The truck has been grinding endlessly through the white heat of the desert since dawn, and for almost half the morning Reth and his brother Bayne have been debating the respective merits of the forms of boxing practiced in two different cities. It’s Reth patriotically arguing for Bladestone’s knees and sandaled feet, with hands tied behind the back, and Bayne for the elbows and forehead of Four Bridges.
By all the gods of all the inland tech cities, and by the force of sorcery venerated by the coastal dwellers, is there no end to this inanity? I found it vaguely interesting the first time round, but they’ve been over and over the same ground for hours. I’d put on my headphones, but etiquette forbids that I be unsociable and cut myself off from a conversation in which I’m supposed to be taking part. Fortunately, I volunteered for extra driving duty, so I’m not expected to say too much.
Unfortunately though, Reth has now remembered my presence. I sometimes wonder how someone with so little in common with me can be related to me. He only pays me attention to torment me. After all, I’m just the scrawny orphan cousin, not particularly good at anything worthwhile, employed by my uncle out of charity. I’m a free target whenever Reth feels like boosting his ego.
“What do you think, Berek?” he asks with a bully’s sneer.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’ve seen both types of matches and it seems like any kind of hit would be nasty.”
“Well,” he says, with great self-satisfaction, “you know all about being kicked, don’t you?”
That was a year ago, when my uncle sent me down to the gym to tell Reth that he was needed at the shop. He refused to come until I got into the ring with him. I had no idea what I was doing, and almost instantly took a heavy sandal to the head. I was out cold for a minute, and I think Reth was genuinely worried—not because he cared about me, but because he might get into trouble with his father. Once I came to, however, he led the chorus of derision that all Bladestoners seem to reserve for men who lack physical prowess.
I should be grateful to him, though, because it was after that blow that my power started to manifest itself. Growing up in a tech city far away from the coast, with no sorcery practiced whatsoever, makes you repress your abilities, but the kick must have shaken something loose.
Reth is still talking, but I’ve tuned him out, and suddenly come back to an awareness of what he’s saying. “… can’t take a kick to the head, and my father says you’re no good at business either. You’re only OK to do stocktaking and cleaning and working the counter, stuff even a woman can do. By the god of Bladestone, you’re fucking useless.”
Ah yes, the great Bladestone catalog of male virtues—beating people up, ordering people around, fixing things, playing sports, and making lots of money. If you don’t have at least one of those skills then you’re not worth shit.
But I am worth shit. I’ve known that since the night after the knockout, as I lay in the dark in my little room and felt the power within me and watched the faint sparks arc between my fingers. I knew then that I was a sorcerer, albeit without any actual skills. I’d always been fascinated by the sorcerous culture, always fantasized about being one of them, and now it seemed I had a faint chance to make my dreams come true.
Reth is still talking. “I wonder what those sorcerer chicks are like. I’ve heard they’re really easy. Hey Berek, you’re a Sparky lover. You know all about them—is that true?”
I groan inwardly, but answer anyway. “It’s like with us—it depends on the city. The first one we’re going to, the first one on the highway, is Flowers in the Rain. That’s pretty conservative, kind of like Brick Mountain.”
Both of my traveling companions groan. Brick Mountain is famously prudish among the tech cities.
“So,” Bayne asks, “do girls have to go everywhere with a chaperone?”
“Worse,” I answer. “They never go out at all. The only time a woman leaves her father’s house is when she gets married, and travels in a blacked-out coach to her husband’s house—and she stays there till she dies and gets buried in the family graveyard.”
“Wow,” says Bayne, who in his standardized macho Bladestone way is actually quite a nice guy. “I’m not into women’s equality or anything like that, but that’s really harsh. I feel sorry for those women.”
“What about the other cities?” asks Reth, as predatory as ever.
“The second city on the highway, Grass Bends Before the Wind, is very liberal. Men and women are completely equal, and it’s no problem for a woman to let a man know she’s interested in him.”
“Now we’re talking!” exclaims Reth. “Hey, maybe even you can get laid, Berek, since you don’t seem to have any luck back home.”
“Well, just look at me,” I say. “Compared to guys like you, what chance do I have?”
Reth as usual completely misses the sarcasm. “True enough,” he says jovially, almost sounding friendly.
It’s not actually true that I’m completely unattractive to women. On two separate occasions I’ve had a woman admit she liked me—and then go on to say that she wouldn’t let me anywhere near her because my low status would lead to social ostracism. I’ll die in solitude if I carry on living in Bladestone, but that’s not my intention.
No-one suspects anything. I knew that sooner or later my uncle would send the young men of the company on their first trip to the coast. I’d be expected to tag along, because for once my knowledge of the coastal cities would make me useful, and that would give me a chance to escape. I didn’t know how, and still don’t. I’ll just have to improvise, something I’m not particularly good at.
Sorcery doesn’t work outside the coast, where people’s talents are activated by the proximity of the Emerald Sea, whose opaque, luminous green waters seethe with power. All I can do right now is make sparks between my fingers.
No-one in Bladestone has any interest in learning about sorcery or the places where it comes from, but some of the products that my uncle imports from the coast come wrapped in scrap paper torn from old sorcery manuals. I’ve carefully collected what I can (together with other papers relating to life in the coastal cities) and I think I know, in theory at least, how to do one or two spells. I’ve even practiced casting them, though I know that outside the sorcerous zone nothing will happen.
And now, with great relief, I see the rough desert track coming to an end as it joins the smooth black tar of the sorcerers’ highway. The highway runs parallel to the coast, a good few miles inland, just outside the influence of the Emerald Sea. Within the sorcerous zone, advanced non-magical tech like trucks doesn’t work—basically nothing with a power source will function.
Just up ahead, a hundred yards after the beginning of the highway, is an outpost—a gas station cum trading store cum foreign exchange. I pull the truck up to the pumps to fill up and get sent off to the store for wideawake tea and pastries.
It’s still mid-morning, so the storekeeper has time to chat. “That your truck getting filled up, the one with the Bladestone plates?”
“Yes,” I say, eager to talk to anyone who lives this close to the coastal cities, “we’re on a trading trip.”
“Who with?” the storekeeper asks, a little sharply.
“It depends on how we do, but we’re planning on the first two or three cities.”
“Just be careful, there’s trouble brewing between Flowers and Grass. Even talk of a war.”
“You mean like a trade war?” That’s the only kind there’s been between the tech cities in centuries. Technological progress has brought prosperity, and with it, peace.
“No, I mean a real war, like a mass duel between all the sorcerers from both cities.”
“But I thought the coastal cities settled their differences with individual duels between champions.”
“Up to now, yes, but it seems there’s too much ill-feeling for that to work anymore.”
“What it’s all about?” I ask with great curiosity.
“Not sure—something about Grass being too liberal—profaning sorcery by having female sorcerers. Flowers has a new leader and he’s really traditional—he’s been stirring things up, sending missionaries to the other coastal cities to spread his ideas and try to isolate Grass. That’s all I know.”
The other two don’t think much of it when I tell them the gossip. “It’s just talk,” scoffs Reth. “Nobody fights wars anymore, not even Sparkies. I’m sure there’ll be no problems.”
Bayne takes over the driving, and we head on up the highway, eating and drinking as we go. The road’s quite quiet, since it’s not a market day, and we make good time. Within the hour, we’re approaching the parking lot for Flowers in the Rain.
There are a few trucks here already, but none from Bladestone. That’s good, because we’re carrying lots of products unique to our home city, which means no competition.
Customs officials come to meet us straight away, wearing uniforms very similar to the ones back home. They probably were made in one of the tech cities. You can’t use sorcery to mass produce things, and cheap factory-made clothes from Bladestone and its neighbors have pretty much replaced the traditional hand-sewn clothing of the coast.
The officials are also carrying guns, since we’re still outside the sorcerous zone. They’re aloof and efficient, at times barely concealing their contempt for us. They do a thorough inventory of the truck and give us each a copy to show to licensed traders, along with a map of the city with approved streets marked in red. Then we go to the booth at the gate to get our passports checked, and they get stamped with a three-day visa. The gate swings open, and we make our way into the city.
“Uptight people,” remarks Bayne as soon as we’re out of earshot.
“Well,” I say, “they hate other sorcerers for not being traditional enough, so imagine how much they must hate us.”
“They also hate us because they need us,” says Reth with rare insight—probably something he’s heard from his father. “That just pisses them off even more.”
We’re in a narrow lane between blank stone walls, and it’s a hundred yards or so before we actually come into the sorcerous zone. When we do, it hits me with a woosh, almost like a wave of nausea. I double up, gasping.
“You okay little guy?” says Bayne, kindly enough.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I say, straightening up. “Must have been those damn pastries.”
“No, I felt something too,” says Bayne, “kind of a strange twinge. It must be the sorcery in the air. What about you Reth?”
“Yeah, me too, just a bit. Wonder why Berek took it so hard. I guess he’s just a sensitive little fellow.”
The fact is, all human beings, whether inland or coastal, have some sorcerous abilities. It’s how we’re wired, but most people only have a little—enough to do cantrips with. Being a true sorcerer means a high level of sensitivity, which I’ve just demonstrated. Reth hasn’t picked up on it, but Bayne looks at me a little oddly.
When we finally emerge into the city proper, it’s more or less as I imagined it. Lots of foot traffic, and horses and carts. No dung on the streets though—sorcery takes care of that. What’s unusual is that the crowd is entirely male, and rather glum looking. There’s a general air of despondency tinged with fear that I can pick up quite clearly with my sorcerous senses. Even the other two feel it.
“Miserable bunch,” says Bayne, to which Reth replies, “I know, but we’re just here to do business. Let’s head to that trader my father told us about. For a Sparky, he’s supposed to be pretty good.”
We make our way through crooked twisting streets full of crooked houses of stone and wood, very different from the geometric, carefully planned roads and brick buildings back home. It takes us about twenty minutes, during which time we get stared at fairly frequently. The thing that of course marks us out is our black hair. All the coastal dwellers have hair turned green from a lifetime’s exposure to the Emerald Sea. It’s not something I saw in the customs officials, who all had brutally short haircuts hidden under paramilitary headgear.
We finally arrive at the trader’s very fancy premises, and get ushered into an ornate lobby, complete with elaborate multiple fountains depicting bizarre sea beasts. The trader himself is too important to see us, but we soon get greeted by an underling, by the typically sorcerous name of Denial, who ushers us into a boardroom to begin negotiations.
Reth, as my uncle’s eldest son, is our acknowledged leader and does most of the talking, but I see Denial looking at me curiously now and then, as if he senses my sorcerous power. Ever since we came into the Emerald Sea’s zone of influence I’ve felt it seething and bubbling within me.
Negotiations consist of comparing lists of trade items—our mass-produced non-powered goods like clothes and hand tools, and their exquisite sorcerously-wrought ornaments and artworks. It’s something which I find infinitely tedious. My mind wanders as I try to plan my escape. I definitely don’t want to seek asylum in this city—not that they’d have me anyway. From the bits I’ve read, I know that Grass Bends Before the Wind is generous to refugees, but I don’t know how they’d respond to a tech guy who wants to be a sorcerer, and I don’t think I’d actually qualify as a refugee.
Fortunately, my uncle has long had dealings with this trader, so it’s just a case of fine-tuning a standardized arrangement. It’s mostly barter, with us adding a little Bladestone cash—highly prized in this city. After two hours, the deal is signed, and an arrangement made for the loading and unloading of our truck, to be done after lunch. We bow our goodbyes, and then head off to find something to eat.
“Great!” says Reth as we emerge into the street. “Like I thought, we got everything we wanted in Flowers from this trader, so we can leave as soon as the packing’s done. It’s only two hours to Grass, so we can hit the clubs tonight! Time to get shitfaced and laid!”
We find a restaurant frequented by techies and enjoy a reasonable meal, although we have to pay in Bladestone currency at somewhat inflated prices. Then we head back to the city gate, both Bayne and Reth eager to get out of the city, and walking at a furious pace that I can’t hope to match. By the time I think to call out to them, they’ve disappeared.
I’ve always had a bad sense of direction, and after much wandering and looking at street signs and the map I was given, I at last figure out where I am. I’m still on a road that’s approved for foreigners, but to start heading back towards the gate I’ll have to make a massive bend, which could take ages. On the other hand, there’s a quick illegal short cut down a side street, and I decide to chance it.
I keep my head down, but there’s no-one in the street for the first stretch. Then the street bends, and I come on an astonishing sight.
There’s a black coach, with blacked-out windows, obviously bridal, but it’s lying wrecked on its side. The shafts are broken and the two black horses are disappearing into the distance. What’s startling is that the bride, judging by her huge colorful dress, is out of the carriage and backed up against the wall. There are two men reaching out as if to grab her, and she’s clearly maintaining some kind of sorcerous shield against them, because she’s surrounded by a faint shimmer and they seem unable to touch her. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen sorcery performed.
All three are wearing their green hair long and unbound, which I know is a mark of high aristocracy. This is some serious shit going on, and I need to get out of here before they see me, but I remain frozen to the spot, entranced with fear and fascination.
“Slut!” hisses the younger of the two men. “Whore! To try to escape on your wedding day and bring shame on our family!”
“Shame on yourself, you mean!” the young woman retorts fiercely. “That’s all you care about.”
“Come now my dear,” says the older man, in a patronizing tone that he seems to imagine is kind and reasonable. “I don’t know how you learned this bit of magic, but you know we can easily break it, and then you’ll get hurt.”
“Yes!” she shouts back furiously. “Maybe even killed. And wouldn’t that mess up your precious strategic alliance? All I am to you is a piece on your precious game board of city politics. You don’t care about me at all!”
And then the two men sense my presence and turn around. “Machine boy!” exclaims the younger man. “I don’t know what you’re doing here, but you have looked upon a daughter of the city. For that you will die!”
What happens next is pure instinct. I’ve practiced this so many times that it just comes automatically. I empty my mind and visualize the result and the power surges out of me. There’s a double flare of intense white light, bright even in the afternoon sunshine, and then the two men are reduced to piles of ash.
The woman gapes in astonishment but otherwise remains calm, not making a sound. I run toward her, equally astonished by what I have just done, and not yet processing the fact that I am in all likelihood in a world of trouble. I am about to take her by the shoulder and ask if she’s okay, but my hand is repelled by her shield, which is still up.
“Don’t touch me!” she hisses. “You’ve just killed my father and brother, who were my enemies, but that doesn’t necessarily make you my friend. You were just defending yourself.”
I take a step back. “All right,” I say. “I won’t touch you, but it seems that we’re in this situation together. How are we going to get out of it?” I’m amazed at my own calmness. The full implications of what has happened haven’t yet sunk in.
She relaxes, and the shield dies away. “Drink this,” she says, giving me a tiny bottle filled with purple liquid, at the same time draining an identical bottle.
“What’s it for?” I ask.
“It steadies the nerves. Your tranquility will not remain for long. Quickly! And follow me!”
I drink the liquid, which tastes fiery, like a good brandy, and follow her a few paces down the street and behind a row of trees. Here she furiously tears off her dress, until it lies in multicolored ruin at her feet, and she stands revealed in baggy embroidered male clothing, which completely hides her slim figure. If it weren’t for her face, she could easily pass as a very young man.
She soon remedies this with sorcery, her face reforming until it looks just like her brother’s. “Come along,” she says, and heads off towards the gate.
I’m carried along in her wake, somewhat in a state of confusion. “What are you going to do when we get outside the sorcerous zone?” I ask. “They’ll never let a woman through.”
From the folds of her clothing she produces a prosthetic bio-mask of Brick Mountain manufacture in the exact shape of her brother’s face. “He bought it as a curiosity, and I stole it from him, along with his passport. It’ll work as soon as we clear the zone, and it’ll get me through the gate.”
“And what then?” I ask.
“Then I’ll pay someone to give me a lift to Grass. When are you leaving?”
“In an hour or two,” I say reflexively, and then curse myself. Despite being inextricably involved in this situation, my natural instinct is to run away. I feel I need to end my involvement as soon as possible.
She can obviously see the look on my face because her next remark is placatory. “Look,” she says, “despite being a m—, despite coming from a tech city, you’re obviously a naturally powerful sorcerer who’s managed to study a little of the arts. My guess is that you want to seek refuge in Grass, especially after what’s just happened. I can help you with that.”
“How, exactly?” I ask a little tartly, torn between hope and fear.
“I’ve made a study of the Grass refugee laws. I know what to do when we get there. No offense, but my guess is that you’re not here on your own, and you’re not the one in charge. Will I be able to persuade the others to take me along?”
“Probably,” I say on reflection. “Bladestoners will do anything for money. Techies in general, but especially my city.”
“Good. I’ve got lots of cash. Now we need to split up. I’ll wait at that café over there for a quarter of an hour and then follow you. I can follow the signs to the gate. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Berek. What’s yours?”
“Delight,” she says, and pulls a face. “Just a typical girly Flowers name, I’m afraid.”
“I think it’s nice,” I respond spontaneously, and then there’s an awkward silence. She breaks it by saying, “We probably won’t have time to talk later, and there’s no time to talk about the refugee process now, so when we get to Grass, just follow my lead. Don’t ask questions, and above all, tell the truth to the Grass officials, no matter how scary that may seem.” I nod, and with that we part.
It’s only when I’m well on my way to the gate that I realize it. By all the powers of the world, I’ve killed two people, two very important people. This is an international fucking incident. But it all seems as if it’s from very far away, obviously the effect of the potion that Delight gave me. It lasts past the sorcerous zone, so it must be herbal rather than sorcerous.
I proceed quite calmly to the gate and get waved through with a cursory glance at my documents. At the truck, the exchange of cargo is in full swing, and Reth gives me a sour glance, even though I have no real part to play in the process. Bayne looks more amused than anything.
“Where the hell have you been?” asks Reth, in between checking manifests. “Did you get lost, even with those maps they gave us?”
“I’m sorry,” I say contritely. “I couldn’t walk as fast as you guys, and then I stopped to look at a couple of things and got sidetracked a bit.” This accords perfectly with Reth’s perception of me as a spaced-out daydreamer.
He nods sharply. “Well, it’s all under control, so just stay out of the way and don’t mess anything up.” I nod in return, and scuttle off to one side.
Delight appears almost exactly a quarter of an hour later, looking every inch the bored coastal male aristocrat. “Gentlemen,” she says, addressing herself to Reth and Bayne in a pitch-perfect imitation of a light male voice, “I understand you are leaving for Grass shortly.”
“Yes,” says Reth abruptly, and then remembering what long hair means around here, belatedly adds, “my lord.”
“I would like to purchase transport in your vehicle. Would a hundred gold Flowers crowns be sufficient?”
Reth gulps. A hundred crowns is a lot of money, and valuable foreign exchange. If he can go back to Bladestone with that on top of the normal profits it’ll impress the hell out of his father.
“That’s extremely generous my lord, but why would you want to travel in our uncomfortable truck? Don’t highborn Flowers men such as yourself normally travel by boat?”
“Boats are so public, and I have, how shall we say, an arrangement with a certain young lady in Grass. The moral strictures of my city being what they are, the more secretive I am about this the better. Also, I must confess to a certain curiosity about your technology, since I’ve never seen it used before.”
Reth nods happily. “It’s a deal,” he says, and Delight counts out five twenty-crown coins. Whatever suspicions my cousin may have had about Delight being some sort of shady character have been allayed by her story, deliberately designed to appeal to Reth’s machismo. Also, like a typical Bladestoner, he’s let greed overcome common sense. I’m deeply impressed by Delight’s acting skills—she’s played her part perfectly.
The loading and unloading process is soon over, the manifests signed, and we all climb into the truck. Delight, at her request, sits in the window seat in front, with Bayne in the middle and Reth driving, and I get relegated to the back seat of the cab.
Then we’re off in the late afternoon sunlight. Delight seems quite relaxed, and soon overcomes my cousins’ awkwardness in the presence of aristocracy with stories of exploits among the women of Grass, as well as intelligent questions about the workings of the truck—far more intelligent than I could have asked. Her interest seems to go beyond mere play-acting, and I sense a lively mind at work.
My deeds of this afternoon remain clear in my mind, but still distant. The potion is obviously long-lasting. I listen closely to the conversation up front, fascinated by what Delight has to say, even when constrained by playing the part of her brother.
“So is it true that it’s easy to get laid in Grass?” asks Reth, no longer saying “my lord”, but still harping on his old theme.
“It is,” says Delight, sounding genuinely pleased. “Just one thing though—you can’t be persistent. If a woman says no, you have to leave her be, or you can end up getting arrested.”
“Wow,” says Reth, quite dumbfounded by this weirdness. I can’t help smirking quietly to myself.
By the time we pull into the parking lot at Grass, the potion is wearing off, and I’m starting to get the shakes. What I’ve done still seems unreal, but frighteningly so. I look over at Delight’s arm resting on the windowsill of the truck and notice a slight tremor, but she’s keeping it together well.
We all get out. I’m the last, since I’m in the back seat, and Delight looks carefully to make sure that I’m standing with the others. A customs official approaches us, a woman this time, which is something I’ve never seen before, even though it’s hardly a surprise for Grass.
As the official comes up to us, Delight pulls off the bio-mask and kneels on the tarmac. In a state of extreme fear, I follow suit. I hear Reth exclaim, “Shit! It’s a chick! And what the fuck are you doing Berek? Did you know about this?”
Delight speaks, in a loud clear voice, albeit with a bit of a quaver, “I claim asylum for myself and my companion.”
The official looks somewhat surprised, and perhaps a little irritated, but then assumes a formal manner. Obviously she’s been trained for this.
“What are your names and cities?” she asks.
“I am the Lady Delight, of House Orchid, of the city known as Flowers in the Rain.”
The official looks at me, and a second goes by, before, in my daze, I realize what I must say.
“I am Berek the Orphan, of the city known as Bladestone,” I stammer. That’s all the surname I have, since my uncle never bothered with formal adoption.
“What are the grounds for your claim?” asks the official.
Delight speaks again, “Firstly, I claim under the law that extends sanctuary to all women of Flowers in the Rain due to their deprived status. Secondly, I seek refuge from my family, who are trying to force me into a marriage I do not want.”
“And you, young man?” asks the official.
Having seen us kneel for asylum, more officials have joined the one addressing us, and I can feel their eyes upon me. I swallow with nervousness before I speak, my voice at first soft and shaky, but gaining in volume and steadiness. “I came upon Lady Delight as she attempted to escape her forced marriage. Her father and brother threatened my life and I killed them in self-defense. The authorities in Flowers in the Rain will want to execute me.”
The official looks disbelieving. “How did you manage to kill two undoubtedly powerful sorcerers?”
“I have latent sorcerous abilities. I have obtained pages from sorcery manuals and practiced in secret.”
“Excuse me,” blurts out Reth. “Excuse me ma’am,” he adds belatedly, realizing that he has to be polite to the official, even if she is a woman, “but this can’t be true. My cousin’s a little wimp. He couldn’t kill anyone.”
“Really?” says the official with quiet menace. “Were you present when this incident took place?”
“Then this does not concern you. Now be silent. This is a matter of utmost seriousness.”
Reth subsides into a sullen quiet, and the official addresses herself to Delight.
“Lady Delight, is Berek the Orphan telling the truth?”
“He is. I saw my brother and father reduced to ash in front of me.”
“Then for now I must take you at your word, but we will have to use truth spells and telepathy spells to check. You are both granted temporary asylum while we assess your cases. Speaking off the record, you both have my sympathy, but you may very well have started a war.”
“Come on sarge,” says one of her subordinates, “this war was coming anyway. Something like this was bound to happen sooner or later.”
The sergeant smiles grimly. “You’re right, of course, but these two will go down in history nonetheless.” She turns and motions to us. “Come with me,” she says, a little wearily, and we stand up and follow her.
I turn and look back at my cousins, and see that an official is taking their details in the usual way, so they’ll be allowed to trade as normal, but they both look shell-shocked. Bayne lifts a hand in farewell, and I wave back. Reth is busy with the official and studiously ignores me.
The sergeant takes us through a side gate and down a stone alleyway much like those in Flowers. There’s the same churning in the gut as we enter the sorcerous zone, but I’m expecting it this time and it’s not so bad. A little way farther we’re ushered through a guarded gate and into the parlor of a small nondescript building, furnished plainly but not uncomfortably.
There are pens on the table, and a stack of paper, and the sergeant busies herself taking down our details, until a man and a woman in civilian clothes enter the room.
“Thank you sergeant,” says the man with genuine courtesy. “We’ll take it from here.” The sergeant nods. She pauses briefly in the doorway, looks at me and Delight, and says “Good luck, you two,” and then she’s gone.
“Lady Delight, Mr. Berek,” says the woman, “we’re first going to cast a simple spell to put you in a proper state of tranquility before the more complex sorcery begins.” We nod, trembling. Unexpectedly, Delight takes my hand, which actually makes me feel a lot better.
The two sorcerers stare intently at us for a split second and then I’m flooded with absolute peace, far greater than that granted by Delight’s potion. Nothing seems to be too difficult to face.
“Good,” says the man. “The next spells may seem invasive, but they are needed to determine the veracity and detail of your stories.”
This time it’s like little filaments inserting themselves into my brain. I see everything that the sorcerers are seeing, not just the terror of the backstreet incident, but my whole background of misery and low status—the contempt with which other Bladestoners treat me.
I see too Delight’s circumstances—the hothouse atmosphere of pampered isolation and imprisonment experienced by aristocratic Flowers women. I see the dreary days spent in any desperate attempt to pass the time, including the amateur dramatics that gave Delight the skills needed to bluff her way into my cousins’ truck. I become intimately familiar with her sneaking around, spying on her male relatives and picking up little bits of the forbidden sorcery here and there. For a short while, our minds are united, and we understand one another perfectly.
Then it’s over. Delight lets go of my hand and looks away, seemingly a little embarrassed. The female sorcerer smiles at us. “Your stories check out completely. We will report back to the relevant officials and it will be for them to decide.”
“But what do you think will happen?” asks Delight. “Off the record, I mean,” she adds, having picked up the phrase from the sergeant.
“You my lady, will almost definitely be allowed to stay. The law makes specific provision for Flowers women. However, you, Berek, are a unique case. We’ve never had to deal with someone from a tech city before. Some may wish simply to deport you back to Bladestone.”
“But this incident has probably destroyed trade between Bladestone and Flowers. You don’t know how obsessed my home city is with making money. Well, actually you do, since you’ve seen right inside my head. If I go back I’ll be imprisoned, or even executed as a traitor!”
“I promise we’ll include that in our report,” says the man, and then they’re gone. The tranquility spell is only short-term, and I’m getting the shakes again.
“Here,” says Delight, pouring us brandy from a decanter on the sideboard, “let’s get plastered. I’ve never been allowed to before.”
By the time servants arrive to show us to our rooms we’re both nicely toasted and don’t give much of a shit about anything. The parlor opens into a courtyard, and we’re in bedrooms on opposite sides. The servants ask us if we want to eat alone in our rooms, or together in the parlor, and we both spontaneously opt for the parlor. They nod, and tell us supper will be ready in an hour.
The next two days are spent waiting for a decision by the Grass officials. We mope about the place, essentially as well-treated prisoners. A newspaper is delivered twice a day. Grass has a vibrant free press, and our incident in Flowers is mentioned, but all they’ve been able to dig up is that two aristocrats have been killed in a sorcerous attack on a bridal coach, and the bride has disappeared.
Delight and I talk a lot too, but not about ourselves, since we already know all about each other. Instead we focus on our mutual interest of sorcery, swapping the handful of spells that each of us knows, and practicing in the courtyard. She makes me feel different than any other woman I’ve ever met—calm and peaceful and safe, whereas previously women have just been a source of humiliation, like when Reth has put me down and made me look like a fool in front of his snickering girlfriends.
Late in the afternoon of the second day, we are visited by no less than a City Councilor. The Council has no head, and all on it are equal, but it’s immediately clear that Councilor Truth is a formidable woman, and a force to be reckoned with in the government of the city. She seems to have taken a special interest in our case.
At first she is quite formal with us. “I am pleased to tell you,” she says, “that you have both been granted permanent asylum in Grass Bends Before the Wind.” Delight exclaims in delight and hugs me, which gives me a strange thrill that I’m unable to interpret.
“However,” she continues, in a more straightforward way, “there are difficulties. According to the thought spells cast on you, you both want to be trained as sorcerers. The problem is, Flowers is threatening war, a war that they’ve wanted for a long time, but they’re using the two of you as an excuse. If we openly give you sorcerous training, it’ll be seen as tantamount to recruiting you for the war, and we’re still trying for a diplomatic solution. So for now, you’ll have to remain in this building and bide your time as best you can.”
She can obviously see the disappointment on our faces, because she continues, “But there is, of course, nothing stopping me from providing you with sorcery manuals so you can learn on your own.” She gets up and goes to the door, and two assistants come in, each carrying a box of the precious volumes.
“I know you’ve been practicing in the courtyard,” she says, “but that’s a little risky. Fortunately, this building used to be a sorcery school, and it has a heavily reinforced underground practice room. You both have enough raw talent to go far without formal assistance.”
We both thank her profusely, and she smiles and takes her leave, promising to visit us again when she can.
Bayne and Reth come to see me early the next morning. Their business in Grass is over, and they are ready to go back home. Bayne seems a little bemused by it all, whereas Reth is quivering with barely suppressed rage.
“I’ll go if you like,” says Delight, but I motion her to stay. I need the moral support. Even now, when I have the means to defend myself against him, Reth scares the shit out of me. Fear is a habit that dies hard, if it ever dies at all.
“I hope you’re pleased with yourself, you fucking traitor. You’ve completely fucked up trade with Flowers. That’s not just going to cripple our business, it’s going to damage the whole Bladestone economy. I hope you’re happy.”
“Chill brother,” says Bayne in a placatory fashion. “You know they just built that relay station in the desert. I was on the radio to dad half an hour ago. He reckons it’s not so bad. The city council will make an apology to Flowers, and sentence Berek to death for high treason, and it’ll be business as usual. So Berek, you can never come home.”
“You happy, traitor?” says Reth, with intense bitterness.
“Yes I am,” I say defiantly, “At least here I have a chance of belonging. And a traitor to what? A city where I was universally despised and treated with contempt.”
“But you’ve brought shame on the family that took you in!” Reth blurts out.
“I was never really part of the family—just an unpaid worker. I’m sure you’ll get over it pretty quickly. It’ll barely even damage your reputation.”
He snarls and lunges towards me, and both Delight and I create shields without thinking. Reth bounces right off them, then snarls again, this time in wordless rage, and storms out. Bayne remains for a minute.
“Well cousin,” he says, “all the best. I know the whole thing happened because you were defending yourself. And anyway, you never belonged in Bladestone. You always wanted to be a Sp—, a sorcerer, so maybe now you’ll get your chance.” He lifts a hand in farewell, as do I, and then he’s gone.
I always wanted to be free of Bladestone, but I realize just how isolated I am now, how cut off from everything. The only human connection in my life is Delight. It’s a sobering thought.
This morning’s paper has pretty much the whole story, including our names, and it confirms what Bayne said. The Bladestone Council has sentenced me to death in absentia and Flowers has accepted its apology.
More importantly, negotiations between Flowers and Grass are not going well. The new Flowers leader, aptly named Devout, has always been angry that Grass was willing to give refuge to Flowers women—regarding it as interference in the city’s internal affairs—but he has never acted on it previously, beyond making a formal complaint. He probably never expected a woman actually to escape and reach Grass. Now that it’s happened, he’s beside himself with rage. He’s demanding that Grass hand both of us over immediately, failing which he will, as Delight reads aloud in a slightly scared voice, “go and fetch the two scum.” In my past life I was despised for my insignificance—now I’m despised for being extremely significant in entirely the wrong way. Our sanctuary, it seems, is somewhat tenuous.
“Do you think they can win?” I ask Delight, desperately seeking reassurance.
“I’d say no. Both cities probably have equally good sorcery, and roughly equal populations, but unlike Flowers, here women as well as men can practice sorcery, which gives us twice the number of fighters. I think it’ll be okay. I just wish we could be allowed to join the fight.”
“Actually,” I say a little while later, having returned to the newspaper, “numbers may not be on our side. Summer Breeze is making supportive noises toward Flowers.”
Delight groans. Summer Breeze is the next city up the coast, relatively conservative and larger than either Grass or Flowers. Devout’s missionaries have been laughed off in Grass, but in Summer they’ve found a receptive audience, and there’s now a sizeable faction adhering to the misogynistic beliefs of Flowers. The Summer government is obviously trying to placate them.
“If they join the war on the Flowers side, then we’ll be in trouble,” says Delight.
“Well at least maybe then they’ll let us take part in the war. We may as well prepare. Let’s have a look at the manuals and start researching combat spells.”
We take the boxes downstairs to the practice room and start going through the handwritten manuals. I’m expecting each volume to focus on a different area of sorcery, with indexes and tables of contents, just like you get with technical manuals back in Bladestone, but I’m sorely disappointed. It’s all completely higgledy-piggledy, with spells obviously recorded just as they occurred to the writer, with no system whatsoever, and nothing to guide the reader. To find any spell, you have to wade painfully through volume after volume.
When I complain about this to Delight she replies, “But sorcery is natural and intuitive. You have to feelit.”
“That may be part of it, but growing up in a tech city has taught me the value of thinking in an organized way. I always hated Bladestone, but I will give it that.”
“All right, we’ll try it. How exactly do you organize sorcery?”
“What we’re after is combat magic, so we need to find every combat spell and put them all together. I don’t suppose there’s a spell for identifying spells by type.”
“No,” says Delight, “but we can invent it. We just have to come up with a list of appropriate words, and visualize those words and imagine a volume turning to that page.”
‘And then what? There are no copiers here.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of those, but there is a copy spell. It’s a little tricky, so we won’t be able to improvise it. We’ll have to find it the old-fashioned way.”
After a laborious hour we have the spell, and go back up to the parlor for paper and pens, which we had completely forgotten in our excitement at starting to learn sorcery.
We spend an enjoyable day searching for spells, one volume at a time, both offensive and defensive, then casting the copy spell, and finally binding them all with an old manual binding machine that we find in the parlor.
By the next morning, however, a somber mood has overtaken us as we now approach the practicality of what we have set out to do—find a spell that will win a battle against overwhelming forces.
Delight lays out the problem, “We know what kind of combat spells are already used, including the one you used to kill my father and brother, and it seems to me that attack and defense sorcery are pretty equally balanced. You were only successful in taking out my relatives because they weren’t expecting sorcery from you and didn’t put up a shield. A sorcerous battle between equal forces would basically be a stalemate, and in the case of unequal forces victory automatically goes to the larger army.”
“So what do we need to focus on?”
“Some kind of ultra-powerful attack, something that will break down existing defensive spells. It’ll need to combine existing sorcery in a new way.”
“Then let’s put our heads together my lady,” I say with jocular gallantry. It’s the first time I’ve ever addressed Delight by her title—she’s always just been Delight to me.
She responds with annoyance and a little pain. “Don’t call me that,” she says. “I’m not a lady anymore—just a refugee like you, potentially in danger of my life. I never asked to be a lady—much good it did me anyway—and I only used the title when I was seeking asylum because the formality of the situation called for it.”
“And anyway,” I say with sudden realization, “your title is part of why you’re in danger. The Flowers government probably wouldn’t have made such a fuss if you and your family had been commoners.”
She smiles at me, all forgiven. “I’m glad you understand. Now let’s get to it.”
We work on it for hours, but for every offensive spell in our new manual, there is an equally effective defensive spell.
“This is like a boxing match,” I say. “It’s just trading blows and parrying.”
“But there are other forms of combat,” says Delight. “In Flowers there’s a form of wrestling practiced by the commoners where you use your opponent’s strength against him.”
“How do you do that?” I’m intrigued. This is completely different to the hard, head-on forms of combat practiced in the tech cities.
“I don’t know the actual techniques, but somehow you convert your opponent’s attack into a counterattack. You take the momentum of his attack and redirect it against him. Perhaps we could do something like that.”
“It sounds complex. Look, it’s time for the evening paper. Why don’t we go and read it and then talk this idea through?”
The news isn’t good. War seems almost a certainty. Devout seems to have severely underestimated the fighting ability of the Grass sorcerers, talking derisively about “Nancy-boys weakened by the presence of women”. Apparently an invasion fleet is already being assembled, and defensive preparations are underway.
One thing that’s worried me from the start has been the possibility that people in Grass will blame me and Delight for the war, and call for us to be handed over to the Flowers authorities to avoid conflict. However, it seems that most people think like that customs official did when we first arrived—war has been inevitable ever since Devout took over Flowers, and Delight and I are merely a test case of the progressive values of Grass, and its right to independence and its own way of life. There are one or two dissenting voices, but public opinion is in our favor. I hope it’ll stay that way once the fighting’s actually happened and people have died, something that makes me feel terribly guilty.
Councilor Truth visits us two or three times, as she promised, and is intrigued by our progress—I suspect she planned from the beginning to use me and Delight as a research team for new sorcery. She also takes pains to reassure us that the Council, and the people of the city in general, are on our side.
The next few days are spent in a mixture of delight, as we work out the details of the new spell, and terror, as war inevitably approaches, and we wait for the invasion fleet. After a while we bog down on the spell, until I remember some of my high school physics, and realize how it can be applied to sorcery.
That very evening we’re confronted with ghastly news—there’s been a coup in Summer. The misogynists have seized power, and they’re adding their forces to those of Flowers. Now Grass is substantially outnumbered, and defeat seems certain. The enemy fleet should arrive tomorrow afternoon.
“We have to speak to the Council—they’ve got to try our spell,” says Delight desperately, “I’ll ask one of the guards to call Councilor Truth—I hope she’s not too busy to come.”
Perhaps knowing that we could be the city’s only hope, the Councilor arrives swiftly. “Well?” she asks, “What is your idea?”
“We’ll need equipment,” says Delight, and tells her what we need.
“By the Sea, why would you need that?” asks Truth incredulously, and Delight tells her that too.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing. Where did you get that idea?”
“From tech city physics,” I say. “Who says that science and sorcery can’t be combined?”
“It’s true that if we defend in the usual way we’ll be overwhelmed,” says Truth. “They have more sorcerers than us, so their conventional attack will beat our conventional defense. Come with me now, both of you. The Council is having a supper meeting. You can explain it to them, but it may be a tough sell—some of the Councilors are real fuddy-duddies.”
Four hours later, Delight and I return to the refugee compound, completely exhausted. It has been a tough sell, but the open-minded traditions of the city have prevailed with the Council, and with Councilor Truth’s backing, they’ve agreed to try our idea. As one Councilor put it, “It will work no worse than traditional methods, and may work better.”
Delight and I have been given a few hours to rest, before we begin advising a team of sorcerers who will prepare the equipment. I am about to say goodbye to her and go to my room, when she suddenly takes both my hands and looks into my eyes.
“Berek,” she says, very directly, “there is something unresolved between us, and tomorrow we may die, or worse.”
Nothing more needs to be said. We go to her room, and lie down together on her bed, trembling in our mutual virginity. We are both clumsy and awkward and shy, and we barely know what we are doing, but it is sweet all the same, the sweetest thing I have ever known. Afterwards she nestles against me, her soft fragrant green hair spilling across my chest. I am absolutely at peace, despite what the future may hold.
“Now I am ready to die,” I say.
“So am I,” she replies, “but more than that, I want to live.”
The following afternoon sees us assembled on the dockside with every sorcerer in the city. We are directly facing the narrow harbor entrance and the vivid green water of the bay—the only place through which an attack can come. The mingled smell of salt and sorcery is strong in our nostrils.
Devout will fight this like a sorcerous duel, with part of one’s sorcerous resources put into a blast of concentrated energy, and part put into a shield to block your opponent’s attack. Rapidly switching resources between the two to shift from attack to defense and back is what a duel is all about. The difference here is that the sorcerers on each side will unite their powers, in a sense forming a single entity. At least, that is what Devout undoubtedly expects, and with his greater numbers, his entity will be stronger.
We are standing right at the water’s edge, behind a strange fragile barrier, covered in cloth. It is what we have spent all night and all morning preparing. Interspersed with the sorcerers are our assistants, ready to snatch away the covers.
We hear the faint sound of oars and voices over the emerald-green water, and then a flag is waved by a lookout on one of the headlands. A murmur runs through our ranks. “They’re here,” says Delight as the flagship makes its appearance. It backs oars, avoiding the sorcerously enhanced chain stretched across the harbor entrance, and drops anchor behind the chain. The other ships, and they are many, take up position behind the leader in a long narrow column.
The flagship is flying the standard of Flowers, a delicate blossom curiously at odds with the harsh beliefs of the city. I can just make out a large man standing near the prow. That, undoubtedly, is Devout, perhaps hoping to draw us into a rash attack.
The sorcerous energy gathers around the flagship as the attacking force builds a shield. They’re using about a third of their resources, which should be just enough to block any attack we can make. Obviously they’re going for an all-out massive offensive.
We still haven’t responded with any sorcerous preparations of our own, which must puzzle them, but they go ahead with building up their offensive. It starts as a flicker, and then builds up to a throbbing light, painful to look at. When it’s clear that it has passed the point of no return, Councilor Truth gives the signal, and the covers are whipped off the barricade, which stands revealed as a line of thin metal plates, polished to a mirror finish.
Now the Grass sorcerers all link hands and we unite our minds and join them to the sorcerously prepared mirrors. Delight and I stumble a little in our inexperience, but catch up a second later.
The attack flares out from the enemy ships and strikes the barricade with terrible force, and we’re all focusing on the same thing: Reflect back! Reflect back!
This is all based on what I remember about lasers from high school, and how they are reflected and redirected by mirrors. And it works with sorcery too—to a point.
For sorcery is not neat and precise like a laser beam. It’s wild and chaotic and unpredictable—something that I, with my tech background, have not fully taken into account. Most of the attack is indeed reflected back on the enemy fleet, engulfing it in its own destructive energy. But much of it goes elsewhere. It rampages along the harbor, destroying ships and buildings. It also spills up over the barricade, splitting up into ribbons of light that incinerate sorcerer and assistant alike, before streaming back into the city and laying waste to people and property. Finally, its momentum is spent, and all is silent. It’s all over.
I realize that my left hand, holding that of a sorcerer whose name I did not even know, is now empty. But my right hand still mercifully clasps the warm living fingers of Delight. She and I are alive, along with half the city’s sorcerers. The enemy fleet has entirely vanished, together with every male sorcerer in Flowers and Summer. The day is ours, but at what cost?
Behind me I hear the voice of Councilor Truth, mercifully also spared, “Come with me you too, now—it’s not safe for you here.”
As we turn mechanically and follow her, I hear the voices start to buzz:
“Half the city’s been destroyed. I thought this tactic was supposed to minimize damage.”
“Well, that’s what we were told. Some tech city stuff mixed in with the sorcery.”
“Whose idea was it anyway? This machine boy who wants to be a sorcerer. What a fucking disaster.”
“To be fair, we did win. The attack was destroyed.”
“Yes, but look at the losses we took. I still say we could have won the old-fashioned way, and taken far less damage. I know we were outnumbered, but we’ve got the best sorcerers on the coast.”
“Yes, and how many of them are dead now? Just to save two refugees. We should have handed them over to Flowers like they asked. Then this could all have been avoided.”
“But that would have encouraged Devout to make more demands. I tell you…”
We run through the ruined streets, seemingly for hours, until the damage peters out, and we come to the area near the land border. The refugee compound is still standing, and Truth quickly hustles us inside. “Double the watch,” she says to the guard at the gate as he lets us in, and he nods and shouts for his sergeant.
Once inside the parlor, Truth pours us each a drink, which we drain with one gulp. “You heard what they were saying,” she says. “You’re going to have to stay here for a while. Eventually it’ll calm down. The fact is, this was the only way to defeat the invasion—we just didn’t realize how much damage we’d take. I’m not blaming you two for that. You’re inexperienced and you weren’t to know, and it was a big gamble combining sorcery and science.”
“But there’ll always be people who hate us, won’t there?” asks Delight.
“Yes, but in time it will be no more than a sizeable minority. The rest will tolerate you, but no more than that. You’re in no danger of being expelled from the city, and we’ll find sorcerous work for you to do, but you’ll probably always have to live apart. For what it’s worth, you do have each other.”
“That’s worth a lot,” I say, and we smile at each other.
“I’ll come and see you when I can,” says Truth. “There’ll be much work to do, restoring the city. You can’t help with that—it’ll only make people angry. This building is well guarded, but you’d better strengthen the sorcerous defenses, just in case.”
And then she’s gone. Delight goes to the sideboard and pours us each another drink. “Well,” she says, “here’s to the exiles.”
“Once a pariah, always a pariah,” I reply.
She smiles wryly and lifts her glass.