Drawing The Barriers

Issue #256

“We need an artist,” said the man whose image floated in Nonar’s teacup.

Her tea shook, and she wondered if at the other end, looking down into his own teacup or water glass or wine goblet, he would see his image of her rippling. “I am a mage.”

So was this man, of course, this so-called Magister Lie. The first thoughtsender she had ever spoken to. Myths mingled with facts in her brain—could they really read minds as well as speak with them? Myths had never mentioned speaking through reflections, either. Either this mage was strange even for a thoughtsender, or the myths lied, and she didn’t know what was more likely.

Nonar slid deeper into the overpriced private booth, hoping not to attract attention. One thing was no myth: this conversation was breaking at least two of the Nebezen Laws ruling the actions of Atsaldeian mages.

What eyes not on the dancers removing their clothes on stage were on the coppery-skinned Merezenin waiters circulating with cheap wine, beer, and mixed drinks. At a quick glance into otherspace and its green-and-gold mesh, there were no other mageborn around, none to detect her being what she was and doing what she was doing.

Kso, Magistra Nonar, if you need us to jog your memory,” he said, “we have certain drawings here, diligently collected and dated.” In the teacup image, he held up a sheet of paper, the monochrome masking that it must have been yellowed with age.

She did not remember making it, the lavish, detailed pen drawing of a rising wall, shaped like a scar, a seam of herringbone stitches.

It was impressive. Bold lines, no shading: it resembled a blueprint but with near-mastery of foreshortening and detail. The drawing’s proficiency clashed with the writing: clumsy capital letters that approximated Sattalye on one side of the wall, Atsaldei on the other, and Kurnth and Terregmar up in the sky labelling two small precise circles. None of the words were spelled right.

The date, in her mother’s familiar hand (a lump came to her throat) was from eighteen years ago.

“I was four years old when I did this picture.”

“And you had most remarkable skill.” Not even a kso to soften, to diminish his certainty of this statement; the bare phrase hung in the air like a criminal sentence. “Indeed, in hindsight it makes perfect sense that a child destined to be a lightforger would be so fascinated with magical constructions, and on hearing of the story of the Amalgamation would focus not on the people but on the Barriers. We’re surprised no one suspected.”

Whispers spilled out of her. “I can’t even remember how I did it. I’ve not practiced drawing since I was eight years old. I was found to be mageborn at twelve. I never got any art training. I didn’t do anything illegal!”

“We do want you to do something illegal,” he said with a smile. “As you may have surmised.”

Who were the undercover police among the patrons of this dingy little cabaret on the Third-Ring-North of Sunatnight? Who were the casual informers, ready to sell to the police for a few silvercut coins? Who would find suspicious even something as innocent as a woman drinking tea, wearing a coat of indeterminate colour but not mage-black?

“What?” she whispered.

Kre, the Nebezen Laws forbid a mage being anything else but a mage, of course, lest artists—or accountants, servants, mathematicians—conceal magical abilities and grow dangerous to society—” She had heard this all before, and all the reasons why, but not as sarcastically. “So we must find those very rare child prodigies who gained the skills without training, who couldn’t be kept from drawing when they were very young, before the tests. Who have the artist’s eye as well as othersight. Who may have tried to combine one with the other before the tests caught them. And who just happen to be demolition experts.”

He seemed not to notice her flinch, and he held up another sheet of paper. “This is the late phase, when you had almost stopped drawing with pen. You used pencil for that one. The Barriers again. Fascinating.”

At eight years old, the child Nonar had learned shading. She had used ghostly stripes with the side of the pencil to show the seamed wall, with the stark pencil-point lines of the sea waves visible through the Barriers. No annotations this time.

“Your childhood self was remarkably imaginative,” this Magister Lie said, laying the drawing aside. “She figured that the Barriers had to be purely othermatter, without any real matter to them, something we still don’t know for sure. I am surprised your parents did not report you as mageborn until four years later.”

“They didn’t.” She had to take deep breaths between each word. “They didn’t report me. I was found out by the standard school tests.”

Nobody noticed that you drew otherspace?” His eyebrows were thin arches under his broad pale forehead. He raised one of them.

“I didn’t have a shrooking gallery exhibition!” she shouted in a whisper. “I just wanted to draw!”

His face softened. “You still can,” he whispered in turn, gently. “As a child, you drew the Barriers you imagined. We, the Group, want you to sketch out how to destroy them.”

She took a count of ten to scan the faces in the cabaret with practiced false nonchalance. Overlaid on the real matter of flesh and cloth, stone and glass that everyone could see, her lightforger’s eye saw the green-and-gold mesh of otherspace delineating the vectors of force and tension and compression. But over that, her imagination painted her child’s drawings of the Barriers. A three-hundred-year-old seam of herringbone stitches holding worlds together, blocking the wonders of star-faring Sattalye from touching this harsh regulated land of Atsaldei, itself sewn up in Nebezen Laws and Ducal bidding.

One... Two... Three... The Group. Four... The only gang of mages the Nebezen Laws haven’t quite eradicated. Five. Farleapers who steal and smuggle. Six. Thoughtsenders and facechangers who cheat and defraud. Seven. Fleshmenders who brutalize and murder.

Eight. Who would destroy the only dream you have left.

Nine. Ten. “No,” Nonar said.

Magister Lie pretended he had misheard, overacting it. “No?”

“I serve the citizens of Sunatnight, the realborn...” she began, but she could not get through the litany drilled at the Lyceum, the one that ended with her calling for the police. She closed her eyes. “Just... Please leave.”

When she opened her eyes again, the cup was brown tea. A spilled drop traced a thin line down the side, like a pencil mark.

One moment the giant empty apartment building squatted at the edge of the sea, glaring with a hundred eye holes from shattered glass windows; the next, it folded into a pile of shards. In otherspace, Nonar had severed all the supports that held it up, and its real matter had no choice but to follow. Her two or three hundredth demolition? Certainly over fifty a year, and the pace was speeding up, with the Dukes’ new building. The stacks of paperwork filed for each one would know.

The stacks of paperwork would lie.

Nonar, a Fourth Level, had fought her way to sole control of the demolition process so that she could use the invented technique that the lightforging safety commission was delaying approving for so long. With it, shards spun in a funnel, efficient and concentrated, spinning quicker and landing safer than the standard way. But she made sure they were masked by the dust rising like smoke, grey and black, grey, grey.

All deviations from precedent and best practice must be reported and eliminated, ran every form’s header. The realborn couldn’t see othermatter, but it could kill them. The Nebezen Laws were in place because people had died. All Lyceum students got taken to what remained of the town of Risehour after it was burned to ashes in an instant when its mage adjusted the magefires—three thousand men, women, and children incinerated—and Magister Elrag with them, so no one knew if it was accident or malice. And so we remember them every day as we explode and destroy so others can build, that we must never use our power to hurt. And we do not let private parties ally with mages for possibly nefarious ends. Even in the name of love, marriage or parental care...

Which is why nothing should deviate from the grey— She cut the thought off. When changes would make mages’ lives harder in the name of safety, they got rushed into law overnight. When they would make mages’ lives easier, also in the name of safety, they would be tested, and tested, and tested again, with a thousand reviews and sign-offs and explaining it all to the realborn, to whom Nonar’s entire project was invisible.

In Nonar’s breast pocket were three squares of silk: a vivid orange, a delicate green, and a rich turquoise blue. She would take them out when no one was looking, to quell her mind’s cries for colour and beauty.

Fleshmenders saw otherspace as blue as a candle flame’s bottom edge. To farleapers, it was the colour of the flames itself. Nonar couldn’t remember what colour facechangers saw, and she had never met a thoughtsender to ask. Until Magister Lie in her teacup three days ago. And she was certainly not going to ask him.

She ticked all the boxes, signed each one, completed the blank half-page of “Other Comments” for the two-or-three-hundredth time—there was a deteriorated beam in the southwest corner that had simplified the whole structure coming down—

Stop. She had chosen a green pen, and what she’d done was not writing. Green lines traced the forces that held the building up, that no one permitted to draw could see.

Even more damningly, in crude jagged lines, mistakes and correction attempts mingled, so unlike the firm and unconsciously precise strokes of her childhood—they traced the inverted cone that had guided the pieces down, the unlicensed otherspace device.

It was a sketch, not a blueprint. A mage pretending to be a realborn artist. Like the thoughtsender accountants who defrauded thousands out of their life savings by convincing them to make bad judgements. Like Magistra Telenar, the fleshmender assassin of a century ago who had killed hundreds silently before she was caught, or the lightforger merchants who sabotaged their rivals’ goods at a distance out of petty vengeance and greed. Like the judge, egged on by an envious rival merchant, had thought Nonar’s parents had been using her to do.

Mages must wear black. Mages must stay mages, not lead double lives. For the good of all.

Her boss Il-Fala was striding towards the construction gate, her dark Merezenin-immigrant face agitated, her hands gripping something that even from thirty steps away Nonar recognized as an emergency line-cut card. A low-ranked Second Level lightforger pointed out Nonar to Il-Fala. If she saw this...

Quickly, before anyone could see, Nonar tore up the used form and delicately compressed its othermatter part, raising its temperature to the flash point.

I’m a worthless mediocre artist. Find someone else, Magister Lie and your shrooking Group. Or preferably go drown.

Back seeing real space, she tossed the burning paper on the dirt, concealing it from Il-Fala’s gaze with her shadow. She allowed a second to admire the colours of the orange and black and shaded-grey paper and green ink and grey stone.

There was a general unspoken principle discouraging setting things on fire in a construction site, but unlike almost anything else in a mage’s life, it was not enshrined in regulation.

The card in Nonar’s hand had a long official designation, featuring “emergency” and “commandeering” and “essential” somewhere in there, but everyone, mageborn and not, called it a Transit line-cut card for what it really meant. She held it up as she strode to the farleapers’ desk in the Transit station, past the queue of commuters huddling in their coats against the cold from the glassless windows, clutching their copper rose coins for passage.

“Magistra Nonar Iruen, lightforger, Fourth Level. Destination: Third-West station. For the Crescent Pier power plant.” Right by the port, ill-maintained and rusty from sea air, it was perhaps the worst power plant in Sunatnight. Now it had had its fourth otherspace accident since the last heating season and needed all the Fourth Level and above lightforgers its overworked staff could get to clear up the mess.

The russet-sashed farleaper mage glanced at her card, then froze when he heard her name. He reread the name, written in Il-Fala’s handwriting with the distinctive loops that Merezenin handwriting tended to have. “Nonar Iruen. Step right here, please, Magistra.”

Something felt wrong. Even though everything seemed like the last time she’d used a line-cut card. Nonar let herself be herded. She was in a rush, on an urgent mission. Holding up the entire line and demanding an explanation would attract attention. Other issues would come out. Someone might remember her face from a cabaret that people dressed in black had no business being at. Someone may have noticed her whispering to teacups.

Sunatnight had informers everywhere, as her parents had learned.

The farleaper seemed nervous about her specifically. “Third-West, please,” Nonar repeated, trying to not think of the legends that if people did not go through Transit with an absolutely clear intention of where they were heading, they could end up miles from their destination. Or disappear entirely.

A gap opened in midair, and the farleaper waved her through with a shaking hand.

She stepped through, and was not at Third-West.

Although the air of an enclosed space pressed around Nonar, her nostrils filled with the scent of seawater, fish, and cold wind. She knew she was on a boat even before she consciously sorted out the sound of waves, the soft rocking motion, and the dim light coming through the skylight, the smell of paint and wood. The cabin, like Transit stations, had to be open to give the farleaper an open-air path from source to target, but the little light there was came from the skylight, shadowed by a sail. The Group.

During those long months in Vingyar Prison when she, unlike her parents, had been too valuable to kill, Nonar had tried not seeing otherspace ever again. There were too many memories in otherspace, too much guilt woven in the structure of the world that she was condemned before her birth to see.

It hadn’t worked.

Now othersight told her of the small cabin’s thin wooden bulkheads, bench seats, and piles of boxes and sacks on the floor filling up half the available space. Ropes and spare sailcloth. And four bronzewood crates of paper. The boat must have been moored, for the Group’s farleaper to have a stable otherpoint—yes, that nervous young man must have been part of the Group. Perhaps even the accident at Third-West had been staged, all for the Group to get its hands on her.

Shouts overhead, a woman’s voice, “Kso, she’s in!”

Kre, she’s in!” a man’s voice confirmed. “Cast off!” Someone overhearing would assume ‘she’ referred to the boat. But the man’s voice, Nonar had last heard from a teacup. Magister Lie.

The boat’s hull scraped the quay with a horrible grating sound. Then a lurch, all the otherspace forces changing suddenly. A farleap. Who dares show off in the harbour that they have a farleaper on board? Is this a trap? But there are only two of them there, they don’t have a realborn witness. They can’t convict me.

The skylight ladder was pulled up but surely they had meant this to hinder Nonar only until the farleap. A Fourth Level lightforger needed a mere finger-flick to stack three crates on top of each other to climb upwards.

Salt-ice sea wind struck her face, and the boat’s beautiful colour struck her eyes: a vivid cerulean blue, as if defiantly calling summer under this grey autumn sky. Close in hue to the square of silk lying in her pocket shielding her against the monochrome of existence. Her father had loved the grace of sailboats and had always applauded her when she had drawn boats as a child. Not that she had needed much encouragement; Magister Lie had rightly observed that she had always been fascinated by machines. Nonar knew a beautiful boat when she saw one.

Far astern was the narrow stripe of land. In full sun, Sunatnight’s glass towers would flash rainbows like jewels even from that distance, but under this overcast, they only gleamed dully, barely recognizable. A cloud of wyverns floated over the port. Vingyar Prison’s stone bulk sat like a rock dropped amid glass.

The man adjusting the rudder at the stern straightened up. “Sunlight on you and welcome, Magistra Nonar,” he said formally.

“Mirror-wise,” she responded. This was Magister Lie, from the voice, although his face was too ordinary to recognize easily: clean-shaven, broad forehead, mousy brown hair touched with grey or perhaps just sea-spray brine. His deep-set eyes were very pale blue, washed-out in the overcast light; without the blue deck of the boat they would have seemed colourless. His height, surprisingly, probably only reached to her eyebrows. Nonar was not an unusually tall woman, but he was an unusually short man.

The woman coiling a rope in the bow was unusually tall, though, a very dark Merezenin with glossy black hair. She had fine lines around her carmine-painted mouth and at the corners of her eyes, covered by sable eye shadow. She must have been well over forty, but applying makeup was unconscious daily habit for her if she would wear it even on the open ocean.

Her coat was deep maroon, in dyed copperbark, over dark-purple pressed trousers. But Magister Lie’s coat was real leather, a rich ochre brown. Nonar’s mother had dreamed of buying such a coat with her inheritance.

Neither of them wore mage blacks, and that was the most confusing and terrifying part. Even as Nonar had secretly broken the sumptuary regulations of the Nebezen Laws herself, she had subconsciously depended on them regarding other people. Without the sashes, she could not gauge their Level. She shuddered. Just like realborn would shudder.

Where am I already had an answer. The boat was going rapidly west-south-west under sail, away from land. To the Barriers.

Finally Nonar decided on, “Kso, I thought I told you no.”

“That wasn’t the answer I was expecting, and it isn’t the answer I am taking,” he replied with simple, infuriating arrogance. “I’m sorry that today is the last good day of autumn that I could spare courting you.”

Nonar stared at him in silence. Silence was her one weapon, she had learned through the years. Stare, and wait, until people spoke just to fill it.

A tiny muscle twitched in his cheek, forming a triangular shadow. His lower eyelid did not curve downward, as most people’s eyes did.

“I am not asking you to demolish the Barriers, Magistra. This is a reconnaissance trip. We need you just to draw them. We will return with the demolition team later.

“Magistra Re-Chei, another farleap, please,” he called to the bow, turning his back on Nonar without waiting for her reply.

“To the horizon?” the Merezenin woman asked.

“To the horizon.”

Farleapers always knew where they were. Even without landmarks on the open ocean, Re-Chei could jump to any otherpoint she could see and had a path to, rather than trying to sail through rough, unpredictable autumn waters. The gap opened in midair and the blue boat sailed through, the change in otherspace dizzying and unnerving without the predictable context of a Transit station—and Nonar leaned against the rail, disgust in her throat and fear in her stomach.

This was... deviating from precedent.

“Why?” she managed, loudly enough to get him to turn. “Why?”

“Because the seam of the world after the Amalgamation was never meant to be a permanent thing. There are others in Sattalye who send me the most delightful mathematics proofs, who are just as eager to reach us in Atsaldei and rebuild our society into a better one. Kso, one where you can be an artist rather than a destroyer. There are no Nebezen Laws on the other side of the Barriers, Nonar. Everyone is a mage there, every human being is taught it, and kso, they would welcome us, and they would not stand for the chains and controls we are under.” How well-rehearsed his speech sounded.

“Is that worth—destroying everything for?”

“What do you mean, destroying everything?”

He was honestly puzzled. This thoughtsender—this child playing with firestrikers over naphtha gas! How could he not know?

“You are doing—you are making me do—something completely reckless and unproven. Something that can not only kill us, all three of us and the boat”and nobody knowing how or why we died, like Risehour—“but this is the Barriers. The seam that holds three worlds together. You know what happens to a seam when you rip it. Kso, this... uncontrolled magic could annihilate the universe!” Safety rules. Repeat the proper safety rules.

She was not used to speaking so much at a time. Even her tongue hurt. Or it hurt at her lies.

“No, it won’t.” The lack of a kso, this statement of fact, echoed in the air.

Kso, you’ve tested this?”

“I’ve read the design specifications for the Barriers.” He smiled. “I’ll show them to you. You’ll like them.”

Nonar looked over the railing. To swim away was madness; every child raised beside a northern ocean knew that at this time of autumn, seawater was cold enough to stop the heart in minutes. But what if her technique, that she had no name for, that could spin and compress the shards of a building to bring it down—spun in the other direction? Bearing water up? That could be enough to raise a human out of the water, to carry her...

Re-Chei said something in Merezenin, a language Nonar recognized from the market but didn’t understand a word of. Magister Lie obviously did, but he replied in Atsaldeian, “How do you think she could destroy something this complex without knowing how it was created? I struggled for months to find the notes of Shareel the Szhaa representative of the Great Amalgamation, and get them deciphered and translated. Here they are. They’re priceless, you know. I found them... at an estate sale.”

The notebook was perhaps the oldest paper thing Nonar had ever touched—no, it was calfskin vellum, not paper. Quarto-sized. Each page of text had paper inserts tacked in, with the translation into Atsaldeian done in someone’s very clear handwriting, plus occasional notes by another, messier hand. Tensile forces... compression forces... load capacity... arch dimensions...

And the diagrams, with legends for the symbols tacked to them too. There were five. The blueprints for the invisible-to-real-eyes mass they were heading towards.

There was a way...

No. There can’t be a way. Can’t.

“I sense them,” said Re-Chei. “Another leap, and we’ll be there.”

She was so casual. Nonar insisted on articulating the wrongness of it. “Farleapers get drilled in safety as much as we do—”

“More,” Re-Chei interrupted. “We die for our mistakes; you lightforgers and fleshmenders can bury yours.” She glanced at Magister Lie and lowered her voice. “And facechangers and thoughtsenders, too.”

“So why are you going to the Barriers?”

Re-Chei shrugged. “Because they’re there.” To Nonar’s blank stare, she added, “Farleapers always want to go far. Transit stifles us, like wyverns... no, like hawks on jesses. I told my lover one night that I would go to the ends of the earth for her and me to be married. This is close enough.”

Nonar thought of her parents’ happy marriage. Having learned at twelve that marriage would never be for her, she had grown used to the idea, and she thought every other mageborn would have too. Not that she had friends close enough to discuss it, and after her parents’ betrayal and death and her own imprisonment, right at the age when most realborn people would be choosing partners, she had found herself with no friends at all and afraid to trust anyone enough to make them.

There was no trust here. “That’s... reckless.”

“We thought that art—something—mattered to you more than being safe. You have the skills to blow everyone up, and you fawn about it. I thought better of you when you were sneaking to the cabaret.”

Who knew? Did everyone know? But Re-Chei looked away and moved the boat to the next farleap.

At the bow, Magister Lie half-hummed, half-whistled something, loudly enough to be heard over the wind, and with a jolt Nonar recognized that catchy overture from last season’s Lazhanor opera. It added yet another layer of ridiculousness, that one of the perhaps ten thoughtsenders in all of Atsaldei (the known ones), someone powerful enough to subvert a Transit farleaper into kidnapping a lightforger onto a boat, on a madcap scheme to get her to draw and demolish the scar of the world... would whistle while doing it.

The air at the horizon shimmered in a band stretching north to south, wavering and warping vision. Even a realborn would suspect something there that was not empty seas or a strange weather formation.

“What do you see?” Magister Lie asked as they joined him at the bow. Of course, he would be seeing something different.

“A wall,” Nonar whispered. At four years old, I had assumed a seam. How ridiculous.

Re-Chei spoke louder, but her voice tense with bewilderment. “Kre, it blocks open-air paths. It just... blocks them.”

“Of course it does. Otherwise, kso, farleaping to Sattalye would only be a matter of strength, wouldn’t it?” Magister Lie said dryly. “But see, we made it here safely, despite Magistra Lightforger’s misgivings.”

Nonar squinted at the rapidly widening ribbon of othermatter that limned the edge of the sea. “It’s made of the stuff the walls of Vingyar are made of,” she said slowly. “The special cells that keep mages from breaking out. Except much, much thicker.” Were Atsaldei and Thya and Merezen and Aranuil and the other countries the prisoners? Or was it Sattalye that was trapped, even with its ships to the stars? “But they aren’t solid. They’re woven, like a multi-layered mesh, with bubbles and caverns like risen bread. Or grown.”

Unsafe. And beautiful. And vulnerable. And no.

“Can you tell how it is made? And what its weak points are? Can you draw it?”

“No.” Nonar let the wind take her words.

“Please say that again?”

“No! I can’t draw it! I quit drawing four years before they found I was mageborn! I can’t draw! I really can’t!”

She gripped the bow rail with icy fingers, tears forming frosty trails on her face from the wind.

It was Re-Chei who spoke. “You can try.” Love will find a way, Nonar heard her unspoken faith. Except that love didn’t. My parents had loved me.

“As if I have time to spend the years practicing and trying.” The last time Nonar had had time was in the mageborn cell of Vingyar Prison. Months’ worth of time. And she had not been allowed to draw.

“Magister Lie,” Re-Chei said, “what did you bring for her to draw with?”

“Pencil,” the always-confident mage said with a shrug, heading down to the hatch to pull up crates. “And pen.”

“The child drawing prodigies who quit are the ones who didn’t switch to colour,” Re-Chei said. “My lover is an artist. That was why I volunteered for this mission, to try to... enter her world.” Her lover was a realborn; that didn’t need to be spoken. Marriage between realborn and mageborn was forbidden. “There’s a world of colour. You haven’t seized it.”

The Nebezen Laws took all the colour out, Nonar thought.

“An easel.” Nonar laughed, high-pitched, on seeing what he brought up after the crates. “I’d almost forgotten what one of those looked like.”

She lied, of course. She knew exactly what an easel looked like, and how it worked, and even if she had never touched one, she knew how to set this one up, and how to tack the sheet of paper first at the upper right, then lower left, then upper left, then lower right. No need to position it in the best light, as this was sketching otherspace, an image that was not of reflected light, only of human minds pretending it was because they knew no other way to represent it. Light didn’t matter. As Nonar set the easel in the stablest place on the deck, a bubble of mirth rose into her throat.

Magister Lie and Re-Chei watched her silently. She swallowed back the bubble, embarrassed to reveal too much. If I draw, if I draw an accurate map for them, if I help them destroy these walls as I have demolished so many buildings, I will prove them right, and prove right the Nebezen Laws and the trial that labelled me so dangerous my parents had to die under Article I. “No private party shall engage the services of a mage on a temporary or permanent basis without the permission of the Lyceum and the Ducal Crown.” There would be no going back.

She sang the kodara for beginning a new creative enterprise, her voice wavering on the high note. She knew very little about music, but even she could tell it was the wrong note, and she superstitiously wondered if the kodara would still work or would curse everything. Each wave striking the boat’s bow rocked her easel, making her hands tremble.

It got worse. The pencilled lines tried to represent Nonar’s view of the Barriers’ woven mesh, but every stroke felt dead. She was getting angles wrong, proportions, distances. The vectors of force that had woven and grown the Barriers together were not in the drawing. This was useless.

Nonar erased and redrew, a fraction here, the thickness of a fingernail there. The drawing seemed to laugh at her: Liar, you’ve indeed forgotten what easels looked like. The paper, thin from continual erasing, finally tore, a gap opening in the map. The territory she was sketching remained unitary, gapless, mocking her.

She bit back the tears now but let her slipped hand follow its swing, and the pencil flew out and overboard. She didn’t watch whether it sank or floated. “Shrook!”

“Shrook,” Re-Chei whispered in agreement.

But it was not Re-Chei but Magister Lie who came up and held Nonar by the shoulders. She wanted to fall against his shoulder—any shoulder—and sob. But of course she couldn’t. She was twenty-two years old, a professional demolitions lightforger— and she had failed at being an artist. When her parents had died because the authorities thought she’d been one for them.

“You can do it.” he said quietly.

“I told you, I can’t fix it.”

His shadow fell across the drawing. “People sometimes think that a thoughtsender can mend minds, as well as give them data. I can’t. Always been bad at emotions. Bad at art, too, beyond appreciating it. But I can point out that you’re very precisely drawing the Barriers as a wall.”

Kre, they are a wall.”

He said gently, “Shareel said they were a seam. Like how you saw them as a child. Well, how about lunch?”

Despite the misgivings in her gut, Nonar remembered that she had last eaten at dawn that morning, a simple Lyceum breakfast of black bread and egg for the chal-savoury dish, sugared potatoes for the sweet, and shredded grey pickled cabbage for the sour dish. The cooks at the Lyceum were low-paid realborn resentful that they couldn’t get work in better places.

What the Magister’s food hamper revealed was far more epicurean. Delicate flaky sour-cheese pastries for the sour side and the thin slices of beef mixed with greens—hothouse greens in autumn!—for the chal dish. And the steaming sweet noodles—they looked and smelled like the specialty Nonar’s mother had called “sweet noodles fit for the Dukes.”

Well, if we’re going to die anyway, let’s not die hungry, her stomach whispered.

“Add that to the royal’s weight in salt and chal,” Re-Chei said as soon as they sang the preprandial kodara, sitting on the deck shadowed by a sailcloth windbreak that allowed normal conversation.

Il-Fala had not believed that Merezenin superstition, that if two ate a gold royal’s weight in salt and chal together, they could trust each other to the end of their lives. Nonar wondered how much of the salt and spice did the food need, to be so delicately flavoured. Definitely not a royal’s weight. “Kso, the Group must have the Dukes’ own chef,” she said, to avoid thinking about trust and betrayals. To avoid wondering if she could trust them, or if she should risk fleeing.

“You would be surprised,” Magister Lie murmured.

“We are many,” Re-Chei said, “and of many talents. If we see a mage with talent and dissatisfaction, we whisper to her.”

“We noticed you,” said Magister Lie, pausing between bites of pastry, “but, kso, you were always keeping so quiet and good and law-abiding. It was when we found the drawings and the blueprints and your visits to the cabaret that we realized that yes, the prison had not beaten out your heart’s desire.”

“My heart’s desire...” Nonar breathed in, then spoke very quickly. “...is to serve. Safely.”

“Nonar,” said Re-Chei, “there’s no need to insist on safety of realborn when there are no realborn here. Il-Fala knows that you lie in your reports about your safety limits. She lets you get away with it because they are safe, in her judgement.”

The sea seemed to tilt upwards. So they knew.

“Il-Fala knew,” said Re-Chei. “She told me in Merezenin. She won’t betray you. Neither will we. We’ll help you.”

“Draw this,” Magister Lie added, “and you will be a part of history.”

“She doesn’t want to be a part of history. She wants to hide. Draw this, and you will help us. Draw this, and you will solve the problem Shareel posed for us long ago.”

Solve the problem that Shareel had posed... With the remaining food cooling before her, Nonar leafed through the pages of the notebook, trying to connect with the long-ago long-dead engineer who had worked with a different magic to sew worlds together. The drawings there were precise. Free. Accurate.

Really, what harm would it do if she drew?

What harm would it do if she couldn’t draw?

Well, if everyone knew that she was breaking safety regulations... You have the power to blow them all up, and you fawn...

The aborted drawing fluttered on the easel. She couldn’t draw, not the Barriers as they are, but she knew how to do her job very well.

She stood up, feeling like a tiny dot on a tiny boat, with the wall of the world in otherspace stretching in all directions. If I can’t draw, I can knock a hole. All I need is a hole. All Re-Chei needs is an open-air path that can fit a body through. I can do that.

“I am breaching them,” she heard a voice say that didn’t sound like hers, that came from down in the core of her body. She knew Magister Lie and Re-Chei couldn’t see what she was doing.

Select the points. Lay the charges. Push the boat back, leaving enough space. Focus the funnel so there would be no debris. She could do this. With all the strength she had, she could just do this.

She released it.

The blue boat’s mast swung like a pendulum across the sky from the concussive wave. The deck bucked under them like a frightened animal, bucking off the easel, the pens and pencils, the crates.

She could just see that she had failed.

No. She hadn’t failed. She had achieved just what she needed safely, without wrecking—

And the book, the unimaginably old book, flew past the mages’ heads as they held on to the rail.

Magister Lie dived after it.

It happened so fast that the two arcs hung in Nonar’s mind’s eye together, like afterimages of blinding light—the paper book describing a parabola, and then the man. And then the stronger and taller Re-Chei bending over the side with a cry.

Couldn’t he have just fetched it magically out of the water, was Nonar’s first thought. No, he couldn’t have. He wasn’t a lightforger. That was why he needed me. She had truly expected that he or Re-Chei would pull the manuscript out by magic, no harm done, just Nonar finally feeling the anger that she had crushed for years. Not this. Not him in the water. Autumn seawater would stop the heart in minutes. She couldn’t remember how many minutes.

He had caught the manuscript but he was now floundering, his arms sagging lower. Drowning is not flailing. Drowning is silent slipping beneath the surface.

Re-Chei had opened a gate between the deck and the waves. Nonar saw it, strange as the broken spoon in a water glass, Re-Chei’s shoulder reaching into the gate and her arm ten feet away, feeling for him, and their hands failing to connect. Her only strength was opening gates, and he couldn’t go through them.

Nonar rooted her feet on the pitching deck.

The water whirled in a reverse demolition to lift him out of the sea. The easel would do to make a floating raft. With lines of otherspace force, she wrenched his body onto the easel, lifting it up. What she had secretly used to break buildings, and then had meant as her escape plan. Implosion was about displacement at just the right points. The focusing points of a composition.

And then he was on the deck.

His heart was beating, she could tell. She held his shoulders as he vomited water onto the deck and took a breath, air replacing the water. Cold. Body heat would not warm him. He was conscious but shuddering, thrashing for life. Cold.

“We need fire, ordinary fire,” said Re-Chei above her somewhere, holding on.

He croaked through blue-tinged lips. “The crates... of paper...”

Only this morning Nonar had kindled a small piece of paper, so far away and long ago. Setting fire to things likely had earned lightforgers their name, and it took only a little energy to make an ordinary fire last. With a flick, the steel crates’ locks broke open, and with another, they were ablaze on the deck, one, two, three, four fires bringing desperate warmth back to Magister Lie.

The colour began to return to his face. He smiled that infuriating smile.

Safe.

“Four crates,” Nonar said with a laugh, falling back in exhaustion against the warming deck as Re-Chei spread the sail above them for shelter. “Were you planning that I fill the Ducal Museum with sketches of the Barriers?”

“I was planning that you practice,” said Magister Lie, unbuttoning his soaked coat with shaking fingers. “I didn’t expect you to try to breach them right there.”

There was no breach in the Barriers above them. No hole. Not enough for an open-air path.

There was just a small, jagged tear in the seam of the world, the lines forming it so clear that Nonar’s fingers itched to draw it.

“And also,” he said wearily as he pulled off his leather coat, “my supplier offered a quantity discount. Kso, rich as I am, I can’t pass up a bargain.”

She barely heard him. He had just untied his sash from around his waist like a belt, rather than shoulder to hip as all mages obeying the sumptuary laws wore theirs. Wet from the ocean, it looked like a miserable string, its crimson colour turning to nearly black. But now that it was unwrapped, she could count the knots like dark protruding scars on it—the most knots she had ever seen.

There were only four Seventh Level mages in Atsaldei, perhaps on all this side of the Barriers. All members of the Lyceum memorized their names.

Nonar nudged Re-Chei. The tall woman sat up in the dancing firelight and pursed her lips. “Magister Lie. Your sash.”

He looked up from rubbing life into his bare feet. A platinum bracelet with a polished flat face shone on his wrist. A shining disk like a pendant watch hung from around his neck. Such valuable items may have come from being head of the Group, but Nonar could not believe that. Not with the food he had served them. Not with his jokes about wealth.

Article 1 said that no one could engage a mage without the permission of the Ducal Crown, but the Dukes would give themselves permission, and they would choose the very best.

Ve-Kesh-faish rio-nuli,” Re-Chei said in Merezenin. “You are certainly too pale to be Magister Ve-Kesh, Court Mage to Duchess Shajiran. You are the wrong sex to be Magistra Cosulonei, Court Mage to Duke Oresunei. And last I saw Professor Valganor in the Lyceum, he was three handspans taller and had a much bigger beard. So that leaves...”

“...me having stolen the sash?” He raised an eyebrow. “I do lead a gang of thieves and Nebezen-Law-breakers, after all. Or me having stitched on additional knots just to look important?”

“No, Magister Kelvrian, Court Mage to Duke Derghanet.” Re-Chei could keep her voice level, while Nonar kept trying to form words and finding hers shook too much. “Kre, no one would dare steal or forge a Seventh Level sash, least of all yours.”

A Court Mage. Nonar gripped her own four-knot sash as any kind of armour, any kind of defence against having done at least five different capital violations of the Nebezen Laws in full view of Duke Derghanet’s own mage. And he had acted sympathetic.

If he would betray her, he knew what he was risking. If she didn’t trust him, she could push him off the boat again now and avenge her parents against the Dukes, having power for the first time in her life by killing the Dukes’ mage.

By the way his eyes studied her, not blue in this light, he knew it too.

“Well, Nonar, you can drown me again,” he said. “I am now staking my life on you not trying to do it twice.”

“I’d suspected it,” Re-Chei said. “At least, that you were closely tied to the Dukes. Even for a rich Atsaldeian, you were too sure of yourself. But we have eaten a royal’s weight in salt and chal together.” She smiled. “My private theory was that you were Duke Oresunei’s brother.”

“I wouldn’t want to be brothers with that hookworm.” Kelvrian shuddered dramatically. Laughter shook Nonar, cathartic and releasing.

In the dying light of the quick-burning paper fires, Re-Chei leaned back and looked at the Barriers, and again Nonar wondered how they looked to her. “They are more beautiful with that one little rip.”

“What would you have done if you had breached the Barriers?” Kelvrian asked. “If one person was enough to break the worlds apart again? I am honestly frightened at what we must do, but what you managed to do was monumental, even I can see it.”

“And I can draw it. I want to draw this now,” Nonar said. To bring the people, her people now, to help her expand that tear. “But... we haven’t the paper and pencil.”

The paper was ashes, the pencil lost at the bottom of the sea, the easel ruined. But down in the inner breast pocket of her black uniform lay three swatches of coloured silk. An orange one the colour of the flames, a blue one close to the shade of the boat beneath them, and a delicate green one like otherspace.

From out of her inner pocket, Re-Chei handed Nonar a small box. Within were thin fine brushes and half-melted cakes of makeup colour that had been drenched with ocean water.

“Paint the Barriers,” she said.

The brush stroked and caressed the silk, purple on blue.


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Tamara Vardomskaya is a Canadian writer and a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Besides Beneath Ceaseless Skies, her fiction has also appeared on Tor.com. She recently completed a Ph.D in theoretical linguistics at the University of Chicago.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“The Three Dancers of Gizari” by Tamara Vardomskaya
“Of Letters They Are Made” by Jonathan Edelstein

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1 Comment on “Drawing The Barriers”

One Response to “Drawing The Barriers”

  1. Jonathan Edelstein says:

    An amazing, rich, morally complex story, as I have come to expect from this author.

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