This story has a sequel, Mana.
She was pulling triple duty. The busgirl and the food runner were both out with what everybody was politely calling headaches and which Niomah preferred to think of as the condensed ball of emotion elicited by they're the owner's pets and if they steal half the booze and then call in sick with hangovers nothing will happen to them, will it. So she took orders and cleared napkins and glasses and baskets of half-eaten fried taro and she ferried to recipients uneaten baskets of fries and fresh drinks. She skipped her first break of the shift and flipped smoking banana fritters instead, when she ducked into the kitchen and found the cook necking with the dish-washer, because if the bananas burned someone was getting clobbered and it'd probably be Niomah. The other waitress would escape the misaimed cruelty; she wasn't the owner's pet, she was just paler and prettier and had options besides working at the Emerald Drop.
Niomah took her second break, at one in the morning, fruit be damned, not because she expected to be able to get away with sitting down but because she could no longer physically stand. If she'd had forethought she might have brought silverware to wrap in napkins, or a tub of new dishes to peel the labels off of, so she wouldn't be caught quite idling, but it didn't occur to her until she had her ass in a booth and getting up seemed about as doable as climbing the Crystal Mountain. Backwards.
She people-watched. A couple hours earlier the place had gone from restaurant to bar. If she'd ever taken theoretical magic she might know how the furniture and the lighting shifted of their own accord, but she wasn't even caught up on state-mandated general education. The last time someone had tried to test Niomah on the geography and language of her adopted country her father had "corrected" the bureaucrat about her birthday, so she'd gotten another four months of nonexistent spare time to study before they had to move out of town or go sublegal. More sublegal than the fake birthday already made them.
Vocabulary she might have picked up just from being around native Gathru constantly, but they talked so fast, and on top of each other, like the spoken words were a badly-observed courtesy and they were in fact telepaths. Some of them might be. Maybe the boy in the corner was actually talking to someone, not just staring into space like he didn't know where he was because he actually didn't.
Maybe he was actually lost.
With five minutes of rest Niomah was able to contemplate standing up and finding out - if she was sweet to him she might get a tip out of it, that would be something, the other waitress wasn't paying enough attention to steal it out of her apron. But she didn't stand. She was entitled to half an hour - a full one, if she called it both of her day's breaks back-to-back and pretended she was Mainlander-pale and Mainlander-rich and Mainlander-accented and entitled to the words on her contract.
She decided to pretend. But she caught Lost Boy's eye and tilted her head. If he wanted directions to the bathroom or the exit or the other restaurant down the block she could do that. She wasn't that bad with weird Gath vowels and syntax, and she could draw him a map on the bit of paper towel left from somebody's fries that she'd missed in clearing this table.
The boy blinked at her and came over to her booth.
That poor waitress looked exhausted. Sanuar's allowance felt like a rock in his pocket. She looked Arnysh. Didn't they have a thing about being offered money? He probably couldn't just offer her fifty balances because he thought she could use them. Could he? Wouldn't she think he'd mistaken her for a prostitute? Or was that the Behadze? (Was she Arnysh...?) But she was a waitress, uniform and all. Did fifty balances exceed plausible tipping range? He was so bad at this.
But he was still walking towards her.
"Hi," he said lamely.
"Hi," she replied. "You look lost." Arnysh accent, he'd been right the first time.
"Not really," said Sanuar. "My friends," he used the word for lack of a better one-syllable summary for people I don't like who I hang out with in the absence of a better option because our parents know each other, "are strung out on mana spots in your back alley, but it's cold out so I stepped in. I don't think I ought to go home, I should probably check on them in an hour or so. Just -" He shrugged.
"Oh," said the waitress. He liked the accent. "Tell me if it looks like they are dying when you look, there is a regular, he at the bar, has magic and can save them."
"I'll do that," said Sanuar. "You work here?" Idiot. Of course she works here, she's probably been working here for twenty-four hours solid, she's wearing an apron -
But she smiled, darkly, looking at the ceiling. "I take a break here. I will get up and work here again, soon, if my feet are still on my legs."
Sanuar laughed. He tried to read her nametag, but it was too dark.
"Niomah," she said, catching him looking. "Something to yell when you want drinks."
"Sanuar. Sorry for loitering and not ordering anything. I don't really -" He gestured vaguely.
"I might care, if owner, he ever paid me the -" She snapped her fingers.
"Commissions?" suggested Sanuar.
"Is that the word - but he does not, so I would rather if you order nothing, and I sit."
Sanuar grinned. "I can oblige. You're just sitting? Talking to lost boys?"
"Watching people. Deciding who is prettiest," said Niomah.
"And who's prettiest?" Sanuar regretted the question - what did he think she was going to say, it's you, Sanuar? - but she didn't take offense at this one either.
"Girl, she at the table with the bubble liqueur. Face belongs in museum," said Niomah emphatically.
"Are you sure that's a girl?" asked Sanuar.
Niomah squinted, then shrugged. "Face belongs in museum," she repeated. "Makeup, illusions, sit up in bed so beautiful every sunrise, I don't know, they have gods' luck at whatever, look."
"They're pretty," agreed Sanuar, "you're very good at deciding who's prettiest."
Niomah's smile flashed her teeth white in the dimness of the bar.
Ens shook whenever somebody looked at him. Any minute now one of the falsies would fall out of his shirt or it would turn out he'd missed a spot shaving or he'd have to go to the bathroom and his walk, voice, conspicuous choker necklace, would give him away. And then -
Well, nothing, probably, he'd slink out of the bar and change into the regular clothes in his purse and go home. But he wanted -
Well, that was the question, wasn't it. This had seemed like a marvelous idea the other day. Ens had imagined putting on girlhood like another garment. And... he felt like a boy in a dress. Which was an interesting change from feeling like a girl in a suit, but not right either. Damn it all, it wasn't like he had any other evenings free to try this, either, not for weeks, and what if after weeks he slipped out again and whatever fractured part of his mind had given him this idea in the first place decided to go on vacation again the minute he put on his sister's pearls?
There were a girl and a boy staring at him. Yes, this was clearly why he'd swiped jewelry, and lied about the prices of unrelated purchases long enough to save untracked money for a dress. Being tittered at in bars.
He swigged his bubble liqueur. It was okay. Heavier on the sugar than the kind served at home. Not nearly strong enough to take the edge off what Mother called "adolescent mood", but the last thing he needed was to stumble around attracting attention when he had to sneak back into the house past the night patroller without waking the butler or the housekeeper or the sister to whom he had to return the choker. So weak sugary (girly) drinks it was.
They were still looking at him, sneaking glances out of the corners of their eyes.
Well, if the next time his sister was out all night and he had a chance to take her jewelry he wanted to do this again - just in case - it might be useful to talk to some people he'd never see again and get feedback on just how ludicrously unfeminine he looked. Assuming they weren't telepaths they could only be going on his appearance, right, not the mess in his head?
He knocked back his liqueur and put the glass in a tub of dirty dishes on the next table, got up, tried to sidle towards smoky-eyed waitress and that boy who looked unfair amounts of tall even sitting down.
"Something you want to say to me?" he asked, pitching his voice as alto as he could, feminine without try-hard falsetto giving the game away.
The boy blushed, hard; if the girl did too it was impossible to see under the Arnysh brown in the bad light, and she didn't look embarrassed, anyway. "We are saying," she told him brazenly, "that you are prettiest in the whole bar."
"And are not sure," the girl went on - her nametag said Niomah - "if you are pretty girl or pretty boy. So, my father, he should be how angry at me for ungodly thoughts?"
"Ah," said Ens. He sat down, across from the two of them, suddenly dizzy. "...You know, I don't really know, myself."
"Very angry father," chuckled Niomah. "Very pretty something."
"You're wearing girls' clothes," the boy pointed out.
"Sometimes I want to," shrugged Ens. "...If I'm very lucky that'll coincide with when I can, one day."
Niomah tutted sympathetically. "You should be just so pretty in anything, I think."
The boy was looking between Niomah and Ens like he'd been unexpectedly teleported there from somewhere that made a lot more sense. "Uh," said Ens, trying to draw attention away from himself and his weird internal conflicts, "what's your name - and 'Niomah', am I pronouncing it right?"
"First try," congratulated Niomah.
"Sanuar," said the boy. "You?"
"Ens." Common enough name. Unisex, even. If he didn't give out his last he probably wouldn't be identified by random bar people. "Good to meet you."
Niomah sat with the one and a half boys, the tall lost one and the pretty one with the museum face, until she noticed the other waitress giving her dirty looks. Then she hauled herself to her feet and slid around Sanuar out of the booth, and got back to work. She reminded Sanuar to check on his drugged friends, and he reported that they were all alive and seemed lucid enough to get home on their own. Ens asked her for another liqueur and she brought it and Sanuar paid for it, to Ens's adorable dismay. And then Sanuar pressed the rest of his pocketful of bills into Niomah's hand.
"Tab?" she asked.
"Tip," Sanuar blurted. "You look - tired."
Niomah grinned at him and ran her hand over his hair and pocketed the money. "Thank you."
"Oh thank goodness - I thought it'd offend you or -" He watched her hand when she let it fall back to her side.
"Much too poor to be offended. And now I could buy you a drink." She probably shouldn't, she should probably just smile and flirt and not actually let the bills out of her possession on anything nonessential, but they were a windfall to begin with, and the bartender would actually give her the employee discount she was entitled to.
Sanuar giggled. "I - I don't really -"
"Grape juice," she said, patting his hair again. "Say yes?"
He nodded, all shy.
"Niomah," said Ens before she could go put the order in.
"Are you thirsty?"
"Eh, I get water." Clean water. She hydrated as much as she could and filled up a jug before she went home every day to have something clean to cook rice in and for her family to drink. Her brother who worked at a bakery did the same thing.
"Can I buy you a drink, whatever you want?" Ens asked. "It'll be full circle. ...Triangle."
"You can buy me a coffee." She could use one, at this hour, with the long walk home still ahead of her.
"They have coffee here?" asked Sanuar.
"No," Niomah winked. "We close in an hour. Coffee cart down the block, open all night."
"All right," grinned Ens.
Niomah got Sanuar his grape juice. She cleared the stragglers' tables. She flirted with the one and a half boys. When one of Sanuar's friends wobbled in to ask where Sanuar was, was he okay, did he take his share of mana spots after all and wander into traffic, she said he was fine. She issued the kitchen closure announcement, and the last-call announcement, and petted Sanuar's hair again before he left, and Ens loitered waiting for her while she filled up on water and linked elbows with her in such a gentlemanly way and took her to the coffee cart and bought her a coffee.
"Come by again," she suggested, batting her eyes over her shoulder. Ens belonged in a museum. "I work every day."
"Maybe I will," Ens murmured.
"Oh, maybe, trying to keep me doing guesswork," laughed Niomah, and she went home, a coffee in her hand to drink half of and keep her on her feet until she got to her bed and forty-three balances in her pocket to get a new pair of work shoes and a few days' worth of rice for her family. The other half of the coffee she'd thin out with milk to get her out of bed in the morning. And maybe they'd come back and smile at her like she was the sort of person one really smiled at instead of leering or ignoring or bossing like she was voice-activated furniture.
When she got home all her brothers and sisters and her sister-in-law and her parents and her uncle and her grandfather were asleep. She put the bottom half of the coffee away for the morning, hid Sanuar's money in her shoe lest her lazy sister-in-law or badly behaved little brother find it and steal it before she could buy needful things, and waited in the dark in silence until her oldest sister woke up to go to work and yielded Niomah her place in the big bed. Niomah fell asleep as soon as her head touched the mattress.
Ens put the pearls back in his sister's jewelry box and tucked the dress in the back of the closet and wiped off the makeup (thank all the gods that Mother considered doing makeup for the stage players an acceptably "culturing" school-break activity to fill his time, he didn't have to hide the box, just pretend he brought it home leftover from a production and make sure half of it was wrong for his skin tone).
He went to bed.
He woke up after insufficient sleep and put on his normal clothes. They were okay, this occasion, though who knew how long that would last. He shaved and combed his hair. He ate breakfast, and had his dulcimer lesson, and his Ancient Gath after that, and lunch out and a matinee concert with his sister because her fiancé was busy at the Hall of Justice all day and couldn't escort her. By the time the sun set, Ens wanted the pearls back again, but she couldn't get them because her sister was home and would miss them, because she was expected at her mother's party, because, because.
Ens wished she could treat her brain like a spoiled child asking for dessert after having turned up their nose at a perfectly good slice of cake the previous night, but then again she didn't really know what to do with spoiled children either.
So she kept on the starchy handsome boy clothes and re-combed her hair. And when Mother said "You look tired," Ens said, "I know how to fix that with a little foundation just under the eyes, nobody'll notice and I'll look presentable at the party," and her mother nodded and she scampered upstairs and did that, just that, no eyeliner, no lipstain, no boxed glamer for her cheekbones, but it made her feel better. And made her look less tired. Mother said as much when she came back down.
The party was ostensibly to celebrate Ens's sister's fiancé's promotion to District Justicar, but like all of Mother's parties it was really about collecting a lot of old money and old power in one place and introducing bits of it to other bits of it. Occasionally small amounts of newer money and newer power snuck in, and Ens could tell from long years of exasperated practice evaluating outfits and carriage that this was such an occasion. There was the manager of the shipping concern, there was the cousin of that fellow who'd married the duke's daughter in a surprise upset. There was an actress, only moderately famous, who had got an invite through Ens herself, because she always sat good and still for her paint and asked how Ens was doing, and if the nice lady wanted to rub shoulders then - Ens being the child of the principal local landowner ought to do some good for somebody, ever. There was the Fourteenth Archmage in full formal uniform robes, recently promoted on sheer skill with no connections to speak of, and his family -
At the shoulder of the Fourteenth Archmage was Sanuar.
Oh, no, not here, Ens had gone all the way to that little bar because she didn't expect anyone to recognize her and trace her back to her daytime life, her family, her - self, in the suit, combed and neat instead of pretty and pearly.
But it was too late to pretend to be abruptly sick.
Sanuar looked at her, where she was wobbling up on the balcony. Sanuar smiled. Gods, he was tall, standing up.
Desperately, Ens held a finger to her lips. Don't let on, please.
Sanuar's smile dropped. He nodded, very subtly, broke eye contact, let his - father? uncle? grandfather? - the Archmage introduce him to Ens's parents.
Ens trotted down the stairs like she was supposed to, appearing at her mother's elbow just in time for the introductions to swing around to, "And this is our son Ens. Ens, this is Archmage Vayar -" Other relatives of the Archmage were introduced, and finally - "his son, Sanuar Vayar."
Ens smiled on automatic. "It's lovely to meet you, Your Learned Eminence Archmage, distinguished Vayars," she said, resisting the urge to push from tenor to alto. "I hope the day finds you well."
"Ens," said Mother, "I think you and Sanuar are about the same age..." Which meant keep him occupied while the grownups talk. Ens was more than happy to do so; Sanuar wasn't spilling the beans right now and if he wanted bribery to keep it that way it was in Ens's best interest to find out sooner rather than later.
"Why don't I show you around the house?" Ens said, automatic smile still in place.
Sanuar ducked his head in an inexpert bow and followed Ens away from the knot of adults.
"So you're the Fourteenth Archmage's son," Ens said, levelly, stiffly, when they'd slipped into a hallway and could assume they would go unheard.
"Uh. Yes," said Sanuar.
"And you hang out at midscale bars babysitting druggie friends."
"I don't really - they're not my - my mother knows their parents," shrugged Sanuar. "I didn't have anything else to do. They're not bad, just..."
"Are you a mage too?" Ens asked.
"If I am it didn't kick in when I was little. They can test me for late-onset in a couple months," said Sanuar. "...I guess I don't have to ask what Lady Riawae's kid was doing at a midscale bar."
"You don't," said Ens. "...Please don't."
Sanuar blinked, surprised. "I'm not going to tell anybody."
"Oh." Ens relaxed, fractionally.
"Promise," Sanuar added. "Why would I do that?"
"...You have a nice house," Sanuar went on, feeling terribly inane about it.
"It's all right. As houses go. Just..." Ens shrugged again and Sanuar wanted to hug him. Her. Whatever. "You're really not going to say anything?"
"Not a word," said Sanuar. "We can have just met. Nothing about the Emerald Drop or - or pearls or Niomah."
"You haven't seen her again, have you?" asked Ens.
"No. I thought I might go back tonight..." It wasn't like he had anything else to do with his suddenly quadrupled allowance. Feeling glad about Father's promotion seemed a little like trying to be grateful for suddenly sprouting wings that could in theory let one fly but in practice mostly made it difficult to sit in chairs and fit through doors.
"If - you wanted to - you're the one who -" Niomah had said Ens was the prettiest person in the bar, not Sanuar, Niomah had flirted with Ens more -
"No - go ahead," said Ens, shaking their head.
"Because she thought you were pretty and -"
"Go, ask her out, date her for three years, marry her, have a dozen children, you might as well if you like, you have freedom of movement and your parents aren't trying to betrothe you to somebody appropriate," said Ens, shaking their head. "It'll be cute. Invite me to the wedding -"
"That's - a little premature. A lot actually," said Sanuar. "And I thought she liked you more -"
"Very angry father," Ens replied, rolling their eyes.
"Only if her father found out. About the thing, I mean, he'd probably be fine with you being a Riawae, if he's got any sense."
"Are you trying to convince me to hit on the girl you like?" Ens asked.
"It'd be cute," mumbled Sanuar.
"I can't, though, I can't get out of the house."
"It looked to me like your mother wants us to be friends."
"...You're offering to cover for me hitting on the girl you like. Pretend we're going on an overnight skiing trip or something and actually go buy Niomah coffee and get her to crack jokes at us."
Sanuar squirmed. "I thought she liked you more. If I can go back and you can't - I don't know, if she said she liked me too I'd always wonder about what she'd have done if you'd been there again to compete."
There was a silence. Privately, Sanuar wondered if Ens could be convinced to doll up again for such an outing, and then it wouldn't matter much even if Niomah laughed right in their faces. Maybe. Maybe Ens would laugh in his face if he noticed Sanuar thinking it.
"You want," said Ens, "to enact some theatrical plot in which a girl we have each met only once chooses dramatically between us -"
"If you don't like her -"
"I like her," muttered Ens.
"Then - well, what would you rather?" asked Sanuar helplessly.
Ens... shook their head, and shrugged, and said, "Let's pretend we're going skiing."
Niomah slumped against the front wall to the Emerald Drop and wept until her eyes were swollen and her throat was raw and she'd cried herself thirsty.
She'd just bought new work shoes, too, with that nice boy's money, because her old ones secondhand from another waitress had a broken lace hole on the left and a hole worn through the sole in the right, and they were the shiny green leather the Emerald Drop required, she had no other use for green shoes, her thick brown boots were still good, she didn't need pretty shoes for anything else. She'd have to try to return them, probably for half their price, and stretch the money as far as it would go. And look for another job. Or give her father all of the money and jump off a bridge and then she wouldn't eat her family further into poverty during her job hunt. Finding the waitress job had taken a month and a half, and she hadn't had it long enough to think that the field of available work had changed since. Probably there was nothing.
Her sister-in-law would probably tell her to bring charges against the Emerald Drop for her last week of wages. And Niomah would say me and what solicitor and the sister-in-law would gape at her like a stunned cow and take a solid day to absorb the fact that she'd married into a family that didn't have a solicitor. The sister-in-law might be more useful if her parents were still alive, but if they were then Niomah's brother would have moved out, not moved his wife in -
Footsteps. Niomah should have chosen a more secluded place to have her breakdown. Unless she was driving business away from those criminals by making a scene on the doorstep, that might be good -
She looked up. Sanuar the lost boy and Ens the pretty museum-piece, she wasn't sure which had spoken her name. She didn't want them to see her so pathetic. She scrubbed at her eyes with the end of her sleeve.
"Oh, hello, fine morning. So nice to run into you again. Don't give those bastards your money," she advised hoarsely.
"What happened?" asked Sanuar.
"Fired me. Without my last week's balance."
"What - why?" Ens.
"Hiring a Mainlander boy. Speaks Gath better. Said I am lazy, but lazy Mainlander waitress still has job -"
"I -" said Sanuar. "I can get more -"
Niomah shook her head. "Is nice - helped - but drying out a boat that is only half a boat. Worked seventy hours a week, six balances an hour, do you have that to give away? And, angry father, he wonder where money comes from, if he finds out, supposes you make confetti out of precious daughter's honor, so much more important than rice and water and heat -"
"And - no, I can't match that wage. Right," murmured Sanuar.
"They can't fire you because you're Arnysh," said Ens.
"I mean, if you took it to court -"
She laughed. "Sister-in-law will say same thing. Sister-in-law also Mainlander. Of course you say it."
"My father's looking for a housekeeper," blurted Sanuar.
Niomah looked up and blinked tears out of her eyes.
"I can't promise - I don't have hiring authority - but I don't think he actually knows what he's looking for and if I recommend somebody, if you go before he puts out the ad -"
"Where, when?" Niomah demanded.
"It's - east of here, thirty minutes walking, big stone house with a green roof. Now, if you like, he should be home for the next -"
Niomah lurched to her feet, dabbing away residual tears from her eyes. "Now. If your father will not steal my money or put his hand in my shirt -"
"Gods, no," said Sanuar, blanching. "...I don't think so. Do a lot of people...?"
She shrugged. "Some. Too many." She started walking east; Sanuar and Ens fanned out to either side of her like they were about to break into synchronized dance step. "You put your hands wherever you like, lost boy, but not your father."
"I -" Sanuar blinked rapidly. It was cute. "I what?" Niomah managed to smile at him.
"Ens, don't you think Sanuar, he is very charming?" Niomah asked. This was more her element, this made her feel more like herself, like a human being. Human beings flirted, human beings embedded themselves in groups of other human beings who liked them. Human beings did not cry on the sidewalk because they were short a few hundred balances from where they needed to be because of racist managers. If she flirted and smiled and teased she could be a human being.
Ens coughed. "Uh."
"You are on a date today?" she wondered. "Were about to get two straws in a chocolate milk? Did not mean to make pass at your boyfriend, beautiful. Oops. Or your girlfriend, lost boy." She giggled, twirled.
"We're... not," said Ens.
"Aw. Would be cute." It would, too.
"Hmm?" smiled Niomah.
"We, uh," said Ens.
"We were wondering if you liked one of us, actually," said Sanuar.
"Oh, no," said Niomah, walking backwards to watch them flinch, then she went on, "much too greedy. One of you. Silly."
They looked at each other.
"Not so greedy as to never share," she smirked.
They blushed. Niomah grinned.
"This isn't an Arnysh thing, is it?" Ens said.
"Oh, no, not that," said Niomah. "Very much not. It is a Niomah thing. Oh, if Father knew such anger about the confetti honor."
"And - to make sure I understand you -"
"My Gath is not so bad, I think."
"No, no, your Gath is fine. But when you say you're too greedy -" Ens's head was spinning.
"Is simple," said Niomah. "You come here, wondering, does Niomah want to pick one or the other to put second straw in chocolate milk? And my answer is there is room for three straws. Why not?"
Sanuar started laughing, almost hysterically.
"Is it funny?" she asked, tossing her hair.
"It's," said Ens, and she didn't know what to say next. It will never work. It's fantastic. My parents would throw a fit, your parents would throw a fit, his parents would possibly throw fireballs from the palms of their hands. Sanuar doesn't like - whatever I am - probably - does he? -
"It's perfect," said Sanuar.
Ens wasn't expecting that.
"It is?" she asked.
"Why not? I can probably get Father to hire her - she'll be in my house - you can come to my house whenever you like, can't you? It works." Sanuar was shaking his head as though in disbelief of his own words.
"Why not, beautiful?" asked Niomah, still walking backwards ahead of Ens and Sanuar.
"Because - three - and I'm -"
"Yes, good question, what are you," says Niomah. "Would like to know what to say after dear diary, turned seventeen..." She was looking almost predatory.
"...I'm whatever makes you look at me like that." Like she wanted to shove Ens up against a wall and nibble on her until only Ens herself was left, no shell of Riawae and starch and expectations. "Happy birthday," she added.
"So, dear diary, turned seventeen, have boyfriend and priceless artwork, lovely," giggled Niomah. "Boyfriend, priceless artwork, housekeeping job, very good day."
"I can't promise the job," said Sanuar.
"Better chance than applying everything everywhere. Much faster, if it works," said Niomah.
"And I'm pretty sure he won't grope you," Sanuar nodded. "Just - if it doesn't work -"
"You try, I believe you will try," said Niomah. "Dear diary, boyfriend attempted to murder good mood while it was a small baby mood in a small baby mood cradle."
Ens giggled. "I like how you talk."
"Good. Tell everyone my accent is beautiful," says Niomah. "Start trend. Publish decree."
"More your turn of phrase than your accent," said Ens.
"I like the accent," chirped Sanuar.
"Dear diary, priceless artwork and boyfriend very charmingly complimenting."
And with that Ens couldn't but kiss her.
Three straws in one chocolate milk indeed. Sanuar felt more like he was in line for two different fairgrounds rides simultaneously than like someone had stolen his candy, like the way he would have expected if all he'd had to go on was contrived serial magazine stories and not a real three-straw situation. Although it would probably be unwise for him to kiss Ens while Ens looked boylike in public, and nearly as unwise for him to kiss Niomah on the same block right after Ens did it. Still. Soon they'd be at his house and Niomah could be interviewed and he could catch up with Ens and then Ens would eventually go home and Niomah would be housekeeping on a regular basis and he had express permission to put his hands wherever he liked -
Ens and Niomah broke apart, at length, gasping like they'd been underwater. They seemed to have the same instincts about what was and was not reasonable public behavior as far as lip contact was concerned, but Niomah looked sultrily at Sanuar over her shoulder while lacing fingers with Ens, and Ens -
Did something with their face, one moment the Riawae scion cut out of the masculine aristocrat's template and the next moment as much a girl as Niomah was, batting her eyelashes at him.
Sanuar swallowed and did his best to lead them the rest of the way to his house without walking funny.
It was a good walk. Niomah did most of the talking, but Ens seemed to have unfurled like a flower, and laughed and kept squeezing Niomah's hand and tapped Sanuar very familiarly on the shoulder when she wanted to point out a cloud shaped like a frigate. Sanuar got warm and took off his jacket and Ens swiped it, smirking, to somehow magically wear more like a girl borrowing from her boyfriend than like a young man dipping into a friend's wardrobe, how did she do that.
Niomah found a centibalance coin on the street, and complained of having no pockets with her apron left back at the Emerald Drop, and she put it into Sanuar's back pants pocket.
Eventually they reached the new Vayar household. Big stone house. Green roof. Freshly bought in a neighborhood designed by a hotshot architect with more budget than restraint, very appropriate for a newly promoted archmage and hopelessly impersonal for said archmage's son. Maybe Niomah would get a decorating budget and make it look like anyone lived there. Sanuar let them in.
"Ens, you can - park in my room, up on the third floor on the left it's the one with the window seat - Niomah, I'll go with you as far as introducing you to my father but he might want to talk to you alone."
Ens nodded and disappeared up the stairs, boy creeping back into their walk with every step beyond the threshold of the house.
Niomah schooled flirtatious features into seriousness. "Boyfriend business is dear diary, not dear Sanuar's father, yes?"
"Yes. Sorry. Uh, and he's Archmage Vayar."
"Archmage is - Eminence? Excellency?"
"Either actually, just stick a 'learned' in front of it, 'Your Learned Eminence' is I think the one he likes better. He might let you shorten it later."
"His Learned Eminence Archmage Vayar. Yes. What else?"
"...Let's pretend I met you through one of the mana spots friends? Uh, Ninden, if he asks."
"He does not know the mana spots friends himself?"
"He doesn't. It'll hold up."
"Okay," said Niomah.
"And... let's see if he's in his workroom."
Sanuar resisted the urge to hold her hand as he led her into the house.
"Father," Sanuar said, "I found somebody who may suit for the housekeeper job. Friend of a friend."
Niomah supposed this was even true, if one inserted Ens between her and Sanuar. She curtsied. "Your Learned Eminence," she said, fighting her accent with every syllable. Sound native, even if she couldn't look it, sound like she wasn't sublegal amounts of educated.
Sanuar's father looked a lot like his son: tall, slender, strong-chinned, gray-eyed. He was in his formal mage robes, heavy dark indigo with a white stole that had fourteen dots on one end of it. "Oh? What's her name? Qualifications?"
"Niomah Mihi, Your Learned Eminence," said Niomah. "I have been a waitress. Filling in for busgirl, sometimes." The busgirl. Or a busgirl? Was getting that wrong worse than having forgotten it altogether...?
"Availability? Expected wage?"
"Any time, Your Learned Eminence." And - name her actual floor price or try to ratchet up? She didn't know how much competition she had. And didn't want to sound like she was ignorant of the job market by getting too far from the figure he had in mind in either direction. She went with, "I have been earning six balances an hour plus tips." The tips threw in enough uncertainty. She hoped.
"Mm. Do you work pretty quickly?" asked the Archmage.
"Yes, Your Learned Eminence."
"Six hours a day, eleven an hour?"
Less than she'd been earning on a decent tip day at the Emerald Drop, but for fewer hours - if a longer commute - and less subject to randomized customer spite; she could pick up side shifts somewhere else, seasonal fruit-picking in summer with her brother maybe. Or let Sanuar give her his pocket money, poor lost boy didn't know what else to do with it. "Yes."
"And you can clean and tidy, do laundry, set up rooms for guests, and help the cook, possibly fill in for him if he takes days off...?"
Unless the cook took off on her first day of work or didn't want to teach her, presumably he could show her how to throw together adequate meals for the odd vacation day. She could probably even make something up if she were thrown into the kitchen unprepared, as long as rich Mainlanders still ate rice. "Yes."
"All right. Sanuar can show you where things are and introduce you to the cook," said His Learned Eminence, waving a hand. "Come in tomorrow morning, before breakfast time, and you can start then."
"Yes, Your Learned Eminence," said Niomah, curtsying again.
Ens drew eyeliner on the lead actor's face and was called a talented young man and wished she would die.
Two hours more. Two hours and I can go to Sanuar's. It always cheers me up -
Ens ate lunch with his family and thought about the dress in the back of his closet and wished he would die.
Just swallow the dessert and wait to be excused. Just wait. I always feel better when -
Ens got into the carriage and told the driver to take her to the Vayar house and wished it would overturn on the way and crack her skull in half.
Half an hour. Half an hour and I can put my head in Niomah's lap and Sanuar will pet me and I'll be -
The carriage stopped outside the house. Ens got out. She knocked on the door. Niomah answered, broom in hand, smiling when she saw who it was. "Ens! Come in come in - Sanuar's up in his room." The wink accompanying this pronouncement meant and I will be too when I've finished sweeping.
And Ens didn't - feel - any - better -
Niomah wouldn't hug her until she was squirreled away in Sanuar's suite where nobody would see. That was probably all. When Ens got as far as Sanuar's rooms -
But she got there, and Sanuar hugged her, and Sanuar asked her what was wrong, and Ens said, "I don't know," and Niomah turned up a little while later, and asked what had made her priceless artwork so sad, and Ens said, "I don't know -"
"Nothing changed?" Sanuar asked.
"It's all the same. Except usually I feel better here," said Ens, mumbling into his shirt.
"All the same," Niomah said. "Well, why not be sad about that, sameness, your sameness?" She scritched her fingers through Ens's hair at the back of her neck. "Secret priceless artwork under a sheet, hiding, hiding, pretending to be all boy always. More reason than me."
Sanuar and Ens both looked at her, then, and she wouldn't make eye contact.
"Niomah?" murmured Sanuar.
She shrugged. "Is nothing. Nothing. Have good job for solid month. Have boyfriend and priceless artwork. Have family. Passed language test! Nothing, nothing. Stupid. Teenage girl nonsense, sister says, goes away soon."
There was a silence, Ens leaning on Sanuar and Niomah petting her hair, until Sanuar said -
"Am I contagious?"
In the smallest, most trembling voice.
Ens lifted her head to look at him.
"I don't know if I'd call it sad," amended Sanuar. "And who ever heard of moodiness being contagious anyway. And I've got less reason than either of you -"
"Tell," said Niomah.
"It's better when you're here," Sanuar said earnestly. "It is, really."
Ens swallowed, and said, "You can't be contagious. It can't be your fault - before I even met you - well, I thought dressing up would help, and instead I met you both and you helped -"
Sanuar kissed her forehead. "We aren't helping anymore?"
"It's not that. I'd rather be here than there. I just - keep remembering that I have to go back. Live in their house. Lie to them every day and watch them look at me wrong - even when they're right it's by accident."
"What are the odds?" wondered Sanuar bleakly.
"Very good odds," muttered Niomah. "You, I talked to you because you looked lost. Ens, talked to her because she trying to look right and came out so pretty, but she could only do it with strangers. Very good odds."
"Now what?" wondered Ens. "What does knowing get us?" And the others didn't have an answer for her.
After Niomah had to start walking home for the night, and Ens's carriage came to pick her up, Sanuar was left alone.
He wasn't, exactly, sad. He didn't know how to describe it, had failed utterly at explaining to his girlfriends.
Niomah called him "lost boy", sometimes, still. He was that. He was a lost boy, wandering around in a confusing dreamscape, tired with nowhere to lie down, bored with nothing to do. And when his girlfriends were around they distracted him. Sometimes he stalked Niomah through the house while she was working, just watching her wash dishes or dust knicknacks with inimitable Niomah flair, stealing kisses when she moved from one room to the next. Even though Ens was able to come over most days to pursue their parentally-approved friendship Sanuar wrote her long letters on the in-between days and the evenings, about everything and nothing - and posted them, too - to fill time. It was better than studying his astronomy or accidentally running into his father at the wrong moment and listening to a forbidding lecture about how he'd better turn up with mage potential when he had his retest. He was just spinning his wheels until the late-onset retest. If he had magic he'd have, well, at least a clear default option. If he didn't would his life be wheel-spinning forever -?
Having no significant responsibilities would have been very liberating, if there was anything he wanted to do with himself besides leech off Niomah's good humor and Ens's beautiful fleeting smiles when they were available, and stare at the ceiling when they were not.
And now he felt rather like he was probably responsible for wrecking both of them.
Why did they even tolerate him? Apparently after dating him for a month Ens was irretrievably miserable, and Niomah, too, sad for "no reason". Why didn't they just -?
Oh, right. Niomah needed a job - needed, not in the sense of finding it inconvenient not to have one but actually spending her week's pay, every week, on food for her family. And Ens needed somebody, anybody, who wouldn't tell her parents about the "her" thing, who she was authorized to visit.
Sanuar didn't think he ought to break up with them. They did, actually, need those things. Ceasing to provide wouldn't make that go away. And if Niomah was right there how could he not try to make her laugh - if Ens was right there how could he not reach out and touch her? If they were going to be around he didn't think he knew how to stop from - empathically parasitizing them.
...His father would have made very sure that his null result on his early mage potential test wasn't a misprint. Sanuar was definitely not actually empathically parasitizing his girlfriends. Not that this technicality would make them any happier. For that matter, if he were doing it in the conventional way he could give back what he'd taken. Instead he didn't even seem to have it anymore. He was some kind of siphon attached to a sieve.
Gray gray gray.
Sanuar stared at the ceiling and waited for sleep.
No reason. No reason.
Niomah went home, routing around a protest going on along her usual route (something about water quality, good for them, she hated having to haul water home from Sanuar's every day, so heavy), and helped her sister make dinner. They had enough to eat. They were all healthy, except for Grandfather's bad leg and her little brother's eye, and those were stable chronic issues, not things they needed to see mages about right away; they could save bit by bit. Except for her falsified birthday, which probably no one would ever discover, they were legally in the clear; another two years without missing any key requirements and they'd have full irrevocable residency. Her lost boy and her priceless artwork loved her and she loved them and there was practically no risk that anybody was going to find out, when they all had ironclad excuses to be at Sanuar's house, in his room.
(Well, Sanuar's mother had seen him with his hand on Niomah's ass once, but she'd just tutted that he was growing up and might want to learn discretion - which might have outraged Niomah if his hand hadn't been exactly where she liked it, which fact Learned Lady Vayar did not know - but anyway it had apparently fallen into the disciplinary category of negligible boyish carelessness, not serious departure from parental authority. Niomah was not in trouble for letting him, either, for seducing the Learned Sanuar's Parents' son.)
So: no reason.
Her family ate rice and spicy goat and cherry compote. Niomah slept in the big chair in the sitting room; they'd had to shuffle sleeping schedules when her work hours changed. It was worse for her neck, slouching in something not designed to be slept on, but better for sleeping straight through the night, not being next to kicking sisters and snoring Mother. In spring, it was less stiflingly hot; she might mind more in the winter. All in all not such a problem, not now.
No reason at all to keep going back to the idea she'd had a month ago: or I could jump off a bridge.
She could go jump off a bridge and her priceless artwork would cry, her lost boy would cry, her family would cry and go hungry.
But Niomah could not help but notice that all her reasons were about people other than herself.
No reason to jump off a bridge. Several reasons not to, all of which were located outside of the would-be jumper.
She felt less and less human every time she woke up in the morning. Her usual cheats were wearing thin. She'd called herself sad, but she didn't know the Gath for it. She didn't know the Arnysh for it. Her sister had said teenage girl nonsense. Like it was part of the life cycle: get your blood and grow six inches and feel like jumping off a bridge and then get married and have five babies.
Niomah wanted to believe her.
Niomah did not want to make her lost boy and her priceless artwork and her family cry. Possibly she could cause the first two to stop caring somehow, but the family would mourn the loss of the money no matter how beastly she was to them as a person, so.
And the bridge would still be there in a week.
She slumped into her chair and closed her eyes against the city lights filtering through the thin curtains, and she slept.
Ens got as far as holding her razor to the skin of her wrist before she managed to consciously wonder what in the fuck she was doing.
She pulled the blade away. She folded it back up. She looked at the unbroken skin of her arm.
The smart thing to do would be to get rid of the razor, at this point, dispose of it somewhere, simply not have anything sharp around. If there was nothing sharp, then even in moments of inattention she couldn't try to prune herself off her oblivious family tree.
If she got rid of the razor, she would grow a beard.
There were glamers in her makeup kit that would hide a fair amount of stubble. In last winter's production of The Minstrel of Crystal Mountain a secondary character needed to appear in the second act with a few days of growth he didn't have in the first, so Ens would put the glamer on him before the lights came up every night and peel it off again at intermission, and so she knew, by feel, that the glamer wouldn't do texture. If she touched her face or just bent her chin enough, she'd feel the scratch. And this would only be tolerable about fifty percent of the time.
Lord Riawae had imagined he was teaching his son to shave, but it had been his subtle second daughter who'd paid rapt attention to the lesson.
So - keep the razor, try to keep herself under some semblance of control like a sane person -
Or last about three days before she snapped in the middle of dinner and picked up a carving knife from a meat platter, and tried to cut the stubble and her throat in front of everybody?
The razor stayed where it was.
She snapped awake. It was pitch dark. No one was supposed to be coming or going until near-dawn. Was somebody up to sneak a drink of water from the carefully rationed bottles, or -?
No. Whoever was making the noises was not also making an effort to be quiet. They were stomping. Not even the neighbors would be so rude.
Niomah unfolded stiffly from her chair. Some kind of inspection, maybe? She padded to the door, ready to answer it, cough up whatever bribe or fee or fine they wanted this time.
The door opened without her touching it, which meant either burglars or cops. Matching uniforms on the men behind the door meant cops, although possibly cops who aspired to burglary. They didn't seem like normal cop uniforms; possibly some kind of special force. Niomah curtsied without making further assessments. "Sirs -"
"On the ground!" one of them shouted, and she dropped to the floor, hands over her head, blackly terrified - if they didn't want money what did they want?
There were three of them, she counted feet. Had one of her brothers gotten caught shoplifting or -? What was going on? They weren't eager to tell her, at any rate. They stomped into the room with the big bed, woke up the entire family, went into the second room with the smaller bed that these days had her parents in it by day and her brother and sister-in-law by night. Her father would still be at work and her mother snuggled up in the big bed for the second half of her time spent sleeping - there she was, the cop had her by the hair, she hadn't gotten on the floor fast enough for him.
Once the entire family was awake and cowering the cops tore the apartment apart. Niomah had no idea what they were looking for. Was one of her sisters dealing mana spots? (And not sharing the money, if so -!) Had they found out, somehow, about her birthday?
Niomah's sister-in-law tried to talk to the cops. Niomah's sister-in-law was Mainlander, close enough to native, they didn't hit her for trying, but they didn't answer the questions she asked either. Not until they'd ripped open both mattresses and the chair, dumped the stack of sideways crates and all their contents out on the floor and kicked through them, stuck their gloved hands into the big sack of rice as though they'd store imaginary contraband in their food.
And when they'd been everywhere and touched everything and patted down everyone in their nightclothes and destroyed half the apartment, Niomah's sister-in-law could be heard:
"What are you looking for...?"
"You're all very lucky you didn't have weapons stored here," said one of the cops. "This neighborhood's on lockdown now. There's going to be a strict sunset curfew unless you have a signed work permit - if you're out and an officer asks who you are and where you're going you will respectfully answer -"
He went on like that, ignoring pleas from Niomah's oldest sister to please slow down, repeat himself, she doesn't understand. Niomah was going to have to translate, after they went, into Arnysh which her sister-in-law didn't speak, concepts which her little brother with the otherwise best Gath didn't know like martial law and riots. They were not cops at all, but soldiers, Gathru army squads so not technically invaders. Not on a national level. They were military amounts of afraid of this little Arnysh immigrant neighborhood, didn't say why, she didn't dare ask.
The soldiers eventually left to shake down the next family along, and on, and on, and Niomah stumbled through translating an explanation.
She didn't try to go back to sleep.
She left for work as soon as it got light, earlier than usual, eager to get out of the neighborhood. She had to tell a soldier on what seemed like every corner that her name was Niomah Mihi and she did housekeeping for His Learned Eminence Fourteenth Archmage Vayar, that she expected to be home before dark, that her home was at thus and such an address. Two of the soldiers who stopped her patted her down for weapons. They all insisted on pointing weapons at her. None fired - on her. She could hear yelling from the other side of one block -
Once she was past the bridge there were no soldiers, just normal streets, people going about their business.
She didn't even know what happened. She was too afraid to ask.
She looked like she'd been up all night. Like she'd had the last week of sleep frightened out of her.
"Niomah, what happened?" Sanuar asked, when she brought him a tray of breakfast at his desk in his room and then collapsed across the foot of his bed as though about to weep.
"Oh," she said in a ghost of her usual laughing voice. "I stole hard candy out of cook's dish. That happened. Kiss me, steal it back, lemon, I hate lemon, why did I take it -"
"Niomah." He handed her a tissue; she spat the lemon candy into it rather than wipe her eyes, looking sicker than a candy could possibly warrant.
"Soldiers. In family home, middle of night," she said, rolling over to look at the ceiling instead of at him. "Tear everything to bits and shout and point weapons everywhere and hands on all of us, don't like how one looked at oldest sister. Soldiers, soldiers, tried to leave this morning, tell them all where I work, they threaten to shoot me for I don't know what -"
"What - why?"
"Oh, lost boy. We are Arnysh."
Sanuar didn't like the hoarseness of the words. He ignored the breakfast tray, went to line up next to her on the bed and hold her. He had questions - what, did this happen every week, since they were always Arnysh? Oh gods, what if it did, what if she was actually being terrorized constantly and he'd done nothing about it and had no idea because she was so used to it that it only sometimes showed in her face? He didn't know how to ask that and not sound like he was completely unaware that being Arnysh sometimes had effects on Niomah's life. Maybe later he could ask Ens, see if Ens knew.
She went on, after a silence, snuggling into his shoulder. "Don't know why. Someone caught doing something. Someone thinks someone doing something. Don't know. Soldiers didn't say."
Sanuar hugged her. "Do you want me to - ask my parents, see if they know anything?"
Niomah hesitated, then said, "Yes. - And ask, can Niomah stay here, live-in housekeeper, room next to cook, maybe. In case."
"In case -" He didn't finish the question. In case her family were all targeted and she had nobody to go home to. In case it was too dangerous for her to walk to and from work through an occupied neighborhood. In case somebody took aim directly at his girlfriend and her concern still had to be how she was going to collect her balances because she needed them. "Yeah. I'll ask. Not for tonight, right?"
"Right. Only in case."
He didn't get up, until Niomah said, "Your breakfast, it will be cold," and then he kissed lemon flavor from her mouth and stood and looked at the bacon and eggs and taro.
"Did the cook feed you yet today?" he asked.
He got her to eat a few bites, but she didn't seem to have much appetite.
He didn't either.
There were protestors outside Ens's house. She couldn't read their signs from her window, or make out what they were saying, but there were a lot of them, and most of them looked dark enough to be Arnysh. Was Ens going to be strung up for making confetti of someone's daughter's honor...? (She hadn't, even! Yet! Quite! What counted as making confetti of someone's honor anyway? Someone should make confetti of Ens's honor, she wasn't doing anything with it...)
This was an awful lot of people to be concerned about Niomah's honor, though, and Ens didn't think she was planning on telling anyone about the slight honorific crumpling she had so enjoyed, and surely Sanuar was the more obvious target.
Ens went downstairs.
"Did the riffraff out there wake you?" asked her sister from the breakfast nook. "They've been hollering for almost an hour, now. They're obeying the security perimeter so far but I'm scared to go out."
"I don't think they woke me. What are they angry about?"
"I don't know. Aren't they always angry about something? Sooner or later one of them will do something out of line and they'll all get taken away. Mother's trying to get police on the scene but they're busy with another protest just like this one. Maybe more."
"That sounds like a little more than them always being angry about something," said Ens. "Thank you," she added to the cook, when he brought her breakfast.
"Of course, milord," said the cook, and, "It's the water in the ghetto."
"What's the water in the ghetto?" asked Ens's sister.
"What the protestors are angry about. The water quality in Arnysh neighborhoods," said the cook. "Milady."
Ens closed her eyes.
Ens opened his eyes.
"Do we own any of the land in the Arnysh ghetto?" he asked.
"Not much of it. Let alone anything to do with the water," said his sister. "Just a couple of apartment buildings with shops under them, I think. Don't ask me why they're bothering us. I couldn't sleep. Don't they have jobs?"
"Who should they be bothering?" asked Ens.
"Nobody?" suggested his sister. "Gods it's so early."
She was no help. Ens ate his breakfast as quickly as he could without getting a reprimand for his table manners and went looking for his mother.
Lady Riawae was looking disgustedly at her telegrammer. There were message slips in a heap on the desk for the maid to deal with later. "Hello, Ens," she said. "Did they wake you up too?"
"I'm sometimes up this early anyway. Look, who does handle the water in the Arnysh ghetto? If it's not us?"
"It's not us. Honestly, Ens, at this hour of the morning? I wouldn't be complaining if whoever it was had poisoned those people thoroughly enough to keep them out of our yard in the first place. Doesn't it rain? Can't they be bothered to walk a few blocks to get water from the fountain? Parasites." And she started tapping out another message to the police.
Ens wanted to go and see Niomah, ask her, but he didn't think he'd be able to go anywhere soon. He couldn't get the driver to take him past the throng and if he tried to walk the protestors might decide he'd make good target for their frustrations, and there were a lot of them. He went to a window closer to where they were clustered. Niomah wasn't among them, or he might have tried going out anyway. Probably she was already on her way to Sanuar's.
"What is it, Ens?"
"Can I use the telegrammer when you're done? If I'm not going to be able to visit Sanuar today."
"Oh, of course. Here, you can have it now, the police aren't budging any further," sighed Lady Riawae, and she got up and swept away.
Ens consulted the code chart on the table and tapped out Sanuar's address. They had a telegrammer, he'd seen it. This is Ens. Please give Sanuar the telegrammer.
Niomah brought the telegrammer up to Sanuar. "Priceless artwork writing to you," she said. "Walked by mopping, saw. How does it work?"
Sanuar took it from her and peered at the message tape, then tore it off and put both it and the device on his desk. "You have to learn a code. There are more expensive ones that do written text but they only work if both people have them so they've not caught on - Ens's family might have one but we don't."
"You know the code?" asked Niomah, leaning her chin on his shoulder.
"Yeah. It's sort of tedious but not that complicated." Taptaptaptaptaptaptap. This is Sanuar. What is it?
There was a delay, then more tape spooled out. I may not be able to come over today. There are protestors outside my house. Are you alone?
Taptaptap. Niomah's here. Otherwise alone. Protestors?
"What are you saying?" Niomah mumured.
"I said it was me and asked what it was - said you were here and no one else, asked about the protestors."
Ens's reply came: Reportedly they're angry about the water quality in the Arnysh ghetto. Mother says we don't have anything to do with the water but I don't know who does.
"Well, of course," said Niomah. "No one wants job of getting us water. Doesn't work at all, stinks, salty, always something. Who wants to fix it? No one. Not Lady Riawae, not anyone. That is why such fuss? About water?"
"I guess," said Sanuar. Niomah says it's not clearly anyone's job. There's been trouble in her neighborhood from soldiers last night. He told her what he was writing as he wrote it.
Delay, delay. Is she okay?
"I'm not hurt, priceless artwork," murmured Niomah. Sanuar tapped that out for her, appended she says, and added But she was scared.
Delay. If the water's always a problem, why now?
"I don't know," Niomah said.
I'm going to ask my parents, Sanuar tapped. About that and about if she can switch to being a live-in housekeeper if she needs to.
Look after her, Ens replied.
Sanuar's Learned Parents did not know anything about the situation in the Arnysh ghetto except that it was "a travesty", when they returned home from the evening and Sanuar asked. They said they would have to think about letting Niomah live in their house. His Learned Eminence drew up a work permit for Niomah and signed it. When Sanuar saw how she clutched at it he got his father to make the paper glow so it would be properly unambiguous. Niomah pinned it to her sleeve so she'd be able to walk home and show it to the police without having to put her hands in her pockets. She snuck a kiss from Sanuar and walked out.
It was a hot night and the water she had on her back was heavy. She took showers at Sanuar's house every morning when she showed up melted in the eastern sunshine and then enjoyed a day in the mage-cooled house; but it was still just as long a walk back and while her family's apartment technically contained a shower it wouldn't improve the situation. (Once her brother's friend's house had burned down and the friend had stayed with them for a night and had tried to use it before anyone was awake and the rash took days to go away. Niomah was not sure if they were still friends.) Gross. Gross and frightened and tired. If she made a sudden movement when she reached the men at the corner would they make her abruptly less gross and frightened and tired or would they make it worse?
She reached the first checkpoint. It was dark; the soldiers had bright lights that hurt her eyes, but her permit glowed and they didn't need to swing them around to read it. They let her by, but not without one of them landing a swat on her rear that made her eyes sting.
Do not try to scratch his eyes out do not scream do not kick him in the balls do not cry do not do not do not just go just go just go -
She didn't manage not to cry, but she went on, their chuckles burning her ears.
The other checkpoints passed without comparable incident. She got home. Her mother almost cried when Niomah handed over the water. "Your brother was fired," she sobbed in Arnysh.
In context - oh, damn, the bakery job, the other way they got water. What were they supposed to do, send the half-blind little one to the fountain to stand in line and walk six blocks, twice a day -? The fired brother would have to look for new jobs and couldn't do it...
"It's okay, I'll carry more tomorrow, I can do it, Mama," Niomah said. If it came down to it Sanuar might get her some kind of cart to put jugs in and who cared if it was conspicuous favor from her boss's son. See what her father cared about Niomah's honor when the soldiers did what they liked anyway, see if he could resent her lost boy when his entire family was going thirsty.
Niomah's mother divided up the water so very very carefully and everyone had their share to drink (some put away for whenever they got home from work) and they had just enough left to make rice that was cooked with the syrupy peaches intended for dessert in it to stretch the liquid.
When Niomah's grandfather hobbled home from the liquor store where he worked, almost an hour late and his cane missing and a bruise on his cheek, he knew what all the fuss was about.
"A couple of our boys from two blocks over tried to break into the place where the plumbing all connects up," he said, eating his peachy rice. "And swap some pipes around. Show the rich people what we live with. But they got caught and the cops killed them both, didn't even arrest them, those boys are dead. Their friends and parents protested at the police station, one of them is dead too now, the rest arrested or beaten - it's gone from there."
Niomah's recently fired brother looked like he was probably going to find a protest to join too with his new free time that he ought to be using to find new work. She didn't like the look on the half-blind little one's face either. They will get tired and find other things to do and leave us alone if we wait she didn't say. They will only stop when they are satisfied we are done stepping out of line. Wait and earn money and save it up and we can get out one day but -
Niomah shivered. Such thoughts from someone who had wondered an hour earlier what it would take to get a soldier to murder her so it wouldn't be her fault. She stayed silent.
Sanuar, do you still have the telegrammer?
Pause. Pause. Yes. Niomah's gone home, it's just me.
We finally got a news dispatch here. They're not telling us everything, but I think a couple of Arnysh kids broke into the plumbing exchange. I don't know enough about plumbing to say if they could've even done anything - you'd think the problem with the ghetto water would be farther downstream than that - The telegrammer cut him off when Ens got that far and she had to start a new message. but then they were caught and the cops thought they saw weapons, I'm not sure if they really did or if they were just tools or something, and killed them.
Ens scowled at the telegrammer. It was not very thorough about communicating emotional tone. She'd have to fill in from knowing Sanuar. Yeah. And now they're focused on making the Arnysh shut up and sit down instead of just fixing their water and apologizing about the kids like they would if it was anyone else.
I think those exchanges don't need mage labor to do basic changes but that doesn't mean I know how.
Could you find out? Tell your father you want to do plumbing with magic if your test comes out positive next time?
Pause. Pause. Ens got up and paced until the telegrammer spit out more tape and then she threw herself back into the chair to read the reply.
I know how to do makeup, Ens said. I could make us pass for Arnysh in bad enough light.
Ens's heart was stammering like a stage-frightened introductory schooler. If we get caught she tapped slowly, and she paused to look over her shoulder, making sure her parents and sister were not in evidence, and we look native we just get sent home and nothing happens. Message break. Water doesn't get fixed, soldiers keep attacking Arnysh people, maybe Niomah.
If we get caught and look Arnysh at first glance they murder a couple of rich Mainlander kids by accident and our parents get up and do something? Sanuar replied.
Yeah. We can leave Niomah all our stuff.
Ens was a terrible person how had she even come up with this idea she was suggesting what amounted to the anemic version of a suicide pact she loved Sanuar and he shouldn't die but he shouldn't be sad either and he was sad sad sad at least Niomah would probably feel better if there was running water in her home and if the authorities would stop hounding her but Ens didn't know what to do for Sanuar besides -
Sanuar studied plumbing.
"Water's not a particularly dignified specialty," his father had said, when asked.
"I'm late-onset - if I am at all -"
"If you are not a mage at all that will be the greatest disappointment of my entire -" Archmage Vayar shook his head. "Well, it's not likely, son, not with both parents -"
"I know. But I'm behind most mages, anyway, and water's easy, right? So I think I might want to take water as my specialty." Sanuar didn't actually have the first clue what he wanted to take as his specialty. He felt kind of bleah about all of them. Water was reputed to be easy, and he could pick up secondaries later. It wasn't like he was committing to giving up something he loved the idea of learning in order to get his hands on a book about plumbing.
Sanuar studied plumbing in between prepping for his second mage test. Not that it really required prepping. His mother seemed inclined to fuss about it.
"We've already found someone whose birthday is half a year from yours to orient your mana," she said.
"That's good," said Sanuar, because she didn't want him to say if I even have any mana.
"And it's the simplest thing, dear, I don't want you to worry a bit."
"I'm not," he said, because he wasn't. That would require a lot of emotional energy, probably. She was worried and he wished she'd stop.
"It's the simplest thing, you'll just go in and hold his hands - it's Ninden, I know you like Ninden."
Sanuar hadn't found himself obliged to hang out with Ninden in weeks. Ninden spent his time on manufacturing mana spots and giving them to all his friends so they'd like him, and occasionally enchanting furniture to maintain a certain level of genteel poverty since his mage mother's accident. "Mm."
"And Ninden won't even be doing a speck of magic, it's really the simplest thing, you'll hold his hands and reach for your mana just like we explained when you tried this when you were little, it will be so easy, Sanuar -"
Nod, nod. It would be easy if it was there at all. Unless it was in fact possible to have mana and not grab it, at seven or seventeen, in which case Sanuar was guaranteed to screw it up, but there was no point depressing his mother with this prediction.
"And then your father says you think you want to do water? We can have some water ready for your mana to imprint on right then. But you have a whole year to pick secondaries, do give those some thought, Sanuar, don't be careless."
If he lived that long.
Sanuar studied plumbing.
The protests didn't stay around Ens's house for very long. People peeled off, exhausted, arrested, too hungry or thirsty to keep going. First they stopped camping out overnight, then they thinned out and disappeared even during the day.
Ens had gotten as far as asking the cook to make a tray of drinks and sandwiches to bring out to the protestors before her father had demanded to know what she thought she was doing. She'd had to listen to a lecture about how those people out there were out-of-control, subhuman, and would hurt her if they saw her out there unprotected, yes, even if she was bringing them food, yes, even if she didn't personally control anything they were protesting about, they would just hate her and want to attack her, animals parasites trash - Ens had to flee to her room and cry when her father let her go. Niomah Niomah Niomah, Sanuar had better survive Ens's stupid stupid plan and marry her because damned if Ens was ever going to make her suffer through the Riawaes as in-laws.
The protests ended. Ens was free to go. Presumably huge numbers of Arnysh people were desiccating slowly in their ghetto but Ens was not the least bit inconvenienced and she caught herself holding her razor in the wrong grip twice and forced herself to put it down, wait, wait, go look Arnysh in the dark at the plumbing exchange and do something halfway useful with your lordly parasitic self -
Ens brought her makeup kit to Sanuar's.
She hid it under the bed. She pretended in front of Niomah that everything was normal. Niomah was not live-in, yet; Sanuar's mother had ultimately said no, they wanted that extra room for guests. So when Niomah left at the end of the day Ens would telegram her parents, ask to stay overnight, tell Sanuar's parents that she had permission whether she did or not. Sit up with Sanuar until dark, work her half-magic half-art on their faces, and go out with him. His house was easier to leave than hers.
They'd leave notes under Sanuar's pillow and Ens fully intended for Sanuar to come back and rip his up and telegram a copy of hers to her house so that it would look like she'd tapped it over herself rather than implicate himself in her death. Stupid plan. Stupid stupid -
Sanuar looked at her expectantly, after Niomah had kissed them goodbye.
And Ens blurted out, "Not yet."
"Why not?" asked Sanuar.
Reasons. Reasons that weren't because I'd rather go home and bleed out in the bath alone. He'd stop her, she was pretty sure, he'd do she didn't know what but something.
"Wait until your mage test," she said. Sanuar's problem was partly lack of direction, wasn't it? If he had mana when they checked again he'd be all set. He could take some predictable job and know exactly what he was doing with his day when he woke up in the morning, and marry Niomah and keep her safe, and forget all about Ens, goodbye Ens, isn't it sad, we were somehow under the impression that she was very attractive and valuable, so alas.
Sanuar put his head in Ens's lap.
"If you say so."
"I do say so." She brushed curls away from his face.
She left her makeup kit under his bed so she wouldn't have to smuggle it again. She stayed overnight in one of the guest rooms - not the one the Vayars were keeping Niomah out of, heartless bastards, give the poor girl someplace to sleep where she can have the basic creature comfort of a glass of water at midnight - and she stayed most of the next day and went home and did not slice her neck open no not yet not yet wait wait wait your plan is stupid wait until they're okay wait wait wait then.
Wait wait wait -
It was almost Sanuar's birthday and he was probably going to be all magical after it and Niomah wanted to get him a lovely present. The fact that she was going to be doing this with the pocket money he slipped her notwithstanding. The trouble was she was going to have to figure out how to do this with the soldiers on her block familiar with the range of times at which she was likely to come home from work, who would want to know where she'd been if she came from a different direction or even fifteen minutes late. This was not enough time to browse and make a purchase, even if she didn't factor in time to be cornered by bullies who wanted to spit on the little Arnysh bitch or police who wanted to supplement the soldiers and question her about what she was doing out of her ghetto and inspect her little glowing note.
In a pleasanter world she could have taken Ens along and they could have gotten Sanuar birthday presents together. That seemed like the most perfectly conventional benefit of a three-straw situation to the point where Niomah wondered why such arrrangements were not more seen in shop advertisements: "Bring one boyfriend along while you both shop for the other!" Of course in a pleasanter world she would not be constantly wearing attention, valid target on her face all of the time and people observing such a message if she did choose to scrawl it on her cheek would not take the bait.
Niomah contemplated her options for being out of her home and able to buy a present. She could leave work early, if she spent less time flirting with her priceless artwork and her lost boy and instead actually cleaned all day. She could arrive late. She had been very punctual so far; would the Learned Sanuar's Parents take it amiss if she were tardy or left sooner than usual? She did not know and could not well inquire of Sanuar himself about the matter of how she might purchase something for him, not if she wanted to be a surprise. She could risk trying to go home later in the evening than normal, hope that the soldiers didn't perceive her as a threat and weren't looking for something to nibble on just for the hell of it in the way they sometimes pawed at her as she went by.
She did not think she could very well wake up earlier than she usually did, not on the kind of sleep afforded by constant agitation on the streets outside. She did often wake up at four in the morning, listening to soldier dogs barking at some hapless person who was confused and senile and wandering, or who had wanted to go to the corner shop for overpriced hard candy to get their saliva flowing, or who tried to go across the street to check on their sick neighbor. But when she woke then it was with a kind of blind hatred for the entire universe that did not seem conducive to loving present-shopping.
She decided to risk the late return to the neighborhood. She could not lose her job. She still had an unemployed brother, still had to bring home water every day (Sanuar had given her a little cart, thank goodness), her grandfather had had to dip into family savings to get a new cane when his had been broken, and her sister-in-law was now pregnant. And it was her lifeline to Sanuar and through Sanuar, Ens. Could not lose the job. She would show up on time, every day, she would leave when she had always left, every day, and she would go past the guards whose names she knew and try to smile at them and hope they didn't shatter her water jugs or slap her or haul her into an alley to "search" her.
Of course this prospect was terrifying, so she kept putting it off.
And then some idiots, presumed Arnysh, blew up the bridge.
Niomah didn't come to work the day before Sanuar's birthday.
Sanuar noticed that she didn't bring up his breakfast; he wandered down to see what was going on. Maybe the cook was ill and Niomah was throwing something together and this was taking a bit longer.
The cook was there and his breakfast was waiting for him on the table. His parents were already eating.
"Where's Niomah?" he asked.
"Who?" asked Sanuar's father.
"The housekeeper," said Sanuar's mother. "I don't know."
"Oh, the housekeeper. The ghetto's sealed up tight. Nobody's going to come out of there for a while," said the Archmage, turning a page in his news dispatch. "Don't worry, whenever they do whatever it is they're doing to pacify the troublemakers she can still have her job. I don't want to have to find someone else, she does fine work."
"...What?" said Sanuar.
"Some Arnysh blew up the bridge. I assume it wasn't Nimah."
"Niomah. She isn't the blowing up bridges sort," said Sanuar.
"So I assumed. But they have to figure out who did blow up the bridge and make sure they're not going to do it again, eh?"
"...Father. Niomah brings home water every day. The water there is undrinkable. If they can't leave what are they going to do?"
The Archmage blinked. Then he laughed. "Well, I guess I know what you're going to do with your mana when you get it tomorrow. I'll take you up to the weather tower! You can make it rain. Very public-minded of you."
"I can't learn to make it rain fast enough for nobody in there to die of thirst! You -" Sanuar's mind spun. "You don't want to have to hire a housekeeper over again, I know you don't either of you do water but you know people who -"
"We know three people who do water, they're all also Archmages," said Mother, "and the Archmages have been strictly enjoined not to interfere with the situation in the ghetto at all. I believe the idea is that they won't hide the terrorists if this will cause them to get too thirsty. It should keep the whole mess short, at any rate. It would be something of a sneaky move to even have you doing it, Sanuar."
"And what if I don't even get mana -"
"You'll get mana," said Father, sipping his coffee. "Mark my words. You'll be a mage this time tomorrow."
"And while I'm trying to learn to control the weather people will die."
"Haven't they heard of boiling water?" wondered Mother. "You'd think they would get around to trying it."
"Sometimes the plumbing doesn't work at all!"
"Really?" she asked with mild interest. "Then they ought to be able to find the terrorists pretty quickly, and then I'm sure they'll let the Arnysh out to their various occupations."
Sanuar stared at her, then quickly averted his eyes and bolted down his breakfast and fled to the telegrammer.
This is Sanuar. Please give the telegrammer to Ens.
"Here," Ens's sister said, leaning into his room with the telegrammer in one hand. "It's for you."
Ens took it. This is Ens. What is it?
The reply was almost immediate, and had short followups; apparently Sanuar was too distressed to send in longer bursts. The ghetto's locked down. Pause. Niomah's inside. Pause. Nobody's allowed to leave. Pause. Even to get water. Pause. Even if I'm a mage -pause- I can't make it rain -pause- not fast enough -pause- we need to go tonight -pause- tonight.
Repetition being the only way to produce emphasis, on a telegrammer.
Ens looked at the message tape.
He read it over again.
Of his various terrible ideas, going and trying to fix the plumbing and, if they failed, at least having a chance of arousing their parents' ire against the soldiers enforcing the lockdown, seemed the least bad.
I'll come over.
This had been her last day to buy Sanuar's present.
Now she couldn't even go to work and rinse the wasteful disgusting sweat off her skin and drink three glasses of water and kiss her lost boy, let alone buy him a present.
There was no bridge to jump off anymore. It wasn't going to require nearly that much will to get herself killed.
Hell, it wouldn't even be her fault.
What Niomah didn't think she could bear was watching her family dry up with her. Her oldest sister had gone without a drink of water at home last night. She worked in a plant nursery and could drink from the hose, though she wasn't allowed to take jugs with her, and she'd let the others have her glassful. Now she was trying not to cry and lose more water.
Hell, her sister-in-law was pregnant. Niomah could not stand to watch a pregnant woman die. Or to watch her body collapse in around the baby because this was not a world fit for babies.
And if Niomah could not even buy her lost boy a birthday present there were no bright things to struggle on for anyway.
She was going to sneak out after dark, she decided. She would tell her family she was going to try to get water, and she would go out through the back door and under the fence, and she would try to get water, but she was also going to come back with something nice for Sanuar if she died trying.
In the meantime she waited in the apartment with everyone else, too hot, too thirsty, too angry, too ragged around the edges.
She would find him something nice and he would tell her she was silly for having tried and she would kiss him and probably think of something very funny to say that she couldn't call to mind from this misery pit at this time.
She tried to act normal. She and Sanuar played board games. She ate dinner with the Vayars and made small talk about the state of their garden (thriving) and the upcoming masquerade ball at which they would next see her parents (thrilling).
She stayed up with Sanuar. They pled special exception to Sanuar's bedtime on the grounds that he would be a mage the next day. (They didn't say "probably".) His Learned Eminence laughed and ruffled Sanuar's hair and let them.
They waited until the Archmage and his wife were fast asleep, and the live-in servants too, and then they turned on all the lights in Sanuar's room, and wrote notes to their parents, which Sanuar went off to hide someplace they wouldn't be found right away even when they were noticed missing - and Ens got to work.
She couldn't make them look really Arnysh in full daylight. She didn't have that much paint. But she could deepen shadows, and gel Sanuar's curls, and wear a hat over her own paler hair, and she could pencil in key features around their eyes and noses and lips and chins and then smooth them out, and then she turned off most of the lights -
"You're sure you're not a mage?" breathed Sanuar.
"Not a bit," said Ens. "Not even worth testing me for late onset. This didn't even take boxed glamers, it's really just painting, I have a lot of practice. You think it'll do?"
"I think so," Sanuar said. "Okay. Let's get out of here."
"Don't touch your eyes," warned Ens. "Most of the rest will stick if you don't rub at it but don't touch your eyes."
"Okay," said Sanuar, and he led her out of the house, tiptoe-careful, and they started the long walk.
Don't die don't die save Niomah let me die but don't you die, Ens thought, following him closely.
"You know," Sanuar pointed out, when they'd been walking for about ten minutes, "you don't have to be along for this. I'm the one who knows plumbing. You already did my face."
"I'm coming," said Ens.
"Why?" Sanuar asked.
"I can be your lookout," she suggested.
Sanuar looked at her over his shoulder - she was mildly impressed with her own work; she could tell it was Sanuar, but the streetlights weren't bright enough to make it clear that it wasn't a mysteriously Arnysh version of Sanuar. "You're sure you want to come?"
"We might die."
"I'll be your lookout."
"Oh - and if I die and you don't please telegram my note to my house, say it's from me, it won't look any different -"
"I know you're coming. Will the makeup be ruined if I kiss you?"
She blinked. "No."
And he kissed her. And they walked the rest of the way holding hands.
She was out!
She was smug. And high on adrenaline. And alive, as opposed to dead. And she still had to figure out how to get back in but that was a separate problem. While most of the Arnysh people in the city lived in the ghetto, this was not the case with all of them; to anyone who did not personally know her family she now looked potentially like the sort of Arnysh who had Made It and lived somewhere the water worked. With the lockdown she actually noticed she was being harrassed less walking the streets looking for a likely place to get a present, because she wasn't, to the casual guesser, one of "those" Arnysh. (Getting water would be harder. Needing water was suspect.)
She had no idea what she wanted to get him.
So she walked, and walked, and stopped at the fountain and drank greedily, and then her musing about whether Sanuar would like a magic book or if that would be too much of a Sanuar's Learned Father kind of gift was abruptly derailed because what were her boyfriends doing there.
That was them. That was how they walked and that was the way they held hands and that was a hat Ens owned. They looked oddly swarthy in the lamplight but she hadn't gotten a good look at them. Had she misidentified them? What were they doing here?
Maybe she was wrong about who it was, but if it was really Ens and Sanuar, out for a moderately illicit midnight walk, she needed Sanuar to take her home and hide her in the garden shed until the lockdown was over, because on closer inspection the hole under the fence had a lot of old buried wire at the bottom. It hadn't made much noise scraping Niomah's belly when she'd squirmed through but it would make a scratching sound if she tried to push water over it in any container she could reasonably get her hands on. She could not get more water to her family without getting caught and killed, but if she could be somewhere else they could split the remaining food in the apartment fewer ways; that would keep them going a little bit.
She went after her boyfriends, but they were both taller than she was and she was used to them slowing down to accommodate her. She kept them in sight but wasn't close enough to call out without attention from bystanders. Why were they out so late? Was this a habit they'd developed without her? If they were going to have a cute midnight walks thing she wanted a different cute thing with each one of them to be fair.
And then they turned the corner and when she followed after they were gone.
There wasn't even anything here. Closed restaurants, houses -
Municipal Plumbing Exchange Facility.
The place was guarded! She walked past, swearing under her breath, lest she loiter looking at the building suspiciously long. How had they disappeared so fast? How was she going to get in after them and tell them not to do stupid things?
Sanuar hadn't realized there would be quite so many guards around the Municipal Plumbing Exchange Facility, but he supposed in retrospect that it made sense. Fortunately, he was expecting that it wasn't very likely he'd survive the night, and had therefore taken the liberty of swiping a few of his father's spell beads in anticipation of never having to hear about his displeasure.
"You didn't tell me you were going to turn us ghostly," Ens said, when he'd pulled her through the wall.
"I didn't know I'd have to. I had them in case we needed them to get in," Sanuar said.
"Do you have more?"
"Not ghost ones," said Sanuar. "But when I was getting these I found what's probably Father's intended birthday present, and I took that, and it'll help with the pipes."
"When did you even do this?"
"When I hid the notes. They're in the bottom of the bag of taro in the kitchen, if you need to get them out without me."
"I will not -"
"Just in case."
"We probably want to go downstairs," Sanuar added.
They went downstairs. And there was an absolutely massive labyrinth of pipes.
"I'm surprised there aren't any guards inside the building," remarked Sanuar.
"Ghost spells are outrageously expensive," said Ens. "Which you'd know if you'd ever had to go into a magic shop, I suppose. Nobody they know to be worried about can afford them."
"Still. I guess I'll get started. You're going to be my lookout?"
"Yeah. What other spells do you have?"
"I have a shouter and a couple of water spells from my early birthday present. That's all."
"Give me the shouter. You might wind up going too far in there for me to yell."
Sanuar gave her the shouter bead and went into the maze.
Stupid boys stupid boys stupid boys. Niomah had circled the block twice. She was sure she'd be recognized by the guards if she did it a third time. Stupid boys, stupid boys.
She could not fight, sneak, or talk her way past the guards; they were alert and there were no quietly overlooked holes under any relevant fences.
...But it was a plumbing facility.
Niomah made a face, but she stalked along looking for sewer grates.
Eventually she found a storm drain. It would not be comfortable, it would not be clean, but it was not bolted down tightly. She made sure no one was looking, and she got the cover off and climbed down the ladder into the dark.
It was pitch black, but she found a wall and shuffled along, relying on her sense of direction and the fact that this did have to lead to the place. (Didn't it?) (If it did why weren't they guarding it? Were they short on guards because they had the ghetto surrounded or did they not think of it or was she wrong and about to take a misstep into a waterfall and float away to the reservoir?) (That was pretty similar to jumping off a bridge. She could deal with that, although she hoped the stupid boys would stop whatever stupid thing they were doing even if she did not personally tell them.)
And eventually there was a flicker of light.
Niomah climbed up another ladder and peered up and through this grate there were a great many pipes.
And her lost boy, peering at them.
"Sanuar!" she hissed.
She startled him so badly that he fell over and clonked his elbow on a pipe. "Niomah?"
"No, the Duchess Mother! Of course it is me, what are you doing!"
"Trying to figure out all these pipes," said Sanuar sheepishly, getting on his hands and knees to undo the clasps holding the grate down and let her out. "Where does this go?"
"Grate in street. How did you get in?"
"Ghost spells -"
Niomah's jaw dropped.
"I stole them from my father, and Ens has a shouter, I didn't have that kind of money lying around -"
"Money is not what I think! Bringing water to ghetto invisible walking through things -"
"Oh! Stupid boys! Where is Ens?"
"She's keeping watch, over there -" Sanuar pointed. "I don't have any more ghost spells, though. We can get out through your grate."
"Yes. And not get my stupid boys killed! And listen to very angry father shouting about ghost spells!"
"...But first I want to try to fix the pipes."
"Yes," grumbled Niomah, "all right, do, fix pipes, smart pipe fixing stupid boy."
"Sorry," mumured Sanuar, putting the grate back over the hole in the ground.
"And! And why are you done up like my uncle!"
"Ens did it. If we got caught and they killed us, uh, our parents would be mad."
"Mad at who!"
"The soldiers and those animal Arnysh making trouble complaining getting nice Gath boys in such a bad trouble," snarled Niomah. "Always blame Arnysh! Grasshoppers eat crops, blame Arnysh! Crowded mall! Blame Arnysh! Always!"
"...We'll wipe it off before we go."
"Yes you will. But fix pipes."
"I'm not totally sure what to do," Sanuar admitted. "I could break a lot of things. I could even fix some of the things I could break. I just don't know how to put them back differently, not without magic."
"Well, too bad it is not tomorrow, then. Could wait here until it is tomorrow?"
"No, I need the stuff they have set up for the test -"
And then Ens's shouter went off.
Niomah shrieked at the top of her lungs.
Sanuar grabbed her by the hand and took off; he didn't really know his way around but his eyes were probably better adjusted to the light and he'd seen some of it on his way inward. He almost yelled Ens's name, then thought better of it and yelled instead, "Artwork?"
"Here!" called Ens. "They saw me!"
Sanuar veered towards her and caught her other hand in his and then turned and ran some more.
"What do we do?" moaned Niomah, panting. "Back down -?"
"Did anyone see you go in it?" Ens asked.
"Don't think so."
"Then y- AUGH -"
Vents opened up and mist poured into the room. Whether this was scheduled or the guards trying to hinder the intruders Sanuar didn't know. Ens coughed; Niomah gasped. Sanuar couldn't see a thing. He had the water spells, but they'd been intended to keep the water in the pipes instead of flooding the basement when he started disconnecting things; he couldn't do anything with the mist that way.
"STOP WHERE YOU ARE AND WAIT FOR APPREHENSION," said a booming voice from nearer the entrance.
Sanuar squeezed his girlfriends' hands.
"Wish it was tomorrow," muttered Niomah.
"It's after midnight," said Ens, rubbing condensation off her watch and squinting at it from up close.
"DO NOT RESIST ARREST," roared the voice, closer, approaching.
"That doesn't help," said Sanuar, "I need to hold hands with someone with a birthday half a year off from mine -"
Niomah was suddenly clenching his hand very tightly. "Mage?"
"They don't have to be, but -"
"Hold my hands."
"Your birthday was two months ago!"
"No it wasn't. Hold my hands."
Sanuar dropped Ens's hand and took Niomah's other one -
It was the easiest thing in the world.
There it was, deep and hiding and just about ready to come out -
And he reached for the water all around them. This, see, he told his mana, look, it's your favorite thing, and the brand new mana, being very impressionable, believed him instantly.
"Did it work?" Ens asked in his ear, her hands on his back. He was still holding tight to Niomah's.
"Yeah," Sanuar breathed.
"Now what?" Ens asked.
Sanuar cleared the mist out of their way and started rushing them through the maze of pipes again. "Now we get out of here."
"Look," said Niomah, as they skidded to a halt at the end of a path and veered left.
"Timrar?" asked Sanuar.
"Street in ghetto. Old fountain on it, doesn't get water any more. Water in that pipe?"
"Not right now," said Sanuar.
"Time to fix it before we run run run?"
Sanuar gathered the mist and clustered it around the guards chasing them thick enough that they'd have trouble breathing if they tried to do anything strenuous. Like run. "Maybe."
He took one of the stolen water spells, and cast it, and wrenched open a likely-looking valve. With the pressure under control he could twist open the Timrar pipe and steal a connector from another empty pipe and eventually -
"There," he said. "I think that's got it."
"STAND DOWN," snarled a frustrated guard.
"Nope," whispered Ens, and they ran back to Niomah's sewer grate and ducked into it, Sanuar remembering to close it behind them.
Niomah led the way and they came up in the street, damp and panting.
Across the street was a man with a dog who didn't look at all interested in reporting them to the police. The place was otherwise deserted.
"We've got to get this makeup off," said Sanuar. "If someone thinks we're Arnysh and we don't leave corpses -"
"Right, right," and Ens reached into her pocket for some kind of debatably magical cleaning cloth and wiped off Sanuar's face and then her own.
"And we must get away from this grate," said Niomah, hauling herself to her feet.
They all went briskly in a random direction, trying to calm down and not look suspicious.
"What," asked Ens, "are you even doing out of the ghetto? If you weren't in it when it locked down why didn't you go to Sanuar's -?"
"Was in," said Niomah. "Snuck out."
"You could have died," breathed Sanuar.
"Oh, who is talking? Would have died in there, no water. Lost boy, hide me in garden shed? Cannot bring water back, it would make noise, no more ghost spells."
"I - of course," said Sanuar. "I can probably get away with it for at least a little while, I don't know how often I'll be able to get away from magic lessons now but there's the garden hose -"
"Good. Maybe fountain in Timrar working, maybe not, better if I am not there eating everyone's rice. And you will be in so much trouble about the spells -"
"Well, yes, but I think he'll be too glad I'm finally a mage to actually strangle me or anything," said Sanuar. "I think I'm going to pretend this didn't happen and just try to look like I'm finding my mana for the first time, when they test me. I'll - ugh, I don't know what I'll say about the spells -"
"Were the ghost spells and shouter near your birthday present?" asked Ens.
"In his kit, yeah."
"So, you went looking for your birthday present and found it and those too and took them intending to put them back to - I don't know, to feel like a real mage? - and went for a walk and dropped them and they got lost," said Ens.
Sanuar made a face. "I have never done anything like that in my life. He will buy it completely. I'm still probably going to be in trouble for the next few weeks, though."
"Rich parents," muttered Niomah.
"Are you going to be in trouble?" Ens asked Niomah.
"They knew I left. Will be angry about worrying, later, but not for leaving."
"And I'm in the clear, unless the guard saw me better than I think he did and can recognize me without the makeup on," said Ens. "Although if Sanuar's in trouble I might not be able to visit."
"I don't think they'll forbid me the telegrammer, anyway," said Sanuar. "I could be wrong."
They turned right twice and headed back for the Vayar house.
"I'm going to learn to make it rain," Sanuar mentioned.
"Good," said Niomah. "Even with the Timrar fountain, if it's there - good. Put jugs and funnels out, plenty to drink."
They walked. They walked. They took the detour around the destroyed bridge.
"Are you still sad?" Ens asked.
"Who?" asked Sanuar.
"...Not right now," Sanuar said slowly.
"Ask when less tired," groaned Niomah.
"...You?" Sanuar asked Ens.
Ens thought about this question.
"I can," he said, "imagine not being sad."
"Good," said Niomah. "Imagine not being sad, all grown up and done with parents being terrible and we will all live in a house and have so much rain and damn damn damn still did not get Sanuar birthday present."
"You were going to get me a birthday present?" asked Sanuar incredulously. "While you were - besieged?"
"Don't know word, don't care, was going to buy present. Still birthday, still time... everything closed now..."
"Please," said Sanuar, "for my birthday, all I want is -"
"You can sign mine when we get back to his house," sighed Ens.
"- is for you to be safe and not dying somewhere because people are terrible," says Sanuar. "The garden shed will do. For my birthday please hide in the garden shed."
"Will. Will also give Ens some balances and sign his present," said Niomah, and then she checked for witnesses and then kissed them both, Sanuar and then Ens, on the cheeks.
Ens put her arm around her and kissed the top of her head.
"Happy birthday, lost boy," murmured Niomah.
Ens imagined living in a house with just the three of them and no sneaking and no wondering if Niomah was thirsty somewhere inaccessible and no hiding her dress in the back of the closet under everything else.
Sanuar was a mage and he could probably fund this by himself, in a year or so, even assuming maximal parental evil.