At twilight, we went to the west gate of the Barton School of Magical Medicine. The professor we'd negotiated a bounty with, and his younger assistant were there waiting for us. At their feet was a duffle bag. The professor tried to lift it to hand it to Crim, but it was obviously a strain for him. Crim gave a word and Twest knelt down to investigate the contents. After a moment, Twest nodded.
"It's all here."
Crim grunted another (hard-to-hear) word and Kyle knelt down and threw the strap for the bag over his neck and one shoulder.
"We'll be back when we've got your bow," Crim said, and turned around to leave.
"Did your mage bring several days worth of clothing, or are you planning to be back within 24 hours?" the professor asked.
Crim turned his head around slowly. "Excuse me?"
"We're..." The professor stammered, sounding unsure of the stand he was about to take, "We're keeping your mage for training while you're away. To be sure you return with our item," he quickly added.
The tension in the air was so thick it could have been cut with a knife.
was not part of the deal," Crim growled.
"Well it's," the professor paused with nerves again, "It's part of it. If we don't have some sort of assurance that you're going to return, then you might well walk away with our money and
our item. It's highly unlikely, though not without the realm of possibility, but still, very unlikely — that you'd walk away and leave your mage
, after agreeing to the terms set forth earlier for the bounty."
Twest's chin rose. "You calculated this out good."
Kyle reached for his sword.
The professor gulped, but squared his shoulders and stood his ground. It was clear he wasn't a fighter. He wanted to end this as diplomatically as possible. "It is fair business," he said.
I nudged Crim's arm from behind and quietly said, "I don't mind staying."
But he rounded on me sharply and spoke in a stern whisper. "You don't know what kind of people they are any better than the rest of us. I'm not
leaving you here for them to dissect to find out what makes you tick."
"We don't harm people here," the assistant said. "She will be safe in our care."
Seeming to have caught on, the professor said, "If she is harmed in any way, you may sell the item to my brothers for whatever price they are willing to offer for it."
That meant something. Earlier today, this guy had almost panicked at the prospective that we might keep the item he wanted and sell it to the highest bidder.
"No!" Crim said, spinning around to face them again. "It's out of the question! The mage doesn't leave our party! Either you teach her now
, before we leave, or you teach her when we come back. Nothing else."
"It's fair," the professor eventually repeated. "We'll work on your payment while you work on ours."
Crim turned around to leave. The others were slow to follow this time. As he passed Jace, our tank put his hand up to Crim's shoulder and stopped him as though he were a wall. Crim turned his glare at Jace, but Jace's stern face remained as unreadable and no-nonsense as ever.
More minutes passed. Finally Crim buckled. He growled, clenched a fist, and said "Stay with her."
"Dude!" Kyle blurted.
"Move out," Crim said, not bothering to look back.
Kyle made an exasperated facial expression at Twest, who shrugged, just as confused. They and the girls went after Crim, leaving me and Jace with the two school employees.
I had been the one to say I didn't mind staying, but then Crim had opposed the idea very vehemently. So to have him suddenly just up and leave, without so much as a goodbye, it felt... It hurt. It shouldn't have, but it did. I guess I just never realized I relied on him so much to be there.
Jace crossed the short distance between us, gently turned me around toward the professor again, and said "So where are we staying?"
"Ah, yes," the professor shook his head, a little shocked at having apparently won that battle. "Uh..." he looked at the assistant girl. "Third wing?"
She nodded. "I'll get some spare clothing, you escort them."
"Right, good thinking, of course." He nodded a sort of bowing motion to her and beckoned for Jace and me to follow.
"Each room in the third wing is a sort of small suite. You can wash and rest for the evening, and tomorrow we'll work on your first lessons. I'm afraid I've got two seminars in the morning, but as soon as they're over I'll send someone to fetch you."
Jace and I were shown to rooms across the hall from each other. For a while all I could do was sit on the bed, doing nothing. I felt alone. But, I kept assuring myself, this made sense. As soon as the others had that bow from the bounty, they'd be back. And I wasn't alone, really; Jace was across the hall if I needed him. But I was someplace strange, with strange people, and no one had said goodbye... BUT THAT'S ALRIGHT, 'cause clearly Crim was in a foul mood when they left, and the others seemed kinda shocked that such an agreement had been reached, so... It stands to reason that things would be rough circumstances, I guess. Right?
Shortly, there was a sound like murmuring, and then a knock at my door. I got up and found it was the professor's assistant. She was smiling apologetically.
"I brought you a dressing gown and some fresh clothes. I'm sorry it's just a few school uniforms, but it seemed like they were better than nothing."
I nodded. "Thank you."
"Can I come in for a moment?" she asked.
There was a grunt from in the hall. I peered out and around the door frame and found Jace sitting there next to my door, looking like he was dozing. That made me blink.
"We can leave the door open, if that would ease your concern," the assistant said to Jace.
He glanced up at her, looking much like a cat when it's been disturbed, then went back to his (apparently fake) dozing.
The lab assistant nodded and looked to me. I sighed and invited her in.
"My name is Sheeba," she said. "And yes, I am
psychic. When I was growing up, my people judged that I learned differently and locked me up in a library to be its permanent care taker. They left me alone because I was different. I didn't really mind, though, because I didn't like most of the others. But one day, my world collapsed. People came in and destroyed our home and everything in it. A lot of my family members were hurt or killed. My mentor had been the lead medicinal supervisor," she paused, "And one of my best friends. He got me out and then went back to save as many of the others as he could. It was a risk he had to take, he said, because his job was to save people. He gave me the bow which your friends are searching for and said that if he didn't come back, I was to take up his duties as our people's chief healer. He said he'd made it especially to help me, and had meant to give it to me the following month at my birthday."
I nodded. "So it was really special, then." Absently, I toyed with the bracers on my lower arms. They had been from Crim, specially designed to help focus my magic.
Sheeba nodded. "My mentor managed to save some of our other friends, those of our people who were good people. But..." She swallowed and looked away.
"He didn't make it back out himself?" I asked.
She shook her head. "He risked his life for ours and lost it. I live my life now to be what he would have wanted me to be: no longer hidden away to rot, but out here being the best healer I can be. That's why we're here at Barton, which is the best place to teach healing to others and help those who need to be cured."
"Why pay so much for the bounty money and offer to teach me just for the sake of a sentimental object, though?" I asked.
"Oh, no, it's much more valuable than that," Sheeba quickly said. "It magnifies the innate abilities of the person who wears it. It was created for me, to help me learn healing. But as I got stronger, it made me
stronger. I was the strongest healer here for a short while. But the school was hit by a riot some years ago and a lot of our valuables were stolen."
"Ah, I see."
"Every day, we get more requests from people who need medical assistance and healing, but our best healers are often occupied with important studies — things for medical advancement — or teaching large groups of students. There just aren't enough people who are qualified to do difficult healings to see to everyone. If I could add to those numbers, even just by one, it would mean so much."
"And you trusted some random batch of people to go and bring it back?" I asked.
She smiled. "No. Not random. You were in just the right place at just the right time. I just
managed to save up that extra gold. I was going to use it to import a phoenix feather, because they are very costly, but the return of my bow is much more important."
I made a face. "Still, quite a risk."
Sheeba laughed. "Yes, it is
very risky. But then, so was leaving you
with people your captain didn't know. He hated walking away earlier tonight."
My brows (and heart) rose a little. "He did
"He felt it was a personal defeat and left berating himself for not having foreseen the possibility, so as to avoid it." Sheeba lowered her voice. "He trusts your friend in the hall. And truly enough, I have to say, there's something almost
psychic about that fellow," she nodded to the doorway. "It would be difficult to get something past Mister Jace. Yes, I think you're quite safe, and certainly not alone. You can rest peacefully tonight."