Getting up beside a smoldering fire and wandering off into the woods, brushing past dewy foliage, seeing only dim shapes under the quarter moon; that’s how a night starts. Of course, graceful footing through the forest is difficult to accomplish. They tramped through it. Keenin pushed another branch away from his face as he tried to keep up with Dia.
“We’re almost there.”
He put his head down to protect his eyes from branches and tried to step delicately around thorny brambles. He suspected that Dia was not being so careful because she was used to her inhuman, self-mending body.
“How come Clide manages to sneak off before us and you make enough noise to warn every creature in sight,” Keenin complained.
“Hey, where are you going? Over here, idiot.”
Keenin lifted his head to see that Dia had found a clear patch and was carving something into the dirt with a stick.
“What’s that for?”
“To block some of the light from the fire.”
“But we already woke them up.”
Although, Keenin admitted that their travel companions would rather suspect their declaration as siblings to be a lie. Obviously, when a guy and a girl had to sneak around for some alone time, it meant only one thing.
“Don’t laugh,” Dia scolded.
He knew that tone meant serious. He supposed it would be bad if someone found out he had magic since the last time resulted in Keenin getting sold and abducted. He stepped into the circle before Dia closed it and the forest outside did look much darker. Dia tossed away the stick and bent over to examine the lines again. He had yet to ask her where she had learned to use magic circles. Keenin had heard magic wasn’t so simple, but Dia was not a simple girl.
“So,” Keenin said.
Dia squatted down lower. She didn’t seem to be paying attention as she pulled at something.
“I think I ripped my dress.”
She was just messing with her clothes.
“All right,” she said straightening, “Show me a flame.”
Keenin opened his palm and produced an enduring flame the size of his hand.
“It’s better right.”
“You don’t think it’s sort of small?” Dia questioned.
“It’s not making a flame that’s the problem. Of course, I can make it bigger, but you are worried about the light and fire spreads quickly. It’s more of a trick to keep it contained and at temperature,” Keenin reminded her.
She couldn’t expect him to bring down fireballs in the middle of a forest. Dia eyed him thoughtfully.
“Fine. Then make me a flame that looks like an animal.”
“Because you can.”
It seemed a silly, but reasonable request to test his control.
He thought about a dog. He thought about a dog covered in flames. Then he tried to think of flames in the shape of a dog, but he didn’t understand why an upward burning flame would want to twist into the shape of a dog. The fire burned the same as always.
“It doesn’t want to move,” he said.
“That’s what I thought. You lack the motivation.”
“You’re giving up too easily,” Dia said, “Do you think that the determination needed to use that fire will always be there when you need it. That flame spirit might defend you, but if you aren’t decisive and refuse to control it, you put yourself and others at risk. Be serious.”
He supposed that she had a point. It wouldn’t be good to set things on fire by accident.
“If you understand, then show me some real progress,” she demanded.
Sure, he told himself, make it better. She wasn’t the one that–ghostly blue eyes glinted between the trees. The flames in his hand snuffed out and the forest turned dark and cold again. As a silhouette in the moonlight Dia had already become small and distant.
“I’ll do it by myself,” he said.
That was not the first time someone had walked away from her, but he disappeared so quickly, so completely gone into the dark forest. Dia wondered if she had been selfish, maybe she had mentioned Tess one too many times over the last few days. She felt a cold breath on her cheek. Clide.
“He went the wrong way,” Dia said. “Do you think you could–oh never mind I’ll get him.”
She shook her head and quickly made to follow the direction he fled.
“Keenin!” she called.
She caught up faster than anticipated, as Keenin stood at the edge of a cliff where he could not have gone any further.
“You made me worry,” Dia told him. “Can you just tell me what is wrong so we can go back?”
He couldn’t tell her the things that really mattered. Blaming her was unfair, but if Keenin was going to die then he wanted to know everything.
“You easily decide to teach me magic, but we hardly know each other,” Keenin accused.
It was a lame excuse. Dia wondered what he was really trying to say.
“What are you talking about now?” she prompted him.
He must have been worrying about this for some time.
“You hid things from me in Selendrum,” Keenin said. “I want to know what they were.”
It wasn’t fair seeing her get hurt without knowing the reason. And what if Dia actually knew about the death god following him…
“I wasn’t used to the crowds,” Dia told him. “That tired me out.”
“That’s all you want to say. I know you see ghosts. And did you think I wouldn’t find out that you heal so fast? If you don’t explain properly how am I supposed to know if you’re safe.”
Her getting killed in front of him was an extreme example, but surely he would have found out. Dia sighed.
“Keenin. They were making human sacrifices in some of the temples,” she admitted. “There were more ghosts than normal. They were distracting and difficult to ignore. It gave me a headache, but there wasn’t anything to do.”
Then he had been right. He had made it harder on her by insisting they stay and work.
“So are you going to stand there all night?” Dia asked.
“I might. The stars are beautiful here.”
He smiled at her this time she returned a confused expression.
“I’m joking. As my magic teacher, please give me more advice.”
He lit a flame in his palm.
“How do I make it better?”
Dia and Keenin lay stomach down on the cart bed, chins propped over their hands as they watched the back of the road shrink into the distance. More stone markers had started to appear beside the road.
“Why so many markers?” Keenin questioned.
“Who knows,” Dia said.
The farm woman looked down at them.
“It looks like you children didn’t sleep. Maybe another prayer will do you good.”
“Doubt it,” Keenin told her.
“Hey,” Dia said turning her head. “Since when were you rude.”
“But thank you,” he amended.
The lady laughed. She tapped her book on his head and dropped it beside him.
“Here, it will do you good.”
“Ah,” he said picking it up.
“This is my stop.”
“Driver,” the lady called up front, “This is it.”
He pulled back the horses and the cart rolled to a stop. Keenin and Dia sat up to give her room to step down from the cart.
“But this book is yours,” Keenin said holding out the volume of Legends of the World.
“A devout lady such as me will not need it.”
She looked towards Clide who slumped against the side of the cart.
“Clide, you better take care of your siblings.”
“It’s an adults’ job as always,” Clide said.
They hardly got to watch her go before the cart pulled away, but Keenin tried to remember the warn statue of Baytu in front of her field thinking that he might still repay her. Dia lifted herself up onto the higher bench of the cart, her eyes skimming the bushy tufts of corn.
“Have you ever had a dream where it was real and then it just wasn’t?” Keenin asked.
“Did you have a strange dream yesterday?”
“Then why ask?”
“Lately it’s felt like that sort of reality,” Keenin said.
“Maybe you’re just happy,” Dia suggested. “Sometimes we don’t realize what we are missing in our life. And you made a big choice to find work in St. Marco.”
The land rolled by.
“People sure spend their time doing nothing,” Clide said as he lay looking at the sky.
“Is that a complaint I hear?” Dia said.
“Complaints. I was cramped in that city and now I’m cramped on a cart. I could have flown there by now.”
They glanced at the soldier, but he didn’t seem to notice the wording.
“Then why bother coming?” Keenin said.
“Don’t say that,” Dia said quickly.
“If I ran away every time someone insulted me I would be around the world by now,” the dragon said.
“So you would still be sitting here,” Keenin said.
“Oh, that is funny,” Clide said.
“You better practice those jokes,” the soldier told him. “Midden is a performance town. A place not here nor there they say, but with lots of amusements. Some inns will even give discounts if you win their nightly talent show.”
“Sounds too good to be true.”
“You’ll see,” the soldier said. “Lots of the performing folk make it home while not on tour because as the name suggests, it’s sort of in the middle of the larger cities. Some acts travel from the continent over.”
Chapter 19: Betrayal of the Mind