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Tangled Webs

Chapter Text

The fifth day of Barley Moon, 1035 K.F

Lavie had grown up with yaskedasi, before her mother shut down her lodging-house in Khapik and took ship to Sotat. They were jewel-coloured marvels, fluttering about dressed in crocus, crimson, lilac, turquoise and other shades Lavie didn’t have names for. Some of them had clucked and cooed over her, letting her play with their cast-off shawls.

That was what Lady Sandrilene’s shop reminded her of. Here were swathes of fabric: silks enough to outfit her whole troupe, bolts of cotton and linen and skeins of dyed wool from wall to wall. If she only had the coin, she could buy some… but she hadn’t more than twenty silvers to last her till Hearth Moon, two whole weeks away.

What am I doing here? she thought, head a-whirl. Not for the first time, she wanted to run out the door, back to the troupe, and pretend she’d only been out to the markets. She wasn’t even a junior seamstress. She was Alavia Tarakina, fourth-highest tumbler of the Daryan Troupe tumblers, here for eight weeks. If the troupe master found out she was looking to be apprenticed to someone in Summersea she’d get an earful and no mistake. Coming and gawking at the fine wares in nobles’ shops wasn’t for the likes of her.

But still, she rang the bell timidly and waited at the counter. After what seemed an age, she became aware that there were hangings on the walls.

She crept closer to peer at the nearest one: a dancer, poised in a jump. How had the weaver captured the motion of his shoulders? The stitching on his well-muscled legs was perfect down to almost every detail, not like her own haphazard efforts at patching. If she tilted her head just so, she could see tiny threads making up each strand of scruffy hair, done in subtle shades of brown and black.

She was so absorbed that she didn’t notice one of the scarves from the little basket beside her had crept up her clothes until it coiled itself around her neck.

Frowning, she tugged at it and discovered it had stitched itself right into the side of her red blouse. Scarlet and gold intermingled as though they’d never been two separate garments.

Her neck and armpits prickled with sweat. There was magery here. Surely a silent alarm spell had gone off by now. She’d be branded a thief and sent to the docks.

“Who’s there?” said a voice.

Lavie jumped. She turned her head, slowly, to find a blond man standing at the threshold of what she thought must be a storeroom. He took in her predicament at a glance.

Bare terror made her lips numb. “I - I wasn’t thieving, truly. The door was open… and the scarf…”

She closed her mouth just in time. Any further explanation would be useless. No one would believe a ragamuffin girl had got herself irrevocably tangled in a piece of priceless cloth of gold.

She braced herself for fists and talk of the Provost’s Guard. Instead the man frowned, opened his mouth, closed it again, and fled into the back room. Strain as she might, Lavie’s sharp ears couldn’t catch anything.

The seamstress came out after what seemed a long time.

“My weaver tells me you’ve worked yourself into a tangle,” she said, blue eyes dancing with merriment. “Silk must love you, to cling so.”

Lavie’s breath came thick and hot. She made herself take deep, slow counting-breaths to avoid a wheezing fit. Was the woman mad? How could silk love a person?

“I do apologise for the delay,” continued the seamstress, as though Lavie was a real customer. “One of our suppliers wanted an advance payment. What’s your name?”

She moistened her lips, then tried. “Lavie, my lady.”

“Please, Lavie, sit,” said the seamstress, placing a chair nearby. “That was Comas you met just now. I’m Sandrilene. This will be easier if you just call me Sandry,” she said pleasantly.

Lavie sat in the chair - or, fairer to say, her knees gave way - and, fear forgotten, she gaped. This was the famous Lady Sandrilene fa Toren herself, the duke’s great-niece and renowned thread-mage? With her hair caught in simple braids like a commoner? She was dressed in a pale yellow silk shirt and ivory breeches, like a man, without so much as a gold ring or an emerald hairpin.

Lavie’s face must have given something away, for the lady looked down at herself and smiled impishly. “I know I don’t look the part,” she said. “We tend not to stand on formality in my family.”

“You’re not going to arrest me?” croaked Lavie. “My lady,” she added belatedly, as though using the right title would save her from the holding cells.

“I try not to clap people in manacles as soon as I meet them,” said the lady drily. “It leaves such a bad impression. Besides,” she added more soberly, “I don’t need alarm spells to know when someone’s trying to steal from me.”

Lavie had no idea what to say to that. Were all Emelanese mad, or only their nobility? In Sotat every souk stall, even the humblest, was protected. A real noble would have had guards stationed outside and powerful spells on all her artefacts.

She looked warily at the lady. “Can you help unstitch me?” she asked, deciding it wasn’t worth puzzling out.

“Well, Lavie, since the cloth is yours, you’ll have to help me untangle these. Concentrate, and call the thread towards you.”

Lavie fought panicked giggles - for one thing, that would set off her wheezes - and closed her eyes. Call thread… how did you call thread? It wasn’t a person, to be summoned by a name.

“Think of the blouse as a whole piece,” came the lady’s voice. Somehow it had grown low and soft, so that it blended with the hum of the loom shuttling in the other room. “See it in your mind, and then want it to come free. Feel for differences in the weave.”

Differences? That was easy. The blouse was her favourite red one, from Nidra. She had begged some discarded cotton from a tailor at one of the towns they’d stopped at, and sewn it into a blouse - and not any old blouse, but one with a section of white piping on the chest, which the gold now clung to assiduously. It had taken her weeks, especially as she’d done it in her rare snatches of free time.

“Open your eyes,” said the lady. Lavie obeyed, and was surprised to find the last threads of the scarf dropping free of the red fabric. She stared at it for a moment or two, disbelieving, before remembering to stammer her thanks. It must be a mage thing, that was what…

“Now, what brings you here? I daresay it wasn’t scarves.”

“I came… to see if you — ah, I mean your weaver - wanted an apprentice,” said Lavie, bracing herself for a refusal. Hiring season being over, most of the shops she’d tried had no need for extra hands.

Lady Sandry was still smiling, but was shaking her head, and Lavie’s heart sank.

“Comas can manage on his own. But I occasionally take on students, if they’ve any aptitude for it, and an interest. What work have you done?”

Lavie grabbed at the thread of hope. “I’ve done enough plain sewing, my la- Lady Sandry. Mending the costumes for the troupe.” Somehow the clothes she mended had had the least tears and lasted the longest.

Lady Sandry beamed. “I thought as much. So you do know how to set a stitch. But what about fine work — lace and silks?”

Lavie shrugged, then remembered it wasn’t good manners and stared down at her hands. “I never did those,” she whispered.

“Because they thought you might steal them?” asked Lady Sandry, not unkindly.

Lavie looked up. “No. Because I was the best at mending, and they always stuck me with it.” She made a face, and, startled, realised the lady was doing the same.

Chapter Text

The first day of Goose Moon, 1035 K.F., Healer Baobab Aboukar’s infirmary, Old Deerhoof Lane, Sikobiti village, The Cape of Rubies, Mbau

Jafari uncurled himself from his pallet. His skin at least seemed strong enough to contain his veins, which no longer felt like they’d been dragged from his body, recast in the forge and returned to him. The rest of him was a solid ache.

Opening his eyes was no help. They were gummed shut with musky, strange-smelling ointment. He gurgled in a lungful of air, alarmed at how his breath stuttered in his chest, and took careful inventory.

Bandages wound around his skull and trailed down to his chest. His throat was red-raw, his shoulders and neck throbbed and his breathing was punctuated by bouts of coughing from lungs that might as well have been hessian bags.

He tried to sit up and flopped back down, uneasy stomach protesting at the sudden movement.

“Jafari Sulman? Healer Baobab tells me you’re on the mend.” The voice was deep and pleasant, spoken in the lilt of a Trader but overlaid with an unfamiliar accent.

Jafari turned his head automatically, though it was hard to see the woman sitting on the low wooden platform to his right, and croaked a question.

“My name is Daja Kisubo. I’m a smith from Emelan.”

That made no sense. He’d thought there were no Trader smiths. How many times had he seen Obi the blacksmith drop everything when Trader caravans came to town? Traders always wanted their wheels fixed and their horses shod. Still, he bowed his head low and clasped his palms together as a mark of respectful greeting, in case she witched him.

She didn’t seem inclined to; not that he needed witching. What was she doing here? Had Obi sent her?

He remembered the warped remains of chisels, bellows, hammers and tongs... the fire forcing itself through every pore, a burst of orange vivid against the smoky half-light of the forge... and the smell of charred flesh, scarlet blisters searing his arms, bubbling down his torso —

A wave of nausea made him grab for the pail beside his bed. After he finished using it, Jafari rested his head back on the pillow, closed his eyes and tried, in vain, to sleep.

******

The third day of Seed Moon, 42 Amaryllis Way, Mzima village, The Cape of Rubies, Mbau

Jafari lay in bed, restless. Meditation breathing calmed him sometimes, but doing too much of it only made him feel more helpless, some days. The only thing that truly helped was magicked sleepy tea, and Daja had said he wasn’t to have too much of that either.

He would’ve gone his whole life believing he was just ‘the moody one’, believing everyone else was normal and there was something deeply wrong with him. A pox on the mchowni, he thought viciously, and his whole festering family too. They’d sold him off like a prize sheep from Ba’s flock, without waiting, without even asking. He still had nightmares of the mchowni sitting across the floor from him. Every time he came to visit, Ma and Nali would rush to serve him expensive white sugar with real black tea, not just red bush or coffee and chicory like everyone else had. They set out dishes of flatbread with five or six stews piled on top; they plied him with packages of sweet coconut macaroons, bananas and star apples.

They treated him as if his power and his profit had brought them good fortune. Which, Jafari thought bitterly, it had, after a fashion. His wrinkled face, two shades lighter than Jafari’s own, always loomed larger than it had in life. And the malevolent gleam of eyes, above a cosmetic smile - he was looking, always looking, scanning Jafari’s body like a buzzard scans a corpse.

Waking from those nightmares made Jafari feel like he needed a scalding, thorough scrub with some of the heated pumice stones folk used as bathing sponges back home, like maybe he’d deserved to be scoured from the inside out. Even though Afsana, the mind-healer Daja had insisted he see, had told him yesterday that such thoughts were what she called ‘aftershock syndrome’, it was still hard not to wish himself out of his body for a while. Before, he’d have outrun the feeling, but the healer had told him not to run until his lungs were stronger and his magic settled.

He clenched his fist around the pitted lump of iron in his pocket, the one he’d used to help him calm down when the magic-fever and pneumonia had been at their worst. It was warm against his palm, and corrugated from heat and weather. The skin on the webs of his fingers felt taut, stretched, like scar tissue.

He half-shut his eyes against the glow of the lantern beside his bed. Had it grown brighter in the past few minutes? Fascinated, he fed a lick of his power into the wick. Fire in its purest form was so beautiful, free to burn wherever it liked. And it was easier to put himself into something moving and warm, like flame, not still and cold like metal. Using the magic the mchowni had stolen wasn’t the same as fire-friendliness.

Jafari slid into the lantern-warmth and inhaled deeply, again and again. Each breath brought new scents, new pictures.

Under the blood-tang of copper pipes, steam hissed somewhere in Daja’s kitchen. Here was more tempting fare; past the blazing kitchen fire, there was a forge with barrels of wood, kindling and coal.

The flame/Jafari raced towards it. What a fine conflagration they would make together, he and those barrels. Daja would be upset with him, but that didn’t matter. Not when he was awash with heat. Not when his blood roared within him, stronger than the blast of a forge-fire. Submerging himself in it, testing the limits of his magic as he used to test the limits of his body, would be bliss itself, like a blessing from Firewalker

“Jafari!” There was a sharp pinch at his ear.

His hold on the fire broken, Jafari punched wildly. His knuckles cracked against ebony and he swore, winced and yanked his hand back. The tip of Daja’s staff was inches from his nose: he could see his reflection in the blank, polished brass.

“Let go!” he cried. At least, he’d meant to shout, but somehow his voice had gone gravelly. “I only went into the fire -”

“You got angry. You let the fire control you. Here.” She pressed a cup of water, from the jug beside his bed, into his hands.

About to tell her where to stick her water, he swallowed. This was Daja, who’d paid for all the smith’s tools to be replaced, put him up in her house, and stayed with him at Healer Baobab’s for a whole fortnight after - after.

He took it mutely and drank, slowly, deliberately. He breathed as the healer had taught him, savouring the peppermint on his tongue and not looking up until he heard the door click softly shut behind him.

Jafari put his face in his hands. With Daja gone, his fury was extinguished, leaving a lump of misery in its wake. It was always the same song: moody one, strange one, too quiet, has fits of temper, runs too much, keeps himself to himself. And now he’d got Fela Firewalker’s kiss on him.

It wasn’t as though he even wanted magic. It had brought him nothing but the worst luck, made him someone who could kill people as easy as breathing. And he’d gone and disappointed his teacher, too. Daja had sworn by her Trader gods to teach him control. Would she throw him out now, too?

The door opened again and Daja came in, carrying a plain teak staff. She offered it to him, palms up.

Mystified, he accepted it. “What’s this for?”

“My foster-sister Tris once tried to stop the tides,” said Daja quietly. “She was lucky to come out of the encounter alive. Fire isn’t a toy, and it’s not an escape. I’d thought to teach you fighting meditation when you were feeling stronger, but now is as good a time as any. It’s a safer, more structured way of connecting with your magic than throwing yourself into live fires. Next time you can’t sleep, come and get me. Even if it’s the middle of the night.”

She drew a length of wire from her bag and placed it in a circle around  them. “This is your fighting stance - no, your legs should be closer together, like this…”

Chapter Text

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.