PART THREE: MANIPULATING MAGIC
Neither Reg nor Bre was used to horseback riding, so, after five uncomfortable hours on the road to Vorti, both of them were surly. While there hadn't been any prolonged conversations, all pretense of civility had evaporated at about the halfway point, just past the ford of the Vordi River.
Reg was not enjoying his first extended foray outside of Falnora since childhood. His companion was making things less pleasant - she delighted in demonstrating her knowledge of the lands and customs beyond the Halcyon Meadows. Reg suffered in silence, his temper slowly mounting. About the only thing he could imagine to make this trip worse would be a rainstorm. Fortunately, despite pervasive clouds, there had been little precipitation since the morning.
It was commonly accepted that the Halcyon Meadows were a better place to live than the neighboring plains of the Vorti Flat. Frankly, Reg couldn't see any difference. During the winter, it might be a few degrees colder here, but, in the height of the growing season, it seemed the same. The only way he knew he had passed from the Halcyon Meadows to the Vorti Flat was that they had crossed the river which marked the boundary.
"That's the city," said Bre, speaking for the first time in thirty minutes. She had reigned in her horse and was pointing northeast.
Reg was confused. He might not be adept at geography, but he knew that to reach Vorti, the North Vordi River would have to be crossed. He could see no signs of water from here; just rolling grasslands from horizon to horizon.
"It can't be," he said.
Bre spared him a disgusted look, but said nothing.
"We have to cross the river first."
"Once you ford the North Vordi, you're in Vorti. We're still a few miles away, but you can see it from here."
Reg carefully scanned the northeastern horizon. Try as he might, he could see no signs of a city. The terrain became hilly to the north and east, so he wondered if Vorti was in a shallow valley just out of sight.
"I don't see anything," admitted Reg when he was convinced there was nothing to see.
Bre made a derisive - and distinctly unfeminine - sound. "Surely even a woolhead like you can't miss the house."
Reg looked again. For the first time, he noticed a snake-like column of smoke drifting lazily into the mist-laden sky. The same color as the clouds, it was almost impossible to differentiate from them.
"You mean that? Smoke?"
"So you're not completely blind. It took you long enough."
"That could mean anything. It's probably just someone camping on the plains. I'm sure it's no different here than in the Meadows. On any given morning, you can see two or three columns of smoke like that."
"Except that everyone knows the first sign of Vorti from the south is that smoke. There's a woman who lives in a house on the north bank of the river who always keeps a fire going. No one seems to know why, but it's been like that for years. Besides, how many campfires are lit in the afternoon in the middle of the summer when the ground is too wet to catch a spark?"
Grudgingly, Reg admitted she had a point. It was improbable that anyone would start a fire outside in this weather. Still, this was another attempt on Bre's part to assert her superiority.
"Well, if we're going to get there before dusk, we'd better ride," said Reg, spurring his horse to a trot. "We won't make it by standing here gaping."
As they drew closer to the city, Bre became more talkative, as if the prospect of returning to civilization had re-awakened something within her. At times, she grew animated, but no matter how excited she seemed, she never forgot who she was with, and her voice never lost its condescending tone.
"Now, someone like you will probably be overawed by the size of a city, and the number of people who live there," said Bre. Reg didn't think that was likely. He had seen paintings of Vorti in one of Wil's books. As for the people, he imagined they were much the same as everywhere else on Devforth, and he told Bre that.
She laughed at him. "The people of Falnora are naive and backwards compared to those of the cities. Vorti, like Fels, is cosmopolitan, and its men and women are nothing like those of your village."
"I wasn't expecting them to be. People that live in cities have a reputation of being selfish, miserly, and corrupt," said Reg. "Actually, I was expecting them to be something like you."
That ended conversation for a while, but, when the sinuous North Vordi became visible ahead - a quicksilver snake in the distance - Bre started talking again, explaining the most cogent points of city etiquette. Reg ignored her, fixing his attention on something more interesting - a bird endlessly circling to the west.
"Do you understand me?" demanded Bre when she had finished her lecture. The river was perhaps a quarter of a mile ahead. As far as Reg could see, there were still no signs of habitation - except for the ubiquitous column of smoke.
"What? Oh, yes. Of course."
"I don't know why I bother. People like you always make fools of themselves anyway. It won't matter how hard I try to train you."
"If you're so disdainful of those of us who like to live out on the plains, why don't you just stay in Vorti when we get there? Or, better yet, go back to Fels, where you came from. I'm sure not many of us would miss you."
If Reg's words bit as deeply as he hoped they would, Bre gave no indication of it. Instead, she said, "I can't go back to Fels. No matter how much I might want to."
"Because if I did, I'd be thrown into prison or a labor camp."
"What did you do?"
"I fell in love."
"And that's a crime in Fels?"
"Only if you fall for the wrong person, and are stupid enough to believe he feels the same way about you."
"I'm sorry," said Reg. "I didn't know."
"Of course you didn't! How could you, living in your idyllic little world, where if you fall in love with someone, you just get married? It isn't like that in the cities. Everywhere except Vorti, where it's been outlawed, there's the matter of class differences to be considered. Except in the most extraordinary of circumstances, nobles don't marry commoners. They use them."
"Is that what happened to you?" asked Reg, treading cautiously. He was more sensitive than she gave him credit for.
Bre told him the whole story, unlikely audience that he was. She had become smitten with Uti, the middle son of the landowner who controlled the farm her father worked on. Uti brought her to the main house as a maid, thinking to make her his mistress. She resisted his advances for nearly a year, until she managed to extract from him a promise to wed her in the spring. Then she made the mistake of letting him into her bed. After only one night, he had her dismissed from service and sent back to her father's farm. When she tried to press her claim to marriage, Uti denied everything and the landowner branded her a whore. Ebb came to her defense and lost his place on the farm as a result. Both were warned that if they didn't leave Fels immediately, never to return, the guards would come for them. Uti's father, who was on the king's council, was one of King Yax's most trusted advisors, so his threat was not an idle one.
"I didn't realize it was so difficult for you," said Reg when she had finished. Bre made no response.
The road they had been travelling, little-used as it was, led them to a ford of the North Vordi. The river was neither deep nor swift, so it might have been safe to cross anywhere, but they rode the horses across at the marked place, where the water barely came above a rider's feet.
Southern Vorti was a series of farms and reminded Reg of Falnora. Most of the houses were simple dwellings with fields surrounding them. Wheat, corn, and rye were the most abundant crops, although Reg saw smaller quantities of almost every other kind of plant he had eaten. The men tending to the land either ignored the newcomers or spared them a suspicious or unfriendly glance.
"They don't look pleased to see us," observed Reg, after receiving a venomous look from an elderly woman.
"Why should they be? Merchants, not farmers, like visitors. Especially in Vorti, where these men own their land. They're afraid we'll wander off the path and trample their fields."
Reg was horrified by the notion. "We'd never do that."
"We wouldn't, but there are many who would. Either out of malice or ignorance."
The sun was setting by the time they rode into central Vorti. Reg tried unsuccessfully not to gawk. In thinking he was ready for the sight of a city, he had been wrong. It was nothing like what he had expected. All of the buildings were three and four stories tall, towering above anything in Falnora. His old home in Heltala had been a two-floor house, but it had been nowhere as grand as the most simple of Vorti's buildings.
The streets were wider than the lanes of Falnora, and crowded. In one sweeping glance, Reg could see more men and women than the entire population of his village. They were everywhere, doing everything. Women with buckets on their shoulders were making trips to and from one of the city's wells. Men were heading for a tavern and a night of drinking and carousing. The night watch was on patrol. Merchants, seeking a last-minute customer, were hawking their wares streetside. The cacophony of sound was dizzying.
"Told you," said Bre with a smirk. Reg ignored her.
"Where now?" he asked as they walked their horses along a crowded thoroughfare. They had dismounted shortly after entering Vorti proper. Travel was quicker and less dangerous afoot. "Where are the healers?"
"We have to find their guild," said Bre. "But not until tomorrow morning. Right now, we need to pool our money and get a room in an inn. Preferably someplace clean. If I'm going to have to spend the night with you, I'd rather be spared the rats and mice."
"At least I rate higher than them."
"Only because we don't have enough money for more than one room. If you were gallant, you'd offer to spend the night in the stables."
"Not a chance."
"I didn't think so."
It took the better part of an hour to find a suitable inn with nightly rates they could afford given the meager purse of copper coins they had brought along with them. The place was called the Shining Goblet, and Reg couldn't think of a less appropriate name. After checking to be sure that their third-floor room met Bre's requirements, they returned to the common room for a meal of gravy-soaked, overcooked meat and stale bread, accompanied by watered-down ale.
"This tastes like rainwater." Reg peered into his mug, as if trying to discern what he was drinking.
"That's the way it's served here. It wouldn't be so cheap if it was stronger."
"You call half a copper a mug cheap?"
"You don't know anything about money, Farmboy. Trust me, two mugs for a copper is inexpensive. As is a copper a meal and a night's room for fifteen. In a good inn, the prices would be twenty times that."
"I'm glad you don't consider this a 'good' inn." Reg found the atmosphere of the common room unpleasant. It was smoky, loud, and hot. The patrons seemed more concerned about drinking themselves into senselessness than enjoying an evening out.
"They're here to get drunk," explained Bre. "They work hard all day, then drink hard all night. This isn't a village where families gather together in the evenings and sit around a fire sipping cider. Men come to inns and taverns to get away from screaming babies. And they don't farm because they enjoy it. They don't have any choice."
Reg grunted, as if to express bewilderment at how people could live such a pointless existence.
"You always have to take such a high-handed approach to anyone who doesn't agree with your ideals. You're just like your father. At least Wil has lived in a city, though. He has a right to criticize."
"High-handed? You're calling me high-handed? A girl who rode into Falnora in a wagon and hasn't deigned to get her hands dirty since then?" As an afterthought, he added, "And Wil isn't my father."
Bre blinked in surprise. "He's not? But you live with him."
"What about Lora? Did you think that because she lives there too, we're related to her?"
"Of course not. She's an elf."
"Eya and I came to Falnora with her when we were seven. Wil took us into his home because we didn't have anywhere else to go. My father, a man called Dav, was butchered to death by a band of dwarves on the night we fled from Haven. So, while you may have had a hard life, you're not the only one who's suffered. There are plenty of us out there to keep you company."
They finished their meal in silence, surrounded by the noise of the inn's patrons. When a spirited brawl broke out over a game of dice, Reg and Bre decided to head to their room before one of them accidentally got hit over the head with a breakable object.
Once upstairs, they doused the lanterns and lay down, Bre on the bed and Reg on the floor. He didn't question their sleeping places. Never in his life had he slept in a proper bed, so he was used to hard surfaces. He assumed the opposite was true of Bre. If she had been a maid in a noble's household, doubtless she had been given a soft mattress to spend her nights on.
Sleep, however, didn't come easily for either of them, and it wasn't just the noise drifting up from the common room or the muted sounds from outside that kept them awake. The tension between them, coupled with the unfamiliarity of their surroundings, chased away whatever vestiges of weariness they had been experiencing after the long trip.
Finally, Bre spoke into the darkness. "What's it like having an Apath for a sister?"
"Much the same as having a non-Apath for a sister, I guess. I don't really think of Eya as an Apath. To me, magic is something she does, not what she is. Others might disagree, but they don't know her the way I do."
"I don't really know what it's like to have a brother or sister. When I was a baby, I had two brothers, but they died. I can't even remember their faces - or my mother's."
"What usually happens to poor people in a city. Plague." With a sigh, she added, "Maybe you're right. Maybe living in a village is the solution to the world's ills."
"We have plagues in villages, as well. All it takes is one traveller to bring it."
"Except for the incident with the Tsabians, when was the last time anyone in Falnora died of anything other than childbirth or old age?"
Reg had to think for a few moments to come up with an answer. "Num died of some sort of wasting sickness. That was about three years back."
"You see? And here I've been defending city life all along."
"So where do you want to live? What do you want in life?"
"I'm not sure," she confessed.
"I wonder if any of us really knows," said Reg. "Eya might, but that's because she's an Apath. I'm content to go wherever she goes, do whatever she does. We're twins, and I don't think either of us could be complete without the other."
"And when she gets married?"
"Having a husband won't change things between us. Nor will my getting a wife, if I ever do."
"Marriage has never held any great appeal for me. Except Uti, I've never met any man I really liked, not to mention loved. And deep down, even after he made his promise, I knew we could never be married."
"According to some of the elders, you can love someone without liking them."
"That doesn't make any sense."
"Maybe not, but look at some of the couples in the village and you'll see the truth of those words."
"I wish I could feel more at home somewhere."
"You're just lonely. It's a natural human condition."
"I don't suppose there's a cure."
"You could try being nice to others for a change. Maybe if you didn't act like a bitch, people would take a liking to you. You might even make a few friends with those of us who aren't blind."
"You really are arrogant aren't you. I should have known you'd find some way to twist things like that. If I wanted advice on how to make friends, you'd be the last one I'd ask!"
Reg shrugged in the darkness. If she wanted to turn spiteful because she wasn't willing to face the truth about herself, there was nothing he could do about it. "Goodnight," he said. There was no response from the bed.
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