Chapter Five

Seya spent half the morning debating the ethics of taking Vico’s money and running. After his unexpected welcoming, the mere idea of it felt like a gross betrayal. She had finished her tea, cleaned the kitchen, poked around the entirety of the tiny, shabby apartment, and still felt no closer to a decision. As she unfolded the bills to count them, the key charm to the apartment fell out onto the table. “You sneaky bastard,” she said, unexpectedly touched and slightly annoyed by the blatant attempt to manipulate her—of course she couldn’t leave him without a way to get back into his apartment. She almost left it there, but then she sighed and put it in her pocket with the money. Locking up after herself, she went to have a turn about her old hometown in the daylight. 

She tried to keep a low profile as she walked through the neighborhood. Worry plagued her—would Corin would be angry with Vico for helping her, or worse, use his authority to to force Vico into an attempt to persuade her to join the clan? There were very few things she wouldn’t do for her bond-brother, but that was one of them. She didn’t know if leaving before such a thing had a chance to play out would make things better for him, or worse. 

Not that I could stay to find out anyway, she thought, and sighed. It was so tempting to stick around, let someone take care of her for a little while—she was so tired of running, and sick to death of being alone. But it wasn’t worth the risk.

Still, with a good night’s sleep and some real food in her for the first time in a week, she felt cautiously optimistic of her chances. She would look up Aren, she decided; Vico had told her he’d taken over Halcyon Clinic. He would be able to tell her where his mother was, and she’d figure something out. She always did.

That was the plan, anyway. As she paced through the streets, trying to remember the way to the clinic, she kept catching that sense of persistent wrongness in the city’s ambient energy. Last night she had chalked it up to the residual effects of the burnt-out factory and all the new industrialization. Now she wasn’t so sure.

A certain amount of dissonance was normal wherever there were people to disturb the natural lines and resonances of a place; the thousands of minor conflicts of magics and aural resonances caused the energies to move and intersect in ways that weren’t always in harmony. The sensation was the magical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard to her over-strong sense. This one was subtle, a faint undercurrent mostly hidden in the humming, everyday energy of the city’s aura. She only noticed it because she was keeping an eye for just such dissonance. If DeGraffenreid did have eyes in Starling, she’d sense the dissonance unique to his coercion bonds eventually. 

This…was not his. But after studying the energy for a while, she decided it was enough like it that she abandoned her original objective and started circling out from where she was to get a more thorough sense of it.

 

Zan paced along the low wall that surrounded the Halcyon property, ostensibly finishing the ward check he’d left off the night before, but his eyes moved over the streets and alleys that circled the property without really seeing them. The brief encounter with the mysterious girl the night before bothered him far more than he felt he had any reason to be. He didn’t think he had ever seen her before, although the dark had made it difficult to be certain. Her shaken reaction to the news of Dalen’s death and Winter’s departure had seemed genuine and that momentary sense of someone utterly lost stayed with him. It reminded him of too much of himself, before he had come to Halcyon, for him to put it out of his mind.

He looked up and realized he had come all the way back to the front gate with no memory of half the walk. He shook his head at his absentmindedness and went back around to do a proper check. When he had satisfied himself on that the school’s protections were all in place and fully operative, he went to the kitchen to start breakfast.

He found Adiel had already started it. Again. 

“You’re late today, Master Zan,” Adiel said.

“I’m sorry, Adiel, I’m afraid I was a little distracted this morning.”

“Did something happen?”

“No, it’s nothing.” He put on a kettle for tea. “You know don’t have to make breakfast every morning.”

“Yeah, you keep telling me that,” Adiel said. “But you’re letting me stay here for free. The least I can do is help out. You work too hard.”

Adiel had been one Zan’s first students after he had taken over the school from his aunt. He had been fostered at the school for almost a year, since his parents had died in an accident, and technically, it wasn’t for free, as the government paid a stipend to Halcyon for his care. “You don’t need to worry so much. The school isn’t that badly off, and I enjoy my work.”

“Someone ought to worry, though. You’re too nice! If I wasn’t here, people would just walk all over you. Don’t think I didn’t hear about the Lacelle kids coming in an hour early every day this week because their grandmother is working different shifts at her job.”

“It’s not an imposition. I truly do not mind looking after them. They’re both good kids.”

Adiel groaned. “This is what I’m talking about. You don’t even think you’re being imposed on!”

Zan smiled. “Thank you for worrying, but it really is fine. However, I will need to go to the market if we’re feeding four today.”

They went though the usual morning chores first: cleaning the kitchen, resetting the housekeeping spells that had started to dissipate, setting watering spells in the garden, checking in with the older spirits for any dissonance that might have cropped up in Halcyon’s lines. Nothing too strenuous. A routine morning, except for the feeling nagging at the edge of Zan’s sense, like there was something missing, though he could not have said precisely what, when everything felt just as it always had since he’d come to work at Halcyon five years before. It had felt like that since the strange girl left the night before. 

Adiel insisted on coming with him to the market. “You’re terrible at haggling,” he said. Zan just smiled and agreed that this was probably true. As the son of a high clan, he’d never had to shop in a common market for himself or anyone else before coming to Starling. 

It was already quite warm out when they set out. There was a car with a heavily warded energy signature parked across the street. 

“Master Zan…”

“I see it,” Zan said, pausing to shut the wards on the gate. He wasn’t particularly worried, but he still moved between Adiel and the vehicle, and kept note of it in his sense until they had gone out of range. 

“I’ll bet it’s Malthusius,” Adiel said. “It’s been a while since they sent someone to bother you about selling.”

That was certainly a possibility, but it was also just as likely to be Zan’s family, who made no secret of the fact that they were keeping tabs on him. His older sister Laurien had a habit of dropping in to remind him of just how many ways his selfishness was harming Montreides. They couldn’t do anything to him that he couldn’t handle, but he didn’t want them upsetting Adiel or any of his other students. He frowned into the distance, wondering if he should say something to Laurien next time she came. He tried to keep his interactions with his family civil, but there was a limit to how much he was willing to overlook.

Adiel misread his expression. “If it bothers you that much you should make a report to the guard,” he said.

“I probably should. Though if it is Malthusius, I doubt it will do any good.”

Adiel made a disgusted face. “What did we even have a war for if the clans can still do whatever they want?”

“Unfortunately, legal authority is not the only power in this world,” Zan said. “And change, real, substantial change, does not come easily, especially to those with power. As a country, we have relied so long on the clan system that even those who wish change find themselves walled in by deeply entrenched traditions.”

“You mean like the pinnacle system?” Adiel said.

“That’s one example,” Zan said. “The existing power structure still favors clan pinnacles over school pinnacles because clan magic is seen as stronger, and that’s not entirely wrong, from a purely elemental point of view. You’ve never experienced the clan mindset firsthand, so it’s harder for you to understand the culture of ‘strength before everything’ that pervades it.”

“But you’re clan and you’ve said yourself that strength isn’t everything.”

“It is true that I no longer believe that—I don’t know that I ever did, really, I just wasn’t given many other options growing up in the Montreides household. But that mindset did not come about by accident, either. It’s rooted in our history with the Arisi conquerers and the immigrants fleeing their oppressive regime. They were taken in by the Caldi in the hopes of expanding our repertoire of magics, which then relied strongly on religious and familial bonds. The addition of the more technical aspects of elementalism changed our original clan structure and bond methods, and we used it to fortify Caldona against the Second Wave. The new magics complemented each other in a way the strictly regimented religious magic of the Arisi could not break, and that was the beginning of our modern clan system. It developed over the next thirty years into something like what we have now, but the focus then was on building strong bonds, per the original Caldi precepts. Then Third Wave brought about the cold war with the Arisi, and the clan system turned more toward ‘strength’ again, preparing for the coming fight.”

“But we didn’t have another actual war with the Arisi then.”

“No, we didn’t, but that brings us back to two the sad facts of human nature, that people with power do not give it up easily, and that fear can be a dangerously persuasive motivation,” Zan said.

“That’s not really fair though! The clan leaders were supposed to be taking care of the people, and they weren’t, or the Uprisers wouldn’t have been able to turn the whole country upside down. Even the king agreed the clan system was in the wrong. That’s why he abdicated and gave the country over to the general. I understand that the clan leaders don’t want to give up their power, but it was literally removed by the general after the March ended. Shouldn’t they have given up then? My father always said the best thing to do would be to take their land and money, that would have ended the whole issue.”

“The clan council fought tooth and nail to prevent that,” said Zan. “The end result would have extended the war by years, and likely would have destroyed the spiritual resonances of this country irreparably. That is why General Raechs was willing to compromise; she knew we could not sustain that level of infighting.”

“Meanwhile we’re stuck with a barely functioning system until the remaining clan leaders decide to cooperate. Which will be never, according to you.”

“Try to think about it from their point of view. The clans were our first line of defense for decades, and the military ranks were built largely out of the mages they raised and trained and pinnacled. Even after the decree that all people joining the military must take the military pinnacle, this was still true. And for all their flaws, the clans did the better part of the work maintaining the lines and resonances of Caldona. The vacuum left by the sundered clans made those powers vulnerable to exploitation.” 

Adiel blanched and looked away. Of course Adiel knew that, he had lost his parents to that kind of exploitation. The boy was silent for a long moment as he struggled to contain his emotions. Then he said, “But those—those sorts of things happened when the clans were in charge too.”

“Yes, but the methods of recourse for such incidents were dismantled along with the clan’s legal status as leaders and the sundering of the knights. The guard, as a new peacekeeping institution, is not well trusted, and still has a number of legal and logistical issues to work out. They alone can’t keep up with the current level of mismanagement, so it still remains for the extant clans to manage the rest extralegally. It happens that some of them are a bit too heavy-handed in it.”

“Like the Malthusius trying to bully the school out from under you,” Adiel said.

“Like so. The magic residing on the Halcyon property would no doubt be a boon to their attempts to straighten out the mess in which the current unrest has left us. When you consider how many people were displaced from jobs and homes when their clans were sundered, it’s not hard to see why the ones that remain fight so hard to keep themselves in some sort of power.”

“Are you seriously defending Malthusius’ attempts to take the school away from you? Do you even know what they say about you behind your back?”

“I do, and I am not defending them, neither their methods or the reasoning behind them. But in order to come to a compromise that benefits all parties, it is necessary to understand their motivations, and I do understand. The Montreides have always been a strongly political clan with a seat on the council and an entire province to their name. I am intimately familiar with how the leaders of the clans operate, the virtues as well as the flaws. I will say that the excesses of many of the clan leaders, and the disregard with which the king afforded them, were bound to lead to the March. They neglected the original purpose of our clan bonds, and the country as whole paid for it. But however unfair, it falls to those of us who wish to repair the problems of our country to find a way to fix them. The general has implemented many such changes since assuming control; only time will tell if they will work to the desired effect. I myself cannot condone inciting violence that would further damage Caldona’s already stressed resonances.”

“Sometimes you have to fight though,” Adiel said. “What about the Uprisers who are causing trouble in Chelsa right now? Diplomacy isn’t working on them.”

“That is true. They are being led by a notorious traitor and terrorist, and are not interested in preserving peace and balance, so the General has no other choice but to fight them. In the greater magical context, it is a terrible setback. However, the issue here is more complex, and I will not resort to fighting when there is an opportunity for negotiation in good faith.”

Adiel eyed him dubiously. “You really think you can negotiate with the Malthusius after the way they’ve been treating you these last couple of years?”

“I will continue to try. I believe that an alliance would be preferable to the current state of affairs. It might not be comfortable, considering the history between their clan and the Halcyon school, but certainly more so than a continued rivalry.”

Adiel shook his head. “You realize that sounds completely insane.”

Zan gave a wry smile. “So my family is fond of telling me.” 

By then they had reached the market, a collection of stalls lining a narrow section of street and a couple of empty lots set aside for the purpose, just off the square. The rising heat of the late morning had driven off much of the business. Zan turned their discussion to what they should make for lunch—a much less fraught subject—as they browsed.

 

Seya prowled around the city most of the morning, avoiding groups of people and the green-uniformed guard officers out on patrol—there were a lot of them, she noted, and wondered if there was something going on that she’d be better off knowing about, and whether it had something to do with the dissonance she had sensed. 

Of that, she felt she had learned all she could without doing something that might get her noticed. She refused to reduce her interior shields without a damn good reason. Even if she hadn’t been running from both sides of a war that was supposed to have ended seven years ago, there were still the Malthusius to deal with. And any other clan that might take an interest in her magic. 

What she needed was to talk with someone who might know what was going on. If it had been anywhere else, she might have lowered her defenses a bit and went looking for a likely soul to charm it out of, but she didn’t need to do that here. If one of Aren’s relatives was bondmaster at Halcyon, he might have inside information on the situation. And she could ask Vico, too. Surely the Malthusius were keeping a close eye on things. She had noticed the dissonant undercurrent was less pronounced in their territory. Hemsley’s too, though Seya was amazed to find that particular clan had survived the restructuring. They had always been dirty as hell. 

She did not recognize any of the other sigils she had noticed around town, but none of them had strong enough bond magic to combat the dissonance. Or maybe they did, and weren’t trying very hard for some reason. She thought about looking deeper, but mucking about in someone else’s bond magic was just asking for trouble. 

By then it was closing on eleven, and she was starting to get hungry again, so she backtracked to a small open air market she’d passed up earlier. It had been busy then, the shoppers taking advantage of the cooler morning hours, but thankfully when she went back, it was quieter. She was less pleased to discover there was a guard officer hovering in the vicinity. She might be a little less scruffy and dusty than she had been the night before, but she knew how she looked. A stranger in travel-worn clothes and too heavy shields on one hand, or a notorious former delinquent on the other. She wasn’t sure which was worse. Hopefully ten years, a war, and a complete restructuring of the government’s peacekeeping system had reduced her to a distant memory, though she still kept an eye out for familiar faces.

She tried to project a casual, unassuming aura, but there were still too many people milling about for her to lower her defenses too much. Keeping careful attention on the guard officer, she ambled through the stalls, avoiding the casual jostling of her fellow browsers with the ease of long practice, thinking vaguely of finding something to take back to Vico’s place in case he returned on his lunch break like he’d said. 

The aroma of smoked pork and spices made her mouth water and she followed it to a stall selling steamed buns. The line was a bit long, so she was standing nearby, waiting for it to thin out, and pretending to contemplate a display of fruit while she kept an eye on the officer. He had not noticed her yet, too preoccupied with another suspicious person, a little Caldi girl with the deep ochre skin tone and riotously curly hair of a northerner, whom Seya had seen loitering at the corner of the tea seller’s stall earlier. There was something about the child that bothered Seya, but she wasn’t close enough to tell what without dropping her defenses. She abandoned the idea of food and started working her way closer to where the kid was, which was hard because she kept moving, acting like she was shopping—she even had a shopping bag over one arm—but she wasn’t buying anything, and Seya doubted very much she had any intention of doing so. 

If she was trying to be sneaky, she was failing. Seya had a feeling if the girl tried to steal anything, she was going to get caught immediately. She couldn’t help feeling sorry for her—she had a pinched and miserable look that Seya recognized from harsh experience. If the officer hadn’t been watching her so closely, Seya would have given her Vico’s money and told her to go home before she got in trouble, but she was afraid that would get her logged as a person of interest herself. She leaned against the corner of an empty stall, contemplating this dilemma and feeling rather more of a coward than usual for dithering about it. 

That was the trouble with being in a place where she was likely to be recognized. Any trouble she got into in her old hometown was exponentially more likely to bring up her disappearance and the inevitable investigation could only lead back to the army, and DeGraffenreid.

Zan was perusing the used bookseller’s stall while Adiel bargained over vegetables when he saw his mysterious stranger again. For a moment, curiosity got the better of his manners and he laid aside the volume he had been flipping through to study her. Worn and nondescript attire aside, in the light of day she made a striking figure, on the tall side of average, her slight frame exaggerated by a faded shirt several sizes too large. Her skin was the lighter golden hue common in western Caldona, which had seen the largest influx of immigrants from the Isles during the Waves. 

There was something compelling about her presence, a sort of restless energy, but it was the alertness in her bearing that held his attention. He watched her glance back over her shoulder at the guard officer patrolling the edges of the market as if she expected trouble. The way her sun-streaked brown hair fell over her face seemed deliberate, though as he watched, she reached up to comb it back, her eyes fixed on the officer. She followed his circuit around the market’s periphery until he disappeared behind a group of shoppers. Turning back in his direction, she gave a violent start as their gazes crossed. Her eyes were a lovely shade of gray, reminding Zan of distant storm clouds, but they were set in a face too thin and too tired. She gave him a curt nod of acknowledgement and with another wary sweep of the market grounds, she turned and moved away, shoulders hunched and hands stuffed into her pockets.

Zan watched her go. Was seeing her again just an odd coincidence, or was it deliberate? He wouldn’t put it past Malthusius or Hemsley to send someone to try to ingratiate themselves to him in the guise of needing help. Zan had only been  Halcyon’s bondmaster for two years, but he already had a reputation in Starling for that sort of intercession. 

If she was acting, she was doing a damn good job, because he didn’t think that was the case at all. He had found himself dwelling on that brief glimpse of her magic and the feeling it had left in Halcyon’s resonances more than once over the course of the morning. He considered trying to strike up a conversation, but after her reaction upon catching him looking at her, he was afraid his attention would be unwelcome.

Adiel came to find him. “I got them to throw in the potatoes for free,” he said, looking well pleased with himself. When Zan did not respond, Adiel followed his gaze across the market to where the strange girl had moved. “Who’s that?”

“I don’t know. She came to the school last night.”

“She doesn’t look half suspicious, does she?” said Adiel. “Who needs shields like that? What’d she want?”

“I’m not sure. She asked for Winter, and left after finding out she was gone. She claimed to have been a student.”

“I really think you should talk to the guard,” Adiel said. “Strangers wandering into the grounds at night and cars parked outside all hours of the day, that’s definitely suspicious.”

“It could be a coincidence,” Zan said. “I do intend to keep an eye out. Now, what else did we need?”

“Just tea, I think,” Adiel said. “I put the last of it in the pot this morning.” 

The tea seller greeted them warmly. “Your usual, sweetie?” she asked. “Or some of this lovely green tea from Cordana that just came in? Very rare.”

“That sounds very nice, Mrs. Harlen,” said Zan. “I’ll take an ounce of that to try, and my usual as well, thank you.” He paid for it and put his wallet back in his pocket as Mrs. Harlen measured out the leaves. 

“I do think you’ll like it,” she said. “Cordani teas are a little finicky, but this one is so light—they grow it in shade, so the leaves turn such a nice green color. It smells divine.” She held the bag out to him.

He took a deep breath of the sweet, green aroma. “That does smell amazing. How is your husband? I haven’t seen him around the market lately.”

“Oh, he’s fine, dear, he just got back from the buying trip in Cordana last night, bit too tuckered out for the market today.”

“Please give him my regards,” Zan said. He was tucking the packets of tea into his shopping bag when someone slammed into him from behind, knocking it from his shoulder. He looked up to see a small, curly-headed girl hurtling away at top speed. 

“She stole your wallet!” Adiel cried. 

“Adiel, wait!” Zan said, but it was too late to stop him. He was already chasing after her.