Natalia could barely keep still, even as she felt Mrs. Bartleby’s stern gaze boring into her from the side. Her eyes clung to Tsubame’s mother in front of her. They stood in the Sheffield family yard, without shoes or leggings. Beside her stood Nia, glancing about uncertainly. Why Tsubame’s mother wanted Nia here when she couldn’t even speak the language, Natalia didn’t know. But she had more important things to wonder about.
Like the two glass cups of water Konoe set on the ground, one in front of each of them.
“Are you both paying attention?” she said.
“Yes ma’am!” Natalia said, leaning forward.
Nia noticed Natalia’s undivided stare, and imitated it, gazing at Konoe and the cups of water.
“Good. Now I have imbued each of these cups with some of my magic,” Konoe said, gesturing to each one. “You’ll want to pick it up with one hand, and dip the pointer finger of your other hand in, about halfway. If this were back in Eternia, or one of the academies in Giormund, we would have more involved tests. But this is the best we can do.”
Nia turned and looked at Natalia.
“So what’s supposed to happen?” Natalia said, as she picked up the cup with her right hand, and gazed into the water. It bore a whitish hue, as though someone had mixed milk into it.
“It should take on a particular color, first,” Nia said. “And there might be some other things. Like there might be dirt at the bottom, or ice. The water might steam. But if only the color changes, then that’s okay.”
“And if the color doesn’t change?” Natalia said.
“Then you don’t have any aptitude for it,” Nia said. “But that won’t happen, I’m sure.” Her gaze fell upon Nia with an intensity that left both students-to-be squirming in place.
Natalia picked up the cup and dipped her finger in. Seconds went by, and her heart hammered in her chest. Her gaze flew to her parents and grandmother, and Mrs. Bartleby. She couldn’t afford to mess up now, not while they were all watching her. They might have already prepared a feast for her success.
Nia imitated her, and Konoe walked over to her without Nia even having to prompt. Her lips pressed together tightly, and she walked toward Natalia without a word. Was this test that difficult? Konoe, err, Master Konoe didn’t look pleased at all.
Natalia’s eyes squeezed shut as she prayed for it to change to any color at all. She didn’t dare look as Konoe leaned down and inspected it.
“Do you mind if I look at this, Natalia?”
Natalia shook her head and let Konoe take it.
Konoe held it up to the light, and Natalia peeked at the cup. The sun illuminated a few specks of orange, and Natalia breathed a sigh of relief. She swirled the cup about, and Natalia found dirt at the bottom.
“So conjuration,” Konoe said. “With an earth element.”
“I-Is that good?”
“It means producing earth and earth-based things would come easier to you than most other magic, but you can still learn other things.”
Natalia beamed at her family, and resisted the urge to cheer at the sky.
Konoe didn’t seem too happy for Natalia, however, as she turned around and walked back over to Nia. She swirled Nia’s cup in her hand, peering more closely at the water than she did for Natalia’s.
“Just barely,” Konoe eventually said. She sighed with relief. “Just a little bit of ice, but it’s a starting point.”
She clapped her hands on Nia’s shoulders with a toothy grin, and Nia tentatively smiled back.
Natalia pouted. Why hadn’t Master Konoe given her that big of a smile?
“Master Konoe,” she called. “What do we do now?”
Konoe looked over.
“For now, I hope you enjoy reading,” she said. “I won’t teach you any magic until you know the theory for at least the first few spells, and the morals behind casting. But first, do you know all those stories with drawing spell circles into the ground or wall with chalk or paint? Or people’s blood?”
“Forget about them,” Konoe said. “Those are rituals.”
Natalia looked rather quizzical.
“But aren’t rituals magic, ma’am?”
“Yes,” she said, and held up a finger. “But one person usually doesn’t do a ritual by themselves. They don’t have the magical capacity for it, and if the ritual goes wrong, more casters means sharing the backlash equally, instead of getting the full brunt of it yourself.”
She stopped talking briefly at that, and her nose wrinkled.
“A-Anyway,” she said, drawing in a deep breath. “Most casters in Eternia use what’s called ritualite casting. Rituals, technically, but lighter. Not as involved, and the effects aren’t as grand. But they’re not as risky, and don’t require as much power. Enough that one person can use them. And in order to use them, you have four parts.”
Konoe sent for one of the servants to fetch her a stick of butter from the kitchens, and held it in hand.
“The material component,” she said, holding the stick out for them to see. “The incantation, the hand movement, and the reservoir of magic inside of you that will fuel the spell.”
“Err, I-I don’t mean to question you, ma’am, but why do we need all that?”
“Magic is a fickle thing. Even the magic inside of you, if you don’t have a strong grip on it, will do whatever it wants. You’re trying to wrestle a formless thing inside you, and bend it to your will.”
“I-I see. Okay.” The thought of something she had no control over resting inside of her racked Natalia with a chill, but she didn’t have time to dwell on it before Konoe resumed speaking.
“So to wrestle the formless, we have to first give it form. And you give it form by cultivating very rigid habits. For instance, this stick of butter? I’ve conjured grease using this, particular hand movements, and a set incantation so many times, that I just do it automatically. I think of summoning grease, and my mind jumps to the steps. And the magic follows those steps. There’s no chance for my magic to get out of my control, and do things I don’t want when I cast the spell.”
“So your magic does what you want because of the steps?”
“That’s right,” she said.
“But what happens if your magic gets out of your control?”
Master Konoe’s face stiffened.
“Well, you can’t control your spells. For instance, say I cast a grease spell without having control over it. There might be grease, but there might also be oil, or dust, or blood. Everything in your stomach might teleport outside of you, and it gets splattered down as the ‘grease’ instead.” Konoe’s voice fell to a whisper. “And there are stories of casters who end up losing control of the magic inside them, and their souls break like glass.”
Natalia’s own stomach churned at the thought, and she briefly wished she could be ignorant of what was being said like Nia. The woman seemed to be listening, or at least, looking at Konoe intently, even if she would occasionally glance at the ice and water in her cup. The way she looked at it, it was almost as if she’d never seen magic before.
Her eyes snapped back to her new teacher.
“Y-Yes Master Konoe?”
“Don’t pay much mind to Nia. I’ll have to teach her separately, since there’s still a language issue.”
“Yes Master Konoe.”
“Master Konoe?” Nia said.
“Konoe, Nia. Konoe.”
“Konoe,” Nia said.
“Good,” their mentor said, nodding.
Natalia raised an eyebrow at that. Weren’t they supposed to be sister disciples? It felt strange that only she could call Tsubame’s mother master. But maybe she saw more potential in Natalia than Nia? Did she shine brighter than someone from a Dainian casting family? The thought sent another round of jitters through her, and she found herself grinning from ear to ear.
“So what books should I start with?”
“I’ve already given them to your handmaid,” Konoe said. “And she will give them to you to read once you’re in your room.”
“Then I’ll start right now! Err, but can I tell Tsubame the good news, first?” She looked back and forth between her family and mentor, unsure of who she should ask for permission.
“I see no harm,” her grandmother said. Her warm, dimpled smile was interrupted by a coughing fit.
It went on for some time, and she produced a handkerchief to cough into. Nia frowned, and walked toward the ailing woman.
Things must’ve been really lax in Dainai for Nia to approach the matriarch so naturally. Before Natalia could try and tell her not to, Konoe grabbed Nia’s hand.
Nia’s frown grew more severe, and she jabbed a finger toward the coughing woman. Konoe’s hand relinquished its grip without delay, and Natalia was reminded of the time one of the guards had let go of the leash of a particularly ill-tempered and hulking guard dog to avoid getting bitten. Or at least, the fear on Master Konoe’s face was the same.
Her grandmother’s coughing fit subsided then, but Nia showed no sign of letting this go. Master Konoe turned to the old woman.
“Err, w-would you mind letting her, err, do whatever she’s going to do…ma’am? She doesn’t mean you harm, I’m sure.”
Her grandmother gauged Nia, and to Nia’s credit, she did stop her approach, and put on a smile. Her eyes were experienced, yet soft in a way. They weren’t quite as harsh as some of the older healers her parents would sometimes complain about.
Her grandmother seemed to realize this, or maybe she noticed the fear in Mater Konoe’s tone, since she nodded.
Nia continued slowly, still smiling.
“Anani…” She glanced at Master Konoe sheepishly.
“Err, go on,” Nia said.
Her parents looked at Nia incredulously.
“Who is she to you again?” her mother said, looking at Master Konoe.
“It’s complicated,” Master Konoe said. “But I believe that it would be in everyone’s best interest if we treated her well.”
“And what leads you to have that belief?”
Master Konoe bit her lip, and glanced at the grass.
“If I tell you, I would ask that you look after my daughters and husband, after he’s been rescued.”
Nia didn’t continue her approach, seeming to not want to interrupt the conversation. She looked back and forth between Master Konoe and mother and father, brow furrowed and lips pinched to one side, like she was trying to solve a problem.
“She doesn’t seem to speak the language,” her father noted. “Did you smuggle in a criminal from Eternia? Or elsewhere?” He eyed Nia warily. “Is she that dangerous that the crown would have your head if they knew?”
Nia peered at his expression, and glanced back at Master Konoe hesitantly.
She backed away from her grandmother.
Looking at Nia now, her head bowed and lips mumbling under her breath, she didn’t seem dangerous at all.
“She won’t be dangerous if we teach her properly,” Master Konoe said. “But if they knew…I would be locked away or put to death, yes.”
A shiver racked Natalia, and even the rigid pillar that was her grandmother seemed to crack ever so slightly.
“Wh-Why would you do something like this?” Natalia’s grandmother finally spoke up. “Bringing someone of that power here? To my dominion?” A similar fear to the one that Natalia had seen in Master Konoe’s eyes began to surface, and her parents’ faces followed suit.
Nia stepped back at the sights of their faces, and grimaced.
“G-Gomienda!” she said, looking at Natalia’s grandmother. “Gomienda! Gomienda! Wainanu athiga cheinu. Cheinu!” She glanced about furtively before raising her hands up on either side of her head, fingers spread apart.
“Wh-What’s she doing?” Natalia’s mother said, staring at the sight.
“It’s nothing,” Master Konoe said. “She doesn’t know spells. I’m sure she’s just agitated. She knows we’re talking about her, and doesn’t know why or what it’s about.”
“Sounds like the first thing we ought to do is teach her the language,” Natalia’s grandmother said. “But I’ll want a full explanation from you about who she is, Konoe. Is that clear?”
“Of course ma’am,” Master Konoe said. “I won’t ask you to keep secrets from the crown for my sake, but so long as you promise to look after my family, I will tell you whatever you’d like to know.”
“Then why don’t we discuss this over tea and cookies? Bring Nia with you.”
Natalia’s grandmother turned to her.
“Natalia, why don’t you spend the day with Tsubame?”
The cold steel in her grandmother’s eyes couldn’t be broken with any argument, and Natalia headed off with Mrs. Bartleby.
“B-Be mindful of Kotori!” Tsubame’s mother called.
Was Nia some kind of criminal? Brigands, thieves, murders? Tsubame’s mother didn’t seem the type to associate with those sorts of people. Maybe Nia was some kind of Dainian assassin? And Tsubame’s mother hired her to hunt down the hags and get her husband back? But that would be fine, right? The crown employed their own assassins sometimes, probably.
Mrs. Bartleby escorted her to the Hikou home with enough to last the night. But rather than leave, her handmaid stepped inside.
“I’ll be staying here tonight,” she said.
Tsubame soon received them, and tilted her head at Mrs. Bartleby.
“Err, hello Mrs. Bartleby, Natalia?” She peered past them. “Where’s mommy? She didn’t come with you? And Nia.”
“My grandma wanted to talk with them,” Natalia said.
“Oh. Err, well, what do you want to do?”
“Firstly,” Mrs. Bartleby said, drawing both girls’ attention. “How has your sister been, Tsubame? Your mother has refrained from sharing the details, but as I understand it, she’s quite sick. Has she been eating well, at least?”
Tsubame winced at that, and took a few seconds to answer.
“Yeah, she’s been eating,” she said.
Mrs. Bartleby stared at her expectantly.
“But maybe it’s not enough? She talks about feeling empty. And she’s been acting kinda weird lately,” Tsubame said. “Stares at the birds outside her bedroom window. Lots of nightmares, too. Mommy says they’re nothing to worry about, but…yeah.”
“I will ask her about those nightmares then,” Mrs. Bartleby said. “And I can fetch something for peaceful sleep from Foucine.”
“Thank you Mrs. Bartleby,” she said.
“No need to thank me,” the handmaid said.
“Oh, and don’t touch her skin,” Tsubame said. “Mommy says you might get sick.”
“I see. Okay then. But surely touching her through a cloth or handwraps are fine, yes?”
“Then that will be what I will do.”
Tsubame turned to Natalia.
“She wanted to talk with you too, Natalia. If-If you don’t mind? I know you guys don’t get along that well, but…”
Natalia wanted to groan at the thought of listening to Kotori throw big words in her face. But she couldn’t refuse Tsubame, not when those eyes were so soft and pleading.
“Urgh, fine,” Natalia said, and marched up the stairs. Mrs. Bartleby wasn’t far behind.
She knocked on the door.
“Kotori,” she called. “Are you awake? Me and Mrs. Bartleby…”
“Mrs. Bartleby and I,” the handmaid corrected.
“Mrs. Bartleby and I,” Natalia said. “Are here to spend the night. You doing okay?”
“I’m fine,” Kotori said, her voice sounding a bit muffled. “You can come in. But be careful. And try not to stay too long.”
When Kotori had been the one that wanted to talk with her, how rude.
“We know not to touch you,” Natalia said. “And yeah, we’ll let you get back to sleep soon.”
They stepped inside to find Kotori sitting up, and Natalia’s eyes widened. Kotori had been bundled up in clothes befitting winter rather than spring. The only part of her that wasn’t covered by fabric of some kind was the upper part of her face. Even her hair was snuggly tucked away beneath a leather cap.
Mrs. Bartleby recovered first.
“A-Are you hot, child?”
Kotori shook her head, and clasped her gloved hands together when they came in. As they approached, her hands trembled slightly, and her eyebrows furrowed like she was thinking deeply about something.
“I-I wanted to thank you,” Kotori said. “For helping me wake up.” But she wouldn’t even look at them.
“You’re supposed to look at someone when you thank them.”
Mrs. Bartleby glared at her.
“Young lady, don’t say such things.”
Why was Mrs. Bartleby lecturing her when Kotori was the one that couldn’t even obey the basic rules of politeness?
“No,” Kotori said, and Natalia’s eyes snapped to her. Kotori gazed at her gloved hands. “No, she’s right.”
She drew in a deep breath, and turned to Natalia.
“Thank you. I appreciate it, Natalia.”
Her hands trembled a bit more.
“Y-You’re welcome,” Natalia said. Her irritation with Kotori’s indignation fell away at the sight of those hands trembling further, and the look of pain in her eyes. “You’re sure that you’re fine, right?”
“I’ll manage. I have to. I think you should leave.”
“Would you like me to bring you food, child?”
“Could you leave it by the door please? That’s what mother has been doing.”
“Quite the sickness you have, then.”
“I-I suppose.” Kotori stared at the ceiling. “It’s my fault, really.”
“How so?” Mrs. Bartleby said.
Kotori turned away from them, staring out her bedroom window.
“Please leave,” she said, more firmly this time.
Mrs. Bartleby hesitated, but soon nodded and left.
“Your sister tells me that you have nightmares,” she said. “I will bring something for them.”
And they left.
Natalia hugged Tsubame while Mrs. Bartleby got to preparing a meal for the girls and herself.