When they reached Winding Circle, it took Niko half an hour to persuade the dedicate in charge of the boys’ dormitory to accept Briar. Apparently the girls had been making a name for themselves as trouble, in social ways that terrified Dedicate Cloudbright when the worst rowdiness of boys did not; and Niko already had a name for collecting mage children, who were additional trouble in their own right.
“I’m just supposed to stay with him?” Briar asked skeptically.
“And do what he tells you, yes.”
“And he’s supposed to be all hunky-dory goodfellow?”
“He’s a dedicate, so yes, and also I trust him and you trust me and trust is transitive,” said Niko, and got sufficiently distracted by wondering whether this was actually true that he missed Briar’s reluctant, “All right.”
Niko then staggered back to Discipline, falling into his old bed in a room that was increasingly sterile and impersonal with his absence. In the morning he came down to the familiar smell of porridge that he could, gloriously, qar, and he admired the definition of it, smooth and sticky as it was, the way he could pick out individual grains even as they flowed into one another.
“Are you just going to look at your porridge all day?” Rosethorn asked, sounding more curious than sharp.
“I have a lot of breakfasts to make up for,” Niko said, admiring how it dropped back off his spoon and puddled on top of the porridge below, only slowly sinking into it in ridged ripples.
“Yes,” said Lark slowly. “Niko, there are several things we need to talk about.”
“I know,” said Niko. “I checked in on the girls right after I dropped Briar off. No accidents. And I remembered to tell the dedicate of the dormitories as a whole that Briar and Tris both are probable flight risks.”
Niko described how Tris had looked at the walls of the temple when he had dropped her off. Lark smiled.
“With a weather witch, you might want to be more literal in your interpretations of the phrase,” she said. “Although with any luck, she won’t try anything more than standing on the wall until she’s got considerable control over her power.”
“Our Niko would,” Rosethorn said. “If ever there were a boy who would jump off the side of a barn thinking he could fly, it’s him.”
“I never jumped off a barn,” Niko objected.
“Only because your magic’s not to do with wind,” Rosethorn replied. Niko did not attempt to argue this point. “What Lark is trying to bring up is that you’ve brought four young mages to Winding Circle, and the dormitories are not going to hold them long.”
“Nor should they be asked to,” said Lark. “The dormitories were not designed for the sort of trouble that mages can get into. That is what Discipline was intended for.”
Niko digested this. It did make a lot more sense of all of the wards he’d seen on the cottage walls; but he had difficulty reconciling Rosethorn with his idea of a dedicate who would choose to live in a home for troubled mages. Then he thought of Briar, and grinned. Rosethorn would like Briar, troubled or not.
“Even if only a few of them end up at Discipline, you will be acting as teacher to at least one of them. It would… confuse matters further, to have a young man in a position of authority also living as their fellow resident.”
“You’re kicking me out,” Niko said.
“Yes,” said Rosethorn, before Lark could gainsay him. “You’re a grown man and not an invalid anymore; you’re about to become a teacher of a particularly difficult case. You don’t need us anymore, and this is not your home.”
Reflexively, Niko wanted to argue with them. He stuck a spoonful of porridge in his mouth to shut himself up, and mentally counted the bedrooms in Discipline. Then he counted the number of things he had left in his room here. Then he counted the steps up to his attic bedroom, as he’d counted them blindly every trip up and down since his - not his last birthday, but the one before that. When had his last birthday been? Some time while he was at sea with Tris?
They were kicking him out, but it made sense, but he belonged here. And wouldn’t his mother have things to say about that, about belonging so far from her, about not having been home in nearing two years, about being stuck as a teacher and not coming home for more years yet. Niko and his mother had Words nearly every time he went home, same as he had had them with Lark and Rosethorn last time he was here. Only his mother didn’t listen to reason.
“Fine,” he said, jabbing his porridge viciously. “When do I get to go home?”
“When your students are able to travel,” said Rosethorn blithely.
“Do you need some time before we discuss this further?” Lark asked.
“No, I’m fine,” Niko lied. “I just want to talk about something else. What do you mean about weather mages flying? How would that work?”
With some caution, they proceeded to discuss theory for the rest of the meal. Rosethorn cleared away the dishes; Lark went for tea. Niko sat alone in the dining room with what remained of his rejection and betrayal.
“So with this Frozenpine around, Tris is the only one who’s going to be my student,” Niko said when they came back. “How does that work? How do I teach a ten-year-old?”
He had done tutoring sessions at Lightsbridge, before they told him to stop because he moved too quickly and had too little patience. He didn’t think this was a good recommendation for his becoming a teacher for someone yet younger.
“Frostpine,” Rosethorn said. “His name is Frostpine, as it turns out.”
“He says he’ll meet Daja, but of course nothing is settled until student and teacher both agree to it,” Lark said, pouring tea for each of them in turn. “In respect to which, from what I’ve seen and heard of Sandrilene, I would be delighted to be her instructor.”
“You’ll like Briar,” Niko told Rosethorn, as both of them wrapped their fingers around their mugs. “He’s... like you.” He gestured helplessly, unable to quantify this, unsure if he meant the way Briar got under his skin like a plant toxin, or the way he bowled Niko over sometimes, or just the obvious breadth of his love for green things.
“Hmph,” said Rosethorn. “We’ll see what we see.”
“You’ll like him,” Niko said. “But that still leaves me with Tris, and… How do we teach ten-year-old mages?”
“Mmmm,” said Rosethorn, humming over the steam from her tea. “First rule: We don’t tell them they’re mages until it’s needful.”
Niko blinked. “But - they have to be taught. You said yourself that it has to be soon, and the breadth of their power -“
“There’s ways to teach ambient magic that don’t immediately look like magic,” said Lark, blowing on her tea. “And honestly, if you have to do a public working, they’re much more comfortable.”
“Quite. And what’s the first rule of being a powerful mage?” Rosethorn demanded.
“Don’t be an ass about it,” Niko said after a moment, once he was certain that was what Rosethorn was driving at.
“Exactly.” Rosethorn sat back in her seat as if she had just made a point.
“What Rosie means is, when you’re a teacher, you’re teaching the person, not just the talent. It’s far more important to teach them to be good people than to be great mages, especially when they come to us young. The rest will follow from that foundation.”
“You have to be more blunt with the older ones,” said Rosethorn, gesturing at Niko with her head. “They’ve got more to unlearn.”
“I never -“ Niko began, and stopped short. Hadn’t he thought he was justified, sacrificing everything to his talent, classes and classmates alike? And hadn’t he thought he was justified, despising street rats and criminals? Who knew what else he might be overlooking, just because it hadn’t smacked him in the face yet? “But Tris,” he said. “I understand the others, but her talent could kill.”
“Yes,” said Lark.
“Anything could kill, given a modicum of imagination,” said Rosethorn. “My old well could kill. Hmmm. But yes, Tris’s gift is dangerous,” she added hastily.
“The first step is control, and control comes from meditation,” said Lark. “You can teach Tris meditation. I think you should teach it to all of them.”
“You have a formal education in it, which you’re not far from learning yourself; you’ve been putting a lot of hours into it for the last year; it’s as easy to teach four as one; and since at least two of them will end up spending most of their time here, Rosie and I deserve some guaranteed time to ourselves.”
“Oh,” said Niko. “You’ve put a lot of thought into this.”
“You did give us two weeks.”
“So what else did you decide while I was away?”
“To leave them be. They’ll find us soon enough, and like us better if they think it’s their idea. Faster, I think, now that you’re back. In the meantime, Dedicate Moonstream wants you. She said something about punching through omens of disaster to something tangible.”
“Ah yes,” said Niko unhappily. He had been carefully avoiding Dedicate Moonstream - and with her the rumors that the temple scriers couldn’t tell if the impending disaster was earthquake, plague, or attack - ever since it became clear that he was a functional seer again. “I’ll see her right away.”
“I’ll walk with you,” said Rosethorn, crushing his budding fantasies of meandering through some gardens on the way.
There was a question biting at Niko’s tongue, and he walked half the distance in silence, wondering whether to ask it. At last he realized that he would never be content if he did not at least say something out loud, and gave in.
“Rosethorn,” he said, “How could they put a child on trial?”
Rosethorn looked at him in surprise. “They do that everywhere.”
“Not in Karang,” said Niko. “I was a law student, I saw the courts. I know they didn’t try children.”
“Oh, Niko,” said Rosethorn, and her voice was so close to soft that for a long moment Niko thought she was disappointed in him. “I met a judiciary once who told me, in so many words, that they never showed the complicated cases to law students. If the first trial a law student saw was that of a six-year-old, they would never agree to support such a system. They had to work them up to an understanding that the law has to be upheld, regardless of who breaks it, until they were ready to officiate at such a trial. The trials you saw were practically court theater, showing you only the the sort of caricatures you would expect to see.”
“But he wasn’t from Karang, ” Niko protested.
“You lucky child,” said Rosethorn. “She was.”
“That’s a happy coincidence -”
“She was visiting from Lightsbridge. I know more about Karang’s judicial system than I do about Emelan’s.”
“But,” Niko began, and stopped. He didn’t want to know more right now, and he was ashamed of that. But - if it was true, if this was only a mortal system and corrupt, then what else was corrupt? He had always thought of criminals as broken and bad, but - but Sotat had been willing to convict a ten-year-old for the sake of a pair of hands laboring at the dock. Who else had been sent to feed that demand? How could he look at a gang of convicts and assume they deserved their labor?
And how could he follow Shurri Firesword if Shurri’s law were so broken? He had committed a sin against his god by lying in court, but how many sins had he committed by saying the truth?
“I need to pray,” he said miserably.
“You’re in a good place for it,” said Rosethorn, and left him alone. And walked him by a temple, and waited outside while he sat with his god, with a thousand questions and no answer.
Moonstream was a short brown woman with a clean, rigidly aligned office in the administration building filled with bowls of dried flower petals, and Niko found her unspeakably terrifying, like an avatar of Shurri. Rosethorn was polite in her presence; at least four great mages answered to her authority. Regardless of what she was showing, there was something mighty to her, and he did not want to find out what it was.
She found lodging for him at the Hub, in order to free space at Discipline for fresh occupants, and Niko departed immediately to do her bidding. Rosethorn stayed behind to discuss - well, likely to discuss Niko’s charges with her. Niko elected not to speculate. He was generally electing not to speculate. He needed work.
For a time, the move supplied that. He was dragging boxes of books, herbs, mirrors, and lights up to the room in the Hub, and gradually sinking into thoughts about Discipline, not justice. Or perhaps the justice of aging, of losing his place. Discipline was not his home, more his hospital, but he resented having to move; he could not help feeling something for a place he could navigate with his eyes closed.
Then he realized that Lark would not make him clean his room, and he could see well enough now that he didn’t need to clean it, and so he snagged a book off of one of the piles and forgot what he was doing entirely. Moonstream wanted a comprehensive catalog of scrying spells tried against the swath of ill omens, and Niko took a degree of titillated glee in devising the schedule. He missed dinner over it.
Towards the end of the second day, Niko sat back in his chair and stretched. The room around him was studded with books, herbs, and borrowed mirrors, none of them in the places he had imagined putting them. He wouldn’t say he was tired of the spells he’d been creating - he’d worked longer stints than this at Lightsbridge - but his head had that worn feeling that meant if he kept pushing, he’d be no good for the next several days.
“A break from business, then,” he muttered, and cleaned a few books off the bed so he could lie back on it. He had a pool of herbed water left over from an earlier ritual; he slipped a finger in it and drew a rune on each eyelid, then laid back and let his mind drift. It was one of his favorite spells. Sometimes at university he had done this before he slept at night, letting the logical links in his mind dissolve one image slowly into another as those links broke down with sleep. He hadn’t done that since the vít threatened to dissolve those links forever.
“No disastrous omens,” he murmured to himself, sleepy by association now. “Maybe a tiny portent. Something personally important.”
He expected to see his parents’ home, maybe Pippa’s grave, a place he could spiritwalk and let himself feel emotion. Instead, he found the lights behind his eyelids arranging themselves into one of the gardens at Winding Circle, and he chuckled to himself, nearly knocking the vision away with a conscious attention that wondered how and when Winding Circle had become a home-place to him.
He made his thoughts drift again, and the colors of the garden brightened, and dimmed, to a few shades darker than what Niko had seen before he lay down. Laughing, he sat up and rubbed the water off his eyelids; probably he was right, and he should go qar outdoors. He ambled out of the Hub and into the gloaming, idly attempting to find the same pattern of flowers he had seen brightening his vision.
What he found were sounds of a scuffle. Niko followed them to a tangle of children packed into a gap between buildings, kicking and scratching at each other.
“Light,” Niko murmured, and raised a hand, shading his own eyes. Noon sun blazed from his fingers, illuminating the alley and the fact that it was five children attacking his Daja. As the light blossomed, the attackers ran.
Niko stabbed each of them with a hot and angry ray of power, almost surprised it didn’t burn them. He would find them again, wherever they ran; for now, he ran himself to Daja’s side, then hesitated, not knowing what what he ought to do. In that pause, a small woman pushed past him and knelt at Daja’s side.
“Are you hurt?” Dedicate Moonstream asked Daja. Her voice was soft. Niko had never imagined how kind it could be. He wasn’t close enough to hear Daja’s response.
“I’d hoped our boarders were more open-minded about Traders. I’m disappointed that I was so wrong.” Moonstream’s voice was back to clinical, her posture once again radiating an oppressive degree of presence that Niko both dreaded reporting to and longed to impress. She looked back at him. “Perhaps the girls’ dormitory isn’t the best place for Daja. I’d like her to feel she’s safe where she lives.”
Niko’s heart thudded. Rosethorn must have spoken to her about Daja as well. “Discipline, then?” he suggested, trying to sound casual. Daja flinched. “No! It’s not a punishment - just a much smaller cottage, near the Earth temple.”
“You’ll move there first thing tomorrow,” Moonstream said with, Shurri be praised, an approving nod to Niko. “Do you think you’ll be bothered tonight?”
Daja shook her head.
“You’ll like Discipline,” Niko promised. “It’s - well, you’ll have your own room, for one. Privacy can be its own blessing. And security.”
They walked her back to the dormitory, checking for limps or dizziness, Niko trying to make small talk with two uncooperative persons while not mentioning his tiny conspiracy for Daja. As soon as Daja was inside, Moonstream said, “Now - I want to find the ones who did this.”
“I have them whenever you want them,” Niko replied. “But first - if they were willing to attack a Trader girl within the Temple, what would they do to a criminal boy?”
“Run,” Moonstream advised him, and Niko took off.
He arrived in time to serve as truthsayer to a dormitory squabble, a position lower than he or any of his classmates had ever dreamed of falling to, and to persuade the dedicate in charge that, fight or no fight, he wouldn’t throw a child into the streets, even streets as quiet as Winding Circle’s. Briar spent the night in a dedicate’s room. Niko spent the night exhausted.
In the morning, Niko collected Daja first, then circled round to the boys’ dormitory to collect Briar from a grumpy dedicate. Niko, relaxed from time out of Briar’s company and armed with Rosethorn’s suggestions on how to deal with him, did not dread this encounter.
“I thought you said I got my own room,” Daja said when it became clear Briar was coming with them. She watched him with more attention than she would have shown any adult Niko brought along, but children were always more relevant to each other.
“You do, and so does he,” said Niko.
“Two spare bedrooms plus at least one for a dedicate,” Briar muttered. “Just how big is this cottage?”
Niko ignored him and led them on a slightly circuitous route so they could pass near the forges. Daja’s nostrils flared, but she only walked faster; which worried Niko, except that it was her teacher’s problem if she was not drawn to the metal her magic reacted to. And anyway, she had her hands full of the box she carried with her everywhere, her staff balanced precariously on top, her eyes carefully averted from its blank brass ends.
Rosethorn was waiting for them at the garden gate, ostensibly weeding the plot there, but when she had her look at the children and told them, “Set one foot in my garden and I’ll hang you in the well,” she did not return to her weeding, but went round the side of the house. The children seemed to miss this subtlety, as they missed Rosethorn’s glee at finding a way to kill using her well. Or perhaps Niko was seeing things again.
Regardless, the children picked their way very cautiously through the gate and up to the house. Niko almost told them not to worry, but he figured Rosethorn knew what she was doing, likely better than he did. He knocked on the door apprehensively, wondering what Lark’s opening gambit would be.
The door opened at once. “Oh, hello, Niko - is this the girl you were telling us about?” Lark asked, smiling down, and then not so far down, and then her smile growing ever so slightly fixed and puzzled as she registered that the black Trader in front of her was unlikely to be related to Duke Vedris.
“Yes, Dedicate, this is Daja Kisubo,” Niko said quickly, “and also Briar Moss. I don’t believe we had time to speak about him.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Briar,” said Lark. Briar grinned winningly up at her with every ounce of charm Niko had seen him muster. Lark’s smile grew, and her eyes sparkled. “Have you met Rosethorn?”
There was a pause. “Is that the scary lady out front?” Briar asked.
“I imagine so. Don’t worry, she only bites when her bark fails to draw blood.”
Briar rubbed his hands on his pants. “I’ll keep clear of her trunk and branches,” he promised.
“Then will you come in? We held breakfast for you.”
Briar was after her like a shot, following like a dog who has been promised a treat, face upturned, practically underfoot.
“All right there, Daja?” Niko asked. Daja looked back at him, swathed in scarlet, her staff shifting to fall across her shoulder and form a bar between them. For a moment Niko thought her face was Trader-blank; then he saw her as Daja, and she was mulish, and devastated.
“This isn’t a punishment,” he said. “You’ll be safe here.”
“I will go where you send me, our - my - people in my heart,” Daja recited, and went through the door. Niko did not know how to follow that.
He hadn’t been invited in. Feeling guilty, hands idle, he went home.
He sent a message to the girls’ dormitories asking them to send Sandry and Tris along whenever they next had cause, but he didn’t expect them to work as fast as they did. It was barely midmorning the next day - and Niko tried never to get out of bed before midmorning - when he got a message asking him to come to the administration building.
He climbed up to Dedicate Moonstream’s office just in time to see the whole room flash with light. Across the stark but elegant antechamber, a child was silhouetted in the window against the sunny morning, her head outlined by a golden-red aura of hair that threatened to fill the entirety of the window frame.
“Are you all right, Tris? You were looking right at it,” Niko said.
Come on, he thought. Tell me I’m being daft. Tell me no harm ever came of looking at lightning. No harm ever came of reaching out to it. Roll your eyes and tell me it was just a bit of lightning - lightning strikes near people all the time.
She was silent. “It’s curious to see lightning hit a small tree when there are tall ones, or buildings, at hand,” Niko prompted.
“What have buildings and trees to do with it?” Tris asked, looking at him for the first time, pushing her spectacles up to do so. It was not the cue Niko was hoping for, but he’d take it.
“Lightning strikes what’s nearest the clouds,” he said, working up to talk about energy barriers and paths of least resistance.
“Does it strike the Hub?” Tris interrupted.
“It has, but the Hub’s protected,” Niko began, and started to explain about lightning rods, headed solidly for conductance and the ways magic could form new low-resistance paths for the energy to flow through.
“Is that Niko I hear?” Moonstream asked. Her door had opened. Niko looked over, and saw her laughing at him, her eyes warm and warning. Consider your audience, she said by flicking her eyes downward to Tris and back. Niko’s cheeks went warm. Moonstream gestured for him to come into her office.
“Quite the bang just then,” she said once he was inside, as another, quieter bang resounded just beyond the door. Moonstream did not react and so, with an effort, neither did Niko.
“Lightning strike. Tris did it,” he said.
“Did she,” said Moonstream. “Have you talked to her yet about governing her powers?”
“She’s ten,” said Niko, thinking of what Lark had said about cultivating the person before the mage. “They come out when she feels threatened, I’ve been trying to give her a chance to feel safe, she’s in a new place, she barely knows me, her family just rejected her -“
“And that lightning strike could have hit a person,” said Moonstream. “Lark and Rosethorn will care for her as a child. Her lessons in control cannot wait for her to become a murderess.”
“Understood,” said Niko, feeling the blood drain from his face. He’d thought ‘kill’ before; he hadn’t thought of it in terms of murder. “I’ll figure something out.”
The door flew open. A new dedicate winked at Niko. “Honored Moonstream, I’ve had enough!” she announced, and slammed the door. So that was what that bang had been.
“Was she really that bad?” Niko asked.
“Sandrilene? No, she’s a dear - perhaps too dear. A few of the girls in her dormitory were, she tells me, being cruel to another girl, and Sandrilene defended her. Passionately. I was informed that she used unladylike language, and that her unconventional upbringing was leading her to fail to be the role model her position demands of her. If you hadn’t wanted her in Discipline, I’ve have kept her there and gladly - we could use more of that unladylike behavior, and that role modeling.”
“Well, I thank you for your prompt service,” Moonstream interjected. “To business. Trisana we can transfer with no more than a letter to her parents informing them of a new address, but what do we tell Duke Vedris?”
“Ah,” said Niko. “Trisana’s family… did not request a means of contact.”
“Then I make doubly certain the record is properly filed, and forego the letter,” said Moonstream calmly, as if she were granting the benediction of accountability, a cocoon of protective bureaucracy. “Duke Vedris.”
“Also not a problem,” said Niko. “He suggested this path for Sandry - a letter with his consent to move her to Discipline should be on file.”
Moonstream studied him. “That is a striking display of foresight and maturity, young man,” she said. Niko bowed.
“I am a vision mage,” he said. “And it was the duke’s idea.”
“Very well. All is resolved,” said Moonstream, and led them back outside. She summarized their sentence - making no comment about how Discipline was a home for mages, Niko noted, nor that Tris would be starting magic lessons posthaste - and looked to Niko to get them settled at Discipline.
“I don’t want to settle in,” Tris muttered. Niko grinned.
“It’s my pleasure to take them to Discipline,” he said.
Sandry babbled the whole way, and Niko watched Tris. Sandry took very little effort to respond to - she was agreeable, and had been brought up learning the art of conversation. Tris was quiet, resignedly sulking, apparently in her own bubble, but equally obviously aware of everything around her. She stopped Sandry from toppling over almost without thinking about it, and Niko wondered if she were always so aware, or only when she was moving, and if she were always aware if it were a personal or a magical quirk -
“Steady her,” Niko told Sandry, and was gratified when the girl grabbed one of Tris’s arms. The earth rolled around them.
“Another tremor,” Niko muttered when the ground seemed to have reliably stilled again. “That’s how many since the spring equinox? Five?”
For once Tris answered him, and he wasn’t even fishing this time. “Six,” she said, and jerked her army away from him and Sandry.
Oh dear, Niko thought unhappily. It goes into the ground as well. He would never find a mage who shared Tris’s breadth of power. He would be stuck here for years, his mother was going to kill him, and he was startled by his relief that no one was going to take bright, prickly Tris away from him. He’d have to start work on lesson plans properly, but that seemed distant and unimportant when Tris was gray and trembling and quite literally pulling away from everyone around her.
“Do you want to tell me what happened here?” Niko asked. “I don’t remember you having spells like this on our way home.”
“No I don’t want to talk about it!” Tris snapped. “I don’t talk to anyone about anything anymore!” She wiped her sweaty face on her sleeve.
“You - “ Niko began, and stopped. He couldn’t offer her an option and then not take a clear no when it was given. He reached in his pocket and handed her his handkerchief. “I hope these tremors aren’t a sign of a big quake to come,” he said instead.
When Tris offered her handkerchief back to him - without looking in his direction, he noted - he swapped it with a comb. He could tell he was going to have to invest in combs, with Tris as a student. He spent the rest of the walk wondering what kind of comb one invested in when one knew one would need a lot of them, and also that they would have to survive explosive magical accidents. If Tris didn't have any, he was certain that he would.
Rosethorn was not out front today. Blatant favoritism. Instead, Sandry stopped dead, staring at Lark’s workshop.
“Wonderful,” she breathed. “I wonder how it’s woven?”
I wonder when she will teach you to make your own, Niko thought. He said, “You may examine it later. Go on in now; this is Discipline. Your new home.”
Tris scowled when he said it, and he wondered how many times she had heard that, and if he would ever stop tripping over his tongue around her.
They caught Briar near the herbs hanging by the hearth. He looked guilty, which reminded Niko of a rumor he had heard the evening before.
“Good morning, Briar. I want a word with you. Oh, and I’ve brought you some housemates.”
“Wasn’t me,” said Briar automatically, and then, “Wonderful. More girls."
“It could be worse,” said Daja, emerging from a side room carrying her box. “It could be more boys."
Niko smiled with relief; so she was settling in, then.
“Daja! You live here?” Sandry asked
“Since yesterday,” said Daja, and Niko was barely past thinking that Sandry knew everyone when Daja and Tris were starting a fight and Lark appeared like magic to put a stop to it.
Niko performed introductions to Lark, and Lark to Daja and Briar, and the children disappeared to claim their new rooms. Niko, hesitating about whether to grab Briar’s attention or Lark’s, was startled when the boy grabbed him instead.
“It wasn’t me nicked them things, Niko,” he said, and Niko looked down into wide, earnest eyes. What did I do to earn his respect? he wondered, because it wasn’t fear he saw there. “If they told you I did -”
“I know you didn’t,” Niko said quietly, remembering every night on the way home from Sotat. Briar hadn’t tested his wards once. “But - knives, Briar?”
“I need -“
"Knives? If you need to defend yourself, there are better ways. More civilized ways. Look at Daja.”
“Carry a staff? People’d think I was a Trader.”
Briar’s face screwed up. Slowly, with the head twisting as it did so, it resolved itself into a grin. “Could be fun,” he said.
“Good.” Niko held his hand out. “The knives, Briar. Now, if you please.”
“But I don’t have -“
It was a productive lunch. Niko got food, and permission to take Tris out for meditation the afternoon, and the assurance that the children were all in the right place now, and one moment aside with Lark.
“Lark,” he said, and hesitated. Lark glanced back toward the children, reminding him that he didn’t have the time for protracted discussions anymore. “Does Dedicate Moonstream ever seem… divine, to you?”
“Of course,” said Lark, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “She is close to the gods. What did she ask of you?”
“That I teach Tris.”
“Then you had better get to it. As had I,” said Lark, and walked back towards where the children were most recently gathered.
Nik sauntered away, then spent the afternoon frantically reading up on all types of weather magic, and trying to think how to reach Tris. Why couldn’t she just be easy, like Sandry?
If she were, you wouldn’t find her half so interesting, Niko thought, and decided to have her meditate on the tides. The waves would keep time for him, and he could focus on Tris, and working out just how broad her power was.
Once he had a plan, he came back to find Tris taking a mid-afternoon nap. She shrieked when he opened her door, and Niko realized he should have left her her space. Once again he had stepped wrong, with nowhere to go but forward.
“Come on. Let’s take a walk,” he said. “It’s time to sort a few things out.” Past time, and that was his fault.
“I don’t want to,” said Tris, scowling.
Niko thought back to Briar and the knives and made what his panicking university student brain recognized as an Appeal to Authority (mine). "Now, Trisana,” he said.
Tris hesitated. “Did you ask Lark?”
An Appeal to Authority (higher), Niko thought, amused and unsurprised that Lark had already, somehow, become a higher power. “Lark has already given permission. Up, young lady.”
They were half way out of the house when he heard Tris try, “Lark, Niko wants to take me somewhere.”
He glanced back and saw Lark sorting through threads he knew she was preparing for a lesson with Sandry. She offered Niko carte blanche power without appearing to think about it. Niko grinned.
“Good try,” he told Tris. Here was a girl with her wits about her. Catch anyone kidnapping her. “Come on now.”
She followed silently, doubtless thinking dark thoughts, as Niko led her along paths he followed more by feel than by sight, out the temple city and toward the cliff, where Niko had been forbidden until he’d started spending more time out of the blindfold than in it.
As if summoned, the vít came, weak now and familiar: Niko himself, climbing another grassy hill back in Karang. Alone, but at sufficient distance that he couldn’t tell how old he was, if this were past or future; but he could make out every golden stalk of late summer grass, high and close to harvest.
He closed his eyes, treasuring the memory and for a moment deeply, pleasantly homesick, and then he opened his eyes on Winding Circle’s cliffs. He stepped off the path some smith’s apprentice had shown him and guided Tris down the rough and tumble path - no place for a blind man here - to the cave everyone knew about which was mostly too much bother to explore. They had it to themselves.
“This will do,” he said. “Have a seat.”
“Why?” asked Tris, bless her.
Niko considered this, his thoughts slow and lazy in anticipation of meditation, of not being needed for thinking anymore. “Because I ask. Because you don’t have anything else to do just now. Because I’m going to teach you something.”
“Can’t you just give me a book and leave me alone?”
“Some things you learn a lot more easily by doing. Sit, please.” Her skirts rustled - his eyes were already closed, anticipating meditation again, and he forced them back open, his mind back alert. He sighed. “I wish that by now you could trust me.”
It sounded plaintive to his ear, and there was no reply. When he looked over, Tris’s face was turned to the sky.
“Everyone I ever trusted sent me away,” she said.
Niko had nothing to say to that. He wanted to tell her he would never leave, but even as he thought it his soul cried out for travel, for the open reach of sea, for the places he had heard of and never seen and those he had seen but never heard or touched. He wanted to tell her Lark would be there for her, or Rosethorn, but no sooner opened his mouth than he thought of fire and plague and all the works and days of violent men. He wanted to tell her that they were wrong about her, those people who had left her, that she was precious and valuable and worthy not just of love but of admiration and awe, and that one day she would be in so much demand that it was his job to teach her, somehow, that there were people who did not deserve her trust or love. Just as she did not give them to him now.
He squeezed her fingers, a touch of I am here that was more for him than for her. “Then I will just have to hope that you will change your mind someday. In the meantime, you’re going to learn meditation.”
“Why?” she demanded immediately. “The others don’t have to.”
“They start tomorrow. As for you, why now? Things happen when you get angry, Tris. First hail, now lightning - if you don’t learn to control yourself, you will kill someone.” Moonstream’s words echoed in his mouth, and he wondered if they had been an echo in hers.
“How do you know?”
“Because knowing things is what I do. It’s what I’m here for. I do vision magic, and I do it -” better than anyone else “- well, and if you like I can scry your future but for now you will accept it when I say, as an oracle Dedicate Moonstream herself consults, that if you learn to meditate, if you learn to control your mind, you will be able to keep things from happening when you are upset.”
He was about to add, again, “And if you do not, you will kill someone,” but he could see that what he had just said touched her more deeply than any threat of murder.
“What do I do?” she croaked.
Niko smiled. “Breathe with the waves,” he said, and they began.
After Tris’s success, Niko was almost looking forward to teaching meditation to the rest of the group. He sent Lark a message with one of Gorse’s assistants and a large pie, asking the children to meet him at the Hub in the morning, and another to Moonstream humbly asking if one of the quieter floors might be vacated for a time in case of some crackling meditation overflow. He didn’t expect trouble - things were usually quieter in a group as students balanced each other, and if nothing else he and Daja ought to be enough to ground the rest of them - but if something did go wrong with these four it would go very wrong indeed, and he was not surprised to get Moonstream’s approval for a full hour.
He went over the wards himself beforehand, and set up a few of his own within the perimeter of the Hub’s sealing. And then, because he had the time for it, he went back to his room and lit a candle for Pippa.
The thought of her didn’t weigh him down with guilt or sorrow or loss this time. Instead, sitting before her votive presence felt restful, like meditation, in a way Pippa herself had never been. She’d been - like Tris, electrifying, brilliant, sparking across his life. And flaring out.
It wasn’t a comfortable absence either; he still carried guilt, shame, and sorrow, but they were paler now, regrets rather than devastations. He held her in inherited books that he couldn’t decide to put on his bookshelf, in scraps of song and in invented spells. He held her in his mind, for now, and lowered her to his heart.
“Dear friend, I wasn’t enough for you,” he whispered, wondering as he said it if he had been, instead, too much. “Help me to be enough, to be grounded and correctly composed, for those I am about to teach.”
With nothing settled, but comfortably so, he blew out the candle and left Pippa there as he went to meet the children.
They were waiting in a group, Tris looking shaken and awed, a girl hovering at each elbow. She didn’t look like she had shaken them off. Briar was standing slightly apart, angled so he could see behind the girls; he jumped when he heard Niko, and relaxed when he saw him. Again Niko had that moment wondering what he had done to earn Briar’s trust, and what he could do to deserve it. It felt like Pippa’s ghost.
“Come on then,” he said, and Sandry followed first - of course it was Sandry, Sandry was always so easy - except, Niko recalled, thinking of the dormitory dedicate, that that was because he had never asked her to do something she didn’t want to do. Behind her came Daja who, Niko was beginning to suspect, had never done anything because she did want to.
They balanced each other, the four of them. He would be lucky to be a part of that - all the more so if they responded as well to meditation as Tris had. And if they did - what an adventure that would be!
Did a journey have to be physical? he wondered, answering Sandry’s question about the wards in the walls. Did one have to go somewhere, or could one be just as excited, just as awed and dumbfounded, by watching realization grow on someone else’s face? Certainly he had agreed to stay here for several years; but that was beginning to look less like a prison and more like a potential, the opportunity to watch someone else’s adventures until his began again. Like his duty could be not the toil of a professional obligation, but the joy of compassion, of empathy, of the shared delight he had found in uncovering new magic.
With children like these, he thought, cracking one eye to see all of them still and breathing rhythmically on their first try, their adventures would be something that would need a vision great mage just to observe in full.
He couldn’t wait to watch them in qar.