I never would have killed her, when she was alive.
Violets have emerged from the ground where her bones were buried, crowding around the tall carved stone that marks the spot. They might seem small and humble if not for the garden around them, azaleas and cherry trees, rippling white sand and stepping stones of dark volcanic rock, all of it for her.
I come here because it’s good to be seen coming here, to be seen performing the actions of mourning. I could equally well visit the bend in the eastern river where her ashes were scattered, but the garden is more secluded. Walls of white stone and dark crystal sever this space from the world; the eyes of the city may watch when I enter and leave, but in between, at least, I am alone. I can stand over her bones and not care what expression my face makes.
Her death stunned me, at first—not because it was sudden, but because the reality of being free from her took time to sink in. I should have been relieved, hopeful even, but more than anything, I was exhausted. All the processions and ceremonies, the black and white banners on every road to the palace, all the incense burning and gongs echoing through the buzzing summer nights. All the people praising her, who either didn’t know or didn’t care what she was really like. It strips you down to threads and wrings you out. But soon enough everyone had their fill of mourning games, and I could finally relax and practice my spells in peace.
I should have considered what would happen if I got this good with my magic. I am the first spellcaster in a hundred years to master the unnamed elements.
I could bring her back, if I wanted to.
I don’t. I never would have killed her, but I want her to stay dead.
Already people are whispering over my inaction. Never mind that the magic to reverse death is dangerous, that I might kill myself trying. I would be no one if I hadn’t been hers. Am I not grateful? Didn’t I love her?
What I would love is to tell them all the things they do not know, just to see how the truth would cut them open, but I can’t. Even with all my magic, I can’t undo the curse she left on me. I can’t speak or write the truth.
But what plagues me now, the questions I ask myself as I stare down at her little violets, as I sense out the elements in the earth beneath their roots until I can feel the cold charred edges of her bones and assure myself that that is all that remains of her—those questions are these: is it different, to withhold life than to end it? What moral obligations does my power come with?
And, more selfishly: if I don’t bring her back, how long until her followers turn on me?
She was unerringly generous, the story goes.
Imagine a chill night of the rainy season. The hour is late; it isn’t raining now but misty. The streets are damp, the sky heavy with low-hanging clouds. Dim orange light from covered lanterns reflects endlessly off puddles and clouds and mist. Imagine a thief, scrawny and young, huddled in an alley over a tiny flame. Uneducated, they know nothing of magic, but by instinct and error they’ve honed a few tricks, like the lighting of a fire from whatever limp wet kindling can be scrounged off the street.
They put that fire out when they hear an approach, to look more pitiable without it.
Imagine that she appears: the Lady, people already call her, with the kind of beauty that comes not from mere youth but from dignity and elegance. She wears pale blue silk embroidered with silver blossoms, and her long, sleek black hair is done up majestically, adorned with jeweled pins.
The thief doesn’t know her. They judge from her clothing and bearing that she is wealthy, from the small streets she walks and the small escort of only two soldiers to protect her that she is unimportant. They don’t consider that the escort may be small because she is powerful enough to need nothing more, nor do they notice that she wears no cloak and carries no umbrella, since for her, it is an easy thing to stay dry by magic alone.
They bow as she passes and hold out the chipped tea bowl in which they collect their beggings. And they begin to work one of their spells, one practiced a hundred times over, a tugging on the emotions, a coercion to give everything—to pull those jeweled pins right out of her hair—and then to forget.
The Lady, of course, can tell what the thief is doing. She quells their magic, and with a spell of her own, prevents them from running until the soldiers have them pinned to the cold muddy ground. The tea bowl is dropped and forgotten. The thief panics, struggling futilely, apologizing and pleading for mercy. One of the soldiers says the thief will have their hands cut off for this.
Imagine their fear, the pounding of their heart and shortness of their breath, as the Lady crouches down to let them see her from their vantage with their face pressed to the mud. She holds up the folds of her silks so that they don’t touch the ground. She looks at the thief.
Imagine her face: calm, beautiful, unreadable. Deep brown eyes cut like volcanic glass.
“How did you learn that?” she asks, for it is an incredible thing the thief has done, to manipulate not merely elements of matter but of mind, with no training at all.
Rapidly, stumbling over the words, the thief explains that they’ve never been taught magic. It’s only instinct, only survival, they don’t know what they’re doing (truth), they can’t control it (lie), they never meant to hurt anyone (half-truth). They plead again for mercy, and they promise (meaning it truly in that moment, though it surely would’ve become a lie given the chance) never to use magic again.
In a burst of oratory, the Lady sympathizes with the thief’s plight, discerns their hidden potential, and praises the virtue of forgiveness. She orders the soldiers off of them and offers to make them her student, and of course, the thief, beaming with relief and joy, agrees and is saved. Admire her kindness, how she could see goodness in the lowest of places. Be inspired. Cheer.
The speech is a fabrication. It makes for a better story. In some tellings there is further embellishment: the thief may reveal at length their tragic backstory, a tale of loss and desperation dressed up to tug most effectively at audience hearts.
What truly happened, on that chill wet night, was that she simply stared at the thief, unspeaking and unreadable, until they broke down crying, half-choking under the weight of the soldier holding them down.
When they swore never to use magic again, what she said was this: “That... would be a terrible waste.”
The thief did not have any choice in what came next.
She was a master of the elements of the mind. She could strum them with the grace and precision of a master harpist, and she gave herself unearthly charisma and diplomacy. A minor noble by birth, she became our greatest ambassador; she healed rifts within our own kingdom, prevented wars with others, built alliances that have made us stronger than we ever were before.
She made me stronger than I ever was before.
I never matched her with the elements of the mind. I never wanted to. She used magic like breathing, always subtly influencing those around her—never too much, never enough to make them feel lied to or used, but I don’t see the difference, and I refuse to do the same.
Thus, I am no beloved ambassador like her. I merely teach.
This is what I say when her followers try to speak to me, on the walk from the garden to the academy. Other ambassadors, councilmen and judges, other spellcasters who know they’ll never be as powerful or skilled as I am. “I’m sorry,” I say, “I am only a teacher. My students are waiting.”
Of course I am not saying I don’t have the power. There’s no point in denying that. I’m saying I don’t have the right. I’m saying, bitter and scathing, You know you can’t trust me. Leave me to the classroom, where I can do no harm.
There are fifteen elements that make up our world—five of matter, five of mind, and the unnamed five of energy and transformation. The elements of matter are the first my classes cover, the easiest to discern and utilize. Air, water, earth, metal, and salt, each more structured than the last, from gas to crystal.
“Be careful in manipulating them,” I always warn, my voice bouncing through the large lecture room. Only one of every three classes is spent in the practice arenas; before they attempt any feat of magic, they should understand it, and the risks it entails. “Firstly, because you will exhaust yourself; secondly, because it is easy, when working magic, to inadvertently influence the elements of your own being.” Cue the requisite tales of casters with more power than control: one who pushed back a tidal wave and expelled all the water from his own body with it; one who calmed an earthquake and turned herself to stone.
This much, students always know already. Long before they’ve mastered these elements, they beg to learn of the rest.
The unnamed elements are dangerous, but there’s little harm in giving them a glimpse of the elements of mind: joy, pain, impulse, discipline, and reason. They’re eager to see opposites in these—surely joy and pain are naturally opposed? Impulse and discipline? Reason and any emotion we might build from the rest?
“The opposite of any element is the absence of it,” I tell them. “The opposite of pain is comfort, of impulse is lethargy, and so on. Joy and pain can coexist; impulse and discipline thrive together. And reason is foundational to emotion. Joy of the heart—rather than mere physical pleasure—requires the reason to believe that something is good; anger, to believe that it is bad; fear, to believe that it is dangerous. Add discipline to fear and you’ll create courage; add joy to anger and you’ll create malice, vindictive cruelty, self-righteous sadism. So all emotions are built up out of these elements.”
I pause, as they write their notes.
“So,” I say, “by removing these elements, you can remove all emotion.”
Pause again. I do not want my students to miss anything.
“This is an evil thing,” I tell them, allowing an unusual weight into my voice that holds them silent, calligraphy brushes still in their hands. This is why I oblige to discuss these elements early: I want my students to know what evil things can be done with them. I want the world to know, and to so abhor it that it is never done again. “The theft of the mental elements leaves a target numb and empty; they will do whatever is asked of them, will allow anything to be done to them, and if left alone, will die for lack of eating or drinking or any self-caring.”
Perhaps a mercy, I think, to die before their elements could be restored, before they could feel the horror of the theft.
Here I allow discussion, so my students can think through it for themselves.
“It must be like waking up from a nightmare,” one of them supposes, “when you get your elements back.”
It isn’t. The horror of a nightmare is felt within the dream and fades quickly as one wakes. This abuse isn’t felt at all until after it is over, and then the horror is slow and multi-faceted and does not ever seem to fade. There is hatred of the one who did it. There is hatred and disgust of the self, for how could you let such things be done to you? How could you not somehow, impossibly, even try to resist? And there is fear, so much fear, that it might be done again. That you will let it happen again.
But none of this can be easily said, for how would I know such things? They grate in my throat against the edge of her curse. So I leave my students with their idle speculations, and we move on.
The Lady was unerringly patient with the thief, the story goes. She taught them to use their magic to its fullest, and she taught them ethics to correct their troubled ways. Together, with her skill and insight and their raw power, the two achieved miracles. Together they brought rain in years of drought, lulled the volcano back to sleep when fire bloomed deep within it.
Together, the storytellers say, for the thief was never allowed to work alone. They were a thief, after all, and could not be trusted with so much power. So imagine her and them side by side, proud mentor and eager student, the wild power of the lowest tamed and put to good by the wisdom of the highest.
They don’t tell you to imagine the thief with empty eyes. They don’t tell you to imagine that after each casting, they fall to their hands and knees, overwhelmed by the exhaustion of the spells they’ve been made to cast and the horror of the way they’ve been made to do it, because they had once dared, selfishly (in fear), unforgivably (in defiance of her), to refuse. They don’t tell you to imagine the thief shaking and heaving up blood as the Lady stands nearby and assures them that this is necessary, this is just, she’s only helping them to do what they must. This is why she made them hers: to guarantee that their power would be used for good by using it herself.
And if she sometimes wanted of the thief things that were not for the good of the kingdom, things that were only for her own gratification, things that would lead the thief to cringe away from touch as if it burned— Then that went much the same. They had no defense, no escape, and no recourse, for what fool would take their word over hers?
But none of this is how the story goes. No storyteller would ever say such things; it would ruin the story. No, let the tellers tell you she was a kind, patient, selfless instructor. Some will spin a romance, expounding on how the thief grew to love the Lady like they had never before loved anything but themself. All will say that from a rotten seed, the Lady raised a straight, tempered, loyal scion, who now will prove how they have overcome their shameful past by giving whatever they must to bring her back. Redemption through sacrifice.
That is how they’ll have the story end.
I try, truly I do, to convince myself to bring her back. I spend hours in her garden, watching all the blossoms as spring progresses, weighing the moral and logical considerations. She was a force of good for the kingdom, even if not for me. However bitter the unspoken truths in my throat, however acrid the thought of taking those truths to my own grave, what do they matter? Surely acting on them, withholding power that I would not even have if not for her, would serve nothing but my own selfish desires. And sharing those truths, if somehow I even could, would only undo her good work, would end the age of peace and prosperity she brought us into.
Bringing her back would extend it. So surely, that is the right thing to do.
But no amount of reasoning can budge my heart. The thought of so much as seeing her again summons a cold needle of dread to twist in my innards.
It’s here in her garden, as I turn these thoughts over yet again, that her followers make their move. The rainy season has just begun, and a fine drizzle is falling when the gate opens and one of her peers, a respected ambassador, joins me. He clings to an oil-paper umbrella painted with coiled pink clouds; I’ve simply been pushing the rain away with the faintest effort of magic before it can touch me. When I bow and begin to leave to afford him privacy, he says, “Wait, spellcaster.”
I don’t realize until my arm pulls taut that he’s grabbed my right wrist. That hand is all but useless, numb to any touch, and I keep it gloved to politely conceal the scarring.
I don’t say anything, only look at his hand on my wrist.
“Sorry,” he says as he finally lets go. The word is curt rather than respectful. There is nothing respectful about this. That he touched me at all, commanded me to stop, and has not bowed all show where the power lies between us. Any other spellcaster of my skill—if there were any other—and he would be the one bowing and obeying, but of course, no other spellcaster comes from such low, untrustworthy origins. She made certain that no one would ever forget this, that no one would ever bow to me but my students.
The ambassador clears his throat. “The cherry blossoms were lovely this year, weren’t they,” he says, reaching up to the branches of one such tree and touching its young green leaves delicately. Water droplets roll off at the disturbance. “I hope the garden brings you peace. You spend so much time here.” A pause. With a note of sympathy, “You were so close to her.”
I am tempted, in that moment, to steal all the warmth from the air and the ground, to flash-freeze the entire garden and explain that it brings me more peace frozen and dead, like her.
I don’t. Nor do I say anything. It’s rude not to, but one in mourning can be forgiven for rudeness.
It is his choice whether to interpret me that way. I can sense the tension in him, written out in the elements of his mind. He does not know who he is speaking to: the romantic figure of the stories or someone more dangerous, someone who could only be trusted when she held them under her sway.
“You’ll want to know,” he says, dropping his hand from the branches, “a memorial is being planned on the eastern river, for the anniversary.” He says it with care, gentle of voice. “The council thought it might be an ideal time to bring her back, with hope that it will give you ample opportunity to make whatever preparations you must. It would be... most unfortunate if you weren’t ready by then.”
So. It isn’t asked or even ordered, in any way I might refuse. The fact of my restoring her is simply presupposed; all he is doing is setting the deadline.
Likewise, the fact of retribution if I don’t comply need not be said aloud. My place here, even as only a teacher, has always been contingent upon my service to her. I only wonder what form their retribution would take. A dignified trial, a gruesome execution.
It would be so decisive, I don’t doubt. Someone with my power cannot be allowed to exist untrusted and uncontrolled.
Is this world, as she shaped it, this world where even now my magic and my life are not my own—is this truly the best world?
She did good, undeniably. But perhaps it’s time the kingdom learned to grow beyond her.
“Please let the council know if you require any arrangements—we can have her bones exhumed—”
“That won’t be necessary,” I say.
My voice is neither loud nor hard and gives, I hope, no hint of any emotion at all, but he falls silent for several moments before he says, “You’re certain of that?”
“I am, ambassador. Thank you for telling me this. Is that all?”
He nods. I bow again and leave the garden.
How satisfied she would be, to think me cornered and serving her still. But no, I have no intention of being used by her again.
I consider fleeing, but I have no idea how far they would pursue me, and regardless, I am no coward.
So I teach, as if everything were fine.
Naturally, my students yearn to know how it will be done, the reversing of death. At first I evade the questions, until it becomes clear they cannot be made to focus on anything else.
“Conceptually,” I begin, “it’s a fairly simple thing. Nothing is ever truly created or destroyed; things are only changed, their elements rearranged. When a living thing dies, there is a change in the state of its body, its physical elements, followed by a scattering of those elements as it decays. Likewise the mental elements change, in a way that puts an end to processes of feeling and thought much as the change in the body puts an end to breathing and pulse, and then they scatter. Thus, bringing something dead back to life is merely a process of regathering its elements and restoring their original states.
“Merely,” I repeat, with a note of sarcasm. My voice carries clearly despite the muffled sound of rain pounding on the roof. “I’m sure I need not elaborate on the astronomical complexity of life. But more than that, life is not merely of matter and mind; it is a delicate interplay of all the elements.”
There are excited breaths as the students realize what I mean. Calligraphy brushes are dipped eagerly in ink.
“So to discuss life, we must also discuss the unnamed elements.” The elements that most of these students will never be ready for, that have no names because I may be the only person alive who would have any use for naming them. “Those who can discern these elements have called them many things, most meaningless to anyone else. More often they are simply referred to collectively: the elements of energy and transformation, of creation and destruction, of fire and ice and lightning. The elements of death, even, since in untrained hands, they so often bring it.
“Here arises the common treatment of fire as an element: most spellcasters, if they can reach these elements at all, will never do better than to recklessly break the subtle balances between them, setting off ignitions and explosions and calling the fire a sixth element alongside air, water, earth, metal, and salt.”
The thief was one such, before the Lady found them. Even she herself, master of the mind, never got more from the unnamed elements than destruction.
To demonstrate the danger of them, I peel off the glove I wear on my right hand and roll my sleeve up to my elbow to let my students see the burn scars, the way my fingers are stiff to near uselessness. With wide eyes, they stare. I know the rumor that makes its rounds through every class: that I ruined my hand attempting magic that hadn’t been attempted in generations. It’s a useful rumor; it keeps my students from trying anything too stupid, if even one as skilled as I am could have gone so wrong.
“This,” I say, “is only one of many ways magic of the unnamed elements can go wrong. I was lucky.” Somehow I keep a bitter laugh out of my voice. “To attempt magic with all the elements at once, as will be necessary to breach life and death, the risks are compounded. The smallest error could kill the caster in probably hundreds of different ways, none of them pleasant. A greater error could also kill anyone around them. Even if I am successful, the effort alone may be deadly. Yet there is no question of my attempting this.”
I pull my glove back on and my sleeve back down and imagine telling my students about a thief who once, only once, knowing they would not be believed, tried anyway to reveal and thereby escape the Lady’s abuse, only to find their voice stolen. The truth they would have spoken was turned silent and colorless by a curse woven into them years before so subtly they had never noticed it. I would tell my students the thief was so furious and hopeless that they gathered all the most volatile elements they could reach and released them, uncontrolled, hoping to destroy and be destroyed.
“The lesson here,” I say, and though I keep my tone restrained, I let my teeth bare as I say it, let them see a hint of that fury, for this may be the most important thing I ever tell them, “is the same lesson you have been learning unknowingly all your lives. Recall the stories of the tidal wave and the earthquake and the casters who died diverting them. Did those casters do those things out of arrogance or foolishness? Of course not. They were forced into it by leaders who took no other measures to prepare for inevitable disasters, by people who deemed the casters’ lives a price worth paying.
“The lesson is this: If the world demands it, your life is not yours to keep. It’s only another component in the spell.”
Save the rain, there is absolute silence.
The Lady was beloved to the end, the story goes. She died in her bed, of neither foul play nor sacrifice; merely old age. She was surrounded by the thief and a dozen others who loved her, and o! how they all wept.
There was a moment, mere hours before the end, when she was far too weak to work her magic, that she and the thief were alone. The storytellers fill this moment with heartfelt professions and promises, with tears and clasped hands and perhaps a kiss.
In truth, there were only three words spoken. She—lonely and afraid, the thief could sense from her elements—extended one frail delicate hand to them and said, “Hold me.”
It surprised the thief, for a moment. But only a moment, for the Lady had never believed anything she’d done was wrong, had she? To her, as to the storytellers, there was no reason the thief shouldn’t love her.
They leaned down over her, seeming, for a moment, as though they would do as she asked. As though they would touch her in sweet intimate ways that their hands had touched her before. But they avoided her, laying their hands—their good left hand, useless right one—on the mattress to either side, as if maneuvering around something grotesque. They leaned so close that their nose nearly, not quite, brushed hers, and silently, they stared into her deep brown eyes. Her breath hitched.
The thief said, “No.”
The rainy season ends, yielding to high summer. The day before the anniversary I spend in isolation, preparing myself for the greatest feat of magic I’ve ever performed. They think I’m preparing to restore her to life, so they leave me alone, keep their distance.
I meditate, to clear away stray emotional contaminants in my mental elements. I eat very little, drink only water, and settle into a clear state of mind and body.
A less skilled spellcaster would want pure samples of the elements of matter—sealed bottles of clean air and distilled water, shards of volcanic glass, pure iron and perfect crystals of salt. The purer a substance, the easier it is to manipulate. But the spell I intend to cast will be far more complex than playing with students’ samples, and all I need for it is the object of the spell itself. Thus there is little spectacle to it; in the depth of night, when no one is awake to stop me, I simply sit down comfortably and exert my will over the building blocks of the world.
Were she the object of my magic, I would need her bones. I could have asked them exhumed simply to allay suspicion. But I am so far beyond other spellcasters that they do not know what I need and don’t need, and I prefer that she stay in the ground.
The spell takes the entire night. There are moments that my precision slips, that sparks flash in the air around me or small quakes roll through the floor and walls, but quickly I catch myself and regain control. Otherwise, I am still, eyes closed, focused on things unseen.
This is the most selfish thing I’ve ever done with magic, but if it works, I’ll have all the time I could want to do better for the world.
By dawn, it’s done, and I am weak and weary near unto death, coughing blood and barely able to stand. My elements feel loose, as if my body might fall to pieces should I step too hard, unraveled by the magics of the night despite my efforts to protect myself. My magic is drained. And I have no certainty I’ve been successful.
I lean back against a wall to rest and wait for them. Soon enough, they come, surprised only momentarily and then, of course, angry. They recognize my state and demand to know what I’ve cast, what I’ve wasted my power on if not her, but I have had more than enough practice in silence to say nothing now.
They bind my hands and bring me to the memorial. By the time we reach it, my vision is blurring and I cannot stand on my own. Two soldiers support me, fingers digging into my upper arms, dragging me to the center of a dais decorated with flower garlands and perfect pale blue crystals.
“The master spellcaster has betrayed us!” a councilman announces to the crowd. Whispers ripple in response. “They have stolen our Lady’s chance at life to cast instead some dark magic of their own! Thief!”
Thief, they call me still.
There are shouts from the crowd, cries of anger, despair. Demands for retribution. What there is not is hesitation or doubt, or sympathy. Thieves have no friends.
“Death,” the councilman says eventually, lifted by the crowd’s energy, “will either be undone or done this day.”
He turns to me. “The choice is yours.”
Slowly, like bubbles rising through lava, I start to laugh. It must be an eerie laugh, a mad laugh, for silence sweeps from the front of the crowd all the way back. I can’t help it. I could not so much as warm a bowl of tea now, much less restore life to the dead. They must know that.
In a sharp voice as my laughter trails away, sharp enough to carry far across the river bank, the councilman says, “Tell us what spell you cast, and you may at least die quickly.”
It wouldn’t matter if I did tell them. None of them could do anything about it. But no, let them wonder and fear it, let them think I’ve concocted some great evil. Death and destruction. Vengeance.
Let them ask what I have to be vengeful for.
“Kill me as slowly as you like,” I say, wondering if these will be my last words. “I will never bring her back.” I try to tell them why, but the curse she left in my throat chokes me and I can only laugh harder.
The two holding me up drop me. One of them plants a knee in my back, and I can’t help a gasp of panic at the memory of another soldier long ago pinning me down in the mud.
I can guess already how the storytellers will tell this, as a just irony: because I did not bring her back, this time she isn’t here to save me.
The councilman takes a curved sword from the nearest soldier and raises it before the crowd. Projecting his voice loud, he says, “What say we begin with the punishment all thieves deserve!”
The crowd roars approval.
I close my eyes, swallow my panic, and work one final bit of magic. I rid myself of the element of pain, so that I won’t feel it and won’t give them the satisfaction of screaming.
Even this relatively simple spell drains what little strength I have left. Everything after this blurs. They do what they wish, and I watch the elements pour out of me in a daze. As vision fails and consciousness becomes slippery, the sense of those elements is all that remains to me: water and metal and salt draining onto the stone dais, impulse and discipline diffusing into the collective malice of the crowd. It’s stunning, to witness these constituent glimmers of life breaking down and scattering. The unraveling of them reveals the very patterns it destroys. The last thing I feel before I can feel nothing is awe.
There is a peace in death, in the scattering of one’s elements, that is not like the theft of the elements of the mind. The horror there is to be forced to exist without all of your self; in death, you simply don’t exist at all.
So it is for me, until the delayed wave of my magic brings my elements back—not exactly as they were but in a composition wiser and more beautiful for the experience of death, like a shattered dish repaired with seams of gold. I wake up all at once, more full of life and magic than I have ever been, and I’m free. My body is whole, my right hand like new, and where once there was a curse tangled into my voice, now there is only golden fire.
It’s either dusk or dawn; I can’t tell which. They left my body in the wild, on some forested mountainside where animals might pick at me as I rotted, but wildlife scatters now from the blazing aura of magic on me. In a moment of inspiration—impulse and reason and joy—I mark the spot with violets, raising hundreds of the humble little flowers from the mossy forest floor until they surround me.
An easy spell tells me which way the city is. Another fills the sky above with bursts of light and color.
Let them know I’m coming.
I am brimming with truth, and it will be spoken.