“I heard you beat up some guy the other day.“
The inside of the bar was cold, dimly lit and looked like some cheap set-piece for a cliché fantasy film. In the basement of a run-down old house in Savamala, the part of the city by the river, it was really nothing special. There was no music, or if there was it would have been either soft jazz, classic rock or just classic music. It was not silent by any means, as the clinking of glasses, vials, metal against metal rung in a strange kind of harmony.
The lyrics of this strange song were soft, whispered words of people who pretended to know what language they were speaking in.
They call this place Ghumno – an archaic word signifying a field where Witches once came to meet with one another.
“Nope, just embarrassed him in front of the entire school.“ Drina smirked.
The four of them – Constantine, Isidora, Tea and Drina – sat at a round table, the table-cloth covered in coffee stained polka-dots and who-knows-what-else.
“Really?“ Isidora whispered, awestruck. Isidora was Constantine’s new girlfriend and for once he’d actually picked one that was both from his side of the tracks and not entirely useless.
“Yup.“ Drina shrugged her shoulders, grinned in the most menacing way she could manage “All the people who had class inside all but fell out of the windows just to watch.“
Isidora grinned right back.
Constantine smirked “Nice.“
Both Constantine and Isidora were in their late twenties, both gave away a menacing air by acting laid-back.
Drina shook her head in bewilderment. It was both disappointing and heartwarming that these two bastards were even creepier than she was. Maybe she was trying too hard? Maybe Constantine liked reminding her she was still rather innocent compared to the rest of their lot – because while they wouldn’t burn you at the stake in the 21st century, they sure as hell would give you a one-way ticket to the nearest nut house.
Even if you didn’t end up there – neither a nutter behind bars nor on the loose – secrets created a rift between people. Between Magic-users and normal folk. There was no definite rule that the rest of the world shouldn’t know about them, but there was the unspoken grief when one of their own ended up on the evening news as a schizophrenic nutcase or an unregistered chemist or whatnot.
The world didn’t ask, so they wouldn’t tell.
Teadora fidgeted in the stiff wooden chair beside her companion, not quite understanding what was happening. This probably wasn’t how she imagined a Witch’s lair, but she didn’t seem terribly disappointed. Her mind floated away now and then, towards the next room where some thirty odd cauldrons stood. A man walked between the rows of potions, obviously to check their progress and Teadora was drawn to them like a kindergartner towards candy.
Drina shooed her off with a side-ways glance and a shake of the head. “I swear, Constantine, you have the strangest, cruelest, most despicable sense of humor on the planet.“
Fortunately, their youngest was already out of hearing range.
Constantine threw his head back and laughed “Only second to yours, my dear.“
“Whatever.“ Drina looked at the man seated across from her – really looked – and saw ragged cloths that hung off his frame like a coat-rack, swayed with every crackle that passed his lips. It was a listless appearance, a devil-may-care attitude and a careless glimmer in coal irises – and this man was supposed to be her salvation?
Drina decided not to think about that, not now.
“What about the rumors you were tracking, any luck?“
Constantine raised an eyebrow. Isidora looked at her strangely. “Doubting me?“ the man said it more like a joke than in actual anger. Drina envied him for his ability to always stay nonchalant. “Haven’t you learned by now that I always come through?“
The doubt stayed, both in the teenager’s eyes as well as in her voice “And what did you find?“
There was a clatter from the adjoined room, where Tea had almost knocked a cauldron over and the guard had done a series of acrobatics for the two-ton toe-crusher not spill over.
“Vid Balsich – rumour is he’s blind in one eye, all seeing in the other. Prophet, by the looks of it. He might not be able to tell you where your brother is right now, but he can tell you where he’s going to be.“ One eye on his client, the other on the potential spill, Constantine’s gaze was sharp in the dim light.
Drina frowned “If your information is reliable.“
“My information is always reliable.“
“It’s based on a rumour.“
“A rumour you’re desperate enough to follow up, my dear.“
Drina wasn’t sure what to say, so she didn’t say anything.
He was right about that, like he had been every other time in the past few years. However, all those endeavors turned out to be dead-ends.
Drina lets out a long-suffering sigh.
Maybe she should say thanks for trying, for all the times he connected her with people who might have been willing or able to help her in her cause. Trying, however, wasn’t nearly enough.
She couldn’t complain either, because Constantine had been like a brother she didn’t have right now and everyone else here had been more than understanding – borderline pitying – and she was both sick of and glad for their help. It was well enough that it was still too early in the night for the usual patrons to show up. They’d probably tag along, even if Drina didn’t want them to.
“Where’s he at?“
Constantine took a sip of his drink, gulped it down even as he held Drina’s gaze. “Rijeka Crnojevich, Montenegro. His family owns an orchid there – good quality, home-made wine. Actually, me and Isidora here we planning to go...“ his smile mellowed, whether from the drink or his new train of thought was questionable.
“Thanks but no thanks. I wouldn’t want to be a third wheel in your act.“ Drina got up, reached for her purse even as a few paper bills were laid out on the table. Constantine met her eyes solemnly, with some odd spark in his dimmed gaze “Good luck, my dear.“
It was almost like being smothered by her real family once again, like an echo of that halcyon time.
This place wasn’t really home – but it was the closest Drina had come to it in a long time. Still... “Call me “my dear“ ever again, and you’ll be in charge of entertainment for the next month.“
Constantine just looked at her, then grinned and countered with “Aren’t you forgetting something?“ just as another crash echoed through the bar.
“Do you really like...humiliating people?“
Teodora had a bad habit of pausing in the middle of her sentences. It wasn’t on purpose, because she wasn’t the dramatic type and it wasn't like she didn’t know what to say. Teodora knew what she wanted to say and how to say it – even if she was hesitant to do so.
Drina wasn’t sure if the girl’s progressing boldness was something she should be happy about. It was absolutely too tedious to answer pointless questions.
Still, Teodora had taken the effort to ask so Drina might as well answer.
“Don’t know. Never really thought about it that way.“
Teodora shifted from her place on the elder girl’s back. Drina felt as though her spine might snap in two. Still, it was three in the morning and little girls should really have been in their little beds by now – even if they were too tired to get to them by themselves.
Damn Constantine! Damn him and his alcohol-for-all policy! Not that she cared. Drina wasn't a fan of drinking in any case, however this just made things much more difficult than they ever needed to be.
Amazing how, even when they were too tired to walk, they were not, in fact, too tired to talk.
“Well, yeah. It’s just my natural reaction to idiots.“
“Sometimes. There are other methods as well.“
The elder chuckled “A good Magician never gives away her tricks, kid.“
Teodora was quiet for a second – two, three, six, eight–
“Not even to her Apprentice?“
Drina stopped dead in her tracks.
“Who says you’re my apprentice?“ For some reason, the very notion was disconcerting to Drina. Perhaps it was because she’d wanted to dump the girl back to wherever she’d came from and be on her merry way. Perhaps it was the fact that Teodora actually wanted to come with her.
For a few moments, Drina thought she’d succeeded in dissuading the girl. She hadn’t.
“Uh, um... please?“
...and she was tired of saying no.
Drina cleared her throat, wondered if she was doing the right thing, then reminded herself that she didn’t care either way. “Well, since you asked so nicely...“–It’s your life, your mess, girly–”don’t go crying when I beat the shi– knowledge into your head.“
Apparently, Teodora either didn’t recognize this as a threat or had already gotten too accustomed to Drina’s attitude.
Teodora wiggled in Drina’s hold, so the other girl had to be extra careful not to stumble, and rested her head on Drina’s shoulder. “You’ve had Apprentices before, right?“
Teodora was a lonely child. She tried to be friendly with everyone and tried even harder to be universally kind. She was not very successful in either department. Dorotea was her best and only true friend, while the others in her class tolerated her as the kind-hearted idiot they deem her as. Teodora was nothing special, but she wanted to be.
Drina laughed – it was a harsh sound that contorted her face, made it look like it was in pain. Teodora wondered what made it that way, but didn’t ask. This person had already done more for her than most close to her would be able to.
“Yup, you’ll find no bigger fanatic in this city than the one you’re currently riding.“ Drina’s voice still held a note of something harsh, steely and broken. Teodora thought it couldn’t have always sounded like that, tried to find some echo of a past unknown – if there was, Tea couldn’t hear it.
Despite this, Teodora thought she’d found a good teacher.
“Do you have one now?“ she asked. If Drina did have other students, what were they like? Would they like the newest newbie? Would they hate her?
Drina shrugged, and though the motion was minimal, Tea felt it. “I have you.“ was the simple answer – like it was that simple, like there was nothing to it, like the elder didn’t care either way.
Teodora shuddered, buried her nose in a leather jacket that smelt of lavender and smoke “What happened to the others?“
“They leave.“ Was it just her, or has Drina’s voice become even more listless? “Most of them we’re younger than me or just plain useless in the craft – just getting into it for the first time.“
They stopped at a red light and Drina ceased speaking to readjust her hold on the younger girl.
“When I decided to become a regular at Ghumno and the whole mess about research and whatnot – well, they gave me hell. Any minor incident, I go clean up the mess. Any hysterical newcomers, anyone with below zero knowledge – oh, there’s Drina, she’ll fix it for you. Uh, those bastards.“
Drina barked out the last sentence like she was ready to bite someone’s head off. The words seemed hollow, however, as if her heart and her mind were never really on the same page.
Tea moved her head to the side, but despite the action she couldn’t see through Drina’s thick mane of hair to the expression she wore. “That doesn’t explain why they don’t stay.“ the younger said, finally.
“Oh, that’s because of me I guess. I press them too hard for their liking.“ She tried too hard, Teodora mused, but she didn’t say it out loud. There was something fueling that furnace, that determination to keep moving. Teodora wondered what it was, under that harsh laugh and those harsh words, that made Drina so... not likable, but... enticingly untouchable.
“I hate people who think of this as some sort of game.“ Drina’s voice brought Tea back to Earth with the speed of a falling meteorite.
“Magic is a tool,“ that voice proclaimed “use it as you will – but it’s not a toy and it’s not a weapon. Magic... is both a blessing and a curse.“
There was silence then – not entirely uncomfortable, but it was like the night was waiting for something else to be said.
Teodora bit her lip, transferred her young gaze from the side of Drina’s head to the road ahead, and asked “When did you start studying ?“
Drina sighed. Teodora wondered if she was getting on the other girl’s nerves.
“About five years ago, after...“–pause–”doesn’t matter. Magic found me more so than I found it, or should I say Radoman found me. My parents... were concerned with me.“
The levee broke, then, but not in the person it was supposed to.
“My mother thinks I break things on purpose. I don’t. I just... want to float away but I can’t, so the things around me float away because I can’t without me realizing it and when I do realize it they always fall and they break and mom yells at me for that and... I hate it when she yells.“ Teodora babbled, stopped, shuddering in an attempt to catch her breath.
Drina snorted “Hardly something to send you into therapy over.“
Hardly something the kid should blubber in her ear about.
Teodora’s face twisted as she buried her nose in black leather-lavender again. “There was an incident... at school.“ she mumbled.
“What happened?“ not What did you do?
Teodora smiled a watery smile “There was this... boy. He teased me a lot... called me names and the like. One time, they – he and his friends – stole my back-pack and hung it up a tree.“ The fifteen-year-old shuddered “I couldn’t reach it and class was about to start and... they we’re all laughing. So... I made acorns fall on their heads.“
Drina let out something between a snort and a laugh “Seriously?“
It was a sound of approval, Tea realized, prompting her to reveal more.
“Yeah,“ her smile wasn’t watery anymore, just plain childish vindictiveness “and then I hung all their backpacks in the park next to the school, on almost every tree so that they had to look for them.“
Teaodora stopped, then, frowning. She rested her chin on a leather clad shoulder.
“They told on me and...“ she said, quietly, as if divulging a secret “I guess I hung some of the backpacks too far up, they had to call the firemen to get those things down... The school was concerned and decided to call my parents.“
A moment of silence – where only the elder’s heavy footfalls reverberated like the echoes of drums. It seemed... reverent, in a way.
Teodora smiled, shifted her head to try and catch sight of Drina’s expression again.
“I’m glad I met Dr Radoman though, he’s really nice.“ the younger confessed.
The elder barked a laugh that was somehow gentler, more jagged than before. “I don’t get what you see in that silly old coot.“ Teodora realized, later, that it was the sound of jaded affection.
“So, how are you?“
Drina shrugged and continued to walk this way and that, over and over again, dragging a hole in the good doctor’s neon-green carpet. The good doctor himself followed her progress like he was watching a ping-pong match.
“I’ve finished the book you gave me, Chief.“ Drina told the man after a while “Did some research on the existence-masking potion I found a while back. You know, the one that makes people unable to see you? Think I might be ready to try making it soon...“
He cut her off with a sharp look “My question was, Drina: “How are you?“ and not “How are your studies?“.“
Drina froze, tense. Her body went into lock-down and when she tried to relax her muscles, they come undone with a shudder.
“My source found a new lead.“ the teen confessed.
Dr Radoman looked surprised “Oh?“
“Some one-eyed guy down in Montenegro, near Skadar Lake.“ Drina supplied – as if it didn’t matter, as if it mattered too much to bear “He might be able to help me.“
“Really?“–Always the tone of surprise, Drina thought wryly.–”Who is he?“
“Some would-be Prophet,“ the girl shrugged and began to wander aimlessly around the office, careful not to trample any House Spirits “I don’t know. With my luck he’ll turn out to be a phony.“
Ratko cracked a smile at that “Now, have a little faith... but, Drina,“–he hesitated for a split second, but delivered the fatal jab anyway–”don’t you think it’s time you moved on?“
Drina stopped dead in her tracks, tense as a bow string ready to snap. No, he didn’t just, he didn’t–
“Drina,“ the doctor’s – traitor’s voice – broke through the haze in her mind “it’s been eight years and I really think you should forget about your imaginary frie–“
She felt like she was drowning.
She felt cold.
Her tone was frigid when she hissed “My brother is not–“
“Drina, no one–“
She didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t want to hear any of it. Radoman, you idiot–
Radoman bolted to his feet, moved to get around the table and to her side but Drina didn’t let him. The shadow – her loyal, loyal shadow – which had been circling her feet lashed out, knocked the low glass table to the side and set shards flying everywhere.
“Drina, listen to me!“
“I SAID SHUT UP!“
Then it happened, pitch black. An unnatural kind of darkness settled over the entire room, the kind that pressed against the skin like tiny little tendrils of shadow that wished to hold you in place – the kind that pressed against the soul and ate away at the senses.
There was the sound of a door flying open, then another. When the darkness lifted, the girl was gone.
Drina felt positively murderous. Despite her short temper, this was not an emotion she experienced often. It was, in her, a volatile mix of fear, desperation, hatred and grief.
How dare he?
How dare that bastard even suggest something like that to her? It was a good thing she hadn’t cursed him then and there! Or slapped him. Or something.
Instead, she ran away.
Blast it! The whole situation was so irritating. That time of year, he’d said it like it was that time of month.
Dr Radoman wouldn’t call her parents, at least – it would only cause panic and unwanted attention. There were things neither of them would ever tell the Serdar couple. Drina intended to keep it that way.
Besides, it was not like this was the first time she’d stormed out of one of their sessions.
She decided to walk off her frustration, because cursing people was currently out of the question – but not for long if some idiot stood in her way. Fortunately, people gave her a wide breath on the streets and by the time she got to the walkway by the river, she was so deflated that she collapsed onto the first bench she saw. Drina watched the river of people obscuring the actual river and snorted.
She caught glimpses of water catching light, of laughter cutting in and out of her hearing range like bad stereo, or splashing and thudding and a whole cacophony of sound that seemed to drain the life out of her.
She threw her head back, then, to get a better look at the sky and a better chance of ignoring the world around her.
She wanted to float over to War Island, climb a tree and live as a monkey for the rest of her life. No visitors allowed. Period.
She wondered if Orfeo would visit her, though. Oh, Orfeo, the little river prince – how could she have forgotten about him?
That loud, obnoxious, idiot-savior of hers.
He’d be there to catch her if her concentration broke and she plummeted down into the water, now wouldn’t he? Probably not. She could always go by boat though, War Island was just a few minutes away even with Orfeo’s snail-paced driving. It was a wonder his boat even stayed afloat.
Levitation, though, was much harder than driving a boat – thank you very much.
Levitation was a common skill among Magicians, though most used it only to get to the highest shelf or to summon an object. It wasn’t the easiest thing to learn, so mastering it was like an initiation rite – proof that you were a certified Magic-wielder. Yeah, right, like you could get a degree in Magic.
Drina had met the fisher-boy by chance, or perhaps she have should call it a stroke of luck – perhaps she should say it was a stroke of her own stupidity.
She’d managed to levitate herself about tree centimeters from the ground for a total sixteen minutes. It had made her happy. It had made her arrogant.
She’d raced to the river, some ways down from the train and bus stations and had tried levitating on water.
Levitating, as a technique, was accomplished by pressing air in a tight cloud around one’s feet or body and using that pressure to push off the ground. This didn’t mean flying, exactly, more like walking on air.
Flying was about as plausible as turning a raccoon doing the Macarena in a coconut hat and Japanese kimono into a cat.
Flying meant walking on air currents which, while possible, was regarded as both an urban legend and the highest show of Magical power.
Ninety-five percent of the population could only dream of flying.
Water was somewhere in the middle. It was neither solid nor completely transparent, but was shifting and unstable. It was almost like walking on a thin sheet of ice, cracked and ready to open its maw and swallow you whole – every footfall was uncertain, the terrain unstable. It was easy to make a mistake.
Drina couldn’t remember if she’d pushed too hard or not enough – but the result had been the same. A laud hiss, that of air escaping tight confinement, a splash and voila! One soaked Drina!
It didn’t help that it was a cold November, only a week or two after the first vestiges of snow had fallen from the heavens.
It was a good thing that fisher-boy showed up when he did, or else Drina could have gone into shock – or drowned, because, you know, she didn’t know how to swim.
Vision blurred green-blue, water embracing her in a cold caress that kept dragging her down, down, down – panic, dim lights. She gagged.
Water filled the cavern of her mouth – Brother, why is it so dark in here? – and up her nose, down her throat and she couldn’t breathe.
–Brother. Brother. Brother.–
Fingers in her hair – petting it softly, whispering sleep, sleep – tugging her up and tearing her fair tresses. She barely registered the pain, until her head broke the surface of the water. She tried to gasp, but it only helped more water down her throat. Tears in her eyes – arms, then, holding her under her armpits and lifting her up, up, up and onto a floating contraption of rust and steel that ripped her cloths as the arms dragged her over the edge.
A face floated above her, framed by dark hair and bright sunlight – and the dim light of the cavern, the gentle twist of the lip. So kind. So patient.
“What the hell do you think you we’re doing?!“
Ringing in her ears, in her heart. Those words. Hurt.
–Brother. Brother. Brother.–
The face became clearer, morphed. It had changed from family to stranger in a blink of a dilated eye. She felt like her chest was about to explode.
“You fell, didn’t you?“ that voice asked – not kind, but not harsh, wh–”Why didn’t you try to swim to the shore? Was the current too strong for you?“
Her body had managed to hack up most of the water, though Drina still felt like her senses were submerged in the liquid. She heard that boy speaking, but the words were jumbled and even when they were not she couldn’t quite catch their meaning.
Current. River. Water. Water was getting into the boat.
–I’m going to get you out now, sis.–
“Out! Out! Out! Out!“–darkness and water and a musty smell and someone saying shh, shh, it’s okay, little one, look, we’re almost out– “OUT! GET ME OUT OF THE WATER!“
–Don’t come back.–
Hands again, holding her steady – not pushing her away nor bringing her closer but there was no more water–
Drina had come back to herself when her bum hit the rusted metal bench of the boat. It was like the world had snapped back into place too fast. She felt dizzy, like she was about to be sick.
“What’s wrong with you?“
A boy appeared before her, crouched low in front of her and dripping wet, with thick rivulets running down the ruffles of his shirt. Water. She felt like screaming, but when she opened her mouth all that came out was a hysterical laugh.
Nothing. She wanted to say. Nothing. Just let me breathe.
She must have said it out laud at some point, for when she finally calmed downed and opened her eyes the wet-guy was frowning at her.
“Well sorry,“ he said heatedly “I just saw a ten-year-old drowning not two meters from the shore – what the hell was I supposed to think?!“
She wanted to scream at him again – to say mind your own business, who cares, I’m alright, it’s my freaking fault.
Bloody cauldrons, this had been the nth time she’d tried to levitate. What the hell was wrong with her?!
Spirits, this was embarrassing.
“I’m twelve!“ she’d shouted, for lack of better defense.
His face had contorted into an even deeper scowl. “How the hell does that change anything?!“
“Shut up.“ she rasped finally, winced at her own voice. This was embarrassing. This was embarrassing. “Don’t talk like you know the answer to anything.“
She couldn’t breathe.
Arms encircling her again, under her armpits – almost there – in her hair – can’t you see the light, little one? – and saying – sleep, sleep–
–I need some air, mother, father.–
–Brother! Brother, come on! Look over there, isn’t that the cutest–
–She hated dogs.–
“Calm down, will you?!“ again the fisher-boy came to her rescue, dragged her out of disjointed memories as he had from the heterogenic body of water.
Drina gulped and this time it was air rather than water than glided down her shredded throat.
“Thanks.“ she croaked. Then she glared at him, because this was still so freaking embarrassing. She was a Magician for crying out loud! Not some useless wanna-be, not some random fisherman who threw girls into his boat. Drina gulped, trying to make herself sound as confident as she pretended to be. “Now take me to the shore.“ she commanded “I want to get off of this death trap.“
The guy openly gawked at her. Drina bristled. Why did people always look at her with such surprise? She just wanted to get off this boat and to dry land.
Was this guy stupid or something?
His expression indicated so. Blinking his round eyes slowly, the idiot-savior asked “What’s your name?“
“Why?“ Drina barked “You a stalker or something?“
A long-suffering sigh. “Younger generations are so ungrateful.“ he actually looked disappointed. Drina didn’t understand why, but figured she was sort of repaying him for saving her.
“You go first.“ she relented, eventually.
“Orfeo.“ the idiot-savior said without hesitation, without fear.
Drina was jealous of the voice, tried to mimic the tone in her own. “Drina.“ she introduced herself, hating how pitifully breathless, scared, hopeful it sounded. “Anything else?“
The idiot-savior had the goofiest, most honest smile Drina had ever seen. “I’m now going to deliver some freshly caught fish to my grandfather’s restaurant.“ he confessed “You are welcome to come.“
“I’d rather you drop me off here.“ Drina frowns, not quite sure why she’d denied the offer.
There are too many reasons.
Orfeo shrugged like it was no big deal “Sure. Since you’re already wet you wouldn’t mind going for another swim, now would you?“
Drina’s jaw dropped to the floor.
To the Drina of the current moment, this brought about a wave of hysterical laughter. Spirits, how long had it been since she’d last seen her little fisher-king? The only normal Human being, sans her parents, who she was close to.
It didn’t matter what she said or did around him, didn’t matter if she told him zilch and made fun of his odd little hobby of collecting flat-little stones for playing frog. She could go off and read her fake-cover books, because even if he glanced into their passages he’d just sigh and call her crazy without meaning it.
It brought about another tidal wave of laughter that left her breathless and a little unhinged.
Drina stared at the Sava River, at the wavering surface of ruffled blue and wondered when, exactly, she would be able to cross the river.