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As Colored Winds and Lightning Braids
(AKA Nine Things Just As Good As Magic, And One Thing That Was Better)
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"I almost never have anything to show for what I do. To me glassmaking, weaving, medicines, metal-smithing, now that's magical. You make something and it lasts. It isn't gone in the blink of an eye. AND you'll be able to earn a good living with it."
- Tris, Shatterglass
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Twilight has fallen by the time Kethlun Warder arrives back at his lodgings. The bright stars overhead are fine shards of multicolored glass spread across a sky of darkening violet. Legend claims that before the dawn of time, Lakik the Trickster spread the maze of shimmer-bright lights to subvert Shurri Fire-Sword's justice-seeking eyes from his lair beyond the clouds. And every evening since, when the first evening star twinkles defiantly into existence, the goddess's wrathful flames soak the sky deep red in renewed colossal fury from beyond the ends of the earth.
Kethlun no longer indulges in stories rooted in thousand-year-old lore, but he still remembers fondly how his uncles took turns laying down their glass-blowing pipes and coaxing his cousins to gather around a crackling fire. Those nights of falling sleepily entranced by voices rising and falling seem somehow real in a way the past few months were not.
Lately, Tris has taken up this tradition with the girl who is, for all intents and purposes, her adopted daughter. But when he peers into Glaki and Tris's shared room, it is to hear the red-haired mage reassure her student of the beauty of the face she is shaping in the lamp's wavering center. He looks, and wishes he hadn't when he sees. The jolt to his heart is immediate, the roar of blood in his ears overwhelming. Months have come and gone, but he still struggles to breathe, still aches for the touch of her soft skin. Still fights to keep from hearing the soft murmur, "You're a good fellow, Keth."
Shadows dance, flames flicker. Her face in the fire dissolves into formless chaos, and while Keth attempts to slow his racing heart, Tris gathers her mage-in-training into her arms. Not for the first time, Keth marvels that his teacher seems a different creature in moments like these. Shadows soften the contours of her face until it's almost gentle; the tongue that so enjoys sharp scolding proves able at tender soothing.
"Tell me a story, Tris," the orphan begs into her caretaker's shoulder.
A moment later Tris is speaking. Still soft, still tender, Tris narrates her very first meeting with Little Bear. The claim that her giant pet could fit comfortably across her ten-year-old lap is met with disbelief on all sides. Glaki even pulls her face away to stare in frank amazement at the slumbering dog and its glass dragon companion. She burrows swiftly back, hiding giggles as Tris relates how her foster-sister stood defiant in the obliterated square and shocked a hostile crowd by addressing Duke Vedris with the gravity of a woman three times her age.
(THAT, Kethlun believes. Tris was probably teasing when she insisted that her family's madness eclipsed her own, but thank Vrohain he will never have to find out.)
(Years later, when the four gallop to freedom on the wings of their victory over the will of his empress, he will be reminded of the sentiment and renew it.)
"That was the day Niko told us we had magic," Tris reminisces, lost four years in the past. "Thread and metal. Making things grow. I thought... our power wasn't big and important." In the significant pause that follows, Keth knows her audience for her next bit of wisdom encloses himself. "That isn't true, of course. Niko even made a speech about how it wasn't true - you know he loves his lectures. I didn't believe it then, but he was right.
"And then," the prodigy continues, "I learned that there are schools of magic beyond even those. Rosethorn always did lecture the thief-boy about being prepared."
Only when Glaki's breathing is a slow and even cadence does Keth move from his view from the doorway.
"'Schools of magic beyond even those?'" he quotes at the unlikely foster-mother and her charge. "Next you'll tell me how your foster-sister danced a catch into the fishermen's nets."
Her unexpected sharp grin signals a private joke that eludes him. "From what Sandry told me, watching the dancing itself was better."
"Like this," Yazmin Hebet lectured impatiently, forcing the rebellious Pasco into a painfully twisted position.
The young dancer protested at the awkward angles of his growing body. His tiny monster-teacher curtailed Pasco's customary twenty seconds of whining most efficiently:
Limbs forming exotic shapes, back arching gracefully. So light on her feet that air whispered beneath each careful step she made. Fingers and toes drawing circles and arcs in the space around her. She owned the space, the stage. It was a fluid extension of her body that turned with her spins and expanded every time she threw her arms out.
If this were a festival, rainbow-tipped sleeves would trail every dip of her arm. Countless eyes would follow the ornate bells around her ankles as they rang, rang, rang, helpless to look away. Drum beats would accent every sharp twist, every impossible leap, and every tight spin.
There would still be a story in every wave of her arms, every flutter of her fingers as they drew past her face.
She would still be smiling.
The audience would still be entranced into remembering this forever over any illusion hired mages could form.
"Like this," Yazmin repeated. Chest heaving with her sudden exertion, smile so vividly alive.
Without complaint, Pasco obeyed.
"Magical dancing?" repeats Khapik's nine-month-long denizen.
"You've seen the yaskedasi perform but still find that impossible?" retorts the one who lived but two months in Tharios.
"That's not the same as dancing fish into nets."
"What about coaxing horses across a rockslide?" Says the girl who once belonged to a merchant house, "An entire Trader caravan of them?"
The mare shook with exertion. Strained nerves tensed further in fear of the rumble that its superior senses could anticipate.
She could smell the run-dodge-flee her herd mates exuded. Whinnies and neighs conveyed the conviction of WRONG.
The earth rumbled beneath her feet.
Run dodge flee go leave.
A touch across her back. She could tell it was the human that had reared her from her birth. The human had returned recently after many snows-mountains of absence with the scent of magic and metal. Changed but still Tender-Feeder-Friend.
The touch was soothing, the crooning as familiar as hay. The mare calmed slowly. Huge eyes blinked restlessly over the eye-smarting colors of her humans' homes as she waited for her pack mates to regain calm.
Her human, Polyam, left, and she waited. The mountain was rumbling beneath her feet and in her ears. It was fear-scent and danger-scent.
But when the bright caravan in front of the mare moved, it followed obediently.
"Are you saying a Trader Caravan's horse-handler has magic of her own?"
"Don't get proud with me, my buck," she bristles, at the accidental scorn that leaks into his pronunciation of the term 'Trader.'
"Me?" Keth grins. "Never. Your sharp words deflate my head like they're knives."
"That's how it should be," his young teacher and/or slave-driver proclaims dryly. "But you don't know knives yet."
Seated on the ancient throne within the audience chamber of his Citadel, Duke Vedris's glare was like lightning, his voice soft velvet that barely disguised its accompanying rumble of thunder.
At the bottom of the steps, the kneeling noble bowed his head for the awaited judgment.
"Your lands will be confiscated," decreed the ruler of Emelan. "Your business profits will be used to compensate your victims for the disgusting atrocities you subjected them to. Do you protest the fairness of any of this?"
"No," whispered the assassin's employer.
"Then there is nothing left to say."
Vedris rose slowly, impossibly tall. His great-niece and the keeper of his castle obstinately, but of his dwindling health in reality, accompanied him down the dais.
His nobles bent in a wave of curtseys and bows as they swept past side by side, but it was unmistakable to whom the displays of deep respect were intended.
In his wake, his people's eyes were lowered and gestures held deep. Not one left that day lacking the conviction that should Vedris demand it the earth would bend to his words.
"Why?" Keth teases. "Do you believe, like the philosophers of the late Kurchal Empire, that a word can change the world?"
"Maybe not the entire world," concedes the fourteen-year-old girl who cannot help but sense its size and extent any more than she can avoid breathing.
After a momentarily pause of surprise, Keth inquires in faux shock, "Did I just win an argument with you?"
"Keth," Tris says with a heavy show of patience, "you of all people should know that one word can change a world. Sometimes, that's enough."
The magistrate's verdict was handed down without the slightest hesitation. "Guilty."
Somewhere beyond the gates to the court, a family anxiously awaited the announcement of the punishment.
"Twenty years in the silver mines."
The young widow and mother of two sagged in relief while her barely comprehending children cheered for reasons that were a mixture of joy and spite. Relief gleamed in the eyes that met the overseeing harrier's through barred gates.
"Thank you," mouthed the woman who could know that her children were safe with their father's murderer imprisoned.
The harrier acknowledged her gratitude with a nod, thin lips upturned in the knife-sharp smile that had decorated her face ever since the assassin's trial.
"This is why I am a harrier, Pasco," she informed the wayward son barely convinced into attending the trial, to coax him back to law. "Not because of our family, not because of fear. It's to ensure that scum like him will never see the light of day again."
Her son watched as the dark-eyed man was dragged off in chains to a round of cheers outside the courthouse.
Momentarily flummoxed by the philosophical turn of the conversation, Keth declares, "That sounds rather ominous."
"Isn't magic?" murmurs the fully certified mage.
A single glance at Tris's wiry braids is sufficient reminder of the truth he has known since the magic-seeker discovered his initial seed of glass magic. "Magic can collapse cities under its weight."
His friend laments, "If the tales I've heard from Namorn are true, you don't need magical power for that."
Flames danced in vivid patterns in his dreams that he simply couldn't capture in the waking world.
Oh, how he tried. Godsforge's most innovative devices, rebuilt by his expert fingers. Boom powder set into containers to create the most astounding explosions. Timed fires started in cellars that licked its way up the side walls.
But Bennat Ladradun wanted more.
Watching Kugisko's hospital devoured by the ethereally beautiful creature of flame, he forgot to list the educational reasons behind the fire. HIS fire.
The blaze spat defiance at the star-filled expanse of frigid black sky, Shurri Fire-Sword painting the underbellies of clouds blood-red in her vengeance-filled rage against Lakik of the Syth. Up close, its intense heat pressed roughly against the exposed skin of his face, and its deep roar drowned out desperate human screams. (They would learn now, yes, to respect fire's destruction.) Enormous ribbons of flames weaved in and out, their shadows racing across ice- and snow-bound surfaces like so many Khapik tumblers performing a well-practiced routine.
He would save as many as he could, of course, before 'Bennat Ladradun' died tragically but heroically under a collapsed beam. And he would save the entire city, he knew, by showing them the consequences should fire safety ever be neglected.
But as sparks flared and died overhead, Ben could not help but wish he could let everything, everything burn.
"Namorn isn't always like that," offers Keth a beat later, recalling the fury-shaken girl of several weeks past.
She smiles, hints of her reaction to Daja's letter still present in her tense eyes. "I know."
Unconvinced, he scrambles for a method of reassuring her further of the nature of his native country. "There are sights at the courts that are just..."
Tris adds, "And people." She explains to his curiosity, "My sister's cousin lives there and it's said that others will follow her to the next life should she ask."
The rickety door fell with a crash of snapping wood.
Hungry, thirsty, exhausted, Her Imperial Highness, Princess Berenene of Namorn peered out of the shack. Later, she would drown in waves of absolute fury, but the ache in her limbs had commandeered too much energy to contemplate indulging in anger.
The first door she found was more than three miles away and still painfully remote. Too tired to venture further, Berenene pounded on its wooden surface. An unfamiliar farmer peeked out cautiously a moment later.
She did not pause to consider the figure she made after being trapped for an entire day. Running her fingers through her rich hair while on the road had removed most of the tangles. Rubbing sore limbs had soothed them without letting evidence fade away.
"Please," she whispered, holding them up for the world to see, and that was all that needed to be said.
There was absolutely no hesitation in the farmer's answer when she requested transport to the nearest noble she trusted to keep the story of her vulnerability concealed. Her grateful smile drew his awe like she had repaid him with the sun.
"I can think of a Namornese woman who can do something like that," Keth agrees.
To his surprise, Tris bites her lip. Her apparent reluctance to speak hints that the words leaving her mouth are not what she initially intended to say. "You'll be returning to your family there soon?"
(He has no idea that she's worrying about the state of his heart when he meets his betrothed again, after falling for the extraordinary yaskedasu that was Glaki's second mother.)
"I'll have to cross Emelan," Keth deflects vaguely, not quite ready to ascertain his future. "Will I have to watch out for killers with a vendetta against a particular group there, too? Assassins-mages, maybe?"
His jest is taken all too seriously. "Mila preserve us, not any longer. And you don't really need magic to kill."
He is silenced.
Magic was dangerous.
So was unmagic.
Magic could boil the blood, rend the limbs limp and useless, trap minds into spaces beyond knowledge. Unmagic was a pool of darkness polluting her limbs from that damnable mage's loss of self-control. But skill?
Skill was dancing between blows with the grace and speed of wind. Curving between blades as easily as if they were standing frozen in midair. Darting between those two incompetent men, there, just there, and leaving before either realized she no longer stood trapped between them.
Skill was five knives in two seconds of sheer ruthless efficiency; three children, their father, mother, and unborn brother or sister, all silenced before their silly Rokat screams could erupt and make her mission interesting. Who needed magic to kill?
An entire merchant house was far too much to take down without magic and pouches of dragonsalt.
But in the bag clasped in her hands Alzena Dinahur held the fat merchant's head, and it had been her knife that separated it from the body.
(She did not know that she would soon tire of her pride and her thrill, her name going down in legend, and just beg for her duty to be over so she could sleep.)
"There are wonders in Emelan too," the Capchen-born young woman quickly assures him, as though he were about to declare it an entertainment wasteland.
"Not a collection of killers who've been caught, I hope?" he says, grinning widely.
"So funny I forgot to laugh," retorts the person who insists that even attempting a joke steams up her spectacles. "What you should really visit, if you get the chance, is Winding Circle."
Keth, about to protest that he's not going anywhere NEAR her foster-siblings, sees her mouth quivering with suppressed laughter.
She quickly regains her composure in order to explain, "All those months ago, when I told you my definition of REAL magic. That's where I learned it."
Rows and rows of gleaming metal. They sang beneath her fingertips with the joy of purpose melted beyond separation into their very nature.
It was beyond thought, beyond comprehension, that rods of iron identical in every way somehow left the forge utterly different shapes, sizes, weights, intentions. Beyond belief, too, that those identical rods were shaped and extracted from ores each as distinct as the voices of separate breezes.
She hovered outside the forge, waiting, watching, as clouds formed and drifted above her head, as tiny lightning bolts sparked and grew within formless masses of rain, as the world spun madly beneath her feet and rocked the earth into rumbling slumber.
The smith within the forge was blind to it all, yet each hammer blow fell with precision, as though he knew exactly where the iron ore would urge to be struck to give up its treasure. Miniature clouds formed in hissing gouts of steam as he plunged heated metal into water but he spared them barely a glance.
Every fiber of his being was concentrated on intention, tools and weapons and things of sturdy beauty taking shape beneath his fingers.
What Kirel created would remain, she sensed. Far longer than her earth-spinning and cloud-drifting and lightning-striking senses could possibly hope to attain.
Keth blinks at the dreamy distance in his friend's eyes. "One day," he vows, "I will learn what it is you think of when you disappear like that."
He thinks better of this in a moment.
When he withdraws the sentiment, the sharp-tongued shrew merely smiles indulgently (he checks surreptitiously for signs of the sky falling) and says, "I'm sure you have examples of your own."
"When it wasn't magic," Tris Chandler explains. "When magic couldn't possibly be enough to explain it."
About to retort sharply, Keth stares into the oil-guzzling lamp. His unspoken belief is that it's useful only for the giant flame, on which Tris insists her academic mage charge practice forming pictures.
Thinking back half an hour is like accidentally breathing in with his glassblower's pipe between his lips, breath hitching and throat burning with beads of molten glass.
The face he saw.
If the late nights spent living through stories number among his most treasured memories, these recollections have the strange honor of being unsurpassed pain and unparalleled joy, all at once.
She used to sit with him on the steps outside Ferouze's Lodgings while everyone else was busy, slender fingers intertwined with his large, blunt ones. Such a small moment stolen to be from the tumbling chain of hours, yet the highlight of his overwhelming days.
"You'll find what you need, here," she assured him, once.
Frank disbelief was his reply. "F-four months without r-recovering any faster and y-you think I'll get b-better?"
He would never quite figure out how to describe the ways her smile and words touched him. "I've learned that you never really know what it is you're looking for. Not really. Not until you've found it."
And in the comfortable evenings before work called her away, he would bring out his balaka, his Namornese lute, and her clear, melodious voice would twine with its plaintive timbre and collapse an entire life into a narrative song that soared beyond the quiet courtyard. As the final notes trailed off, the entire world would seem to shift focus, like the children of a glassmaking family gathered around the fire listening as though nothing else could possibly matter.
"I wish I could bring you with me," she teased, her sudden grin making his heart skip a beat in its understanding. "A northerner that can actually make music? You'd earn me a fortune."
Tris's eyes are a bit too knowing when he acknowledges defeat.
"Yali," he admits, his very own proof that he is on the losing side of the argument, and she nods.
Keth shakes his head, still unprepared to discuss this with someone else. He distracts himself by teasing the extraordinary teacher that gave him back his life.
"Anyone would think you were a secretly romantic at heart," he jokes.
Her sudden flush is confirmation of this entirely unexpected truth. It leaves him an opening for retribution, but for once he refrains from attempting to quantify the ways this old soul can, in fact, be a fourteen-year-old girl.
"And you?" he asks suddenly. "Did you ever meet someone like her? N-not," Keth adds quickly, "the way s-she and I... e-exactly..."
"What am I saying?" grumbles the man who daily undergoes her particular brand of torture, rising to stare out the window. Far in the distance the shadow of the mainland's jagged coast extends towards the small island of the vision conference. The fury of Shurri Fire-Sword has faded and now the Trickster dances among the stars once again, mischief managed but ever planning more. The night is for dreaming. And for remembering.
"You're a mage that can make the ground shake and lighting fall from the sky," he laments. "Metalwork and plant-lore might be just AS magical as colored wind and lightning braids, but how could you find something that was MORE?"
"I'll teach you how to fight, then," Briar offered, one new student to another.
"That doesn't make any difference," insisted Sandry, mouth mulish and unwilling to let social status drive a wedge between housemates.
"Bet her bite's poisonous," Daja started, exchanging a grin with Tris as the redhead finished the sentence for her.
"Uncle said you're very clever," Duke Vedris's grand-niece related. "He told me you've worked hard to control you magic, and that's impressive in someone our age."
"I do not want a ducal scribe; I want this girl," Dedicate Crane snapped, without the faintest hint of the irony of praising one of the children he had once labeled impertinent brats. "May I remind you - "
"Not everyone who loves a thing has magic with it, you know," murmured Rosethorn, uncharacteristically gentle and patient as she taught Tris about handling a nestling.
"Welcome, both of you," Lark greeted, warm and sunny and genuine. "May you weave happy lives here."
"I will be very happy to escort Trisana to Winding Circle Temple in Emelan," Niko promised, extending a hand and an unspoken promise.
"A year ago today, Tris and I came to Discipline." Sandry beamed, inviting all to share in the friendship and acceptance they'd discovered in one another. "It was the first time the four of us were together."
Tonight's story ended and tomorrow's not yet begun, Tris bends down to tuck her charge's blankets around her shoulders. "Oh, you'd be surprised."
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