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The Third Stone

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Five

 

Dharva skirted the dark street along which a seemingly unending row of seedy taverns, inns and houses of ill repute sat. Only the lights from the windows and open doors of the establishments cast illumination onto the narrow avenue. For so many drinking dens there were relatively few drunken pedestrians loitering outside. Not like Kava Port where the vagrants had blackened every corner and the drunkards wove like fire ants along the tavern rows.

It was different here in distant Danar, where the people were serious and sullen and it was only the foreign sailors that caused a boisterous uproar along the water side streets. Her shoulder hurt from too long a day out roaming the streets of Vahnatu. She rotated it with a grimace, feeling the healing skin over the wound stretch and protest. The captain had warned her to reserve her strength, going on in his northern accent about how it took longer than a moon for a body to heal properly from such a violent wound. Dharva didn't recall getting the knife in her back. She hardly recalled the first week of the sea voyage that had gotten her here, so fevered and weak had she been.

Captain Skawag and his crew had been more than supportive to a very scared, very frightened young woman. Alone with a ship full of strange men in the middle of the sea, with no notion of whether Anson was dead or alive was not a position she might have relished. But they made it bearable. They doctored her wounds and played gallant big brothers each and every one, all in all amazing a girl who had never been fussed over in her life. Master Pyphin had about as much care that she was a female as he did that the kettle was black. She hadn't lived in her village long enough after she began to bud as a woman to give the young men there time to notice her; so the attention was an amazing and foreign occurrence. She had never experienced being treated as if she were a delicate and beautiful thing. She hadn't quite known how to handle it, which endeared her all the more to the crew of the Furazol.

Four days in port, captain Skawag had said, and then down the coast to the other Danarian ports. If she decided this quest was more than she could handle he would be more than happy to take her back aboard and home to Khell. Anson had paid passage for two, after all. She still had a passage to her credit. She had thanked him for the courtesy and settled for his help in tracking down the ship that had borne Pyphin's kidnapper here.

It wasn't hard to find. It was still very much in port. It's prow protruded from the water not a dozen slips down from where the Furazol was moored. Wooden gin poles were being constructed to hoist it off of the bottom and cradle it in dry dock. She'd loitered about the pier, but very few of it's crew were in residence, having been given indefinite shore leave according to the foreman of the native dock workers. A few more questions and she discovered the names of several inns that catered to sailors that the crew might be lodging at.

From a talkative clerk at one of those, she was given a list of the more popular taverns frequented by the crew of the misnamed Luck. She had visited two already and found that she held a great distaste for seaman's bars. Her posterior had been grabbed at twice, her company requested in the most crude of terms, and several drunken men had attempted share their ale with her, from which generosity she had a fair amount of the noxious stuff on her tunic.

She was not in the most jovial of moods. She had even contemplated going back to the Furazol and asking its captain if he might send a few of his men out to make the round of taverns in search of her prey. What use was it anyway? She might find the captain of the Luck and still be no closer to that woman than she had been before. He might have no more knowledge of his passenger's ilk than Skawag had been of hers.

She leaned against the rough plank wall of an boisterous tavern, rubbing her aching shoulder, depressed and tired and wanting nothing more than a soft bed and a long soak in hot water. Oh what she wouldn't give for a bath. Master Pyphin had the most wonderful brass tub in his cottage. Or he had. She supposed it might be salvageable when they got back.

She ran a hand through her tousled mass of short curls and stared morosely down the sidewalk at the open doors of this latest tavern. A great deal of noise emanated from within. The laughter of men, the off tune strains of a harper, the clink of glasses and the creaking of a great many bodies over plank flooring. With a sigh of resignation she pushed her aching body off the wall and moved to the door. Lantern light and fumes hit her in the face. The smell of too many unwashed bodies mixed with ale and tobacco made her lip curl in distaste.

She edged inside, scanning faces intently, having nothing more than a description of a man to work with. The old ones she could ignore, and the plainly ugly men. The captain she sought was young and by the accounts of the importer back in Kava, appealing to the eye. She'd gotten more details from the dock workers and the clerk at the inn. She knew what she was looking for.

She shifted through the press of men, hand ready to reach for her knife if any of them so much as grazed her with exploratory fingers. A harassed looking barmaid passed her, hands laden with a tray of mugs foaming over with ale. Seeing a fellow female besieged by so many drunken men, Dharva caught at her arm, drawing tired, agitated eyes her way.

"I'm looking for a man." Dharva had to raise her voice to be heard over the din. The barmaid's look grew longer and more irritated.

"I'm looking for the captain of the Luck?"

The woman snorted out a laugh. "Aren't we all, deary?" Then jerked her head to the side of the room where a row of small round tables sat against the wall. Dharva nodded her thanks, heart beating faster in anticipation.

Please let him be there. Please, please let this be the man. Her gaze flickered over a dozen shadowed faces, a dozen haggard, weathered men and stopped on one that stood out from the crowd.

He sat alone, with a scattered array of bottles on the table before him. He leaned over a half full glass of something stronger than ale, elbows supporting a body that slumped from either exhaustion or too much drink. Considering the place and the collection before him, Dharva assumed it was the latter. A fair amount of brownish hair fell across a face that was young and well structured. A captain's ring glinted in his ear. It was him. It had to be. No one else she had seen came close to the description. Only now that she'd found him she did not know how to proceed. Should she walk up and demand to know where his passenger had gone? Demand to know if her master had been aboard and well treated? What if he were an ally of her enemies? What if he betrayed her presence to that red-haired witch?

She slunk back against the wall, watching him watching his drink. He did not seem to be with anyone. Perhaps when he left she might confront him. Away from witnesses and possible allies, for she had no intention of taking no for an answer.

A hand came down beside her head and a leering, bearded face thrust itself within close range of her own. Fleshy lips pulled back in a drunken grin and foul breath exploded into the air between them.

"Aye, you're a pretty little piece." The man slurred. "Care for a tumble with ol' Kaja?"

"I think not." she said stiffly, trying to scoot away under his confining arm.

"ohhh, I've got a silver piece burnin' a hole in me pocket."

Dharva's brow shot up in mock astonishment. "Really? You'd better get it out then." She half smiled at him, summoning up the barest smidgen of fire elemental service. A tiny creature, visible only to her flowed out of whatever breach separated the spirit's realm from the mortal one and with what was surely malicious glee on it's thumb sized face, darted down to the sailor's pants and set his pockets afire.

The spirit dissipated as the man yelped, jumping backwards and slapping frantically at his groin area. His pockets had obviously been deep and well situated. Dharva paid him no more heed, slipping along the wall and out the front doors, determined to wait outside for the eventual appearance of the Luck's captain.

It wasn't a long wait. Barely a quarter hour passed before her quarry appeared at the doors of the tavern. In her shadowy hiding place, she tensed, waiting for him to choose a direction. She hoped he was heading back to his inn and had chosen her vantage appropriately. He hesitated at the threshold, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness of the street. His step when he moved was a little unsteady. He put a hand out the wall of the building as he walked, balance impaired by drink.

He moved past the mouth of the alley between one tavern and the next. Her alley. She called out from the shadows, having no trouble putting a tremor into her voice.

"Please. Can you help me?"

He paused, staring into the darker shadows of the alley, trying to make out her form as she knelt at the center. "I've turned my ankle." she explained. "Just a hand down the street to my inn, please."

She could just make out the flash of a grin as it crossed his face. "You wouldn't happen to have any bully boys waiting in the dark to jump out and roll a drunken sailor, would you?"

"Bully boys?" she had no problem with feigned innocence, having no idea why bully boys would want to roll a sailor in the first place.

"It'd be just my luck anyway." he muttered with a certain fatality in his voice and stepped into the alley. She gathered power as he approached her, already having decided to frighten him into telling her what she wanted to know. A blast of fire in the shape of a great scaly bird was a trick she'd been practicing since she'd met up with Anson in the ruins of her master's house. She had it almost perfected now. Four or five of her familiar spirits were already clustering around her, eager to do her bidding.

The captain held out a hand to her. She looked up into his shadowed face, drew her brows and let the magic loose.

A creature of flame and heat roared up out of the dirt between them, flaring wings as wide as a man's reach and arching a sinewy neck upon which rested a triangular shaped fiery head. The sailor stumbled back, throwing up his arms to protect his face from the heat. Dharva didn't want him escaping out the mouth of the alley and sent her creature darting around him to drive him deeper into the darkness. Just get him far enough in so that no casual passer by might spy them and look twice. She getting tired fast. It was no easy task to concentrate the efforts of the spirits for so long a time. They got bored so quickly and tended to drift away unless one's will was cemented fast on the project at hand.

He stumbled back, almost tripping over her in his efforts to escape the firebird and she leapt to her feet and followed, holding the bird for as long as she could before it dribbled away to nothing. And then there was the darkness again, which was all the blacker for the brilliant flare of light that had just existed within it.

"If you try to escape or lie to me, I'll send it after you again." she threatened. His back was to the wall of the building to the right. She could hear his breath coming hard and fast. She hoped he wouldn't call her bluff. She was so tired from that summoning that her head spun.

"I've some questions for you." she started, just before he lunged out at her, swinging with an elbow that connected squarely with the side of her jaw. Her head snapped back, her body went instantly strengthless and she toppled backwards, hitting the ground so hard that she felt the wound at her shoulder tear. As she lay there, her vision spiraling down into a dark, dizzy corridor it occurred to her that if she couldn't even confront a mundane captain, what hope did she have against a sorceress who could overpower master Pyphin? Tears streamed down her cheeks and the wetness was the last thing she felt for some time.

 

She was still crying when she drifted back into consciousness. The nightmares that plagued her dissipated like so much flotsam caught in the currents of a river. Considering her list of problems, her subconscious could have picked any number of things to disturb her sleep with.

Her head throbbed horribly, so she lay for a while with her eyes closed, comfortable in a soft bed, her shoulder thankfully numb. Was she back at the ship? She could not quite recall coming here. Her memory of the night was treacherously slim overall. She must not have gained very much if she ended up back in her comfortable cabin aboard the Furazol. Odd how steady the bed was, when she had become used to weeks of constant, gentle rocking. And were those voices coming from very near by? Men's voices? The crew never came into her cabin without her permission.

She reluctantly opened her eyes and found herself looking at a ceiling that was not at all familiar and a room that in no wise belonged on a ship. Across the room by an open door two men were in the midst of an argument. The one facing her was tall and pale skinned with a head of short red hair. All she saw of the other was a profile with longish brown hair tucked behind an ear graced with a golden circlet. It was enough to bring the night's events crashing back to her.

It was the captain of the Luck and he'd hit her and now she was captive she knew not where. She lay still, afraid to move and draw their attention towards her until she had some idea of how she was going to extract herself from this mess she'd gotten into. Her head hurt too much to draw much magic from the spirits. Her body hurt too much to get up and make a physical run for it, even if she could get past two men. Oh, how she wished Anson were here, he was so clever at figuring out dilemmas.

But he wasn't and she was on her own. Maybe she could wait for them to leave and sneak out then. There was a small shuttered window she could climb out if this room were on a ground level. Carefully she shifted her hand to see if her knife was still at her belt. It wasn't. She looked around the room to see if it might be within close range.

It was a very dingy room. Small, with only the bed she lay upon, one spindly chair and an unfinished chest of drawers upon which her sheathed knife lay. Not within reaching distance. Closer to the two men than to her.

As she was staring at the distant weapon balefully the eyes of the red haired man locked onto her, taking very sharp notice that she was awake. He jerked his chin towards her and the captain turned.

"Looks like the lass is awake, Theo."

The captain narrowed his eyes, scowling her way. Dharva hunched her shoulders wishing she lay under the covers instead of atop them. She could have pulled them up over her head and avoided seeing that black glare. As it was all she could do was lay there and shiver, frantically trying to gather her wits enough to make a summoning.

The captain stalked her way, stopping a few feet away from her, staring down at her with obvious distaste. She lost her concentration entirely under that baleful gaze. Even in the midst of trembling apprehension she could not help but notice that he had the most amazing eyes. Velvet brown orbs fringed in black. Truly the nicest eyes she had ever seen. She could not help but gawk a little, even if she felt stupid for doing it. Those eyes and that look sort of made her stomach lurch a little. She thought she might be nauseous.

"You know, I never really had a problem with magic before," he bent down a little to better stab her with his words. "but I'm beginning to develop a true distaste for it. And you can tell your bitch of a mistress that if I see her face again I'm going to rip out her black heart. You're lucky I don't do the same with you."

Her eyes grew very round and she cowered a little deeper back into her pillow. With a pitiful little surge of defiance she shot back. "You're lucky my head hurts so much or I'd show you a thing or two."

"You already did. Pretty show, but I've seen worse. I'd figure the lady would have more competent help working for her."

"I'm competent." she muttered, embarrassed at the trivial attitude towards what she had thought to be a fairly advanced spell. "And I don't work for any one. So there."

"Really?" The young captain crossed his arms, arching a very well shaped, skeptical brow. She really needed to look somewhere other than his face.

"So you just go out," he continued. "and attack strange men in alleys for the pure fun of it?"

"No." she admitted sullenly, feeling like a child caught stealing cake meant for Spring Unity dinner. "I don't just attack anyone, but kidnappers are different."

"Sweetheart, I didn't kidnap you. Believe me you're free to go as soon as I find out what you were up to."

This pronouncement came with a white toothed smile and Dharva's dinner threatened to roll right up her throat. For a girl who had spent most of her teenaged years cooped up with an old man with only the occasional visit from her brother, whom she had thought was the handsomest man alive - this Captain Theodonis was a rather devastating blow to her sense of esthetics. If he would just stop looking at her and casting her sardonic smiles she could concentrate so much better.

"Lass?" the other man came up behind the captain, and she shifted her gaze to his pleasantly plain face. "Who do you think we kidnapped?"

The captain passed him an odd look, frowning at the question as much as Dharva did.

"My master." she blurted out, tired and hurting and very much wanting to be out of there. "And I don't think you kidnapped him, I know you did. I saw her face in his mirror and I know you brought her here."

"Oh - - my." the older man whispered. "What interesting addition do we have here to add to our woeful tale?"

Dharva blinked at him. Theodonis drew an impatient breath.

"If your master was kidnapped by the woman we brought here, I assure you we had nothing to do with it." He did not sound entirely convinced that she was telling him the truth. The other crouched by the bed, face intent.

"Who is your master and why would the Lady Tiana want to kidnap him?"

She hesitated, not certain she should reveal all her information to people that she in no wise trusted. But, if they were employed by her enemy then they probably knew the who's and why's already.

"My master's name is Pyphin. He's a great sorcerer. A great historian. I don't know why anyone would want to harm him. All he ever did was piddle around the cottage and read and tinker with spells and sometimes go out and collect artifacts." the last came out in a wail of frustration.

"By the spirits" the man whispered, skin turning even paler than it's natural hue. He sat back on his heels, stunned.

The captain bent over him, concerned. "Collin? What's wrong?"

The man, Collin, looked back up to Dharva. "The great sorcerer Pyphin, who lived of late in Kava was your master?"

Dharva nodded, a little worried at his expression herself. In a small voice she asked. "Do you know him?"

"No. But I know of him. I know of the respect he holds among all those who practice of Kurisar magic. Spirits, I knew something was up with the old man, but I never suspected that he was that Pyphin. And you're his apprentice?"

Shakily she nodded, heart hammering now with the sudden hope that this might be an ally. She looked back up to Theo, who seemed to be considering Collin's words seriously.

"You came after her all by yourself?" he asked doubtfully.

"My brother was with me up until Kava port, but we were attacked and separated. I barely made it to our ship - but he never came. I - I don't know if he's even alive." she had not said that aloud in a very long time, and the admission hurt. She felt another tear forming at the corner of her eye. Furiously she blinked it away.

"I've got to find Pyphin." she declared. "Where has this sorceress gone?"

"I wish you all the luck in the world." Theodonis said. "I've looked for her myself, but she doesn't live in Vahnatu. As far as I've been able to understand her family has a castle or something about twenty, thirty miles up the coast. The people here aren't real eager to spread rumors about her. I'm not certain if it's because they respect her or fear her, although I'd place money on the first."

Dharva sat up despite the warning ringing in her ears, eager for information. "Twenty miles? That's not that far."

Theo laughed. "Have you seen this coast? This isn't Khell, girl. It's wild outside this city."

She sniffed, tossing her head in dismissal of his warning. She stared at Collin pleadingly. "How was he? Was he hurt? Sad?"

The man patted her hand comfortingly. "I'll be truthful with you, lass. She had him drugged, he was hardly cognizant the entire voyage."

She took a painful, miserable breath, lips trembling at the thought of such a thing being done to the harmless old man who had taught her so much.

"He asked for you." the captain put in dourly. "If you're Dharva, that is."

Her vision swam in crystallized facets. Two streaks of water ran down her cheeks. Silently she nodded assent to the name. Theo looked away at the pain in her face.

"You could have just come up and asked me all of this." he muttered, still not looking at her.

And that begrudging statement made her cry all the more.

 

He should have known. Absolutely and without a doubt Theo should have known that the Lady was up to more than merely making his life miserable. He wasn't certain he believed everything the girl said, but he had the feeling the majority of it was a close hit to the truth if not directly on target. She hadn't the face of a lair. There was an innocence in those huge blue eyes of hers that was hard to manufacture. Tiana couldn't have perfected such a look if her life depended on it.

The girl, Dharva was ready to stagger out into the wilderness outside of Vahnatu in search of a fortress he'd only heard the vaguest rumors of. She was hardly fit to stand on two feet, much less make her way through uncharted and probably bandit infested lands. He, with his tact shying far away from conscious action due to nerves still tightly strung from yet another sorceress attack, had plainly called her stupid and suicidal. She hadn't taken kindly to his assumption of her resourcefulness. Had in fact shown a great deal of stubborn determination in the face of such adversity in her efforts to shove her way past both him and Collin and begin a journey that she was in no wise prepared for.

It had been Collin who'd made her see reason. Collin who'd spotted the spreading stain of blood on her right shoulder and with gentle words and reassuring tone convinced her to stay and recuperate and give her hasty pilgrimage some bit of thought before plunging into the unknown. She seemed to respond to that. She seemed to hold Collin in great regard since he had told her of knowledge of her absent teacher. She went to great effort to avoid meeting Theo's eyes and he figured she held a grudge against the blow he'd given her.

He hadn't meant to hit her so hard. Between the amount of alcohol he'd consumed and the panic over yet another witchly attack on his person, he had acted reflexively. It had seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do at the time. Take out the witch before she could do him harm. Tiana taught very memorable lessons.

Somehow or another Collin convinced the girl to sleep off her aching head in Theo's room and Theo ended up across the hall with the prospect of taking his own much needed night's rest on the floor of Collin's.

"So where exactly do you know her master from?" he asked when he and Collin had retreated into the latter's room.

Collin gnawed at his lower lip thoughtfully, tossing Theo a pillow and searching through the chest of drawers for an extra blanket. "His name is well known in Astaza. I believe he is an acquaintance of my grandfather."

"And your grandfather is a priest, right?"

"In a sense. He's a historian, just like master Pyphin. A devotee to the practice of Kurisar. Like my father and my uncles and my brothers." There was the hint of depression in his tone, as there always was when he spoke of the family tradition that he had chosen to depart from. Theo doubted that Collin had spoken to any member of his clan since the day he had made the decision to go to sea.

Theo arranged the blanket on the floor near the door, so he might hear if the girl across the hall left. He put the pillow to the wall and sat with his back against it as he took off his boots.

"Do you trust this girl's words?"

"I think she's honest enough. Scared enough not to lie overmuch. She's not Kerisai, I can tell you that. There's a different feel to a witch that practices the dark arts than one who practices the light. I learned enough from my family to know that. I think she is what she says, but I also think she's very young and very inexperienced. If she's mastered more than the spirits of fire, then I'd be sorely surprised."

"Tiana will rip her to shreds." Theo surmised.

Collin frowned. "She needs help."

Theo arched an eloquent brow. "The lot of you were ready to sit on me when I wanted to go after her and now you think it's suddenly a good idea?"

"That was different." The cook cast him a serious look. "She's taken a master of the Kurisar for no good reason that I can think of. She can't want his power, she's obviously got plenty of her own, so it must be his knowledge that she seeks. I shudder to think why. I've racked my brains trying to recall what Pyphin specialized in and can only come up with the one thing he has in common with grandfather. His interest in the ancient lore. The both of them spent half their lives exploring the origin of magic, only grandfather never sacrificed to the spirits and Pyphin became a full fledged master of the arts."

"So what exactly are you suggesting, Collin?"

"I don't know. Just that we don't let that lass go out alone and unprepared to face something we both know she can't handle."

 

Theo woke up with the throbbing kiss of a hangover. He wasn't usually a man that indulged so blatantly in drink, but the state of his ship had effectively plunged his spirits into an all time low. Within the week she should be out of the water and suspended in dry dock, but from what preliminary scouting of the damage he'd done, it seemed as if she'd need almost an entire rehulling. Whatever spell Tiana had worked, and he was certain to his bones that the witch was responsible, had effectively rotted out formally sound wood. Every last bronze of the monies she had paid for this voyage would go to making the Luck sea worthy again.

Wing, with great forethought had managed to save most of the cargo before the ship had seriously started taking on water. All but the teas had been hauled onto the pier and with those profits the crew was being lodged and fed and kept adequately entertained for the duration of what promised to be a fairly long shore leave. Theo had nightly fits of rage over the injustice of it all. And nightly he drowned that anger in ale or wine of whatever taste for oblivion he happened to have.

And now there was new cause to rekindle the grudge against Tiana. Not only had she dealt him a bad hand but she had used his ship to kidnap an old man away from his home. No wonder she'd thrown such a fit when he'd stopped by to talk to Pyphin.

Collin was up and gone when Theo finally decided to open his eyes. Wonderful guardian he was. He hadn't even heard his roommates departure. The girl across the hall could be long gone. He stretched stiff muscles, regretting giving up his soft bed in exchange for a hard floor. He rubbed a hand across his face, feeling the slight abrasion of stubble. His head throbbed too much to shave, so he settled for splashing water on his face from the basin, and wetting down his unruly hair enough to keep it back out of his face. Maybe tonight he'd call for a bath to get rid of the smell of too many taverns. If he wasn't careful he'd end up smelling like Adella. He half grinned at the shudder that thought brought with it. His Bosman had been deeper in his cups than Theo from the moment he'd been relieved of duty. The old man had been devastated by the cruel trick played on the Luck. He'd been with the ship longer than anyone else aboard and she was more a wife to him than any of the countless women he courted at every port of call.

He rapped on the door to his room, opening the portal when there was no answer. The girl was gone. The bed neatly made in her absence. One could only assume she was in the company of Collin.

Downstairs to the left of the small lobby was a wide room cluttered with tables. A quarter of them were filled with diners. After a brief scan of the room he spotted a clutch of familiar faces at one long table near the street side window. Collin, Wing, the boy Urchin, two of Adella's junior boatswains and the girl. There was a fair amount of food laid out on the table before them. The collection of smells made Theo's stomach churn uneasily. He would just as soon have avoided the breakfast table but considering the company and the situation that was bound to be discussed he forced his steps that way. The lot of them looked up and greeted him, except for the girl who glanced very quickly at him then back down at her scantily filled plate, a slight blush coloring her cheeks. Sooner or later he would have to apologize for hitting her, even if he felt it had been justified self-defense.

He sat down next to Wing at the end of the table, declining food but settling for a mug of hot black coffee. It had an exotic, smoky flavor and he closed his eyes and savored the heat of it while he listened to the girl's low voice as she recounted a more detailed version of the story she'd told Collin and him last night.

"Them's no true men." Urchin's high pitched voice piped up in indignation when Dharva got to the part about being chased to docks. "To knife a woman in the back. If I'da been there, I'da run them down." the boy promised.

Theo narrowed his lids just enough to see the worshipful infatuation on the boy's face. The two young boatswains were nodding in agreement. Wonderful. She had Collin's sympathy and had already bewitched the younger members of his crew. If Wing started cooing sympathies at her he might as well turn over his command to the little witch here and now.

But Wing held true to his pragmatic nature and asked. "How did these men at Kava port know to attack you? Were they mere robbers out to gouge strangers at port, or were they expecting someone to follow after your master?"

"I don't know." Dharva admitted softly. "Anson took care of everything. He asked all the questions. But they were no common thieves, not with the magic they used against us."

"Great." Theo muttered over the rim of his mug. "Convoluter and convoluter. What hotbed of magic have we stumbled into?"

The girl cast him a quick, dark look. "If you say you had no knowledge of her actions then I believe you. You've no responsibilities here, so you needn't concern yourself with my problems."

She annoyed him. She attacked him and held grudges against him for no good reason, then snapped at him to boot. "I don't recall saying that I would." he shot back airily and got sour looks from Collin and the younger members of his crew. He ignored them, head hurting too much to mollify anyone.

Dharva thrust out her lip and glared at her plate. Her slim hands were shaking so hard she clasped them together under the table to hide the weakness. Between her youthful appearance and her very shaky control over her emotions, Theo wondered just how old she was to be undertaking all this.

He cut into some conciliatory thing Collin was saying to her to ask.

"How old are you, Dharva? You look barely old enough to be called maiden, yet."

She did look at him then, her blue eyes flashing indignity. "None of your concern!" She made to get up, a slim figure in bulky tunic and boy's trousers with just the hint of curves beneath. So maybe she was old enough for young womanhood, but not much past it.

"Lass, lass." Collin held out a hand to her. "He's just being testy. Last nights ale pounding in his head this morning." The cook shot Theo a scathing glance, before turning back to the distraught girl. "It doesn't matter if you're fifteen or fifty, you're a courageous student to follow your teacher so. I've a notion to help you how I can if you'll only wait. You hardly know where the witch's fortress is or how long it might take to trek through this wild country to get there. You'll need supplies and a map at the very least. Horses would be a great asset. How will you get the old man back if you do find him? Think about these things, Dharva."

A few shuddery breaths passed through her. Her fingers gripped the edge of the table, white knuckled with tension. It was very clear that she weighed his words. She wasn't a stupid girl. No stupid girl could have mastered even the beginning basics of magic. She was merely young and rash, a combination that Theo could well sympathize with, the combination of the two having had lethal effects on his own life.

"Yes." she finally admitted. "A map would be good. And horses. Perhaps I'll wait for more information before I go."

"Good girl." Collin praised her choice with such admiration in his voice that Theo thought he might be sick right then and there.

"I'm not fifteen." She muttered under her breath, barely loud enough to hear, casting Theo one of her quick, under the lashes looks. "I'm twenty."

He sniffed, as if he didn't believe her, more to annoy her than from any great doubt of her word. She turned away, jaw twitching. He smiled into his coffee, feeling for the first time this morning that he might have accomplished something worthwhile.

 

"Is there some reason that you're going out of your way to bait the poor girl?" Wing asked later that afternoon as the two of them observed the ship wrights working to haul the Luck from her awkward resting place.

Theo cast his first mate a speculative look, wondering if Wing hadn't been caught in her snare of vulnerable naiveté also. "Oh, not really. The fact that she lures me into a dark alley and threatens me with magic instead of simply coming up and asking, hardly ever crossed my mind."

"She's a woman afraid and alone in a foreign port. I can understand her overreaction."

"Fine." Theo said shortly. "You and Collin can understand all you like. Leave me to be a little suspicious, if you don't mind. And she's not all that helpless. She's a witch if you'd care to recall and not without resources."

Wing watching him, one large hand rubbing the beginnings of a blonde beard along his jaw. "She scared you." he finally remarked. "After what Tiana did - - the girl just plain scared you and you don't like being scared."

Theo threw out his arms in exasperation, suddenly angry and not understanding where the flash of emotion came from. "Oh, yes, that's exactly it, Wing. I'm so scared I'm being a heartless bastard, while the rest of you can see so clearly. Wonderful. Great! I'm glad to realize just exactly what I was thinking." he stalked a few feet down the pier, glaring at the figures working on his ship, then whirled and approached Wing.

"Why do you always presume to analyze me? I don't have a problem and I wish you'd stay out of my head."

"Maybe." Wing said slowly, calmly. "It's because you can never admit to being wrong by yourself. Maybe we wouldn't be banned from Agbar or in this situation if you could ever stoop to taking someone else's advice."

A dozen spiteful things balanced on the tip of Theo's tongue. A dozen things he could have used to hurt Wing. It would only be fair, because that last jab about Agbar had hurt. Only Wing was not in the habit of saying hurtful things and when he did it always served to take Theo back a bit. His tongue was always so much quicker than his friend's, so much sharper when it came down to word play. Theo could toss out countless words designed to penetrate another's armor and yet all it took were a few careful sentences from Wing and he was pierced to the quick.

He didn't lash back. He just shook his head and waved a hand towards the Luck as he passed Wing by and headed for the city.

"I can't stay around here. You do what you want."

The big man stood on the pier and watched him go without a word.

 

 

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