“The trials begin tomorrow.” The older man was leaning against the rail, watching as the waves slid past beneath the bow of the ship.

“I cannot wait. I’ll likely not sleep tonight,” the younger one replied. He stood a couple paces off, facing his elder. The water held no interest for him, such was the intensity of his reverie. His eyes held that distant look that bespoke visions of far-off things.

“You’d best try, Ciphero. The trials are not for the weak, as you well know, and those who lack sleep will find themselves at a distinct disadvantage.”

“Yes, of course, Elder Mast, you are right. Perhaps Lycil can draft a sleep serum for me if I have trouble. Her antidotes have always proven most helpful.”

“Be cautious, Ciphero. She, too, travels with us for the trials. You may find her less accommodating, and less trustworthy, now than you have in the past.”

The two were silent then, Ciphero now joining his teacher in gazing out across the endless sea. The brief silence was broken by a smallish voice.

“Excuse me, sirs.” Startled, Ciphero and Elder Mast spun to face the source of the voice and determine the identity of the intruder. It frightened both of them to see a young girl, obviously no more than eleven or twelve years of age, standing less than three feet away. The girl’s proximity to them was alarming in itself. Both masters of their craft, they had either become far too secure in these somewhat familiar surroundings, or this girl possessed a stealthy skill far beyond her years.

Elder Mast was the first to regain his composure. “And who might you be, little girl? I have never seen one so young as yourself on this ship before.”

“I am Rith,” she declared boldly, “and I have a question.”

“What is your question, Rith?” Ciphero asked. His heart was still pounding heavily in his chest, and he hoped his voice didn’t betray how unnerved the girl’s sudden appearance had made him.

“What are these trials you speak of?”

Elder Mast fixed her with a glare. “We do not joke about such things on this ship, young Rith! If you are here, then you know what the trials are. There is none who goes to the trials who does not volunteer to do so. It is impossible to attend any other way. To feign ignorance is a great disrespect and insult, both to the trials and to all who undergo them.”

Rith returned Elder Mast’s glare with a heat of her own. “But I am not a volunteer for the trials. I am here against my will.” The elder shifted as if to strike her. She felt her body grow tense, but she did not back away. “I was kidnapped,” she shot, as if defying either of these two men to contradict her.

Ciphero laid his hand on his companion’s shoulder in order to calm him. His eyes, though, never left the girl’s face. He could not believe what she had just said, yet her face begot no lie.

“You were-”

“Kidnapped. Yes.” Rith nodded once to emphasize her confidence.

Ciphero glanced at Elder Mast and was reassured to see that the worry displayed on his teacher’s face mirrored his own inner fear.

“Who was it that brought you here, Rith?” the older man asked.

She shook her head slightly. “I don’t know his name. He was very tall, skinny, and his bones stuck out from his skin.” She lifted her shirt slightly to reveal a darkening bruise on her side. She grinned, almost apologetically. “He had to carry me. I put up a fight.” Her bemused expression turned thoughtful. “And he wore a low, black hat with a wide brim.”

Ciphero turned to face his teacher. His voice was urgent, a hoarse whisper. “We cannot take her even to the captain, elder. He is the very reason she is here.”

Elder Mast responded, not bothering to conceal his voice. “I agree, Ciphero. You are right. Something is dangerously amiss. Things are changing, the magical barriers are breaking down, if someone can be brought aboard against their will, especially someone so young as Rith.” He turned to face the girl again. “I am afraid, Rith, that once someone has come aboard this ship, they are bound to remain. There will be no returning to your home until you have gone through the trials with the rest of the candidates.”

“But elder,” exclaimed Ciphero, “no one so young as she has ever gone through the trials, let alone survived them! Not even all who are here will survive, and we are all experts in our own trades.”

The older man’s face expressed the burden of sadness he felt, as he sighed, “There is no choice, Ciphero. The Maiden has laid out the law, and we are bound to abide by it. Let us just hope that this is the _only_ rule that is ‘broken’. Perhaps, once she is made aware of our young Rith, she will exempt her from competing.” His tone conveyed, however, that he did not believe his own words.

Elder Mast held his hand out to the girl. “Come, Rith. Our time has become very short, and you shall have need of such wisdom and guidance as I have if you are to have hope of facing what awaits – and survive.”

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