Rain Delivery

Author:
Keywords:
Inflation Types:
Popping:
Date Written: 
11/14/2011

The air was still and hot in Itaza village, among the handful of trees where the mountain ended and the desert began. The solstice was more than a month away, but for Itaza, summer was making an early start, the same as every year. The few, brief early spring showers were over, and the last of the snowmelt had already trickled through. 

 

The sun was high. It was time for everyone to rest somewhere out of the sun until the worst of the heat passed, but no one was resting today. The first rain delivery of the season was due any time, and the village wasn't prepared.

 

Men were working on every roof. A few were sweeping off the dust and cleaning out the rain channels, but most were assembling the town's old rain trap system, a jumble of tarps and pipes between the rooftops. Below them, there was a constant procession of containers of every description out of the houses and onto bare patches of ground. If it could hold water, it was being emptied and moved outdoors. And everyone who didn't have anything else to do had been handed a bag of seed and sent out to sow the fields.

 

Everywhere, the sun beat down relentlessly. All day, all week, there had been no clouds, no breeze, no respite for anyone.

 

Except for Mayor Immin, down in the underground cisterns, where the last of the stored spring rain made things cool and damp. But he was in no state to enjoy it. The new mortar from last year wasn't holding very well. The brickwork needed the attention of a skilled mason, but even in a town like Itaza where everyone had three or four jobs, the total knowledge of masonry didn't go past the basics. Immin himself was the closest the town had to a professional mason, which he knew wasn't saying a lot. The cisterns, he had been told, had been installed by a mason from the city before he'd even been born. He couldn't remember a time when they weren't leaking. All anyone in the village could do is try to prevent the leaks from getting worse.

 

What skill he had was telling him that it was getting worse. This cistern would be lucky to hang on to half of its water, no matter what he did. Well, he still had to do what he could. He picked up his trowel.

 

There was a yell from above. It sounded like Pietro, the foreman. "The mage is coming!"

 

Immin poked his head out of the cistern and squinted in the sudden heat and light. The yell was being repeated along the rooftops and out to the fields. Every man and woman had put on extra speed, trying to do as much as they could as fast as they could.

 

Immin shielded his eyes and looked up the mountain road, hoping for a false alarm. But there was no mistaking it. Lone travelers were a rarity, and even at this distance, the blue robe and white mask were unmistakable.

 

"Ah, dammit! Pietro, get someone down here to finish cistern three! I've got to go meet him!"

 

A few minutes later Immin was hurrying down the road. He hadn't had time to do much more than wash his face, pull off the rubber boots, and hope the chain of office around his neck didn't look too ridiculous over his work clothes.

 

As he got close, he spotted that the mage they'd sent this year was female, but as usual that was nearly all he could tell. Her outfit was the same as every other mage's had been. Silk robe with the hood drawn, the matching silk trousers tied off at the ankles, the impassive white mask, gloves on her hands, a pair of shoes that looked far too dainty for travel. Not an inch exposed but her eyes.

 

She gave a small bow as he approached. "Mayor Immin?" The mask made her voice indistinct, but she spoke loudly and clearly enough to be understood.

 

"Yes, that's me. Pleased to meet you, ah, that is to say if I haven't met you already... you'll have to forgive me, the mask makes it—"

 

She held up a hand. "This is my first time to your village. I am Mabon of the Cloud Bridge School."

 

"Ah, pleased to meet you, I'm Mayor Immin, er, guess you already knew that... I'd shake your hand but I know you mages don't."

 

"Correct. You seem ill at ease, is something the matter?"

 

"Ah, well, no, it's just that one of the plow oxen fell ill, and we're behind on the planting... and some of the tarps are still being repaired. I know you mages like to do your work and be on your way, but if there's any way I might persuade you to give us until sundown, of course we'd put you up at the inn tonight."

 

"Very well, it's of no great consequence." She continued down the road.

 

Immin breathed a sigh of relief. At least they'd be able to finish the planting, and most of the rain collection system would—

 

"Who's that out there?" Mabon didn't point.

 

"Where?" said Immin.

 

"The young woman planting the north bean field, around the middle."

 

The mayor shielded his eyes. "Forgive me, your sight's better than mine..."

 

"Fair skin, long black hair tied with a blue scarf, starting to get a sunburn."

 

He squinted. "Oh, her? That's Rinn."

 

"Last name?"

 

"Doesn't have one."

 

"Parents?"

 

"Doesn't have those, either."

 

"Oh?"

 

"Caravan coming through left her here. They said she came this way with her parents, they died on the way in a bandit attack."

 

Mabon was still watching Rinn. Immin felt compelled to fill the silence. "'Course, that was about fifteen, sixteen years ago... back then things were a lot more dangerous than now. Well, she wasn't much more than a baby then, didn't barely know anything but her own name. Could talk pretty well for her age, when she had a mind to, which wasn't often. Still isn't often, suppose that's just her way."

 

In the distance, Rinn straightened up, pulled off her head scarf, and shook out her hair. Immin glanced at Mabon, trying to catch a hint of what had her so fascinated, but of course the mask betrayed nothing.

 

"Uh... you've good eyes spotting that sunburn, she's not usually out in the sun, s'just that everyone's helping finish the planting today. Normally she helps out at the schoolhouse, Old Lady Godfrey's getting on in years. And she's the best night lookout the town's ever had, speaking of good eyes. Uh... helps with other things around town too."

 

Mabon still hadn't moved.

 

"Beggin' your pardon, but is... is something wrong?" Immin asked. Rinn was stretching, fingers linked above her head.

 

"No, nothing." Mabon finally looked away and continued down the path towards the village. "I was just struck by how she was enjoying the breeze."

 

"Ah..." Immin couldn't think of anything to say. It was a strange thing to remark on.

 

Wait.

 

There hadn't been a breeze all day.

 

Immin stopped and stared. Out in the fields, alone out of all the sowers, Rinn's clothes and hair were blowing in the wind.

 

He ran to catch up with Mabon. "But what does it mean?"

 

"I think we'd better meet with her. Can you arrange that?"

 

"Y-yes, yes of course, right away!"

 

It took a little longer than right away, because Immin would be damned if he was going to deal with this on his own, and every member of the town council was in the middle of urgent work. When they were finally all assembled in the room in Immin's house that doubled as the council chambers, the grumbling was only kept to a minimum by the silent presence of the mage sitting in the back.

 

The door opened. Rinn was short enough that even with the council seated she could barely see over their heads. But she spotted the mage, gave a little start, and lowered her head. With her head bowed, her uneven bangs were long enough to hide her eyes.

 

There was an awkward silence. Immin was waiting for Mabon to say something, but didn't quite dare to turn around to look at her.

 

After a few moments, Rinn said, barely above a whisper, "You called for me?"

 

Immin cleared his throat. "Yes. Ah, our visitor, that is, this esteemed mage, Mabon, that's her name, er, she thinks that you might be, well..."

 

Another long pause. The mage hadn't actually said a word since asking to meet with Rinn. "...you might be, uh, you might have some kind of magic in you," he finished lamely.

 

Rinn flinched slightly as all the council members started talking at once.

 

"What?!"

 

"What are you talking about?"

 

"Yer sayin' Rinn is some kinda wizard?"

 

"That can't be right, can it?"

 

Immin waved his hand. "One at a time, please! Pietro, go ahead."

 

Pietro stood and faced Mabon. "Beggin' yer pardon, but how's it possible? I know Rinn's always got her face in some book, but you can't learn magic from a normal book, can you?"

 

"Indeed, no." Mabon stood up suddenly and walked around the table. "We train those with potential, but that potential cannot be taught." She looked down hard at Rinn, face-to-bangs. "Raise your head."

 

Rinn barely looked up.

 

"Further. Let me see your eyes."

 

Rinn slowly raised her head until she was looking up at Mabon's face.

 

"Hmm." Mabon stared for a long moment. Rinn shifted her weight uncomfortably.

 

Mabon turned to the council. Behind her, Rinn lowered her head again. "Well, there's no question about it. Rinn has the power to do magic."

 

Everyone stated talking at once again. Pietro took the floor by virtue of talking louder than everyone else. "Wait, how can ya tell so fast? I brought my boy Niel with me to Wrixon Town last month, an' took him to you guys to have him take the tests, an' it took 'em all morning. Took that long when I got tested as a boy, too."

 

Mabon waved a hand irritably. "Yes, yes, but Rinn has manifested her powers on her own. Much simpler to see that than to detect untapped potential."

 

"Oh."

 

"How could this happen?" asked Immin. "I mean, why can Rinn use magic?"

 

"Hmm, I wonder," said Mabon. "You understand that the power to use magic is a rare gift that comes from within a person's very soul. Sometimes the potential for magic is granted by chance rather than by inheritance, that's why Cloud Bridge School permits any child to take the tests." She paced a few steps, and looked back at the council. "However... the caravaneers who brought Rinn to Itaza must have told you her parents were secretive, correct? Of course they must have been, if none of them knew Rinn's family name. And then no one ever came looking for her. I'm sure you sent messages back with the caravan asking after her relatives, and no one ever answered."

 

"Yes, that's true."

 

"And consider that they were crossing the desert with their infant daughter. That's no trip to make lightly."

 

Mabon paced around the table. Everyone but Rinn turned their heads to follow her. "Fifteen years ago, at the height of the Expulsion War, the Rimeri, a great dynasty of sorcerers, clashed with the united forces of royal families of the north. The powers of the Rimeri were mighty, but the Royal Concord persisted, and overwhelmed them through sheer numbers. The dynasty fought nearly to the last. Only two escaped the final battle, a man and a woman, husband and wife. They contacted our school, sought refuge. Our leaders would not go to war against the royal families, but we promised the two survivors that if they could but reach us, we would shelter them."

 

"We never heard from them again, thanks to the so-called bandit attack. The bandits were, of course, assassins, sent by the Royal Concord to destroy the last of the dynasty. We lamented the end of the one of the greatest lineages of mages the world has ever seen. But they had never told us of their child. Their daughter, Rinn, who survived the attack, and lived to carry on as the last scion of her dynasty. She has inherited her parents' power. Power so great that it has come forth without so much as a day of formal training."

 

Mabon came back around to the front of the table. She leaned forward with both hands on the table, looking straight at Immin. "Truth be told, we knew something was going on here. Our school has eyes here and there, and we'd had reports of mystical happenings in Itaza. It was part of my job today to resolve the matter. I'd expected to find a rogue mage hiding here, needing to be put down. A battle between mages... well, no village would wish to be the battleground. I'm surprised indeed at what I did find."

 

Immin was finding Mabon's gaze unsettling. "Is Rinn in trouble?" he asked. "I'm sure she didn't mean anything by it."

 

"For discovering her own magic potential, her birthright? No. She's not in trouble, not unless she keeps using it untrained." Mabon straightened up and looked back at Rinn, then to the council at large. "You know Cloud Bridge School will take in any child who shows a mystical affinity in testing. Normally at a younger age, but Rinn's power is a special one. I will take her on directly as an apprentice. Her destiny is to follow in the legacy of her parents and become a master mage."

 

Immin loosened the chain around his neck. "Um, well, begging your pardon, but..." 

 

"You all keep asking for my pardon. Let's save time and assume you have it until further notice."

 

"Er, yes, well... usually a child's parents get compensated until their child's of age if the school takes them. Rinn's already of age and she doesn't have any parents. Of course we don't mean to get in the way of you and your school and destiny, but..." Immin trailed off.

 

The pause lengthened. Immin continued, "...but, well, erm, you understand Rinn's of value to Itaza. I mean, I don't know who else could take over teaching from Old Lady Godfrey, and I already mentioned she's the night lookout for the village, and she spends her nights without using any fuel in the stove up in the watchtower, that's a big savings to the—"

 

Mabon cut him off so suddenly he jumped in his chair. "I'll personally cover the full cost of Itaza's rain contract while she's my apprentice. Four years at the least. Once she becomes a full mage, she'll be allowed to take over the village's contract and you can negotiate new terms with her directly. Any objections?"

 

Immin looked around the room. The council was wide-eyed. He was finding it hard to stay composed himself. The rain deliveries cost the village more than every other expense put together. With four years they could build new cisterns, expand the fields, build a proper town hall. "I, I... I think that will be quite acceptable," he managed.

 

"Good. I'd like to speak to the young woman in private." Mabon gestured at the door.

 

"Of course, of course." The council filed out, all smiles. Mabon closed it behind them.

 

Rinn finally spoke up, still almost whispering. "Can I ask a question?"

 

Mabon turned. Rinn was still standing in exactly the same place, head still down. She was trembling slightly.

 

"By all means."

 

Rinn raised her head just far enough to meet Mabon's eyes. "Why did you lie to them?"

 

The mask was impassive as always, but Mabon paused for a long moment before saying, "About what?"

 

"Was any of it true?"

 

Mabon stood still, staring directly at Rinn, who was starting to shake.

 

Mabon finally looked away, and sighed. "Well, I could tell you were smart." She pulled a chair out from the table and sat down, her demeanor suddenly casual. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised. No. Almost none of it was true."

 

Rinn looked blankly at her.

 

"You can relax," said Mabon. "Sit down. I have to put on the serious mage act for business, but I don't like to treat an apprentice that way."

 

Rinn didn't move. Her mouth was half-open.

 

"Oh, come on," said Mabon. "You were sure enough of yourself to talk back to the scary mage, don't look so surprised when it turned out you were right." She gestured at her head. "Look, I've had these on all day. I'm just going to loosen up a bit, okay?"

 

She pulled down her hood and shook out her hair. It was brown, and tied low in short tails on either side of her head. She pulled up her mask, revealing...

 

...just a face. Two eyes, a nose and a mouth. No scars, no fangs, no glowing runes. Not ugly, not possessed of otherworldly beauty, but pretty enough, and Rinn couldn't quite place her age. She was clearly years older than Rinn, but her face lacked most of the signs of aging that accumulated in a frontier life.

 

"What's the matter?" asked Mabon. "What kind of rumors about the mask do you have here? The one about dying if you look at a mage's face seems to pop up everywhere."

 

"Um..."

 

"Oh... I'm sorry for making up the story about your parents, if that's a sore spot. I was improvising with what I had available."

 

"What parts of what you said were true?" asked Rinn.

 

"Well, first of all, it's true that you're not in trouble, so would you please relax? The policy that mages are have the right to take over their hometowns' contracts does actually exist, and I was sincere with the offer I made."

 

"That's it?" asked Rinn.

 

"Pretty much," said Mabon.

 

"Then why would you tell them I could use magic when I—"

 

"Oh! That's the other thing, right. You can use magic. And that did actually surprise me."

 

"But I can't!"

 

"No? So it just so happened that there was wind out in the fields ten feet around you and nowhere else as far as the eye could see?"

 

Rinn's eyes widened. "Uh..."

 

"It's okay. I'm genuinely impressed at what you've managed to learn. Like I said, you're not in trouble. I'm offering you a chance to take what you've managed to teach yourself, and build on it."

 

"But you don't understand. I really can't do magic!"

 

Mabon tilted her head to one side. "Okay. I'm going to assume you're smart enough that you're not seriously thinking you can try to persuade me I saw wrong. So I'm a little confused that you're denying it. What am I missing here? Did someone teach you and swear you to secrecy?"

 

"I..."

 

"No, I don't think that's it. You seem sincere, and you don't strike me as someone who's had a chance to develop lying skills in her life. I saw you do magic, you genuinely think you can't. Explain it to me."

 

Rinn was clenching her hands together on her chest with her head down, as if she wanted to fold up into herself and hide. Finally, she looked up and asked, "If I show you, will you promise to leave me alone?"

 

"Nnno. But proving me wrong is the only way I'm going to leave you alone, so you should probably show me if that's what you want."

 

Rinn was silent for several seconds. "All right," she said. "I'll show you. You'll see." She unclenched her hands, and held the palms out, close to her chest. She made several quick, outwards pushing motions.

 

"Nina, come out, please." she said. Nothing seemed to be happening. "Out," she repeated, punctuating a swifter push.

 

Rinn's clothes shifted oddly, as if a breeze were blowing at her from several directions at once. There was a ripple in the air around her, and it was flowing out from breaks and seams in her clothing. The distortion grew more pronounced and coalesced in front of her, finally coming together into the shape of a woman, about a foot tall. But that shape was still just a distortion in the air, difficult to see unless it moved.

 

"Wind, please." Rinn made another motion, this time holding her hands out far in front of her face and slowly bringing them in with gentle flapping motions. The little figure didn't move, but suddenly there was a draft in the room, which picked up into a breeze strong enough to blow Rinn's hair and clothes around.

 

"Thank you." said Rinn. "That's enough. Stop, please." She waved a cupped hand sideways, bringing it to a sudden halt. The breeze blew itself out.

 

"You can hide again, Nina." She held her hands balled together close in front of her, then pulled them apart, spreading her fingers, and finally brought them both in towards her chest. The figure in front of her spread out, became indistinct, and flowed back under Rinn's clothes. 

 

"See?" said Rinn. "She's the one who did it. I didn't ask her to, she just saw I was hot and was trying to help. You don't want me, I can't do any magic. But you can't take Nina!" She pressed her hands defensively to her chest. "She's my friend."

 

Mabon seemed frozen in place. Even without the mask hiding everything but her eyes, her stare was no less intense. Rinn shifted uncomfortably.

 

Mabon opened her mouth, and let it hang a moment before finally saying "You..." and trailing off.

 

"How did..." she stopped again.

 

She stood suddenly and paced a few steps. "I just... I want to be clear. You and that wisp are FRIENDS?"

 

"Wisp?" asked Rinn.

 

"I just don't know where to begin."

 

"Nina's a good friend."

 

Mabon rubbed her forehead. "You don't have any idea, do you? I mean, you really don't have any idea."

 

Rinn stepped away. "I don't know what the problem is, but she's my friend, I don't care if you don't like it."

 

"No, I'm not saying it's bad, I'm saying it's— gah, and you think I shouldn't be interested in you?" 

 

"But I just showed you that I'm not the one who—"

 

"You know what?" Mabon reached up and lowered the mask over her face. "Let's postpone this conversation. I need to think about how to proceed." She flipped her hood over her head as she stood up, and tightened the drawstrings. "Let's take a walk."

 

"What?"

 

"You can show me around the village."

 

"I'm supposed to be out in the fields."

 

"Everyone knows you're my apprentice now."

 

"But I can't use..."

 

"Yes, yes. Later. No one's going to argue. Come on." Mabon swept out towards the exit.

 

Rinn hurried along to catch up, but froze as she emerged into the street. The instant she'd come out, the bustle and noise had come to a stop. Every pair of eyes in sight were on Rinn.

 

Mabon glanced down at Rinn. She had folded up again and was starting to blush.

 

"Be about your business," Mabon said firmly to the crowd.

 

The villagers resumed their work in unnatural silence, talking only in whispers. Everyone was stealing glances at Rinn.

 

"Not used to being the center of attention?" said Mabon. "Well, that'll change when you're a mage."

 

Rinn was back to talking in a near-whisper. "But I can't—"

 

"I said later. Let's get you out of the street. Why don't you show me the schoolhouse?"

 

The schoolhouse was small, and wasn't much more than a room with a lectern, woven mats to sit on, and a few shelves of books, slates, and chalk. Tucked into a corner, there was a rolled-up sleeping mat on top of a lidded wicker basket with "RINN" woven into the side. 

 

Mabon pulled a book from one of the shelves and flipped through it. "This is an impressive library for a village this small. I suppose it's easy to get them with all the caravans that stop here for provisions."

 

Rinn had finally relaxed a bit, now that they were in the schoolhouse. "Mrs. Godfrey lets me choose books for the school. I bought a few with my own money too."

 

"Well, we have lots of books at Cloud Bridge. About all sorts of things, not just magic. You'll have that to look forward to."

 

"But I'm not—"

 

"No, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to go back to that conversation just yet." Mabon replaced the book on the shelf. "Let's talk about uh, Nina, instead. When did you first meet it?"

 

"Nina? I met her about six years ago."

 

"And how did you find it?"

 

"Why do you keep calling her an 'it?'"

 

"I don't know, why do you keep calling it a 'her?'"

 

"Well... because she looks like one."

 

"Wisps don't have sexes or a natural shape. If it... okay, if she makes herself look like that, it's for your benefit."

 

"Wisps?"

 

"Yes, I guess I never explained that. That's what Nina is, a wisp. They're called other names in other places. Spirits, elementals, fairies. But at Cloud Bridge we call them wisps."

 

"What are they?"

 

"That's a question we spend a lot of time teaching students the answer to. The short answer is that we're not really sure. The slightly longer, oversimplified, and only slightly more useful answer is that they can be seen as chunks of matter, given will. Or they can be seen as independent beings that inhabit matter. Neither explanation fits all the evidence. We know that they have at least an animal intelligence. We know each is attuned to some degree to an aspect or set of aspects of the material world. Within that domain they have the power to affect and change matter under their control, and store and retrieve it somewhere else."

 

"Somewhere else?"

 

"No one's sure where it goes. Think of it like a bag that only they can use, and you can't see or touch the bag."

 

Rinn considered this. "Okay. I guess that explains some of what Nina can do. And affecting and changing matter... you mean things like blowing air at me to cool me down, or heating up the air around me to warm me up?"

 

"Yes. I was wondering if that's what was happening, with what the Mayor said about you staying out at night without fuel in the stove."

 

"Yeah... as long as I bundle up she does the rest."

 

"And how do you get her to do it?"

 

"She knows when I'm cold, now. At first I had to explain it to her."

 

"Using... words and hand gestures?"

 

"I think she's looking at how I move the air, not my hands. She didn't understand it if I pointed, but she understood if I waved my hand at something."

 

"You're right. They mainly sense their element. You can think of their sense of sight like our sense of smell. It's serviceable, but usually only sensitive to strong stimuli. So how does she communicate back?"

 

"Uh, she blows air around, makes sounds, makes shapes in the air... when she looks like a girl she can use body language... she's starting to learn a few words too."

 

"Really? Can you show me?"

 

Rinn looked down at her clothes. "Nina, do you want to come out?"

 

"No," whispered her shirt. It sounded alien, as if spoken by someone not familiar with the language, or maybe with language at all, but the syllable was still recognizable.

 

"I see," said Mabon. "Anyway, you never answered my original question. How did you meet Nina?"

 

"She just showed up one day. I was alone reading."

 

"And did she communicate?"

 

"Uh... she turned into her girl shape, then turned into air, then went into my clothes and wrapped herself around me."

 

"What did you do?"

 

"I tried to brush her off, but I guess then I realized she wasn't hurting anything."

 

"And then?"

 

"I let her stay."

 

"And you started figuring out how to communicate?"

 

"Yes. It was hard at first."

 

"And she's been with you since? She hasn't shown herself to anyone else?"

 

"She only comes out by herself when I'm alone. She doesn't usually stay out for very long."

 

"Interesting. I wonder if she picked you because she noticed you kept away from other people."

 

"Um, I'm not sure. It's hard to ask her things like that."

 

Mabon was silent for a moment. She nodded at the mat and basket in the corner. "Have you always lived in the schoolhouse?"

 

"Only since I was old enough to be on my own. Mrs. Godfrey lets me stay here."

 

"Where did you live before then?"

 

"With the Mayor. But I've lived with lots of people. Whoever could take me in."

 

"I see. And you're the night lookout?"

 

"One of them."

 

"What do you do?"

 

"Watch for anyone trying to sneak up on the village."

 

"And if you see anyone?"

 

"Ring the bell for the militia."

 

"Hmm. Is that a job young women usually do here?"

 

"I guess not."

 

"So how'd you get it?"

 

"One night Nina told me there were a bunch of people way outside the village, and I told one of the lookouts, and he didn't believe me at first, but the next morning they found a bunch of footprints out there. So they asked me to do it."

 

"I see. Nina's suited for it, it doesn't matter if it's dark or light when the air's moving."

 

"Uh huh."

 

Mabon stood. "I'm hungry. Are you hungry? Let's visit the inn."

 

There was no one there when they arrived. Mabon looked from one wall to the other. "Large inn for such a small village," she said. "I guess you need one when your business is resupplying caravans."

 

"I think Mr. Avery the innkeeper is busy with the rain traps," said Rinn. "I think we'll have to come back when he's done."

 

"Don't worry. Plenty of people saw us go in. Mages never wait long for service."

 

Right on cue, there was the sound of the back door slamming, running footsteps through the kitchen, and then Mr. Avery came in nearly fast enough to fall over the bar.

 

"W, wuh," he caught his breath, "welcome to my humble inn, your honorableness. What can I do for you this fine day?"

 

Mabon put a handful of copper coins on the bar. "Two bowls of stew and a private room."

 

"Oh, but I wouldn't dream of taking payment from an esteemed wizard such as yourself."

 

"Don't argue. The room?"

 

"Uh, in the back there, your excellocity." Mr. Avery pointed. "I'll bring out the stew right away!" He hurried into the kitchen.

 

They'd barely sat down when Mr. Avery reappeared with two bowls. "I hate to set such meager fare before you, your graciousness, but ours is but a poor village, and—"

 

"Yes, yes. That will be fine."

 

He set them down with as much reverence as he could muster. "Is there anything else, madam ladyship? I've still got three tarps to set up, but if there's anything I could possibly do..."

 

"Leave us. Close the door."

 

"Right away!" He bowed his way out of the room, awkwardly reached over without straightening up, and shut the door.

 

Mabon shook her head. "I was starting to worry he was going to run out of honorifics to mangle." She pulled off her mask, and set it off to the side on the table.

 

Rinn looked at it. "You don't normally take that off, right?" she asked.

 

"Not on business, no. Not in front of clients."

 

"How do you eat?"

 

"Like this. In private." Mabon stirred her bowl. "Let's see what we've got... beans, maize, squash, what's this, some kind of sliced sausage?"

 

"Why?"

 

"It's good to ask before you dig in, they eat weird things in some places."

 

"No, I mean—"

 

"I know what you meant." Mabon set her spoon down. "You're wondering, why wear strange clothes and the mask and act intimidating and lie to people?"

 

"Um... I guess I am."

 

"Well, first of all, the clothes have practical purposes, even the mask. But I won't go into that just now. But other than that, the clothes, the act, the story I told the council, it's all for the same reason. Before I tell you, though, I want to know, how did you figure out I was lying earlier?"

 

"I... wasn't sure. But it seemed like you probably were."

 

"Go on."

 

"I guess most of it didn't quite make sense. I've read a chronicle of the Expulsion War, and there wasn't anything about a Rimeri dynasty."

 

"What else?"

 

"I don't think my parents would have traveled in a caravan if they were mages. Nina sees people speeding across the desert at night all the time. Those are mages, right? No one's ever mentioned seeing them during the day. Even if my parents were trying to stay hidden, why would they choose crossing the desert in a week instead of one night?"

 

"Okay."

 

"And if Cloud Bridge knew that my parents were coming this way, wouldn't you have sent someone to find out what happened, or collect their effects, or something? It's hard to believe that in all this time, no one from the school would have heard about me."

 

"Fair point. Anything else?"

 

"I guess I was wondering why they'd only send one person if you thought there would be a rogue mage to fight. I mean... I guess there are ways all of that could be explained, but it was a lot of holes for one story."

 

Mabon smiled. "Hang on to that skepticism, it'll serve you well." She leaned back. "Well, the reason I lied is pretty simple. Remember how I said most of the story was a lie? Think back. Remember anything that would be pretty dramatic if it weren't true?" 

 

"You're not talking about the story with my parents, right?"

 

"Right."

 

Rinn stared into her bowl, racking her memory. She looked up suddenly. "You said the power to use magic is a rare gift."

 

"Right. There's no special potential for it. Anyone could use it."

 

"So it's all to hide that?"

 

"Yes. It's the school's policy."

 

"Why?"

 

Mabon's expression turned grave. "Because magic is dangerous. It's ridiculously dangerous. I came here to make a rainstorm. Multiply that a few times, and I could wash Itaza off the map. And we don't even use the more dangerous types of wisp at Cloud Bridge." She leaned forward. "Of course, someone messing with magic blindly would be lucky to get that far. In fact, they'd be lucky to kill themselves before they killed everyone around them. The only thing that'd be worse is if they succeeded, and wielded that power without the discipline or ethics we teach."

 

Rinn thought about it. "I guess that makes sense."

 

"Or it's a load of alarmist tripe, we're fools hiding behind silly costumes, and we should be sharing the knowledge of magic with as many people as possible for the greater good of humanity."

 

"Huh?"

 

"There's more than one side to everything. Personally, I think the school's policy is broadly a good one. I don't want to tear it down. But it's not perfect, and there could be other approaches that are just as good. It's important to remember that."

 

Rinn looked blankly at Mabon.

 

Mabon caught Rinn's expression and relaxed. She shook her head. "I'm getting ahead of myself. Tell me, you've never taken the tests, have you?"

 

"I've never been out of the village. But the children who've gone have told me about it, and I didn't really put it together until just now, but... if there's no mystical gift to test for, are you just testing how smart they are?"

 

"Intelligence and perceptiveness, yes. Because magic is also very hard, and it's the school's policy to pass it on to those who can best wield it, and to start teaching them as early in life as possible."

 

Rinn thought about it. "I'm not a kid any more. Is it possible for me to still learn magic?"

 

Mabon gave her a sharp look. "Trying to sneak back into to that particular conversation?"

 

"Well..." Rinn looked away.

 

"We'll come back to it. Give me a little longer. Now eat up, we've got a hike ahead of us."

 

Two hours later, Rinn was ready to collapse. She turned to look back down the mountain path, shielding her eyes from the low sun. The village didn't seem nearly far enough away for how badly her feet were aching.

 

"Want me to carry you?" asked Mabon.

 

"Give me a break. I'm usually sleeping right now," said Rinn.

 

"I wasn't teasing, you don't look like you weigh much."

 

"Just give me a minute."

 

Mabon handed her the water flask. "At least it'll be much easier going back down."

 

Rinn took a swig and handed it back. "Why do you have to go so far to do this?"

 

"Rain works best from a height. But we're about high enough. There's a good spot just a little further up. Come on."

 

The spot was a small clearing near the road, where trees had been felled. Mabon pulled down her hood, then pulled off the mask and hung it on a low branch. She left them there and found a seat on a large stump, and gestured for Rinn to do the same.

 

"All right. I think I'm ready." she pulled off her gloves and tucked them in a pocket. "So then: yes, you can use magic."

 

Rinn sat down. She bent over, and took a minute to catch her breath. When she finally came up, she said, "Okay. Explain it to me."

 

"No more 'but I can't?'"

 

"Well... there's got to be some reason you didn't dismiss me when I showed you Nina, right? And some reason you had to take time to think about this conversation?"

 

"Using your brain. Good. Well, from a certain point of view you were actually correct. You can't use magic. But from that same point of view, no human can."

 

Rinn considered this. "Does that mean that all magic is just asking wisps to do things?"

 

"Very good. Now then." Mabon held out her hand and muttered something. Just above her palm, a misty sphere faded into existence. "This is a raincloud wisp."

 

"Like Nina?"

 

"They're both wisps, but Nina appears to be a rising air wisp, and an unusually pure one if I'm not mistaken."

 

"What's this one called?"

 

"It doesn't have a name."

 

"Oh. So... you ask it to make rain for you? That's how you do it?"

 

"In broad terms, yes."

 

"I guess I don't understand. How can it make rain for the whole village? Is it a lot more powerful than Nina? She gets tired pretty fast just playing catch."

 

"Playing catch?"

 

"I throw a ball, and she stops it and throws it back."

 

"Amazing. Well, first of all, you can get more power out of wisps, depending on how you use them. And second, I have about thirty raincloud wisps within my body."

 

Rinn was horrified. "You mean you ATE them?"

 

"No! It's more metaphysical than that. Look..." she muttered something again. The misty sphere dissipated. "Now that one's within me too. Right now it and the others don't have a material presence. Think of it like extra souls riding along in my body."

 

"Um, okay. That sounds weird. Why do you have them in your body?"

 

"That goes back to the 'how you use them' part. Normally wisps are limited in what they can do, like you've seen with Nina. But when they're in a body, they can channel far greater power through that body."

 

"Channel through it? I don't understand."

 

"Well, good timing, then. The sun has gone down." She stood up. "It's time for a demonstration. Stay here."

 

She walked back to the branch her mask was on, undoing the belt of her robe. She let it fall open, revealing she was wearing nothing underneath.

 

Rinn jumped to her feet. "What are... what are you doing?!"

 

"Just sit down and watch."

 

Mabon shrugged the robe off, and tossed it over the branch. She kicked her shoes off and let them fall at the base of the tree. She undid the ties at her ankles, then untied the belt and pulled down her trousers, leaving her completely nude. She stepped out of them and hung them on the tree branch next to the robe.

 

Rinn was blushing brightly. "Wh, why are you... why..." she stammered.

 

Mabon stretched, ignoring her. She looked trim and fit, like she wasn't carrying a single spare pound. She walked uphill a few paces, apparently unconcerned at her nudity. She stopped at the edge of the clearing and turned, facing downhill. She stood in a wide stance, took a deep breath, and said something in a language Rinn didn't recognize.

 

And then she just stood there. Rinn tried to look without staring, but Mabon didn't seem to be doing anything, just moving a little. Moving oddly. With the low, diffuse light, it took Rinn a moment to understand what she was seeing.

 

Mabon's flat belly was growing, as if she were going through pregnancy in seconds. By the time her belly swelled beyond the bounds of any normal pregnancy, her growth started to change. It was spreading to her whole torso, her sides were rounding out, and her chest rose as if she had taken a deep breath and kept going. 

 

Her thighs and upper arms started to thicken along with her widening torso, followed by her lower legs and forearms. Her hips kept up by widening, her shoulders broadening. So far she had grown outwards, but now she was starting to grow upwards. It started in her torso, making it grow out of proportion to the rest of her, but it quickly spread to the rest of her. And now even her hands and feet were swelling. Her cheeks puffed up as if she were holding a breath, but then that puffiness spread as her head started to widen all around, flattening and spreading out her facial features.

 

She still looked basically human, in the sense of having a head and limbs connected to a torso. But that torso was now egg-shaped, the head was broad and puffy, and the limbs were thick. It was like a bizarre parody of the human shape. All the little details had been stretched out by her expansion into smooth curves, there was little sign left of her body's musculature or skeletal structure.

 

Her body's shape and proportions seemed to be stabilizing. Now she was growing mostly in size. She looked to already be twice her normal height, and gaining several inches a second in all directions.

 

There was a snap from one side of her head, then the other. Her hair ties had popped. "Rats," said Mabon. "Forgot those." Her voice had a greater depth to it now, almost an echo.

 

Mabon glanced down as her head rose above the trees. Rinn was standing, staring up at her, looking terrified. She looked to be tensed to run, but frozen in place. "It's okay," said Mabon. "You're not in danger."

 

Mabon took a step back, moving with a floaty slowness. She braced her back up against a pair of trees. She reached out to either side and grabbed hold of a tree in either hand. Thus secured, she uttered something unintelligible again. Her body pulsed larger for a moment, then she opened her mouth.

 

There was a tremendous rushing sound as a white, foggy jet shot from Mabon's mouth. It went on and on, slowing as it floated away from her, growing and darkening into a dark cloud. And the cloud spread out, rolling towards the village as the jet fed it. Mabon was exhaling an entire rainstorm.  

 

As the clouds reached the far side of the fields, the rushing sound stared to trail off, and Mabon started to shrink. Her growth played out in reverse. She lost her scale until she got close to her original height, then the swelling retreated from outwards in, first her head starting to contract, her hands and feet thinning out, her arms and legs slimming down, her shoulders and hips retreating, her waist going from convex to concave, her chest falling, and finally she was back to just a belly, and then that was gone.

 

She appeared to have returned perfectly to normal. Rinn had watched the whole process, but it was hard to believe that the now very small-looking Mabon had been the bloated giant just minutes ago.

 

Mabon walked back to the tree branch with her clothes, and got dressed, as if nothing strange had just happened. She left her mask off, letting it hang from her hand as she walked back to the spot that Rinn hadn't moved an inch from the whole time.

 

"Well," said Mabon, "that's it for my job. I need get back to rest at the inn, have to start back early tomorrow. I imagine you'll be coming along."

 

Rinn couldn't remember the last time she had yelled at anyone, and was even a little surprised to hear herself say at the top of her lungs, "Why would you think I'd want to come after seeing that?! I'm not going to put Nina in my soul or body or anywhere! Why would I want to be some kind of naked... obese... giant person?!"

 

"Well, the giant naked obesity can be pretty useful. But there are other forms of magic as well, that's just one of them. You can specialize in what you like, though you'd have to learn the basics of all of them at the school."

 

"No, no... I'm not going to do it! My clothes are staying on and I'm staying small!"

 

Mabon looked unimpressed. "Well, the thing is... you don't really have a choice."

 

Rinn took a step back. "You're going to force me? If I tell the Mayor that you lied, he—"

 

"The Mayor is terrified of me, along with every other person in Itaza. But no, I'm not going to force you."

 

"Then what—"

 

"You're going to force you."

 

"You're going to use magic to make me obey?"

 

Mabon rolled her eyes. "No. And there's no such thing as mind control magic."

 

"Then... all the stuff you said to the council, it was to guilt me? So I'd be forced to—"

 

"Look. If you tell me you really, truly don't want to come with me after hearing me out, I promise I'll still pay for four years of water, all right? And I'll think up some great new lies so people won't think you have powers any more, I'm pretty good at it. Now stop being indignant for a second and listen. I'm not going to be dishonest with an apprentice, prospective or not, without a damn good reason."

 

Rinn glared, but stayed silent.

 

"Good. Now I'm going to remind you of some things that I bet you already know. First off, even if you do keep to yourself and hide your face, there's no escaping that you've grown into a cute young woman. Oh, does it really just take a compliment to make you go from surly to bashful?

 

"Anyway. It's only going to be a matter of time before you get marriage proposals, if you haven't—yes, your face tells me you've already had some. I'm really going to have to teach you not to wear your emotions on your sleeve.

 

"And I bet you've had people encourage you to accept a proposal. Am I wrong? Didn't think so. That pressure isn't going to go away. In fact it's going to get worse, you've only got so long to have children after all. In a village like this, if you've got a womb, people think you've got a duty to use it. Whether it's because Old Lady Godfrey would like to see her son's grandchildren before she passes on, or because the Mayor is concerned about maintaining the future of the village, or because any other number of reasons from all the people that raised you. Can you really keep refusing if they insist? If they take away your jobs? If they kick you out of the schoolhouse?

 

"So eventually you're either going to have to run away from the village, and no offense, but you're not going to be able to survive on your own, or you're going to have to get married. And then before you know it you'll be pregnant, and then you'll have a child to look after, and then another, then who knows how many more, so that's the next couple decades or so decided for you.

 

"I know you just want things to stay the same as they are now. You just want to be left alone to be with your friend and read your books. But you must have figured out that it can't last forever.

 

"Magic can be scary, I'm not going to pretend it isn't. But what you have to understand is that whether you stay or go is only the superficial question. The real one is: Is it scarier to go and become a mage, or scarier to lose the ability to choose your life for yourself? Once you complete your apprenticeship, you can return to the village, work for the school, travel to another country... it's up to you to decide."

 

Rinn was doing her best to resent Mabon's speech. She wanted to tell Mabon she was wrong, that she had the strength to make her own life no matter what. But instead, she asked "Why do you want me to become your apprentice so much? Do you use that same speech for any girl that makes friends with a wisp?"

 

"I want you as an apprentice because you're special, Rinn."

 

"You said all that stuff was a lie."

 

"No, I don't mean you're special like in a stupid fairy tale. I mean that... I'm saying you're..." Mabon pinched the bridge of her nose. "Look, I don't use that same speech for anyone, because people and wisps don't become friends."

 

"What? But..."

 

"It just doesn't happen. I've never even heard of anyone having a real conversation with one."

 

"Then how do you ask them to do things?"

 

"We don't ask, we command. In a language that compels them to obey. They don't speak it, they don't speak any language. But speak the right syllables, or draw the right symbol, or make the right motions, and they'll do what you ask. That's what we study at the school, that language and its intricacies. Rinn, I don't know if anyone has ever done what you've done. Befriended a wisp. Invented a way to communicate with it, truly communicate. And to be fair, Nina is special too, to have befriended a human. I want you to be my apprentice, I want to teach you what I know and see what you can do with it. And I want to find out what I can learn from you."

 

Mabon turned to face back down the path. "Or you can stay in the village. It's up to you. But unless I've completely, and I mean completely misread you, it's not really a choice for you."

 

Rinn drew a big breath, and let it out slowly. "...All right. I'll go."

 

Mabon patted her on the shoulder. "Yep. Now let's get back so you can get packed and get some rest. We're leaving at dawn."

 

 

Author's Note: 

First part of a series.

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