First Chapter Reveal: The Agben School by Jo Sparkes

Title: The Agben School
Author: Jo Sparkes
Publisher: Oscar Press
Pages: 384
Genre: Fantasy
Format: Paperback

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Agben had stood for a thousand years. A mysterious school housing more than students, it was the seat of the powerful Women of Agben, and the center for harnessing the potency of herbs. Few knew all that transpired within the walls.

And now Marra stood at its gate.

Friends and support stripped from her, the fragile life she’d built for herself now lay in tatters. And the source of this evil hunted her like a deer culled from the herd.

The gateway before her was her only hope.

For as the city itself crumbled, all depended not on a prince trying to save his people, nor the valiant men who’d brought them this far.

Everything depended on finding a magic powder in the vaults of Agben itself.

Everything depended on her.


Mik was all of ten years old, and had responsibility.
That’s what his mother had told him this morning, when it was time to open the shop. His grandfather was ill, and needed care from time to time.
“Just keep it closed for the morning,” Father had suggested.
“Not with four ships in port,” Mother had snapped back.
So it was his job to mind the shop.
He’d done everything before, of course. Poured out the herbs, wrapped them in paper. Kept them close to himself until the customer paid in coin. “A poor little Mid Isle shop taking credit would go broke in a month,” his mother smilingly explained to any who asked.
Yes, he’d seen it all and he knew what to do.
Until the pretty girl walked in. Maybe 16 years old, he guessed. Maybe more. Her clothes weren’t as nice as many before her, but nicer than some. She had that desert air about her, down to the sandal shoes, but her hair was long in the Missean fashion, not the short cut of the Flats.
She didn’t seem Agben. But she didn’t seem not Agben, either.
It was a dark red hair, braided down her back. When she turned in the sunlight from the door the red flashed at him. Little wisps escaped and curled around her face, making her seem too soft.
Women of Agben were never soft.
Mik realized that responsibility did indeed have weight, just as his father said. He was feeling that weight on his shoulders this very second.
The girl looked over the shelves carefully, and he didn’t interrupt her.
And then she turned to him, and smiled. The smile alone was almost enough to prove she wasn’t Agben. Almost.
“Illsmith,” she said. “Do you have any?”
Mik nodded. “In the back, Miss. How much do you want?”
“Just a handful, please.” Her eyes were blue, he saw, but not the faded blue of his mother and baby sister. Hers were a deep blue, like the sea’s depths as evening fell.
He hurried to fetch her Illsmith.
“And Musk Oil?” she called after him.
Ahh hah! The pretty girl must be of Agben, Mik realized. Illsmith was a desert plant, and Musk Oil from the Great Continent. Those two went together, he knew, to rub on sore muscles and strained shoulders. He knew because one of the Agben women had told his mother so when his father had hurt himself pulling in the big swoopfish.
Mik grabbed a tiny glass bottle of oil – all of ten copper, he told himself – and then the crock of Illsmith. Returning to the girl, he set both on the counter, and produced a paper for the Illsmith. “Twelve copper,” he told her as plucked out a good handful of the herb and wrapped it proper.
Some people frowned when the price was mentioned, but this girl merely pulled coins from a pocket and counted it out.
Mik stooped low, to open the box his mother had told him he shouldn’t know about, and snatch the pretty bauble inside.
He carefully wrapped it in a soft cloth, the kind used for fragile glass on long trips. And then presented it to the girl.
 “What is this?” she asked, starting to lift a wrapped corner.
Mik stopped her as old man Tanner strode into the shop. “Take it,” the boy whispered.
“Mik, my boy,” Tanner grinned, looking around for his mother. The old man always wanted advice on a new ache. “Your mother not here this morning?”
The girl hesitated, still staring at him. He snatched up the coin she’d placed on the counter, and tugged the step ladder over to just beneath the Stomach Cure jar.
“That’s right,” Tanner told him. “Just a swig, my boy. Just a swig.”
Mik felt the pretty girl’s eyes on him. Surely she knew no one else was supposed to see that thing. Surely she knew to stick it in her pocket and pretend it didn’t exist.
The girl gave him a last frown, but said no more. By the time he’d wrangled the tonic down from the shelf, she’d gone.
Marra stepped out into the sunlight, and smiled. She seemed to do that a lot here.
She had no idea what the boy in the shop had given her, but then the island held many strange customs. And most had turned out to be very pleasant. When the Trafalcon first docked, necklaces of fresh flowers were tossed over their heads as cooling drinks were pushed into their hands. A sort of laughing welcome.
It was a giving place.
Marra was Brista, Potions Maker to Drail and the Hand of Victory. Less than a year ago, at the age of 15 she had been apprentice to a true potions maker on the Desert Flats. Mistress Britta had died, leaving Marra with her brother who had no skills and few morals. Drail, grandson of a legendary gamesman, had rescued her, after she’d done her best to concoct the Birr Elixir to aid his team.
Now she traveled with him to the Great Continent, and the Skullan city of Missea, where he intended to follow his grandsire’s path and play against the massive Skullan teams. Her biggest worry was letting Drail and his men – Manten, Olver, and Tryst, down in the challenges they would face.
Especially Tryst. The other two had been with Drail the first day she met him, but Tryst had been discovered in a deep, unnatural sleep, in the back of the very shop Marra had worked. Drail had removed him from the brother’s clutches, and Marra had, thanks to her Mistress’s old book, found a brew to wake the man.
Tryst was quite a mystery. He had wanted a means to return to the Great Continent, and had played with the Hand of Victory in their triumph over the famous Port Leet Comet Games. But they really knew no more about him than they’d known when he slept. He was not very forthcoming.
But on a day like today, in a place like this place, it was difficult to have any worries. She strode up the dusty street, savoring the early morning warmth of the oddly soft air. It felt like a warm sweater, caressing the skin. Such a feeling, this humidity, as Tryst had called it. Water actually living in the air.
Drail thought it made the sky too heavy, forcing the body to work harder just to pump the air into the lungs. But she loved the silky feel on her skin, just as she loved all of Mid Isle.
Mid Isle, or Mithridallyn, as the Captain on the Trafalcon called it. No one else could pronounce the name, so they all used the nickname. Even the islanders called it that. From the moment they'd glided round the line of jagged rocks to suddenly see the pretty wharf floating on the sea, Marra had felt her eyes continually widen. Somehow she couldn’t seem to take it all in, nor quite believe all that she did.
It was a small island, as the Captain said. And the islanders, not content with their allotment of solid land, had spilled out onto the sea, constructing platforms and floating buildings, with wooden bridges to connect it all together. It made for a strange world – and Marra loved it.
Having spent all of her life in the desert, the luxury of so much water struck deep in her heart. Such an abundance of the life giving liquid.  Instead of harsh desert dust you could roam fine sandy beaches, with the sea lapping at your toes. Whole taverns drifted upon the water, where you could eat your meal surrounded by sparkling blue ocean. It made her feel rich, somehow.
It seemed positively extravagant.
The Trafalcon had sailed for five full moons to reach the Isle. The Captain claimed it was the long time at sea and not the Island’s attractions that made people fall in love with it. But Marra had enjoyed the voyage, or at least most of it. Confined to such a small space she’d made up her mind to listen and learn. And indeed she had.
She’d learned that the Trafalcon was occasionally borrowed by a Skullan Captain and crew. The Trafalcon’s Trumen Captain and owner made good money on such propositions. In fact, they only traveled now because the Skullan had changed his mind, after contracting for a special cargo.
“Lucky, really,” the Captain had grinned. “His plan was to sail the ship twice as far as a Gold Harbor run.”
“Where would he be going?” Tryst had asked.
The Captain shrugged. “He wouldn’t say. Just suddenly found himself without the promised cargo. He disappeared the next day.”
Tryst had taught Marra about the Great Goose, the name Misseans gave the Desert Crane constellation in the sky. It seemed everyone believed the stars guided one’s destiny. On the Great Continent, they’d simply changed some of the names. Drail spoke of famous Comet games, many of which his grandsire had played. Olver advised them all where to purchase special items in Missea. He’d been born and raised there.
And Manten kept the conversation going by probing questions she’d never have thought to ask.
Mid Isle was an island between the Wavering Continent and the Great Continent, although the Captain assured them it was much closer to latter, and that they’d be in Gold Harbor in just a few weeks. Apparently other islands existed, but Mid Isle was most used by trade ships, as it had a reputation for preparing you for Missea.
“Why do you need to prepare?” she’d asked. Tryst had smiled, but everyone had fallen silent to hear the Captain’s reply.
“Missea is a place of moods,” he'd finally responded, when he’d plucked a pipe from his mouth. “Winds change the sea, and tides of events change Missea. It’s well to know which way the wind is blowing.”
Marra couldn't begin to guess what it meant.
Now she hurried through the deeper part of the town, high on the land. Somehow Drail had found a Comet game, and the Illsmith was for any injuries they might incur.
For how could you be confined to a ship for five moons and not be affected when you played your first game on solid ground?
The field was as nice as any she’d seen outside of Port Leet. As with everything on the island, it had that small town-size with a touch of city sophistication. Good construction, quality details. Such as signs printed with actual letters, indicating the citizens could read.
Marra had walked the entire town just to practice her reading. She’d even purchased a book in a shop to improve her skills. The more she learned, the better she hoped to be at interpreting Mistress Britta’s book of herb recipes for potions, balms, and elixirs.
Reaching the edge of the field, she realized she was late. Marra barely stepped beside Old Merle, Drail’s mentor, before the four comet balls were hurled out onto the field of play. The four teams sprinted into action.
She watched Tryst weave, trying to shake a defender, but the man was tenacious. When Drail charged past, Tryst hurled the ball to him.
Drail launched the comet ball toward the tail, and Marra leapt up to see if it went in.
Tremors shook the ground, people screamed. A giant splash from the water nearby – and Old Merle grabbed Marra’s shoulder. In the stands around them, the crowd blindly ran.
One spectator pushed past the slower man blocking him, who bumped a woman, knocking her to the ground. As she fell she cried out, and the cry acted like a whip of panic over the spectators. The pounding of running feet on the wood decks mingled with screams of pain and fear.
They fled like desert hares, blindlessly leaping without thought. As likely to jump into danger as away.
Old Merle urged her towards the center of the field, and she ran to Drail. It seemed the one place no one else wished to go.
Tryst knew a cannon shot when he heard one. But no answering volley followed, no battle horn blared. He assumed it was some sort of exercise.
The crowd panic startled him. They must not be used to cannons, he realized. And cupped his hands around his mouth.
“Stop!” he shouted. “Don’t run!”
No one seemed to hear him.
Another man on a local team did the same thing, cupping his hands, facing the stands. “Calm down! Please!”
And a third gamesman joined in. “Everyone stop!”
The words slowly rippled out, penetrating one mind, then another. A few people hesitated, a few more slowed. No more shots rang out, aiding the notion that perhaps they were safe. The sheer panic ebbed.
People still hurried away, but they no longer raced headlong in terror. Some paused for others, helping the old, picking up the young, where a moment before they would run over them.
Olver was staring at the other teams, one of which had already disappeared. “I think,” he told them, “the match is off.”
With a glance at another team captain, Drail shrugged and then grinned at Marra. “We’ve already had our elixir,” he mused. “It will be interesting to see the effects off the field.”
“I’m gonna find me a wench…” Manten began as Old Merle joined them. Old Merle had been speaking to the field manager.
“Warships,” he told them. “Just arrived in the harbor, and flying the Missean Flag. No enemy vessels in sight.”
Tryst froze as the others relaxed.
Seeing Marra observing him, he forced a smile, even as his mind flew over the concept. The big Warships did not leave Missea lightly. They were designed precisely for war. Other military vessels traveled for various reasons, to show the flag, escort a high official. Negotiate a treaty.
Never the Warships.
“Ships?” He asked, keeping his voice casual. “As in more than one?”
Tryst would have assumed whoever called it a Warship had no idea what they were talking about – except for the cannon shot. When a Warship approached with any intent other than battle, the cannon was fired to announce its arrival. The tradition was meant to empty its cannon, a gesture of disarm. Of course, with eighty cannons on board, one less loaded gun did not exactly render it defenseless.
In Tryst’s whole lifetime he’d seen perhaps three Warships leave Gold Harbor. As fast as his mind raced, none of the possibilities that occurred to him were good.
Olver dug out Drail’s sunken ball from the comet tail in the center, and wiped it clear. “Five-spot. We got the five,” he announced. “Such runs our luck today - perfect score, and no one left to see.”
Tryst only hoped their ill luck ended there. Whirling, he hopped over a wood rail to climb the comet benches.
To see the ships for himself.
Drail watched Tryst ascend the stands. And sprinted to follow. And reached the top bench beside the man as the first Warship glided towards the pier.
The sheer span of her four masts impressed him, even with the sails already stowed. Skullan tossed something over the side – seemingly another sail – and it dragged through the sea to slow her even more.
And as she slipped past the Trafalcon, which had been the largest ship docked, he gasped aloud. The Trafalcon looked a child beside its mother, its length less than half that of the larger vessel, its height a mere third. Her three masts were as toothpicks compared to the four on the Warship. Like comparing one of little Marra’s fingers against his own.
“I only see one ship,” he murmured. And Tryst nodded out at the sea. Squinting, Drail could just make out a second ship, a good thirty minutes behind the first.
Even as he watched, the high sail arms on the distant ship folded upwards, and then rolled down the mast.
“I don’t understand. Are they attacking?”
“They’ll not fire cannons again,” Tryst replied. But something in his tone showed the man didn’t welcome the arriving vessels.
‘Warships,’ Drail said aloud. He’d heard the word, but really knew nothing about them. Now, seeing them so near, he felt a shiver trickle down his spine. “Is there a war looming some place?”
Tryst’s hands fell from shielding his eyes. “So it would seem.”
The second ship’s gangplank dropped into place as Tryst strode up the floating wharf.
Gangplank was a misleading term, for a Warship’s plank was wide enough that five men could travel abreast. He’d walked them before to board Warships, but had never done so outside of Missea. And never alone.
He wasn’t even sure of the protocol.
Tryst, though no one knew it, was a prince, son of King Bactor, heir to the Skullan throne. Almost a year ago he had awakened on the Desert Flats to find himself surrounded by Trumen – the smaller, weaker, race. A race he usually interacted with as servants.
Not only had they not recognized his face, they hadn’t realized he was Skullan. Well, he was a smaller specimen perhaps. His father had promised he’d grow taller, but now – at the age of twenty-one – he doubted that would happen.
Beyond his size, his hair had grown in the long, unnatural sleep, obscuring the truth of his race from a people that rarely saw his kind.
Now he had a whole ship of Skullan before him, men who took an oath to serve the king. In theory he should be safe and finally out of this wild adventure.
In theory.
In fact, he doubted anyone could recognize him with his long hair and humble Trumen clothes. But he had to try.
Tryst strode to the top of the plank and paused at the three steps down to the Warship’s deck. Waiting for permission to step aboard.
Across the huge wood expanse the Captain spoke with a Lieutenant. Looking up, he stopped speaking. For an instant Tryst imagined himself recognized, as he indeed recognized the Captain.
And then he saw sneer, and realized it was merely contempt at a Trumen daring to approach a Warship. Any thoughts of revealing his identity, of ordering the ship to take him safely home, evaporated.
He forced himself to relax, waiting to see what the Captain would do.
The man turned his back.
The lieutenant gaped. After listening to his Captain’s instructions, he rushed over to Tryst.
“You may not stand there,” the lieutenant said. Firm, but not unfriendly. Tryst felt the true difference in appearing a lowly Trumen as opposed to a Skullan prince.
And equally realized the impossibility of proclaiming his royalty. He might not survive long enough to prove it.
Forcing himself to nod, he turned away. And then couldn’t resist asking, the question. “Where are you heading, Lieutenant?”
The Lieutenant raised his eyebrows.
“Warships do not travel lightly.”
If the Skullan thought it odd that a Trumen on an island knew this, he didn’t say. “We sail for Port Leet,” he said. “Trumen have kidnapped the Prince.”
Ten blinks of the sun later Tryst stood on the deck of the Trafalcon, urging they leave immediately. He had only to point to the Warships to make the others agree.
But the Trafalcon’s Captain, though very much in sympathy, couldn’t set sail for at least twelve hours. “There’s the tide, you see. And the men, and supplies. Aye, we’ll go. But the morning’s tide is the soonest we can do so.”
Drail, standing beside Tryst, smiled. “It may not be that important,” he said. “After all, the Warships haven’t really done any harm.”
Standing at his rail, forty paces from the first Warship, the Captain did not return the smile. “I’ve heard disturbing tales,” he told them softly. “Things changing in Missea, they say. More restrictions for Trumen, more exclusions. More suspicion.”
“Because of the Prince?” Drail asked. And Tryst bit his tongue to keep from uttering foolish things.
The Captain shrugged. “Skullan don’t need excuses for that. Circumstances have been deteriorating for years. But lately it’s accelerated.”
The last of the Warships neared, heading for a berth on the other side of the Trafalcon.
“Never seen one of those outside of Gold Harbor,” the Captain added under his breath. “Ugly thing, ain’t she?”
As the sun fell below the island’s west ridge, Drail set torch to timber. Their campfire blazed.
The Trafalcon had been in harbor three days before the Warships arrived. And while everyone in the Hand had berths in cabins of reasonable comfort, they all chose to sleep here on the hill. Even little Marra, after the first night, had found one of the colorful island sleep-slings and attached it to a tree.
The slings dangled from a sturdy branch, the bright cloth tied to either end of a pole. Marra said it was very comfortable, that the yielding cloth cradled you. But there was a trick to climbing in that eluded him.
Besides, Drail preferred his back pressed to earth. Something about feeling solid land beneath gave comfort. A ship pitching with waves, even in the relative calm of the harbor, got very old.
Tryst licked goose fat from his fingers. “Tonight, I think Passing the Attack.”
He’d been teaching them battle techniques, which had turned out to be very good for gamesmen. Somehow the balance, efficient movement, and discipline all improved one’s comet form. On the Trafalcon they had worked many balance drills, but little else. With the rolling waves little else had seemed possible, although Tryst disputed that. Still, only Marra had been completely unaffected by the sea-illness, and while she watched the drills carefully, she had not participated as Drail expected.
He’d thought she wanted to learn to protect herself. Perhaps the size of the rest of them intimidated her, or maybe she just felt more secure these days. Whatever her reasoning she merely watched, and did not try the moves.
Tryst now faced off with Manten.
“The key is to consider the direction of the attack.” Feet planted square to his teammate, his hands poised between them. “Whether the opponent has a weapon, such as a knife or stick, or just his hands and feet, he will direct a force at you. Men have a tendency to try to meet force with force.
“Instead, slip that energy past you.”
Manten blinked – as confused as Drail felt.
Tryst saw their faces, and frowned. And then pulled Marra to her feet.
“Watch,” he said.
He strode toward Marra threateningly, hands out to grab her. She held her ground, which made Drail smile, even as Tryst shoved her backwards.
“He can defeat a girl,” Olver said. The others chuckled.
Tryst whisked Marra up off her feet, swinging her back to her original spot. He whispered in her ear as he set her down again.
Her eyes grew round.
Again his palms came up; again he purposefully strode toward her. Marra waited till his fingers brushed her shoulders, and suddenly slipped to the side as her hands swept his past her. She’d merely sidestepped his attack.
“Marra cannot hope to out-muscle me. Instead of meeting force to force, she simply slides out of the way, guiding my energy past her. If she does this fast, and at the proper moment, I’ll be beyond her before I see her strategy.”
Olver scoffed, but Drail was on his feet. “Try me.”
And they worked it, over and over. Faster and faster, until no one could lay a hand on another without resorting to more sophisticated technique.
Marra, Drail realized, now watched intently. She never spoke, never asked for another turn. But where before she’d merely observed their drills, she now studied carefully. Very carefully indeed.
Early the next morning, Marra gathered herbs.
After living on the ship for so long, she’d been slow to return to performing the task. But once she’d rolled out of her sling bed and slipped away from camp, she found the task soothing somehow.
She enjoyed the solitude of the early morning, as the wild colors of dawn roasted the sky. For the few hours before breakfast, the world was hers.
She explored the wooded circle – a dip between the tall island hills that brimmed with greenery. Trees exploded with leaves, so many that their branches dipped low with the weight. Grasses and wild bushes sprang up everywhere, some so deeply green that surely they couldn’t survive anywhere but this lush, watery isle. Wild blossoms, huge and vibrant, covered everything, in breathtaking colors of yellow, blue, and bright red. No wonder the desert seemed monotone to outsiders, she realized.
Now if only Marra knew what properties these plants contained.
Long ago Mistress Britta had started a talk about new ingredients. A method for classifying herbs by their taste, by basics of what they did. But that talk was never finished. Marra had no idea what to do. She was perfectly willing to experiment on herself, but she wasn’t ill. And she couldn’t experiment on others.
Regardless, she gathered all the healthy plants. Maybe some idea would occur, or perhaps she’d find something in Britta’s book.
On her way back she heard a branch snap. Marra froze.
A second noise came from the same direction.
Creeping silently through the foliage, she peered past a tree dripping with ivy – and saw Tryst.
He was practicing with the sword he’d won from the Trafalcon’s Captain in a foolish card game. He waved it through the air as he moved in a sort of rapier-dance. First slow, then fast, then slow.
She had watched Tryst perform dances like that – forms, he called them – without weapons in his hand.  Now the slender blade seemed part of him, an extension of his arm, moving with an intricate rhythm. Gliding across the grassy carpet in a clearing in the trees, with the early island mist clinging to his feet, Tryst seemed more a vision than a man.
It was hard to slip away, but Marra felt wrong spying on him. She withdrew back through the ivy.
She froze, rolling her eyes at herself. And then stuck her head through the green vines.
With the sword tip resting in the grass; Tryst beckoned her. She sighed and emerged into the green clearing.
“Have you come to practice?” he grinned. “I’d intended to work the drills with you today.”
In response she touched the herb sash tied at her waist. Drail and the others would wave her away at this point, but Tryst merely cocked an eyebrow.
“It’s best to pick herbs early in the morning,” she told him. “Before the sun heats everything.”
He held his hand out. She untied the sash, laying it carefully across his palm. He used the same care in setting it on the grass. “Now that you’re here, you can practice Passing the Attack.”
She frowned up at him, suspecting a joke. But his face seemed sincere.
“Why?” she asked.
“I thought you wanted to learn to protect yourself.”
Now she knew he must be joking. “I can make a fist.”
He gestured her to proceed him, obviously expecting her to practice.
“Can a girl protect herself?” she sighed. “From anyone who truly intends to harm her?”
Tryst blinked in surprise – whether surprise at the question itself or that Marra had asked it, she could only guess. But he pondered his answer. “Yes. Perhaps not infallibly. Maybe not against every foe. But she can study and practice techniques. Every skill learned, every ability developed, improves her chances. Adds an arrow to the quiver.”
“I can’t fight men. I can’t floor a drunk at a bar, or stop a Skullan from grabbing me.”
“If you have a bit of anatomy knowledge, a little skill, you can slip away. To run away – not stand and exchange blows.”
Marra suddenly remembered a Skullan long ago, who snatched her up off the street. She’d flailed wildly, struck him below his waist. And when he dropped her she’d fled.
Tryst watched her, waiting. She moved a little away from him, shifting her weight to balance evenly on her feet as he’d taught the others to do.
And she nodded.
The lesson began.
Tryst had not really taught before.
He’d been taught – by some of the finest teachers on all the Great Continent. And while he had instructed Mauric, one of the Prince companions, on a few occasions, it had always been at Jason’s insistence and under his watchful eye. Jason, the Defense Master, had believed that true mastery began when one taught the art.
Drail had learned much from Jason, but then Drail intended to learn. The others had picked up a few things, but seemingly more from Drail’s persistence than from anything he himself did.
Yet here was Marra, so tiny, so fragile, gazing up at him with a readiness. And she understood nothing, he slowly realized. Apparently there were many things males grasped from growing up – how to make a fist, what vulnerable spots to strike. She knew none of these things.
And she had faith, he realized, that he could teach her. That he would teach her. She had – trust.
They worked Passing the Attack over and over, until Marra slipped past him once without his being able to stop her. As he’d let her win several times at that point, she didn’t realize the difference. And he couldn’t tell her without admitting she hadn’t succeeded before.
“That was well done,” he told her. She nodded once, barely acknowledging the praise, and set to do it again. He laughed, and sat. Stretching his legs out on the grass.
After a moment, she joined him.
“Are there other things to learn?” she asked, tying her sash around her waist.
He nodded. “Many. But this is enough for now. You must practice.”
She looked at him, and he saw the thoughts in her eyes. The doubt quickly veiled, doubt of how she could manage to practice. She’d never ask any of them to help her, he realized.
“Find your training in everyday life, Marra. As people approach you on the street, slip past them at the last instant. Watch their movements – be able to predict them.
“When you see Drail and the Hand drill, pretend you’re in drilling with them. Feel yourself there – see your reactions in your mind. Before you sleep at night, imagine it in your head. In a tavern, outside in a crowd, alone in the woods. Conjure up the situation, and let yourself react. See yourself slip past every time.”
“Practice – in my mind?”
He nodded. “It’s almost as good as physical practice.”
She digested this, her expression so serious. Smothering a grin at her reaction, he stretched. His shoulder muscles protested. He rubbed the spot automatically. “I must have pulled it in that drill last night with Manten.”
Marra dug into her cloak pocket, and withdrew two cloth items. “Illsmith,” she told him. As if he’d know what that was. She lay a packet in the grass between them, then weighed the second one in her palm.
“And what do I do with Illsmith?” he asked. She hastily untied the string, smoothing the paper of herbs before him.
“A pinch in your hand,” she told him, and plucked a tiny vial from her pouch.
Eyeing her with a rueful grin, he gingerly took two leaves, and lay them in his palm.
She poured a few drops of oil on top. “Rub vigorously, until it feels hot. Then apply.”
He was very tempted to ask her to rub his shoulder – but teasing her at this point might make her wary of future lessons. And if there was one thing he could do to repay her for waking him up – for probably saving his life – it was this.
Months back, on the Wavering Continent, Tryst had awoke from a drug-induced sleep. Far from home, and surrounded by Drail and the Hand of Victory. Marra, this little half-trained apprentice of potions and elixirs, had managed to find the combination to wake him. Where he’d be now if she hadn’t – if Drail hadn’t plucked him up from a backroom floor – he could only guess.
Now, as he rubbed green mush into his shoulder, he watched her unwrap the second package. It contained a small, intricately bound book.
A book that, it dawned on him, would have been a fit gift for a prince.
“Herb lore?” he asked, watching her face.
Her fingers turned it over. He saw that the pages were edged in gold – with a tiny lock set in them. She tugged, but the book did not open.
Not a book at all, he realized. A clever box, apparently locked. For an instant he wondered what intrigue she was involved in – and then saw, from her widened eyes, that she was more baffled than he.
“Where did you find that?”
Her finger touched the tiny lock, and withdrew as if it burned. Marra then offered it to him.
“The boy in the herb shop gave it to me. He insisted.”
Tryst found it heavier than it looked. And painted with gold. It had to be gold, as gold was one of the forbidden items. It was not allowed to fake gold nor silver in any way.
The top was delicately etched by expert hand with a glowing image of a dark horse poised atop a cliff. Individual strands composed the mane, some lighter than others, and the stallion’s eyes blazed with emotion. A raw sort of power.
This was no simple gift.
“Do you have the key?”
She shook her head, and shivered.
He tried pressing the lock – but it refused to yield. The narrow slit had rough bumps, awaiting some sort of key.
A Messenger Box. In the Palace, such boxes were used to deliver letters or small items to nobles far away. The boxes themselves were impervious to tampering. If the box was delivered whole, the receiver could be certain the contents within had not been disclosed.
He studied Marra’s face – but she was genuinely startled.
“This,” Tryst told her, “is a very expensive box. Few could afford such a thing.”
“Those of Agben could.”
At her words he noticed a mark on the centered on the back. It was indeed the mark of Agben.
“The Herb Shop?” he asked. She calmly nodded.
But when she looked up, he saw the fear in her eyes.
“The boy probably thinks you’re Agben. It’s nothing to worry about.” Unless Agben preferred to keep their communications quiet, of course. But Tryst wouldn’t mention that.
“You can simply deliver it to the School when we get to Missea. Might make an welcome introduction.”
She met his gaze then, and he saw she wasn’t fooled. She knew very well Agben might not welcome an unknown girl having stumbled upon a messenger box.
Truth was, the King’s own boxes were on a par with this – some of them not as cunningly crafted. Whoever waited on this message was very wealthy, or very powerful.
Trust rewrapped the cloth, and placed it in her hand. “You can always sneak it back to the boy, tell him he made a mistake. Just don’t let anyone see you do it.”
He stood, and flexed his shoulder, surprised to find it already easing. With an acknowledging grin, he reached a hand to help her up. “Shall we see if breakfast is ready?”
She hesitated, as always, before touching him. Then her hand grasped his, and he pulled her to her feet.
Dignity, the thought flashed through his mind. She had a careful dignity, probably hard won and definitely precious to her. He knew the bare bones of her life, but nothing more. Marra always answered direct questions, but she never elaborated.
As she moved up the hill ahead of him, and he watched the curves beneath her skirt, he realized where his thoughts were going and stopped them. Dalliance with a prince was supposed to confer an honor. But then she didn’t know who he was.
And, he admitted with a wry grin, he strongly suspected it wouldn’t make any difference if she did.

 Marra slipped the messenger box in her pocket when she saw the camp activity.
It was still early, and she hadn’t expected everyone to be awake. But Olver rolled bedrolls and Manten shoved cooking pots into the bag as Drail untied her sling bed from the tree.
He greeted them with relief.
“The Trafalcon leaves as soon as we get there. Sooner, if we’re not fast enough.”
“Did something happen?” Tryst came up behind her.
Drail nodded. “There’s talk of a tally today. A Trumen tally.”
“Tally?” Marra didn’t understand. “As in count?”
“That’s the guess,” Drail rolled the sling cloth around the pole, and stuffed the end in the cooking bag. “The Captain doesn’t choose to wait around to find out.”
Olver and Manten lifted bags to their shoulders, and strode off. She and Tryst hurriedly stuffed their own items away, and followed Drail to the docks.
The next time Marra would remember the messenger box they were out at sea.

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