The inside of Halcyon had not changed much more than the outside. Probably there were some minor differences that she was overlooking after being gone for so long, but it was the feel of the place that mattered most, and it was still bathed in the same warm, welcoming aura she remembered.
Zan directed her into the kitchen, where Adiel was hastily unpacking the groceries he’d been neglecting while peering out the window to keep an eye on what was happening. He shot Seya a scowl, but seeing the blood seeping through the towel she held to her neck, he kept his thoughts to himself.
Seya ran her free hand—the right one—over the scarred top of the kitchen table in the center of the room. It was a huge kitchen, bright thanks to the big windows along the outer wall. Seya felt a sharp pang of grief for Dalen. When he wasn’t working or tending his gardens, he could always be found in the kitchen, and she had spent a significant portion of her childhood sitting with him at this table while he explained the finer points of spiritualism in an effort to help her focus her own erratic magic with unfailing patience. The room had soaked up enough of Dalen’s aura over the years that it felt like he might come bustling in from the garden with fresh cut flowers for the table at any moment. The emotions that had been threatening to overwhelm her since she had stepped back into town were hovering at the brink. She blinked hard and added another layer to her interior shields.
Zan pulled out a chair for her to sit, tipping his head at her in concern. “Is it hurting more?” he asked. “If it’s very bad I can call Aren or Kaya. One or the other of them usually come home for lunch anyway.”
“No, I was just—remembering,” she said. “Place hasn’t changed much since I left.”
He glanced around the kitchen as he went to fetch his first aid kit. “I suppose not. I like it. It’s got a nice, lived in feel, I think. Homey. It reminds me of the place where lived with my mother when I was a child.”
She looked over the whitewashed walls, yellowed with age, and the tiles, chipped and scratched from years of use. It was spotlessly clean, but there was no disguising the patina of stains and wear from nearly thirty years of feeding and wrangling students. “I thought the Montreides were a big deal in Castiverre,” she said.
Zan had his back to her, digging in a cabinet. His posture stiffened, and she winced at her thoughtlessness when she remembered that Vico had told her he was illegitimate. He made no comment, merely set the first aid kit on the table and combed through it for a bottle of antiseptic.
Adiel was not too busy putting away the groceries to be offended on his behalf. “Master Zan prefers to use the budget for the good of the students,” he said, banging around in the pantry. He came out with a cutting board and a large pot, which he smacked onto the counter in a huff. “There’s no point wasting money on redecorating when everything is perfectly serviceable.”
She raised her eyebrows at him. “I was a student here from ages two to sixteen, and I actually lived here those last two years,” she said. “I wasn’t complaining. It beats the hell out of pretty much every place I’ve lived since.”
“Two year olds can’t do magic,” Adiel said.
She didn’t bother to correct him on that point. “My mother helped Winter and Dalen maintain the magic here when she was around. They looked after me in lieu of payment. Halcyon was practically my second home. Until it actually became my home.”
“Then why would you even make stupid cracks like that!”
“Adiel,” Zan said mildly, and the boy finished assembling his cooking utensils more quietly. “I was raised by my mother’s family until I was seven,” he said to Seya. “I can assure you neither the place where I lived with her, nor this one, is anything like the Montreides estate.” The way he said it made it clear he preferred it that way. “If I may?” He held out his hand. He had nice hands, brown and warm and a little rough, marked here and there with small scars and callouses from working around the school.
She tilted her head to the side, trying not to be so terribly aware of his hand cradling her neck as he wiped the remaining blood away with a damp cloth. She couldn’t help wincing as the strong, herbal-scented antiseptic stung at the scratches. It was a good distraction from that open presence of his, at least.
“I’m sorry, I know it stings,” he said. “Aren made it. It’s very good for these milder varieties of curses.”
“I know. Dalen used to make it too.” The memories of the countless times Dalen had patched her just like this hurt far worse.
He finished cleaning the cuts and studied them. “I do believe you will live.”
“It was just a scratch,” she said.
He had yet to remove his hand from its supporting position on the other side of her neck. “If you will permit me, I can heal up it for you.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary for something so minor. That antiseptic has pretty much stopped the curse already. I can barely feel it now.”
“Please, it was partially my fault—”
“Are you always this pushy?” she interrupted.
That startled him. “Am I being pushy?”
“Yeah, you kind of are,” said Adiel.
Zan looked away, flustered. “I apologize, it’s just that I’d hate to see you off while you’re still hurt.”
He started to take his hands away, but she stopped him. “No, just go ahead and do it, then. Saying things like that, you’re actually making me feel bad for objecting.”
“If you’re sure,” he said.
“It’s fine,” she said. “If I felt uncomfortable I would just leave. I doubt you could stop me. That might be fun, though,” she added, tipping her head back into his hand and giving him that slightly mocking smile. “Except you seem like the type to duel strictly by the rules.”
“I’m afraid I do not duel recreationally,” he said, almost apologetically. “I do have classes for the older students on rules and techniques, but there is very little call for it these days, with the clans no longer in charge of everything.” He brushed his thumb experimentally over the smallest of the cuts and his eyebrows drew together. “Your defenses are up a little high for me to get a proper read on this.”
“Sorry,” she said, and drew back the outermost layers of her exterior shields. The furrow between his eyebrows deepened as he studied the dense network of defenses she was maintaining.
“It’s an acid-based curse, I think,” he said. “This might sting a little.”
Seya grimaced as he drew out the remains of the curse. It did sting, and clung stubbornly to her skin, but he got it all out without much of a problem. It fogged around his fingertips within the barrier he created to contain it, a bright, sickly green. He deconstructed to its most basic, harmless components and dissipated them with a flick of his fingers. He bent over her to examine the physical damage.
“It won’t take a moment,” he said, covering the whole area with his palm and began framing the spellwork for physical healing over the cuts. Seya averted her eyes and exhaled sharply.
“Is that too fast?” he asked, though he had barely begun the casting.
“I’m not that fragile.” It wasn’t the mild discomfort of feeling her skin forcibly knit back together that bothered her. Healing magic required an extraordinary level of openness, and she was kind of regretting not finding out exactly what Aren had told him about her, because she couldn’t tell if he just didn’t know how her magic was or if he truly wasn’t concerned about it. She tried to tell herself it wasn’t taking advantage since he had offered to do it without any prompting from her, but she still felt guilty for accepting the help without disclosing the extent to which he was opening himself to her. Because he was like an open door, all his concern and curiosity, his friendly interest, and the most truly beautiful magic she’d ever seen in a person, so calm and steady and kind, she could have fallen right into it. She held back as much as possible, but there was a definite sense of other, darker things lurking behind his interior defenses—apparently he wasn’t entirely open—but nothing to set off her usual wariness of getting too close to anyone. Except, of course, the knowledge that she was intruding on parts of someone’s aura she shouldn’t be able to access to in the first place.
It was the kindness that stuck out at her. Living the way she had for so long, Seya had learned the value of kindness, and the danger of it, too. She couldn’t let herself get used to it. Not again. She didn’t want what had happened in Keraday to happen here.
The memory of Keraday was like a blow to the gut. The reaction was the same as always: full body flinch, heart rate spike, hands shaking from the sudden rush of adrenaline. “Are you all right?” Zan asked, pulling both hands back in alarm.
“I’m fine,” she said, her voice faint and wobbly. “Are you done?”
“Ah, yes, I think so.” He was kneeling by her chair, looking up at her face with concern, his hand hovering over her neck, not quite touching. Adiel was eyeing them both with alarm. “If I did something to hurt you, please tell me.”
“It wasn’t you,” she said. “You’re good. Thank you.”
“Are you sure? You look a little pale.”
She brushed it off. “Yeah. I just…need a minute.”
He hesitated, but just then the tea kettle started whistling. He went to dispose of the bloodstained towels and wash his hands.
Seya took a deep, shaky breath and raised her hand to her neck. There wasn’t even the slightest trace of the injury, but the warmth of his fingers and his magic lingered. It made her even more restless. Get up, do something, move around. You can’t have a meltdown in a stranger’s home, even if it did use to be yours. She stood, refusing to allow her legs to shake under her weight. “Where are the tea things?” she asked.
Zan pointed to a cabinet. “We’ll need five cups,” he said, looking out the window. “The Lacelles are here.”
Adiel gave a sigh. “I still think you need to tell their parents we’re not a daycare,” he grumbled, tossing a great heap of chopped onion into the pan to sizzle furiously.
“Now, Adiel, it does no harm to let them stay an extra hour or two before their lessons,” Zan said. He handed Seya a packet of tea leaves and went to bring the children in.
Once his teacher was out of hearing, Adiel rounded on her fiercely. “I won’t let you be another one of these people who takes advantage of Master Zan’s kindness,” he said.
“Your soup is boiling over,” she said.
Adiel went back to the stove as the broth started hissing and spitting against the fire charm etched into the stovetop. He waved a hand over the pot, drawing some of the heat out to settled the soup back to a simmer before adjusting the power level. “I heard about you from Aren too. You were a terrible delinquent.”
“Absolutely good for nothing,” she agreed, scooping spoonfuls of tea leaves into the pot and filling it with water.
“He said you got into fights all the time, even after Master Winter took you in.”
“I still do that, alas.”
Her facetious tone earned her a withering glare, but the rest of his tirade was curtailed as Zan brought a pair of children into the kitchen and introduced them: a light-skinned boy of about ten with wheat-blond hair, who eyed her with lively curiosity; and a younger girl with the lighter northern Caldi coloring, though her dark hair fell more in waves than curls. She tried to hide behind Zan’s leg upon encountering a stranger in the kitchen.
“Who’s that?” the boy asked. He had a pronounced Talese accent.
Zan tousled his hair affectionately. “Lee, why don’t you ask her yourself? I don’t think she bites.”
“Not children, anyway,” Seya said, and the little girl shied even further away.
“She’s just joking, pipsqueak,” Adiel said, giving Seya another scowl as he ushered her into a chair. “Are you guys hungry? It’s gonna be a little while before the soup is done. How about some cheese and crackers?” Keira perked up at that.
Lee sat down next to Seya. “Are you a new teacher?” he asked.
“Do I look like a teacher?” He reminded her of Vico when he had been that age, big-eyed and serious and too smart for his own good. His magic was just starting to wake, too.
He studied her carefully. “No, not really. I just wondered because you have a lot of elemental magic. People like that are usually pretty powerful.”
“That’s true, I guess. You can call me Seya. I was actually a student here, but I don’t have a pinnacle, so I’m not qualified to teach,” Seya said. She was annoyed with herself for getting upset enough to forget to put her external shields back up. She drew them back into place.
Lee was staring at her in shock. “You don’t have a pinnacle? Even though you’re so old?”
“Lee, that’s a little rude,” Zan said, tossing Adiel a reproving look as the older student snickered over the cutting board.
“Yeah, and I’m only twenty-six. That’s hardly old,” she said, smiling in spite of herself.
“Sorry,” Lee said. “Do you use clan magic?”
“I don’t have an affiliation.”
“What do you do with all that magic then?”
“Did you come back to get your pinnacle?”
“Nope.” It wasn’t a lie. She had no intention of asking Zan to help her with her problems.
“Then why are you here?”
“Because apparently no one ever taught Master Montreides here not to pick up strangers off the street,” she said dryly.
“But you aren’t a stranger, really,” Zan said as he poured the tea. “Your name is still in the student register, you know. Winter never took it out.”
That was a surprise.
Adiel brought a plate of cheese and crackers to the table, and the children snacked in silence for some minutes. Seya sipped her tea, trying to dispel the lump in her throat. It was a nice to think Winter would have had her back after all, but it was a little late to be touched by it now that she was half an ocean away.
“It’s Master Zan,” Lee said.
“Is it now.”
“Yeah, he doesn’t like to be called Montreides. Anyway, if you’re still a student, why don’t you get your pinnacle here?”
“That’s not going to happen,” she said, setting down her cup. The homey, familiarity suddenly felt stifling under the weight of all the old memories.
“Um…” said a small voice. Seya looked across the table at Keira, who was looking back shyly.
“What’s wrong?” Adiel asked.
“I wanted to ask…” She looked down, blushing.
“Sure, love, anything,” Seya said, moving her teacup aside and leaning forward with her elbows on the table, smiling at her. Her bashfulness was too cute for words. She also had awakened magic, unusually strong spiritual magic for a child her age. Seya felt a pang of sympathy for her. It was hard to have early onset spiritual magic, as she well knew.
“Why are you only wearing one glove?”
Seya raised her unshod hand. “Well look at that, I didn’t even notice. Must have lost it somewhere.”
Keia looked at her a little more bravely. “I lose mine too. I don’t wear them in summer though.”
“It is summer, isn’t it,” Seya said lightly, clenching her gloved fist in her lap. For a second the sweet little face wavered in Seya’s vision, and she saw a different, but no less innocent one in its place. A chill curled up from the pit of her stomach. What right did she have, to linger in a place like this?
Zan was eyeing her with concern again. “Seya? Are you sure you’re all right?”
She stood, forcing herself to smile. “I’m fine. Oh, look at the time, I really should be going. Thanks for everything.”
He looked like he wanted to object, but he didn’t. “You’re very welcome. Please feel free to drop by again if you like. Halcyon is always open to its students. All of them.”
She paused in the doorway for a second. “Sure,” she said, the lie bitter in her throat. “Sometime.”
Vico’s appointment with the permit offices went well—he had all his paperwork in order and the woman running the place was far more cooperative than the man he’d spoken to the day before. And the representative from the Bretinne Farming Co-op showed up on time for once. Vico hurried back to the compound to make sure everything was filed appropriately and that a crew from the Lines and Resonances department could be onsite. Lejan was working, which facilitated that step much more readily than he had hoped. Lejan might be a recent addition to the clan, but he was a gregarious soul, infinitely likable, and he had just the right combination of high elementalist and more than adequate spiritual levels to make him too valuable to offend. Malthusius needed more such magic added to the clan bond to maintain their ever-growing network of elemental lines and mage-tech operations.
“It’s set for Saturday,” Vico said. “They assigned us to Inspector Walsh, so we’re going to need to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ and then some—she’s a stickler. I’ll need a complete written run down of the ‘works and the line connections, then there’ll be an inspection to make sure it’s all in order before she’ll sign off on everything. I don’t mind telling you I need this to go off without a hitch. I’ve got Addison and Marten both barking at me over the delays.”
“No problem,” Lejan said, flipping through the specs. “What happened last week, anyway? It’s just a preservatory and cannery, right? Seems pretty straightforward to me, even with all the new mage-tech”
Vico shook his head. “What didn’t happen. Someone—it was that purist magic group, I’m sure—lodged an objection with the Elemental Commission about the Talese patents on the machinery and auto-magic conflicting with existing Caldi patents, which is bullshit, because I triple-checked everything with Legal to make sure there were no conflicts. Then someone misfiled the paperwork for the line resettlement permits I had turned in to Marten, and then I found out after I stayed late to fill them all out again that they had given me entirely the wrong specs for it.” Not by accident, he was sure. “Then there was that thing with Miredes, and I spent the rest of last week trying to persuade that sorry bastard not to levy a challenge on the Co-op leader over a stupid cultural difference—they’re from the Isles, they don’t duel over their crap like we do—and between the concessions we had to make to him, and the extras we had to offer to Bretinne to keep them from being poached away by Hemsley or Albrecht while we were being delayed by all this nonsense, Addison and Marten were both pissed as hell.” Vico rolled his eyes. “Like letting them go would be better. I swear, if I didn’t know exactly how much money they’ve sunk into this deal I’d think they stuck me with it because they knew it was going fail spectacularly.”
Ever the peacekeeper, Lejan said, “I’m sure it’s probably because you speak the Talesanne dialect so well. I was at the factory site for the preliminary traces, and those Sanne folks’ Caldi is hard to follow.”
“I had a lot of practice growing up because of my father. He refused to learn the language proper.” A frown creased Lejan’s brow, as it usually did when the subject of Vico’s family came up. Vico had come to terms with his mother’s abandonment and his father’s drunken violence long ago, but Lejan had treated the subject with kid gloves ever since Vico had confided how his father had been imprisoned for nearly killing him when he was fourteen years old. Probably with good reason, considering he’d seen Vico hit absolute bottom in truly explosive fashion last year. Vico appreciated his protective streak even if it wasn’t strictly necessary anymore. He patted Lejan’s arm to let him know he was okay, and went on. “Anyway, I’ll need all this by tomorrow morning so we can confirm the appointment for the inspection.”
“I’ll make sure it happens. First thing after lunch,” Lejan assured him.
“You’re a god-given grace. This’ll make my job so much easier.”
“No problem. Listen, you want to grab lunch? I know you’ve been under a lot of stress over this mess. If you need a friendly ear, I’ve got a couple right here.”
“That sounds nice, but I have something to take care of at home over my break.”
“You need a ride? I can drop you. It’s on the way to the cafe.”
“That’d be great. I have to take these papers up to Mediations, but I’ll meet you downstairs in about ten minutes.”