Authors: Will Shetterly,Emma Bull
Ondur gasped as if she were drowning. "Marithana Govan, on the Street of the Dreamers...She uses her magic for healing...."
But Reykja was beyond hearing. She spoke in a rush of new-minted hatred, on and on: all the old stories of pain in the world. And in her telling, invested luck and the wizards who used it were the cause. Deformed infants, pestilence, murderous priests, children sold into bond, all the cruelties of men to men. She could not stop herself. The words poured out like molten glass, settling around her, solidifying in the air into shards hard and brittle and bright. In her arms Ondur cowered. Reykja ranted on, and with each word Ondur could feel the hard glassy brightness grow sharper, while sunlight danced on the mosaic of colored buildings and green copper roofs of Liavek below. Minutes passed, more minutes, nearly an hour. Still the two girls remained rigid on the roof, Reykja bolt upright and ranting, ranting, Ondur shuddering in her arms, every word a jab. Magic evil. Magic greedy. Magic twisted, magic enslaving and devouring, magic that had killed Kalum.
"It was the magic," Reykja said finally, hoarsely, hard with glassy brittleness. "The magic."
Ondur whimpered. Kalum's grandfather's ring, on its string around her neck, lay crushed against her breast by the rigid grip of Reykja's arms.
Reykja's birthday fell on a Moonday in the month of Buds, six weeks and a day after Kalum's. Her mother's labor had started at dawn and been long and hard; in the end she had died of it, moments after her squalling bloody girl infant had kicked into the world feet first. All this Ondur knew. She had heard Kalum and Reykja speak of it often. It was the reason, Kalum had whispered to Ondur as she lay with her head pressed against his chest, that he was studying the magic, and not Reykja. He was afraid for her to do it. A mother's death is a fearful price for birth luck. And Reykja, he had said painfully, was too...flighty. She was like a dark bird. Even for a wizard standing within the required three paces of his vessel, magic was mostly a question of strength of will, of stubbornly fastening onto an outcome and holding on. Reykja, Kalum had said, skimmed along, always in flight. She could not have become a magician.
Ondur wondered how Kalum, whom she loved, could not know that the strongest talons belonged to the birds with the highest flights.
"Stay indoors today," Ondur said when Reykja came into the kitchen on her birthday. It was a little past dawn. Ondur had been doing the breakfast work—both their work—for nearly an hour.
"So no ill luck will befall me in my birthday hours?" Reykja said mockingly. She wore boots and the loose, concealing cloak which both of them had worn to steal coins for Kalum's lessons.
"So no ill magic will befall you, yes," Ondur echoed.
"Camel droppings. You're afraid of the luck I may cause, not the luck that may happen to me. Aren't you, Ondur?"
"I feel ill, Reykja. Stay here and help me with this work."
"You are never ill. Why is that, Ondur? Why are you never ill?"
Ondur did not answer. She bent over mortar and pestle to grind more breakfast grain, and her white hair fell forward over her face in a thick veil.
"I asked you a question, Ondur. Did you hear me ask you a question? I asked why you are never ill!"
"I am sometimes ill," Ondur said from behind her hair. "I am ill now."
"No. You are not."
"Stay indoors today, Reykja."
"What do you think I will do, bum down Wizard's Row?"
She laughed, a sudden glittering sound, sharp as broken glass. "Do you fear that for me, Ondur? That I will try to set fire to Number Seventeen Wizard's Row? Me, a bond servant with neither money nor magic? Me?"
"It is your birthday, Reykja."
"Then perhaps I'll find a two-copper on the street for my birthday luck. Eh, Ondur—a two-copper, as a token of what magic can do for such as me? Why are you never ill, Ondur?"
Behind the curtain of hair, the pestle rose and fell in the mortar.
"I heard in the Market," Reykja said in the same glittering voice, "that someone in Liavek seeks a white girl, all white. Someone is asking questions about a white girl."
The pestle stopped.
"Why are you never ill, Ondur?"
With one quick motion Ondur flung the white hair back from her face. Her colorless eyes met Reykja's, and they did not flinch. "Stay indoors, Reykja."
"Are you a magician, Ondur?"
Ondur put both hands over her face.
"Are you a magician? Is that why you are never ill? Answer me!" Reykja pulled Ondur's hands away from her face—not roughly, but with a kind of coiled intensity that was almost pain. The slim white hands came away easily. Under the hands, Ondur was laughing.
"I can't help it," Ondur gasped. She could not. It was helpless laughter, without mirth, and she could not get her breath.
"Are you a magician?"
"No," Ondur gasped out. "I am not a magician!"
Reykja let her go. Ondur spoke the truth, and even in the brittle glassy state to which Reykja had come, she could see that it was the truth. She hissed in frustration, and in relief, and in the sharp restlessness that never left her alone now, never, not for a moment.
"Stay indoors today, Reykja."
"No." She flung open the kitchen door. Outside, it rained. Rain dripped from the eaves of the house, the leaves of the straggly vegetable garden, the loose stones in the crumbling garden wall. A gust of wet air blew into the kitchen, bringing with it the smells of ashes and dead fish. Reykja pulled her hood over her uncombed hair and slammed the door behind her.
Birth magic tingled along her arms, sparked at her wrists, danced at the tips of her fingers. She had never felt it before, not like this. She could not keep her fingers still: they curled of themselves into fists. Reykja let them, clenched hard, thought suddenly of Ondur's thin white fingers pushing the white hair off her face.
I am not a magician.
Reykja pushed the picture from her mind.
Liavek was full of magicians.
She slipped noiselessly, muffled in her cloak, along the streets of Old Town, along Bregas Street, along Wizard's Row itself. The Row was here today, although Reykja could not have said what it looked like. At the end, where Wizard's Row joined Cheap Street, stood the tiny house where Kalum had taken his lessons in investiture. She had never gone with him, never seen the magician—but Kalum had shown her the house. It faced not the Row but Cheap Street, and the house itself was a little hard to see through the mist. The magician, who, now that she thought of it, had never been named directly by Kalum—how could she not have noticed that Kalum never uttered the wizard's name?—might also have been a little hard to see. Or might not. Kalum had never said what he looked like, and why had she never noticed that either?
But Reykja knew what he looked like, what he must look like. Out of bitterness, out of the need for enmity fit for Kalum, she knew what he looked like. Tall. Gold. Icy, powerful, glittering...Yes.
She paused at the tiny arched door set in the wall. Rain trickled under her hood and down her neck. She had one moment of fear, but only one. The glassy shining hatred was thick within her, and with it the birth magic, that once-a-year intensification of chance and will that is not true magic but is the closest thing to it, luck strengthened in payment for maternal pain. The luck could be for good or ill, tiny or not so tiny, quirky, unreliable. Untrained and uninvested, it was only chance. Only luck. Reykja laid her hand on the knob of the arched door.
Someone had left it unlocked.
Ondur drooped with exhaustion by the kitchen fire. Breakfast, dinner, a light supper, fetch and carry, hot water, sweep and scrub, wash and bake. "Reykja is busy emptying the slop jars, Master, what do you need?" "Reykja has gone to borrow another bucket, Mistress, I will do this." "Reykja is tending the pot-boil lest it burn, scrubbing the hearth and filthy with ashes, coming in another moment or two." And all the long day the rain had fallen, drop after monotonous drop, and in the dank stones of the windowless kitchen, Ondur had smelled dread.
It was nearly dark.
A noise at the door—no, just a mouse in the corner, scrawny and ill-fed, with bright mean eyes. Undoubtedly hungry—in this house, a small creature would go hungry.
Ondur folded her hands over her belly and drooped in her chair. The hearth did not give much warmth, not against the chill damp of rain. Poor firewood, poorly cured. The single candle sputtered.
Where was Reykja? What had she done? She had done something, that Ondur knew. She had done something....
Ondur woke with a start. Reykja knelt on the stone floor before her, hood thrown back from wet hair, eyes glittering and feverish. She held something clenched in her fist. Mud smeared onto the floor from her boots and the hem of her cloak, and the candle she held in the other hand sent shadows leaping to the smoke-blackened ceiling.
"I did it, Ondur.
I did it.
Reykja opened her fist. On the palm lay a small wooden cat, a child's toy, carved neither well nor badly. It had once been painted in bright, childish colors: yellow, with a blue collar. The yellow had soiled to dun and the blue faded to a tired gray. But the wooden cat tingled with power. Ondur could feel it. She closed her eyes and wrapped her arms tightly across her breasts.
"The gate was unlocked. The one Kalum used to use. The house was locked, but I hid in a bush and waited. All day I waited. It felt—eventually two servants came out, and I heard one tell the other that the master would not be home till dark. And one of the servants left open a window—"
"In the rain?"
"In the rain. The cat was on the table—"
"No," Ondur said. Her eyes were still closed. "No. A wizard would not leave it behind when he was from home. Not the vessel of his investiture, all his magic—"
"I tell you he did!" Reykja shouted. She leaped angrily to her feet, paced the length of the room, turned to smile at Ondur with a brilliant, spangled smile. "I tell you," she said softly, "he did. He left it. Perhaps he thought he had it with him, perhaps a spell protecting it faltered just one second, perhaps...I don't know. It was my luck, Ondur. My birthday luck."
"There's nothing you can put it to. It's his birth luck in there, and only he can use it. You can't put it to any use."
Reykja went on smiling. "Yes, I can. There's a use. Oh, yes, I can."
"Stop that,Ondur. Why are you shaking? You said you were not a magician. Are you a magician, OndurT'
"Then stop shuddering. Birth luck was what killed Kalum, wasn't it? And that is what is in this vessel-birth magic. I can put it to use. Magic can only be vested in a unity whole—remember? We chanted that over and over, the night he died. A unity whole."
Dropping to her knees, Reykja set the wooden cat before her on the stone floor. She seized a brick from the hearth, a sooty misshapen stone Ondur had used to weight bits of straw for kindling. Raising the brick over her head, she brought it down with all her strength on the cat. The moment it struck—or perhaps the moment just before—the cat flared brilliantly, a sudden rush of light so strong Ondur flung up one hand to shade her eyes. There was a sound like a note of music that was not music. As soon as the brick struck the cat, the light vanished and the cat shattered in two. Reykja swept together the two pieces and went on striking, again and again, as if she could not stop, until the wooden fragments became splinters on the stone floor.
"An unchanging vessel," Reykja said, gasping from exertion. To Ondur's eyes she glittered, encased in the bright shining hardness brittle as glass. With huge effort, Ondur wrenched her gaze away.
"A unity whole," Reykja said. She dropped the brick and bared her teeth in a smile.
Ondur thought desperately:
Once a year. A birthday comes only once a year
Until her next one, Reykja would have no power to slip through the faJterings of spells, seize unlocked doors, have anything at all to do with birth luck. Until her next birthday, Reykja was safe. Until her next birthday-
But Reykja did not wait.
"This is Sorel," she said to Ondur. "His birthday falls tomorrow."
Sorel looked about twelve, a skinny and needle-eyed twelve, with a furtive glance and a skinny swagger. The expensive silver knife stuck through his sash matched neither his age nor the state of his sandals. Ondur had seen many such boys. They slept on the ground at the Two-Copper Bazaar, carried notes at the docks when an illiterate messenger was desirable, made themselves available at Rat's Alley for whatever was nocturnal, stealthy, and dangerous. But beneath the dirt and above the wicked gleam of the dagger, Sorel's cheek curved plump and smooth. Ondur could see clearly the child Sorel had been, and even more clearly the man he would become.
"Reykja," she whispered. "What are you doing?"
But Reykja only laughed, and turned away. And two days later she brought to the kitchen a brass earring, so nondescript it might have been any of a thousand brass earrings from any of a thousand ears in Liavek, except that light flared brilliantly when she smashed it into a brass lump against the stone floor. Sorel left with a five-levar gold coin from behind a brick that the mistress had no idea anyone knew of. Ondur shuddered whitely, and held her arms across her belly. And Reykja, at the moment of the light's flaring, spat out "Into a unity whole," and looked up at Ondur, and smiled.
"Are you a magician, Ondur?"
"No. No. But no more, Reykja, no more—"
"Liavek reeks with luck," Reykja said, and the glass around her glittered and shone as hard as petrified light.
But that night Ondur heard her in the attic room, weeping.
The next evening, Ondur and Reykja sat hemming a blanket by the last of the light from the open kitchen door. It had stopped raining; beyond the crumbling garden wall the rooftops of Liavek shone purely against the dark blue sky, like gems against silk. One side of the rough blanket flowed over Ondur's lap, the other over Reykja's, and both their heads were bent over the stitches. It was tedious, soothing work; both master and mistress had gone out for dinner. Halfway down her side of the hem Reykja, never a good needlewoman, had pricked her finger, leaving a flat smear of blood. She had sucked the finger a moment, then gone on working.