Chapter X: Relation

That night in the Academy was the best I had slept in weeks. Sandron provided us with a warm meal (roast ham!) in the Academy, and then he rolled out some cots in one of the back rooms. I was almost asleep before my head had reached the straw.

It was the most comfortable sleep I’d have for the rest of my life.

We left early, rousing a grumpy Naht from uncertain dreams an hour before dawn, crossing the bridge over the Blue, and parting the dewy grasses to the north of town with only Sandron and the town’s night sentry to see us off.

Despite this being one of the old League roads, it was tough going. The Orlan midlands seemed scrunched up here in their descent toward the wide coastal lowlands. The road swerved wickedly through passes and slid down rocky faces, and rocks littered the gaps that had grown between the laid stones. The going was especially hard for Naht, whose legs were significantly shorter and were already stiff with his hasty journey he had made from Duranlach to Mal’s cabin outside of Fertheaux. We stopped early on the first afternoon after Mal had noticed his gait beginning to wobble. He insisted we could, and should, continue. I came in on Mal’s side of the argument with a ponderous lecture about the effects of long-term fatigue on a human body and the moral wisdom of setting the right pace to achieve a goal, and Naht relented. Being tediously right is one of my most formidable powers. I promise that I only use it responsibly.

On the second day, we had a late lunch on a stony bluff that afforded a gorgeous view of the Rim to our east. The road disappeared around a bend before us. I unwrapped a piece of cured lamb and some dried fruit. I had tried to pay Sandron for them before leaving Peraise, but he had refused, and Mal pointed out that we would need every one of the little golden crests clinking in the coin pocket of my satchel to afford a ship to the north, anyway. I had felt wretched at the time, like I was taking advantage of Sandron’s trust and earnest offers to help. But as I passed the lamb out to Mal and Naht now, I felt quite thankful and comfortable having both the food and the coin.

We ate in silence. Soon it struck me how unusual that was. It’s all well and good to eat in silence on a windy overlook watching the sun shine off one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world. But Naht was ten. Worse than that, he was a wizard’s kid. Wizards, wizards’ apprentices, and wizard’s kids share many traits amongst themselves, one in particular being brattiness. We grow up with access to our tools and our creature comforts, we foster our talents in orderly environs and snug daily routines, and we practice our crafts for a polite audience. Many of us experience few difficulties outside academic ones, and when we do… sometimes it isn’t pretty.

So who was this kid? Who was this strange ten-year-old who would endure weeks on the road and threats to his life with glum aplomb?

Twin anxieties—the fear of upsetting Naht and the fear of leaving him alone with whatever monsters may be lurking in his thoughts—dueled in my mind.

Mal elbowed me, and I shot her a look.

“You’re thinking,” she accused.

“Aren’t I always thinking?”

“You really show it when you’re not sure if you want to say something or not.”

“Wait. How do you mean?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. A look on your face. You do it a lot. Want to say something, then you don’t. I’m always curious as to the thoughts you keep inside.”

I paused, imagining distractedly previous times I must have done this and what I might’ve been thinking. What I had chosen not to tell Mal over the years.

I sighed. “You’re right.”

I finished my pice of lamb and wiped my hands on a travel rag. I waited for Naht to finish nibbling on a piece of dried apple and caught his eyes.

“Naht. How… are you?”

“I’m fine.”

There was a brief silence.

“Do you have anything on your mind?”


Another silence. This one was broken by Mal, giggling through a mouthful of apple.

“You’re hopeless, Howe.”

That drew a strange stare from Naht, and I’m sure my own eyebrows arced curiously.

“Naht, Howe thinks you’re strange, clearly. I think he wants to make a study of you.”

Naht pivoted. “A what? A study? Like a… rat? Or a worm?”

My face was reddening. “No! No no no! I would never subject a child to… I mean, I read and study every day, but…”

Mal’s eyes narrowed mischievously. “Ooh! Like a rat. You do like cheese.”

“I’m not going to try to plumb the boy’s mind, Mal!”

“Plumb? Is that how you study things?”

“Well, yes, but wait wait, more to the point…”

“Don’t let him plumb my mind!”

“Oh, I promise, I would never let him.”

“I promise I won’t!”

I waved my hands, producing a usefully noisy flapping of dark robes.

“Let me set this all straight. I believe what Mal is trying to say is that, yes, Naht, I do find you strange. Not for your body or your age! Not mainly, anyway. You simply are unlike many of the children I know your age. I expect children of your age to be noisy, playing with and tormenting their siblings and asking curious questions of their elders. You are not. You are… lonesome. Quiet. And I fear you understand more of what is happening to you—what you are enduring—than you should.”

Naht thought about this.

“Why shouldn’t I?”

I sighed. Should is a tricky word that can mean many things, and I had laid it like a rug over a hole in my understanding, hoping my meaning would be clear without being certain of what meaning that was. I took a second to try to discover the truth.

“I mean that I would expect children your age to understand little—mercifully little—about things such as danger, death, and injustice. And not only do I expect them to, I believe it is a terrible thing to make a child understand such things. It… well, robs them of something, you see.”

There was silence as we looked across to the great, snow-peaked Rim, out over the rolling lowlands below us.

“I don’t know what I’ve been robbed of. I just wish I could have my dad back.”

“I wish that for you too.”

“… So you think I’m strange because I understand too much?”

“Well… yes. Just so.”

“You’re strange.”

That evening brought with it the return of Spook, who nearly startled me to death. I had been reading the Astronomy of the North by candlelight (the most immediately useful of the disciplines in our case, particularly as related to navigation) when I looked up and saw two eyes glinting in the darkness. Only after nearly leaping out of my travel robe, and straining my eyes to see better, did I realize that it was the pale little owl who had delivered my letter of resignation, watching me from his customary perch on Malisa’s shoulder.

It was easy to forget, sometimes, that Mal’s cheery little companion was a nocturnal predator by nature. Or perhaps I should say “in form.” He was, as they say, Mal’s familiar spirit, and it seems almost demeaning to such spirits to say that they are anything “by nature.” To say nothing of the Dreamers they are bound to.

Mal, too, turned to regard me. Then she smiled and drew herself up in a cross-legged seating position.

“Howe. While Naht’s asleep, I had something to run by you.”


“It’s a few days more to Épineuil. We should have a plan for when we get there. No?”

I began the compulsive beard-scratching of my station. “True.”

“We’ll need to spend at least some time in the city. Provisions, at least. We should talk to some townsfolk to learn about goings-on. And maybe we could learn more about river transport while we’re there.”

“True, which means… Naht.”

“Exactly. I don’t have friends I trust as much as Sandron there. It would simply be easier for Naht to be… unseen.”

I mulled it over. Spells that render oneself or another invisible are old, but they are complicated. The ideal invisibility spell works by allowing light to pass through an arbitrary collection of moving surfaces and textures (like, say, a person’s flesh, bone, organs, hair, eyes, and clothes) and are extremely complicated, requiring an advanced vocabulary of ideas and putting a heavy burden on one’s mind to keep ready. Lesser spells exist, such as ones that affect fewer things (say, only living matter, not clothes), or ones that only affect slow-moving things. Several of these were within my reach. The real difficulty would be explaining to Naht the strange and unintuitive ways in which he would have to behave to avoid being partially seen.

“Well. I do have ways of doing that. But they’re fraught and take quite a bit of practice on the part of the subject, or else…”

Mal dismissed the idea with a wave before I got too far into it. “I agree. I would prefer a seeming.”

I wracked my mind. “A seeming. Hmm. I suppose that means you would prefer to influence the minds of the townsfolk such that they see him as something he is not?”

“Close. I would alter… Naht’s relation to the town. Suppress it for a few days. Just one little relation. Should affect everyone connected to the town without the difficulty of touching every individual mind.”

“Clever! Very clever. I have no idea how to name an instance of relation, let alone manipulate one, to say nothing of suppressing one without sundering it.”

Mal beamed.

“I’d teach you, but I’m afraid you’d have to learn a few decades of the basics first.”

She was right about that. Her magic was not one I could come by easily.

“You say ‘connected to the town’. I imagine that this means that strangers in town may see him?”

“Anybody in the town has some sort of connection to it. And if they’re only ever meeting Naht in town… their relation to him goes through that relation. We’re fine there. The problem is…”

“… the white magus.”

Mal chuckled grimly. “The White Magus. She’d like that, I’m sure. So noble and proud.”

“Oh, come off it. You must know I don’t mean praise for such a woman.”

“I know, I know. Say. This is important. Do you think you can learn anything about her at Épineuil?”

“Why would I be able to?”

“Well, she obviously practices your art.”

I crossed my arms, hurt.

“You don’t mean to tar me with that brush, do you?”

“No. Maybe. I’m kidding. Anyway, I’ve heard you say it before—you know who all of the court wizards are. You know their fields of expertise and their tutors and their rolls of accomplishment. But you don’t know this woman.”

She folded her hands in her lap, forcing herself not to gesticulate so excitedly with them with Naht sleeping so close as she continued.

“There just aren’t that many people who are that good at ink-magic. You can count them on two hands. The point being… someone had to teach her, right? Or did she teach someone? What does she do with those talents? You don’t become a powerful wizard just to not have an affect on the world. Surely someone you know knows.”

She was, once more, painfully right. Painful, because this woman was a member of the elite I belonged to, that I was so proud to belong to. She was one of us, and she was up to something wicked.

“Yes. Probably. I shall take some time and make some inquiries.”

I looked over at Naht, a tiny, dark form sleeping wrapped up in a thick blanket on a grassy patch of earth.

“He doesn’t deserve this,” I remarked.

“That woman? No. He doesn’t deserve what she has in mind. He didn’t deserve to have his father taken from him. But he does deserve a chance.”