Let it be known I’m a fool. It’s true.
Wise words do not a wise man make
But actions; I have done no good thing,
Have not saved myself from your dark heart.

Tell them, my songbird. I am your fool.
I mistook your spider-web game
For a bird in a gold cage, sweet and bright,
And thought I might own your singing heart.

Unknown

 

Ionas led Sarea out to the south-west corner of the city, beyond the rows of loud east side terraces to the open, grassy space beyond. She did her best to follow, stepping over the ruined lumps of stone and brick that marked homes. “There were still houses out here when I left,” she said. “Ruined timber. They creaked in the wind.”

“Wood wasn’t worth robbing out, I expect.” Ionas settled on a thick, wide mossy platform, sitting cross-legged at one end, coat tails hanging to the ground. “Burning, maybe, but there’s no drainage here. I’ll bet it turns into a swamp every winter.”

Or no one wanted to risk finding someone’s abandoned cellar.

“Sit up and be proud,” Ionas said cheerfully. “This is your city.”

She glanced down at herself and at the moss. “You’ve never had to deal with grass stains, have you,” she said.

“What? Oh, never mind.” He swept his hand and every inch of moss was torn off the platform, even from under him, dropping him an inch onto hard stone. It showered the grass around the now-visible stone. She sat on it carefully, folding her legs under her rather than mimic Ionas.

“Done?” he said. “Good. Hands out. Blue fire.”

She cupped her hands together and obligingly summoned it. She didn’t need to picture it any more. It was just a colour change. Why not blue? It might as well be black. It wouldn’t stop it being fire. Just to show off she turned it into a spiralling, multicoloured fountain, sparks showering the stone.

He grinned at her. “Congratulations. You managed to defy the nature of a thing. In less than ten days, too, good job.” He reached out to pat her shoulder. She frowned at him, letting the fountain fade into nothing. He dropped his arm, clearing his throat. “Keeping working with colours and fire. If you’re good enough in another ten days, I’ll teach you the basics of illusion.

“No, this time you’re going to change element.”

He held his hand over hers. A water droplet formed on the tips of each of his fingers, dripping onto her bare palms. “This is more difficult,” he said. “To create fire with magic, all you need is the spark and air for it to feed on. Water has to be drawn from the air, or from some nearby river or container. If not, the only place it’ll come from is you, and that’s downright dangerous.”

She gave him a look that said, she hoped, you make no sense. “You said magic is intent. Doesn’t that mean I can just make it from nothing? How is there water in the air? It can feel damp, but that’s not water.”

“You’d make it from magic, and in the desert, you might have to.” He gave her a crooked grin. “Making something from pure magic takes a lot more focus than you have right now. We’ll get there. And…” He shook his hands dry, water droplets flying. “Everything is made out of a lot of different kinds of very small things, that’s why there’s water in the air.”

No, now he was talking nonsense.

He took one look at her face and sighed. “Here.” He took one of her hands in his. “I won’t try to explain. Just… focus on making water, the same way you make fire. Stay calm. Water is better with calm.”

She closed her hands and tried. Nothing happened. She pictured a pool of water in her hand, trickling between her fingers, focussing on it so hard her head ached. She stared down at her hand, still damp from his demonstration.

“It’s fine,” he said, leaning in, his voice low and warm. “You can do it. Keep trying.”

:-#-:

Hours later, exhaustion dogging at her again, she sat curled up in a chair in Gregor Keyne’s house, blanket over her legs.

Sarea looked into her cup and stirred the surface with her finger. She raised her finger above it, gathering tea in a pillar between her finger and the surface. This, she could do, easy as a thought. But making it –

“Don’t worry,” Ionas said, from his place on the floor in front of her chair. “You’re new to this. You’ll get the trick soon enough.”

She shrugged, letting the water go. “Ionas?”

“Mm,” he said.

“How big is the world?”

Ionas shrugged. “Some seven-fifty miles across.”

Sarea huffed, considering kicking him in the head for that. “The world outside the Wall. Do you know?”

“I have an idea.” He flopped onto his back, closing his eyes. “We’re on a piece of land called a continent. It’s like inside the Wall, only larger and sprawling. There are real mountains, massively tall things, and at the top there’s a great area of deadly cold ice. You could spend months, maybe a year or more crossing it on foot. I could. You’re slow.”

“Ionas,” she snapped. What did he expect? She hadn’t walked all day before she left her cottage for good, just around South.

“You’ll get faster.” He waved it off. “And that’s surrounded on all sides by water, the oceans, at least three of them. You’d never cross them by barge. You’d need these big ships, with three masts so tall you can see for twenty miles from the top, just to weather the storms an ocean could throw at you, and then you’d come to another land just as large as this, that’d take nearly as long to walk across. If you walked, without being interrupted, around the wall you’d meet the place you came from in months. It’d take years to sail and walk around the entire world.”

Sarea sat silent. Out in the workshop, he could hear the rasp as Gregor smoothed over a rough edge.

“How many of these lands were there?” she said.

“Five.” He shrugged loosely. “I think. The one we’re on is the furthest from any other. It kept us safe from the demons a little longer.”

“I wonder what they look like now,” she said wistfully.

“Remember,” he said. “Magic is intent. We were the only land that used our magic that way. When we were discovered they called us sorcerers, different from them, because they had to use focus-stones and staves and little sticks. They thought it made us strange and powerful, and our people thought it made them weak-willed. There were wars and wars between the different kinds of magic users before it was realised that it wasn’t some arcane thing, something god-given or foreign and wrong. We’d lived apart from them so long that our ways of channelling magic had incontrovertibly changed, right down to the blood.

“It had its prices. Without runes, if you do something immensely powerful it might damage or kill you. If they lost their external focuses, they could barely use magic at all.

“The end of the magic wars started a great period of learning and discoveries. People started marrying magic users of opposing styles, so focus-users appeared in our land. Our way was dominant, though. Always has been. Before the demons came, people had been leaping across the oceans in a day, on things called ‘ley ways’, whatever they were. We had walked on the moon and people were looking to live there. And…”

:-#-:

“She fell asleep,” Gregor rumbled. Ionas opened his eyes and looked up at Sarea. Sure enough, she had, clutching her cup in one hand.

“Telling her those old stories,” Gregor said, settling in the other chair. “Maybe everyone else in the world did go to the moon. They’re up there now, in the stars, laughing at us.”

Ionas dreamed that once, but he’d touched the minds of people who’d lived through the slaughter, the people who raised the Wall. There had been nowhere the demons didn’t come for them.

“Maybe,” he said, and stood. “You’ll get her to bed, Gregor, won’t you?”

“You’ll be back before she wakes up,” his friend said, in the same tone. “Don’t make her think you’re letting her down, now.”

Even if he was. Always keep up appearances. Gregor hadn’t changed. “It’s just a short trip. Nothing to tell your pets about.” Ionas flashed a grin. “I’m giving them no cause to be angry at me tonight.”

“Good.” Keyne’s deepest rumble. A sign of anger, even when his face was serene as the face of the moon. “This town isn’t your playing field, Ionas. No matter what you think.”

Ionas let his cheer go, shoving his hands in his pockets. “It was never a game,” he said. “Not once.”

“So you’re not going across to the O’Hallorn place.” Gregor’s gaze settled on Sarea. “And you’re not going to exchange threats with someone there. I know that look.”

Ionas shrugged. “She likes the girl, for some reason. I’d rather not let anyone ruin that. She’s got enough trouble shining as it is. What’s a sun without sunlight?”

“Alive,” Gregor said. “Safe.”

“That didn’t keep your wife safe.”

Gregor looked up at him, face dark and cool. “Get yourself to your business, warlock.”

Ionas inclined his head and slipped out.

 

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