The barge reached the Captain Rietha Bridge, and the crew offloaded the wagon. With Mik leading the donkey, and crewmen pushing behind, they got the wagon up from the landing and onto the Royal Highway. With evening setting in, they crossed to the way station opposite the bridge. There were several wagons, merchants by the looks of them, standing covered outside.
"I think the donkey likes you, Mik," said Sura, as they unhitched it. "If you get him in the stables, I'll put supper together."
"Fair enough." They embraced for a moment and went their ways.
After accepting another handful of grain, the donkey let Mik lead him into the stable. He found an empty stall and tied the donkey within, then spread fresh straw from the hayrick on the floor. Mik took the bucket and walked back down to the river to fill it. Familiar chores, once done in a place that he would soon see again.
As he went to find Bailar and Sura, he heard a hiss and a voice. "Hoy. Boy-sprout."
"I have something for you," whispered, holding up a tiny vial. "A love potion, from the faraway East. I saw you and your girl out there. Put this in her tea, and she'll do anything for you. And I mean, anything!" The merchant grinned and made a suggestive gesture.
Mik frowned, fingering his blue sash. Is it possible he doesn't know what this signifies? he thought, but decided to play along. See how truly ignorant this folkman was. He leaned forward, gazing at the vial. "How does it work?" he asked.
"It's strong magic," the merchant assured him, warming to his pitch. "Sorcerers in the faraway East have preserved lore of such things from the time of Camac That Was… or perhaps even before! I've traveled far, looking for one who could benefit. You, I think, are the one."
"Enchanters," said Mik.
"A potion would be an enchantment," Mik explained, "imbuing an object with magic. Sorcery is harnessing the elements, usually for a physical effect."
"Sorcerers, enchanters," the merchant made a dismissive gesture, trying to regain his footing. "Quite the young pedant, you are. But we're talking about your love life, no?"
"No." Mik's hand shot forward, grasping the vial for a moment, before the surprised merchant could snatch it back. "You were talking about a supposedly magical potion that would… well, it would do nothing, because I felt no magic in it just now. What you have there is probably a concoction of herbs, or perhaps a swallow of liquor."
"And you're some great mage?" the merchant sneered.
"Only an apprentice sorcerer. But I know enough to recognize a bargeload of rotten meat when I hear it." Mik turned. "And now, good evening to you, sir."
As they shared supper, on the way station porch, Mik related the encounter. Bailar laughed heartily. "You taught him a fine lesson! I hope he applies it!"
Sura was not at all amused. "I wish I'd been there," she growled. "Setting him on fire might have been a better lesson." Below them, a small patch of grass began to smolder.
"Sura, put that out!" Bailar looked alarmed. "Petty fraud does not warrant serious injury, in any case!" Sura shook her head, but hopped down to stamp out her small fire. "No harm was caused, and I expect he'll be more cautious with his touting from here on."
Later that night, Mik was drifting toward sleep when he heard Sura whisper. The three of them shared a tiny room in the way station, the bed little more than a wide platform above the floor. “Mik. Are you awake?”
“I am.” He eased himself up. Between them, Bailar breathed slowly.
“Can I ask you something?” He could see little more than her outline in the dark.
“If that merchant really had a love potion, would… would you have bought it?”
Mik shook his head, forgetting for a moment that Sura could not see. “No,” he whispered. “When…” he paused, thinking Bailar might be awake and listening. “No. Is it my turn to ask a question, now?”
Sura sighed. “Ask.”
“Would you have really set the merchant on fire?”
She giggled. “No, but after he heard what I had to say, he might have wished I had!”
Mik snorted. “That would have been fun to watch!”
“Go to sleep, you two,” said Bailar. “If you are hoping I will find a quiet place to sleep, and leave you here by yourselves, I will not.”
“Apologies, mentor,” said Mik, although they could both hear the smile in his voice. “Sura started it, though!”
“Mik!” Sura laughed, snatched up her pillow, and flapped Mik with it over her protesting father. He covered himself and chortled under her laughing assault.