Shimai listened quietly to the high-speed chatter of the web-fingered girl who guided her through the grounds of the College.
She was unsure how she felt about the College policy of, as much as possible, not having two telepaths or two sorcerers sharing a dorm room, leading to Shimai being assigned the other bed in Fala's room upon her arrival here yesterday. She was unsure how she felt about most things, including her own presence here. In her fifteen years, she'd learned first and foremost that trust was perhaps the most dangerous concept of all, especially if you were half siren, and yet it was hard not to like Fala, who was as cheerful and outgoing as... well, as Shimai wasn't.
Because sorcerers stayed much longer at the College, but telepaths were significantly more common, that meant roommates were typically from different years, as well. That, at least, was some comfort: Fala had been here two years already, and knew her way around.
Here at the College, just outside the city of Perifaithe where North and South met, nothing was familiar to Shimai. She'd seen women with their heads covered, Southerner-style, and others who confined their hair in nets, like conventional humans and alasir, or braids, like crossbreeds, and women who left it loose like a Southerner but didn't cover it. Clothing styles similarly ranged from one to another to fuzzy ground between. This garden they were walking in, between two of the College buildings, had small trees that looked stunted compared to the North's lush growth, and stone-walled beds of flowers and herbs, and stone benches were scattered along the walkways; it seemed very Southern, but the concentric layout seemed very Northern, and many of the plants were ones she recognized.
The rhythm of Fala's speech changed abruptly, and she hailed a boy who was strolling along one of the radial paths. “Matt! Come meet Shimai!”
“All right,” the boy said amiably, detouring to join them. He gave Shimai an easygoing smile, offered a hand to clasp, Northerner-fashion. “You're new to the College?”
“Yes,” Shimai said shyly. “I got here yesterday.” His hand was harder than a girl's, and she could feel strength in it; though strength, to her, often equated to threat, he didn't hurt her, only gave her hand a friendly squeeze. At least part alasir, he had to be, with skin that light even in the Southern sun, and hair that black, with that tall lean long-limbed build, but the daytime sun caused him no apparent discomfort so she figured he probably wasn't full alasir. Not so surprising, since crossbreeds so often turned up the strongest gifts.
“It feels strange to everyone at first, but you'll get used to it soon. Teachers will mostly go easy on you for a while, and if any of them don't, we can find someone to help if you need it. My roommate Brylain's starting his second year, and he's a 'path, of course. Before things get hard, they'll stop feeling so confusing.” He spoke the human language perfectly, but there was a distinct and rather pleasant lilt to it, an unfamiliar accent.
“Words of wisdom,” Fala said drily. “I want to hear later what kind of mischief you were up to over the break.”
Matt laughed. “Kian and I caught a stormhawk.”
“Oh, you did not! They don't even exist!”
“Seriously. We saw lightning hit an oak, and once we could see again there was a bird perched in the tree. I made a net and Kian threw it over her. I'll tell you the whole story properly later.”
“You'd better! I'd believe it more if Kian was here to back you up. He's a lot less prone to exaggeration than you are.”
“Every word will be the truth, I promise. Nothing other than what my cousin would say if he were here.”
“Except probably in five times as many words. When did you get here? I didn't see you at dinner last night.” Fala looked up as the clock in the tower at the centre of the College campus rang, deep sonorous bongings. “It's that late? I'm supposed to be in an alasiran language class! Matt, can you...”
“Of course. Go.”
“You can trust Matt, Shimai, I promise. He's crazy but he'd never do anything to hurt you. I'll see you at dinner.” Fala bolted back the way they'd come, her lightweight Southerner-style skirt snapping in the wind of her motion until she gathered it with one hand, a few tendrils of blue-tipped blonde hair escaping its braid unheeded.
“Did they put you in any classes today?” Matt asked.
Shimai shook her head. “Not until tomorrow morning. Other than the orientation this morning.” Being alone with any male, in her experience, was bad; being in a public place with a great many other people around mitigated it only partially. Her inner senses, untrained as they were, picked up nothing from Matt but friendliness and openness, but she stayed wary.
“So Fala was just showing you around? Would you like to continue the tour?”
Shimai hesitated. It would be safer back in her room, but she couldn't hide there all the time she was at the College, could she? “Please. If you have nothing else to do.”
“I don't need to be in the alasiran language class because I grew up in a trilingual household, and after it there's a practical exercise on divination and I get private lessons in most practical exercises because, well, I'm a bit odd magically. They haven't decided yet who's teaching me what this year. So I have time. Odd doesn't mean dangerous, by the way, no matter what you hear. I spent practically my entire first year here learning how to make sure that nothing happens accidentally anymore.”
“I... all right.”
“So, what have you seen so far? Have you been to the library?”
“Expect to spend a lot of time there for the next two or three years. Not as much as sorcerers do, though. Sometimes I think they should just give us all stacked bunks in between the bookshelves. Although then they'd probably only let us out of the building at all for the five-nineday break twice a year, and there are some fellow sorcery students I'd really prefer not to be confined in close quarters with for five years, so I suppose hiking back and forth to the library multiple times a day is worth it. Sometimes it feels like the only exercise we get, too, and no exercise at all would drive me pretty much mad. The library's over this way.” He gestured as the path they were on reached a crossroads.
She realized, long before they reached the library itself, that there was little need for her to add more than occasional responses. Matt kept rambling cheerfully in what was, as far as she could tell, a more or less random thread of shifting topics, filling any potential uncomfortable silences.
The library was in one of the larger buildings.
No, the library was one of the larger buildings.
The whole thing.
She'd never imagined that that many books existed anywhere in the world. Wide-eyed, she gazed at the shelves upon shelves of them as they walked through the rooms. Here, even Matt obviously tried to restrict himself only to immediately relevant information.
“It helps, that sorcerers can copy text,” Matt said. “One page out of a book, say, and one blank page, and then you just reproduce what's on the page of the book onto the blank sheet. The basic trick isn't all that hard, really. They don't start anyone off with anything important, though, which is good because the first few times I got it backwards and actually made the original go blank.” He grinned, completely unfazed by his own mistakes. “It takes some pretty serious concentration to get the result accurate and clear. It's easy with a few words in big regular letters, and a lot harder if you're trying to copy a lot of dense handwriting or a reproduction of a woodcut or something like that. It's a lot faster than copying by hand and, if someone's good at it, a lot less likely for errors to creep in, which is why the College can have so many books, but it still keeps a few sorcerers employed, I bet.”
“Some of us,” a dark boy sitting at one of the many tables and desks, a book open in front of him and two more stacked next to him, said pointedly, “would like to actually have the luxury of reading said books in peace. If you think you can be quiet even briefly, Matt.”
Shimai flushed, but Matt just laughed. “It's too early in the year to be that serious about anything, Hamo. Quit grousing or I won't help with outdoors stuff anymore.”
Hamo rolled his eyes, braced an elbow on the table, and buried his face in his hand. Nothing Shimai picked up suggested real annoyance or real concern, though, only a kind of vague exasperation.
“My cousin Kian,” Matt explained to Shimai, leading her onward, “well, sort of my cousin but on both sides because my mom is his dad's sister and my dad is his mom's brother and we grew up in the same house so he's more like my brother in any way that matters, he spends as much time as he can outside in the woods. He drags me along with him a lot, less now because I'm here but he still does during breaks, so I've picked up a lot about identifying plants and animals and all sorts of other things about nature. Mostly in self-defence, I think. I'm not nearly as happy living rough as Kian is, but it's good to see him happy and to spend time with him. And it's useful, because a lot of classmates come from backgrounds without it, so when we have classes in botany and things like that, I can figure it out fast and then help other people. Telepaths don't get so many of those. I don't actually know why they make us take them, unless it's just part of the overall premise that to influence the world we're supposed to know as much as possible about what we're influencing. Which makes sense, because why do things in complicated ways if knowing exactly the right place to push can make it happen a lot more easily? But it does mean that we get a lot of classes that don't feel very immediately relevant and that frustrates some of my classmates who don't get the fun of learning stuff just for the sake of learning it. So you do know how to read, right?”
He waited with no impatience, guiding her subtly back towards the doors and out into the sunlight, while Shimai caught up with the final question and nodded. “I've been living in a temple for the past few years,” she said quietly. “It was always understood I'd be coming here once I was old enough. They made sure I knew what I'd need.” Life at the temple, which like most honoured the various gods more or less impartially, had meant hard chores along with her lessons, but the priests and priestesses who cared for the temple and its dependents were for the most part kind, if sometimes remote. It had been better than life in her mother's house, with two older siblings and two younger ones who were all clearly human, and her mother and ostensible father who never forgot when they looked at her what unspoken shame of her mother's Shimai's red hair betrayed.
She'd changed her name, from a human one to a siren one, when she'd gone to the temple, and had made no effort to contact her human family since. Nor, in the years at the temple, had she heard of any effort on their part. She'd learned early that she could depend only on herself.
She picked up something that felt oddly like... sympathy? Compassion? Something in that general range, at least. “Well, it's going to help, having some of the basics. Coming here and missing essentials like literacy generally means a lot more work and usually being here longer. I mean, it's generally assumed that any telepath or sorcerer that has graduated can be trusted to have some basic skills. Half the jobs that are typically available to sorcerers and telepaths have less to do with actual sorcery or telepathy than they do with having a decent education. It's really just not fair since there are lots of people out there who could do at least as well at those ones but they never get the chance because the only place to consistently get a more advanced education is here and that's restricted to people who happen to be born with a gift.”
“If those jobs could be filled by just anyone, they'd hire fewer crossbreeds,” Shimai pointed out. “The one big advantage we have is strong gifts.” She bit her lower lip. They kept telling her at the temple that she was too ready to argue, that she should be more accommodating and agreeable. What if she got her roommate's friend angry at her on the very first day?
“Sadly true,” Matt sighed. “Which doesn't help the crossbreeds who didn't get that particular advantage, either. It isn't fair for anyone. Not for crossbreeds who aren't particularly gifted, not for crossbreeds who are because there's a whole collection of issues there, not for fullbloods who never get a chance to show what they can do. Can you imagine how amazing the world would be if everyone, absolutely everyone, no matter their race or their parents' jobs or anything else, got to be exactly who they are and use their abilities as fully as possible? The things that would be invented and created? How happy people would be?”
“I don't think that's very likely to ever happen.”
“I know. But I can wish it could.”
“A lot of the people I know, being exactly who they are would be a terrifying thing for everyone in the vicinity.”
“But how much of that is who they really are, and how much of it is created by pressure and expectations and rules and fear of not living up to any of it? How much of it is from being unhappy with their own place in the world and not being able to see any way out?”
That was an interesting idea. She pondered it, while he pointed out buildings that held classrooms and workrooms and storerooms and administration.
“You might have a point,” she said finally. “About expectations and who people are. Not just living up to them personally, but whether parents and such lived up to their own, too.”
“That too. In all kinds of ways. I know I'm going to have a hard time living up to the standards my parents set, even though my parents don't expect anything from me, because everyone else figures that Alina Jordan's only child with the unique gifts must somehow be able to be superior. Or at least that I think I'm somehow superior. Which I definitely don't. Because of my parents or my rather weird gifts.”
Shimai blinked. “Your mother is Alina Jordan?” Everyone knew that twenty or so years before, Alina Jordan, the runaway daughter of a human Lord, and her future husband Jai, the half-human illegitimate son of a sorcerer from an alasir House, had fought against and defeated a renegade telepath with an artifact that amplified her power enormously. That power had been considerable to begin with: the renegade had been a controller, a telepath with a set of specific abilities that turned up only about once a generation and allowed total domination of other minds to a terrifying degree. That any other telepath, however strong and with whatever support, had been able to fight her and stop her from provoking all-out war between humans and alasir made Alina already the stuff of legend.
He ran a finger along a fine gold chain around his neck, bringing a small pendant into sight from under his shirt. On the disc was a rearing horse, left in exposed gold, with the background enameled blood red. Everyone knew the red and gold horse was the Jordan house badge. “Yes. Which someone would have made sure to tell you soon, so I figured it was better to just get it out in the open now.” He heaved a sigh. “I love my parents and I know they love me but they're tough to live up to sometimes. And my rather weird gifts let me do some things I shouldn't be able to do but they're also extremely inconvenient sometimes. The other thing you're going to hear, very soon, is that I'm not just a sorcerer. I'm also a very low-level telepath.”
“I didn't think that was possible.”
“It isn't, normally. Probably the whole thing with Mom and the controller and the crystal is responsible for that and my weird gifts and I should probably be grateful that I don't have lifewitch gifts too. Other than just a little bit of healing, that is. Which I do have. But the people who think that having all that makes my life any easier are not paying any attention.”
“Extra classes?” she guessed. “Some telepath and lifewitch ones too?”
“To start with, yes. So, anything anyone tells you about me, it may not be all that accurate. Everyone knows Fala and I are good friends, so someone is probably going to try to 'warn' you sooner or later.”
“I know better than to listen to gossip.” She had a very good idea what had been said about her, before she'd gone to the temple.
“Good. Hmm, what else can I show you, I wonder.”
Somehow, he kept finding more places and features to show her, often with stories. One was a tree that looked rather like about a third of it had been torn sideways, splitting it partly from the rest, though it was healed and healthy.
“That's my fault,” Matt admitted. “The first year I was here, I saw a couple of students who'd been here for two or three years harassing a siren-blood. Out of everyone to choose to bully, going after siren-blood just seems really unfair but I suppose it means having a safe target since siren-blood generally are just no good at physical violence. So I stepped in and told them to leave him alone. They weren't very happy about that. One of them threw a basic magical attack at me, straight percussive force, which really would have made a mess if it connected, but somehow just on instinct I deflected it. It hit the tree instead. I got in some trouble for not going to find a teacher instead of getting involved myself, but they got in worse trouble, and the siren was safe, so it all worked out.”
“You put yourself in danger for someone you didn't even know?”
“I didn't really think I was in danger. I'm not all that good at fighting but my parents made sure I can at least defend myself without magic. It's a useful kind of skill for anyone to have but especially crossbreeds. And Kian makes sure I remember it.” He looked up at the clock tower. “Nearly time for dinner, actually. Meal times are a bit strange, with some people awake at night and some during the day so there are actually just meals available four times a day evenly spaced, and you can always get bread and fruit and hard-boiled eggs or cold meat in between. Some of the alasir-blood complain about it but eggs work just fine with alasir biology and they aren't being expected to live just on that or something. The dining hall's that way. Just watch where everyone else is going.”
“I was there this morning and last night, but I don't know where it is from here.” He was right, though: most of the people in sight were drifting or hastening in the same direction. Even from outside, it was obvious that it was more crowded than it had been the previous evening or that morning. Uncomfortably so, in fact.
Matt held out a hand to her; she hesitated, gave him an uncertain look.
“Just so we don't get separated,” he assured her. “I don't want to lose you in the mob.”
Nervously, she slid her hand into his.
The dining hall was large, filled with rows of tables lined by benches, and even more filled with milling bodies in their mid to late teens edging into twenties. Matt was nearly a head taller than her, and what he lacked in physical bulk he managed to make up for in sheer presence: people actually let him by, though sometimes grudgingly, and often with a nod of greeting and sometimes more.
Somehow, he led her directly to Fala, who was sitting at one table across from a gangly brown-haired human boy in a mixture of Southern and Northern garb. Matt steadied Shimai while she stepped over the bench and sat down next to Fala, before letting go and circling around to claim the seat next to the brown-haired boy.
“Safe and sound,” Matt said cheerfully. “Shimai, Brylain, my roommate. And the other way around.”
“Welcome to the College,” Brylain said, with a friendly smile, and passed her the basket of bread. Clearly a staple here were oval rolls of pale wheat bread; they always seemed to be available in abundance.
“Now what was that about a stormhawk?” Fala demanded of Matt. “They're just a story. Aren't they?”
“They absolutely are not,” Matt assured her. “Kian and I were out camping, and a storm blew in. It was the middle of the night, we didn't have a camp set up, so we kept moving hoping to get into a more sheltered spot, but we came to a lake-shore instead, so we must've gotten turned around somehow.”
“Odd for a pair of alasir-blood,” Brylain commented.
“I know, especially with Kian such a good tracker. Anyway, before we could figure out the best thing to do, we saw lightning hit a big old half-dead oak right at the edge. Neither of us could see at first, but once we could, there was the most beautiful bird you've ever seen sitting on one of the few branches the tree still had. Every possible shade of silver and grey, sort of more like a falcon than a hawk, sleeker, but with a longer tail and a crest of feathers, and we saw later that the wings were longer and narrow. Absolutely breathtaking. All we could do for a few heartbeats was just look at her.”
“Most of us, that's all we'd do, at all,” Fala said.
“She wasn't looking at us, she was facing the other way. So I started using material from the front of my tunic, which was the closest thing, to create a net. My aunt Lori wasn't very happy with me, that's Kian's mom, she's a weaver. I gave it to Kian, and he snuck up on her. He can be amazingly quiet when he decides to try. He hunts small game with a bow, and he's very good at it. He got up close to her and threw the net over her.”
“Oh, you didn't,” Fala said, aghast. “You saw something like that and trapped it? Matt, how could you?”
“Actually, she wasn't upset. She just sort of looked at us and said that we'd caught her and what would we like in return for letting her go? I told her the truth, that the only thing I couldn't find any other way of getting was a horse that would be able to compensate when I've been doing a lot of magic. Even the smartest and calmest horses my uncle Rob can breed still can't completely help when its bad. Kian said the only thing he wished he had was a hawk he could communicate with. We'd been talking earlier about hawking as a way of hunting and he thought it would actually be a lot more useful to be able to send a hawk to scout and be able to understand the answers.”
“Oh, it figures,” Brylain said, rolling his eyes. “A question like that, and what do you first think of?”
Matt just flashed him that unabashed grin. “She thought about it for a minute and then said that the only way she could do that was to be horse and hawk herself, with a more-or-less human form so she could talk, because in the shape of a mortal hawk she wouldn't be able to. She said the mortal world is an interesting place and she'd like to see more of it, but could only stay if she was bound by a bargain. So the bargain is, she has three forms, horse and hawk and human, and she can't change between them, Kian or I has to actually touch her and tell her which form to change to. She'll look out for our best interests and act more or less appropriately for each form. Until Kian and I either dissolve the bargain or both die. Her name's Jori. The Assembly doesn't want her around, they think she'd be disruptive, so she's with Kian, but I'll introduce you whenever he drops by to visit. You know he always does.”
“You have a stormhawk,” Fala said. “To be a horse for you. And to scout for Kian as a hawk.”
“Exactly.” Matt accepted a platter handed to him from his far side and held it where the other three could reach while spearing slices of meat for himself with his free hand. “She won't talk about where she's from, other than that apparently it's boring. At least she thinks it is. She's very nice.”
“And you're actually going to force her to keep a bargain like that?”
Matt gave her a wounded look. “Do you really think I'd do that if she hadn't made it extremely clear that she wants to stay here? Or that Kian would? I told her all she has to do if she's unhappy is tell us. She's curious about our world.”
“I can't believe you actually saw a stormhawk and then acted like that!”
Shimai reflected on the improbability of two alasir-blood, who typically had an excellent sense of direction, getting lost and being in the right place at the right time, with a stormhawk who was conveniently sitting there low enough to reach and facing the other way. Possibly she was excessively sceptical, but to her, it sounded like the stormhawk had meant to be captured, quite possibly by Matt and his cousin specifically. Unless all the stories about the stormhawks, who were messengers who acted for several of the gods, were wildly inaccurate, then it almost certainly wasn't with any harm in mind for Matt or his cousin. Maybe the stormhawk really was simply bored.
She listened quietly while Fala and Matt and Brylain caught up on news from outside the College and about events here as well. The food here was better than in the temple, though basic and it seemed to be pretty much the same thing each time with a few options to choose from, no variation between morning or evening—which under the circumstances made sense.
After they finished, Matt and Brylain walked back to the girls' dormitory with Fala and Shimai.
“Can I ask you something?” Shimai finally asked Matt.
“Of course you can.”
“What did you mean about no horse being enough to compensate?”
“Now there's a big question in a few words,” Fala said.
“Ever seen sunlight go through a prism?” Matt asked Shimai.
“I don't think so,” Shimai confessed.
Fala held up one hand, and what looked like a triangular piece of polished glass winked into sight hovering above it. A beam of white light from nowhere struck it, but it came out scattered into multiple colours.
“Oh, like water mist,” Shimai said.
“Like that,” Matt agreed. “Most sorcerers only have a piece of the whole spectrum. They can do, say, magic that falls in the green range. They might have an uncommonly broad range and be able to reach into blue and yellow on either side, but it's limited. Some can get very intense colour like right close to the prism, and some get a more faded and diluted version like farther from it.”
Fala closed her hand, and the illusion vanished.
“Whatever left me with traces of telepathy and the lifewitch gift also removed all the filters. I don't have just one colour or a limited range of colours. To me, magic is the white light before the prism. But everything I try to use magic for only uses one part of the spectrum. So if I do something that falls in the green part, the energy from the blue and yellow on either side bleed through no matter what I do. Which means that when I stop actively using magic, it catches up with me. Feeling intensely cold, from inside, almost always happens. Losing my sight for a while happens a lot too, particularly if I've been doing anything that involves directly looking at magical energy, and it's worse if I'm doing divination or something like that. There are a few others that turn up irregularly. Small things mean it's a bit inconvenient for a little while. Using more magic can put me completely on my knees and no use for anything for hours.”
“We try to help minimize the damage,” Brylain said. “There are a few others who are fairly sympathetic, too. There are also some people who think there's something wrong with Matt, including a few who said in his first year that he should be Blinded for everyone else's safety.”
“To be fair,” Matt said mildly, “there was a period when my gifts were getting strong and I only had very shaky instinctive control, which made being around me rather risky.”
“Your family all survived,” Fala said fiercely. “I survived that year. Blinding's for people who have committed atrocities, not for people born with an atypical gift as a result of their mother saving thousands of lives.”
“Well, yes, and I'm glad they didn't do it. You all have more courage than I think I would have. I just meant that I can understand being nervous then.” He smiled at Shimai. “And there's no reason for anyone else to be nervous anymore, I don't lose control now.”
“The only person who suffers for it is you,” Shimai said quietly.
“Suffer's a pretty strong word. I'm used to it and it's part of me. Both the part about having a ridiculously broad range and the part about paying for it afterwards.”
They stopped outside the main doors of the girls' dormitory.
“If there's anything you need when you start classes,” Brylain said, “telepath-specific stuff I mean, just yell. It's everyone's first day sometime, and some things are confusing, and different things are confusing for everyone. If I can help, I will.”
“Thank you,” Shimai said softly.
“Try not to let them put you on an alasir schedule,” Fala told Matt. “I hardly ever see you when they have you doing classes at night.”
“I think Honora's got some of them,” Matt said. “And she's human, so they'll be day-time. But no matter what, I'll be around. See you tomorrow, at dinner if not before.” He offered Shimai a flower she knew he hadn't had in his hand a moment before, five ruffle-edged petals that she thought she recognized as an evening primrose, of golden-yellow so vivid it almost glowed. “A little sunshine for you, milady, to get you through the night.”
Shyly, she took it, gazed at it in wide-eyed awe and delight. The heart of it shaded to a scarlet not unlike the colour of her hair, and it really did look like a little piece of sunshine cupped in her hand.
“There, and you do know how to smile,” Matt said in satisfaction. “I would never have gotten to sleep otherwise. You're even prettier when you smile, you know. Sweet dreams.” With a casual wave, he turned away, and Brylain fell into step beside him.
Shimai blinked, looked questioningly at Fala.
“He's right,” Fala said, opening the door. “I think that's the first time I've seen you smile, and it's a wonderful thing to see.”
“But... he just finished telling me he can't use magic without paying for it! And he didn't have this before!”
“If you discovered that you were going to have some sort of backlash every time you opened your mind, would you be able to just not use your telepathy at all?”
“Um... I think that would be very hard to do. Like trying to walk around with my eyes voluntarily closed all the time.”
“Exactly. He can't not use it. He's getting better, very slowly, at reducing some of the effects, by focusing more narrowly on the specific energy he needs, but it's a fight for every inch and I seriously doubt that even fifty years from now he'll get it down to nothing at all. And he's better at finding ways to do things that take the least actual magic possible so the consequences are milder. But he can't just stop. All he can do is trust his friends to watch out for him. Which isn't really so hard to do, most of the time, although it can be when it's bad and there's not much you can do that will help. But this is Matt we're talking about, who's absolutely crazy but has a heart the size of the sky. I wouldn't trade him for anyone in the College, weird gift or not.”
Shimai followed her inside and up to their room, her flower cradled in her hands, and wondered why the comment about her being pretty had failed to trigger the apprehension it should have.
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