In the course of writing a book, there are a lot of ideas that get set aside in favor of 'plot'. It's usually the little things -- conversations over dinner, explanations as to where an item came from, what someone was doing prior to the momentous event that is taking place in the scene. These little things just don't fit in with the action or pacing of the story and have to be cut in editing.
Some of the ideas are things that happen 'after' the events of the story -- what happens when the person places their magic sword on their mantle? How do you keep a magic cloak clean? What sort of effort goes in to keep a long-furred giant orange cat cleaned and brushed? What do you do when your giant orange cat runs up a massive 'tab' at the local bakery and your mother finds out? That sort of thing.
While these things can be amusing, and Camilla and I frequently talk about them, we don't often write about them, choosing to focus on other ideas. But sometimes the little things just nag at the mind and writing them down seems like a good way to clear out the brain and move on.
Our brains are very cluttered. And that's where these sorts of stories come from. Not momentous, not plot advancing, but fun regardless -- or at least we think so. We hope you enjoy it.
I do want to mention that this story has MAJOR SPOILERS in it for Ven'tarian Silence. So do not read it if you haven't finished that book. The spoilers are both big and small and deal directly with the main plot and the book's ending. Be forewarned!
Talking To Water
Shalonie stamped the snow from her cuffed boots before she entered the warm marble foyer of the Tatharion Hold. Home again.
Several loaded-down wagons had pulled into the courtyard behind her sled. The young woman had ridden the sled from the Melian docks, needing time alone to collect her thoughts. Having arrived, she gnawed on her lower lip as she watched porters carry heavy trunks and boxes stuffed with Ven'tarian books and artifacts into her family Hold.
Shalonie had arrived in Melia on Kadana's galleon, the Golden Voyage, only an hour ago, and she suspected it would take several more hauls to unload her "treasures" from the spacious cargo hold.
Still can't believe we flew into Melia. The thought brightened Shalonie's mood, but she realized that she nonetheless felt a little stunned at the ship's newfound capabilities. The Golden Voyage had soared through the air and over the oceans all the way from Ven'taria courtesy of freed air elementals that had chosen to make their home in the magic-imbued vessel upon escaping their prisons. So much happened in Ven'taria. Hard to sort through it all.
"Where do you want these, my lady?" one of the young porters interrupted her mulling. He held a heavy box in his arms.
"Pardon me." She smiled. Little did he know that she'd been trying to figure that out for hours. "Just drop everything against that wall." She eyed the dragon bas-relief on the marble wall in question as she set her travel bag down at her feet. Wonder what the Sundragons will have to say about all of this.
Deep in thought, she watched the Melian boy direct his fellow porters to wrangle crates and boxes.
"Shalonie!" Lady Alisina Tatharion hurried down the massive staircase to meet her daughter by the front portal. Her mother was dressed in heavy winter robes lined with fur and embroidered with fine golden thread and tiny beaded pearls. Her hair, golden like Shalonie's, sat piled upon her head in elaborate braids and curls. "Welcome home, my dear!"
Shalonie smiled and embraced her mother. Holding her for a moment longer than customary, Shalonie flashed on the fire and destruction she'd been witness to not long ago. The Dawn Child. She shuddered. "I missed you," she found herself whispering, surprising herself.
Alisina drew back. Their eyes locked for a peaceful moment, then her mother's face set into a preoccupied frown. "We've been ever so busy, dear. It is good you've returned for Year's Ending. But you will have to hurry to get dressed. So many parties tonight."
Alisina reached out to touch Shalonie's braid. "I can't imagine what your maid will do with this tangled mess. In a pinch, she'll have to pile it high and crown it with the silver and sapphire or perhaps the gold and ruby. Your grandmama's tiaras are all quite attractive, even if they reach back twelve generations. No matter."
She dropped Shalonie's braid, and it swung back to the girl's hip. "I have our entire itinerary all planned out."
Shalonie tried not to sigh in frustration.
"We're having afternoon tea with Lady Miri," Lady Alisina said, ignoring her daughter's darkening expression. "Then we'll attend the Village Walk celebration, followed by the formal dinner at Lord Moyar's and then the . . ." Her mother trailed off as she finally noticed all the boxes stacked in the foyer.
"And then the party at . . ." She lost her thought again, eyebrows twitching. "What are all these boxes? Are they gifts? Who gave you so many prizes? Prince Templar perhaps?"
Shalonie vehemently shook her head.
"No matter. Terizkand is dreadfully far away," her mother continued swiftly. "I had a dress made for you just in case you made it back, but—" She peered at a heavy trunk being carried in, a look of eager anticipation on her face.
Mother does love presents.
"I did bring gifts," Shalonie cut in, figuring she'd best head off her mother's curiosity. Can't have her going through crates and ending up with a nasty surprise. "I'll show you everything as soon as possible. But most of these are books — and some artifacts—"
"Books!" Alisina's eyes widen with disbelief. "We have more books in this Hold than I know what to do with! Why would you buy more books?"
"I didn't buy them," Shalonie began. "They were given—"
"Shalonie!" Lord Geryon, Sundragon of Melia and Hold Dragon of the Tatharion line, entered the foyer from one of the side halls. Though in human form, the tell-tale golden scales that ran from his temples and across his brow like a king's diadem stood out in the warm light of the flickering lamps and marked his draconic heritage. "Welcome home."
With Shalonie gone these last few weeks, she imagined Geryon had been doing most of the true work of running the Hold as her mother had little interest in or skill at such things.
Dressed in leathers and a heavy coat, Shalonie did not curtsy. One must never curtsy in pants and boots! Her mother had drilled that into her from a young age. Instead Shalonie placed a hand over her heart and bowed her head, smiling brightly at the Sundragon.
"Thank you, it's good to be home." As excited as she'd been to go to the fabled city of Ven'taria, the trip had not turned out as she — or anyone else — had expected, and the dark events of the last week weighed heavily on her mind.
The Dawn Child she and her companions had saved had healed her of all the injuries she'd endured, but the knowledge she'd acquired would likely haunt her for years to come. She was glad to be home despite the long list of gatherings her mother apparently had planned for her evening.
"Lord Geryon, she brought more books!" Alisina wailed in protest. "What are we to do?"
"Books are never unwelcome," Geryon assured the lady of the Hold.
"Actually," Shalonie cut in, "these might be. Most of these are very dark books filled with evil magic, and there are cursed artifacts mixed in that I have to try and uncurse."
Both Alisina and Geryon stared at Shalonie for a long moment. Alisina opened her mouth and then shut it again, repeating the motion several times as if at a loss for what to say.
"I gather you didn't buy them," Geryon remarked, and Shalonie felt a wave of gratitude toward her Hold Dragon. She could tell that he'd caught on that something unusual had happened in Ven'taria. She would attempt to spare her mother the details, if possible.
"No." She inclined her head. "These were given to me by the citizens of Ven'taria — at the behest of the new leader of the city, Lord Athreus. "
"The Ven'tarian leader gave you these . . . these . . . things?" Alisina asked. "Why? If they're cursed, why not just destroy them?"
"The objects have elementals inside them," Shalonie explained, choosing her words with care. "They're not technically cursed — but those elementals are trapped. They need to be freed. Athreus trusts me to free them."
"You're going to free them?" Alisina looked at all the boxes. "Here? In our home?"
"I'll help," Geryon offered. "It will be fine."
"They won't stick around, Mother," Shalonie assured the worried woman. "They want to be free — they'll leave. "
"But what about the books?"
"The books are about dark magic — how to imprison magical creatures and elementals. After it was discovered that the Ven'tarian Sorcerium had used their magic to imprison a Dawn Child, the citizens of Ven'taria decided to rid the city of dark books of magic." Poor summary of the events. But it'll have to do.
"A Dawn Child!" Alisina gasped and placed a hand over her heart. "Imprisoned? But that's . . . horrible!" She seemed unable to find a fitting word. Her gaze, however, fell to the crates, and her look of baffled confusion returned. "But the books . . . why give them to you? Why did this Lord Athreus not just . . . get rid of them? Permanently."
Shalonie knew that her mother had said get rid of them in lieu of burn them, understanding that burning books would not go over well with either her daughter or Lord Geryon.
Shalonie had had this conversation once already with Dev and Omen before they'd left Ven'taria.
"These aren't the only copies of these books out in the world," she told her mother.
"Then Lord Athreus," Geryon said thoughtfully, "gave them to you because he trusts you to keep the information safe — to use it in our defense, instead of the evil it was intended for." The Sundragon had jumped straight to the heart of the matter.
Shalonie couldn't help but wonder if Geryon already knew more about her trip than she'd realized. I'll have to tell him the entire story as soon as I can.
"Yes," Shalonie agreed.
"But what do I tell everyone?" Alisina protested. "Cursed objects and evil books. Lady Miri will recognize them immediately. Everyone will know."
"Well, if it's any consolation, you can tell Lady Miri that I was also gifted a handwritten manuscript of Sorcerer Rhivoli's personal grimoire. She'll be positively green with envy."
Alisina lit up at that. "Really?" She eyed the boxes with new interest. But then another frown marred her brow. "But wait — where are we going to put these? They can't go in the family library if they're . . . you know . . . evil. And there's no more room in your father's library."
"I was thinking we could turn the Sunflower Parlor into a private library. It's got good light, and it's large enough to hold all of these. It would make a good library and a good office for me while I figure out how to free all these elementals."
"The Sunflower Parlor?" Alisina blinked at Shalonie in shock. "My card room? That's where we play Fallen Leaves at my ladies' luncheons."
Which was true; Alisina had a group of ladies over at least once a week for lunch and to play the popular Melian card game. Alisina enjoyed moving her group of friends from one room to another to show off whatever new piece of furniture or carpet or curtain or tea set she'd acquired to its best advantage. Shalonie was pretty certain she had a good reply.
"About that, Mother." Shalonie quickly grabbed her traveling bag from the floor, opened the flap, and pulled out a large book with gold inlay on the cover. The glint immediately caught her mother's gaze.
"I brought you this," Shalonie said with her best winning smile. "It's a book on the latest fashion from Ven'taria and Frelzaire — right from the court of the Frelzairian king. Most ladies have what they call antril eringard — or grand salons — where they gather for games, tea, and luncheons. I was thinking the Nightingale Room would be perfect for a grand salon. You'd be the first lady in Melia to have one. Even Lady Avarice doesn't have an antril eringard since Scaalia is somewhat behind on Frelzairian fashion."
Shalonie handed over the book. "There are detailed drawings and diagrams in the book outlining everything necessary for a remodel. And I brought Frelzairian brocades and silks for redoing all the furniture and curtains."
Alisina took the book with a look of wide-eyed wonder. "A grand salon? What did you call it — antril. . .?"
"Antril eringard. It's Frelzairian for 'room of great delights' — though I think that grand salon will sound better to proper Melians."
"Of course," Alisina agreed immediately and gave a small nod. "Very well. You can use the Sunflower Parlor. Goodness, I have so much to do! And don't forget the afternoon tea at Lady Miri's. And be certain to tell her about your grimoire — the important one, not the cursed one."
"Of course, Mother," Shalonie said obediently.
Alisina hurried off, book in hand, leaving Geryon smiling with undisguised amusement.
"Antril eringard is Frelzairian for gathering room," he remarked.
"Yes." Shalonie closed up her traveling bag with a grin. "Mother probably should have learned Frelzairian — she could have corrected my error."
"You know, Lady Miri would be an excellent person to help you go through these tomes," the Sundragon commented, which Shalonie had already considered. Lady Miri was a great scholar and her magical knowledge impressive, as was her mastery of many languages.
Shalonie smiled. "I intended to ask her. She'll be dying for a look at Rhivoli's manuscript regardless — but I'll let Mother have her fun first."
"Best to keep the peace," Geryon said. "Let's go look at the Sunflower Parlor, and I'll help you go through some of these boxes. I have a feeling you have a great deal to tell me about this trip of yours. I want to hear all about Lord Athreus and the Dawn Child."
Grateful for the company, Shalonie followed the Sundragon deeper into the Hold.
Despite the long night of Year's Ending parties, Shalonie rose early the next morning, belted on her favorite frock coat over her work clothes, and headed down to the Sunflower Parlor to get started on the enormous task waiting for her.
First day of Late Winter. To her the first day of anything always seemed a good time to start a new task — and this had the added bonus of being the first day of the New Year. 14,023 in the time of the Covenant.
The Sunflower Parlor, named for the golden paint on the walls and the sunflowers that were planted in the side garden every year when the frost was gone from the ground, had a large picture window along the back wall and overlooked the garden.
By summertime, she'd have a glorious view of the vibrant flowers. The sunny parlor had been one of her favorite hiding places as a child. She'd sit under one of the finely draped tables beneath her mother's pearl-stitched tablecloth and watch the sunflowers turning toward the sunlight every morning. Now it would be her own office.
Filled with cursed objects and evil books, she reminded herself, and then sighed heavily. Stop being so negative — it's probably not as bad as you think. And if it is, I'll fix it.
Most of her boxes and trunks had already been moved into the room as had several tall bookshelves. The room showed signs that workmen had already been measuring the walls for more shelves and cupboards. Shalonie supposed she had Lord Geryon to thank for that. It was not something her mother would have thought of.
She suspected the workmen would be back later in the day — no doubt they'd gone to purchase the required lumber and paint for their endeavor.
Which means I'd best get as much work done as I can before they return, she determined. She stared around at the many heavy boxes and trunks. Where do I start?
There was a strange feeling of presence in the room, almost like a buzzing or a hum, and she found herself turning around in confusion. Where is that coming from? She closed her eyes, trying to get a sense of the energy, but that did not seem to help as it was coming from all around her. I can't possibly be sensing all the elementals in the various artifacts. That seemed absurd. Most of the imprisoned elementals would be little more than ibits or maybe oynces — incapable of reaching out to her from beyond their prisons. A yint might, she reasoned. Even that was unlikely. The more powerful the elemental, the more powerful the spells that would bind it.
And yet . . . there was something. She'd had similar experiences on the Golden Voyage every time she'd neared an item containing a trapped elemental. Sometimes she'd heard words. Don't be silly, Shalonie! Only truly powerful elementals can speak. Bits and pieces of information trickled through her mind — things she was fairly certain she shouldn't know. Her thoughts were once again drawn back to her encounter with the Dawn Child. Had the servant of The Lady given her some ability, some gift, some piece of knowledge that she didn't understand — had she imagined hearing the celestial choir?
Focus, Shalonie! Pay attention to what you are doing and stop speculating about what happened in Ven'taria.
"Well, the first thing to do is to catalogue all of this," she said out loud. There was a desk near the great window, and she opened the top drawer to discover clean sheets of paper. Then she pulled her Ven'tarian Perfect Pen from her coat pocket. She paused after uncapping the pen, briefly shaking the instrument and then holding it up to her ear. There was a faint buzzing coming from the glittering crystal on the end of the pen, which was where the ibit she'd freed in Ven'taria still resided.
I suppose it could have left at any time, she reasoned. She'd broken the spell that had kept the ibit imprisoned in the crystal. Kyr, Tyrin, and Nikki had been distraught by the idea of the little ibit evaporating and "dying" — ibits can't die, they're not technically alive — so Shalonie had used a Cypher Rune to make the crystal seem like a good place for a water elemental to live. While the ibit could leave whenever it wanted, it had remained.
Ibits can't think, Shalonie, she scolded herself. It was hardly more than a magical animation. But it is human nature to anthropomorphize things. I have to stop doing that.
Placing pen to paper, she wrote the words "Ven'tarian Catalogue of Books." The ink flowed cleanly and smoothly from the pen nib, proving that the little ibit was still inside.
Setting the pen down on the desk, Shalonie randomly headed toward one of the trunks, flipped the latch and lifted the lid. Dozens of enormous books were stacked inside. "The Quandry of Quasimites," she read the first title in a whisper. While she was no expert on quasimites, she knew they were strange rock-like creatures that inhabited deep caverns in volcanic regions. A type of earth elemental, quasimites were said to be able to make mountains erupt. "Surely no one would attempt to imprison a quasimite!" But a brief glance through the book dissuaded her of that notion — someone had indeed attempted to do such a thing and the consequences, as listed in the appendix, had been devastating. Shalonie quickly set the book aside.
Bluviidilal: Blights or Blessings? was the title of the next book she pulled from the trunk. "Really! Bluviidilals — the little winged song spirits from the ocean mists? Why would anyone think they're blights?" She got the sense she would not like to know the answer nor much of the information contained in these tomes. Only two books into her task, and she was already quite disgusted.
After about an hour, she'd only managed to go through one trunk and two of the boxes while her list of books grew. She had yet to get to any of the artifacts, let alone set about freeing any of the elementals trapped inside. Growing weary and tired, she thought it best to wait until after the workmen were done setting up the room. I have to figure out where to send the elementals once I free them. They needed a way to escape back to their own realm or at least to some place in this realm where they could settle back down into a state of natural sleep.
"Potted plants perhaps — for the earth elementals and the water elementals," she mused. "And a fire in the hearth for the fire elementals — the air elementals would like the smoke."
She sat down at her desk to jot down some more notes. As she reached for her Perfect Pen, she noticed the little blue ibit sitting on the pen's crystal. It was staring at her. Startled, Shalonie drew her hand back.
"Hello," she greeted, immediately feeling silly for talking to the ibit. It couldn't understand her — they didn't talk. Or speak Melian.
The ibit just continued to stare — not that it had any eyes. It was only vaguely human shaped, and the area that would be the head had soft indents where eyes might be.
But Shalonie imagined it was looking at her. "Do you want to go somewhere?" She could hardly use the pen if the ibit was not inside the crystal. "You'll evaporate if you just sit there."
She looked around the room. There were no cups of water or potted plants for her to direct the ibit toward. But her gaze fell on the window, which overlooked the snow-covered garden. There was snow right there on the window sill.
"The snow!" she exclaimed, rising to open the window. She raised the window casing, letting in the cold morning air. She scooped up a handful of snow and held it out to the ibit on her desk. "Would you like this?"
The ibit bobbled its little head, stood up, spun around, and then dove like a spray of water right back into the crystal on the tip of the pen.
Her fingers were beginning to freeze so she dumped the snow back outside and closed the window. She sat down and stared hard at the pen. She poked it a few times — it rolled briefly forward before coming to a stop. She picked it up, raised it to her ear, and listened. The same little hum came from inside. Tentatively, she drew a line on a piece of paper. The ink flowed cleanly and evenly.
It occurred to her that perhaps she'd erred when she'd used that Cypher Rune to make the ibit think that the inside of the crystal was a good place to live.
Did I unfairly coerce the ibit? she wondered, guilt gnawing at her. At the time, she'd only been thinking about how to make Nikki, Kyr, and Tyrin happy rather than being concerned about the fate of a minor magical animation.
"You are just an ibit, right?" she asked the pen, speaking out loud and feeling foolish once again. "It still can't talk, Shalonie, or understand you."
And technically, if it was nothing more than a magical construct, she couldn't coerce it — that required a mind, and ibits didn't possess them. But what if it isn't an ibit?
Which of course was ridiculous. The pen's creator had assured her it was nothing more than an ibit. "You'd hardly need anything more for a pen," she told herself. But since the crystal reservoir was no longer technically a prison — she supposed it was possible that something else could have moved into the pen without her knowing about it.
"Maybe I made it too agreeable inside there — I could have used a weaker Cypher Rune I suppose," she reasoned. Though the entire thing seemed rather unlikely to her. Why would anything want to live inside my pen? As lovely as the device was, it was still just a pen that spent most of its time sitting in her pocket.
"If I gave it some place far better than any silly old pen — certainly that would solve the problem." She glanced at the snow back outside the window — a pile of snow wasn't necessarily enticing. The ocean. It came to her in a flash. No water elemental could resist the ocean no matter how nice my Cypher Rune made the pen seem.
Determined, she returned the pen to her pocket, went upstairs for a heavy cloak, and then headed outside to go to the ocean.
She caught a carriage in front of her favorite bakery near the library and rode it around the park and down Dragonberry Lane. Then she headed off on foot along a small path that wound its way down to the beach inlet that looked westward across the vast ocean.
A cold winter wind blew in across the bay, and she twisted the ring on her right hand three times clockwise to activate the warming cantrip in it. Far off to the north upon the cliffs, the glittering form of Sundragon Amar overlooked the western approach and the Melian port. The cold weather kept visitors from crowding the white sandy beach, leaving Shalonie alone to deal with her ibit problem.
Waves crashed against the shoreline, and she stood at the edge of the foam, sand and seashells at her feet. She could see whitecaps far out over the water hinting at an approaching storm stirring up the surf. The scent of sand and brine filled the air, and not far away a long pile of sea kelp buzzed with busy sandflies and scuttling crabs.
Shalonie pulled her pen from her coat pocket and held it in the palm of her hand. The roar of the wind and surf were unmistakable and even if the ibit couldn't understand a word she said, it would surely know what those sounds were.
"Here we are," Shalonie announced, feeling foolish once again.
The little ibit inside the crystal reservoir popped out once more, flowing like a tiny stream until it stood on the palm of her hand, danced across the length of her index finger, and then gripped the tip of her finger with tiny watery hands as it stared eagerly out at the vast ocean.
"What are you doing?"
The voice startled Shalonie, and she had to steady herself lest she tip the ibit into the surf and drop her pen as well.
"Didn't mean to scare you." Nikki Deldano stood just behind her, clad in a heavy coat, with a long sword strapped to his side.
Nikki, tall and dashing with his tangled dark hair and flashing green eyes, looked charmingly remorseful at having made her jump.
"Where did you come from?" Shalonie shook her head in amusement at her own fright. Here she was talking out loud to an ibit without even thinking about how strange that would look to anyone else.
Nikki pointed over his shoulder. "I was having breakfast with Omen and his family at Daenoth Manor. Just as we finished, Kyr told me you were down here by yourself talking to the water, and I should go check on you."
"Well, that just makes me sound crazy," Shalonie half-joked.
"It's Kyr," Nikki reminded her. "I figured it meant something other than what he actually said — except . . ." He blinked as his gaze came to rest on the pen and the ibit still resting on her outstretched hand. "Isn't that your Perfect Pen? And the little ibis?"
"Ibit," Shalonie corrected automatically. "Ibis is a bird."
"Right, ibits, oynces, and yints," Nikki agreed. "I've been trying to read about them. The ibit is a magical animation, right?"
"Yes." Shalonie realized that such a confirmation merely reinforced the fact that she was being utterly ridiculous by talking to the ibit.
"Are you putting it in the ocean?" Nikki looked from the ibit to the surf.
The little ibit was still gripping her index finger and staring out at the crashing waves.
"I'm not going to put it anywhere," Shalonie replied. "I'm giving it a choice. I'm worried I might have made the pen too agreeable — which means I'm coercing it — except of course, it's an ibit, so it can't really be coerced because that implies thought and free will, and . . . yes, Kyr was right . . . I'm standing out here by myself talking to the water."
Nikki remained silent for a long moment as if trying to reason out what he should or should not say.
He doesn't want to offend me. But this is really quite ridiculous. I'm supposed to be smarter than this. I probably deserve to be mocked and offended.
"Is that Ieonomeael?" Nikki's question caught Shalonie off guard, and she looked out across the crashing waves where he was pointing. Far out to sea, just beyond the breaking surf, an enormous horse-like form made entirely of blue water rose up from the salty brine. It slapped the surface of the water with its large flippers and trilled a happy whistle that carried across the waves to the shore. The sound even caught the attention of the great Sundragon who turned his glittering head toward the creature.
Mer creatures were not uncommon sights off the Melian shore, but this was the first time Shalonie had seen a water-horse.
Shalonie's eyes widened. "No — not Ieonomeael, but it is another water-horse," she explained, fondly remembering the Ven'tarian water-horse that had fought alongside them in the great battle to free the Dawn Child. "That's a very large one. It's a powerful water elemental."
"What's the ibit doing?"
Shalonie looked back at her hand — the little ibit stood up straight, raised its arms over its head, clasped its vaguely hand-like appendages together, and began shaking them to the right and then to the left while it danced around in circles. "Taking a victory lap . . . I think . . ." Shalonie remarked. "What in the world is it . . ."
The great water-horse trilled again, the sound echoing off the cliffs. It leaped into the air, flowed through the sky in an arc of whooshing water, and then dove back into the sea where it disappeared. A moment later, the little ibit repeated the water-horse's leaping arc, flowed up over Shalonie's palm, and then dove right back into the crystal on the tip of her pen. Shalonie closed her fingers around the pen and lifted it.
"Honestly! The ocean is right there! I don't care how nice my Cypher Rune is, it isn't better than the ocean. What are you thinking?"
"Are you talking to the pen or the ibit?" Nikki asked with a grin.
"The ibit of course." Shalonie felt quite unsettled "Why in the world would she pick my pen over the ocean? It can't possibly be better?" The Cypher Rune equation on the pen wasn't a major spell. It shouldn't outshine the ocean.
"She?" Nikki sounded bemused.
"What?" It took Shalonie a moment to realize that she'd just referred to the ibit as a she. "Oh, scales!" she exclaimed. "Next thing you'll know, I'll be giving it a name."
"That's not unusual," Nikki assured her. "People name lots of things — even inanimate objects. I named my sword." He patted the hilt of the blade strapped to his belt. "Besides, maybe the ibit likes being a pen."
She knew he was just trying to make her feel better, but she gave a heavy sigh. "Why would it like being a pen?"
"It feels good to have a job, and a purpose in life," Nikki explained.
"It's an ibit; it can't feel."
"Has anyone ever asked an ibit if it can feel or not?"
"No — of course not. They can't talk." Shalonie felt that should have been obvious.
Nikki just grinned.
Shalonie opened her mouth to refute him, only to close it again, not certain how to reply. He did have a good point. One couldn't get an answer from a creature that couldn't talk. Not that ibits are creatures.
She placed the pen back into her coat pocket. "It's just a pen. I shouldn't be fussing over it." She shut her eyes and listened to the ocean waves. "It doesn't bode well for releasing all the other trapped elementals." She looked at him. "Did you know that the elementals that I freed on Kadana's ship all decided to stay?"
"My grandmother was happy about that," Nikki said.
"But maybe I'm doing something wrong. Maybe I'm tricking them all into thinking service is better than freedom."
"You freed a bunch of them in Ven'taria," Nikki reminded her. "They all left."
Which was true. She had freed scores of elementals in Ven'taria, and all of them had immediately returned to their own realms.
"Right," she admitted. "I'll just continue to free as many as I can, and not worry about where they go."
"That might be the point."
It took a second to sink in.
"Maybe you're right," she said slowly. "Maybe ibits like pens. But they're ibits. They can't like anything — that requires thought, and ibits can't think and — now I'm babbling." She turned to head back home, her brain beginning to hurt.
Nikki fell into step beside her. "I can help you unpack the boxes if you want," he offered.
She smiled. "That would be nice. There's a lot of them. I'll try not to babble. What did you name it?"
"Your sword." She motioned to the blade at his side. "You said you named it."
"Oh." Nikki turned bright red. "Glovecutter."
She turned the name over in her mind a few times. "Glovecutter? Odd name for a sword."
Nikki held out his left hand — he wore thick leather gloves to protect himself from the cold. They had fine stitching on the cuffs — the Deldano Quilin emblazoned in green silk thread on the back of the item. Nikki turned his hand over, palm up. All four fingers of the glove were slit wide open revealing his skin beneath. "I picked the sword up blade first, not realizing how sharp it was," he said sheepishly. "This happened."
"When did you do that?"
"Three months ago."
"Those are the gloves you wore in Ven'taria. Don't your fingers get cold?" Shalonie asked.
"It's not so bad if I keep my hand in my pocket," he assured her.
"But why didn't you just get new gloves?"
He frowned and looked at the fine stitching. "They are new gloves. My grandmother gave them to me. Seems wasteful to throw them away just because of a little bit of damage. Besides, it was my fault."
Shalonie had to admire his discipline. Nikki was still the same hard-working tavern boy they'd met in Kharakhan, despite his newly discovered family's enormous wealth.
She stopped and reached out to him. "Give me your hand."
Nikki placed his hand in hers.
Shalonie focused on a tiny drumbeat of power, summoning a pattern she'd used many times over the years when she'd damaged her clothing exploring places. She ran her fingers over the four cuts in the glove, and they sealed themselves back together seamlessly, leaving the leather undamaged. She released his hand so he could inspect her work.
"Mending spell," she explained. "Any tailor could have done the same thing."
"Thank you." He grinned as they continued walking back toward Dragonberry Lane. After walking silently for a while, Nikki started to chuckle under his breath.
"What?" Shalonie asked, wondering what he was laughing about.
"You asked for my hand. In Kharakhan, that's practically a marriage proposal." He snickered.
"Honestly!" Shalonie found herself laughing, though she tried to seem outraged. "I thought Kharakhian marriage proposals consisted of hitting one over the head with a cudgel."
"Only among the posh," Nikki assured her. "Poor folk like me could never afford a proper cudgel."
It was one of the things she liked about Nikki — one of the things that made him quite different from nearly everyone else she knew. He never took himself too seriously.
I can learn a lot from him, she told herself, knowing she took too many things far too seriously. Nikki had a good sense of humor. And an excellent memory, she reminded herself as she thought about the times he'd quoted back long passages from her writing on Cypher Runes. Not showing off like so many others, but to show interest in a subject I like. That realization sparked another thought.
"You knew the word was 'ibit', didn't you?" she accused. "You just said 'ibis' to see if I'd correct you!"
"Well . . ." Nikki scratched at his neck self-consciously. "Tyrin called it an ibis. I told him that an ibis was a bird to which he responded 'wait, wait, I is ablenessness to eats the little pollywogs'—"
"Did he actually say 'pollywogs'?" Shalonie interrupted.
"No, but Kyr shouted 'pollywog' to cover up the word Tyrin used. That started a conversation about frogs and how tasty they might be. Omen suggested he cook frog legs. Then Tormy wanted to know what was wrong with the rest of the frog if you only ate the legs. Which prompted Sable to explain something about man-eating frogs. It turned into a very unusual discussion, and I guess ibis got stuck in my head." He paused thoughtfully. "Do you really think there are such things as man-eating frogs in N'vrel?"
"I've never been to N'vrel, but I think I have a book on their local flora and fauna." Shalonie tried to remember where she'd last seen that tome. "I can show you if you like."
Nikki's green eyes lit up. "I would." He seemed pleased and chuckled again. "You know, in Kharakhan, offering to show someone their picture books is practically—"
"There is a dragon living in my Hold, you remember!" Shalonie cut him off before he could finish. The urge to laugh weakened the threat a great deal, but Nikki looked dutifully chastised — if she ignored the grin tugging at his lips. She could feel the heat in her cheeks as she blushed.
"I know," he admitted. "I've met your dragon a number of times — been chased out of your foyer even. Named Lady Alisina, correct?"
"That's my mother!"
"Right, right . . . Lord Geryon, nice fellow. You know dragon means something different in Kharakhan—"
Ignoring the cold and forgetting to summon a carriage, they bantered about Kharakhian linguistic variations — which on Nikki's part were entirely made up — all the way back to the Hold. By the time they reached Shalonie's home, she'd forgotten her worries about the elementals, her mood well and truly lifted.
I'll have to remember to thank Kyr next time I see him.