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Praise for First Truth
“A beautifully told, simple story that looks unblinkingly at how prejudice unnecessarily reinforces misconceptions, misunderstandings, and hatred.” —Booklist
“The author excels at demonstrating the tension between the farmers and plainsmen with Alissa’s and Strell’s stereotypical attitudes toward each other upon first meeting . . . With an almost claustrophobic setting and a small cast of characters, this novel is an admirable effort . . . An entertaining read.” —Kliatt
“A refreshing, humorous take on the coming-of-age quest. The plot tightly builds empathy for the characters even as it makes fun of their foibles.” —Romantic Times
“Though First Truth may be Dawn Cook’s debut novel, readers will place this excellent tale on their keeper shelf.”
“A fun book, sure to appeal to fans (like me) of Tamora Pierce or Robin McKinley. With characters to cheer for, vicious villains, and attack birds, First Truth has everything I need in a good read. I look forward to Alissa’s next adventure.” —Patricia Briggs, author of Dragon Blood
“In her beguiling debut, Cook has woven together magical threads.” —Deborah Chester, author of The Queen’s Gambit
And don’t miss Hidden Truth
Ace Books by Dawn Cook
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PRINTING HISTORY Ace mass market edition / December 2003
Copyright © 2003 by Dawn Cook.
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Alissa’s throat tightened at the sight of the updraft, a deeper blue against the washed-out autumn sky. It rose like a column of shimmering heat from the open field of grass. Beneath her was the icy cool of the surrounding forest. Tops of individual trees were lost in a blur of damp pine smell from her speed. The wind slipping over her felt and sounded like gray silk, but instead of her usual pleasure, she felt only a coming dread.
“See it?” Beast said in her thoughts. “What’s going to happen when we find it?”
“We go up,” Alissa thought back, swallowing nervously. “The sun’s setting, and I have a lesson tonight. Perhaps we should stop. It’s getting hard to see the updrafts.”
“It is not. We’ve been at this since sun-high. It’s not that hard, Alissa.” The voice in her thoughts gave the impression of an aggravated sigh. “We’re almost there. What do you do when you reach it?”
“I—uh—cup my wings about it and turn into a rising curve?”
Alissa’s long tail made an exasperated twitch. She was sure Beast had done it. Alissa wouldn’t have minded, but it shifted their momentum, and Alissa gasped. Beast said nothing as she impatiently abandoned this pass and angled Alissa back to the forest. Beside her came a faint chitter as Talon, Alissa’s pet kestrel, protested at the sharp shift of direction. The bird had accompanied her all afternoon as if in encouragement.
“Beast,” Alissa asked, “why are we bothering? I don’t care you do all the flying.”
“I’ve seen your teacher watch you when we fly. He knows something is wrong. Someday he might realize it isn’t you who is flying but me.” Beast turned Alissa back to the updraft. “Look sharp. I’m not going to help you this time.”
“Beast?” Alissa thought, concerned as she took control over the gentle glide Beast had left her in, but the voice didn’t answer. Alissa eyed the approaching updraft, knowing from countless passes she had a moment to gather her courage. She glanced forward to the Hold. The nearly abandoned fortress nestled into the rock of the mountain. Behind the peak was a steep drop. The setting sun had beaten upon the sheer rock face all afternoon until the wave of heat streaming from it was so strong, it was almost purple to her raku eyes.
Beast had sported them in the windy violence earlier, showing Alissa the glorious possibilities to be found in updrafts before settling down to try to teach Alissa to fly on her own. The heavy upwelling of energy behind the Hold made the updraft over the fallow fields look like a washbasin in comparison to the sea, but even so it scared Alissa silly, making her long fingers tingle down to the tips of her savage claws.
Cup my wings and ease into it, she thought, her lips pulling back from her long canines as she felt Beast’s thoughts turn impatient.
“Not so stiff, Alissa,” her feral consciousness complained. “Tear my dame’s wings to shreds, why don’t you trust the wind? It’s more faithful than the most loyal mate.”
“Mate?” Alissa thought, embarrassed. Distracted, she slammed into the updraft unprepared. The wheat-scented wind caught her wings, shocking her with the force behind it. Alissa overcompensated. Feeling herself stall, she tried to flap her wings. It was a mistake. Pain shot through her back as she sought to find lift from a standstill.
“Alissa!” Beast shrieked. “You can’t rise that way! Cup your wings!”
Alissa’s tail whipped wildly as she tried to find her center of balance. It smacked painfully into a treetop. She was out of the updraft and back over the trees. Without the help of the rising air, she fell. A massive hemlock loomed before her. “Beast!” she cried.
Beast tried to snatch control, but panicked, Alissa wouldn’t let go. Wings flailing, Alissa crashed through the canopy. Branches as thick as her arm snapped. Pain raked her wings. Frantic, Alissa struggled to fold them. There was no time to even gasp as the ground came at her.
She hit hard. In an uncontrolled barrel roll, she tumbled along the ground. Undergrowth and small trees cracked. End over end she spun until slamming into a tree. Her long neck flung out, and her jaw smacked into the earth. The tree shivered, sending dead needles to the ground and birds into the air. Blood filled her mouth. She had bitten her tongue.
“Oh, Ashes,” she moaned aloud, her words coming out as a pained, guttural groan. Talon fluttered down to perch on her head, the bird’s nails digging painlessly into Alissa’s bare scalp. Alissa waved a nastily clawed hand at her bird to get her to leave. It was so undignified when Talon perched on her head like that. The kestrel made an insulted squawk and flew away.
“Alissa?” came a dry, disgusted thought from the depths of her mind. “You are the only raku I know who can fall down in an updraft.”
“Ow,” Alissa groaned aloud, her thick rumble carrying more pain than her human voice ever could. She slowly picked herself up, settling into a suffering, hunched crouch. Red-rimmed scratches marred her golden hide, and she was sore with what would probably be bruises.
“Look at your wing,” Beast demanded. “I think you tore it.”
Stomach turning, Alissa extended her left wing, being careful to not hit any of the remaining trees in the clearing she had made. Her neck snaked to look behind her. “Burn it to ash,” she thought. A panel close to her body had been punctured, making a tear almost as long as a man was tall. She looked to the ground, trying not to pass out or vomit. What would Useless, her teacher, say? He would ground her for a week.
“A week?” Beast thought sourly. “It’s going to take twice that long to heal.”
Alissa said nothing, relieved when her feral consciousness seemed to disappear. There was little to interest Beast on the ground. Only anger or the promise of flight would bring Beast to the forefront of Alissa’s thoughts again.
She carefully folded her wing, holding it from her side as it was still oozing blood. The faint sound of someone calling her name filtered through the woods. It sounded muffled, as her hearing was now more attuned to deep tones her human ears couldn’t discern. Her pulse quickened as she recognized Strell’s voice. He had probably seen her fall. A second voice joined Strell’s, and she grimaced. Lodesh was with him. Better and better.
Having the always-composed, self-assured, onetime ghost find her hurt and foolish was the last thing she wanted. Alissa sighed. Not really a ghost. Not anymore. The ancient Warden of Ese’Nawoer said he was as living as any man. It was a claim she tended to believe, as Lodesh’s hands were warm when he pulled her into a dance, and his frequent, overly expressive looks often brought a blush to her face.
There was a faint tug upon her awareness. Recognizing Lodesh trying to reach her thoughts, she set up a block so he couldn’t find her. And she could shift back to her human form to hide the tear. What her hurt wing would turn into was a question she had hoped she would never have to answer.
“Alissa?” came Strell’s low-pitched voice, close and worried, and she sat up with a surprisingly quiet shuffle of leaves.
“Ali-i-i-i-issa?” called Lodesh, his careful pronunciation sounding concerned as well. Then, softer, clearly to Strell. “I know she came down here somewhere. I hope she’s not unconscious. I can’t reach even her thoughts.”
She felt wicked, but the shame of her torn wing kept her mouth shut and her mind closed. Lodesh would shake his head, then tease her until her teacher found out about the tear. Strell would tactfully ignore the situation—providing she seemed all right—knowing she would be embarrassed for having fallen out of the sky. If she was going to shift, it would have to be now.
With three slow breaths, Alissa unfocused her attention. Quick from practice, she set up the proper pathways in her mind to work the ward. Cool, silver force flowed from her source to fill her tracings, deep in her awareness. The heavy smell of bracken and sap vanished as she broke herself down to a thought, shifted that thought to the body she had been born with, then made that thought real. At the last moment, she remembered to clothe herself, and a new pattern joined the one already resonating in her mind.
Alissa coalesced into existence wearing a Keeper’s traditional garb of long tunic and short vest bound about her small waist with a black scarf. A skirt hemmed in green ribbon finished the outfit, edging her toes. Her feet were bare but for a pair of thin stockings with holes, and her face warmed for the lack of shoes. At least she had stockings on. She may as well be naked if she hadn’t had those.
Useless hated her Keeper attire, saying as a Master, she ought to dress as such. But she hadn’t yet taken the time to learn how to craft anything else with her thoughts. The task was tedious, and she would learn how to make shoes before more clothes. Alissa ran a hand over her skirt to reassure herself it was there. The one time she had forgotten had been mortifying.
The stark savagery of hide, claw, and primitive strength had been replaced by sun-darkened skin and horridly straight fair hair that went halfway to her elbows. Her eyes had retained their odd gray color; it was something she wished she could change. Scratches marred her arms when she pushed up her long sleeves to see, and her jaw was tender. A new soreness ran down her back, and she stretched painfully to test her limits. Something was torn inside her. By feel she decided her back was whole and unmarked. The damage was hidden inside.
Heart pounding, she lurched her way through the shattered branches and ducked behind a tree. If she planned it right, she might get a moment with Strell alone.
“By the Navigator’s Hounds!” she heard Lodesh exclaim, and she knew they had found her clearing. “Look what she did!”
Alissa peered around her tree. Strell and Lodesh stood with their feet edging the new destruction in the setting sun. Talon was perched on Lodesh’s wrist. The canny bird swiveled her head and looked directly at Alissa. She winced as Strell cupped his hands and shouted, “Ali-i-issa-a-a!”
Strell shivered and ran a hand over his brown hair, ending the motion with gripping the hair clip at the back of his neck in a tight fist. The action was clearly one of worry. Strell was from the desert and probably felt the chill of the coming night as much as she did—though she had yet to hear him complain about it. He was surprisingly tall, almost gaunt despite the plates of food he ate. Dressed in his simple brown shirt and trousers, he looked like a poor cousin next to Lodesh’s extravagant clothes.
Lodesh was the only Keeper the Hold could boast of right now, and he was admittedly faster with his wards than she, despite his lower standing. Nearly four centuries ago he had been the Warden of the nearby abandoned city, Ese’Nawoer. Now, the revived ghost spent much of his time helping her practice her wards.
He was dressed in Keeper attire cut from a rich, dark green fabric befitting his Wardenship. Around his neck was a silver pendant in the shape of a mirth flower. It was the symbol of his city and was repeated on his heavy ring. He, too, kept his cheeks clear of even the hint of a beard, knowing Alissa liked it that way. The Keeper cut a startling figure with his blond hair, green eyes, and confident poise, but it was upon Strell her gaze lingered.
Alissa sighed in frustration. Strell, who had saved her life, who had freed Useless from his cell, who had returned her mind to her when she went feral—who could never be a Keeper, forever unable to perform even the simplest ward, and thus forbidden to her. It was Strell she loved. Strell and the smile he reserved for her when they were alone.
The two men picked their way through the ruin, clearly awed. Even from behind her tree, she could see Strell’s worry. “Can you reach her thoughts yet?” he asked Lodesh after finding her blood on the leaves. It was a rare question, proving how concerned Strell was. She knew Strell’s aversion to bringing up Lodesh’s Keeper abilities. It only pointed out Strell’s lack.
“No.” Lodesh confidently put his hands on his hips and shook his head. “She’s ignoring me, so she must be all right. Obviously she isn’t in her raku shape anymore.”
Loosely unfocusing her attention, Alissa modulated her thoughts so Strell could hear her in his mind. By rights she shouldn’t be able to reach any but another Master, but Alissa never listened to impossibilities, managing to speak with not only Masters and Keepers, but Strell as well. Useless said it was from having started life as a human instead of a raku, thereby forcing her mind to develop human strategies for verbal language. She didn’t care.
“Strell?” she thought, knowing he wouldn’t be able to answer. “Don’t tell Lodesh. I’m over here.”
She smiled at the faint rush of emotion she could sense from him: relief tinged with anticipation. Her smile deepened as he turned to Lodesh. “Obviously she isn’t here,” Strell said, the fallacy falling from him as convincingly as one of his numerous tales. “Why don’t we split up? I’ll check the woods. You see if she’s gone back to the Hold.”
“Good idea.” Shaking his head at the devastation, Lodesh walked the length of the new clearing and vanished under the trees. From his wrist came Talon’s chitter. The bird clearly knew he was going the wrong way.
“Alissa?” Strell whispered as soon as Lodesh was gone.
“Here, Strell,” she called, coming out from behind the tree.
He beamed, his shoulders relaxing as he saw she was all right. He crossed the clearing in eager, long strides.
“Wait,” she said in alarm. She held up a hand before he could sweep her into an embrace and show the world her lack of footwear. “I lost my shoes.”
Strell jerked to a stop. His brow furrowed, and he took her shoulders in his hands. “Are you all right?” he asked, his brown eyes intent on hers.
Her breath caught at his tight grip, and she dropped her gaze, flustered. “Yes. I’m fine. But I left my shoes this side of the garden’s wall. Come with me to get them?”
“Ashes, Alissa,” he said, reddening as he released her shoulders. “Would you hurry up and learn how to make them?” Taking advantage of the rare opportunity of having no eyes upon them, Strell cupped her hand in his as he helped her over the upturned earth.
“Thanks.” Eyes lowered, she paced beside him, keeping her steps slow to prolong their walk, as much as from the pain in her lower back. His hand was warm, and rough from his work at keeping the Hold’s few fires lit. She ran her fingertips to the ends of his fingers and back, feeling the calluses from his twin professions of musician and potter. His other hand lacked a full pinkie, and she knew he had shifted to her right side so as to hide it.
Alissa’s mood went soft. It was foolish, and she knew it meant little, but Strell so rarely felt free to show his feelings for her that even the smallest gesture was a treasure. It didn’t help that he had been raised in the stiff-necked culture of the desert, either. Useless would be annoyed if he found out she had been alone with Strell in the woods.
It had been made very plain to her that Strell would never be allowed to formally court her. Part of the bargain to bend the rules and let Strell remain at the Hold had been based on the understanding that he would keep his thoughts—and hands—from Alissa. Useless made it no secret that he hoped with time Alissa would turn her fancy to a match more suitable to her Master standing.
And time stretched forward for her in abundance. As a Master, she now had a life span ten times Strell’s. Again, she didn’t care, or at least that’s what she told herself.
“Play a tune for me tonight?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
“M-m-m,” he sighed, holding a branch for her as they passed into the shadow of the trees.
A familiar fluttering brought a groan of dismay from both of them. Talon hovered in a noisy complaint, waiting for Alissa to offer her a perch. The robin-sized bird’s chatters were accusing, and Alissa drew her hand from Strell’s with a guilty swiftness. If she didn’t, Talon’s protests would turn physical. And though it wouldn’t be hard to fight off the small bird, it would be difficult explaining to Useless why Strell was scratched.
Annoyed, she held out a wrist for the kestrel. “Hush,” Alissa soothed as she brought Talon close and tried to cover her head. Talon would have nothing to do with the pacification, worrying Alissa’s fingers with her sharp beak until Alissa gave up and put Talon on her shoulder. The bird’s harangue never slowed, but it at least grew softer, turning into a muttering complaint.
Alissa looked at Strell and winced. Lodesh had probably flown the bird, knowing she would seek out her mistress. Strell took a reluctant step from her, clearly coming to the same conclusion. “You really should teach that bird to wear a hood and jesses,” he grumbled. Cupping his hands, he looked in the direction Talon had come from. “Lodesh!” he shouted before the Keeper found them and guessed he had been manipulated. “She’s over here!”
“Is she all right?” came Lodesh’s distinct call.
“I’m fine,” she said as the outline of Lodesh became obvious, quashing her guilt for not having answered his silent hail earlier.
“Are you sure?” he asked as he came even with them in a crackling of undergrowth. His gaze ran over her from head to toe, and she flushed. The hint of amusement dancing over him made Alissa wonder if he had known her plan all along, letting her and Strell think they had gotten away with something, but not giving them enough time alone to get into trouble. It was hard to remember the man had a lifetime of experience to draw upon when he looked like—Alissa glanced up at him and away—like a young, handsome, carefree nobleman’s son.
“I’m fine,” she said again, slouching so her skirt hid her feet. Her back gave a deeper twinge, and she forced her brow smooth so as to not show it. “But I have to fetch my shoes— again.”
Lodesh brightened. “I’ll make you a pair,” he said cheerfully.
Alissa and Strell exchanged wondering looks. Lodesh had never offered to before. She hadn’t known he could make shoes from his thoughts. “But it takes years for a Keeper to learn how to craft something,” Alissa said. “I didn’t know you had been practicing.”
Lodesh put a finger to his nose. His eyes glinted roguishly. “Years is what I’ve had, yes? And you aren’t the only one who has small, dainty feet, Alissa.”
She took a breath to speak, then shut her mouth, embarrassed. It had been vain to assume he had fixed a new form in his thoughts solely for her. There was a tug on her awareness as Lodesh worked his ward. Curiosity prompted her to unfocus her attention to see the pattern of tracings he used. When she was close enough, the creation of a ward set up a resonance within her own tracings, setting her dormant pathways to faintly glow. It was how wards were taught to students.
A pair of soft, gray slippers ghosted into existence, cradled in Lodesh’s hands. Alissa accepted them gratefully. Both men looked away. Strell’s back was stiff as he turned. She wanted to think it was to give her some privacy, but she knew it was because he hated Lodesh using his Keeper skills. Alissa wedged her feet into the gray slippers and shook her skirt out to cover them. “Thank you, Lodesh,” she said softly, not liking how he had made Strell feel.
Strell was unable to hide his sliver of frustration. Lodesh held an arm out to help her back to the Hold, and Alissa miserably declined it. Undeterred, Lodesh gave her a good-natured smile. “Let me escort you back to the Hold, Alissa. If I remember correctly, you have a lesson in the garden tonight. You’re late.”
Alissa’s eyes widened, and her gaze darted to the Hold’s tower showing beyond the pines. “Ashes,” she exclaimed softly, tensing in worry. “Is it after six already? Last week the sun wasn’t much higher at six,” she complained. “How am I supposed to be on time if it changes that fast!” Then another thought pushed her concern to alarm. She glanced over her shoulder toward her clearing. “You don’t think Useless saw that, do you?”
Lodesh shook his head, grinning mischievously. “If he had, I’m sure you would have known it by now.”
Reassured, she took a quick step toward the Hold, then hesitated, knowing she ought not leave her other shoes outside the garden wall just because she had a new pair.
“I’ll get your shoes,” Strell volunteered, apparently knowing where her thoughts lay. “You go ahead with Lodesh.”
Alissa dropped her gaze. An uncomfortable silence fell between them. Preoccupied with his thoughts, Strell gave her only a wave before stomping off in a direction that was nowhere near the garden wall. She allowed herself a small sigh as she turned to Lodesh and accepted his arm. They silently made their way to the Hold. Talon’s complaining finally stopped.
It was obvious Strell loved her. Lodesh had also made it clear with intent looks and uncommon courtesies that he cared for her, too. Lately, Alissa had come to believe Lodesh was biding his time, betting Strell would eventually make a mistake that couldn’t be overlooked and find himself banished from the Hold, leaving Alissa all to Lodesh. But for now, he seemed content to be a friend to them both, knowing until he absolved his curse, he would remain in existence for as long as Alissa did—in some form or another. He need only to wait.
The situation put Alissa in a foul mood when she thought about it too long. But it was hard not to like Lodesh, with his quick wit and cheerful disposition. She also appreciated his steadfast tolerance of her. She was putting all three of them through the Navigator’s hell as she refused to abandon what her heart wanted over what she knew was right, proper, and inevitable.
Alissa glanced up at Lodesh’s firm profile. The handsome Keeper was clearly a better match for her, seeing as there were no Masters left to choose from. With Lodesh, her children might make the jump to Master as she had; with Strell, they likely wouldn’t even make Keeper. And she did like Lodesh. . . . But there had to be a way to get what she wanted. She just hadn’t found it yet.
Squinting, Alissa brought them to a halt as they found the edge of the trees and the setting sun. The Hold stood before them, gray in the shadowy light. Her breath slipped from her in a sigh as she tried to imagine what the Hold had been like when it was full of Keepers, Masters, and students. It was easy this time of day, the few moments between sunset and the lamps being lit. She could pretend the stillness hard upon her ears and eyes was from grace being said, not twenty years of near abandonment.
Lodesh stirred, and she flashed him a quick smile. The sun was almost down. Useless would have undoubtedly spent the interim planning out a fine lecture as to the proper use of time.
“Thank you, Lodesh,” she said as she flung Talon into the air and they moved forward. “If it weren’t for you, I would have completely forgotten. How late am I?”
“You have no idea, Alissa,” he said mysteriously, but if his look of alarm was contrived or not, she couldn’t tell.
Lodesh met Alissa’s quickening stride as they entered the smaller of the Hold’s two kitchens. “Why,” she complained, “did Useless get it into his head to hold class at night, anyway?”
“You really should call Master Talo-Toecan by his given name, Alissa.”
She shifted her shoulders. “He told me I could call him that, and at the time, he was.”
“A Master of the Hold is anything but useless,” Lodesh insisted.
“Perhaps,” she muttered. “Unless bound by his word or her lack of skill.”
Lodesh put out a hand and stopped her. Ashamed, she dropped her gaze. “You,” he said gently, “are not useless.” The clean scent of mirth wood filled her senses, and his hand lifted her chin. She went still as their gazes met. When she had first made his acquaintance, he had diligently striven with subtle words and sly looks to get her to blush. Repeated exposure and a comfortable friendship had made her immune to his considerable charms—for the most part. That, and her slow awareness of the old grief he hid behind his eyes.
His eyes were old. In them was the pain Lodesh had endured as his beloved, cursed city faltered and fell: watching his people leave family by family, seeing the prosperous streets go empty and silent, knowing it was his fault and his fault alone. Uncomfortable, she looked away.
“Even in the best of circumstances a Master takes the better part of two centuries to become proficient,” he continued, clearly not knowing she could see. “Be patient.”
“Now you sound like Useless,” she said.
“Just so.” He smiled. “And you should call him Talo-Toecan. Besides,” he said as he picked up a cloth and moved a kettle from the flames, “your schooling is going frighteningly quickly. I imagine he’s currently deep into the theory of line tripping.”
“How—how did you know?” she asked.
He looked up from filling a teapot with the lukewarm water from the hearth. There was a flash of resonance across her tracings as he used a warming ward and the teapot began to steam. “Your evening lesson gave it away,” he said. “Tripping the lines of time to view the past is complicated. It would be unlike Talo-Toecan to allow you to sleep on half the lesson, risking you would figure the rest out on your own and get yourself into trouble.”
Alissa winced, knowing Useless had cause to worry. “Ah, yes.”
Smiling, Lodesh found a soft cloth and dabbed at her jaw-line. It came away with a red smear, and she reached up to touch her jaw. “Did you fall because of Beast?” he asked lightly.
Her breath seemed to freeze. Taking the towel from his hands, she turned away. “No,” she said, too embarrassed to tell him she couldn’t yet fly on her own.
He hesitated. “I’m concerned, Alissa. Masters always destroy the second, feral consciousness that evolves when learning how to shift from raku to human. None have ever agreed to live with it. Perhaps this is why?” His green eyes went worried. “Is Beast—trying to take over?”
“No. She isn’t,” Alissa said defensively, not liking to talk of Beast so openly. If Useless realized Alissa had retained her feral conscious, he would make her destroy Beast. Even Strell didn’t know. How Lodesh had guessed was beyond her.
Lodesh’s head tilted, his worried stance saying more than words that he wasn’t convinced. “Here,” he finally said, extending the brewing pot. “You’re late, but if you bring him tea, he will most likely overlook your tardiness.” Alissa’s brow pinched at the reminder. “You had better run,” he said, leading her by the elbow to the door.
With a final, extravagant gesture, Lodesh opened the garden door. The sound of crickets slipped in to pool behind her, urging her to be out among them in the dew-ridden darkness of a night with no moon. Alissa gathered her skirts in one hand, the pot of tea in the other. Her back protested as she started down the weed-lined path to the large, sunken firepit that often served as her schoolroom. Behind her, the door shut with a gentle thump.
Talking of Beast had tightened Alissa’s sense of unease. Her lower back gave a strong twinge, and she slowed, wishing she knew how to tell time. It didn’t make sense that the hours shifted independent of the sun. Moving as fast as her back would allow, she turned a corner and came to a dismayed halt. Not only was Useless at the firepit, but he had already lit the fire.
The Master straightened at the sound of her approach, his white eyebrows rising in question. Alissa tossed her tangled hair from her eyes and sedately continued down the path with a false nonchalance. At least he was in his human shift. Trying to reason with him when he was a raku was impossible.
“Alissa?” came his clipped accent. He sounded puzzled, not annoyed as she had feared.
“Good evening, Useless,” she said meekly.
“You’re early tonight.”
“Early?” Her head came up. “Lodesh said I was late!”
Her teacher’s expression went from amusement to bother. “Then you probably are,” he amended, frowning in what she recognized as irritation at himself, not her. Apparently Useless had the same problem as she when it came to time. Perhaps, she mused, stepping down into the bench-lined pit surrounding the fire, it had something to do with how their minds were laid out.
Useless held his comments to a grimace as he took in her Keeper attire. He made a great show of shaking out his long Master’s vest. It was the color of ripe wheat and went all the way to the ground, giving her the impression of a sleeveless robe. Having it bound tightly about his waist with a black scarf only strengthened the image. Peeping from under the vest were trousers and a wide-sleeved tunic. Though of a simple cut and pattern, the fabric was of a quality that had never made it to her foothills home, being tight of weave and even of color.
The Master had no beard and kept his hair cropped close to his skull—to hide the whiteness of it, Lodesh had once said in jest. He was as tall as Strell and nearly as dark, with a ramrod stiffness about him whether he was sitting or standing. Since he was quick to anger and even quicker to admit to a mistake, keeping abreast of his moods was often a losing battle.
Though in his human shift, his eyes retained the unreal golden color characteristic of all Masters. His hands, too, couldn’t hide his raku origins and were abnormally long. Each finger had four segments instead of the usual three. Alissa had long ago adjusted her thinking to see them as normal, but tonight her gaze lingered on them as he reached for the teapot. Her fingers looked as they always had. Alissa exhaled heavily. Even as a Master, she didn’t quite fit in.
The stone benches built into the surrounding earth still held the day’s warmth, and she settled to his right, glad the night was dark enough to hide the scrape on her chin. She winced when she realized she had forgotten the cups. Seeing it, Useless sighed, and with a tug on her awareness and a flash of resonance across her tracings, two cups glazed a hideous brown materialized on the bench between them. He silently poured the tea and handed her the first cup. Taking a sip, he grimaced and set it down. “Lodesh’s tea?” he asserted sourly.
Blinking, Alissa nodded. “How did you know?”
“He always wards the water to boiling. The kettle never warms sufficiently, so the leaves don’t brew properly.”
She took a cautious sip. It tasted fine to her, but then, she wasn’t over eight centuries old.
Holding the cup to warm her hands, Alissa sat and tried not to fidget. As soon as she had stopped moving, her back had begun to throb, all the way down to her rear. Clearly some of the mass for wings came from that area, and she wondered what sort of mischief had managed that. She glanced nervously at her teacher. How was she going to hide the tear until it healed?
Useless shook his head at some private thought and drained his cup. Lodesh’s brew or not, he was still apparently going to drink it. He adjusted his vest over his spare frame, and his slippered feet withdrew underneath him to sit cross-legged upon the bench. Alissa’s breath quickened. He was ready to teach.
“This morning,” he began, “I explained the theory behind line tripping. Tell it to me.”
She sat straighter, frowning at the ache in her back. The stone bench wasn’t helping. “Sending your thoughts to the past is reexperiencing a memory, be it yours or someone else’s gifted to you. There’s no way to change it because the threads have already been tightened. You’re not so much reliving the past as seeing one person’s view of it.”
“Excellent,” Useless praised. “The difference is subtle but tantamount to success.”
“You mean you’re going to let me try tonight!”
Useless chuckled, hiding his smile behind a hastily raised cup. “No-o-o,” he drawled, and she collapsed against the back of the bench, straightening as a rush of pain shot through her. It was getting worse. “But I’ll explain how it’s done,” he continued. “You should be decades along in your studies before learning this, not years. Seeing as you’ve been among the lines last fall, it would be prudent to present it to you now.” He frowned. “Before you decide you can figure it out by yourself.”
Grimacing at the slight jibe, Alissa shifted uncomfortably and sipped her tea. Perhaps she could risk complaining of a minor pain. Useless might run a ward of healing for her, clearing everything up with him never knowing the difference. She would have done it herself, but she hadn’t been given permission to work the complex ward without supervision.
“Finding and fixing a memory in your thoughts is the first step,” Useless said. “But it’s an important one. Engage the ward before that, and you’ll slip into a long, unproductive sleep. There’re several methods to fix a memory. The easiest is to use one of your own.” He looked up as she fidgeted. “The second is to be gifted one by another. The third is to use a septhama point.” He leaned to top off his cup.
She thought about that. The word septhama was familiar, but she couldn’t see how it related. Septhamas were a blessedly rare group of individuals whose tracings were almost complex enough to make Keeper but had been malformed. Usually stemming from Keeper parents, they had the ability to do one thing, and one thing only. And even that was rather pointless. “I give up,” she finally said.
Useless didn’t even try to hide his smile. “You’re aware septhamas can modify the pattern—the flow of psychic energy imprinted after a tragedy—so as to make the corresponding physical manifestation of such energy more pleasing to the general populace?”
Alissa nodded, finding slight relief as she leaned to adjust the fire. Why didn’t he just say they got rid of ghosts?
“Well, a septhama point is that stored energy, which in this case functions like a memory residing in a place or a thing.” He hesitated. “Or more rarely, a person.”
Her gaze went distant, recalling that Strell’s broken pipe had such a memory on it. Rising, she went to the opposite side of the fire to nudge back a stick she had intentionally pushed out.
“What are you doing?” Useless asked in wonder. “I’ve never seen anyone so reluctant to sit still since I—” His voice cut off. Arms clasped about herself, Alissa glanced up to find her teacher’s lips pursed and his eyes knowing. “You damaged your tail,” he said.
Panic mixed with shame, and she looked away. He would be so angry! “Uh, no,” she warbled.
“Your wing, then?” he guessed, and she nodded, cringing at his heavy sigh.
“I’m fine,” she said, returning to her spot and sitting on the edge of the bench. The pain swelled, and she reluctantly got to her feet.
“You were sporting in the heavy updrafts behind the Hold again, weren’t you,” he said, though it really wasn’t a question. “I told you to be careful. Do you know how many young rakus have ended up at the bottom of that rock face?”
She said nothing, content to let him believe what he wanted.
“You’re the only one left, Alissa,” he lectured gently. “You must be more careful. Why do you think I’ve been teaching you what only an experienced Master should know? I’m not going to last much longer, and I won’t let a millennium of study die with me.”
“Useless,” she cajoled, not liking to hear him speak like that. His eyes meeting hers were full of a patient understanding, surprising her.
“Shift and show me what you did,” he demanded in a soft voice. “It can’t be worse than anything I’ve done. I’ll run a ward of healing on it, or better yet, you can. The practice will do you good.” He shook his head and fussed with the fire, his long fingers perilously close to the low flames. “Though I ought not to have taught it to you in the first place,” he finished.
Alissa’s excitement at having been granted permission to practice the tricky ward was blunted by worry. Perhaps his understanding attitude would become anger after seeing what she had done. Still, she hurt, and having a three-day acceleration of healing would be a relief.
The sun had since vanished, and feeling a chill, she stepped awkwardly up onto the stone bench and from there to the long, neglected grass. Making no comment, she removed her slippers so as not to break them down to nothing with the rest of her clothes when she shifted. Useless didn’t care if she wore shoes or not, but her foothills upbringing made her uncomfortable without them. The loud pop as they hit the bench made her jump.
Despising disorder, Useless arranged her slippers neatly. “You should be more careful with your footwear until you can fashion them yourself,” he said, clearly recognizing they weren’t the shoes she had on when she left the Hold that morning.
“Useless?” she asked, curious. “Why is it my hurt shifts with me? I would think that since I was in a completely different form, it wouldn’t show at all.”
Useless sipped his tea. “You shift to your idea of yourself, and your mind knows you’re hurt. Oddly enough, that’s one of the reasons we live so long. You are,” he said, “literally as young as you think, or in this case, as your thoughts remember you to be.”
Her brow puckered in disbelief. This was far beyond her original question, but she fastened upon it greedily. “So if I shifted thinking I was ten years old, I would coalesce as that?”
The warm sound of her teacher’s laugh slipped like a sunbeam about the weedy shrubs and overgrown grasses of his expansive garden. “No. You would show up as your rightful age, but your youthful appearance will persist for ten times longer than you might imagine. Your mind can’t be fooled, but it’s slow to accept change. Pain, though, makes a very strong impression, which is why it shifts with you.”
She nodded in acceptance. It made sense, as much as any of it ever did.
Knowing Useless would take the chance to evaluate her skill at shifting, Alissa went through the preparatory steps with a measured slowness. Eyes open, she visualized her source with her mind’s eye. Deep in her awareness was a sphere of white so stark as to be possible only in her imagination, a gift from her papa before he died. It was bound by silvery gold threads, glittering like glory itself. She had never been able to see what lay past the threads. Useless had once told her it was because limit-bound thoughts had a hard time with infinity.
Surrounding her source, but seeming to be twisted half an angle away, sprawled her tracings. The bluish black lines spread out in all directions, connecting and fracturing into a maze of astounding proportions, looping back at the limits of her mind. Being empty of all but the smallest energy, they were hard to see. Only the gold tracing they were shot through with gave evidence that they were there. That would change.
Alissa slipped a thought into her source. A glowing ribbon darted from it to make the curving jump to her tracings. From there it circled back, crossing against itself to make a twisted loop before returning to her source, leaving a humming circle of energy running through her mind. It was the beginnings of everything. She didn’t care that Useless called her tracings her neural net and the first loop the primary circuit. She only knew together they made wards.
From here it was simple to direct the force into the proper pathways. Chosen tracings burst into light as the energy filled them, making the far-flung, complicated pattern needed to hold her soul together as she destroyed her body and fashioned mass about it again.
There was a familiar feeling of perfect disconnection as the chill, dark garden winked out of existence. She knew from watching Useless that she had vanished into a mist that grew as she pulled energy from her source to make the additional mass for her larger form. In a moment the garden was back, but she was viewing it from a perspective two man lengths higher.
“Very nice,” Useless grumbled, clearly pleased at the quickness of her shift. In his opinion, she spent far too much time existing as only a thought. “Now, show me what you did to yourself. Skin your wing on a cliff, did you?”
“No,” she said into his mind, being incapable of verbal speech now. Twin feelings of wanting sympathy and wanting to be left alone warred within her as she extended her wing.
“Oh, Alissa,” Useless breathed as the rip came to light. A pattern resonated across her tracings and held steady as Useless made a ward of illumination. The globe rested in his long fingers to show the bone and blood within them. “You should have come to me right away.”
She said nothing, thinking the reason she hadn’t was obvious.
“How did you ever get back up to the top of the cliff with a rip like this?”
Her shoulders shifted in a shrug. She couldn’t look at him, wishing he had gotten angry instead of sympathetic. Lies of omission were still lies.
Brow furrowed, he went to stand under her wing. The glow from his light shone through the rip. She snaked her neck under her wing to see, lifting it out of his reach as he threatened to run a finger along the cut. “Put your wing down,” he said dryly. “I’m not going to touch it.” She heard his sigh. “It would have been better had you run a healing ward before shifting,” he said. “Human back muscle heals differently than wing canvas.”
“You told me not to run a healing ward alone,” she said, feeling her shoulder ache from holding her wing extended for so long.
“That I did.” He came out from under her wing, his features sharp in his light. “I suppose if you’re brave enough to chance the rock face’s updrafts, you’re ready to run a healing ward on your own.” He grimaced. “Lay your wing on the ground. I’ll hold the ends together the best I can as you run it. Even so, you’re going to have a scar. I imagine the indignity of having to explain it to your future students will be punishment enough.”
Surprised at his attitude, she sent a docile thought into his. “You aren’t angry?”
Useless gave her an unfathomable look. “Accidents happen. Especially when playing in an updraft that strong. Tell me next time you want to try the rock face. You should have a spotter.”
“Yes, Useless,” she said, relieved he was taking it so well.