A Senserte Caper
By Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick
Arrina removed her mask and set it on the stand in front of her. Starting with the tips of her slightly pointed ears and moving to her temples, she massaged her nut-brown skin where the mask had touched it. Almond eyes stared back at her in the wagon's mirror as she ran long, slim fingers down her jawline and around her mouth, wiping off the glue like any other actor would wipe off her make-up.
Arrina took a steaming, lavender-scented towel from the plate below the mask. Dabbing at her face, she glanced at the mask again.
It was nothing more than a piece of colored silk the size of a human face, secured with a piece of string and vegetable glue. When she attached it to her face, however, Farlander magic transformed her features to those of Mad King Rupert — who thought he could give up the responsibility of his throne to his children without losing the title of king, thus leading to incessant greed and in-fighting until all his children pre-deceased him.
In a chest under the preparations table were velvet drawers that held all the masks of the traveling players Arrina's troupe traveled with. Michael, the troupe's lead enchanter, had made them, but they had originally been Jonathan's idea. Michael and Jonathan had designed most of the clever devices the traveling show used in its performances — tricks of the trade to which it owed much of its impressive reputation. The masks could make the wearer look like anyone — on the stage or off — a nondescript beggar, a well-known local official, even an arrogant Petersine businesswoman.
"Are you decent?" her brother, Jonathan, asked from the other side of the door.
"Yes. Come in."
The door opened, and her twin brother stepped inside. They looked nearly alike, though Jonathan's blue-blond hair was cut short. "The night sky's clear, and Messegere is waxing. If you have letters, Davur and his brothers will send them."
Arrina met his eyes in the mirror. She heaved a sigh of relief as she pulled open a drawer full of rolled up letters. They hadn't had a clear night in a month, which had kept them from sending or receiving letters by arrow.
Davur stood just outside the door. He was slightly taller than either of them and slim as a sapling except for the steel strong muscles in his arms and shoulders, which were visible through the form-fitting leather jacket he wore. His green eyes matched all those of his race, for all Wen eyes changed colors with the season — green in spring, blue in summer, brown in autumn, and grey in winter. "The leaves of the Valley are evergreen," went the Pith saying, "Only the eyes of the Wen change with the turning of the year." He carried a longbow slung across his chest and a quiver of bright-feathered arrows at his back. He held a basket filled with letters in one gloved hand.
Wen children possessed powerful magic but only kept one or two random magical talents when they reached adulthood. Sometimes when a Wen child made a wish, magic granted it — what Wen called a mirakla. In some cases, miraklas remained long after the child grew up, aged, and died. Most were small — a new kind of plant or animal, a strangely permanent localized weather pattern, or a bow that shot arrows of fire. It was said that Wen children had created squawkers and most of the other creatures of Flecterra.
Less commonly, a wish had a large and lasting effect, but this was so rare that most things attributed to major miraklas were more likely myth than truth. Some Wen claimed Farlanders and Wefal owed their magic, if not their very existences, to miraklas, for example, while others claimed the creation of the stars, the sun, and the four moons.
But even the most skeptical Farlander couldn't deny the existence of the Messegere moon shot.
Unlike every other heavenly body, the yellow moon traveled from west to east, going through all its phases in a little more than a day. Its month began when its new moon phase took place at noon, which happened once every thirty days. Any Wen could take advantage of the Messegere moon shot simply by affixing a letter to an arrow and firing it at the yellow moon as it waxed any clear afternoon or night. The messenger arrow would disappear to seek its recipient, arriving as the moon waned and the sky was clear.
"Do you think the clouds will stay away long enough for us to get some arrows back tonight?" Arrina asked as she handed him her own stack.
"Hard to say," Davur admitted. "The mountain weather is nothing like the Valley. It would be nice to get some news from home, but we worry less than our families, I think."
Arrina nodded. "I'll let you see to it."
"And I'll let you get dressed," Davur said. Jonathan nodded once in her direction and followed the Wen into the night.
Once they were gone, Arrina stripped the broad blue robe from her shoulders, taking with it much of the shoulder itself and revealing the straps that held the padded cloth and wood armor that had made her into the stout, aged king. A pair of twists and the armor unhinged on the side, and after a bit of contortion, she placed it on its stand. A hop and jump, with an oomph as she hit her head on the ceiling, and the thickened legs stood apart from her slimmer ones. These black carapaces joined the rest of the costume, hooked to the stand for transport.
Although she didn't need the masks or magic costumes to change her appearance, a Wefal's body paid a price for using magic that Wen and Farlanders did not. Wen magic never wavered. Farlander enchanters spoke of becoming fatigued from using too much magic, growing less able to keep casting more spells, but it was just a metaphor. Wefal magic was no different from physical exertion, and mystics using it needed to eat and drink more, slept longer, and experienced sore and cramped muscles. So Arrina saved her Wefal magic for the troupe's real business.
Arrina stripped off her soaked underclothes and wiped the sweat from her body with the lavender-scented towel. She was the very image of a beautiful Wefal woman — long blue-blond hair and a lean, toned physique with that little bit of softness to store extra energy for magic. She hadn't simply grown into the woman she saw in the mirror each day. An internal mystic chose the form of her body as surely as other people picked which clothes to wear and kept that shape for as long as she wished.
Wefal men with her abilities did it too, of course. Stipator certainly hadn't earned his incredible strength and speed through constant exercise. She strongly suspected that some of his other physical attributes were not natural gifts, either. Her upbringing prevented her from asking; it would be rude and hypocritical besides.
There was a timid knock on her wagon door. Arrina grabbed a sheet and put her ear near the door.
"Who is it?"
"It's me. Etha. I wanted to ask you a favor, but if this is a bad time ... "
Screening her body with the door, Arrina opened it a crack. A short Farlander stood on the top step, blushing to the roots of her shoulder-length, brown hair. Etha ad'Lisa was a short, slightly plump woman with a complexion unusually dark even for a Farlander. She was a year older than Arrina, but had a high voice, round face, and girlish figure that made her perfect for playing child roles in the troupe's shows.
Arrina suspected Etha sometimes resented that. She had been mistaken for and treated as a child her whole life. Etha often alluded to receiving similar treatment from her family, since she was the youngest of more than a dozen grandchildren. She had made it clear from the start, though, that she would endure anything in the service of the Senserte — even if it meant playing nothing but children and minor roles. But Etha had gotten so used to being treated like a child that she sometimes assumed anyone offering her advice or a kind word was patronizing her.
"As good a time as any, Etha," Arrina said, waving her inside and closing the door behind them. "Come in and have a seat."
Arrina grabbed a robe from a nearby peg and pulled it on as Etha sat down, back straight and hands crushing her skirts. She looks as wound up as one of Jonathan's clockwork contraptions, Arrina thought.
"I'm ready for something more challenging," the Farlander blurted. She blushed, again. "I know I've only been traveling with you for a few months, but I've learned so much, and I think I can do more for the Senserte than you've let me do so far."
Arrina suppressed the urge to sigh. "I know you can, and I promise you will. It's not that I don't think you can handle more. It's just ... the part chooses player. We'll try to find you a bigger role in the next job."
"I'd be much more useful if I could use magic."
Ah. So that's what this is about. "Michael has agreed to take you on as an apprentice."
"I know, but I think he'd rather spend his time enchanting new masks than teaching me. I haven't done anything except answer riddles and learn the history of the Nosamae." The words shot out of her like arrows from Davur's bow — fast and sharp.
"From what I've heard, that's how enchanters start teaching their apprentices."
The Farlander seemed to note Arrina's hesitation. "I know you can't force him to teach me faster, but can you at least talk to him about it when you see him?"
"Of course, Etha." Arrina gave her an encouraging smile she hoped didn't look as patronizing as it felt.
"Thanks, Arrina," Etha said, looking relieved. "I'll let you get changed."
Changed? Arrina thought, reaching for clean underclothes. I forgot that's what I was trying to do.
When she stepped out of her wagon a few minutes later, she wore a long-sleeved red and yellow dress and elegant sandals. Her hair was brushed and braided, and a white shawl covered her shoulders against the evening chill.
The troupe's wagons were neatly parked in two rows on the side of the road leading into Mattock. The clearing they had performed in was across the road and downhill a little. Sounds of a late party drifted up from it, and at a regular pace, a bowstring slapped a glove and an arrow disappeared toward the heavens. The cold mountain wind moved her shawl more than it affected the arrows.
Lights were on in two of the wagons: Michael's and Jonathan's. That was good; she wanted to talk with them anyway. Well, one of them.
She knocked on Michael's door. She heard the familiar creak as he stood from the corner of the small couch he had, and saw his legs' shadows moving as he approached the door. He always stopped to look at who was out there, no matter where they were.
The door opened, and he smiled broadly. "Arrina, a wonderful performance as always. Come in out of that wind."
"Are you talking about the play or the job with Reck?" she asked as she settled down on the couch, not half a step from his narrow bed.
Michael shelved two notebooks and carefully put away his ink and pen as he answered. "The play, of course." Without asking, he poured her a glass of passion fruit wine from a pitcher on the table. Another glass showed he had already finished his allotted one cup for the evening.
She took it, glancing at his bed again. She wondered if she could get him to sit there with her, but before she could suggest it, the familiar creak happened, and he settled down in his corner — not too close, a professional distance. A whiff of musky cologne spoiled the illusion of innocence.
Why is it always so complicated with Michael? She wondered, not for the first time, and turned her attention to him. Patience always worked.
He wore a white, long-sleeved shirt and brown, functional trousers. He had removed the large collection of rings he typically had on his fingers, but he still had four earrings in each ear.
Not that he would ever be seen without those, she thought, and smiled as he subconsciously touched one.
He smiled back.
"Jonathan asked me ... " he said even as she said, "Etha wanted to know ... "
Laughing, she waved him to go first. The wine helped warm her.
He shrugged. "Might as well get it out of the way. Jonathan wanted me to ask you to remind Lastor and Stipator to ... "
"To stick with the plan," she pronounced gravely, mimicking her brother's voice.
Michael chuckled. "Yes, those are his words exactly."
"He says it after every performance. He's known Stipator since he and I were fourteen." She shook her head in wonder. "Has our swashbuckling hero ever passed up an opportunity to improvise his way into the leading role?"
Michael chuckled again. "I know, and you know, but you know how your brother gets. It's his job to keep the players out of trouble."
"I'll tell him — again — when he gets back."
"We have to find him first." She heaved a sigh. "Lastor is our wild card. We can't know when — or whether — he will show up, but we're always glad when he does. I don't know if I want him to always stick to the plan." She sighed again. "It's not much longer until he has to grow up."
"Wen magic ... " Michael trailed off. "What that must do to those kids. Sixteen, eighteen years old, living a life where nothing can even touch them, and then it's gone. They lose the wild freedom Farlanders and Wefals finally are finally getting."
"It's hard on them," she agreed. This was not the way Arrina had hoped the conversation would go. It reminded her of her younger half-brother Kaspar, heir to the Pithdai throne. He had lost his magic four years ago, and he still mourned it by obsessing over the magic of other races — within the Flecterran Valley and far beyond it. She sipped her wine pensively.
"You said Etha had asked you to talk to me about something?" Michael prompted.
She pushed away the dark thoughts gladly. "Yes. She wants us to give her more responsibility."
He raised one bushy red eyebrow at her. "She wants me to teach her magic more quickly, you mean."
"That's a big part of it," she confessed. "A third enchantress could be useful, but I know it takes a Farlander years to wield magic for the first time."
Michael retrieved the pitcher and his glass and poured them both one. Arrina was astonished, and it must have shown because he blushed.
Clearing his throat, he said, "How much do you know about the apprenticeship of enchantresses?"
"Etha thinks it's boring, and I know it's riddles, history, and poetry. Insufferably boring," she added, grinning. "Wielding magic comes much later."
He leaned toward her, expression so serious Arrina regretted being flippant. His voice was low, nearly a whisper, and she thought she heard thunder. "If I revealed a few closely guarded secrets to Etha, I could teach her the basics in a few weeks."
Arrina's eyes widened.
"Do you know why I won't?" He held up a finger for emphasis, and the room darkened a little. "With the enchantments that come easiest to me, I could fill you with such awe that you would prostrate yourself on the ground at my feet. I could spy on you invisibly and noiselessly in order to slit your throat before you even felt the knife." She felt more scared with each word he said, and the thunder seemed louder. "I could strip away Lastor's Wen magic and teach him the meaning of a life with consequences."
Arrina gulped her wine, dribbling some on her chin.
Michael sat back, the intensity gone, and he continued in a near whisper. Her fear slowly melted away. "But I would never do any of those things — not just because they would be wrong, though they would be, but because I can't make them last forever. Every enchantress's spell breaks eventually. You would remember that I had bowed you down with my magic, and what would you think of me then? Lastor may well discover I was behind his taste of mortality, and how do you think he would respond?"
"Badly," Arrina acknowledged, wiping her chin. "But do you really think Etha would ... "
"No, but I have an obligation to be absolutely certain before I give her the ability to do so." Michael lifted his finger again. "Don't think that means enchantresses do it out of pure altruism. We've learned from past mistakes. The Nosamae enchantresses overstepped their boundaries once, and it sparked a war between Wen and Farlanders. As it turns out, Wen children and Farlander enchantresses are very well-matched in magical combat."
"The Nosamae War," Arrina said, remembering the history. The Nosamae had eventually lost, but tens of thousands of Wen children died, much of the Valley burned, and Aaronsglade was razed to the ground. The once proud country of Aaronma was taken from the Nosamae, and now the Council ruled only over the rebuilt Aaronsglade. Eventually, enchantresses like Michael could practice openly and without fear of persecution, but even that was only a few generations old.
Michael shifted in his seat and gave her a wan smile. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bore you with history lessons."
"I don't find them boring. It sounds like it would make a good subject for a new play," she told him.
"Oh please don't." He chuckled, his mood lighter. "The Council of Aaronsglade has been trying to make everyone forget that unfortunate little chapter of history. If they find out I'm directing a play about it, my mother will tie me up and use me for fish bait."
Arrina took the two empty glasses and stood up. Business was done. It was time to move this forward. She put them on the table and purposefully leaned toward the door.
"Leaving so soon?" Michael said, on cue, in a tone Arrina knew meant he definitely hoped she wasn't.
She collapsed back onto the couch, a little closer to him. "Do you have any idea how cold it is out there? I'm at least staying here until I'm warm again!"
"Please let me get you a blanket," he said, standing up.
While he collected an extra blanket from a trunk, she inched a little farther toward his corner. The couch gave her away, creaking gently. He turned back, face softened. He seemed to have finally reached the same scene as her. He unfolded the blanket for her, and squeezed into the corner of the couch she had left him. His arm wrapped around her shoulder, and she curled into his warmth.
Arrina knew Michael wasn't exaggerating his abilities. Magic was a part of both of them — a source of power and strength that had helped the Senserte earn their reputation. But she also knew he would no more do anything to hurt her with his magic than she would hurt him with hers.
"I can understand a bit how Etha must feel," Michael said abruptly. "Her mother raised her pretty much on her own. That's something you, me, and her have in common."
This wasn't what Arrina wanted to talk about just now, but she saw no reason to change the subject right away. "Actually, we saw our father a lot when we were growing up. Even after Kaspar was born he visited us every three or four days. There's a secret tunnel between the palace and my mother's house."
"Not much of a secret if you're telling me about it."
Arrina jabbed him in the ribs playfully. "If I didn't think you were safe, I wouldn't be sharing a blanket with you."
"I suppose not," he admitted. "Etha grew up dreaming that she would one day find her pirate father and in some way make him accept her as his daughter. My father was murdered when I was too young to remember him. The enchanter who killed him escaped Aaronsglade and went into exile far from the Valley. I used to have elaborate fantasies about tracking him down and avenging my father."
"When I was fifteen I found out the killer died when I was about five years old. He got involved on the losing side of some kind of local civil war. I'll never have a chance at revenge, just as I don't think Etha will ever meet her father."
"Mmm," Arrina murmured agreeably.
"Pirates tend not to live long lives," Michael elaborated.
"No." She wasn't sure what else to say.
They sat in silence for a few minutes.
"The rigged election skit sure brings back memories, doesn't it?" Michael asked. "Remember that job in the Republic? What was the name of that town?"
It took a moment for Arrina to retrieve it. "Lubalu."
"That's the one. Its conch stayed in power forty years using every trick he could come up with. He switched vote boxes, arrested people he thought would vote against him, and bribed ballot counters. He even had the lens responsible for certifying the election results in his pocket."
"We barely broke a sweat on that one. Stipator and Zori tried to liven it up by seeing how many times they could mispronounce 'Lubalu' without the conch's cronies realizing they weren't actually talking to their boss. Jonathan about had a fit when he found out about that. I don't remember who won."
"I had forgotten about the mispronunciation game. Anyway, I just remember how upset the conch was by the end of the blow-off."
"The people we punish usually are," Arrina said drily.
"Well yes, of course, but the whole town's population was, what, eight hundred?"
"Right, six hundred. Being in charge of just six hundred people meant so much to him that he would take ridiculous measures to keep anyone from removing him from power. It wasn't like he had life and death power, either. He was the spokeperson for the village council of a town of six hundred. It just doesn't seem worth the fuss."
"Are you saying you're bored, Michael?" she asked teasingly. "Are your talents being wasted on small-time dictators and insignificant crime bosses?"
"Not at all. Places like Mattock and Lubalu are the ones who need us. Pithdai, Aaronsglade, and the rest have their own police forces. I mention it because it always amazes me how much people will do for so little. The world is so huge. Why squander your life trying to maintain your hold over some ceremonial post in a tiny village somewhere?"
"Have plans to conquer the world, do you?"
Michael barked a laugh. "Mira's deft hands, no! 'More power, more enemies,' my mother used to tell me."
"Less competition, I suppose. Not a lot of people lining up to be the conch of Lubalu. If he had tried something like that in a city large enough to matter he wouldn't have lasted forty years. Might not have lasted four."
"Not all of our targets have small ambitions, you know. Remember that potion-maker last fall?"
"The one who thought he could use the hair of his enemies to poison them?"
"That's the one. He probably still thinks he could have conquered Sutola if we hadn't stopped him."
"Arrina, he was out of his mind. I pitied him, to be honest."
"He murdered three people before we arrived, Michael. Was he really worthy of your pity?"
"Perhaps not, but I find it a bit difficult to hate someone whose mind has been warped by Wen magic, and I think he qualifies. Poresa felt the same way."
"Poresa has a soft heart. It's a marvel she still travels with us."
"I think she believes she moderates some of Stipator's zeal," Michael said.
"Heh. Jonathan has been trying to moderate Stipator since he and I were fourteen. I don't think anyone can make him less incorrigible."
They settled into an easy silence, simply enjoying each other's presence.
"Feeling warmer?" Michael asked suddenly.
She simply nodded, the top of her head rubbing against the inside of his shoulder.
She smiled up at him as she pulled the blanket out from under herself and slid it around his back. He glanced down at her a moment before looking away, slightly flushed. Arrina glanced at the front of her dress and noticed the bodice had slid down rather far. She sat up to adjust it and then leaned into Michael's arm again. He pulled his side of the blanket around so he could hug her close as they sat.
They stayed like that for a little while before Arrina felt his lips against the top of her head — just a single gentle peck.
"Mmm. Maybe we should come up to the mountains more often," she said softly, tilting her face up toward him.
He smiled and leaned toward her, lips slightly pursed.
Tchunk! A slender wooden shaft suddenly materialized between their faces, sinking through the back of the couch and into the wall behind it. Both of them jumped back away from the message arrow in surprise. After the initial shock passed, Arrina and Michael looked at each other and burst out laughing.
Weather permitting, a Messegere moon shot arrow always reached its target — even ones indoors and away from windows. It never hurt anyone, but it always managed to make an entrance that its recipient could not possibly miss.
"Midnight and all is well!" Arrina announced, still laughing. "And I have a guess about the current weather."
Michael plucked the rolled letter off the shaft and looked at the seal.
"Is it for me or you?"
"It's from your father." He held out the letter to her. "He has interesting timing," Michael added with a small laugh.
Arrina's eyes scanned the page rapidly. She stood up, letting the blanket fall from her shoulders. "I need to talk to Jonathan."
"Your hands are shaking." He had a note of worry in his voice. "What's wrong?"
"It's Kaspar. He's been kidnapped."