Water (POV: Niko)
He started with the Water Temple, as he always did. Though his vision had given him only a vague link to water, and he suspected he would not bring back anyone for those particular Winding Circle quarters, the Water Temple was where Moonstream could be found, more reliably than anywhere else, and Niko could hardly imagine arriving at the Winding Circle and not going straight to her.
He strolled by the healers’ wards, through the Water Temple gardens and past the sacred fountains, and found her at last in her private garden, by the First Dedicate’s cottage that sat between the Water Temple courtyard and the Air Temple greenhouse. She stood watering a row of bright red tulips, which had not yet fully blossomed. Niko smiled—she reminded him of tulips, somehow, in her beauty and calm confidence—and he rapped on the garden gate.
She turned, face lighting up with a smile as she saw him. “Master Goldeye.”
He executed a fancy bow, to which she giggled under her breath like they were both so many years younger. “Honored Moonstream.” When he straightened, she was still smiling, and she set down the watercan and walked over.
“Welcome to the Winding Circle,” she said, as she always did, and though he knew the greeting was part of the Circle philosophy, he liked to fancy she meant it particularly so for him. “I hope your travels have been good. You look well.”
He puffed out his chest just a little—there wasn’t much to puff out, in any case—and stood a bit taller, tugging on the ends of his mustache. He did look well, and part of it was the care he’d taken with his hair pomade and the shining of his golden shirt buttons. With Moonstream, he liked to put his best foot forward.
“Any travel that brings me to your shores is a good one.” He bowed his head again, and smiled back when her dark eyes twinkled with amusement. “I trust you’ve been well, also? The Circle is thriving?”
“Godsbless. Yes. We’ve made it through the winter colds and the rainy season, though I’m afraid half our people are still nursing rather loud cases of the sniffles…”
Niko’s magic fluttered, but too brief and indistinct to be of any use. Before he could wonder how her words related to the vision that had brought him to the Circle, Moonstream patted his elbow and held a hand out to her house.
“I have rather an impressive supply of tea left over. If your business isn’t too pressing, would you join me for a cup?”
He’d hoped for nothing less, and as they walked arm in arm to her quarters, he allowed himself to delight in the warmth of her shoulder against his. Chatter and companionship were rarely lacking, for a wandering mage such as himself, but true closeness he enjoyed with far fewer people.
She hadn’t been joking about the impressive tea supply. Inside Moonstream’s sitting room, several large boxes of tea sat against the wall, along with dozens of jars of herbs and stacked breathing masks and inhaler pots. She noticed him staring and chuckled.
“I’m afraid my quarters tend to become an extension of the healers’ ward. Simpler, if I’m ever called on an emergency, to have supplies on hand rather than have to detour.” She restacked a couple of jars that had been getting in the way. “There may be more than strictly necessary; this winter was long. Kettle, please?”
Niko walked to the small stove in the corner and lifted the still-hot brass kettle. “No one too ill, I hope?”
“No.” Moonstream picked a tea bag from one box. “But we’ve had more new students than usual this fall, and some of the western providences have been adopting a rather…unusual attitude toward preventive herbs and medicines.” She wrinkled her nose, “Children come in with chills and croups and the itch fevers, and it taxes our healers to keep it all from spreading…I don’t suppose your travels may take you to Olart, for a chat with their Wellness Minister?”
She smiled, but there was intent behind her smile, which almost made Niko chuckle. The risks of being close to a Dedicate Superior so serious about her responsibilities to her people; she welcomed and accommodated him, but rarely shied from wielding their friendship to help the temple, if she found it necessary.
He didn’t mind. The Winding Circle held the few people Niko considered family, outside his brother’s delightful brood up in Irod—and if his vision was correct, he’d soon find himself even more entangled with the temple still. How strange, that for twenty years he’d been traveling the world in search of extraordinary magic, yet fate kept pulling him to the same small temple by the Pebbled Sea.
He brought the kettle to the table. “Next time I travel west, I’ll make sure to stop by and investigate their… troubling habits. I suspect if I mention to Minister Arroun that Emelan may begin imposing taxes to make up for the healer expenses, they’ll sing a different tune.” He smirked, then cleared his throat as Moonstream sprinkle tea leaves into the kettle. “I had another type of travel that I thought I’d discuss with you.”
Her eyes met his. “Oh?” And for a moment Niko became nearly distracted, by their closeness and the sight of her sparkling gaze across the cloud of steam rising from the kettle. Was it getting warm in there?
She smiled, and he cleared his throat again. Smooth, Goldeye. His magic twanged, as though to remind him he had work to do, and he sat down on the soft-cushioned chair, smoothing the edges of his mustache again.
“I believe I’m soon to find some…remarkable magic. Young magic, I’m rather certain, the kind in dire need of assistance and instruction. And I believe that Winding Circle is the best place for it to thrive.”
“I see.” Moonstream nodded, putting two mugs on the table. “Well—you know already, of course, the Circle will never turn away a mage-to-be looking to learn.”
“I know. This magic…these youngsters I’m going to find, they may be…different.” He frowned, trying to refine what his magic showed him, to pull the foggy threads until he saw more clearly what lay ahead. But future-seeing was tricky work, and sometimes, like water, it slipped between his fingers. “I’m not certain, yet, what and how and why. Only that there’s extraordinary magic at work, and its threads will weave deep into the fabric of the Circle.”
He wondered at his choice of words. That certainly came from the magic.
“Plenty folks around here are different,” said Moonstream. “Will this magic bring danger to the temple?”
Niko pulled again at the threads of his vision. There was danger, there, mixed with the need and warmth and joy and anguish—but he couldn’t pinpoint its source. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I sense they’ll come here looking for safety, not trouble.”
“Any particular needs we ought to prepare for, then?”
He almost chuckled, again. Moonstream would take whoever he brought—it was hardly Circle philosophy to turn away anyone—but she knew the right questions to ask. After all, the last time he’d brought her a student in need of a home, they’d both gotten more than they’d expected.
“I’ll know more as I get closer,” he said. “So far, all I’ve seen are flashes of magic, and a sense of urgency. But I expect there will be…particularities. Certainly some settling in period. Likely complaints.”
“Most children complain about school,” Moonstream remarked amusedly, and Niko grinned as he lifted the kettle to pour.
“I expect these complaints are more likely to come from their teachers.”
“Ah,” she said. “So it’s like that.”
Like last time. There had certainly been some settling in period, then. But neither he nor Moonstream had regretted the effort.
Still, lightning hardly struck the same way twice (Niko’s magic twanged again, and he filed the thought away for later examination) so some wariness was warranted, if he was going to find more of these particular mages.
Moonstream shrugged. “I can handle complaints.” She pulled her tea mug close, inhaling the minty scent. “I’ve never had cause to doubt your instincts, Master Goldeye. If you find someone who needs what we can teach, they’re welcome here, and we’ll see about the rest.”
Niko lifted his mug in a silent salute, while the chords of his magic sang to inform him something good had just happened.
Fire (POV: Niko)
He went into the kitchens, next.
He’d seen fire—the homey kind, the good kind, not the scorching flames that turned life to ashes (though there had been that, too, in his vague vision, and Niko feared seeing how that played out)—and usually, good fire meant a cooking stove, or a hearth. Thus he followed that mysterious seers’ instinct to the temple kitchens, to see if his magic might show him more.
Few people paid him any mind, as he stepped from the green courtyard through a side door, into a wide hallway that smelled of meat pie and eastern spices. The kitchens, as always, teemed with activity. Students doing their service hours, young novices on duty, suppliers waiting to deliver or charity runners ready to collect—they sprinted up and down the hall, vanishing through domed arches into warm rooms filled with the noise of banging pots and pans. Only now and then did a dedicate pause to glance at Niko, presumably upon sensing the magic coming off him. When that happened he smiled and dipped his head at them, and they nodded back and gave him a wide berth.
Niko couldn’t say he minded. He didn’t aim to intimidate, but he was formidable, and sometimes it tickled his ego to know others saw it, too.
Still he was there to learn, not to preen, and so he followed his nose to the main cooking area, smiling when his magic showed him flashes of smiling faces and warm buns. Something here was certainly linked to the visions he’d seen. Yet – something wasn’t quite right, either. The fires here were friendly, yes, but they weren’t the right kind of friendly, the right kind of… useful.
This was the problem with his hunches, especially the early inklings he hadn’t managed to coalesce yet into clear vision. He could spend a month chasing the ghost of this fire, and still be no closer than when he started to what it meant.
Niko swiveled on his heels, joining his hands behind his back in a slow move he hoped belied his surprise. Rarely did anyone manage to sneak up on him! Yet a stout, pot-bellied dedicate in Fire Temple robes stood before him, ladle in one hand, a plate of pastries in the other, and flour and crumbs dotting the hem of his robes.
Niko sense the magic coming off him in warm, cinnamon-scented wafts. This was this man’s domain; he’d claimed it as surely as an old cat claimed its owner’s living room. Likely a benevolent ruler, but visitors had best be warned not to make trouble.
Niko straightened. “I am Niklaren—”
“Goldeye.” The man smiled, beneath a thin Yanjingi mustache, and measured him with a calm look. “I’ve seen you at last year’s Midwinter Feast, Master Goldeye.”
Of course. “Dedicate Gorse.”
“Would you try a meat turnover? Fresh from the oven.” The dedicate offered the plate again, then hummed. “Or perhaps you’re partial to the honey-filled pastries.” He nodded to a nearby aide, who presented Niko with a different platter, so quickly he might as well have materialized it from thin air. The warm dough smelled mouth-watering.
“Don’t mind if I do,” murmured Niko, and he reached for a pastry, biting into it with a satisfied sigh. As he’d expected, it tasted delicious. He was rather persnickety about his food, but cooking magic was so rare, he counted himself fortunate for any chance to experience it.
“Seers don’t often wander about here,” said Gorse. “What’s the trouble?”
“None!” Niko shook his head. “I was merely strolling for…meditation. I’m looking to clarify some visions.”
“I find cinnamon glaze helps see things more clearly,” said the dedicate, and he nodded to the platter of pastries that his aide had left on a nearby counter.
Niko laughed. He liked this man. “Indeed.” He took another pastry, then chuckled. “Well, this has been an enlightening stroll, I admit.” His magic had provided no new insight, in the kitchens, but his stomach was certainly happier.
“Good—” Gorse paused to tap the shoulder of a passing aide. “The bread oven temperature’s off—go check what’s wrong before the dough falls. Nutmeg! Those carrots should’ve gone in the stew two minutes ago—they won’t soften enough. So,” he turned back to Niko with no break, like he was going through a recipe, “there’ll be no trouble in my kitchens?”
“Not at all.”
“And those visions?”
“Hm.” Niko thought for a moment. “I’m not certain. I thought I might’ve found someone with your kind of magic, but I may need to keep looking. Still—if someone wanted to learn your trade, would you be willing to teach them?”
Gorse was already waving his ladle to another novice. “Everyone’s welcome to learn,” he said. “Take some pastries to go—Sugarsnap! A basket, please, for those honey rolls. Mister Elmstone, students do not touch the ovens without supervision!”
Chuckling to himself, Niko left the kitchens with an armful of pastries. So, the kitchens had told him nothing —what, then, had been that warm, inviting fire in his vision? He’d find out soon enough.
He inhaled the warm scent of the cinnamon honey rolls, and made his way to the Earth temple gardens, past the row of carpenter’s shops where a loud-mouthed novice in soot-stained white robes was arguing about chisel handles for the smithy.
Air (POV: Niko)
Rosethorn hadn’t been in the gardens, and Niko had learned from a red-faced Water Temple dedicate of some squabble over the proper way to irrigate tomatoes, so he wisely chose to let the situation simmer down, before finding the prickly dedicate. He walked along the spiral road to the outer wall, instead, and found a spot to rest and watch the waves break against the cliffs.
Some fishermen’s boats were coming slowly to rest onto the small patch beach not too far away, their voices carrying on the wind. This, said Niko’s magic, this is important. He breathed in the smell of salt, and his magic ignited, buzzing like electric current through his nerves. He’d have to travel the sea to find his remarkable youngsters, that much was clear. But there was something else too, in the rustle of wind and the smell of spring rain that lingered in the air. His vision clarified—he was looking for storm magic, powerful magic, unpredictable and capricious like the weather out at sea.
That should be a challenge, certainly. The revelation spurred, too, his sense of urgency: a child with that sort of magic needed help as soon as one could get it. He’d thought he’d have weeks or months before he went searching, but with his vision thus crystallized, he could start immediately. Storm magic, untrained, could easily look like a curse, or supernatural spirits at work; Moonstream had mentioned some rumor, during their chat, of a troubled student at the Stone Circle temple in Ninver… well, he supposed he’d just have to find her again, after dinner, and ask her for details.
Storm magic. Well, that would test them. Weather mages were not rare, precisely, but most were academic mages who chose to specialize. He could track one or two down in Summersea, most port towns had them, but something told Niko that a book-trained sky-watcher or rain-dancer wouldn’t manage very well a child with a storm inside.
No—to manage that sort of emotion, he needed someone who understood it; who knew how it felt to have your magic so tied into your suppressed hurts it would boom outwards with your mood shifts; someone who knew, too, the strength and dangers of elemental magic subject to intense emotion, and could guide another angry child into mastering it.
Well, that explained why he’d felt so strong a need to visit Discipline chasing this vision.
After all, Rosethorn had named the place as a reminder to keep her own storms in check. Who better to teach this budding storm mage? Yes…it would work out perfectly, Niko thought. He had it all figured out.
Earth (POV: Rosethorn)
“I think I’m going to bring you some children,” said Niko, and Rosethorn froze halfway through pouring the tea into a mug.
In what could only be interpreted as proof of great maturity, she managed to collect herself enough to quit pouring before the tea ended on the floor. Furthermore, she didn’t scream at anyone, which was a true, gods’-honest miracle.
She set the kettle on the counter, grabbed the mug and put it on the table in front on Niko, and only briefly considering dumping it on his head. (She’d never, but she thought about it plenty. Damn it, chaos and unrest followed the man like flies around a compost heap.)
Their eyes met, and from his amused twinkle she thought he knew exactly what she was thinking. Future-seers. They think they know everything.
“Thank you, my dear.”
“Don’t call me that.” She’d told him so fifty times, and it irked her that he kept at it. Infusing familiarity into their relationship that she didn’t ask for and didn’t want. Wandering mages were like that. Seeing friends everywhere.
Of course, Niko wasn’t entirely wrong to presume, seeing how long they’d known each other and how many times they’d done what could only be considered working together in her blighted time at Lightsbridge, and fine, he could consider himself her friend, if he insisted. It didn’t mean she had to like it.
Their long acquaintance helped Rosethorn tolerate his testing of her boundaries, but some days he went too far, and today promised to be one of those.
“I hope you’re making an uninspired joke,” she warned. So much for patience and composure. “We’re not a nursery. I don’t want any children. What children?”
From the corner of her eye she saw Lark smile. Lark, of course, didn’t seem overly concerned; she had a way of rolling with the punches. Life had thrown a lot of bad things her way, yet somehow she’d grown not just more unafraid of chaos, but welcoming, almost, facing upsets with smiling aplomb rather than fear.
Rosethorn, of course, had gone precisely the opposite way and learned to painstakingly anticipate any threats to her hard-earned peace, and so Niko’s casual comment had already given her a stomach ache.
“Children with magic,” said Niko. “I’m not certain yet who and where—”
“We’re not teachers. Well—Lark has her classes, so if that’s what you mean—but—” She bit her lips, forcing her hands to steady. “I don’t need any trouble. What are you talking about? Why would you bring children here? Take them to the temple dormitories!”
She was babbling, but she couldn’t help it. The thought of other people in her house made her itch.
Niko hesitated, and she was torn between relief and guilt. He might reconsider, if she made it clear enough that she did not want trouble. But he seemed so earnest, she didn’t mean to be…difficult. It just happened like that. She was hard to deal with, she knew that much.
It was progress that she hadn’t yet tried to run for the hills, at least. For years, every time she’d interacted with Niko she’d sworn to avoid him like the stomach pox in winter—but over time, she’d learned to take his unpredictability into account, and trust that it wasn’t a threat, and value his company and kindness above the discomfort his chaotic manner caused her.
That didn’t mean she didn’t want to strangle him.
She sighed and sat down at the table, gripping her steaming mug. The fennel seeds on the bottom churned uneasily, trying to find space to sprout roots. It was why she only used tin tea mugs, now—clay ones tended to turn to flower pots, when she was nervous.
“Just tell me what you’re talking about, and quit beating around the bush,” she grumbled. “Green Man help me, but you bring us nothing but trouble, every time.”
Niko relaxed, and once more she felt mixed relief and apprehension.
Friends were exhausting. Rosethorn was determined to hold on to the few she had, but sometimes it felt like running a bull race downhill in a mudslide. Left her out of breath and with tired muscles.
“It’s just a feeling I have,” he said, which made her want to shake him and scream, because what did that even mean? “I’m going to start looking for them soon—I’m not sure where to go, yet, but soon, I’ll find children with magic, whose place is here at the temple.”
Rosethorn ground her teeth. “And what does this have to do with us?”
Niko scratched his head. “I’m…not sure. I have a feeling they’ll need your kind of guidance.”
“What in Mila’s name does that mean?”
“Might be nothing,” said Niko. “Might be something. I’m certain at least one of them will be an ambient mage—”
“There are a dozen ambient mages here,” said Rosethorn, “and several more in Summersea.” She just wanted to hear that Niko was wrong, damn it. “What kind of ambient mage? A green mage? Sageroot’s a green mage, and she’s not too old—her hearing’s fine if you shout, and she doesn’t need to see well to teach about plants!”
Niko paused with his mouth open, and she glowered at him as Lark cleared her throat.
“I’m sure Dedicate Sageroot would love a new student,” she said, “especially once that new salve you gave her relieves her joint pain and she can walk again.”
Thank you, traitor, Rosethorn thought bitterly; then she rolled her eyes. She couldn’t truly be mad at Lark, when Lark was right; Dedicate Sageroot was about four hundred years old and she’d likely clobber Rosethorn with her walking stick if Rosethorn went and told her to take on an apprentice.
“But I think what Rosie means,” said Lark, looking utterly unapologetic at the use of that dreadful nickname, and in front of company no less, “is that Discipline would be an uncommon living arrangement for students, and they’d likely do better in the dormitories, among folks their age.”
“Yes,” said Rosethorn, “exactly.” They’d do better. Blessed be Lark’s diplomacy.
“And if any particular need arises where we can help teach these students,” Lark went on, “we’re happy to work out the best way to do so.”
Ugh. “Yes,” Rosethorn said between ground teeth. Responsibility temple vows, and all that. “But only if another teacher can’t be found. I’ll be happy to help you look.”
Niko snorted, then poorly disguised the snort into a cough, and took a sip of his tea. Rosethorn resisted the urge to make the tea sprout in his face. No less than you deserve. Children!
“I didn’t mean to upset you, my d—er, dedicate.” He pulled a comical face, and Rosethorn rolled her eyes. “I’ll be glad for your help finding teachers for these children, when the time comes. I’m sure we can find the right ones.”
“That’s an awfully transparent double meaning,” Rosethorn informed him, and she sighed again. “Just please tell me you won’t show up at this door with a gaggle of children in tow and leave them here and run.”
The please came out a little desperate. Her heart was picking up again, and the fennel seeds had begun to climb little vines along the edges of her mug. Quit it. They wilted, disappointed.
Niko raised his hands. “I promise.” He smiled. “I’ll bring them to the temple, not to you. If they turn out to need any special training, it will be up to you whether or not you wish to take it on.”
“There are other dedicates with green magic around.” She grimaced. Crane. Would she wish to inflict him on any child? Anyone to come out of his training would be certain to turn into an insufferable snot. “I’m certain someone can be found—"
“I know,” said Niko. “I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to imply I would be showing up unexpected with a, er, gaggle. I simply have a feeling that these children I’m going to look for will do well at the Winding Circle. Perhaps the rest is simply that I associate the Circle more strongly with you than with other dedicates. I’m not friends with all of them.”
How fortunate for them, most likely, Rosethorn thought sourly, but she cared too much for Niko’s absurd ego to injure it by saying anything such out loud.
I should just go be a hermit. The thought of life in untouched woods surrounded only by trees tempted her often. But the problem with living in the middle of a forest was that there wasn’t a lot she could do with her magic, and she felt she owed too many kind people too many debts to be so selfish with her powers.
“If you find these children, and it comes to it, I’ll look for a suitable teacher,” she said grudgingly. “But Green Man help me, Niko, if you end up bringing them to Discipline, you can damned well take the dedication vows yourself, because you will be staying here to help…deal with them. You can be their teacher.”
Niko chuckled. “Right. I mean—yes, of course. If it comes to it, I’ll help whichever way I can.”
Rosethorn narrowed her eyes. Who did he think he was fooling? Master The-world-is-too-large-and-I-am-too-unfettered-to-be-tied-down-to-one-place Goldeye would sooner chop off an arm than settle down anywhere for more than a week at a time.
Well, he thought he was so clever. If he inflicted children on her home, she’d make him sprout roots before he left again.
The notion of revenge gave her some small degree of satisfaction, which increased as she sipped her tea and noticed Niko giving her a nervous look.