One month later
"Bihan," said Paraskeve. "Early morning, in the south, usually taken with soy."
Niva groaned as Paras let the dark leaves crumble between her fingers and settle back in its wooden box. Light caught her face as she smiled, and the warm, brown skin was almost the same shade as the varnish stained her tea-chest. Niva laid her head on the table she had spent a week scrubbing, and let herself enjoy its trapped midday heat. She could hear Paras still fossicking through her tea supplies. All unlabelled. Niva had never needed such things.
Neither, it seemed, did Paras. "Ah! Smoked Narmornese. Not Dancruan, I think. They prefer a lot more cherry. This is—"
"Applewood, Kuanling half-furled, dried mint. And close to the border." Niva mumbled, not looking up. "Rather vile, actually. But it gives good dreams."
"I remember." The sound of tea-leaves against the girl's fingertips was not so different, Niva thought, to autumn. Crunching sounds and fragrance, all in miniature.
Paras's voice was distant. "A friend of my papa liked it, and we were sure to bring some back with us on the Namorn tour. And one of my neighbours..."
Niva looked up as Paras shrugged, lips pinching. "A neighbour. From the Yanjing side of the border, in her youth. She hoarded it."
Niva cleared her throat, hauling a smile into her voice. "Well," she said, standing and picking her way to the kitchen bench she had watched, with no little awe, Paras construct from ancient and usually intractable pine. "You're good with tea. Isas and I used to make a game out of it—tea, dyes, perfumes. We'd pick them apart and guess the ingredients. You'd certainly beat him." She began sorting through a few more of her stores. "And I don't think either of us would put geography to it."
Paras laughed, though whether it was in pleasure—or simply in response to Niva's awkward attempts at small talk—Niva could not be sure. "It's because of that large and sprawling life I've had," she said, teasing and low and entirely too knowing. "It fascinates you so."
"Oh, it does not—Paras, stop that!"
There was true laugher now, bouncing off the still-damp walls exposed roof beams and carnage of the cottage's reconstruction. Niva scowled into the sink.
"Well, fine," she snapped. "But you—you are more interesting than the rest of the flibbertigibbets I've seen of thread mages. All fey Water Temple types, embroidering before they could talk and even then just saying shiny, floating things. You didn't even..." Niva swallowed. "You've known about ambient magic—how long, two years?"
"Three years." Turning, Niva found she was grinning at the dark-eyed woman, who was regarding her with polite interest, head tilted to the side. Niva looked away. "It's a little bit frightening," she said, dry. "The idea that you were out there, just...living, and Niklaren Goldeye come and—"
"—you just want to hear about a famous mage."
Niva blushed. She sounded like Isas. Gaping and batting her eyes over famous names. Hoping for the mere chance of talking with such a figure at the university—to brush their sleeve and feel glory on his fingers, mixed in with all the lint. "He is famous! I never met him."
The teasing again. "He's visiting—"
"—I am not chasing after anyone. Much less a man who could see me doing it a week before I dared!" Shaking her head, Niva took a pinch from one her jars, letting it scatter over her work in a larger, ceramic bowl in cedar green.
"He's just Niko," said Paras. "As you are just Niva, and your Isas is simply—"
"—he is not my—"
"He's surely more than the Poisoner's Assistant of Lightsbridge."
Niva went very still as Paraskeve came to her feet. The scrape of her chair was harsh against their new floor. "You are more than that, and so is he, is he not? But you also have stories."
"Not one word." The smaller girl's voice was a rough squeak. Niva did not recognise herself. Felt her breath catch and blood turn cold and slow inside her. Paras did not step closer, but Niva's hearing was sharper, somehow, than when she had woken that morning. Sharp enough to hear the rise and fall of the other's breath, cloth rustling as it fell about her from its sitting folds.
"The problem with stories," Paras said, the words soft and earnest and a shout in Niva's new silence, "Is that they can be wrong, sometimes. Forgive me. I've heard it used as an affectionate name—"
"—from people who should know better."
The silence left as quick as it came, and Niva's shoulders slumped. She stared down at her hands. They were small as ever, square-fingered, and dusted with tea leaves.
Abruptly, she stepped aside. "Here," she said, still not looking at her. "See if you can guess this one."
Paras brushed past her, light, her face strained. But her eyes were wide as she bent forward over Niva's bowl, breathing deep. "Cinnamon, rose—"
"—No, rosehip. Deeper than petals. Rosehip, hyssop, orange peel. Honeybush tea. And," she swallowed. "Poppy. Just a little. So don't take it in the morning unless you're truly breathless." Niva felt a little breathless herself, watching as Para's back stiffened, just briefly, before she turned, and smiled.
"Where's it from, Niva? I can't tell."
"It's from here." She sniffed. "Just here. For you. I was experimenting. No need to cry over it."
Paras beamed. "Never that." She clapped together, the sound sharp and precise in the room's crowded air. "I think we're starting on the outside walls today? Help me, and I'll tell you a story you shall know is true."
"Listen. You may have had more of the large and sprawling sky than is good for anybody," Niva said, letting the words feel good in her mouth. "But I've been whitewashing walls since I could close my hand around a brush. You, little bird, need me."
It had taken Niva less than a month to learn that Paraskeve was one of those rare people it was impossible to hate.
The sky had not felt large to Paraskeve. She was out of poppy. Almost out of the willowbark, and her last tisane, despite the laws, had been cut with weeds.
("Hah. No one would—the the penalties alone—"
The sky was grey, that Longnight, and loaded with Summersea ice. Those crowding with her in the Ducal Square, however, could not be cold. There were too many of them, and a single excitement joined their heart beats into a single, echoing chant that shouted through their skin and seized their lungs. The dancer was coming. To them, to dance for them—she who had danced in nothing but pearls and adulation for the Emperor of Yanjing—
("Must have been a bit cold!")
—she who had worn an orchid in her hair for the Empress of Namorn, and sworn to dance solely for her, until it died.
("—Best week-to-ten-days or the worst, do you th—"
Yazmín Hebet, dancer of all the best days, was there for them. And Paras stood at the back, straining to see, to hide, to split into two places at once. Her heart, as the music began and the crowd heaved and gasped, seemed to skitter and jump out of line with the rest. Too fast, and a sharp force to close her eyes, though she did need them to see this woman.
Paras knew her every step from the crowd's shifting, fragile colours of awe and joy. She knew what outstretched palm came with that sort of gasp, and which cry pre-empted a leap that her small, hard body should never hold, except that it always did. The music was the Kalisphoi: Tharian drums and wailing strings keeping spare about her, never quite wrapping her form. Between backs and shoulders, Paras caught fingertips, a hennaed foot, matching the rust of her hair that brightened to blood under the new lights.
She was there. She was there, and her steps shook through two stages. There was one of fast-assembled board, and the other, which lay behind a theatre in Aliput, all dust that took to sweat and dyed their clothes to match the desert. Yazmín had danced there alone, head thrown back and eyes closed, while Paras watched, heart in her mouth.
Paras remembered the stained practise costume. The particular Tharian weave they had all embraced, due to the heat. One raucous rehearsal, she discovered it took a single pull of a single thread for the once-white fabric to unravel, and Yazmín had laughed in delight while fabric dissolved against her skin. Her heart beat to the second stage, while Summersea watched the first.
The music stopped. Only for a second, but that lapse of time means the life and death of some measures, and the crowd shifted awkwardly around her, breaking apart only to be held together by the tiny space. Words could be picked out from the mess of it.
"Look at her! She's—Omnini bless she's –"
"—yeah, just look. Right? It's all falling—"
"—Lakik's smiling teeth, she hasn't anything on."
(You're just making this up!"
"Oh, yes. The words, at least. I fainted around then.
"You did what?"
"Fainted. Not at her naked glory or anything similar, Mila bless. That, I had seen before, and she would have kept on dancing, and been beautiful at it. I fainted because my heart was going to fast, which was all the fault of foxglove for the wheezes, and...")
When Paras woke, she was no longer a crowd. She blinked up at a man who had her leaning rather awkwardly against him on a stone bench, the rest of the city flowing around them like rather stained water. He was dressed in soft grey silks and staring at her with eyes the black of sloe berries as he told her impossible things.
"You fainted, Paraskeve, because you performed a work of magic."
"What?" She would call the Watch on him. Useless as it probably was, she would call the Watch on him and at least try to move out of his grasp. Once her head stopped spinning.
His tone was very dry, though she thought she saw him blush. "Every stitch simply fell off her. And I'm Niklaren Goldeye."
Niva could not help laughing, as she stood back and surveyed their work, well timed to the end of Paras's ludicrous tale. Whitewash gleamed, and Paras had streaks of it up her arms and across her face, and all down her robes. Her expression was as solemn as Niva had ever seen it—and Niva had found, in these few months, it that it was difficult to look away from this woman's face—but her eyes sparkled like rain in sunlight.
"If you want to not faint like some maiden," she said. "Make sure you take essence of foxglove with a Healer watching over you. Particularly if you're going to magic people out of their clothes."
Paras only laughed, and Niva flinched in surprise as long, slim arms went about her and she felt soft lips against her cheek.