Mason didn’t realize until they set up camp how much care the Band was taking to isolate him from the suspicious and angry Marran refugees. Torysen gave up her much larger tent for him to use, but from the time they stopped travelling, he wasn’t allowed to leave. It was a complete lockdown, guard and all, and though Torysen put a political spin on it, Leornal said it most clearly:
“You are free to leave, but most likely Senkar will run you through if you try. It’s for your own protection, really. We can heal up a stab wound we caused, but half a dozen from you getting mauled by angry civilians might be a bit trickier.”
It didn’t seem like a good idea to argue with this logic, especially since Leornal was probably right. Even sequestered in his little escorts, Mason couldn’t avoid noticing the disdain and fear on people’s faces when they saw him. If he hadn’t wasted so much energy over the past few days, he might have just used his glamour, but if they got attacked, it would end up being a waste of valuable mana.
Senkar wasn’t one to sit entirely idle though. He probed Mason with genuine curiosity, “So you’ve got some sort of battle rage ability, then? You were a sight to behold, honestly. I’m fairly certain you collapsed a goblin’s skull like a grape at one point, and that stamina boosting spell you kept using was a sourcesend. I felt like I could fight for days!”
“Yeah, I guess it’s like that. It’s not something I can really control. And honestly I think that was the first time it ever happened to me. Shot my skill levels through the roof, though.” Mason narrowed his eyes, “Can I be honest with you?”
The swordsman stood stock still and gave a mock serious expression, “Of course, Ambassador.”
“It felt amazing at the time. I don’t really remember the details, but I remember feeling invincible. I took down three Corrosi at once with a little help from Faynel.”
“You did what?” Senkar’s eyes boggled, “We needed you outside of Lady Sorynel’s. It’s a miracle we all retreated in time. You might have given us an opportunity to do something useful if you could fight like that.”
The tent flap opened up, and little Clearsay came in holding two bowls. The little cook was still shellshocked from the battle, and it showed in the way his face drooped as if his muscles had completely given up. He passed a bowl wordlessly to each of them, and then walked right back out of the tent.
“Shame the poor cook had to go through that battle. Did you hear what happened to the rest of the band? Apparently they were near the wall when it was breached. They were dispatched to issue a call-to-arms and evacuation order throughout the city, but the fighting was pitched before they even hit the streets. We lost Jelten.”
Mason just shook his head. That was another member of the band he didn’t know. “I didn’t even hear what happened to you guys. I… don’t know anything. How did the city get breached? Where was Lady Sorynel?”
“Oh,” Senkar said with a pause. He turned his attention to the bowl in his hands and sipped at the broth, lost in thought. When he finally looked up, his expression was complicated, as if he still wanted to appear like his chipper self, but his troubles had worn at him. “Lady Sorynel was taken. Before we even got to her manor, the Corrosi had swarmed all over it. Several reports swear she’s alive but…” he looked down again, and took several more spoonfuls of soup.
“I can’t believe nobody told you any of this. I guess with all the travelling and making sure you weren’t possessed or anything… Well, okay. So someone organized the goblins and the Corrosi, right? But the one responsible has some crazy power. Completely disabled the guards on the walls, and it was Valree’s defense force that was supposed to be on reserve duty that night and since they were going after you…
“Well, so this mysterious enemy completely shuts down our defenses and sends in some highly trained legion of Corrosi to blow up the gates and punch a few holes in the walls. There weren’t enough people to hold them back at the time, and then the goblins poured into the city and threw the rest into havoc. This elite force and their leader went straight for Sorynel and seemed to take her with almost no fight at all. Reports say it was as if all the mana in the area disappeared.
“Lady Sorynel she’s incredible. I mean, you met her. She’s wickedly powerful. And whoever led that attack shut her down like she was nothing. I can’t even begin to guess how we’d stand against power like that.”
Mason reached out and touched Senkar to pull him out of his head, and then spoke softly, “Hey, we do our best. There’s still what, hundreds or thousands of you guys? If the enemy was too dangerous for us to do anything against, they wouldn’t have let so many people get free.”
Senkar stared at Mason with an expression almost as dull as Clearsay’s, but then he smiled and laughed, “I bet Sorynel is going to use some of that crazy Source magic to destroy their whole encampment. Darkest Night don’t fall easily.”
“Right,” Mason started, as Faynel lifted the flap of the tent and walked in. “Faynel, done helping set up camp already?”
“I heard there was food here, and honestly if I have to help another one of those ungrateful little pissants tonight I’m going to lose my mind. You would not believe the things they’re saying. Half of them couldn’t even form a signal rune without having to sit down and concentrate and they have the audacity to blame the Bands and the Defense Force for letting the city fall,” she sat heavily next to Mason on his cot, a bowl already in her hands.
Mason had to pretend not to notice the grin on Senkar’s face as he eyed how close she sat to him.
“Faynel I really think you should be more understanding. I’m sure if you just show them love and kindness they’ll all realize they should thank you for your efforts. Here, you know what? I’ll go talk to them myself,” Mason began to stand and Faynel grabbed his shirt to pull him back down.
“Your name is not an uncommon one out there.”
“I always did want to be famous.”
“You’re in line for the award for most times stabbed in a single evening if you step foot outside without an escort.”
“I don’t get why they hate you so badly, Mason,” Senkar said.
“Rumors, that’s why. Either he assassinated Sorynel before the attack or he personally led the Corrosi charge. None of it makes any sense but if there’s something to accuse him of, the people out there have come up with it.”
“Ah, I’m so looking forward to telling the Biord to open their gates to your people, and then to let the humans know we have a firm friendship waiting for us when they arrive.” If his eyes rolled any harder he was worried he’d snap his optic nerve.
“Jokes aside, you understand-” Faynel started.
“Yeah, I get it. Tough times, scared people. For fear of sounding like a dad, I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed. But I’m used to it. You guys are the ones who are really suffering having to waste all your time guarding me.”
“Hey, you got me out of having to set up tents all night. Guarding you might be the best job available,” Senkar added.
Faynel grinned as she sucked down soup, “Why do you think I assigned myself to the role as well? I’m the overnight guard.”
Both men’s eyes shot wide at that at once, and Mason almost choked on his soup. Faynel hit him and glowered at Senkar, “Get your heads out of the gutter. This tent is more than large enough for two cots, and I’m supposed to be awake to guard Mason, not fooling around.”
“I’m glad to hear you taking your duties seriously, Faynel,” Torysen said as she too entered the tent. It was suddenly beginning to feel crowded. “But Leornal will also be on night duty to watch over you both. It’s come to my attention that I can no longer let you wander around the camp.”
Faynel dropped her spoon, “What? Why in the name of Source would I be under guard?”
“Ignoring the obvious fact that you’re one of the heirs of the most powerful women to cross over into The Trials, an astute observer would notice certain discrepancies in your mana that would beg some very uncomfortable questions considering current tensions.”
Faynel’s mouth grew tight, and Mason watched Senkar stare at Faynel for several long moments before shouting in surprise, “I thought we were all just kidding!”
“It’s not like that!” Faynel shouted back.
Mason looked between the three of them with a furrowed brow- What was he missing? And he felt even more off-balance when they all turned to look at him. “I don’t know what’s going on,” he admitted.
Senkar howled with laughter, enough so that Leornal appeared and poked his head through the tent flap, and though Torysen remained stoic, Faynel was burying her face in her hands.
“I take it she just realized?” Leornal asked Senkar and Torysen.
Senkar choked out a yes through his laughter, “Okay, maybe we should leave Faynel to explain to the human. Before she dies of embarrassment.”
Leornal looked oddly mischievous, “No, no. I want to hear her try. It’s quite a unique situation, after all. In a way, the fact that he doesn’t understand means she performed quite the act of trickery.”
“It was an emergency!” Faynel shouted through her hands.
“Sentir claims the degree of harmonization indicates a repeat occurrence.”
“We’re being cruel,” Torysen said, though she made no move to leave and didn’t show any obvious signs of guilt.
“Fine, Mason,” Faynel turned to him then, and Mason was momentarily stunned. Her skin, her eyes, and even her hair- every bit of her seemed to glisten and sparkle. He could see the tight swirls of mana moving through her body more actively than he’d ever noticed before. Something within his chest stirred, and he felt more awake almost instantly. “I warned you that mana mingling was intimate, but there’s some reasons for that. And when we were in the cellar and I filled you with my mana… well, there’s side-effects to sharing…”
It took Faynel a while to explain the cultural and emotional significance of what they had undergone, and took even longer as Mason was baffled by some of the complexities, and both were embarrassed by the comments from their impromptu audience.
The gist was that as beings made almost entirely of mana, sharing that mana was highly intimate. Using a great amount of that mana to replenish someone else’s depleted supply, then circulating it through a maintained connection over a great deal of time- that was not only something you’d expect from a newlywed, it was also considered fairly kinky.
“But we didn’t have sex!” she shouted, quite louder than she probably should have.
“Nobody here is judging what you did or did not do with Mason. The fact simply remains that your mana signature makes it extremely clear that you’re involved with him,” Torysen stated.
“Okay but the first time she was basically using it to drug me,” Mason argued.
“That… doesn’t sound better,” Senkar said. “And if she did it to make you more Marran, didn’t she just do it to make you more compatible?”
“To make him more resilient to mana so that he could use Source Magic!” Faynel said.
“And the second time?”
“We’ve been through this,” Mason groaned. “I was pretty fucked up after fighting three Corrosi, and the mana she fed me helped me recover.”
Leornal, Senkar, and Torysen all looked pleased to no end by this turn of events. As the group bickered back and forth about who seduced who- Mason made an allusion to Leornal and Leenel which backfired exceptionally poorly- they were all able to forget the events of the past few days even if only slightly. It was a necessary reprieve, as the next several days promised their own difficulties, but none of them gave it two thoughts until later.
It was a while later before the group dispersed. Torysen was called away to help with something, Senkar had his own tent to get setup, and Leornal simply wanted to read before his shift of guard duty. Mason and Faynel lay several feet from another staring at the ceiling of the tent from separate cots.
They had laughed a lot with everyone around, but something about Faynel’s expression toward the end of things, and the way she avoided addressing Mason while they got the tent prepared for the evening made the atmosphere feel sullen when they were alone. Neither were sleeping, and they could still sense one another clearly to be sure of it.
When the silence had drawn on so long that it had cycled between comfortable and uncomfortable multiple times, Faynel finally spoke in quiet, hesitant tones, “You would have good reason to be mad at me, you know, if you wanted to be.”
Mason rolled onto his side, wincing at all the hidden aches in pains in his body. “For what?”
“What I did for my Grandmother to you. I know we’ve been over this, and you pushed it aside, but now you kind of understand more of really what it was. Maybe mana mingling doesn’t mean the same thing to you growing up in a different culture but… I did take something from you. A first. You could have shared that with someone else. You could have consented.” She didn’t look at him.
“Why do you feel guilty about it now? You weren’t so bothered when you did it.”
“I was!” she protested. “But… I knew it was important. I really did need to activate that salve. And you really did need to go through that treatment. But I should have given you more of a choice.”
“Yeah, you should have. I’m certain I should be mad at you, too. But really, I can’t find it in me to care about that. You came back for me when I was out of my mind. And you shared something with me that- even if I can’t really comprehend the intimacy of it- seems to mean a lot to you. And you did it twice. And apparently everyone in the world knows, too. I guess that’s punishment enough? Or justice? Something,” he muttered.
“I’m still sorry.”
“I’m still sorry to Mowrytal and Geralt. God, or Source, Faynel. I’m not saying abandon all morals but I do think the rulebook is kind of out the window at this point. Who can survive in a world like this and still do the right thing all the time? Who has time, or the sanity, to even figure out what right is? You thought you were helping me, and you did help me. And it cost you something too. So I forgive you, and thank you, too.”
There was a bout of silence again, but one that was simultaneously heavier and sweeter as they both mulled over their raging thoughts.
“I think everyone thinks we’re dating, Mason,” Faynel said with a tinge of humor in her voice.
“From what I understand, we’re basically married by your people’s standards, aren’t we? And already sleeping on separate cots. What’s the world coming to?”
They both laughed as they fell into a more comfortable chatting, and they were still talking as they fell asleep, trying to picture the worlds they each had come from.