Chapter 31

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"I just don't understand why she needs to start so young."

Salleh sat at the far corner of the kitchen island, well away from the flour dusted over its mahogany top. She listened to her husband punctuate his latest complaint by smacking a heavy knoll of dough down on the island top and sigh. Flour rippled to the edges of the dark wood, dusting her silk sleeve as she reached for her tumbler and the bowl of brown sugar beside it.

"She's ten," Salleh said, frowning at the rind of dried brandy at the bottom of the tumbler. "Fourteen is the latest she could have started."

"I'm just saying. I was twelve when I took my Refinement exam and my parents thought that was too soon for me."

Salleh dashed a dram of brandy into the tumbler and swirled it to rinse out the rind. She drank half of it, slid the half-full glass across the flour-strewn mahogany, and waited a heartbeat before it slid back empty but sporting pasty fingerprints on the pristine glass. Damn it.

"Salleh, I had to fight them to take the exam that early, and they were right."

"I know, dear." 

Salleh dashed a palmful of brown sugar into the tumbler and a vial of old bitters. The dough slammed down on the table again, sending white flour closer to Salleh's otherwise clean corner of the counter. The kitchen wasn't small, but the hearth against the inner wall was big enough to hold a fire that warmed her back against the chill frosting up the windows. 

"Ten. She's ten..."

Salleh reached for the bottle of brandy again and tipped hot amber liquid into the dark sugar until it dissolved.

"...and when I try and tell her that, it's like I'm saying she'll be ten forever."

"Dear."

"Does she have any idea what she's getting into?"

"Beloved."

"She produces a cupful of orgone in a week and suddenly thinks she's ready for--"

"Cote." 

Salleh said her beloved's name gently, and with the glass pressed lightly to her lips, notes of citrus and carmalised wood singing in her attuned senses. Cote paused halfway through his kneading, his thick forearms pale with flour, his beard streaked with a similar powdery white. He tended to wipe his mouth when he was stressed, and Salleh found that she couldn't raise her voice to get his attention any more than she could raise a ladder to climb a cliff.

So she almost whispered his name, but she also threaded it into every sense around them. The logs in the hearth crackled louder as the flame rose for a heartbeat, sweet wood popping more urgently as if it meant to call him too. The brass chime hung from the open window almost sang his name, despite the lack of breeze to blow in the snow capping the sill. 

Her beloved looked at her then as if suddenly remembering she was in the room. He had eyes too gentle for his massive frame. Cote had long retired from his warrior duties, but at only three decades, he still had the body of a young man who threw boulders (and ate them, said his wide hips and thick neck) for a living. But those eyes softened with a light that belonged to fathers and husbands alone, but the sheepish grin stretching his beard was all his own.

"Oh, dear. You need ice for your drink, don't you."

Salleh exhaled, and the rim of her tumbler turned opaque with frost. "I need you to stop thinking your daughter is you."

Your daughter. The kitchen was warm, sweet with the smoke of dry applewood rolling out the chimney and open window. But a sadness put its own frost along the edges of those dark, gentle eyes. Zarreh had always been "sweet child" to Salleh, and likewise the woman Zarreh's father had married had always been Aunt Salleh. 

There was great admiration between the two, and a respect for each others stubbornness, but more stubborn than both was the chasm that never quite closed between them. That widened when one or both were angry, and carelessly yawned the name of Zarreh's real mother. 

So your daughter came with no disrespect whatsoever, and in many ways, Salleh wanted to believe, Cote had learned to live with it, if at least not outwardly flinch. Because they never did. Still, he set both his large, dough-padded hands on the island top and hunched all his weight onto his shoulders.

"She's her own mage, isn't she?"

 "No," Salleh said. "Her mage path belongs to whoever's teachings of the divine arts soak into her subconscious. In that regard, she is your mage, because she's as blindly confident of her gifts as you were once." Salleh sipped at her brandy, then pushed the open bottle to Cote. "But she's her own person."

"Fair. Could you talk to her?"

"And say what?"

"Ask her if she'd be willing to wait."

"Beloved, you know the saying 'banging your head against a brick wall'?" Salleh pointed at the teardrop of spirit glowing between her eyes, like a star nestled in the middle of her brow. "A Seer's stoneiris is sensitive to blunt force trauma."

Cote sighed, staring at the bottle of brandy as though he meant to cypher the meaning of life from it atom by atom. "I should trust her, shouldn't I. She could be stronger than me."

"She's going to fail the exam, Cote. But yes, you should trust her to handle the failure better than you would. To learn from it."

"Failure's the best teacher, they say."

Salleh stared at her own brandy, and shut her stoneiris so she wasn't looking at the Earth, Water and Poison aura whirling inside it. "I don't know if it's the failure that teaches, or if it just greases the path to the real teacher: introspection."

"You know I don't like people living in their heads, Salleh."

"You married a Seer."

"With a single exception, and I don't even like it when you fall silent for hours like you do."

"Introspection, beloved. The divine arts offer no insights without it, and a parent will be ran rings around should they neglect it."

"I think about Zarreh all the time."

"Does it hurt to do so?"

"Graves no!"

"Then it isn't introspection, dear. Thought and accountability and pain, those are the base elements of insight."

Cote sighed again, but he reached under the countertop for a second tumbler. "You could have used a baking metaphor. Would have helped the message go down sweeter."

"You want a sweeter message?" 

Salleh dashed a pinch of sugar at him, and he retaliated with a playful flick of flower that dashed her shoulder in powdery white. She smiled into her brandy, and Cote's grin stretched inside his bushy beard, and in the room above their head, a ten-year-old girl practised a cycling technique she'd learned off one of the older kids at the local sect. 

Zarreh wasn't meant to attempt it before her next advancement, but she managed to control it, barely, through sheer force of will. She was silent as she sat in her trance state, knees digging into the thick carpet that muffled her father's words in the kitchen below. If he found her practicing such an advanced technique, he would scold her, and bar her from the exam on grounds of cheating if not outright fear. Even at ten, she understood this. 

Salleh's stoneiris, however, was that of a Seer. Zarreh could have practised this technique twenty miles away or right there on the kitchen island, and she would have seen it either way. Zarreh had already failed the technique twice in the span of her conversation with Cote, but now she seemed to have a better grasp on it, managing three full breaths before the rhythm broke.

Two failures, a partial success. The road all mages faced, but only when guided by careful hands. Cote's hands would be hard, but also trembling with a father's worry at his daughter's battles. Zarreh would resent him for it, so Aunt Salleh took a sip of her brandy and smiled with her husband, and made a mental note to offer Zarreh a correction on her trance posture that'd help her hold her breathing for longer.

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