Adane barely escaped war in his homeland. He wanted nothing more than to hide in this new city with his adopted child Chisa by his side. But every choice he makes risks their quiet lives and every day brings the war that Adane fled closer to their doorstep. Soon Adane will have to choose between running away again or taking a stand against an enemy that can’t be seen and cannot be fought.
Transplant of War
by Meyari McFarland
Sweat dripped down Adane’s nose, falling intermittently as his breath gusted outwards. Sun fell on his shoulders like the constant impact of whip, no, a flogger, the long sort with strands that knotted at the tips. Even the barges passing overhead had stopped an hour ago. No one worked in the heat of the day if they could help it. He kept painting, balanced on Zakwan’s step ladder. Better to get the mural done now than struggle to paint it in the evening with torches that got soot into the pigments, changed their colors.
Chisa, hopefully, napped inside on their bed. The child had spent the last several nights twisting in nightmares that Adane tried to ease, without much success. There was little that Adane could do when Chisa’s nightmares were directly caused by the world around them. If Adane could undo the encounter of a week ago he would but that wasn’t possible.
It truly was too hot for anything like work but then painting murals wasn’t work. Not like digging ditches or carving or slaving away over a hot stove. Not that many people were doing that right now. Adane squinted up at the sand-gold sky and sighed as he tried to rub the sweat away with the back of one hand.
“Need awnings over the street,” Adane complained to himself.
And water. A drink of water would be hugely welcome right now. He shook his head and returned to painting in the fine details of the last runes he needed to secure their house. It was a hugely complicated spell, cast in tiny bits over the course of weeks. Working the entire thing had taken over a month and a half of almost constant work. Lines of prayers painted in red and gold circled the top of the wall. Rows of spell-woven blue Shiraida scampered along the bottom of the wall, each of them carrying a single rune that contributed to the whole effect.
Between, in all the colors of the rainbow, Adane had painted the letters of Common with images that exemplified their sounds. Every letter had a spell or a rune. So did the images. Taken separately, the wall was nothing more than a series of pretty pictures and letters with playful Shiraida marking this as Shiraida House.
Taken together they protected the house and the entire neighborhood from the war that Adane knew was coming. Dawud had recently gotten commissions to make sword hilts rather than stools and chairs. Zakwan’s little market stall full of fruit and vegetables had been raided by the military, with threats if he didn’t ‘sell’ them more when they came back. He’d sworn to sell door to door rather than feed the military for a pittance. Even Chisa had seen it when running around the neighborhood though for Chisa it was too many soldiers with new armor and soldiers assuming that they could conscript them because ‘they couldn’t possibly have a family’.
Adane had nearly killed the soldier who had turned up at their door, hand latched around the sobbing Chisa’s arm.
War was coming and Adane was determined to do whatever he had to to protect these people, his new family and friends. If that meant painting the final piece of the mural in the heat of the day then so be it. He would do it and be glad for the opportunity to do so.
“Exceedingly skilled work.”
Adane registered the urbane High Tongue before the meaning of the words sunk in. He blinked, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and then finished the final rune before turning on his borrowed step ladder. Two men looked up at him. One was tall, thin, wrinkles carved deep around his eyes and mouth, with the sort of perfectly kept beard that spoke of time and copious amounts of money. Next to him stood a younger man who scowled at Adane in ways that made fear automatically flutter in Adane’s heart.
“Thank you?” Adane asked. It certainly wasn’t a statement. “Want one painted? Do murals for pay.”
The Low Tongue made the older man, no, mage, jerk and curl one lip. His companion, maybe apprentice? The companion growled as if Adane had just insulted them both. Adane ignored their offense, carefully closed the pot of green paint before clambering down the step ladder. Wiping his face on his discarded shirt gave him a precious few seconds to open his senses just enough to see how strong the pair were.
Strong enough. The elder felt fragile, as though something had recently pushed his peaceful magic to the breaking point, but the younger was a bonfire in the night, all raging strength and little control that spoke of wind and movement gifts. Odd pairing there. Adane draped his shirt over his shoulders, studying them both. He couldn’t help but wonder what they saw when they looked at him with their second sight.
“My sincere thanks to you however that shall not be necessary,” the older one said. “Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Baha al Din. This young man is my apprentice, Faisal. Through the fullness of the world, we had heard of an untrained mage in the poor quarters of our town. I had not expected to find something such as this at the source.”
“Untrained,” Adane said, offended by the sheer implication.
“Obviously, that was a highly incorrect assumption,” Baha al Din replied with a wave of his hand that was probably meant to be soothing. It felt dismissive instead. “Your work is of an acceptable level of quality. I believe that you have quite a bit of raw talent which could be put to better uses elsewhere. You will make a good apprentice, I think.”
“Thank you, but no,” Adane said, shifting into High Tongue because obviously this wasn’t going to go away. “I have already completed my apprenticeship and feel no need to relearn old lessons from a man who cannot show his power in ways other than scorn and derision.”
“Watch your tongue!” Faisal exclaimed in Common as the High Tongue simply wasn’t designed for strong emotions expressed in blunt was. “He’s a great mage and you’re nothing but gutter trash.”
“Correct your terminology. I am, in fact, a refugee,” Adane corrected him, staying firmly in High Tongue because that would automatically give him more power in the conversation. “I trained with the instructors of the Royal Academy of Egar before war so unfortunately tore the country apart. I have no need nor interest in further training, especially when I find myself insulted, looked down upon and expected to be grateful for the scraps of attention tossed my way. Thank you, but no. I have no desire nor need to be anyone’s apprentice at this time or at any time in the future. If anything, I should, as is proper for one of my standing, consider the question of appropriate apprenticeships of my own. There are no instructors or students left from the Academy that I am aware of.”
Baha al Din’s eyes went wide at Adane’s scornful speech. Faisal obviously didn’t believe a word of it because wind swirled around him as if he intended to attack. Thankfully, everyone in the neighborhood was either away or asleep, avoiding the heat of the day. It allowed Adane to reach out with his magic to catch Faisal by the throat, choking off the blood to his brain and the air to his lungs, without worrying about being attacked for being a mage.
“You cannot afford to take another apprentice when this one is so poor at controlling his temper,” Adane told Baha al Din in Common while holding Faisal firm despite his startled and then frantic struggles. “He acts like a War Mage but lacks the gifts for it.”
“I am sorry,” Baha al Din replied in the same mode. He rubbed his chest as if his heart ached. “He is a new apprentice. He will learn in time.”
“All the more reason for you to focus solely on him,” Adane said. He waited until Faisal’s struggles weakened, his lips going blue, before letting him go. “Again, I am fully trained. I do not need your assistance.”
Rather than bend to help Faisal catch his breath or regain his feet, Baha al Din stared at Adane. It was as though Faisal was completely unimportant. That might explain the young man’s terrible attitude. How could he trust that he would learn what he needed if his master barely acknowledged his presence? It made worry shiver up Adane’s spine as though someone had dragged ice from the northern ocean from the curve of his back to the nape of the neck.
This was wrong, so very wrong. And familiar. As war swept over Egar everything about society there had begun to break down. The old bonds between elders and young people had shattered, elders taking what they wanted and leaving nothing for the young. The young people Adane had known had taken to stealing from their parents, their teachers, the weaker old people who lived alone. It had spread like a cancer through the schools, even his father’s school, with rising fees and heavier class requirements while the teachers pushed their work off on assistants rather than helping students themselves.
“War is coming,” Baha al Din murmured.
“I know that far better than you do,” Adane said. “If you want protective murals, ones that will help shield your household then I’m perfectly happy to paint them. Preferably with an awning over me against the heat of the day. But if you’re looking to gather power by adding me to a stable of undertrained and desperately frightened young apprentices well, that particular caravan has already left the city walls. A long time ago.”
“He’s not…” Faisal protested only to trail off when Baha al Din raised one hand.
“You’ve seen this,” Baha al Din said. He looked up the street as if afraid of being overheard.
“Yes,” Adane said. “My family was destroyed by it. My mother, my father, both of my older brothers, they were all swept up in the war that overtook Egar. I escaped. Barely. I ran until I ended up here. I see the same patterns happening in Rudrai City as I did back home. War is coming. It’s already extending its hands to seize the city. You think it will be foreign warriors that you will fight. You’re wrong. The country will be torn apart from the inside out. That’s what they want.”
Both Baha al Din and Faisal shuddered and backed off at the mention of ‘they’. Adane raised his chin, rubbed the sweat off his cheek with one flopping sleeve, and stared at them. More than likely, neither of them actually knew who ‘they’ were. No one ever dared to mention their names. But then, no one would dare to confront Blood Mages intent on enslaving the entire planet other than a different group of Blood Mages. Perhaps that was why Adane’s family had been targeted. He and his father were rivals.
“Have the gates been brought up?” Adane asked. “Building permanent gates to ‘facilitate travel’ and ‘ease people’s concerns’?”
“Yes,” Faisal whispered, his eyes going wide.
“Fight that,” Adane said. “Fight it with everything you have. That was the first inroad, the thing that began to tear Egar apart. Rudrai is proud. Strong. Defiant. Be that! Do not bow to their false claims of commerce and diplomacy. They gain power, both magical and political, every time one of the gates is put up and they use that power to tear everyone else down.”
“You must tell the council,” Baha al Din said, pleaded, begged when Adane shook his head and backed off. “Please! They will listen to you. They just need a little more information.”
“No, they don’t,” Adane countered. “And no, they won’t. I’m a refugee, a bit of gutter trash that can’t even substantiate my claims. They won’t listen and they won’t care. Don’t even try to reason with them. Appeal to their pride, to their strength. Tell them that Rudrai is strong enough not to need outside support. Call on the legends of the Gods and Goddesses if you have to. Logic is a failed tactic. I should know. My father tried it and nearly was beheaded for it.”
Baha al Din winced. He looked away, rubbing one wrinkled, age-spotted hand over his throat as if he feared the same fate. When he turned back, his eyes studied Adane far more closely. After a moment he nodded as if he realized now who Adane had been, who his father had been. There was sorrow and regret in his gaze that Adane ignored. Regret wouldn’t bring his family back.
Faisal shuddered and shut his eyes. Wind swirled strongly around them, pushing up enough dust that Adane turned to check the paint on the last rune. It was dry enough that the dust shouldn’t contaminate it, wouldn’t interfere with the magic he’d cast. When Adane turned back the wind died slowly, in fits and starts.
“You really need to work on your control,” Adane said.
“I know that,” Faisal complained. “It’s not easy.”
“Go out in the desert,” Adane huffed. “Pick a night that’s relatively still. Let your power loose and play with the wind, the heat and cold. Get used to its feel, the warp and weft of it. Baha al Din isn’t the same sort of mage as you. You need to find your heart, the core of your power, before his methods will work for you.”
“As if you know anything,” Faisal mumbled but he looked intrigued.
“That… might help,” Baha al Din said slowly. “Is this something you learned at the Academy?”
Adane snorted. “Goodness, no. My mother is, was, a War Mage, as were my older brothers. Father was a Blood Mage. Mother tried to teach me just like she taught my brothers. She was always best at teaching. Father did pure research for the most part, up until the end. It took me shouting at her and going off alone to play with my abilities before I was able to learn from her. You have to know yourself to be able to master your magic. It’s the most basic truth of power.”
Someone, Dawud, appeared at the end of the street. He froze, watching Adane confront Baha al Din and Faisal. Adane waved to him, turned back to the other mages and then deliberately, scornfully, looked them from toe to slightly puzzled faces.
“You want murals,” Adane said in Low Tongue that carried to Dawud’s ears easily. “Can paint them. Just like these. Cost you money though, actual money, not trade. Up to you. Can also do prayers inside the house, little ones, ask the Goddess to protect and defend, shield you from harm.”
Baha al Din’s eyes flicked to Dawud, to the concern and ferocious protectiveness radiating off him. “I will consider it. They are very nice murals and my walls could do with a new layer of paint. If I want them redone I will have my apprentice Faisal seek you out to negotiate the cost and design.”
“Do,” Adane replied.
Baha al Din bowed ever so slightly before waving for the still puzzled Faisal to follow him. It wasn’t until he spotted Dawud’s glower and the very large, very sharp axe in his hand that Faisal started as the realization of their danger hit him. Then he stiffened and glared at Dawud as if daring him to attempt to hurt Baha al Din.
Dawud stood and watched the other mages walk away until they disappeared around the far corner of the street. Then he hurried over to grip Adane’s elbow, concern in his eyes, the wrinkles around his mouth and so thick in his aura that Adane had to shut his senses back down again.
“They want murals?” Dawud asked. “From you?”
“Want to look powerful,” Adane snorted as he patted Dawud’s hand. “Strong. Too unsettled so they try look better. Pay me money, glad to paint murals. Gonna pay me a lot, though.”
Dawud barked a laugh, nodding his agreement. “Chisa?”
“Sleeping,” Adane said. “Smart child. Too hot to work. But mural is finally done. What Farah decide on?”
He pushed Dawud away so that he could close the ladder and then carry it inside. Dawud picked up the paint and brush, following him while making those little grumbling noises that meant that Farah’s desire for several designs was winning over Dawud’s desire to save money. Hopefully the question would distract Dawud from his worries.
It wasn’t over. Adane knew that. If Baha al Din knew of his presence in the city then all the other mages had to, too. It wouldn’t be very long before the war and the politics swept into Adane’s carefully ordered life and upended all his hard work.
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