Rise from Ashes
There were plenty of other places Gregory would've rather been than Mia's office, but duty had called, and he reluctantly answered. She had asked the Council and Nash to personally greet the city's greatest benefactors just after lunch. He noticed that out of habit, they had arranged themselves in their usual order—Alastair, Tamora, Mia at the center, Robin, and then himself. Nash took the spot to Gregory's right, as far as possible from the Guildmaster. As one guest left, the Illusionist frowned at his son, who seemed distracted and irritated with the entire exercise.
"I know this is tedious, but do try to smile," he whispered to Nash as they waited for the next patron to be shown in. "If you think this is dull, just wait until you attend one of our Council meetings."
"Master Gregory," Robin hissed. "If you think our meetings are boring, perhaps you should resign."
"And miss the chance to enjoy your company, Master Robin?" Gregory teased. "Never."
"Don't mock me, Gregory."
"It is the truth, Master Robin," he answered with an honest smile. "I wouldn't know half my flaws if it weren't for you and your uncanny ability to point them out with such precision."
Nash tried to stifle a laugh. And failed.
"They always do this," Mia said, having moved to stand next to her new Premier, much to his surprise. Folding her hands demurely in front of her, she gave him a broad smile. "It's rather entertaining."
His response was a curt nod before busying himself by toying with the silver embroidery on the cuff of his burgundy robe. "I'll bet."
At his dismissive answer, her smile faded and she stepped back towards her space at the middle of the group.
"Most entertaining," Tamora echoed as she smoothed the front of red her dress and obviously tried to break the tension the two young mages managed to cause in matter of seconds. "Majesty, on the matters at hand, I must say, I'm impressed."
"Impressed, Master Tamora?" the Guildmaster asked.
"Yes. I sense nothing but altruistic motives from the benefactors we've met."
Alastair nodded in agreement. "Indeed, Majesty. The good nature of people is often underestimated. From the food that Lann provided to the books donated by Damon and even the livestock from Tempest and his tribe, Vane has been most fortunate."
"I wish Damon and Tempest had been able to come," Mia said, stealing a glance at Nash as she thought out loud. "I sent their invitations personally."
"While they are missed," Robin said, still holding a glare on the Illusionist. "I'm honestly pleased that no one has asked for a return favor. I figured at least some of this money would have strong strings attached."
"You're not old enough to be that cynical, Master Robin," Gregory said with a grin. But, before his verbal sparring partner could respond, the door opened, revealing their final guest.
The man had to duck to avoid hitting his head on the doorframe, though some of his dark brown hair still brushed it as he stepped inside. Although he had the build of an ox, he was rather attractive in a rough-hewn sort of way. With a measured, yet casual stride he carried himself with confidence that bordered on arrogance. His massive frame spoke of his strength and the grace with which he balanced on his feet told of his unmatched skill in combat. The bright red tunic he wore was of excellent quality, yet seemed somewhat out of place on him as though tailored for someone else of identical size and build. What truly captured Gregory's attention were his eyes. They were a steely silver-gray that seemed to harbor no empathy, and reminded the old man of a reptile.
"Gravitt of Briggatt," the man introduced himself with a perfectly executed bow to Mia.
"A pleasure to meet you, Master Gravitt," Mia replied, giving a slight tip of her head.
"I trust I'm not interrupting anything, Majesty," he replied as he looked at the rest of the assembly.
"Not at all," Mia answered. "Allow me to present my Council and Premier." With a dainty hand, she gestured to each as she introduced them by name. "Master Alastair Gaine, Master Tamora Dwyion, Master Robin Mikasa, Master Gregory Telka, and Master Nash Telka. We are all here to offer our gratitude."
"I am truly honored," Gravitt said, giving each a slight bow, his eyes darting curiously from Gregory to Nash.
"The pleasure is ours," Gregory answered, noticing just how rehearsed the man's genuflections seemed. "It is not every day we are honored with the duty of greeting those who helped Vane in our darkest hour."
At that, Tamora stepped forward and positioned herself slightly between the man and Mia, as if she were sharing some of the same apprehension with Gregory. Speaking through a forced smile, the brunette brushed a stray lock of her hair back into place. "As I understand it, Majesty, Master Gravitt was more than generous in his assistance to our esteemed city."
"It was nothing, and I was honored to help," the huge man answered, the words thick with a dubious kindness.
"It was hardly nothing," Robin said, pursing her unpainted lips in a way that told the Illusionist she was unimpressed.
Returning the Healer's look, he wondered just what this man would cost them in the end.
"Indeed," Alastair said, his tone still friendly. "Without your kind donations, I doubt we'd have been able to restore the Library at all."
"Or the rest of the Guild, for that matter," Tamora added.
"Shall we be calling you Master Gravitt?" the Robin asked, almost mockingly, as she looked between Mia and the man.
Gregory scowled at her obtuse insult, even if it flew over most of the heads in the room. He knew she was still sore about Nash—and many others—receiving the title without sitting for the exam. But honestly, he was wondering close to the same himself. How would Mia show her gratitude to this man?
Mia gave a slight gasp as she realized her faux pas and quickly gestured to the sofa and two large chairs in her office. "Please have a seat and please accept my sincerest apologies. I don't seem to know your title or proper name. I'm afraid the letters you included with your generous donations didn't mention that."
"Ah, it's just Gravitt, Majesty," the man answered, scratching his brow. "In Briggatt, we really don't have time for titles or namesakes. We see ourselves more as a community of equals. I merely have the honor of speaking for them, you might say."
Gregory gave a dark frown as the Guildmaster's eyes lit up at Gravitt's mention of a "community of equals." Such was her dream for Vane—a noble and reachable one—but the false sincerity Gregory heard in the man's voice grated on his nerves. As Mia lowered herself gracefully to sit next to their guest, the rest of them quickly rearranged themselves. Tamora sat next to Mia on the couch, Robin took the chair closest to Gravitt, and the three men remained standing, closing ranks among the group.
"Very well, Gravitt. Let's set aside the formality and, as you do in your homeland, speak as equals," Mia began, brushing at the fabric of her pale blue dress. "I asked you here to thank you personally for all you have done for us. You were by far one of our most generous donors, and yet I feel as though I know nothing about you, a situation I sincerely hope to rectify."
"Ah, you're most welcome, Majesty," he said, running a hand through his thick hair. "It does sadden me that you don't remember me, but then I shouldn't have expected you to."
Mia looked at the man quizzically, tilting her head and letting some of her locks fall to the side of her face, framing it perfectly.
"Many years ago, when my father Zigguratt was still alive, we traveled to Vane," he explained with a smile. "It was still flying then, and I was little more than a child. He came to bring some of the jewels from Briggatt here to trade. They have been our life's blood for longer than we have records. Anyway, I remember wandering the halls of the Guild fascinated with the magic, the school, and the society in general. My appearance must have come as a shock to many of the finer students, since we hadn't changed from our riding clothing and must have looked rather out of place to them."
Gregory coughed, not intentionally, and quickly offered his apologies for the interruption. Stealing a glance at Nash, he was pleased to see that the young man was looking at Mia longingly, expectantly. But, as soon as he noticed Gregory watching him, his face melted back into a stern facade.
"At some point," Gravitt continued. "I wandered away from my father and some how found myself in one of Vane's magnificent courtyards. I was very frightened and lost. I asked several people for directions but no one would talk to me—no one except a pretty little black haired girl who seemed to be hiding behind the pages of her book."
Mia blushed feverishly at Gravitt's description of her and touched a hand to the blue ribbon in her hair. "I remember now."
Glancing at his comrades, the Illusionist could tell he shared their discomfort as the Guildmaster become further enraptured in the story. Mia's trusting nature was being clearly plied by this man, but there was really nothing he could do to stop it. Not at this moment, at least.
"Yes, Majesty, it was you. You must have only been seven or eight years old at the time, but you put your book down and with a smile agreed to help me find my father. And, together we did."
A look of elated surprise manifested on the Guildmaster's face as the memory of that event returned to her. "We found him equally as lost—in the Library, as I recall."
The man's eyes warmed. "Yes. Well, I never forgot that small act of kindness or the feeling of amazement as I stood in the Library."
"All of this, just for that?" Robin asked skeptically.
"Yes," said Gravitt as he reached for Mia's hand, and to everyone's surprise, the Guildmaster didn't resist. "That, and because I've always longed to be a part of Vane. Ever since entering that Library and feeling the knowledge pulsing from within its very walls, I have wanted to study here, and to be part of this wonderful world. I wanted to learn about magic, even if I'm not one of those blessed with it. Then, after the tragedy of the Fall, I heard you were going to open your magnificent city to anyone who wished to study both magic and other subjects. I greatly admire that and knew that I had to help."
"Well, you've definitely been a big help," Nash said, clenching a fist at his side and clearly offended by the audacity of the man who just touched Mia so casually.
Still smiling, Mia placed her other hand on Gravitt's massive one. "I honestly don't know what to say. Of course you are welcome here now. I humbly apologize for the traditions of Vane past. I only wish I could have changed them earlier."
Nash grit his teeth at the gesture. "We're changing them now. We can't keep apologizing for the past, Mia."
"Yes, we are changing them," the Guildmaster answered, a tinge of hope in her voice and her eyes as she heard him use her name rather than her title. "Nash is right. We do have to look towards the future."
Gravitt glanced up at the young man. "He's right, though even your policy of allowing anyone in Vane won't help me." The benefactor gave a heavy, dramatic sigh as he clutched Mia's hand. "You see, I've been cursed with immunity to magic. It's as though it ceases to exist when it comes near me in any form. My father had the same problem, I'm afraid."
Gregory wanted to call the man himself a curse, but he held his tongue and placed a reassuring hand on Nash's shoulder.
"How fascinating—I've never heard of any magic like that, but how unfortunate for you," Mia answered, her voice soft with sympathy at the man's story. "Anti-magic, I suppose. Have any of you studied this phenomenon?" she asked her five trusted confidantes.
All of them shook their heads. All of them, except Gregory. He was seriously considering "accidentally" teleporting Mia back to her room, just to get her away from this man. He sensed that Gravitt was warming up to a favor—a favor that Vane probably would feel indebted to repay, no matter the consequences.
Gravitt gave a sad little smile to the group, and then stood up. "Well, even without magic I've managed to do rather well. Anyway, I don't want to take any more of your time, Majesty. It was a pleasure to finally meet you, and your distinguished company."
Mia rose to her feet politely, with Tamora and Robin following suit, the two women wisely keeping themselves close to their Guildmaster and the guest that clearly intrigued her. "Gravitt, I still don't know how to thank you," Mia said. "The least I can do is ask that you honor me by sitting at my table during the receptions this week."
Again, Gravitt bowed to her, this time not as gracefully as before. "No, it is I who would be honored with that offer, Majesty. Allow me to give you one more gift of good will before we part." Fishing around in his tunic pocket, he eventually produced a small box and reverently placed it in Mia's hands.
Quirking a brow, Gregory stepped closer to see what was in the package as Nash crossed his arms over his chest in disgust. Mia unwrapped the small gift and with her violet eyes widened in wonder, gazed down upon a magnificent necklace. It was composed of alternating diamonds and sapphires, cast into thick chain that was an odd silver-blue.
Mia lifted the necklace from its box and Tamora let out a gasp as the crowing glory of the gift came into her view. Hanging at the center, was a pendant—a large, deep blue stone that was almost the size of a robin's egg. As Mia turned it, a four-pointed star's sharp tips stood at ninety-degree angles and made themselves known. With every move the image of the star seemed to shift, growing brighter or dimmer, larger or smaller as the Guildmaster studied it with fascination.
"It's beautiful!" Mia said, looking at the man in awe. "Gravitt, again, I don't even know how to thank you. I've never seen such a stone. It's amazing, and I will treasure it."
"Master Tamora, would you be so kind?" Mia asked, holding the jewelry around her neck and obviously expecting the other woman to fasten the clasp.
"Perhaps I should affix a protection spell to it first, Majesty," Alastair said, giving a slight bow. "You know I always insist on such prudent precautions."
Gregory gave a nod of thanks to his colleague, knowing it would be best if one of them at least examine the thing before she wore it. Considering all that just transpired, his instincts told him they were dealing with some sort of soulless devil.
Mia slowly pulled the necklace off and placed it back in its box. "I hope you don't take offense, Master Gravitt. It is just one of the many ways Master Alastair ensures my safety. But I promise I will wear it to the reception tonight."
"No offense is taken, Majesty. It's just a small token of respect from the citizens of Briggatt. But it is nothing, your real gift—your gift from me—will be delivered later on this week."
The distrust Gregory saw in Nash's eyes was reflected in his own as he met his son's gaze.
"Your gifts seem to be unending," Robin said, her tone quite accusatory.
"Are you certain there's nothing we can do for you, Gravitt?" Mia asked.
"No, Majesty," the huge man said with a slight grin. "I require nothing since you have been most kind in finding exquisite accommodations for my entire delegation."
"It is the least we can do for you and your companions," Mia answered, a tight smile on her face as she glanced at Nash. "I would love to meet the rest of them. Though I believe I met your sister-in-law this morning."
"Funny, Sabre didn't mention that, though I do know that Highness Nash is well acquainted with my sister-in-law," Gravitt said, grinning at the young man. "It's not often that a woman of the Tribes can claim friendship with such distinguished company."
The color drained out of Nash's face as he felt all eyes in the room fall on him.
Gregory narrowed his gaze at Gravitt. Not only was this serpent trying to dispel suspicion from himself at Nash's expense, he found it quite odd that someone from the Stadius Zone would know the proper title of address for a Premier—especially one who had yet to be officially inaugurated.
"And how do you know this person, Master Nash?" Robin asked, not even bothering to hide the skepticism in her voice.
He gave the answer in a distracted mutter before turning his eyes to stare at Lemia's portrait on the opposite wall. "We were friends as children."
The Healer glared at him. "I see."
Gravitt gave a smirk, probably pleased with himself for the strife he was causing the young man. "Well then, I'll leave you with this—consider it a preview of the things to come," he said as he took a single green stone from his trouser pocket and went to place it in Mia's hand.
Tamora grabbed it before it could touch the Guildmaster's skin waved a hand over it to be sure nothing nefarious was within. Satisified it was safe, she beamed a maternal smile at Mia before handing her the stone.
Mia stared at the gem, it was crudely cut, and clearly not like anything she'd seen before. "There is strong magic here, but a kind I'm not familiar with. What is it?"
"That would spoil the surprise of your gift," Gravitt replied with a coy smile. "Just accept that for right now. I shall deliver the rest with an explanation in a few days. Let me just say that I have heard of your dream, and this is a part of making it come true."
"You don't need to—"
Gravitt smiled at Mia and touched a gentle hand to her cheek, much to the shock of the rest of the people in the room. "The only thing I ask is that you allow me to bring a caravan of carts into the city and grant me a few moments to speak at the reception tomorrow evening."
Gregory coughed, trying to fight back the urge to roll her eyes at this pathetic display. Not particularly caring for the way the man had touched the Guildmaster, he was pleased to see that Tamora stepped even closer her and put a maternal hand on her back.
"It would be my pleasure to allow it," Mia answered, her face burning from the compliments and touch.
"Following an inspection, of course," Alastair added.
"Of course. Thank you, Majesty," he said as he started to step backwards towards the door. "I can promise you won't be disappointed."
"I'm back," Brinson called as he stepped through door of the room he was sharing with Sabre. Not hearing a response, he set his pack down on the living room sofa and quietly opened the door to the bedroom.
Sabre was still asleep. She'd told him, hours before, that she wasn't feeling well and that she wanted to rest. He'd given her a nod and a smile as he set out to do the chores Gravitt had assigned, silently praying this illness was just a passing one and not anything that their master had inflicted.
Touching her shoulder, he whispered, "Hey, wake up. I brought supper."
"Supper?" she asked, turning over to face him but not opening her eyes. "It's supper time already?"
"I've been gone a good few hours," he replied, brushing his fingers through her hair and moving the conversation into their first language. "And before you ask, no, they're not back."
She sat up and stretched, frustration weaved into her expression. "Damn it."
"I'm sure Tristan is fine," he said gently. "Besides, Gravitt said not to expect them until after nightfall."
She stood up and walked out onto the small balcony to look out over Vane. "I'm surprised he gave us that much information."
"He can't afford to look like anything but the gentleman he's trying to convince all of these people he is," Brinson answered, following. "But I still don't know what he wants with Vane. He doesn't stand a chance—the guards, the army, the Heroes, the rules about keeping weapons out of the Guild Manor."
Sabre shrugged. "I guess we should be grateful he's behaving himself for once."
"We'll see how long that lasts," he said bitterly. "But I did get a few things accomplished."
"Some shopping - and Artie showed me how to use the library."
"The engineer of the Guild," he answered cautiously. "I helped her hang a door and she offered to help me."
Sabre snorted. "The tramp from the other night?"
Shaking his head, Brinson sighed. Sabre had always been distrustful, if not downright hateful, of other women. It was a sort of envy born out of her distorted perception that other women took their lives for granted. Although it was easy to rationalize why she felt this way, it was still something he'd begged her over the years to abandon. Though they rarely fought with each other, every time they did, it was over her misconceptions about his relationship with another woman. "Sabre," he pleaded, hoping she would just let it go this time.
With a nod, she sat down on the stone floor of the balcony but still fixed a glare on him. "Let's eat here."
Pleased that she was going to put her jealousy in check, he stepped inside to retrieve his pack and then joined her. The view of the city was breathtaking from the Guild Manor, and the sunset that was beginning to paint itself in the western sky just added more vibrancy and romance to the entire scene.
Brinson set the bag down and began taking things out of it. Delicious smelling warm meat, some cooked vegetables, and freshly baked breads were methodically unwrapped and set between the two of them.
"That looks yummy," she said, clearly already having forgotten her annoyance with him moments before.
"This isn't all I bought," he answered, his tawny eyes flickering with mischief. "But we'll save all of that for later. I'm hungry."
"Gravitt won't be happy," she said, tasting one of the breads. It had a distinct flavor she wasn't familiar with—a sharp cheese coupled with a sweet herb.
He gave a shrug. "I did what he wanted me to do. I bought an outfit to wear to that party they're having tomorrow night. I just spent the rest on other things."
"Your money or his?"
"Both," Brinson grinned, a mischievous glint in his eye. Sometimes he'd play cards in taverns where Gravitt would have them rest. Other times, he'd just steal it. Either way, it had become a habit of his to make sure that he always carried some silver. It let him feel less reliant on his master and provided him just a tiny bit of freedom. "Guess what they were selling?"
"Gowns?" she said with a smirk before taking one of the cooked potatoes from the small pile of food. "The women of Vane seem to enjoy wearing them."
He laughed. "No, though there were plenty if you're interested."
"I'd rather be dead then trapped in one of those things."
"I know," he said, sliding his glasses back up his nose with his index finger. "But what I bought is important, especially if we're really going to try and get away."
Stopping herself in mid bite of the potato, she pressed a gloved finger to his lips and instinctively looked over her shoulder for eavesdroppers. "You shouldn't talk about that so freely!"
He leaned closer and reached to touch her hair before whispering, "A higathe."
Her eyes widened. Those unique weapons were the trademark armament for his tribe, and the way they were made and used was a secret they'd kept closely guarded for generations. "Where is it?"
"The guards made me leave it with them before I entered the Guild Manor. But it's down with them, safe and secure."
"And away from where Gravitt will find it."
He nodded as he handed her a few slices of grilled eggplant. "Exactly. I haven't used one in years. I'll need to go out and practice with it a little."
With a skeptic brow she accepted it and took a bite, smiling at the flavor. "Do you think he'll notice? About the money, I mean."
"I doubt it. He seems pretty distracted here. He didn't even notice you were gone this morning, or if he did, he didn't care."
Brinson nodded and asked a question that he'd been dying to hear the answer to all day. "So are you going to tell me about your reunion with Ashu?"
"Not much to tell," she said quietly, finishing the last bit of her meat. "But he's not really Ashu anymore."
"Did you expect him to be?" Brinson asked gently.
"I honestly don't know. Of course, I really didn't expect to see him here."
"He'll be able to help us," Brinson said as he unfastened the strap that held his ponytail and shook his long blonde hair out.
She shook her head and met his eyes with a strong gaze. "I don't want him too involved. Gravitt is our problem to solve, not Ashu's and certainly not Vane's."
Tying his hair back up, he changed the subject just a little, knowing that she was right. Better they fight their own battles. "What did the two of you talk about?"
"What happened the night the Setin came and took me," she answered, standing up and leaning over the balcony again. "I didn't tell him much about how I live now. Like I said, I don't want him involved with Gravitt, but he does want to see if he can help me with my magic, and for Tristan's sake, I'm going to allow him to do that."
Rising up and standing behind her, he put his arms around her waist. "For your sake, too. I worry every time I see you get sick."
"And yours," she said, giving him a gentle, sideways glance. "If we do get out of here, I mean. Well, you know what I mean."
He rolled the braid in her hair between two fingers, yearning for the moment he'd be able to take the ribbons out and plait his own colors over her right ear. "Sabre, we've been over this a dozen times. It doesn't matter to me."
"Why?" he said, resting his chin atop her head. "I've told you as soon as we are free, we will marry by our traditions. We've wanted that for years. I've wanted that for years. So have you."
She shrugged him away. "Our traditions also say—"
"Tristan is the only child I need, Sabre," he interrupted, giving her shoulder a slight push to force her to turn around and face him.
With that sentiment, she gave a contented sigh as she leaned against his chest and allowed herself to enjoy a tiny smile as he held her.
After a long, blissful moment, he asked, "Did Ashu tell you anything about the plans for the week? Or did you learn anything about the world outside of Vane while you were riding?"
"Not too much about the plans, but quite a bit about the land." She slid her covered hands up his shirt, teasing him.
Shivering at her sudden touch, he closed his eyes and leaned into it. "Tomorrow night, then," he said, trying to focus on the conversation despite her attempt to distract him. "You and Tristan will leave during the reception and I'll follow. Gravitt wants me at it for some reason, but the minute it is over, I'll run."
"No," she replied, instantly pulling back from him. "I'm not going without you."
"Sabre, it's the best chance," he pleaded. "With all of his mercenaries gone, and Gravitt distracted, you can get away."
"It might be the best chance for me, but not for you," she answered, poking him in the chest.
Shaking her head for emphasis, she said, "I said no. What about on the last day? Ashu said they were having a ceremony for him. It will be busy, and there will probably be more people here."
"Gravitt hasn't told us his plans for Saturday and if the others return it will cause us problems."
The finality in her voice told him he would lose this debate. "He will go to that ceremony. I know it. You said he is all about keeping up appearances so he would take his men, too, if they come back. If that is the big event of the week, then I know he'll make sure to be there."
"Why are you so sure they're not coming back?"
"Just a feeling," she said, crossing her arms across her stomach. "Besides, he would have a hell of time fitting them into the story he's sold Vane."
"Maybe, but he'll definitely notice if we don't go with him."
"If he even wants us to go."
Drawing her back into his arms, he sighed. "He'll probably keep us close if there are going to be that many more people, Sabre."
She rested her forehead against his chest, letting her eyes trace the intricate Tribal patterns on his shirt. "So we leave just after breakfast. By the time he dresses in the morning, we'll be gone and he'll look awful suspicious if he's looking for us."
"I don't know about that. The sooner we can leave, the sooner I think we should," Brinson said, winding his fingers into her hair. "Tomorrow night feels like the best time to me. I'd meet you in the woods - "
"No, because the instant Gravitt realizes Tristan and I are gone, you're dead," she pleaded, grabbing onto his shirt and looking up at him desperately. "Besides, I'm not leaving without you! It doesn't matter if Tristan and I get away if you don't."
Muttering, he kissed her on the crown of her head. "I just don't want to miss our chance, that's all."
"Trust me," she said, placing her covered hands on his cheeks. "I know what Ashu told me. That ceremony, it will be big, it will be distracting, and if Gravitt wants to keep up his appearance as a benefactor, he will go."
"Ashu said he sent them a lot of money. That's what that means, right?"
He gave a nod. "So this is where all of that money has been going. I had my suspicions, but - "
She cut him off. "Ashu must never know."
"I won't tell him," he answered sourly. The thought that much of this fabled city he'd longed to see for years was rebuilt on Gravitt's blood money turned his stomach. Blood money he and Sabre had assisted in acquiring, no less. "Though I hope you will introduce us."
She nodded, but didn't leave the comfort of his arms. "Well, he wants to go riding again. That will be a good time." Then, giving a slight frown, she added, "He wants me to see a healer tomorrow. He said she might be able to help, but warned me that she isn't very nice."
"That's great, Sabre," he said excitedly as he gave her a gentle squeeze.
She shrugged. "I'm not holding out too much hope."
"I am," he answered, kissing her hair again. "I also bought something. For us."
She drew back and looked at him quizzically. "For us?"
He pulled a tiny vial of green liquid out of his pants pocket and placed it in her hand. "Seal potion. The man who was selling it said that the magicians of Vane use it to nullify the effects of their magic."
She gave him an incredulous look. Surely it couldn't be this easy? "Why would they do that?"
"Experimentation is what the merchant said," he answered. "But the effect is only good for about an hour, maybe less, and it can't be used too often."
"It must be very expensive," she said, still not believing the simple, temporary solution.
Brinson gave her a wink. "It is, but ah, let's just say that he didn't realize he had sold it."
"Thief," she teased him as she turned the tiny bit of glass carefully in her palm. "How do I use it?"
"Drink it," he whispered, his breath warm and tempting on her ear. "But I don't want you to do anything you don't want to do. I won't be hurt if you don't want to use it."
She stepped back into their room and sat on the bed, still examining the vial and considering the possibilities it contained. Drink a potion and her curse was broken for an hour? It couldn't be, but hope still tugged at her heart. All these years she'd never been able to touch her son or her lover. Tristan would only get a gentle pat on the back, or a touch on his shoulder, but never his mother's kiss. And Brinson? They'd touched, but only with gloves. Never a kiss, never a real caress. How she'd wanted to be with him so many times, to feel his skin against hers and to share a long, tender kiss. Now, it seemed she could have that, even if it was just an hour.
He sat next to her and watched as she quickly drank the potion, the contortion of her lips telling him it tasted terrible. "It's bitter isn't it?"
She nodded, and, still unconvinced, gingerly held her hand out to him, waiting to see if he would take the glove off.
Brinson gave her a reassuring smile as he tugged at the cuff of her glove, sliding it slowly off her hand before reaching forward with a single finger to touch her palm.
She winced, waiting for the inevitable rush of magic and pull of pain. But none came. Nothing at all! Looking up at him, still in awe at how simple this answer was, she whispered, "It works."
"I know," he said, entwining his fingers into hers, and relishing that first bit of touch they'd been able to enjoy in the dozen years they'd known each other. He leaned forward and pressed his forehead to hers, savoring her nearness, her warmth, and the mere feel of her skin. They had both wished for this for so long, but he was still hesitant. After some of the things Gravitt had done to her, the last thing he wanted was for her to feel pressured or uncomfortable.
Fortunately, she took care of that notion for him. "Kiss me," she whispered, struggling to keep the tears smoldering in the corners of her eyes from falling. "Please."
Delicately, and with the utmost reverence, he lifted her chin and let his eyes follow hers in a desperate dance for less than a moment. Parting his lips, he pressed them to hers in a gentle touch, barely a caress.
Sabre returned it, her fervor asking him to give her another deeper, more passionate kiss, and he did. Spreading his lips over hers and holding her breath inside of him, he pulled her closer. One of his hands wandered along the back of her neck, his fingers deftly walking along the nape, teasing the tender skin and begging her for more.
"Goddess," he whispered, when it finally broke, his breath hitching in between kisses hurriedly placed along her neck. "I love you, Sabre."
Between his words, the kisses, the fact that his touch was so giving, so gentle, so perfect, she couldn't choke back the tears any longer. A few slipped down her cheeks.
"Sabre, are you all right?" he asked, brushing them away tenderly with a finger.
"Yes," She paused before dragging the back of her hand along his cheek. "I've just always wondered what kissing you would feel like. And now I know. I know that I like it. I like it a lot."
"Me too," he said with a tender smile. It was everything he had imagined all of these years and as selfish as it was, he wanted more.
She must've read his mind. She tugged off her shirt and then pressed herself against him, claiming another kiss. Tugging at the strap of leather he wore in his hair, she freed his long, blonde locks from their prison of a ponytail and hungrily ran her hands through it. They only had an hour, damn it, and she was clearly determined to make the most of it.
Brinson pulled her into his lap and assailed her with a trail of tiny kisses from her ear to her neck. His hands busied themselves with caressing the small of her back, as he prayed this could last forever.
Bowing into his touch, she wrapped her arms around her neck and claimed another kiss. When she finally released him, she whispered, nearly breathless into his ear. "I trust you and I love you, Brinson. You can do whatever you want to me."
"I want to do what you want," he mumbled as he rested his lips on her forehead. That statement wasn't really the truth, though. No, what he really wanted to do was to lay her back on the bed and make love to her. "Nothing more, Sabre. Just what you want, my love."
"What I want, my love," she echoed, kissing his cheek. Wrapping her legs around his waist, she leaned back, and gently pulled him on top of her. "Is for you to never stop touching me."
Gravitt nearly beat the door off the frame with two knocks and gave a look of disgust as Brinson opened it. It seemed so surreal to the Tribesman that only a few hours had passed since he'd fallen asleep next to Sabre. Dreams that had been unreachable only hours before had managed to manifest themselves and thoughts of the future—escape and beyond—were within reach.
But now, reality was right here, glowering at him in the face.
"Mommy!" Tristan called as he ran through the tension between the two men and into Sabre's arms. "We went on an adventure!"
She smiled and embraced the child, but Gravitt didn't give them even a moment before making a demand.
"Mommy and I need to talk," Gravitt said, curling his tongue savagely around the first word as he pulled her away from the child.
"Okay," Tristan answered, releasing his mother.
Sabre forced a smile at the boy. "Stay with Brinson. I'll be right back."
As she walked past him and towards Gravitt, Brinson reached to brush his hand across her back, a gesture that yielded him a smile from her and a harsh stare from their master.
Closing the door behind them, the blonde man turned to the boy and led him towards the sofa. He didn't care much for the answer, but any sort of discussion was worth the effort to try and occupy his mind with thoughts of something other than Sabre and her likely plight next door. "Where did you go?"
The little boy climbed up next to the man and shrugged. "Gravitt called it 'The Ruins.' It smelled bad."
"Like metal. But Phillip and Marcus were there."
"Really?" Brinson asked, reaching a paternal hand to brush the child's thick auburn hair from his eyes.
"So were the rest of Gravitt's friends."
"What were they doing?"
"They packed up really big carts," the boy said, spreading his arms to emphasize the impressive size. "With big pieces of metal. We brought them back with us."
"The pieces of metal or the men?"
"Both, but the men left when we got back here. I don't think they wanted to go back with the Bird Man."
Brinson smiled at the child. "The Bird Man?"
"He looked like a bird." The boy curled a finger and put it on his nose to mimic a beak. "He yelled a lot and he smelled like metal, too."
Before he could ask the boy another question, Gravitt's angry voice carried through the wall, but the exact words were muffled. Brinson's heart broke as he thought of what was going on next door, and he cursed himself for being unable to stop it. Instinctively, he pulled the child to his chest and closed his eyes, saying a silent prayer to Althena that Sabre would be all right.
"Brinson?" Tristan asked, confused. "Is something wrong?"
"No, no," he lied, slowly releasing the child from his arms as the noise from Gravitt's room died down. "Actually, I have something for you. Get my pack on the table."
The child ran towards the bag and struggled to lift it. Mustering all of his strength, he awkwardly carried it, his eyes shining with anticipation.
Brinson reached into the pack and pretended to sift around through the contents as the little boy watched anxiously. After a few moments of enjoying the excitement in Tristan's eyes, he produced a hand puppet in the shape of a dog. It was an exquisitely made toy; soft brown rabbit fur with bright button eyes that brought radiance to the boy's face as he looked at it. Holding it out to the child, he gave a fond laugh. "You keep saying that you want a puppy."
Tristan held the toy to his small chest and beamed back at the man. "Thank you, Brinson!"
"But it has to be a secret. You can't tell Gravitt, okay?" he said, trying to ignore the peculiar, disturbing silence next door.
"I promise," Tristan said, holding a hand over his heart. "He made me keep a secret, too. But Mommy said his secrets don't count."
"What secret was that?"
"That I'm his nephew," he said, putting his hand inside the puppet to make it open it's mouth. "What's that mean?"
Brinson hoped his expression didn't tell of his disgust as he answered the child. "It just means he's looking out for you."
"Oh," the boy answered, his attention quickly refocused on his new toy. "I'm gonna name him Misha."
The blonde man smiled. He and Sabre had been teaching the child their first language whenever Gravitt's back was turned, and it pleased him to hear the boy using it. "Do you remember what it means?"
"Very good," Brinson answered him in Tribal before changing back to the common language. "But there's something special about it. If you say it before the name of someone you care a lot about, it means 'my love,' but you only use that for very special people."
"Misha Brinson!" Tristan answered with a giggle, trying out his newfound knowledge.
He smiled at the innocent misuse of the word and glanced up to see Sabre standing in the doorway. She repeated the simple phrase, but her eyes were distant and her expression neutral. He didn't need to ask why.
Lumbering footsteps followed her as Gravitt appeared behind her. Using a most phony musical voice, he called, "Tristan, it's time for bed!"
The little boy handed Brinson his new toy and gave him a quick hug before trotting off towards his mother. She embraced him for a moment and then closed her eyes as Gravitt picked him up.
"Remember what we discussed, Mommy," their Master said as he carried the boy off.
Stepping into the hallway to catch just one more glimpse of her son, Sabre leaned on the frame. When the door to Gravitt's room closed, she came back into the room and sat down on the bed, defeated.
"I'm sorry," he said, sitting behind her and repeating the conversation they seemed to have far too often.
"Nothing to be sorry for. Besides, he didn't-"
"Sabre…" he whispered her name as he smoothed a hand through her hair.
"He can smell now," she said tepidly, glancing up into his tawny eyes. "I don't know how, but he can, and he says he can smell better than most humans. He said he doesn't know how we were able to touch, but if he smells you on me again, he will kill us all."
"We'll be rid of him soon, Sabre," he answered, scooting himself up behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist. "I swear it. I swear it to Althena, my love."
She let him have that small contact though it only served to remind them both of the bliss they'd shared only hours before. "He wants me to keep Ashu close. He knows I spoke with him. He knows we went for a ride."
"Does he know that Ashu is your brother?"
"No. Just that we are friends," she frowned. "Actually, I think he believes we're more than that, but I'm just afraid he's going to do something. Ashu doesn't deserve to have his name ruined by Gravitt making up stories."
"Ashu can handle himself, Sabre," he whispered, playing with the plait in her hair. "You need to worry about you, about Tristan, not about Ashu. Trust me, I'm sure it's not the first time and it won't be the last time that he's been the subject of vicious rumors."
She gave a slight nod and entwined her covered hands into his. "Thank you."