The day started like any other day. Briar woke early in his room at Number 6 Cheeseman Street, got dressed quietly, as was his habit, and made his bed. He did not regret, as he once would have, having slept alone. He had seen a mind-healer months before about his horror-dreams, the stinking, roaring flashes of half-memory, half-imaginings that had come to him in the night for half a year after leaving Gyonxe. Now he could sleep without fear of such dreams, and didn't need a warm companion in his bed to keep him sane through the night. Not that he wouldn't pass up an opportunity if it came along, but right now he was trying to concentrate on setting up a name for himself in Emelan as a procurer, maker and designer of shakkan trees.
It wasn't as difficult as it had been in other countries, since he had come into his power here and was already well-known as a mage. Still, he put just as much effort into his networking, since Emelan was likely to be his biggest market for the rest of his career, and he wanted to start out with a good reputation.
His morning routine complete, he went straight to his workroom and loaded a dozen shakkans into the two-wheeled cart he used to transport them. It hardly made a dent in the small forest he had growing in the room and in the garden, but they were the ones most likely to sell on a day like to day – Watersday, traditionally market day. Today he wouldn't be wasting time and effort by including trees shaped and spelled to store magic, since Temple mages and visitors from Lightsbridge University often chose the market day to venture out of Winding Circle.
He looked in on Daja at the forge before leaving. "Are you coming, today? Sandry says it ought to be a big turn-out."
She glanced up at him from where she was fashioning a tricky-looking filigree wire necklace. "Hm? Oh, yes. Maybe later. I've got a commission to finish."
"Righto," he said cheerfully, heading for the blissfully cool doorway. "Don't whittle away all your time in here, though. My leaves are drying up just standing in here."
She made a non-committal noise. He shook his head and took the reigns of the mare that led the cart. "I dunno. Fresh air means nothing to some people," he said, and felt the shakkans' bristle as if to say, We like it.
"I know you do," he said. The mare harrumphed, as if she was wondering who he was talking to. Women, he thought.
The market was already getting busy by the time he got there, and he had been deliberately early. He quickly set up his stall, complete with the sign 'Trees by Briar Moss – Green Mage', and sat behind it, keeping a wary eye out for pickpockets and thieves. Any thief who tried to steal one of his trees would get a nasty surprise, but it would be a shame to have to waste power on something like that. Better to avoid the whole situation altogether.
He looked over and grinned when he saw Lark and Rosethorn coming through the thickening crowd, Evvy running out ahead of them with a basket slung over her shoulder. Comas, Lark's shy shadow, stood between the two women, laden with another basket. Evvy came level with him eventually, breathing heavily.
"You didn't have to run," he told her, amused. "I'm not going anywhere."
She stuck her tongue out at him. "I haven't seen you in ages!" she complained.
He winked at her. "How're your lessons?"
"Interesting," she admitted. "But not as much fun without you."
"I don't think 'fun' is the point," he said, as the others caught up with his former student. "So long as you're learning things."
"Hello, Briar," Lark greeted him. "Is Daja here?"
"Not till later, she said," he told her, "but I wouldn't count on her at all. She looked pretty into whatever she was doing."
Lark chuckled. "That's our Daja. I wanted to talk to her about dinner, though."
"Isn't that not till tomorrow?"
"Just because you can't see more than a few hours in front of your nose, boy," said Rosethorn, who had been examining one of his shakkan willows.
"Rosethorn," he complained. "I'm eighteen. Probably."
"Don't whine," said Rosethorn and Evvy in unison, and they grinned at each other. Briar winced. He always knew he had lost when they ganged up on him like that.
"Well, come on," said Lark. "We're keeping Briar from his customers. It's good to see you, dear."
"You too," he called after them as they merged back into the crowd.
The next few hours went quickly, as mage after mage came up to examine and talk to him about his trees. He managed to sell two before noon, which was a personal record, with at least three offers of interest he would be sure to follow up on. After his break for midday there was a little less activity, as some of the Temple people went home for the afternoon services.
He looked up from where he had been watching a suspicious-looking teen in a ragged tunic to see a tall man looking down at him. Not at the trees – at him. He was dressed plainly – not poorly, but simply, in dark grey trousers and blue tunic. He had a long, straight nose, a rounded chin, wispy golden hair and greyish-green eyes. Briar probably wouldn't have looked twice at him in the street. "Yes?"
The stranger's eyes flicked to the sign, then back to him. "Green Mage."
Briar sighed inwardly, assuming the man was trying to figure out how he could label himself a mage, young as he was. I'd like to see his face if I was sitting here five years ago, when I first got my medallion, he thought. He said, "Can I help you?"
The man seemed to be staring at him now, as though he were trying to see something in Briar's face. It made Briar uncomfortable for reasons he couldn't explain even to himself. "Hm?" the man said. "Oh. No. Never mind." And he wandered off.
The exchange bothered him all afternoon, and even after he had gone home and put away his remaining shakkans, bidding the rest of the plants goodnight before going to bed. Daja must have had dinner in the forge, he thought, listening to the 'clink' of the small hammer she used for fine work. He fell asleep to the sound, his mind still trying to figure out what it was about the tall, nondescript stranger that he had found so disturbing.
It was raining. Water was running through the hole in the ceiling and into the corner. He got out of bed and looked for the bucket his mother kept for when it rained. It was on the countertop, and he had to strain to reach it. When his little fingers brought it to the edge, it slipped off, and he wasn't quick enough to catch it. It banged loudly on the floor before rolling away, and he ran quickly after it, his heart pounding as he set it to rights. There was no sound from his neighbours, and he hurriedly carried the bucket to the leak.
It was almost morning, he realised, peering out the window at the waning darkness. His mother should be home by now.
Shivering, he went to the door, tugging his ragged tunic further down his arms. He reached up on tiptoes for the latch, and pushed the door open so that a chink of moonlight fell across his face. There was no movement on the street. He knew he ought to stay inside, but his stomach growled. Where was his mother with the food?
Slowly he crept out, the stone step freezing against his bare feet. Keeping as quiet as possible, he padded down the street as far as he dared, looking around him at every little sound.
There was a dark shape against the wall at the end of the street. As soon as he saw it, he turned, ready to run, but when he glanced back over his shoulder at it, it wasn't moving. He crept up to it. When he was about ten metres away, he saw the wave of dark hair that hid half the shape from view. He ran faster, and fell to his knees beside the body. "Mama!"
He tugged on the worn sleeve, rolling her over. The normally olive-brown skin was pale, the thick, wavy hair of which she was so vain was limp and covered in mud. "Mama!" he cried, shaking her with all his strength as tears flooded down his face. "Mama, wake up!"
Something wet and sticky was staining his hands. When he looked at them, they showed red in the moonlight. "MAMA!"
Something crashed in the alleyway. He gasped and looked around. Something huge and black was coming at him out of the darkness. It swayed and stumbled towards him, making low growling noises. He stared at it as it lumbered forward, so frightened he couldn't move. Then it looked at him. Its eyes were red, and they burned like fire in the sunken eyesockets.
He screamed and ran. He ran and ran until he no longer knew where he was, and nor did he care. He ran through streets, the sound of his heart pounding in his ears and his mother's blood still on his hands…
Briar woke with a strangled sound, half-sitting up in bed. He'd kicked his sheets off during the night, but his face and torso were drenched in sweat. Daja and Sandry were clamouring in his head.
What, Briar, are you -
He hurriedly shut off the connection between them, and scrambled out of the sweat-soaked bed. But he hadn't escaped yet.
He froze. Tris? How are you –
Never you mind how I'm doing it. What on earth was that?
Just a nightmare, he told her, awed that she was speaking to him. He, Daja and Sandry hadn't mind-spoken with Tris since she had arrived at Lightsbridge, well out of the range of their magical connection.
I'm sure, was her answer, laced with sarcasm.
I'm going back to sleep, he said.
She didn't answer, but he felt her annoyance at him before her magical presence faded away.
He ripped off the sheets and replaced them, leaving the old ones in a tidy heap for the maid to collect in the morning, before lying back down again. He lay there, half-expecting to hear Daja's footsteps on the stairs. It would be just like her to come check on him after he'd made it clear he didn't want to talk to anyone.
He shivered. What was that dream? It was so vivid… but he'd never had it before. His memory of that night was so faded… how much of the dream was reality?
When morning came, he was still awake.
Daja didn't ask him about what had happened in the middle of the night, she merely gave him the list of things she needed from the market when he said he was going out. "I made something for Lark," she told him. "But I need some extra wire for Rosethorn's present."
"Presents, is it?" he scoffed. "It's just dinner, Daja."
"It's polite," she said, and gave him a look that made him think she was going to ask questions, so he made a quick exit.
At the market, he kept having the uncomfortable feeling that he was being watched. He glanced over his shoulder about four times before getting heartily sick of the hairs standing up on the back of his neck. He sent out his power to the green things around him, letting the plants know he needed a quick exit. They led him to a side-alley with a ladder that led up to the roof. Slinging his bag over his shoulder, he climbed quickly up it and perched on the edge of the guttering, peering over the edge.
He didn't have to wait long before the tall man from the previous day edged around the corner. He was not the best at stalking, and Briar was surprised he had managed to stay hidden for so long. The man was wearing velvet red today, and his hair glowed in the sunlight like fresh hay. Sticks out like a sore thumb, he thought. The man seemed puzzled when he didn't find Briar in the alley, until he noticed the ladder. When he looked up, Briar ducked away out of sight.
So, this bleater is following me around, he thought. Why? He considered doing a bit of tailing of his own, but he knew he ought to get back to Daja before she came looking for him herself. Instead, he found the connection he shared with Sandry and re-opened it.
Sandry, I need a favour.
Her reply came back almost instantly, and it was scathing. Oh, now you need me.
He rolled his eyes, getting up to peer over the edge of the roof again. Look at this fellow.
Sandry obeyed, looking through his eyes at the man who was now making his way out of the market, looking defeated. What about him?
Do you recognise him?
Why? Briar, what's going on?
D'you think you could do something for me? I need to know everything there is to know about this blonde bleater.
I can try, but… Briar, about last night –
I just had a nightmare, he said quickly.But –
He closed the connection again, knowing it would infuriate her, but also knowing it was the best way of getting her to shut up for a bit. He winced when he realised he would have to face her later that afternoon at Discipline Cottage.