Chapter 32

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"Tello, if you don't stop moving I will carve out your stoneiris and eat it in front of you."

Wenyanga splayed their fingers across the hard muscle of his belly, a little right of centre, fingertips pressed just below his liver. They brushed sand and rivulets of ocean water from his dark skin, and frowned at the sun burning down on the beach as they tried to focus on the rhythm of his soul. The type of prodding they did, both physically and spiritually, was more dangerous than open-heart surgery, and Tello'd decided he wanted a swim before they began.

His laugh was lighter than the sea foam that washed the legs of his chair. When he leaned back, the muscle of his chest and shoulders spread in a welcoming plane, the apple in his throat prominent as he tilted his face to the sun and hummed. "It's the aura, beloved. The ocean doesn't have the purest Water aspect, you know? Tickles when I cycle."

Wenyanga sensed the Earth and Life aura his soul was filtering as it absorbed the cool pure tendrils of Water. People liked to think the ocean was bad for Water-based mages because of the salt and iodine, but few thought of the countless eons where the world had not been so stable, volcanic ash choking the air and blotting out the sun, magma flowing in rivers as wide as grand cities, air too carbonic to breathe... Poison, Flame, Life, and Earth aura in their deadliest isotopes, all absorbed into the ocean over millennia as the world purified itself.

And people actually went to beaches to swim.

"We have vats of rosewater back at the hut," Wenyanga said. "Why do you insist on cycling this stuff?"

"Old school divine artists like Deathsages and Earthwitches like to hold their teachings above the rest of us with one thing, the idea that cultivation, ascension, refinement is a matter of purity. Only eat the cleanest leaves of a Lifetree. Never cycle any earth above the bedrock. What does that leave us with?"

"Powerful damn divine artists," Wenyanga answered, though they'd worked out Tello's next words before he'd even asked the question. "What else?"

"It leaves us with people whose potential is tied to only the most perfect circumstances," Tello said. 

His head was still facing the sun so Wenyanga couldn't read his expression, but under his relaxed voice there was the hint of fervour. Tello was a shark of a man, long and lithe with the body of an oceanic predator, his bone and muscle leaving him more fluid than brutish. Making love to him had always been less an act of rhythm and warmth and more an exercise of breath and balance. 

Even his cycling technique was more languid than the tight vortex Wenyanga used to refine orgone. It looped around his liver like a cool brushstroke forever chasing its own fading tail, half-cool with Water aura, half-warm with Flame. 

Long time friends and lovers sensed unique notes in each others' souls after prolonged expose, it was just another form of gaining insight, but to Wenyanga, proximity to Tello was like having one hand in ice water and the other in a warm bath. One had to focus on the balance his soul found effortlessly, or one sensation would trick the mind into overemphasising the other. It threw his enemies off balance and made his friends wary of betraying him. Thula didn't care because she couldn't sense it, and it fascinated Wenyanga to no end.

But when he spoke like this, of the rigid nature of the divine arts, of all that was wrong with the way people thought about the world around them, Wenyanga couldn't tell if his Water aspect was swallowing the Flame, or if the Flame was burning the Water in his soul to mist. The mantra to his path was Fire eats, Water feeds. It required calm at all times, so even as Wenyanga knew the signs of their beloved's anger, his words were still softened with a faint laugh.

"If one can only function when all is perfect, then they are the furthest thing from perfection."

"Adaptability is good." Wenyanga performed their final checkup by flexing their soul slightly and reading how Tello's reacted with their stoneiris and rings. They only had three rings, currently. Their exam for the fourth wouldn't be until the following autumn. "But all the greatest divine artists are specialists."

"But are they all that great?"

"Why don't you ask a Pinnacle while they contrast a tower out of clouds with a thought, or a Saint while they turn a mountain into a quarry with a breath from ten miles away?"

"They're great relative to the rest of us, beloved. They represent the peak of our way of thinking. But what if... what if our peak is just a footnote in the grander philosophy of the divine arts? What if there exists a place where Pinnacles are no more than the lowest servants of greater artists?"

"If such artists exist, they're not wasting time teaching the rest of us."

"Of course not, they are geniuses among journeymen."

They are. Not they would be. 

Wenyanga sighed and stood just as a shallow wave washed over their copper anklets. "Tello, relax. It's just a soul splint operation -- and a choppy one at that. We're not hardwiring the heart of a god into you."

His beautiful face was still heavenward, eyes closed, smile slight. "Pleasant dreams are good before surgery."

Wenyanga sighed. He would get like this sometimes, mind drifting to impossible places. If they left him wandering too far, he'd hunker down somewhere very far from reality and camp there until he could figure out how to get the rest of the world to catch up. But he was right about pleasant dreams, and Wenyanga had their own worries presently. Chief among them was performing a seven-ring operation with a divine artefact they'd stolen from their sect.. with only three rings and a knack for improvisation.

They kissed his eyelid and walked the hundred paces back to the hut they'd built on this hidden section of beach. Thula sat on the porch steps, sifting smoking herbs with her fingers, throwing the stubs onto the pale sand and letting the good herb fall back onto the lap of a yellow dress.

"I don't like this," Thula said without looking up from her work. "If they catch us with that soul splint, worse, if they discover it after we've put it inside Tello..."

"It's only meant to bottleneck his orgone channels," Wenyanga said, nestling their back between Thula's knees and staring back out at a daydreaming Tello. "The only changes will be a slowing down of his cycling rhythm. His orgone will thicken over years, and by the time anyone can detect that, he'll be too powerful for it to matter."

"Too powerful for what? He's already on the verge of Perfect. He can ascend to Bard in the next five years, even I can sense that. Why does he want to make that harder with a bottleneck?"

"Pain now for later gains, he says."

"Gains for what? Honestly, that man. What endgame is he possibly aiming at?"

"No idea."

"Hmm," Thula huffed in a manner that said she was too annoyed to discuss it further just then.

Wenyanga took up the silence gladly, drawing their knees up to their chest as they rested their head on Thula's thigh. It was late morning in winter but the beach was always balmy and pleasant. They were fifty miles from the nearest town, hidden in a slice of paradise they'd just carved out for the three of them. Thula found plenty of raw materials and interesting auras to stock her doctor's kit with, Tello had all the ocean he could cycle, and Wenyanga could move between their two beloveds like a bridge. 

They'd been fearful at first, that the polite annoyance Thula and Tello generally held for each other would fester into something worse in the six months they'd spent in their new home. But lately, Thula's looks towards Tello had less annoyance and more concern, and once or twice the tight smile she tolerated his conversation with would part for something close to the husky laughter she so readily adorned Wenyanga with. 

Tello now brought her back the odd root or bark when he went on his excursions through the nearby jungle, and not three days ago Wenyanga had discovered a half-sown skirt of peacock feathers on his work table. The threads between the trio seemed to knit tighter as the days went by, and Wenyanga found a soft, quiet sweetness in it that they'd be hard-pressed to put a name too.

It came with a bitter rind to balance out the nectar, however. One that made it difficult for Wenyanga to cup the flesh of Thula's calf in their palm and breath the deep scents of ink and wood tannins that clung to her hands without a pang of guilt. A pang that rang louder with every question about why Tello would possibly want to damage his soul and just what he smiled about when he stared up into the clear summer sky.

"No idea at all," Wenyanga said again, softly this time. And there on a pale beach under a bright winter sky, they mourned the first lie they ever told Thula.

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