"I want the bear-girl."

"Uh'am instructed Borysko shall not be admitted to ruffle them sleeping. Further, Madame de Silva herself instructs this uh'pass Borysko that Borysko shall appear at Circle this sun up. Uh'm to guess Borysko's no more wanted to dog the young'un, and get pay for it."

Hardly standing tall enough to peer out, the wizened gatekeeper stepped back, as he should, as Borysko snarled at him, intentionally just like a guard dog, and his face un-manlike full through the grate -- "Tell Madame bad bad magic is in the town!"

---

In the Pig and Bee, the Vagari woman had said it lightly, just the same as if wanting a sweet: "I want the beargirl."

But Borysko heard more there. Bent back his elbow with the tankard, pretending to drink. He had heard a Vagari circus were camped by the river: come for the crowds fat with coin at High Summer. Easy pickings -- Magusford, provincial town of the King far away, and a drowsy town guard.

So saw it all! -- So Borysko chose denial for his best weapon, the shrug of his shoulders for first parry.

Khoreia, she called herself, sliding in beside him uninvited gestured one tip of her head toward the red-faced swaying townsman holding court at a far table -- "That one says he was just tonight in your wild forest watering a tree he cannot remember -- when he heard a sad girl crying in the dark. I am a bear, she cries -- which scares him so he forgets the tree and waters his own leg! And she was bare -- this beargirl -- as only right that a bear should be!"

"Sounds a fantasy. And I should ask how deeply that one has drunk that he can water a tree."

"Many many of his neighbours will happily pay to see the face of that fantasy. They will pay even when they guess it true is only fantasy -- because they will pay to hear Borysko, famous bear hunter, hunts her."

It was not the ale souring Borysko's belly. He had put great heads on the walls of the rich. Furs under their feet. Hunted -- for the sport of it -- and because it sharpened him for his wars. His conscience now cut him for his part -- for the beargirl wailing -- yet another taken from her forest -- because a boy and his magic had to save him from her.

This Khoreia lifted herself and climbed onto his lap like a cat. Looped her arms around his neck, like she intended never to let him go. She was perfumed for war. Her mouth bent like a bow.

"All like the good story, Bear Hunter. It is my business to bring in the town and fill the ring. You catch the beargirl then -- real, or fantasy."

Borysko lifted the tankard, but Khoreia turned his face with her hand, breathed her spiced offer on his eyes -- "I will see you a little gold now. And fair share of takings."

Narrowing her dark eyes on him, as he managed one sour sip of ale, then she kissed him -- bent his mouth using hers -- set his top lip tingling immediately.

"And more of that too." -- And holding him with those eyes of hers, she slipped off, taking his hand with her.

Naturally, Borysko followed his hand -- "Oh, the only way I'll be rid of her."

She took him upstairs, to the bare room, to the bed.

He feigned enough interest in her bared neck and shoulder. She let him take her red dress. She let him have his play: tie her feet and hands to the bedposts using her own sandal laces. Sure of his knottings, Borysko regarded her under the flickering candleglass -- Beautiful weapon, Oh you are! -- but he liked more the plain tavern maid who smelled of the kitchen and brought him his ales one after the other.

"I thank you for your business offer. I shall consider it. Wait here." -- and bundling up her dress, a necessary theft, smiling just a little he left her.

Such shrieking after him! Borysko worried it might bring up the taverner swinging a club. But swiftly -- quiet. Oddly, his top lip tingled still. Then all registered -- and he shouldered again into the room.

Gone! -- only his knottings dangling from the bedposts -- that small window shut.

"Fool!" -- only then recalling it common knowledge the Vagari used poisons in their manipulations of people and events -- "And again cursed magic!"

Cat! -- He glimpsed it like a shadow and leapt -- near caught her tail -- but she darted out the door he stood open.

Down the stairs and around -- patrons of the Pig and Bee roared at the fun -- taking him for drunk -- bashing into furniture and chasing a yellow cat. Far and away naturally the more agile, she got out the tavern door -- inconveniently standing open this summer night -- and Borysko spun again and again in the smoky lane, glancing at the ground between the moving forest of legs, eying the dark rooftops. His lower lip had also begun tingling; and he knew he should waste no time there.

No such thing as coincidence, his Oma would say -- and strange magic was working together, making some infernal machine he could not understand -- Drakon might know and the Mages should!

By the time he had run the quickest backlane ways he knew through Magusford to the Academy, the engine his heart was had seeded that Vagari poison deeply. He knew it would. Now this gatekeeper would not let him in -- on orders! Stranger -- inexplicably -- Madame de Silva sounded about decided upon his dismissal.

He had no more time for this. Borysko used this old man as the means that seemed most obvious -- "Gatekeep -- Tell Madame this -- Bad bad magic is in the town! -- Say it!"

"Borysko says tell Madame bad bad magic is in the town."

"Tell Madame -- A Vagari shapeshifter wants the beargirl -- Say it!"

"Also?"

"YEESSS! -- ALSO!"

"There's also a beargirl?"

" --!" His face numbing, Borysko swallowed his bellow, tried instead, "Tell you, Man, if you let me in."

Sensing the trick, the old gateman smirked -- suddenly shut the grate on Borysko's face.

Staggered, and half his face feeling dead already, the one-time safeguard of a troublesome apprentice mage bellowed at the shut gate, the high Academy wall -- "TELL MADAME! -- GATEMAN!"

The grate opened, just for the old man's reply: "SHHHH! Uh'will. Now Good Night."

The End

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