Neelya rode a smallish, underfed mule with Zavi in front, on a far more impressing mount. She preferred it that way – she could think her situation over without being constantly irritated by his smirks and twaddle. They were approaching Nar. These last days seemed just a bad dream. Information, imparted by her new master was unexpected, horrible and unjust, especially unjust! Master? It was a bad joke! He was of inferior birth and most probably her age, maybe even younger! He was obnoxious! Only half-Thavosi whereas she came from one of the oldest and most powerful families! What has she done to deserve this? She cast her mind back to the previous days, searching for a clue.
After the Black Brother left them, Zavi started his solemn lecture. He said that she’d been a very, very lucky girl – she was gifted and Zavi saved her life telling the assassin about it right in time. So far so good. Then he said that basically she was starting a new life and because of that she should forget her former social status, family, friends, king and Thavos. From now on she would be known as Neelya of Nar, his apprentice, and then, if everything goes as it should, an independent mage. She must be grateful, diligent, obedient and kind to him, it’s her duty now. She must learn to speak Narean as quickly as possible. She would start her magical training right after the registration. Neelya couldn’t protest loudly – her vocal cords were still muted – but she didn’t accept this new imposed future. Not even one bit of it. In her opinion magic was rubbish – a stuff from old crones’ or children’s stories, certainly not anything she would like to deal with! Nobody in Thavos knew or heard of a decently powerful mage! Mages were tricksters, con men, punks and other trash – it was known. What could be done? She would have escaped somehow but one thing made her stay with Zavi – the Black Brother or rather Black Brethren, as there were more of them. Zavi told her that it was their task to deal with any magical problems – witnesses of magic, apprentices, even, or maybe especially, unruly mages. They would find them and kill and the breach of secrecy was the most serious crime. If she tried to escape and hide among non-magical people now she would be found and elliminated along with those who had contact with her. ‘Black Bethren are powerful and knowledgeable, they control the whole community’ continued Zavi. ‘As an apprentice, you are right under their jurisdiction so don’t get any foolish ideas’. Neelya believed his words. Zavi’s voice sounded right but she also saw the man and felt his power. No other proof was needed.
Lying in her bed that evening Neelya came to a conclusion that the best solution would be to go to Nar and explain everything before that High Council of mages. She couldn’t risk her life or the life of her relatives and friends. The mages must set her free. ‘Zavi is too young and too inexperienced to know about exceptions’, she mused with closed eyes. ‘Other mages, his superiors, will know what to do and they will do the right thing or the wrath of the king of Thavos will reach them pretty soon. I am his beloved and valuable niece; my abduction is going to be noticed (‘has already been noticed’, she corrected herself swiftly, ‘of course it has’) it will be treated as a slap across his royal face. Kings don’t like being slapped. Nar is small and insignificant, they have no army to speak of. Thavos is rich, king Numen is strong (‘my uncle, king Numen, my closest relative and beloved uncle who is fond of me and thinks very highly of my skills’, she corrected herself again), you stand no chance against him so, as I don’t wish to become a mage, you must let me return immediately home’. She rehearsed her speech over and over again. It was the only thing that could keep her relatively calm. Finally she fell asleep.
Her dream was very strange, even disturbing. She saw a young woman lying half-naked among silky, white sheets. She was sleeping outside on a kind of large, circular terrace under a swirling golden canopy of clouds. Neelya observed the woman for a moment, more and more shaken but without any apparent reason. She wanted to wake the woman up, she was determined to warn her as she sensed a grave danger approaching. It was very important the woman was wide awake and able to defend herself but Neelya found her body freezed, she couldn’t move one finger or say a word. In her horror she finally realized she was watching herself. She started screaming and she woke up with her mouth wide open, covered in sweat. She couldn’t sleep for the rest of night.
Next day they set off to Nar and during the journey Zavi boasted of his magical experience and adventures until he became hoarse. Apparently he was overjoyed by the fact that he was having an audience. Sleepy Neelya didn’t listen to him, hating his handsome face and mellifluous voice more and more with every moment but pretending she had accepted him and her fate. She tried not to speak too much, remembering all the time what Zavi said to the Black Brother – as they are both gifted, he will recognize the falsehood in her voice. And vice versa. Oh great. At least she could think what she wanted. It was a kind of game and she loved games; let’s see who will win. It won’t last long.
At dusk they saw the first settlement where they rested and the next day they reached the main city, also called Nar. ‘Such a small country that it shares its name with the capital’ thought Neelya ironically and this fact made her more optimistic. Thavos is far greater and stronger, there will be no troubles with her release.
Zavi left her in an inn and told her to wait until he arranges the presentation before the Council. She smiled sweetly to calm him down but said nothing. She had enough of these inns and enough of master Zavi’s company. As soon as he disappeared Neelya went outside – it was time she finally ventured to do something on her own. Going sightseeing seemed to be as good an idea as anything, especially that she had never visited this place before.
Nar was full of low, stone buildings, very similar to each other, covered by strangely slanted, red roofs. People on the streets were few and far between. In the distance a medium-sized castle overlooked the city, surrounded by a vast ring of lush gardens. Neelya’s first impression was a sense of ordinariness, which permeated every single corner and stone. However, she noticed a strange, sleepy silence and also the fact that there were no beggars around. It made Neelya wonder what happened to them and she shuddered. Somehow she didn’t think they disappeared of their own free will. Shops were small and dark, mostly selling weaponry and leather accessories. Neelya walked slower and slower, strangely tired. She wanted to return to her inn but she found with surprise that she lost her sense of direction. Her strength was dwindling fast. She stopped in the middle of a street as exhausted as if she has been walking a full day. Before she decided what to do (her only options being sit down and sleep or lie down and sleep) she heard a voice calling her name. The sleepiness immediately left her – fully alert and strangely rested, she turned her head to see a tall man standing at the corner of a building, swilling beer and smiling.
– Young Neelya. Good to see you again. I’ve heard about your unusual luck. I don’t doubt Zavi is one happy mage too. – he said in imperfect but intelligible Thavosi.
– Have we met?
– Of course we have but I forgot – you were unconscious at that time, sorry. Let me introduce myself. My name is Murq and I am the former master and teacher of your Zavi.
– My Zavi?
– Well, now as you are his apprentice…
– It won’t last long. – she blurted out all of a sudden.
– How do you mean?
– I…never mind. I am looking for an inn…
– Zavi left you in an inn, all alone? How discourteously of him! Small wonder such a spirited girl got bored, went out and got lost. It’s easy to get lost here. Don’t worry, I will show you the way and keep you company, making up for the uncouth behaviour of my former student…such a lovely, high-born lady…here dear, give my your hand.
Neelya at first was reluctant to accept the hand of a complete stranger but then she forced herself to do it. He knew her name so they must have met. Apart from that it was a perfect opportunity to make him talk and to find out more about other mages and the Council. He was older, he used to be Zavi’s master, he could help. As soon as she touched Murq, though, she felt something like a current running through her body. A pleasant, long shiver. She became excited but also oddly calm, definitely calmer than only a moment ago. Now she knew with maddening certainty that Murq was a trustworthy, kind mage, a man who would help her as long as she followed him whenever he wanted to for as long as he wanted to…it didn’t matter he came far too close now, smelling unpleasantly of cheap beer and sweat…he was looking, nah, leering at her cleavage…it didn’t matter he started to stroke her breast in the middle of an empty street, his other hand pressing the small of her back…it didn’t matter…
– I would like to remind you, Murq, that she is my apprentice.
Neelya jumped out of her trance. This obnoxiously pleasant voice. Zavi. She was furious but when Murq dropped her hand and walked away slowly to his corner her rage suddenly disappeared.
– Not so long ago you were rather anxious to share, dear boy.
– As far as I remember you declined the offer.
– Maybe I’ve changed my mind.
– So have I. By the way, sharing is one thing, stealing – quite another. Hands off, master Murq. Neelya, come here. Now.
Neelya hesitated, still feeling a bit befuddled, still yearning for the strangely exciting current that made her forget herself with a complete stranger in the middle of a street. Zavi came closer, took her hand in a very decisive manner and forced her to follow him in silence. Murq didn’t oppose. ‘He could have done or said something’, thought Neelya grudgingly turning her head towards Murq, the last remnants of that current circulating slowly in her body. Murq returned to his beer, just looking at her through his puffy half-closed eyelids.
– He spoke Thavosi…who did you want to share with him? – asked Neelya after a moment of quick walk.
Somehow this piece of information stuck in her head. Zavi rolled his eyes, evidently vexed. Trust a woman to pick the least useful and the most embarrassing words out of every conversation she hears.
– Never you mind.
– Tell me. Anybody I know?
– I told you, quit it and stay mum till we reach the inn; the buildings here not only have ears but also can repeat what they’ve heard. Do you want all Nar to gossip about your little adventures?
– You wanted to share me, didn’t you? – asked the girl in a low voice, her mouth close to his ear.
Zavi didn’t have to answer as he turned bright red immediately. Neelya looked daggers at him but she didn’t say anything else either.