending to some sick or elderly neighbor in return for coin, food or the odd throwaway item. I saw her husband too, a burly man taller than her by a head, just as she was a head taller than me.
"Manfredo doesn't trust you," Sal confided in me, "But you don't have to fear him."
Easier said than done, but at least by the second day I could navigate stairs, and even the backyard. Another family was living on the top floor, who owned the tailor shop at ground level. Ground floor was also where the latrines were set up, in a side room right above the sewers. Cooking was done out in the back, under a partial roof affixed to a tree, and I spent plenty of time there, wielding either broom or cleaver. Luckily the neighbors were anything but nosy. I did cheat a little when making the fire, but honestly, who wouldn't like to just point a finger at the kindling and make it burn? Besides, I doubt anyone noticed apart from the kids, and they already knew my tricks.
On the dawn of the third day, I woke up with Manfredo prodding me.
"Come on, get up. Time to earn your keep."
I jumped out of bed and cowered against the wall, by the door. Agnese didn't even stir.
"Wear these," added her father, and threw me a coat reaching almost to my ankles, then a big, floppy hat. I put them on quickly, watching him from the corner of my eye. He sighed and waved me outside.
"My kids really like you," he said while pulling a two-wheeled cart out of a shed, "and they know to be wary of strangers. I taught them well."
"T-they're good kids," I stammered, not yet daring to stand close.
"You think so?" he smirked.
We started pulling the empty cart along the slowly awakening streets. Not that I was making much of a difference.
"Davide says you can work magic," Manfredo spoke again after a while.
"A little. I don't have my tools."
"Could you make new ones, with the right materials?"
"Sure." What was he getting at?
He changed the subject. "How old are you really, anyway?"
"One hundred and twenty."
His eyebrows went up. "An unusual age to go on travels."
"Well... After living a normal human lifespan, I figured it was time to do something risky for a change. Got my wish, too."
"You mean two human lifespans."
"Slip of the tongue," I said quickly.
He seemed unconvinced. "Lucky you didn't get into serious trouble much sooner. People don't much like demihumans around here."
"But you trade with them," I pointed out.
He shrugged. "You know how it is."
We were just passing by the North Market, crossing paths with satyrs driving their carts laden with wine barrels into the enclosure. The dwarven warehouse was just up the road, dug into the side of a small hill rather than built, as was their custom.
"Watch the cart," said Manfredo as we pulled up in front of the gate, and went straight in. He even pretended to forget his purse. but I didn't touch it. There wasn't much in the way of civilization outside the city walls, apart from the occasional farm just visible in the distance, and I shivered. Once or twice, I caught glimpse of a dwarf inside the open gate, moving sluggishly now that the sun was about to rise. A curious populace, they are. No taller than myself, but stout and hairy; they sleep all morning, work in the mines during the afternoon, then party the night away under the starlight. They do some smithing and pottery as well, for their own needs and those of the satyrs, who only like to work materials that come from a living being.
Judging by Manfredo's look when he came back, he wasn't expecting to see me again. Had he actually left enough money in the purse to tempt me? I considered bringing it up while we trundled back into town with a load of coal and pig iron, but verbal assurances are for people who don't trust themselves to do what they already promised.
The city of Costamata is half a pie grown around the Aquacheta river estuary, and further divided into unequal slices by the river itself. Population must be in the five figures, which doesn't sound like much, but low density makes for a fair amount of sprawl. From the northeast gate, which we'd used twice that day already, we first went a short distance along the inside of the walls, to a little smithy owned by an old, but still strong man. It wasn't a good location.
"Stay here," Manfredo instructed me again, "and push down those bags while you're at it."
Somehow I managed to do it without reopening my wound.
We did the same at our next stop, a carpenter shop where we dropped a fair load of tool heads and picked up others with handles already fitted, except I was able to help more this time. And so it happens that we were early for the South Market, right in the middle of town, due north of the port and between the two bridges leading across the river into the richer neighborhoods. Sadly, it didn't help our sales.
"People no longer appreciate quality these days. They just buy cheap stuff the big foundries churn out," complained Manfredo.
"That's sad," I agreed. Pre-industrial and post-industrial societies have certain values in common.
"Oh well," he said, "I've had worse days."
Noon rolled by. We went back to drop off the unsold merchandise, then home to leave the cart and grab a bite before going out again. This time Manfredo took me across the river, to a shop near the public library, which sold stationery supplies in addition to having a small printing press. I picked the bare minimum for magical studies, and it was still fairly expensive.
"For my boy, it's worth it," Manfredo told me somberly.
"Nice of you to try and give him an education."
"I tried to get him an apprenticeship, because I can't afford to feed him anymore, but it's hard. And if I get him started working with me, that's it right there – he'll never get a chance at a better life."
"Maybe I should see about... acquiring some money on the side?" I asked on an impulse. "You know... just a lost purse here and there."
He slapped me upside the head. "How can you even think about it, after what we did for you?"
I stared at my feet for the rest of the way, but couldn't come up with an answer.
Since it was going to be a stay-at-home afternoon, I hung up my coat and stretched to the tip of my tail.
"Doesn't that appendage get in the way sometimes?" Sal asked me.
"Let's just say I never turn my back to a door."
As if to demonstrate what could happen, Agnese tried to grab my tail. I bapped her lightly in the face with the tail tuft, and she fell over laughing.
Then it was time for serious work.
"Prick my finger," I told Sal, extending my hand.
"Why don't you do it?"
She obliged, as gently as she could, while I looked the other way. Then it was my turn to squeeze a few drops of blood into the little inkwell we'd bought, muttering my focus mantra all the way. The blood glowed, and make the ink look like it was going to boil. A specific off-color shade started to spread into the liquid. Good. I closed the lid and let it simmer while I wrapped the half-dozen pencils in paper, affixing it with some of Sal's homemade glue.
The second act was trickier. Enchanting an item involves writing down the runes in a particular way, at a precise pace, as they sink into their support one by one. Trying it with a quill on a curved surface, I botched my first two attempts. And you can't try again too soon, or the item will break down, spilling magical residue everywhere.
At any rate, I got the next three pencils right, and they gained the same subtle shade all wizards recognize at a glance. Now it was time for "the talk".
"Before I give these to you," I told Davide and Renata while their mother watched, "there's a promise you have to make."
They leaned forward, absorbing my words.
"Magic is serious business. It can cause a lot of harm, especially if you lose control and it spreads where it's not supposed to."
I took a deep breath.
"You must always be ready to endure suffering rather than cast a spell without the proper precautions. Are you sure you can do that?"
They both thought for a long moment before nodding, Davide vigorously, Renata with more reserve. I handed each of them an enchanted pencil, and the last of what we had bought earlier: little notebooks. And just like that, we were off to the first lesson.
"The first thing any wizard learns is how to detect magic. The second thing any wizard learns is how to dispel magic. But in order to cast any spell at all, you will need to know the language of magic..."
I never noticed when Sal went about her chores, taking Agnese with her. It was like dreaming of a fondly remembered past as I guided the older children through making a piece of paper sparkle in various ways when it was touched to an enchanted item – or my own body – and cleaning the botched enchantments out of two pencils so we could use them for something else. You see, the runes have no power themselves; you can draw them all day long with a mundane writing implement and nothing will happen. So I showed my new students all sixty-four symbols of the First Form, along with their inverses, and let them practice.
At last, I could get some rest. And because I was feeling well enough, we traded places. As I was making my cot in the storeroom, it dawned on me that it was my first real moment of privacy since I'd fallen out of the sky.
I lied down in a storm of thoughts. A ship was bound to come looking sooner or later, for me and whoever else may have survived. I knew that maybe ten other escape pods had ejected. One of them must still have a functioning radio beacon, but that was of no use to me unless I was there: my own was at the bottom of the sea. Seeking out the others was just an absurd proposition, as for building my own radio from scratch, I only had the vaguest idea of how to do such a thing...
Something seen from the corner of my eye made me jolt upright. The setting sun was sending its rays directly through the room's tiny window, and from the gloom at the base of the wall a pair of shiny eyes stared back at me. A creature I hadn't heard nor smelled.
The panic passed, and as the eyes didn't move I went to explore the pile of old crap filling that corner. As expected, it was a mirror, a real one made of glass, not the usual polished metal, and with an ornate wooden frame. It must have cost a small fortune; how such an object had ended up there was anyone's guess. But it would have made a nice target for enchantment, not to mention what it could fetch at the market.
I went to show the mirror to Sal and read Agnese a fairy tale before bedtime.
Life soon settled into a routine. Manfredo would wake me up at dawn, and we'd go to resupply the old blacksmith. ("I know what he needs", my host told me.) Then we'd be off to sell the wares. With me helping out, we could try for the North Market as well, where we did better on average. I guess the farmers around the city were more traditional. Regardless, it made Manfredo worry less about having a new mouth to feed. Sadly. selling the mirror was out of the question: anyone who saw us with it would have assumed it was stolen.
So I taught the children how to enchant it instead.
I would remain at home in the afternoon, while Manfredo went on more errands. A pair of strong hands was always in demand. As for Davide and Renata, they soon grew bored of studying indoors and took me to their secret place, a clearing between tree-covered mounds maybe half a mile away towards the north wall, not far from the water pump we used for our needs. Sometimes we'd just climb trees and roll in the grass, but most of the time we kept to our studies. We'd devise some spell, practice it together then see who could cast it for real first. It wasn't always me, either. In fact, the kids became so good, they could cast an enchantment together and not miss a beat.
And that's what they did with the mirror.
"I don't get it," said Davide as they moved it around, marveling at how various objects sparkled with magic when seen in the reflection. "This isn't so hard. Why aren't there more wizards around?"
"Maybe they're jealous," suggested Renata, "and don't just teach anyone."
"But it would be so useful!" he protested. "You can lighten loads, strengthen walls... even make water flow uphill. But all you ever see are rich men's toys like those stupid flitters."
"It's a mystery," I agreed.
That evening at what passed for dinnertime Davide asked his father if we couldn't offer our services as neighborhood wizards. Manfredo furrowed his brow.
"It's dangerous to attract attention," he said, seeming conflicted.
"Jinx taught us to conceal enchantments," the boy insisted. "besides, why else do you have him teaching us?"
"Her," quipped Renata.
Manfredo pondered for a while. "Show me what you can do first."
So at the first opportunity we enchanted the family cart.
Oh, it was nothing fancy. A one-off spell to reinforce it, another to make the axles spin more freely regardless of any greasing, and a more permanent enchantment to make anything placed in it lighter until taken out again. Finally, we made it so that none of this would be easily noticeable. Even our mirror didn't show any sparkling except from very close up and the right angles. (My own eyes were another story, but I knew where to look.) It did dampen the flow of mana, and therefore the effect, but you can't have them all.
It made our morning work that much easier. In the end, Manfredo relented, and we started looking for more unobtrusive ways to use our skills. We were careful not to outright sell charms, or get hired for magical jobs – even though a few carefully placed inquiries revealed the utter (and curious) absence of a wizards' guild – but a fair number of tasks are made simpler by the subtle application of magic.
Around the same time, we started noticing the city guard being more active on our side of the river. They'd come often now, in fours rather than the usual threes, poking their noses everywhere and asking questions. Which, of course, made honest people as chatty as a clam. But not everyone was honest...
Then one day at the South Market, as we were packing up, we saw a curious procession: a well-fed man in eccentric clothes, followed by two porters carrying a kind of large compass, which he examined constantly, using it to point them different directions. I could see it sparkle... lots, as we left the opposite way.
"Have you noticed how you sparkle in our mirror?" Davide asked me once we told the children and Sal the story. "Nobody else does."
"That's because I'm a sorcerer," I said. "Magic is in my blood."
"But how did it get there?" asked Renata. "You taught us never to try and enchant a living creature."
"I was born with it. And I'm still lucky to be alive." It was only thanks to medical technology not available here. Which likely explained why there were no others like me around.
We suspended our little side business, and I started masking my own magic. Hopefully it would be enough.
They came for us a few days later, right before dawn. They came in force, two full squads, making an infernal racket up the stairs. I woke up staring into the barrel of a flintlock pistol, the light of a torch flickering above my head. The guardsman was porcine, and his breath stank as he sneered at me.
"I think we found our little hedge wizard," he gurgled, playing with my improvised grimoire.
"What in the world is he?" the one behind him asked, leaning forward with the torch.
"Don't you mean she?" countered the first.
His comrade grinned unsettlingly. "Let's look under that shirt and find out."
I sat there dazedly, listening to their banter. I couldn't exactly bolt, let alone fight, with a gun pointed at me. Doubly so in a tight space. And frankly, I wasn't in any condition to do it anyway.
They reached for me with their grubby paws. Snickering. Stinking.
"What in the nine hells are you two doing?" snapped a new voice.
"Ow! Nothing, sarge! Just having a bit of fun!"
"Idiots! The Signore will flay us alive if we damage his prize!"
They backed away with suspicious hurry, and I could see the sergeant. He looked like a recruitment poster, tall and stone-faced in his red uniform, a short heavy rapier at his left hip, pistol at his right.
"Come on, let's go," he told me, then dragged me away without waiting for an answer, my feet essentially useless at the moment.
We'd bought a little new furniture as of late. Nothing fancy, just enough for the attic to start feeling remotely like a home. Now half of it was thrashed, and four more guardsmen were holding down Sal as well as Manfredo, while the last one kept pistols trained on both of them. They'd fought hard by the way everyone looked. And I was still half asleep!
"What do you want from us?" spat Sal. "We've done nothing wrong."
"Hiding an alien spy is grounds enough for arrest," the sergeant informed them.
"Spy? What are you talking about. Jinx?!"
"I don't know!" I whined.
"Enough. Take them."
With that, we were off. The porcine guard stopped to check the other room, but the sergeant hurried him along. I could see the children in the dark, sitting as still as they could, Renata pressing a hand on Agnese's mouth. I could tell the sergeant had seen them too.
They didn't lock me up in the cage with my benefactors. I rode in front with the guards, lying on the bottom of the cart. All I could see was their feet, and some of the road, but it soon became clear that we weren't headed for the Palazzo Di Giustizia, instead climbing one of the hills that made up the rich side of town. At one point we went around a bend, and I saw a trail sparkling on the road behind us. It did so in a very familiar way... Oh. The little inkwell, or rather whatever was left in it. Sal had been thinking very fast indeed.
At length the cart entered a small castle through its gate tunnel and stopped. They pulled me to my feet, and I struggled, so I received a blow to the head for my efforts. Therefore I wasn't aware of much else until we entered a warm study, thickly carpeted and with huge windows protected by glass panes. Glass panes!
A man was standing in the center of the room, dressed in a robe de chambre and comfortable house shoes. I was dropped at his feet like a sack of coal, and I stayed there, too afraid to move.
"I told you not to rattle him too hard," said the man courteously. But from my position, I could see the sergeant blanch.
"H-he fought back, Signore."
"She," muttered the other guardsman under his breath.
"And the two accomplices?"
"Locked up in the basement as you requested."
There was a tense silence, then the Signore waved them out. They left as if Death itself had just granted them one more day to live. I sort of stared numbly at the closed door.
"You can get up now," the courteous voice told me.
I gathered myself up in a sitting position, but I was shaking too hard to do much else.
"You're pathetic," the man stated, and helped me to my feet. He was lighter-skinned than most locals, but with the same black hair and eyes, sporting a Roman haircut and a strong body. Clearly he didn't spend all his time reading through the impressive library I could see in the room. He was also unexpectedly young – moreso than Sal in fact.
"My name is Ruggiero," he added. "That's Signore Ruggiero to you. Am I making myself clear?"
I bit my tongue. "Si, Signore." It wasn't the right time to be proud. Besides, if this was the respect he demanded from me, this was all the respect he was going to get.
"Good." He wrinkled his nose. "Now let's get you proper. What have those people been feeding you, anyway?"
As the household was waking up, I was handed over to the servants. The first thing they did was set me up a bath in one of the backrooms. A real hot bath that I didn't have to share with anyone! I couldn't relax, though; in fact, I had my tail between my legs the entire time. But nobody so much as looked funny at me.
Once I had finished scrubbing myself clean, a boy came by, a few years older than Davide and wearing a livery. He brought me two different servant outfits, a sure sign they hadn't figured me out yet. He looked relieved when I picked the one with pants – now I was fitting into one of his mental boxes at least.
"Master ordered me to take care of you," he explained with a mix of annoyance and fear. "My name is Giulio."
"I'm Jinx. I won't cause you any trouble, Giulio."
He nodded with relief and helped me get dressed. Which uncovered a problem: the aforementioned pants didn't have a tail hole. So I had to spend more time half-naked while Giulio tailored one for me. A task he accomplished with remarkable skill considering he'd never had to do it before. I was mildly envious: most people in high-tech cultures never bother learning how to perform basic household chores, as if we'll never be deprived of our precious machines.
At last it was time to eat breakfast. Another luxury, and even though it consisted of leftovers from the previous day, it was still the best meal I'd had since washing up on these shores. Scraps from a rich man's table are bait for devious and terrible traps.
I kept my eyes open for possible escape routes on the way back, but there were just too many soldiers milling about, some wearing the house colors, others from the city guard. Which begged the question, who was Ruggiero that he could order them around like that?
At any rate, I was ushered back into his study, where I found him ready to go out, in a slim black jacket, riding pants and soft leather boots with oversized flare tops, a fashionable hat hanging from the back of a nearby chair while a sheated rapier – a long one made for war, not a foppish pig-stick – rested across it.
"You're late," he said. I felt Giulio flinch at my side before Ruggiero dismissed him.
"Do you know why you're here?" the latter asked me once we were alone.
"No, Signore." I avoided looking him in the eye. Humans like to pretend they're not driven by instinct, but that's just self-delusion, and eye contact is a sign of aggression in most mammals. "I mean, your sergeant mentioned something about espionage charges, but I'm not..."
"No?" he interrupted me. "Why else would a visitor from the stars try to pass for one of us?"
I opened and closed my mouth a few times.
"Surprised that I know? We may be backward here, but we're not blind. We couldn't possibly have missed a silver-plated galleon sailing among the stars for weeks on end." He followed my gaze to a man-sized telescope mounted on a tripod by the window. "That's my small one."
He started pacing up and down the room. "And then, a demihuman the likes of whom nobody has ever heard of shows up on my doorstep. Not only that, but he starts throwing spells left and right."
"Did I break any laws, Signore?"
"Hah!" He stopped again. "No, you haven't... what was your name again?"
"If you had, Jinx, you'd be in prison now. But there's only a dozen wizards in this city, and I know them all personally. Arrogant pricks to the last."
I broke down and told him everything, making sure to emphasize that the ship was in a million pieces if it was on the ground at all, and my escape pod likely too deep for a diving bell. Actually, I doubted the last part, but I didn't want to give an already powerful man even more power.
He listened with an impenetrable expression. "Very well. I believe you – for now. And that's why you'll remain here as my guest. I need help with my magical studies, and other things as well. Your people must have knowledge we don't even dream of."
I abstained from pointing out that the average person is just as ignorant in any era. "What if I refuse to cooperate?"
In an instant, he was holding the tip of his rapier pressed under my chin. "Then I'll skewer you myself. And just in case you don't care about your own life, I might also forget to feed your friends in their cell."
I didn't move a muscle until he resheated his weapon and strapped it on. Then he grabbed his hat and stormed out.
By the time I unclenched my gut sufficiently to try and leave the room, there were guards at the door. I wasn't even allowed to the place where anyone absolutely must go until Giulio showed up to escort me. It filled him with annoyance all over again, but he was shaking in his boots at the thought of disobeying his master. I was beginning to see why, too, and it prompted me to be extra nice towards him. He, on the other hand, didn't seem to know how to treat me. See, I'd just been scooped up from the lower city, which placed me well below Giulio on the social ladder, but on the other hand I was a nobleman's hostage, which in their culture is short for "guest who isn't permitted to leave". Emphasis on guest.
To be honest, Ruggiero's study made for an awfully nice prison cell. Sure, everything that could be locked was locked, including anything I could have used to cast spells the wizardly way, and I wasn't about to tip my hand. Books were another story, however, and that was the part I wanted to see the most. An entire bookcase was dedicated to magic; it didn't take me long at all to notice the conspicuous absence of any material about the First Form. All their studies began with the Second Form, which is so big and complex that after a century of practice I can keep maybe a third of it in my head. (As for the Third Form, it's basically unfeasible to use without computer assist.)
No wonder there were so few wizards around. It raised an already high entry bar even higher.
My chance to test this theory came right after lunch. While Ruggiero ate in his study, I was whisked back to the kitchens. Which suited me just fine. I was much more at ease sitting in a plain chair, at a plain table, eating from an earthen bowl with a wooden spoon. But then I was taken back upstairs, and this time he invited me to sit down.
"They said you had this on you when you were brought here," he said, throwing my flimsy excuse for a grimoire in my lap. It was in much worse shape than last time I'd seen it. "What is it?" he asked.
"A diary," I lied. "It's in my mother tongue."
I thought he'd ask me to read from it, but he accepted my explanation. Whether his mind was elsewhere or he was just bad at reading people, now I had another ace up my sleeve. Either way, he pointed me at a writing desk supporting an inkwell with an elaborate base on which was engraved a basic magical circle, pulsing slowly with a dull glow – an ingenious system to keep the ink inside permanently enchanted.
"Show me something."
"I beg your pardon, Signore?"
"Show me what you can do. A simple spell like you'd cast back home."
"Hmm." I rubbed my chin. Then I noticed a fruit bowl full of colorful marbles in various sizes, and reached for the compass. In half an hour I had a little magical orrery representing the local star system, spinning in the air above the desk. The stand-in for the sun was even lit from inside.
"Nothing you can't do with gears and a mainspring," I smiled faintly.
"Good enough for now." He leaned forward to examine it closely. "How come we never saw another planet there?"
"It's very dark."
"Hrm." He extracted a sketchbook from a pile of papers. "Wish I had the time to learn the Art myself, but I have to settle for making designs. What do you think of these?"
He watched me flip through the pages. There were many intriguing if disturbing ideas, such as a crystal globe connected to a set of mirrors on the roof, everything enchanted to show any magical activity within the city walls and even beyond. Or an energy shield that would lock down the port in case of invasion.
"You'd need a big mana well for this one," I told him.
"But I've been told it's impossible to build one in the required size."
"Oh, it's possible all right." I had to throw him a bone sooner or later, lest he decide I'm useless. "It simply takes a different approach."
He wanted to say something else, when a clock somewhere in the building struck the hour.
"We will speak of this later," he said, and rang for a servant. This time I was barred from staying in the study.
I had expected to spend most of my spare time in the servant quarters, but Giulio's orders were to set me up in a tiny suite right next to Ruggiero's study. Soon I was helping him clean up, which only served to increase his confusion. On the other hand, he was beginning to relax around me, which was great because I really needed a friend in this place. The suite was neat too, with relatively unadorned furniture and a full bookcase of its own. I had to constantly remind myself how unusual that was in a civilization stuck with manual printing presses.
The guards also allowed me to move more freely, at least up and down the gallery in front of "my" suite. From there I could see most of the entrance hall, with the sophisticated statuary at its center. Now and then, creepy doll-like automatons wandered across the marble floor, chittering happily even as they bumped against columns and each other. That was presumably for the entertainment of various visitors, of which there was no shortage. More than one wore a cloak long enough to brush the floors, and big floppy hats hiding the shape of their heads. Having worn such a disguise myself until the other day, I could tell they must have been genemorphs, ahem, demihumans.
Even the personnel became noticeable after a while, including a dignified old man who I learned was Ruggiero's manservant. Which begged the question, who did Giulio normally attend? He wouldn't tell me, but one wall in the suite's day room had a lighter spot where a portrait had been taken down...
For the third or fourth time that afternoon, I was staring at the coat of arms at the top of the main staircase, trying to remember where I'd seen it before. The commoner attitude towards politics, which was one of total ignorance, had been rubbing on me, and the lack of any mass media wasn't helping. I rubbed my eyes. Someone was in the opposite gallery, a tall woman with blond hair, who must have come from distant lands indeed. I wouldn't have been allowed to go meet her, and she didn't try to come my way either, but just stood and stared for a while. When she stopped a maid and asked her something, pointing my way, I decided it was best to get back inside.
"That's Signora Marjolein," Giulio informed me, "Master's wife."
And then it clicked.
That was definitely a foreign name, which suggested a political marriage. And few noble houses were powerful enough for such a thing to matter. Or, in fact, big enough to own the largest man-o-war I'd ever seen in the port of Costamata. Because that's where I'd last set my eyes on that particular coat of arms.
It belonged to the royal house.
Suddenly all the oddities made perfect sense. Ruggiero's busy life. Him keeping functionaries at his residence. All the troops around. I was speculating wildly by this point, but if he was who I thought he was – namely, one of the King's younger brothers – then he was just about the most powerful man in the city. The governor may have been his majesty's official representative, but Ruggiero was his confidante, and likely secret agent as well.
I was about to become enmeshed in the kingdom's politics. A terrible prospect.
On a whim, I sat down and opened my battered grimoire, turned a blank page, then started writing as fast as quill and ink allow (which isn't much at all), tail swishing nervously. And this time it really was a diary, except for all the magical notes scribbled in the margin to avoid suspicion.
Daylight was dwindling by the time I took a break, a process made faster by my east-facing windows. Giulio was off to fetch dinner – to keep up appearances he'd said, but I suspect he was warming up to me. I leaned over the windowsill to survey the cobblestone road climbing past the castle, the river downhill and the city beyond. There wasn't much traffic, which is why three moving shapes immediately grabbed my attention.
"Davide!" I called, cringing at the loudness of my own voice. "Renata!"
They looked all over the wall, and I waved.
"Jinx! You're all right!" Davide answered.
"Where's mom and dad?" asked Renata.
"Locked up," I confessed. "I'm under guard myself."
They were quiet for a moment, and I changed the subject. "How are you holding up?"
"I'm hungry!" complained Agnese. "I want to go home!"
"You've been... thrown out?" My heart sank.
"We'll manage," Davide assured me. "Wouldn't be the first time."
Renata just looked at me with reproach. And I didn't know what to say to her, damn it.
"Giulio," I whispered when the door opened. "I have a big favor to ask. Please?"
He nodded, and I waited for him to set the tray down. "See those three kids? I need you to give them my dinner."
Giulio wrinkled his nose. "We hand charity to beggars often enough."
"Those aren't random beggars," I explained. "Their parents are rotting in a cell under our feet for the guilt of being my friends."
"Oh," he said. Then, "I have younger siblings too."
He went to do it, while I told the children to wait. Somehow, he still managed to get me something as well.
Ruggiero returned well after dark, but didn't go to sleep. I could hear him rearranging furniture and the unmistakable sound of shuffling large sheets of paper on the other side of the wall. Maps, maybe? After a while, a door opened, then came the voice of his manservant. I don't know what they were talking about – the walls weren't that thin, I just have big ears – but it quickly escalated to shouts, fists slammed on a table, then finally broken glass, at which point somebody stormed out. Things must have calmed down after that, because the next thing I knew was waking up all sweaty, the bedsheets twisted in a knot, and dawn was well underway.
The master of the house was still asleep, contrary to his habit as Giulio told me, but the servants had standing orders. I offered to help, but the boy shook his head.
"Setting a formal table takes training," he said. "You'd just get in the way."
Which suited me just fine; I much preferred relaxing with a book. But it robbed me of an opportunity to better know the staff. Patience was the word of the day, it seemed.
The sun had been up for a while by the time Ruggiero called for me. He was in a foul mood, so I didn't comment. My first assignment was clear enough: to turn the statuary downstairs into the largest mana well ever to grace this world. So I set to work, armed with the original plans and a measuring stick borrowed from the castle's workshop (because plans never survive contact with reality). By the time Ruggiero's breakfast ended and his blue-blooded guests finished streaming out, I possessed a full set of sketches, and he a much sunnier disposition. So I worked up the nerve to ask him something.
"May I see my friends, Signore? Please?"
He looked at me as if trying to decide how badly to beat me up.
"After you complete this task," he said at length.
He kept his word, too.
It wasn't a job to be proud of. Normally, I would have gotten a stonemason to enlarge the pedestal considerably, at the expense of the compass rose mosaic on the floor ("tear it all up if you have to" were my instructions), then to carve the rough lines of the magic circle into it. Lastly, I'd have rounded up a few apprentice wizards and practiced with them until we could cast all parts of the enchantment at the exact same time, possibly with some help from a musician to set the pace.
But that meant many workers involved for a fair length of time, and Ruggiero didn't seem like the most patient of men even at his best. Moreover, the only suitable apprentices I knew were Davide and Renata – the last people I wanted to bring into the wolf's den! So instead I asked the stonemason for the smallest extensions I could get away with, and worked out how to break my part of the work into enchantments small enough to be completed one by one. At least the Second Form enabled that.
There was still a fair bit of waiting involved. Shameful, how easy it was to forget about Sal and Manfredo while reading a good book in the comfort of my suite...
It was two days later towards evening that the new mana well flared to life, and I could demonstrate more potent spells than the usual self-lighting chandeliers and thief-catching curtains, in the applause of the gathered residents. Well, apart from Signora Marjolein, who merely watched in listless silence from her end of the gallery.
To his credit, it was Ruggiero who first remembered my request. As the crowd scattered and I waited to be dismissed – it wasn't hard to keep the rule in mind after getting slapped a few times – a heavy hand settled on my shoulder. I flinched: it was the sergeant who'd arrested me.
"Easy, son," he said placidly as he led me outside, then down a dark stairwell. "You're under the Signore's protection."
Son, he says. I tried not to think that without access to modern medicine I was going to grow old and die like any of them. I had, what, forty years left? Sounds like a lot, until one day you look at the calendar and the decades have all but elapsed.
The guardroom was cramped and poorly lit, with a side door leading to a rest area for soldiers on rotation. I carefully took note of the layout before the sergeant prodded me into the cell block. The men on guard stared a little, but didn't say a thing. Thankfully, the two brutes from a few nights ago weren't present.
"I saw the children," was the first thing I told Sal and Manfredo as we hugged in their cell. They overwhelmed me with questions, which I answered as fast as my mouth would work. Their faces, relieved at first, grew stony the more details came up. My benefactors must have felt betrayed, and for good reason. Even my new attire was better than anything they could have afforded, never mind how I'd spent the last few days while they slept on damp straw, worrying to death. That they weren't being otherwise mistreated was small consolation.
It pained me to lose their friendship. But I kept telling myself that their lives were worth the price.
The children showed up at dusk again, as they did nearly every day, and I gave them my food as usual, along with the news. In turn, they asked when I was going to help their parents escape.
Somehow, "it's not that simple" felt like a totally inadequate answer.
Worse, they had a point. With a big mana well just downstairs, my body was steadily charging up, and the better food helped with the physical side of things. But even at my peak, I couldn't just brute-force my way past an entire garrison – not without waking up the house and getting swamped. I needed a plan, but the very idea brought with it a sinking feeling. A fighter I am not.
All the justifications didn't help me sleep any better.
Ruggiero left in a hurry the next morning, leaving me with nothing to do, and Giulio was nowhere to be found, either. To my surprise, the guards at least allowed me downstairs to fetch my own breakfast. After my earlier magical show, the servants were treating me with far too much respect.
By the time I returned to my rooms with a full belly, Giulio had reappeared, with a new suit of clothes that looked more or less my size. No, not new – it was in fact old, just well preserved. It was also colorful without being flamboyant, with simple lines and very very expensive. The upper portion turned out to fit me well enough, even though it had been tailored for someone more buff. The pants, of course, needed a tail hole, which Giulio set out to make. It went faster now that he had some experience.
"With compliments from Signora Marjolein," he said laconically when I asked him where it came from. That explained little, but I couldn't miss the look in his eyes once I was all dressed up: these clothes had belonged to someone special. How special, it became clear when Ruggiero, just returned for lunch, summoned me.
His first reaction was to strike me a blow that sent me to the floor, clinging to the thick carpet while the room appeared to spin with me.
"Who gave these to you?" The question seemed to come from far away.
"Did you talk to her? What did she say?"
"Nothing! I didn't see her!"
I squeezed my eyes shut, expecting anything, but he just slammed the door closed on his way out. I dragged myself into a nearby chair, too dizzy and shaky to do anything else even if I dared to. I still wasn't ready when Ruggiero entered again.
"You're not worthy of those clothes," he growled. "Consider them a very special favor."
I nodded haltingly, without looking at him.
"Now let's eat," he continued, voice somewhat softer. "There's business to discuss."
"War is coming," Ruggiero said simply. We were standing atop the fortress overlooking the estuary, and took turns with a spyglass watching sets of sails pass just over the horizon. "You couldn't have known, because we don't let such rumors spill into the lower city. But the enemy's on our doorstep, and I've sworn an oath to protect the king's subjects."
"But how could I possibly make a difference, Signore? If the king's navy isn't enough to defend Nortarra..."
"You can," he interrupted me, "because magic can change the rules."
I was genuinely impressed, and I let him know that. Even back home, few people understood the nature of magic so well.
"Did you think I was going to have you enchant cannons and ship hulls? There aren't enough wizards in the realm to tip the balance that way. And it's not such toys that matter, ultimately."
He paused for breath. "Look... this isn't your war. Give me what I need to end it, and you'll have your freedom."
The wind picked up. It stung my face. "Grazie, Signore. For what it's worth, now I have friends here, too."
He looked away. "There's another reason as well. Your people are coming to retrieve you. They're still far away, but now we know what to look for."
It was such big news I felt dizzy, for the second time that day. It was also blatantly against his interests to tell me. "W-why let me know, Signore?"
"Because I'd rather be on their good side when they arrive. And yours. Who else here knows how to even talk to them?"
The study was silent, but for Ruggiero pacing back and forth as he browsed through his sketches, discarding them on the floor one by one.
"Toys, fantasies and flights of fancy!" he vented once his arms were free. "Sometimes I think magic is a curse. What do you do when you can try anything at all?"
"I don't know, Signore. Many different things?"
"No. There's no time to fool around. Besides, too many active spells in one place will just blow up in our faces."
He'd definitely done his homework.
"The success of a military campaign," he thought out loud, "depends on three things: logistics, coordination and morale. Logistics are on our side, since we're on the defensive."
"And morale is another kind of magic entirely," I added.
He nodded. "That leaves coordination. If only there was a way to have ships communicate instantly at a distance..."
"But magic can't do that," I reminded him, "since it can only spread through" – I chose my words carefully – "that which has weight."
"Then perhaps magic isn't the answer to this one."
"What else do we have to work with, Signore?"
Ruggiero grinned. "I didn't want to show you my real research, but you may just be the one person who can put it all together."
He produced a key out of a hidden pocket and proceeded to unlock the big double doors at the far end of the room, for the first time since my arrival. Then he waved me closer, and pushed them open.
"Behold! The secrets of our ancestors!"
I gingerly followed him inside. It was like stepping into the laboratory of a mad scientist. The walls were lined with tables and shelves, every flat surface covered in strange devices. Electrostatic generators, Leyden jars, coils of all sorts, even batteries, all of it was nearly two centuries ahead of the times. The only explanation was that he'd found a vault, or at least some books, since before the original colony's collapse. Talk about cultural contamination.
"Would any of this help?" he asked, as I tiptoed around like in a museum.
I'd never before fixed anything more complicated than a light switch. But much as I wanted to say no, my nanobot-addled brain kept coming up with ancient diagrams I'd been required to study for a practical course on the history of communications. The only missing ingredient was about five decades's worth of research and development.
"Oh yes," I heard myself saying. "I can actually do it. I can build you a radio."
It was much easier said than done.
Half the sky was black, and our experimental receiver crackled with interference from distant lightning. We had much work ahead of us before it would be good enough for even Morse code, but it was the first time we had received anything not coming from our own emitter. I turned to call Ruggiero's attention on that, but he was busy signing documents. At least these days he was too preoccupied to hit me. Most of the time.
It was a commotion out in the hallway that finally made him look up. Before any of us could go check, there was a knock on the door and Ruggiero's manservant came in, carrying a couple of sealed letters on a tray, which the master of the house opened and skimmed in quick succession.
"You're dismissed," he snapped, looking at both of us.
"Signore?" I asked.
"Get out!" he shouted, reaching for his sword, By that time I was already at the door.
The guards saluted me as I ran out in the hallway. After a moment's hesitation, I trotted down the grand staircase, startling a flock of silk scarves, which scattered every which way, flapping their folds. A couple of maids stopped in their tracks and bowed to me. I threw my arms wide, making the entrance doors fling themselves open. Out of nowhere, a cloak fell on my shoulders; I grabbed it, clasped it around my neck and strode out, while a few late visitors gawked: the show was only set up for me and Ruggiero.
The clouds were advancing from the sea, gradually plunging the courtyard into darkness, but there was no missing the harbormaster's seal on the awaiting coach with its four sweaty horses. I took a deep breath in the rapidly cooling air and looked around for a familiar face. Aha.
"What's going on, Sergeant?" I asked the man, trying to sound casual.
In the wavering light of a newly lit torch, his face appeared even stonier than usual.
"I don't know... my men say two Nortarran warships just entered port, with holes in their hulls and their sails in tatters. All the elven merchantmen are gone, too."
There was nothing more to be said about that. So I changed the subject.
"How are Sal and Manfredo?"
He sighed. "Come see for yourself."
Their cell had acquired a cot in the mean time, and even a candle, carefully kept away from the straw on the floor. My benefactors looked bad, though, as if they'd spent a lot longer in prison than they had. Both looked angrily at my new clothes – I was drifting farther and farther away from them.
"How are you?" I asked them. "I'm sorry... I tried to have you moved in a proper room..."
I felt guilty as soon as the words left my lips. Could've tried a lot harder. But that wasn't why they were angry with me.
"How are the little ones?" asked Manfredo, clenching his fists.
"Staying with the old blacksmith. I've been giving them food. Even a little coin now and then."
"You'd better," he frowned. "It's all your..."
Sal stopped him, but it was obvious what he was about to say. And it was true.
"I still trust you, Jinx," she said. Her words weighted heavily down on my shoulders as I went back upstairs.
In the small servant's room next to my suite, Giulio was crying.
"His name was Guido," he said at length. "He was Signora Marjolein's little brother. He had no title... no lands... as soon as he was old enough he enlisted in the Navy. That was last year. And now..."
I sat next to him on the bed while lightning flashed outside, thunder rolling over the castle.
The cannons in the fortress had boomed incessantly from the first hint of light. By the time the sun was up, the waters of the estuary were littered with floating debris, and not a few bodies; a gaggle of boats were picking up whatever seemed more important, but nobody's heart was in it. I pulled my long cloak tighter around my body, making sure my tail didn't show before stepping out of the coach. Me and Ruggiero weren't the only officials on the quayside: among others, I recognized the governor and the admiral in charge of the defensive fleet. There wasn't much left of his command.
"Another victory like this," I heard him commenting, "and we're done for."
"They don't have many ships left with which to attack again, either," the governor said reassuringly.
"But they're free to rally new forces while we lick our wounds," the old soldier pointed out.
"At least our people won't starve," the governor tried to stay upbeat. "We're still masters of the land."
"Aye. But lack of trade is already depleting our coffers."
I turned my attention to the fortress, where smoke was still coming out of a gash in the east wall – the one no enemy ship should have been able to fire at unless the city had already fallen. So much for plans.
"It would have been worse without your shielding enchantments," Ruggiero told me.
I nodded. "And the whirlpool spell was an effective trap, too."
"You realize such tricks won't save us next time." His voice was level. It gave me a bad feeling.
"What do you have in mind, Signore?"
"Something decisive. Come."
He didn't say a word on the coach ride back home.
"Are you familiar with the Lotisian current?" he asked, unrolling a map of the seaboard on the largest table in the study.
"Indeed," I confirmed. There was at least one treatise on the subject in his library. The current in question came from the southwest, around the elven islands, and bathed the entire Nortarran coast, gifting it with a subtropical climate, before the colder waters of the Aquacheta, flowing into the sea, gradually forced it back south.
"Then you realize that from us it goes directly to our enemies, and not just anywhere, but to their main port, where they're most likely to amass a new attack fleet."
I nodded. "And they can't help but sail against the current to reach Costamata. Cutting it any more to the west risks putting them face to face with half the elven navy."
"Precisely! Do you see what opportunity this gives us?"
"No? But it was you who gave me the idea." Seeing my baffled expression, he added, "Magic can only spread through that which has weight, you said."
"That... is so." I was beginning to see what he meant, and it filled me with dread.
"So." He stood in front of me. "What we'll do is prepare a spell which, once released into the water, will carry all the way to their doorstep, destroying any ship it meets on the way."
I took a step back. Then another. "No."
He straightened his back. "What do you mean, no?"
"Signore... you're asking me to cast an unbounded spell. That's simply not done. Not ever, not for any reason."
"And why is that?" he asked, voice suddenly threatening.
"Because there's too much of a chance that it will run out of control and kill everything in this world... then destroy the world itself."
"Absurd," he stated, though he didn't sound entirely sure of himself. "Magic fizzles out in time, and you can always dispel it."
"Not on that scale! Ask any other wizard!" I backed away some more. "Signore, I took an oath!"
My voice was panicked by that time, but he didn't seem to care.
"And what," he insisted, advancing, "will your oath be worth if we all die at the hands of our enemies?"
I took another step back and tripped, landing in a heap on the floor.
"It matters for the future!" I rolled onto my knees and elbows. "Think of your children! And your children's children!"
I heard him draw his sword. Its cold, sharp tip pressed under my ear, and blood started trickling down.
"I don't have any children," Ruggiero rasped ominously, "haven't you noticed by now? Your friends on the other hand..."
I closed my eyes tight with a shudder. After what seemed like forever, he withdrew his blade and left the room.
The lower city had changed. Shortages of all kinds were becoming apparent. Pairs of exhausted city guards were on every street corner. How much Costamata depended on the sea was now obvious even through the window of a coach, as we scouted out a good location for our biggest mana well yet. That was my way of stalling – of postponing the hardest decision in my life. Taking an oath is one thing. Upholding it in the face of death is another entirely. And what about my friends? Were they supposed to die for my oath too... even if it meant saving the world? I wondered what Davide and Renata would have thought, but with all the patrols it was too dangerous for them to drop by anymore.
Meanwhile, all of us were running out of time.
The stars were fading in the eastern sky as I woke up one night, more tired than I'd went to sleep. Not wanting to wake up Giulio so early, I donned my servant outfit, then on a whim I checked on my little bag of tricks, cautiously pieced together as of late and kept hidden under the bed. It was then that our radio receiver made itself heard on the other side of the wall, and it wasn't the pop-pop-pop of interference from lightning. In fact, it sounded almost like a voice, except the contraption wasn't nearly sensitive enough to render such.
I dashed out of the bedroom and into the study and turned on the transmitter. My hands shook as I keyed the one signal that had never changed or lost its meaning over the ages: three dots, three lines, three dots – SOS. Then, as my nanobots did their number, making a cheatsheet pop into my short term memory, I continued: J I N X H E R E. And again SOS. It would have to do: our entire apparatus was an unholy mess good for making the inventors of radio spin in their graves, assuming those graves still existed after thousands of years, halfway around the galaxy, and I had no actual training in telegraphy. Nobody did anymore, not since before the first interstellar flights, but if this was the rescue mission they'd have a computer to translate, and my name was on the original ship's manifest. At least I had correctly calculated one of the standard emergency frequencies.
Moments later, the horn attached to the sounding membrane fell silent, then sprung to life again with a loud and clear Morse code signal I was in no position to interpret. I waited for it to stop before adding, C A N T T A L K. Then a third SOS.
That was when the door burst open, admitting Ruggiero in his shirt, sword in hand, eyes burning.
"You're awake! Good! We have a radiogram from the..."
His jaw fell as he saw me, index finger on the telegraph key, listening to a signal that sounded nothing like the simplistic code we'd convened with the scout ships the admiral had patrolling the sea.
"No!" he shouted. "Not now! You can't leave us like that!"
"I can, and I will," I screamed. "This isn't my war! You said so!"
He raised his sword to strike, but I grabbed it.
"And you've hit me enough!" I added, countering with a burst of force from my other hand. He went sprawling on the floor; his blade slid free of its scabbard and knocked over a tall candle holder. It splashed over his books on magic, turning them into a miniature inferno before I could react. Then I grabbed my bundle and ran out of the room.
Panic spread throughout the partially awakened household faster than any flames could have. Nobody paid me any further heed while I emerged into the courtyard. Without even thinking, I slipped down the narrow stairs to the dungeon.
As expected, all the guards on duty were in the break room, having failed to notice the commotion so far. I leaned against the wall by the door, under a torch, and took out my first secret weapon: a small wooden block, on which I quickly inscribed a rune before throwing it inside. It erupted with a light so brilliant, even the reflection off the opposite wall was dazzling; everybody back there was going to be blind for minutes at least. Time enough for me to close the door and scribble another spell down the middle – the speed-casting practice with the children had worked wonders. I completed my handiwork just as someone on the other side started banging on the door. Too late: nothing could open it now until the spell expired, hours later.
I'd just taken out my second weapon, a short iron wand, when the door to the cell block opened. It was the sergeant.
"I came for my friends," I said simply. "Don't stand in my way."
"I knew this day would come," he replied, "but I have my duty."
He started raising his pistol, but the lightning from my wand was faster. It arced all over the room before finding his body, and the man fell, twitching. I took both his weapons, but ignored the keychain. Too fiddly, and there was no time. The lock to the cell door turned into rust under my touch. Wisely, neither Sal nor Manfredo asked any questions while I armed them and led them up the stairs, then out the gate, past a human chain that ferried buckets of sand inside as fast as they could. We were going the wrong way, leaving behind the only means of calling down a shuttle, but that was no longer an option.
Somehow, the rescue crew had managed to pinpoint the signal anyway.
We were running down the road, out in the open, when a ghostly shape not unlike a hawk with its wings half-folded floated silently into view from behind the castle, floodlights scanning the ground. I raised my hands and flashed them a signal, ignoring the searing pain from the residual heat. Moments later they were pulling us aboard, and we were off while ever bigger clouds of smoke billowed out of the building's windows.
"They came to take me home," was all the explanation I had time for while we crossed the city, virtually unnoticeable thanks to the shuttle's optical cloak. The guards on the east wall weren't looking down as I passed through the rock. Far from any mana well now, my reserves were rapidly depleting, but that didn't matter anymore. As I picked up the children, banks of fog started rolling along the streets. A fog that still sparkled with residual magic. No wonder the guards hadn't been paying attention to us.
The shuttle commander didn't even protest as I told him to fly over the water.
I may never know what stories were born that day, but imagine you're leading your fleet of sleek ships, countless long cannons poking out of their gunports, to attack a helpless city from behind a screen of magical mist provided by your kingdom's mightiest wizards, when a silver dragon swoops down from the sky, belching fire and steel at your supposedly unstoppable assault force.
The first salvo out of the shuttle's quad coilguns ripped an enemy ship in two, and shredded the sails off another. As we banked over their battle line with a piercing wail from our siren – a tactic nearly as old as aviation – the gunner dialed down the power and took the rigging out of several more ships. Then the pilot rocked the thrusters, setting even more of them on fire as we screamed past. We turned for a second pass, and spotted little rings of smoke coming from the shore. The few damaged Nortarran frigates that were anchored in port were firing on the enemy, and even the broken fortress joined them with the handful of cannons that could reach.
We let them claim the victory for themselves as we headed north across the land.
"What are you going to do now?" I asked as we stood by the roadside, Agnese perched on the back of a small donkey I'd been able to buy for them from the precious metal reserve kept aboard the shuttle.
Manfredo shrugged. "Head into the mountains, I suppose. A strong pair of hands is always in demand, and I know how to deal with dwarves."
"Aren't you coming with us, Jinx?" asked Davide.
"Can't." I pointed at the shuttle crew waiting politely out of earshot. "They'll need my help retrieving the other survivors."
"But we have so much more to learn from you," said Renata.
"It's true. I've taught you little magic. But it's worth more than you think. Use is wisely. Teach it to others. And one day... one day..."
"Shush." Sal placed a finger on my lips. "Don't lie to yourself. You won't be back. Not during our lifetimes."
I nodded, unable to say another word, and hugged each of them in turn. Then I spun on my heels and walked briskly back to the spacecraft, while I still had the willpower to do it.