Fire Daemons were, in Minerva Ford's experience, fickle and forgetful. Once it went out, all memory of its existence was lost to the aether, unlike water. Water seemed to have something of an aggregate sentience to it, and a long memory to boot. Why was it that flame lost its memory of the lives it consumed, but water still held every soul that never swam free?
She'd kept a vial of Altiria with her - but it was corked, and unable to converse and share knowledge with her. On the few occasions she did speak with the water, she was unable to glean anything aside from complaints about the size of the container - but any freedom for the liquid meant it would evaporate before it'd be of real use.
So instead, she stuck with her flame.
Gregory, as she'd named it after a while, was the third of its kind -- her previous attempts at "raising" a flame had ended catastrophically. The first time, Gregory I had been lost in use against bandits, and no spark could be recovered. The second Gregory had been lost in a simpler incident, involving a dropped lantern. She'd been forced to extinguish the Daemon before it caught the entire wagon on fire.
This iteration of Gregory was approaching a year old - raised from a spark on the day that damage from Gregory II was repaired. That it was starting to remember names and faces, as well as hold cogent conversation was impressive - but she was still mystified by its ability to learn and share. The flame told her about all of the things it liked -- pressed olive oil, dried leaves, and fish oils were a few of its favorites. It chattered sometimes, asking about the logs that its cousin, the campfire, got in the evening.
"Min, I wanna go out tonight! I wanna taste the woods ‘n the sky ‘n the Gale!"
Before the Magician could respond, the Nobleman at the front of the wagon peeked back.
"Minnie, we're almost t' West Orden. Can y'finish th' inventory when y'got a mo' free from Greggie?"
"Yes, Max~ I'll be sure to finish it~" Minnie chimed, interrupted from her thoughts. She gently tapped Gregory's lamp before she hung the Daemon up. "We'll talk about it soon, little one. Be good, and stay in for now. If anything feels weird, call out, okay?"
She then moved to grab the thick, slightly singed inventory book, and opened a box filled with trinkets and assorted jewelry, and set to work with inventorying their stock.
Thirty-some-odd years ago, Maximilien Renault had decided that he needed to do something with his life. Though he was a Nobleman, he had not been born within the bounds of any city, and could hear no City Daemons. His family had no great ties to any city or guild, leaving him with only a small fortune and a family name.
For a Nobleman in his position, it was expected that he would become a priest of some sort, praying to Daemons, and listening to nature.
He didn't want to do that. He dreamed of making a name for himself, and came up with a plan to do so. If you traced his family back far enough, you'd find that he was descended from a line of distinguished traders, one of whom married a queen, long ago.
With the money left behind by his parents after their passing, he set out to learn how to craft jewelry that he could actually sell. He then purchased himself a wagon, all in order to set out for life on the ancient trade routes of the Dusk.
For cycles, he dedicated his focus nearly entirely to his goal - and once he'd built up a sizable inventory of work he found that he dearly loved, left for the road.
Unfortunately for Max, being a descendant of merchants did not necessarily mean that he had been granted any special skills in actually making sales.
His first few cycles in the caravan were fraught with struggles - while his craftsmanship was excellent, his expenses often exceeded his income. His work was also often too fancy for the tastes of his clientele, though the occasional Nobleman would purchase a piece or two - which would help stretch finances out a bit. His family's money would not last forever, and he couldn't afford to keep putting money into a venture which cost more than it earned.
He had horses to feed, a wagon to maintain, supplies to purchase… And he supposed he ought to consider food for himself in there, somewhere. He couldn't subsist on handouts from others in the caravan forever. He would eventually go broke.
That all changed when he met Minerva.
The Magician had expressed an interest in traveling on the caravan until she reached Vespas, and had been brought to speak with him before everyone needed to start packing up. While knowledge of the Obligation amongst the Cycle-exempt was limited, some knew that a King's cousin's cousin might be able to ‘persuade' a Magician to use their gifts for protection.
As soon as they were introduced, Minnie - as she'd told him to call her - she'd started nosing through his wares.
"You know, these will never sell. They're lovely, but there's just something about them..." she murmured, gently lifting up a necklace and looking it over. The lime-green ring in her dark eyes seemed to glow more brightly as she appraised the item carefully. "Ah! You don't want them to!"
Max couldn't help but bristle slightly as she spoke, watching her examine and set aside several of his favorite pieces.
"That's such a shame… They're quite lovely."
"...If y' wouldn't mind, coulja consider tellin' me more plainly what yer sayin'?" Max managed tersely, unsure as to whether or not he understood what the Magician before him was saying. Had she just subtly insulted his work? It wouldn't have been the first time one had, but usually they avoided contact with Max. He'd always assumed it was because of his place in the cycle.
"Oh! Just that you're way too attached to this. Do you want help? If you give me the commands I ask for, I'll be happy to give a hand." Minnie turned around and beamed at him, holding up one of the pieces he'd created. "Heck, if we break this apart, I could probably recreate it so it'll sell better, if you have sketches."
He hadn't expected her to offer to help.
"I'll consider it."
When the wagons stopped for the night, they both set to work. Max was astounded by Minnie's ability to use fire and water in order to quickly melt and re-shape the metal he'd worked so diligently to sculpt before. Her replica needed refinement, but it was close enough to the real piece. There was something about it that felt fundamentally different - and Max hadn't quite felt as attached to it.
Over the next few days on the road, the pair worked through four other pieces -- and when they reached Cresley, Max decided to put them out for purchase.
To his surprise, they finally sold. All five items that they'd destroyed and re-created had sold. He wondered if she was right - maybe he'd wished too hard for his work to be loved and appreciated by the right people, that he'd unwittingly driven buyers away?
After that, it was only a short time until he'd made a proposal: He'd asked her to stay with him as an equal partner in business. If she wanted, she could also defend the caravan, too - but that was up to her.
Minnie had accepted happily. She was just going to Vespas to see the sights, anyway.
"Miiiiin! Maaaaax! Minmaxmaxmiiiiin! Soooomeboooooooody~! Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeelp meeeee~!!"
Minnie looked up from her book, clearly annoyed at the Daemon's choice of timing for an outburst. They were in town - most people wouldn't know that nature truly had voices. If Gregory was to be heard, it might cause more than a few whispers.
She'd just spent the night trying to keep Gregory from screaming about bacon after learning of the flavor from the campfire - today, she just wanted to keep her eyes down and not be asked about magic. Her head hurt.
"I got ‘im. Y'wanna handle th' customers?" Max offered with a chuckle and a knowing stare. He'd warned her not to add anything to Gregory from the campfire. Her goal had been to see what knowledge transferred over from one instance of a daemon to another… Not create a petulant flame that begged for smoked bacon.
"It's fine, I've got him. I shouldn'ta let him learn about dinner…" She closed her book and sighed loudly. "What's it I need to do?"
She glanced over at Max, knowingly.
"Use whatever means you need to in order to quiet Gregory down. Don't extinguish the little bugger, please." Max spoke slowly and quietly, carefully choosing his words. "That ‘nuff fer ya?"
Minnie nodded and got up to carry out the Obligation she'd just been given. She paused to look back when she heard a quiet voice ask, "Who's Gregory…?"
"Shoulda been more careful about that…" She muttered to herself, unable to interrupt her current geas for long. Someone overheard him, and she hoped it wasn't another Magician.
As soon as she entered the wagon, she was greeted by a tiny shout from the lantern that hung from one of its bows. Gregory was in as much of a blaze as it could manage - and started to dance when it spotted the Magician.
"MIN!! I! Wanna! See! People!!" Gregory flared up on the last word, shining brightly in its globe. "Pleaaaaaaaaase!"
"Greggie, you need to use your inside voice when we're in town," Minnie warned, her hand glowing slightly as she made a zipping motion across her lips. The Daemon went quiet, and started to whine in her head.
Are you gonna take me outside? It demanded, twirling around on the wick that kept it alive.
"Yes, but you need to be a good fire and stay calm. If you can do that, I'll make sure you get a treat tonight."
Can I be the campfire?! I wanna be the fire! You can give me new oil and burny things for my home while I'm the fire!
Minnie couldn't stifle her laugh as she took the lantern with her. She attached it to her staff and walked back to the stand, where Max was apologizing profusely to a young couple before him.
The extremely nervous young woman briefly locked eyes with Minnie, before gazing down at the ground. It was clear that she was also a Magician, based solely on the teal glow in her eyes. Minnie wondered if things were all right - there were far too many newly-freed Magicians who met with horrid fates these days, now that the Regicide prowled the cities.
"That right 'ere, 's Gregory." Max kept his voice low and pointed at the lantern Minnie now had, and grinned. "Fire Daemon, ya know?"
Oooh!! The sad one is like Max! Hi, Fluffy Max!
The young man - Fluffy Max, as Gregory was now calling him - jumped with a start as Gregory wordlessly shouted greetings in his direction. It was obvious that he'd heard the fire.
Max grinned at Minnie and motioned toward the pair. "These ‘ere are Edan ‘n Cora - and they were lookin' to join us while they go travelin' south towards Evenheim."
This story starts a few cycles after the end of Virgo At Hades' Gate.
Relative to our time: Max and Min are both in their 50s (Max has been on the road for about 21 years now).
Chapter 2: A Flame
Tensions are high between Edan and Cora, and while Minnie and Max try to figure out what's going on... The younger duo needs to learn to communicate.
By the end of their last day in town, Max was exhausted. The days the caravan stopped somewhere usually meant lots of standing, lots of talking, and lots of aches afterwards. Everything was stiff and tender to the touch. His knee throbbed dully, reminding him that he really ought to have seated himself more. He'd need to set aside tax money and ask Minnie for help to replenish stock and balance the books and… To-do lists could come tomorrow.
The siren call of the bed was strong, and before he knew it, he'd settled down for the night, drawn into the oblivion of sleep.
When he awoke, he could hear the muffled sound of voices outside the wagon, accompanied by the sound of Gregory, who crackled excitedly. Though, the fire daemon was nearly always excited for something.
"Honestly I'm just surprised to see you both here!" He could imagine Minnie feigning a smile, as the glow in her eyes increased slightly, based on her tone and volume alone. "Why don't you two get settled in, and I'll go nudge Max awake."
"Oh, ah, no need to make any trouble," a younger man spoke, trying to keep his voice down. "We can wait."
At this, Max heard the sound of something hitting the ground with a THUMP and a jingle, followed by an "Are you all right?" from Minnie.
"Guess that's my cue to get up," Max grumbled to himself, figuring he ought not to leave Minnie alone for too long. She had confessed her concern over the Nobleman and his Magician in the days prior, and indicated that she would have little patience for any perceived misbehavior in the young man.
He pulled himself out of bed, causing the wagon to creak as he shifted his weight to the floor. He felt his knees pop as he moved, prompting him to groan loudly in discomfort.
Today, the caravan would be back on the road. His aches would soon be forgotten as they'd been traveling a while - replaced with new ones from remaining seated all day, as they made their way toward the next town.
After he'd made himself presentable, he stepped out of the wagon to greet the newcomers. "Good ta see ya, glad ya could make it 'nat."
The Nobleman nodded in response, with a half-hearted smile that didn't reach his eyes. The Magician was seated on the ground, seemingly exhausted and leaning on a pack. She didn't bother to speak, and kept her eyes shut for the time being.
"Ya doin' okay 'ere?" Max asked, raising an eyebrow as he glanced at the Magician.
She nodded, yawning. "Just tired. Edan snores and hogs the blankets."
"C-Cora!" Edan chided, his face turning bright red.
Max sighed and looked to his partner, who despite her calm expression, was wringing her hands behind her back.
Once the caravan started on its journey again, Minnie found herself quite pleased to see that Edan and Cora were easy to separate. It only took a suggestion that the Noblemen focus their talents on tending the horses - leaving the Magicians alone in the wagon with an irate fire daemon.
Gregory had riled itself up into a furor - demanding to have access to logs and leaves and another caterpillar (which it'd liked quite a bit). It was quickly silenced when threatened with spending quality time putting the small bit of Altiria to work. Once the flame was back in control, Minnie gave the magician a broad smile.
"So, how did the two of you meet - your Nobleman, I mean," Minnie finally asked, as the Daemon in the lamp above them quietly fumed about wanting pressed olives. "Did you work for his family? Or were you two acquainted later?"
Cora shrugged and seated herself at the small fold-out table against the wall. Her prior nerves seemed to have disappeared with the men, leaving only a trace of bitterness to her tone. "We met in my hometown. He didn't know that I was a Magician at first… And I..." She paused, moving a finger along the grain of the table's wood. "Well, that's all said and done with now, though…"
The two sat in awkward silence for a few moments, before Minnie made another attempt at conversation. "You know, before I was with Max and the caravan, I used to help out in the Craftsman's Guild back home. My father was a member, with a Noble patron from the Laeve family. Lord Silas Laeve was his closest companion - and the two probably could have worked any sort of magic together, if they'd put their minds to it."
Minnie paused and smiled, finding that she still missed her father terribly, after all these years. "They both passed within a few weeks of each other, and I had to make sure my Father was planted near Laeve, as he'd wished. After all that was done, I set off, and the rest is history! ...What about you?"
She watched for any sign of distress or concern from the Magician who sat opposite to her. It was a full moment before Cora responded.
"...I was a scribe." Cora furrowed her brow as she spoke her grey eyes seeming to darken. She somehow managed to keep her tone light. "Before I was brought into my… Calling. As the Gale dictates, you know."
Minnie grimaced. She knew all too well what that particular turn of phrase meant. She'd heard it many times herself, especially as she traveled with Max through the Dusk. Some regions were more zealous than others, and extolled the virtues of the Obligation to any Nobleman - while Magicians without a liege were often found a master to serve.
"Is that something you actually believe?"
Before answering, Cora looked up at Gregory's lamp and seemed to consider her words. "No."
"Oh! You had me worried for a minute! I was about to say..." Minnie hadn't meant to sound so relieved, but she quickly realized that her companion had started smiling.
As the two Magicians talked through the day, Minnie found it easy enough to focus on handling some administrative work. "If you're gonna be traveling with us, you'll probably wanna learn some stuff on the road ‘bout selling and that," she said, pulling a stack of paperwork out of the chest where she'd kept records. It still needed to be filled out, but she didn't care. "Assuming I can find the Gale-blasted sales book…"
Cora moved closer, and looked at the pile of paperwork. "...I didn't realize that you guys would need to file for sales permits in the cities."
"Oh. Yeah… That… Well. I'll get it done at some point or another. That's just for Cymaria, and we're still a couple weeks out." She watched as the grey-eyed Magician picked up one of the packets, and thumbed through it appraisingly. "It's kind of a lot. They want to make sure that everyone's legitimate, and then get their cut of taxes… But we're there for a week, so..."
"I can do the work for you, if you want," Cora offered. "All of it, I mean. My services aren't free, but…"
"Oh? What would you charge to handle all of this stack?"
"Well… It would be nice to have something more comfortable to wear. ...And maybe something for Edan, too… I guess."
"Well. I don't really have much more than one dress to my name, so I've been wearing his clothes when I do laundry. He's got some things." Cora seemed to be avoiding meeting Minnie's eyes. "Which, I mean. They're fine, but… I dunno. Everything of his smells like incense, which is also fine."
"That definitely doesn't sound like it's fine," Minnie replied, as she continued to dig through the chest.
"Well… I mean, I guess it is? It's just… I liked him better before he tried to help me, and I don't wanna smell like him all the time." It was hard not to notice the hint of bitterness in the other Magician's tone, as she started organizing the growing pile of papers. "It's just… I dunno that he ever… realized… the people that were around him didn't see me as a person?"
This was something Minnie knew well. When she'd met what remained of Max's family, they'd expected that she would share all of Max's opinions. It wasn't surprising to hear that other Noblemen might have shared this sort of sentiment.
"I mean, he's not like that," Cora finally looked up from the papers. "But in any case… If you'll get me one outfit for myself, I'll help with this stack of paperwork."
Minnie laughed. "As long as you're okay with linens. I don't think Max would be too happy to dress anyone in silks."
"Throw in that shirt for Edan, and we've got a deal."
After the caravan stopped for rest, Minnie excitedly explained the paperwork situation to Max. Cora had already started handling some of the complex forms - which at least one city had requested in triplicate.
Upon seeing this, Max grudgingly agreed to the bargain which had been struck, and sent the Magicians off to make the necessary arrangements to complete the deal.
Surprisingly, though - as talkative as Cora had been earlier - Minnie noted that there was very little she seemed to be able to say to Edan when they gathered around the campfire.
Max knew just how stubborn other Noblemen could be, especially when it came to their Magicians.
Having a Magician meant power. A potential challenge to the throne, when coupled with the warning a city daemon could give, became easy enough to quash with a Magician at one's side. In Max's own case, Minnie hadn't offered power, but she had brought him prosperity. While he was eternally grateful for that, they both knew the truth of their relationship. There was no mistaking fealty and respect for loyalty.
It was Max's duty to offer Minnie whatever protection and stability he could - and that meant, sometimes, he'd had to issue commands that kept the two of them safe.
But some Noblemen...
As far as Max had been able to piece together, Edan was in line for no throne. He didn't seem to have a desire to claim any power. As far as anyone could tell, the boy was likely to be some Noble-blooded bastard who'd somehow happened upon a Magician.
A Magician Edan apparently hadn't given any standing Obligations to. Max had learned as much from what Minnie had told him - though without a command, there was no way to be absolutely sure.
That was just asking for trouble. Unobligated Magicians had a tendency to disappear these days, and Minerva had lost a number of contacts in the past few years, shortly after their lieges had passed at the hands of the Regicide.
Perhaps it would be better - if Edan was unwilling, of course - that he offer Cora the option of working with him, under the same set of commands as Minerva did. Of course, Edan would be able to stay, but a Nobleman who refused to command was as useless as any of the Obligation-Exempt when it came to Magicians.
To do that though, he'd need to speak with her privately. ...He didn't imagine the topic of anything resembling a Liegeoath would go over well with the Nobleman present.
"Y'know, mebbe ya oughta let Cora stay up front wi'me one'a these days? I betcha she'd like ta see th' sights." Max sat by the fire, crunching the last of his bacon.
It had been Edan's turn to cook that morning - and even in the glow of Gregory, it was clear that Edan blanched when he'd realized what was being asked. The young Nobleman struggled to keep his tone even when he replied.
"I… really… I don't know that I'm comfortable with that."
"An' why not?" Max responded, casting a sidelong glance toward where Minnie and Cora sat - noting that both Magicians had stopped chatting and were watching the gentlemen's discussion. "‘S not a matter'a comfort fer ya, it's a matter o' what Cora wants, ain't it?"
"I don't know that it's safe for her. She's a Scribe. She hasn't learned how to defe--"
"If you're worried about it, then give me a command," Cora interrupted, raising her voice slightly. "I'll figure it out."
"But--" Edan began, seeming unsure of how to respond.
"But what? If you're not going to trust me to make my own decisions, then you're really no better than Mother Liliane. ...Neither of you are."
Max didn't know who Liliane was - and he hadn't expected that Cora would sound so upset. Had he misjudged the situation?
The Magician muttered that she needed a walk and stalked off - leaving the group in awkward silence until Edan burned his hand on the fire.
When Cora didn't return before they were due to set off, Minnie went to look for her, only to return saying, "She's staying with the Kellers today."
Minnie groaned as she heard Gregory whisper in her head. It had become customary for Gregory to ask all sorts of new and fascinating questions when it'd been able to "taste" new things - be it wood, flowers, or people's hands. Apparently Edan was no less interesting to the Daemon, but after the morning's display, she wasn't sure she wanted to know what Greggie had glanced.
Minmin, I don't understand, Gregory tried again, this time even quieter.
She could sense a tinge of sadness in the Daemon's voice.
"Is your oil low?"
Minnie got the distinct feeling of unease from Gregory - though the Daemon didn't have words to put to it. When Gregory was new - and much like its predecessors - Minnie had needed to stop the flame from overwhelming her with feelings, when it realized that they could be shared. She could make an exception in this case - Gregory was unhappy, and not just the normal "I want to be the campfire" sort of unhappy.
"Sometimes we don't have words for things inside, so just this once--" She didn't have the time to finish before feeling overwhelmed.
In an instant, she felt as if she'd lost her father again.
It was impossible to breathe, to think, to see.
Somehow, she had the distinct sense of bells ringing - great, loud bells. She had been longing to hear them, for where they rang, she would find her father. But both were forever gone from her life. And somehow, this was all her fault.
There was so much wrong in her world right then - and there was no fixing it.
The weight of it all - it made her feel so helpless. But this was who she was. And this is what she would--
As suddenly as it had consumed her, the feelings disappeared, leaving her with the distinct feeling that it had become little more than a wisp of smoke.
When she'd regained her senses, all she could manage to ask is, "What did you eat?"
"Oh dear…" Minnie sighed, knowing that Gregory had probably already forgotten the feeling he'd just subjected her to.
If that had come from Edan, though…
She tried to put the thought out of her mind, as she remembered his look when Cora compared him to… Mother Lily? Lilianna?
Liliane. That was it.
When she and Max had been in Vespas some weeks ago, there had been talk of deaths in the church. Mother Liliane Thiel had been murdered - and the precious Magician that had been under the woman's care? Disappeared - rumored to have been stolen away by a rogue Nobleman. The stories about those events varied so much.
At the time, she'd thought little of it. Disputes between Noblemen were common in some cities, and it was impossible to really do much about it.
She knew Mother Liliane.
But if they're…
If Cora's the missing Magician from Vespas...
When the caravan stopped for rest, she pulled Max aside to explain her suspicions.
Once she'd gotten away from Edan, Cora's day had greatly improved.
While there were many vendors in the caravan, it was interesting to see the variety of carts. Even when she'd lived in Eleosa, she hadn't really ventured into situations where she'd interact with outsiders much. Here? It didn't matter, really. Everyone was a stranger.
It would be nearly impossible to meet someone she knew, especially on this side of the Dusk.
She was quite happy to be very wrong.
Cora had been spotted first - and was startled by what was best described as hug that closely resembled a tackle, accompanied by a squeal. "Corie!"
The shock of the sudden hug quickly subsided, as it became clear that this was Ingrid - a girl Cora had grown up with. They'd been best friends, until Ingrid's brother left to pursue his dreams, and sold their family home. Ingrid had gone with - finding the idea of adventure to be all too exciting to pass up.
Ingrid promised to send letters, and the two had maintained contact for a time, somehow.
At some point, they'd lost touch. It was hard to send letters to someone whose location you were never quite sure of.
But somehow, it was like no time had passed at all.
Ingrid had begun chattering rapidly, questioning when Cora had started traveling with the caravan, what she was doing with her life, and whether she'd like to see Frederick or not, but he was totally avoidable, if she was still mad at him.
"Ooph, it's complicated… But... I've got time before I have to go back."
The hour passed quickly - and before Cora knew it, Minerva had come looking for her.
"Minerva! It's been a while!" Frederick smiled as he extended a hand to the Magician. "Have ya met our friend Corie here? We're just gettin' caught up!"
"Oh, yes! She and her Nobleman friend are staying with Maximilien and me."
Cora cringed slightly - she hadn't gotten to tell Ingrid and Frederick about Edan yet. She wasn't even sure she wanted to. She wasn't sure if they knew about the Obligation, either - they certainly hadn't back in Eleosa.
Her answer came soon enough as Frederick seemed to freeze mid-handshake. "A Nobleman?"
"Well, like I said, it's a long story - I can stay and tell you all about it, if that's okay with you, Minerva?" Cora knew she didn't really need to ask permission, but it was hard not to do it anyway.
Minerva nodded and said she'd handle it. Edan was being mopey, anyway, so it's not like it mattered where she was.
"Do you need me to punch some sense into him?" Frederick asked at the end of the day, after listening to Cora's story. He'd let Ingrid handle the wagon today, so he could speak with Cora with some privacy. "I know you were never keen on travelin' so… If he's forced ya to leave town, we could ditch him and take you back home."
He leaned against the table and smiled. "Y'sure? Because if he's given you any commands you don't want..."
"Touch him, and I will end you, Frederick. I don't need an Obligation to do that."
Frederick scowled and leaned back in his seat. "You like him. I'm jealous."
"I don't need to be attracted to a man to want to keep him safe from harm!"
"The way you're blushin' says otherwise, Corie. You used to make that sorta look for me when we--"
"Saint Aeryn help me, you are every bit as insufferable as I remember," Cora slapped a hand across her eyes, as if trying to suppress the heat that had enveloped her face. "I just…"
She didn't want to tell Frederick about Vespas. Or the many times she'd woken up, screaming in fear that Mother Liliane was going to force her to burn out her willfulness again. Or that Father Pierre was going to steal everything she cared about.
Edan had been there for her over the past three cycles. He'd held her close while she sobbed, and looked after her when she'd been sick from anxiety. There were far too many mornings where she had awoken in his arms, and she'd stubbornly squirmed away from him in a hurry.
Gale - while he'd ultimately been the cause of her misfortune with Vespas - he'd also taken steps to fix it as best as possible. She knew, on some level, that he'd thrown everything in his life away to make things right for her.
If it'd been Frederick in that position… Well. She knew how that would have gone.
She'd had different nightmares years ago, when her mother died. She'd been terrified that Mama had been sent to seed much too soon, and could feel the fire when they'd cremated her. It was a cruel trick for her mind to play on her, and there was little she could do to stop it.
When she told Frederick about this, all he knew how to do was offer his body as a distraction at the time.
"You wouldn't understand. It's not… No." Cora sighed loudly in annoyance and slouched in her chair. "He's just trying his best, okay?"
The more she spoke with Frederick, the more she realized she owed Edan an apology.
As it approached the Dark Hour, Cora decided it might be best if she returned to Max's wagon. Minerva was bound to worry that something was wrong if she'd slept here - and Cora knew she was likely to start a fight with Frederick over his invasive questions.
It was late enough that she'd expected to be able to slip into the tent with Edan and nudge him awake to chat, without being interrupted by anyone else. She'd hoped to be able to undo some of the hurt she'd probably inflicted earlier in the day. Maybe she'd even give him a hug.
Instead, she was greeted by the sight of Edan and Max, sharing a half-empty bottle of whiskey.
Based on how Edan ignored her return, she'd assumed he was upset at her - and understandably so.
They could talk tomorrow.
At some point, after Max and Minerva had gone to their wagon for sleep, Edan decided he needed to find his notebook. It was somewhere in his bag - but… It'd probably gotten buried under everything else he kept in it.
He needed to apologize to Cora - but he couldn't speak to her. Not when anything he said might hurt her.
So. He would write her a letter.
When Cora hadn't returned for dinner, he realized that she was likely quite upset. All he'd wanted to do was to keep her safe, but that'd backfired horribly. He'd disregarded her free will, and had somehow found himself following the teachings of Saint Mallovin again.
Max may have been perfectly honorable in his intentions, but after Vespas… There was no way to really know. It's not like you could Obligate a Nobleman to tell the truth in their intentions. And he certainly wasn't about to let Cora walk into the hands of someone who could possibly hurt her, even if Minerva said it was okay.
Magicians could be manipulated to lie on behalf of their lieges, after all.
At some point, Max had decided to bring out a bottle of what he called, "The Good Stuff" - stating that he'd had the intention of cheering Edan up.
"No reason gettin' wrenched up over things wi' Cora. It'll blow o'er soon ‘nuff."
Edan nodded, but he wasn't sure he agreed with it.
When Max handed him a small glass of the amber liquid, he'd attempted to gulp it down immediately, before being caught off-guard by the intense burning sensation that came along with it. Max laughed and urged him to swallow it down quickly - otherwise it was just gonna get worse.
It was impossible to see how. It'd burned on the way down, too, and somehow, it'd made his eyes water like nothing else…
Minerva had started talking about something regarding Gregory and the campfire, but Edan wasn't really listening. He found himself lost in his thoughts again.
What if Cora hated him? He'd have to be okay with it, he guessed. Just like everything else he'd had to accept.
Just as he'd started to focus his thoughts on his own self-pity, Minerva gave Edan a gentle nudge.
"You know, when Cora mentioned Liliane earlier…" Minerva began, "Well. It brought to mind something I'd heard about. There are some fairly unkind rumors about the Nobleman who'd disappeared with one of the Church's Magicians. You… don't seem anything like that, though."
Edan's eyes widened. "W-what rumors?"
Minerva grimaced and looked away. "Well. For one - that the Nobleman - you - were in love with her. But the way you two barely seem to stand one another…"
He looked down at his now-empty glass, and wondered what else they'd heard. They were strangers to him, but they'd been kind enough to offer some security while he'd traveled with the caravan. Cora had been much happier here with them, too.
"When I talk to her, it only seems to make her unhappy," he finally blurted out. "So… I'm just trying… to not do that."
Minerva nodded and put a hand on his shoulder. "You'd be surprised."
Max poured him another drink.
By the time the eclipse came, he'd told them a bit about the Vespas ordeal. It felt as if every wound from those days had been reopened, but he'd now had a sense of clarity about it.
He hadn't told Minerva and Max everything - there was no way he could. But they'd certainly learned of Cora's captivity and how he was ultimately at fault, and how the Regicide had freed her from her Obligations to the Church.
Something inside him regretted so much of what he'd done. Were those deaths justified? He'd watched as the Regicide killed his father and Pierre. And he'd given the command to end Liliane's life.
Was it worth it to release one Magician from captivity? Had there been another way?
He hated that he questioned saving Cora at all.
And here he was, pouring his heart into a letter that probably wouldn't make a difference. When he finished, he folded it in half, and wondered - would she read it?
It didn't really matter, after all.
Cora woke to hear the fire crackling, with Gregory whining and begging for another log. Someone complied, as the Daemon cheered and went silent. She then heard them walk away, knocking into a few items as they stepped past the tent.
It's too early for this, she thought to herself, as she rolled over, and realized she was able to take an unusual amount of the blanket for herself.
Had she overslept? No. It was too quiet. If she had, everyone in the wagon circle would have been talking over breakfast. The dogs that a few of the other wagons kept would have started baying and begging, wanting whatever scraps that would be given to them.
What time is it?
Though her eyes were still bleary, she could see a note laid out on the pillow beside her. Figuring Edan was being ridiculous again, she grabbed it and peeked outside, wanting to see the moon's position.
By her estimate, it was only about an hour past the eclipse. The fire should be out and Gregory back in its lamp, and Edan should be asleep.
Confused, she decided to look at the note.
She only had to read a few lines of it before she realized what he'd written, and dread settled in the pit of her stomach.
Edan was about to do something very stupid.
And when she found him, stopped him, and made sure he was safe, she was going to end him.
As she set off in the direction of the person she'd heard earlier - she hoped it was Edan - she found herself cursing every Saint and Daemon she could think of. Without an Obligation, she was stuck to guessing the direction in which the idiot priest had gone.
Thankfully, her guess was correct. Not too far away from where the caravan stopped was a thicket, which laid at the base of a small, somewhat steep hill. She spotted Edan sitting at the bottom, where he seemed to be praying. He held something which glinted in the sunlight.
Her stomach churned.
"What are you DOING?!" Cora found herself shouting - and she started to make her way down the hill. It was hard to maintain her footing as she rushed down.
She saw Edan get up and drop whatever it was he'd been holding, as he ran toward the slope she was descending. "Cora, stop!"
Cora found herself unable to do anything - but an Obligation was, unfortunately, no match for a loss of balance.
Edan watched in horror as Cora tumbled down the hill. He stumbled over to her as quickly as he could - his head was still fuzzy from the drinks he'd had earlier. When he reached her, he realized she wasn't moving at all.
He'd been about to start panicking when he'd heard her mutter, "Take it back, idiot."
His brain churned for a moment before he realized what he'd done on reflex, and he managed to sputter, "I-I take it back. T-the command, I mean."
He offered his hand to her to assist her, only to hear her use what seemed to be every single expletive she knew as she sat up, before she pinched him.
"You are the DUMBEST man I have ever known, you know that?!" She sounded furious, and he couldn't blame her.
Feeling it might be best to let her have her space, he tried to pull away gently, but found she tightened her grip on his hand. He looked at her in surprise - and noticed she was on the verge of tears.
"Are you okay?" he asked, as Cora pulled him into a hug.
She nodded, burying her face against his shoulder. "As long as you're safe."
He couldn't help it when he returned the hug, and joined her in crying.
It was a few moments before Cora broke the quiet that had fallen between them.
"I want you to come back with me." She lifted her head from his shoulder, her face red and streaked with tears. Before she continued, she took Edan's hands in hers. "We can talk, and sleep, and... and it'll be okay."
It took him a moment to think of what to say. He'd been so sure that she hated him, that her being here like this, right now? It confused him more than anything.
"You - You can do better than m-me as a Nobleman," he finally managed to say, his voice barely a whisper. "You seem so happy with Max and Minerva, and - your friends. I-I couldn't. I… I can't do that to you again."
He noticed how she traced her fingers along his palms and down his fingertips repeatedly. Her own hands were cold, and he couldn't help closing his hands around hers while he waited for her response.
"...I probably could…" She said, her tone somewhat flat as she looked down. "But I don't… Edan. I don't hate you. And regardless of what you wrote, I don't want you to disappear from my life."
What Cora said didn't make sense to him immediately. In fact, it directly contradicted so much of what he'd come to believe, that hearing those words hurt. Before long, he found himself sobbing in her arms, and everything he'd held back about Vespas spilled out.
When the pair had returned to the caravan that morning, it was impossible to miss the glare that Minnie had given Edan upon sighting them.
Cora wasn't sure if there had been anything in particular it was about - but she knew how they both looked. She'd been limping from her fall, her chemise was stained by grass and dirt, and she'd need to brush out whatever leaves and twigs were still in her hair. Edan had still been wearing the clothing from the day before, and was clearly disheveled himself. She was pretty sure it was clear that neither had slept, too.
"Y'know, y'really shouldn't be takin' a tumble with yer Magician!" Max said, earning an elbow in the ribs from Minnie.
Cora let go of Edan and hobbled over to the tent, looking for a change of clothes for the day. If she couldn't at least get a nap, then she'd at least need something comfortable to wear.
"No, you're right," she heard Edan say, "Though I guess it's lucky she only twisted her ankle when she slipped?"
"What in th' name of Saint Gwen's Gale-blasted icy peaks were ya doin?!"
If she hadn't been so tired, she probably wouldn't have laughed as hard as she did.
Shortly before the Dark Hour came that evening, Cora found herself wide awake.
Minnie had allowed both Edan and her to nap in the wagon that afternoon. She'd joked that it was better to let them sleep - she'd seen enough of the pair being cranky and tired over the past few weeks.
When she noticed that Edan was also awake, she turned onto her side and looked at him.
There were still so many feelings they both needed to sort through. She wasn't sure she knew quite how she felt about the entire Vespas situation, for one.
Not to mention - she couldn't go back to the place she'd once called home.
But, maybe, with Edan's help, and maybe even his words, they could find something that worked for them both.
Before any of that though - there was something she'd wanted to do with him. They'd had a promise, after all.
"Do you want to go stargazing?"
Chapter 3: An Ember
Trauma doesn't just disappear because one talks about it - but sometimes, the road to healing can begin in an environment of trust and safety.
Humans were odd.
Wildflowers, particularly ones who lived far away from cities, had little notion of what humans really were , and often seemed so confused when one approached. Humans carried daemons around them, in them, and alongside them - unlike other beings, who simply existed . It was impossible to tell what one human might bring with them, and so, careful observation was necessary when any newcomer approached.
The procession the flowers knew as the caravan always brought humans. And without fail, one would wander over to observe the field they lived in. Sometimes the observer was part of the Gale's great cycle, which meant the flowers needed to take extra care not to catch their attention.
They had done the same when the Nobleman came to sit near them.
Edan had decided to spend his time after dinner with his journal, making detailed notes about a patch of coneflowers that had grown just a ways off of the caravan's normal path. They were a shade of red that he'd only seen in gardens before, where they'd been cultivated carefully over generations by their caretakers. He hadn't thought they might just grow naturally like this, and knowing that something so lovely might have sprouted by chance made him happy.
Thinking about the flowers brought Cora to mind. It wasn't like Magicians just appeared in the wild, either. And she was… Well... Thinking too much about how the sight of her made him feel was likely to lead him to trouble if he dwelled on it.
It was easy to tell that the plants hadn't much cared for the Noble's presence at first. They'd been silent, unlike the cousins he'd encountered in cities and pyregardens. After an hour, the daemons started to grow impatient, and rustled amongst themselves.
"These things before us are quieter than others," its voices hissed just loud enough for the former priest to hear. "Are they not to disturb us? What are they doing?"
Edan remained quiet, pretending not to hear the daemon speak. He continued making notes and sketches, glancing up now and then to make an observation, maintaining focus on only the task at hand.
"Show us. They should show us. They are rude to conceal their thoughts and doings."
At that, Edan smiled and held out the notebook, showing his sketches to the plant. "What do you think?"
The flowers seemed to consider the work he presented them, before falling silent again. Someone with very loud footsteps was approaching.
Disappointed, Edan glanced back, only to see a tall, blond stranger standing behind him. He was quite tall, and dressed as finely as any of the other merchants in the caravan. He looked oddly pale for someone who likely spent most of his days outdoors, though.
"So you talk to the plants and all that too, huh?" The stranger folded his arms and quirked an eyebrow, his face seeming to say that he'd found some sort of problem with this.
"...I'm sorry, have we been introduced?" Edan closed his book and stood up, offering his hand to the man. "I'm Edan."
"Frederick. I'm an old friend of Corie's." Frederick took Edan's hand and gripped it firmly, making sure to make eye contact while doing so. "Thought I'd come ‘n see what her Nobleman's like, y'know?"
Her Nobleman . He didn't like the sound of that - and he definitely didn't like the way the merchant looked at him while saying it.
"E-excuse me? I'm not… I'm not her Nobleman," Edan managed, pulling his hand from Frederick's grasp. "We're just… We're friends."
"Good to know it! ‘Cause I gotta say, if I ever heard about you commanding her to do something she didn't want--"
"T-that won't happen," Edan interrupted, knowing what the next words were going to be. He tried not to be offended by Frederick's implication - it was obvious it came from a place of care. "But… I… I'm glad Cora has another concerned person in her life. Thank you."
Frederick seemed bemused by Edan's reply and nodded, putting his hands in his pockets. "I'm glad we're clear on the matter, then," he mumbled, looking back toward the wagons. "Ya comin' back?"
Edan shrugged. "In a bit, I suppose. I'd like to finish taking some notes."
It wasn't until the Dark Hour had come and he was stargazing with Cora, that unease started to creep into Edan's mind again.
Frederick's concern was well-warranted. If their places had been reversed, he likely would have expressed the same sorts of concerns about the situation. It was a natural reaction to have, especially knowing how many Noblemen treated their Magicians. How… the Church treated them, even.
Before Edan had come into Cora's life, she'd been as free as anyone else. She probably had friends like Frederick in her town - and of course, her mother's flowers… Even though it'd only been a few days since they started to actually talk to one another, she hadn't really ever mentioned anything about him in the cycles they'd --
"Edan," Cora poked his cheek gently, interrupting his train of thought, "if you're tired, you don't need to stay up, you know. The stars will be here next time."
He felt heat rise to his cheeks - He'd gotten lost in his thoughts again. "I'm not tired," he said with a sigh, "I just… ...I met Frederick? And I just… got to thinking about everything…"
He glanced at Cora, only to see that the teal glow in her eyes had intensified. " What did he say ?" She sounded annoyed, and turned in the general direction of where the various wagons from the caravan had chosen to rest. "I swear on Saint Arcein's flowers, if he even so much as threatened--"
"I-it's fine! He just… He just wanted to make sure I wasn't… Doing anything unwanted." Edan's eyes drifted to Cora's bandaged ankle. He still felt bad about having been the reason she'd twisted it.
"Maybe he should practice that himself," she muttered in response, before flopping down in the grass. "At least you try to think about what other people want."
Edan grimaced as she said that, and wondered just how much of that had been his upbringing in the church. They'd taught him to help people who were suffering. To consider how his actions impacted others. How to use his gifts to best serve humanity and nature.
...You refuse to accept that Magicians have a proper place. Controlled and established by the Gale.
Clearly, what they'd tried to teach him hadn't stuck. What Father Theo had tried to teach...
At some point, tears started streaming down his face. He only seemed to realize he had been crying when Cora took his hand in hers.
When he woke the next morning, he was surprised to find Cora snoring quietly, still holding his hand.
He felt bad leaning on her for support like this. She was still working through her own troubles, and while he had been there for her… It had been his fault in the first place.
How was she able to stand him?
As he watched her sleep, he found his thoughts drifting to the flowers he'd seen yesterday. He wanted to make sure she felt safe, just the same as he had tried with those bright red blossoms.
Cora had been speaking with Max about his paperwork when Ingrid came over, excitedly chattering about the Nobleman who was tending the fire. She had felt tired from having not slept enough, but Ingrid's excitement was infectious.
Ingrid looked over to where Frederick and Edan had been chatting, Minerva showing them both some of the things they needed to avoid while handling her precious Gregory. "Corie, ya never told me he was handsome !"
She must have made some sort of face in response to Ingrid's excited squeal, since Max had started roaring with laughter. "Sorry Miss Keller, I'm thinkin' he's off the market, if yer lookin' for a potential date!"
Ingrid turned bright red as she started to sputter a response. "I-- no! I wasn't! Besides, he's a Noble man, what's he gonna want with a common girl like me?"
It was entirely too easy to tease Ingrid, and it always had been, especially when it involved someone attractive. "Only conversation, hopefully! You see, Ingrid, Edan there has been dutifully pledged to the daemons since childhood, as I understand," Cora added unhelpfully, trying to stifle a laugh.
"See, and I would NEVER want to interfere with THAT sort of-- Wait, daemons? He's not in one of those cults-- Is he?!"
Cora kept laughing as she walked Ingrid over to make the introduction.
Between Edan and Frederick - who seemed to be getting along - dinner was ready within a matter of a couple of hours.
Edan was the one in charge of the choice of meal, and his preferences clearly showed. He'd prepared something simple - a fish and vegetable stew with rice, which Cora recognized as something from the Church. It was comfort food for him, she supposed, and she wasn't about to complain.
Everyone else seemed to enjoy it.
"What's wrong, Corie?" Frederick moved closer to her in order to see how much she'd actually eaten. "Y'haven't touched your food."
Cora took a sidelong glance at Edan, who was busy showing Ingrid just how chatty Gregory could be. "I just don't really have an appetite, I guess," she mumbled. Her stomach gurgled loudly.
"Oh, damn! I thought you'd gotten over being picky about catfish!" Frederick laughed, putting an arm around her shoulder. "I totally forgot you hated the stuff!"
"It's not that…" Cora mumbled in response. The truth was, she had gotten over it. But she was tired. There was a hollowness that echoed in the corners of her mind, and it made her feel as if she wanted to be as far away as the stars.
It surprised her how all it took was one smell, and she felt like she was back…
"Then…? Tell me the truth. What's wrong?"
Cora knew the words hadn't been a command. Frederick couldn't command.
But something about it - right now - it hit a nerve.
She didn't remember what she said, but she knew she'd yelled at Frederick. And she let the bowl fall, spattering stew everywhere.
She didn't care. She needed to get away from this right now.
After half an hour, Edan had come looking for her.
He found her lying in the grass, staring blankly in the direction of the wagon circle.
"You're not allowed to call me that." She hadn't meant to sound so harsh, but she wasn't sure she cared.
He came over and sat down behind her, gently putting a hand on her shoulder. "Sorry."
"...I hate that nickname," she mumbled in response, after a moment of silence. "It's like they both still think I'm the same person I was when they left."
She could tell that Edan waited for her to continue.
"And… And Frederick thinks he can just… waltz back into my life like nothing happened! Like he's entitled to know everything going on!" The words sounded bitter to her - but she couldn't help it. "He can forget it. He lost that right when he picked his wagon over marrying me."
"Do you think you can forgive him for hurting you?"
Cora sat up in order to look at Edan. He seemed to be trying to keep his expression neutral, but a sliver of concern still showed through. She could only guess why.
She looked down at the ground and started to fidget with the grass. Was she really angry at Frederick ?
...Or was it just Vespas, back to haunt her?
It was impossible to really tell right now.
As she let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, a chill enveloped her body, leaving her to shiver.
Edan wrapped his arms around her, pulling her into a hug she hadn't known she wanted. She appreciated how warm he was.
"...Thank you," she said quietly, resting her head on his shoulder.
Edan found it much easier to spend his morning throwing compost out into the field of lilies, goldenrod, and who knows what else that the caravan had stopped near.
It made the plants happy. He could do some good in the world without feeling like it was all some sort of a lie.
These things are angry. Like the last to join us. Would they care to join us? We would have them.
Yes, he was angry. He couldn't help it. He didn't need nosy flowers poking into his mind to tell him this.
Every time he saw Cora upset like she had been after dinner yesterday… It just hurt.
The Church had done that to her. They'd said it was in line with their teachings.
Their teachings were worthless .
He heard a lily titter as he walked past, and looked down, only to see his pants now coated with splotches of a familiar bright orange powder.
Without thinking, he upended the remainder of the compost bucket onto the plant. The day had barely begun, and he wasn't sure he was in a good enough mood to face the rest of it.
"You could have asked for help, you know," he heard Cora say from the road. He hadn't expected that she'd have woken up so early, let alone have followed him. "Though I suppose orange lilies have never been known for being nice, huh…"
"...No, not really," Edan replied, deciding to abandon the plants - which were now complaining about the unfair treatment they'd gotten. "Did you need something?"
She waited until he'd made it back to the road before replying. "...Well. I just… Thank you for yesterday, first of all," she said quietly, fidgeting with her skirt. "...I also wanted to ask you something."
Edan tilted his head slightly, curious as to what sort of question she might have for him.
"Will you give me a command?"
He had expected that she would ask about something personal - not… Not this . "Why would you…"
She interrupted him, seeming to anticipate the question. "I already told you, I don't want you to disappear from my life. So… It has to be something to keep both of us safe. Okay?"
His stomach twisted in knots at the thought of intentionally giving Cora a command. "What could I even… How do you know I won't - I won't say something that'll backfire? Everything I've been taught about the Obligation was built on a… a bunch of lies…"
"If you do anything dumb, I'll just pinch you," her response was very matter-of-fact, "But… It'll be fine. I think we can find something good in this - the Obligation, I mean - together."
Edan fell silent, considering her words. It had been less than two years since he'd wished for this - just before they'd parted ways in Eleosa. He'd wanted to show her the Dusk, and to explore all of the mysteries of the skies by her side. As friends. As partners. Maybe even...
He noticed the color that had seemed to have bloomed in her face, as he felt warmth do the same in his own. "...Are you sure?" He heard his own voice tremble slightly.
"I wouldn't have asked if I wasn't."
The way she smiled at him as she spoke made all of his worries seemed to melt away in that moment. He could make her happy . That was all that mattered.
"Now, come along," Cora took his hand in hers, gently leading him back to the wagons.