Balance Point

Edited by Brian J. White

April 2017

Nik stood against the wall, waiting until Master Aidan needed something. Now and then the fire required more wood, or something had to be fetched, or tea brewed. An apprentice served a master. An apprentice learned by listening, and by doing. It was just so frustrating that doing was something that any servant could manage. Nik came here to learn magic, not to be ignored by everyone — even the teachers — except when it was time for tea. Kid stuff was easy: lighting candles, calling birds, seeing in the dark. But there was so much more that only came with training. The masters could create fireworks, make plants grow, do all kinds of magnificent stuff. But all apprentices ever did was regular stuff anyone could do. It wasn‘t safe to do magic without preparation, people could get hurt, whatever. Only people who could do magic could pass all the stupid tests to get in, but then they were promptly told not to do any magic ever or they‘d be kicked out. Even if they did magic all the time before coming here. Nik was determined to stay, but it was awful boring. Eventually Master Aidan looked up from his notebook, and blinked blearily. ”Still here, boy? Even the most dutiful apprentice should have some fun tonight. I don‘t want to see you again until tomorrow afternoon. Shoo.”

Nik wasn‘t dutiful, but always being there probably looked like it from the outside. One of the masters might say something useful or interesting, forgetting that an apprentice was within earshot. Nik had a notebook tucked away with all the things that might be worth knowing, ideas for magic to do, tricks to impress people with. Tonight’s Masquerade festival would be a great time to try them all. A whole free night, everyone wearing masks, nobody paying attention to anything except having a good time.

The equinox festival commemorated some ancient historical event, when the city turned back invaders who tried to sneak into the city during an older holiday when everyone wore masks out into the streets to celebrate the return of spring. Nobody believed in those pagan gods anymore, but they kept the festival anyway. Still had the masks, still had the wild parties, but now everyone pulled their masks off at dawn to demonstrate that they were not foreign invaders, and everyone insisted it had nothing to do with pagan fertility rites, even though an awful lot of babies would be born nine months from tonight. Nik grimaced. Nope, not interested in that part.

Nik pulled a plain dark shirt and trousers from the clothes chest, and tied on an intricately patterned cloth mask, its deep blue fabric nearly hidden by lines of brilliant embroidery. Being raised as a farmgirl left a few skills, though needlework was far more useful than churning butter. Nik had slipped away from the farm one afternoon, leaving behind a pile of skirts and hacked-off braids. Not for the magic; talent didn‘t care about braids or dresses. For everything else.

The streets were already full of people glittering in the torchlight. For this one night, the flames of the torches were enhanced with magic. The light sparkled blue, green, yellow, red from the glass beads and silver paint decorating the masks and clothing of the pedestrians. Nik was dazzled by the colors and lights: no festival night in a little farm village could possibly compare. This was going to be great. Nobody would notice a little extra magic in all the chaos.

Most of the apprentices had gone out together. None of them protested too hard when Nik waved off the crowd of young men and women clutching masks and flasks. They didn‘t mix well. Not like oil and water, but Nik refused to dissolve into their mass. Being alone was safer, especially tonight. The potential for fun and pranks was enormous, and of getting caught unlikely.

A quick hand laid on one of the torch poles, a moment of concentration: the flame flared and shifted from green to purple before settling. The next one gold, then red, and blue. By the fifth or sixth Nik had gotten the knack of it, and the torch flames shifted color without a flare. The next few Nik turned striped, just to see if it were possible. A few people noticed the color changes, but most of them were absorbed in themselves and their companions. Later they would certainly notice the results, but not the experimenter. Nik was burning to do more magic, burning as brightly as the flaring torches.

Exhilarated, Nik headed toward the center of the city. Hard as it was to believe, looking at the packed streets, the park along the river would be even busier. That‘s where the crowd was headed; moving in any other direction was nearly impossible. Colors were fun, so what else could be prettier? A heavyset man‘s lantern turned a sparkling pink when he bumped into Nik, but the man was gone before either of them noticed. Nik moved from torch to torch, dyeing them each in turn, never noticing the wake of colors stretching out behind, painting everyone who jostled against Nik in the crowd. Drinks fizzed and glowed, silver masks gained new hues, clothing shone. Most took it for part of the Masquerade festivities, but a few sharp eyes peered after the plainly-dressed figure in the embroidered mask.

Every street corner had music, the players vying to be loudest, to entice the most people to dance, and to get the most coins tossed into their basket. Nik paused to listen to a pair of women playing an infectious rhythm on pipe and tambor. They danced as they played, swinging around wildly without ever losing the beat. They were wonderful, and deserved more attention. Surely a little boost would help them. Nik jumped as the music volume surged, cutting through the noise of the crowd. That had worked even better than expected. The dancers cheered, and threw themselves even more vigorously into the insistent beat of the drum. A drunken woman costumed as an invading warrior tried to drop a flower garland over Nik‘s head. Nik dodged and moved on, never noticing the silent figure following.

The crowds and drums and lights melded into a dizzy blur. Nik never remembered all the details of the night. Images only: flashing torchlight, colored glints on bits of mirror and gems. Bare limbs entwined, both attractive and repellent. Pushing through ranks of people all going the wrong direction. Somewhere Nik saw a troupe of jugglers, men and women both, wearing nothing but intricate paint covering their bodies. They tossed lit torches back and forth in equally intricate patterns. Nik couldn‘t tell whether the glowing trails the torches left behind were real or illusion.

Nik ran a hand over close-cropped hair, momentarily feeling the remembered weight of braids, long silken hair that had always belonged to someone Nik could never be. Were the braids the illusion, or was life here in the city, in the schola? A quick head-shake cleared some of the fog. Here by the river the crowd was intense, singing and yelling interchangeably, the odors of wine, ale, and narcotic smokes clogging the air. So many kinds of magic to slip in. Most of the revelers would later think they‘d imagined anything showy and odd, or that it was part of the planned festivities.

Nik forced through the people thronging the park, running a hand across each torch pole along the way. Torches flared in rainbow hues, one after the other, and the crowd gasped and cheered. Those who weren‘t too far gone in drugs or buried in each other‘s arms, at least. Foolish, but they looked like they were enjoying themselves. Still, it was time for something more eye-catching. That was enough with the torches.

A path led right down to the river here, winding through elaborate topiary still bare from the winter. The river sparkled, the current reflecting streaks of moonlight and speckles of torchlight from the bridge above. Nik stopped at the very edge, wary of being pushed in. A trickle of water oozed upward, slow and hesitant against gravity, then more confident as Nik found the knack. Master Aidan had once conferred with several others about techniques for routing water to control fires within the city. Nik had listened without seeming to while serving tea and cakes, and written frantic notes later. In the winter, as a child, Nik had drawn elaborate frost patterns, intricate icy lattices that caught in the light. Wrapping the torches in glittering rime that would catch and amplify the flame without melting would be spectacular, and the evidence would disappear with the dawn. It was a perfect scheme.

The water advanced, first as a sheen along the path, then deep enough that Nik heard feet splishing. The flow forked, tongues of water heading toward each of the poles lining the path, already releasing wisps of fog as they chilled. Nik grinned and concentrated harder. This was going to be glorious.

That‘s when the screaming started. The tiny rivulets swelled abruptly, crawling up legs, over hose, under skirts. The people walking the path broke shards of ice from their skin, from their clothing. The crowd pushed back from the river, fleeing the water. Nik backed deeper into the shadows among the topiary, watching in terror as the ever-increasing streams wound up the torch poles, over people, coating everything in ice. Nik too was drenched and shivering, wrapped in water that no longer obeyed.

The water vanished. The cold fog disappeared. The last few shards of ice dropped to crunch underfoot. Master Aidan was by Nik‘s side. ”Master, help! I didn‘t mean… I don‘t know what happened!” Tears trailed down Nik‘s cheeks, and the ground at the master‘s feet was far more welcoming than meeting his eyes.

”Your magic is a thing of in-betweens, neither this nor that, neither male nor female,” Aidan said, and Nik was suddenly incredibly aware of the sodden tunic clinging to curves and bulges usually hidden. ”It‘s no wonder that on this night your strength is beyond what you‘re used to, or can hold.

”You will learn control in the middles of things. Noon and midnight will be solid weights that hold you in check. But when you‘re ready you will train at dawn and dusk, and at the edge of the sea. There you will find your power.”

Nik stood agape. Master Aidan knew everything, even things kept secret within baggy clothes and convenient shadows.

”We watch the apprentices even more closely than you watch us. We see who listens, who thinks, who will work for magic even when it is denied, and who will be content without it. Usually, though, the final test is not so,” Aidan paused, ”dramatic.”

”Your lessons begin in my office at noon.”

About the author

Sarah Goslee shares many traits with her cats: she is insatiably curious, spends much time playing with string, and is on the third of her nine lives. Unlike the cats, however, she pays her bills and can write somewhat more intelligibly than “xdfjjkds.”

© 2017 Sarah Goslee