The Mageman

Chapter 1: The Shiner of the Sunrise

They kept the two strangers waiting in the courtyard for quite some time. The rabble of this city – the stuffy merchants, the petty criminals pleading unfair sentences, the complaining tradespeople protesting edicts restraining their particular line of work – milled around them. For two hours the strangers didn't move, other than to shift their weight, cross or uncross their arms, turn slightly. I suspected that their eyes never stopped moving, watching, though I wasn't close enough to prove myself right or wrong. I wondered what they thought of our palace.

I guessed they weren't kept waiting intentionally, however; though his secretaries and advisors were all very organized, some even obsessively so, King Wyckt was not motivated to keep track of such things as the order of petitioners waiting for his time. He called them as he remembered them, and felt like seeing them. King Wyckt was too boring himself to want to be bored by these unfortunate people's boring problems, but it didn't bode well for the two strangers that they weren't interesting enough to be called in right away. Or maybe their introduction wasn't presented to King Wyckt for those two hours – the scribes and doorkeepers had their own convoluted politics, and I had never had the time or the fortitude to pry into their affairs.

For whatever reason, the strangers waited, and I watched them. They didn't look like foreigners, but they had an air about them that was distinctly foreign to my experience. For one thing, they were both dressed in fringed leather – jackets and trousers both. I wore trousers myself, on occasion – which made me wonder about the woman.

What inn might they have chosen for their stay in the city? It depended on which direction they'd entered the capital from, and that would reveal much about where they'd come from, and what they might want from the king.

Even with my thoughts busy elsewhere, I was aware of the small tremble in the palace stone under my fingertips which told me shutters had been banged open somewhere near me. I looked up. Inga, Mistress of the Palace, leaned halfway out of the window above me. My superior, on a bad day. On every other day, my friend, and on very rare occasions, like holidays, my surrogate mother.

She told me that they didn't pay me to hang there dreaming, and to get moving before it got dark, or I would be eating my supper hanging off the side of the tower.

With my thumb I flipped the catch on my safety harness. The rope trembled in protest at my weight as I dropped another level, caught myself on the protruding ledge of another window. Inga waited as I splashed soapy water from the bottle hanging on my belt and began to rub the glass, before she was satisfied and withdrew.

I looked down again at the two strangers. The woman had seen me, and pulled at the sleeve of her companion. I couldn't be sure whether she spoke or not, but his face lifted toward me as well. There was something about those two… A blue-cloaked attendant pushed toward them through the hopeful crowd; King Wyckt had evidently decided to see them.

I wondered if anyone would notice if I climbed the central tower of the palace to wash the windows above the ventilation slits on the receiving hall for the second time that day. Perhaps I could catch the gist of their conversation, but I had the odd feeling that the two strangers would notice, though they hadn't been here when I washed those windows earlier in the morning.

I spat at a stubborn spot on the window and rubbed swiftly with my cotton cloth. Perhaps I could be finished with all the windows on the west side before the two strangers emerged from the receiving chamber, and then… well, I was curious.

My shadow loomed over me on the white stone walls of the king's palace. High in the mountains as we were, the sun shone up at us every twilight, before it slipped over the horizon across the valley. I usually loved that moment, when the snowy mountaintops were lit with sunset color and the wide panorama of the sky and valley were spread out and darkening before me. Today I wanted darkness to fall swiftly.

…..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*…..

I was a shadow, a ghost, a silent cat on the roofs. I tripped on a loose shingle, sending it down to the cobblestones and nearly following it myself.

It had been nearly a year since I'd done anything like this.

I meowed like an irritated cat, then hissed, to cover the clatter of the shingle the two strangers undoubtedly had heard. The woman turned to study the street behind them; the man glanced back unhurriedly, unworried, then took the woman's arm to encourage her along the street.

They were unsuspicious, these two. Who were they? Alone in a strange city, a large city, after twilight, but not concerned about their safety. Of course, my capital was quite safe, because the vast majority of citizens stayed indoors after nightfall. The streets were virtually deserted even now. But the strangers could not know this.

They didn't fear lightfingers, which probably meant they were not carrying anything of value. They didn't suspect anyone might be following them, which meant that their business with the king must have been rather innocuous, if no one had any reason to be following them. And yet they had gotten an audience in two hours. It didn't stand to reason that they would have nothing of interest for thieves or spies.

And so I followed them.

They provoked my curiosity, and I needed to regain a neglected skill, in case my former employer ever returned to the palace. It seemed unlikely; it had been almost a year, with no word. I watched the strangers, and noticed that the man favored his right leg, a little – that meant either he'd been born with a crooked limb, unlikely because the rest of him seemed whole and strong, or it was due to an injury.

Who were they?

The two strangers reached the square, the intersection of two streets at right angles, their shadows flickering in the sickly light of the suspended streetlights. The lamplighters had been through this section of the city already; their schedule had not changed, at least. I crouched at the edge of the roof of the last house on the street, my toes curled over the eaves in my soft moccasins, watching the two from the darkness.

This was a ploy common to those unused to the art of evasion, trying to lure their suspected follower out into the open light of the square. Once when I was very young I had fallen for it. But the two strangers never paused to glance behind them, continuing on. The lantern hanging from its post beneath me obscured them for a moment before swaying back.

Glancing around, I made sure no one was in sight, as I'd been hoping all the way down the street. A skinny black dog nosed in the dustbin down the way to my left, but no one else. I watched the two strangers out of sight, then waited a moment longer, so a quick doubling-back would not catch me vulnerable. I tugged on my gloves, specially made to reach back under my sleeves to my elbows, but with the fingertips cut off to allow for sensitivity of touch.

Then I leaped out from the rooftop, catching the lightpost. I allowed my momentum to swing me in a wide arc, my dark gray cloak fluttering, before sliding to the cobblestones. I crossed the street, still out of sight of the strangers, and blended into the shadows before rounding the corner.

The soles of my feet stung; they were not used to such treatment anymore. Yet another part of me that needed toughening, again. But the lamppost was not trembling from my weight as it had the first several times I had attempted that trick – I was pleased to find that some skills remained. The two strangers continued oblivious.

I was considering climbing to the roofs of this row of shops, when the two strangers slowed and stepped up to the door of the Dusty Traveler. He held the door for her; her long black braid swung with the fringe on her jacket as she entered. The inn's sign banged against its crosspiece.

A lamplighter appeared around the next corner down from me, plodding, not paying much attention to anything but keeping his flame alight. A late merchant hurrying home approached the inn from the opposite direction, a shawl draped over her head to protect her from the night winds, just beginning to pick up, that were chilling the summer to early autumn.

I had brief moment of privacy; my cape was turned, folded, tied in four places with strategically placed laces, and I was presentable on any street in the country. I stepped out, heading nonchalantly toward the inn, tucking my fists under my arms to hide the odd gloves. The merchant nodded briefly as we passed each other, and I slowed my steps until she rounded the corner. I was two doors down from the inn, next to a short, squatty cobbler's shop that adjoined the taller dressmaking establishment beside the two-story inn. Both shops were closed, dark, though a dim light shone through a drawn curtain in a small window above the dressmaker's shop. Family quarters, then, and they were not yet in bed.

Untying my cape, refolding and readjusting, it was back around my shoulders with a flick of my wrist. I stepped up into the window frame of the cobbler's shop, swung myself up on the crosspiece from which the sign dangled, and from there it was a short jump and a heave up to the roof, which was relatively flat.

The dressmaker's roof was decoratively steep, to allow room for living without requiring a more expensive proper second story, but the eaves were something to grasp, and from there my gloves and moccasins made no sound up to the peak of the roof. The family, probably eating their meal beneath the soles of my feet, likely never suspected I was there. I flattened myself on the wooden shingles and slid one eye over the peak of the roof, remembering that the Dusty Traveler's second-story rooms had windows on this side – though the view was that of the dressmaker's roof – and of course I did not wish to be seen.

I waited as the moments steadily lengthened, and the strain on my toes spread to an ache in my calves. Only one window was lit, but as I watched, no one stepped into sight. I could see the upper right corner of the door, but it remained closed. I was sure the two strangers were sleeping in this inn – why would they stop for a drink or to eat in the common room of an inn that was not theirs? Unless they were meeting omeone here… or they had noticed me after all, and this was a ruse to put me off their scent.

Then the door across the lighted room opened, and the two strangers entered. I resisted the urge to duck; they shouldn't see me in the darkness beyond the open shutters, unless I made any quick movements.

They removed their fringed jackets. The girl asked a question, but I couldn't read her lips by profile this far away. The man took her jacket and flung it down with his on a piece of furniture beyond my sight, probably the bed, then they left the room again, leaving the candles lit. Now was my chance. Should I eavesdrop on them, or search their room?

I rolled over the peak of the dressmaker's roof and slid cautiously toward the window, where the shop and the inn shared a wall. I straightened without disturbing the shutter; the window sill was at the level of my third lowest rib. Three bundles lay in the corner behind the door, underneath a sheathed sword and an unstrung bow with quiver beside it.

I pressed my lips together, gauging the strength of my curiosity. There would be no one waiting at the palace for any information I gathered about the two strangers – three? who was in their room, if anyone? who owned the third bundle? – but that had never been my primary motivation in the past. I snooped for the mere pleasure of knowing things. I knew my city and the people in it, though it did not know me, and most of the citizens had no reason to believe I existed.

How long would they be gone? They hadn't left the inn. As long as it took them to eat their supper, I guessed.

I felt out to the side with my right foot, careful not to slip, not to rattle anything in the gutters, then moved down, to the side, and up again, to get a look at the other half of the room. Bed for two, washstand with two lit candles, pallet on the floor in the opposite corner from me. And a red-haired boy, maybe a dozen years old, sitting cross-legged on the floor between the bed and the pallet, studying what appeared to be a ragged-edged map.

Without raising his head, the boy lifted his hand in a beckoning gesture toward the window. Toward me. I moved further back into the shadows – how could he know I was there? But he looked up toward the window and smiled, beckoning more insistently.

And I – careless, witless fool that I was – stepped into the light spilling out onto the dressmaker's roof, and swung back the two panes of thick glass. The room was warmer than the roof; how long would the two strangers be gone? I intended already to be gone when they returned. I wondered if they would believe the boy when he told them about me. If he told them about me.

The red-haired boy – his hair was a darker red than mine, I thought critically – smiled and beckoned again, and bent his head to his map. I hoisted myself up on the windowsill, ducked through, and flipped downwards inside the room as my legs followed me. I remained crouching beneath the window, pulling my dark gray cloak around my knees. The boy seemed undisturbed; he told me to close the window against drafts and take a look at his map.

I pulled the panes of the window almost closed, then folded myself into a crouching position, one knee up, facing the door. I figured I could be up, across the room, and through the window before the two strangers saw anything but a dark shadow. I glanced over my shoulder at the candles and decided one quick puff of air would shuffle the room into the darkness that would cover my escape if anyone entered suddenly.

The boy bent his head over the map; he said something I couldn't make out.

"Excuse me?" I said.

He looked up then. His eyes were very dark, almost black, and unreadable. This troubled me until I realized that this was a boy who had nothing to hide. He repeated himself, asking for my name.

"Most people call me Lucky," I told him. Surely a stranger boy could not cause trouble for me in my own city, even if he did know my name. No one would believe him if he told the story of this night. But now that he had information from me, I wanted some in return. "Have you been long in our capital?"

He told me that they'd gotten there just that morning.

"How long do you expect to stay?" I asked.

He said that it depended on how successful their quest was.

"Quest?" I said, hoping I put the right amount of idle neutrality in my tone.

He studied me instead of answering, very sharply, for one so young. And asked me what I'd been doing on the roof, dressed as I was.

I shrugged. "This and that," I said. "I know the rooftops better than I know the streets; they're safer for me, anyway."

He added, as an answer to his other question, that, seeing as I traveled on the roofs, a skirt would hardly be practical.

"Exactly," I said. I didn't mention that my cloak, turned and folded and tied, doubled as a very respectable skirt that hid the tight-fitting trousers of my outfit. I turned my eyes to the map, but a quick glance showed that direction of inquiry fruitless. No marks had been made to show their destination, no lines to indicate either the path they'd traveled, or their intended route.

He asked me if I'd been on my way home from work, and I nodded. If I didn't know my own city well enough to pull off a lie to a stranger, and a child, then I might as well roll up my cloak and my nightsuit and throw them into the first fire handiest. But instead of asking me where I lived or worked, he asked me what I did for a living.

And I surprised myself by deciding to tell him the truth. Though it would tell them where to find me, I had as yet done nothing wrong, except to enter the room by the window instead of the door. "I'm a window-washer at the palace," I told him. "I also shine the temple bells every morning before they're sounded at sunrise."

A look crossed his face, of surprise, quick understanding, then delight. He told me his name, then said something about his friends – I couldn't catch any of their names, he spoke too quickly – and added that they would love to meet me.

I smiled and shook my head. The boy might believe my stories, but the two strangers would surely be more suspicious, and question more closely, especially if they recognized me from the palace. "Maybe some other time," I said. "I've got to be going. How long are you going to be staying in Vyke?"

He didn't answer for a moment – he appeared to be listening, of all things – then smiled and told me it depended, once again, on someone's decision, but they might even leave as soon as the morrow.

Someone? Someone at the palace – King Wyckt? Perhaps I would get further by asking around among the guards and servants best placed for eavesdropping that afternoon. So I merely nodded and said, "Well, good luck. I should be going."

I turned to the window and received the shock of my life. While I had been watching the door for an abrupt return, the man had climbed to the roof of the dressmaker's shop, and stood leaning in the window, watching me. Served me right for snooping when I could have been eavesdropping on the two adults.

The candles made no difference now; they could identify me if they chose, but if they never caught me, they couldn't prove I'd been there. It would be my word against that of three strangers, but my bedmate in the servants' quarters of the palace was always ready to swear to my presence there for an extra coin or two.

All of this ran through my mind as I was at the door in an instant. Unfortunately, so was the black-haired woman, standing with her hands on her hips, blocking the doorway. I backed into the corner by the window, where I could see all three of them at once. The boy remained seated in front of the map, saying something to me with a reassuring look on his face.

My heart was racing. How long had it been since I'd been caught at my job? They had known I was following them, because the man had blocked my window escape. No way to play myself off as an innocent passer-by then, just stopping in to chat. The man looked hard as flint, but the woman was little more than a girl, perhaps a year older than myself; perhaps I could bluff her.

I tossed off my hood and reached for the long-bladed dirk that hung in a leather sheath down my back.

I had never seen anyone move as swiftly as the man did; I didn't even see him move before he was inside the room, half behind me, holding my forearm above my head. I tried to yank away, reaching for the dirk with my left hand, which he caught as well, and put his knee in my back to further subdue me. Holding both my wrists in one hand – the man had a grip like banded iron! – he slipped my dirk from the sheath and flipped it down to quiver in the wood of the floorboards. The boy stared at it; it looked very ugly and dangerous all of a sudden.

My offenses had increased swiftly, and I was still in their clutches. His clutches, anyway. I was in serious trouble, and my employer was not at the palace to pull me up over the cliff this time.

The girl was saying something to the man behind me, but the boy was speaking at the same time, and I caught nothing of what either of them said. The man's breath stirred my hair; he was talking too, loudly and rapidly. I remained sullenly silent.

The red-haired boy reached to touch the girl's white sleeve; she didn't say any more, but stepped inside the room and closed the door behind her. Then the boy looked at me and asked if I could understand him, forming his words slowly and enunciating carefully.

"I understand you perfectly," I said. My back and shoulders began to ache from their stretching, and I moved restlessly. "Let me go, you've taken my knife."

My hair stirred again; the man was speaking. I didn't say anything, and he shook me. I wouldn't turn my head, even when he continued, evidently repeating himself.

The girl watched me, stepped close to look into my eyes. I stared back in defiance. Perhaps they wouldn't guess why I wasn't answering him. The girl told me that the man had agreed to release me if I promised to behave, and listen to what they had to say.

I couldn't argue; I had no leverage on them, and they had plenty on me. I didn't like it, but there was nothing I could do. "I'll behave," I said.

The man released me and moved to stand by the girl, folding his arms across his chest and studying me. The red-haired boy smiled encouragingly, then spoke to the man. I gathered he was telling the man my profession, and added that I was the shiner of the sunrise. Odd phrase, that, but close enough to the truth. The man looked at me for a long time, his gray eyes sharp, as if I was suddenly more to him than a casual snooper. The girl was smiling too, delighted, though I couldn't guess why.

Then the man asked me why I had followed them from the palace.

I shrugged. Why deny it? "Curiosity." Would they believe that? It was the truth, strange as it must have sounded.

The man casually mentioned my strange garb, then began rambling about wall-crawlers he had known, the equipment they had carried. Blast. They wouldn't pass off my nightsuit as a strange local custom, or even as a practical eccentricity. I resisted the urge to wrap my cloak around me, hiding my odds and ends, fastened and clipped to, and swinging from my belt.

The man asked me if I had three, or four, lockpicks up my sleeve. I was immediately jealous, and glared at him. What kind of wall-crawlers had he known? Two was enough for anybody; one for each hand was all anyone need ask for. It was likely he had felt my two through my sleeve, and was trying to rile me into speech. The boy's mouth was open in astonishment.

The man asked me who I worked for. That would be revealing my identity; if this bit of information reached the wrong ears, my life could be in danger. I said nothing. He looked like thunder was approaching, and fast.

The girl explained in a diplomatic way that they were looking for some people, and could use someone with my talents. This, then, was their quest.

I considered this. A job opportunity, maybe even including travel. It would be a way of finding out their business, but from a lot closer than I'd ever intended. On the other hand, my employer might never return to the palace, and I didn't really want to spend my life washing windows and polishing bells, did I?

"People in Vyke?" I asked. In my own city, I had my own set of rules. Places I wouldn't go, people I wouldn't spy on or steal from, and so on. But there seemed a tacit understanding in the air, that if I agreed to their suggestion, they would forget about tonight's events, and I couldn't ignore that opportunity.

The girl shrugged and said they weren't sure where these people were. That would be part of my job, she told me, and added that they would explain more later. After I was committed, she meant. The man was watching me closely. It made me uncomfortable, and maybe that was his intention.

"In what capacity would you require my services?" I asked. "I'm not an assassin, and there are certain limits to what I will steal."

They indicated that I should give a rough list of what these things were.

"Depending on their value to the target," I said, "I won't steal books, heirlooms, or keepsakes. Things that are irreplaceable. You want me to steal something?"

The man said, his gray eyes very flat, that I was needed to help them obtain something for someone.

"What?" I asked.

The man said one word, so casually I thought I had misunderstood. The girl and the red-haired boy didn't even blink. Perhaps I had misunderstood. I repeated cautiously, "Justice?"

The man nodded.

Dangerous ground. Important, powerful people walked there. "For whom?" I ventured, not sure I wanted to know the answer.

The man told me, and I couldn't believe it. He wanted justice for the wizard, the dark terror who had engulfed the wide North in little over a fortnight almost a year ago.

I'd had enough. They were serious; they were seriously mad. "I'm sorry, but I can't get involved with that," I said. The man was closer to my dirk than I was; would he prevent me from retrieving it and making my exit? I had a feeling negotiations had not been closed, despite my refusal.

Then the man asked me how long I had been deaf.

The wall thumped into my back so quickly it took my breath away, and I put my sweaty palms against it for support. Then I realized I'd done it myself, backing away from them. Leverage, blast it all. If they discovered any more of my secrets, they could make me do just about anything they chose. My employer had used my secrets without asking me for an explanation, and had never exploited my confidence. Could I trust these strangers to do the same?

Both the boy and the girl looked startled; they had not guessed. The boy had thought I had difficulty understanding their accents – I guessed they were Northerners, since they had a grudge against Rythe the demon-born, and therefore a slight slurring of speech – and the girl had assumed I was being sullen and uncooperative. Both of these were conclusions others had jumped to before, ones I hardly ever bothered to correct.

The candles were on the washstand behind them, and the night was steadily darkening. The shadows on their faces were mere smudges now, but soon I would not be able to see them clearly enough.

Partly to gain time, and keeping my back to the wall, I edged from one corner to another, past the window, putting the bed between myself and them. They turned with my movements – wariness and readiness flaring up in the flint-eyed man as I passed the window, but I flicked my eyes to my dirk in the floor to let him know I wasn't trying to escape, at least not without my weapon. Safely in my new corner, I considered again the metaphorical corner they had put me in as well.

"I have been deaf since before I can remember," I said carefully. "Since birth, they tell me."

The man turned his head, speaking to the girl. I caught enough of his words in profile to understand that he was commenting on my stealth and silence in following them, on the cat's meow. I grumbled sourly to myself, wanting to know how he had known I was there.

The girl was faintly puzzled. She told me that I spoke excellently, and wondered how I had accomplished that.

"I read lips," I said.

She shook her head as if I had misunderstood her. She said she realized that lip-reading was how I understood them, then asked me how it was possible – since I had not heard words as a baby and learned to copy them correctly – that I spoke so perfectly.

I studied them. The longer I waited, the more significant my answer became. But would they believe me? And if they accepted what I told them as truth, would they press me for more? Would they ask me what else I heard in my head?

Then the man decided to use their leverage. Yanking my dirk casually out of the floorboard, he studied it, then turned those cold gray eyes on me. He said that they had gained King Wyckt's full support in their quest – so whatever they did was legitimate and legal, at least in our domain – and could do pretty much as they pleased with me. He wondered out loud whether my unknown employer would appreciate the trouble I had gotten myself into, and trouble themselves to get me out of it.

I scowled. The thing was, he was right. I allowed myself to think of my beautiful, brave, wise employer, probably dead on a foolhardy quest of her own. Then I opened my mouth and said, "I can hear my voice in my mind. I always could. I don't even remember learning how to speak."

The girl asked about the cat. I didn't answer. I wasn't about to tell them I could sometimes communicate with animals.

The man and woman exchanged looks again. He smiled for the first time, a slow, sure smile, then he nodded in confirmation.

The boy said he had known it, whatever it was, and clambered over the bed to me. Putting out one hand, and brushing his red hair back with the other, he promised never to reveal any confidences I made in him.

"I believe you," I said, and shook his hand. "Thank you."

The man was speaking again, asking my employer's name. Demanding.

If I told them, I would have to go with them, wherever they were going. It was hard enough that they knew the red-haired girl who washed the windows of the palace was a privately employed wall-crawler, but if they knew who I had worked for, I would not trust them with that knowledge out of my sight. But could I refuse that iron gaze? Did I really want to?

I was speaking before I even meant to, before I could think again. "Her Majesty Princess Sharon," I said, and bit my tongue.

That kicked up a whirlwind in the little second-story inn room. The girl was apologizing for something, her green eyes shining with unshed tears. The red-haired boy was trying to explain something, speaking so fast I only understood the words fountain, earthquake, and rivers. The man wore a triumphant look that frightened me. I could not tear my eyes away.

The man told me that Princess Sharon was dead, she and her betrothed as well. I pictured a kind young man with warm brown eyes, and could not remember his name. The gray-eyed man went on through my daze of purple-pulsing pain, telling me of the battle between Princess Sharon's troops and Wizard Rythe's hordes. He told me of the three rivers that gushed from the place where the two lovers had fallen. I could only remember the last time I'd seen her, riding blithely at the head of the bright column of soldiers, waving back at the palace. To her disapproving father and brothers, to the servants – to me. And she had dropped her arm to take the hand of the kind-eyed, gentle warrior at her side, laughing in the sunlight.

"You know this for absolute truth?" I asked, though I believed him. My eyes blurred; I did not see his answer. I did not need to. "You've told King Wyckt?" I blinked, sending the tears that had obstructed my vision trickling down my cheeks – one, then the other.

He nodded. The girl looked sympathetic; the boy reached out to squeeze my hand.

My loyalties were dissolved; my future uncertain. I could do worse than agree to what they'd asked – go with them and serve them in my professional capacity.

I took a deep breath that caught once, and squared my shoulders. "My birth name is Coral," I said. "Most people call me Lucky, and I prefer that. You have my dirk." I reached up my sleeve and slid my two lockpicks from their resting places, small slits in my gloves, and placed them beside the two leather jackets on the faded quilt on the bed. I added to them the slender coiled rope on the back of my belt and its small hook, the square wax tablet and stylus in their case at my left hip, and the almost-empty coin pouch at my right. I hesitated, but only for a moment, before extracting the tiny blade, no longer than the tip of my middle finger to my wrist, hilt included, the blade engraved with the princess' name and mine. It had been a gift, in honor of my fourteenth birthday and my first successful assignment. I kept it snugly in my left boot, though I rarely used it.

We all looked down at the meager pile. I felt my eyes smarting again; it was all I had in this world, all I was, and I was placing it in the hands of a man whose name I did not know.

The man nodded, and scooped up their map from the floor. He handed it to me across the bed, and placed my dirk deliberately on my pile of belongings. I looked at the map, a large piece of parchment with its inks faded. Folds worn from long use marked sections fuzzily all across the continent. The man motioned for me to turn it over.

On the back of the map in bold letters was written a short poem. I read it twice, but it still made no sense to me. I looked up, making my puzzlement plain.

The red-haired boy leaned over the map, pointing to two names at the top right corner I had not noticed. Mageman Tel and Alyse the Healer. The boy pointed to the hard-eyed man and the black-haired girl, repeating those names.

"Mageman Tel and Alyse the Healer," I read cautiously. I knew what healers were, but mageman was a new title to me. What had I gotten myself into? "Mageman?"

Mageman Tel told me he would explain later, and added that Alyse was his wife. She put her arms around his waist exactly as if she didn't notice that he seemed cut from the hardest rock. He shared a smile with her, a warm light growing in his gray eyes. Perhaps he was not truly as hard as he looked, if he could love her so completely.

The boy told me his name, which I missed for the second time that night. One side of his mouth turned up in a boyish grin, and he reached over the map to trace his name with his finger.

"Jasen," I said, and he nodded. "What's the poem? I don't understand."

Alyse told me it that it was a cryptic list of the people they needed to find. Smiling happily, she added that I was the first one. I looked down again – Shiner of the sunrise.

I shrugged. "I guess that fits," I said. "So now we go on to Rider of the dark?"

All three nodded, and watched me expectantly.

Never good with riddles, my mind jumped to the only explanation for that I could think of. "Horses?" I said. "The country of Terbia holds horse races in the southern farmlands to celebrate spring. It's quite a big gathering as I understand it. Even some of our citizens go." I flipped the map over again and studied our neighbor country to the west, judging distance.

Mageman Tel reached over and took the map from me. He named a city in the south of Terbia, remembrance dawning on his face. Then he declared we'd buy supplies in the morning, and set out the very next day. They didn't seem surprised at how swifty I'd agreed. It wasn't arrogance, though, it was assurance, and it gave me an odd sense of rightness and security.

Alyse turned and asked me if I had to speak to anyone at the palace before we four left the city. She suggested my family.

I thought of Inga. When Mageman Tel's news of Princess Sharon's death was made pubic, Igna would connect that to my disappearance. As the only person who knew of the close friendship between the princess and the deaf window-washer, she would guess why I had gone without saying anything. She would mourn my departure and pray for me, but she would not worry. My bedmate in the servants' quarters had her own opinion of my sense of propriety, stemming from frequent nights she'd had the bed to herself while I prowled the city rooftops. She would assume I'd run off with a man, perhaps she'd even spread that rumor. I couldn't think of her name.

"No," I said. "My parents died of a plague shortly after I was born. My mother was sick for a long time, while she was carrying me, which is why, they think, I was born deaf. My parents had no other children; I was brought up in the palace with the other servants' children. All I need is my regular clothes."

Mageman Tel stated again that we'd start for Terbia on the morrow. He folded the map and tucked it into one of their bundles. I began to gather my belongings off the quilt. It would be the first time in my life I'd left the city where I had been born – and I couldn't wait.

A/N: Mostly I've written fanfiction for the Merlin site, this is my first venture into original work… hope you all like it. :P

This has been collecting dust on my shelf for a while now, I've polished it up a little before posting. It's written in its entirety, but I'll only be updating whenever I get the chance to type it out and upload it… hopefully won't be too long between chapters.