Four – Traces

North of Freeport

The Republic of Erul

The Twentieth Day of the Month of Flowing Rivers

Year 1103 of the Atheri Empire

"Ivarsen!" Caine shouted. "Get up!"

"Too early," I grumbled, although I didn't know what time it was. Caine robbing me of much-needed sleep was practically one of the Laws of Men, as certain as snow on Midwinter's Eve.

"Yulia's gone," he said.

That got my attention. "She hasn't paid us yet!" I protested.

"We haven't slain her dragon either," he reminded me.

"I still want my money," I said, climbing out of bed and putting on my clothes. Although Caine was right, I was annoyed that the little minx had given us the slip.

"Of course you do," Caine rolled his eyes. "Money, money, money! Gods, Ivarsen! Do you think about anything else?"

"Food, and sleep," I replied. "And women. What else is there?"

Caine sighed and gave me a familiar, slightly condescending look, one I never liked seeing on his face. He thought I was stupid. Compared to him, I was... but I wasn't going to let him lord that over me. I cuffed him across the back of the head, and he winced.

"Don't look at me like that!" I warned him. "You've got your priorities, I've got mine!"

"Fair enough," Caine nodded. He wrinkled his nosed and rubbed the spot where I'd hit him. He knew he'd been in the wrong, sticking his nose in the air like that. While Caine had been a mercenary for about six years, occasionally he still acted like the spoiled noble that he'd once been. Although everyone respected his fighting prowess and sound judgment, I wasn't the only Guild Brother who called him "ponce".

"Arm up, and make it quick," Caine ordered. "Yulia's bed is warm, and there's no smell of magic. She can't have gone far. I want you and Lucky to search the north side of town. Meyat and I will take the south. We keep looking until we find her."

"Shouldn't we set a time to meet back up?" I asked.

"Sundown," Caine replied. "If she's not found by then, we all split up and get out of town. We'll meet in Yprina."

"Yprina?" I stared at him incredulously. The city he'd named was hundreds of miles away, and the Mercenary's Guild wasn't even welcome within its walls. That didn't mean the Guild wasn't there, but it certainly put Yprina fairly low on my list of places to visit. The fact that I'd have to pass through my homeland in order to get there was even more of a deterrent. Until I broke my curse, I couldn't go home. "Caine, what's going on?"

"The less you know, the safer you'll be," he replied.

He sounded deathly serious, and that worried me. Obviously, Caine knew or suspected something about Yulia that made him nervous. I remembered how she'd looked at him from the door of the Guild House in Coalborn, as if she'd seen him before. It was one of many things I didn't like about the situation we were in. Still, I wasn't going to press him for information. If we wasted too much time talking, Yulia would get away with all of the money she still hadn't paid us.

If she had any money left. The fee we'd been promised was substantial. Although Yulia had spent her coin freely so far, I was beginning to wonder how deep her pockets really were.

"All right," I told him. "But before I set foot in Kyder, you're going to tell me everything you know."

"Fine," Caine replied, though it sounded like he might be lying just to shut me up. I let it go. Fighting with him wouldn't get me anywhere. It never did. Caine turned and left. I was secretly annoyed that I'd have to work before breakfast. Brand's skillet eggs were as good as his home-brewed ale.

I put on my armor as quick as I could and made sure to stick my Guild pin where no stuff-shirt merchant or noble could miss it. Gathering information wasn't my strong suit, but it was part of the mercenary business, and I knew how to work the streets if I had to.

Although Caine always went with Meyat when our Company had to split up, I was secretly pleased to have some time alone with Lucky. While I didn't expect she'd change her opinion of me overnight, I wasn't giving up. She hadn't said no on Midwinter's Eve, after all. She'd taunted me, which meant that I still had a chance. I'd have a better chance, I suspected, if I was a man again... but that didn't seem as impossible as it had seemed a few weeks ago. I felt in my bones that we were getting closer to something. Maybe it was the dragon who'd cursed me?

Caine and Meyat were already gone when I made it down to the Common Room, and Lucky was waiting by the door.

"How well do you know Freeport?" She asked.

"As well as any merc," I shrugged. "Better than some."

"Do you know if there's a magic shop around here?" Lucky pressed. "Somewhere that would have books, herbs, crystals... that sort of thing."

"I didn't think you were a Mage," I admitted. She did have witch-eyes, but that particular color of blue didn't always come with the Gift.

"I'm not. But I was raised around Mages, and I think I know what Yulia may be up to," Lucky admitted. "Well?"

"There was a shop on River Street the last time I was here," I paused. "What's your hunch?"

"Yulia is a Gifted. I think she's preparing a tracking spell," Lucky said. "The principle is sound. Every Mage uses ather in a slightly different way. You could theoretically track someone by the spells they cast. Of course, dragons are a whole lot more powerful than mere mortals. They have so much magic in them that they leave patches of it everywhere they go. They touch something, it becomes magical. Spit on it, magical. Not powerful but... probably strong enough to track. It's what we were talking about last night. Fewments."

"Hunh. That actually makes sense," I admitted. "But why didn't Yulia just tell us what she was going to do?"

"That's what I can't figure out," Lucky sighed. "That girl knows more than she's telling."

"So did you talk to Caine?" I asked. "About the tracking spell?"

"I did, but he brushed me off. Does he seem distracted to you?" She asked.

"Well, our employer did just disappear on us," I replied, although I knew what she was getting at. "Caine's always been a little... odd," I confessed. "That's just how he is."

"Mm. If you say so." Without another word, Lucky turned and left the Guild House. I sighed and followed her out onto the street.

Freeport is a fairly large city, so it took us a few hours to work our way up to River Street, the last narrow avenue of stores before the city's northern wall. The magic shop was exactly where I remembered it. It was a squat, white-washed building with an old thatch roof hanging halfway out over the river. There was a sign over the door that showed a cup and a candle. It smelled like strong southern cooking, even from outside. A fire lizard with a collar on scurried under the porch.

Lucky sniffed the air. "Is this shop run by Ksrali?" She asked.

"How'd you know that?" I asked.

"It stinks like coriander," she replied. "Usually means Ksrali or Traders."

"True enough," I laughed slightly. "You heard Brand mention Malik, right?"

Lucky nodded.

"Well, Malik is Ksrali. He was a member of our Company before he took a fool contract in Giorsus. He tried to get some money out of an unlucky gambler who turned out to be a Tower Mage. Now he's in prison."

"Ouch," Lucky winced.

"Eh. He's lucky the Mage didn't kill him," I replied.

Lucky sighed and opened the door to the shop. I followed her inside, dunking under strings of dried garlic, peppers, and other questionable-looking things. There were a lot more odds and ends scattered around the room, mostly books and vials of different concoctions. It was very hot inside, and the whole shop was full of steam that made my eyes burn. Among other things, Ksrali were known for their potions and poisons.

An old Ksrali man stirred a large pot sitting in the fire. Although my eyes hadn't yet adjusted to the dim light, I could see that his face was riddled with scars. Like the Traders, most Ksrali were nomads. The ones who settled down in cities were either crippled or criminals like Malik who'd been cast out by their own people.

"Excuse me," Lucky said. "I'm looking for a girl. Ilskaan, about fifteen years old. Has she been in here?"

The old man looked up. His eyes were covered in a whitish film, and I realized he was completely blind. "A gahl vas heel," he said. His accent was so thick I almost couldn't understand him. I glanced at Lucky. She rattled off something in Trader Tongue.

I didn't know what it was, but the old man smiled. He replied in that same fast-paced, fluid speech. Lucky laughed.

"What's so funny?" I asked.

"He thought I was a Trader," she explained.

"You do sound like one," I admitted. "At least to me. I don't know more than two words of Trader. Yifa."

Yifa was the Trader word for "horse" and something you could hear shouted in any marketplace.

"Try this out," Lucky advised. "Vaya nas kah."

"What's that mean?" I asked. I wasn't going to repeat what she'd said. I was sure I couldn't convince the words to roll off of my tongue.

"Don't shoot me," she replied with a smirk. "Might come in useful."

"I'll remember that," I nodded. "So Yulia was here?"

"About two hours ago. She bought some things. I'll find out what," Lucky replied.

Lucky turned back to the old man and they resumed chattering in Trader. I examined the bottles on the wall. Although I couldn't read any of their labels, there were some northern herbs I recognized, ones that my mother used for healing. I touched a container of dried snowflower.

A strange burst of energy snapped at my finger. It raced through my body like a spark of lightning and made me so dizzy I almost fell flat on my back. I took a step away from the shelf and steadied myself using the windowsill.

"Ivarsen?" Lucky wondered. "Are you all right?"

"It's nothing," I lied. "A bottle shocked me, that's all."

"A bottle shocked you?" Lucky eyed me suspiciously.

"What, you never scrubbed your feet on a rug when you were a kid?" I said, trying to downplay the genuinely bizarre sensation I'd just felt. "My brothers and I did it on purpose. We'd zap each other and pretend we were Mages."

"Oh, my cousins played that game too," Lucky said. "But they are Mages. It wasn't so much fun for me."

"Little bastards," I said. It seemed like a fair appraisal, and Lucky smiled slightly.

The old man hobbled forward. He seized my hand, and I almost hit him... but then I felt the same woozy sensation I'd felt when I touched the bottle of snowflower. My legs went out from under me and sat down on top of a barrel full of potatoes. Some of them rolled onto the floor. Lucky propped me up, and the shop owner said something to her in Trader.

"What is it?" I asked.

Lucky grinned. "Ivarsen... you just found a fewment."