“And she’s a girl dragon? Dragonet?” Mina asked, voice briefly taking on a distracted aspect.
“She is. Why? Think it makes a difference?”
“No idea. But it might. Is there any way to discover those details about the Barrakai and slith who left? Were they all opposite gender pairings?”
That left him without much to say for a moment. “You don’t sound like any other woman I’ve ever met,” he confessed. “Bold as a Barrakai lass, but… smart. You know things. You understand things that are more than I can grasp. I am not a stupid man, my lady, but…” He let his voice trail off, shrugging.
“No. Clearly not stupid. Not really educated either. Can you read?”
“Read?” He shook his head. “I know a few common sigils, but that’s all.” He knew that wasn’t really ‘reading’ the way she meant it. Sigils were tradecraft icons shop owners and other business folk painted on their signs to let people know what they sold. Most people, even the illiterate, could suss them out.
Her smile wasn’t the least bit mocking, though he’d half expected it to be. “Of course. Well, that’s how I learned things. By reading books. There were thousands where I grew up, most dating back to the Empire.”
He’d heard of books, of course. He’d seen them from time to time. The idea that someone pour knowledge onto paper so someone else might absorb it? He found it baffling. He would have called it impossible, yet clearly this woman had knowledge he couldn’t imagine gaining by ordinary means. He would have never considered the possibility that she was a girl and he a boy could have made a difference. But what if it did have something to do with it? What if there were a way to increase the likelihood of pairings? What if they could finally find a way to end the long war between Barrakai and slith?
It seemed too much to hope for. Hard not to think of it anyway. “I wish there was a way to know for sure.”
“Maybe there is. Maybe we shall undertake to study it, once we get my sister back. To go up into the Barrakai hills and observe the interactions of your people and the slith.”
Again, she’d left him without anything to say. What could he say to that? It was insane, of course. Madness. They’d fall prey to slith themselves, trying to study such a thing. Who would be mad enough to think of such a thing? His people would never tolerate it either.
He nearly said as much but held it back. Why antagonize her to no purpose? She was his employer, after all, though he began to suspect if she might be a little mad as lowlanders saw such things. To think of observing the Barrakai and slith to record their interactions? Surely madness, if anything was.
Yet something about it seemed oddly enticing. To learn new things. To see something he’d always taken one way and try to look at it in another. It was another kind of adaptability. Oh, sure, his people could adapt to nearly anything the world threw at them. It had helped keep him alive this long, hadn’t it? But what she was talking about here wasn’t adapting oneself to the environment, or shaping the environment to suit a particular need. No, it was shaping the way one looked at things. Seeing it from a slightly different angle.
He’d never considered it before.
She watched him in silence for a long moment, a tiny smile playing at the side of her mouth.
“Who are you people?” he finally asked. “You’re no noble. Or at least, you’re a noble the likes of which I’ve ever seen. Those two over there are nobles, sure enough. Dumb as a stump and twice as useless…”
“You’re sitting on a stump,” she pointed out. He had built the fire-pit to make use of a natural seat.
“Don’t try to distract me.”
“Who said I was trying to distract you?” she asked, scooting a little closer to him.
He saw firelight dance across bare skin and wondered how she’d shed clothes so quickly. Then, before he could make assumptions about it, she seemed to be wearing clothes again. Had it been a trick of the light? But, no. She had different clothes on. At least, she’d changed into a longer, looser shirt, divesting herself of the chainmail cuirass.
He wore a jacket of studded leather and small steel plates he’d had commissioned some years back. It turned most of what he needed it to turn, though he’d had to patch it a few times. It probably weighed as much as that cuirass, he thought, and I’m damn near twice her size.
Not quite literally. She wasn’t small. Not really. She was lithe in much the same way that Vex was, supple muscle and effortless grace. “Nightsong isn’t a noble’s name,” he blurted out. Well, he could have handled that better, he decided, but done was done. “It’s like no surname I’ve ever heard of.”
“You’ve never been to Northwestern Ruall, have you?” To the Abriada Isles?”
“What? No. Why?”
“There’s a school there on one of the islands. I can’t tell you which one. It takes in talented people and teaches them how to use those talents. A lot of noble houses send their children to this school for specialized training. But you don’t have to be noble to attend. They probably take in more orphans than nobles.”
“And you’re talented?” he asked, lifted a brow at her.
Her bold wink took him aback, as did her verbal reply. “You have no idea.”
He blinked at her. That had been completely unexpected. The woman was flirting with him. No way could she be a noble, no matter how progressive. To flirt with a commoner, and a hill barbarian no less? Inconceivable.
His gaping stare earned him a poke in the ribs with a stiffened forefinger. It found muscle rather than naked ribs, but he could imagine it tickled anyway. A part of him wanted it to, for her touch to bring him to laughter. “You look like a fish,” she told him. “Pucker up.”
“So you went to this school. You’re not a noble, are you?”
She shook her head. “Nope. My parents were merchants. Successful enough, I suppose, but nowhere rich enough to send me to this school. But someone had noticed me. Not sure how. Messenger came, with not only an offer to send me to the school for free, but to pay my parents to allow them to educate me.
“Hard to say no to that.”
He hadn’t heard of this school, but he had the feeling that this wasn’t an unusual condition. Most people probably knew nothing of it. “And what talents did you develop there?” he asked her.
“Now that,” she said, “would be telling.”
“Ha ha. If you’re not going to tell, why bring it up?”
She laughed, shaking her head. “You’re a gift, Hillman, you know that? More than anything I need someone near me who I can trust to tell me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear. Or expect to hear.”
“Glad I could be of service. So now I understand more of this, I think. I understand a bit more about you, if you went to this strange school that teaches lowland women to be more like highlander women. I approve, I assure you. I mean no criticism.”
This prompted another chuckle. “And just when I think you cannot surprise me, you show me the wit and grace of an accomplished courtier. You are a wonder to me, Bastion Wolvish of the Barrakai Hills. I am so very glad I met you.”
“And I, you.” Now, feeling far more comfortable with her than he had even a few moments earlier, he thought he might test their growing rapport. “So if you’re not a noble, I think I see why they felt comfortable grabbing your sister, who I also assume is not a noble.”
“You imagine right. But it wasn’t her nobility or lack of it that caught their attention. My sister is a witch.”
“A what?” he cut short a laugh of his own, one that would have woken both their companions. “There’s no such thing as witches,” he said firmly.
“So you know oh so much about such things, I suppose, Mister Barrakai Hillman who cannot read.” What had recently been a soft tone grew hard, and edged.
That had gone off track quickly. He gave a quick, seated bow as best he could, holding it long enough to show that he’d not meant to mock her. “I have heard stories that the Empire pursued and killed witches, but I’d thought they were only stories.”
She nodded. “Those stories are true. The Empire was very specific about who could and couldn’t own or use magic within its borders. They had wizards that did nothing but look for people using magic without official leave. Those people they called ‘witches.’”
“So why do you call your sister a witch now?”
“Because that’s the official term for a woman trained outside the established official schools sanctioned by the old empire and its three remaining gods.”
He repeated the phrase “three remaining gods” and frowned. “What gods are these?”
“I’m not sure I should get into it now. Let’s just say they don’t always want what’s best for mankind and leave it at that.”
“I’m not sure mankind wants what’s best for mankind,” he told her, thinking back on the decade and a half he and Vex had spent learning the lands of the Broken Empire, and the bloody minded, greedy fools and maniacs with weapons he’d encountered seemingly behind every building and tree.
She didn’t bother to argue the statement and instead they sat in companionable silence for a while. He was okay with people believing in gods, as long as they didn’t try to force the issue. That would be as mad as him trying to make folks not believe in gods.
Magic, to him, had always seemed like something that, if it existed at all, had died out while the world was young. She was telling him that it hadn’t and he believed her no matter how weird it seemed. The whole thing now made a kind of lopsided sense. Before, it had made no sense to him at all.
That’s what happened when you were in full possession of all the facts. Puzzle pieces sliding into place were unmistakable, even if they didn’t seem right at first. “So what’s with these two?”
“They’re assigned to help me.”
“Those two? With what? Any jousting you might need done?”
She flushed a little. “Stop that. Maybe they’re not up to your standards, barbarian, but they’ve been loyal companions so far. I won’t have you mocking their efforts.”
“I apologize. Again.” Then, with a chuckle, “I think you may be the only person I’ve ever apologized to twice.”
She seemed uncertain of how to take that. This time it was his turn to wink at her. “Stoke the fire, won’t you? I’ll be back in a few minutes with a couple of rabbits. We’ll do roast rabbit for breakfast before we head out.”