Merrian had a geometric, prepared beauty, with plump cherry lips that somehow matched her shaved head. High eyebrows curved like talons as she pointed to the boy who had raised his hand first, although he had many competitors.
“Long ago,” he said, “there was a war between Thaumaturges and Ozarians.”
“Yes, but who can tell me how Thaumaturges came to be?” she asked, turning to the other side of the small class. “Yes?”
“In the beginning, there were only humans, and they only lived in Ozaros,” a girl said, clearly reciting something from memory. “Then some monsters allowed certain humans to use magic. Those were called mages.”
Claudia knew the wording was made for children, avoiding the raw truth: due to cross-breeding with human mothers and monster fathers, all mages had monster lineage in their veins, somewhere in a low, lost portion of the family tree.
“And how did the mages and humans live together?” Merrian asked, pointing to another child with a hand up. “Were they peaceful?”
“No!” the next boy said. “The mages wanted to enslave the humans!”
“Not at first!” Another boy said quickly. “Some mages got greedy and wanted more power. More and more magic, until it scarred them. They became the Thaumaturges.”
“That’s right,” Merrian said with a nod. “The Thaumaturges thought they had the right to rule over all beings. And the rest of the mages were cowards who took their side. But what did the humans do?”
“They tried to use magic, too!” Another child blurted out. “They tried to get the monsters to make their children mages who could fight for them!”
“Goodness,” Claudia mumbled from afar. “Shouldn’t they be learning to read or something?”
“And what happened when the monsters blessed the humans’ children?” Merrian asked.
“When men raped monsters,” Rat whispered with a sneer.
“The Ozarians were born!” Several children said in different ways.
“Yes,” Merrian said. “They had magical power, but also took some other traits from the monsters. Many of them were very strong. And there was one other important difference: the Ozarians considered themselves humans. Even today they still do, just like most mages of today.”
“But they’re not! They’re part monster!” a girl said, rocking back and forth on her crisscrossed legs.
“Well, you can’t always reason with people’s deepest beliefs,” Merrian said with a shrug. “Remember that. At least the Thaumaturges know and accept what they are, and embrace that ugliness. To me, that is more admirable, even if they’re a stronger threat.”
The kids all nodded and looked around with glazed eyes.
“Instructor?” one girl said, slowly lifting an arm.
“What if an Ozarian and a mage or Thaumaturge were parents?”
“That is for another lesson, when you’re older.”
“Now then, the humans had the Ozarians on their side,” Merrian said, lifting a finger. “They were strong, right?”
“And they could use magic too, right?”
“Great! And even though the Thaumaturges nearly took the entire world for themselves, the Ozarians won and drew them back into seclusion. That means hiding. Today, the Thaumaturges stay in cities like Nimb Vard, where they belong. Sadly, the Ozarians stay in their original homeland, making little contact with us. But that’s enough for now.” Merrian stood up. “You remembered it all very well! I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow!”
The children got up. About half rushed away to the sunlight of Street Two, while the others groaned and lingered.
“I can’t respect a teacher who sneaks opinions like that onto her students,” Rat said to Claudia.
“Well, we are in an anti-mage city,” Claudia said. “Can you expect much better?”
“For children?” Rat snapped.
“You’re right, sorry.”
“Pardon me?” a short boy with charcoal skin asked.
“Yes, my dear?” Merrian’s face lit up when the boy presented a small basket with sackcloth over-top.
“My momma wanted me to give you these biscuits,” he said. “She said to thank you for doing such a great job.”
“Tell your mother that I appreciate the gift, and that I’m just trying to do as well for you as she does. Alright?”
“Okay, I will! Bye!” the boy ran off, and Merrian shook her head with a smile.
Rat walked into the colorful room. Children were clearly allowed to paint on the walls.
“Well, call me a flat,” Merrian said. “If it isn’t Rat. Did you enjoy eavesdropping?” Claudia hadn’t heard that archaic half-elf slur in a long time.
“I need something found, Merrian,” Rat said. “Do you have a moment to help us?”
“Us, eh?” Merrian eyed Claudia.
“Claudia Nierra. A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“That’s a nice dress,” Merrian said, and Claudia smiled. Perhaps something good has come of dressing up for the King. “It fits poorly.” Or not. “I presume it wasn’t tailored?”
“No, I only got this for a special occasion.” Indeed, she’d found the poor thing in the garbage, in excellent condition, a few years ago.
“Well, I’m Merrian West. Thirty-third in line for the throne of Mirek, and presently the record keeper of the city.”
No ‘pleasure to meet you’?
“And a teacher?” Claudia asked.
“I just love children, so I started teaching the ones who came here. Soon I gained a reputation.”
“That’s the real motivation,” Rat said to Claudia.
“Rude as ever,” Merrian said, waving her curled hand.
“I can read your mind, remember.”
What the Seers? Claudia thought. Someone else knows your secret? You never said that!
“Well, enough pleasantries. You came at just the right time. How about some cold tea and biscuits?” She held up the basket and gave it a playful shake.
They went past the shelves and climbed an iron staircase to the second level. Here there was less foot traffic; they went out onto a small balcony with a cool stone booth, overlooking Street Four.
“Where have you been?” Merrian set the tea tray down and got oddly close to Rat, sniffing. To Claudia’s surprise, Rat treated this as mundane. “Ugh, you reek of that palace armor. What were you doing with the King?”
Rat told Merrian the essentials. “We need the greatest challengers for Headsplitter possible. We need him dead in our first booked match.”
“Well, I’m no expert,” the bald lady said, pouring marigold tea for Rat, then Claudia. “But Headsplitter is a pike-man. I can imagine two strong counters to his combat discipline: someone who fights best in closer range, making his long weapon awkward, or better yet: an archer.”
“Would that be allowed?” Claudia said before she sipped the tea. Cactus pear tea? A nice touch.
“Remember, Sallith also wants Headsplitter dead,” Rat said. “I’d wager on him approving an archer.”
“How about both?” Merrian asked. “Headsplitter’s already done a double match, and it ended far too early to please the crowd. Let’s give them a much more thrilling duo. Best of all, they’re foreigners. Sallith won’t be fully satisfied when they win.”
“Who are you talking about?” Rat asked.
“Kaj and Kimora, the mysterious Lost Hawk mercenaries. They’ve been performing feats of dexterity, since this city is so desperate for nonviolent entertainment. But make no mistake. They were once paid muscle and would likely accept the opportunity you’re offering.”
“Please, can you contact them as soon as you can?” Claudia asked.
“Absolutely. Shall I hint that your payment will be… generous? They are a popular sort.”
“It’s fine, reach out to them,” Rat said, setting down his still-full cup.
In the east end of Street Four, a crowd was funneling through the single passageway in a gray wood palisade. The men dropped kinnitar coins into the small slit in a box that was tied to a chain which was then connected to an iron ball that had been sunk into the sand. One by one, they got through and gathered around two figures.
All watched silently as a man in an enormous suit of armor tossed old fruits into the air. From ten paces away, a very thin yellow-skinned man with short copper hair drew back his bow, shooting an arrow from the quiver at his back to pierce each one. The force caused each pierced fruit to fall into a broad wooden trough set behind the armored man.
After twenty perfect shots and landings, the armored man threw up two more at once, close together. The archer paused before shooting, and pierced both fruits at once, making them land together in the trough. The eruption of applause sent a swarm of resting carrion swallows flapping above.
Behind the temporary shack the performers had built, the man in armor took off his helmet and dumped a bucket of salt water over his head, being sure not to let it soak down into the gambeson under his armor.
“Kimora,” Kaj said, holding up the unrolled scroll. The words could be seen in reverse from the glare of the sun. “The job of our lifetime is here. Ready to see why we really came here?”
Kimora knew the look in Kaj’s eye. He put his helmet on.
“Don’t shut me out!” Kaj said, flapping the scroll at him like a litany of the bigger man’s flaws. “Alright, yes. We would have to kill again. But wait until you see the target.”
Kimora read the scroll held in front of him, then removed his helmet and read it closer.