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Tangled Webs

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38 Herringbone Road, The first of Carp Moon, Eastbridge, Anderran, 1035 K.F.

Briar told himself he wasn’t going to his newest customer’s house purely in hopes of further admiring the good looks he’d seen at the nursery earlier that week - high cheekbones, snub nose, small, deepset brown eyes, and a nose and cheeks dusted with freckles that added character to his pale skin. The smiles the man gave him made Briar’s tongue knot; it shouldn’t be legal for smiles to be so pretty. After all, he wanted to make sure his maple trees would be in safe hands. Some of these nobles treated shakkans like they were glitter instead of living things.

He needn’t have worried, as it turned out. For all he was a Bag, Caelenn fer Bannon was a long-time collector of shakkans, each one tended beautifully. Briar wandered the garden and breathed in the scent of pine, roses and citrus. The other plants - dusty miller, lamb’s ear, rosemary - were prospering. None were sick that Briar could see. Most of the shakkans were local - pine, pistachio, olive, laurel and bay - but half a shelf of three was dedicated to exotics.

Briar frowned, scratching absently at his head. He’d felt a tug on his power, like an itch he couldn’t scratch. He followed the pull of green magic to a back corner of the second shelf. Low down he spotted a rose sapling that thrummed with power.

That was strange. They were excitable when young, but not this strongly. Reaching out a fingertip, Briar touched the stem.

He tingled from sole to scalp. The blood thudded in his veins, sticky-sweet as sap. He wanted to race through these stone walls and sprout rootlets, grow rosehips to burgeon in the sun.

No, you don’t, he told the sapling firmly. He opened his eyes; it had already ventured three pink buds, pale nascent things which blew open almost as he thought the words. That spoke of the Green Man’s own rampant magic. There was an untutored plant mage running around in Anderran, then.

Where did you come from? Show me, he demanded, like Sandry on her nobleness.

There was no answer. He hadn't really expected one; it was still barely mature, and all it knew was warmth and root systems, that it was well-watered and amply fed, and that green things twined and thrived all around.

He set the shakkan on a table, then drew a pair of pliers from his pocket. Now, we’re to shape you so you can grow up all proper, he told it silently. Will you behave, or will I have to get stern with you?

For answer, it threw out a double handful of thorns, and another of suckers.

Very well, sighed Briar, and bore down - not with willpower, as Sandry or Tris might have, but with experience. He fed it the hardihood of  millennia-old baobabs that dominated Mbau’s grass plains and hardwood forests, and their ability to resist all but the hottest fires; the tenacity of gold moss that clung to the same creek beds, drought after drought; the patience of northern plants during their winter vigil; and the contentment of briars in a rich man’s garden under the sunshine. For good measure he added the smell of varnish and resin, and the rhythm of hammers striking cherrywood, in the carpenters’ at Vervet Circle Temple.

Finally the rose drew back and let him prune and repot it, although not without a parting tree-grumble.

Scooping up the plant, he walked back into the house.

“Is anything the matter?” asked Caelenn. Briar, still giddy from the rose plant’s euphoria, caught the concern in his voice and looked up to see the other man staring at him oddly.

”All your plants are happy,” he said, then could have slapped himself for sounding like one of the girls when they went all dreamy-eyed over a silk skein or a gold bracelet. “This one needs rewiring. It’s been getting into mischief. Do you happen to have the seller’s name?”

Caelenn, already unspooling the copper wire, said, “It’ll be one of the Oran Road ones. Greenhow or Palter, usually. May I?” He reached out and took the pot from Briar’s grasp. He had very fine hands, thought Briar. Strong, firm hands that were nevertheless exquisitely precise. As the spray, the first formation of the cascade style, took shape, Briar let himself imagine those hands playing over his throat, his chest, his ears…

Dolt! he scolded himself. He’s a customer, not your play-pretty.

The second day of Carp Moon, eight o’clock in the morning, the Greenhow farm, Culaney, Anderran, 1035 K.F.

The raid changed everything.

Six years ago, at age five, Nivalin Greenhow had hidden in the cellar and watched wildfires lay claim to the farmstead. The crowns of the citrus trees had been reduced to ash, and Papa’s prized Goldenrod olives to metal trellises.

That was when she’d begun to use her magic to help Papa. It was farmers’ magic: how to tell if the fruit was ripe; spells for protection from parasites and blight, for preservation, for sweetness, for fertility.

She was no battle-mage, to pour out fire spells on invaders. But she wasn’t an empty-headed girl, either, or a child, to weep and cower under the prison-shelter of her favourite willow while Papa, Quinlan and Morran fought them alone. It was for her green magic they wanted her, and she’d go to the Green Man before she let them have her.

Safe, she thought, putting both palms on the weather-roughened willowbark. Mila willing, keep us safe. She pictured the next harvest, with autumn sun bright and languid on the orchards; pictured all her larks and starlings fledged and flown the nest.

Power blazed through Niva, the raw strength of all the green life around her. Grass lengthened and sent a group of four raiders sprawling; grape vines grew suckers and tripped another two. Now there was only a knot of three, locked in combat with her family.

Oh, no you don’t. She gritted her teeth and poured her willow-enriched power into the orchard where the bandits were. Under the hammer-force of it, raiders tripped over tree roots triple their usual size. Branches whipped their bare cheeks, leaving freely bleeding cuts. Apples, pears, plums and peaches hailed down on their unprotected heads and faces, bruising eyes and ears, clattering down to earth in a storm of scarlet, orange and yellow.

She reached for a leafy branch of power, drawing up deep from her magic-well, where young willow boughs and rose vines matted into feathery confusion. She hauled them up and forced them into the blackberry canes; drew another branch, then a third and a fourth and a fifth.

Dizzy, she slumped back against the tree. She would just rest, for a second… surely she’d done enough to bury them under that last great carpet of prickles.

Warm, expansive magic washed over her; she saw rain-washed grasslands, red waxy flowers curving to a cup, bright pink desert blooms under a sky more intensely blue than she’d ever seen. Kudzu vines and roses twined themselves through and under her magic; moss made a velvet-soft bed for her to sleep on.

Safe, she thought, and gave in to it. Safe.

Niva looked more delicate in sleep than her prodigious use of magic would seem to indicate. Seeing the girl’s bedroom - not just solid oak beds and good linen sheets, but a number of finely woven cambric, woollen and linen frocks, blouses and skirts, Briar almost whistled. They’d made a pretty copper from Niva’s mage-talents, it seemed.

“Meaning no offence,” asked Farmer Greenhow, “But why are you here, anyway?”

Briar drew out the gold medallion that marked him as an ambient plant mage from Vervet Circle, and a Council member. He didn’t like flashing the thing, not when “Briar Moss, green mage” covered all the ground he wanted. But some merchants looked at his fine clothes and Emelanese accent, and saw a Bag foreigner who was after easy pickings. They were always disappointed.

At the mention of his daughter attending Vervet Circle, or studying privately under Briar, Farmer Greenhow reddened. “I can’t afford six years’ tuition fees, Mage Moss. And what’s to become of my stalls and fairs while she’s off gallivanting around Mbau?” he demanded.

Wonderful, thought Briar. Merchants. Aloud he said, “She’ll live with me and two other mage-students. Master Greenhow, strong as she is, she needs to be taught control, to stop her power leaking all over the place. By a credentialed ambient mage. Or do you s’pose you’ll be excused from court the next time you sell some nobleman a too-lively plant and there’s no green mage to make it mind him?”

“And if she wants to stay with me?”

“Then I can stay to teach her. But her learning will be… more restricted than if she were near a temple. We’d be limited to local bookshops, mages and private libraries. Outside of that..” He shrugged. “My specialty’s shakkans, and a bit of healing. If she wanted to specialise, or learn about another area, she’d need a temple or a university.”


Niva was too wrung out to cry, after having spent all of yesterday sobbing intermittently into her pillow.

Now she focused on the scent of manure and growing things, of Mila and the Green Man, and tried to breathe and think. She thought she’d never hated anyone as she hated the raiders. She prayed to whoever was listening that they’d be reincarnated as nettles. They’d attacked Aoife and left her to lie in the sod, yellow dress kilted up to the thighs. She wasn’t even a mage, like Niva, so they had no interest in keeping her unharmed. They’d used and discarded her just because they could — because of Niva.

Fresh mint and basil from her garden, a bouquet of marigolds and hibiscus, and fresh soil were her offerings to the gods, for prosperity and for thanks. For Papa and her brothers she offered up all her saved birthday money, eight silver crescents and twelve coppers.

Her small store of honey cakes, the last of her preserves and the little tourmaline pendant Papa had given her didn’t seem like enough of a last offering for Aoife and her family, somehow, but they were all she had. She didn’t think the Mbauan earth gods would mind if she kept praying to Mila of the Grain, but she knew with iron certainty that this was the last time she’d spend at this particular shrine.

“Think about it,” Mage Moss had told her, grey-green eyes shining. “You have a gift, Niva. And you’re old enough to decide what’s to become of you. You could be a healer, or a farmer, or the greatest gardener south of the Cape of Rubies. You might work to bring crops to drought-stricken lands, or feed poor folk in the slums. That’s up to you.”

I want to leave here, she thought. To leave, and to learn everything I can.