Chapter 1: Niko
Niklaren - Niko really, since he hadn’t been able to make Goldeye stick - spent his twenty-first birthday blindfolded and bumping into things, and mourning his friend Pippa. With his eyes open, lashes crushed against the blindfold, he still saw flashes of visions, brightness and color disproportionate to the light that filtered through Lark’s soft weaving. The blindfold was to remind him that he couldn’t see, that everything he still glimpsed was a mirage, vít.
They were only guessing at the treatment, and it hadn’t worked for Pippa, but by his birthday, Niko was no longer getting visions with his eyes closed, the terrible day-dreams that had haunted him all the way to Winding Circle. He’d developed a slow, shuffling walk, kicking out first to see - ha - if anything was in his way. And he had started to listen more, remembering his visions never came with sound. And he had time to think, because Winding Circle was very quiet.
The week after his birthday he told Rosethorn at dinner (Rosethorn, to whom he would always be grateful for the simplicity of her treatment) that he was thinking of traveling, once they agreed he was ready to take the blindfold off.
“I’ll break off my studies,” he said. “I don’t think I really ought to be learning more, after what I’ve done to myself with knowledge already. I’ll just… travel for a while. See the world. For real, I mean.”
He was talking because Lark and Rosethorn were not. When he faded out, the silence remained, leaving Niko wondering if he should have used the technical term after all: qar, vision in person, without magic. In the silence he studied his blindfold: red, light-woven and silky, and he closed his eyes against a vision beginning to form in that haze.
“You didn’t show him?” Lark asked.
“No sense in showing him anything when he can’t see.”
“Rosethorn.” Lark got up and left the room. Niko, bemused, applied himself to his dinner, pushing peas around with his spoon, reflecting that every meal was a surprise these days.
He heard Lark come back only seconds before she took his hand and put a disk of metal into it. “Here you go. I think this is the shortest way to let you know.”
Niko let go of his spoon and explored the circle with both hands. Light and cold and with a raised pattern - someone had worked hard on this. He traced the pattern softly with one finger, two long arcs intersecting at the ends, a circle between them -
“This is pity,” said Niko in disgust, dropping the mage medallion on the table.
“Yes,” said Rosethorn. “They expected you to be inhumed by now. The question is, what are you going to do about it?”
It took Niko a moment to answer, sorting through anger and self-pity and renewed grief. “I’ll return it. I’ll turn it down. I didn’t earn this.”
“Really,” said Rosethorn. “And what comes after that? At some point you return to get your accreditation, show them your mastery of vision magic by - looking into the past, perhaps? A feat you do by accident now. And that makes you worthy, where merely failing to die did not.”
“And what is my alternative? Accepting a medallion out of pity, because I didn’t happen to die?”
“Or you take this and you use it to make them proud to claim you,” said Rosethorn.
“Eat your peas,” Lark added. “You don’t have to decide now.”
“And if you want a graduation that means something,” said Rosethorn, “I think you’re good enough with that blindfold to start washing dishes.”
A week later, while Niko was helping her in her workshop, Lark suggested he try taking the blindfold off, at least for short intervals. Niko refused.
“I can open my eyes inside the blindfold, you know. I still get visions.” They were worse visions, too, all the shades of a battlefield hidden in silk, as if to punish him for trying to avoid them.
He felt the tension in the yarn Lark was winding off his fingers drop for a moment as, presumably, her hands stilled; and then picked up again. He tried to help out where he could outside of chores, attempting to shore up some support against the chasm of debt he was building as they helped him. He would never find something valuable enough to repay this healing.
“We don’t know if the visions will ever taper off,” she said carefully. “This was never supposed to be a permanent solution. The idea is to teach you anchors so that you know what is real.”
“If you want to be voluntarily blind for the rest of your life, that is your choice,” said Lark, and hesitated herself; she was not Rosethorn. She meant it when she offered this as a choice. “But I would not grant a medallion to someone who made that choice.”
“It’s not only that they aren’t real,” said Niko, aware that he was explaining basics to a great mage, aware that he was whining. “Some of them are, or will be, or might be. Some of them are horrible.”
“Life is horrible,” said Lark gently. The yarn tugged softly against Niko’s hands, loosing another turn into Lark’s hands. “If you do travel, you will come to know that. The slums of Sotat, the castes of Khapik, the violence and piracy everywhere - life is horrible. It’s your choice what you do about that, with whatever power you are given.”
“Like hide away from it in a pleasant little temple?” Niko jibed, and bit his tongue.
“Or dancing to bring joy to those who have nothing else,” said Lark evenly. “Do you think you, with all your vision magic, know better than I do what to do with my powers?”
“I didn’t mean it -“
“Not to me. You might to someone else. So remember that the horrors of the world do not require us to break ourselves against them. They don’t require anything of us - which is itself a horror, and a gift.”
She lifted the last of the yarn off Niko’s fingers. He dropped his hands and shook them, flicking the fingers. Then he raised his hands to the blindfold, and pushed it tentatively up onto his brow.
Lark smiled at him. The smile brought out lines in her face that it had deepened by its practice, and lit warm tones in her gold-tinged skin. She was beautiful, and nothing like Niko had imagined, and everything like her voice; and every inch of her glistened with magic, orderly and tight-woven like it was fresh off a loom. Pippa had looked like that, thick with ordered magic, and Niko’s heart lurched, and he looked away.
The yarn she had taken was loosely coiled on the floor between them, a plain, undyed assortment of off-white. Niko compared it to the depth of color and subtle pattern in Lark’s green dedicates’ robe and came up with only questions.
“Sometimes the work of a great mage is knitting ugly sweaters for the poor, that won’t get stolen and can’t be sold,” said Lark. “Very rarely does one thunder from the mountaintops.”
There was a blurring in Niko’s eyes, a rearrangement of the colors into new buds on a highland tree, moors stretching out around it yellow-brown with winter. He could see forever on this plateau, the landscape occasionally dotted with sheep, the sun beginning to sink down within a handspan of the grass sea’s horizon. He rested his hands on his knees and breathed, drinking the beauty in - and the silence. He blinked and it was gone.
Children with strange faces ran through a foreign city. He couldn’t get his bearings, even to say what country he was in, or if the buildings were the same when he looked back at them. Were the children happy? Someone was chasing them, and he could see one nearby laughing, reaching out to tag the one in front of him, but there was a knife in his hand and blood flew into Niko’s face -
He tugged the blindfold down, and scrunched his eyes closed. There was nothing on his face but silk.
Lark said nothing, and settled a new hank of wool onto Niko’s outstretched hands. He couldn’t touch anything in visions either.
“Better than before,” he said, took a deep breath, and swallowed. “Not as good as next time.”
He spent the next month peeking at the world from underneath his blindfold. He learned rules: there was usually some connection between what he saw in the real world and what he saw in visions, as if he were peeking into the consciousness of an omnipresent being - sometimes color, sometimes theme, sometimes an unsettling connection to his own thoughts. He learned tricks: sometimes a wink, a blink, even a squint might clear the vision; sometimes, by expending his own magic (at an alarming rate) he could hold on to one scene. Maybe because of the visions, his magic mostly lay in him weak as a kitten.
He switched to a black headband because, when he wasn’t sneaking peeks of the real world, it mostly showed him scenes at night. They weren’t any more peaceful than the others, but he could tell when the light suddenly changed. He took to wearing more black just in case. He was mourning Pippa anyway.
His family wrote him letters, asking if he was all right, asking when he was coming home, asking when he would be useful to them again. Niko assumed the questions, anyway; he let the letters pile up in a corner of his room in Discipline, unread and unanswered.
He meditated a lot. A lot. If he wasn’t asleep he was meditating, cultivating a half-dazed, aloof mindset that he wanted to call serenity, but it scared him as much as it helped. He wanted to cry when he saw the remains of a battlefield, not calmly test whether the squint of a smile would make it disappear.
Pippa would have had more ideas. She would have worked him harder. She should have worked harder herself! She’d left him here alone, where Lark gave him space and Rosethorn gave him a blindfold and told him to work it out himself, where neither said anything when the blindfold was wet and stained with tears.
He prayed for her, when he wasn’t meditating, or doing Rosethorn’s chores. He was lost in a sea of temples, as well; Shurri would do nothing for Pippa’s soul, and so he asked every god he could think of for their mercy, bargained desperately with them: I will do that for myself, if you will let her rest. I will do your will, if you will let her rest. I will live, if you will let her rest. He was the one who had pushed her into this. He would have given anything for her second chance. The gods, and the world, had given that only to him.
So he spent the summer meditating, and praying, and spending longer intervals looking at the world for as long as he could bear, like some apprentice learning to qar instead of to scry, turning exhausted from the true sight of the world. Turning the medallion over in his hand, wondering what to do with it, wondering what to do with himself, putting it back in its drawer. Some time that winter he made a decision, and the medallion stayed in its drawer.
The vít, the rabid visions, did decrease in frequency over the season. He liked to think that it was from all the time since the experiment, that the effects were slackening, or his body healing, but it could have been the weather or anything else. It wasn’t the tools and practices he was developing; those might clear a vision, but they did nothing to stave off the next one.
By fall he was squinting, blinking, tossing his head - but only wearing the blindfold for a few hours a day. And some of the twitching was an old habit, reacting to the magics he saw all over Winding Circle, or to the flash of someone lying. Not vít or even scrywork, but only enhanced qar; he was glad to have that ability back, even if it too was unpredictable now. If ever there were a way to earn money from vision magic, it was in the courts - and thence came Niko’s devotion to Shurri Firesword.
He was part way through enchanting a bowl to aid in his truthsaying the night he came down to dinner wearing the medallion. It barely stood out from the depths of black cloth that Niko had taken to wearing, but both Lark and Rosethorn noticed it immediately - and said nothing. The tension built as he waited for them to ask until, at last, he broke it.
“I didn’t die,” he said. “I’m not going to. I’m going to travel, and I’m going to travel as a mage. I’m going to make these visions work for me. I can make them last. I have some ideas for how to direct them. If they keep slacking off, I’ll start having more magic left over for other things. I can -”
“Hm,” said Rosethorn, stopping him at last.
“Where are you going to travel to?” Lark asked, and all Niko’s preparations were washed away by a question he had not considered.
“I’m waiting for the right vision. Something to tell me where I need to go. Not all this - nonsense.” He gestured vaguely at his eyes, embarrassed to use the word even if they knew it.
“Something grand and glorious?” Lark asked. Niko met her eyes.
“Someone in trouble,” he said. He didn’t tell her it was about penance for Pippa, or about how he hardly batted an eye at fields of slaughter anymore.
“You ought to know,” said Rosethorn, “that you’re about up to the power of your average academic hedgewitch.”
Strong as a hedgewitch when he was still drained from constant vít, sleeplessness, and working on an enchantment. Niko said, “I know I’m stronger than most mages.”
“Just don’t be an ass about it.”
And that was the end of the interview. They had dinner. Niko waited for the right vision, and continued to wait, for clarity of sight and spring storms. He helped Rosethorn till her garden, and Lark set up her loom. And he waited.
It came after he was dreaming of Rosethorn, the sort of dream a boy couldn’t help having every now and again. He woke in a start and sat bolt upright, sweat pouring off his shoulders. Slowly, his eyes adjusted and he remembered it was just a dream - a horrible, embarrassing dream, but ephemeral as the moonlight that shone on the floor from the crack -
That wasn’t the floor; it was waist high. And it was not a crack in the window or the door but a thin gleam of braided light, red and green and grey wrapping around each other. Niko traced it first one way, to a barrel, and then the other, wanting to know how it was done - and found an unbelievably small girl, looking terrified, her fingers fumbling against the strings, with only a centimeter left unlit in her hands.
“Please,” he saw her mouth, as the last fibers passed through her fingers, and, “No, no, no -“
The light went out. Niko woke screaming, not sure if he had been asleep or not, but this time he saw moonlight pooled on the floor.
Really, battlefields and slums and this is what you panic about? he asked himself. His heart was still hammering, adrenaline in his blood demanding that he do something.
And why not? he thought suddenly. Why not try to find this girl? He had said he wanted to travel, and to control his vision. If he could bend his sight to finding this girl, bring her obvious thread magic to Lark - wouldn’t that satisfy his ambitions and pay Lark and Rosethorn both for his care?
He’d start in the morning, first thing, he thought, and rolled over.
After another sleepless moment, he got up and started working.
Chapter 2: Sandry
When Lark found him in the morning, knocking on his door because he still hadn’t come to breakfast, he had a glowglobe and a mirror bespelled and hadn’t slept a wink.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I think she’s in a palace of some kind,” Niko said. “I think she’s not in trouble yet. But soon. Damn palaces all look the same.”
“You need food,” said Lark. “You’re tapped out now in any case. Food and sleep. I take it you found your ‘someone in trouble?’”
“Yes,” said Niko. “I have to -“
“You just said she’s not in trouble yet. Come. Eat.”
He decided, on the way to breakfast, not to tell her about the thread magic. He would surprise her with that later.
“Look, Rosie,” said Lark. “Look what Niko made.”
She had his glowglobe. Niko said, “It won’t last - I don’t have the craft for that.” The mirror might, if he gave it some more effort - he could start an extra layer of spells after breakfast, if he began with Korla’s -
“Then stop feeding it now while the sun’s out,” said Rosethorn, gesturing at the cord of magic between him and the globe. “If you can’t support it, prune it.”
Niko did so, and he did feel a little better for it. The porridge helped even more, and the sunlight when Lark shooed him into it. The vít seemed as worn out as he was; it gave him occasional visions of lazy shepherds, but otherwise left him alone.
“If I have to exhaust myself for a moment’s peace, I’ll meet an early grave yet,” he murmured, and by evening he was only a little better and his visions had fully recovered, pestering him with images of strangers dickering in marketplaces. He put his blindfold on to sleep again, as he hadn’t in a week. He’d go as mad dreaming of fishers and basketweavers as he would of gibbets and oubliettes.
He spent the next week in more measured attempts to narrow his visions - sometimes to just a glance of blue eyes, but he tried to remember that those were as much of a success as the glimpses of wider scenes. When he got too frustrated, he dribbled magic into the mirror, trying to fix spells so they would stay without draining himself entirely. And he wrote home, apologizing that he wasn’t healed, that he wasn’t coming back, that he wasn’t finished. Not yet.
He ought to feel homesick and guilty, but his heart was light and his stomach heavy with the prospect of going forth, of experiencing new places in the light of qar, and his heart sang that he was doing something, at last he was doing something with all the potential that ran hot in his veins.
He figured out it was Hatar the day they got news that there was smallpox in Zakdin. He emerged in triumph to find Rosethorn grimly packing bottles.
“It’s Hatar,” he announced.
“I know, boy. None of this will get there in time to help anyone who wouldn’t recover anyway.”
Niko took a moment to count the negatives in that sentence, and then said, “So what are you talking about?”
Lark was the one who told him, after Rosethorn snapped that she was busy. Plague in Zakdin - and by the time anyone recognized an ‘outbreak’ was really an epidemic and sent a ship for help and sat through quarantine and political negotiations, it was a month later. If Winding Circle mobilized by tomorrow, they would still be five weeks late when they arrived on the scene.
“Not worth the bother,” Rosethorn grumbled, filling another basket with remedies.
“I’m ready today,” said Niko, hefting the bag he had packed a week ago. “My girl’s in Zakdin.”
Lark and Rosethorn stared at him. Rosethorn’s hands stilled.
“I’ll get a cart,” she told Lark. “Don’t weave too tight, the magic hurts his eyes.”
It took them two hours to get a cart packed full of medicines and protective garments for Niko to take to the port. They sent a novice with him to take the cart back and to take inventory on the way. Niko would still have been annoyed at the delay, except that Lark had spent it custom-enchanting protective garments for him.
“We’ll be sending dedicates a day or two behind you,” she said. “But - every drop and every hour counts.”
“I’ll get this where it needs to go,” Niko promised, and set off at speed for Summersea, leaving Discipline behind him as thoughtlessly as he had left home for Lightsbridge, and Lightsbridge for Winding Circle. He caught a ship bound for the Battle Islands, close enough, just before it set out. And then… he waited.
All that rushing, to sit on his heels on a deck, blindfolded against vít of sickness and death, and wait. When he had a chance, he snuck in scrywork of their destination, looking for a ship bound for Derran, Dupon, or Zakdin. With the loan of the captain’s messenger bird, this gave him a two hour window to transfer the boxes to another ship - another flurry of action, only to sit for two more days waiting to reach Dupon. This time he scried his girl, and found a blackness that had him biting his nails.
The renewed focus on the girl in the darkness seemed to pique the interest of his affliction, and he started seeing, ví∂aya, more children. This close to pox-infected Zakdin, that was not a gift. He clung to the fragments with no pox scars, even when they were not happy pictures: a tiny redhead setting unhappily on a suitcase, a Gyongxan boy with a ball, a skinny boy begging in Anderran, a black girl staring at a smith with fascination.
He saw the black girl on Dupon, actually. She was dressed in Trader blue and white, striding confidently toward the docks when Niko was transferring his medicines into a rowboat that had agreed to take him to Zakdin. She looked happy, like she owned the port; her skin glistened with magic, one of the dull stars Niko saw across Dupon, mercifully dimmer than the constellations of Winding Circle. Niko waved to her, but she didn’t notice.
Half way across the channel, he saw her being dragged out of a forge and beaten, but he could not ask the fisherwoman to go back. And she was not his to save.
In Zakdin, the fisherwoman put Niko out ten feet from an unpopulated beach. She wouldn’t go near the wharves and she wouldn’t set foot on land. Niko tied back his mask and carried the boxes to the beach. And waved to the fisherwoman. And realized he was standing alone on a beach by a plague-ridden city.
“So this is adventure,” he said, not liking it, and shifted the boxes up above the tide line.
The city was terrible. Niko threw up, and found himself fiercely, perversely glad that he had, that the past months of nightmare visions had not inured him to the reality of streets where too few remained living to move the dead from where they had fallen. Those who remained refused to come out of their quarantine. He found three such enclaves before someone would agree to talk to him from an upstairs window, to give him directions to the infirmary and to a courtyard where “the younger Aymery, what’s dead now” had kept a hand cart.
He should have gone on to the infirmary for help, not back to the beach with the cart; but he was beyond making decisions rationally, at a point where all there was to do was to take the next step, and the one after, and hope the journey would end in time. He was crying. He was praying aloud to go home, and not certain where he meant. And none of it registered, because he had to go on; and because anyone watching only saw another invalid dying of the pox. No one saw a mage with so much promise, embarked on a grand adventure, blinded by visions. No one helped , no matter how many times he asked.
He couldn’t see where he was pushing the cart, especially when the vít was on him, and he kept rolling it over bumps that were usually curbs, but sometimes people. At least the visions could not get worse than reality, for once; even they could not show him a Lark who had contracted pox. Even they could not replicate the sound of his voice apologizing to corpses he had trod on.
When he reached the infirmary at last, he was done in. He managed to knock on the door, and call out, “Delivery, from Winding Circle Temple,” and then he slumped against the wall like an invalid. They had him on a cot before anyone realized he wasn’t sick.
“Bespelled masks! Powdered ginger! Willowbark! ” the healers cried, unpacking boxes like it was Longnight. Niko listened, sitting on the bed with a cup of warm broth and his blindfold blissfully lowered.
“There’ll be more, and likely reinforcements, in the next few days,” he said proudly. “That’s Rosethorn’s best work there.”
“Bless you, child, you’re a hero,” said one of the healers, which was exactly what he wanted to hear, and he was too tired to enjoy it. “What can we ever do to repay you?”
“I need a locksmith and a strong back to scout the palace tomorrow,” Niko said. “I’m pretty sure it’s empty and you can move up there. And I’m looking for someone.”
“Pretty sure? Were you up there or no?”
“Don’t have to be. I’m Niklaren Goldeye,” said Niko, holding out his mage medallion, using his mage-name for the first time, scraping up some of the student arrogance that used to come so naturally. “When I say a thing, it’s so.”
They started calling him Master Niklaren after that. And he got his locksmith and two strong backs, though they had few to spare.
But it was hard to sleep that night, when even without visions he kept seeing that braided light flicker out.
The strong backs insisted on clearing detritus out of the road as they went. Niko was dancing with impatience.
“There is a life on the line here,” he said. His companions just looked around.
“There’s a lot more at stake at the infirmary. The sooner we can get them up there, the more they might save.”
“Somewhere with light.”
“And space between cots.”
“Maybe even fresh water,” the locksmith sighed. They turned back to Niko.
“So if we can get a cart through, Master Niklaren, that’d be real helpful, yeah?”
Niko satisfied himself with saying repeated prayers for the dead. Not enough, not even for those they passed by, but a start on the long litany of mourning for the unnameable dead.
When they approached the palace he stopped, just long enough to check the walls for guards. In a minority of visions, the king of Hatar still sheltered there, and tried to fight them off; in another minority, it had been found and claimed by other survivors. But here, it was quiet.
“This way,” he said, and led them to the throne room, where they goggled at the space. “Do we need to test the water still, or can we go save a child’s life?”
One of the strong backs smiled at him. “Smallpox is spread by people, not water,” she said. “We can find your child.”
“ Finally ,” said Niko. “Come on.”
He urged them down hallways and through doors, not entirely certain what words he used to goad them along until they got right to the door and one of them said, “I don’t see anything!”
“You won’t see anything,” Niko snapped, staring right at a glimmering silver door. “It’s spelled for concealment.”
Spelled stronger than Niko had the power to remove, right now. Ordinarily, he would have pulled it aside like a curtain; now he stood examining it impatiently. It wasn’t spelled smarter than Niko, and in seconds Niko was smiling smugly. Don’t want to show what’s there? he thought. Fine; I’ll just show what’s doing the hiding.
He cast his own illusion over the traces of magic on the wall, outlining the concealment in light and truth, every crease in the door, every nick in the lock.
“ Now do you see it?” he demanded. “I want the locksmith.”
“You’ve got ‘im, Master Niklaren,” said the locksmith, and got to work. Niko leaned back and tapped his feet as the locksmith worked whatever mundane magic one did to open locked doors, and pulled the twice-glistening door aside.
“Urda bless me, what a stink!” one of the strong backs said, which was rich after everything that had been reeking in the infirmary.
“Move,” said Niko to the locksmith, and found his hands trembling as he stepped into the room. It did stink - but it stank of piss and excrement, not of disease. And he was about to meet the first person he had ever found by vision alone. Vision, and his own powers triumphant.
“My child?” he asked, and regretted the phrasing immediately, he sounded like his own worst great-uncle, and it was too late. “My name is Niklaren Goldeye. I’ve been looking for you.”
The woman in their group offered him a lantern. Niko raised it, and the girl screamed.
That was… not what Niko had envisioned for this meeting.
They moved the girl to a room well away from the infirmary, where there were shutters that could let the light in gradually. Niko understood that; he had the room next door, and was in a similar state of grateful collapse, letting light in under his blindfold one fold at a time. He had overworked his visions and relapsed; or perhaps the overlap between vision and reality caused him to regress, left him lying in bed and twitching with constant visions.
Months of healing, destroyed in a week, and no Lark here to heal him this time, no Rosethorn to point the way and force him down it. He could have screamed. He considered drugs, sedatives, dropping into untroubled sleep as the visions passed him by, but he knew what happened to drugged mages, and he was terrified of slipping into a helpless sleep that the vít could still enter.
So he listened. First to the clack of looms, then to the healer novice who came to sit with him to duck hospital duty. The novice told him that it took the rest of the supplies from Winding Circle three days to arrive, unguided by Niko’s visions of exactly where and when to take ship. Until then, Niko’s supplies had held the hospital together.
“It was pretty grim without them,” said the novice, followed by a hesitant, “sir.” He seemed uncomfortable with calling someone his own age ‘sir,’ but equally uncomfortable leaving it out in addressing the man who had transformed the hospital. Niko was too tired to tell him that he had just done what he could, that it was the second hardest thing he had ever done and put him back at the beginning of the first hardest, and he was too tired to even contemplate the endeavor of healing.
“Tell me about the girl,” he said instead, and kept his attention on his ears as the vít took him from one vision to the next.
The girl’s name was Lady Sandrilene fa Toren, and she was important enough that the king of all Hatar asked after her when he wrote to say it was all right to use the palace as a hospital. It was politic that he said so, for by the time the letter arrived it had been a hospital for a week. Niko, wondering what would have happened if he had refused, saw vít of the city in flames.
Parts of it were in flames, burning the dead; even here, the wind brought the smell of smoke and searing fat. Niko did not raise his blindfold for the qar of that smell, but found some other question for the initiate, asked after Sandrilene. The novice said she had not moved from her bed.
“Are they weaving bandages downstairs?” asked Niko, who also had not moved from his bed. He had woken to the sound of looms, and thought that Lark must be downstairs. “Take me to Sandrilene’s old rooms.”
The novice hesitated, but agreed. He led Niko blindfolded down several corridors, and then:
“There’s a staircase here,” he said. “I’m sorry, sir, it’s narrow -“
Niko raised a hand to his blindfold. He flipped it up for a second, found the stairs and their depth, lowered it again - the streets of this city were dark, and a sickly moon shone above them. Niko blinked and squinted, but they remained until he picked out a pattern of tree leaves against the star-brightened sky.
He made it down the steps, across the palace, and up another few flights to the fa Toren suite, peeking at every staircase. He had developed facility at walking blindfolded, but he did not trust unfamiliar stairs. When he was safely shielded by the blindfold once more, his eyelids stung with the traces of fire escape spells carved into the staircases.
In the fa Toren suite he had to peek more often, steadying himself against a wall as he did so. The rooms were carefully ordered by someone else’s hand, and almost conspicuously clear of magic. Or perhaps Niko was merely accustomed to the homey sparkle of Discipline and Winding Circle.
Sandrilene’s rooms were immediately obvious as the ones covered in wall hangings and baskets of embroidery thread. In discreet corners, tucked into shadows, hung tassels in Trader blue. The tassels reminded Niko of something, and made him feel obscurely guilty, and thereby cross; he lowered his blindfold again and wondered what vision would follow the riot of color in Sandrilene’s room, but nothing came. He held a hand over a basket of embroidery thread, and then remembered the yards of reeking braid they had dug out of the store room.
“Do you see what she used to make these hangings?” he asked the novice. “Grab that. And a couple of the hangings themselves.
“Stealing from a noble?” the novice asked unhappily.
“Bringing her own things to her,” said Niko. Nevertheless, the novice made him carry all of it on the way back, in case someone came looking for the thief.
He hesitated part way back. “Are we near the ball room?” he asked.
“Ye-es,” said the novice. “More of a… sanatorium, just now.”
“Will you take me there?”
“I have to get back to work,” the novice complained, or perhaps only worried that he would be caught slacking. Niko stayed silent until he gave in.
The room was loud with people trying to be quiet - rustling, sneezing, coughing, occasionally bumping into something. It smelled of pox sores, medicines, and stringent cleaners, and every noise echoed into the airy recesses above. Niko tilted his head up, and removed his blindfold.
The artistry was transcendent.
He stood staring for a full minute, as his guide hopped from foot to foot. The painting alone - but the carving - and the way the light floated down through it all - !
When he lowered the blindfold again, it pressed against his eyelids. The silk would probably spot. Niko, walking on, felt as if he were floating as gently as the light that sifted through those windows.
All the way back to his room, his vít bombarded him with flowers and wrought wonders; but he had only imagination for the artistry that had been in front of him, the arresting power of qar.
He stopped by Sandrilene’s room and left the hangings and the lap loom at the bottom of her bed, wishing her such inspiration.
And then he lay down in his own bed, and took the blindfold off, and mentally painted those figures across his own ceiling. His hand reached out, as if he could touch them.
If all I did was enable the sick to die in that beautiful place, he thought, knowing it to be unworthy of those lives, then I have done a great work .
He had done two: a few days later, Sandrilene started weaving a hanging.
Other days were less clear. Niko was not free of battlefields, of sickhouses, of poorhouses and all the injustices of the world, and he was not free of its mundanities, either. On the worst days, the visions came so fast that they were barely scraps of color before the next ones were upon him. On good days he had time to breathe, to begin to meditate, to eat something. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, he began to carve out more good days for himself.
It was faster, and tempting, to just attempt to direct them, but that left him drained and helpless, susceptible to the vít. He did it several times anyway, starting when he caught a glimpse of the Trader girl from Dupon. He saw her beaten several times - a grit-toothed, bloody-mouthed girl surrounded by non-Traders who had wrested her staff from her, a drooping picture of penitence beneath shouting, towering Traders who had dragged her from the forge. Occasionally, a moment of peace in a mast-top, rope wrapped around her legs as they pulled into a port and her grin was swallowed by the wind.
He learned from this. The girl’s skin was matte black in his visions, devoid of magic. For a while he thought he had imagined that embered glint on Dupon, until he saw her peering hungrily at a forge once more, until he happened to vít another palace and saw nothing but carvings and shadows. There was no magic in the vít - no glint of charms or lies, just a dull, dark world like he saw in his nightmares, as if someone had pulled the only thing that made him special out of him.
I’m Master Goldeye, mage of vision, in Hatar on the strength of my gift, he told himself after realizing this, when it seemed the vít would not leave him alone with its dull and empty streets devoid of shine and sparkle. Nothing’s going to take that away from me. Not even that gift.
“Call me Goldeye,” he begged the healer initiate the next time the other boy snuck into his room.
“Goldeye,” said the novice obediently. “Sir?”
“Thank you,” said Niko fervently. “Um… why do people hate Traders?”
“You’re full of weirdness today,” the novice said. “Should I come another time?”
“No,” said Niko. “I was just - seeing things. Why would people attack someone they don’t even know?”
“Anger. Suspicion. Fear. It’s not my job to say,” said the novice. “I just patch ‘em back together afterwards.”
He was not helpful, not guiding like Lark or a professor or animate like Pippa. Pippa. The grief washed over Niko and mixed with the self-pity he was already trying to escape.
“So what makes people angry at Traders?” he asked.
“They spread disease,” said the novice promptly. “Going into places full of dirt and death, coming out and going who-knows-where, who-knows-why. Not like decent folk, that have a reason for being where they are.”
“They’re not like us,” said Niko slowly.
“Exactly,” said the novice. “You want to ask normal questions now?”
“No,” said Niko. “I want to think.” Because the Traders were reviled wherever they went, even places like Zakdin where the dirt and death were thicker than they were. Because the people there gained something from hating them. Because no matter how dirty they were, Traders were spiritually dirtier -
“I’ll go away then,” the novice huffed.
“Don’t,” said Niko, giving in. “Take me over to see Sandrilene.”
He was growing weak physically as well as magically, without being able to see to move his body. Rosethorn would not have stood for it. He leaned on the novice as he hobbled to the next room and sat on Sandrilene’s bed. He could hear her set needles aside when she said, “Hello, Niko.”
“Don’t stop on my account, my lady” he said. “I just came to ask a question. Your nurse was a Trader, right?”
It was the wrong question. Sandrilene’s yes was tight and quiet.
“Tell me about Traders,” he said. “Do they hate smiths?”
“They love smiths,” said Sandrilene, surprised. “They love all craftspeople. The craftspeople create what Traders move about. Traders are the blood of the world.”
“So a Trader smith -”
“Traders don’t have smiths,” said Sandrilene. “They move crafts, they don’t do crafts. When blood clots, bodies fail.” Her voice was soft and puzzled.
“Oh,” said Niko.
The conversation stalled as Niko thought. Doubtless Sandrilene had more to say, but she was quiet, even surrounded by her hangings, even with needle in hand she was lost, and Niko’s mind was elsewhere. He was thinking about what would happen to a mage forbidden to touch magic, about what happened to mages who weren’t taught and how they overblazed.
I imagine I will not be going home, no matter how well I recover, he thought, and was fiercely glad of it, and swallowed by homesickness.
There was another dream during that time which he would only think was significant later: a boy sitting upright, rigid and shirtless on a stool in a dark room. He had one hand outstretched to a low table where the only light source sat, and another clutched the stool underneath him as he bit his lip, ward against his own tremblings. Someone held a tattooist’s needle over him, over his outstretched arm, where a black cross threw Niko out of the vision.
Thieves’ crosses - on the other hand too. A criminal, at that age? Niko came from a good family; he’d never been near a criminal until they took his class at Lightsbridge on the tour of the courts, demonstrating the applications of vision magic. Niko believed in the law, in the very real sense of making his weekly prayers at the altar to Shurri Firesword.
He’d just… never seen a boy that young bite his lip, and shake.
In the months that followed, Niko and Sandrilene both healed. They had time. The winter storms had set in, and while clearly someone had to take charge of Sandry (as she informed him he was to call her), neither of them was going anywhere until spring. Niko worked through the same maddening exercises he had at Discipline; Sandry wove. Everyone in Zakdin drank lots of broth, and spoke little.
Sandry and Niko went for walks, as she started to get her strength back. The first time they looked out at the city, she gasped a small “Oh!”
Niko agreed; the city was quiet, but clean now, functional.
“The amphitheater is gone,” Sandry continued.
“The what?” Niko asked. Sandry described it to him. Niko mourned that he would never get to see it. There were a lot of beautiful things in Zakdin that he would never see the way they were meant to be.
Sandry told him about her family on another walk. Not her parents - everyone she was related to. She seemed lost, trying to find herself, define herself, in her genealogy. For all Niko knew, it might work. He learned that the Duke of Emelan was her great-uncle, and made plans to have Vedris sort her out. Duke Vedris was supposed to be good at sorting people out.
And perhaps, if they were going to Summersea, he might yet have a chance to introduce her to Lark. Noble or no. Lark would love Sandry, and such an introduction might begin to pay her back.
He found them a ship for a much more relaxed journey back to Emelan. The ship put in closer to Hajur than to Chorum, but Niko was happier to be on land at this time of year, and the land travel gave Sandry a few more days to start acting like a normal child.
She had even more time because Niko kept having to stop to put a blindfold on, though he told Sandry he was meditating. Half the time it was true. These days, when his eyes were closed or the blindfold was on, he didn’t see much, but those were moments of precious respite.
When he did have his blindfold off, Sandry looked brighter, taller even, though she was still astonishingly small. Niko remembered being her age, but he could not remember being quite that minute, that at risk of being accidentally crushed. Sandry didn’t seem to realize how vulnerable she was - or how vulnerable Niko was.
At last they arrived at Summersea, and Sandry was brought to her uncle. The duke’s receiving room was much less extravagantly appointed than the Zakdin throne room, and Niko had to admit he was disappointed. Though the whole of it glistened with expensive spells, and the needlework was certainly fine, everywhere except on the duke himself.
No wonder his people love him, Niko thought. He looks like one of them.
“Niklaren,” the duke said, rousing Niko from the reverie he had fallen into as Sandry told her tale. “Or - the people in Hatar are calling you Master Niklaren now, aren’t they?”
“Oh, yes,” said Niko. “I mean - it’s Niko. To my friends. And I hope you will be my friend. Not an enemy. Niko Goldeye.”
“I think I have heard more than one story about your exploits in the last year, Master Niko,” said the duke, calming Niko’s stutters and starting a fresh wave of horror as Niko imagined what Duke Vedris might have heard about him and Pippa and their failed experiment. “It was good of you to bring Sandrilene to me, particularly at this time of year.”
Niko sat down hard on his protests about - well, everything the duke might have heard about him, and made a half-thought-through comment about the roads. The duke had offered him tea, but Niko had yet to touch his cup.
Sandry saved him by saying she had to come, because Hatar was - well, whatever was left of Hatar, which wasn’t much.
“I understand, my dear,” said Duke Vedris. “You don’t have to apologize.”
You do, Niko thought, surprising himself. Without your politicking, those medicines would have gotten to Zakdin a week earlier. I’m being called a hero for cutting off half of that.
He ought to be more charitable; the dead were dead, and he was here for Sandry. But it was awfully convenient that, with Hatar broken, Emelan controlled all the safe water between Capchen and Sotat.
The vít showed, briefly, a strange ship on a stranger sea: the water turquoise and crystal clear, the boat split in two and bound together, its sailors - well, nothing of its sailors. Niko brushed the whole thing irritably aside, with a smile this time; he was trying to teach himself tics that seemed natural.
“I don’t want to go to my Namornese relatives, if you please, Uncle,” Sandry was saying.
The duke prowled the room before sitting in the window seat. “After my lady wife died, I let court functions go. My nobles socialize with one another at their homes. With no hostess, and my children all grown and married, there is no lady here I would ask to take you under her wing. You are welcome to stay as long as you desire, but this castle is a grim place for a young girl.”
This was Niko’s chance, Lark’s chance. He straightened up and interjected himself. “Then I have the solution,” he said with feigned confidence. “Let Lady Sandrilene live at Winding Circle Temple. It’s a renowned school for mages and nobles alike. Even at Lightsbridge we spoke of it. She can learn the things that she will need to move in society, and she will get an education worth having.”
He did not say that he was not thinking of the nobles’ boarding school, or that Lark would stitch Sandry’s character into something spectacular. He merely held his breath and waited.
“I’d like to see magic again,” Sandry whispered. Niko stifled a mad giggle - he saw so much magic - but the duke looked at him anyway.
“It is the obvious solution,” said Niko. “She will be nearly as close as if she lived here.”
“Sandrilene?” asked the duke.
Sandry smiled. “I don’t know, Uncle, but surely it’s worth a try?”
The duke nodded. “Then you should go and pack your things, my dear. Again.” He stopped Niko from following with a single raised finger, and both of them watched as the door latched behind Sandry.
“I think you had more than one reason for suggesting that, Master Niko.”
Niko flinched. “Your Grace. Yes. I - followed a vision to your niece. It was lit by - a string of her magic.”
“Mattin and Amilane were may things, but careless of their daughter was not one of them,” said the duke. “I guarantee you she has been tested for magic by more experienced practitioners than yourself.”
“More experienced there may be, but more skilled -“ Niko broke off, Rosethorn’s voice ringing in his mind. Don’t be an ass about it . “I have read about many forms of magic, and I have a particular gift for vision. Sandrilene’s magic is ambient - found in threads and fibers. Not frequently spoken of in Lightsbridge, but Winding Circle Temple specializes in such magics. I know of a mage with Sandry’s - Sandrilene’s - very specialty at Winding Circle; she was my own benefactor. I - had hoped to arrange that Sandry - Sandrilene - might stay with her, and learn from her.”
The duke nodded. “That will work very well for Sandry,” he said, and smiled at Niko’s surprise. "I love my great-niece, but there's no denying that the life my niece and nephew lived has made it difficult for her to adjust to the way many of our class live and think. A brief stay with her peers should encourage her to welcome another arrangement.”
Niko, not knowing what else to do, bowed.
“I thank you for your consideration as well as your rescue,” said Vedris. “And I ask if I might prevail upon you one more time? To see my niece to her new, temporary lodgings?”
“Once more,” Niko agreed. He’d see Sandry safely to Winding Circle. And then?
He’d left someone behind, on Dupon. He was going to track her down.
Chapter 3: Daja
He was much more careful about his sight this time, chaining it in the usual tools and spells and limiting its use, which was infuriating. He sailed first to Hajur, feeling smug as he had seen the ship depart Nidra for Hajur with the black girl aboard, sporting a fresh bruise and twisting wire in her fingers.
When he sought her again in Hajur, she was on a ship, and the headache after punished him for using his sight. When it cleared the next day he sought the shipping logs, and then made sail for Nambar.
On Nambar he was once again behind his quarry, and so it went, down the coast of Anderran, always a few days behind his prize. He spent as much time in each port tracking shipping manifestos and finding passage as Third Ship Kisubo spent trading, and by the time he reached Ninver, he didn’t know if he was more angry with Traders in general, the girl in specific, himself for being slow, his affliction of unhelpful vít, or Pippa for saddling him with it.
Or Pippa for not being there, to work in harness with him, passing visions like salt at the table. Or Pippa for yoking him to the work of two mages, to pay her for her sacrifice. Or Pippa, for being so close to genius, and not close enough. She’d tried to scry the wind, for him, and Niko - had made his own mistakes, trying to keep up with her.
In Ninver, he was forestalled.
It was only polite to stop in at the Living Circle Temple in Capchen. Ninver was a great pile of rock, the structure rounded and the roofs so laced with gardens that they were effectively a living thatch. From a distance, the city seemed to be only a trollish sort of a mountain, juts of stone with mossy caps. It was beautiful, once Niko got used to thinking of it as such, and it was very clear why this was called the Stone Circle.
Unfortunately, the day he was set to leave, the Dedicate Superior requested a word with him.
“Goldeye,” she said, the light of magic in the stones of her necklace flashing as golden as his name. “Aren’t you the one who brought Winding Circle’s supplies to Hatar?”
Niko bowed briefly, hands behind his back. “I’m surprised rumor has spread this far.”
“Don’t be. Rumor spreads farther and faster than you expect. I seem to remember something about an experiment as well…?”
Of course she had heard about that; she would keep track of whatever rumor of great magics crossed her path. Niko blushed furiously, and bowed again.
“But I am interested in you in your capacity as a resident of Winding Circle.”
“I’m not -” Niko began, and stopped again, not sure of the accuracy of that half-spoken statement. The dedicate waited a moment, arched an eyebrow, and when he failed to speak she continued.
“One way or another you’re already on your way back there, and I need you to take this girl with you.” Her tone said it was not an optional favor.
“I am not on my way back,” Niko interrupted. “I’m headed out from there.”
“Really? In Ninver? No, you’re headed home. No one goes farther -“
“I mean to,” said Niko, surprising both of them because he meant it generally - not farther from Ninver, but farther. “Just send her along with a merchant caravan; it could be weeks yet before I turn. Months.”
“I would feel much better if she were traveling with a mage.”
“So would many people, but -“
“Master Goldeye!” Niko was startled into silence by the title, his hand half raised to adjust his blindfold as if that could protect him from dedicates as well as vít. “I know that you’re already on your way to Winding Circle, and I need you to take this girl with you. Is that such a hard request to grant?”
“Send her later in the spring, when the trade caravans leave for Emelan,” Niko repeated. “I’m on a very special and unpredictable task these days. If I have to change my plans suddenly, which I will, this child will only get in my way, or worse -“
“We can’t keep her,” the dedicate said flatly. Niko’s eyebrows took wing. The dedicates of a Living Circle temple were saying they couldn’t keep a child? And her emphasis implied they were incapable - he listened carefully, but her speech was full of superstition, not detail, blathering about spirits like Winding Circle employed summoners. He nearly snorted at the idea of Lark cavorting with demons.
Shurri, send me some sign of what this woman means, Niko prayed. As if in answer, the building began to thunder.
“What -“ the dedicate began. Niko threw the door open.
Crouched in the anteroom was a plump little redheaded girl a bit shorter than Sandry, her hands filled with a spray of glittering hailstones that continued around her, looking completely unsurprised at how they got there. As well she might be; in Niko’s magical vision she shone fiercely with jagged buttresses of power. He squeezed his eyes shut so he could dim his vision, remembering to smile to disguise the flinch, and when he opened them she was a nearly-normal child, looking hauntingly familiar next to a stuffed suitcase.
The vít took that opportunity to gleefully show him, superimposed, images of her in other places, with other suitcases, at other ages. He’d seen her at three; he saw her now at five, at eight, at sixteen and at ten.
I thought she was a toddler! he raged at his visions. I thought there was no chance I would ever find her!
He’d thought there was nothing he could do - as, with non-mages, there wasn’t. And here she was, spinning a hailstorm and spitting childish imprecations at him. “It’s rude to stare.”
“You were tested for magic?” he asked in disbelief.
“By the most expensive mage in Ninver, if you must know. And he said I haven’t a speck of it.”
What a ninny that mage must have been, Niko thought. He was mentally counting his stored pennies as he turned to the dedicate, but - he didn’t need tuition for another term at Lightsbridge, now.
“I am pleased to meet you, young lady,” he said, holding out a hand.
She stood and shook out her skirts. “You’ll change your mind before long,” she snapped. “Everyone does.”
She reminded him of Rosethorn. He owed Rosethorn everything.
Tris was an absolute delight to watch. Niko was captivated from the moment she first saw the ship. Sandry had been a nice girl, but when she saw a ship, she boarded it. Tris stopped dead in her tracks, and when Niko paused to look back at her, he saw her eyes flicking from sail to sail, mouth slightly open, a frown starting to grow behind her brow - but she asked no questions. Niko, in short order, was dying to know what she was wondering, but when he looked back at the ship he saw… a ship. Well, and a few others underway in other ports, but he smiled those away.
Tris saw the smile and started walking again, that no-nonsense, middle-aged-woman-in-a-marketplace walk of hers that contrasted so sharply with her tiny round self, and brushed away all questions. Niko wanted to know what she had seen. No one saw as much as he did - except this girl.
He saw her settled into a cabin, watched her open a suitcase filled one third with clothes and the rest full of books, then checked with the shipping registry, again, about where Third Ship Kisubo was headed and when it had launched. Then he ran a couple of errands of his own before scurrying back to catch the ship before the tide changed. As they set out, he watched Tris almost as closely as she watched the ship. She wound up frowning fiercely and looking back and forth between the sails and their arcing wake as they eased out of the harbor.
Aha, Niko thought. I was right .
He went to stand next to her at the rail. “It’s a long way to Summersea,” he said. Tris looked up sharply.
“I thought you said we were going to Winding Circle Temple?” she said.
“It’s just outside Summersea, in Emelan. That’s the nearest port, but it’s a long way, and if I have to turn aside for my current task, it’ll be longer. You might get bored.”
Tris’s look, as her gaze swept over the deck and up into the rigging, was skeptical. She said, “I can handle being bored, Master Niko.”
“I’m sure you can,” said Niko amiably. “But it would be an awful waste of this book on sailing that I picked up at the market today if no one were to read it. I thought I’d have time, but -“
“Where is it?” Tris demanded, and Niko, smirking, drew it out of his pocket and placed it in her grabbing hands. He thought about teasingly asking if she could read, but Rosethorn would have bitten his nose off, and he liked his nose where it was.
When she asked about the wind ropes at dinner, he was even more smug. Definitely weather magic, with the way her power sparked in his vision and the interest she showed in how the wind pushed the ship. Images of another ship tossed in a storm clouded his eyes, and he blinked them away as the conversation continued.
It was all pleasant enough until Tris asked after university, and Niko surprised himself with a wave of homesickness matched only by the grief that came after it.
Stop that, he told himself. Pippa is dead. That shouldn’t stop you from saying, “Lightsbridge, in Karang.”
“My cousin Aymery studies there,” Tris said, her voice a mixture of the same pride and grief that Niko was feeling. “He’s to be a mage. Maybe you know him? Aymery Chandler?”
“I was… involved in some very specialized studies,” Niko said. “Chances are that I don’t.” Only Pippa had understood what he was working on, of all the students - by the end, of the professors as well. And the other students had pretty well left him alone, after that stunt with the light that left them blind for days. He wondered if they had heard of his blindfold, and if they laughed about it. He still knew all of their laughs.
“Would you like to be a mage yourself?” he asked, to distract himself, and was promptly brought back to the present when Tris yelled at him and ran out of the cabin.
“I had better go,” said Niko to the captain. “It’s getting choppy out there.”
On the heaving deck outside, washed by sheets of rain, Tris was laughing. Niko watched for a while, clinging to a support rope as she rode the deck, lifting her arms to the sky. Light reached toward her from the heavens, climbing down along the mast until it could sit like a seeing crystal between her wondering palms. The shadows it cast on the deck moved unlike any Niko had seen, and the colors were eerie, turning even Tris’s vibrant hair a moon-washed pastel.
The light went out, and she was just Tris, infinitely precious, a ten-year-old with the most fantastic unruly aura of hair. Niko stumbled across the deck to her as she pawed at her hair, trying to make it lie flat, and offered her the comb from his pocket. He hadn’t any spare ties, unless he offered her Lark’s blindfold, which he was still too selfish to do.
“I suppose you were watching,” Tris snapped, trying to glare at him. Her nose was running.
“Of course,” said Niko. “You told me yourself that’s what I always do. And in a sense you are right - I am always watching - though not for the reasons you appear to expect.”
“Do you see a monster, like everyone else does?” she demanded. “Am I someone who ought to be locked away?”
He put a hand on her shoulder, and was not surprised when he was shocked for the trouble. He was trying to ground her, to dispel some of that charge if he could. He wanted to say something grown-up and comforting that would make her feel safe, but he was only Niko, only barely, nominally an adult.
“I see a young girl who has been very badly treated,” he said slowly, and if there was any emotion in his voice, it was anger, thinking of the wonder and concentration in her small face when she had tried to work out how a ship moved all by herself. “Anything that Winding Circle has to offer will be an improvement on what you’ve had so far.”
His sight took him then, viciously, to an image of a storm on Winding Circle’s walls, the light uneven, the walls spinning with rain. It took him a moment to recognize it as a vision, and he smiled fiercely to clear it.
“Why do you do that?” Tris asked suddenly. “Smile all of a sudden, out of nowhere?”
Niko hesitated, not wanting to bring up magic now, when she had reacted so badly just minutes before. “It… helps,” he said vaguely. “With… headaches.”
Tris nodded. “I read that smiling eases pain,” she said. “It’s creepy to see in person. I need my brush.”
She gave his comb back and headed belowdecks. Niko watched her go.
“Children, huh,” he said when the door had closed behind her, for once not feeling like a child himself. “I guess I’ll stop trying that.”
He had one more vision that night, of Third Ship Kisubo sinking. In the middle of the night, he wasn’t sure if that was nightmare or reality. He scried it when he woke the next morning, as soon as there was sufficient light. The board on which the ship’s name was so jauntily painted was adrift, alone on the empty sea.
“Shit,” said Niko, and didn’t move for a moment. Then he tried scrying for survivors. The irony when he found the girl he was looking for nearly consumed him. The visual backwash did, and he felt his way down the corridor while looking at scenes of Trader cities, searching for the captain.
“There’s been a shipwreck,” he said. “We’ve got to help.”
“All right,” said the captain. “Can you tell me why it’s you telling me this, and not the boys from the crow’s nest?”
“They didn’t see it,” said Niko. “I… get visions.”
“I see,” said the captain.
“I can prove it,” Niko protested.
“I’m not asking you to prove it,” said the captain. “Don’t you have a name known in Stone Circle, and charge of a girl who holds lightning in her palms? No, I’m just having a private moral crisis. Do you know where this shipwreck is?”
“Um,” said Niko. “I can… I can scry… It’s ahead of us somewhere, they left Ninver for Hajra two days before we did.”
“So the moral quandary is, how long am I willing to delay my ship to rescue some survivors a seer boy tells me are out there somewhere? How long do I think they’ll survive, and how long would I want them to look for me?”
Niko bit his lip, in his own moral quandary about whether to tell the captain, now, that there was only one survivor, a Trader girl without supplies, unconscious and salt-crusted on a flimsy raft.
“I’ll do everything I can to help,” he said. “If I can get a vision of the stars…” He had a book on navigation. “I might be able to work something out.”
“Let me know when you’ve got something,” the captain said, and Niko left him with his head in his hands.
He pored over the books in his cabin, navigation, class notes, journals of conversations with professors and friends. Surely Pippa would have known what to do. But vision magic was not inherently directional - Niko found things from context clues in their location. If he were an expert navigator, he might be able to get her location from the stars, if they were precise enough and she didn’t move by the time he reached her. But there were no landmarks on the open sea; every tower of water fell a moment later, every distinct valley rose.
If he could look at the world from above, perhaps, and draw a line as if across a map - but how would he find that line after? If he had had some real contact with the girl, perhaps that day at the port some six months prior, and left a ray of his power attached to her… If he had some thing of hers, even, he could focus a mirror on it!
“Can I borrow this?” a young voice asked. Niko looked over, and found Tris holding up one of his books on light and direction.
“No. I need it,” he said.
“I’m trying to find something. A shipwreck,” Niko said, twiddling with his blindfold. “From the storm.”
“Well I’d go where the storm was,” said Tris.
“Yes, Tris, thank you,” said Niko. “I don’t know if you’d noticed, but storms are large .”
Tris bristled, very nearly rising like a cat. “You don’t have to treat me like an idiot. If my help’s not wanted, you could just say so.”
“Sorry -“ Niko began, but she was already gone. He sighed, trying to think how to apologize. Go where the storm was, she had said. If he could go where the storm was strong enough to sink a ship, if he knew where the ship had been -
The door opened again. “I didn’t mean to take your book,” said Tris stiffly. “You can keep it. Keep both of them.”
“Never mind that, Tris, you’re a genius,” Niko said, and would have hugged her if she hadn’t backed hurriedly out of his cabin, slack jawed.
Niko went to find the captain. He needed a chest, a mirror, a pot of ink, a sailor with a quick hand, and anything with spare magic he had on hand.
“I’ll re-enchant it before we make port,” he promised. “Standard magic only, mind - I can’t use your wind ropes.”
He watched the captain sigh with relief.
“Oh, and a sharp knife and some bandages,” Niko added, ratcheting the captain’s tension right back up.
“You’re not going to be working any dark magics, are you?” the captain demanded. “I won’t have that on my ship.”
“Nothing dark, nothing really flashy,” Niko promised. “Just strong.”
“You’ll do it in your own cabin, then, away from my wind ropes,” the captain said. “And if there weren’t lives on the line, you’d not do it at all.”
“Your charts, and a hand who won’t spook at a small illusion,” Niko said, and got them.
He spread the charts out across the table, searching for the ones off the coast of Anderran, building a nautical bridge between that country and Hatar, all the way to Nambar and Derran Islands to be sure. They dripped off the edges of the table, and the sailor the captain had been chosen frowned at them and pushed herself harder into the corner, away from Niko.
“I need you to hold this, steady, here,” said Niko, positioning the mirror high above the table, so that it reflected the charts. Reluctantly, she came forward and took it from him, holding it over her head and wobbling until she found the angle Niko was looking for.
“Thank you. Now I am going to cut my arm and do some magic,” he said. “It will only affect me. Afterward, I am going to raise a small illusion to indicate a spot on the map. Chart. I need you to mark that spot as quickly as possible, because I will probably faint afterward.”
“Just… what are you going to do?” the woman asked.
“Scry the past,” said Niko. “Now. Are you able and willing to help me in this manner?”
The woman gulped. Everyone knew that was big magic. “Hold a mirror, mark a spot on the chart?” she asked. “You sure that’s all?”
“I swear it,” Niko said.
“Then yes,” she said, and Niko began.
He rolled his sleeve up as far as it would go, fastidiously tucking the cuff under. When he had a decent portion of his upper arm exposed, he took the knife, set it against his skin, looked away, and made a quick motion. There was blood. He set the knife down and stuck his finger in it, then closed his eyes and ran the finger across his eyelids, streaking them with blood. He waited until the ship reached the bottom of its arc, riding across a wave, and began to start up. Then he leaned over to look at the reflected charts, called his magic, and set his bloodied finger against the mirror.
The charts heaved. The storm was growing heavier. A captain in Trader blue looked up from the charts, towards someone at the door, but that was not what he was here for. He was looking at the charts, the charts where any proper captain penciled in her route as they proceeded, the charts where a small X indicated their last known position -
He drew in the magic from the little charms around him, a bowl that would only get hot on the inside, a necktie made to glitter, little bits of fancy for lives that weren’t. Just enough to hold him a little closer, a little longer, until he could find that spot, and fall out of the vision.
He collapsed, panting, on the floor of the cabin. The ship began to fall off the crest of the wave. He felt apace in his magic, the rays and glints of power running thinly across his eyes. He wished desperately for time to meditate, and took his fingers wearily away from his blindfold.
“You can let that fall,” he said to the sailor. “Here’s the illusion.”
He raised it across the charts he had spread out, which he could still see reflected in the mirror an instant before the sailor set it carefully down, focusing on the one spot off to the corner where there was a pencil mark absent from the map in his memory. He raised a red glow of a tower from it, and listened to the sailor jab a blot of ink down on top of the carefully drawn charts.
“Thank you,” said Niko. “You may go. I’ll - just sit here for a little bit. Oh - take that map and show it to the captain, tell him that’s where I need to be.”
Or close enough, anyway. Surely by the time they got there, Niko would be able to get a better reading from a farsight spell on top of the crow’s nest.
He did not relish the idea of climbing to the crow’s nest.
“Was that really all, sir?” The sailor was still here, staring at him in confusion. “I thought you were going to work a great magic. Something I could tell the children about. You just… made some blood vanish and fell over.”
“I did do great magic,” Niko objected. “Sometimes it just… doesn’t look great. Tell your children. Tell your friends. You helped today.” Maybe the children would stop being skittish around mages, if they knew great magic was boring.
“All right,” said the sailor. “Sure.” This time, Niko heard the door close behind her. He sighed, and relaxed into counted breathing.
It took them a day and a half to get to the point on the map - chart - that Niko had identified. Niko spent most of that time praying and meditating - for his own sanity as well as the girl’s life. He was terribly afraid, after scrying the past, that he would regress as he had with Sandry.
He kept coming back to Rosethorn’s comment before he first left Winding Circle. Do some little journey project - prove you can scry the past. He’d done just that, as an aside, a means to his end. And he’d learned, seeing ten-year-old Tris, that he’d gone further, years back, by accident.
By Lightsbridge standards, it was just what Rosethorn had said - that made him worthy, while merely failing to die did not. He didn’t feel worthy. He felt a long, slow hammer in his heart, a wrench of worry in his gut. That wasn’t what it meant to be a mage - magic was freedom, and the thrill of ability buzzing about his ears as he tried something new. He’d felt that. He’d thought a medallion would be proof of that.
Real magic seemed to be more a pit of worry, and the dread that each new trick he tried would catapult him into madness again, and carrying on anyway. One foot in front of the other.
So when he came to the crow’s nest, when it was time, that was what he did. He took a deep breath, put one foot on the first step of the ladder against the mast, and began to climb. He could feel the stares of the sailors below, their breaths bated as they waited to laugh at him for stalling or for falling. And he could feel the ship rise with him, and fall again. There was a bit of a trick to pushing with that rhythm.
“That’s it,” came the word from the crow’s nest. “Use your legs to climb, just guide with your arms. You can rest if you like.” And, at last, as he clambered into the nest itself: “You did great.”
There was a chorus of distant cheers from the deck, and Niko smiled weakly and wished he had brought his blindfold for a moment of peace. Here was a spell even sailors could repeat, the simple task of climbing. Shurri, but he wanted his blindfold.
The sailor who had climbed behind him in case he fell disappeared back down the mast. Niko hauled himself to his feet.
“So exactly what manner of magecraft do you intend to do up here?” the sailor in the crow’s nest asked.
“Just something simple to see further,” said Niko, and did it. He didn’t really want to explain - people wanted vision magic to always be a trick of changing the shape of his eyes or layering magics like spectacles in front of his face. In this case, though, the distance he wanted to see was not physically visible unless he were laughably tall, and so it was a complicated business of angles and magical mirror-substitutes and tricking his eyes into thinking they were somewhere they weren’t - a mess he didn’t want to bother explaining. So he just worked it and, very carefully, spun around while trying not to be sick.
As far as his extended vision could see, the sea lay open and empty.
Niko sighed and ended the spell. “No luck,” calculating how far he’d seen. “We’ll need to go, oh, twenty miles with the current and start up again. How long will that take?”
“At least four hours,” said the sailor. Niko eyed the mast with distaste.
“I don’t suppose I can stay here…”
“My hospitality has its limits,” said the sailor. “Sharing a tiny platform for four hours of a shift I mostly take to get away from people for a while - that’s beyond those limits.”
“Oh,” said Niko miserably, and began to climb down, knowing he’d just have to do it all again in four hours.
“How is it that you’re allowed to go up to the crow’s nest and not me?” Tris demanded when he reached the bottom.
“Mage business,” Niko offered, trying to bribe her round to the idea. She only sniffed and turned on her heel to go back to her book.
He hadn’t really expected to find the Trader girl on his first climb, but he had to look anyway. There was a decent chance for the second, but he wasn’t that lucky. If he didn’t find her on the third, the odds became vanishingly small that he would. But he was at least that lucky - barely. He had turned past the place, on the third climb, when a bit of white that he had assumed was surf crested a wave and revealed itself to be a little too straight, a bit too rigid.
“There,” he whispered, and then out loud, “There!”
It took another couple of hours to reach the general vicinity of the raft, close enough to let down a longboat. Niko went in the boat, as did the first mate. Every time they crested a wave, Niko took a frantic look about, reorienting himself in the swells. The mate seemed unimpressed.
“Ahoy!” he shouted. “Ahoy! Are you alive?”
“Yes!” came a faint, nigh-croaking voice that loosened muscles all down Niko’s spine. He hadn’t been too late. He hadn’t made too many mistakes. She was still here.
Not too much later, though longer than Niko would have liked, they drew alongside the splintered remnants of a hatch cover. Someone had done good work on this; the hatch still bolted closed, even though the surrounding boards had broken loose. Perched atop it, not much room to move even for a girl that young, was a face Niko had only seen this close when it was alight and greedily drinking in forgelight. Now, it was covered in flaking salt, the skin dried out, the eyes bright only with feverish hope.
“Hello there,” said Niko. “My name is Niko - Niklaren - Goldeye. I’ve been looking for you. I’m sorry not to have found you sooner.”
Annoyed, frustrated, constantly thwarted might have been better words, but sorry was the kind one for a salt-coated girl who had just lost her world. Niko reached out to her and guided her into the boat. The mate offered him a flask of water, which the girl drank from eagerly, and then spluttered against.
“Wait!” she cried, fighting Niko’s supportive hold. “My - my box! There! Please save it!”
The mate looked to Niko, who shrugged, and nodded. The girl was strong for her size; it was much easier to care for her once the box was in the boat and she relaxed.
As they moved away from the makeshift raft, the hatch fell open, and the whole thing sank into the waves. Surprised, Niko took a closer look at the girl, and found his eyes dry and itchy with a sense of heat, his nose twitching with the scent of iron.
“Huh,” he said to her prone form. “Of course you did.”
The girl - the new girl - was Daja Kisubo, a Trader name. The captain was unimpressed.
“You delayed my entire ship to save one life? One child ? You led me to believe there was a ship full of them!”
“I said no such thing,” said Niko coldly. He was watching the captain tally up the worth of a little girl’s life, and find it short of the bonus an early cargo would bring him.
“You mage folk are plenty educated enough to know about lies of omission. Especially you, university man.”
“I didn’t graduate,” said Niko automatically, and was surprised to find that that still hurt, despite his not-quite-posthumous accreditation. The captain was glaring pointedly at his chest, where his mage medallion had hung the day he’d so proudly introduced himself as Master Niklaren Goldeye.
“You misled me, and you did it on purpose,” the captain said, when he felt he had made his point.
Niko gathered himself. “I did,” he said. “And if I hadn’t, both of us would be responsible for leaving a girl to die on the sea. That’s murder.”
“That’s manslaughter - “
“And you’re complaining that I made you do the right thing. Follow your own ethics; didn’t you say that it was a matter of what you’d want someone to do for you? Would you want someone -“
“Follow your own ethics!” the captain snapped. “You lied to me. You didn’t give me that choice. Do your mage ethics say you’re so important you get to make people’s choices for them?”
As the captain’s voice echoed around the small room, Rosethorn’s voice spoke from the back of Niko’s mind: Just don’t be an ass about it.
“I’m sorry,” said Niko. “You’re right.”
It went against all his law student instincts, but he put his hand on the door and walked away.
When he made port in Summersea along with two more traumatized girls, Niko was about ready to declare himself finished with boats; at least, he was until Daja quietly reminded him that she wasn’t an orphan, not yet, and she meant to go to court in a Trader city to have her fate decided.
Niko did not know a lot about Traders, and his mind leapt from not knowing what she was talking about, to delight at the prospect of seeing a Trader city, to a sort of tense and growing despair about his finances.
“Well, come along to Winding Circle to drop Tris off, and then we’ll see about a ship to…”
“Nidra Island,” Daja supplied, looking homesick. Which reminded Niko that he would need to write a letter home soon himself, explaining why he wasn’t coming home this year either…
He dug Tris out of her cabin and walked both of the girls to Winding Circle. It was only a couple of hours, but Daja spent the whole trip looking like she was learning how to walk on stable land and wasn’t sure she liked it. But Tris…
Tris was trying to walk an unfamiliar road and read at the same time, and her nose twitched every time the wind changed. She would look out over the fields they were crossing, curls blowing back from her face as she turned her nose upwind, and peer until she caught sight of whatever new smell the wind had brought her. Then with a look of surprise and absolute rapture she would shove her nose into her book, trip over the hem of her dress, and start all over again. Niko found himself equally entertained trying to identify what had caught her fancy.
When they reached the temple, both girls looked around wide-eyed - but Daja’s hands, with no staff to hold, tightened on the handles of her box, and Tris’s eyes, wherever they landed, flicked back up to the temple walls.
Flight risk, Niko thought, smiling as he was surrounded by glints of familiar magic. I should warn someone about that.
But in the end it was a very straightforward arrangement - he met the dedicate in charge of Winding Circle’s boarding students, handed her the letter from the dedicate of Stone Circle, and that was that.
“And the other girl?” asked the dedicate, looking over to where Daja had foregone a chair in favor of sitting on her box, looking out the window.
“Oh - no, we’re going on,” said Niko, opened his mouth, and found himself looking at Daja on the deck of a ship, dressed in a cheerful red and bearing a staff made of rich dark wood, the ends capped in gleaming, unmarked brass. He shook his head, smiled, and told the dedicate, “She’s going to get a fresh new start.”
It was nice to know that Daja, at least, would be taken care of, maybe by a ship full of Traders who could be persuaded to foster her magic. Niko was much more cheerful on the way back to Summersea.
“It’s a lovely day, Daja,” he said.
“It’s been sunny ever since the storm,” she answered.
With Tris, he would have told her this was tautology, and she probably would have said something about not all clouds bearing storms, but he couldn’t watch the gears in Daja’s brain turn, so he spun the spokes in his. The last storm they’d had, she’d been at sea. They’d all been at sea. And Daja’s entire crew had died.
Just don’t be an ass, Niko thought bitterly. He hadn’t been thinking, hadn’t been thoughtful, and he kept his mouth shut after that, except to find them passage in a busy spring Summersea port.
“Don’t book a Trader ship,” Daja said abruptly as he was considering his options.
“But you’re a Trader too,” said Niko.
“I’m bad luck,” said Daja. “Everyone around me died.”
“You were saved from a featureless plain in the middle of the ocean,” said Niko, stung. “That sounds like pretty good luck to me.”
“That’s not how it works, kaq ,” said Daja. “Don’t book a Trader ship.”
So Niko didn’t, and that was the last conversation they had that day. He did ask their new captain what a kaq was.
The captain shot a glance across the deck at Daja, in the red clothes she had picked out when Niko offered to buy something for her, the corners hung with tassels that the clothes dealer had laid wordlessly on Daja’s small pile when she ran out of money. Daja’s eyes had welled with tears, and she had spent an hour running errands for the shopkeeper while Niko found them a ship.
“A kaq is a… person who’s not a Trader,” the captain said. “You don’t get out much, do you?”
Niko sighed. “Yes, I’m a university man,” he said.
“Oh? What’d you study?”
“Vision magic?” The captain’s eyes turned greedy. “Well, if you vision me up a list of what’s in the markets on Nidra, I’ll give you half price on your passage. Free, if you can tell me when the winds and tides turn, what weather we’ll get, and where the pirates are between here and Nidra.”
“Scrying the future isn’t that reliable,” said Niko, reluctantly. “But if you have a mirror, I’ll get to work on that list.”
The trip to Nidra was sunny and uneventful, except insofar as people at both ends were beginning to talk about drought. Niko caught up on hours of meditation, and got off the ship looking in all directions. Daja got off looking at her toes.
The island was full of people in Trader blue, tassels hanging from clothing and the corners of shops, and most restaurants had a stand in the front for staves to be left behind. These were the happiest, most relaxed Traders Niko had ever seen, in contrast to the rigid order of the spells he saw hanging among the tassels. They all seemed to be telling a joke that involved a lot of booing, and at one point one of the tumblers working in the street turned a cartwheel into Daja’s path, stopped halfway, and unzipped a purse to offer her one of the triangular cookies everyone was eating.
Daja mumbled something in Tradertalk, and the tumbler shrugged upside down and completed his cartwheel, moving on to a happier audience.
“What was that about?” Niko asked.
“It’s a festival,” Daja said. “Celebrating one of the times someone tried to kill us all.”
“Celebrating?” Niko asked, looking out at the laughing crowds in time to see a fire breather blow flame out over the heads of the crowd, drawing attention to where a pair of teenagers, or perhaps they were Niko’s age, swung torches in promising loops.
“Well, it didn’t work,” said Daja. Niko looked back at her, and was surprised by how young she was; she was so tall and gloomy he kept thinking she was older. “We’ll need to find a place to stay until things open again tomorrow. You should let me have the money.”
Niko, thinking of her as a child, almost instinctively refused. Then he remembered Daja’s steady sorrow in the face of all this revelry, and agreed. He’d go out and look around once they were settled.
“Should I - I don’t know, disguise myself as a Trader?” Niko asked.
“You think you could pass as a person ?” Daja asked in return, and so Niko gave up and let her lead. She got them a decently priced room at an inn and a plate of those triangle cookies, and for a time they both sat and watched the crowd. Niko saw flickers of magic and lies among the particolor jackets, and reflected on how truthseeing made one a conveniently difficult victim for charlatans even in a totally foreign city.
“I lived here all my life until just last year,” said Daja abruptly.
“You lived here?” Niko asked, startled. “Then - there’s someone you should go home to?”
“It doesn’t work like that,” said Daja. “I’m still bad luck. I have to go to the Trader Council, and they’ll determine if my luck can be purged, or - or if it can’t.” She drummed her fingers on the side of the cookie plate, then grabbed one and stuffed the whole into her mouth. Niko considered trying this, but he was already having difficulty controlling the jam that kept squirting out the corners of the cookies.
“Anyway, there’s no one left anymore. When my little sister joined the crew this year, there was no one left who had to be babysat. So we were all on board. Oti doesn’t miss a line.”
This time it was Niko who shoved a cookie in his mouth rather than say anything. And he didn’t go out into the festival. He stayed at the inn, and made sure he was right where Daja would find him if she looked.
In the morning they went to the administrative quarter to log their request. The secretary impressed upon them that the Council was very busy, but when she heard what business they were here on, she found them an appointment only two days away, and she demanded that Daja come and stay in the Council building, rather than spread her luck to the inn where she and Niko had rooms.
The secretary also tried to thank Niko and send him on his way, but Niko blandished at him until they gave him a room next to Daja’s. The most he saw of Nidra Island, those two whole days waiting, was when he went out and bought a board game that they played indoors for the rest of that time, but it was worth it for the night when Daja appeared in the wee hours of the morning, two white eyes in a doorway.
“Niko?” she asked, maybe not for the first time.
“Ngh,” said Niko. “I’m here.”
“All right,” said Daja, and left, and said nothing about it in the morning.
She reminded Niko of Tris, back in Winding Circle, who also didn’t believe he would stay for her. He was developing a collection of children who depended on him, and he tossed back and forth for the rest of the night, torn between guilt at leaving children behind in the best care he could imagine for them, and blind panic at the idea of staying in one place for the years it would take for them to grow up.
In the morning he was not in the best shape, and it was time for Daja’s hearing.
He sat at the edge of the judging room for the scant seconds it took for Daja to explain the tragedy that had befallen her entire family and he wished he had asked earlier just what her options were, but he hadn’t wanted to upset her. Not more than she was already, rightfully upset. So now he said, “Prepare yourself for the worst,” because he wanted to let her know that she would be all right, regardless. If he had to drive himself mad with visions to get them both off Nidra safely, she would still be all right.
Daja shook her head. “It doesn’t have to be exile,” she said. “There are rites to cleanse my luck, make me -“
The door opened; the Council filed back in, a procession of grown adults preparing to pass judgment on a ten-year-old child.`
“As in the days when our people first carried fire, weaving, and metal-work to the kaqs , so it is now. Daja Kisubo, lone survivor of disaster, we declare you to be outcast, the worst kind of bad luck, trangshi . As trangshi you must bear this staff always -“
It was the staff Niko had seen in his vision. He stared at it, not understanding - it looked like a normal Trader staff to him, made of fine wood and capped with metal; but Daja, looking at it, was trembling, her eyes brimming with tears. And he remembered her explaining yesterday that red, not black, was the color of mourning.
“Your name is marked in the books of our people. You are forbidden to speak, touch, or write to Traders. This is to protect them from you.”
“You don’t have to do this,” Niko protested, as a woman began to write the sentence into law. “You have rites to, to cleanse her luck, to - “
“We made this choice after taking the omens. I thrice placed sacred oil and my own blood on a hot brass dish -“
Niko knew that spell. He’d never done it himself, because it was vague, unscientific - but powerful, accurate, and difficult to mess up. He would have done it in his first year, if he hadn’t leapt past that course, and with blood behind it, to do that three times - this woman had done everything she could, within the laws of her people. He couldn’t fault her method. Daja and Traders meant disaster, somewhere, for someone.
He could only fault her for her victim.
“- there is nothing you can do to change that, little mage student,” said the Council mage.
“It’s all right,” Daja whispered. “They just want to keep my bad luck from ruining anyone else. I understand.”
And that was the important part: that Daja understood that she wasn’t unmitigated bad luck, that she was wanted, that someone would have her and look after her. Just like Tris. Niko folded her arm into his and glared protectively at the judges, all thoughts of his own travel forgotten.
“I’m taking her to Winding Circle Temple,” he said. “They’ll appreciate her, with or without Trader luck.”
As soon as he had found berth for Daja at the boarding house - still frighteningly easy - Niko disappeared to Discipline and sought Lark and Rosethorn for counsel.
“You look well,” said Lark. It caught Niko off guard; he felt harassed and worried.
“Yes,” he said, thinking about it. “I guess I’m all right. But -“
“We were just about to go meditate. Would you care to join us?”
So Niko spent an hour meditating at Discipline. Summer was coming in; the yard was green and humming with bees. Rosethorn liked bees, better than any other animal with the exception of earthworms. She had a corner of her garden planted purely to attract pollinators. Niko found himself shaping his power in the form of one of those bees, and settling back into the breath of Discipline itself.
When the hour was up, Lark made tea.
“Now,” she said “Tell us what was so important that you did not come to see us the last time you were here.”
It was like a prelude of the interrogation Niko was going to get when he finally came home. His cheeks burned. “I was only going to be away for a week,” he said, as if that was going to satisfy anyone, and worked his way backwards until he was telling them about seeing Daja on Dupon on his way to Hatar, and all that had happened since.
Somewhere in the middle, Rosethorn slid a bowl of green beans into his lap, and he began automatically to snap the ends off by feel. A bean for us, a head for the garden, as Rosethorn put it when she was cheery. Niko had seen traitors beheaded the first time he heard her say that, but Rosethorn’s green beans had more flavor than any he had ever tasted, and the work erased whatever tension in his shoulders the meditation had missed.
“So now I have two children depending on me, sort of,” he concluded glumly. Lark and Rosethorn exchanged glances.
“Two children and three young mages you discovered,” said Lark. “You know the rule about that, right?”
Niko waved a hand. “Moonstream is looking out for a teacher for Tris - and Daja now, I imagine. I’m surprised Sandry hasn’t been over here already.”
“She’ll come when she’s ready,” Lark said. “Come, or be sent. There’s a smith mage over in Fire Temple, what’s his name, some sort of plant thing…”
“Pine,” said Rosethorn. “Frozenpine, I think.”
“So there’s your Daja taken care of, if she’s a metal mage like you think. But you said Tris was playing with lightning - she won’t be settled by learning the usual air tricks.”
“Moonstream will find someone,” said Niko. “It’s only been a week. Give her some credit.”
“Yes,” Rosethorn drawled. “Out of curiosity, how many ambient weather mages are there running around Lightsbridge? I hadn’t noticed any here - of any sort, much less wind and lightning.”
“I get it,” Niko said defensively. “I’m not saying I won’t teach her, if I have to, just that I don’t have to. She’s a neat child, her teacher will be lucky to have her. But I’m not her teacher. I have other things to do. Places to go.”
“More ten-year-old ambient mages with unusually broad specialties to collect?” Rosethorn asked.
“Why not? They’re not going to find themselves! And if I have to travel to reach them, well, so much the better! I don’t want to be stuck in the same place, seeing the same buildings, talking to the same people and doing the same things for year after year, wasting away -“
“If you try to leave again while there is a new mage with no teacher who you discovered, you will have to have a very good reason to persuade the mage council to let you go,” said Lark. “Otherwise, any other mages in the area would be required by their vows to stop you.”
“Are you threatening me?” Niko asked. Rosethorn snorted.
"I threaten people, boy. Lark doesn’t threaten. Lark just tells people what is going to happen.”
Lark looked down at her habit. There was a tense silence, broken when Rosethorn tossed a bean into Niko’s bowl.
“Fine!” Niko shouted, standing up and scattering beans all over the floor. “They want a vision, I’ll give them a vision!”
He stormed out of the room, fuming, all the more so when he heard Lark say behind him, “He’ll clean them up when he calms down.” He stomped over to his old room, vacant now except for the mirror he’d almost finished enchanting before he left for Hatar. He grabbed it and left Discipline, plotting as furiously as he plodded.
They didn’t have a right to ask more of them! Hadn’t he done great magic for them already? Hadn’t he saved a city, and a child, and nearly died and recovered and grown ill again and dragged himself out of that over and over, wasn’t that enough for them? They wanted to pin him down, take away everything he had, all he had ever wanted was to spread his qar as far as his scrying could go and all anyone ever wanted from him was to trap him and hold him still and caged by responsibility and familial duty and all the things they said could not be done.
And the only way out, the only way that ever led out, was his magic.
Vision magic was mostly good for seeing things one already knew, or at least knew something of. The location of a lost, known item. The nature of magic one already knew was there from the way it tugged on one’s own. Images and reflections traveling along known angles, that was why geometry was so important, why knowing things was important. Even visions of the past and future asked what would (or did) happen here, at this time.
None of this applied well to looking for a mage, any mage, of any sort, as long as they were undiscovered and not at Winding Circle. Niko tried several times to scry his future, or even just his return to Winding Circle, but all he got were the same portents of disaster that all of Winding Circle’s vision mages had been getting lately. Niko wasn’t interested in disaster, but lately the only thing that had been punching through the general aura of ill-omen was -
Niko set the mirror down. He leaned back against the greenhouse wall where he had come for shelter, knowing Rosethorn would not go near there, and he let down all the defenses he had built in the last year. All the hundreds of hours of meditation, the blindfolded months, the tics and tricks and mental flicks that shooed a vision away. He let it all go, and invited disaster.
Go on, he thought angrily. Show me another child. Show me another untrained ambient mage.
There was a pause. And then a spike of images clubbed Niko in the head, hard enough that he fell over sideways.
When he came to, there were only two images from that torrent that remained. One was, surprisingly, familiar: a boy on a stool, hand outstretched, body stiff with fear. The other one was the same boy, face twisted, raising knives whose blades were already bloodied.
His first reaction was to nearly vomit. That was the magic; after the mirror ritual with Pippa, he hadn’t been able to keep anything down for three days. His second, consequently, was to pull the blindfold down and shudder. Had he forgotten so much, that he had so casually invited all of that back into his eyes, his mind?
He tried to meditate, but his heart was still jumping. On the principle that lying still with one’s eyes closed was almost as good as sleeping, Niko stayed seated, kept breathing in counts of seven. He let his thoughts come and go, and tried not to cling to them.
It was hard to believe that a boy that young could be a hardened criminal. Harder still for a devotee of the law to believe that the law could have erred so consistently, to convict a child twice. And there was the evidence of his own eyes, mired in vít though they may be, that showed that same boy twisted with violence.
He didn’t have to do anything about it. He had no evidence that the boy was a mage - just the vít, which had never been consistent or biddable. And much as he wanted to prove that he could not be pinned down, rescuing a guttersnipe from the consequences of his own actions was not within the purview of Niko’s personal ethics. He’d found three mages already - enough for three lifetimes. Lark had told him there would be trouble if he tried to leave again. But all magic aside, Niko’s gift was for seeing things, and what he’d seen in that boy’s eyes as he sat on that stool was the same fear Niko had woken in the night with a year ago, before he’d met any of these children, when he was still wrestling with madness and his own need for purpose.
He didn’t have to do anything, but the seed of compassion lay rotten in his stomach.
“So you’re telling me that while we would have been perfectly justified in stopping you when you wanted to go, now that you don’t want to we have to let you do it?” Rosethorn asked.
“For less than two weeks. You can put what spells you like on me to make me return. But the alternative is a serious undermining of my already compromised ethical foundation,” Niko said. “I’ve been basing my decisions on the dictates of a fallible human law, when realistically no system designed and maintained by mortals can apply perfect justice to every situation. If I am going to be working outside courts of law, particularly as a mentor to non-legal aspirants -”
“You’re not at university,” Rosethorn interrupted. “Lark?”
“This law is not about you,” Lark said. “What have you done to ensure the safety of your students and those around them while you are away?”
“They’re not my students, ” Niko began, and stopped again. This was not the response Lark was asking for. “All three of them are currently wards of Winding Circle Temple, an institution recognized for its magical prowess. If Winding Circle cannot control the outbursts of three ten-year-old mages, then frankly, there’s little I can do to add protection. Of the three, only Trisana has had her magic react when she was not in immediate danger, and in those cases, it was reacting to perceived emotional danger - that of being sent away from a safe place. For Tris, beginning to accept Winding Circle as a safe place is more important than the introductory lessons I could give her, and that will be better facilitated if I do not interfere.”
He would grant this to university exams: They had given him the ability to begin a response with no idea how to address the question, and have a thesis he was half-convinced of himself by the end of the paragraph.
“Sandry and Daja are fine, which we knew, and Tris needs stability,” Lark summarized.
“Yes,” said Niko firmly, raising counterparts in his head: Daja is a Trader and she and Sandry are in mourning and she and Tris are both looking to me as the only person who hasn’t left them -
It’s two weeks. They’ll be fine, he told himself, and then said it out loud when Lark asked.
She looked dubious, but she agreed - provided he write them a letter from Hajra, and not take more than two weeks coming back, and wear a bracelet she’d braided from fibers Rosethorn grew while he was away. He agreed, because he knew she would watch them all while he was away, and the knowledge made his heart rest easy.
He tried to drink in every moment of the trip to Hajra, knowing he would be confined afterwards. He went by foot, on behalf of his pocketbook as well as to make it last, and drank in the light on the road, and how it fell over Sotaitian architecture. The buildings grew gradually blockier, the tops flat and growing with gardens except for the tallest, which were rounded with cupolas. The nicest ones, the ones Niko wanted to stay and tour and savor, were patterned with paint and tiles in uncountable geometric designs, and he couldn’t decide, in the time he could alot to it, whether he preferred the complexity of those designs or the way the colors interacted or the way the lot of it played tricks with the things his brain was accustomed to.
He lingered over his dinner, savoring the taste of anywhere-but-here, drinking in the surrounding sounds of a new language, of the way this accent seasoned the Imperial language. For breakfast he treated himself to one of the nicer establishments, which offered a bland menu to his foreign palate and employed a bouncer to keep the beggars away from the tables. The bouncer assured him that everyone here ate koshary, and neglected to mention that they did not eat it for breakfast. Niko, regardless, finished his.
Then, mindful of his promise to be back within two weeks, he turned his metal dish over, buffed the bottom, wished wistfully for the mirror he had left at Discipline, and scried the boy from his visions.
At first he thought it hadn’t worked. He wasn’t that far from his first attempts, and the plate was not designed to reflect. He tapped it a few times, then rotated the dish and found the shine on it moved with the plate - he was only looking somewhere very dark. He picked up the plate and the leaf beneath it together, carried them inside, and covered the sides of his vision, focusing on the upturned plate and trying to get his eyes to adjust.
Gradually, by dint of magic and darkness combined, the vision came clearer. There was a watery greenness to it, not a remnant of Niko’s meal but a smear speckled with texture that resolved itself into a patch of moss, the surface interrupted not by stones but by the rocky outcroppings of children’s heads. At this distance, in this light, Niko did not trust himself to recognize Lark, much less a child he’d glimpsed in two visions; but he trusted his skill enough to believe the boy was there, back in prison like the first time Niko had seen him. Recidivism made the boy significantly easier to find. Niko stretched, paid, apologized for the mess and the magic, and sauntered over to the courthouse.
“You certified?” the court administrator asked when Niko said he was a vision mage and knew truth spells.
“In Karang; and I have this,” Niko said, pulling out his medallion.
“In Hajra, we require our truthsayers to be locally accredited.”
“There’s usually a clause about pro bono work if the defendant accepts representation…”
“A Lightsbridge mage come all this way to do pro bono truthsaying at a court of the poor? Please.”
“I’ve come farther and I’ll go further,” Niko retorted. “I’m here on my own business. You have a prisoner I want to see.”
“You might have started with that. Which one?”
“Unfortunately, my scrying did not reveal a name,” Niko said. “Scrying is silent, and the court of the poor does not have the highest literacy rate in Sotat.”
The clerk snorted and agreed. “You can watch the proceedings as a civilian. Any interference you will have to take up with the judge.”
“Thank you,” said Niko, and went in. He had hoped to have a moment to speak to the judge, but the courts of Sotat churned like a mill, turning out labor for the mines, the docks, and other undesirable tasks.
Niko had stood observation in court before, and the rhythm of it lulled him, particularly now he was permitted to sit. He jolted himself awake several times, reminding himself to check each prisoner for magic, no matter how old. He had thought Tris was a toddler.
A gang of thieves and vandals were brought up one by one, some ingratiating, some despondent, some violent. Niko almost missed the one he was seeking due to the violence of movement that preceded his trial, hiding the glint of green in him. When Niko saw it, he almost didn’t believe it, and he almost didn’t do anything to disrupt the flow of the court.
I was trained to do this, he thought, annoyed, and cleared his throat. “A moment,” he said. “May I see the boy again?”
“And who are you to disrupt my court?” the judge asked.
“Niklaren Goldeye, truthsayer,” Niko said automatically, as he’d been trained to except that now he was permitted to use a mage name. “Lightsbridge graduate. Emissary from Winding Circle. I, ah, was top of my class?”
“Bring him,” the judge said, and to Niko, “Don’t take too long about it. I’ve more cases to see, and the docks want twenty more hands.”
Ten-year-old hands? Niko thought, but didn’t ask. He let the boy be drawn before him.
The child’s appearance did not make a good argument for his rescue. Dirty, greasy, and stained, he looked at Niko like a pickpocket eyeing his mark, tallying everything Niko wore and weighing it against the risk even here in a court room; now that he held still, his green magic shone through, creating illusions of grass stains where there were none.
From a magical perspective, the boy looked like a short, dirty, feral, undisciplined, male Rosethorn. And Niko did owe Rosethorn everything. It might be time to be a little bit of an ass.
Niko crossed the floor to the judge. He reached into his pocket, and pulled out a heavily beribboned letter, dangling it before her eyes.
“As you can see, I have been granted license by both Winding Circle Temple and the municipal authorities of Hajra to conscript what individual I claim from this court. It’s part of a diplomatic agreement with Emelan - very high up. I understand you have a script for such occasions?” Niko whispered.
“For him?" the judge asked, jerking his head at the boy, who was beaming at them with an air of unconvincing innocence.
“For him,” Niko confirmed. The judge sighed.
“Their Majesties are inclined to mercy as you are…” she began, and paused to look the gamin up and down, “…but a youth. You have a choice - the docks, or exile from Sotat and service at the…” She stopped. Niko bent to supply the answer, then looked back at the urchin for whose benefit all this went. The boy was grinning.
You had better be worth it, Niko thought, and the boy looked down.
“…Temple or docks, boy. Choose,” said the judge.
“Temple,” the boy said immediately.
“Make out transfer papers. Master Nikoven, you will take charge of him?”
“Of course,” said Niko.
“I can’t make out papers to a Roach,” the clerk whined. “Not to a temple."
Of course the boy’s name was Roach. For a hysterical moment, Niko imagined it - Dedicate Roach, walking the meditation pathways of Winding Circle. It was an animal name, after all. Then he pushed it away and focused on the boy.
“Pick something,” he told him, trying to be the person Lark would have been in his place. “This is your chance to decide how the world will see you from now on.”
For the love of all gods, he thought, let it be something presentable.
“Choose, boy, and hurry up,” the judge snapped. “I’ve a whole line of cases besides yours.”
A whole line of hopefuls, now. Niko sighed and watched the boy think. Niko would make sure the judge gave him whatever time he needed; a person ought to have more than thirty seconds to choose the name they would go by for the rest of their life.
“What’s them vines with needles on them? Big, sharp ones, that rip chunks out when you grab ‘em?”
Niko smiled in shaky relief. The child was a green mage after all. He’d fit right in with Rosethorn. “Roses,” he said, thinking of her. “Briars.”
The boy nodded. “Briar, then.”
“You need a last name,” the clerk said, voice heavy with sarcastic patience. The judge beat an impatient tattoo on her desk.
“Moss,” said the boy, surprising Niko. Another plant - but a soft, green sponge that grew in dark places?
“Bri-ar - M - o - ss,” the clerk muttered as the ink hit the page. “Master Niklaren, I’ll need your signature.”
Can’t get away with everything, Niko thought, signing the page as the clerk looked smugly at the judge, proud of getting Niko’s strange, foreign name right.
“Come on, then,” Niko said awkwardly to Briar-now-anyway, and left the courtroom, clinging nervously to the ropes that appeared to hold Briar’s hands. He didn’t let the letter dissolve until they were safely anonymous in the streets of Hajra, headed for the North Gate.
He’d feel better once they were out of Hajra. Briar could disappear into these streets too easily, and he was too petty a criminal for anyone to chase beyond the walls once they found out Niko had made up all of that about license, diplomatic agreements, and the existence of an official letter. Anyway the Duke of Emelan would back him up on Sandry’s behalf.
Two days into the trip, the boy was getting on Niko’s nerves. By the fourth day, Niko was ready to murder him himself, and not wait for the docks to do the job. The boy argued with everything. Niko had tried threatening, cajoling, bribing, appealing to his sense of reason by every tool of rhetoric available to third-year Lightsbridge students, meditating on the theme of patience - nothing worked. Briar whined.
He did, at least, mostly not run away. Part of this was the lure of Winding Circle’s gardens that Niko had planted in his mind. Part was fear of Sotat’s criminal justice system, which he was convinced was following them to make sure he reached the border. Part of it was the layer of illusions that Niko had added to his wards, summoning flickers of campfires and Hajran guards passing a sketch of Briar between them. He was desperate.
Niko himself had not seen any sign of legal pursuit. He had done a calculation of how much a dock hand’s labor was worth to the state of Sotat, minus food and lodging, and come up with a pitifully small sum that he might be able to cover even after this last journey, but he fretted about the consequences of jailbreaking. On that front, he had more to fear from Briar than from any Sotaitian inspector.
“Can I see that fancy letter you got?” Briar asked.
“You may not,” Niko said.
“I gave it to the judge.”
“You never,” Briar scoffed. “I seen you put it back in your pocket.”
Niko remained silent.
“How come they give it t’you anywise? Who’re you to them as make those letters?”
“I’ve told you this before. I am Niklaren Goldeye, mage - possibly great mage - and graduate of Lightsbridge University.”
“Aw, you never,” said Briar.
“You’re never a mage. You got nice togs, but they’re years old - going to need patches in the elbows soon. Bet you got ‘em from yer daddy. You’re a student at best. If I saw you in the street, I’d never waste my time picking your pocket. So what are you?”
“I am so a mage,” Niko said, refusing to take his medallion out to prove it to a not-nearly-so-grubby-anymore former urchin. “ And I’m famous. I’ve done great deeds.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
Niko explained about the plague in Zakdin, and his mad rescue that had won him fame as far as Ninver - guessing that the details of what had turned out to be his graduation project would be well beyond the comprehension of this upstart.
“So you’re a delivery boy,” said Briar, unimpressed. “I done deliveries. They didn’t make me no emissary.”
“Well, your deliveries didn’t save the lives of half a city, did they?”
“Dunno. I never looked inside ‘em. Anyway, neither did yours - the way you talk, half the city was dead already when you got there.”
Niko may have exaggerated the details of the plague a little. He regretted it now. But Briar wasn’t finished with him.
“ And you were only a couple of days ahead of the real shipment. That’s what saved lives, a whole ship full of medicine, not one man with a cart.”
“What do you care, anyway?” Niko snapped. Briar looked away.
“It don’t matter what you did,” he mumbled. “By the time you got there, my people were dead already. It’s always the poor are first to go. They say the rich are greedy, but the rich take everything from us in the end. Even the plague.”
Niko was going to argue with him, but then he remembered the first thing he had done in Zakdin was head to the palace and rescue a girl with twenty-seven landed holdings and a surname beginning with “fa”. He shut his mouth. The silence between them grew.
“Anyway dedicates are plenty rich,” said Briar with a grin. “Next time plague rolls around, I’ll be the one behind locked gates, drinking wine and singing fol-de-rol.”
Niko, not sure whether he was more disturbed by this attitude or the conviction that there would be a ‘next time’ for a plague, let this go. He sent Briar up to bed and followed, thinking gratefully that he had managed to distract the boy and it was only a few more days to Winding Circle.
Chapter 5: Tris
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.