The emerald ring was pretty enough, but the man offering it wasn’t. The jewel’s face was cut into a dozen starry faces, his cut with a dozen angry scars.
“A magic ring,” he called to Kaira, “a ring that could change your life!”
What a fool. Magic didn’t exist. It had died with the Old Heroes, legendary men who had called down lightning and waged war with burning swords. If anyone possessed magic, it wouldn’t be this decrepit old merchant. And if the ring was magical, he was hardly smart for shouting about it. If the old stories were true, that was the kind of thing that people killed over.
Nowadays, it was the kind of thing that people were arrested over.
As Kaira stepped past the old man, she saw a group of guards pushing their way through the crowded market towards the man. She could make out their bright white uniforms as they cleared a path. As they approached, the old man’s face lit up, probably at the sight of more potential customers, as he offered them the ring.
“Magic doesn’t exist.” One guard, seemingly the leader of the other two, stepped up to the merchant, pushing down the arm that had been offering the ring. “And the queen doesn’t think kindly towards those who would sell lies to her subjects.”
“They aren’t lies.”
Kaira groaned. Damn fool, she thought again. All the merchant had needed to do was apologize and allow the guard to take the ring. That would have at least given him a chance to escape the queen’s dungeons.
“If magic is real,” the guard said, “then you shouldn’t have any problem magicking yourself out of the dungeons.”
The old merchant kept his smile as he drew himself up and said, “I expect not.” His insolence was going to ensure that he had an accident before he ever reached the dungeons. What a fool.
“You’re coming with us.” The two guards who had yet to speak grabbed the merchant and pulled him away from his stall.
“Wait!” the old man cried. He was squealing and squirming in their grip, making a rather pathetic scene. “Let me talk to me daughter. Then I’ll go quietly.”
They released him. “You have one minute,” the guards told him.
Kaira looked around for the man’s daughter, confused, until she realized he was approaching her. Now she was the one who felt like a fool, for staying to watch instead of disappearing into the crowded market.
“I love you,” the old man said, grabbing her hand. He smelled far cleaner than he looked, like an odd mix of fresh fruit and cooked meat. Kaira tried to pull away, but his grip was immensely strong. “I won’t hurt you,” he whispered; then, louder, “tell Mama what happened.” He pressed something into Kaira’s palm. “I hope to see you soon.”
As the old merchant was led away, Kaira slowly opened her palm and saw another ring nestled there.
Kaira slowly turned the ring in her palm. It was heavy iron, etched with odd spiraling symbols, and reflected the warm light of the lantern beside her.
She sat on the edge of a cliff, her feet dangling off over the sea. It was dark out, the sky above her and sea under her were a deep, dark blue. At the moment, she was seriously considering throwing the ring into that azure abyss.
It was useless, right? If the old merchant was to be trusted, it was magical, but if she was to believe everyone else she had ever met, magic didn’t exist.
Kaira slipped the ring onto her finger for the fourth time and, as before, nothing happened. There was no rush of magic, no moment of clarity or burst of flame. If this was magic, it was nothing like the stories.
She stood and started along the cliffside. She loved walking here, straddling the land and sea. She walked, one foot in front of the other, until a rock turned under her foot. With milling arms, she attempted to keep her balance, but failed, and fell tottering off the cliff.
What a damn fool, she thought. She had always been dangerously curious and daring, but this was as embarrass in a death as they came. It was odd, but, as she fell, it was that thought that dominated her mind. It was less of an oh shit I am about to plummet to my death, and more of a wow, I am stupid.
The ground opened up beneath her feet and was replaced by the dark sea, but, after a moment, she realized that it wasn’t getting any closer.
Kaira looked back at the cliff and saw that she was still level with the rock, her face only feet from the stony cliffside. She was hovering impossibly in the air.
Perhaps there was magic after all.
Up, she thought, and she began to rise, the cool sea breeze rushing past her as she flew. Exhilaration coursed through her. Magic was real, and she could control it.
She settled back into solid ground and twisted the ring from her finger. She could use this ring, but if magic was real, it could change the world. She replaced the ring on the hand and stepped off the cliff. At first she had trouble, but within minutes she was soaring through the night sky.
Ezard sat on the damp cell floor, picking at the scab that was forming on his left forearm. Would the girl come to find him? Would she even discover the use of the ring? She had been curious enough to watch his arrest; hopefully she would be curious enough to seek him out.
It was unlikely, and he knew that. He began to curse his decisions. Why in the ten hells had he given his only piece of magic to a random girl instead of using it himself? Sure, the guards had bows, but he still could have escaped.
He moved to the window of his cell. Soft moonlight filtered through onto his face. The dungeon was cut into a massive cliff face that ran along the sea. He had been lucky enough to be given a cell on the edge, near the sea.
He drew another ring from deep within his boot and slipped it on his finger. It was gold and wire-thin, very difficult to see. He placed the ringed hand on the wall of his cell and pushed, the veins on his neck standing out with the effort.
After a moment of straining, the wall began to crack and crumble; pieces at first, the massive chunks of rock tearing free and falling into the sea.
Kaira was flying towards the cliff-side prison, wondering how in the ten hells she was going to find the merchant in the maze of cells, when a part of the cliff gave way. She turned towards the hole in the cliff, using the ring to guide herself lower in the air.
The merchant stood in the mouth of the new cave. His ragged, baggy shirt had been removed, and he didn’t look nearly as decrepit as he had in the market. Moonlight shined on thick, corded muscle. His scarred face, framed by his long ragged beard and hair, looked less aged then it had.
“I was hoping you’d come,” he called.
She swooped in and landed next to him. “You told me you’d see me soon.”
“So I did.”
Kaira held out a hand. “Can you teach me about this magic?” she asked.
He smiled, as if it was the question he had been waiting for. “I can, indeed.”