A trimmed oak cabinet stood by the wall, its surface reflecting soft blue light. The source was an array of enchanted stones affixed to the ceiling, each by lustrous metal cables. They hung over a long table. At the far end, Delphine sat beside Gerbald. The plates in front of them displayed foods, including a species of roast bird akin to a turkey, except it had two sets of wings for a total of four.
Saphiria and Dimitry sat at the other end. After a long journey back to Ravenfall, they waited to report their success. That was if a trip to deliver severed corpses to a prospective slave owner could be considered a success.
Delphine wiped her hands with a cloth napkin, then spoke from across the table. “I’m assuming everything went well?”
“Yes,” Saphiria said.
“Did anything unusual happen?”
“The bridge to Vael collapsed, the cart flipped over, and…” Saphiria glanced at Dimitry.
He squirmed in his chair. The enchantment on Saphiria’s collar prevented her from disobeying Delphine. If she revealed that Dimitry knew his fate as a slave, his precious moments of freedom would probably vanish. He grabbed a pure vol pellet from his cloak pocket and prepared to chant ‘invisall’ to escape in case someone attempted to restrain him.
“And?” Delphine asked.
“…Sir Ernwin offered fifty gold gadots for the transaction.”
Dimitry exhaled a relieved sigh. Saphiria covered for him.
“Interesting, but it’s not like you to hesitate.” Delphine beckoned the girl forward.
Saphiria walked to the other end of the table.
Delphine’s eyes furrowed, exposing the crow’s feet lurking in their corners. She leaned forward to inspect the collar. “Isn’t it a little dull?”
Gerbald gnawed on a grilled avian drumstick. “Yeah, it would explain her attitude from the other day.”
“She threatened me when I asked her a question.”
“The enchantment must be wearing off.” Delphine grabbed the collar, then pulled Saphiria in with one hand and reached into a small pouch with the other. “Servia. Get ready for the ceremony and wait outside the stable.”
“Understood,” Saphiria muttered. As she walked out of the reception room, her head tilted down. She moved her mouth silently as if to say ‘I’m sorry’.
Dimitry clenched his fist, and the vol pellet's jagged edge dug into his palm. Saphiria had no reason to apologize: she did nothing wrong. The blame belonged to that damned collar and anyone responsible for its existence.
“Dimitry,” Delphine said, “what happened during your trip that Saphiria hesitated to mention?”
To avoid a slaver’s suspicion, he conjured the most believable half-lie he could. “Sir Ernwin bribed me to convince you to let me work for him. Perhaps Saphiria wanted to avoid needless confrontation.”
She grinned. “Does the count want you to work for him that much?”
“Don’t trust him, my lady.” Gerbald’s infuriated gaze found a home on Dimitry’s face. “Those two are getting awfully close. They’re conspiring against us.”
Delphine’s expression grew grim. She frustratingly launched several silver gadots at Dimitry from a large stack. “We’ll find out the truth after the binding ceremony. For now, keep your distance from Saphiria. The traveling troupe is performing in the market square this afternoon. Go have some fun and eat a hearty meal. I’ll know if you leave.” She waved him away.
Was she keeping Dimitry occupied with food while she re-enchanted Saphiria’s collar? If so, the poor girl would be forced to reveal the full truth by tonight. Dimitry thought he had until tomorrow to prepare, but it seemed he had only a few hours.
If only he had known his fate sooner. Without an opportunity to concoct a fleshed out plan, his only options were to attempt an escape anyway or live life as a magically bound servant. The choice was obvious.
Dimitry bowed, pocketed all five small coins, then left the reception hall. He rushed into his room and shut the door.
“The old woman’s suspicious of you, and the oaf hates your guts,” Precious whispered into his ear.
“Obviously.” Dimitry threw his leather bag onto the bed and crammed a small stash of dried meat inside. “Is there any magic that can detect people’s location?”
“Well, I can.”
“I meant human magic.”
“I don’t know, maybe. Why do you ask?”
Dimitry wrapped a bottle of aqua vitae in cloth, then placed it into his bag. “Delphine said she’ll know if I stay in the market square, but if there’s no spell then—”
Precious’s hand excitedly flew out from under his hood. “Then she’ll send someone to follow you!”
“Dumitry, you’re pretty clever for a dumb guy.”
He ignored her comment. “From how far away can you detect people?”
“It depends on how strong their emotions are.”
“If we stood in the middle of the market square, could you sense someone spying on us?” Dimitry stacked strips of fabric between bottles of aqua vitae, boiled water, and willow bark extract.
“Humans trying to stay hidden are the easiest to find,” Precious said like a hunter would about deer. “But what about me?”
Dimitry placed the bag’s strap over his shoulder. “What about you?”
“What do I get out of helping you save yourself and that waif?”
“All the fruit your little heart could possibly want.”
“But I might be risking my life,” Precious said, tugging on his ear. “You gotta give me something better than that!”
“Well, what kind of things do you like?”
“If you’re talking about gold, forget about it. I barely have money as is.”
“Gold? I can’t even lift that. Try to be more creative.”
Dimitry’s biggest weakness—guessing what women want. “You know that grass ribbon you use to tie your hair into a ponytail? I’ll get you something nicer.”
Precious paused for a second. “That’s… not bad.”
“Keep track of anyone following us.” Dimitry pushed the door open, looked both ways to confirm that the hallway was empty, then left the brothel.
Aside from alleyways filled with homeless, the pleasure district comprised desolate streets. The sun’s rays drowned out the light of glowing crimson stones bound to timber-framed walls. Hopefully, it would be the last time Dimitry saw them. He headed towards the market square.
“Anyone?” he whispered.
“There are lots of shady characters. It’s hard to tell.”
“I’m counting on you.” The words reluctantly slid out of his mouth.
Dimitry suppressed the urge to run, strolling through the streets instead. Head held high—but not high enough to expose the faerie concealed underneath his hood—and chest out, he melded into crowds. It reminded him of a video game about assassins he played. Before long, they arrived at the market square.
“Two suspects,” Precious said.
Aside from food stalls lining building walls and women carrying trays of meat pastries, the open field the size of a football stadium no longer contained people hawking their products. Instead, a crowd consisting of the poor and rich, young and old, hollered excited words at a central platform. On it stood a group of performers wearing tights enchanted with a light pink spell.
“Tell me when one leaves,” Dimitry said.
Dimitry placed two sweaty fingers against his carotid artery. Pulse was rapid. Although he was no stranger to adrenaline, this rush was different. He spent his life running from test to test, surgery to surgery, but none of it ever posed a tangible threat.
Now he was in a world far away from friends and family and held three lives in his hands. He’d prefer if they were trauma patients. However, his current task went beyond his skill set.
The cheering crowd bumped into Dimitry, waking him from his musings. He gave two stifled shouts to appear entranced by the show. It would be suspicious to be the only downcast faced man in a vibrant audience.
On stage, two performers held a third, while another stood in front of them.
“Slipia!” a performer yelled.
They launched a man across a rough wooden floor, and, like a penguin sliding along a snow-covered hill, he glided across the stage effortlessly, then up a ramp and flew into the sky. After several flips in mid-air, the performer landed unharmed in his coworkers’ arms.
The crowd erupted into cheers.
As far as Dimitry could tell, ‘slipia’ reduced the coefficient of kinetic friction between the stage and the performer, allowing them to slide uninhibited across a wooden stage. Were the people of this world aware that their abilities manipulated the laws of physics?
“Ooh, I want to see!” Precious’s face peeked out from under Dimitry’s hood. Her golden ponytail brushed against Dimitry’s cheek.
“We’re being watched. Focus on tracking,” Dimitry whispered. “When we get out of here, I’ll bring you to all the shows you want.”
“You worry too much, Dumitry.”
Dimitry tapped his foot against the floor. Didn’t she express concern for her life a short while ago? He tried to hold his head still while scanning their surroundings, but the sheer population density made it challenging to identify pursuers. Dimitry forced his attention back on the show.
Each performer held a long iron rod and, one by one, chanted “Attractia!”. They approached each other, rods facing forward like jousters, but an unseen force repelled them at the last moment. A boy beside Dimitry screeched an ear-shattering laugh.
The crowd went silent when a performer held out a finger. Iron rod held out, he dashed across the central platform and cartwheeled over another rod perpendicular to the ground. The two rods stuck to one another and, like a flag at half-mast, the performer held onto its side. Deafening shouts came from every direction.
The iron rods repelled and attracted one another. Did ‘attractia’ magnetize them? Properly used, these spells could bring a technological revolution, yet the populace treated them as a mere sideshow.
“What happened this time?” Precious asked, her excited breath tickled Dimitry’s ears.
“Are the pursuers still there?”
She stayed silent for a while. “I can’t sense two anymore.”
“I asked you to tell me as soon as one left, didn’t I?”
“No need to get so mad.”
Dimitry took a deep breath. “I know the show’s exciting, but I really need your help.”
“Say that again.”
If padding Precious’s ego was necessary to succeed, he didn’t mind. “I really really need your help. You’re very important to me.”
“…fine. But try to cover up your brown-nosing a bit better next time,” she said amusedly.
A creature that reads emotions. A double-edged sword. A pain in the ass.
The crowd grew in size and density, flooding the entire market square. Forceful shoves of onlookers pushed Dimitry further towards the center. This was good. The more packed the venue, the easier it would be to sneak out undetected. He wiped a sweaty palm against his pants, then turned his gaze towards the central platform.
The performers on stage began to clap, and the crowd followed suit. Their speed and volume rose until shouts and hands slapping against one another drowned out individual voices. A dozen men in tights held hands, forming a circle. They spun round and round as if preparing for a dramatic finale.
Dimitry’s heart rate soared; the muscular organ pounded against his chest. He clutched the leather bag strap tighter into his shoulder, ready to barge through a compact cluster of people.
An onlooker in front of Dimitry, mouth wide open and throat red with protruding veins, made no sound. As if they were mimes, the cheering masses shuffled and thrust their fists towards the air without so much as a grunt. An eerie silence filled the market square.
“Hold on tight,” Dimitry tried to shout into his tunic. The vocal cords in his larynx vibrated to no avail.
He rammed into a narrow crevice between people and forced his way through the crowd. Like an ideal gas, they shoved from all sides and cut off every exit. Precious clung to his neck to avoid getting crushed. After a minute of tunneling, a cool breeze swept away the humid air of urine and sweat.
“Are you okay?” Dimitry whispered into his cloak.
“Warn me next time!” Precious hissed.
“You know I couldn’t. Are we still being followed?”
“They’re pushing through the crowd right behind us.”
Dimitry gripped a vol pellet in a clammy palm and dashed towards main street. He held it just in case: it was too early to cast invisall. Right now, he needed something to enchant with dispelia. An object that could wrap around a girl’s collar without choking her.