Seya saw the girl barrel into Montreides and gave a quiet groan, but she didn’t have the stomach to watch as a kid that desperate got arrested in front of her. The guard was already moving to intercept, spinning up a binding spell. Seya timed it perfectly, bracing herself against the coming contact and stepping right into the girl’s path, letting herself get barreled over and taking the girl with her as she fell. The girl gave an indignant squeak as they crashed to the pavement. Seya used the distraction to relieve her of the stolen wallet and port it back across the market next to the half-spilled bag of groceries with a hasty but subtle bit of spellwork. “You want to watch it there, kiddo?” she said, as the girl staggered up and darted away. She was too quick—Seya had not gotten a good enough feel through the girl’s tangled mix of fear and panic for whatever felt so off about her. She would have gone after her, but the guard was already making his way across to them. The girl, seeing him, changed course, darting back around toward a break in the stalls.
She did not get far. The Caldi boy who’d been talking to Montreides came flying across the aisle and threw the silvery spellwork of a binding over her. “You’re not going anywhere! Give Master Zan his wallet back!”
“I don’t have any damn wallet!” she cried, shrinking back as Montreides strode over, dismay clear in his face.
Seya picked herself up off the ground. “Montreides, wasn’t it?” she said as she dusted herself off.
“Ah—yes,” he said. He glanced at Seya, his eyebrows drawn together in a slight frown. Suspicion?
The guard officer came up beside him. His badge read Destino and he had a stiff and officious aura that immediately set Seya’s teeth on edge. “What seems to be the problem here?” he asked, his eyes moving between Seya and the trapped girl with much more naked suspicion.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” said Montreides.
The boy gaped at him. “She stole your wallet, I saw her!”
“Actually, I think you dropped your wallet back there, Mr. Montreides,” Seya said, pointing across the market to the tea seller’s stall, where the tea seller was very kindly picking up his groceries. She held the wallet up and waved it at him when she saw him looking.
“I see,” Montreides said slowly. He had to know it was a lie. Seya met his gaze evenly, daring him to object. “How careless of me.” He didn’t seem angry, but Seya was finding him curiously difficult to read.
“It could happen to anyone, I’m sure,” she said. The little would-be thief glared daggers at her and thrashed fruitlessly against the binding.
“That’s not what—” the boy began.
“Adiel, I will handle this. Why don’t you go help Mrs. Harlen,” Montriedes said, steering him in that direction, ignoring the boy’s objections. “Thank you, miss…?”
“It’s Seya,” she said, after a moment’s hesitation;
“Thank you, Seya, you may have saved us all from an unfortunate mistake.”
She returned his smile with a mocking quirk to her lips.
Zan knelt down to dissolve the spellwork of Adiel’s binding. “I apologize for my student’s hasty actions, young lady,” he said, and extended a hand to help her up. She batted it away and jumped to her feet, darting away through the onlookers without a word. For a moment, Seya thought he’d go after her, but then he glanced over at Adiel and then at his watch and sighed, looking troubled.
Destino was unconvinced. He scowled after the girl a moment, then turned back to Zan, tapping the sigil on his collar as he tuned into the guard bond to report the incident. “Would you like to make a report, Mr. Montreides?”
“Thank you for your concern, officer, but I don’t see that there’s a need. My wallet is fine, and I daresay my groceries are none the worse for having been knocked about a bit.” He took out his card and handed it to Destino. “I do hope that if the young lady in question should happen to turn up in trouble at some time in the future, you will consider Halcyon as an alternative to some harsher punishment.”
Destino studied the card. “I see, Master Montreides,” he said, in a more respectful tone. He glanced at Seya again and his eyes narrowed. “Got my eye on you,” he muttered as he moved past her.
“You have fun with that,” she said, earning another scowl. He was reporting a description of the would-be thief through the guard bond as he resumed his place at the edge of the market, but his attention remained directed on her. “No good deed,” she said with a blithe shrug—as if her heart wasn’t pounding in her chest and her hands weren’t shoved deep into her pockets to hide the shaking.
“That was very kind of you,” said Montreides. “Thank you.”
“Why are you thanking her?” Adiel said, outraged, as he gave Zan back his wallet. “She let that girl get away! If that officer hadn’t been here, they’d probably be carrying off your money right now!”
“Adiel, please don’t be rude. She was kind enough to rescue my wallet, after all.”
“I wondered if you had noticed,” she said, wrapping the words in a dampening spell, since Destino wasn’t troubling to hide the fact that he was using his guard bond magic to listen to their conversation. Destino frowned—as did Montreides, though he didn’t say anything. “Most people would be angry.” Or suspicious. Again, she couldn’t tell if he was, despite how mild his personal shields were set.
“Yeah, we all agree, he’s too nice,” Adiel said sarcastically. “Master Zan, we need to get back if we’re going to start lunch in time.”
“By all means,” Montreides said with a glance at his watch. “Pleasure to meet you, Seya.” He dipped his head to her in a slight, formal bow instead of offering her a handshake—a high clan gesture that went rather at odds with his personality.
“Likewise,” she said, and watched, bemused, as he paused to thank the tea seller before leaving. What she wanted was to go try to find that girl, but Destino was still watching her like a hawk, and clearly she’d already blown her chance to avoid the guard’s notice. Getting tangled up with a delinquent for whom the guard was already on alert was something she couldn’t afford at any price, so with a last, regretful glance in the direction the poor girl had run away, she sighed and followed after Montreides instead. At least until I‘m out of Destino’s range, she told herself.
His warm, dark eyes fell on her with curiosity and a little puzzlement as she fell into step beside him. Seya gave him a challenging look, chin up, but he only nodded to her again, much less formally this time. He was a very attractive man in the daylight, tall and lean built, skin the darker southeastern Caldi coloring, warm umber with notes of sienna where the sun touched it, and a narrow face with patrician features and a straight nose that resembled Winter enough that they had to be fairly closely related. His wavy black hair was cut to shoulder-length and pulled back into a short tail instead cascading down to his waist after the traditional high clan style, and he was clad simply, in jeans that were starting to show a bit of wear and a button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. On Winter that look had been utilitarian, but Montreides managed to look charmingly uncomplicated. He had to be in his early thirties at least, judging from the beginnings of lines at the corners of his eyes and the odd stray strand of silver in his hair that caught the sunlight. Usually Seya was too distracted by people’s magic to notice their faces, but there was something so…understated about him. She looked away, suddenly awkward and with the beginnings of unwelcome heat creeping up her face; anxious habit had her checking her shields to make sure she wasn’t broadcasting the feeling to all and sundry.
“Is she going to follow us all the way to the school? That’s not suspicious at all,” said Adiel.
“That’s a nice idea, actually,” Montreides said. “Won’t you let us treat you to lunch as thanks?”
She blinked at him, incredulous, but it seemed like a genuine offer. And a terrible idea. “I couldn’t impose. I didn’t do it for you, anyway, I just couldn’t watch while that poor kid got in trouble. That officer had his eye on her already.”
“Even so, I am grateful.”
Adiel gave a groan and stomped ahead.
“Please forgive my young student,” Montreides said, raising his voice pointedly. “He’s a bit overprotective.”
“I shouldn’t wonder,” she said. “Allowing pickpockets to go free and trying to bring home obviously suspicious girls. Not exactly proper behavior for a schoolmaster. Are you sure you’re related to Winter?”
Montreides laughed, though it was a bit rueful. “I’m sure she would have had a few words for that young lady. I don’t believe she would have let her be arrested though.”
“No, she’d have dragged her back to the school, fed her, and lectured her for hours while forcing her to practice centering and warding spells backwards and forwards.”
“That does sound like my aunt,” Montreides said.
“I…may be speaking from experience. She’d be giving me hell right now for lying about it, even if my reasons were more or less charitable.”
“So you’re admitting to being a thief!” said Adiel.
“No, my mother would have straight up murdered me if I ever stole anything. When Winter shouted at me, it was usually for fighting,” Seya said. “And occasionally rebounding things, though that generally wasn’t deliberate.”
Comprehension lit in Montreides’ face. “Oh! I thought your name sounded familiar. Aren told me about you.”
“Not too much I hope,” she said, trying to keep her tone unconcerned, but her shoulders suddenly felt tight.
“So you were a student?” Adiel said, still skeptical.
“For about fourteen years, in fact.”
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Seya,” Montreides said. “Ah—I don’t believe I ever heard your last name.”
“That’s because there isn’t one to hear,” she said, and smirked at his consternation. “Aren couldn’t have told you too much, then. My mother never put one on my birth certificate. There were some…family issues. I suppose it’s nice to meet you too, Mr. Montreides.”
“Please call me Zan,” he said. He held out his hand. She took it somewhat reluctantly, and only because she couldn’t be rude to someone who was so damn nice. She made damn sure both her internal and external shields were implacable first.
He clearly felt no such need despite being a rare high spiritualist himself, and high equivalent elementalist through his bonds. He wore his magic with the flawless grace of someone born to high levels, but though his clan bond glowed steadily in the shades of his aura, his energy was more tuned to the still, cool depths of Halcyon’s magic, an attractive layering of well-nurtured spiritual bonds and seemingly effortless discipline. That it was all bound up in such an open, generous personality was too much. She was being unutterably stupid to follow him; he was exactly the sort of person she tried to stay away from.
“Mr. Montreides,” she repeated, mostly to remind herself not to do anythings stupid, but she felt the faint twinge of his disappointment before she let go of his hand. She glanced back over her shoulder. At least Destino had not followed them. She decided to walk along with them for a little longer, just in case.
That’s what she told herself anyway, very firmly. “I’m almost afraid to ask what Aren did say about me,” she said, affecting a lack of concern.
“Ah—I believe ‘incurable delinquent’ was his turn of phrase,” Zan admitted. “But if I recall correctly, your grades were very good.”
“Yes, well, magic is pretty much the only thing I’m good for,” she said. “And getting into fights, I guess. How is Aren?”
“He’s doing very well. He finished his healer’s training and reopened Dalen’s clinic about the same time I took over the school.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t move away with Winter.”
“He saw her to Thelassa and stayed a few months to get to know his father’s tir better, but then he came back. He still lives at home; he and his partner built a house on a corner of Halcyon’s grounds, so it’s possible you may see him if you decide to drop by.”
Seya gave a sharp bark of a laugh. “You don’t want me around the school, I’m a bad influence. I’m sure he also told you I dropped out and ran away.”
“He said disappeared, actually. I inferred there was some trouble with your family that contributed to that?” Zan said. “That is something I can understand, myself.”
“Is that why Winter gave the school to you? Because you were also a problem child for the Montreides?” She cast him a sidelong glance. “I can’t really picture that.” She didn’t think she’d met anyone whose aura screamed ‘straight as an arrow’ more loudly in her life. It wasn’t that he projected, as some people did—his discipline was too good for that, but he was just…open. How could he even stand it, all that high spiritualist magic and so few barriers between him and the rest of the world? Not everyone is as defective as you are, she reminded herself.
“Let’s just say I do not see eye to eye with my clan’s ideals. I was…very happy when Winter offered me this opportunity to get away from that environment.”
There was a whisper of old grief in his aura at that, but if she hadn’t been looking she would never have noticed. “But not sure enough to sever your bond?” she said, looking away deliberately.
They walked in silence for a while as Zan considered his answer. Finally he said, “I still have hope for them despite everything that has happened. It may be a foolish hope. Winter herself told me it was before she left. But I cannot give it up yet.”
“Ah, yes, hope,” she said, with a faint, ironic twist to her smile. “The flower with thorns. I am familiar with it.”
It took him a moment to get the reference, but instead of laughing he caught his breath as if she’d struck him. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
“It’s a joke, Montreides. You’re meant to laugh.”
“What’s so funny about that?” Adiel demanded.
“It’s a line from a poem,” Zan said, finding his voice. “In the Caldi spell language, hope is pronounced seya. The written version is used as mnemonic device to teach the difference between the sigils and charms for the word.”
“Oh,” Adiel said. “Hope is the sigil and…flower, that’s the elemental, right?”
Seya was surprised he knew it. It was a rare usage, not often used outside temples or complex varieties of farming and gardening spellwork. Zan regarded him with an almost paternal pride. “Yes. It’s the version of flower with the connotations for new and spring.”
“I should have known better than to use that line on a teacher,” she said. “Most people don’t get it.” Certainly not well enough to be upset by the comparison. She hadn’t meant to upset him. All those months of running and avoiding people as much as possible had obviously dulled her ability to deal with them. Not that she had been planning to take advantage of his invitation, even though it was just a tiny bit tempting. Or extremely tempting, if she was being honest with herself. After spending all day hunting down dissonant traces, Halcyon’s clean, clear resonance would have been wonderful.
She could already tell that following him was going to be a mistake.
They walked a long moment in silence. Seya’s face had gone curiously remote. “If I recall correctly, your mother was a priestess?” Zan asked, to dispel the encroaching discomfort.
“She was. A caldi,” she said, rather flatly.
“I still don’t know why that’s supposed to be funny,” Adiel said.
Seya’s lips shaped into that careless smile again, but it didn’t ring any truer now than it had back in the marketplace. “I assure you, if your taste in humor runs to irony, it is, in fact, hilarious.”
She said it like it was a joke, but Zan didn’t believe it was. It might not have bothered him so much if he hadn’t remembered the sense of hopelessness that had lingered in Halcyon’s resonances after she left the night before. Even wrapped in self-deprecating humor, it felt like such a stark admission Zan was beset by memories: how keenly it had felt like he was locked away in the Montreides estate, his whole future mapped out, no hope of escape. Winter’s offer had been a breath of freedom he’d never even dreamed. He wanted to say something to that effect, and it startled him, because that was not something he spoke of often even to his friends, much less complete strangers. It made him wish he had gotten a better sense of her when they’d shaken hands. He’d hoped to catch another glimpse of the magic that had left such an impression in his sense, but her internal shields were too strong. And of course it was none of his business, and horribly impolite to pry into someone else’s magic besides.
He cast his mind about for a change of subject. By then they they were walking along the school’s wall, only a corner’s turn to Old Main Street and a couple minutes’ walk from the gate. He paused when they reached the corner, checking for the car that had so bothered Adiel earlier. It was parked in front of the gate now. He heard Seya suck in a sharp breath just as he recognized the familiar figure lounging against it with mock indolence: Torrance McKellen, a Malthusius bonded, and the one who was currently giving him the most trouble.
Tor straightened and gave a sarcastic little wave as they neared. “Afternoon, Montreides,” he called. “Lovely weather, isn’t it?”
“A trifle warm, perhaps,” Zan said, his tone carefully neutral. Adiel looked up at him with alarm in his dark eyes. Zan moved between him and McKellen. Seya paced along behind them, her attention fixed on McKellen with a worrying intensity.
McKellen took off his sunglasses and leaned forward, staring at her in surprise and sudden, malicious glee. “Well, if it isn’t the prodigal child. I thought Marc was full of shit, but here you are. Looking rather worse for wear.” He cast a scornful eye over her travel worn clothes.
Her lip curled in contempt. “Tor. I’m surprised you haven’t gotten your neck wrung by now. Still hiding behind mommy’s influence?”
Anger flashed in McKellen’s aura. “I guess I ought to give you a little credit, Seya. I was sure you’d come running back to this sorry excuse of a school outside a week at best, but here it is, nearly ten years.”
“I think I gave you too much credit,” she said. “Weren’t you going to start your own clan? I seem to remember you said something along those lines after Jayen threw you out of his little clique, but here you are, being led around the nose by Malthusius, same as always.”
“And it’s nice to see this school is still a haven for useless bastard children. Ain’t that right, Montreides?”
Zan felt a flicker of alarm. Ignoring verbal harassment was one thing, but there was more than simple malice burning in Tor’s aura. He put his hand on Adiel’s shoulder. The boy was shaking with anger and fear, his knuckles white around the straps of the shopping bag. “Why don’t your take the groceries in,” said Zan, directing him through the gate and closing the wards behind him so he wouldn’t try to interfere this time.
“You sure do a real good job teaching your students to run away,” McKellen said, leaning on the car and brushing his fingertips over the surface of the hot metal in a dangerous gesture. Zan felt the prickle of energy being drawn, and reached for his shields as McKellen swung a searing wave of hot, metallic energy toward him. Before it could make an impact, Seya shoved past him and swept up a hard swath of energy from the concrete of the sidewalk, slamming it into McKellen’s unfocused burst.
McKellen was well-shielded enough to avoid taking any personal damage, but his car lurched, the metal on the side crunching inward under the impact of her counterattack. He swore violently and lunged toward her.
She was all ready with another attack, but Zan caught her wrist, staying her casting and deflecting McKellen’s attempt to get to her with his own shields. McKellen bounced off the defense with an yelp of surprise and stumbled to one knee on the sidewalk. Seya jerked her arm back in shock, glaring at him. “What the hell, Montreides!”
“I’m sorry, but I would prefer there be no fighting in front of my school,” he said.
Flushing with anger and embarrassment, she let her arm fall, dissolving the energy harmlessly back into the concrete where it belonged.
“Coward,” McKellen spat as he got to his feet. He wrenched the dents out of his car door with a furious gesture and jerked it open, blazing with fury that he did not bother to keep from projecting.
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Mr. McKellen,” Zan said. “Please leave before I summon the guard.”
McKellen made a vulgar gesture in response, which Zan ignored. He waited for McKellen to get in the car and drive away before turning to Seya with a frown. “Do you always jump straight to fighting with everyone who antagonizes you?” he asked, frowning down at the sidewalk to check the energy signature. It was illegal to draw energy from an undesignated municipal property—drawing from things that weren’t reinforced for that purpose tended to destabilize them.
“Not everyone,” she said, bristling at the rebuke. “Just people who’ve tried to kill me.”
That was a bit dramatic. It might have been a painful strike had it hit, but hardly lethal. He opened the school’s wards. “My invitation still stands,” he said, but she just waved him off in disgust. He wasn’t sure if it was for McKellen, or himself. He tried not to let the idea of the latter bother him. He should be used to people thinking him a coward for refusing to be drawn into pointless fights by now.
Seya had gotten only a half dozen steps away when McKellen’s car screeched to a halt at the corner. Zan paused halfway through the gate as a rumble of stone-based energy signaled that the encounter was not yet over. He reached for his shields again, but the attack was not aimed at him this time. It ricocheted off Halcyon’s wards and slammed into the sidewalk, sending up a wave of concrete shards like jagged bullets.
Zan was protected by his proximity to the wards, but Seya was not so lucky. Her external shields were formulated for an energy-based distance attack, and she did not have time to adjust them fully. “Son of a bitch,” she hissed as McKellen roared out of sight. She raised a hand to her neck, her fingers coming way bloody—one of the shards had gotten her. “Gods and—I can’t believe that bastard got the drop on me. Oh, that’s just perfect, isn’t it, a gods damned curse, too. Fucker.”
“Are you all right?” Zan asked, summoning a towel from the kitchen and hurrying over to her. “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t expecting that to turn into a physical attack—I should have done something.” He pressed the cloth to her neck and held it firmly.
Seya stiffened, and Zan jerked his hand back in surprise as she projected a violent rejection of the contact. “I beg your pardon,” he said, blinking at the force behind it.
“Sorry,” she muttered as he stepped back to give her some space. “Habit. Girl traveling alone and all.”
“No, I apologize, I didn’t mean to be forward. I forgot Aren had said you were a high spiritualist, or I would have asked first.” He glanced quickly at her hands, but her right was unmarked, and the left covered by a grubby dueling glove, its laces loose and broken off too short to tie on any charms. Her shirt sleeves were long, so he couldn’t see if it was higher on her arm. It seemed a strange choice, considering the weather. He held the towel out to her.
“It’s fine, I think I can forgive you getting handsy this one time,” she said dryly as she accepted it.
Zan flushed a little at her phrasing. “Won’t you please let me see to that? I have some basic healer training.”
“Not necessary,” she said. “It’s just a little cut. I’ll be fine.” By the time the words were out of her mouth she was wincing visibly from the pain.
“No, please let me examine it properly,” he said. “You can’t walk around with a curse, and as it was my property that injured you, I bear some of the responsibility.”
“Technically this sidewalk is municipal property,” she said, casting a glance down at the rubble scattered over the street.
“I do pay taxes, so they are technically my sidewalks, at least in part,” Zan said. “However, the wards are definitely mine.”
She sighed and pressed the towel to the cut on her neck. “I guess it would be rude of me to deny you your civil obligations,” she said, and followed him up to the school.