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A Measure of Solace

Chapter Four

Velzuna was a medium-sized town bustling with activity. It contained the people Zeera needed, but also people that could turn everything on its head. She had never been particularly good at sensing who could be trusted and who just wanted to take and run. Better not to trust anyone.

She grinned. Except maybe a magical, talking bow.

With Solace over her shoulder, his distinctively marked wooden body wrapped in plain cloth, Zeera walked through Velzuna with purpose, wondering if her father and Vint had already come here looking for her. Would they be asking around for their runaway daughter and sister? Would there already be notices up with her face on them?

Zeera kept her eyes forward, only occasionally sneaking glances at those walking by, seeing if anyone was staring too hard or too long. She peered surreptitiously at the postings on the walls and lampposts but didn’t see her face on any of them.

On the road leading to town, Zeera had told Solace how she planned to tease out the possible candidates for the bow’s new wielder and master. It would take some guts on her part, talking to grown men and women as if she had something they wanted—which she did. But she had assured Solace she could do it—she had plenty of practice talking to the crows—and she had just the test in mind.

“Puzzles,” she had told him.

Puzzles?

“Yeah. A series of puzzles that get harder and harder. Four of them. If they can get through all of them without giving up or getting upset, they have good control of their feelings, and they’re clever.”

Solace had been quiet for a long time. The idea intrigues me. Where will you get these puzzles?

“I already have them,” Zeera had said, patting the satchel at her side. They were some of the many intricate little things her father had carved for her over the years, and she hadn’t been about to leave them behind.

The puzzles were composed of intricate pieces of wood carved in such a way that there was only one way to put them together, which looked simple when they were apart but was actually incredibly difficult. But Zeera knew the trick of every one.

I will still have to make the final judgment, Solace said now as Zeera made her way toward the center of Velzuna, passing a noisy group of children chasing piglets. Even should someone here solve all your puzzles, that is only the first step in acknowledging their suitability.

“That’s not enough?” She whispered the question so none of the passersby would wonder at a girl talking to herself in the middle of the street.

No. Everyone has an energy—an emanation of spirit, if you will. I must be in tune with my master’s spirit, or our bond will never properly form.

Zeera passed a vendor selling roasted chunks of meat and onions on sticks, and the scent made her mouth water. “How long does it take to figure that out?”

It is different for everyone. I have gotten the sense of some in a few minutes, while others take much longer to fully appraise. For example, I sensed you were unsuitable within only a few seconds.

The girl stopped abruptly, hands clenched into fists at her sides, heedless of anyone around her.

 

“Oh! I’m so glad I was that easy to judge,” she snapped, not bothering to curb her sarcasm or lower her volume.

She suddenly decided she hated having conversations in her head. It was better to be face-to-face so she could add her many practiced expressions to the communication. Currently she was scowling into the middle distance, hoping Solace could at least feel her annoyance.

Indeed, the bow replied in a neutral tone. If all your people are the same, this will not take long at all.

Zeera took a long breath, forced her hands to relax, and continued toward the stone circle in the middle of town. An open area about forty feet wide ringed the circle, leaving ample space for both those browsing the shops at the periphery and those gathered within to hear a crier or see a skit performed on the raised platform at the center. Today the platform was empty, but there were plenty of folk wandering around the space.

When Zeera reached the edge of the circle, she paused and took a deep breath.

Nothing to it, she assured herself. Just like talking to the crows back home.

Feigning more confidence than she felt, Zeera strode forward. She hopped down two feet into the sunken section, crossed its ten-foot span, and jogged up the seven steps that led to the central platform. Once on top, she was truly on display, with nothing to hide behind. It seemed the entire town of Velzuna was walking about before her, around her. Now she had only to get their attention.

She took a long breath and cleared her throat, considering how to start.

Here, Solace said. This might help.

Like a rush, energy surged through Zeera, making her suck in air at the intensity of it. The wave of confidence made her eyes widen and her lips turn up in delight.

“Wow,” she said softly. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

I have a multitude of talents. Now, use it well—it will not last long.

After clearing her throat once more, Zeera put on her best impression of a merchant selling amazing wares.

“People of Velzuna!” she called, flinging her arms wide.

A few heads turned, but no one yet stopped walking.

Zeera swallowed, finding her throat much drier than only a moment before. She tried again. “My friends! I have something most interesting for you today!”

A few more heads turned, and a mother with three children in tow stepped nearer to the platform. Zeera’s smile widened with hope. The woman dug around in her satchel for a moment before handing something to her youngest boy and then headed back into the crowd. The children trailed after her, the final one giving Zeera a quick wave before vanishing between the shifting market-goers.

You must offer them something, Solace told her. Something irresistible.

“I’m offering them you,” she whispered.

They do not yet know how irresistible I am. You must first tap into their greed.

“But I don’t have any money.”

Humans are greedy for more than just gold. They long for recognition, appreciation, the chance to prove their skills against their fellows.

Zeera gave a slow nod as understanding dawned. “And that I can give them.” She lifted her face to the crowd once more, flinging her arms wide, tensing her gut, and putting iron into her voice. “My friends! Do you have what it takes? Are you the best that Velzuna has to offer?”

As her voice rang out over the heads of the crowd, more and more faces turned to look. She met the eyes of those who were looking her way, channeling the honeyed charm of a great showman.

“Do you have the sharpest wit?” she asked a man with a thick brown beard. “Do you have the quickest mind in Velzuna?” she inquired of a petite woman in a bright yellow tunic. “How about you?” she asked a teenage boy with a bandage around one hand. “Do you want a chance to prove your mettle? And you,” she called out to an old woman with a basket of bread. “Do you want the chance to win an amazing prize?”

By this point, several people had stepped out of the slow-flowing ring of browsers and moved toward the platform.

“What prize?” the woman in yellow called up.

Still more faces turned toward Zeera at this.

You have their interest, Solace said. Time to jiggle the bait.

With smooth and deliberate motions, Zeera took Solace from over her shoulder and held him out on both palms, turning her torso to display him this way and that. Upturned faces scrunched up in wonder; foreheads creased in curiosity. Without a word, Zeera unwrapped the cloth from around the bow’s wooden body and revealed his pale surface, shining in the bright sun, decorated with the strange dark engravings. Ahead of Zeera, the young woman’s eyes widened, and others behind her stopped to stare. The murmur of voices swelled like the tide.

“This magnificent bow could be yours,” Zeera called, thrusting Solace up into the air with one hand, “if you’re able to pass four challenging tests to my satisfaction!”

 

By this time, a good majority of the market-goers had stopped walking and were looking toward Zeera, many a hungry eye on the bow. 

“What are the tests?” someone called.

“Ah,” Zeera said, showily wrapping the cloth back around Solace and placing him over her shoulder once more. “They are not for the faint of heart or the weak of mind, I assure you. Come to the Jealous Owl to find out more. Tonight, an hour past sunset.”

There was a general rumble of conversation through those gathered, a rustle as neighbor turned to speak softly with neighbor. The people around the circle had stopped walking by this time, their feet set and their faces pointed up toward the girl with the wondrous bow. Even some shopkeepers had come to their open doors, peering out to see who had distracted their customers.

“Tonight,” Zeera repeated, with a dramatic lengthening of the vowels. “The Jealous Owl. Come see if you are worthy.”

With that, the girl turned and strode to the edge of the platform, slipped down the steps, and crossed the lowered portion with a deliberate walk, not meeting the eyes of any she passed. When she hopped up onto the flagstones of the street, onlookers moved to let her through. She made her way to the outside of the circle while the gathering started to break up and market-goers went back to their shopping, buzzing with excitement.

With a thudding heart, Zeera turned at the first intersection and slipped into an alley, where she leaned her side against the wall with her back to the street.

Well done.

The girl took a deep, steadying breath. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

I can only intensify what is already present. Your fortitude was there, merely stifled by doubt.

“Well, thank you.”

Of course. I must do what I can to assist you in this endeavor, after all.

Zeera smiled at that. “And I will gladly take all the assistance you can give.”

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