“It shall not be long.”
The supervision of those on the brink of completing their novitiate—too old to be compliant, too young to be useful—was a thankless task. Glaring up at Dedicate Elmsbrook—no, First Dedicate Elmsbrook, since her old teacher added a new border to her habit sometime over the past three years—Niva did not care. She would be as thankless as ever she might. It was the right response to being treated like a child.
She flinched under the tall, whip-thin woman’s hand, eyes slipping from the pinched, harried face, and then further: safely away from the hand that clenched, tightening the girl’s white habit and streaking it with familiar dirt. Niva scowled at her feet. She felt them shift over ground still damp from the Sap Moon rains. Elmsbrook shook her, lightly, and the wall of the Hub was a looming judgement against her back. Winding Circle rushed around them, unconcerned.
"You can’t tell me you want to go back to the Earth Dormitories.”
“You can’t think I want to share an even smaller space with some group of staring-eyed idiots who can’t tie their own sandals!” Niva felt her face flush. “My magic is fine,” she said, hating that the blood beating at her temples and her cheeks felt ruined, somehow—humiliation leaking into what would have been good, clean anger. “So fine, in fact, that you sent me to—”
“—and perhaps Lightsbridge was not the idea we had hoped.”
Elmsbrook had a soft voice, with air caught all up within it, though Niva had never found it easy to shout her down. “And, girl,” another small shake. “It is your heart that isn’t fine.”
Niva wrenched herself back. She’d knock the woman down if she could. Knock her down and—“Don’t tell me that after three whole years in that blasted place that it wasn’t a good idea.”
Elmsbrook let her hands fall to her sides in tight fists. “Novice Niva,” she said, so quiet that, if the girl had not already known the words the Dedicate was shaping, she would have been forced to lean forward. “If you wish to be Dedicated by Midsummer, you shall go to Discipline.”
“This,” Niko sniffed. “Is dire.”
Paraskeve rolled her eyes while the mage paced the kitchen—her new kitchen, she supposed. It certainly had not been anyone else’s for some time. But with the young Master Goldeye striding through it and hitching his overrobes out of the way of dead insects and dust, the clutter became charming. Even dust and dead insects were charming, when they provoked this sort of outcry. Over the three years she had spent in Winding Circle, Paras had stopped wondering if all the magic and beauty and gratitude in her new world would make her less perverse.
Niko halted beside her, and Paras took a moment admire the rich, charcoal broadcloth of his robe, perfectly complimenting the burgeoning silver in his hair. He had the garment long as she’d known him, but the fibres still felt plush to her, well cared for and content—and as in place upon his body as he, so dressed, had been out of place in Summersea’s Mire. Looking up into his exasperated face, Paras could also see that his new moustache was still coming on in patches. She patted his arm.
“It’s not so bad,” she said. “It’s even pretty.” Her eye was caught by a faint, damp stain on the opposite wall and she smiled, a little crooked. “Or, it could be.”
The man sniffed. “I don’t know what Moonstream was thinking, sending you here.”
“Well, you can’t demand for her to explain herself unless you’re a committee,” Paras murmured.
Niko’s answering smile was faint. “We could team up?” He eyed the table in the centre of the room critically, resting his hand upon it only to groan, remembering the dust.
“Niko,” said Paraskeve. “You are far too busy to follow one Novice around, lamenting the furniture.”
He swallowed. “You, Paras, are not merely ‘one novice’,” he said, after a long pause that he had apparently spent examining the stain on the wall. It looked as if it might, with the right encouragement, ooze. “You’re— ”
“—You like to keep track of your visions.” Paras kissed his cheek, feeling her own bright linen habit rustle down her back and arms. “But you did find me, and I am being taught, and I haven’t made anyone’s clothing disintegrate in over a year, and—”
“—and you are perfectly fine, Good Novice. As you wish.” Niko grinned at her. “I just don’t understand why you’ve been sent here.” He eyed her, then, and reached out to tuck one spiral of dark curls neatly behind her ear. “And I believe at least one of the...incidents with clothing was deliberate. At least according to Brightfinch.”
“She didn’t believe I could do it,” Paras answered simply. “Not Brightfinch—”
“—though she was the one to catch us.”
As Niklaren Goldeye left the dilapidated structure of damp stone and rotting thatch that made Discipline Cottage, Paras was laughing.
Isas smelled of indigo. The dye did nothing so base as to stain his long, fine hands, but the scent of it hung about in an acrid cloud, as familiar to Niva as the air in her own lungs. That air caught, now, and she glared at him as she coughed.
“Choking to see me, clearly.”
His voice had not changed. Of course, it would not change, not in the few months they had been back in Winding Circle, and not in any of the years she had known him, since his voice had first broken from starling shrill into the light baritone that could not, sometimes, avoid warmth. It would not change now, just because she hated him.
She had always hated him. And that was not the point.
He was staring at her. “You really do look dreadful,” he said, and there was a change in his voice, this time. But it was familiar pattern-magic to her: his vowels stripped and slightly raw with the day’s bundle of shocks. Today’s shock, apparently, was her just face. “I never noticed.”
About to shout at him for the unobservant, overfed pup that he was, Niva caught her breath. He was shaking his head, now, and dark, fine hair was failing into his eyes, but she could also see that he was smiling, just a little. He had no right to laugh at himself, she thought savagely. It made her laugh, and then everything was all over.
She shrugged, looking away from him. “You were busy Lording it and coming second to me in Botany,” she said, only a little strangled.
“There is no shame in taking advantage of one’s connections—”
“—when one has no shame.” Niva did laugh, then, at his outraged squawk, and it felt good, even if she did have to talk to him. “Was it really second?” she added wickedly. “I’m sure you managed to drop a third...”
Isas sighed. “You mustn’t be all that bad if you’re tormenting me,” he said, with some loftiness. “Though you won’t see me stopping your exile.”
“Oh, you know about that, do you?” Niva stepped back from him. The light was shifting, angling their shadows sharply out to the side. Scuffing one foot in the dirt, she made sure to keep her own entirely free from his.
“It added sweetness to my tea this morning,” he said. “But I don’t quite understand, Niva. We both came back. We both, with—ahem—some minor discrepancies, achieved the same result. We are...” he shrugged. “Excellent.”
Niva, looking at him, knew her friend believed every word he said, just as he always did. It made her shake him. That, and the small noise of protest that had nothing to do with surprise or invaded space, and everything to do with the state of his white clothes. She shook him, and felt how thin and small her fingers were, and how Isas noticed nothing because he was distracted by the closeness of her mouth. He kissed her, hard and brief. She pulled away.
Grinning, she wiped her mouth on the back of her hand.
“Isas,” she said. “I would torment you from Death’s garden, itself. That’s the first thing.” She held her fingers out in a counting position, while Isas flushed, mottled and dark under his fine-grained but sallow skin. “The second is that while two people went into Karang, only one-and-a-half came back out.”
He was still staring after her as she turned her back on him, and kept to Winding Circle’s northern road.
The first thing Niva noticed about Discipline was that it was a mouldering hovel. With oversprouted barley doing nothing useful out one side, and bedraggled nasturtiums overflowing their beds and twining in sharp-scented abundance with mint and oregano, she wasn’t sure if the chaos excited her or simply made her teeth ache. Her words to Isas spun in her head, sharp-edged and melodramatic. They made her face burn. If Elmsbrook heard such things, she’d be sent to somewhere soft and restrained in the Water Temple, with soothing fountains, rather than simply here. Foolishness, all of it.
The second thing Niva noticed about Discipline Cottage, mouldering hovel, was that a girl was doing a handstand on the roof.
Paras had come down breathless and laughing when she heard the yells. They were sharp, but also held a bewildered note that made the girl grin as she pulled a fresh habit on over her sweat dampened shirt and old, dancer’s leggings. She came down, expecting, perhaps, a horrified Dedicate, sure that the roof would cave in. Perhaps one of the more serious-minded Fire or Water types, intent on pressing the gravity of contemplative life upon her ragged self.
The Novice in the garden had hands caught in fists and nasturtiums rioting around her ankles, full of sunset orange and yaskedasu-gold. They bloomed, though Paras knew they had already been wilting, and her eyes were fierce and narrow beneath the wide brim of a straw hat. Paras saw glints of red off her eyelashes that made her wonder, briefly, at the shade of the hair beneath it. Her white habit was streaked with dirt to the knee, and she was possibly—despite Para’s years with acrobats and many months in slums—one of the thinnest girls Paraskeve had ever seen.
This temple girl was worrisome, with collarbones that were not, she suspected, generally meant to be seen, not the way some bodies’ bones were. She was thin and peaky and glaring at her fit to set something on fire.
Paras held out both hands.
“I’m not sure that we’ve met. Did I startle you up there? Novice Paraskeve.”
“You live here?”
Her voice brought Paras back to a season of rain, her father swallowing flames and swords and walking sticks in the market squares of Anderran. “Yes,” she said. “I haven’t, long. I’m supposed to remake the place.” She smiled wryly, turning a little to nod at the seeping structure behind her. “Or do my best.”
The girl snorted.
“Yes. Well. I have some time.” Paras considered her, taking in the bruised eyes not quite hidden by her irritated expression, and the fine, white lines that anger made around her full, pretty mouth. “I have also requisitioned a kettle,” she ventured. “There can be tea.”
“There’d best be.” The stranger-Novice removed her hat, Paras nodding to herself as deep chestnut hair that picked up a day’s surfeit of red and gold, stuck up in short, messed waves over her head. She held the hat firmly under one arm, and kept the other defensively raised at the level of her chest. “I am supposed to live here. And tea might be the only thing to keep this liveable.”