At the inn Neelya run to her room and slammed the doors so loudly the whole building shook. She was badly shaken as well but for different reasons. She threw herself on the bed and cried of grief, feeling humiliated, angry, distressed. She didn’t want to see either Zavi or Murq again. She didn’t want to see this strange place again. Ever. After she subdued her sobbing a bit she started to think. She knew her wishes wouldn’t come true until the next day. She had to calm down, wash, eat and sleep in order to be completely lucid before the Council. She didn’t even know the hour of her appointment. Drat – it meant asking Zavi. She decided to treat it as an exercise in self-control, an important thing for every archer or warrior. Another hurdle dividing her from her freedom. First she washed herself as well as she could in a shallow basin, then she went down to the dining room and asked for a meal and something to drink. A sympathetic woman brought her a plate of tasty soup and a cup of tea. She ate with gusto and finally she felt strong enough to face Zavi. She went upstairs but was so preoccupied with her anguish that she almost collided with him on the corridor. Both of them didn’t want to look into each other’s eyes. Zavi spoke first:
– How are you feeling? Would you mind a chat?
– Actually I would but still, as I must ask you the time of my tomorrow’s appointment …
‘Goodnes, so late’, thought Neelya, sighing. ‘ How am I going to survive till tomorrow noon?’
– Let’s go into your room and talk things over in peace, shall we? – suggested Zavi in an awkward way.
– Is there anything to talk over?
– You would be surprised how much.
– If you insist…
Neelya went, resigned, into her room and sat heavily on her bed, leaving Zavi no other option than the only chair – a lame and flimsy piece of furniture – which stood in the corner. The silence started ringing in her ears but she was determined not to make anything easier for him. No way. Not after all she’s been through because of an innocent dance. Finally Zavi decided to start the conversation.
– I would like to apologize, Neelya. I mean it. Our first meeting didn’t go well at all but you should understand, at least partially, why. Back then you was just a witness of magic, a woman soon to be eliminated…
– …killed. Let’s call the spade the spade.
– As you wish. Killed. Let me tell you something more. I am not a rapist, but I am a coward, I admit it. I said what I said because I just didn’t want to be left alone with that grim task. It would be my first independent elimi…kill. I hoped I might persuade Murq to stay with me and help. He is quite ingenious at it and he likes women. He has invented a potion which…
– I don’t want to hear about it.
– Right. Wrong topic. As I said I didn’t mean you harm and believe me or not, I am your best friend in Nar. Tomorrow you are going to be registered as my apprentice but today I must beg you not to do anything rash. Don’t go out, don’t try to run away, don’t endanger your future. Right now you are very vulnerable and totally defenseless, an easy prey to any mage or even a more advanced…
– Your point being?
– It’s crucial you understand my reasons but if you want to hear my point here it is: you are in grave danger. Stay in your room, don’t talk with anybody unless I am present, don’t touch anybody or anything unusual.
– Why am I so endangered? What’s the problem?
– Listen, Neelya, listen very carefully. If you don’t become an apprentice you are nothing but a commodity here, a thing that might be sold and bought. It is done all the time in Nar. You are in a limbo – your old life finished, your new life not exactly started. Anybody more powerful than you can capture you and do as he or she pleases. Would you like to end up as a sex slave or worse? In such circumstances I would have hard time to prove you existed at all. I doubt Murq would be kind enough to testify on my behalf.
– Maybe Murq only wanted to help.
Zavi flared up instantly.
– That old cur. Like hell he did. Accosting and fondling you in the middle of the street, then trying to drive a wedge between us even before you are registered. Have you wondered why he spoke Thavosi even though he is hardly as fluent as you and me? He wanted to feed you an incomplete and skewed version of the events guessing that maybe I didn’t have the time to present mine, that’s why. Very helpful indeed.
– I still don’t see it…why am I in such a danger? I am gifted, aren’t I? You and that Black Brother respected it.
– It is of no importance now. In fact it is your biggest weakness. Plenty of mages would love to get a gifted slave without soiling their reputation. On the other hand the fact that I discovered you obliges me to protect and teach you as well as I can. This is the magical law – your discovery, your responsibility. Others are free of such an obligation so they are your natural enemies, all of them, until you are registered; if they abduct you or somehow lure you into a trap they will be your owners and your chance will be lost.
– They can’t do such a thing! They won’t be allowed! It’s a crime! I am of noble birth, my uncle is the king of Thavos!
– Stupid girl, it only means you might fetch a higher price!
– It means my uncle will look for me and find me, you idiot! Rather sooner than later and with armed men!
– No, he won’t!
– Yes, he will!
– Not if he is told you are dead, you ninny!
– What did you say?
Zavi covered his mouth with his hand for a moment, totally distressed; it became apparent the conversation went the wrong way. He was afraid of the girl’s reaction – she was being high-strung all day and could snap any moment now. He wished he knew any cheering charm; instead, he applied his best soothing voice and manners.
– It is a standard procedure with future mages, Neelya. It must be done. When we become apprentices we are officially declared dead to the rest of the world so our relatives and friends stop looking for us. They don’t know it but we are aware what it would mean and we do it to protect them. Usually it’s the new master who approaches the family of his or her apprentice and says what should be said. In your case, I think, an official message will be sent from our queen.
Neelya sat paralyzed by the thought.
– I am sorry.
– I don’t believe it. Are you saying that nothing can be done? No, it can’t be true. Please, I don’t want to be announced dead. I want to return to my life. Please. I promise I will forget what you said and done to me, I will forget it all. I will forgive you and pay as much as you wish. My family is rich. Please Zavi, think about it. You won’t have to work for the rest of your life. One small favour. I beg you…
– It is not a small favour, Neelya, it is an impossible task. No amount of money can defend me from mages– do you remember the Black Brother?
Neelya started to cry.
– I beg you…
– If you still think I am somehow deceiving you, not telling you all the truth, ask the Council tomorrow. Their decision will bind us all. If they say you might return home I will be more than happy to escort you to your marble palace or wherever you live. But keep in mind this : if you are not more careful you might not even get a chance to stand before the Council at all. There have been such incidents, prospective apprentices disappearing for good, nobody ever hearing of them again.
– I will be careful, I promise. I won’t go out of my room.
– Great. Now you are being sensible. If you are in want of something, here – he handed her a small silvery mirror in a wooden frame – just wipe this with your hand and say my name. I will attend to you immediately. Don’t go out, don’t even touch the door yourself, I am intending to secure the entrance against any intrusion. Rest and sleep.
He stood up, emotionally tired and eager to leave the room.
– I would need a change of clothes.
– Of course. I’ll bring them to you tomorrow, first thing in the morning. You must be presentable.
– Anything else?
– I would love to take a bath. If necessary, in this room but still…
– I’ll talk to the innkeeper, I know her personally. If it is possible a maid will draw you a bath here and clean afterwards.
– Thank you.
– You are welcome. See you tomorrow Neelya. Don’t worry, everything will be fine.
Somehow she wasn’t even able to fake the palest goodbye smile. With tears hanging on her long eyelashes her unhappy mouth still ghostly white, she looked like despair incarnated. Zavi decided to run to the innkeeper, a middle-aged woman of motherly figure and manners called Ketino, and ask her for help immediately. Ketino promised to do what she could.