If Love Were Only Part of the Equation

Chapter Eight

“How can we know the dancer from the dance?”—W.B. Yeats

Brinson followed Gravitt and an overly-businesslike brown haired apprentice (who hadn’t even bothered to offer them her name) down the maze of streets towards the Magic Guild. The girl had been called over by the guard at the gate and, after rather a curt comment, was told that the guests were her responsibility. Her eyes had taken a walk all over them as they had surrendered their weapons to the captain, and she didn’t even bother to hide her disgust at the two rough looking men and the small boy. So, with little more than a nod, she had turned and walked towards a distant, looming building, pausing only briefly to be sure they were keeping up. Gravitt is such an idiot…to think it would have taken us more than an hour to get here from that village…his sense of direction may get him killed one of these days…we should be so lucky…

The path from the city gate to the enormous Guild Manor was surprisingly short and direct, until their guide ushered them through its ornate entrance. The atrium of the building held two curved flying staircases winding upwards towards the ceiling—the centers of the two upper floors cut out, making the place seem like it stretched to the heavens. Mages leaned on the silver rails as they engaged in conversations, their voices quietly echoed within the marvelous edifice. I can’t believe this…I’ve never seen anything like it before…

The apprentice quickened her pace as the group passed some other students who were snickering at her. Walking briskly to catch up, Brinson didn’t have much time to gain the bearings of his surroundings. After only a few turns, all the halls began to look alike to his prairie-trained senses.

He smiled to himself as Gravitt grunted under the load of his bags. For this trip his employer (his master actually) had to carry some of his own belongings for a change, or risk someone becoming curious about the true relationship between him and his ‘business associates.’ But then the tall Tribal frowned, realizing that they were in character for a reason. I really hope I’m wrong about him being up to something… Please, Goddess, don’t let him try anything here.

Darian trotted alongside him, and was getting quite a few smiles from the female mages in the halls as he gave a quick and excited wave to each of them. He has such charisma… I know he didn’t get it from his father…The boy turned back to Brinson, and he gave the child a wink, which just drove him into further giggles, much to Gravitt’s annoyance.

Up two flights of stairs and down still more corridors they went, the girl remaining totally silent and her displeasure increasing with every passing minute. Finally, in a small voice that was obviously intended to be overheard, she began muttering something about getting stuck with the country hicks while someone else got to escort the Heroes. As they came towards the end of a hall on the third floor, she yanked a small yellow slip of paper out of the jamb and looked back at them. As she crumbled the note, there was the clear sound of doubt in her voice. “You said three, right?”

“Correct,” Gravitt replied. “The other two I was expecting had a sudden change of plans. They won’t be here for the….Celebration. They may join us afterwards. My sister in law is tending to the animals and will be here shortly.”

That makes me ill…

The girl shrugged and responded flatly, “Makes no difference to me.” She put a key in the lock of the wooden door, and then turned the bronze latch. Entering first, she made her way quickly to the opposite side of the room, not lingering to notice, or enjoy, their reactions to the sight.

Brinson stopped in his tracks and looked around. The room was as unreal and mythical as everything else in this city had seemed. Decorated in muted blues, and appointed with luxurious furniture, the sheer opulence of the dwelling made Brinson's jaw drop. Although intended clearly for a single occupant, It certainly wasn't small. Just like a castle in a fairy tale he had once read, only this was so very real and so much more romantic. 

An ornamental rug covered most of the cold marble floor, and a large and elaborately carved wooden bedstead--the headboard engraved with the winged symbol of the famous city--filled much of the room’s left wall. A thick comforter lay over what was obviously a feather stuffed mattress, rather than the straw or wool that even the wealthiest city-dweller enjoyed. The fireplace, although small, was more than adequate for even this large a room. Its mantle was adorned with some kind of hieroglyphics, and a small supply of books stacked atop it. A small study desk and chair sat next to the bed, a capped glow globe casting a soft light onto the writing surface and it’s matching quill and inkwell. To the right were two narrow doors; a large oak and cedar-lined chest sitting between them. Even Gravitt was taken back by the unexpected luxury of the room and his expression showed it. Even artwork on the walls…this is unbelievable…

As Brinson forced his mouth closed, the apprentice pulled open the drape of the single large window, inviting the afternoon sunlight to bathe the room in a soft yellow-orange glow. The rays, combined with the tones of the furniture, gave the place an even more magical ambiance. Gravitt had walked over to the window, and was looking down and to the west, when he asked, “What’s that behind all the trees?”

“The Premier’s garden and pool. Don’t even think about going down there.”

Gravitt, although evidently displeased with the girl’s tone and remark, somehow managed to keep silent. Brinson smiled to himself, and watched as their reluctant guide stepped over to the slim door on the right and opened it. “Okay, this is your closet. I suggest you use it to hang your cloaks and whatever you plan on wearing to the festival. That way you can remove the wrinkles and let them air out some…. I suspect any anyone that happens to be near you… will be thankful for it.”

The girl didn’t even pause long enough for Gravitt to respond before she moved on to the door nearest the window. While Brinson was used to being spoken down to and insulted, he knew his master wasn’t, and the look of anger in Gravitt’s eyes made him shrink within. For once in your life, Gravitt, keep a grip on that temper of yours.

“This room may be something you’re not familiar with… we borrowed the design from Meribia and our architect made some improvements. To my knowledge, we are the only two cities to have this luxury, and they are certainly much more comfortable than outbuildings. Anyway, we call it a privacy room--or if you prefer, a privy. The basin is rather obvious, by turning the stem on the pipe above it you can fill it with water. Just please remember not to leave the cork in the drain. If you do then you’ll have to clean up the mess. As for the larger bowl--the one with the seat over it? Well, I’ll leave that to your imagination… though if you know how to use an outhouse I’m sure you can find your way around the toilet. Just be sure to run the water until it’s clean--your neighbors will appreciate it.”

Gravitt gave both of the objects an impressed look as the girl made the water run down each one to demonstrate how they worked.

Sarcasm began to replace the bored litany in their escort's voice. “Speaking of appreciate, we passed the communal showers for men four doors back. Ladies are three. I would suggest you both take advantage of them before you go out to meet anyone.” She wrinkled her nose at the two. “I’m sure you don’t wish to…offend?”

Apparently relieved that her job was done, she pulled Gravitt’s hand open, and dropped three bronze keys into it. “The next two rooms down this side of the hall are yours as well. Here are the keys. And do try to keep the noise down. The Premier’s quarters are just at the end of the hall and he’s a very busy man. Please don’t be bothering him.” With that she turned and left, not even looking back at the two men still staring into the privy.

Gravitt was silent for an instant, clearly torn between his surprise at the room and his rage over the girl’s arrogant attitude. He glared down at the keys in his hand as though they had become serpents and slammed one of them into Brinson’s palm. “I don’t need your services yet, but stay close, and don’t get any pretty ideas. You’ll need to feed yourselves this evening. I have a meeting to attend, so you’ll have to find something to… entertain yourself with until I return. I put some silver in your pack, more than enough for your stay here… I suggest you make it last. Dress like a gentleman in public.” His eyes became harder, almost demon-like as he continued, “And a simple warning; I better not hear of any performances you and your lady friend decide to give at local taverns. One mistake, one action or word that brings any unwanted attention to any of us, and you…”

He paused, as they both turned to see Darian climb up onto the windowsill with a bit of a struggle and press his nose against the glass to stare in wonder at the view. Leaning forward the cruel man gave the balance of his statement in a harsh whisper. “I mean that, Quake-Boy, you keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut. You and the bitch are already on my short list--my VERY short list. One more slip, one more screw up, and the crows are going to eat very well. Do you understand me?”

Brinson gave a nervous nod as a sneer crept across Gravitt’s face. “You should feel honored, I’ve never given anyone a warning before… In any event, the boy stays here until I tell you or her otherwise. Now get to your room.”

Without much of an acknowledgement, Brinson left, first giving a somewhat shaky and forced smile to Darian. He put the key in the lock of the door next to Gravitt’s and was surprised when it didn’t fit. Figures, he didn’t even look at the thing before he gave it to me.  However, it did open the next one down, and he smiled as he saw his room; a carbon copy of Gravitt’s, but decorated in rich plum tones.

He stepped inside and closed the door behind him. With little more than a shrug he dropped the heavy pack and bag he’d been carrying, walked to window and pulled open the heavy drape. He had to blink back tears from the brilliant sunlight, and it was a moment before he could begin to make out the details of the ground below. Interesting, there’s a small ledge that runs the length of the room…He unlatched the window and pushed it open, leaning out slightly. And it runs the length of the building too, from Gravitt’s room and down to… to… Hmmm, what’s this? There’s a balcony over there, with some pretty fancy stonework stairs… I wonder if that’s the Premier’s garden that girl was talking about? It would be tricky, but I’ll bet I could work my way down there… He smiled to himself thinking of some mischief he could
get into, but remembered Gravitt’s warning and reluctantly closed the window.

Stepping back, and busying himself with the task of unpacking, he threw his few belongings into the closet and the cedar chest, before falling backwards onto the soft bed. Staring up at the ceiling, and grinning, he closed his eyes and held onto his thoughts for a few moments—an indulgence he was rarely allowed—especially with Gravitt around.

I always dreamed it would be like this… and I do have some degree of freedom for a change, for the moment at least …there are things I need to do…but can’t I just enjoy myself? This place is incredible…So… comfortable, so clean. It’s not like any of the places that I’ve ever been. I’ve always wanted to return to the prairie, and never see a city or town again, but this? This is different… Wait til Sabre sees…SABRE!!

He scurried off the bed, her name still ringing in his head. As always, Gravitt had assigned her to take care of the horses. But she hadn’t returned yet—or had she? She would probably hate this place. It was fancy—too fancy. Regardless, he had to find her—if nothing else to just see her reaction to Vane. Besides, he had best warn her that Gravitt was going to be watching them closer this time, yet simultaneously making them self sufficient. It was already very strange. This time I can feel it, he is ready to do something… and would sacrifice all of us without an eyeblink’s hesitation.

He slipped out of the room, nearly forgetting to take his key, and subconsciously looked up and down the hall, searching for Gravitt. He carefully knocked on the door between his room and his master’s. No answer came, and he glanced around again as he wandered down the hall, determined to find her. He had only traveled one corridor when he realized he had absolutely no idea where he was. Wait a minute, there’s a staircase. We came up a staircase. It was a lot fancier than this one, but maybe I’ll see something downstairs I recognize. With that he quickly walked down to the first level, trying to keep the noise on the plain wooden stairs to a minimum. Once on the first floor, he stepped into a much wider hall, one with glow globes hung from the sides of the painted and stenciled walls and the floor covered by a thick red carpet. It was populated by a surprising number of passing girls and boys, all quietly talking to each other and dressed in tunics or dresses, which seemed to be a uniform of sorts. He felt out of place in his rough riding clothes, but these seemed to attract little attention. Or they were ignoring him--something he’d come to expect from most city dwellers.

He passed a room where something was obviously going on behind its enormous (but tightly closed) double doors. A loud male voice was being projected over whispers, and he stopped to listen to the muffled sounds. He really couldn’t make out what was being said, but it sounded like a meeting of sorts, an unruly one. I shouldn’t be so nosy, but it has proved to be a handy habit…and helped keep my hide intact more than once, so…

As he paused near the door, he didn’t notice a form approach him from behind. It wasn’t until a rustle of fabric scratched the tile floor that he spun around in a moment's panic. Suddenly, he was face to face with a beautiful black haired woman, who stared at him in some surprise. She spoke in a soft (if not a bit frazzled) voice; “I’m sorry I startled you. I’m late for the faculty meeting—it started at five. Oh! If you’re looking for dinner, we won’t be serving it until tomorrow night. I just hadn’t planned on anyone arriving early. I apologize for that—poor planning on my part, I guess. I’m sure you’ll be able to find something at the Mage’s Staff though.”

He stared at her in a daze as she blushed slightly, “I’m guess I’m not supposed to know about it, but I do. It’s a small tavern just outside the city wall—on the east side. Both the students and faculty take some of their meals there and it’s open quite late.”

“No, that’s…no trouble.” His words were sincere, but he was still mesmerized by the stunning woman.

“Can I sneak past you? I really need to get to that meeting,” she said, flashing a smile so perfect that it left him speechless. He managed to give her a shy smile as he pulled the door for her and stepped aside to let her pass.

“Thank you,” she whispered, giving him a gentle touch on the arm.

His eyes followed her—her dress sweeping behind her as she disappeared into the room. Brinson stood there for a moment, brushing the spot on his shirt where she had placed her hand. He stared at the now closed door and pondered the familiarity of the woman. She reminds me of someone… But who? He smiled as he heard the voice that only moments before had been roaring above the others pause, and the din cease on the mysterious woman’s entrance. I don’t know, but I do know Sabre’s going to kill me if I don’t find her soon.

Back down the suddenly empty hall he went, passing vacant classrooms on his right and left. Out of the blue, (and coming from just up ahead in the hall) a spew of curses caught his ear, so he followed the sound in hopes of finding someone to get directions from.

The source of the language was—to Brinson’s immediate surprise—a woman of average height and build. Standing on a chair, and scowling at the door’s crooked top hinge, she gave him little more than a glance. Then, with a snort and still ignoring his presence, she added a few more colorful adjectives as she shook her head.

Circling around the worker in an effort to get her attention, Brinson was able to get a better look at the foul-mouthed female. Her plain brown hair was sticking out from under a bandana and her clothes were completely out of place for Vane. Instead of the formal gowns or carefully tailored robes so common here, she wore a loose and rather stained shirt half-tucked into a pair of well-worn work pants. Even more unusual was the tool belt that hung off her waist at an almost sensual angle. This is a Vanetian? She’d look more at home in one of the towns, or even on the prairie.

“Excuse me?”

His voice seemed to surprise her as she turned to him and gazed at him appreciatively. “Hello…handsome. What’s your excuse?”

“What?” I don’t think any woman has ever looked at me like that…so this is what it feels like when we do it to them? I’m…I’m not so sure I like it…

She put a hand to her hip. “You just said excuse me—never mind. You look lost.”

“I am, I guess. I’m trying to find the stables.”

“I’m trying to find my mind. What’s your name, Blondie?”

Heat rushed to his ears as he said, “Brinson, why do you ask?”

She grinned at him as she jumped off the chair with a bit of fanfare. “I don’t talk to strangers.”

He tried not to laugh. “Oh, I see. And who are you?”

“I’m Artie to my friends, Artemus to those that aren’t my friends. I’m Chief Engineer and Architect of the Magic Guild, if there was such a title, but there’s not.” She fixed him with a quick look from her dark blue eyes. “I hope you’re going to call me Artie.”

“Okay, Artie… So what are you then?”

Artie kneeled down to a box of tools on the floor as she spoke, her tone friendly, amusing, and distracting all at the same time. “I’m the Mia Ausa of the flat head screwdriver, sweetie. The Gadget Maker in Chief, Queen of the Quick Fix, Master of Blueprints, or just the person everyone screams for when something’s broken. Right now I’m trying to get this door hung right. My guys didn’t do a good job of reading the level when they put it in.” She shook her head ruefully. “Not that that’s any major surprise.”

Brinson smiled to himself in disbelief at this enigma of a woman. “Can you tell me where the stables are?”

“I could if I wanted to, but I’m rather enjoying your company. Give me five minutes to fix this, and I’ll show you myself,” she said as she stood up and, with a smile, handed him a level.

Brinson looked down at the polished wood and brass-capped ends of the tool as he balanced it in one hand. “Fair enough. I guess you could use some help?”

She climbed back up onto the chair and smiled at him again. “Sure…thanks. Now hold the door up for me while I loosen the hinges and straighten how it’s set.”

Brinson did as she asked, watching her spin the screwdriver with a finesse that made him impressed and jealous at the same time. Everywhere he looked in Vane there was polished brass, silvered bronze, or other rare and hard to find metals. Wooden dowels had held most of the construction he’d seen before; Vane was rich indeed to be using materials like this. “So you know all about building and fixing things, how's that? I thought they only taught magic here.”

Artie motioned for him to hand her the level and she laid it along the side of the door, “Tap it just to the left. Once more…almost… There, don’t move. Now hold it steady.”

Brinson froze and supported the heavy oak door as the engineer tucked the level under her arm. Without barely a pause, Artie pulled the screwdriver out of her belt and began tightening the hinge screws, speaking as she did so.

“Well, they really do, and that’s what I came here for as a kid. My family has been building boats in Lann for centuries. When my parents realized I had a Gift, they sent me here. I wasn’t even really asked if I wanted to learn to use it. Some Gift, so I could make ripples in the water… very small ripples.” A frown crossed her face as she continued and fought against a stubborn screw. “Anyway, I somehow passed the Cave of Trials and found myself in class. But I hated it; I wasn’t a mage. I never wanted to be a blasted mage! I just wanted to build things, like my family’s done since, well… forever. The other students used to make fun of me because I always slacked off in my studies and spent all my time reading up on construction and architecture. Ghaleon almost expelled me because my grades were so low! Maybe he should have, I was ready to leave anyway.

“Then the world went totally insane. I went with everyone else when Mia evacuated the city and watched from a hill when Vane fell. I couldn’t believe it, y’know? I didn’t want to watch, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from it. Then, after that, I went to Meribia with the rest. That’s when they realized they needed someone like me—someone who relied on good old tools to do the work rather than magic.”

“Poetic justice, in way, I guess.”

“Something like that. But I didn’t think even poetic justice would taste so bitter.” She paused and tucked her screwdriver back into her belt.

“It must have been horrible,” Brinson said, knowing full well it was an understatement.

“Yeah, it was. As much as I didn’t like magic, I had friends here, so I guess helping them rebuild the city was only right. Anyway, let it go, let’s see how she swings.” Artie pushed the door and it fell right back into place. “Mental note. Don’t let magicians read levels.”

Brinson laughed, “So you going to show me the stables now?”

She nodded, “I have to get out there anyway. Nash wanted me to get a corral built. I doubt my guys have gotten very far on it—men cannot measure worth a shit. Hell, some of them can’t even tell six inches from a foot, if you know what I mean.”

It took a moment for Brinson to understand what Artie was implying and another to shake the shock from his face at her blunt and unexpectedly crude reply.

Seeing his response, she giggled, “I hope I didn’t offend you. I had eight older brothers and I grew up in a fishing village. Hell, I’ve heard it all, seen most of it, and in some cases even tried it.”

He smiled at her, “No, you didn’t offend me. Caught me off guard a little, but that’s okay.”

She winked at him, “Good. I was hoping you weren’t like some of these ultra-proper mages who lack a sense of humor.”

“I resemble that remark, I think,” a voice from behind them said.

“Speak of the devil,” Artie muttered to Brinson.

Brinson looked at the man who had appeared behind them; his features and stature were oddly familiar. It didn’t take more than a second for his mind to make the connections…the portrait in the tavern…the mage from Nerak. Although here he was cleaned up and dressed in a fine burgundy robe, there was no mistaking him- especially with the silly curl to his hair. I hope he doesn’t recognize me… Brinson fought to control the reaction on his face, carefully keeping a neutral (albeit slightly curious expression) while panic recoiled behind his tawny eyes. He stepped cautiously to the side and watched the exchange between the two Vanetians.

“I heard that, Master Artemus,” the man said jokingly.

She scowled at the man, “Don’t call me that, Nash. You know I’ll have to hurt you if you do.”

He smiled at her and offered a hand to help her off her perch, “Just teasing, Artie. You’ll need to get used to your title.” He looked over at Brinson, “Who’s your new assistant?”

Artie didn’t take his hand. Instead, she planted her palm on the short mage’s shoulder and used it as leverage to leap off the chair and land between the two men. “This guy? This guy is Brinson. I kinda found him wandering around and put him to work.”

“Oh? I thought indentured servitude had been banned some two hundred years ago? Be nice to our guests and prospective students, Artie. I think Mia would like to make friends and allies, not mortal enemies. By the way, how’s the corral coming?”

She pulled the pencil out from behind her ear, and then yanked a notepad out of the back pocket of her pants, crossing something off her list. “Heading out there to check on it right now. To be honest though, piss poor planning on someone else’s part does not automatically constitute an emergency on mine.”

Brinson noticed that Nash was obviously used to Artie’s colorful language, for he didn’t even flinch as she continued her rant.

Artie looked up from the notepad and down to the mage (who was a good inch shorter) as she said; “Besides the things I’m doing for you and the other counsel members, Majesty Mia gave me a list a mile long.” She waved the notebook at him and shook her head, her tone finding a bit of annoyance. “Please tell her to either get me more workers or to make up her mind. If I have to waste manpower on painting another room a different color because she’s having another damn mood swing or someone on her staff forgot to order the right color carpet--”

“I’ll mention something to her,” he said guardedly. “I’m sorry if you’re feeling pushed or used from all this—just know you’re not alone.”

Artie’s voice softened, “I know. I can only imagine what things you’re having to put up with. Don’t worry about it—but don’t think you don’t owe me one for this.”

“I owe you more than one, Artie. I know that.”

She gave him a playful poke in the chest, “And don’t think I won’t collect on them—someday.”

He flashed her a charismatic smile, and then changed the subject. “You know, come to think of it, I don’t recall seeing you at the last faculty meeting.”

The woman grinned at the mage as she restored her pencil to its home behind her ear, “I had things to do other than listen to you, Nash. What did I miss?” Not waiting for his answer, she turned and began gathering her equipment.

Brinson watched as Artie bent over to collect her tools, a small smile growing in appreciation of her comment and the fact that her action had presented an unexpectedly interesting landscape. He wasn’t surprised when the other man gave him a knowing look after admiring the view as well.

“Are you two done drooling yet or should I bend over again and give you another look?” Artie winked at them as she turned and straightened up, holding up a hammer with a shiny head. She gave a sly smile as she spoke; “It’s almost as good as a mirror. A bit distorted, but then so are you guys.”

Both men looked away, beyond embarrassed at being caught in the act, and finally Nash spoke, breaking the awkward silence that had followed: “Ah… Not all that much, I only called it to remind everyone that we are accepting anyone that wants to study magic, and that the faculty should be prepared to answer questions and interview prospective students.”

“I’m sure that went over real well,” she supplied dryly, putting the hammer back.

The magician shrugged and looked at the blonde haired man, “Some people here don’t want to change. Don’t let that stop you from taking classes, though. Don’t worry about them—let me worry about them.”

Brinson nodded, not really knowing what else to do. He thinks I’m a new student here? At my age?

“Anyway,” Nash continued, “I also said that I wanted everyone to go out and enjoy the Festival and that I expected to see everyone at all the receptions this week. That was it.”

Artie scoffed, “Oh I’ll enjoy it—when it’s over.”

He laughed at her. “Maybe, but don’t forget that I still want you to teach that class in your trade. Don’t even think you’re going to be able to get out of it.”

Artie raised a doubtful eyebrow at Nash as he smirked at Brinson, “Watch out, once she puts you to work, it’s hell to get out of it.” The mage paused, his smile faltering for a moment as a look of near recognition crossed his face. Then, with a distracted shake of his head, he turned to leave. “Just make the next faculty meeting, Artie--and start working on your class outline.”

She called to him as he made his way down the hall, “Yeah sure, just use some of that hocus pocus of yours to whip me up some forty hour days and I’ll get all of it done!”

Nash grinned as he made a pretend casting gesture towards her, and then turned to continue on his way.

Brinson felt a weight roll off his back as the man left. “Who was that?”

Artie said, “I must have said his name three times! Didn’t you pay any attention at all? You’re as bad as those kids he wants me teach. That’s Master Nash, one of the Heroes and our soon to be Premier. Some people don’t care for him, but he’s okay, when he wants to be--usually. At least I don’t mind him. To tell the truth, though, his female following makes me sick.”

“Female following?”

“The ‘ever so proper’ ladies of Vane that swoon whenever he’s around. It’s sad really. Everyone knows he’s got it bad for one woman, even if she treats him like crap.”

“You sure you’re not just jealous?”

Her reply came almost too fast and emphatic. “Of course not! I mean, Nash is a nice guy, or at least he treats me well enough. But he’s not my type. Any man who can’t swing a hammer can’t be all that good in the sack, y’know? Now you, on the other hand…”

Brinson felt a blush rush across his face—and realized that Artie had managed to get that reaction out of him more times in the few minutes he had spent with her than any group of rowdy drunkards he’d known in his entire life. “Sorry but I’m spoken for.”

Artie gave an exaggerated sigh and winked at him as she picked up her toolbox. “All the good ones seem to be these days.”

The engineer motioned for him to follow her, and together they strode down the hall, through another web of corridors, and finally out a door near the rear of the Guild. Brinson quickly became even more confused as he tried to keep up with her. But, the moment they stepped outside, and the sun was on his face, that familiar sense of North and South returned to him. The two of them made a quick right turn and walked to the main street of Vane. As they began wandering the down the wide lane, Brinson’s attention was focused upon the work being done on the city. Streets were being cleaned, market stalls were going up, and corners claimed by merchants--often in loud and angry voices. Artie whispered to him, “We’re going to pull an all-nighter and decorate the city with banners and such—sort of a surprise for Majesty Mia. It was Nash’s idea…but I don’t think he’ll be out here to help. Typical leader type, lots of suggestions but very little ‘hands-on’ when it comes to putting those ideas to work.”

It was with obvious relief that Brinson greeted the sight of the stable and its still half-completed corral just outside the city gates. With a small smile he nodded to the woman. “Thank you, Artie. I think I can find my way now.”

She smiled at him, “It was nothing.” Narrowing her eyes in the distance, and noticing that the spacing of the posts was drastically uneven, she growled, “I’m going to kill them! I’ll catch up with you later. Taken or not, you still have possibilities.”

Brinson watched in amazement as the engineer jogged off towards her workers and began haranguing at them with language that would have done a tribal shepherd proud. With a bemused grin, he stepped into the barn and began poking around its stalls and spaces looking for Sabre. Yet no matter where he peeked, she was nowhere to be found. However, he did see Matze; locked up in a huge, but clean stall, her head hanging out the top of the Dutch door. The proud mare whinnied at him as he started to walk past her, and he felt compelled to stop and give her a scratch on the neck. Looks like even you got the best place in the house… Just then, an all too familiar voice echoed through the stable as its owner’s appeared in the huge barn door, making his heart sink. It was Gravitt.

The large man sauntered down the aisle of the barn flanked by Brinson’s new engineer friend. Gravitt had an arm around the woman’s shoulder and was obviously turning on the charm, something that never failed to run a shiver down the Tribal’s spine. He nodded to Brinson in a manner that was almost sociable as they walked up to him. “So you’re Artemus, the brains behind the rebuilding of this place?”

Stay away from her, Gravitt…

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Artie said, giving the blonde man a look that fully told of her distrust of his employer. “I just fixed some minor things, drew a few floor plans--nothing special.”

The large man shrugged off her humility. “From what I hear, this place was almost beyond repair—without you, it would still be just a heap of dirt.”

“Not really…who told you that?” Artie ended the sentence with a desperate look to Brinson, as if begging him to get the man away from her.

“One of the guards at the city gate.” Gravitt turned to the Tribal, noticing the look the female shot him. “Do you two know each other?”

Artie spoke before Brinson could, “Yes, he’s is a friend of mine, and I need his help. Can we continue this discussion later?”

Gravitt smirked, recovering faster than expected, “Brinson, old friend! I almost didn’t recognize you in those riding clothes! Why didn’t you tell me you knew this wonderful young lady! Don’t you see what a small world it is, Miss? Brinson is my business associate.” The large man slapped a hand onto his shoulder, leaving it in place as he gave it a brutal squeeze. ”Why, He’s practically family. Aren’t you old friend?”

Artie produced a bit of a surprised look, but Brinson, trying to hide the wince from the sudden pain in his shoulder, couldn’t find the courage to meet her eyes as he spoke. “It’s true. Gravitt is one of my friends. I’ve known him most of my…life. It’s okay, he’s a…friend. You can trust him as much as I do.” Actually, you should run away…as far and as fast as you can…

The huge man smiled—it almost even looked genuine—at the woman as he released the grip on Brinson’s shoulder, pulling the hand back with an airy wave. “The guard also said that you offered your services free of charge. I admire charity like that.”

Sure you do…you think charity is killing children…

“Thanks,” Artie said in a quiet voice, her strain of skepticism dropping just a hair, but her glower burning holes into Brinson’s chest.

The snake continued, his hollow gray eyes showing the twisted workings of his mind as it processed all of this information for later use. “I’ve been wondering, and since you know all about building and such, tell me, will Vane ever fly again?”

“I wouldn’t even begin to guess about that. I deal with reality, things you can hold in your hand or pound into shape with a hammer. I don’t deal with magic. Ask one of the wizards here for that answer.” Artie’s tone was defiant and cold—it was clear she still didn’t trust him.

“You’ve got quite a lash on your tongue, little Miss. I just asked a civilized question, and as a friend of a friend, I would have hoped you to answer it.”

Artie frowned as she glared at Brinson--his face still dark from his forced lie. “Pardon me for being cynical. I’m just tired of that particular question.”

Gravitt gave a particularly well-rehearsed smile at the girl. “I understand, but would you indulge me? I don’t care what the wizards here think. I asked you—like you I put more faith in mechanics than magic.”

Artie’s sigh seemed say that if she didn’t answer this idiot’s question, he’d never leave her alone. “I can say from an engineering standpoint that I doubt it. I’m really not sure how they kept the damn thing in the air in the first place. To raise the city would take a miracle. I don’t even think the Silver Spire has that much magic.”

“The Silver Spire?”

Artie cocked her head as she played with the hammer on her belt. “One of the towers—it’s supposedly home to a lot of magic.”

“I see—it just stores magic?”

Brinson saw Artie shrug, but then he looked away, that feeling of dread, fright, and everything else that went along with Gravitt’s scheming returning to him. He heard her words, but he tried not to listen--it would only make matters worse later on. “I’m not real sure; stores, generates, distributes, or preserves it in a mason jar. I don’t really care. All that I know is that it and the Tower somehow survived the Fall—oh, they were tilted, something fierce—I’d say a good 20 degrees off center. I didn’t have a clue as how we were going to fix them—not that it was a priority at that point anyway. Then, the second a Guildmaster shows up, they straightened themselves as though nothing had ever happened. Heck, I never even got to lay a level on them.”

“Fascinating. I’d like to know more. You see, I am completely useless when it comes to magic, and it has always intrigued me. Something of a hobby, I guess. Like studying music yet not being able to sing.”

Artie, for the love of Althena, don’t tell him any of your city’s secrets…you can’t trust him and you shouldn’t trust me, either…

“Well I’m not the one to talk to about the Spire or the Tower for that matter. Like I said, I don’t mess with magic. I guess you could ask Majesty Mia or Master Nash…or maybe one of the other Heroes. They all used it when Ghaleon attacked Vane.” She paused a moment. “Actually, you could ask any of them right now if you really wanted to. It’s not too often they’re together.”

“All the Heroes are here?” There was a bit of panic in Gravitt's voice.

A rare feeling of satisfaction touched Brinson as he saw the expression on his master’s face. Something you probably didn’t plan on, Gravitt?

“Oh yes. I saw them arrive. They made quite an entrance—all of them. I mean, how can you miss a Dragon landing? Dragons are not something you see every day—not even in this crazy place.”

The large man gave a gruff laugh as he looked away for a moment to recover his composure. “Ah… yes, I guess that’s true enough. Anyway, it was nice to meet you, Artemus. Should you ever find yourself looking for employment, please let me know. My city has suffered greatly the last few years, what with storms earthquakes, and other problems, and could stand some renovations. You’ve done a marvelous job here with Vane, and I would be willing to pay you well for your work.”

Right, Gravitt. Storms, earthquakes, and other ‘problems’… of your creation, by your command or neglect… Your father left you one of the most prosperous cities in the world, and you’ve all but destroyed it.

Artie gave a brief nod to Gravitt. “Thank you, but I claim Vane as my home—even if I don’t always fit in. I could never leave it.”

“I understand,” the large man said, his tone laced with practiced sincerity. “I’ll leave you to your work. Please be gentle to Brinson—I need him for some presentations this week.”

Gravitt headed out of the barn, and Artie waited until they were alone before she spoke. “You work with that guy?”

The blonde haired man rubbed his face with a hand as he replied, “Yes. I mean, well he heads our delegation—from Briggatt.”

“He gives me the creeps. It’s hard to believe you would associate yourself with him. You seem like polar opposites.” She didn’t give him a chance to answer before wondering out loud, “ I don’t know why a trader would be so concerned about the Spire, though.”

Brinson hesitated for a moment--he wasn’t sure of the reasons himself now, but knew Gravitt well enough to be worried. “Strange things seem to hold his interest. I imagine he’ll forget about it soon enough, his attention span isn’t too great. Anyway, my friend isn’t here like I hope she’d be so I may as well go back to my room. I hope to see you again soon, Artie.”

“She? Now I’m jealous,” the engineer said with a wink.

Brinson smiled. “I’m sure we’ll meet again—and if you need help, let me know. I’ll be around for the festival.”

The engineer rolled her eyes, “Oh the festival” She gave an embellished slap to her forehead as she continued in a sarcastic voice: “Thanks for reminding me, that on top of everything else I have to finish overnight I’ve got to stay up and play ‘nice’ all day tomorrow.” She shook her head as she turned to go. “Well, maybe it won’t be so bad..…Sure thing, thanks Brinson, see you tomorrow.”

Before she could step away, he pulled on her shirt sleeve and whispered, “Artie, remember one thing: Appearances are all too often deceiving, but first impressions are painfully accurate. Please, never forget that.”

She gave him a puzzled look, and he didn’t dare to try and explain his statement. Feeling an unusually sharp pang of guilt over not being able to tell his new friend the truth about Gravitt (or himself for that matter) he kicked some dirt on the stable floor as turned and left. I am a coward…I am no better than he is…

Making his way back through the city, he stopped and finally took a good look at the place. Aside from the huge Manor, there were houses and shops; all brand new and all sporting the same luxury in their brickwork as the Guild itself. The streets invited him to venture down them and take a closer look at the architecture, but his conscious reminded him of his mission to find Sabre. We’ll have to go exploring tomorrow…

He returned to the huge building and weaved back down the halls, passing the familiar dining hall and classrooms as he tried to retrace his steps to their rooms. As he made a corner to find the stairs, he saw two people engaging a hushed conversation—an older man and the gorgeous woman he’d run into earlier. Not wanting to interrupt, or be seen, he pulled back behind the wall and observed their noticeably forced discussion. I really need to learn to stop eavesdropping… Yeah, maybe one day…

“You haven’t talked to Nash yet, have you?” That was the woman—her voice that same soft, yet musical tone she had used with him when they had met earlier.

“I’ve been hesitant to bring it up. I don’t want it to seem like I was taking advantage of his new office. I'm sure you've already noticed how that pride of his has a tendency to rear up at the most awkward of moments? No, making gold out of lead is child’s play compared to getting him to change his mind.”

The woman shook her head, “No, you know he wouldn’t think that of you. You’ve known him longer and better than any of us, and it is your decision. However, if you are having second thoughts, I don’t think it will make much difference. As far as I’m concerned, all the old laws and customs have been thrown out.”

“That may be true, my dear, but he’ll get more respect and support if it’s done according to the Old Code. Althena knows he needs all that he can get! It’s not an easy job to start with, and after everything that’s happened, it will only be harder.”

The woman looked away from the man, her eyes as distant as her voice. “Gregory, I don’t know why you are doing this, but I hope it’s not for my sake. I’m sure you’re going to be inundated with questions once it’s announced. I admit I am already curious, but I will respect Nash’s privacy. Others might not be so considerate, and I don’t want to put you through that—it wouldn’t be fair.”

The man lifted her chin with a tender hand, “I’ve been asked questions all my life, child. I think I can handle a few busy bodies. To answer your question as to why I’m doing this? Simple. It’s something that I should have done years ago, but my own demons kept me from going through with it. This just happens to give me an excuse to slay them once and for all.”

She hugged him, “Thank you, Gregory. I don’t mean to rush you, but you’ll need to mention it soon. Master Robin started to harass him about it today.”

The man returned her embrace and then stepped back, smiling at her as he held her hands. “That woman would test the patience of a rock, and most likely outlast it. I will speak with Nash…and I will also mention how cruel he has been towards you. There is no reason for him to be so disrespectful.”

“I can fight my own battles, Master Gregory.”

“I know you can. However, some battles do require the Calvary,” he said, giving her a respectful bow. “All the same, Majesty, for Vane, I believe I should.”

Majesty?! This is Mia Ausa? I can’t believe I didn’t recognize her! What with all the portraits of her with the others…no wonder she looked so familiar. Sabre’s right, sometimes I’m a complete idiot…


The old man held up his hand, his voice soft and filled with humor. “Child, you have people to entertain. Allow me to deal with Nash. After all, now he’s really my responsibility—assuming he agrees of course. There’s always that little matter of his ego, you know.”

She sighed and her companion responded, “You remind me so much of your grandmother—always wanting to take on the world with little or no help. She always refused to ask for it and was always reluctant to accept it. Yet, she became all the stronger when she realized she needed it. She would have been proud of her granddaughter.”

The mage draped his arm around her, and led her down the hall, their conversation continuing in low tones. I hope they didn’t see or sense me…

Relieved that he could finally get up the stairs, Brinson made it back to the wing their rooms were on after only taking one wrong turn. He mentally decided to draw himself a map of the labyrinthine Guild the first chance he got.

Brushing his hair back into place, he gently rapped on the door to the room he guessed Sabre had been assigned. As he had half expected, Darian answered and peered up at him, looking more than a little relieved at his presence.

“Where’s your mother kiddo?” He asked as he picked the boy up and entered the room.

Darian whispered, “Shh…Mommy’s sleeping.”

“Where’s Gravitt?” Brinson did his best to keep the suspicion and fear out of his voice, but failed miserably. He made his way into the center of the room, carefully navigating his way in the dim lighting around the cot that had been set up for Darian.

“I dunno. This is our room. Just me and Mommy.”

“Really?” Brinson looked over to the bed and saw Sabre’s small figure occupying the sheets.

“Yeah. And Mommy says that I can stay with her,” the child said, squirming a little.

That’s unusual…Brinson forced a smile as he returned the boy to his feet, not wanting to think of the cause behind their master’s strange decision.

“I want you to stay here, too. We could have fun! Mommy could dance and you could sing and tell stories!”

Brinson gave a look fraught with anguish, but quickly hid it behind his standard shy grin. “How long has Mommy been asleep?” She seems to be tired a lot more than usual lately…I hope nothing is wrong.

“I dunno. Awhile. I wanna go outside. It looks so pretty.”

“Let me wake Mommy up and we’ll go for dinner. Go get your shoes on.”

Darian did as he was told. The Tribal chuckled to himself as he watched the boy locate his shoes, pull them on, and proceed to go about the ordeal of tying them. This was a rather new skill for the child, and he was adamant about doing it himself. Knowing this would take at least another ten minutes; Brinson sat down on the bed next to Sabre’s still form and stared at her with a shameless thought of desire.

A tight sadness began to fill him as he thought of one morning, not too long ago, when he had tried to wake her with a kiss. Oh, it sounded so romantic at that moment—and just one little kiss wouldn’t hurt. Besides, she loved him, so how could her Gift harm him? Love was love! She had told him she’d once healed a minor injury for her mother with just pleasant thoughts and feelings. If she could heal like that, then how could she hurt him? Ignoring the many warnings she’d tried to give him, he had leaned over, and had barely touched his lips to hers before shockwaves rushed through his body, his eyes flashing open as he felt his hair stand on end. By the time he had realized that he couldn’t move, she had awakened and, in near horror, jerked herself upright to push him away.

Was it the passion they felt for each other? Was she just incredibly startled? Or was her curse so totally uncontrolled? He didn’t know, and from that moment feared he’d never know. She had started to cry, and he had slumped to the floor in exhaustion without even the strength to find words to comfort her. There must be a way…my love…and maybe we’ll find it here.

Everyday, every moment after that, when his eyes were on her he was entranced yet paranoid. But now, now there was finally hope—real hope! He would read every book, talk to every mage, even get an audience the Guildmaster if he had to, but he would find a solution. Then they could be together, for real. Then they could be the family he’d always dreamed of, then…then…. then they’d just have to free themselves from Gravitt…Oh, it sounds so easy…but I know it’s not…

As if summoned by his thoughts, heavy footsteps clomped towards the room. He was sure it was the man he loathed, and feared beyond all others. No one else, no matter how big or how strong, walked like that. It was a pounding, thudding step—one with years of arrogance and hatred behind it. He looked around for a place to hide, should the man decide to come in. He knew if Gravitt found him here the response would not be pleasant. His eyes darted about the room, under the bed, in the large closet…there were plenty of places…

They were not needed. The steps walked past the door, and continued down the hall at a brisk pace—Gravitt was on a mission. Without Marcus and Philip to report my every move, he’s been pretty lax this trip…I have a feeling…a bad feeling…this isn’t going to be one of our usual maneuvers…

He touched Sabre’s shoulder, brushing some of her bright red hair off it, and shaking her gently. Her eyes fluttered open and, after a moment’s confusion, she smiled at him. “Where’s Darian?”

“Tying his shoes,” he said, nodding in the direction of the cot by the door. “Are you feeling all right?”

She nodded as she hauled herself up to a sitting position. “Just a little tired I guess…probably from that trip.”

“It was a long one.” But once you could ride forever, longer than I could in fact…

She gazed around the large room, stretching in a long yawn. “One thing I have to say for Vane—they have very soft beds. I think I could stay here all day.”

“It’s a nice city… as far as cities go, I guess,” he said, moving himself closer so they were sitting next to each other on the huge bed.

She smiled at his motion, and with a shiver, pulled the covers up. He would have liked to think her reaction was because she was cold, but he knew better. The unconscious gesture was just another way reminding him of her deadly Gift. “You’ve been out then?”

“Only around the Guild—well, and the stables. I was looking for you. You have to see this place—they certainly spared no expense.”

She leaned her head on his shoulder and looked up at him. “Gravitt doesn’t care you’re wandering around?”

“No. He’s in scouting mode at the moment, I think. He just told me not to get any ideas and the rest of the usual ‘stay close’ speech.” He put an arm around her shoulders, giving a glance over to the now frustrated, and even more determined Darian at the opposite end of the room.

Her brow furrowed, “We can’t possibly…there are too many people here! Not to mention that these are not simple farmers or townsfolk, these are Mages!”

He combed a few fingers through her hair—the only real touch he could give her, and even then he had to be careful. “I know. But this time I think he’s up to something bigger. But whatever it is, he’s being awfully secretive about it and that scares me almost as much as he does.”

She closed her eyes and gingerly placed a hand upon his own, squeezing it slightly for a moment before she spoke, the rough black leather feeling like silk to him. “Yes…and that odd man in the tavern…the one that took Philip and Marcus? Who was he? And how did we get these special rooms anyway? Gravitt’s never been to Vane. Not only that, he’s trusting us too much. Darian is staying with me, and he said you were going to take us to dinner.”

He did his best not to tense at the not-quite-so-innocent gesture, but couldn’t help it. They never really got a chance to sit alone like this—and certainly never in such romantic surroundings. Trying to focus his thoughts, he spoke, his voice coarse as he felt his mouth running dry, “It’s strange all right, and I don’t like it. I don’t know if he’s going to try anything stupid, at least I hope he’s not—I just found out that all the Heroes are here. In fact, I ran into one earlier.”

Darian leaped on the bed and climbed between them, destroying the small amount of tenderness they were stealing from each other. Nearly shouting, he pointed proudly to his feet. “Look! I did it!”

“I’m so happy!” She exclaimed as she praised her son, but Brinson detected a bit of disappointment in her voice.

Or am I just wishing it were disappointment?

She turned back to him as she folded her arms around her child, as she asked excitedly, “You met a Hero? Which one?”

“Nash of Vane,” he replied with a proud smile. “I also learned that Matze used to be his horse. Seems that drunken Vanetian was more important than I thought he was.”

“Oh hell, I guess I should return her then.”

“No way! He lost that horse fair and square.”

She piqued an eyebrow at him, “You didn’t cheat?”

Darian, apparently irritated that he was not involved in the conversation, climbed off the bed and went to look out the window again.

“I didn’t have to. Besides, I don’t think anyone else will realize it. He didn’t recognize me. Hell, he was so drunk that night I’m surprised he could recognize himself. The only reason I met him was because I made a friend. I helped her hang a door. He was more interested in talking to her than he was to me—in fact he hardly even acknowledged my presence. You’ll like her, Sabre, she’s real down to earth.”

“Her?” She grumbled, and he flinched—he knew that fire temper was about to ignite.

“The engineer of the Guild. Nice girl. Her name’s Artie,” he said softly, hoping to quench the embers before they grew into flames.

“I see,” was the flat response.

“You’re not jealous, are you?”

She kicked the blankets off her and stood up, her voice at least twenty degrees colder than it had been only moments ago. “Nope, not in the slightest.”

“Sabre…” He pleaded, knowing he had touched a nerve, but managed to spare his own hide for the moment. Perhaps it was the physical limitations unfairly forced upon their relationship, or maybe just part of that fire-temper, but her jealousy was enough to drive him insane. Those blue-green eyes would blaze with raw anger, and her calm would soon break. He believed the cause to be more to be the former than the latter, for her envy was always in regards to him and other females. I wish you would just accept my feelings for you and realize there will never be another…no matter what…

“Let’s go find something to eat,” she said, changing the subject but her tone still holding the sharp edge of fury.

Deciding that food was more important than what ever was going on outside, Darian jumped up from his spot and ran between them, laughing and giggling, “Dinner! What we gonna eat? Something special?”

Sabre scooped him up into her arms and touched a gloved finger to his nose, her voice becoming gentle again. “Are you a hungry little monster?”

Darian nodded a vigorous ‘yes’ and asked to be put down. His mother smiled and let him go, and with a grin, he reached up and grabbed a hand from each of them, swinging himself between them as they left the room.

Someday, we’ll all be happy…and free of Gravitt…and then, we’ll be a family, my love…someday…it’s a big promise, but it will happen…I swear…


Dinner was uneventful, but Brinson did notice that the number of people both within and camped outside the city gates had nearly doubled in the few hours since he’d arrived. The Mage’s Staff was rather busy, trying to keep all of their patrons happy as well as turn the tables over for a higher profit. The tavern was probably the cleanest establishment of its kind that Brinson had ever been in, and to his pleasant surprise, the clientele were civilized for a change. I usually hate taking Darian into some of these holes, but this one is different, like this whole place is different… The food was remarkably good, but Sabre seemed too preoccupied to eat—she spent more time pushing food around her plate than she did putting it in her mouth. I know you’re worried…I am too…but you can’t starve yourself…

When they had finished dinner, she had wanted to hear him sing, and to dance to his songs, but Brinson told her (quietly, so that Darian couldn’t overhear) of Gravitt’s more than direct order not to be entertainers on this trip. She nodded to him in complete understanding, but he could see the disillusion in her eyes, and reached for her hand. I know we could have used the money…I’ll make it up to you…

They spent a few hours there; enjoying the tethered freedom Gravitt had granted them. Shortly after nine o’clock, the apparent local regulars began arriving and giving disdainful looks to those who were in town for the celebration. Just time for the crowd to turn a bit rowdy, the three of them started the short walk back to the Vane, their shadows cast in full by the Blue Star. Darian ran ahead towards the city gates, and stared, transfixed from his position on the ground at two workers who were being levitated by two mages, as they tried to hang a banner from the large arch. Sabre called to him, but Brinson pulled her into his embrace and whispered, “Don’t worry. I’m sure he’s fine. Just give me a moment?”

She smiled and let him hold her for a few minutes, his hands rubbing her back in smooth, soothing motions, and his thoughts wandering. She smiled up at him, and then rested her head on his chest. Brinson gave an audible sigh at her action; it was just what he wanted, no, needed right then. Normally, she would be nervous at such a bold move. He wasn’t ever really sure if her hesitation to touch him stemmed out  fear of Gravitt, her deadly Gift, or merely afraid of being able to find the will power to just keep it to just a simple hug. He's done some horrible things to her...I don't fault her for being afraid of people...but of me? I wish she would just trust me...or herself for that matter...

They stood in the shadow of the wall of the city; as if it’s pristine presence could protect them from all the evils they had faced and those that lay in wait. I love you, Sabre…but you know that…Finally, she pulled back and took his hand, leading him back into Vane in silence.

As they crossed the threshold into the city, Darian scampered up to them. The child was completely covered in mud and soaking wet. “I found some puddles!”

Sabre rolled her eyes, their brilliant color and spirit brought out by the many lanterns and glow globes that had been brought out for the Festival. “Then it’s bath time for you, silly boy!”

“No! Mommy! No!” He giggled as he tried to run away from them again. She chased him down the main street, Brinson following, and trying to dodge the many people still working on the decorations.

Darian was laughing so hard that he ran right smack into the legs of a man, startling him. Sabre caught up with the boy and scooped him into her arms, profusely apologizing to the still shocked victim. The mage nodded to her and then turned back to a rather intense conversation he was having two other (but certainly not local) men.

Brinson (who was never much of a runner) followed the two at a slow jog, and made it just in time to see whom it was that Darian had assaulted. It was Nash; there was certainly no mistaking the short mage he had met earlier in the Guild and in Nerak. The Tribal narrowed his eyes as he saw him stare at Sabre as she carried her son away. His skin prickled with envy as the Hero kept his eyes on her, his companions teasing him for his sudden fascination in the redhead. You could have any woman you want…stay away from mine…

“Darian…” Sabre scolded, the tone of her voice saying more than the simple word could possibly convey. They walked up to the Guild Manor with the boy’s eyes begging Brinson for some degree of salvation, which did not come.

“Brinson?” Sabre asked, her eyes full of concern as they stood in front of the main entrance to the building that was lit up as if it were day.


“Aren’t you going to bed?”

He shook his head, “No…I’ll check on the horses, and be up soon enough.”

She smiled at him and touched his cheek with her rough gloves, as he held the door for her, “I’ll see you in the morning then.”

He gave a shy grin and a nod as she vanished into the massive structure.

There has to be a way… and if it exists anywhere it exists here…If I can find it…


Sleep was obviously out of the question. Brinson visited the stable as he said he would, but even after the walk there and back he wasn’t in the mood to go to bed. He returned to the Guild, giving a quick wave to Artie who was repelling off the balcony above the entrance. He was a bit amused that she was cursing rather loudly at the man supporting her as she tried to straighten a banner flaunting the symbol of the House of Ausa—something he had gotten used to seeing everywhere in Vane. She is something else…

Once back in the Guild, he decided to try and find that answer. After their embrace, he wanted; no it was what he needed, now more than ever. Those precious few moments just left him aching for more. The mere sensation of her against him left him aroused and his body begging for her as his brain called for every iota of will power to not try anything that could harm them. There must be a way…someone must know…the Library…I’ll start in the Library…

Getting directions to the fabled Library of Vane was easy, and following them simpler still--second floor, west wing, you can’t miss it. It took only a matter of minutes to reach the described entrance, and after pushing the door open Brinson stared in awe of the elaborate room. Room, however was an understatement. The blond Tribal was dead mute as he began to wander up and down the long aisles, his eyes drifting over the scores of hand-bound books and leather folios. The racks seemed to run out into the distance as far as the eye could see, though he knew that couldn’t be true. The Guild was only so large; he’d seen it from outside, yet somehow this room seemed bigger than it could possibly be. It was as though the Library curved back onto itself without a corner or bend to be found. The man at the Mage’s Staff said it burned down…they did a wonderful job of restoring it…although some shelves are still bare…

Somehow, he wound up in the center of the room, standing next to a small ornate pedestal covered in a red and gold cloth. Curiosity overtook him and he lifted it to see a glass case, which contained a list of sorts. From the last two words on it, he guessed it to be the names of all the Ausas who had ever ruled Vane. Interesting, but not what I came here for…

As he replaced the drape, he forced himself to concentrate on the matter he needed information on. Sabre’s Gift…empath? Was that the word? Yes…empath… A moment later, he walked as if drawn to a certain area of the room and found himself standing in front of a bookcase. It's as though the room knew what I was looking for.. or wanted. I wonder…Ignoring the possible connotations of his question, he stared in wonder at an oddly colored series of books. Studies of Wild Magic on the Prairies of the Stadius Zone? It couldn’t be this easy, could it? The title made him even more suspicious about the Library and any strange powers it might have had, yet excited at the same time. Brinson reached out to the shelf and picked up the first volume, his fingers flipping the pages erratically as he scanned it in disbelief.

Then, with a sinking feeling of impending disaster, he again heard that only too familiar voice from nearby. A melodramatic bass with malicious undertones—it could only be Gravitt. Brinson could not mistake that intonation--not in a million years. Placing the book back onto the shelf, he eased around and glimpsed two dim shapes standing in a nearby alcove. They weren’t there when I came in…were they?

Though isolated somewhat from the rest of the room, their voices were obviously better overheard than they had intended. Gravitt and his companion (who was dressed in a hooded cloak) stood with their backs to Brinson and the rest of the Library. Even as close as he was, he couldn’t even tell if the other person was male or female for they had been careful to conceal their voice behind a rasp.

“I left your associates with our friend. He will need them to get us the rest of the beauties.”

“The two you have with you—can they be trusted?”

Gravitt snorted, “Trusted? No. Used, yes. Especially the whore. I have special plans for her.”

The other seemed to dismiss his statement with irritation. “Whatever, Did you bring the sample?”

“Yes, but you’ll have to help me in triggering them. I have enough for a demonstration on something like a tree or a rock, though I admit I’ve no idea how they’re supposed to work. I assume even your levitation spells can’t raise those things.”

“Things as small as that, of course I can—just about anyone on my level could. But none of us have the power to do the job we want—even combined. Your little.... presents, on the other hand can. I should be able to help with the activation--assuming you play your part, no one should be watching me. You will be guaranteed to impress the proletariat.”

“The what?”

The tone that responded expressed without measure the disgust Gravitt’s companion felt towards his lack of vocabulary, “The yokels.”

“Ah. And you’re the best?”

“Of course I am. Never doubt that for an instant. I killed the last man who did.”

“Impressive. What about the Guildmaster?”

“She’s got a lot of natural talent, so does her idiot Premier for that matter, but neither of them should be a match for me—and certainly not for you. They’ve been so preoccupied with this sophomoric festival and their lack of a relationship I’m surprised the place hasn’t fallen down in the past few months. They are so innocent of reality that it’s almost a pity to take advantage of them. Almost.”

“I have an idea how to deal with him. I’d venture to say without him around, she’d be easier to convince, or at least manipulate.”

The hooded person snickered, “She’d probably be the last to admit it, but everyone here knows it’s true. So yes, you venture correctly, although I don’t think you should kill him just yet. It would raise too much suspicion.”

“Kill him? No, not at all. I have a plan—one that might drive her to kill him—or better yet severely discredit him.”

“Are you going to share it?”

“No, I’m going to let you be as surprised as the Guildmaster. It will certainly drive them further apart, I’ll say that much. I heard they were lovers at one point. Is that correct?”


“How long ago?”

“Now you’ve got me really interested. I’d say…for three years or so, up until last December. It could have been longer—I don’t know if anything happened between them while they were off playing Heroes.”

“Perfect. Perfect timing. You’ll be amazed at my handy work, I assure you, my friend.”

“I hope so. We can’t afford to mess this up. We don’t have enough time for mistakes. Just remember no harm can come to her.”

“No harm better come to her—I’ll kill the man that touches her! You promised me she would be my prize for my role in this.”

“Some prize. Regardless, we need her alive--otherwise we’ll never be able to entire the Spire. She’s the blasted key to that place, without her no one gains entry.”

“Entry? To what?”

“To the Silver Spire, you simpleton. It’s the heart of Vane’s power. I’ve spent a lifetime studying it, and once inside I can…we can… control it. If we have the Guildmaster in our power… ”

Although he couldn’t see Gravitt’s face, Brinson knew his master had made the connection to the conversation with Artie earlier—he could tell just by the way his words became acidic. “Ah..Right. On a side note, I understand the Heroes are in town.”

“Yes, they are. We will have to wait until they leave before we make our final move. Mages and Wizards we can handle, but an ex-Dragonmaster and his barbarian friends could be another story.”

“I could have one of mine take care of them.”

“Don’t be an fool, again, too much suspicion. We’ll have to wait them out.”

“If you insist, but if they get in the way… I’ll find something to…. happen to them…”

The cloaked person hissed, “Don’t make a move without my order. I’ll contact you when we are to meet next.”

Gravitt turned and walked away, and by his pace Brinson knew he was angry. The other person stood there for another moment in dead silence, and once the huge man was gone, followed suit.

Oh Althena…here we go again…

**Author’s note…man, these chapters just keep getting bigger and bigger! Anyway, I know I promised Jessica for this one, but well, I decided CH9 would be better suited to her…until then…be good! --K’Arthur

PS: Some artwork for this story is available at: http://www.karthurville.com/equation