Prompt — The Most Important Thing

(I’ve narrated this story and published it on YouTube! Go check it out if you would rather listen!)

 

“What’s the most important thing a girl needs to live?” Sage asked.

“This must be another one of your trick questions,” her staff replied.

“Nope! Not a trick,” she said, stamping her bare feet as she jumped across the tree roots. “Just a simple question.”

“But there is nothing simple about that question. There’s too much subjectivity involved.”

Sage stopped in her tracks. There were no appropriate tree roots to jump to. She hated walking in grass almost as much as the grass hated her walking in it. Almost. She turned around and started jumping back across, stepping on the same roots once more. “You know you think a lot for a dumb stick.”

“Would you expect any different?” it’s voice hummed into her mind. “I’ve seen more sunrises than every person on Earth combined.”

Sage frowned. “But the sun doesn’t rise or set here.”

“My point stands.”

“You’re stalling. You never answered the question.”

“The trick question?”

“It’s not a trick question!” her already high-pitched voice rose an octave in anger.

The staff was not intimidated. It was bigger than her, after all. “Very well. A girl needs the same thing that everyone else needs to live. Food and water. Perhaps shelter, too, depending on circumstances.”

“Wrong!” Sage sang.

“Do you mean psychologically? It could be said that a girl requires love, even if that love comes from herself.”

“Wrong!” she said again. It was at this point that she had circled the tree again. No roots to jump onto unless she turned around.

“Sage, I know you hate walking on grass, but we’re going to be here for eternity if we keep going like this.”

“There’s nowhere else to go,” Sage said. She wiped a tear from her eye at the thought of stepping on the grass. Then, she turned around and started hopping the way she had come.

“Why don’t you just use your magic?” the staff said. More a request than a command.

“I don’t believe in magic,” she scoffed.

“Wh-what? The Everlight is a realm governed by magic. It’s the lifeblood of everything here! Especially me and you!”

“Nope. I’m just a normal human girl that has very vivid hallucinations,” Sage decided.

“By the Allsoul… But normal girls don’t have vivid hallucinations.”

Sage stopped, eyes wide. “You’re right! I’m not normal at all! You know, for a dumb stick you can be pretty clever.”

The staff didn’t reply, and the two were silent for a moment.

“So,” her staff offered. “What’s the answer to the question?”

“What question?”

“The most important thing a girl needs to live?”

Sage’s playful smile widened into a mischievous grin. “What does it matter?”

“I don’t understand.”

“I didn’t expect you to.”

“…are you going to explain? Why ask the question if the answer doesn’t matter?” the staff asked.

“What’s the point? An old stick like you has had bazillions of years to figure it out, and you didn’t. You can’t hope to learn now.”

“Allow me to try,” it said.

Sage got to the end of the tree again. Before she could turn around, however, the staff thrust itself from her grasp and split into three. The wood bent and twisted into large tree roots that did not attach to any tree, but instead floated in the air, waiting for her to jump onto then.

Gleefully, she hopped across the new roots. As she hopped, more tree roots appeared ahead of her, leaving the grass below blessedly untouched as the bridge slowly led her to a new tree, where the forest was denser. Once she stood safely on the natural trees, the staff once again formed in her hands.

“Are there girl sticks like you?” Sage asked as she began hopping across the tree roots once more.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re fun to talk to and all,” she explained. “I just think I’d get along with a girl staff better.”

“Are you saying I’m a boy staff? That’s absurd. Staves have no gender. You don’t have a gender, either, if we’re being technical.”

She shrugged. “That sort of talk is exactly what makes you a boy staff. If you knew better, you’d know that the answer to my earlier question wasn’t important. It was the question that was important.”

“Why ask a question you don’t want to know the answer to?”

“That’s what makes you a boy. You’re too focused on getting somewhere.”

“How does that make any sense?” the staff asked.

“These tree roots aren’t any better to jump across as the tree we were at before, you know. Not everything needs to have a ‘why’.”

“But your question didn’t seem rhetorical. You seemed to genuinely want an answer.”

“I already know the answer,” Sage laughed. “The most important thing a girl needs to live is color. Obviously.”

“I suppose you mean metaphorically.”

“Of course,” she rolled her eyes.

“And boys don’t need color to live?”

“Boys can’t see color,” Sage explained. “They only have rods. Girls have cones. I heard a human talking about it once.”

“I think perhaps you may have misunderstood what they were saying.”

“What do you know? You’re just a dumb stick.”

“And you’re just a silly girl that doesn’t believe in magic and hates stepping on grass.”

Sage’s smile broadened. “Looks like we’re finally getting somewhere.”

 

 

Prompt: https://ryky.deviantart.com/art/Cave-of-miracles-691436552

Spear Gate — Chapter Twelve, Pt. 1

(Mild content warning on this one.)

 

It was dark before Esmina found her way back to the Liar’s Respite, and despite her heart pounding in fear and exertion as she raced back, it was met with no words at all on her father’s part. As relieved as she was, though, she was afraid she might face repercussions later.

They had gotten two rooms, adjacent to each other. The Tenshari servant standing guard outside had been kind in greeting, as Berold had probably paid him to be. Since they had brought almost none of their own servants with them to Tal’Doraken, it seemed her father was being generous with his coin.

Esmina retired into her rooms, as silently as possible so as not to rouse her father. She found that her trunk had been brought to her room, and after changing into a nightgown fell back onto her bed with a lazy sigh.

She didn’t have any way to know for sure, but she could have sworn her father had waited until she started drifting her off to sleep to wake her up.

“Esmina,” he said, swinging the door open without so much as a knock of warning. “Time to go.”

She woke back up with a start. Looking out the window, it seemed just as dark as it was when she first walked in, but that wasn’t saying much.

“Quickly now,” he demanded. “We have places to be.”

“May I at least clothe myself, father?” she asked.

“Don’t be daft,” he rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to whisk my daughter away unclothed. What kind of father do you take me for? You have three minutes.” And with that, he closed the door. Yesterday, that would have been a stupid question. He was cruel, but not stupid. But then he bought a drunkard as her escort through the city.

Soon, she was dressed once again in a simple long tunic and leggings. Fresh clothes, in case anyone recognized her. Besides, they would only be here for the day, and she had packed an excess.

Soon her and her father were back in the streets of the city. It was colder than she remembered it being. Had she actually fallen asleep for a while, or was it the panic of running back to the inn that made her misremember?

Her father seemed to be in a bad mood, which she considered a small blessing, because they did not speak much as they made their way through the sparse torchlight of the city. Berold held the Night Seal writ in his hands, all but marching towards the Ministry Office as they went. The streets were mostly empty now, with some Tenshari servants milling about.

She kept quiet, avoiding anything that might cause him to speak to her. As they walked she noticed that the buildings on the street they were currently on had enormous windows, almost walls of glass. So much glass had to cost an insane amount of money, and it was everywhere. They had no signs announcing what kind of establishment they were, but whatever their purpose was, they were towing the line as to what religious customs regarded as ‘indoors’. Esmina paled when she stole a glance inside.

Several women walked around inside, wearing little more than undergarments as they tended to their patrons. Aenias above, those two didn’t even have that much decency. And what was that one doing to…

“We’re walking next to the brothels?” Esmina hissed, voice hushed.

“It’s the quickest way to the Ministry Offices,” her father replied, unconcerned. It was not a defense, it was the simple explanation.

I’m fourteen, father,” she said.

“And yet I imagine you’re still older than some of the workers here.”

She was so appalled she almost retched. What had gotten into him lately? “This is too far,” she said.

He glanced down at her. “You may not care for me very much, but know that this is a life you do not have to endure. This is the life of many an orphan with nowhere else to go.”

She broke his gaze. Another one of his vile lessons. Her eyes wandered to another one of the buildings, and to her amazement she recognized the drunkard from earlier today, with a… maid, sitting on his lap. He was well dressed now, and he gazed outside as the two of them passed.

Some primal fear caught Esmina as she looked away, ashamed and embarrassed that she had seen two people so… engaged. She noticed her father looking in the direction of the drunkard. They were making eye contact.

And Berold nodded to him.

Story — The Girl, the Owl, and the Creek

(I’ve narrated this story and published it on YouTube! Go check it out if you would rather listen!)

 

The girl sat on a nice outcropping, perched over the gentle creek as water passed beneath and ahead of her. Her pale legs dangled like wind chimes in the breeze, which was as lazy and timeless as the water that flowed on, ever onward, towards distant falls.

As always, she brought three of the best stones she could find. Ones that could, with luck, skip all the way across the water and onto the beach on the other side. Three stones. One for each undesirable piece of herself.

An owl peered at her from the branch of a nearby tree, cocking its head to and fro as it judged her and her stones. The pieces of herself that she held so dear.

“What do you think to do with those stones?” The owl said from his lofty seat. The girl had never heard an owl speak before, but this one certainly had. His voice was cool and methodical, as if he were some distant cousin to the creek he lived near.

“Whatever could you mean, owl?” the girl replied. “Certainly you have seen travelers come by this creek with their stones to toss across this creek. I am sure I am not the first girl to stop by here.”

“Certainly not,” he said. “I have seen many a girl travel to this outcropping and toss her burdens into the water. May I ask what drove you here to do the same?”

The girl had no wish to confide her troubles to anyone, especially no owl. “How could an owl possibly understand my troubles?” she asked. “As I am sure I could not understand an owl’s troubles.”

“I understand that when a stone falls upon water, it always sinks eventually,” the owl reasoned. “For all I may appear to lack, it seems I know something that you do not.”

The girl made a face and turned away from the owl. “Of course I know that,” she said angrily. Then, she looked back to the owl, who had not seemed upset by her response. “But these are no mere stones. They are the pieces of me that I do not like,” the girl confessed.

The owl hooted in satisfaction. “Of course they are,” he said. “That is why you wish to toss them into the creek, never to be seen again.”

“I am not like you, owl,” the girl said. “You need and treasure everything you have. Without your wings, you could not soar through the wind as you pleased. Without your claws, you would not be able to land once you found your way home. And without your feathers, you could not stay warm and cozy as you slept.

“I have none of these things,” she continued. “But I have burdens I do not wish to bear. If I can throw these stones all the way across this creek, it means I will overcome that burden. If I fail and it sinks into the creek, then it means I must carry it longer.”

The owl considered this for a moment, then nodded. “This seems rather foolish,” he said.

The girl frowned at this. “It seems no more foolish than a girl speaking with an owl.”

“It seems rather foolish,” the owl said again. “For you are asking the creek to release you of your burdens. You see, by carrying these stones and tossing them into the creek, you are not removing these burdens. You are simply forcing the creek to bear them.”

“Now who seems foolish!” the girl cried. “What burden can a creek possibly bear?”

“Why, the creek bears all the burdens of those who have come before you,” the owl replied. “And soon, the creek will no longer be able to bear all of them. If enough girls like you come to this outcropping and toss their stones into the creek, soon the stones will no longer fall into the water, but instead on top of each other. The creek will be no more, because it will no longer be able to hold the burdens of others, and it will die.”

“But what if I throw these stones, and all three of them land upon the other side, joining the stones on the beach?” the girl asked.

The owl hooted again, neither happy, nor mad. “It is even worse. If you throw the stones and all three of them land upon the other side of the creek, then you are forcing the beach to carry your burdens. If enough girls like you come to this outcropping and toss their stones across the creek, then the beach will cease to be. It will become so overcrowded and heavy with the burdens of others, it will fall into the creek, and it will die. But now, if the heavy burden falls upon the creek, both the beach and the creek will die.”

The girl looked at her stones, guilty because she supposed the owl was right. She did not want to kill the beach or the creek simply because she did not want to carry these stones. “What would you suggest I do, dear owl?” she asked. “I still do not wish to carry these on my own.”

“It is simple,” the owl said. “You must learn to cherish these stones not as burdens, but as treasures.” And as he said this, he leaped down from his perch onto the outcropping beside her. He took her stones, and with one of his claws began scratching on them.

In a moment, he presented the stones back to the girl, each with a unique carving upon it. One bore the carving of a wing. Another, the carving of a claw. And the last carving resembled a feather. “With these stones,” the owl spoke, “you will learn what it is that makes you special. The stone with a wing will guide you on your path. A path not without burden, but with purpose. The feather will lighten your step, not so it is without troubles, but so it is happy even with them. The claw will help you carry these burdens, and it will also allow you to carve the stones of others, so that they, too, may turn their troubles into treasures.”

The girl smiled brightly at the owl and thanked him for his words. Without another word, she scooped up her stones and turned away from the creek and the beach, burdens in hand, and yet light of foot.

 

Spear Gate — Chapter Eleven, Pt. 2

“Alright, I’m ready.” Varra kept her eyes closed, unsure of what was supposed to come next.

“Okay. Make sure your eyes are closed and your body is relaxed.”

“I thought that’s what we spent the last ten minutes doing.” She did a poor job hiding the annoyance in her tone.

“Don’t respond,” he replied, firm but gentle. “Just follow my instructions and be patient.”

She let out a breath. “Fine. Lead the way.”

“Once you’re relaxed, take a few deep breaths. In… then out…” Maelys spoke slowly as he followed his own guidance. A deep, slow inhale, followed by a full, steady exhale. “In… then out…” he repeated.

Varra did as she was told, waiting for the next step. He sure was taking his time.

“I want you to try your best to settle into this moment,” he continued. “Relax your breath, just breathe normally, and put aside all your troubles. Don’t dwell on the past. Don’t worry about the future. These things don’t matter as much as the present. Concentrate on your breath. That’s the only thing that matters.”

He stopped talking after that, and the only thing she could hear was the sound of her own breathing. The more she thought about it, though, she picked up the hollow echo that served as white noise in the dungeons. It was quiet, barely audible in between her breaths. Where was that noise coming from? What was the source of sound in such an empty space? They were most certainly the only prisoners here. The Hand of Justice often enacted his decrees immediately, and there were no petty thieves in Upper Terrace. Anyone like that wouldn’t find themselves here in the first place. Eathe was definitely a minority. People from Lower Terrace rarely if ever found a place here.

But she was glad that he had found that place. He was a remarkable man, and an excellent officer. She wished things had been different. Maybe they both would have been happier as commoners. Perhaps then she wouldn’t have had to live with the burden of—

“If your mind has strayed away from the breath,” Maelys said, “stop thinking about whatever it is. It’s not important. Just go back to thinking about the breath.”

He couldn’t read minds, could he? Had he been lying about not knowing how to use magic all this time? Did he know how she felt? Did she know how she felt? All these stupid emotions did nothing but get in the way. She didn’t want to see Maelys die, that much she was certain of. She would only have herself to blame if he did. And for how little they knew each other, he did seem intent on trying to help her.

“I’m going to ask a question,” he said. “And I want you to answer simply with yes or no. Have you been able to remain focused on just stay on the breath?”

She exhaled, knowing full well she had done a very poor job of listening to his instructions. Maybe if he held her hand again… She shook her head at the thought. “No,” she admitted.

“That’s okay,” he said, his voice still full of levity. “I told you it’s hard the first time. Once you get comfortable letting go of your thoughts and attaching your focus to the breath, then I can try to teach you how to do mind projection.”

She heard him shuffling, and took that as a signal that the practice was over. She opened her eyes and looked up at him as she stood with him. “I’m sorry.”

He put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay. Really. Don’t beat yourself up. I honestly didn’t expect you to be as patient as you were.”

But she hadn’t been patient, had she?

A door swung open, and she heard the sound of footsteps walking, almost marching down the corridor. Eathe.

The current Hand of Defense walked in, armored in full plate as he often was, and without a helmet as per usual.

“Greetings, you two. Getting along well?”

Varra, already the closer of the two, stuck her hands out from the bars and grabbed him by the shoulders, pulling him in for a kiss. Eathe was clearly caught off balance, but seemed to relax into it with a few awkward steps.

After a moment, she parted, and the room was left in a stunned silence. They glanced at each other, and Maelys shrugged. She thought about kissing him again, if they were just going to stand there slack jawed, but thought better of it. One was probably enough. For now.

“Right…” Eathe said, clearing his throat. “Now that that’s out of the way, on to business. I come with bad news.”

Maelys didn’t say anything. If anything, he took a step away from the two of them. What had gotten into him? “Well,” Varra said. “Out with it.”

“We’ve got a few minutes to chat and plan,” Eathe replied. “But I’m to take Maelys to the inner courtyard to be executed now.”

Prompt — Heart of the Gods

(I’ve narrated this story and published it on YouTube! Go check it out if you would rather listen!)

 

If there was one thing Yo’isiro loved about his home, it was the sound of the waves caressing the wooden posts of his house. He liked the fishing, of course, but it didn’t call to him the way it had his father. It was the bones, probably. That had always been the most unsettling part of his life in the Shita’ilo village.

With some reluctance, he put his waist-wraps on and left his little hut. The walkway from his hut to the docks was longer than others, but he didn’t mind. He kept his head down as he walked and watched as the clear blue passed beneath the boards he trod upon. It brought a smile to his lips, but it immediately retraced as he looked back out into the bay.

Enormous bones jutted out from the lazy water all around the village, as they always had. Spines trailed out onto the surf, huge ribs that dwarfed the size of his peoples’ homes made pathetic attempts to trap the water beneath, and beneath the waves Yo’isiro envisioned the vast skulls of gargantuan beasts long dead. Ku’alana, his people called them. Gods of the Sea. He had never understood why they should worship something very clearly dead, but knew better than to question these things. Answers to such questions were probably just as unsettling as the reasons for those questions.

“Welcome dawning, Isi,” a woman greeted him on his stroll, clothed in similar wraps around her waist. A pleasing sight that did wonders to shake his mood.

“As welcome as you, Atak’ae,” Yo’isiro said with a smile.

“Do you have your offering for tonight’s bonfire?” she asked.

He frowned, shoulders slumping. “That is tonight? I thought the moon wouldn’t rise for a few more days.”

The woman rolled her eyes, but her grin was playful. “The Elders said yesterday it will be early again, Ku’alana only know why.”

“These are bad omens,” Yo’isiro grumbled.

She took a few steps closer, her voice quiet but enticing as she looked up at him.”Well, you had best go out and catch something good today. I’ve already decided to pick your offering tonight. You’re my favorite bed-mate, you know,” she continued, grabbing his waist-wraps and starting to untie them. Yo’isiro gulped, heart pounding. Then, her tone grew harder, more demanding. “Don’t embarrass me by bringing a poor gift. Again.” She tightened his clothing back up with one swift tug, jerking at his hips so hard he winced at the pain.

Now that was a request he could not ignore. The last time Atak’ae had chosen him as her bed-mate had been months ago, and his pathetic offering on this last moon’s passing hadn’t been accepted by any of the girls in the village. It was a disgrace he had no wish to repeat. He nodded dumbly.

She trailed a soft hand down his chest and winked. “I’ll see you at the bonfire.” And with that, she continued on her way.

Yo’isiro sighed. But then shook himself out of it. He liked fishing. All men did. And he was good at it. There was nothing to be upset over. He would offer the best fish the village had ever seen, and Atak’ae would choose him with no shame. But the best fish all lived in…

He looked back out past the shore again. Six Ku’alana skulls rested along these coasts, and inside them, the Ku’kataiyo, Heart of the God. He would win more than Atak’ae’s affection with one of those. A fisherman that caught one would be fed for an entire moon’s passing. He wouldn’t need to fish for days.

Yo’isiro clenched his fists a few times and took a deep breath. Then, he marched onwards towards his boat.

 

The waters were as pristine as always. Despite the gentle waves making their endless trek to the shores, the ocean floor was still clearly visible here, where the kelp was not bountiful. Most of the village was built over waters just over ten feet deep, but it looked deceptively close. Children had to be taught at a very young age that it was much deeper than it seemed, but the Shita’ilo were natural swimmers, so there was little to be concerned about.

He gazed at the rising sun as his boat bobbed up and down with the waves, and a smile pierced his lips. Simple, and gentle. Yes, this was what life was all about. He passed other boats of men fishing. Most with spears, others with traps. Some further from the coast used nets. They waved to each other as they passed, but he avoided getting close enough to any to exchange words. There were several boats, but not as much as he might have expected on the night of a bonfire. They must all have their offerings, Yo’isiro thought. Only he could be foolish enough not to know about it.

He approached the giant rib cage in the center of the bay. The largest skeleton of the Ku’alana. The bones pierced the vast green of the kelp forests below, towering high over him. A chill went down his spine as he watched the current pass through the kelp and reveal a shadowy mound under the water some distance away. Small schools of fish swam around the god’s skull, twisting around long strands of green. He rowed his boat above the mound and tossed the anchor aside, careful not to hit the skull. Enormous and sturdy as it might have been, it would be disrespectful to damage the remains of his gods.

He took stock of his tools, scratching his head as to what might help him catch one of the Ku’kataiyo. No trap was large enough to snare one of the Hearts of the Gods, and a spear would only anger it. Spears wouldn’t work well underwater, anyway.

He grabbed a net and, taking a few deep breaths to prepare his lungs for a long dive, leaped from the craft into the water.

The water was much deeper here than it was at the village, but it wasn’t so deep as to warrant danger.

Fish swam ahead of him as he plunged downwards, and soon he came up to the immense skull. The majority of the right side of it was buried in sand, but it still stared at him with two black holes where its eyes would be. Its jaw was thrust out like the muzzle of some beast, and the teeth that were exposed were long and sharp. It was like nothing his people had ever seen before, but then, that was what made them gods. “You dare to challenge me and take my heart?” it seemed to say. “So be it. Come forth and be tested.”

He clenched his own jaw and swam into the closer eye socket.

Immediately the world darkened. Light filtered through the kelp forest well enough, but very little managed to find its way inside the skull.

Before long, he saw what he was looking for. A fish somewhat longer than he was laid passive, almost completely flat, at the base of the sand below. Some fins shot upwards along its back, but the real danger was its tail fin, which had several thorns on it. While not poisonous, it could still strike with enough force to kill a man. Yo’isiro would have to be careful, because once he grabbed it, the Ku’kataiyo would thrash its tail around in defense, and a net would not protect him from the thorns.

He uncurled the net and tried to extend it out over the fish, hoping it would float down and ensnare the fish without incident.

The instant the net made contact with the fish, it lumbered forward, clearing the net and resting back on the floor without any sort of agitation. He cursed internally and swam down to scoop the net back up.

He folded it and crept up to the fish’s tail, then swiftly began to wrap the net around the tail to pacify it. The God’s Heart tried to swim forward but was caught. It jerked its tail back and forth, and the thorns pierced through the netting and it was free once more.

The fish kept swimming, but it reached the side of the skull and turned around.

Yo’isiro gulped, resolving to try one more time. He discarded the ruined net and swam towards the giant fish. Once he was over it, he lowered himself and mounted the fish, grabbing it by its fins. Its dorsal fin prevented him from sliding off (though this wasn’t exactly comfortable) once it started swimming forward again. It was still difficult, as the fish thrashed wildly in an effort to swing him off. He held on tight, and once the fish tried to curve around the edge of the skull, he gave it a sudden jerk to the side and it slammed against the thick bone.

With that, the fish grew still. Stunned, probably. Yo’isiro let out a breath of relief that he had not been killed, and then instantly realized his mistake. He desperately needed that breath.

In a panic, he grabbed the fish and pushed as hard as he could off the ocean floor, swimming out of the skull and back up to his boat. Without any breath to help him stay buoyant, it took longer than he was comfortable with, and he considered leaving the fish so that he could more quickly breach the surface.

But no, he had won, it would do no good to leave his offering here. He just had to hope he would not drown.

He gasped the air as he found the surface, thanking the gods that he had not died risking his life just to please a woman.

He tossed the Ku’kataiyo with both arms, and heaved himself up after it. The fish took up most of the space on the boat, but with its tail on the other side, he had nothing to fear. With a nod of respect to the Heart of the Gods, he used his spear to give it peace as it lay stunned on his craft. Then, he pulled up the anchor and started to row back to the Shita’ilo village.

As he passed, he noticed a few men stop what they were doing to murmur “Ku’kataiyo” under their breaths. He tried to to be both humble and proud of his trophy as he made his way back from the skeleton of the Ku’alana, glad that the second thing he would be mounting tonight would not try to kill him or throw him off.

 

Prompt: https://polosatkin.deviantart.com/art/rock-627470113

rock_by_polosatkin-dadkv1d

 

Spear Gate — Chapter Eleven, Pt. 1

“You’re still too tense,” Maelys said. “I told you, you need to loosen up.”

“I am loose,” Varra replied, teeth clenched. This was getting ridiculous.

“You’re even worse than I was,” he sighed. He put his hands on her shoulders and pressed against them, gentle but firm. “Drop your shoulders. Stop carrying your arms. Let them fall.”

With a deep breath, she realized what he was talking about and let the muscles relax. Her posture eased, and she wondered how long she had held herself stiff like that, oblivious.

“Good start,” he nodded in approval. He sat across from her, legs crossed. He mimicked her actions so that she could see how his own body changed with her movements, though in the dim light it was difficult to make out subtleties and slight changes. “Now relax your hands.”

She looked down to see her fists balled up in her lap. They weren’t tight, but her muscles still kept them shut. She opened them.

“No, no, that doesn’t count,” he chided. “Just because your hands are open doesn’t mean they’re loose.” He took one of her hands in both of his, but she pulled it away.

“I’m not a child, Maelys.”

He looked up to meet her eyes. “Neither am I.” There was no malice in that response. With his eyes he gestured back down, and she followed his gaze to see that his hand was still extended. Not a command. A simple suggestion. She placed her hand in his.

He cupped her wrist in one hand, holding her palm up, and with two fingers he trailed up and down her skin. She felt a chill at the sensation and her breath caught. The two were silent as he trailed her palm, and she could feel the muscles in her hand relax. She stole a glance at him, to try to glance a little bit of what she thought she had seen before, when he was meditating. A soft serenity, his hair seemed to be lighter, as if underwater, and she thought she saw a faint… glow?

But she couldn’t be sure of that. Maelys had used magic before, that much she was certain of, but the light was dim here, and she wasn’t even positive that he had been doing anything magical at all. He certainly didn’t seem to think so. ‘Mind projection’ he had called it. No magic. You weren’t seeing anything that was there, necessarily. It was just a thought experiment, according to Maelys.

In any case, she saw none of that glow now. He looked up to see her staring, and she turned away. Was she… blushing? That was absurd. He was a child. Plus she had Eathe. And yet…

“You don’t have to think about your breathing, you know. We haven’t gotten that far yet.”

“I… what?” At that moment she realized she hadn’t exhaled for some time, and she let it out all at once. What was getting into her? “Right.”

He took her other hand, and repeated whatever he was doing before. This wasn’t magic, she decided. The magic she knew about wasn’t as subtle as this. But she did like it. She had had massages before, of course, but this felt different somehow. Maelys was personally helping her relax and forget the world around them. Or above them, as the case may be. That was his first lesson—there would be no talk about plans or worries. Meditation was all about focusing on the present self and forgetting everything else.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“I’m fine.”

He shook his head. “No, that’s not what I meant. How do you feel? Describe it. Close your eyes, if that helps.”

She did close her eyes. “I feel… cold. And my body aches. I’m not used to sitting on cobblestone.”

“Do you feel any tenseness anywhere? Focus on every body part. Do a scan. Loosen your jaw, check to make sure your shoulders and arms are relaxed. That sort of thing. But also keep your back straight.”

She concentrated for about a minute. “Okay. Now what?”

“Now we get to the fun stuff,” Maelys said. Even with her eyes closed she could hear the smile in his voice. “Just don’t get frustrated if you can’t get it to work the first time you try it. It took me weeks to get it right.”

Spear Gate — Chapter Ten, Pt. 3

“Everything okay?” a voice said.

He looked up to see Varra leaning against the wall, staring at him. She seemed just as jaded as she had before, but the fierceness in her eyes still burned. A gentle flame at the moment, but it was there.

“Are you talking to me?” Maelys asked.

Her tone was serious. “No, I was asking the rat behind you.”

Maelys spun around in a sudden panic, backing up from the rat that… wasn’t there. He turned his attention back to Varra, who was laughing quietly. Her face lit up in a way he had never seen her. Not that he knew her that well, really.

She kept laughing, and Maelys couldn’t help but chuckle a bit, too. He was going to die tomorrow, lost in a city he was unfamiliar with, and yet…

“I didn’t realize how much I needed that,” Varra said, wiping a tear away.

“At least somebody’s enjoying their time trapped in a cell.”

Her face darkened a shade, and the mirth faded. The two sat in silence for a while, and Maelys avoided the woman’s gaze. He hadn’t meant that comment to be a jab. Had he offended her?

But then she broke the silence with a sigh. “I’m used to being locked in cells, I’m afraid.”

Maelys frowned. “I thought you were a princess or something?”

“Council member, if anything. It’s a lot less fun than the story books.”

“Being a ruler in the wealthiest city on the continent has to be worth something,” Maelys countered.

“Oh, I don’t envy commoners,” she amended. “But my life hasn’t been easy. Having your whole life laid out before you are born tends to have that effect. The story about the Spear Gate I told you and the others? Only the Hands and their seconds know it. I myself hadn’t heard that story until about a year ago. For whatever asinine reason they arrested me, it’s valid now. I committed treason by telling that story.”

“It’s not like it matters. Eathe is getting demoted soon, too, right? And I’ll be…”

“Not if I can help it.”

Maelys’ breath caught, and the two locked eyes for a moment. Maelys had thought that Varra only included him in the conversation was because he was valuable. Because he had information she needed. Well, and because of the jail cell, but still. Maelys had shown that he was useless, and then the guards told him he was about to be executed. It would be so much easier for her to let that happen… So…

“Why help me? I’ve only caused you trouble, it seems.”

Varra crossed her arms. “I brought you into this. Without me you would never have gotten into Upper Terrace.”

“I would have been killed by a constructor if you had left me in the Meadows. I almost died!”

“Somehow I doubt that,” she said.

“What are you talking about? Rozire and I had tried to sneak our way in! Even me and some magic wizard couldn’t do it without dying. You’re saying I would have been fine?”

She shook her head. “We didn’t nurse you back to health, Maelys. You got better all on your own. Incredibly fast, I might add. Xan had told me it would take at least a week for the Red Teeth to course through your system.” Her gaze was intense. “This isn’t an argument. Your life is my responsibility.”

Maelys shifted uncomfortably, looking away. “I wish I could at least be of more help.”

“Maybe you can be,” she said. Her voice was still gentile. Pacifying.

Maelys’ brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“What were you doing just now? Before we started talking?”

He thought about that for a moment. “Uh, meditating. Something Rozire taught me.”

“Can you show me how to do that?”