Blog | Author's Blog | Published 22 April 2021
Wheels and Deals
Introductions made, my attention was once again captivated by Bran’s music. It was just so full of life. His music told a story, one I could spend all day listening to. It was so very vibrant that I thought I could see colors swirling and dancing around him. I wondered if this was what magic looked like to Shania or if Bran’s magic was so rich it confused my own sense of it.
I knew, without really knowing or caring how I knew it, that Bran was going to be very strong in his gift, strong and talented in many ways. None of the other Gifted I’d met had so many or so varied instruments in their song. Bran’s music sounded almost as full as my fellow Conduits, whose songs sounded as though they were played by a full orchestra. Conduits touch on all the different elements while the Gifted tend to be drawn to one with only hints of the others. Bran, I thought, would be able to access any element he wished at will. I might have wondered why he was different if my head had any remaining room, but at that moment it was too full of song.
Gradually I became aware he was talking again, and I made some effort to focus on what he was saying. I stared at his mouth, and watching his lips move helped me pick out words over the sound of his magic.
“I said, do you come to the Labyrinth a lot?”
He’d obviously been repeating himself but didn’t sound mad or impatient the way many people did when they were trying to talk to me and I was distracted. I liked that. I liked it a great deal, and so I smiled for him and tried harder to listen to what he was saying.
“Yeah, but I’ve never run into anyone else here before. I go to the kennels or stables for lunch most days. Do you come here a lot around this time? Maybe that’s why we haven’t met.”
“That’s probably it. We like to come here to play during our midmorning break. The grownups have a hard time finding us in the maze, and it’s easier to get away with the kind of games we might get in trouble for playing.”
I could see why they would get in trouble for the game they were currently playing, and I wasn’t completely sure I disagreed with the grownups. I didn’t think the wheel of the year was meant for the use they had put it to, and I didn’t like the idea of any part of the Labyrinth being damaged for the sake of some children’s game—no matter how much fun it looked to play. “You’ll be able to put it back together, right?” I asked Bran dubiously, watching as a new boy clambered eagerly onto the wheel and another boy assumed a similar pose as the girl who had dislodged the previous boy.
“Oh yeah. Probably.”
That answer didn’t inspire much confidence, but there was something about Bran that made me want to believe him anyway. I think it had a lot to do with his bearing. Even at eleven years old, he had a very attractive dose of confidence and self-assurance. You couldn’t help thinking he was aware of exactly what was going on at all times and that he knew the right course of action in any given situation. I was a lot older before I figured out he didn’t always know everything and wasn’t infallible. I’d learned those lessons the hard way.
“Who enchanted the wheel?” I asked. Now that I wasn’t caught up in Bran’s music, the spell’s song was starting to bother me again. A particularly piercing squeal sounded as the boy spinning the wheel goosed it into going faster, making my eyes water.
“That’s one of mine,” Bran said as he looked down at his book, frowned, and made a notation in the margin of one page with the stub of a pencil.
My eyebrows climbed up under my bangs at that. “You said you couldn’t use magic yet.”
“Oh, no. Owen, that boy over there,” he said, and he pointed to a tall golden-haired boy who looked to be fifteen or so. “He worked the enchantment, but the spell’s design is mine.” Owen was standing with the others who were shouting encouragement to the players at the wheel. “He came into his gift ages ago, and I guess he’s alright at it, but he isn’t very good at making up his own spells. I modified the spell used on the spinning tops our teachers have us practice our focus on for the wheel. I thought it would be more fun to practice on it than on a stupid toy top.”
I could definitely see his point and agreed it did look like a lot more fun than the practices I did in the Rose Garden. Still, I thought I should be honest with Bran, and so I said, “The spell’s a little off. There’s something wrong with the spinning. You could maybe make it go faster and not have to focus so hard if you fixed it.”
Bran looked up from his book to blink at me. He didn’t seem angry that I pointed out a flaw in his casting, which I thought he might be. Sometimes people got upset with me when I told them something was wrong with their spellwork, that is if they didn’t just dismiss my comment out of hand. They didn’t think a Conduit could know anything useful about casting since we couldn’t manipulate magic like they could. But Bran just looked at the wheel in a thoughtful way and humphed.
“What do you think the problem is?” he asked.
I was so startled my mind stumbled over its own surprise. “I don’t know for sure,” I told him when my brain recovered from the bump. “I’ve never tried to find where a spell was wrong before. I just hear the wrongness in the music. Mostly people don’t believe me and they tell me not to bother them about it.”
Bran snorted and shook his head. “That’s just stupid. They probably didn’t like a kid telling them they messed up. They think I’m too young and don’t know anything about it either since I can’t work magic. They hate it when I tell them their spellwork’s wrong too. Do you think if you looked at the glyphs you could figure out where the problem is in my spell?”
I thought about it. I couldn’t see magic like Shania could, so looking at the written bits of spell probably wouldn’t tell me anything. But if I listened intently, I thought I could probably pick out the phrase or note that was screwing up the song. I didn’t know how Bran would know where the problem was from that, but I wanted to try. He was the first person who acted as if I knew what I was talking about. I wanted to prove it further by helping him with his spell, and so I nodded.
“Great. Come on then,” he said, set his book on the stack next to him, and stood up. I followed him to the group of kids, hanging back and unsure of how the others would receive me.
Without any hesitance at all, Bran walked up to the boy concentrating on making the wheel spin and tapped him on the shoulder. “Neil, there’s something off with the enchantment on the wheel and I want to see if it can be fixed. I need you to stop for a minute.”
The boy, Neil, though he may have been about the same age, was taller than Bran. His hair was the color of ripe wheat and he had pretty blue eyes. He had lightly tanned skin that was flushed and tight with strain as he maintained his position of power. He didn’t look at Bran but kept his gaze trained on the wheel, which continued spinning. “Not now,” he muttered through gritted teeth, hardly moving his lips to allow the words to escape.
Bran didn’t argue or whine. Instead, he casually reached up and flicked Neil on his ear hard enough I could hear the sharp thwack.
“Ow!” Neil yelped, dropping his arms and flinching to one side. Rubbing resentfully at his ear, Neil glowered at Bran. “What in Hades was that for? I was winning!”
“No you weren’t,” Bran told him, unperturbed by the other boy’s glare. “Calder wasn’t even breaking a sweat. Besides, if I can fix the problem with the spell you’ll have a better shot at beating him next time.”
Neil didn’t appear to think that was much of a consolation, and he looked like he was opening his mouth to tell Bran off when the other boy Bran had pointed out, Owen, came marching up to them.
“What’s going on over here?” he demanded amongst loud protests from the rest of the spectators. On closer viewing, I was struck by how much Owen and Neil looked alike. Owen was older by a few years, and that showed in their size differences and other subtle cues in their build and voice pitch, but they shared the same blonde hair, blue eyes, taller-than-average height, and stunning good looks. Even as young as I was, I recognized Gorgeous with a capital G and felt overwhelmingly shy. If Owen was more handsome, Neil’s face seemed more open and appealing in a friendly sort of way. I could only conclude they were brothers.
Owen crossed his arms over his chest, standing close to Bran so that he could make a point of looking down on him to emphasize how much bigger he was. Jerking his head in my direction without actually looking my way, he added, “And what’s with the snowflake?”
Since I was standing right next to Bran, Owen’s proximity bothered me enough I almost took a step back to put more space between us. I wasn’t nearly as sensitive about other people touching me or crowding my personal space as Ahanu, one of my Conduit cousins, but I was by no means a cuddly child. I was uncomfortable with people being too near or touching me without my approval. But I knew what Owen was doing—I’d seen bullying dogs in the kennels try Owen’s trick to get what they wanted—and I refused to take that step back. I didn’t like bullies but I also didn’t like starting trouble either, so I pulled my own trick.
Running my hand down the long plait of my hair, I beamed up at Owen and said very sweetly, “Oh, I know. Isn’t it pretty and white like fresh snow?”
I’d learned with some of the stable kids, who could be bratty sometimes, that if I didn’t give them the response they were hoping for they would stop bothering me. Taking their teasing as a compliment often put a baffled look on their faces, as though I was so odd they didn’t know what to do with me. They usually decided I was better left alone.
Owen didn’t look baffled as he leaned in closer and sneered down the straight bridge of his nose at me. “Snowflake as in a tiny white piece of fluff that drifts aimlessly through a short pathetic life before simply melting away.”
I could feel myself melting under such malicious scorn. My shoulders drooped and my smile evaporated like a drop of water on hot iron. My hands were no longer caressing the silken braid of my hair. Instead, I clutched it to my chest, but I didn’t take that step back.
Owen straightened again and returned his attention to Bran, somehow making the act of looking away from me a dismissal of my entire existence. “I’ll ask one more time for the hearing impaired. What do you think you’re doing?”
Bran looked as unconcerned by Owen’s crowding as he was by Neil’s glare, and if he was upset by how Owen behaved toward me, it didn’t show. “There’s something wrong with the spell on the wheel. Danny is going to help me figure out where the flaw is and fix it.”
“I set the enchantment on the wheel. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“Danny says there is. I believe her. I want to find out whether the flaw is in the implementation of the enchantment or with the spell’s design.”
I stared at Bran a little stunned. He sounded just like Uncle Rafferty and Aunt Trudy when they argued over the technical minutia of spellcraft. Hearing it from a boy who was only a few years older than me was really weird.
Apparently, Owen was used to it because he wasn’t fazed at all and only looked surlier at the implication he hadn’t set the enchantment very well. “I told you there’s nothing wrong with it, but you’re going to take the word of a snowflake over mine? What does a snowflake know about casting? They have the attention span of a hummingbird, and if they could focus for half a minute they can’t craft for shit.”
Bran shrugged. “Neither can I but I’m the one who adapted the spell you used to enchant the wheel.”
That simply stated rebuttal seemed to throw Owen. He paused, clearly at a loss. When he did recover, he was red in the face and there was a resentful gleam in his eye. Stepping in very close, Owen jabbed a stiff finger into Bran’s chest and hissed at him in a tone so low no one beyond Bran and myself could overhear. “You muck around with my spell, O’Doyle, and I’ll make sure Galvin knows who’s been sneaking into the restricted section of the library.”
Bran didn’t say anything, but he didn’t seem terribly upset by Owen’s threat either. He simply stood quietly, staring up at the older boy and waiting. Owen jabbed him again in the chest for emphasis, but he was the one to look away first, turning away from Bran and snapping at the other kids to get on with their game so other people could take a turn.
Bran started walking for the arbor leading out into the rest of the maze. “Come on. We’ll come back later to take a look,” he told me as I turned to follow him.
“What about Galvin and the library?” I asked.
Bran waved that off nonchalantly. “Oh, Owen won’t tell. Then he’d have to explain how magicless me made it past the spelled lock on the door to the restricted section.”
“So you’re a Conduit.”
The girl who’d spoken stood between the arbor and us. She was maybe fifteen and wearing a green sundress that complimented her wildly curly red hair. Her skin was as smooth and creamy as fresh milk with a light spray of freckles across her nose like a sprinkling of cinnamon. Her eyes were large and a lovely shade of hazel. At five foot four, she had the beginnings of a perfectly proportioned curvaceous figure. She was a beauty, and she knew it.
Later, I learned her name was Keezheekoni and, because she hated it, she insisted everyone call her Koni.
She looked me up and down in a critical way that made me very conscious of my grubby overalls, the tear in the sleeve of my faded shirt, and the hole in the toe of my left shoe. She particularly stared at my face and hair.
“Well, they certainly don’t breed you people for looks. That’s all I can say.”
“Koni!” gasped another girl who was somewhere around twelve, this one with stick-straight brown hair, velvety brown eyes, and nut-brown skin. She had slender limbs and a snubbed nose, so it really wasn’t a surprise when I later learned her nickname was Brownie—like the wee folk who had followed our family over from Eire and who continue to take such great care of all the housework. They were all over brown fur though they didn’t have any noses at all, which might not have been very fair to the girl who at least had a little one.
“That was unkind,” said the brown girl, coming to stand next to Keezheekoni. She looked at me and gave me a smile. “You look fine, and your hair is very long and lovely. Did you braid it yourself?”
Before I could answer, Keezheekoni spoke up. “I didn’t say she was ugly, Sequoia, because she isn’t. I simply stated the obvious. Clearly consistent coloring wasn’t a priority in her breeding. I mean, just look at her! One green eye and one blue? Who can take someone with miss-matched eyes seriously? And just look at that hair! It’s as though she was scared out of her wits as a babe and her hair never recovered from the shock. Either that or she aged a hundred years in a day. Only old people have hair that color. Plus you can see she’s going to be too tall and broad shouldered for a woman. And her jaw line—so square. How unfortunate. Though I suppose it will mean you’ll age well at least.” She added that last as an afterthought, as though it was supposed to be a small compensation for a larger woe.
Again, I was interrupted before I could comment.
“Well it’s not as though consistent coloring and perfect bone structure were high priorities in her breeding now is it?” protested Sequoia. “I’m sure she has all the fine qualities she’s meant to.”
“Auntie Lina says I have the best capacity and range of any Conduit in the family,” I said quickly, glad to finally get a word in edgewise and talk up some good points they might appreciate since clearly we had different tastes in looks.
I wanted to say that I liked my eyes. So what if they didn’t match? They were each a very pretty shade of blue and green under long black lashes, and they were slanted and almond shaped like a cat’s. Besides, it wasn’t like my eyes were party colored like Evlin’s, who’s irises were a patchwork of brown and ice-blue, and my hair wasn’t really like an old person’s as was hers or Ahanu’s, both of whom were heavily grizzled. I liked my snow-white hair.
“There, see?” Sequoia told Keezheekoni, smiling broadly.
“Yes, and I suppose those traits are more important in a Conduit than appearances,” Keezheekoni agreed. “It’s not as though they ever leave the estate or need to impress anyone.” Apparently finished with the subject of what were desirable and acceptable goals in breeding Conduits, Keezheekoni switched her attention to Bran and smiled charmingly at him. That smile had a lot of calculating curiosity under the charm.
“I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation with Owen. So you think there’s something wrong with his enchantment?”
The corners of Bran’s mouth turned down in a slight frown, the first sign of feeling I’d seen in him since he smiled and introduced himself. If I had to guess, he was annoyed with how no one seemed to listen to what he actually said. “No, I told him there was something wrong with the spell but wasn’t sure where the problem was. That’s why I wanted Danny to have a look at it for me.”
Perfect white teeth flashed as Keezheekoni turned her charming, calculating smile on me. “And here I thought your kind didn’t know anything about magic except how to channel it. Well, you learn something new every day.” She sounded ever so slightly mocking.
Looking back at Bran, she patted him familiarly on the arm. “When you figure out what’s wrong with the spell, come talk to me. I’ll fix it for you. I can’t wait to show Mr. Arrogant how enchanting is supposed to be done.”
Sequoia grinned. “You did say you should have been the one to work the spell.”
“I did, didn’t I?” agreed Keezheekoni as she threaded her arm through her friend’s. “People should listen to me more often. See you later,” she said to Bran, and the two girls left to rejoin the group around the wheel, which was back to spinning and squeaking away.
Bran collected his books from the bench and walked out through the arbor. I followed, happy to be away from all the noise. The fact that Owen was such an ass and Keezheekoni was so blithely insulting had been a distraction from both the physical and magical cacophony pounding at my head, and it was only now that we were heading away from it all that I was aware just how numb and buzzing my head felt. I wasn’t used to being around so many energetic people or active magic. It left me feeling very much as I had after my first few visits to the Rose Garden.
Bran asked something that was lost in the layers of wool muffling my hearing. “What?” I said, wiggling a finger in one ear and flexing my jaw.
“So who do you think is going to end up Gifted or Null,” he repeated.
“Oh.” I thought back over the people I had met, what each person’s music sounded like. It wasn’t all that easy for me to attach a particular individual’s music to their face after the fact, and even harder to remember exactly if that individual’s music had sounded crisp and clear or indistinct and muffled, or if it only sounded indistinct and muffled because of the overlap of so many other people, the song from the Labyrinth, the flawed spell, and the general noise. “Well,” I began, not at all certain I had it all figured out but sure of two people at least. “Koni and Owen are Gifted, but you know that already.”
“I didn’t really get a listen on Calder—the boy on the wheel—but I think I maybe heard Sequoia and Neil. I think they’re going to be Nulls.”
“Oh,” Bran said, a small sad frown putting a wrinkle between his straight black brows. “That’s going to be rough on Neil.”
I thought Sequoia would be even more put out, especially with a friend as shallow and callous as Keezheekoni. I couldn’t see that friendship lasting past Sequoia’s sixteenth birthday if no magic manifested, whereas Neil had Owen who, while incredibly mean to me, seemed to care about his brother. He’d sure jumped on Bran as soon as he flicked Neil in the ear. I was sure he’d defend his brother from any teasing that might come Neil’s way when he was found to be a Null.
That just goes to show you how bad I was at reading people when I was younger. I don’t think I’ve gotten a whole lot better in subsequent years, though Bran thinks more highly of me. Gods only know why.
“So, how is it that you can tell which person will have magic and which won’t?” Bran asked as he took the next turn leading out of the maze. I wondered if he had a way of navigating the Labyrinth like I did, or maybe he just had really good instincts and knew how to listen to them because he never hesitated in his navigation.
“It’s the way their music sounds,” I told him, casting a sidelong glance at him. We were back on questionable ground. He still didn’t seem condescending, incredulous, or mocking, but I was waiting for one of those reactions to crop up any second. I just couldn’t see how he could be so different from everyone else.
“And by music you mean magic.”
He’d made it a statement but I answered anyway. “Yes.”
“So, Nulls have magic but just can’t access or use it?”
“I guess.” I’d never really given it much thought.
“That’s fascinating. I wonder why Nulls are blocked. They have to be blocked, or how else how would you explain their inability to use their inherent magic?”
I only shook my head, a little intimidated and in awe of the way he was talking. He really did sound just like Uncle Rafferty.
Bran walked in silence a while, clearly thinking over the issue. I contented myself with wallowing in his music, which blended surprisingly well with the Labyrinth’s song. The two pieces of music harmonized in a most pleasant way. Maybe the fact that Bran’s magic was so compatible with the Labyrinth’s was the reason he made his way through the maze so effortlessly.
A quiet rustling snagged my attention, and I glanced to my right in time to catch sight of a black hound pup with brilliant green eyes peeping out from under one hedge wall before it quickly ducked out of view. I wondered if any of the dogs had escaped the kennels. If I remembered, which was a pretty big “if” with me most days, I’d ask next time I was there.
“What quality in a person’s magic lets you know whether they will be Gifted or Null?” Bran asked, swinging me back to our conversation.
“Well, I can tell you might take knowing certain things for granted, given your different perspective, that the rest of us haven’t a clue about.” Bran gave me one of his fugitive smiles. “But maybe the quality you hear in a person’s music that tells you they’re either Gifted or Null will give us a hint as to what is blocking the Nulls from using magic. If we can figure that out, maybe we could figure out how to unblock them.”
“No,’” I said, unable to hold the question in anymore that I really needed to ask. I was willing to risk hastening ridicule if it meant finally gaining some understanding. “Why do you believe me at all? No one else ever does. Not even Auntie Lina, not really.”
“Oh.” Bran thought about his response as he scratched at his nose by rubbing it against one shoulder because his hands were full of books. Finally, he shrugged. “I don’t see any reason not to believe you. You don’t seem crazy or stupid to me, not like how everyone is always saying Conduits are supposed to act. Sure, you’re a little weird, but not crazy weird. And Conduits, with much greater access and capacity, are said to relate to magic a lot differently than the Gifted do. It stands to reason you guys would have a different sense of magic, don’t you think?”
There was a warm glow somewhere in my chest and I couldn’t stop smiling. “I wish more people thought like you.”
Bran shrugged again, and another smile, smaller and a bit more self-conscious than his others, peeked out at me. “I think most people let what others tell them make up their minds on how they think of things they don’t know much about. Everyone says that Conduits are one way, but half those people never seem to get to know you guys to see if what they’re told is really true, and the other half let what they’ve been told skew what they see and hear when they do spend time with you. I like to see for myself how things really are.”
I was still smiling when I said, “You are really smart, Bran.”
“Thank you, Danny. I think you’re pretty clever too.”
I laughed at that. There was no way I was as smart as he was. I didn’t talk like him or know nearly as much about magic or other stuff, and I didn’t think I ever would, but I liked hearing him say it so much I didn’t argue with him.
We reached the entrance to the Labyrinth and Bran stopped just outside it, turning to look at me. “Tell me your lesson schedule and we’ll figure out the best time to go back in and take a look at the spell on the wheel.”
“Oh, I’m supposed to be in the Rose Garden for my stretches and exercises in the mornings and evenings, but I’m not doing anything else most of the time. I like to go to the kennels or the stables a lot, but we can meet whenever you want.”
Bran blinked at me, his face oddly blank. “You don’t have lessons? No lessons at all?”
I shook my head, wondering why he was so surprised.
He opened his mouth, closed it, blinked again, then said, “I could maybe see why they don’t teach you about magic. They think you’re dim so I can see that. It’s the same reason they don’t teach Edgar. He was born all wrong in the head. But you’re telling me no one’s teaching you anything at all? No math, no reading or writing…nothing?”
I shook my head again, frowning now.
“But that’s…that’s not right. Education is everything. Everyone in our family gets a good education. Even the Nulls get a complete basic education if not a higher one, and Edgar at least knows his alphabet. I mean, we’re the ones who teach everyone else at the university. And they’re not teaching you anything?”
Bran seemed to be working himself up from stunned confusion to a truly righteous anger, which was making me a tad nervous. “It’s alright, Bran. It’s not like any of that will be useful to me. I don’t need to read or do sums to make our family proud.”
“Is that something they told you?” Bran demanded. His fair skin had crimsoned and his black eyes glittered fiercely.
I was reminded of what he’d just been saying, about letting what others said determine one’s thinking, and I felt ashamed, as though I’d been caught doing something deeply embarrassing and wrong. I ducked my head and didn’t say anything.
“What time do you have to go to the Rose Garden for your evening stretches?” Bran asked, and I glanced up to see that he had throttled back his anger. He was still a little red in the face, but his expression was clear again and the furious glitter in his eyes was replaced by a look of determination.
“Around five,” I told him quietly.
“My last afternoon lesson ends about three thirty. Meet me at the wheel tomorrow at four.”
“Al-alright,” I stammered.
Bran nodded curtly, then pivoted and marched down the path toward the main house, his back fire-poker straight and his books clasped tightly to his chest.
As I walked back toward my quarters, I glanced over my shoulder several times to watch Bran until he disappeared around a bend in the path. I didn’t know at the time if he’d been angry with me or about something else. I remember hoping it was the latter but worried enough about the former that I forgot to still be miffed with Auntie Lina. So, when she put the cold bacon sandwich in front of me, I ate it without tasting a single bite.
Auntie Lina noticed my preoccupation and asked what was on my mind. I don’t know why, but I didn’t want to say exactly. Maybe it was because none of the caretakers ever liked Conduits to fiddle with spells or enchantments—in fact they went out of their way to discourage us—and so Auntie Lina wouldn’t want me helping Bran with the spell on the wheel. Or maybe because there was this thought in my head that there might be some weird reason no one ever gave us lessons like the other kids in the family and Auntie Lina wouldn’t like that I wanted to spend time with a boy who thought that was wrong. Either way, I didn’t want to tell Auntie Lina the details of my talk with Bran or our plans.
Instead I told her how I met some new kids in the Labyrinth, but not what they were doing specifically since I didn’t want her finding out about the wheel and keeping Bran and me from having a look at the spell. I told her about Keezheekoni and Sequoia and how they didn’t think very much of my looks. She told me they were silly superficial girls and to never mind what they said because I was beautiful. That made me smile, but I knew she was mostly just saying that because she loved me as she would her own child and parents are supposed to say nice things to their children. I also told her about Owen and how he was perfectly awful. When I told her about the name he had for Conduits, she got very angry and told me she knew who his parents were and would be having a word with them about his attitude.
I told her about Bran then, but not very many details. Only his name and that I thought he was really smart. I also said I was supposed to meet him again after we got back from the stables. I didn’t like keeping so many things from Auntie Lina.
I couldn’t say exactly why I felt the need, but I went through the rest the day and the next morning without telling anyone else about what Bran and I were planning to do that afternoon. I was more quiet and withdrawn than I usually was. Auntie Lina thought it was because of what Owen and Keezheekoni said and so she kept trying to make me feel better during my morning exercises. It only made me feel worse because I was keeping secrets from her.
At the stables, I was equally distracted. I ooh’d and aw’d over Stardust’s baby, of course, because who wouldn’t go to gooey pieces over a day-old gangly filly? But when it came to performing the simple chores Aunt Moira always set me to, I couldn’t keep my mind on the task. I was too busy obsessing over everything from the day before and about meeting Bran again. Between looping thoughts and watching the clock, I didn’t notice when Aunt Moira walked up behind me.
“Danika Anna O’Connor, drop that curry comb before you give Loki a bald spot,” came her brusque voice, and I did exactly as she instructed, so startled I jumped nearly a foot in the air. Clasping my hands behind my back, I spun around to face her.
I don’t think Aunt Moira could have ever been described as especially beautiful. Maybe when in her prime she might have been considered somewhat handsome. She had blunt features wreathed by short coarse black hair shot through with wiry gray, which would have no doubt defied any attempt at styling if Aunt Moira ever bothered to make an effort. Her figure might have been thought voluptuous when she was younger but now could only be described as stout and robust, even considering she was zeroing in on her second century.
The only attractive aspects she could boast of were her dark and heavy-lidded eyes—someone had once called them bedroom eyes—and her full sensuous mouth, which was clearly made for passionate kissing. Combined with a reputed shrewd business sense and a hedonistic and mischievous approach to bedroom play, it was no wonder she was the highly successful madame of a popular brothel down by the docks when Uncle Jurgen first met her.
I don’t know if I’ve already told you, but my family is, to use one of your terms, an equal opportunity kind of organization. Unlike most of the upper class, if you have the talent, the Ó Griohtha will welcome you into the family, never mind how humble your origins are.
Apparently, Uncle Jurgen liked to frequent her establishment often while he was dockside handling the shipping arm of the family business. No one ever told me how it all happened, but at some point in his, ah, acquaintance with Madame Moira he determined she had quite the exceptional gift for fertility magics, which extended to predicting with fair accuracy the pairings that would bear the best fruit.
Our family, having a vested interest in such matters, immediately snapped her up. She was married to Uncle Jurgen in the spring of the year following their first meeting, and she gave birth to quadruplets, unheard of in our family, nine months to the day after their wedding night. She now has twelve grandchildren, including Sequoia and my Conduit cousin Sabrina, and has been in charge of maintaining the stable, kennel, and family’s bloodlines almost from the day she became Ó Griohtha by marriage.
And before you say ask, yes we practice eugenics over here. I’ve read about your Nazis and so I know it’s a highly controversial topic in Ten B. I’ll not argue with you over the ethics of the practice, and in fact I’ll be the first to admit that our breeding programs have opened up a number of pitfalls in our own society. Indeed, no one knows better just how far off the mark good intentions can take you, but I also know that none of the allied provinces that make up the Confederation allow genocide. We do not condone killing any individual simply because they may not make a desirable contribution to the gene pool. A meager defense, I know, but the Ó Griohtha maintains that eugenics offers our society a significant benefit.
My family believes that, if the trait that leads to a person being born a Null can be bred out of the general population, many of the problems our society faces will be dealt with. To that end, Aunt Moira keeps a careful record of every member of our family—their talents and physical traits, who they’re descended from, and who they might marry and breed to—just as she does for our horses and dogs. In a way, the matches she makes for the family are arranged marriages like some of your cultures still practice.
Our chieftains, like most of the other influential families in society, determine who marries who based on bloodlines. For the others it may be due more to snobbery than for any practical reasons, and so, in addition to requiring that a person be Gifted, they also look at the respectability, wealth, and prestige of a person’s lineage.
None of that matters much to the Ó Griohtha, which is probably why our family has had better results producing more Gifted, a three to two ratio of Gifted to Nulls rather than the more common ratio of one to two. A person’s money or social standing has no bearing on the quality of their bloodlines, and to reject someone simply because they were born poor or to a lower station is to seriously limit a family’s breeding potential. Our family’s criterion instead focuses on intelligence, a healthy constitution, fecundity, as well as strong magical talents; and we’ll take those traits from wherever we find them.
Forgive me. I seem to have wandered afield of the story.
As I was saying, Aunt Moira had caught me fretting. Once I recovered from the start she gave me, she told me to put the currycomb away and to follow her to her office. Taking a seat behind her desk, she looked at me over the mountains of ledgers and paperwork covering its surface. “So why don’t you tell me where your head’s at, love, since clearly it isn’t on your work.” She leaned back in her chair.
Once again I found myself not wanting to say exactly what I was thinking, and so I ducked my head and mumbled, “Just stuff some kids said to me yesterday.”
“Yes, Galina mentioned Owen to me,” Aunt Moira said and her lips curled up in distaste. “That boy is a right truaghan. A pity, since he’s from such good stock. I’m loath to breed his shitty temperament back into the lines, but I can’t throw out those good looks or talents of his. I suppose I’ll just have to match him up with someone more level headed and pleasant, though Frejya knows how I’ll find anyone who can put up with the ass.”
She waved that thought away impatiently. “Never mind my ramblings. You’re not to pay any mind to that nasty boy, love.”
I nodded and said that I wouldn’t.
“Good,” Aunt Moira said, satisfied. “Now, have you gotten to see the new filly?”
I told her I had.
A smile broke out over her face that deepened the crow’s feet around her eyes. “Would you like to name her? I have to have something to put down in the breeding logs other than ‘Stardust’s baby.’”
“Oh, Aunt Moira! Can I really?” I cried. This didn’t quite make up for my missing the filly’s birth, but it came pretty close.
“Of course you can, love,” Aunt Moira said, beckoning me around the desk to perch on her knee. “It’s always been my tradition to let my stable brats name the puppies and foals, and you’re most definitely one of my stable brats.”
“What about Kenneth,” I asked as Aunt Moira dragged a ledger, its wide pages filled with her small tidy black script, closer to her. “He said it was his turn to name the next foal.”
“Oh, don’t you worry about Kenneth. All of my grandbabies have had their turn to name at least half a dozen newborns around here. Now it’s your turn. What do you think we should call this one?”
Caught completely unprepared for such an honor, I took a while to think of various possibilities. “Well, we don’t have any horses named Shamrock,” I pointed out.
“True, but don’t you think that sounds more like a boy’s name?”
“Yeah, I guess. How about Shadow? Because of how she was following Stardust so closely.”
“Shadow is used a lot. This one would have to be Shadow the Fourth,” Aunt Moira pointed out.
I agreed the filly deserved her own name and so considered again. I thought about how spirited she seemed, kicking up her heals and tossing her head out under the bright afternoon sunlight. Perhaps Spirit… Then I thought about how pretty her coloring was, a beautiful silvery gray in the body shading to charcoal at the muzzle and hooves and a midnight-black mane. “How about Liath Macha?”
“Ah, for one of Cúchulainn’s chariot horses.”
“Yeah, the one that cried tears of blood when Cúchulainn rode to the battle he’d die in.” Cúchulainn was one of my favorite heroes from the Eirien legends, and since Liath Macha meant “gray of Macha” in Gaelic, I thought it fitting. “We could call her Liath for short,” I added.
Aunt Moira hugged me from behind. “That is a very good name, love. I’m sure she will be worthy of it. Let’s make it official, shall we?”
Reaching around me, she dipped her pen in the ink well half buried on the upper corner of her blotter, and then she wrote the filly’s new name on the line branching out from two others. The names on those lines had to be those of Stardust and Liath’s sire, but since I couldn’t read, I couldn’t tell which was which. While Aunt Moira sanded the still-wet ink, I traced the spider web of Liath’s lineage, my finger wandering the forks and straight-aways like the winding paths of a two-dimensional labyrinth.
“How far back does Liath’s bloodline go anyway?” I asked, taking my hand away from the ledger as Aunt Moira tilted it to pour the sand back into the pounce pot.
“I think hers goes back eleven generations now. The family only started serious horse breeding about two hundred years ago.”
“That’s a long ways back,” I said, amazed.
“Not so long,” Aunt Moira told me, chuckling. “Our family’s records go back sixteen generations, which is over four hundred years. All the way back to Bran and Áine, daughter of Morrigna. See?” Setting the horse-breeding book to one side, she pulled an even larger ledger forward, the green leather-bound cover embossed with the family crest of the griffin rampant bearing the hand mirror and yew branch.
Flipping slowly so I could see the lines and lines of names all interconnected and woven together in a massive tree, she said, “No other family this side of the Atlantic has such detailed records going back so far. And I would know, seeing as I’m the one responsible for researching potential out-family marriage candidates. And look, here you are.”
I had to take her word for it that the name she pointed to was mine. I’d never seen my own name in print before, and a vague sense of unhappiness rose in me. I didn’t know how to write my own name and wouldn’t have recognized it if it hadn’t been pointed out to me. Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed or cared about that if Bran hadn’t gotten so angry over my lack of education. Now I had the unsettling feeling that I didn’t really know myself because I didn’t recognize my own name. I stared at it, trying to memorize every stroke, vowing to sketch it out and practice it as soon as I got back to my room so I wouldn’t forget what it looked like and would know it if I saw it again.
I also noticed something else while I was staring at the lines connecting me to the rest of my family. “Aunt Moira, how do you know who’s a cousin and who’s an aunt or an uncle?”
Again Aunt Moira laughed. “Technically you only have one uncle and one aunt by blood and only two first cousins. Everyone else is a cousin to one degree or another, but deciphering the family tree for a more detailed explanation of how everyone is related will have to wait until you’re older. Suffice it to say we simplify things by calling our parent’s and grandparent’s generation Aunt and Uncle and everyone in our own generation or younger Cousin.”
That did sound a lot simpler, but now I was wondering just how everyone was tied together. It was like detangling a twisty knot or putting together a puzzle, and I enjoyed solving those kinds of things. But in order to figure out that particular riddle I would have to know how to read. Bran was right; it might be a good idea if I learned.
Thinking of Bran had me looking for the clock that hung on the wall above the door to Aunt Moira’s office. Alarmed by the position of the hands on the face of that clock, I gasped and hopped down from Aunt Moira’s lap. “Aunt Moira, I gotta go! I’m going to be late!”
“Oh, that’s right. Galina said something about you meeting Bran at the Labyrinth today. What are the two of you up to then?” she asked as she came around the corner of her desk to walk me to the front of the enormous main barn where I could see Auntie Lina waiting for me, silhouetted by the wide double doors.
My heart leapt up into my throat and my head felt light and floating as though it was no longer properly attached to my neck. Did Aunt Moira know something? Was she fishing to see if I would confess about how Bran and the others had knocked down the wheel of the year and put a botched enchantment on it? Or maybe she knew I was going to start mucking around with spells and she was feeding me enough rope to hang myself. I didn’t know, and I didn’t at all like the feeling of not knowing, but I swallowed and tried to act as casual as I knew how.
“Just stuff,” I said. Then I thought I should probably add a little more detail so she wouldn’t wonder what kind of stuff. “He’s come up with a new game and he wants my help making it better.” There. That was the truth, but Aunt Moira wouldn’t think we were going to be messing with magic because everyone knew Bran hadn’t come into his gift yet.
Aunt Moira laughed in a knowing way and nodded. “That boy is always inventing one thing or another, and he knows twice as much about magic theory as most of the kids who’ve already come into their gift. He’s very studious, our Bran. He’s going to make our family very proud.”
“Even if he turns out to be a Null?” I asked, doing my own bit of fishing. I knew he was going to be Gifted but I wanted to know if Aunt Moira knew it too. I also wanted to know if she thought a Null could make the family proud. No one ever said as much, but my impression was that there was never a high expectation of a Null turning out to be exceptional.
Aunt Moira scoffed at the thought. “That boy is no Null, despite coming from a long line of them. How can he be? He’s the seventh son of a seventh son. They’re rare enough, but historically speaking, such men are always bound to be very powerful. Sometimes they’re just influential and charismatic leaders, but more often they’re exceptionally fine wizards or healers. No, you mark my words. That boy is going to be very strongly Gifted.”
“I take it you’re talking about Bran,” Auntie Lina said as we came up to her and she took my hand.
“Aunt Moira thinks he’s going to be Gifted,” I said.
“Da, vell, even though everyone else thinks there’s some debate over that, I’m vith Moira on this one. He’s seventh son of seventh son after all.”
“Exactly, Galina. That’s just what I’ve been telling Danika. Oooo, I cannot wait until that boy’s older. I’m already considering the matches. Oh, yes. I know, it’s too early yet. A lot of the candidates haven’t matured enough to know if they’ll be Gifted or not, but there’s always Koni. She’s definitely got the looks and the talent, and he’d balance out her hot-headedness nicely, I think. Or there’s my Tara. She’s got a good grounding in earth magics, and my family is very prolific, as you know. Can you imagine the seventh son of a seventh son of a seventh son with Tara’s good O’Ryan blood backing it up? It boggles my mind, Galina!”
Auntie Lina laughed as I started tugging on her hand impatiently. “I’m sure it does, Moira. Now I’d better get Danny to the Labyrinth before she’s any later than she already is.”
“Oh, of course, of course! Danny, you tell Bran hello from me,” Aunt Moira said with a smile before turning to go back to her office.
The stables and kennels were off in the northern quadrant of the main estate grounds, and the Conduit quarters and the Labyrinth were on the far side of the eastern quadrant with miles of paths and trails winding through fields, gardens, and woods. Normally I enjoyed our walks to and from the stables, but on that day I had no patience for it. I kept trying to urge Auntie Lina to move faster and she continued to laugh.
“Really, Danny! It von’t be end of world if you’re not there precisely at four,” she told me after I suggested we may want to try running for a change of pace.
I didn’t see the humor in the situation at all and was beginning to think she was deliberately trying to hold me up. “You don’t understand!” I exclaimed with a large helping of exasperation. “Bran has all these lessons and stuff. He doesn’t have lots of time in between like me, so I need to get there quick or he might have to leave for his next one and I’ll miss him and then I won’t know where to find him to see if we can try again another day!”
“Da, I do believe I see how grave matters are now,” Auntie Lina said, but her eyes were still laughing at me above her smile, which meant she was simply humoring me now.
“It’s not funny, Auntie!” I told her angrily. “He might not want to bother with me anymore if I don’t get there on time. He’ll think I’m not taking him seriously. He’s very serious, Auntie Lina.”
“Oh da, I do recall hearing him described as ‘serious’ before,” Auntie Lina said. “But I’ve also been told he’s very understanding and considerate. I’m sure he von’t hold a few minutes tardiness against you.”
Clearly trying to explain the importance of the situation to her wasn’t working. I decided to try a different tactic. “But you’ve always said tardiness is a sign of disrespect and terrible manners and how I should show good manners and respect for others. So doesn’t that mean I should try not to be late instead of hoping he won’t be mad at me if I am?”
Now Auntie Lina laughed out loud to the point that she had to wipe away a few tears before she could reply. “Danika, moya zvezda’, you really are too clever by half. You’re right, of course. Ve shouldn’t be rude. Alright, I’ll hurry.”
When we at last reached the fork in the path and Auntie Lina veered onto the left hand trail toward our quarters, sure I was going to miss Bran, I had worked myself into a fit. By the time I reached the arbor leading into the chamber with the sundial and wheel of the year, I was wheezing, hot, and clutching a stitch in my side that had me grimacing.
“Danny, are you alright?” Bran asked from where he sat on the bench. He was once again surrounded by stacks of books, this time with the addition of a lap desk set across his knees. He quickly but carefully set it down on the ground to come pound on my back as though I’d gotten something lodged in my gullet.
“I’m not…choking!” I gasped, slapping his hand away irritably and trying to stand straighter. The cramp was easing and straightening up helped me get a little more air down my burning throat and into my chest.
“Well, if you’re not choking, what’s the matter? You sound like you’re dying.”
“I’m not…very good…at running,” I told him between heaving breaths. Danu but I hadn’t had such a bad spell since my last bout of croup. I tried slowing my breathing and counting to five between every inhale and exhale. That helped.
“If that’s the case, why did you race in here?” Bran demanded.
“Didn’t want…to be late,” I told him. “Sorry. Auntie Lina…wouldn’t…hurry!”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Bran said with a gesture at his piles of books and papers. “You were only a few minutes late and I’ve got the rest of the afternoon off. I told Uncle Gunter I’d do my geography out here.”
Taking me by the arm, he walked me to the bench and sat me down. “Here, catch your breath, and when you’re ready we’ll take a look at the wheel.”
I nodded and kept on counting while Bran sank down on the grass, pulled his lap desk to him, and took up his pencil again. I hated that I was reduced to gasping like a landed fish and that I was close to crying for no good reason whatsoever. On top of that, we were losing more time while I relearned how to breathe than we would have if I’d just walked the whole way rather than run. Now I’d embarrassed myself in front of Bran. And there was no way I was going to tell Auntie Lina about any of it. She’d laugh herself sick. I just knew it.
Once I had myself back under control, Bran and I went to the wheel. It had been set back in place and was again flush with the sundial, keeping pace with the turning of the seasons. Since the wheel was taller than either of us and the glyphs of the spinning spell were etched all along the wheel’s rim, we were going to need to be able to rotate it more freely. Taking one side of the wheel while Bran took the other, we pushed the wheel, still on its base support, until it stood apart from the sundial.
Stepping back, Bran planted his hands on his hips. “Alright, so where do you hear the flaw?”
Now that the time was upon me, I found myself incredibly nervous. Sure, I could tell there was something wrong, but how was I to know where the problem was? I didn’t know anything about how a spell was put together. And how was I going to figure out if it was the spell design that was flawed or if it was the way the enchantment was cast, as Bran was saying to Owen the day before? Even if I did figure all that out, how did telling Bran that the spell’s song had a guitar string out of tune or a drumbeat off rhythm or a phrase out of character with the rest of the melody help him work out how to fix it?
My stomach in knots and my lower lip caught between my teeth, I approached the wheel, listening hard. At first, all I heard was the Labyrinth and Bran, the afternoon breeze gusting through the hedges and birdsong as backdrop. Underneath I could just make out faint whispers of the enchantment on the wheel. It was nowhere near as loud as it had been the day before, and so I couldn’t hear the flaw at all. I thought that perhaps the wheel needed to be spinning for me to hear it, and so I gave the wheel a push. As it spun, I listened again but still the spell stayed faint and the flaw completely silent.
The wheel came to a rest and I turned to Bran and shook my head. “I don’t hear it. The spell’s really quiet now and the flaw’s not there at all.”
“Maybe the spell has to be active for you to hear it clearly,” Bran suggested, and he came up to stand next to me facing the wheel. He didn’t assume a position of power like the other children had though. Instead, he clasped his hands casually behind his back and stared intently at the wheel. Bran wasn’t using magic but rather his will, which the prefabricated enchantment was set to respond to. The wheel began to rotate slowly, and as it moved the spell seemed to wake up.
“I can hear it better now.” I moved closer so I could hear every nuance clearly. “I think I can hear the flaw but it’s still really faint.”
“I’ll make it go faster, but not too fast so you’ll still be able to see the glyphs as they go by.”
I didn’t know what I was supposed to see by staring at the etchings that Owen had scratched into the wood of the wheel, but I would try since Bran thought it would help. He made the wheel go a degree faster, and now I could hear the flaw begin to squeal clearly. Excited, I leaned in as close as I could and listened hard, doing my best to tune out Bran and the Labyrinth. I noticed that the squeal was especially loud and piercing as a particular section of the wheel came around. I waited, paying attention to that section specifically; and every time it passed my ear, my fingers itched to pluck at it.
Giving in to the urge, I brushed the air with my index finger as the section passed by again, as though testing a piano key to see if it was in tune, and the flaw gave a high-pitched screech that made my eye twitch.
“Stop for a minute,” I said to Bran without looking away from the wheel, afraid I would lose the strains of the spell’s song in Bran’s music if I glanced at him.
He didn’t say anything, but he must have relaxed his focus because the wheel began to slow. I let the momentum bleed off even though the spell’s song grew faint again and the squealing stopped. When the section I’d been paying attention to came up again, I stopped the wheel and cocked my head so that my ear nearly brushed the oak. Strumming the air above the pale wood in one place, then another, I elicited the smallest squeak, like that of a mouse inside a wall, whenever I stirred the air above the glyph that looked like a crow’s footprint.
“Here,” I said to Bran, waving him closer and pointing out the little symbol. “I think this one’s the problem.”
He leaned in to peer at the place I indicated, studying it and the carvings next to it, sometimes rotating the wheel this way or that to follow the line of glyphs in consecutive order, then again backward.
“Hmm,” he said when he finished looking over that section of the wheel. He leaned back, scratching his head. “It’s difficult to say what the heart of the issue is. I may not have used the exact right glyph for this line, but then again it could be a matter of poor execution. Owen’s engraving skills aren’t what they could be. I don’t think it was his will or intent at fault, though, because the spell does work, after all. I think I’ll check my Furthark dictionary again to make sure I have the right one and then have Koni see what she can do tomorrow.”
“Do you think I helped?” I asked, thinking we really didn’t know much more than we did before, except maybe now he had a better idea which hatchet marks were the bad ones. I’d hoped I could do something a little more impressive. I didn’t know what, exactly, but something.
“Definitely,” Bran told me as he went to his side of the wheel. He motioned for me to take the other side and we began moving the wheel back where it belonged. “I wouldn’t have known where to start looking myself,” he continued. “That’s the hardest part of our business, you know. Finding and repairing the flaws in enchantments is a lot more difficult than casting a new one from scratch. Pinpointing the problem area is half the battle.”
“Good,” I said, pleased and relieved. We set the wheel of the year back in place and returned to the bench where Bran started gathering up his things. “That’s good. I’m glad I helped.”
He started putting his things into a canvas bag with a long shoulder strap. “I like to know how I can improve on my work. Will you be here tomorrow to make sure the spell’s working right?”
That set me back a moment. I’d missed the stables the day before and earlier that afternoon. I still hadn’t gotten to go riding. Aunt Moira had a policy that, if I was punished by Auntie Lina, she would follow it up with a punishment of her own and so I wasn’t allowed to ride my pony. Instead I’d had the glorious job of mucking out stalls with a pitchfork and a wheelbarrow, much to the delight of the other stable kids who could do the same job in a quarter of the time using magic. But I was going to get to go trail riding the next day, and I was really looking forward to it.
Still, if Bran was going to have Keezheekoni try to fix the problem with the wheel the next morning, it only made sense that I should be there. After all, how was he going to know the problem was solved if I wasn’t there to tell him? I felt I had an obligation to see the thing through, and so I told him I would come to the Labyrinth as soon as I finished my morning stretches.
“Great,” he said, tossing me a small smile over his shoulder as he fitted one corner of the lap desk into the bag. As he worked the canvas up over the edges of the ink-stained pine, the desk began to shrink until it was swallowed by the bag entirely. All that was left was a small stack of three thin much abused books. Bran sat and put his hand on them but didn’t pick them up to pack them away with the rest of his study material.
Hesitating with his hand on the books, Bran took a quiet breath before looking at me with his bright black eyes full of an odd earnestness. “Danny, there’s something else I wanted to ask you.”
I raised my brows at him and smiled encouragingly. “What’s that?”
“I was wondering if you’d given any thought to learning how to read and write.”
I laughed a little. He was nearing the age when his talents would emerge and I was wondering privately if he had some gift for telepathy or precognition surfacing somewhat early. Still smiling a bit ruefully, I went to sit next to him on the bench.
“That’s funny,” I said, looking down at where I was digging a small divot in the green velvet lawn with the toe of one shoe. I tucked a few strands of stray hair behind an ear but kept my eyes downcast, embarrassed to admit the next piece to someone like Bran. “Aunt Moira was showing me our family tree today, and I was looking at all the names and didn’t know which one was mine because I can’t read.”
I looked at him then and I wasn’t smiling any more. I felt as unhappy and disconcerted as when I felt that I was a stranger to myself. “I couldn’t even read my own name,” I told Bran in subdued tones. “I didn’t like that at all. So, yeah, I was thinking maybe I wanted to learn to read and maybe write a little. But I don’t know who can show me.”
Bran didn’t laugh or make me feel stupid, for which I was grateful. “What about your caretaker?”
“Auntie Lina reads to me sometimes,” I told him, “but I don’t know if she will teach me. I mean, if the caretakers all thought it was a good idea for Conduits to learn the same things as the rest of you, wouldn’t they be doing it? Auntie Lina might be mad at me if I tell her I want to. That’s why I didn’t tell her about what we were going to do with the wheel. I know they don’t want Conduits messing around with magic. Besides, I think they wouldn’t like you guys using the wheel of the year for your game very much either and I didn’t want to get any of you in trouble.”
“Well, I’m glad you didn’t tell anyone about the wheel,” Bran said with a small grin. “I don’t think the time is right for you to tell Aunt Galina about our tweaking of spells either, but I don’t think it can hurt for you to ask her to teach you to read. I’d teach you, but with our different schedules, I doubt I would be able to do a good enough job by you. Aunt Galina hasn’t said you can’t learn to read and write, has she?”
I shook my head.
“Then you should at least see what happens when you ask. What can it hurt?”
I might not be allowed to be friends with you anymore. That’s my fear. If Auntie Lina had thought it was wrong for me to learn reading and writing, she might not have liked me hanging around with someone who kept encouraging me to do it. I didn’t like to think that I might lose Bran as a friend so soon after meeting him, but maybe it was worth risking it to be able to read and write my own name. So, I agreed that I would ask.
“Great!” he said, and his smile this time was bright and eager. “I’ve brought these for you to get started with. They’re my old primers. When you told me they don’t give you any lessons, I thought they might not have any for you to use. You’ll need extra paper, though, since I filled in all the lines in these.”
Bran slid the books to me and I picked up the top one. It had big letters in bright colors and various cartoon animals and plants tumbling over the cover. I flipped through a few of the pages, suddenly wanting to run back to Auntie Lina and ask if we could start that evening.
“Once you’re able to read a little, I’ll bring you more books and I’ll get you started on other subjects like arithmetic and history and geography. I know we won’t have much time, but I thought we could at least lay out an outline for you to follow until we can get together again. And I thought I’d best do this bit since I do agree they probably won’t want you learning a whole lot. But reading should be safe enough!” He added the last in a hurry when he saw I was about to protest, but he was wrong about what I was going to protest about.
“Oh, please don’t!” I said, setting the book I’d picked up down with the other two. “There’s nothing I can do to pay you back. You’d be helping me and giving me so much and I wouldn’t be able to give you anything. It wouldn’t be fair.”
Bran didn’t argue or say that it didn’t matter because it did, as any of our aunts or uncles would no doubt have taught him, just as Auntie Lina and Aunt Moira had taught me. You don’t let yourself become indebted to someone else if you can help it, but if you can’t then you must always pay those debts. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to pay the kinds of debts I would owe Bran if he were to start teaching me because there was nothing I could teach him to balance out the gift of knowledge he was offering me. It was one thing to offer me his used books. I’d helped him with his spell so we were pretty much even on that score, but anything more and I wouldn’t be able to balance the scales.
After a period of careful thought, Bran straightened up where he sat and said, “Alright, how about we make a deal. You say that I will be Gifted, right?”
“Well, there you go. I always thought that, if I were Gifted, I’d like to go into designing new spells or dragon slaying, travel all over fixing problems and repairing or restoring mirrors. Remember how I told you that was the hardest? When I start studying design and repairs, you can help me, and in exchange, I’ll help you with your lessons. Fair?”
“Only if I can really help you find the problems and fix them,” I told him, thinking he was getting a little ahead of himself. “You don’t know if you’ll be able to fix the spell on the wheel yet.”
“Whether we fix it or not has no bearing on the fact that I wouldn’t have known there was a problem or where it was if you hadn’t told me,” Bran argued, repeating what I had been thinking earlier. He scooted closer to better plead his case, and I realized he was really excited by this proposal of his. “Like I said, that’s half the battle. And just knowing that much will put me miles ahead of all the others trying to do the same thing. So what do you say? Do we have a deal?” He held out his hand.
I looked from it to his face and saw the eagerness and the hope. He seemed awfully sure of himself and of me. I hoped he was right because I took his hand and shook it.
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