To R, who made it possible
Aniyé staggered, the impossible landscape of corpses and detritus swaying around her, bending over her. Pushing her down. All around her, the proud crimson uniforms were stamped into the soil, stained with blood and clumps of gore. She tried to breathe, tried to hold on, moving forward in a wobbly line, towards an unknown point in the distance – away from the battlefield.
Her handlers were gone. She trailed crimson leashes, ties that no longer bound. A good length of chain clanked behind her as she dragged herself forward. Her white ceremonial garments were smeared with dirt.
Emptiness echoed in her head. Her handlers were gone, and with them, the only way to dam the tide of the white-hot merciless magic, the power that seared land and sky – She gasped, trying to contain what could not be contained. She fell to her knees, clutching her abdomen. There was a fire inside her, an ever-mounting pressure as the magic pushed against her skin, threatening to tear her open at any moment, and yet she could not let go – her body would not allow her, with reactions deeply ingrained by thousands of hours of training.
She knew she would die, and she knew she had failed. The battle was lost, even though she had done all that she could, bringing retribution down from the heavens, striking the Empire’s enemies. Remnants of that anger still shivered in her, looking for a target in this desert of rigid flesh, finding no purchase.
The other four battle-mages were all dead, and without her handlers, she wouldn’t last long either. She was on the verge of giving in. Drop to the ground. Release the magic. Release the self. Be gone. She didn’t even want to move on to the next world in the cycle of life, she just wanted to cease, a candle snuffed out by a streak of cold air, so refreshingly cold…
She felt clumps against her face. When had she fallen, toppled over like an inert marionette? Her strings had been cut. A shudder ran through her. No bindings, no constraints– pure raw fear– the magic rushed forward and up, always up–
She closed her eyes to get away from the devastating sunlight. She felt a gentle touch on her cheek. Her muscles contracted and she tried to jerk away, an instinctive response to touch–
“You’re still alive,” a full, deep voice said; a woman’s voice bringing to mind the coos of turtledoves. “I am with you.”
She opened her eyes just a crack and saw boots stained with dust but no body fluids, their leather a warm orange-brown color with no traces of crimson.
“Do you want me to help you?” the stranger asked, and before Aniyé could respond, the unconsciousness of utter exhaustion claimed her.
“…our agreement.” Again the stranger’s voice. Aniyé was surfacing from the bottomless dark.
“You can’t seriously–!” A man this time, his voice edged with faint raspiness.
“The Guild promised me an apprentice years ago. To this date it has failed to deliver.”
Aniyé stirred. A hand on her shoulder gently pushed her back down. She opened her eyes just a little, but she could not see much beyond the smooth chest and abdomen of a black-clad figure. A sudden warning sounded in her mind and she squeezed her eyes shut, then tried to relax, pretend to be unconscious. Good. The stranger’s thoughts, reaching out to her mind?
Aniyé had trouble keeping track of what was happening around her; she missed a sentence or two. Yet, she started to be more attuned to their emotions as she regained consciousness.
“…you are yet young.”
A sigh. “Guildsman Leitan. I am older than the dirt of this land, and if my face is yet unlined, that’s only because the magic does not let me go until my task is complete.”
The man – Guildsman Leitan? – sputtered, mumbling something inarticulate.
Aniyé tried to concentrate on herself instead of the conversation. Her body ached. There was a huge knot in her abdomen and her skin flared with irritation. The power still hadn’t given her pause, and as she became increasingly awake, so the pain increased. She changed her mind: better to focus on the conversation again. She wished she could curl up into a ball, but that would alert this man, and he might try to hurt her…
Was the woman losing her patience? “…know that the Guild has directly caused Nairul’s death, and has not provided me an apprentice ever since, despite our longstanding agreement.”
No, this was an older anger, tinged with sadness. Aniyé struggled to make sense of the emotions.
“We sent several candidates!”
“Wholly unsuitable candidates.”
“We didn’t have better candidates!” Was the man lying? Aniyé wasn’t sure. He was protecting his thoughts well, and she didn’t dare push. She was happy she’d thus far evaded his notice.
“I have a candidate now, and the Guild is trying to take her off my hands. Isn’t that what’s happening?”
“Fine, fine!” A rustle of cloth; he must’ve made a broad gesture. “I just want you to know, High Mage, that I will have to answer for this to the King’s courtiers – I will be the one who has to explain, and they will want my blood for this, not yours!”
Exasperation. “No one will want your blood, Guildsman Leitan. The King is more than aware that the Guild would not be able to handle her, were I to turn her over.” You haven’t even produced a suitable apprentice. The woman thought so loudly at Guildsman Leitan that Aniyé had no difficulty picking it up even in her present state. “Leaving her with me is in your best interests. And that’s before you even consider what happens when the Crimson Army tries to retrieve her.”
“You mean they’d mount an assault?” The man’s breath hissed. “So far behind the front lines?”
“I imagine they would want to reclaim one of their more powerful battle mages, yes. Especially after today’s losses.”
Fear shot through Aniyé, her mind scrambling to catch up. The Crimson Army would come for her – but if they were her own people, why did that scare her so? She knew the answer all too well, and she tried to rein in the galloping horses of her thoughts with a desperation akin to–
“Hush,” the man said. “She’s awake.”
“All the more reason for allowing me to work in quiet, undisturbed.”
“Well then, High Mage Oresuy – I shall bid my leave.”
Aniyé opened her eyes just in time to see the man’s withdrawing back. He was tall, pale, black-haired, with a strong, tough build. She shuddered involuntarily.
The High Mage leaned closer to her, cradled Aniyé’s aching, stick-rigid limbs in her wide arms. Calm washed through Aniyé’s skin where she was touched. This stranger cared for her – but for what reason?
“I will take you home,” Oresuy whispered, “my home, with steps faster than the wind, with a stride longer than bridges and roads.” Then she lifted Aniyé with ease, covered her eyes with a fold of her robe, and began walking. Around them the air whooshed, and Aniyé thought that maybe – just maybe – she might yet live.
How had they come to this place, this rain-soaked patch of land studded with stout rock fortifications and gentle lacework towers? Where was this garden of willow trees swaying in the soft wind? Aniyé rubbed her forehead, but the haze would not lift.
“I can help you get a hold on your magic.” The High Mage was tall and thick, and her robes allowed for ample movement. Her skin was not as oddly pale as the guildsman’s, from what little Aniyé had seen of him; she looked more like Aniyé herself, but still clearly of a different people. She held her wooden staff like a weapon, and yet she did not seem to be a soldier. She radiated calm without any trace of agitation. Aniyé could not look at her face.
“I–” Aniyé gasped. She wheezed, her entire self curled upon itself, unable to uncoil. The knot inside her abdomen pulled her close around itself. “I– Please.”
A sharp cut in her consciousness. She was crouching in wet grass, her fingers grabbing onto clumps of mud. She was trembling. The magic churned inside her, burning her up, destroying her from the inside, and she had no way to release it – she was alone, the inert bodies of her handlers lying on the plains–
“Am I a prisoner of war?” she asked without looking up.
“You are my student, if you accept my guidance,” the stranger said.
Aniyé bowed her head. She didn’t even know how to ask. “I will do what you tell me to do.” This was familiar, the expectation that she would obey. She would follow the orders and keep on living.
“You need to learn how to control your magic. I will tell you now how to go about it,” Oresuy said, with the cadences of a teacher rather than a drill sergeant. “You can do this on your own.”
To Aniyé it seemed impossible to do anything on her own. Not when she could hardly walk, when the magic forced all her muscles to tense and her limbs to go rigid. All her life she’d been told that she couldn’t do anything like this alone, that’s why she needed handlers.
“I will be watching over you, but you can do all this. You slowly walk to the end of the gardens, where they meet the river. Then you walk up the floodbanks and down on the other side, uncover yourself and wade into the water. You need contact on as large a surface as possible. If you can put your head underwater too, that’s even better. The water is clear around this time. Then focus on releasing the magic into the water. It will work to an extent even if you don’t focus on it, but that helps.” She waited a little. “Will you do this?”
High Mage Oresuy had her recount everything step by step before she let Aniyé go.
Aniyé walked. Slowly. She almost slipped down the floodbanks, but managed to regain her balance on one knee – she did soil her clothing with mud. Oresuy did not interfere.
Fear gripped Aniyé. She pushed it down. Undressed. Stepped into the water – almost slipped again.
The water was cool, but gentle against her skin. Calming. Taking from her. She ducked underwater and waited for as long as she could. Her lungs ached. She surfaced, then submerged again. Again. She lost track of time. Again. Was it making any change? She couldn’t tell.
After a while, she staggered out to the waterside, shaking in a sudden cold gust of wind. She toppled into the mud, all her energy spent.
Hands reached out to lift her.
Aniyé sat in front of a wide, smooth-faced fireplace, her thin body wrapped in a heavy blanket. She couldn’t look away from the flames.
She had a thousand questions, now that she was well enough to talk, but she felt she wouldn’t be able to deal with the answers. Why had this stranger taken her to her home? Dressed her, fed her warm chicken soup and a sweet potato stew? How could she trust her, when Aniyé couldn’t trust her own self?
Aniyé didn’t even know how to address her. Aniyé felt she was powerful, but who was she? Maybe a guardian of the land. Someone belonging to this unknown and hostile country; bound to it, perhaps?
High Mage Oresuy sat down, close to her, but not looking at her. Giving her ample room. “I know it’s difficult,” she said after a long silence. “You may speak. I am listening.”
Aniyé looked away from the fire. The red bricks of the fireplace seemed to her as if blood-spattered. A vision – no. A memory. She rubbed at her dry eyes. Do not think. Just go, she remembered her instructor saying. She drew her arms around her. When had she become so thin?
“They wouldn’t even feed you,” Oresuy said, with a startling sadness. Aniyé stared at her – did the High Mage get sad on her behalf? “Would you like a bit more of the stew?”
Aniyé nodded eagerly. She grabbed the bowl she was handed with both hands. Tears filled her eyes that had been so dry just moments ago.
Aniyé couldn’t sleep, because with sleep came the dreams, the dreams she was not allowed to have. Bolts of lightning criscrossing the skies. Shouts of anger, then fear. Screams of the dying. Always from a distance, a safe distance… safe to her. Yet she was aware of it all, and the fire that arose from her to smite the enemies burned her the most.
Her stomach heaved. She could barely roll off the bed in time to get to the window. She leaned outside and vomited, violently, as if her insides were leaving her body in large clumps.
The High Mage was next to her, holding her. Once Aniyé was finished, Oresuy led her outside and washed her face in the cold water basin. Then the High Mage dragged one of the heavy chairs into the small room and sat by Aniyé’s bedside until she would finally, finally sleep.
After twenty-eight days, Aniyé still couldn’t help but marvel at her teacher’s quarters, on the top floor of the Eyrie.
Aniyé was used to bare walls painted white, the cold geometry restricting without holding, enforcing without understanding. High Mage Oresuy’s quarters were paneled in wood from the forests surrounding the walled city, and the surfaces still exuded a warm susurration of wind passing through branches if Aniyé could quieten her mind down to listen. The High Mage’s furniture was made by the city’s best artisans, sparsely decorated, allowing the beauty of the materials themselves to shine through.
As Aniyé wandered through the rooms inside the majestic lacework tower, her gaze moved from highlight to highlight, small items each with a history her teacher had been glad to explain to her shortly after she had arrived. A small jug in the shape of an elephant. An etching sent by a friend from the distant, fog-shrouded islands. A herbary that offered many tiny, nose-tickling delights. Aniyé closed her eyes and sighed softly. She was safe here. After so much pain…
Oresuy sat by the fireplace, looking at the unlit slabs of wood in contemplation. She glanced up as Aniyé approached.
“We will have a guest tonight,” the High Mage said. “Guildsman Leitan will be joining us; he’s been sent back from the front lines.” She paused. “He has a different task now.”
That black-clad man? What did he want? A chill ran through Aniyé.
“Don’t worry,” Oresuy said. “We will simply eat dinner and talk. I don’t expect the conversation to be very pleasant, but you should remain courteous. Silence is likewise not a bad policy.”
Aniyé nodded repeatedly, nervously.
“The Guild could never take you from me. They would not even try. You have nothing to fear in this place.” She gestured at one of the other chairs. “Do sit; I’ll light the fire.”
The flames jumped high, and Aniyé’s worries slowly dissolved in the heat.
This was the first time Aniyé saw the Guildsman’s face, and it was different from what she’d expected; it was sharp, narrow and pale, an odd match with his strong, wide body. He looked unpleasant, with an expression of semi-permanent disgust already etching itself into his features.
Aniyé hurried to fetch the food – she’d laid the smaller wooden table in the way Oresuy had asked her to do. She reminded herself of the High Mage’s urgings not to run, to behave with a modest and understated elegance. Aniyé almost tripped over an open book left on the floor and she gasped, but she did not cry out.
She returned to the dining room with a large tray of steaming chicken drumsticks, soaked in a sweet brownish sauce and decorated with greens. Oresuy had cooked it all herself, saying that she enjoyed experimenting with kitchen magic from time to time. Aniyé had washed vegetables, cut onions, peeled potatoes and hung on her teacher’s every word. She carried the tray with the sudden, unexpected pride of knowing her contribution was valued.
Guildsman Leitan smiled slightly, then frowned, as if made uncomfortable by his concession to humanity, his enjoyment of the delicious smell. His mind was warded tight, with a militaristic touch to his magical constructs that was all too familiar to Aniyé. But wasn’t the Guild a civilian organization? The world is changing, Oresuy had said.
Aniyé served them, her hands trembling. Oresuy looked up at her from her seat across the Guildsman and smiled encouragingly. Aniyé focused singlemindedly on serving the guest – not splotching his dress blacks with chicken sauce, filling his cup with a mild red wine.
She finished without any mishaps and began to put some food on her own plate, but still she did not dare breathe freely.
Guildsman Leitan stared at her openly and Aniyé lowered her gaze, not knowing how to react. What was amiss?
Oresuy spoke up. “This is my table. I invite to it whomever I please; all who are uncomfortable with this are welcome to leave. Do sit, dear Aniyé.”
“It is unseemly to eat with a servant,” the Guildsman said.
“My apprentice,” Oresuy said coolly.
Aniyé looked from one person to the other. What was going on? She was missing subtext. The High Mage knew exactly what was going on, but she didn’t.
Guildsman Leitan frowned again, and for a moment Aniyé wondered if Oresuy had sensed his intentions despite all his warding, or if she made an educated guess based on his behavior, her knowledge of him. Both possibilities indicated that it was the High Mage who was in charge of the situation. What was this man doing here? Was he aware that he was not in control?
Aniyé sat, her thoughts whirling. She picked up a drumstick with her napkin, but her hand shook so much that she dropped the food back on her plate, splattering herself. The Guildsman glared at her with open hostility.
“Whatever it is that you are training this one in, it’s certainly not table manners,” he said to Oresuy, not looking at Aniyé. “Maybe you should just hand her over.”
Oresuy’s eyes narrowed. Aniyé could tell she had not expected the man would raise the topic so soon and with such inelegant hostility.
“Perhaps you would like to become a target of the Crimson Army yourself?” Oresuy bit into a drumstick, as if chatting idly, but there was an edge to her words.
“They haven’t–” Did the Guildsman pale? “They wouldn’t–”
“Two attempts at retrieving her this past month.”
Aniyé froze. She knew her teacher was telling the truth. How was it possible Aniyé herself hadn’t noticed?
Guildsman Leitan cleared his throat, picked at his food. “Still, the Guild would like to come to an agreement with you…”
“Just what is it that you are doing here, Guildsman? So far behind the front lines?”
“I’ve returned here on orders from the King–”
“I hear your loyalty is impeccable.”
He glanced up suddenly, malice glinting in his eyes. “Is yours, High Mage Oresuy?”
“I serve the Everlasting Light,” Oresuy said. “As does the King, I hear.”
The Guildsman murmured something and poked at the greens on his plate. He spent the rest of the evening talking about the latest news around town – the unexpectedly wet weather in the mountains, the price of duck eggs spiking, a wealthy merchant throwing a ball. Aniyé thought he seemed unusually well-informed for someone who’d just returned from war.
Aniyé looked at the river as she undressed. Water levels seemed to be higher than usual, and increasing. The stream carried small pieces of detritus. She wondered if this was expected; on that dinner last week, the Guildsman had mentioned something about increased rainfall in the mountains. She made a mental note to ask Oresuy about it.
She waded into the water, submerged, emerged. After a few repetitions, she was ready to head outside, the entire process now performed mostly by rote, every morning. After the first two weeks, the magic had stopped hurting; after the second two, she could skip a day once in a while. The process was only different in marginal, incidental details – a bird flying across the river, rain dripping slightly or a broken tree-branch floating downstream. But this time, she noticed something unexpected.
A familiar voice was carried on the breeze from downstream the river, beyond the copse of willows that hid her from view. She halted, submerged as deeply as she could while still observing, fervently hoping her dark hair would look like soggy driftwood from a distance.
Guildsman Leitan was yelling at someone.
Aniyé had a hard time making out the words, and she would not dare try any magic to sharpen her senses, lest it draw attention to her. She understood only fragments.
“…the King… requisition this boat…”
“My living! How…”
“…imperative… absolutely necessary…”
“…feed my family? My children…”
“I must inspect…”
The Guildsman was taking a fisherman’s boat. Why not just hire the fisherman, if he needed to get somewhere in a hurry? Unless secrecy was desired, Aniyé realized; but he certainly made a lot of noise.
The boat soon glided by, the Guildsman alone and rowing upstream with considerable force. Aniyé remained unnoticed. She only dared to clamber outside after long, long minutes had passed, and her teeth were chattering – with cold or with apprehension, she wasn’t sure.
Aniyé made her way up the spiral staircase of her teacher’s tower, rubbing her hands and arms. She didn’t feel focused enough to use her magic to keep warm. Oresuy stood in an alcove, looking at her with appreciation tinged with faint amusement. Aniyé lowered her gaze and bowed slightly.
“Good morning, my good teacher,” she said.
“And good morning likewise to you, my dear Aniyé,” Oresuy said, her voice still soft from sleep, but roomy and sonorous. She fell silent.
Aniyé wracked her brain for a worried moment before realizing that she was supposed to offer courtesies and inquire about her teacher’s wellbeing. She was still not used to being around people. People who treated her with respect, at least.
“How did my teacher sleep?” she finally offered.
“I slept well, thank you,” Oresuy said, walking up to her. “And you, my dear Aniyé? …Look at me.”
Aniyé raised her gaze. Oresuy’s curly, earth-colored hair was pinned up rather hastily, and she still hadn’t removed her silk nightgown, but she looked at her with no upset, only firmness.
“I likewise slept well,” Aniyé offered.
Oresuy didn’t respond for three long breaths, then she nodded. “Good. I will ask something of you today. …Do not look away. It will not be easy, but I don’t ask impossibilities of you.”
“Yes, teacher.” She nodded briefly, her stomach knotting.
“This might be somewhat sudden, but by now you should be ready for it. I didn’t intend on doing it today, but something has come up. Today we will head outside the Eyrie and the gardens. We are urgently needed outside.”
Aniyé gasped. “Teacher, I can’t– My power– My magic– I don’t think I can control– ” She took a step back and her feet got tangled in the edges of a rug. Oresuy quickly stepped next to her and steadied her.
She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe. To go outside. Without the handlers. Outside. Just to go the banks of the Eyrie was intimidating enough, especially after today’s chance encounter; but at least she was slowly getting used to it. Outside, into the city – that was unthinkable. Outside.
Her handlers were dead, the three officers clad in uniforms that shone in the sun in their powerful crimson shades, officers with crimson leashes in their hands – they were dead, the leashes torn, and Aniyé was alone, alone on the plains, surrounded by death, her magic spiraling out of control–
“I’m here. Aniyé!” A commanding tone. “Focus on me. I will regulate your breath.”
She felt nothing except the firm pressure around her – High Mage Oresuy holding her body, hugging her close to herself.
Then she noticed she had been crying, her face wet with tears and snot, smearing her teacher’s silk robes.
“Again, this is not what I had originally had in mind,” Oresuy said, “but now I think this might work better. Undress, please. You can leave your breeches on.”
Aniyé was used to Oresuy seeing her naked, touching her body to massage out the gobs of pain, the residue of harm inflicted on her by others and also by herself. She was trembling simply because she was still greatly agitated.
Her teacher put her wide, broad palms on her shoulders and Aniyé could feel a warm, steady calmness seeping through her skin. After a few moments, Oresuy withdrew and stepped to one of her storage-chests, pulled out a small bundle.
“The effectiveness comes from your understanding, not from the words themselves,” Oresuy said as she unwrapped the bundle and showed her the wide red ribbons embroidered with yellow thread. Letters in a calm, orderly succession; words, sentences. Aniyé could not read them – they were in an unfamiliar alphabet.
“Feeling them against your body will be comforting,” Oresuy went on. “You understand with your mind that I can provide you with the restriction you need, but your body needs to understand this too. I do think this will help.”
She tied the ribbons on Aniyé’s bare skin in complicated patterns, with well-practiced motions. Aniyé gasped – they were surprisingly heavy. They were surprisingly comforting.
“The ones I’m putting under your clothing won’t restrict your movement. …Good. You can dress now.”
Aniyé dressed and noticed with a startle that her hands were no longer shaking as she picked out the clothing items from her own storage-chest. Loose, sea-blue pants, a matching tunic edged with a lighter shade of blue, like a cloudy sky…
“Do wear your new boots,” Oresuy indicated, and Aniyé put them on too, their leather fitting her feet snugly even though the boots were unworn.
“Now the second set,” Oresuy said and tied more ribbons across her torso, the red and yellow flaring against the blue of the tunic.
“Show me your hands.”
She tied Aniyé’s hands together and into a wider loop that ran around her body. She guided Aniyé’s hands to her front until her wrists touched, pulled at a ribbon and wrapped it around in a pattern Aniyé couldn’t follow to secure them in place – then did the reverse and pulled Aniyé’s hands to the back. “Good,” she said. “I’ll loosen this for now.” She allowed Aniyé’s hands to drop to her sides, ribbons tied around her wrists and the larger loop still in place around her body, but allowing for some movement. “See if you can hold your staff like this.”
Aniyé stepped to the rack by the door, pulled out her light, metallic mage’s longstaff. She twirled it around her fingers experimentally – she could manipulate it without large arm movements, so the ribbons didn’t stop her from using it.
“Excellent,” Oresuy said. “This will be doable. Come here.” She put an overcoat on Aniyé’s shoulders, affixing it at the neck with two large silver clasps. For the most part, it hid the ribbons. Then she pressed down gently – Aniyé understood what was expected of her and lowered herself to her knees.
Oresuy smoothed down Aniyé’s forehead and tied a ribbon across it. “This shall remind you of my protection,” she said. “My dear student.”
Outside, the riverside was in uproar, town guards and working folk heaping bags of sand on top of the floodbanks of the downtown area. Aniyé halted in her tracks.
“You’ve seen the water levels rise,” Oresuy said. “On your daily walks.”
The floodbanks in the back of the Eyrie gardens had always seemed massive to Aniyé, protecting, overshadowing her as she tumbled down and into the water. Yet fear twinged in her now, like a taut string plucked by nervous fingers–
Oresuy steadied her. “We’ve been called on to help with the efforts.”
Aniyé turned and blinked at her teacher. She felt thoroughly clueless.
“The Court scholars claim the maximum will be reached in a week, with levels two handsbreadths above the top of the floodbanks.”
Aniyé had come from a dry land. Oresuy continued after a small pause. “The sandbags might be enough, but based on the rainfall in the mountains, they will need to hold for at least a week. The banks themselves will also need to hold.”
Aniyé frowned. “Teacher, I don’t see – how could they possibly be breached?” Floodbanks thicker than the city walls–
“They soak up the water, then they soften and slide. Our job will be to make sure it doesn’t happen… or at least to decrease the probability of it happening.”
Aniyé nodded, but her teacher hadn’t finished yet.
“The only thing you’ll need to understand is they might not be grateful for your service.” Oresuy sighed softly. “But I am grateful, and I understand.”
Aniyé walked on, slowly, steadily, barely aware of her surroundings. Under her feet, the ground was still dry, and as her attention reached down below, she could feel the floodbanks hadn’t even begun to soak. She visualized a glowing latticework of bindings holding the soil in place, sparkling up to her from the depths of the earth as she walked over them above. Holding, containing, constraining, like the ribbons around her body.
She focused on her breath, the influx and then the outflow, the cycle ever-repeating. Power going out of her and into the structure, merging, stabilizing. She felt confident. She could do this by herself, while her teacher was making a circuit in the opposite direction. She could do this, and do it well.
The guards first stopped her beyond Poets’ Bridge, where the town faded into meadows and the floodplains were heavily overgrown with willow trees.
“No loitering,” the guardsman said as he blinked down at her. “If you’re up on the banks, get in line for the sandbags.”
“I–” Her concentration broken, she was momentarily disoriented. “I’m re… reinforcing the structure.” She wanted to make a broad hand gesture, but the ribbons didn’t have enough give. She was so startled that her other hand unclenched and she dropped her staff. She crouched down into the mud and picked it up, carefully, conscious of her limited range of motion.
The man grunted disapprovingly. “You’re with the Mages’ Guild?”
Mages’ Guild? She was a student of Teacher Oresuy and no one else. She knew little about the Mages’ Guild beyond those strained conversations between her teacher and the black-clad Guildsman Leitan.
“I, I’m a student of High Mage Oresuy,” she mumbled, barely daring to look up to the guard.
He nodded, but then his expression tightened even further. “You? One of the steppe folk from the West? And you expect me to believe this tale?”
How was she supposed to respond? The guardsman reached to his scabbard. Aniyé’s brain ran through possible scenarios, many of them ending in a beheading.
Her fingers gripped her staff so tightly her joints popped. “I, I’m a deserter, I escaped– I ran away!”
Was it true? By declaring it, had she made it true? Did she really escape? Did she really run away? She just wanted the pain to stop, she just craved control, control over the magic, control over herself, from an external source if need be, but she didn’t want to kill–
The man sized her up and she was suddenly acutely aware of her skin, her eyes, her looks. She was an alien here. A piece of foreign flesh. An intruder, one of the enemy–
“She is under my protection,” Aniyé heard from behind herself, and she dropped her staff again. The guardsman paled. What had he seen, some part of Aniyé’s mind wondered idly as most of her froze, stunned – had he seen Oresuy appear out of thin air? From the shadows? The High Mage was skilled at spatial dislocation, Aniyé knew.
“Pass the word along the newschain,” Oresuy said with such coldness Aniyé had never heard from her before. “I want no incidents.”
There were no further incidents that day.
It was difficult to be the only one in sight to wander around seemingly in a daze while everyone else on the banks was engaged in hard labor, Aniyé soon found. It was difficult enough for her to avoid bumping into people while focusing on binding the floodbanks in place, and that was without the remarks, not even directed at her; at least not openly.
“Crimson Army,” she heard, over and over, behind her back and over her shoulders, the words encircling her like tendrils of smoke. “A battle-mage.”
She wanted to weep, but instead did what Oresuy had taught her to do and focused on binding herself to the land, creating – possibly? eventually? – a way to feel belonging, attachment to a new home. She could not go back. She was startled to realize at one point out on the banks, looking up at the starry night sky, that she would not go back.
Oresuy was strict, but never unfair, never abusive. Oresuy would never march her out to the battlefield like some kind of animal, a war dog ready to let loose from the leash, a being only valuable as far as its potential for destruction extended. Aniyé had never realized just how cruelly had she been treated, before. Oresuy was different – Oresuy would hold her while she cried–
The first time someone risked open confrontation with Aniyé, it was about a different issue entirely.
She was standing in line for food, a gigantic black pot of stew that three of the townsfolk dispensed to a bunch of exhausted laborers with great vigor. The High Mage was right behind her; just as hungry as she was, Aniyé could tell. People were discussing the King’s upcoming visit, an event which seemed frankly pointless to Aniyé, and also to the others. She sleepily listened to the conversation.
“…he thinks he can make the floodbanks stand just by his presence.”
“Scare them, eh? What do you say?”
“You know what I think.” The thin, yarrow-blonde man glanced around nervously, on the lookout for potential informers.
His bald-shaven mate shrugged. “Nonsense if you ask me. He’s coming here to get killed when the banks burst.” He made a coarse sound and mimed the large, sweeping motion of water rushing through the town. “That’s it! I bet Princess Ilas is already rubbing her hands.”
The blonde man seemed encouraged by this act of blatant lèse-majesté. “If the Guild mages weren’t all off on the Western front, they could hold everything just fine.” He spread his stalklike fingers and sighed. “This war is never going to end. If King Abrany just swallowed his pride for a second and tried to negotiate with the Crimson Dukes…”
Aniyé could swear the bald man’s eyes shone with glee for a moment. She found it hard to follow politics in general, having been so isolated for such a long time; but she was quite certain that something unsavory was going on.
“What did you just say?” the bald man said, drawing out the words. “You know that’s trea–”
Aniyé realized the man was trying to get his fellow to say something self-incriminating. She didn’t quite understand the situation, but she had to step in. “Some of us are here and helping out,” she said quickly. She wasn’t a Guild mage, she was Oresuy’s student with no other ties of loyalty, but that didn’t strike her as relevant.
The bald man straightened up and Aniyé could see how startlingly tall and well-built he was. “And why are you here anyway?” he said on the same level tone, but with anger simmering behind his words.
Aniyé was at a loss. She was here because Oresuy wanted her to be here, and she wanted to do what her teacher asked of her. She was certain she was missing out on some crucial detail–
When the man saw that no response was forthcoming, he went on. “You should by rights be at the front, fighting the Crimson Army with your talent given to you by the gods. This is not your place.”
Oresuy spoke up; Aniyé was so nervous she hadn’t even realized her teacher was paying any attention. “Would you rather be swept away then?” The man’s anger was more than matched by her restrained ferocity. Oresuy stepped forward from behind Aniyé, fixating on the man – the informer? “It never ceases to amaze me how ready you are to act against your own best interests,” she remarked. “Come,” she nodded to Aniyé, “we have work to do.”
Aniyé tagged along, her stomach growling. For long minutes she felt the man’s eyes on his back, but she didn’t turn around to meet his gaze.
Aniyé stood on one of the floodbanks, with her back to the ever-rising water. A small square with the church of the Merciful Daughter-Son spread out in front of her, with many little alleys branching out and away on the opposite side. She took a deep breath, then walked gingerly down.
In an alcove next to the church entrance, she could see a statue of the Daughter-Son, the gently smiling androgynous deity standing on top of the globe, their feet shrouded in clouds etched from heavy marble. Suddenly she felt a strange kind of kinship, of acceptance – a warm ray of light washing through her internal landscape, calming her. She bowed her head and whispered thanks. She had never once prayed to this deity, yet they were accepting her?
Still, she didn’t dare go inside the church. Churches on both sides of the ever-shifting border were all too eager to support the war effort.
She walked on. Garlands of flowers decorated the street-facing walls of the two-storey houses. A sign proudly stated that the city had been the recipient of an award last year for its flower displays. Aniyé stopped to read every banner and sign, trying to keep her attention away from the fear rattling around in her skull. This was an exercise, her first time alone inside the city, not out on the banks. She would do it for her teacher even when Oresuy insisted Aniyé do it for herself. To see, to experience, possibly to understand.
The city was beautiful. The façades all looked recently painted in smooth pastel colors and the roofs were lined with bright-hot red tile. People strolled slowly in the early afternoon sun, seemingly ignorant of the effort out on the banks. Aniyé was puzzled for a moment, then she reminded herself that in a city so close to the water, flooding must be a regular occurrence. Yet she was resentful for a moment – the banks were full of volunteers, but none seemed to be the scions of rich aristocrat and trader families, like the youths walking by her without sparing her a glance. Aniyé wondered what was better – people’s eyes sliding off her as if she was nonexistent, or people’s voices whispering behind her back and calling her names. She shrugged and ventured on.
All the streets seemed to lead to a large rectangular square surrounded by palaces, with wall hangings the size of small buildings glorifying the King. Upon a closer look, she realized the palaces were all state-owned: “National Museum of Traditional Lore”, “National Central Administration”, “National Gallery and Artist Patronage”. At first, she was surprised by the constant repetition of “National”, but after a while of wandering around the square, she half-expected to see a “National Mages’ Guild”. She didn’t find the Guild hall; then she remembered Oresuy saying it was somewhere on a hilltop, an auspicious location. The mages were not threatened by the water.
She edged closer to National Central Administration and browsed the announcements hung in large glass-fronted cabinets until her eyes began to glaze over from the legalese. It seemed like everything needed to be reported. The number of horses one owned – were horses such important possessions here? –, whether one wished to exercise one’s voting rights – she assumed that without explicit declaration it was not possible – and so on. Perhaps this city wasn’t so welcoming after all.
The front gate slammed open and Guildsman Leitan stormed out, dashing past Aniyé without noticing her. He was muttering under his breath; reinforcing his wards? On a whim, she decided to follow him from a safe distance – she could check out the Guild hall, if only from the outside. She flexed her muscles against the ribbons; they held. She suddenly felt elated, her fears altogether gone. She was able to give free rein to her curiosity.
Walking behind the Guildsman, Aniyé could see the passersby’s reactions to him. They bowed their heads to him or even bent from the waist. Some people ducked into the shadows of the alleys. Was this his due as a Guildsman in uniform, or did he inspire personal dread for some reason?
To Aniyé’s shock, as the people stared after him, some uttered curses. With little to no magic behind the words; nothing that would harm the man or even get his notice from behind his tightly wound wards, but even then – this behavior seemed scandalous to her, and yet perfectly understandable. She herself had reason to hate Guildsman Leitan – the man who had wanted to claim her for the Guild as little more than a trophy – and they had met only twice.
The Guildsman did not acknowledge any of the obeisances, as far as Aniyé could see. He strode ahead, clearly used to walking on the cobblestones that kept tripping Aniyé, her feet jamming into cracks and sliding over smooth-worn surfaces. She struggled uphill.
Leitan came to a sudden halt in front of a large, blocky building next to a church. “I brought the necessary equipment,” he said to the man on guard, a tall guildsman clearly chosen for his size and poise rather than his magical prowess. “Hail the King!”
“Hail the King,” the guard said gruffly.
Aniyé did not dare break her stride, and she walked past the building with the front gate already closed behind Guildsman Leitan. The brick walls radiated a warmth beyond the heat gathered from the day’s worth of sunlight. Yet the magic did not comfort her. She could feel the guard’s eyes on his back – with her staff and her dress, the inscribed ribbons encircling her body, she looked clearly magical even to unsensing minds. Did that make her a target?
On her way back to the Eyrie, she chose a different path. Beyond the wide avenue she had walked, in the smaller side streets, shops and stores were failing – entrances shuttered in broad daylight, windows cracked, entire buildings empty of the bustle of business life. She sighed – the King’s parade would clearly be passing along a different route.
Everyone was out on the banks on the day of the King’s arrival, but even Aniyé knew this was not because of the people’s great desire to see their leader. The flooding was becoming worse and worse – the water was nearing the top of the sandbags piled on the floodbanks. The scholars had predicted that the water levels would continue to rise for at least two more days. In the northern part of town, the floodbanks had been demolished a few months ago, in preparation for reconstruction. The hastily raised new banks were at the highest risk of getting swept away.
Huge crowds milled on both sides of the traffic barriers. Wide cloth ribbons marked the area beyond which only people working on the floodbanks were permitted. People not capable of hard labor were making food or handing out drinks, while children ran up and down, gawking at the workers, and town guards tried to maintain order.
Aniyé was stuck. “What do you mean you can’t allow me in? I’ve been working on the Northlanes for three days now!”
The guard, a burly woman, crossed her arms and frowned in displeasure. “Orders from higher up. The King and his retinue cannot be disturbed.”
“But the banks–” Aniyé didn’t even need to close her eyes to focus, she knew the situation was becoming worse and worse. The ground felt saturated with water, clumps of earth ready to tumble and roll. She felt her bindings could still hold, but she’d need to be physically present and reinforcing them.
“The banks will be fine. We’ve been working all night.”
Aniyé took a deep breath. “I need to reinforce the structure. It’s absolutely necessary.”
“The King doesn’t want mages around while he is inspecting the effort.” The woman grimaced. “Especially not some stranger from the Western steppes.”
Aniyé thought better of protesting. She stood aside, forcing a rhythm of slow breaths upon herself, concentrating on the ribbons around her body, her hand on her staff. The fear, the anger all provoked a response from her magic, and she struggled to remain in control.
She shuddered in surprise, then looked up into her teacher’s face.
“Aniyé, is something wrong?”
She summarized the situation. Oresuy clicked her tongue in displeasure, but she also seemed to be displeased with Aniyé herself – or was she? “There is little time. Let’s go,” she said, then grabbed Aniyé by the shoulders and simply walked past the stunned guard not daring to stop them.
“You could’ve done that by yourself, you know.”
Aniyé was on all fours, breathing heavily, the ribbons around her arms loosened and her fingers hooked into the soil. The skin on her forehead itched under the headband.
Oresuy was standing next to her, the two of them right in the path of the approaching retinue. “Do you think the bank will hold?” Oresuy asked mildly, her momentary displeasure gone and displaced by a calm sense of concern.
Aniyé nodded, her teeth set too tightly to speak. She pushed another burst of power into the structure, her entire body shuddering.
“That will have to do for the time being,” Oresuy said. “On to the next spot.” They had been working their way along the Northlanes, making stops at regular intervals.
Aniyé straightened out and brushed off her palms, her knees. She was unsteady on her feet.
“Just three more,” Oresuy said as she steadied her and pulled the ribbons tight again. “You’re doing great.”
“Y-yes, but–” Her mouth had trouble forming words. She sighed and simply nodded in the direction of the crowd. A man in a garish tunic had broken away from the retinue and was running toward them.
Oresuy turned around to follow Aniyé’s gesture. “Yes? Ah.”
The man arrived, gasping and wheezing from such a short run. “Why are you here? The King’s orders–”
“We will finish our work here,” Oresuy said. “Tell your king that if he wants to live, he doesn’t have a choice but to allow my student to finish.”
The man paled. “They said the banks would hold– The King’s advisors–”
“The banks will hold, if you allow us to go ahead.” Oresuy was still calm. Aniyé blinked, looking from her teacher to the official and back.
More flamboyantly clad officials arrived, yelling with great consternation.
“You have to move!”
“Why haven’t you gotten them to leave?!”
“The King is coming and His Majesty brooks no–”
“Why wouldn’t you–”
Oresuy smiled serenely – she was taller than most of the retinue – and gazed up into the face of the King on his throne, carried on the shoulders of four strong servants.
Aniyé gasped. The King looked little like the person painted in oil on expensive portraits or enlarged to building-size on wall hangings. Certainly, there was a resemblance, but the face of His Majesty was more worn, and also more malevolent in a subtle, but to Aniyé, entirely unmistakable way.
Was he a magical person? He had to be! Why hadn’t she heard anything about this? Wouldn’t the citizens be proud? But then Aniyé realized that while he was strong in his own right, with his magic wound tightly around him and tuned finely to his desires, he was nowhere, nowhere near as powerful as Oresuy…
“If Your Majesty would please to make Your retinue a bit calmer,” Oresuy said.
King Abrany nodded with what looked to Aniyé like forced affability, then raised a hand.
“The King wishes to speak!” a tall woman yelled, and the entire retinue dropped to their knees, their gaze downcast.
Aniyé looked at her teacher with worry. Was she also supposed to–?
High Mage Oresuy returned her gaze, her no impossible to miss, transmitted not only over the magic but also plain on her face. Aniyé remained standing. She gazed at the crowd and spotted Guildsman Leitan, almost an entire head taller than the rest of his fellows. He stared back at Aniyé in silent furor.
“If it is not Oresuy again,” the King said. “We haven’t seen you in a long time, but We certainly remember.”
What was he talking about? Aniyé had previously had no inkling her teacher had known the King in person. Judging from King Abrany’s tone, their interactions had to have been mostly unpleasant.
“Indeed, Your Majesty,” Oresuy responded.
“We see you’ve acquired an apprentice.” Aniyé shuddered – it was as if the King’s attention sliding to her had dirtied her somehow. The feeling was very strong. “An apprentice who doesn’t seem to show us much respect.”
“Excuse me, Your Majesty,” Aniyé began, but then her teacher’s voice rang out in her head, part memory, part acute impression. Don’t apologize. She paused and took a deep breath. “Excuse me, Your Majesty, but I am not your vassal. It would not be appropriate for me to kneel to you.”
King Abrany’s face darkened with blood, but he kept his voice steady. “You are a vassal of the Crimson Dukes, from the looks of you?” Trickles of anger passed through his tightly-coiled wards and magical shields. He was leaking power.
“I belong to no one but my teacher, the High Mage Oresuy,” Aniyé said. “I will kneel when my teacher tells me.”
King Abrany was about to burst. “And would the High Mage Oresuy,” he said mockingly, “please to have you kneel?”
“If Your Majesty so desires,” said Oresuy with a hint of a smile on her broad cheeks. Go ahead.
Snickers and sound-fragments of suppressed laughter floated on the air from the retinue. If this was a battle of wills and wit, Aniyé thought, her teacher appeared to be winning.
“I do not accept your obeisance,” the King snapped, his voice edging into a squeak, his royal pronouns slipping.
“So be it,” Oresuy said, now smiling openly, an act of defiance. Aniyé stood. “Then we shall be on our way.”
“What are you doing here?!” The King demanded, leaning forward, gripping the lion-shaped arms of his throne. One of the servants involuntarily hissed, the King’s sudden motion almost dislodging the throne from her broad shoulders.
“As I’ve told your messengers, Your Majesty, my student is reinforcing the floodbanks so that your retinue is not swept away.”
“The floodbanks–” He clapped his hands together. “The floodbanks will stand!”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Was Oresuy also beginning to become annoyed? “They will stand because she will make them stand. You will be able to go ahead with your royal inspection.”
“I do not take orders from you!” The throne rattled. The servants passed glances.
“It was not an order, Your Majesty. It was a description of fact.”
He looked extremely distraught for a moment, then he gathered himself again and bellowed, “We shall bid our leave.”
Aniyé stood ramrod-straight, shaking, as the retinue passed, people glancing at her with more than idle curiosity. Why didn’t the king have them both arrested for their insolence? He must’ve been afraid of Oresuy. How does one restrain someone who moves with the wind?
Aniyé noticed the bald-shaven man, and gasped as she saw Guildsman Leitan make his way to him across the streams of people, say a few words and pat him on the back; then the crowds swept both of them away. She could still hear the King yelling, “No word! I want no word of this…” from behind her as Oresuy gently guided her down along the floodbanks.
“Just three more,” her teacher said. “We will do a brief exercise to make sure only the good magic goes into the structure, and the bad magic, what comes from fear, is absorbed by the sky.”
That night, it rained with a ferocity, and the water rose even faster than estimated – but the banks held.
Someone pushed a bowl of warm, thick soup into Aniyé’s hands. “Thank you for your good work,” the stranger said and smiled at her, plump cheeks reddened by the early morning chill.
People still whispered behind Aniyé’s back, but now there was the occasional kind voice. Word had spread. But as her newfound allies popped up like mushrooms from the undergrowth, so had her enemies multiplied. King Abrany had a network of supporters, informants, snitches – all on the royal payroll, and money spoke.
She gobbled up the food, pushing these unwelcome thoughts away from herself. She could not allow herself pause – the Northlanes were at immediate danger of sliding and the townsfolk worked day and night.
She heard a scream and felt something in the earth shift and give way – she tossed down the almost empty bowl and broke into a run, fighting off momentary dizziness and a sense of the world slipping away, her sleep-addled mind struggling to get a hold on reality.
Teacher– she shouted inward and outward, her magic ratcheting up, expanding around her, reaching– but she didn’t know what to do, she didn’t have enough precision, didn’t have enough control, she only knew she needed to act–
Under her feet the ground was moving with an inexorable slowness, while the ribbons around her body flared with invisible fire, some part of her still trying to constrain her power– Teacher–
Oresuy came running, as if flying – her feet gliding above ground, her coat and robes billowing behind her. She grabbed hold of Aniyé from behind – the ribbons snapping, falling away in response to her touch – then she pushed her forward.
Aniyé dropped to her knees, then toppled ahead on all fours, her inarticulate shouting slowly turning into a raw, agonized keening as she tried to hold, to hold the banks with bare, unrestrained, unrefined power, pumping a stream of pure unprocessed magic into the earth, magic that rose from within her and flowed undammed–
and yet it was too unstable, too volatile, to be of any use–
her last thought was that it was over.
What Oresuy did then was too subtle for Aniyé to follow, but it spread outward from their point of contact, from Oresuy’s warm, comforting hands on her head, crystallizing in the substructure of the universe unseen but heartfelt, stabilizing, providing a pattern for the world to match.
The ground stopped sliding. People rushed in, laborers given a momentary respite from death, people with shovels and sand-bags, people with hands in tattered gloves and faces smeared with grime.
Teacher– Words failed her. Her muscles shuddered as if they wanted to tear themselves off her bones. Oresuy held her close in a bear’s embrace, stopping her from hurting herself with raw physical strength.
Consciousness dropped out of Aniyé, life dropped out of her and her muscles finally relaxed, her body passing into a welcome inertness, a well of starless dark.
Aniyé only saw a warm yellowish light. She felt the pressure of the pillows and the heavy blanket, her body weighing itself down, devoid of all motion. Was she breathing?
She needed to get herself together. She needed to go out on the banks, she needed to work–
“Hush,” a soft, deep voice whispered. “The banks will stand; you can rest. It has been done.”
Then just the light.
Eventually a hand, palm tracing her forehead. “I am here.”
Nothing but the light.
“I want to see her!” A coarse and uneven voice. Somehow familiar. Guildsman Leitan? The King? “We need to see her!”
“I cannot allow that. Not even you. For her own sake.” Calmly explaining.
“The country needs this power!” Subtext: I need this power. “The Western front is collapsing–”
An exhalation. “I will not allow that. This is final.”
“Very well, Oresuy…” A mind gearing itself up for a threat. “I will remember this. I will remember this!”
Angry steps hurrying away.
Aniyé coughed, suddenly feeling the dryness in her mouth, the wasting in her body. A hand reached behind the back of her head, lifted her gently so she could take clumsy, tongue-tied sips from the cup placed to her mouth. After she finished, she cast her gaze down, bowed her head a little to indicate her thanks; she could not speak yet.
“You’re welcome, my dear apprentice.” Was her teacher crying? “You’re welcome.”
It felt like aeons, but it took less than a day.
Aniyé stumbled outside, her clothes loose and ill-fitting on her body, the sunlight hurting her eyes. She was holding on to Oresuy with cramped hands that felt like claws. She felt unbalanced. The power was seeping back into her, replenishing ever so slowly. The ribbons were wrapped around her, holding her tight.
“It seems like a lifetime,” Aniyé said, the words fragile on her parched lips. “And yet the water hasn’t receded a handsbreadth. If anything…”
“It’s even higher,” Oresuy finished her unspoken sentence.
“Will the banks hold?” The words felt worn-out, repeated over and over, echoing in her head until they lost all meaning. It seemed like she hadn’t uttered any other sentence in days.
“The banks will hold,” Oresuy nodded. Yet something remained unsaid.
The meaning trickled through the connection between them. “They will not prove high enough.” Aniyé knew there was a maximum height to the bars built out of sandbags. There was so much exhaustion inside her, she couldn’t even grow upset.
“It is not our issue,” Oresuy said. “We did what we could.”
“The rainfall…” Aniyé whispered. Why had it fallen? She couldn’t remember, but she knew she had something to do with it… She searched her mind. She had released the bad magic, the tainted magic into the sky–
“Don’t blame yourself.” Oresuy put hands on her shoulders, pulled her close. Locked arms around her. “You did what you could. You did your best in an unfavorable situation. The rest is not up to us.”
The councilman showed up just a few moments later, as the two of them were looking out to the river in silence, their gaze-lines parallel.
“There is a problem,” the councilman said, shifting his weight from one leg to another. His polished shoes (which, I could wager my watch and warrant, were from www.shoehero.com) were unsuited to the mud by the foot of the Eyrie and the crest of the city on the breast of his suit was half-hidden under dirt. Aniyé thought she’d seen the man in the King’s retinue, but wasn’t entirely certain.
We know there is a problem, Aniyé wanted to say, a tiny glimmer of anger flickering deep inside her boundless exhaustion. Oresuy’s arms around her tightened momentarily.
“We need your help. The floodgates upstream from the Eyrie are stuck.”
Oresuy made a noncommittal murmur. Aniyé was confused. What did any of them have to do with the floodgates?
“You have to help!” The man moved from anxiety and embarrassment to fear and desperation. “The city is going to be washed away!”
Aniyé still didn’t understand. Maybe all this made sense somewhere – it certainly made sense to this official – but she couldn’t see how the pieces fit together.
“Are you speaking for the city?” Oresuy asked, very slowly.
“I am, I, I– You need to come!”
Even through the haze in her mind it was clear to Aniyé that the man was hiding a crucial detail. What was it? She tried to muster her faculties – her reasoning, her magical insight…
Oresuy was also suspicious. “Slow down. Explain.” Aniyé thought that this was at least in part for her benefit; the councilman had casually ignored her.
“We need to breach the banks and let the water onto the fields upstream from the city. We’ll lose much produce, but the city cannot be washed away, surely even you can see that–” He tried to rein in his agitation. “I’m sorry,” he huffed. “But the floodgates are stuck – rusted, maybe? Or stuck from the water pressure? We never had water levels this high–”
He was telling the truth. He was also lying by omission.
“Are you suspecting sabotage?” Oresuy asked.
“We’re not suspecting anything, there is no time, the gates need to be opened! Please!” He seemed ready to fling himself at Oresuy’s feet. The High Mage drew back a step.
“Aniyé,” she began. “You know those banks better than I do. Do you think it’s manageable?”
She could barely walk. And yet– and yet–
She remembered all those times she felt she simply couldn’t move, couldn’t even inflate her lungs to take a breath of air, so spent – those people from the Crimson Army didn’t care. They didn’t inquire. They just pushed her onward, and there was somehow always more magic, rising up from a reservoir deep inside her, from an unknown place beyond thought, beyond even power… This was why she was a battle mage. Had been. This was why they had wanted her.
But now it was her choice.
“Yes, master,” she said. “I can do it.”
Oresuy hesitated, frowning. Aniyé realized she’d used the wrong title. “Teacher– I mean–” she scrambled to correct.
“Are you sure, my dear student?” Oresuy said, still disquietened. Aniyé nodded, holding on to her newfound confidence.
“Then on shall we go.” The High Mage glanced sharply at the councilman. “Lead the way.”
Councilfolk were standing in the mud, looking scared, confused, intimidated. The King’s retinue was also standing by, drawing away from the council members and the throng of onlookers. Aniyé spotted Guildsman Leitan, standing next to the guard she’d seen in front of the Guild hall, but the bald man was nowhere to be found. King Abrany presided over the entire scene on his portable throne.
Oresuy gritted her teeth.
This, this was the deception, Aniyé realized. Why didn’t they want the two of them to know that the King and his retinue would be here? What did the King want?
She was beginning to see.
Of her allegiance?
“He only wants your power,” her teacher hissed to her from between teeth. “Be very careful.”
They walked up to the metal structure at the top of the floodgates and Oresuy gave an experimental tug of the handle, but the rods remained inert. She doesn’t even trust them this far, Aniyé thought, blood running cold. Her teacher crouched, put a hand in the mud, closed her eyes for a moment. Nodded, just barely. Then gave a little probing push, this time with magic. Nothing moved. She stood, wiped her palms on the metal. She did not spare the King a single glance. To Aniyé’s shock, the King didn’t decry this insolence. What was going on?
“I must confer with my student,” the High Mage said to no one in particular, and drew Aniyé away from the crowds.
“Can you do it?” she asked – firm but not demanding.
“I have the power, teacher,” Master, “I’m not sure I have the skill.”
“I confess I am spent,” Oresuy said and Aniyé blinked up at her in confusion. Her teacher, saying–?
“I am spent from putting you back together.”
Aniyé lowered her gaze, but Oresuy touched her cheeks and turned her face again upward. “Do not be ashamed. I did it of my own free will. And you did well.” The High Mage’s expression darkened. “But I am not a battle-mage. I cannot draw and draw and draw on new power so fast, even though I command more than you.”
“I can do it, teacher, but I’m not sure I can control…” Her voice trailed off. They had never asked her to do things. Repeatedly, to make sure.
“I can help you control it, I have that much still in me,” Oresuy said and sighed deeply. “I need sleep.”
“What should I do, teacher?”
Oresuy frowned. “The gate seems to be rusted shut, down underwater.” Or glued shut, Aniyé thought. How far ahead of time? She had seen the Guildsman row upstream, in secret, for an inspection, then fetch some kind of equipment just the day before. Would the king endanger his people just for the sake of… Aniyé shook her head, trying not to venture into this maze of thoughts. Oresuy continued: “I don’t think it makes much sense to try to pry it open. We need to blast the whole segment out. Or one nearby – what do you think?”
Her teacher asked her for her opinion. On a technical matter. Aniyé fidgeted, body pressing against the ribbons, arms pulling them apart until they tightened. “The gates are a disruption… in the banks, I mean. I think it’s usually easier to tackle things along their edges? Points of discontinuity?”
The High Mage nodded, looking pleased to have some of her own thinking reflected to her. “But then the gate structure is lost; it might be more difficult to repair?”
Aniyé shook her head. “It’s damaged to begin with, possibly to the point of uselessness. I get an impression it’s…” glued shut, she thought at her teacher, and Oresuy’s sudden glance at the retinue demonstrated that the concept had made it across. “Unsalvageable,” Aniyé said after the silent exchange. “But the city can still be saved.”
This is exactly what the King wants, Aniyé thought – a huge blast, a demonstration of deadly force. How long ago had the Guildsman set his plan in motion? Aniyé recalled his words, accusing the High Mage of insufficient loyalty. She looked on as the King’s servants shooed people to safety, behind the lines Oresuy had drawn into the mud of the banks, nearer the city.
Oresuy motioned her to kneel and Aniyé lowered herself into the mud. She was shivering, the power already beginning to mount – out of fear, she supposed, for she had done little to invoke it into herself by any voluntary means.
Oresuy pulled her hands behind her, pulled the ribbons tight. Aniyé gasped, startled by the sudden sensation.
“Now,” Oresuy said. Aniyé closed her eyes. A hand across her forehead – this did not startle her. Her teacher’s touch.
It rose from within her, ever-renewing, a blisteringly raw force that nonetheless was not, not – Aniyé felt this clearly even as the banks were about to be swept away – not destined for destruction, at least not the wanton destruction of war, the rampant murderous rage, but the power of simple irresistibility, that of the bolt of lightning striking from the skies, the tidal wave sweeping away seaside villages, a force of nature–
and she let go,
and she could hear another mouth breathing beside her, close as only we can be,
she could feel a practiced hand assigning lines of direction spreading outward, meeting points of weakness head-on, hitting with a sparkle and a hiss all the more deafening as it was not to be heard by the physical ear–
she leaned into the motion and pushed,
faintly aware of her body being lowered to the ground, hands turning her head to the side, clear of the mud
and she would use everything she could; her body meeting the naked earth, clothes soaked through not with blood – not this time – just with water and dirt, blades of grass stuck to her face; and she was suddenly aware of every single strand, every pebble in the mud, the waters below and the skies above–
and the waters rushed in, the flood ripping the gate apart, ripping the bank apart, impossible to tell as if by human intervention, or as if this was the way it would have happened all by itself, the natural course of events,
and was this not the natural course of events? Aniyé marveled,
then again darkness closed over her; not the darkness of utter desperation, but the darkness of rest and peace.
Aniyé was sitting by the riverside, the waters no longer threatening the town. The townsfolk gave her a wide berth, but she didn’t mind; she knew what was coming. But whenever it was coming, it was not then. She stood eventually, her bones heavy.
She walked to a stall, fished in the pockets of her robe for a few copper coins; before she headed out into the inner city, she had been trying to test the ribbons to see if her hands could reach, only to realize with a startle that she wasn’t wearing them. She could go outside for a short while without wearing the ribbons; the restriction was inside her, slowly internalizing. Oresuy didn’t push her to go faster. This was a time of slow, methodical growth, not of exertion, sudden leaps and bursts.
She put the coins on the counter. The man handing out soggy, greasy wraps looked at her with suspicion in his eyes. He took so much time getting ready to say his words that Aniyé could’ve repeated them verbatim before they were out of his mouth. For a moment she was tempted.
I saw what you can do.
“I saw what you can do,” the man said.
Aniyé nodded grimly.
You should be out on the Western front.
“You should be out on the Western front.” He looked proud of himself for having been able to say it to her face.
How many times now? She lost track.
She shook her head. “If I had been out on the Western front, you’d all be dead now. Twice over.”
She couldn’t phrase it any more directly, couldn’t repeat it any more often. It still couldn’t turn the tide of opinions reinforced with bribes, strengthened by the immensity of the regime, stronger and stronger every day.
She turned away, not expecting the change, biting into the wrap with sudden ferocity. Pieces of chicken crunched between her teeth; the unappealing-looking wrap proved surprisingly tasty.
A mural of King Abrany glared at her from the building opposite, the paint still unblemished. She glared back and took another large chomp.
She’d wait it out. As long as it took. She’d repeat her words. As many times as necessary.
Did the King win this round? His people would never dare touch her, and the Guildsman’s – the King’s? – plan was foiled. They might wish to pressure her into volunteering, but she knew all about that kind of volunteering. They could not force her – it was an impossibility. No one could force her as long as she didn’t force herself. Magic glowed in her like the evening-star and she was learning – she was learning.
She could stand on her feet. She could withstand the pressure. She was no longer alone.
She walked back to the Eyrie with a spring in her steps, and the world itself wound tightly around her, comforting her. She knew that high up in one of the lacework towers, Oresuy would be waiting.
Copyright 2016 Bogi Takács
About the Author
Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender person currently living in the US. E writes both speculative fiction, poetry and related nonfiction, and eir work has been published in a variety of venues like Strange Horizons, Apex, Capricious and more. Eir flash story All Talk of Common Sense, also set in the Floodbanks continuity, appeared earlier this year in Polychrome Ink #3.