By that evening, the magician from Kershet that would take Jerryck’s wards was brought to the palace. General Heston briefed him on the situation and gave him a map with a preplanned route, starting at the southeastern edge of the nation. He had two elite guards assigned to him, one of whom was native to that area of the country and would double as a guide. Jerryck left in the morning. He also had a marked map, a preplanned route, and two elite guards, both of whom were Tajor’s friends. He brought no prepared wards with him. Instead, he had several trinkets to turn into wards. When he used them all, he would have to procure more. They planned to pick up guides wherever they went. Heston thought the area Jerryck planned to cover was too large for any one person to know the terrain well enough. Heston also went into Kershet and found magician Thessallim, who worked mainly with luck, odds, and coincidences brought on through prayer to some deity or another. Heston paid a high price for the best prayers that would cause an attack from the raiders to coincide with the time Jerryck visited their target location. That put the two guards on edge. “Don’t worry about it,” Jerryck assured them. “Coincidence magicians are what give every other magician a bad reputation for being charlatans. They’re notoriously inaccurate.” “Like your memory?” the skinny one asked, while the one with the cleft chin snickered. “You’ve done everything you can to avoid calling us by name.” “I don’t remember the name of every elite guard,” Jerryck said. “Not even ones you’ve traveled with before?” the skinny one asked. “Or did you forget that too?” “I remember you both went to Shontarra with the princess.” Jerryck pointed to the one with the cleft chin. “And you wouldn’t leave me alone.” “So do you remember our names?” The skinny one wouldn’t leave it alone. “Is one of you Dean?” Jerryck took a stab at it. “Deek.” The cleft chin one corrected him while laughing. “No, neither of us is him. He’s in trouble again. He didn’t get to come. Try Garret and Cade. I’ll let you figure out which of us is which.” He figured it out during the first leg of the journey as they trudged their horses through the snow. They went through several villages along the route, stayed overnight with a couple of premieres as they passed through their districts, and finally reached the first village on their map exhausted and stiff with cold. Jerryck provided the mayor with the chit that allowed him to pass any expenses to his premiere, and through him to the king. The inn put them up and treated them to their cook’s finest dishes, which didn’t amount to anything more fancy than he remembered from his childhood. Jerryck spent the next day making the ward. He had it completed, planted, and activated by supper that evening. Then he demonstrated it to the villagers so that the sound of it would be familiar to them. During that time, Garret put on a serious face and never let him out of sight. Cade disappeared for several hours at a stretch. The next morning, they hired a local guide to take them to the next village on the map. While the two guards restocked their provisions, Jerryck sought out a courier and sent a letter to his wife. Over the weeks of travel, something different happened with every stop and every leg of the journey, keeping it from getting monotonous. One place try to tally up more expenses than accurate. Another had a few soldiers who thought their village was remote enough that they could get away with bullying the citizens. In one village, they had to stop for several days to wait out a blizzard. In the village after that, every citizen had taken ill. The roads were treacherous. The local guides knew where the most dangerous spots were and how to deal with them. They knew where the snow had drifted too deep for the horses to struggle through. They knew where bodies of water had frozen enough to cross and make shortcuts. They knew where best to shelter, and how to stave off the more dangerous fauna. Yet even with the local assistance, each leg of the trip was arduous enough that they obtained fresh mounts at every stop. With every village, Garret and Cade kept the same pattern. Garret wouldn’t let Jerryck out of sight. Cade disappeared for hours, and then came back with news, local information, and gossip. The first village where Jerryck had to purchase a charm to turn into a ward, he sat in the common room of the inn working on it. A man came and sat down across the table. He had the lighter colored hair common in villages close to the Chemwanitz border. Garret stood near and hadn’t prevented the approach. So Jerryck didn’t tell him to go away. “Hi there,” the man said. “Hello.” Jerryck didn’t look up from the ward. He’d already laid the foundation and spoke the initiating words for the next casting. The rest of the layering took some concentration, or the magic would slip and the perimeter of the ward would diminish. The man didn’t interrupt further. He sat quietly watching, probably seeing nothing more than some magician staring at a trinket on a table. The spell wove itself around the trinket’s aura, penetrating it, melding with it, altering it. Jerryck carefully followed it all. Making these wards was the perfect opportunity for him to practice some of the exercises Tajor had told him to keep doing every day. The more he did them, the more he became aware of the nuances and changes caused by the magic he performed. He had more control over the process with less effort. He could change it, stop it, or redirect the magic in the middle of the spell before even finished. He had done similar things when he was younger, before he learned some of the safeties the Gathering insisted on. He knew now why he’d been so recalcitrant about learning them. Somehow, this felt safer, more natural, as if he had more control. His mentor had insisted that feeling was a misjudgment due to lack of experience. The magic finished. The ward lay complete on the table. Now it only need planting, activation, and demonstration. He would do that after supper. The man on the other side of the table still watched. There was something vaguely familiar about him. Perhaps he wanted a favor. In most villages, at least one or two people had offered to pay him for personal requests. “Your eyes still glaze over when you concentrate,” the man said. “What?” The comment caught Jerryck by surprise. The man smiled, showing a gap between his teeth. That nagged at Jerryck’s memory too. “You don’t remember me,” the man said. He sounded amused. He leaned back and stretch his legs out under the table. “Maybe because we’re so much farther south of the last time we talked. I’m going to be your guide through the next few villages. Name’s Kent.” “We’ve met?” Jerryck picked up the ward from the table and stowed in a pocket. “Name’s not triggering your memory?” Kent smiled again, eyes sparkling. “You really haven’t changed all that much. How about this. My older sister’s name is Indall.” Jerryck shook his head. “Sorry. How long ago was it?” “The last time I saw you, that old court magician came with the crown prince to take you off our hands.” Kent crossed his ankles and swung his feet casually back and forth. “My sister had a party to celebrate. She once told Kendra she was ugly. The next morning, she woke up with a dog’s head instead of a face.” Jerryck caught his breath. That had been his first accident with illusion. He hadn’t really changed the girl’s head. It wore off after a day. He scooted his chair back, putting more distance between himself and Kent. “You do remember!” Kent smiled again. “That was a long time ago,” Jerryck said. “It’s still just as funny!” Kent laughed. “Don’t mention it to my sister if you get that far north. She’ll get mad. She never thought it was as funny as I did.” “You never mentioned anything about knowing Jerryck from childhood,” Garret said. His blank face had morphed into a dangerous scowl. Kent waved that away with a lazy brush of his hand. “That village is a long way from here.” “What are you doing so far away?” Jerryck asked. “I went exploring to seek my fortune,” Kent said. “Without Kendra, the village just wasn’t the same. I made my way down to this part of the country. Met a young lady even prettier than Kendra, and with a much better temper. No offense, Jerryck. Figured I wouldn’t find a better fortune than her company. So I stuck around, convinced her to marry me, and I’ve been here ever since.” “She lives here in this village?” Jerryck asked. “No, no,” Kent said. “We’ll go through the village where I built her a house. You can stay there with us, instead of the inn. She’ll take good care of you. You’ll love it. She’s the best cook in the area!” “Is that why you wander around the area, instead of staying there with her?” Garret’s serious face cracked some, a bit of his usual mirth leaking through. “That’s one of the best things about her. She doesn’t mind if I wander in and out of her life. As long as I don’t stay away for too long, and I bring her little presents to prove I was thinking about her while I was away.” Kent stood up. “Which I should go find one for her. This village usually has the best selection. You want to come find one for your wife? Or sister?” “I send them a letter every time I stop,” Jerryck said. “Any trinkets I find go into a stash for me to turn into wards.” “Whatever makes your women happy,” Kent said, and walked out of the inn. After supper, the locals gathered in the village square. Jerryck planted the ward in its selected spot. He tested the fastenings to make certain it was secure. He activated it. Then he opened a tiny portal so everyone could recognize its ringing clang. After that, people went to the inn and danced on the common room floor. Just like in the palace, cold weather didn’t keep them from this nightly ritual. Cade showed up from wherever he had disappeared to. He said to Garret, “Finally got some news we were waiting for. There was another raid a few weeks ago, farther south, in one of the villages the other magician had already set up a ward in. It worked perfect. Saved a lot of lives.” “A few weeks ago…” Garret repeated, his face darkening to the same scowl he’d given Kent earlier. “We’re remote enough you know it’s not easy to get information to us quickly,” Cade said. “If they strike every few weeks, then we’re due,” Garret said. “How much do you want to wager on the coincidence magic putting us in a fight?” “Coincidence magic isn’t reliable,” Jerryck reminded him. Across the room, Kent loudly regaled a growing audience with tales of shenanigans from Jerryck’s childhood. Garret and Cade’s faces both cleared into blank nothingness. They stood between Jerryck and the crowd, watching them with casual idleness. Every time one of the crowd would laugh and asked Jerryck if he could repeat a trick, they would glance at the guards, then quickly look away again. What was their problem? It wasn’t like the guards were threatening anyone. Not that he wanted to do any more magic. He ended the problem by excusing himself for bed.