Jo Clayton: Blue Magic

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Jo Clayton Blue Magic
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    Blue Magic
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Jo Clayton

Blue Magic

1. The Kingdom Of Jade Torat. A Mountainside Near The Western Border.

Broad and yellow and heavy with the silt it carried, late summer low in its banks, the river Wansheeri slipped noiselessly past the scattered mountains of the Uplands, driving to the Plains and the vast city that guarded its mouth, Jade Halimm.

On one of those mountains, one close to the river and its deposits of clay, an old woman finished unloading her kiln onto a handcart and started downhill with the cart, old and broad and in her way as slow and heavy and powerful as the river. The sun was low in the west; the air moved slowly and smelled of dust, powdered bark, pungent sticky resins from the conifers, a burning gold haze filtered through lazily shifting needles; the shadows were dark and hot; sweat gathered on the old woman’s scalp beneath strong white hair twisted into a feathery knot to keep it off her neck and poured in wide streams past her ears. Ignoring sweat and heat, she plodded down a path her own feet had pounded into the mountainside during the past hundred years. She was alone and content to be alone, showed it in the swing of her heavy body and the work tune she was whistling. The pots rattled, the cart creaked, the old woman whistled, here and there in the distance a bird sang a song as lazy as the sluggish air.

She reached a round meadow bisected by a noisy creek and started pulling the cart over flat stones she had long ago muscled into place for the parts of the year that were wetter than this; the cart lurched, the pots thudded, the iron tires of the cartwheels rumbled over the stones. She stopped whistling and put more muscle into moving the cart, her face going intent as she focused mind and body on the pushpole. When she reached the bridge across the creek, she straightened her back and drew an arm across her face, wiping away some of the sweat. A breeze moved along the water, cool after the still heat under the trees. She unhooked the pushpole and shuffled to the siderail, lingering in that comparative coolness, leaning against the top bar, head bent so the breeze could run across her neck. Across the meadow her house and workshed waited, half hidden by ancienf knotty vines, their weathered wood fitting with grace into the stony tree-covered slope behind them. She was pleasantly tired and looking forward to fixing her supper, then consuming a large pot of tea while she re-read one of the books she’d brought up from Jade Halimm to pass the evenings with when the children were gone. Yaril and Jaril were due back soon; she smiled as she thought this. They’d have a thousand stories to tell about what they’d seen in their travels, but that wasn’t the only reason she was beginning to grudge the hours until they came; she was more attached to them than she liked to admit, even to herself, they were her children, her nurslings, though their human forms had grown older in the years (about two hundred of them now) since their paths collided with hers on the slopes of Tincreal. Recently she’d begun to wonder if they might be approaching something like puberty. Their outward forms, to some extent anyway, reflected their inward being, so if they seemed to be hovering on the verge of adolescence when they took on the appearance of human children, what was that supposed to tell her? What was adolescence like for a pair of golden shimmerglobes? How would she deal with it? They’d been restless the past several years, ranging over much of the world, coming back to her only when their need for food was so demanding they could no longer ignore it. She wrinkled her nose with distaste. She wanted them back, but it meant she’d have to go down to Jade Halimm and hunt for victims she could justify sucking dry of life. High or low, it didn’t matter to her, only the smell of their souls mattered. The folk of Jade Halimm who were ordinarily honest (which meant having only small sins and meannesses on their consciences but no major taint of corruption) were afraid at first when they knew the Drinker of Souls was prowling the night, but experience taught them that they had nothing to fear from her. She took the muggers, the despoilers of children, the secret murderers and such folk, leaving the rest alone. Many in Jade Halimm had reason to be grateful to her; the mysterious deaths of certain merchants and moneylenders made their heirs suddenly inclined to generosity and improved their patience wonderfully (for a while at least and never to the point of losing,a profit). She frowned at the stream. How long have I been here? She counted the year names to herself, counted the cycles. Tungjii’s tender tits, I’m letting myself go, time slips like water through my fingers, it seems like yesterday I came up the riverpath and argued old Dayan into taking me on as his apprentice.

The western sky was throwing up rags of color as the sun dropped stone quick behind the peaks; the old trout that lived under the bridge drifted out, a dark dangerous shade in the broken shadows of the water. She sighed and pushed back onto her feet. If she wanted to get the pots stowed before full dark there was no more time for dreaming. She set her hand on the pullpole, meaning to lock it back in front of her, turned instead and stood gazing toward the river as she heard the hurried uneven pound of hooves on the beaten earth of the riverpath. Whoever it is, he’s pushed that poor beast to the point of breakdown. Leaving the cart where it was, she walked off the bridge, up the paving stones to the road and stood waiting for the rider to show.

For a moment she thought of climbing to the house and barring the door, but she’d been settled in contentment too long and had lost the wariness endemic in the earlier part of her life. Who’d want to hurt her, the ancient potter of Shaynamoshu? Besides, it might be a desperate landsman running from the whipmasters on one of the cherns along the Wansheeri. She’d hid more than one such fugitive after Dayan died and left her the house.

The horse came out of the trees, a dapple gray blackened with sweat, a black-clad boy on his back. When he came even with her, the boy slid from the saddle, leaving the beast to stand behind him, head down and shivering, a thin wiry boy, fifteen, sixteen, something like that, dark circles of fatigue about his eyes, his face drawn and showing the bone, determination and terror haunting his eyes. “Brann born in Arth Slya, Drinker of Souls?”

She blinked at him, considering the question. After a moment she nodded. “Yes.”

He fumbled inside his shirt, jerked, breaking the thong she could see about his neck. A moment more of fumbling, him swaying on his feet, weary beyond weariness, then he brought out a small packet, parchment folded over and over about something heavy, smeared copiously with black wax. “We the blood of Harra Hazani say to you, remember what you swore.” He pushed the packet at her.

She took it, tucked it in her blouse and caught hold of him as he fell against her, fatigue clubbing him down once the support of his drive to reach her was gone. A flash of darkness caught the corner of her eye. A tiger-man popped from the air behind the boy. Before she could react, he slipped a knife up under the boy’s ribs and vanished as precipitously as he came with a pop like a cork coming from a bottle.

An icy wind touched her neck.

Something heavy, metallic slammed into her back. Cold fire flashed up through her.

Heavy breathing, broken in the middle. Faint popping sound.

Her knees folded under her, she saw herself toppling toward the boy’s body, saw the hilt of the knife in his back, saw an exploding flower of blood, saw nothing more.

2. Two Months Earlier And A Thousand Miles South And West Along The Coast From Jade Halimm.

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