The young woman had so hurriedly spit out her inquiry that a few beats passed before Arliss could make sense of it. All the while, the young woman, Myra, stood there defiantly, back straight, fists curled, and tanned skin flushed a redder shade.

Finally, Arliss chuckled and smiled at the girl. “You look like the journey here troubled you some.” She reached forward and plucked a stray leaf from Myra’s brown hair. “I would not go so far as to blame you either. Even my horse thought badly of me for the condition of the road.”

Myra’s brow wrinkled with confusion, and she began to wring her hands. “I’m sorry for the intrusion, Lady Faylore. You’ve been gone for months. I thought I’d never get the chance to ask. Forgive me,” she stuttered bashfully.

Arliss chuckled once more and opened the door wider. “There is no need to apologize for a small visit. Come in, please. Let’s talk.”

Myra paused at the threshold, but finally stepped into the coolness of the cottage. The blacksmith sighed gratefully to be out of the heat as Arliss shut the door behind her.

The mage walked past Myra to the kitchen beside the cluttered parlor. “I’ll make some tea, though I must admit that I have little else other than a few apples in way food.” She went through the cupboards until she found an old cast-iron kettle, which she filled in the basin and set on the stove.

She looked up to see Myra standing at the center of the room, gazing at all the volumes scattered about. Her backpack was clutched in her fists, as if she were afraid to disturb a single page, but her brown eyes were wide with wonder.

“Don’t be afraid of the books,” Arliss said with a smile. “Only rarely do they attack strangers. Come, sit.”

“You have so many,” the blacksmith commented while settling down on a stool at the counter. She still gazed about the room distractedly.

“After eleven long years as a mage in Vale, one easily creates a collection.” Arliss placed her hands on either side of the kettle, and the iron glowed before steam jumped eagerly from the spout. She brought out two ceramic cups, filled them a with few dried leaves, and poured the boiling water over the contents. The liquid quickly turned a color that reminded her of madrone bark as plumes of oil seeped from the leaves. Offering one to the blacksmith, she said, “Or perhaps it is just my weakness toward unread pages that makes them accumulate so quickly.”

Myra said nothing, but she nodded and took a sip from the cup. Arliss noticed the puckered, shining burn marks along the girl’s right arm, most definitely from her profession. However, the girl's left arm was fully covered by a leather sleeve sewn to the shirt, which sparked a hint of curiosity. The blacksmith caught her staring, and Arliss hastily looked to the bottom of her tea, somewhat ashamed of her prying inquisitiveness.

“So tell me, Myra,” Arliss said while tracing circles around the cup’s rim, “what do you know about magic?”

The End

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