Elaina Emboo tried to pay attention as her master, the distinguished arcanist Algernon Marconi, droned on about the fundamental properties of Matter Transmutation in N-space. But it was hard. The city of Wanderhaven was well known as a crossroads for travelers and traders, and on a beautiful spring day when the sun was out, and the flowers were in full bloom, Elaina wished heartily that she was one of the town's many wanderers—and not one of its wealthier but more sedentary studiers. But, as it happened, Elaina's father was the kind of successful merchant who wanted more for his favorite daughter than the daily struggle that he endured in the rough-and-tumble of the town's Trading Square, and being unwilling to secure for her a place in Wanderhaven's minor nobility—such as it was—through a loveless marriage of station, he'd been forced to settle for apprenticing her to a distinguished arcanist as the next best thing. In that regard, Elaina knew she was better off than her brother Jaxon, whom Father had forced into vows at the Blackwinter Monastery, but knowing that didn't make grasping the mechanics of arcane transmutations any easier. Especially on a day when the sun was out, and Elaina knew that her mother had packed a pair of sweet rolls for Elaina's lunch. What with the sun shining so gloriously, the afternoon would have been perfect for a picnic.
Elaina sighed, and Master Marconi noticed but pretended not to. But when she then starred off out the window again, he stopped and stared at her. “Am I boring you, Miss Emboo?”
Elaina sighed again, and it sounded a little theatrical even in her own ears, but what was there to do about it? “I'm sorry, Master. I know that I must strive to commit your lessons to memory, but it's a struggle today. Is there not some way we could take this lesson outside? It's so very drab and stuffy here in your workshop.”
“I think not,” Master Marconi replied. “If your attention wanders here, in this workshop—a workshop that you yourself have termed 'boring' on more than one occasion—then I shall without doubt lose you entirely once we are out of doors. Goddess Athena only knows what you would get up to once we were out there. If you are to succeed as a wizard, Elaina, then you must find your focus. Distractions such as these—a warm spring day or the call of that hooligan, Sneakatara Boatman—can have no place in your--”
“Sneax is not a hooligan!” Elaina said. It came out a little louder than she'd have liked, in retrospect.
“She is a homeless street urchin and an influence that, frankly, your father fears for on your behalf. Now, you know that your father and I do not always agree, but in this, I think him correct ten parts in ten.”
“But Sneax doesn't have any family!”
“Tsk, Elaina,” Master Marconi replied. “Your argument but proves my point.”
Elaina took a deep breath. Master Marconi's logic exercises could be vicious, but at least practicing logical arguments was an improvement over Matter Transmutation in N-Space.
She considered a moment and then said, “My father always says that giving alms to the poor is a blessing to the giver. And we know that Sneax is poor; even she would not deny it. Some days, I think that I am her only source of food. So my abandoning her would, by my father's logic, be a sin and not a blessing. Therefore, it is important that I stay friends with her—for both her own good and mine!”
Master Marconi smiled. “Well. That is at least logic, after a fashion. But given what you say, would you not do better to simply lead Miss Boatman back to the Temple of Apollo where she was raised? Sneax is poor, yes, and even hungry at times, I'm sure. But if she were to take holy orders with the Sun God—or even just commit to doing honest work in His temple—Apollo's faithful would see to her well-being, and you well know it.
“Your argument, Elaina, points out correctly that being an orphan is unfortunate. But one's birth-station does not have to be a life-sentence, as your father would tell you, I'm sure. Were you to lead your friend to a better way of life, I doubt your father would have any objections. However, the current state of affairs is such that it is Miss Boatman who does the leading, and it is you who follows—into constant mischief. Given all that your father has done to provide for you, I think you know that this is not the way to repay his trust.”
“Yes Master,” Elaina replied, and that was the end of it. A moment later, Master Marconi was back to his lecture of N-Space Transmutations, and there was nothing Elaina could do but sit there and take it.
It seemed like a week passed before Master Marconi's lecture concluded. But eventually it did, and Elaina found herself wandering out of his tower, still dazed by what he had said about her friend Sneax. There was little question that he was right about Sneax in pretty much every way possible, and yet Elaina still couldn't bring herself around to the idea of trying to force her friend to return to Apollo's temple. For one thing, it was next to impossible to imagine Sneax following orders from anyone, much less working, but there was more to it than that. The fact was, Sneakatara Boatman was unlike anyone Elaina had ever met. Sure, Elaina had plenty of friends amongst the children of her father's business associates and even a few whose parents were from the lower ranks of the nobility. But none of these would run barefoot across dockside rooftops in the rain. Nor could they teach Elaina how to nick a pie from a sleepy baker's wife or how to pick the lock to her father’s study. None of them would consider stowing away on one of the merchant traders docked at the wharf itself. But Sneax did all of that and more. What was more, Elaina didn’t even have to talk Sneax into it; most of the time that stuff was Sneax’s idea!
Still, there was little doubt that what Sneax did was wrong. Fun, yes. But upright and trustworthy? Not a chance. And that, more than anything, was what bothered Elaina’s father, she was sure.
Startled, Elaina jumped. But by the time she saw Sneax, her friend was already seated on a low stone wall, three long paces away. As Elaina watched, Sneax unwrapped one of Elaina’s mother’s sweet rolls and bit into it.
“Hey! That’s mine!” Elaina cried.
Sneax shrugged. “Finders keepers.”
“I brought one for you, you know,” Elaina said. “All you had to do was ask.”
“Thanks,” Sneax said.
But she never looked up from the sweet roll, and indeed, Elaina could see that her friend was starving. Elaina’s anger melted. “You’re welcome.”
Elaina unwrapped her own sweet roll and sat down just as Sneax was finishing. Sneax licked her fingers and then wiped them on pants that were already dirty and threadbare. “So. You got plans tonight?”
Elaina shrugged and tried to talk around a mouth full of sweet roll. “Gotta study,” she said. “Matter Transmutations and—“
“Wrong,” Sneax said, interrupting. “We got a job.”
“A job? I don’t know, Sneax. I’m already in trouble from the last time, and anyway, Master Marconi gave me a lot to do tonight, and—“
“But I need your help!” Sneax said. She was trying to hide it, but Elaina could see that Sneax was worried. “Seriously, Elaina. I need you.”
Elaina felt herself wilting. “Fine. What do you need?”
“We gotta meet Russitan Lassiter up by the Old Church at moonrise. He’ll give us the details once we get there.”
“Russitan Lassiter?!” Elaina cried. “Down by the Old Church? Goddess Athena, Sneax, have you gone insane?”
“No,” Sneax said, “I’m not crazy. Just desperate. Can I count on you?”