The witch queen was satisfied with her newest work. She smiled at the master artisan as she handed him the heavy purse he had earned for delivering a working basis. Creating a truly perfect duplicate of a door in the Empress's palace was impossible - if for no other reason, then for the wood grain - but the fifth attempt had been close enough to link them.
Nodding and smiling as the artisan bowed, the witch queen considered rumours about herself. A mirror that could take her wherever she wanted if she stepped through it... would that things were so easy.
The stairs went far down, leaving the sounds of the city behind high above. Ardí carried an oil lamp and led his appointed novice to a small room on a landing, where he set the oil lamp on a small table. He pulled back a curtain and led her onwards. The next chamber was a short corridor, with another heavy curtain at the end of its left side. Its mirror followed, so dark now Sylvie could make out her tutor only as an irregular blotch. He gently pushed her into the final chamber, and lifted her hand to place something in it. A nut. She could feel its edges and uneven surface.
"See if you get anything from this. Don't worry if you don't, right the first time. Take as much time as you want. You can come out whenever you want, and try again another day."
She nodded, too distracted to consider if he could make out the gesture. Once she'd sat down crosslegged on a smooth blanket, Ardí left, closing the curtains on the way to the outer chamber.
Sylvie stared at the nut as she turned it in her hands, willing to see something that wasn't the random green and purple lights her eyes made up in the darkness. She imagined Ardí sitting in the lamplight and reading notes. He had to be very quiet; Sylvie couldn't hear a thing, even though she thought she should hear the sound of a sheet of paper being turned even through the curtains, in the silence this far underground. After a while she held up the nut to her ear, and closed her eyes, in case sight wasn't the way to go for her. It didn't make any difference.
This wouldn't be half as bad if she'd know what sense it would be. How could she tell she was doing something wrong if she didn't know if what she was doing was the right thing to begin with? She twitched as she heard something, but caught herself. She had scratched over the shell of the nut without meaning to.
The thought of failing and being washed out of the school made her sick, so she tried to ignore it, and took some more time.
Even breaths. Sense, don't think. It sounded easier than it was.
After a while there was a faint crackling sound, just at the endge of hearing, and her heart raced as her imagination suggested that the heavy curtains petrified, trapping her all alone in the dark. She got up quickly and touched the fabric, which moved easily under her fingers. Embarrassed - had she been dozing off here, into a nightmare? - she sat down again for another try, but it was just a token effort. Very soon she had a last idea - licking the object of this little experiment - but since that didn't lead to any interesting impressions, she rubbed the nut dry on her tunic, and gave up for the day.
She told herself that she had been trying for a long time, but she didn't look Ardí in the face when she came out of the silent chamber.
The practise was repeated, with different objects. A lump of clay. A piece of wood. A bowl full of water. A quarz crystal. A small silver ingot. One day, they went to the top of the highest tower, and she held nothing, there to feel the wind and sniff the air.
In between, her tutor talked with Sylvie. It was a bit odd, being asked what she liked, and why she did, or didn't. At first she gave short answers, too busy wondering what Ardí wanted to hear to just say what came to her mind, but eventually she was drawn out.
"My favourite place is the spirit wood." Sitting in one of the small gardens had reminded her of it.
"I've never been in there. What do you like about it?" Sylvie hesitated, looking for words, and Ardí tried to help her get started. "Can you describe what it looks like?"
She frowned. "It's big, and green, and tangled."
"And that's what you like?" It hadn't sounded enthusiastic.
Sylvie nodded and shrugged at the same time.
Another voice interrupted them. "Excuse me? I think you may be asking the wrong questions."
Ardí got up and greeted, "Eda Eralai," then respectfully waited for her to speak. Sylvie was on her feet, too, having followed his example, and stood a step behind him and to the side. She was a bit awestruck at having one of the senior teachers take an interest in a novice like her, but the older woman smiled, and spoke with a soft, warm voice. It helped, even over the surprise that Eralai addressed her, rather than her tutor.
"I have been at the edge of the Spirit Wood occasionally. The trees must be very old."
Sylvie nodded. She had wondered about that. "Do you know how old?"
Eralai shook her head. Sylvie was surprised a grown-up, a teacher even, would admit to not kknowing something that easily. "It must be hundreds of years, maybe even thousands." After a short pause she asked, "Have you actually gone into the wood?"
"You weren't afraid?"
"Yes, I mean no. I mean, not of the wood. I was running away. I thought they might not follow me inside. The wood felt safe."
"What do you mean?"
Ardí asked, "Do you mean you thought you'd be safe because the others would be more afraid of it than you?"
"I did, but it's not what I meant. It just felt safe. Good."
"How did that feel?" Eralai ignored Ardí and watched the girl closely.
Sylvie spread her arms, and said the first thing that came to her mind. "It's like warm water flowing up my skin. Or through me." She frowned. That didn't make sense, did it?
"Flowing up from the ground?" The teacher's voice was soft, neither incredulous nor mocking.
"And where does it go?"
"All through me." Remembering the feeling, she smiled and stretched tall as she could, spreading her fingers high above her head. A moment later, she crossed her arms self-consciously and looked at the senior teacher, who still smiled.
"Very good; that should be helpful." Eralai turned to Sylvie's tutor. She spoke a little faster to him, more businesslike, but sounded cheerful. "Have you tried with something living yet?"
"We had a nut right on the first day."
"Well, try again. The first try, pretty much everyone who hasn't come into sensing already it too nervous to get it right. And if a live seed won't work, get a small plant in a pot." She addressed both of them before taking leave, "I'm sure you'll manage."
So, there they were again in the dark. At least it wasn't the same nut. Well, Sylvie thought this one was shorter and rounder. She sighed, wondering if her elders were quite as smart as she'd thought, before concentrating on her task.
She stared at where she knew it was in the darkness, and saw nothing, strained her ears, and heard nothing. She concentrated on taking even breaths and being patient. The nut remained a lump in her hand, with a spark of warmth near one end.
What? Sylvie waited, but the feeling didn't go away. With a bright laugh, she got up and bounced off the corridor wall in her rush to tell Ardí.
He raised his head from his notes, and his eyebrows high. It was a look of interested surprise, but it also reminded Sylvie she should act a bit less childish. She bounced on her toes, anyway. "I think I have it. Something, at any rate." She lifted the nut to her eyelevel, pointed and said, "Here, it's warm here. Inside the nut. It's so odd..."
Ardí peered at the little thing for a moment and then smiled, and sighed. "I'm afraid we'll have a different tutor for you, then."
"What? Did I do something wrong?"
"Oh, no. Sorry I scared you. It's just that someone who feels could help you more than I, because I see."
Sylvie thought that over. Of course she had known about the principle, but never considered how it affected learing and teaching. "So, what does it look like, to you?"
"Like a light, yellow-green spark."
"And what is it?"
"That's the part that will sprout. Most of the nut is food for the new plant."
That day, Goaskin and Umber went to the clay pit. Goaskin wanted to show Umber the differences between earth sprites, depending on the ground, and Tiel, his other apprentice, showed neither talent for nor interest in dealing whith those elementals, so he had stayed home.
When they came back, they heard strange noises from the chamber Goaskin called his study; it was a quiet place high up in the tree. Not so quiet right now. Goaskin sent Umber to the apprentices' chamber and continued up the rounded stairs to investigate.
He found Tiel staring at a whizzing creatue. A sprite, moving quickly and erratic, changing colour incessantly. Where it touched the smooth bark of the floor, it left ashes in some places, and coaxed buds and blooms from others.
"Tiel, don't look at it!"
He pulled the boy behind him and focussed on the jinking sprite, trying to calm his thoughts and neutralise it. He was not calm enough, but it evaporated in a discharge of magic that turned the small vase of flowers in its niche into a handful of green sand.
When he was sure it was gone, Goasking took a deep breath.
"Tiel," he said sternly, "did you really summon a chaos sprite?"
"Yes!" Pouting, what he probably thought defiant. At least he had noticed his teacher was angry.
"Because it said it's possible!" Goaskin picked up the journal Tiel waved at. "I understood the feeling it described, and it said they could do anything!" Way too much excitement in there.
Goaskin sighed. "Tiel, they are nearly impossible to control, and most of everything is not something you want to happen." His voice grew sharper than Tiel ever had heard. "Do you want to be turned into a toad? Or be teleported ten paces below the earth? Or have your mind thrown into limbo, leaving your body with less brains than a cabbage? If so, summoning a chaos sprite is a good idea, but do. Not. Do. It. Here."
After a moment's hesitation, the boy started a litany of justifications. "But it almost did what I wanted it to!"
Goaskin listened, leafing through the journal in search for a certain passage, waiting for his cue. "But it would have said if it was dangerous!"
Goaskin shoved the book into the boy's face. "Read!"
"Do... not do this... and... um."He looked down at his feet. "What you said, teacher."
"Right. Next time, read all the way through, boy."
Tiel nodded hastily and ran off.
Goaskin sighed, weighing the book in his hands. After short consideration he decided not to stash potentially dangerous books somewhere where his apprentices could not reach them. Tiel, for one, might get more curious. Tiel would learn to be careful, without causing a disaster first. Probably.
Magic, in principle, was easy. He concentrated on what it should do, and made the signs that his intuition told him epitomised the idea. In time he learned that some designs belonged to grand concepts - a circle was "protection", a rectangle "order", but a square "containment". That knowledge was useless when a concept central to a spell refused to connect to a shape he could draw or carve.
The scribbles for "to the other side" had been clear even in a panic, taking him far further than expected.
The problem now was that he did not know what "home" was.