“You recall how, when you gave me my robes, you told me you hoped I would find a student who taught me as much as I taught you?” Aphiros asked with a sidelong grin. “Well, I found one.” His grin felt at least halfway like a grimace.
“I’m glad to hear it,” the old man walking next to him said. He sidestepped around a pair of small children running down the road in pursuit of a ball, then resumed his calm pace beside Aphiros. He was definitely grinning, his laughter lines prominent around his green eyes. “The most challenging students are often the most promising.”
“Indeed,” Aphiros said, but he felt his smile slipping. He let it go. “She’s come to me for chimere work, but she’s mainly my captain’s student. Well, she was. We may lose her to a Grand Haias soon.”
“Promising indeed!” the old man said, but his smile had faded somewhat, too. “Why does that sadden you? A Grand Haias taking your student is a compliment.”
“It’s not that,” Aphiros said. He frowned absently over his old teacher’s head, only half-aware of the colorful shopfronts that lined the road. “Of course she would benefit from the tutelage of a Grand Haias. But she would be alone again. After four years aboard our ship, this past summer was the first time she didn’t seem so alone. But if she leaves us…”
“Alone?” the old man murmured. “And this is a bad thing?”
“Isn’t it?” Aphiros asked. He threw a sidelong glance at his teacher.
The older priest didn’t answer; he simply cupped his hand, and a pink sphere of magic appeared above his palm, growing to the size of a ripe orange. He held it sideways toward Aphiros without looking at him, and Aphiros slid his hand into place to receive it.
The magic tingled and buzzed against his palm, trying to break free of its shape, but Aphiros caught it with his own power. The shape solidified and darkened, taking on the crimson hue of Aphiros’ magic. They continued walking along the Road Where Fruits Fell. It was an old trade road that, despite being wide enough for two lamai carts to travel abreast, was considered too narrow for modern caravans. It had transformed over the years into a pedestrian road: all the old inns and corrals had been repurposed into craft schools and shops, small trees grew down the center of the road, and children too young to go to school played under the branches.
Aphiros’ former teacher liked walking this way because it led nowhere he or his students needed to go in a hurry. It was a good road to travel while reflecting on small problems that didn’t merit the rigors of the Four Desert Paths. The old priest also liked passing a sphere of magic back and forth while they were talking; the concentration needed to hold the magic in shape encouraged students to reflect more on how they truly felt about what they were saying.
They walked on for another twenty paces with Aphiros cradling the sphere of red light in his palm before his teacher asked, “Why is she alone?”
“Because she doesn’t trust anyone,” Aphiros answered immediately. He felt a sudden surge of power spring from his hand into the sphere. It pulsed outward unevenly, trying to escape into wild magic. Aphiros took a measuring breath to help him re-shape the sphere, now a little larger because of the power he’d inadvertently added. He realized that flash of magic had been born from a jolt of irritation. Was he irritated at Kelta for not trusting him?
He took another breath and let it out slowly as he reviewed his feelings and thoughts about Kelta. As he did so, he slowly passed the sphere of magic from one hand to the other in time with his steps. The rhythmic series of physical and magical motions kept him grounded as he sorted through what he felt and what he knew.
Yes, he was a little irritated at Kelta for not trusting him. After four years, he felt he’d earned at least a little trust from her, though he knew it wasn’t personal. She didn’t trust anyone.
“Trust comes from safety; distrust comes from fear,” he said aloud. So, if Kelta didn’t trust anyone it meant she felt fear around people.
That much was obvious in everything Kelta did, from the way she redirected conversations away from personal topics to the way she never ate or drank before anyone else. Ganat had tipped him off about that second habit, and he felt like an idiot for not noticing it before.
She chose to be alone. And that was what irritated him, he realized. It had been bothering him for a while now. After four years, she still chose not to trust him or anyone else on the ship. The crew had more than proven they had her back, but she held herself apart, deliberately thwarting all attempts to get to know her. Deliberately blocking Aphiros’ attempts to befriend and help her. He cared for her; when Ganat had introduced her as family, Aphiros had taken her into his heart as the cousin she claimed to be. So why did she choose to remain alone?
“I don’t know,” Aphiros admitted aloud. He held the magic out to his old teacher, who took it back. It resumed its original pink hue as they passed under a striped awning that stretched across the road. The spring sun was just warm enough to make walking in the shade pleasant.
“Then you don’t know if it’s a bad thing,” his teacher pointed out. “Solitude is not inherently unhealthy. In fact, many people could do with more of it.”
“If you met her, you would agree with me,” Aphiros muttered. “Kelta’s probably the most talented student I’ve ever seen. She’s not just a warrior, but a scholar, a musician, an artist, a keen thinker, brilliant at gathering intelligence. She could be an amazing diplomat, with the way she maneuvers people to get what she wants. But she refuses to make friends. She wears a very small family pattern. We only learned she was a musician when one of the other rohaiasi followed her ashore one night and caught her playing a flute by herself on an empty beach in the middle of the night.”
“It sounds to me as if she’s fighting to be alone because you won’t let her,” the old man snorted. He handed the sphere back to Aphiros; it changed back to red, then started straining against his control, trying to grow larger again. There was a trick to not letting emotions interfere with magic. The goal wasn’t stoicism, but holding a line between mind and heart.
“It must be hard to be alone on a ship,” the older priest continued. “And the minute Kelta tries to find that solitude, someone sneaks off and follows her. Is she ever truly alone, then?”
“Hm, you’re right,” Aphiros said, rolling the magic between his palms again. “She’s rarely alone at all on the ship. And when we go ashore, people usually try to drag her into some outing or other.” Aphiros had been guilty of that once or twice, he knew. “But she’s not surly or shy. She teaches drills and meditation; she even went well out of her way to bring that Ellondese on board.” Aphiros snorted slightly at the inevitable comparison between Kelta and the foreigner she’d recruited. “That young man told me more about himself in ten minutes than she has in four years.”
“While respecting the Ways of Silence, can you tell me why she came to you to learn the chimere dances?” the old man asked.
Aphiros paused for a moment, considering his words to ensure he wouldn’t reveal any of Kelta’s secrets. Not that she’d revealed many to him in the first place. He said carefully, “Her pain interfered with her duties.”
“Pain,” the old man repeated. “Is that the same as solitude?”
“She won’t share her pain, not even with me,” Aphiros said. He found he was gently stroking the ball of magic with his fingers, a soothing gesture. Beneath his irritation at Kelta’s aloofness, he recognized sadness, a deep sorrow over how lonely she must feel.
“Aphiros…” the old man said, and Aphiros looked sideways to see the compassionately accusing look on the old man’s face. “I didn’t ask about her this time, did I?”
“No, you didn’t,” Aphiros said with a rueful smile. He’d sidestepped around the real question. “Which suggests that the answer to your question is yes, I do seem to be using ‘alone’ to mean ‘in pain.’ But I know solitude isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I spent a lot of my childhood alone. Whenever I couldn’t play with cousin Ganat and his friends, I would play by myself in the ruins or along the empty beaches. Hours and hours by myself in tidepools and old temples…”
“Hours and hours avoiding the pain of being at home,” his teacher corrected gently. “Solitude was your last resort. You were lonely, not solitary, Aphiros.”
Aphiros said nothing for a long time. They passed a silversmith’s shop that echoed with the chime of small hammers and a bakery that wafted scents of honey and nuts. Aphiros kept stroking the magical sphere nestled in his palm and reflected on the old familiar feeling like cords wrapped tight around his chest.
With his irritation peeled back and his sorrow revealed, there was nowhere for him to hide his own pain. It had been easy for him to accept his favorite cousin’s invitation to go to sea. In fact, he’d accepted before Ganat had finished asking the question. As his old teacher had pointed out, it was hard to be alone on a ship as small as the Keltorax, where the crew functioned like a tightly-knit school.
“You said Kelta was Ganat’s niece,” his teacher said. “That makes her family, doesn’t it?”
Aphiros nodded. Aside from Ganat, he was the only member of the crew who knew that Kelta wasn’t actually related to the captain, at least not closely. But Ganat had introduced her to the crew as his niece, and Aphiros was Ganat’s cousin. As far as Aphiros was concerned, that made Kelta family. He didn’t know why Ganat had adopted her, and he hadn’t pressed when Ganat declined to explain. But that didn’t matter. She was family.
“She’s not like my father,” Aphiros murmured. “She doesn’t avoid the sight of me. I think she might even enjoy sparring with me, though it’s hard to tell if she enjoys anything. She kept coming to practice chimere with me even after her required month was up. Yet when she avoids sharing her pain with me it feels much like the days when the only words my father would say to me were ‘sit there and be patient.’ I wanted nothing more than to understand what he was working on, what was so important…but whenever I dared ask, or speak at all…” He winced at the memories. Being dismissed in that irritated tone hurt almost worse than the insults and slaps.
He trailed off as his thoughts started to uncoil into a neat progression. Kelta was family. Kelta kept fiercely to herself, and what she was keeping to herself felt vitally important and mysterious, just like his father’s work. Aphiros had never really gotten over the feeling that his father didn’t trust him with anything important. He’d told Aphiros a thousand times that he was too impulsive, too passionate, to be given responsibility.
“I think I chose the ketzoa school to prove my father wrong,” he sighed. “I got lucky; it matches my birth spirit well enough. But so does chimere. I could have succeeded at either, but I entered a school that develops determination and responsibility above all else, in order to prove I was trustworthy. So, naturally, my first student doesn’t trust anyone.”
“Naturally,” his teacher chuckled, and Aphiros’ grimace slowly relaxed into a rueful smile.
They walked in silence for a while longer, letting the dwindling streams of apprentices and shop-keepers trickle around them down side streets to their homes. The sun sank below the level of the temples on the hill across the city. Aphiros felt tension seeping out of his chest as they walked; the magical sphere stopped struggling against his control and relaxed, shrinking back to the size of an orange. Aphiros let out a long breath and released the sphere to his teacher again.
“So, are you still worried about your student leaving?” his teacher asked.
“I wish she wouldn’t,” Aphiros said. “But – no.” Recognizing his own feelings, acknowledging that his anxiety was about his past and not Kelta’s future, had lifted a weight from his shoulders. “I think I can let her go,” he said. “Apart from anything else, I have my hands full with that Ellondese mage. He’s convinced he’s not a ‘real’ mage, but he has more natural talent than I’ve ever seen before. He’ll either be one of the most powerful battle mages afloat, or blow the Keltorax into pieces by accident. Or possibly both.”
“Is he making progress?” Aphiros’ teacher asked curiously. “I assume he doesn’t even know our language. How can you teach someone so old and yet so…young?”
“He speaks Fosseni fluently,” Aphiros said. “And he’s a quick learner; he’s already picked up a good bit of Taxian. And he never gives up on an exercise – at least, not once he understands what the exercise is for. He hates the idea of being given make-work. But he’s advancing; he couldn’t hold even the smallest sphere of power when we met, but now he can carry one all the way to the fighting top!”
“A fellow ketzoa?” the old man asked.
“Drachon,” Aphiros snorted. “All enthusiasm and no discipline. He reminds me of Ganat when he was younger, just with magic added to the mix. It’s no surprise he found his way to our ship.”
Aphiros realized he was getting excited. It was hard not to, thinking about Wren’s growing exuberance for magecraft. What the young man wanted most from Aphiros – and Aphiros gathered it was a childhood longing never fulfilled – was to learn to throw fireballs. Aphiros wasn’t ready to let him try anything so dangerous, not for a while yet. Wren seemed to understand, but that didn’t stop him from boiling with impatience. He, too, would be a challenging student in his own way. And he wouldn’t hold Aphiros at a distance like Kelta did.
“Kelta will be fine,” Aphiros said. Whether she stayed or left, Aphiros had taught her what he could. Now it was up to her to use what she’d learned — and he felt confident that she would use it well.
He swiped the ball of magic from his teacher and launched it into the air. A few flicks of his fingers reshaped it into a tiny scarlet ketzoa, wings out-spread as it shot upward, then exploded in a shower of ruddy sparks. “The ketzoa gives its young wings,” Aphiros quoted an old proverb, “but they find the wind on their own.”