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[P] Severance; Private
Topic Started: Sat Dec 16, 2017 1:19 am (339 Views)
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"Right here, Keeper Leihra." The woman spoke, indicating to the table between them. The two men on either side of Leihra led her forward, keeping a professional level of attention as she set down the box of belongings on the table. The woman pulled the box to herself, beginning to sort through the contents. Several journals, a box holding a pen, a set of spectacles, and a few small soapstone carvings.

Leihra stood awkwardly as she studied each object, scanning every page of the journals and giving them a magical once-over looking for hidden information. Leihra held her right arm across herself self-consciously, holding her elbow and running her thumb over the surface of the ivory forearm. It was smooth, carved and polished to resemble her old limb. Spellforms were engraved in its surface and chased with bronze. Beautiful and functional, the limb had been a negotiated part of her severance pay, choosing it over a cheaper prosthetic made from steel or similar metal that was the standard for League-compensated injuries on the job.

One of the journals was set aside and she winced. It would likely be burned. She hadn't had time to collect much since starting at the League. She'd been lucky to find a position higher than clerical work, but connections at the academy and extremely good testing results had made her a good catch forthe job. She'd only slipped up once.

It had only taken one mistake.

Piling everything into the box with little gentleness, the woman pushed her belongings back to her. "There are notes regarding several inmates in the journal, it will have to be confiscated. Other than that, everything appears to be in order. Confidential memories will be redacted and detailed in our archive, any leaks down the road will be traced back to you and you will be brought in per your signing contract." She spoke in a clinical tone, detached and clear. Leihra nodded, unable to meet her eyes. She focused on the box instead, at the mostly empty container holding everything she owned in the world.

"This is the remainder of your severance. It should be sufficient to keep you until you can find employment. Thank you for your service, Keeper." She took the journal, tucking it under an arm as she left the room. A man came in, but she didn't look up at his face. It didn't seem to matter. turning to face him, she focused on his suit. It was extremely fine, precisely cut and made of expensive materials. The style was at the peak of fashion, very likely costing a small fortune. "Good evening, Mistress Leihra. I'm to understand we're doing a redaction today. No use putting it off. Please hold still."

She focused on a small pin on his collar, nodding idly. Delicate fingers lay on her skull, pressing his thumbs to her temples and sliding his fingers back along her neck, palms on her cheeks. Cradling her head, he inhaled steadily. "Please focus on my breathing and try to relax." He said softly.

The pin was gold, rounded except for a silver square set in its face. The silver held a small golden M in its center, a monogram fitting someone so self-aware to keep on top of the heights of fashion.

She felt him in her mind, probing tendrils sliding between memories, cutting with surgical precision. He lingered in several spots, but she couldn't tell across their connection what he was thinking. Memories were folded and sealed, closed off completely. They weren't gone, she just wouldn't be able to access them. The enchantments were extremely powerful, moreso than most she had ever seen in person.

It only seemed like a few moments, but she came to herself as his hands left and the probing tendrils slipped free of her mind, leaving behind a quiet, muddled blanket over her thoughts. She felt exhausted, like she'd been awake for a day and a half and needed rest.

"The sensation should pass in an hour or so. You were an excellent patient. If these are dismantled by anyone besides myself, your mind will be scrambled by the energy tucked into each pocket. If you suspect the spellwork is fraying, please come back to us and we will inspect them for you. Have a good life." She didn't respond as he left. At some point the guards had left them alone. The mental connection had only seemed like a moment, but her legs ached. Sitting back against the table, she picked up one of the soapstone carvings. Wrapping her fist around the small desert fox, she pressed cold ivory fingers against the bridge of her nose and clamped her eyes shut, heaving quietly with suppressed sobs as hot tears stung her cheeks.

Leihra dropped the bag on the table, dropping into a seat at the booth. There were any number of open tables, but she didn't feel like joining the public just yet. Pulling a depressingly depleted purse from the pack, she dropped two coppers on the table. A frazzled-looking server stopped by, hands on hips. "What can I get for you, Ma'am?" Her voice was chipper, an almost obnoxious smile plastered on for all customers that didn't touch her eyes.

"A drink, for starters. Don't know if I'm up to actual food quite yet." She picked at a loose thread on the glove covering her left hand up to the elbow. Trying to tamp down her irritability, she put on a pursed, insincere smile.

"A mug coming right up."

"Actually--" Leihra fished back into the pack, bringing out a silver. "Can I get a bottle? Spice wine would be excellent right now." The server nodded, taking the silver and bouncing off. Resting the back of her head against the back of the booth seat, she rubbed at her left shoulder. The muscle was a tight ball, knotted thoroughly after bearing the unfamiliar weight of her new forearm.
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He was so tired.

Down to the bones tired.

And missing Branse—the guilt over Branse—comprised most of that exhaustion. His heart hurt. He couldn’t think straight. Being so close to Istan, he kept thinking I could find him, and then reason struck: But you don’t know where to look. And, besides that, he had come to Nezri on behalf of the Torokh to ensure no other clans would think to settle on the sacred land which belonged to Soliyrn in the east.

They trusted him with matters of diplomacy. He should have gotten straight to work.

But he saw the tavern and thought, Yes, gods yes, I need a drink.

Entering the tavern, he approached the bar and then stopped, startled, unsure of himself. He’d met her not too long ago, in Broken Cliffs, guarding Hearne’s cell. So why was she here, in Rozanai?

He’s free. He’s free and she’s looking for him. And I’m not in Debon to protect—

Calm down, Wendall.

Her being here didn’t mean have to mean anything about Hearne.

He stepped forward, fingertips tingling with nerves. “Keeper Leihra? Hi. We met in Broken Cliffs?”
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The black bottle was set in front of her, no label declaring its make but a red wax seal below the neck, pressed with the seal of a rearing horse. Turning the seal to face her, she grimaced upon recognizing the logo. The Gingered Mare, still pushing out its own medley of drinks long after its founder had stopped having an active hand in it.

It was fitting, she thought as she uncorked the bottle and poured, that the man that had derailed her life would be the one to offer comfort. Would the Founder's influence haunt her life forever?

Setting the bottle down with the cork half-pressed in, she swirled the spice wine in the glass, watching as the heavy drink clung to the glass. It seemed the utter bastard had some semblance of honor, not watering his wine. She turned the bottle so she didn't have to look at the Mare.

Sipping, she leaned back and opened her left hand on the table. The small soapstone fox rolled in her palm, the motion awkward and stuttering. So invested was she that she didn't notice the young man approach.

The voice wasn't immediately familiar, but the title sent a shiver down her spine. Shrugging the feeling away, she turned from where she leaned on the bar. The face was recognizable, and something about his grafted hand itched at her brain. It took an awkward few seconds for the name to click.

"Mister Gilliam!" She smiled, but her voice was full of false cheer. She gave a halfhearted wave with her ivory hand, the other busy clutching her glass of wine in a death grip. The frozen smile soured a little, pursing the corner of her mouth.

"Of course I remember. Your drake was rather... forceful. Just Leihra will do. I was-- I no longer hold that title." She gave a pained grin that faded as quickly as it came, quickly drinking like a woman dying of thirst. The glass was half-emptied when she set it back on the bartop.

"Funny to run into someone you recognize this far out of the way." She refilled her glass, not caring to empty it first. She didn't seem to care for pace. "Oh! Sorry, I'm being rude. Have a seat." She waved to the empty seats beside her.

Sipping quietly, she watched him out of the corner of her eye. Her memory was usually faultless, something her mother had said she got from her father's side. Leihra recalled his face, the drake, the fact he came from Kellen. There were other memories there, more personal details, but the harder she tried to grasp at them the further they slipped away. It was an infuriating feeling, knowing the knowledge was there but out of reach. Things in her mind that she didn't habe control over.

She drank.

"How have you been? Since... what happened." She flexed her left hand, pretending to cover up a sensitive subject rather than covering for a blank spot in her memory. All she recalled of that encounter after sitting with Daisy was her hand twisting, growing misshapen. The pain.

She drank.
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Wendall offered a wavering smile. She remembered him, though he imagined he was the last person she wanted to see—the broken chair, the blasted table, the urgent demand that Hearne be kept on a leash like a dog, the refusal to leave until she promised he would at least receive no more homage. All things considered he understood the way she looked at him, her expression false. He was ashamed, too.

I no longer hold that title, she said.

“O-oh,” Wendall stammered. At once his mind ran with several possibilities chief among them that she no longer held the title because the title was no longer necessary. Why employ a keeper when there was no one to be kept? Already he imagined Hearne traveling deep into Dar-Debon, and had to remind himself not to go there—it’s probably the arm, he thought, noticing the ivory limb for the first time.

Though not altogether certain of her welcome, he sank into the seat beside her. “Um, brandy,” he said as the server came by. She returned with the drink shortly, and he stared into the amber liquid while Leihra talked.

“Um! Just fine. I still feel really… I wasn’t at my best,” he said. “I’m not always—uh—like that.” He took a sip from his glass, enjoying the burn in his throat. “What about you? You aren’t Keeper anymore?” He lifted his brows, trying to look more compassionate than nerve-wracked.
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"Nobody was ever at their best around him." She said into her glass, draining it as Wendall sat beside her. A weight dragged down at her shoulders. He was there to stay, interrupting her private pity party. All she wanted was to sit here alone with her drink, spending her severance pay on forgetting.

"He was just such an asshole." She growled, pouring another. "I get delegated to guard duty playing friends with these creepy sons of bitches and he was sort of refreshing at first. Polite and good at listening. I thought we had a connection. But then he starts talking about things he shouldn't know." She slammed the bottle down too hard, drawing a dirty look from the server.

"I try to be nice anyway and do my job. Gave up trying to make friends to work late. And what does it get me?" She lifted her carved hand, twitching the fingers. "My [removed]ing hand taken off. How in the hells am I supposed to be a combat mage with one good hand?" Her words dripped venom and self-loathing, but a blush began to burn at her cheeks.

"Sorry." She pulled her prosthetic back and rested it on a knee under the table, hiding it from view. At least this way she didn't have to look at it. Lifting the glass, she just tilted it side to side, making waves. It suddenly didn't seem like such an enticing idea to drink herself sick.

"I read your file." She set the glass down, resting her chin in her palm. Leihra regarded the young man with curious almond-shaped eyes, piercing copper with streaks of grey. "You've seen a lot. Lost a lot. How do you do it? Aren't you lonely?" She asked, blush darkening but the wine seemed to propel her boldness to new heights. It never crossed her mind that she shouldn't remember anything about his file.
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Wendall shifted his weight on the barstool, swirled the amber liquid inside its glass. Not only did he feel like an intruder, but she hadn’t answered his question—the one he’d indirectly asked. He took another sip from his drink, but despite how badly he’d wanted it before walking in, he couldn’t muster the desire for it now. Maybe it was how pathetic he felt, sitting here drinking as if he’d surrendered all hope of fixing the pieces of his life. Or maybe it was the anxiety burbling up inside him, ready to run out the door and mount Clara and take off running to the Torokh Nation if Leihra so much as hinted—

“I can fix that,” he said. “Your arm.” His gaze flickered to the porcelain prosthetic, then to Leihra’s face. She clearly didn’t like attention spent on the new limb. “I used to try to hide my leg,” he said. “It’s easy when you wear pants and shoes. Not so easy to hide a hand.” He shrugged, as if to say, what can you do?

“I had a wooden leg for years. I only just fixed a bismuth prosthetic in place there instead. And did my hand, too, with the help of a friend. It’s all right if you want to keep that prosthetic, but you could cast again, and with some physical therapy—“ He paused, stammering. “I just—I—if you wanted, I could help. It’s okay if you don’t.”

How long had he resisted a better leg? A new hand? He thought of the cabin, thought of Branse. How beautiful those two days had been. Day and a half. One full day—afternoon to afternoon. He looked down at his glass, and lifted it halfway, and then decided he didn’t want to take that drink. He swirled the liquid again, trying to make it look like that was what he’d meant to do all along.

“File?” He set the glass down. “I have a file?” His brows came together, then sighed. The LIS would have gathered any scrap of information they could on him before approving a visit with Hearne.

“I…” He started, then trailed off, wetting his lips. “There’s no other choice for me but to keep going. That’s the way it’s always been. When my siblings died, what was I supposed to do? Die too? And when I lost my leg, was I supposed to never walk again? You can lose anything. Everything. But life… doesn’t end. It just changes. And you find you can adjust to things so quickly. And before you know it you’ve got a new purpose, a new dream, a new family, a new place to belong.”

He shrugged.

It’s lonely as hell, Leihra, he thought. But that wasn’t what she needed. That wasn’t what she was asking for when she asked the question.

“I don’t know if that helps. But life can still be good, even if it doesn’t go the way you want. Even if you don’t become what you thought you’d become. Even if the family you start with isn’t the family you’re with twenty years later.” He swallowed. “Is Hearne still—? Being kept? I… he threatened my family, Leihra. Do I need to go back to them?”
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She flexed her ivory hand, fingers twitching into a claw. A little work made them move more smoothly, but they were imprecise. If she tried to shape magic with them, she'd wind up shorting out half the incantation.

"It's a fine prosthetic. Just new. Needs to be broken in and my brain needs to get used to moving it. It just..." She trailed, turning the burned-in geometry lattices to catch the lanternlight. "Doesn't feel like mine. I can't work spells with it. It moves when I want it to. But I can't feel the mana."

She lifted a slim chestnut-skinned hand, extremely fine traceries of ink around her wrist and back of her hand gaining a coppery sheen. She willed magic into her palm and moved it slowly, closing her eyes to appreciate the flow of magic around her hand. It was like placing your fingers in a stream, trailing them through lukewarm water and making ripples. Pins and needles setting her nerves on fire.

An indigo-green glow trailed after her hand in the air.

"Magic is in my blood. If I can't cast, it doesn't seem terribly worth the breath." She set it down. Picking a coin out of her bag, she began to dance the copper across her fingers, setting it tumbling in the air. It wove under and over fingers like it was being pulled along, a flick of the wrist and flare of her hand showing it vanished into thin air. "Of course you have a file. Seems like everyone does who means anything."

Dropping her hands, flesh crossing over ivory, she huffed. "That's just it. I don't have anywhere to go. My family died in the fight against the Katai. I spent so much time on my job and studies I don't have any friends, and once I actually got the job I screwed everything up." Looking at Wendy, she shrugged. "Where would you go from here?"


She tossed up an empty-handed half shrug. "I honestly don't remember. Last I remember he put something on one of my gifts that started mutating my arm. While they were marching you out I was sawing my arm off at the elbow to stop the advancing curse. But just losing my hand wouldn't be reason enough to fire me. Something must have happened. I don't know, Wendall. I'm sorry if he threatened your family. But I did learn a little about him there. Probably talked to him more than my coworkers. He... has a soft spot for families. He had a daughter once."

Leihra winced, rubbing at her temple and grunting. "Sorry, getting a headache."
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“And he’d kill fifty of the Torokh children to bring her back,” said Wendall. “He made that abundantly clear to me.”

Lifting his glass, he took a long drink, distressed by the addled thoughts clogging his head. He needed to go home; no, he needed to stay and do what was asked of him here; if he stayed, would there be a home to go back to?; yes, of course, Soliyrn could crush a man like Hearne in an instant; would the Torokh blame him for Hearne?; was Hearne even free?

Leihra didn’t know. Even worse than that was she, like Branse, foolishly believed Hearne cared for families. That soft spot was nothing more than a facade he utilized to manipulate people who had endured unimaginable loss. He hadn’t cared what Wendall lost, only that he could use it against him. How could Branse, who’d known Hearne so well, and Leihra, who knew him only briefly, have the same opinion?

He did something to them, Wendall thought, pulling another long drink.

“Branse said the same thing,” he said. “That Hearne had a soft spot.” His voice lowered as his mood began to sour. Upon entering the tavern his spirits had been low, but now they sank further south as he contemplated the complexity of the situation. Were Branse and Leihra right? Were Hearne’s threats nothing more than an old, senile man amusing himself by torturing him?

Leihra wasn’t the only one developing a headache.

Swiping a hand through his air, he finished off the brandy in a final gulp. He didn’t want it, but he didn’t want it to go to waste.

“Listen,” he said. “With your hand. It’s not always an instant connection. The mana pathways will rebuild. Probably. And it isn’t fair to ask where you go next. You don’t know where you’re going until suddenly you end up there. You wander around aimlessly in your grief until by accident you meet someone who becomes your world, or you decide to answer someone’s call for help and find yourself chieftain-in-waiting. Life is full of shit, Leihra. There are no rules. Everything is an accident. You don’t know where you’re going until you’re going there.”

He shrugged his shoulders and tried to smile. “Try to think of that as reassuring. I meant for it to be. Really.”
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Pressing her thumb into her temple, she clamped her eyes shut. The pain was compounding, as if she had just woken up from a full day of drinking. The lights of the lanterns felt too bright, like it was burning her skin. She closed her eyes against the stabbing flames.

"Branse said the same thing, that Hearne had a soft spot." It wasn't Wendall's voice. The heat on her skin faded, cool darkness taking the reins. Opening her eyes, a young man with carefully trimmed hair sat before her. Care had been taken to keep his hair neat and even, though it was sticking up in spots from nervous tousling.

She smiled at the boy. "He does, Happy. He likes you. If he knew how your father treated you at home he'd take you in in an instant. You could take the marks, stop sneaking out. You could live in the den with me and Branse." Happy perked at the mention of living near them. She found a little pleasure in seeing that brought him joy.

"Would you be okay with that? I know the two of you are close. I don't mean to..." he flushed, shutting up. She didn't get offended, just threw her head back and gave a bellow of a laugh. Happy scowled, going a shade of burgundy not usually seen in a healthy human.

"You dork, Happy. It's not like that. He's my best friend. Like a brother." She snorted, bending forward to hug the scrawny boy. He patted her arm, breathing a sigh of relief. "Sorry, E." He half-laughed and forced a smile.

"Don't worry about it. Now tell me more about this book you're all flustered over. I thought I heard something about the Ethereal in your mad rants." She teased, leaning back against the pile of cushions in the den library. A look of genuine pleasure took over as he fished through the messenger's pack, pulling out a slim leather-bound book.

Leihra gasped, setting her hands at the table's edge to steady herself. She was back in the tavern, Wendall sitting beside her. Her breaths came fast and shallow. The room felt like it was shrinking. There were too many people around her. The world was trying to consume her.

What the [removed] was that?

Her left hand clenched tight, ivory squeaking against itself. Every muscle was tight. She wanted to curl up into herself. Breathing fast, a different light put a blue glow on the bar as her cheek and temple glowed as if it were stretched over an indigo flame.

Her right hand began making twisting motions, fingertips trailing threads of teal light. Her movements were precise, forceful. It was less grace than raw intent, squeezing the magic out of the air and forcing it into unfamiliar shapes by brute force.

Shimmering shades of fingers trailed a second set of lines, like two hands overlaid over one another. The rune flared to life, sinking into her palm. She felt a calming chill run through her skin, easing the light sensitivity.

Reaching out, she wrenched the cork off the bottle and poured herself a glass, shaky hand spilling spice wine across the tabletop. The coin she had vanished earlier reappeared, dropping from her hand without any movement on her part, as if choosing that moment to fall out of a pocket in the side of her hand. It rolled through the wine, trailing a line of drink to the edge of the table where it tumbled down.

Setting the bottle down steady took a couple of tries. Clenching her hands several times, she tried to process the vision.

Who had Happy been? The memory of his face made her want to smile, calmed her shaking to a light shiver. He'd called her something too, this time. E.

"Sorry," she tucked her hair behind an ear, bringing the cup to her lips and drinking greedily. She still shivered, skin unnaturally cool despite the warm tavern interior and the crackling fire nearby. "I tuned out for a second." She closed her eyes, running through the exercises for mental control. The glow in her cheek slowly migrated to her temple, glowing briefly under her hair before fading away, retreating.

"I think it was the redaction. I've been seeing things. Someone else's memories." She said quietly, rubbing at her bicep as she lifted cup to lips. "But that shouldn't be possible, right? Am I just going crazy?" She bit her lip. The wine's pleasant heat had turned sour in her mouth. Swallowing hard, she pushed glass and bottle away.

"Goddamn it. What did he do to me? I knew who I was and what I wanted to do in life. And now I'm seeing things, breaking down in front of a complete stranger." Looking over at Wendy, she shook her head.

"I'm sorry, mister Gilliam. I'm spilling all of my bullshit on you and you just came here to have a drink in peace. I should leave you alone." Leihra started to stand, pushing herself up onto shaky legs.
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Jolting to life again with a gasp, Leihra reached for the wine, spilled it, couldn’t get the bottle down steady—the coin pinged as it fell to the ground, its trail of wine leading across the countertop to the edge. Eyes widening at the sudden disarray, Wendall reached across the counter to retrieve a rag and began to mop up the wine, which spread over the wood rather than soaking up easily.

“It’s all right,” he said. “It’s all—it’s all fine, Leihra.” He nodded to her. “Gods, I’ve tuned out plenty of times. Spilled plenty of drinks.” He’d done the best he could with the spill. The barkeep cast them a single glance, trying to decide whether the pair of them would be tonight’s troublemakers, but looked away after a moment. Tossing the rag back approximately where he’d found it, he sat back in his seat just as Leihra began to stand.

“Hey, no, wait, no, it’s—“ Wendall touched her wrist, half-moving to stand himself. “It’s not a problem. You seem to be—well—going through a bit here. I don’t mind. Makes me remember I’m not the only person with big problems in the world.” He smiled, and for the first time in a little while it was one of his characteristic smiles he’d become known for: bright, and full of hope, and kind.

“It’s, um—it’s Wendall, by the way.”

Smile fading naturally, he regarded her for a long moment. The blue had faded out of her skin. She was as she’d been before the outburst, albeit shaky in the limbs. Whatever vision had come had startled her. Someone else’s memories, she said. Rolling his lips under his teeth, he thought again of Branse—everything came back to Branse—and the memory Hearne had put in his head.

“I’ve had someone else’s memories in my head, too,” he confided quietly, leaning forward so only she would hear. It was a secret. Or had been one, anyway. Was it wrong to tell another person what had happened, as long as he didn’t provide the details of the memory? Or was to mention the ordeal at all yet another betrayal heaped onto Branse?

“You can talk about it, if you want. I-I don’t think you’re full of shit.”
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The touch of his hand froze her, muscles of her arm going tight as steel cable. She wanted to turn her hand over and snatch his. To lash out at the young man daring to lay a hand on her. She flinched at the touch, but restrained the urge. It wasn't like her. Where in the hell had that come from? She was no queen.

"Thank you, Wendall." She smiled politely, withdrawing her hand from his touch.

She didn't meet his look. She couldn't face that cheery smile, the naivete that he somehow clung to after all he'd been through. Fixing hair that wasn't out of place, she flexed her fingers over the spill.

Flicking motions of the hand sparked blue light, but she couldn't seem to grab at the magic. A simple spell she'd performed dozens of times failed her now. Grimacing and choosing not to say anything, she picked up the rag and wiped at the spill some more, accomplishing little but to smear it around some more.

Huffing irritably, she set the rag aside and turned in her seat, pulling one leg up. Regarding him, she pursed her lips and nodded. Chewing over it a moment, she cleared her throat.

"Alright, ah..." she frowned. "It's a girl. Like me, from what I can tell. She seems familiar. Little things trigger memories. Like when you mentioned a Branse." She pressed her thumb into her knee, focusing on it rather than bringing herself to look at him.

"I think she knew a Branse. This time she was talking to someone named Happy about something. The details are slipping, but I thought..."

I thought that they talked about him. She finished in her head.

"I thought they said something about joining a group of some kind. There was a lot to process." She looked up at him properly. He had such a kind face, a gentleness that had been roughed up a little, but despite his trials it was still rock-solid.

"How about you? Do you remember anything about them?"
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She flinched. Wendall pulled his hand away at once. Sorry, he wanted to say, but didn’t. Instead he watched her push the rag across the countertop, making as much progress as he had toward the end. The cloth soaked up the largest puddle, but didn’t retain every drop of liquid. That was just the way of things.

Not everything in the world was enchanted to work perfectly, to perform its function to absolute satisfaction. Leihra would likely have to learn how to go about her life without the easy snap-of-her-fingers power magic granted. Maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

He hadn’t expected that she might tell him about the memory. When she began to speak, he set his arms on the edge of the countertop, a strategically safe distance from the spread of wine, hunched his shoulders, and listened. A contemplative frown pulled at his mouth. His stomach didn’t quite twist or sink, but an unpleasant feeling akin to gut instinct creeped in. Shifting his weight, he worried the inside of his lip and regarded the glasses and bottles hanging on the other side of the bar.

She asked him if he remembered the memories thrust into his head.

“No,” he said. “Vaguely, a bit, but—it’s faded. It’s less the memory now and the feeling of having something in my head that didn’t belong. That takes a while to disappear.”

It wasn’t his to share. It wasn’t his piece of knowledge to even know. He could still feel his hand press the knife into Jorah’s throat. The relieved, blood-stained kiss to the cheek. He remembered it as vividly now as he had earlier that summer when Hearne put the worst moment of Branse’s life in his head. It wasn’t meant for him—and it certainly wasn’t for Leihra.

At last Wendall looked at her.

“My Branse knows a Happy,” he said.

Happy and Evie, with her love stories. How terrified he’d been that Branse was going to say I love you. How terrified he’d been to hear those words when still keeping a secret. A confession hadn’t been the point of the story—the point had been that their ragtag group of lost souls, each welcomed by a more magnanimous Hearne, became a family. Joining a group of some kind…

“Branse and Happy were friends with Hearne’s daughter,” he said. “It was some sort of coven deal. It’s a Thedris thing.” He exhaled softly in what could have almost been a laugh of utter disbelief. “I’ll bet you Hearne put a couple of his daughter’s memories in your head.”
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"That's the thing. It doesn't feel like I'm seeing something that was pushed into my head. Just the opposite, really." She scrunched her face in thought. "Do you ever smell something you can't quite pin down? Some flower or other scent that nags at the back of your mind until you remember something from your childhood, vivid as the day it happened."

Foding her hands in her lap, she gave a small shrug. "It's like that feeling all the time now. Like there was always something nagging at me as long as I can remember, an itch I can't scratch. And then something makes me remember and I can relax, breathe a little. Stretch out, if that makes sense."

"Did he?" She murmured.

Listening intently, a little chill crawled up her spine. What a coincidence that we ran into each other, she wanted to say. But it wasn't really, was it? They shared a common factor. A mage whose influence shaped events around him. Wendall had business with the man. She'd only been a bystander in all this. The person holding his leash while he barked at important people.

But why put memories of his daughter in her mind?

She felt uneasy, placing a hand to her stomach. "Why me, though? I'm just some stupid mage from Istan who got high marks. I've never even heard of Thedris. And who the hell knows if I'm even that anymore." She was audibly frustrated, lifting her hand to attempt the spell once more. Her fingers moved through the same motions, sure and strong. Precise. Light sputtered and her fingertips went numb, stinging as they slowly began to warm again.

The smear of wine remained. Unseen in dark glass, the contents of the bottle to her left vanished. She didn't notice.

Swearing under her breath, she let her hand drop. "I can't remember a time when I couldn't use magic. It was always right there. I could take it and work it into whatever shape I wanted, easy as tying knots in a rope. Now I can't do anything requiring both hands, and even the simple things fail most of the time." Her voice was uneven, on the edge of tears with anger at herself.

"All because of that bastard. He shouldn't have been able to do anything. The Redactor would have sensed any changes since my initial assesment."

Leaning against the table, she placed her face in her hands, rubbing slowly before settling her jaw on her palms. "Want to go outside? It's a little cold out, but there aren't any clouds. I'll go alone if you'd like to finish the night in peace." She wore a sardonic smile, shaking her head in loathing of her self-pity. Standing, she dropped a few silvers between them to pay for Wendy's drink and a tip, slinging her bag onto a shoulder.
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“Sure,” said Wendall. “Let’s go.” He stood from the barstool, reaching into a pocket to collect some coins just as Leihra paid for his drink. He prickled somewhat at the gesture and stared at the money for a moment, debating whether to replace it with his own. After a moment he simply nodded to her, murmured a thanks, and lead the way out of the tavern.

There was a biting chill in the air, but no snow on the ground. The sky was full of stars and a bright half-moon, tilted sideways on its axis. Just outside the door stood Clara, tied to a post, drinking water from the trough. She lifted her head when she saw Wendall.

“I had an infection in my leg,” he said. “They got me drunk and sawed it off.” He walked over to Clara and began untying her from the building. “My father had to carry me around the house for a bit after. It was humiliating as all hells. I wanted to be able to do the simple things, like walk upstairs by myself. But I couldn’t. And that was the reality. I made myself a pair of crutches. Wheelchair took a bit longer. And when everything was good and healed up, I made a prosthetic.” He turned to Leihra. “You’ve got to heal before you can jump back into magic, same as I had to heal before I could get to walking again. It’s going to take time. Maybe now’s your chance to see what you’re good at besides magic.”

One of the packs that hung from Clara’s saddle began to squeak and rattle. Sighing, Wendall opened it to find Daisy clawing at the small metallic bars of a carrier he’d recently made for her. The colder weather didn’t agree with reptiles. He wanted her to stay warm. But what she wanted, most of all, was to be on his shoulders.

“Just for a minute, and only because you’re spoiled,” he said. As soon as he opened the door of the carrier, Daisy scrabbled up his arm to nest on his shoulder, rubbing her head wildly against his ear until she noticed Leihra and squeaked. She never forgot the face of one who gave her treats.

“Listen, about the memories—“ Wendall began, and continued unhindered even as Daisy whacked his neck with her tail, “what happened to me… wasn’t as thorough. I knew it was someone else’s. It never felt like mine. But Hearne is a powerful mage. And he’s sneaky. If there was a way to make you feel like his daughter’s memories were actually yours, and a way to make sure no one could detect he put that inside you—he’d know how to do it. I think he knows how to do everything. How to bypass any law of magic. I really do.”

He frowned.

“I don’t know why he chose you. Maybe because you did so well with magic in school. Maybe he thought he was giving you a puzzle to figure out.”
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Leihra chose to pretend not to notice his move to pay, turning and pulling a thick woolen coat around herself before hanging the pack off one shoulder and leaving, not looking back to see if he would follow.

Exiting the respite of the tavern's warmth, she found herself breathing a little easier. The glare of the lantern light had been easing some as they had sat, but it was a relief to be out in the shadows, haunting starlight feeling alrogether different from its fiery cousin.

She jammed her fists into coat pockets and shook her hair loose, head bent as she walked with him to the horse as if looking where she was stepping. This also conveniently hid her face from view, disguising her reaction to his story.

'I don't want to heal." she thought furiously, biting her tongue to keep from spitting the words. She didn't want to take the time to get back on her feet. She'd been in tune with everything around her and now she felt cut off. She knew it was still there, but she had no control. It was that more than anything that was bothering her.

Magic was her safety blanket, and it had been ripped away from her.

Clenching her left fist over and over, she scuffed her boot into the rough road making up Nezri's streets, sending a pebble skittering into the darkness beyond the reach of the lamps.

"I'm pretty sure magic is the only thing I've ever been good at. At least you grew up with something useful under your belt. I grew up on the sands as far back as I can recall, and the only place I've been after that was the Academy. Plenty of book learning, but none of that is much use without basic spellcraft." She grumbled, walking up to the horse. Appraising her, she ran a hand along her flank, running fingers through Clara's mane and tail.

"She's beautiful." Leihra broke into the first genuine smile of the evening. "You're taking good care of her." She touched her lips to fingers, touching them lightly to the mare's neck.

"And look who it is." She chuckled, crossing her arms and grinning at the drake crawling onto Wendy's shoulders. Shrugging the pack to hang on her elbow, she rifled through a pocket and brought out a sizable hunk of dried spiced beef.

"Here you go, you poor attention-starved thing." Her voice took on the sickly-sweet tone of a doting animal lover. The smile went brittle as he kept on the conversation.

"Or maybe he was lonely and just wanted his little girl back." She tossed the jerky to the drake. "I'm not saying I agree with it in any way. But I've had problems with my memory long before I joined on to work for the LIS."

Regarding Wendy, she cocked her head at him. "You called him Your Branse. Sounds like there's a bit of a story there. Tell me about him."
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