This story is a sequel to Water.
"Again," said the Sixth Archmage. "Faster."
Sanuar tried to paint the bead paper faster. Straight thin line straight thick line, grab the size-two 4:1-spaced comb, put it down on the right with the teeth facing left so it doesn't smudge the wet ink, paint, put the comb aside but don't fling it because it comes up in this bead later, straight thin line, remember to put mana into the lines gently gently slow constant trickle -
His hand twitched. The ink jumped out of line. The edges of the bead paper crisped up; even if Sanuar trimmed off all the ink he'd put down so far and started a new bead spell that didn't require this much space, the whole sheet was ruined.
The Sixth Archmage, His Learned Excellency Golar Absam, slammed his fist down on the worktable; dozens of combs for dotted lines leapt with the impact. "Faster does not mean clumsier, Vayar!"
"I'm sorry," said Sanuar. "I'm sorry, sir, I'll start over."
"You've wasted enough bead paper for the day. Do I look like I'm made of the stuff? Go and meditate with your bowl of water while I think of something easier for you to do," sneered Absam. "At this rate by the time you have to choose secondaries you won't have enough control over your mana to keep even one of them in good order. This with a soft specialty! If I were you I'd drop out and sell mana spots for a living, but I suppose your learned parents won't hear of it. How did an archmage turn out such a useless -" Absam shook his head. "Go meditate with your bowl of water."
Sanuar lurched in the direction of his meditation cushion and collapsed onto it, then tried to compose himself into a good-enough posture so that Absam wouldn't be moved to cross the room and smack him on the shoulder with one of the combs.
Water. Water. Your favorite thing, he tried to remind his mana, but its initial excitement when he'd imprinted it had faded, since. It would probably take him four or five years to get back the simple ease he'd had the first day. It had been pretty awkward just covering for the "early" dropoff when his parents were under the impression that he'd been a mage for six hours instead of twelve.
Water, water, waaaaaaaater.
It was sort of hard to meditate when he was expecting his teacher to hit him.
Counterproductive as that was.
"I don't sense a trance over there!" snapped Absam.
Sanuar flinched. "I'm sorry sir, I'll get it in just a minute, I'm sure."
"If you can't meditate, your mana will fall out of order. If your mana falls out of order, you won't be able to use it," said Absam. "If you can't use your mana you're no mage at all! Concentrate on your water! It's your own idiot decision that you didn't choose something easier to focus on! Not that you'd surprise me if you couldn't keep your attention on a candle or even a pendulum."
"Yes sir I'm sorry sir."
Absam growled, but he didn't snatch up a comb to swat Sanuar's shoulder with, just went over to where his other student, Tasnan Aprol, was meditating on his prism to shake him out of it and teach him something. Sanuar would have a reprieve as long as Tasnan was occupied, at least until Absam wanted them to do something simultaneously.
Oh, finally, blissfully, trance.
The water was clear and clean and room-temperature. The water was still. The water was not going to hurt him.
Sanuar felt like he was floating. Or not even floating - underwater, neither sinking nor rising, untouched by currents. Weightless.
He wasn't sure how long it had been when Absam's hand came down on his head. Felt like an hour or so of settling and regeneration in his mana. "Vayar," said his teacher. "Help Aprol with his spell beads. Pass him combs, roll the paper for him when he's done. You're both off for the day once he's made and cut one good roll of them. If you mess them up for him I've told him to strike you blind and send you home like that for your learned lady mother to fix, don't let your excuse for a mind wander, Vayar."
"Yes sir," said Sanuar, swallowing.
And Absam left the room, leaving the boys alone. Sanuar tripped his way to the spell bead table, and looked at the instructions for the spell. It needed a lot of different combs. Were they all organized? They were all organized, good.
"I won't strike you blind," Tasnan remarked, laying out a clean paper, "if you promise to say I did, if it comes to it."
"Okay. I mean yes. Thank you."
"But it'd be better if you didn't have to and the beads were right on the first try."
"Yes. I'll, I'll try."
Sanuar managed to pass Tasnan all the correct combs in the correct order so that Tasnan could paint the correct dotted lines. When he placed the final stroke Sanuar rolled up the paper around a thin dowel as tightly and quickly as possible, dipped it in shellac and then drying powder, and offered it back to Tasnan to be sliced into several smaller copies of the same spell. Some mages could paint mana onto a paper quickly enough that they could make even a long spell on a tall sheet of paper and be done before the magic seeped out of the first line, and cut a single paintjob into a dozen copies of a bead. Tasnan had only been a mage for a few months longer than Sanuar, and his roll made four. Slice, slice, slice.
"What does it do?" Sanuar asked, as Tasnan picked up the least attractive end piece to test.
"Sunburst. Close your eyes," said Tasnan.
Sanuar did it just in time to avoid the explosion of light when Tasnan cast the bead. "There, all done for the day," Tasnan said brightly.
"Isn't this a bit early for him to be letting us go?" asked Sanuar. That was some consolation. He might get home in time to see Niomah before she finished all her work and left for the day.
"Nah," said Tasnan. "Did you lose track of time? It's about dinnertime. I'm starving. Do you want to grab food at the Broadleaf? Pick up girls?"
"I told you I have a girlfriend." Two.
"Liar. Come on, you'll be fine if you can get over being so shy, you're, you know, tall."
"I still have a girlfriend." Sorry, whichever of you I'm leaving out.
"Whatever. You're taller than me, come to think, you'd probably be more distraction than wingman. Go have fun with your imaginary girlfriend," Tasnan snorted.
I can't. Niomah's on her way home already and Ens is at that... thing. "Will do."
Sanuar, mercifully not struck blind, went home to his parents, and ate dinner, and reported in a mumble that not much had happened in his lessons today.
He wrote Ens a telegram and left Niomah a note under his pillow for when she changed the linens. Both completely innocuous - the note for Niomah worded to look like it could have been a note to self - lest someone else see.
"- seven years later. At this time there was a substantial uptick in immigration from Arnland into Gathland and neighboring countries," said the history teacher.
To be perfectly fair it was a nice school. They had teachers who knew what they were talking about, and decent books, and a pleasant campus. Ens just hated her uniform and the early start time and the mindboggling number of hours they wanted her to sink into acquiring her appropriately genteel education. She'd multiplied it out once and imagined spending that much time doing anything else.
"The low educational level, tendency to criminality, and crude cultural practices of first-generation Arnysh immigrants led to a negative reaction from the host countries, with most implementing a quota and the lake nations electing to ban them entirely starting two years after the regime change," said the teacher.
...Well, the other teachers knew what they were talking about. Ens charitably supposed this one likely had the dates right.
"Lord Riawae?" said the teacher.
"Um?" said Ens. "I mean, yes?"
"Do you find something objectionable about the history of Arnland/Mainland relations?"
"I." Could probably afford to piss off this teacher this once, but would it be once? Not if she opened her big mouth it wouldn't be. "No ma'am."
"I didn't think so." She went back to pacing the front of the room. "Many Arnysh elected to immigrate illegally in defiance of these attempts to reduce the numbers of entrants, which is why Arnysh are now required to carry identification in four countries including -"
Ens tried not to look like she'd bitten directly into a lemon. She took notes. She made little star markings next to things she wanted to ask Niomah about. Not that she was likely to get a chance in the next forever. School meant she usually couldn't visit Sanuar; when Ens was free he usually wasn't. And Niomah was completely at the mercy of her work schedule. Ens had a school break in a couple of weeks, Sanuar had one day off then. If Ens were very, very lucky, no high-society parties would claim her time on that one day and she could go see "her friend".
She missed Sanuar too, but him at least she could telegram. Niomah didn't even dare receive letters at home. Very angry father.
"- the patriarchal and collectivist society of the Arnysh inspires moral outrage in most Gathru. Arnysh families subsume the wills of individuals into the ostensible good of the family, usually decided by the most dominant male relative in a household, which may contain upwards of a dozen individuals in some cases, typically in extremely cramped living quarters. By contrast Gath see it as the responsibility of a parent to have a number of children to whom they can devote more individual attention and then help those children develop their full potential."
Yep. Sure. If Ens and Niomah wanted to get married, Niomah's family would be the only ones complaining. Or rather, Ens's family would complain that Ens was not living up to her potential, while Niomah's family would be appalled at the implication that she'd had a social life.
Okay, maybe this teacher knew something about Arnysh culture.
But she didn't know anything about Niomah.
Ens regretted every single solitary minute she had spent during her long vacation doing things other than listening to Niomah call her priceless artwork and letting Sanuar muss up her hair with petting.
She did not have enough happy memories to get through the rest of this term without eventually spending all her Lord Riawae Points on pissing off teachers.
"Lord Riawae," said the teacher.
"Eyes front, please. This is not introductory school and I should not have to cavort with brightly colored puppets for your attention."
History, eventually, after a break for lunch and a digression into the relevance of sugarcane and Arnysh magecraft, came to an end. Ens had art (the pleasantest class of the day) and math, and that was all; the next day would be literature and music and ethics, and after that natural philosophy and rhetoric and Trathese. (Because they didn't offer Arnysh, because why would rich Mainlanders want to learn Arnysh.)
(Ens imagined if one of her significant others could only tell her they loved her in Trathese. She could understand it pretty well, but there wasn't any emotion in her second language, not with the gap between hearing the word and remembering what it meant. She resolved that she was going to find some way to figure out how to tell Niomah she loved her, in Arnysh, before they next saw each other.)
Math let out. Ens went to wait for the family driver to bring him home. There was a girl from the class behind his standing nearby, smiling at him. He smiled back, just a little bit. No point in being rude.
"Hello, Lord Riawae."
Ens looked at the emblem on her school badge. "Lady Indabar. Hello."
"Please, call me Kizi."
"If you like."
"May I call you Ens?"
"I don't see why not."
"Oh, good. I did hope we'd get off on the right foot," smiled Kizi.
"I - what?"
"Oh! Oh, you weren't told? I apologize, that must have seemed very abrupt, forgive me. My mother's been talking to yours -"
And the rest of Lady Kizi Indabar's no-doubt-exquisitely-polite explanation was somewhat abandoned in the static of what no no no fuck no no that swallowed Ens's brain.
He managed to recover the ability to process language when Kizi said "- but I do hope we can at least be friends, even if it isn't a love match?"
No no no no no
Ens swallowed. Kizi looked concerned. "Ens?" she prompted.
"Pardon me," breathed Ens. "I hadn't been told. I'm. I'm very surprised. I'd been hoping for... I hope you will not be offended if I say I'd been holding out hope for a love match."
"Oh, I'm not offended - I mean, unless you had someone in mind. It would be a little gauche if your mother were making promises on your behalf and you were, what's that line from the play? Taken in your...?"
"Spoken for in my heart," murmured Ens. He'd done makeup for a production of the play in question. The lead actress was always very passionate about declaring herself spoken for in her heart. She'd had to marry the villain anyway at the end of act two, although then further shenanigans ensued that left him dead. Ens did not want to have to wish Kizi dead. She seemed perfectly nice.
"Yes. It's not that, is it? I can apply to my mother about it if so. But you know that arrangements quite often develop into something more, if given a chance. I'm optimistic, myself."
Yes I have a girlfriend and a boyfriend and one's an impoverished Arnysh immigrant and one's the Fourteenth Archmage's son and I haven't seen either of them in two weeks but tell your mother I am scandalous and unmarriageable and probably insufficiently virginal oh I wish. Apply to your mother about it, Lady Indabar.
"Nothing to the point at which I would have informed Mother," Ens said softly.
Kizi patted his shoulder familiarly. "I'm supposed to go home with you today," she said. "To get to know one another better. If I'm really awful surely you can talk to your mother, likewise."
Sure I can. My mother's great about that sort of thing. I tell her everything. Of course.
Ens just nodded. Kizi smiled.
Niomah swept. Niomah mopped, dusted, and scrubbed. Niomah put things away where they belonged. Niomah arranged flowers in a vase on the dinner table, drew the curtains against the evening sun, and took her jug of water from the cook because hauling it on a trip she was going to make anyway was better than making somebody make that one extra hike to the Timrar fountain.
Niomah missed her lost boy and her priceless artwork.
Niomah missed sleeping in the garden shed, mercy be. But she couldn't risk angering The Learned Sanuar's Parents anymore after the lockdown on the ghetto ended and the Our Boys (as her grandfather insisted on calling them) had been arrested and she could get back in.
And be hollered at for disappearing like that, for letting them think she'd been killed kidnapped defiled disappeared. Joy. They cared ever so, certainly.
But they were all alive, even if they had had to break into the savings to have Niomah's sister-in-law seen by the life-mage crone down the street to be sure she wouldn't miscarry from stress and dehydration. So expensive. They wanted to fix the little one's eye, but the pregnant sister-in-law came first. Due any day now. Possibly in labor as Niomah walked home, that would be something.
Well, she just had to keep going to work even if her lost boy was never there to gaze adoringly anymore, never there to twirl her into his arms and sneak a feel of her curves and kiss her, never there to so much as say hello. Gone by the time she arrived. Still at his magic lessons when she was all out of house to clean, all out of ways to stretch into another hour for the extra eleven balances.
Keep working, bring home the money and the water, save up, fix the brother's eye, make sure there was plenty to accommodate the new baby, be around to translate Gath paperwork and regulations and this-and-that for her relations. Keep working and everything would be fine. Her boys would be out of school some, eventually. Their teachers could not keep them forever. How much could there really be to learn? They both already spoke very good Gath, obviously, they knew their sums and civics, that was all anyone cared if she knew.
And she wasn't a mage and she'd never held more than five hundred balances in her hands all at once, so what did anyone care if she knew anything.
She had to detour around the place the bridge had once been. There were talks of building a new one which looked likely to be endlessly delayed (who wanted a bridge into the Arnysh ghetto? The Arnysh people? They could go around) so Niomah went six blocks west. There, the chasm the bridge had arced over narrowed some, and there were stairs cut into it. Niomah could either go all the way down, or go about a third of the way down and try to jump it. She jumped on the way to work in the morning; with the jug of water she descended to the bottom and then climbed until her knees whined.
At least she didn't go to work in any kind of vehicle. That would have obliged her to go around the canyon completely, halfway across town.
Stairs and screaming calves, stairs and aching thighs. Stairs and some boy, Mainlander but the scruffy kind who sometimes hung around in low-rent areas, standing at the top.
"Hey," he said. "That looks heavy."
"Is actually made of soap bubble," said Niomah, "am practicing for theatrical showing, but many thanks for observation."
The boy laughed, showing all his teeth. "Lemme carry it for you the rest of the way."
Niomah had a blister on the back of her ankle. "Terribly kind," she said, and she handed him the jug of water and trudged past the chasm into the ghetto.
"What's your name?"
"Mihi." Belatedly: "Why?"
"Just being friendly. I'm Hesh, Hesh Linnar."
"How nice of a name."
"I've seen you come through here before."
"Yes, well. Bridge has not grown back yet." In the nice parts of town there was always construction, which was very annoying, but not as annoying as the sluggish repairs on things in the ghetto. Sure, there was no scaffolding in her way. But there was a broken window over there and a bent fence over there and graffiti on everything because who cared?
Hesh laughed again. "Are you actually funny or do you talk like that because you don't know enough Gath?"
Niomah bit her lip. She turned the corner onto her street. "Very ignorant. Wait five years for polishing accent and so boring, never laughing ever." That also got a laugh. Her skin crawled. "Almost home. Water, please."
"I can carry it the rest of the way. You look tired."
"Oh, very angry father, seeing strange boy."
"I know your grandpa. There's a Mr. Mihi at the liquor store. He knows me."
Oh joy of joys, liquor store regular following her home. "Perhaps no relation. Such common name. Water now, please."
"At least let me take it up the stairs to your floor."
What was her mama said? Say no twice, nice and mannerly, and after that you only go on doing it if you hate them and want it mutual. "So kind," Niomah said.
There was her building. There were the stairs up the side of it to the balcony with the four doors to apartments. She managed to wave Hesh away before he offered to hold her own front door for her or some such fool thing, smiling all the while, but she could feel his eyes on her while she took her key out of her pocket and let herself into 4-2.
Perhaps he was really only friendly, really only helpful.
Niomah tested the water in the shower and it smelled like rotten eggs. None of that, then. She would need to think of something else to feel better. Such a pity she could not write to her priceless artwork (the mail would be seen, could not be accounted for) nor back to her lost boy (he could leave her little notes; but the maid could not very well be seen leaving debris around the house, that being the opposite of her job).
Her sister-in-law had no shortage of chores for Niomah to do to distract her, though, and however little affection Niomah bore her sister-in-law, she did already love that baby she was going to have. Baby baby baby.
And the sister-in-law went into labor that evening and everyone was up all night listening to her holler, and just before dawn there was finally Niomah's little niece new in the world. Niomah held her and kissed her for just a moment before she had to scurry off to work, early early early to leave time for the six block detour and the trip down and up the stairs, to a house from which her lost boy was missing to dust the frames of artwork that were not her priceless one.
Kizi was perfectly nice and Ens couldn't stand it.
She was interested in his makeup hobby; she wanted him to paint her and went around grinning into every reflective surface until she went home. She liked theater and could hold an intelligent conversation about that too.
Her family owned chunks of the Arnysh ghetto and the Behadze neighborhood and she sounded almost not racist when she talked about that. She seemed genuinely sympathetic to the tenants who didn't like the Mainlander property managers her parents kept hiring at a ridiculous turnover rate.
She gave absolutely no indication that she would enjoy shoving Ens against a wall and nibbling on him.
If Ens had never met anybody who wanted to do that, he probably would have liked Kizi very well. He probably would have been ecstatic that his mother had had the wit to find this pleasant girl near his own age with compatible interests instead of some fourteen-year-old twit he'd have to wait forever to even consider touching or some insufferable new-money who only thought about calligraphy and horse racing. Ens had been threatened with an example of each, before, in probable jest.
Kizi was perfectly nice. She was good company.
She was... amenable.
She wasn't even bad-looking. Especially not after Ens did her makeup; he could get practically anyone past "plain" into "fetching". She was sort of shapeless, but that was just Ens looking for reasons to be picky besides just:
She didn't want to be here.
She didn't seem to have, as Ens had, somewhere else she'd rather be; she was not actively unhappy about any part of the situation. But she didn't look at Ens like she wanted to lick his throat or wrap her entire body around his or lace her fingers through his hair. There was literally zero attraction. And Ens had watched Sanuar look at him. Mercy and grace he'd watched Niomah look at him.
Ens could have tolerated Sanuar and Niomah getting each other to themselves while Ens saw to concerns of familial approval and converging dynasties - if it didn't mean never being looked at like that, ever again.
But Ens didn't know what to do. She'd gotten a barely legible telegram from Niomah one time when she'd idly sent a message to Sanuar's house though Sanuar was out: hi ttwrok plegse tlgramm samuaar beek ltsr that my nees ws born cmnt leive nute herz, it said. Characteristic of somebody whose Gath wasn't that great to begin with trying to figure out the code, unable to see the letters as they came out incorrectly on the other side. This was the only news she'd had from her in weeks.
Dutifully, that evening Ens typed back: Please give the telegrammer to Sanuar.
Niomah sent earlier what I think was supposed to be "hi artwork please telegram Sanuar back later that my niece was born can't leave note here".
Oh, that's good! Sometimes I get bits and pieces from the cook, Niomah was worried about that.
My mother wants me to marry Lady Kizi Indabar.
Long pause. Long pause. Ens sat on her hands so she wouldn't bite her nails. Was he going to suggest that this sounded like an excellent idea and by the way I've been wondering how to tell you this but I'm tired of you? Was he going to say that Ens had better withdraw her entire year's worth of spending money in cash and elope with Niomah and deal with the great yawning void of incomprehensible nothing that loomed after it whenever Ens considered this option? Was he going to say so how does Lady Indabar feel about straws and chocolate milk?
Which would be nice to know in theory. If she actually wanted Ens, if Ens actually wanted her.
The reply, when it came, was How are you doing about that?
I'd like her fine if it weren't for you and Niomah.
I mean, pause. There's an and in there.
She's nice but there's no anything. She's nice but I don't dare tell her.
You, Niomah, being sometimes a girl.
Oh. Yeah. I'm sorry, I don't think I have any advice, I don't know.
Relief and despair all at once. Sanuar would not be telling her to do any of the horrible options that existed. Sanuar would not be relieving her of the burden of agency. What was she going to do?
Can I come visit sometime? Do you have any days off? she tapped.
Don't you have school?
I'll fake sick. I'll fake sick and pile pillows in my bed and sneak out and walk all the way there if you have a day off.
I think I'm actually sick. I'm sorry.
You are? With what? Are you okay? demanded Ens, alarmed.
I could be actually sick enough to stay home and you could come see Niomah at least if you need to that much?
Are you okay are you okay
I'm fine, I just keep losing track of time and feeling tired.
I love you. Go to a life mage if you need it.
My teacher has a life secondary and he says it's from ever being expected to show discipline for once in my life.
I'm okay it's not that bad. I can leave little notes for Niomah if I phrase them vaguely, do you want me to put anything in for you?
The thing about Kizi I guess. That I told you about her niece. That I love her. I love you too.
Love you. Father wants the telegrammer sorry
So Ens bundled up all the tape and shredded it and put the telegrammer back where it lived and flopped into her bed and stared at the ceiling.
"Mother?" said Sanuar softly at breakfast one morning.
"Can - I change my mind about having you teach me? Or Father. Father would be fine."
"You were very emphatic that you wanted to be taught by someone you weren't related to, Sanuar. I offered three times."
"I know. I'm sorry. I think I made a mistake." He'd been smothered in parental expectations that he learn magic for his entire life. He hadn't wanted to see what they were like once he was actually in progress. But at least his parents wouldn't hit him. They would probably not insult him nearly so often. His mother had actually been fairly gentle about the "soft" water specialization. It sounded practically idyllic now to sit in her office and listen to her advise him on painting beads and meditating and the efficient use of mana.
"We can hardly pull you out now. It would insult the Sixth Archmage. Besides, neither your father nor I does water and he at least His Learned Excellency has it as a secondary," said Mother.
"Isn't there any way -?"
"Honestly, Sanuar, what's going on? Why the sudden about-face? You know the Sixth Archmage is very well-respected. He's written excellent books and it's really somewhat unusual that he'll take apprentices from outside his family at all."
What was he supposed to say? I'm tired. I'm occasionally swatted with bead-painting combs, which stings quite a bit even though it leaves no marks you could check. I don't know what happened to yesterday morning, I started meditating and then it was lunch and I couldn't remember what was going on and my mana was still so out of order it was like I hadn't even begun.
"Never mind," Sanuar murmured.
"Of course you're having a difficult time, you're late-onset," tutted Mother. "You'll find your niche eventually. Go on, work hard. Have some fun."
So Sanuar went to his lessons and half the day disappeared into his bowl of water, but he did manage to make a spell bead roll of four correctly. It was the same general water control spell he'd stolen from his birthday present when he and Ens had broken into the plumbing exchange, and he owed Father two of the slices to pay him back for that stunt. One went to pick up his meditation water and make it do a lap through the air around the room and settle back in its bowl, to prove that the bead was done right. But one he got to keep or sell.
There was a bead store next door to the mages' tower. Sanuar went in with his last, precious bead, and the shopkeeper gave him six hundred seventy-five balances for it and dropped it into the inventory.
Six hundred and seventy-five balances was a lot of money. He'd need to sink more of it into paper and ink, since now that he'd pulled off a bead it was no longer a pure educational expense but rather a resource investment he could pay for on his own - but it was a lot of money even after he handed back fifty balances for a bottle of ink and pack of ten short-length four-width papers.
If he could get it right on anything like a regular basis he could make so much money.
He could save up enough to buy a little house and an enormous bed and then he could whisk Niomah and Ens both away and they could all live in it and he could spend a few hours a day painting beads and a few more putting his mana in order and to hell with his teacher and all of their parents.
To hell with Niomah's very angry father, to hell with Lady Kizi Indabar, to hell with His Learned Excellency The Sixth Archmage Golar Absam. Sanuar would teach himself to make a small array of beads, out of books, and he would support his girlfriends on it and so what if he was never archmage material.
Sanuar was feeling rather chipper about this when he went back up in the tower and found Tasnan working on a bead of his own. Absam was off somewhere, mercifully enough.
Since the desk was occupied Sanuar couldn't make another go at a second bead roll right away; he sat down at his water instead. Putting his mana in order. Using it disturbed its structure, like shaking a bottle of layers of colored sand; letting it settle by not touching it made it cranky, in addition to taking months or years; meditating smoothed it out. In theory if Sanuar did nothing but meditate for a week he could get his mana into the state of perfect order it had started in when he'd woken it up and imprinted it, but for most practical purposes he just needed to get better at using it from a more maintainable level of mild disarray.
Plus, meditating felt nice. It was like all and only the good parts of sleep. (Tasnan had disputed this description; Tasnan, it seemed, had pleasanter dreams than Sanuar.)
He concentrated on the weightless, restful sensation of the water for a solid half-hour, then opened his eyes again. Tasnan was done. Absam was still out. And Sanuar actually felt like he'd been meditating for thirty minutes. Maybe he was just better at meditating when he wasn't freaking out about the possibility that a comb would swat him on the arm.
"Do you really have a girlfriend?" asked Tasnan, looking up wistfully from his textbook on applications of perception magic.
"Yes." Two. Two and I'm going to get us all out of our houses and make beads to keep us all three in a little cottage somewhere because whatever Absam thinks of my talent, with decent luck and a steady hand I can make a bead in four minutes that the shop next door will buy for more than Niomah makes in a week.
"How'd you meet her?"
"In a bar." If for some reason Tasnan decided to talk to Sanuar's parents and spread rumors and Sanuar couldn't think of anything better he could say he was making it all up to impress his co-prentice.
"Yeah? How'd you convince her to go out with you?"
"It's... complicated." Was it ever.
"I keep striking out. It's lonely, I don't mind telling you that. I want a girlfriend. Hell, I want to get married," said Tasnan. "Do you want to get married?"
"That would. Also be complicated."
"Well, I do. Give me some advice. That isn't 'be tall'."
"I don't think being tall has anything to do with it, really. I don't know though. Uh, she approached me, first."
Sanuar spread one of his new bead papers out on the desk and picked up a paintbrush and the first comb. "Sometimes."
The baby was adorable. The baby was loud. The baby was expensive.
I want to make enough beads to buy a house and then you and Ens can move in with me, said the note under Sanuar's pillow.
She could not write back. She did not happen to wander by the Vayars' telegrammer when Ens was writing in again. Finally, finally the Sixth Archmage had his wedding anniversary and Sanuar was home, all day. Some of it he spent staring into a bowl of water, some of it she spent actually doing her job, but in between they could talk.
"Cannot leave home," Niomah told him. "New baby, little brother still with bad eye, grandfather sick, cannot leave."
"I could give you more money," Sanuar said. "I could double it, easy -"
"No," said Niomah, "have to explain money. Suddenly come home with thousand balances father thinks precious daughter whoring for cash."
"It's not - it's a minute's work, and some meditation to make up the mana ordering, it's not just because - we aren't even -"
"Thinks precious daughter whoring for cash, is not far wrong," said Niomah severely. "Not offering beads money to neighbor down street from me, not offering beads to homeless Behadze, offering beads to me."
"I want you to be able to leave," pleaded Sanuar. "If it's money, if it's keeping your income for your family -"
"- is for little niece to know me growing up, is for father not thinking I am good as dead, is for mother knowing I have place to be all day am not turning delinquent like brother fired from job months ago -"
"- are you happy?"
Niomah pursed her lips. "Other things exist."
"Besides being happy?"
"Yes besides being happy."
"So - you're not."
"Will be so happy when lost boy finds himself and wonders what useless girlfriend is for?" Niomah snapped. "Will be so happy when cleaning little cottage instead of here not being paid besides in rent and groceries then suddenly rich Mainlander boys losing interest. Happens, rich Mainlander boys losing interest. Not you, lost boy. But rich powerful water mage cannot remember being lost, him, cannot remember the point of me."
"You - you think I'd - Niomah I wouldn't -"
"Job is for having money to keep for working," Niomah said softly. "Money to keep for showing up cleaning things going home to family. If I lose job my family will help me. If I lose you and you are what is feeding me, only thing feeding me, family all lost forgotten hating me?"
Sanuar was silent. Niomah lifted the edge of his bedspread and swept debris out from under it.
"I wouldn't," he said, softer.
"You wouldn't. Rich powerful mage, though, going to make real promises?"
"What, do you - what do you want to do, get married?"
She felt her lip trembling and turned away. "But priceless artwork."
"Yeah," murmured Sanuar.
"Most priceless of artworks cannot remember how priceless without price tag," sighed Niomah. "Forget how priceless like that," she snapped her fingers, "if being extra..."
"She would, wouldn't she."
"So you want to just - do this, forever? Just like we have been."
"Do I look so all-knowing!" exclaimed Niomah. "Oh lost boy, I only know what we cannot do."
She swept the heap of dust out of his room and into the hallway and Sanuar didn't follow her.
Ens turned seventeen.
She managed to finagle a sufficiently formal invitation to Sanuar that his parents let him have the afternoon off his lessons to attend her party. This was a small bright spot in a sea of confusing catastrophe.
Kizi was invited too, for one thing, which meant that there was next to no chance of Sanuar and Ens sneaking off alone for truly serious conversation even if they did manage to talk.
For another, Ens's principal gift on the occasion of her coming of age was a modest fraction of the Riawae landholdings. She wouldn't know exactly which ones until the party was in full swing, but her mother had warned her at breakfast that she was getting some - "ones under adequate management, you won't have to lift a finger, these are more or less for practice". So she wouldn't be surprised perhaps to the point of an impolite reaction at her party. Ens's sister had gotten mostly farms, but she actively liked farms, while Ens had no discernible land ownership preference because the entire thing sounded terrifying.
For a third, her entire self was screaming it's LADY Riawae, damn it! as loudly as possible and she was about to be called Lord more times in the next few hours than she usually suffered in a week.
Kizi arrived first. She'd brought a present - midsize box draped in patterned cloth, she'd been fishing for ideas and had seemed to settle on resupplying Ens's makeup kit but the technicalities of surprise had to be observed. She chatted happily to Ens's mother and put it on the side table that wasn't designated for refreshments and then drifted over to Ens.
"Happy birthday, Ens!"
"Are they testing you for mage potential?" Kizi wondered. "It's your seventeenth."
"I don't have a mage ancestor for three generations back on either side," Ens said, shaking her head. "No point."
"My birthday is in a month and I'm getting checked again just to be sure."
"The Fourteenth Archmage's son Sanuar Vayar is coming to the party," mentioned Ens. "He came up with late-onset mana himself."
"Oh, lovely. Perhaps he can tell me whether to hope I have it or hope I don't."
"I'm - not sure what to expect him to say on that." They hadn't seen much of each other since Sanuar had started lessons. Ens didn't know much about how he felt about the subject. Telegrams were too - filtered; Sanuar did not generally type out the slump in his shoulders or the droop in his eyes.
"So I'll ask him, then, if there's a chance."
"You're probably getting some of your family properties, aren't you? I'm afraid of getting mine, apparently managing them is legitimately difficult and I don't feel prepared at all. They don't teach it in school!"
More guests arrived; Kizi had been early and everyone else was politely punctual. Even Sanuar. Sanuar arrived between Ens's sister's fiancé and one of Ens's father's colleagues, bearing a cloth-covered box and a tentative smile. He put it on the table. He looked around and then made a beeline for Ens.
"Thanks. Sanuar, this is Lady Kizi Indabar. Kizi, Sanuar Vayar," said Ens, feeling inane. Sanuar must have guessed. Kizi could have too.
"A pleasure," said Kizi, shaking Sanuar's hand. "I'm coming up on my own seventeenth and my grandmother is a mage, any advice?"
"Uh," said Sanuar. "Not especially. Maybe - pick a specialty in advance, in case?"
"Oh, I have, I'd want to be an object mage."
"Okay. That shouldn't require much, uh, setup, you could just imprint your mana on like one of your shoes, or something."
"I might bring some personal object just for sentiment, but yes."
"...Do you have a teacher lined up?"
"My grandmother said she'd do it."
"Okay, that's good. I mean, if you like your grandmother," said Sanuar.
"I do," Kizi assured him. "Oh, but we're ignoring the birthday boy."
Ens tried not to flinch. She didn't know if she managed. "It's quite all right, I mean, I'm glad you're getting along," she said. I wanted him to hate her. I want a reason to hate her.
The food was delicious, Ens's suit itched, Kizi stayed at her elbow and made charming conversation with everyone who came by with birthday wishes. Sanuar didn't loiter. Ens couldn't chase him, couldn't kiss him, couldn't even give him some more socially acceptable reason to stay with her because if she did that eventually she would kiss him. He milled through the crowd just barely taller than the next tallest guest, visible wherever he went, and she tracked him with her eyes when she couldn't stop herself.
Sanuar had to leave when everyone else did; only Kizi had an excuse to linger. He said goodbye, first.
"I'll see you next time we're both free," Ens said.
"Telegram me," said Sanuar. "The housekeeper can take messages if I'm not home."
"Of course," said Ens. "Thank you so much for coming."
"Thank you for inviting me. Happy birthday," murmured Sanuar, and then he had to go meet his carriage.
"You're close friends?" asked Kizi.
Ens nodded mutely.
"Which present was his?" Kizi wondered.
"Theater tickets for when school's on break again." In sets of three. Very optimistic of Sanuar. There was a letter hidden under the tickets that Ens hadn't had a chance to read yet.
"Ens?" asked Kizi softly.
"You act like you like him, and before I wasn't sure, but now I'm pretty confident you don't like me, even as friends. I'm not expecting flowers and stargazing but if you don't even like me, why haven't you asked your mother to call it off with mine?"
"I." Ens swallowed. "I can't tell her things. It sounds like you can - talk to yours. I can't."
Ens shook her head.
"I can go to my mother if you want but I need to tell her something. I can make something up but I don't want to accidentally get it right and ruin some secret you're keeping," Kizi said.
Ens's parents were off elsewhere; her sister was at her fiancé's house. The servants were all in the adjoining building washing the party dishes. The Riawae home was deserted except for the two of them.
"Ens, please, I'm not going to - I hope I've at least proved myself fairly harmless even if I haven't managed likable?"
"I," began Ens again, and then she snatched Kizi's present off the table and headed for the stairs. "I want to show - let me show you something."
"Okay..." Kizi followed her. Ens went all the way up, up to her room, with the preexisting makeup kit, with the dress in the back of the closet, with her sister's room full of jewelry just down the hall if she couldn't sell the effect without it.
"Just - just sit on the bed and for goodness sake don't say or do anything or I'll lose my nerve," said Ens. Kizi obeyed. Ens grabbed the package out of her closet, went into her bathroom and sat at her mirror, and opened the present and the old kit and went to work.
Line the eyes, contour the face, special attention on the jawline, stain the lips, color on the cheeks, shadow and highlight -
Step into the dress -
(it felt so good why did it have to feel like that if Ens had never known rightness then she wouldn't be so tortured when things were wrong wrong wrong)
Ens listened, but there was no sound of anyone entering the house. It was just her and Kizi.
Kizi, look, you can't marry me, I'm a girl too.
Kizi, look, you can't marry me, I'm clearly delusional.
Kizi, look, I'm pretty, I want to show someone else but you're all I've got right now.
Kizi, look, you can't marry me, I'm clearly delusional.
Kizi, look, I'm pretty, I want to show someone else but you're all I've got right now.
Ens opened the door.
And Kizi's jaw dropped.
"Hi, Niomah. Let me carry your water for you."
"How kind." He already knew where she lived. The Timrar fountain worked, if one day he took the water hostage.
"It's no problem." He fell into step beside her. "Look, I really like you."
"Oh, nonsense, nothing to like -"
"No, really," he protested. "I like you. You're funny and you're pretty and, and I've been talking to your grandfather..."
"...and he said it'd be okay if I courted you, you know, properly. I have my own place. It's not that far from where your family lives, even."
"Give the water."
"I can carry it, it's no trouble."
"Give, need drink."
With that Hesh released the jug and Niomah swigged a mouthful to get the taste of that idea off her tongue. "Prefer," she said, after that, holding tightly to the handle, "that you did not."
"What? Why? I've got a steady job and everything, and -"
"- and look, I'm a damn sight better than the usual sort of guy you'd pick up living here, your grandfather said so himself."
"Terribly kind but no."
"Why not? You've got to give me a reason."
"Do not care for company."
"Then why've you been letting me carry your water every day, huh? Got you."
She was being polite. What a stupid mistake, assuming that politeness would be correctly identified as such instead of having its head swapped with a different animal and labeled as yet a third creature that had never existed. "Then stop carrying water. My arms work."
"But I want to help you."
"Help by not asking grandfather any more things."
"I can go to your dad if that's more traditional? Look, I know your family's not isolationist, your grandfather brought your niece to work the other day and she's half and half."
"Is." Her Gath was failing her. She was not sure she could have gotten through to Hesh Linnar even if he'd spoken fluent Arnysh. "Please go."
"I'm not some random Mainlander who doesn't know anything, come on, you're not going to convince me that it matters that your niece's dad is the Arnysh one instead of the other way around. My step-grandmother's the mage down the street -"
Oh, the mage down the street. The life mage. The one they were going to pay to fix her brother's eye.
No wonder Grandfather liked him. If they fixed the eye they could then fix Grandfather's leg, he could go back to his old job which paid better -
"Yeah, now you like the idea, huh? She does family discounts when she can and everything."
My lost boy is a mage. Her lost boy was barely trained in his water specialty and hadn't even chosen secondaries. Last she heard. She could not explain having the son of the fourteenth archmage on call. And she didn't, even. She just worked in his house and when he was home they argued.
"And I have my own place," he repeated, "and a job -"
My priceless artwork is heir to a fortune - Her priceless artwork would be disinherited probably if anyone found out that he had ever kissed Niomah.
"And your family likes me."
To which she had no reply even in her thoughts.
"Let me carry your water."
Mutely, Niomah handed over the jug.
Swat. Sanuar's hand stung like he'd touched a hot stove. "Agh -"
"Oh, shut up," snarled Absam. "You know what you should be crying about? The deplorable state of your mana. How long were you sitting there? What were you doing, daydreaming?"
"No, sir, I meditated -"
Sanuar bit his lip.
"Don't lie to me. Sit back down and actually focus on your water. Put your mana in order. Don't embarrass me, you lazy, pathetic excuse for a mage, just do your work."
Absam swatted him one more time for good measure and then turned around; Sanuar collapsed on his cushion. He wanted to pull a little water out of his bowl to cool the mark on his hand but that would probably just make it worse. Meditating. Meditating. Suspended with effortless focus -
"Quit your whining. You've been there for hours and what have you got to show for it? If anything your mana looks worse!" roared Absam. "That'll land you a slot next to mine and your father's for certain, won't it, what an innovation, meditating backwards! Get out of my sight."
Sanuar didn't have to be told twice. He scurried past his meditating co-prentice and bolted from the tower.
He squinted at the sun. His ride home wouldn't be along for another two hours or so. He could walk, but not fast enough to catch Niomah; he could go to Ens's, but she'd be at school until the point at which he'd have to meet his carriage. He couldn't make beads when all his paper and ink were up in Absam's office - he could buy more but it was pretty windy outdoors and he didn't have a set of combs of his own - he had nothing to do.
He went to Ninden's house. Ninden, who had "helped" him awaken his mana in the first place because he couldn't admit it was Niomah. Ninden was sort of all right company, could be explained if his parents found out he'd been visiting him.
Ninden was home, and answered the door when Sanuar rang. "Oh, hi," he yawned. "How're you?"
"Kind of terrible."
"D'you want to come in?"
"Sure, why not."
Sanuar flopped onto Ninden's couch. "So what's terrible?" Ninden asked.
"My magic teacher."
"Who've you got?"
"Haven't heard of anyone liking him."
"You still just water? Are you going to pick up pure mana, like he does?"
"I don't know. I don't think so."
"My primary's pure mana too," said Ninden. "I thought it'd be the best thing, but it's all theory stuff. I don't even use it when I'm making mana spots, you can do those with anything."
"Sure. I mean, you'd probably have to adapt them for different specialities."
"Oh." What had given Ninden the idea that Sanuar wanted to hear about mana spots in the first place Sanuar didn't know, but at least Ninden was low-effort to interact with in that way. "...Is it, like, easier or faster or something to meditate on your own mana...?"
"No? I mean, I usually don't. It's easier to focus on breathing than to get a fix on my mana now that I have the air secondary. There's nothing better about pure mana meditation. If I had it to do over again I'd go empath primary."
"Oh." There went that hypothesis.
"Hey, do you want to learn to make spots? It's dead easy. Just promise you won't sell them north of here and I'll teach you."
Sanuar did not know exactly how much mana spots sold for but he didn't think they were likely to be a better revenue source than spell beads. All they did was supposedly provide the floating feeling of meditation without requiring focus to drop into the trance or being a mage to begin with; they weren't even particularly black-market to drive up the price.
But it would be sort of nice to learn something, anything, when no one was going to smack him with a comb. "Okay."
So Ninden walked him through it. It was as promised very easy, just painting blobs and imbuing them with mana the same way one did to the stripes on a spell bead. And then Ninden pasted half of the demonstration batch to his own arm and keeled over in an armchair, and Sanuar let himself out.
He met the carriage, no one asked where he'd been for the last hour, he touched the perfectly folded corner of his bedspread.
He grabbed the telegrammer. This is Sanuar, please give the telegrammer to Ens.
Just a second, someone tapped back, and then, This is Ens and I'm really freaking out are you alone
Yes, Sanuar replied at once, and, What's wrong, are you okay?
I mean kind of mostly basically but
What is it?
So I uh pause. I did something dumb. I told Kizi about the girl thing.
You don't mean Niomah, right, you mean
I mean I put on my dress and a faceful of makeup and showed her
Did it put her off did she tell your parents??? asked Sanuar.
She liked it came the reply.
Sanuar stared at that, and then another one spooled out. She liked it, Ens repeated.
She liked that you were a girl?
That's what she said that's what it looked like I don't know what to do
I mean does this actually solve any part of the problem? Sanuar asked.
No? Not exactly? She was like pause. I don't know she didn't look like she wanted to pounce on me pause she said she wanted to clarify that this did not make me more attractive just more relatable pause what does relatable mean
I guess she likes hanging out with girls more or something, typed Sanuar, reeling.
This was not part of the plan sent Ens.
I know I know I'm trying to think of something useful to say
She was supposed to decide that this meant we could not possibly get married and then go tell her mom
I know, Sanuar answered.
I can't tell her about you or Niomah
I mean she's met me and could maybe guess even if you were vague, tapped Sanuar. So maybe not me, but tell her about Niomah without saying her name...?
But what if
Sanuar waited, but there was no new tape spooling out. What if what?
I don't want to marry her. I don't want to marry somebody who's just my friend.
And your mom won't budge?
No. Kizi's will but only if Kizi has something to tell her pause but if the straws in the chocolate milk business doesn't do it pause then I'm out of stuff, out of excuses
So you don't want to spend your last excuse in case it doesn't work?
Yes which is stupid, replied Ens, because it not working would look like her wanting to marry me even though I have a girlfriend and a boyfriend.
But that wouldn't be what you wanted.
Maybe, answered Ens, it's the best I can hope for.
Sanuar swallowed. I had an argument with Niomah the other day.
What no why what about?
I can make a lot of money with beads. I don't even have to be very good at it, Sanuar tapped. I want to save up and buy us all a house and we can forget about all our parents.
What yes please let's do that right now I mean as soon as possible. Pause. I mean I already own some buildings, they're not very nice yet but I already have them and maybe we could renovate them pause birthday presents pause tell Niomah let's do it there's an empty apartment in my block on Ninth and Prism.
Niomah doesn't want to.
She thinks we'd dump her and leave her jobless and disowned. This was not a nice way to put it but that was what it boiled down to, wasn't it? She thought that Sanuar was making promises he wouldn't bother keeping.
But we pause. I can't even give her the building. They're tied up in a sort of trust thing, I can't freely sell them yet.
You could move into them without your parents' permission though?
I can do most things with them as long as they don't change hands but nothing that'd be really reassuring
I could give her a house if I bought it but it'll take a while to have enough. I didn't even think of that. Pause. But she still thinks we'd dump her and a house won't be enough to live on by itself.
Crap, replied Ens.
Sanuar almost typed that they could just move in together without her.
Sure, and then they'd never see her again. He couldn't do it.
I don't know what to do, Sanuar tapped instead.
Me either, Ens replied.
Maybe Hesh was lying.
Maybe he was not, in fact, the step-grandson of the mage down the street. Or perhaps he did not get along with his step-grandmother particularly well. Niomah would not expect to draw from a copious well of favors if her grandfather remarried, after all.
Maybe Hesh was full of hot air and she could clock him across the face with the jug of water he wanted to carry so badly.
So Niomah went the long way around so he would not encounter her on her way home from work, and went to the mage's house. Life Mage, it said in Arnysh on the door, and under that Substance, Emotion, Energy and Coadah Tira.
There were people in the waiting room. Someone with a swollen foot, someone with a howling toddler. Niomah took a seat and tried not to look like she thought her business was urgent.
Eventually the child was seen, and then the fellow with the foot, and by then it was well past dinnertime and Niomah was going to be in trouble but she waited. Someone came in with a cough - deep pockets, had to be, to come in for just a cough; he ought to save enough to move out of the ghetto entirely instead of being such a hypochondriac - but maybe it was worse than it looked, so Niomah waited for him too.
Finally she was the only person in the room and wrinkled old mage whose arms looked like driftwood and whose eyes looked like black peas stuck her head out of her workroom and said, "Mm?"
"I - hello, I'm not sick, it's only," Niomah swallowed, "are, are you Hesh Linnar's grandmother?"
"After a fashion," said Coadah Tira. "If we assume my lover's family's contagious. What ails you, child?"
Oh so many things.
"I, I'm not sick," Niomah said, and can't afford to pay you just to fix the blisters on my feet, "but uh -" Oh, the mage was Arnysh, she could just talk Arnysh, probably, right? Arnysh it was. "He very insistently wants to court me and he's talked to my grandfather and he said you were his step-grandmother and I just wanted to, to see if that was true."
"And why is that so interesting?" asked Coadah in the same language.
Gulp. "He said you do a family discount."
"You're not sick, child, you said yourself. Does something run in your family?"
"No ma'am," said Niomah. "It's only, my brother."
"You want a family discount for your brother because you're considering courting my lover's grandson?"
She sounded incredulous. Oh, hell. Oh, thank goodness. "It's his eye."
"My fees are posted on the door, child."
"Yes ma'am. I know. I'm sorry for bothering you."
"It's no trouble. You waited very patiently. But courting Hesh isn't a good way to get much of anything from me. Isn't a good way to do anything, far as I know."
Niomah nodded. "I don't, I don't really want to, it's only."
"Your brother's eye."
"I'd like to give more discounts than I do. No one's convinced me to move out of the ghetto where I'm so needed yet, and the rent is a pittance. But you saw how long the wait was when it's yea expensive."
"I'll tell you something, child." Coadah wagged her finger. "I listened to my daddy for thirty long years, and I got married, and it didn't turn out he was right all along, it didn't turn out I'd grow into it, it didn't turn out to be anything but what it always looked like."
Niomah swallowed. "Then what?"
"Then my husband died and I met a lady whose worst fault is that her baby brought Hesh into the world, and while that is a rather grave misdeed - judging by the look on your face when you mention him, poor girl - it's one I can live with, instead of one my father could."
Niomah nodded rapidly, eyes wide. "I'll, I'll think about that, ma'am."
"Good girl. Run along now. Tell him he needs to cultivate better ways to attract girls than being arguably related to me."
"I'll. I might, ma'am." Hesh was not one of the leering groping armed-to-the-teeth soldiers who'd been prowling over the summer but he might not be totally safe to talk back to like that.
"What was your name, child?"
"Niomah Mihi," said Niomah, smiling slightly, and she let herself out.
"So what are you right now?" Kizi asked.
"I'm kind of tired of answering that?" said Ens.
"Sorry. It's just really interesting."
"It's really not."
"It's - it's fine. I'm the one who told you." He hesitated. "What does relatable mean?"
"Oh - I don't really know myself. It's just the word that came to mind? Occasionally I've wished that I could marry a girl, if you really want to know."
"Because girls are relatable?"
"...Okay, I don't know how else to explain so it's theater analogy time!" said Kizi. "You know how in Sleep Soundly the main character's sister spends half her first song talking about how little she wants to, um...?"
"...half of the song is about how she wants to live on the beach, so I assume you're talking about the part where she really doesn't want to sleep with men?" Ens said.
"Yes! That. And I heard that song and I was like 'how interesting, neither do I', and then in the second act it turned out that she did want to sleep with, what was her name? That one girl."
"Um, I'm still shaped -"
"No, no, let me finish. And then I was like 'well, that is less interesting, because I don't want to do that either'."
"I just don't," shrugged Kizi. "But I do want to get married! I want to get married and have a designated somebody to be around all of the time and I think I will maybe like kissing if I try it and I don't think I will mind awfully if whoever I marry wants to have sex some of the time and I think I'd like to be a mom! And in the very loveliest of worlds I could marry a girl, because that's just... more appealing, I guess? But it's not the worst thing ever if I only get most of what I want. And you're sometimes a girl!"
I am all the time somebody who wants to be wanted in exactly the way you don't want people, oh help. "Oh."
"...I'd really rather you didn't tell anyone," Kizi said. "I don't think it could possibly help if my mother were fretting about it, and explaining that I'm quite fine with how things are would require explaining you, which I don't think you want."
"I won't - I mean," Ens swallowed. "I won't."
"Thank you," said Kizi.
"Thank you so much for telling me, too," she said. "For trusting me with it. Oh - do you want to come to my mage test?"
"It's - next week?"
"I - will be there, sure."
It's not the worst thing ever if I only get most of what I want, but what if I barely get any of it?
Ask her, Sanuar telegrammed to Ens, hypothetically if since she doesn't even want to ever have sex if it would be all right for you to He sent that one off before he ran into the message length limit, but before he could send another, Ens's reply came in:
What did she say?
She said no. She said people would find out sooner or later and it would be humiliating
She said it's still cheating, that just because she's whatever she is (pause) (why are so many of the people I meet things) (pause) that doesn't make it okay to cheat on her and and she has a point? But.
Yeah, Sanuar answered helplessly.
She said since she didn't expect to, you know, mind, there was no good reason.
I'm so sorry.
I don't even want to sleep with her! I want an unsupervised afternoon with you and Niomah and a stupidly huge bed.
Sanuar wasn't sure if he was glad that Ens couldn't see the hot blush on his face or wistful that she couldn't.
I love you, Sanuar wrote.
A weekend, elaborated Ens. A year, a forever. Instead I'm in school all day and then after Kizi and her mother are new block bringing me along for kicks while they go around showing Kizi buildings new block for her own coming of age presents. For all I know we'll walk right by Niomah's house. New block. I don't think she owns Niomah's house? New block. Mine are all hands-off as I got them but Kizi needs to do actual work managing hers.
I love you. I have to go to my lesson now. Sanuar ripped up all the accumulated telegrammer tape, hid a quick note for Niomah catching her up on Ens's situation as clearly as he dared, and finally answered his impatient mother's calls that the carriage needed to be on its way now if it was going to be back in time to take her to her appointment.
His Learned Excellency The Sixth Archmage Golar Absam was in meditation of his own when Sanuar quietly opened the door. Tasnan was at the bead table, painting. Sanuar tiptoed to peer at his instruction sheet and hand him combs. He wanted to be alert, not half-awake in his bowl of water, when Absam was paying attention to the world again.
When Tasnan painted the last line and the bead was rolled and shellacked and dried and sliced and tested -
"Do you know if there's any way to change teachers?"
"You're not a huge fan either, huh?"
"Uh, no. He doesn't seem as hard on you."
"That doesn't mean I like him. I looked into it, there's basically nothing, no archmage or mage-in-good-standing will take you if you leave an archmage. I only have another few months, though, you're late-onset -"
"Yeah." Sanuar swallowed and flipped through his own textbook of bead instructions. There was one he hadn't tried yet for filtering large amounts of water that would go for plenty of money - resold to someone managing a reservoir, presumably, or a fish farm or something - but it was longer than he'd pulled off before. He decided he'd rather try that when Absam was actually out of the room instead of while he could emerge at any moment from meditation and start yelling.
Tasnan went on, "And if you don't have your accreditation or a teacher you can't sell to a halfway decent bead store because they think you'll give them duds and vanish into the night. Your parents might take you? Since they're your parents?"
"No such luck. I suppose I could just drop out and make mana spots," grumbled Sanuar.
"You know how?"
"It's really easy," Sanuar found himself saying. "And you can do it with any specialty."
"I can show you if you want, real quick."
"Sure, why not, he's in deep. And I have a friend who likes them for chronic pain," Tasnan said.
"I didn't even know they worked for that."
"Sure, especially muscle tension stuff. C'mon, let's see."
So Sanuar took a scratchpaper end of a failed bead out of the wastebasket, which would work just fine for mana spots, and painted a line of four while Tasnan watched.
"Kind of boring," remarked Tasnan.
"Like I said it's really easy," shrugged Sanuar. He put them in his pocket; he could give them to Ninden later if he didn't meet a chronically pained beggar on his lunch break or anything.
"Guess so. You should probably meditate."
"Why aren't you meditating?" asked Absam, slowly rising from his meditation cushion. "Vayar, are you moving on from wasting your own time to wasting Aprol's? Was it not efficient enough to ruin half the bead paper you go through, somehow by impossible sleight of mana meditate in reverse so that you barely have the mana to justify the ink, and display such perpetual disrespect -"
"Sorry sir," squeaked Sanuar, as Tasnan flung himself in the direction of his prism to start meditating back the orderliness of mana he'd spent on his bead roll.
"What were you even doing?" asked Absam disgustedly.
"Nothing, sir, wasting time, I'll go meditate now," said Sanuar.
"Try to do it correctly," growled Absam.
Sanuar sat. Sanuar looked at his bowl of water.
Why didn't it work?
Sometimes it worked. He had not, he thought, just totally failed to learn to meditate in the first place. He was successfully focusing on the water and orienting his mana at it. And then it just - didn't help. The water was still and his mana was in constant chaos, barely usable. It had been sort of difficult to dribble it into the spots, for crying out loud, and there was no finesse to those at all.
He liked meditating when it worked and it just barely ever did, anymore.
He was definitely not going to get away with this, probably not even once, but -
Sanuar reached into his pocket and pressed his finger to one of the mana spots.
One was a low dose. Ninden used half a dozen at once, sometimes. One was barely noticeable. Maybe half the strength of meditating-when-it-worked, but infinitely superior to meditating-when-it-didn't. Breathe in, breathe out. There was no concentration to maintain; he kept his sense of time.
Sanuar heard Absam's footsteps behind him.
He felt warmth radiating down onto his scalp from Absam's hand.
And Sanuar's mana - rippled like it was being used, like its order was degrading.
The mana spot shouldn't be interacting with his actual mana at all, it was the packaged feeling of meditation, not the effect. He wasn't doing anything to his bowl of water. He wasn't impregnating the already-dry ink of the mana spot with more magic. It should not be doing that.
Why was Absam standing over him?
Why was Sanuar's mana doing anything -
- why was it doing exactly the same thing it always did when he meditated, while he wasn't even -
No, not always.
Only when Absam was in the room. Where, pure-mana specialist that he was, he could just steal the stillness out of Sanuar. Where, pure-mana specialist that he was, he could reach into Sanuar and take whatever he wanted while Sanuar was helpless.
Without further thought, Sanuar grabbed the entire sheet of four mana spots in his fist. He surged to his feet, knocking Absam's hand aside, and stared down at the Sixth Archmage's startled, furious face.
Before Absam could shout Sanuar into timidity again Sanuar slapped his teacher on the forehead with the sheet of mana spots.
Absam slumped to the floor, face slack, and Sanuar bolted from the room.
Niomah had walked all the way to the Learned Sanuar's Parents' house for work only to be told that they wanted her to hurry and go home early so that she would not be lurking when The Learned Sanuar's Father's sister came for a visit. Apparently it was poor form to have a a housekeeper lurking (lurking) with a guest over. So Niomah rushed through her cleaning - truth be told, she could get her work done this quickly on any day if she had to; the Learned Sanuar's Parents were just used to the speed she adopted when Sanuar was home from her initial hiring.
And she went home in the midafternoon and perhaps she would bypass the very definitely "lurking" Hesh Linnar.
But there was no such luck. There he was with Niomah's second-oldest brother and a couple of other Arnysh boys, loitering in that inimitably teenage boy way on the street corner. One of the boys she didn't know was bouncing a rubber ball loudly against some poor person's wall. Her brother was in the middle of trying to perform a handstand. She wished he'd find a job again.
"Hi, Niomah!" called Hesh. Her brother echoed him a beat behind.
"Afternoon," said Niomah tightly.
"Hesh says you're courting!" Niomah's brother chirped, falling and rolling with some grace to a sitting position on the sidewalk.
"I? I am carrying water," said Niomah.
All the boys laughed.
"Let me carry it for you," said Hesh.
"Oh, no, feeling underworked today, home early, I will," said Niomah.
"Come on, I always carry your water."
"What a very long time that is to do a thing. You must be tired."
"Come on. Give it."
"No. Am courting this water. Planning to marry it. You are probably most disappointed."
Hesh laughed, but there was an edge to it, and he grabbed for her arm.
Niomah dodged, but her back collided with another boy who'd circled around. Her brother was still sitting on the sidewalk.
"Just let me carry your water," said Hesh. "Don't make a big deal about it."
"My hand is glued to jug. No cure, permanently forever. So sad," said Niomah through her teeth. "What affliction, you should not want to marry into it."
"I always," he said, reaching for her arm again and connecting this time, "carry your water."
Niomah looked at her brother.
"Why are you making a big deal of it?" wondered Niomah's brother in Arnysh. "I'll tell Father that's all you let him do, if he wonders about your honor."
"There are so few things I care about less than my -" Niomah lurched away from Hesh; her arm chafed but she broke his hold. "- honor right now -"
"Heh," said Hesh. "I speak enough Arnysh to have the gist of that. What-all do you think your brother could cover for, huh?"
"Oh no. No gist," Niomah said rapidly in Gath. "Nothing to understand private family joke no no -"
"He could tell your dad we just went for a walk," said Hesh, stalking towards her. "And then we could... just go for a walk."
"Brother should be chaperoning all times very angry father -"
"Let's not have a chaperone," said Hesh, "and say we did -"
"Do you have ears -"
Hesh reached. Niomah dropped to the ground to evade; the jug went skidding out of her hand but didn't break. She rolled and looked involuntarily at it - at the moment she had immensely greater concerns than its fate but in her head Hesh was still marked will not leave my water jug alone -
A pale Mainlander hand closed around the handle of her water jug.
And picked it up.
He was so tall.
Niomah scrambled in Sanuar's direction. "Help," she hissed desperately.
Sanuar nodded, stone-faced.
He uncapped the jug.
"Is my real boyfriend," Niomah snarled at Hesh and her brother and the extra boys. "Is my water mage boyfriend. Touch me and drown. Do you have ears?"
"You have another boyfriend?" Hesh exclaimed, outraged.
Yes but that's not important right now you idiot. "Have this boyfriend, have never wanted you in my entire life, will not be any amount of sad if he has to drown you," Niomah said. "Try something. Water mage."
Sanuar hefted the jug casually in his left hand. He put his right in his pocket.
Hesh and Niomah's brother and the extra boys looked him up and down. He was a head taller than the tallest of them, he looked completely unthreatened.
"You're her boyfriend?" asked Hesh uncertainly.
"Yes. The question is will I actually drown you if you hurt her," said Sanuar, slowly, levelly. "That's also a yes."
Boys looked at the jug of water.
Sanuar pulled his hand out of his pocket and wiggled his fingers at the jug. A thin stream of water spiraled out of the mouth, hovering obediently in midair.
One of the extra boys ran first, and then the other one and Hesh and Niomah's brother too fled a step behind.
Sanuar pooled the water back in the jug neatly, and set it down, and then Niomah tackle-hugged him, only avoiding knocking him over by the sheer fact that he was twice her size. "Sanuar how are you being here did you learn telepathy and find my being upset and then be here so fast by enchanted horse why are you here?"
"Oh," said Sanuar, hugging her and lifting her just a little off the ground and then letting her feet touch down again. "Um, I may have drugged my teacher and run away from the mages' tower without telling anyone and then meditated at a pond for three hours and then decided to come see if I could find your house, and warn you that I probably have to leave home and sell mana spots for a living."
"He was... stealing my mana," Sanuar mumbled. "But I can't... prove that."
"Stealing it? Does he not grow his own?" asked Niomah indignantly.
"I didn't ask him why," Sanuar said in the smallest possible voice. He picked up the jug, looked up and down the street like he expected Hesh and company to return. "I just, I, I needed him to not be doing that. And I had mana spots in my pocket."
"Oh my lost boy," breathed Niomah. "Oh look at you, you're shaking."
"I," Sanuar said, and then he stopped, lips pursed, hand tight around the jug of water.
Niomah hugged him tight.
"Brother knows about you now," she said. "Of times to run off now is fine."
"We should stop by Ens's," said Sanuar. "She's got buildings, we could all go - live in one of her buildings and figure out what's next. If she'll come. Or loan us an apartment if she won't come."
Niomah nodded. "You know the way?"
"Yeah. Do you want to, I don't know, grab anything from home while you're here?"
"Like what?" said Niomah, shaking her head. "No, nothing. Run away with me, lost boy. Rescued girl in danger, customary thing."
"Maybe my co-apprentice will back me up and maybe it will matter," Sanuar said softly. "I just can't count on it."
"So maybe you live in home and I live in priceless artwork's pricey building and am visited there. I do not want to be at home now. Family is not so good at the protecting."
"They wouldn't have -?"
"One of those boys was my brother," she muttered with a fluttery gesture. "Oh so helpful."
"One of them was - oh, hell. Okay," Sanuar said, and with the hand that wasn't holding the jug he caught Niomah's hand and squeezed it. "Okay, I'm in for it, you're in for it, we'll check on Ens."
They walked. Niomah led the way to the relevant exit from the ghetto and Sanuar took over from there.
They were a couple of blocks from the fuzzy edges of the Arnysh neighborhood when Niomah squinted at some pedestrians coming the other way. "Is that -"
Sanuar squinted too. "...Is that Ens? And Kizi. Yeah."
"Oh, Kizi. Poor priceless artwork."
"Poor Kizi too, after a fashion, but yeah."
"I think Kizi's already keeping some secrets," said Sanuar. "Also if you let go of my hand now I might die, but follow Ens's lead about - Ens-related things?"
Niomah squeezed his hand. "Yes."
In the distance, Ens's chin lifted, and he turned to his accompaniment to say something, and broke into a run and skidded to a stop in front of Sanuar and Niomah. "What are - what are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to respectively be at -?"
"- work ended early," Niomah said.
"I assaulted the Sixth Archmage and bolted and am still standing up through sheer force of Niomah," Sanuar said.
Ens looked incredulously at Sanuar. "What?"
"...There was context. But Kizi's almost within earshot now."
"...okay. Um I haven't decided to tell her about... anything."
"Secrets are safe," Niomah assured Ens.
Ens nodded, then looked over his shoulder at Kizi. "I was right, it's Sanuar," he said.
"Hi again, Sanuar!" said Kizi. "And who's this?"
"My girlfriend Niomah," said Sanuar.
"Hi, Niomah, it's nice to meet you," said Kizi.
"Hello," said Niomah with a toothy smile.
"What, uh, brings you here?" Sanuar asked.
"My mother and I were going to go tour some of the things I got for my birthday and some of those things are near here. And I thought we could bring Ens along, because why not. Mother stopped to rest a few blocks back and we thought we'd go on alone," Kizi explained. "What about you? Just visiting Niomah, I guess? Wow, do your parents, um, know?"
Sanuar shook his head.
"I mean as far as I'm concerned that's your business," Kizi assured him. "I was just wondering."
"So," Sanuar said. "You've had your birthday, then?"
"Oh, yes! I'm a mage," nodded Kizi. "They're not kidding when they tell you that it's disappointing to go to normal-ordered mana after the perfect start, are they? But I'll get used to it."
"And your grandmother's teaching you."
"Yes. Although mostly she's having me learn from books and meditate for hours. She's very old and tired and stopped taking students she wasn't related to ages ago."
"...Um, Sanuar," said Ens. "There was a telegram from your parents at my house. I didn't read it all because Kizi's mother was waiting but I have the tape."
Sanuar held out his hand.
Ens gave him some telegrammer printout, which Sanuar had a bit of trouble reading with only one hand (he could put the jug down; he did not have this kind of liberty with Niomah's hand) but he managed.
In a dozen blocks of message: Honored Riawaes, this is Learned Lady Vayar. We have received disturbing news about our son's conduct. We know he is friends with your son, and if you happen to encounter him we would like him to know that His Learned Excellency Absam is furious and that everyone we could think of to propose Sanuar as a student to has blacklisted him. For that matter, his behavior, from the sound of it, was sufficiently shameful that hometeaching him is no longer an option compatible with our ongoing careers; it will be generally understood that if we could not raise him to age seventeen without leaving him well-behaved we will be similarly unable to teach him magic without grievous mishandling. He has left our hands completely tied and may return home solely on the condition that he find some way to salvage the situation with a replacement teacher so that we may assure our fellow mages that he is not being left to go rogue nor under the apparently inadequate tutelage of his own relatives, although we have no idea what we could possibly have done wrong that would have precipitated the events. We have no idea where he might find one who will even consider the idea but it is just barely possible. Thank you in the event that you relay this message, honored Riawaes.
"Your parents didn't read this, did they?" asked Sanuar, horrified.
"No," said Ens. "I read the first three blocks and then tore it off to take with me."
"Thanks," said Sanuar. "Well. I guess that answers that."
"So much fancy language," Niomah objected.
"I can't go home unless I can find a mage teacher," said Sanuar. "Sounds like Kizi's grandmother isn't an option, either."
"Oh dear," said Kizi. "I'm sorry, she really isn't."
"...I know a mage," said Niomah. "Arnysh, in ghetto, not too far from my family's home."
"Is he, um," said Sanuar.
"She," said Niomah. "She is I think very nice."
"Is she taking students?"
"Maybe. May want to pick up extra kinds of magic to help with her business. She does not like to have such long lines."
"I can do that," said Sanuar.
"Oh, the question for Ens, anyway," said Niomah, snapping her fingers.
"Oh right," Sanuar said. "Ens, you own some, some buildings, right, Niomah is on the outs with her family right now -"
"Oh - um -" said Ens. "Yeah, I can finagle something. It wouldn't be near here though. Near your new teacher or any of her family Niomah still wants to see."
"I own some buildings hereabouts," said Kizi. "You just want an apartment?"
"Maybe move in some of sisters," sighed Niomah. "If they will come. But yes one apartment would be so lovely, but cannot ask -"
"Look, I - Sanuar, can you vouch for her - Niomah, how old are you -?"
"Yes," said Sanuar.
"...seventeen," said Niomah, "almost eighteen, what? This matters for apartment? I have job, could pay rent on very small -"
"I can't just hand out apartments, my parents would think I was crazy," said Kizi. "But I can - how much do you like your job?"
"I. It is a job," said Niomah.
"So, not that much?"
"Cannot hardly pay rent if I quit -"
Ens's expression, though, was one of slowly dawning comprehension.
"No, I mean," Kizi said, "apparently my parents've had trouble with apartment buildings managed by non-Arnysh people in the Arnysh ghetto? They wind up clashing with the tenants, it's kind of awful? There is a building that needs a new property manager yesterday and I know so little about hiring that going with the 'Sanuar likes you' evaluation process is probably better than nothing."
Niomah blinked. "Me?"
"It comes with an apartment," wheedled Kizi. "I mean, I understand if you'd rather just live in one of Ens's, if he's offering, but I don't know where else to even start looking, I can't just wander up and down the streets yelling I need a property manager, can I?"
"...What is job of a property manager?" asked Niomah.
"You'd have to collect the rent - I'll give you some leeway if people need to be late, they have every reason to be upset with how this has been handled in the past - and take a note of any repairs that need to be made and I'll give you a budget to get them fixed, and if a spot opens up you'd need to evaluate new tenants, and keep track of the keys. The building I have in mind doesn't have any landscaping so it should be... doable? What am I saying, I wouldn't even know where to start -"
"Which building?" asked Niomah.
"I know where to start," said Niomah, grinning fiercely. "I know. There is a broken window, first of all -"
"You know the place! Oh that's perfect, okay, excellent, can I hire you right now, I was kind of dreading walking by there without a solution in my pocket?"
"...Sanuar?" asked Niomah.
"What?" he blinked.
"If you are going home, because you get along with the mage -"
"Oh! Oh - but if I get along with the mage," he laughed, "then I'll just, be in this neighborhood all day, anyway, it'll just be the other way around. Right?"
"Right," said Niomah, smiling again. "Excellent, lovely, yes, hire me right now, Sanuar, tell your learned parents I have replaced job. ...Tell them this when I have been set up in building for at least ten minutes."
"That's really good," said Ens in a soft voice. "That way you're, you're there in your own right, yeah?"
Niomah and Sanuar simultaneously turned their heads to look at Ens. "Oh, pr- oh," said Niomah. "Oh was so generous of you offering but - appreciating very much, but -"
"Ens," said Sanuar, and he trailed off.
Kizi looked between the three of them.
"What is going on?" she asked.
No one answered her.
"Ens, you've obviously met Niomah before..."
"We've met. She's Sanuar's girlfriend," said Ens. So quiet.
Kizi continued peering at Ens, at Niomah, at Sanuar. At Niomah and Sanuar and Ens.
"Kizi," began Ens, almost voiceless.
"Okay," said Kizi. "First of all, Niomah's brand new job is not on the line here, I will still be completely helpless to find Arnysh property managers no matter what you say. Second of all, I know something is up and you aren't going to convince me that I'm imagining it. What is it?"
Long, long delay. Ens looked at her shoes. Sanuar looked at Ens. Niomah looked at Kizi.
"Ens," said Sanuar again.
"Priceless artwork," dared Niomah.
Ens looked up, at that.
And glanced in Kizi's direction.
"I hope you're telling the truth about Niomah's job," Ens said, "because I really would rather not marry you."
"All right," said Kizi. "I have been telling you all along that I can go to my mother about it! I can tell her - I don't know, I'll tell her I want to find a mage husband and have magic babies."
"Uh, don't lean too hard on the, the magic babies thing," said Sanuar.
"I won't lean on the babies. I will lean on the concept of them for my mother's benefit," Kizi clarified.
"...I could maybe set you up with someone," Sanuar added. "Old co-prentice. Perception primary. Mage family, not landholders, but decently prominent."
"Lovely, that will probably placate Mother enormously even if I don't work out with whoever your friend is in the end," said Kizi. "...Am I completely on the wrong page or are all three of you dating? That puts some things Ens has said in so much context."
"All three," murmured Sanuar.
"Three straws in a chocolate milk," said Niomah, tossing her hair.
Ens was smiling just slightly, now.
"Well," said Kizi. "I'll just have a conversation with Mother this evening, then. I think I'll sandwich it with the good news about the property management and the mage boy, what's his name?"
"Tasnan Aprol," said Sanuar.
"My grandmother's best friend is an Aprol, that works nicely," said Kizi. "All right. This has been one heck of a day."
"Say that again," said Niomah emphatically. Sanuar just squeezed her hand.
"Why don't we all go together," Kizi said, "and show you your new home?"
"Best part of entire day," said Niomah.
And they turned and went back into the ghetto, Ens taking Niomah's other hand, Sanuar carrying the water for just-in-case, and Kizi briskly trotting alongside.