Sometimes, Tris wondered if a visit to Winding Circle would ever be as simple as sitting graciously down with their teachers, drinking tea and eating cakes, and leaving after two hours full of Gorse’s cooking and general goodwill. Not that she wanted that, especially—but when the four had presented themselves at Discipline each had been snapped up by a teacher. Sandry was showing Lark some Namornese embroidery (“the only good thing about that wretched court,” she had confided in Tris, who was inclined to agree). Rosethorn and Briar were weeding together in something close to silence whilst Evvy provided the chatter; Daja had disappeared off to Frostpine’s forge. Tris herself was walking with Niko.
Gravel Beach was not her favourite place to stroll. It was a very public reminder of the most spectacular way she had lost control of her power, when her mage’s medallion had been a distant dream. Worse, voices and sights flowed into her ears and across her vision; but Niko was restless, and seemed to have chosen this place deliberately.
“Lightsbridge,” she prompted. “What were you going to say?”
“Mmm?” He was distracted, as though he was attempting some small form of magic at the same time. Tris didn’t believe he would be that rude to her; Niklaren Goldeneye had the manners of a cat, true, but they were manners all the same.
“Lightsbridge. The university, Niko.”
“Yes. Yes.” Niko frowned, looked at the rounded stones at his feet, and seemed to come to himself again. “I was only wondering if you’re definitely sure that’s where you want to go.”
“No, Niko, I want to go to the other mage’s university famed for its excellent education,” she responded, close to rolling her eyes. “What other university can hope to match Lightsbridge?” She had visited university after university with him—Tharios’ had a wonderful library, but nothing could match up to the golden idea of Lightsbridge.
He really was distracted, if he couldn’t summon up a dry retort. “I’ve had a letter from a friend of mine—across the Circle Sea—“
He didn’t have a chance to finish what he was saying. The sea broke on the shore and as the tide pulled away it left something broken behind. Tris thought it a dead body at first, and unbidden thoughts of pirates and drowned slaves rose up into her mind. She closed her eyes hard, feeling her heart thud, and swallowed the need to vomit. As she opened them again, Tris forced herself to look harder.
“Feathers?” she croaked. “Is it a puppet or a somesuch?” But who would take a dead bird and sew an approximation of human features where its head and breast ought to be? It looked entirely too real to be human-made, anyway.
She stared at the ugly thing, whose odd feathers trembled as the tide washed in again, and then realised Niko had not answered her. Stealing a glance at him, she was shocked to see his face drained of blood.
“No, Trisana. It’s no puppet. I felt something earlier—a trace of something odd, a strange magic—it’s this. It was only hidden in the sea.”
He waited until the tide had dragged itself out again, took a piece of driftwood, and pulled the creature towards them. Tris resisted the urge to step back a pace, though she did draw her skirts closer towards her and made sure no breeze would blow them close to the dead thing. She turned away for a moment, trying to resist the urge to vomit, but spun back again when she heard the scrape of metal on metal.
“Niko, what kind of animal is that?” she cried. “Was it shot?” Was that an arrowhead making that noise?
“No, it’s…” Niko leant over the creature without appearing to notice the smell emanating from it. Less able to ignore it, Tris grabbed a handkerchief from her belt and pressed it over her long nose.
“It’s?” she prompted, muffled.
“It’s feathers are metal.” Niko paused, then bent further over to retrieve a molted feather. “All dull metal. It seems safe to touch.”
Grimacing, Tris touched the metal feather. The shine on it was dulled by the seawater, though it had not rusted yet. The sides of the feather would not have cut butter.
“How are we to get this to Winding Circle?” was her next question
Daine’s belly heaved again, but she was certain nothing more could come out of it. Morning sickness wasn’t meant to last all day, and it definitely hadn’t been this way when she had been pregnant with Sarralyn or Rikash. And the embryo wasn’t changing shape, so…pregnancy didn’t seem an option.
She didn’t feel fogged, or hot to the touch. Gingerly she sat up, touching her forehead with cool fingers. So what could it be?
A knock at the door, and glad she was dressed, Daine dragged herself up and sloped to the door slowly. Opening it, she was faced with Onua who looked as sick as Daine herself. That pointed to one explanation—one she didn’t much want to think of.
“A flock of them,” Onua confirmed. “A flock of Stormwings, in fact—landed in the courtyard. Ill, Daine. A smaller flock than there should be!” She paused, working to swallow back bile. “They’re asking for you.”
“It must be why we’re so sick,” Daine mumbled as she hugged the closest jacket to hand—one of Numair’s.
“Because of the Stormwings?”
“Their magic—and ours—well, it must be fair messy for them to ask for help.”
“I feel that I should protest at my worktable being used as some kind of—dissection project,” Dedicate Crane observed dryly.
“Then don’t have access to a place where disease is studied,” Rosethorn muttered. Briar and Lark stood slightly in front of her, ostensibly by chance. Everyone else knew better but was too polite to say so.
“It’s not just disease, anyway, though this creature plainly was unwell before it’s death,” Niko put in. “It’s alien magic. Trisana will confirm that.”
No matter how many times he says that, thought Tris, It still makes me proud to hear.
He respects you as a mage, Coppercurls, put in Briar. Get used to it. His words were mitigated by a warm hand on her arm, a brief squeeze, and a smile.
“It’s like varicoloured silk,” put in Sandry, “Like the present from the Yanjingi emperor. Layers upon layers of spells—some are from human mages, I can tell that much, but…”
“Is this going to go on much longer?” Daja suddenly asked. “The metal—my metal. It doesn’t like it.”
“Your hand?” asked a concerned Lark, and then nodded as Daja extended the limb coated with living metal. Parts of her hand were marked pink where the metal had retreated, leaving her skin exposed, tender and raw.
“I am no expert,” Niko remarked, voice dry, “But that doesn’t appear to be normal.”
“I am an expert,” replied Daja, her voice tight with pain, “And it isn’t.” She nodded towards Crane, next to the dead bird with all its blunt metal feathers lying out on the examination table. Steel rested upon clean white cloth, looking like a soldier dead after battle being laid out for his last rites.
“The animal isn’t natural. It could by why your hand is paining you," Rosethorn said as she gently shouldered Briar aside. “There’s no plant matter in it’s belly as far as I can tell. Could Unmagic do this?”
All drew the sign against evil on their chests, but only Sandry shuddered. “No. Unmagic’s about unmaking things. Monstrous as this is, it’s a creation.”
“There are places…places where this thing might have been made. The more experimental universities…” Niko trailed off, smoothing his moustache with his dark eyes clouded. Tris glared at him. So that’s why he was going on about other universities than Lightsbridge!
“More travelling?” Sandry asked, hiding her despair badly. Briar slung an arm around her shoulders.
“We’ll go in disguise, how about that, Your Highness? No clehames. No Viymese.”
“Some Viymese,” put in Daja.
“Actually, they don’t have a particular address for mage. Other than Master.”
“They?” the four chorused.
Niko smoothed his moustache again, looking for all the world like he was preening before delivering an important message, but Lark beat him to it.
“You four should start to learn Tortallan.”