The Seer – Snippet 52

The long lives of mages and the etherics they handled meant complex, tangled relationships, rarely based on anything as simple as affection. Gallelon was as close as she had to a friend among her kind. He was another sort of sanctuary, though necessarily a brief one; it did not take many months for the two of them to reach the limits of their tolerance for each other.

On their last morning as they lay together, her head nestled on his arm, she ran her dark fingers across his pale body, wondering at his body’s ancestry and how he came to have the hint of ginger in the hair on his chest.

“Where do you go next, Marisel?” he had asked her.

“Home, perhaps.”

“You should consider the capital. Yarpin would do you good.”

“Do you jest? What a foul place.”

He chuckled. “Excellent cuisine. Splendid wines. Passable ale. Some of the cleverest of the Iliban. Also some extraordinary collections.”

Of books, he meant, knowing her weakness.

He was right about the food. The last time she had eaten in Yarpin, the chef had worked mightily to impress his Perripin guest. Fish from the ocean, goat from the high hills, spices from Perripur, rare ferns from Arapur. It was an artistry of subtle flavors, a symphony of scent and texture. A splendid meal.

Which the bowl in front of her now, here in the Ill Wind, was most certainly not. She couldn’t even guess what the greasy lumps floating in a sluggish sea of brown might be, but she was hungry enough to eat anyway. A quick touch of her attention into the unattractive sludge assured her that consuming it would not harm her, so she reached for the spoon, then hesitated, her hand hovering over the crumb-strewn table. From the cracks in the wood, antennae quested out, followed by the thin segments of a centipede. The creature took a large crumb from the surface in its pincers and slowly retreated to the undertable.

Maris pushed at the creature with her intention to make sure it went in the other direction, but it pleased her to share her table with the locals, as long as they weren’t humans. She preferred places like this one for much the same reason she no longer wore black robes: sitting here, eating greasy soup, and sharing her table with insects, she could almost imagine belonging to the world.

Around her sat dour-looking dockhands, grubby in overalls padded against the ocean chill, slumped over cheap drinks, bowls much like her own. The glances they gave her were mere curiosity at a plainly dressed dark-skinned Perripin traveler and nothing more.

She’d worn the black for a time after she had been created, until the looks of hate and fear had become too heavy. It was a bad time for her, newly created and trying to find her way. She had gone to the Shentarat Plains and walked barefoot on the sharp ground until her feet bled. At the edge of the plains where the smooth rock gave way to barren ground and then hopeful grasses, she had stripped the robes off and buried them in the ground to rot.

Simpler clothes, she had discovered, made for a simpler life.

Now, catching the eye of the tavernmaster, she indicated someone else’s drink and that she would have the same. He nodded.

Best of all, though, the Ill Wind had cats. On a high shelf amidst jars and curled atop a pile of burlap bags was a black and white feline, ears twitching in sleep. From a corner, an orange tabby roused itself to stroll into the kitchen. And overhead, against the high windows through which a fog-filled sky shone like a lackluster pearl, was the silhouette of another cat, sitting still as a statue, looking down on the room.

With a finger of intention, Maris reached up to touch him.

Male, a few years old, his feline blood pulsing easily through his lithe, powerful body. He had the glow of recent sex about him, a contented relaxation through the groin, the warmth of hard use across his shoulders, the taste of female nape in his mouth. At her pull, he turned his head to look at her.

Softer than a whisper, she spoke a few words. Sounds more than anything sensible, the words being irrelevant. Her soft vocalizations were an invitation. Did he want to be stroked, she wondered. Perhaps some food, a bit of meat from her stew bowl?

The cat blinked slowly, eyes on her a long moment, then he looked away and began to groom a paw.

She laughed silently. She could not even summon a cat to her side. And people were afraid of mages.

With a thunk the tavernmaster put a ceramic mug in front of her. Glazed deep brown, inside and out — to make the liquid seem darker, she knew from discussions with brewers. As a matter of habit she dropped her focus into the cup to be sure it didn’t hold anything she would have to fix once it was in her body. It didn’t.

“Something else, ser?” he asked her. A large man, gone well to fat, brevity near surliness.

“A room for the night,” she said, putting a falcon on the table. Overpaying, she guessed. He slipped it into a pouch beneath the apron, stained with enough colors to be a clumsy painter’s spill.

Then, ambling from foot to foot, he drew himself upright. “We got a room, sure.” He looked bemused, as if he couldn’t figure out why she was here if she had that much to spend.

It calmed her, his lack of effort to please. Other than money, he wanted nothing from her. Like the cat’s disregard, it comforted her.

After he left, a thin figure entered into the room, looked around, came to her table. Blood-shot eyes looked out from behind dark, stringy hair, a face slick with sweat, gender indeterminate.

A Sensitive.

Male, possibly, she thought as he swallowed nervously. She could touch into his body to find out, but it seemed an intrusion and so she refrained.

“Yes?” she asked.

“High One.” A deferring dip of the head, breath shallow and short, tone flat. “I have been asked to contact you.”

She sighed, lamenting the loss of anonymity this implied. A bit surprised as well: this far from the capital she had not expected to be so quickly recruited.

If mages were a sort of family, Sensitives like the one in front of her were a distant, disfigured, and disowned relation. They were among the large portion of people who fell below the line to be considered for apprenticeship, yet were also not quite Iliban. Outcast among mages, deviant among Iliban, ostracized by all. She ached a little for him — with no choice about what he was, with no way to become more, his life could not be easy.

He might even be one of the extraordinarily rare Broken, those failed apprentices allowed to live. Unlikely; failure to finish the study was not well-tolerated. She remembered Keyretura dragging her, coughing and retching, from the deep water where she had tried to end her own. Not at all well-tolerated.

Certainly she could ask. Did you fail the study? Is that why you live in this wretched land that abhors you?

“How long have you been employed thus?” she asked instead.

He would not meet her eyes. “Since childhood, High One.”

“Call me Marisel.”

“Yes, High One.”

Oh, well.

“I am to ask if you are receptive to a contract.”

Of course. It would be some task that only magic could accomplish, that only the very wealthy could afford. A troubled conception to be smoothed. Treasures to be secured in strongboxes that would open only for one specific hand. An impossible decoration high atop some glittering, ostentatious spire.

But nothing as draining as the healing she had given across the country sides, over and over, for no pay at all.

“A contract with…?”

“It is not given to me to know, High One. May I tell them you are willing to discuss?”