Equilibrium

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10: Of Water and Flames

Larke, 1182

I sat on my newly assigned bed, thinking, regrouping. Staring at the dusty wooden floors below me, I recalled The Raven's iron stare, cold and unforgiving, distrustful and calculating. She was fearsome and confident, much as a crime lord should be. The Naga were known for their violence; those who disobeyed or disagreed did not survive. I supposed I would probably find out eventually if those rumors held any water, though I hoped not firsthand. I stood, and the water spigot on the far wall caught my eye. A bath sounded like just what I needed.

Settling the metal tub under the spigot , I turned on the hot water to fill it. A luxury, indeed; this indoor hot plumbing was rare in most of the capital, let alone in the rural countryside where I had grown up. Only the extremely wealthy could afford this, like nobles and royalty. The Naga must have an exorbitant amount of funds if they could spend it on such amenities.

The water tumbled from the spigot into a loud turbulent vortex in the tub, filling it quickly. I undressed, mindlessly brushing over my scars. They were reminders of my my weaknesses, my shortcomings. It was my ritual. First, I grazed the stab wound that just missed my kidney with my fingertips, then with a heavy thumb, rubbed the slice from a sword on my upper right thigh; I lifted my arm to gently kiss the burn from a rogue explosion spell that grazed the outside of my left forearm. I had many scars, and I honored each one of them, though those three were the most prominent. Each scar taught me something different, but the stories behind those three had almost killed me. They deserved special treatment and were stronger mementos of my failures. Sighing, I stepped into the filled bath and turned off the spigot. The water steamed, and I inhaled the vapor.

Lathering and rinsing, repetition to cleanse my body of sweat and dirt, I thought about Dean. Who was he, really? He must be well acquainted with The Raven. His sarcastic and agreeable personality seemed to mesh even with her – were they friends? Was he her right hand man? Though The Raven seemed stiff and stoic, Dean had joked with her playfully, so at ease. I could sense that they'd known each other a long time, somehow.

Dean had provided the most information for me out of anyone here. If I gained his trust, then perhaps I could convince him to share even more. I could gain his confidence easily, I think, if we became friends. It seemed that he was warming up to me already, though I wasn't entirely sure it wasn't just his friendly personality. The Raven had appointed him my main contact, though, so we would be spending a lot of time together.

A trusting friendship can be difficult to build, though, particularly in a short amount of time. But if Dean saw me as a potential romantic partner, would that be the shorter path? I didn't doubt my ability to make him do so; I'd been trained in the art of manipulation and espionage during my training as a Suryan Mage. I couldn't appear too threatening or capable; I had to be harmless enough to share critical information with. I wasn't sure how much time I would be able to spend here, but I couldn't waste it. Though of course, a budding romance was a riskier move than friendship. A neglected flame from a candle can bring down an entire home, after all.

A knock on my locked door awoke me from my plans.

"Come in," I said as I soaped my shoulders.

If I could get some kind of reaction from him right now, then I would know how to respond. It was all a game, a dance between two. Just like before, I heard his keys jangle together in the lock as he turned it. He stepped into my new room and made eye contact with me as I now lathered my neck with the soap, my head tilted to the side. His face was blank, his clothes disheveled and dirty, speckled with something dark, his hair a wild mess.

Feeling bolder, I said in a soft voice, "Would you mind getting my back? I can't reach."

I turned in the bath so that I was facing away from him, kneeling in the bath. I looked over my shoulder to watch him. He blinked, surprised. My long, black hair obscured the view of my shoulder blades, so I draped it over the front of my shoulders. It covered me just enough that he would surely want to see more. I faced directly ahead towards the wall while his steps tapped closer.

"If you like," he finally answered, his voice gravely, and right behind me.

I handed him the bar of soap, not looking over at him. He scrubbed the bar of soap up and down my back, gentlemanly restricting himself. I really had no reason to expect that, but I suppose I had. He splashed some water on my shoulder blades to rinse off the soap bubbles, artfully and just barely grazing my skin with his fingertips as he did so.

"What happened here?" he whispered, and he brushed my scar from the stab wound that almost took my life a few years ago.

I had almost forgotten that my scars weren't so commonplace for the average woman as they were for me. I stiffened my back, feeling vulnerable.

"I am… not always lucky," I breathed, hoping he wouldn't ask for much more. "I was mugged once, a few years ago, and got stabbed." I prayed that Dean wouldn't ask too many more questions. I'm a good liar – my profession requires it of me – but I prefer not to lie if I don't have to.

"That's quite a scar… and one of many, it seems. Looks like you wouldn't have survived that one without a healer. Was your husband with you?" he mused, tracing the scar again. His voice betrayed no emotion.

"Um, yes, he was…," I whispered, suddenly and irrationally nervous. "He was able to find a nearby Healer..."

The lie seemed to satisfy him, and he splashed water on my back once more.

"I'm sorry for your loss. You must be grieving," he said between light splashes, waiting for an answer.

I licked my lips, thinking. "My husband was not always a kind man," I said finally, my teeth sharp on my lower lip. "That isn't my only scar," I hinted.

Dean paused in his rinsing of my back, water dripping from his fingers and plopping into the bath below. "I suppose it's a good thing he's gone, then."

I looked back over my shoulder again at him. "I suppose it is," I whispered.

I was never this bold usually. This was new territory for me, and I hoped I could traverse it and return unscathed. The tension in the room was so thick, so palpable. No words could ease it, so I didn't bother to try. Dean leaned away with a sigh, stood, and handed me the towel I had set aside on the floor.

"I brought you some clothes that I thought might fit you," he gestured towards the bed. "They're over there. After you get dressed, meet me in the hallway. We have work to do."

He left the room, leaving me exposed and somewhat dissatisfied with his sudden dismissal.

I looked around, all boldness gone, replaced with curiosity. Surely this was the initiation that The Raven had mentioned; I was positive it wasn't going to be pleasant. I dried off, quickly donned the large shirt and leggings Dean lent me and walked outside into the hall.

He stood there, leaning against the opposite wall, both grim and excited. It sat oddly on his handsome face – the narrowed, angry eyes belied the light that sat within them. He was looking forward to this.

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