By the time he returned home after all his years of wandering, Magnus Diarisso had come to prefer a fire burning on cold days rather than the elaborate hypocaust system that heated the mage house. The sound of wood settling, sparks popping, and ashes sighing helped him relax.
He told his nephew the mansa, the powerful cold mage who was head of Four Moons House, that he did not want to live in the main house with its comings and goings and the children’s chatter and the inevitable intrigues and gossip. He wanted space to think, to at long last write the compendium of architecture whose composition he had had to delay time and again. After all, this too was part of a life’s work: to pass on what you knew to those who would come after you, to keep the chain of knowledge intact from one generation into the next.
A modest suite of rooms was built to his specifications alongside the carpentry barn: a small bedchamber and a spacious study where he could do architect’s work and receive visitors now that he was too old to comfortably travel. From this haven he supervised the four carpenters and the occasional village men brought in for larger projects.
What he liked best was waking up at dawn in complete isolation. So the incident came as an unpleasant shock that chilly winter morning.
As usual, he had risen and stoked both circulating stoves in the barn. He was standing at a window in his study looking over a beautifully fresh blanket of untouched snow when the fire in the study’s stove went out and he was slammed to his knees. Iron groaned, under strain, and coals snapped from red to white, their heat sucked out. He braced himself on his hands. For one breath, taken in and held, he was sure the roof was about to crash down on top of him.
But the rafters held. The iron stove did not shatter. The trees in the orchard did not even sway, for there was not a breath of wind, nothing but his pounding heart and relieved exhale as he calmed himself.
Something had happened in the main house. He was cursed sure he wanted nothing to do with whatever cold magic had slipped its leash and choked out fires five hundred paces away from the palatial building where the mages and household members lived. Probably his nephew the mansa had felt obliged to school the adolescent lads in the boys’ dormitory. Even out here he’d heard that this current cohort was a lot of trouble, with more wrangling and fistfights than the schoolmasters knew what to do with. Lord of All! In his day, the elder women of the House shut down such nonsense immediately; no young fellow wanted to be brought before the women’s council until it was time for them to arrange a marriage for him.
With a smile, amused at his own discomfort, he creaked up to his feet with a wince and probed at his abused knees to make sure there was no lasting damage. Then he dusted off his hands and returned to his fire-building, starting over again with the stoves at either end of the big open space of the barn where most of the work was done. He liked to have the space warm by the time the men came in. The courtesy pleased him, and they were certainly grateful.
He returned to the study, got the fire going again where he’d been cooking millet in milk for his breakfast porridge. A kettle of water heated for his morning tea. He set out his plate and knife, poured boiling water in and out of the tea pot, and put the tea on to steep. Shelled peanuts garnished the porridge alongside three dabs of butter. As the butter melted, he prepared two slices of day-old bread, one buttered and smeared with honey and the other buttered and laden with cheese, and arranged them on a plate which he set down at a three-fingers’ gap beside the bowl of porridge. By the time this exacting ritual was complete, the tea was ready. He poured a thimble full of piping hot tea at the little altar to the ancestors and cut a sliver of bread and cheese likewise, with a dollop of the thick porridge. The prayers came easily, for he had said them every day of his life.
The window on this side looked onto the southeast corner of the east wing of the main house. To his surprise, several men surged out to trample around the orchard and vanish, as on the hunt for a missing lap dog. What a pleasant thing it was not to have to be involved!
The fire in the stove huffed and went out.
Was there to be no rest from these magical intrusions?
Again he rose and went into the carpentry barn. Impossible to eat in peace if he knew the circulating stoves weren’t burning. But as he entered the vast, cold space beneath its lofty rafters, a sound brushed at his hearing. He cocked his head to gauge what direction it came from amid the shadowed corners and unfinished projects, and slowly worked his way toward stacks of fragrant lumber stored in orderly ranks.
A person was sitting half hidden in the shadows, pressed in between two tall stacks of lumber. He was sobbing and trying to choke it down. A moment’s study told Magnus this was a lad at that difficult age when he is no longer really a child but also not yet a man.
Magnus coughed, and the lad looked up in surprise.
What rage and humiliation seared from his eyes!
They stared at each other. After a moment, remembering the respect due to age, the boy dropped his gaze.
He said nothing nor did he shift from his hiding place. Rather he seemed frozen, stunned. He had bruises on his face and down both arms, rings of bruising like hands had been holding him, and his bare chest was all over bruises, too, still blooming. Tears and snot smeared his face. Reflexively, perhaps realizing that someone was now looking at him, the boy wiped his face with the back of a hand, and winced, for even that movement hurt him.
Magnus cleared his throat with another mild cough. “Now that you are here, I need help. We’re preparing rough boards to finished planks for furniture. Do you by any chance know how to saw?”
He’d been making conversation in an easy voice as a way of introducing a calming tone into the air between them. To his amazement, the lad nodded with the wary caution of a person who has been expecting to defend himself against a vicious attack.
“Good, then I shan’t have to teach you the basics,” Magnus replied in that same clement tone. “There is a basin with water where you may wash before you begin. Aprons hang from those hooks. You may take any one of them. If you are cold, I can find a wool tunic for you.”
“I am not cold,” said the lad in a harsh and clipped voice, then visibly checked himself and added in softer but just as precise speech: “I am not cold, Uncle, but my thanks for the courtesy.”
“Well, then, pick out your tools.”
Magnus chose five rough boards and took them over to a worktable to measure and mark where he wanted them cut. The youth rose stiffly. He had blood on his right shoulder blade from a pair of welts. His knuckles were blood-streaked. He walked stiffly, too. That had been some kind of fight.
Magnus had seen seventy-one winters pass and in that time he had measured and marked a great deal of the world. By the evidence of those broken sobs, now stifled, the boy would welcome no mention of whatever circumstances had driven him to seek the shelter of the barn. Lads were fiercely and fragilely proud; he had been so himself at that age. His lack of magic meant he could never hope to be anything but the son who would never measure up to his esteemed father, a man so magically gifted he had been able to forge cold steel. Pride had driven him to study at university to get away from the family, and architecture had caught his interest. Pride had kept him away, had kept him traveling from city to city and estate to estate where he was, of course, received as an exalted son of Four Moons House and of course as a highly trained and exceedingly desired architect. A man could leave a physical mark on the world with his architect’s skill.
The lad took one of the leather aprons, and chose both a cross-cut and a rip saw before going over to the work table.
Magnus moved away to a different worktable, where he was indulging his recent interest in designing a portable desk with hidden drawers and writing surfaces that must all fold precisely into place. He angled himself so he could observe without it being obvious he was watching.
The youth had worked a saw before. He had an apprentice’s skill, and knew enough to look over the marked line to orient himself as well as check for knots. Besides that, he was careful and steady with the saw. As he worked, he relaxed enough to sing softly. At once part of the mystery clicked into place. The lad lost his meticulous diction and sang with the rustic accent common to villagers, providing his own call and response.
Where had he come from?
When Magnus tried to re-light the fires in the barn, they would not burn.
So here was part of the answer. A bruised and battered youth had fled to the carpentry barn after some kind of altercation or assault in which he had suffered harm. Most strangely, he was a cold mage—young and untrained, yes, but unusually powerful by the evidence of the dead fires.
Magnus went back to his bedchamber to fetch one of his worn and faded tunics. As he was crossing back through his study he saw, through the window, the four carpenters approaching the barn. The four regular carpenters were yard men who lived in the lane of cottages just past the orchard. According to the complex hierarchy of House lands, they stood above village men. This meant they were allowed into the main house for work projects under his supervision, while village men brought to help at the carpentry when he needed extra hands were never allowed into the main house at all.
He went out through the visitor’s door in the study to intercept them before they could enter the barn.
“Was there some business at the house this morning?” he asked the eldest.
The men shrugged, and the eldest said, “Fires went out in all our cottages. That’s all we know, Maester.”
“The fires are all dead here in the barn so you may as well go home and see if your wives have better luck kindling your own stoves.” They chuckled at the innuendo. “No need to come back until tomorrow. Go on.”
They thanked him. He was known as a fair if exacting taskmaster, one who would be lenient with respect to side business if you gave him solid work.
As soon as they were gone he went back in and took the old tunic to the lad.
“To work here, you must be dressed properly. You may wear this for now.”
The lad took the garment with the obedience Magnus now recognized as village manners, more formal and hidebound than a prince’s hall. “Thank you, Uncle. I am almost done here.”
“Do you know how to flatten a reference surface?”
The lad glanced toward the rack of planes, then at the rough boards. “I have done it.”
“You may continue with that and prepare all five boards.”
Magnus latched the doors of the barn from the inside and returned to his study. Out of curiosity he tried to re-light the fire and this time it caught, which likely meant the lad was now calm enough that his cold magic wasn’t radiating unmanageably. He ate his porridge and poured himself a fresh cup of hot tea, then opened his workbook to where he had left off yesterday. Early on in his life he had written a treatise on arches before he’d become so much in demand there had been no time to write. For years, as architect in charge of countless projects, he’d been forced to manage the trouble and disorderliness of others, a task he had never relished. Now, in this peaceful study, he had embarked on his final project, the organized accumulation of his hard-earned knowledge: A Compendium of Architecture and the Science of Building.
As expected, there came another interruption. Two of his great-nephews came to the door and stamped about impatiently until he let them in. Like him, they had no magic, so the fire did not go out.
“Uncle, we are wondering if you have seen a boy,” said the first one. “Not our age cohort but younger, sixteen.”
Magnus remained standing, so therefore they also remained standing. “Tell the mansa I wish to speak to him.”
They had the brusque manners of young men accustomed to having other people jump out of their way. “He is very busy, Uncle. There has been trouble in the schoolroom.”
The second one broke in. “It wasn’t in the schoolroom. It was in the boys’ hall just at dawn.”
The first gave a sniggering laugh of a sort Magnus truly detested, for it lingered in his ear as mockery of another’s pain. “Finally put that jumped-up peddler’s bastard in his place, but now he’s vanished.”
“I do not wish to be troubled by your gossip. Tell the mansa he wishes to speak to me. You may go.”
Even they heard the chill in his voice and recalled at last that he was an elder, and their great uncle besides, not some hired hand. With fulsome apologies, they hurried out.
He went back into the barn with the bread, honey, and cheese.
The lad was wearing the tunic but still barefoot, although the lack of shoes didn’t seem to bother him. He had taken the chance of being alone in the barn to wash his face thoroughly, all traces of blood scrubbed away.
Magnus set the tray on a side table and beckoned the boy over, indicating a bench. “What is your given name, lad? I’d like to have something to call you.”
After a fraught hesitation during which Magnus wondered if the boy would bolt and run, he said very softly, “Andevai.”
“You will eat something, Andevai. Then you may continue your work.”
Obedient—unlike those two indulged young fellows!—the lad sat gingerly and, after a wince and a shift to put more of his weight on his left thigh, dug in. Magnus went to the worktable, looked over the boards, and came back to sit on the bench. He settled into silence, leaving an opening for the lad to speak, because it was his experience that if you did not fill the space between two people with your own words and just remained patient, then after a while they would feel driven to fill that empty space themselves.
The lad finished his meal thoroughly, in the manner of a person who hasn’t always been sure he will get enough to eat on any given day. The silence drew out a little longer, but silence had never been troublesome for Magnus.
At last the boy straightened his shoulders, gathering his courage, and spoke. “Uncle, it’s hard to get a consistent flatness. And I keep getting a valley down the middle of the board. And the edges are tearing out. How can I do it better?”
Magnus nodded, careful not to smile. The question pleased him, yet he sensed the admission of ignorance was a delicate display of trust and therefore had to be handled with care. “Would you like to learn to make boards that can be used for the best quality of furniture? The carpenters here are allowed to sell furniture on the side that they’ve made in their free time.”
“I want to do things properly, and well. Why do a thing at all if you cannot do it properly? If you do not do it to the best you are able?”
“Millet does not become beer the day it is soaked. Let me show you.”
They went to the worktable. As a House-born and highly sought after architect, he had not often worked near apprentices, although he had allowed aspiring architects to work alongside him from time to time if they had good manners or, on two notable occasions, when they were young women who no other master architect would mentor. But he had long observed the maesters among his stoneworkers and carpenters and their ways of dealing with the people they supervised. He had seen who produced the best and most reliable workers and those who ruined the youth who came to learn from them. His style was patience and a great deal of standing back to see how the apprentice coped.
The lad was a quick study and remarkably diligent, maybe a little too fixated on a perfection whose reach was beyond the skills he had at present. Most amazingly, he was willing to repeat and repeat without any trace of frustration, just an intense focus on the task.
After they worked on two planks together, Magnus left him to work on the others alone and returned to his study.
Just in time, as it happened, for as he put a log into the stove, the hotly glowing coals were sucked straight to cold ash. The heavy footsteps of an impatient man thumped on his porch. He opened the door to admit his nephew, the mansa of Four Moons House. Such a position among princely families generally went to the eldest son of the lineage, but among mage Houses was always and only held by the most powerful male cold mage.
It had started snowing. The mansa removed his hat and politely shook it off before coming inside.
He was a big man, full of himself, aware of his grandeur, and yet for all that a responsible steward of the huge household over which he presided.
“I am having a deal of trouble and many demands on my time, Uncle. But out of respect for your age, I am come.”
“Tell me about this boy.”
The mansa had been holding the hat, clearly eager to get the conversation over and done with so he could return to the main house. With a sharp intake of breath, he set the hat on Magnus’s desk right on top of his precious notebooks and precise technical drawings. “What do you know about the boy?”
“I know he is in my barn planing a board right now.” Magnus controlled a frown as he swept up the hat and hung it from one of the hooks set into the wall by the entryway. Then he checked the papers. Only a few drops of moisture had stained the notebook at the top of the stack. “He has what I would call ‘village manners,’ which are, I might add, better than the manners I’ve just been treated to by a pair of House-born young men. What are their names? Must I take the matter of their disrespect to the women’s council?”
Naturally the mansa was thrown off by this demand. Great princes always were, when called to account by people they’d forgotten had the right to reprimand them.
Magnus used the mansa’s silence to continue in his quietly inexorable way, which he had honed to great effect while dealing with patrons and clients who complained when their fanciful dreams weren’t structurally or aesthetically possible.
“The boy has been beaten and I suspect worse besides. After some consideration, I believe he must be the person whose cold magic killed all of my fires at dawn despite the distance between the house and this barn. Such a strong pulse of cold magic suggests . . . “ He watched his nephew’s expression twist into a grimace of distaste. “I am not sure what it suggests. Perhaps you can enlighten me, Nephew.”
“Now and again, a desperate person may wield a strength they cannot normally possess. An aberration, if you will. He is a trouble maker.”
“He is disrespectful.”
“I find that difficult to believe. Has he shown disrespect to you, Nephew?”
“To me? Of course not. To the other boys of his cohort, however.”
“What manner of respect is he expected to show to them? Are they not age-mates, and cold mages in training?”
“They are his betters.”
“His betters?” Slowly the mystery unfurled itself into the light, for Magnus was quite sure the other boys of the cohort hadn’t the magical strength to extinguish fires in such a wide radius, not even in the throes of anger and humiliated pride. He’d have heard of such a House-born prodigy if so, for everyone would have been boasting of it incessantly.
The mansa sighed with a great heave of his shoulders, as if to remind Magnus that this entire conversation was a drain on his valuable time. “He is a village boy, as you must have already seen for yourself. The descendent of people our ancestors rescued and generously brought with us to a new homeland. His grandmother was brought up to the house to work in the kitchens. That’s part of the service the village owes us, as you know. She got pregnant by a clerk, no one of importance.”
“A man with no magic, is that what you are saying?” Magnus asked with an ironic twist to his lips.
The mansa did not notice, so intent was he on his grievances. “She was sent back down to the village for being uncooperative, ungrateful, and difficult. The son she bore—the boy’s father—never showed the least sign of cold magic. And why should he have? In two hundred years, no person out of the village of Haranwy has managed any more magic than to create cold fire to light our homes and inns. Those people are incapable of blooming with the full power of cold magic.”
“Yet not incapable, as we have seen today.”
But the mansa had already gone on in a tone heavy with dismay and threaded with an unpleasant tincture of disgust.
“That isn’t even the worst of it. At least the villagers who are bound to our House are respectable folk who have a place in the world. His mother hasn’t even a lineage or a village. She was born in a cart. A peddler’s daughter. Imagine! Such depth of magic cannot possibly reside in a person of such low birth. The incident cannot have been but a momentary burst of anger.”
Magnus put a hard rein on his temper, but the anger leaked out in the cold snap of his tone. “What do you mean to do with a person of such low birth, then?”
“He must return to the schoolroom and learn enough to serve us, according to his place in the world.”
“And the other boys of his cohort? The ones who mistreated him? Do you mean to allow these boys to continue with such outrageous behavior, to pretend it didn’t happen? An evil secret is like fresh meat. When it rots, it smells.” He meant to pause, to offer a space for the mansa to reply, but realized he didn’t want to hear whatever his nephew had to say. “I will personally take the matter to the women’s council, and you will recall that when I returned home it was agreed I would not have to be involved in the day-to-day running of the House so I would have the freedom to work on my compendium. That’s how strongly I feel about looking the other way in cases of this nature.”
A glimmer of shame creased the mansa’s brow. “It is true the boys went too far.”
“Saying ‘I am sorry’ does not heal the dog’s bite.”
“It won’t happen again!”
“I will make sure of it. Because what if you are wrong, Nephew? Such treatment is unacceptable, whatever the child. But what if he is as powerful as it seems? What then?”
The mansa crossed his arms, shielding himself against a question he did not like and an answer he could not quite bring himself to contemplate.
“Can you deny that it is within the bounds of possibility, however unlikely you think it?”
That frown surely terrified many, but Magnus merely waited it out.
“I cannot deny it. Even though I am sure you are wrong, Uncle.”
“Consider the matter carefully as you proceed. That is my advice. Now you may go. I know you have many demands on your valuable time.”
After all this, the mansa remembered the manners his mother had taught him. He dropped his gaze respectfully. “I hear what you are saying. As for the boys’ hall, the women’s council will have final say on the matter. They have already made quite clear to me this morning that they are not pleased the situation was allowed to go so far. I have had an earful.”
Magnus would have clucked sympathetically under other circumstances, having himself had to sit through more than one scolding by the women’s council at other mage Houses where he had been engaged on a building project, although mercifully it had never been his behavior being censured. He could not bring himself to feel sympathy now, however, and perhaps his stolid silence prodded his nephew to continue more graciously.
“And may I add, Uncle, if I have not said so recently, that it gladdens me you have come home to us. It was the great wish of my heart that you would find a way to return, knowing of the welcome we would give you. I hope you may find peace and harmony here with your kinfolk after all your years of wandering.”
Softened, Magnus granted him a nod. “So I hope as well, Nephew. Your words are well spoken. I have felt welcome. And my odd habits of solitude have been kindly tolerated, though they may seem strange to many.”
“We are each as we are.” With this tendentious proverb to restore his confidence in his own supreme wisdom, the mansa took his leave.
Magnus waited until he could get the fire going again, then went back into the barn.
The lad noticed him coming at once and eagerly showed him his work, which he was not yet finished with because he had been working in the methodical way of a person who wants to get it right more than he wants to get it over and done with. They discussed what he’d been doing and some alternate techniques, until the lad abruptly stepped sharply back from the worktable as if it had bitten him.
“I want to learn, but probably I cannot,” he said as he looked wistfully around the quiet cold peace of the carpentry barn.
“Why would that be?”
“They will make me go back to the schoolroom.” He shuddered.
“Do you not want to go back to the schoolroom?”
He inhaled, as if wishing to fill himself with the pleasant smell of sawdust and cut wood for courage. In a trembling voice, meant to sound strong, he said, “I have to go back.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I am a cold mage.”
“Not every cold mage need do more than learn the basics. There are humbler roles that cold mages of lesser reach can fill. Shaping cold fire to light rooms, for example . . .” He trailed off as he realized the boy was not listening. He had a faraway look in his dark eyes, thoughts building an unseen edifice.
“I am going to be better than all the rest of them,” the lad muttered.
The words displeased him. “Are you? Is that your sole aim? To be better than them?”
His gaze flashed up. For an instant, the fierceness shone with the power of a restless, inquisitive, intelligent, proud, and ambitious mind unconcealed by any veil of false humility worn as protection. Then he shuttered himself and looked down. “You know who I am, don’t you, Uncle?” he said to the floor.
“I do, if by that you mean you are the boy who put out all the fires this morning. The village boy whose magic bloomed nine months ago and who has done nothing but battle with the other lads in his age cohort for the nine months he has been up at the House. But who you actually are I do not know. So let me ask again. Is your sole aim in learning cold magic to be better than the rest?”
The hesitation stretched long and longer still. Magnus imagined a wrestling match but he could not yet be sure with what opponent the youth was wrestling. At length the boy spoke, measuring his words with the precision of a person who has learned to watch what he says lest he be punished for the truth.
“I was angry when my magic bloomed. It was the last thing I wanted. But now that I have felt the reach of magic in my heart, I know it is what I am meant to be. I am a cold mage, so I am going to learn everything they can teach me about cold magic. I am going to learn how to do it properly, without fault, until I do it perfectly. Will I best them? Yes, I will, and you can be sure they will know it. That I will rub it in their faces every day. But if you tore me away from Four Moons House and locked me in a solitary tower, I would still learn everything about cold magic, without fault, until I did it perfectly.”
The architect considered the unformed youth before him. A boy becomes a man through a process of building the framework that undergirds him. This foundation makes him strong enough to withstand the storms of life that will inevitably come. It was so easy at this stage to go wrong. To not shore up the foundation adequately. To burden the structure with too much ornament. To ignore basic soundness in favor of demanding something your own prejudices make you think will serve you better.
This boy could go very wrong very quickly, and was like to do so if left solely in his nephew’s hands, sad to say. The mansa was a powerful man who walked athwart the world with easy privilege. He had already decided who he needed the boy to be and therefore what his prospects were.
Yet when a troubled, angry, upset boy asked only one question, and that question was how to do something better than he was already doing it simply because he wanted to do it right, then it was time to take a closer look.
Magnus gave a gentle cough, more to work up his own nerve than to alert the boy that he was about to speak. “Andevai, you could continue to work with me and still attend your lessons in the schoolroom.”
His chin came up as he blinked. “How could that happen, Uncle? They won’t allow it.”
“Do you know who I am?” he asked, aware of how his humble workaday clothing must appear to a village boy whose chief knowledge of the noble scions of the mage House was likely the fine garments, polished speech, and accomplished arrogance of people raised beneath its magnificent roof.
“You are an elder, Uncle. Also a carpenter.”
He smiled. “I am a man who can tell the mansa that you will work with me as often as you are free to do so, and to make sure you are given the freedom to work here without any slight coming to your studies. The only answer I need from you is if this is a situation you are interested in.”
“To come here when I am not in the schoolroom?”
“Yes. Whenever you wish. Under my supervision.”
The lad rested a hand on one of the boards he had just planed, running his fingers through the curled-up shavings.
“Yes,” he whispered with desperate hopefulness, then rubbed again at his face as if afraid he was crying. “I would like that, if it is possible. If it can be done with no harm coming to my studies.”
“Come with me now, and I will sort it all out. I cannot stop up the other lads’ mouths, but I suspect you have a sharp enough tongue hidden behind your polite manners that you can defend yourself with words as long as they are not allowed to touch you. We will go speak to my sister.”
“Your sister, Uncle?”
“Yes. She is head of the women’s council, and a powerful cold mage in her own right.”
“Maester!” His eyes went wide, and he took a step back as if he expected to be slapped. “My lord. I did not know. How should I address you?”
“I prefer ‘Uncle.’ Are you ready? It won’t be easy, but if you are determined and willing to work hard, the journey will be worth it.”
No hesitation this time. “I am ready.”
So it was much later in the day, after it had all been sorted out with far too much discussion for his liking, before Magnus finally sat alone at his desk. He considered his Compendium and the many pages he had yet to write. He had believed the compendium would be his last edifice, but it was not a building at all, he now realized; it was the memoriam of his life and work to share with others whom he would never meet.
He contemplated his precious solitude, and all the things he had returned home to avoid.
With a faint, wry smile he took out a new notebook, wrote the boy’s name on the first page, and on the second recorded the work with the boards and what tasks ought to come next, the first glimmerings of an architectural plan.