Niklaren - Niko really, since he hadn’t been able to make Goldeye stick - spent his twenty-first birthday blindfolded and bumping into things, and mourning his friend Pippa. With his eyes open, lashes crushed against the blindfold, he still saw flashes of visions, brightness and color disproportionate to the light that filtered through Lark’s soft weaving. The blindfold was to remind him that he couldn’t see, that everything he still glimpsed was a mirage, vít.
They were only guessing at the treatment, and it hadn’t worked for Pippa, but by his birthday, Niko was no longer getting visions with his eyes closed, the terrible day-dreams that had haunted him all the way to Winding Circle. He’d developed a slow, shuffling walk, kicking out first to see - ha - if anything was in his way. And he had started to listen more, remembering his visions never came with sound. And he had time to think, because Winding Circle was very quiet.
The week after his birthday he told Rosethorn at dinner (Rosethorn, to whom he would always be grateful for the simplicity of her treatment) that he was thinking of traveling, once they agreed he was ready to take the blindfold off.
“I’ll break off my studies,” he said. “I don’t think I really ought to be learning more, after what I’ve done to myself with knowledge already. I’ll just… travel for a while. See the world. For real, I mean.”
He was talking because Lark and Rosethorn were not. When he faded out, the silence remained, leaving Niko wondering if he should have used the technical term after all: qar, vision in person, without magic. In the silence he studied his blindfold: red, light-woven and silky, and he closed his eyes against a vision beginning to form in that haze.
“You didn’t show him?” Lark asked.
“No sense in showing him anything when he can’t see.”
“Rosethorn.” Lark got up and left the room. Niko, bemused, applied himself to his dinner, pushing peas around with his spoon, reflecting that every meal was a surprise these days.
He heard Lark come back only seconds before she took his hand and put a disk of metal into it. “Here you go. I think this is the shortest way to let you know.”
Niko let go of his spoon and explored the circle with both hands. Light and cold and with a raised pattern - someone had worked hard on this. He traced the pattern softly with one finger, two long arcs intersecting at the ends, a circle between them -
“This is pity,” said Niko in disgust, dropping the mage medallion on the table.
“Yes,” said Rosethorn. “They expected you to be inhumed by now. The question is, what are you going to do about it?”
It took Niko a moment to answer, sorting through anger and self-pity and renewed grief. “I’ll return it. I’ll turn it down. I didn’t earn this.”
“Really,” said Rosethorn. “And what comes after that? At some point you return to get your accreditation, show them your mastery of vision magic by - looking into the past, perhaps? A feat you do by accident now. And that makes you worthy, where merely failing to die did not.”
“And what is my alternative? Accepting a medallion out of pity, because I didn’t happen to die?”
“Or you take this and you use it to make them proud to claim you,” said Rosethorn.
“Eat your peas,” Lark added. “You don’t have to decide now.”
“And if you want a graduation that means something,” said Rosethorn, “I think you’re good enough with that blindfold to start washing dishes.”
A week later, while Niko was helping her in her workshop, Lark suggested he try taking the blindfold off, at least for short intervals. Niko refused.
“I can open my eyes inside the blindfold, you know. I still get visions.” They were worse visions, too, all the shades of a battlefield hidden in silk, as if to punish him for trying to avoid them.
He felt the tension in the yarn Lark was winding off his fingers drop for a moment as, presumably, her hands stilled; and then picked up again. He tried to help out where he could outside of chores, attempting to shore up some support against the chasm of debt he was building as they helped him. He would never find something valuable enough to repay this healing.
“We don’t know if the visions will ever taper off,” she said carefully. “This was never supposed to be a permanent solution. The idea is to teach you anchors so that you know what is real.”
“If you want to be voluntarily blind for the rest of your life, that is your choice,” said Lark, and hesitated herself; she was not Rosethorn. She meant it when she offered this as a choice. “But I would not grant a medallion to someone who made that choice.”
“It’s not only that they aren’t real,” said Niko, aware that he was explaining basics to a great mage, aware that he was whining. “Some of them are, or will be, or might be. Some of them are horrible.”
“Life is horrible,” said Lark gently. The yarn tugged softly against Niko’s hands, loosing another turn into Lark’s hands. “If you do travel, you will come to know that. The slums of Sotat, the castes of Khapik, the violence and piracy everywhere - life is horrible. It’s your choice what you do about that, with whatever power you are given.”
“Like hide away from it in a pleasant little temple?” Niko jibed, and bit his tongue.
“Or dancing to bring joy to those who have nothing else,” said Lark evenly. “Do you think you, with all your vision magic, know better than I do what to do with my powers?”
“I didn’t mean it -“
“Not to me. You might to someone else. So remember that the horrors of the world do not require us to break ourselves against them. They don’t require anything of us - which is itself a horror, and a gift.”
She lifted the last of the yarn off Niko’s fingers. He dropped his hands and shook them, flicking the fingers. Then he raised his hands to the blindfold, and pushed it tentatively up onto his brow.
Lark smiled at him. The smile brought out lines in her face that it had deepened by its practice, and lit warm tones in her gold-tinged skin. She was beautiful, and nothing like Niko had imagined, and everything like her voice; and every inch of her glistened with magic, orderly and tight-woven like it was fresh off a loom. Pippa had looked like that, thick with ordered magic, and Niko’s heart lurched, and he looked away.
The yarn she had taken was loosely coiled on the floor between them, a plain, undyed assortment of off-white. Niko compared it to the depth of color and subtle pattern in Lark’s green dedicates’ robe and came up with only questions.
“Sometimes the work of a great mage is knitting ugly sweaters for the poor, that won’t get stolen and can’t be sold,” said Lark. “Very rarely does one thunder from the mountaintops.”
There was a blurring in Niko’s eyes, a rearrangement of the colors into new buds on a highland tree, moors stretching out around it yellow-brown with winter. He could see forever on this plateau, the landscape occasionally dotted with sheep, the sun beginning to sink down within a handspan of the grass sea’s horizon. He rested his hands on his knees and breathed, drinking the beauty in - and the silence. He blinked and it was gone.
Children with strange faces ran through a foreign city. He couldn’t get his bearings, even to say what country he was in, or if the buildings were the same when he looked back at them. Were the children happy? Someone was chasing them, and he could see one nearby laughing, reaching out to tag the one in front of him, but there was a knife in his hand and blood flew into Niko’s face -
He tugged the blindfold down, and scrunched his eyes closed. There was nothing on his face but silk.
Lark said nothing, and settled a new hank of wool onto Niko’s outstretched hands. He couldn’t touch anything in visions either.
“Better than before,” he said, took a deep breath, and swallowed. “Not as good as next time.”
He spent the next month peeking at the world from underneath his blindfold. He learned rules: there was usually some connection between what he saw in the real world and what he saw in visions, as if he were peeking into the consciousness of an omnipresent being - sometimes color, sometimes theme, sometimes an unsettling connection to his own thoughts. He learned tricks: sometimes a wink, a blink, even a squint might clear the vision; sometimes, by expending his own magic (at an alarming rate) he could hold on to one scene. Maybe because of the visions, his magic mostly lay in him weak as a kitten.
He switched to a black headband because, when he wasn’t sneaking peeks of the real world, it mostly showed him scenes at night. They weren’t any more peaceful than the others, but he could tell when the light suddenly changed. He took to wearing more black just in case. He was mourning Pippa anyway.
His family wrote him letters, asking if he was all right, asking when he was coming home, asking when he would be useful to them again. Niko assumed the questions, anyway; he let the letters pile up in a corner of his room in Discipline, unread and unanswered.
He meditated a lot. A lot . If he wasn’t asleep he was meditating, cultivating a half-dazed, aloof mindset that he wanted to call serenity, but it scared him as much as it helped. He wanted to cry when he saw the remains of a battlefield, not calmly test whether the squint of a smile would make it disappear.
Pippa would have had more ideas. She would have worked him harder. She should have worked harder herself! She’d left him here alone, where Lark gave him space and Rosethorn gave him a blindfold and told him to work it out himself, where neither said anything when the blindfold was wet and stained with tears.
He prayed for her, when he wasn’t meditation, or doing Rosethorn’s chores. He was lost in a sea of temples, as well; Shurri would do nothing for Pippa’s soul, and so he asked every god he could think of for their mercy, bargained desperately with them: I will do that for myself, if you will let her rest. I will do your will, if you will let her rest. I will live, if you will let her rest. He was the one who had pushed her into this. He would have given anything for her second chance. The gods, and the world, had given that only to him.
So he spent the summer meditating, and praying, and spending longer intervals looking at the world for as long as he could bear, like some apprentice learning to qar instead of to scry, turning exhausted from the true sight of the world. Turning the medallion over in his hand, wondering what to do with it, wondering what to do with himself, putting it back in its drawer. Some time that winter he made a decision, and the medallion stayed in its drawer.
The vít, the rabid visions, did decrease in frequency over the season. He liked to think that it was from all the time since the experiment, that the effects were slackening, or his body healing, but it could have been the weather or anything else. It wasn’t the tools and practices he was developing; those might clear a vision, but they did nothing to stave off the next one.
By fall he was squinting, blinking, tossing his head - but only wearing the blindfold for a few hours a day. And some of the twitching was an old habit, reacting to the magics he saw all over Winding Circle, or to the flash of someone lying. Not vít or even scrywork, but only enhanced qar; he was glad to have that ability back, even if it too was unpredictable now. If ever there were a way to earn money from vision magic, it was in the courts - and thence came Niko’s devotion to Shurri Firesword.
He was part way through enchanting a bowl to aid in his truthsaying the night he came down to dinner wearing the medallion. It barely stood out from the depths of black cloth that Niko had taken to wearing, but both Lark and Rosethorn noticed it immediately - and said nothing. The tension built as he waited for them to ask until, at last, he broke it.
“I didn’t die,” he said. “I’m not going to. I’m going to travel, and I’m going to travel as a mage. I’m going to make these visions work for me. I can make them last. I have some ideas for how to direct them. If they keep slacking off, I’ll start having more magic left over for other things. I can -”
“Hm,” said Rosethorn, stopping him at last.
“Where are you going to travel to?” Lark asked, and all Niko’s preparations were washed away by a question he had not considered.
“I’m waiting for the right vision. Something to tell me where I need to go. Not all this - nonsense.” He gestured vaguely at his eyes, embarrassed to use the word even if they knew it.
“Something grand and glorious?” Lark asked. Niko met her eyes.
“Someone in trouble,” he said. He didn’t tell her it was about penance for Pippa, or about how he hardly batted an eye at fields of slaughter anymore.
“You ought to know,” said Rosethorn, “that you’re about up to the power of your average academic hedgewitch.”
Strong as a hedgewitch when he was still drained from constant vít, sleeplessness, and working on an enchantment. Niko said, “I know I’m stronger than most mages.”
“Just don’t be an ass about it.”
And that was the end of the interview. They had dinner. Niko waited for the right vision, and continued to wait, for clarity of sight and spring storms. He helped Rosethorn till her garden, and Lark set up her loom. And he waited.
It came after he was dreaming of Rosethorn, the sort of dream a boy couldn’t help having every now and again. He woke in a start and sat bolt upright, sweat pouring off his shoulders. Slowly, his eyes adjusted and he remembered it was just a dream - a horrible, embarrassing dream, but ephemeral as the moonlight that shone on the floor from the crack -
That wasn’t the floor; it was waist high. And it was not a crack in the window or the door but a thin gleam of braided light, red and green and grey wrapping around each other. Niko traced it first one way, to a barrel, and then the other, wanting to know how it was done - and found an unbelievably small girl, looking terrified, her fingers fumbling against the strings, with only a centimeter left unlit in her hands.
“Please,” he saw her mouth, as the last fibers passed through her fingers, and, “No, no, no -“
The light went out. Niko woke screaming, not sure if he had been asleep or not, but this time he saw moonlight pooled on the floor.
Really, battlefields and slums and this is what you panic about? he asked himself. His heart was still hammering, adrenaline in his blood demanding that he do something.
And why not? he thought suddenly. Why not try to find this girl? He had said he wanted to travel, and to control his vision. If he could bend his sight to finding this girl, bring her obvious thread magic to Lark - wouldn’t that satisfy his ambitions and pay Lark and Rosethorn both for his care?
He’d start in the morning, first thing, he thought, and rolled over.
After another sleepless moment, he got up and started working.