Orenda had fallen asleep in the back of the carriage. It was filled to the brim with things in boxes covered in tarps. None of it was particularly interesting. All of it looked like knick-knacks or dry goods, and both she and Ali had fallen asleep covered by one of the tarps, but when she awoke, he was already sitting up. He had positioned one mirror behind him and was staring into another, looking at the back of his head as he sat cross-legged on the floor. He had a piece of paper on one of his thighs and kept glancing at it. When she sat up he turned to her and watched her struggle out of the tarp.
“You said you had learned to work some magic?” He asked.
“Yes,” Orenda told him, “A little. Odds and ends. Nothing much.”
“Fire magic?” He asked.
“Yes,” Orenda said, “The books at the library say that it does not do one well to cast outside their element. Only the greatest mages can do it at all, but it causes the mind and body to degrade. It always ends in madness, but it can also cause physical problems. Your brain can… stop working. It can lead to death.”
“Did you read a great deal?” He asked her.
“I lived in a library,” Orenda said, as if the answer would be obvious.
“Yes, well,” Ali chewed at his lip, as if in thought, then picked up the paper that had been sitting on his lap. He stared at it for a few seconds, then asked, “Do you... get very hot?”
“Yes,” Orenda said.
A silence stretched between them for so long, while Ali kept glancing from his neck to the paper in long intervals, and Orenda wanted to wonder who he was, where he had come from. She wanted to ask him all about the place beyond the mountains. She wanted to ask him about Johnny and his family and all the other humans who had escaped.
But she could not, because Ali had asked her if she ‘got very hot’. Ali did not know what ‘very hot’ meant. Ali did not see five hearts burst in one final, begging, desperate attempt to remain alive before falling silent forever.
Yes. She could get very hot.
She was sure she should feel something about that.
So when she did finally speak she asked, almost without meaning to, “Have you ever killed anyone?”
“I killed those soldiers,” Orenda said, and tried to feel any emotion connected to it. She was sure she should feel something, but she only felt an emptiness, like the void between the stars.
“What?” he asked, less as if he was shocked and more as if he hadn’t heard her.
“At the library,” Orenda explained, “They… they killed them and… then they went inside and started a fire. I… I used it to…” She took a deep breath and decided that the best way to tell a story was to tell it. “I used my magic to make the flames hotter, to block the exits. I waited until I couldn’t feel the heat from their hearts anymore. They died screaming. People noticed. The crowd… I used the chaos to escape.”
Ali put down the mirror and stared at her as if he was trying to figure something out.
“How old are you?” He eventually asked.
“I’m not sure,” Orenda told him, “Eleven maybe? Or twelve? I don’t know when I was born. I spent some time at the library.”
“I’m fifteen,” Ali told her.
“I’m going to collect intelligence on Lady Genlen,” Ali said, “My people are understandably upset with her leadership.”
“I don’t know who that is,” Orenda told him.
“She is Xandra’s connection to the colony,” Ali told her, “She rules over everything that Xandra thinks she owns. The other elves- that is, the other earth elves, follow her command. I’m going to pose as a pleasure slave and sneak into her home, then scry the results to my mother in our kingdom.”
“You can do that?” Orenda asked.
“I volunteered to do it,” Ali said, “We have intelligence that she likes pretty, young, male humans. She surrounds herself with them. I’ve been told that I fit that description.” He smiled as if he had meant for it to be charming, but his body was shaking with nerves. “I may be the one to kill her.”
“Oh,” Orenda said. After a moment’s thought she asked, “Will that work? There are so many earth elves. Won’t another one just step up to fill the void?”
“Maybe,” Ali shrugged, “But I have to make sure that doesn’t happen. I’m there to figure out things like that, who the successor would be, what steps we need to take.”
“I don’t know how to scry,” Orenda said, “I can’t talk to anyone. I’ve never met another fire mage.”
“Well,” Ali tried his charming smile again, and once again did not succeed, “Now you’ve met me.” He paused, stared at the wall of the carriage, then turned back to her. “Orenda… the magic… you can feel it. You said that you felt it go out in the soldiers in the library. Do you feel it now? In me? In Ry?”
“Yes,” Orenda told him.
“Do you feel how it’s different? Look at us, feel us. Look as hard as you can, not with your regular eyes, with your mage eyes. There’s a difference… there are almost two worlds, on top of each other.”
Orenda thought of what Charles had said, about how badly he wanted her to look at him.
She could feel the heat of Ali’s heart; she thought she could see it, faintly. She tried to see the place where she felt Rychelle driving the carriage, and was interested that she could see it as well, through the canvas.
“Do you see how they’re different?” Ali asked.
“I… I do, yes,” Orenda answered.
“If you ever want to scry me,” Ali told her, “If you ever need to talk to me, don’t cast a regular flame. Cast my flame. Or transform a flame you already have into mine. I’ll feel it, anywhere in the world. It’s easier if it’s closer, of course, and I’ll cast yours, and we can speak to each other. If you’re a strong mage, you can even see. I’ve heard that there are mages so strong they can see entire rooms.”
Orenda nodded and stared at him, trying to memorize the dancing pattern of his soul.
“Do you have pretty good control?” He asked.
“I’m not sure,” Orenda replied.
“It’s usually done with a branding iron,” Ali told her, “But I need… I need…” he paused, took a deep breath, and tried again, “I need you to burn this symbol onto the back of my neck. We’ve really only got one try.”
“I can put the paper on your neck and burn over it,” Orenda suggested, “But I daresay it will hurt.”
“I know it’s going to hurt,” Ali said, “I… thought about doing it before I left, but I was afraid we would get caught, and… right now I can pretend that I belong to Ry and we were on our way to have me branded. If I had done it before we left, she would look like a thief.”
“Fair enough,” Orenda said, “I would like to do it if it must be done. I wouldn’t like to drag it out.”
“Yeah,” Ali told her, “Me too. I’m going to lie down and clip my hair up.” He did it, expertly, as she watched, rolling small sections and pinning them in place with little black hairpins from a box that he pried apart with his mouth.
“I think you should bite down on something,” Orenda told him when he had finished, “I fear that you’ll scream.”
“I don’t think I will,” He assured her, “I’m pretty tough.”
“All the same, I think you should,” She insisted. “A piece of wood or something. Break one of the boxes.”
Ali rolled his eyes, but he did snap a piece of wood from a box next to him, which he seemed to find more difficult than Orenda had anticipated- it took him several minutes of working it back and forth- then laid out on the floor. Orenda climbed onto his back, took the piece of paper he had given her, smoothed out all the creases, and pressed it against the back of his neck. Despite his words, he was drenched in sweat, and his entire body was shaking.
“Ms Rychelle?” Orenda called.
“Yes, perfectly normal cargo?” She answered.
“I need us to keep perfectly steady,” Orenda told her, “I’m going to burn this symbol onto Ali’s neck.”
“Good luck,” Rychelle said, very quietly and with great meaning.
Orenda concentrated, felt the medallion heat up-
“It needs to be as hot as a forge,” Ali told her, “Don’t hesitate. Get it as hot as you can, and do it all in one go.”
“Don’t scream,” Orenda told him, “I’ve melted stone.”
“You know how to control it, though- right?” he asked, muffled around the wood, but then Orenda touched him, and he was glad he had headed her warning. He did scream, the first time, but to his credit, he didn’t thrash, didn’t try to knock her away or mess up her form. Orenda had exceptionally good penmanship, she enjoyed writing and copying from books, but she disliked the smell of burning flesh, and the way his hands grasped at nothing, flailed out in front of him, clawed at the floor, or balled into fists. She could hear his breath hitching in sobs, felt the tension within him as she worked.
She wanted it to be over quickly, but she also knew that she had to get the symbol exactly right. She didn’t like to hurt him, hadn’t enjoyed killing those soldiers. She felt worse about this than she had about that, and it made her hurt in a way that she didn’t understand.
Ali stopped moving, and she was afraid she had killed him, but his back still rose and fell as his lungs inflated and deflated, and she wondered if he had somehow fallen asleep. The paper had melted to his flesh where it hadn’t burned away, so she pried it free. The mark was deep, red, and ugly, but it was exactly what he had asked for.
The curtain parted, and Rychelle poked her head in.
“I pulled over,” She told Orenda, arcing inside to look at what she had done, “That looks perfect. Now get in that box there. There should be some leaves.”
Orenda moved the tarp to get into the box she had described and pulled out a huge, thick leaf.
“Break it open, and rub the gel there all over the brand,” Ry instructed, “then get in that box,” She pointed to another, “And you’ll find some bandages. Wrap it up and don’t let him touch it.”
“Are we done?” Ali asked, with a slurred voice and eyes that were far too alert, “That wasn’t so bad. I didn’t scream at all.”
“You passed out from the pain,” Orenda told him as she broke the leaf apart, “Are you alright?”
Ali sat up, set his mirror back on the box he had had it on before, and picked up the other. He studied the brand and winced.
“Here’s a fun fact,” he told her, “This hurts like hell. Like right now, I am in excruciating pain. I feel like I have to keep talking, at this current speed. I feel like if I stop talking about how bad it hurts, I’m going to get very loud. I feel like I have to keep talking, I’m sorry, but you don’t understand how fu-” he looked at Orenda, stopped himself, hissed through his teeth, and began again, but it was a constant stream of complaints, and she spoke over him.
“I don’t, in fact,” She said, as she spread the goop she found inside the leaf over his neck, and he hissed through his teeth again, “I didn’t know fire mages could burn.”
“Orenda,” he said, as if he was greatly annoyed, “Everyone is flammable.”
“I don’t think I am,” She said and dropped the leaf in his lap to rummage for the bandages. “What does that do?”
“It’s an aloe plant,” Ali told her, “They grow around here. They’re supposed to help with the pain. It does, a little. It’s faded to a dull throb. You really went deep, didn’t you?”
“You told me to!” Orenda told him.
“Yes, but it’s all… engorged and swollen. It doesn’t look like the other slaves. I need to blend in.”
“I can’t help that!” Orenda snapped, “I did what you asked.”
“I’m not complaining,” Ali complained, “I just don’t know that I’ve given it enough time to heal. It felt cold, Orenda… I had never felt a flame that felt so hot it was cold before.”
“I did what you asked! Don’t touch it! Rychelle said not to touch it!” Orenda knocked his hand away and wound the bandages around his neck.
“Thank you,” Ali said, softly, “For doing this… once it started I realized I… probably couldn’t have done it myself.”
“I wouldn’t think so,” Orenda tied the bandage into a knot, “I wouldn’t think anyone could.”
“And you didn’t paralyze me, so that’s a plus. My mother thought I would paralyze myself.”
“I did what you asked!” Orenda said, “You said, ‘leave a brand’, not ‘go down to the bone’!”
“This hurts so much worse than I thought it would. I thought that the pain would stop, once we were done,” He leaned back, making a great effort to rest the weight on his head, not his neck, “God, why’d I do it right when I got up? Why didn’t I do it when I would be able to just go to sleep after? This was a terrible decision.”
“Don’t touch it,” Orenda reminded him, “Let it heal.”