Authors: Graydon Saunders
Copyright 2015 Graydon Saunders
All rights reserved.
For Claire Dalmyn, who has continued to ask excellent questions
Copy editing courtesy of the splendid Marna Nightingale. Any surviving errors are entirely my own.
Book wisdom and calm provided by the inestimable Jennie Worden. Both are greatly appreciated.
Much thanks to the thoughtful James Burbidge for high-utility structural feedback. (Any incomprehension, unease, or sense of plot misplacement you suffer is and remains my fault.)
Cover art by Team Macho.
Cover design by Tiger Bright Studios.
Authorial mood adjustment via Sabaton, Old Blind Dogs, Jethro Tull, and the Fifth Symphony of Anton Bruckner.
Waking up doesn’t hurt. Opening my eyes doesn’t hurt, breathing doesn’t hurt.
Trying to sit up hurts too much to happen.
Wherever I am, they have sash windows and like plain plaster, but there’s something wrong.
It’s the colours, or the way the clicking sound doesn’t echo, or I don’t know what, but something is wrong. I turn my head a bit, that works, just, slowly, toward the clicking,
and there’s someone there knitting.
My brain gets stuck. I don’t have the words for the words; it’s like getting a long way up something, a tree, a steep hill, a watchtower, and looking down when you aren’t thinking about it, and realizing you’re way high up.
The person in the chair isn’t large; looks old but not
old, grandma when you’re young, sure, and the knitting looks like knitting.
The chair, it’s not anyone else’s chair, has a name, and smells of bending, and it looks like hunger. The person…it’s like being high up, and looking down, only I’ve never been this high up and it’s the other way around more; I’m looking down, and it goes, not forever, but it might go through the earth, and whoever’s grandma this is, they’re looking back and it goes up so far past me I don’t think
the distance has a name.
Every metre of the distance down, there are things. Mighty things, age and darkness and spines.
“I see you’re awake, dear. Good.” The needles don’t pause, but this sounds entirely friendly. The work’s something complicated, with cables, knit much faster than I could a plain square.
“You had a parasite, really quite a clever one in an unfortunate way. Fastened on your
Maybe I’m dreaming. The ceiling has these incredibly fine lines, glowing like thin slices of lemon, and the window glass is singing something, faintly. I can’t tell if the singing is happy or sad.
any talent.” They test you, every year you go to school. Never even got a false positive. Ow. No forceful breathing.
“Oh, you do, dear. The parasite looked very well fed, might
not have been a whole décade from exploding when it came out.”
That, or the pain across my stomach, or just the way the pillow has started to feel wet as dust, drags me back under, and if there are any more words I lose them.
The next time I wake up I can sit up.
There’s a pause after I manage that, but it’s not too bad. I can still see where the incision was, but it’s fading. Reassuring, because it’s longer than I can spread a hand. One parasite? The incision looks like they took out my spleen with a straight-up lift.
The ceiling still has all those lines, and they move. I don’t feel dizzy.
Hungry, but I’ve
felt worse than this the day after a long day shifting wood on the drying racks.
Nobody in a chair, but there’s someone there, only they aren’t. It’s…you know how you can think you see someone, out of the corner of your eye, and then when you turn your head, they aren’t there? Like that. If I look straight, no one’s there, and if I turn my head and don’t think about it, someone is, grinning.
There are letters.
Six or seven of them, which is a surprise, stacked up on the table beside the bed.
“Decide to use your eyes, and I’ll be easier to see.”
It’s an amazing voice. I wish it was saying something that made sense.
I try to look at the speaker, but they go away again.
“Try. Think about using your eyes.”
Can’t imagine what else I’d be using to see, but I try. There have to be photons
somewhere, and I think about seeing them.
I’m sure my eyes are open.
The writhing lemon razor-lines across the ceiling go bright and feel like cat fur. Right where I’m looking, not two meters away, there’s a blue-green outline of a person, like the colour of deep water flowing around somebody, a taste of salt and iron, and an amused smell.
I really wonder what they’ve given me. This isn’t right
“Oh, good, but not like that yet — just your eyes, not light.”
If you don’t know who the crazy person in the room is, it’s you.
I don’t know what happens, but the blue-green outline fades out; it’s still there, I’m just not looking at it, despite it being right where I’m looking. There’s a tall person there, really young, younger than me, the knitting lady would say girl, really
tall, and about then my brain does its best to shut off.
I can hardly blame it; the ceiling looking like the feel of cat fur would be enough of a reason, but it’s the old reason.
Whoever this is, the amazing voice is insufficient notice of the complete effect.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
We say “before the person in the chair, knitting,” at the same time, and I stop thinking about my
eyes. If I can’t see this person, it might be easier to think, it’s not attractiveness, it’s tension between
“Something that tasted…”
isn’t right, it was…“like someone boiled a swamp in a corpse.”
I can feel the smile, closed eyes or not. “That’s a new one!”
Something, I guess.
“The stuff that tastes bad is a talent-suppressor. You locked up the
brush-clearing team you were on, as spill-over from controlling an anti-panda, which isn’t easy.”
This isn’t making sense.
“You got dosed with talent-suppressor to make sure you couldn’t use the Power for anything until someone who could solve the problem got a look at you.”
Not easy. Not easy
? “Was anyone hurt?” I don’t remember anyone being hurt. I remember getting there, displaced into
the Folded Hills and winding up at a lake that didn’t have a name on the map, but not like something that happened a décade ago. More like the kind of thing you have to try to remember how old you were.
“Not even the anti-panda. A sorcerer-surveyor messed with its head to convince it people aren’t tasty, before you let it go.”
This is still refusing to make sense.
“I always tested flat zero for
talent, not a null, just not enough to find.” It really cuts into your choice of trade when you can’t join a focus, not even to make up the numbers so the thing will work at all.
I feel the nod, just like I’ve been feeling the smiles.
“The parasite must have got you young. It was a feeder, not a suppressor; you kept right on developing talent, it just ate any exercise of the Power.”
A grin I
feel like the memory of fire. “Talent we can only test for during dissection. All the school tests look for detectable amounts of the Power.”
“Aren’t there tests for parasites?” There were tests for all kinds of things.
“Lots. This one was new.”
Thousands and thousands and thousands of years of crazy wizards fighting each other has consequences, almost all of them bad.
“Would it really have exploded?”
“House-size crater for four or five houses.”
I don’t know how anyone can sound gentle and gleeful at the same time, I really don’t.
The hole in the air says “It’s out now, all of it”. People don’t sound that certain saying that the sky is blue.
Not that I can tell right now, trying to look through the window singing.
More gently, and from a lot further away, it says “You’ll be fine in another two
or three days.”
In four days, I’m in a tent.
A big one; it’s the Line pattern for an eating tent, with high sides that roll up and a peaked top that’s got a frame under it that the corner and side poles hold up.
It’s a pleasant day out there, early autumn, only a few clouds, only a little wind. Way up on the side of a hill out of town, there isn’t anything to see except a canal and I can’t really see
it, just the line of trees.
I’ve got my own clothes, I’ve read all the letters, one from my mother and two from my aunts, who posted them before they got displaced north. They were fine when they sent the letters, but there won’t be any more. Two big, huge, wards, to try to stop the critters from the Iron Bridge we’re all running away from, two Commonweals where there was one, and no postal service.
No communication at all, people keep saying “sundered”.
Nothing from Flaed, who could have gone north or east. Not really a surprise.
The tent has two other people, and nothing else. It’s much too big for us; you could fit half of a workshop in here. I can’t see any mildew, any mould, the colour of the canvas is even and greyish but it’s got this really bothersome sticky green quality, like burrs
that aren’t ripe yet.
All the medical types keep telling me I’m not going crazy, that metaphysical perceptions aren’t obviously different from crazy, that I’ll get used to having the extra awareness.
Three letters from my collective, one surprising one from the sorcerer-surveyor, who included a basic get-well-soon and a copy of a field guide description of an anti-panda. Turns out there at least
used to be a big mostly-white white-and-black mostly-vegetarian bear. That’s your panda. The anti-panda’s mostly black, and bigger, and not vegetarian at all. “Preferentially anthrophagic,” the field guide says, with notes about how the simplified brain and the extra senses make usual anti-predation measures ineffective.
Yet another hideous made thing that breathes, something so common that no
one bothers to remember which wizard made them, or exactly why.
I’ve been moving around for a couple of days, not too fast day-before-yesterday and not too bad yesterday and fine today. There isn’t even a scar.
Creeks seem like genuinely pleasant people; nobody’s glared at me for getting in the way or for not knowing what all the stuff in lunch is and looking worried. The green-and-green stripy
hair they all seem to have, or the amber or red or teal or violet eyes, aren’t off-putting; it’s not as though there weren’t a diversity of people where home used to be. It’s weirder that everybody looks related, everybody except me.
All three letters from the collective mention how the rest of the brush-clearing team has calmed down; they were all stuck immobile, barely able to breathe, for half
an hour, and the only one who knew why was staring at the anti-panda the whole time. They’re all treating it as certain I won’t be coming back, there’s some good wishes, so awkward they have to be sincere, but apparently along with explaining to everybody what happened the sorcerer-surveyor has been clear that even without the parasite being able to take control of an anti-panda at all means I’m
sufficiently high talent that it’s unsafe not to train it.
Invisible sticky green canvas textures or not, lemon lines in the ceiling, all of it, none of it leaves me with a belief I’ve actually got a meaningful degree of talent.
The legitimately odd thing about the Creeks is that they’re huge. Not bulky-huge, but large-huge. One of the other people in the tent is certainly a Creek; not
especially happy-looking, more resigned. Kinda striking anyway, even doing all my looking out of the corners of my eyes. Short hair, the dark green in their hair looks black.
A variety of resigned expressions and dark hair goes oddly with the impression of brightness and the golden-amber eyes.
The other person’s obviously not a Creek, none of them have blue hair and way too skinny, even if almost
tall enough. Can’t sit cross-legged, either. Or maybe isn’t, just now, or prefers to sprawl. Lots of room.
Nobody’s talking. Given what we’re in the tent for, I’m not inclined to complain. I’m still not really reliable about not paying too much attention to people.
Another half-hour and someone comes in, certainly not a Creek; not any species I recognize. They’re somewhere in middle age, black
hair, brown smock, battered leather satchel. Looks friendly. There are a couple more Creeks following, one who looks younger, but I still can’t tell with Creeks how old anybody is.
The middle-aged person sets their satchel down, up at the closed narrow end of the tent, then turns around to face us. We’ve all turned around, facing away from the open side and afternoon.
“In this time, I am called
I pay attention, can’t really help it, it’s like being back in school and this is going to be important.
Everyone is looking at me. I’ve got my head between my knees and I’m shaking, shaking because it’s a warm day and I’ve never been this cold.
“You need not pay that much attention,” Wake says to me. Kindly, entirely benevolent. It sounds human, it really does, a regular human sort of
Everyone’s looking at me, and I don’t care. I’m trying to stop thinking about the sensation of snakes twining across the inside of my skull.
“The five of you are, I believe, Zora — ” the younger Creek who came in with Wake — “Chloris, Dove — ” Dove was in the tent before I got to it — “Kynefrid — ” the skinny blue-haired lad — “and Edgar.” Me, and no one else contradicts Wake.
that judicious pause, the one teachers use to make sure you’re paying attention to them.
“It is generally understood that capacity to exercise the Power depends, at base, on talent. Training grants the skill necessary to use the Power, but the ultimate capacity anyone might have to exercise the Power is a function of their native degree of talent.”
To the extent that I ever paid attention to something
I couldn’t do, that seems correct.
“This is nearly equivalent to asserting that your capacity to consume food is a function of your total lifespan.”
The canvas wall of the tent behind Wake grows glowing lines. X-axis, Y-axis, something that looks like a normal distribution.
Wake waves at it, stepping to one side. “The just run of talent in the general population.” Y-axis is the population, apparently
all of it, all seven-and-a-half million people of the Commonweal before anybody got displaced.
The whole graph expands, pans left, past the Y-axis, into what ought to be negative talent along the X-axis. There’s a narrow, steep, high blip there, barely more than a single line wide, and high enough — how can I possibly
? — to be one person in thirty thousand.
“Nulls, those whose presence forbids
the active exercise of the Power. All Power, not merely that consciously willed. Excellent careers as librarians and chemists await those born in such wise.”
The graph shrinks a little, pans right. Somewhere to the right edge of the normal distribution there’s a flat bit. “There are no persons known with this degree of talent,” Wake says, that flat bit glowing brighter.
The flat bit is nearly
as wide as the whole normal distribution, then there’s a tiny rise, steep on the left edge, trailing off to the right edge. It doesn’t go very high, and it trails a long way, headed off to the right into large amounts of talent and no people.
The narrow part of the right tail of the main normal distribution shines, along with the tiny rise way off to the right. “One in five thousand; the range
of talent from which the Commonweal expects to draw Independents.”
The highlighting on the right tail drops, and the view centres on the blip of the rise off to the right. It gets bigger, until it’s the only thing, a slumped shape like you sawed through a snowdrift.
“One in thirty thousand, by troubling symmetry with the nulls.” Wake sounds like “troubling” might not be rhetorical.
green dots along the X-axis. Kynefrid — Chloris — Zora — Edgar — Dove.
Kynefrid’s dot is on top of the peak of the small rise, with narrow range bars. Chloris and Zora’s dots are pretty much on top of each other, a decimetre to the right of the peak of the small rise, the range bars aren’t entirely distinct. Wake’s good at this, I have no idea if the range bars are right, how anyone would tell,
but the shading’s clear, it’s obvious which range goes with which named dot. Their ranges are wider right than left, it looks like individuals match the kind of long-right-tail slumping snowdrift distribution, odds are you’re at the left end but you might not be.
My dot is more than a metre to the right of Zora’s and Chloris', across the tent, and Dove’s is half again past that, just in the tent.
Dove shifts forward, the way someone who is trying to decide what to say does.
Wake smiles, entirely jovial.
The view gains a vertical gold line. “The median talent of those on the battalion list.”
It’s to the left of my dot, maybe three decimetres.
What a battalion has to do with being a sorcerer isn’t obvious at all. Line battalion?
Wake waves one hand at the canvas in a sort of scrubbing motion,
and the graph goes away.
“It is your collective misfortune to be merely mighty. Any mountains you move shall require long and careful preparation.”
“That’s a misfortune?” Zora, who doesn’t sound more confused than I’m feeling.
Wake nods. “Those in the principal distribution have the practical option of ignoring their talent; it may trouble their dreams, alter their luck, but it will acquiesce
I don’t like where this is going.
“Much as those who are nulls cannot ignore that fact, and must exist in a world where the direct exercise of the Power cannot benefit them any more than it might harm them, those whose talent exists in the third modality have no meaningful option to ignore it.”
Wake says this calmly, like it isn’t a condemnation. Maybe if you’re a sorcerer it isn’t.
“As a customary matter, your training should have started between the ages of twelve and fourteen. Your formal schooling should have started at sixteen. While there are some advantages to approaching training when you are of mature years, and less likely to commit acts of rash enthusiasm, there are two considerable disadvantages. Your talents are more developed, requiring that you manage greater
strength with what greater wisdom you have won.” Wake’s tone doesn’t give the impression this is a certain outcome.
Wake pauses, and something changes. I’m not going to look closely again to try to tell what.
Wake looks at all of us, individually, taking careful time. “Mastery of your talent, of the exercise of the Power, is not a slight discipline, even under ideal circumstances of development.
None of you have that; your brains and minds have already developed, become set to varying degrees in habits that do not involve habitual or extensive exercise of the Power.”
Wake doesn’t say, but Dove does: “Extensively traumatic process of alteration.”
Wake nods firmly, looks at Dove. “The rest of Blossom’s advice was just as honest.”
Wake’s attention comes back to the rest of us.
succeed, your continued existence will be constrained by an unfailing adherence to the precepts of the Shape of Peace, to which you will be required to irrevocably bind your lives.”
Kynefrid’s head comes up, from a gaze bent on sprawled feet. “Isn’t that Independents?”
“Yes,” says Wake.
“Surviving major exercise of the Power requires alteration of the self.” Wake grimaces. “More accurately, such
exercise produces alteration of the self. Choosing the form of the alteration is preferential in all respects to the results of chance.”
I’m thinking about breathing, trying not to go too tense. Staring at the grass I’m sitting on doesn’t seem like an especially good idea, the shade of green wavers alarmingly if I don’t not watch it.
“The lifespan of Independents is in most respects incidental
to the alterations of survival.” Wake seems to recognize that this cannot be said kindly, and doesn’t try.
“Don’t people decide if they want to be Independents?” Zora. I think Zora’s deciding not to be alarmed.
Wake’s head tips from side to side, neither ‘no’ nor ‘yes’. “Those in the right tail of the main distribution might, yes. It is a true choice for them, to be an Independent, to be perhaps
accomplished village sorcerers, to live two centuries, to be at least somewhat socially acceptable, or to be team leads on a large focus and be entirely socially acceptable, with no recognized whiff of sorcery.”
Wake’s face takes on a more formal cast, less teacher and more, more sorcerer, I guess.
“It is, strictly, a choice for you as well — the Commonweal does not compel service. It is, simply,
that you cannot expect to survive without your studies progressing so far.”
This isn’t getting better.
“All of you are solidly in the third modality in your possession of talent; against the statistical mass of the Commonweal’s history, that gives you roughly even odds of surviving to achieve Independent status.”
“And if we don’t want to do this at all?” Kynefrid, voice full of doubt.
voice is gentle. “You can think of it as having a congenital heart condition. Without training, survival at fifty is effectively unknown; survival at forty is one chance in four.” Out of the corner of my eye I can see Dove sitting up straighter.
“Supposing you wish to continue — supposing that you wish to live full lives — you five will form a study team together, and training will begin tomorrow.”
“As that study team,” Wake goes on, voice entirely prosaic, the way it sounds like when you go off somewhere to help with a big job of work and the host gean tells you where you’ll be sleeping, “you will be in my keeping, as a servant of the Galdor-gesith of the Second Commonweal.” Meaning we get fed out of taxes.
I don’t like that much, and I don’t think anybody else does, either. There’s a moment
of not-squirming. Being young and healthy and not working is really embarrassing to contemplate.