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12 November 2010 @ 12:59 am
[Fic] "Ashes" part 9 -- original, NaNo 2010  
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Ashes, part 9
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["I'm sorry," he said. "No one should have to do anything like that, no matter who asks."]

Morgalen's face set in blank incomprehension. "Sorry for what? People are people -- they always find something to fight about."

"That doesn't mean they have to kill each other!" Sular said, her voice just a bit too loud. The man to her right turned in curiosity, and several people at the near ends of the other tables also looked toward the high table with interest.

Tir kicked Riam's ankle again. He caught Sular's eyes over Morgalen's head and shook his head as subtly as he could, asking her to drop the issue. She frowned, but turned to speak with the man beside her, asking if he knew who was in charge of dredging the irrigation channels this year.

"Not all war ends in death," Morgalen said, a trace of irritation in her voice. "A skilled general can intimidate and maneuver her enemy into a hopeless position without ever closing to pitched battle. Of course, that relies on the enemy having the sense to realize his inferiority and the wisdom not to waste his people's lives out of false pride, but that is why officers are also trained from childhood. We know the laws of war."

A terrible suspicion sparked in the back of Riam's mind. If the north still fought wars, and if they had turned even binding to the service of their armies, was it possible they forced people to make themselves into magicians in order to gain an advantage over their neighbors? Had Morgalen's own father ordered her to trade her life and soul for his momentary gain?

"You train binders and soldiers young. What about magicians?" he asked before he could stop himself.

Morgalen's eyes seemed to catch flame as she held his gaze, her teeth bared in something that only technically resembled a smile. "To use magic in war is shame beyond shame; anyone who does so forfeits all alliances and all right to hold the loyalty of his people. Anyone can kill him, and his corpse will be left out in the tainted lands to rot. When I bound myself to the principle of heat, I renounced my right to become holder of Shani, or to speak in my family's name. I won my battles with honor."

She drew herself up, spear-straight in her chair until she seemed, impossibly, to meet Riam's eyes on the level. "Do not ever think otherwise. And do not pity me."

Riam dropped his shoulders and ducked his head, but didn't break her gaze. "I wouldn't dare," he said. "That doesn't mean I can't be sorry."

Morgalen turned away and scraped another piece of dumpling onto her spoon, pointedly dismissing him.

Riam bit back a sigh and swept his eyes over the still-curious people watching from the other tables. A handful dropped their attention back to their own meals and conversations, while a few offered him unrepentant smiles before looking away. Riam took the chance to finish his stew and grab the last of the acacia and sunflower seeds from the dish in front of Tir.

He and Morgalen both ate in silence for several minutes, letting the jumble of nearby conversations wash over them. It was odd not to be next to Zalir, telling her about the day-to-day work involved in keeping the holder's compound running, or listening to her recount the unimportant details of her latest patrol -- spinning the petty squabbles and minor idiocies that arose when a handful of people spent days on end with only each other for company into amusing stories and burying her own annoyance in the process.

He finished his meal and glanced sideways at Tir and Zalir. They were bent together, muttering about patrol schedules and other guard business; they wouldn't appreciate him interrupting. He glanced right, and realized that Morgalen had also cleaned her plate and was sitting with her hands clasped and resting on the edge of the table, staring into the middle distance with a thoughtful air.

"You wanted to know about binding," Riam said.

Morgalen blinked, and then nodded. "Yes. Before we lost the trail."

"We haven't tried anything like using wards to send messages," Riam said. "That sounds very interesting, though. If your companion knows that trick, I'd like to try practicing it with her and Sular once she's started to recover."

"Sending code through bindings is not a skill Gydra's people have used," Morgalen said. "Her people learned other things instead."

"Such as?"

Morgalen frowned at him. "It is not my place to tell her secrets. Ask her yourself."

"I will. I hadn't thought that other lands might have different skills, but now that we know, it would be stupid not to learn," Riam said. "Anyway, what we've learned in Zerlon isn't very special. Mostly we've had to worry about miasma storms, and the animals that survived the poisoned air and were twisted over the generations. So what we do is learn to make our bindings very dense in some places, like armor instead of silk, and to shift those stronger places to face the greater pressure in a storm. Also, if a binding is very dense -- if the sense of how-the-world-should-be is strong enough -- it seems to... well, to shock a person or animal that's been taint-twisted, the way false lightning can build up in metal or wool and sting your fingers. The bite won't keep out people, or very hungry beasts, but it keeps a lot of the vermin out."

He couldn't tell if Morgalen found this information interesting or not. Her face remained politely neutral and her hands still and calm on the table's edge.

"The trouble is that a binder needs to be awake and actively concentrating to change the strength of a ward, and while anyone can be trained to hold a basic binding through sleep and dreams, it's very difficult to hold a variable-density binding without active attention, and a dense binding will tend to relax into a basic ward over time." Riam shrugged, self-deprecatingly. "So we get used to people waking us in the night with storm warnings. Also, whichever binders aren't holding the main wards often checks the outside of the boundary to see if anything is nosing around -- then they raise a dense temporary wall to scare the animals away or warn the free riders that Zerlon is still defended."

Morgalen made a thoughtful noise low in her throat. "So at this moment, until your apprentice is fully trained, no one is watching your borders in that way. That explains how the flesh-sacks were able to lie in wait for me and Gydra, and why your guards took several minutes to respond despite the closeness of their stronghold."

Riam made a face. "Well, yes, and I apologize on behalf of Zerlon," he admitted. "My teacher does check sometimes, but not as a regular thing; he's soul-sick of touching miasma, and we would never force him unless it was a matter of life and death. I reach through my wards at least once a day, after I check the binding itself, but it's difficult to hold that search separate from the feel of the boundary, so I do miss things. But we get by, and Sular will be ready to hold the boundary soon enough."

"I see. I was aware that dense wards could create an unpleasant jolt in people whose connection to our world has been disrupted," Morgalen said, "but not that a ward could be made dense in some regions while remaining normal in others. That is interesting, and must save the strength of the binder who builds the reinforcements. Teach that skill to Gydra, and I am sure she will be inclined to share her own knowledge."

Riam nodded absently, his mind caught on the first part of Morgalen's answer. He'd always thought that the taint-twisted reacted to bindings because a binding was meant to hold back miasma and they carried its poison in their breath and bones. But if they reacted because the miasma had somehow frayed their connection to the soul of the world, did that mean magicians -- who willingly broke their connections and bound their souls to other worlds -- would feel the same discomfort as a taint-twisted person when touching a binding? Did Morgalen feel pain when she crossed boundaries?

He had felt her power disrupt his ward, searing through his mind like phantom flames. Could she feel his work in return?

Before he could ask, Tir leaned forward and struck the bowl gong again, signaling the end of the meal. Conversation died for a long moment, as people bent their heads or closed their eyes, giving thanks once again. Then a rising din filled the great hall as everyone laid their knives and spoons onto their plates, pushed back their chairs, and began to jostle out of the room. A few stayed behind to clear the tables, piling dirty dishes onto carts in the corner, and carrying the not-quite-empty serving bowls out to the kitchens for Purrar and the other cooks to sort through.

"Now that you're full, we'd like to hear your story," Tir said to Morgalen. "I think the map room will work best; you can show us your route as you talk, and explain what you and Kivarunanga Gydra plan to do when she's recovered."

"As you say," Morgalen responded, falling into step beside Tir. Zalir slipped around them and began to clear a path through the remaining crowd.

"Don't go home tomorrow," Riam muttered to Sular as he followed his sister and the magician away from the high table. "Remember, we have to fix the tear in the boundary, and I want to take you to see the foreign binder as soon as she's able to have guests."

"I'm sure I'll find something to keep me occupied while you're busy," Sular said with a smile.

Riam laughed. "Of course. Until tomorrow."

Then he hurried to catch up with the others.

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1) ...I would say something intelligent about this section, but I am tired and kind of brain-dead right now. Oh well. Or no, wait -- this would be the part where I remembered that they're not just talking while eating (which I did make a token gesture or two toward acknowledging in the previous section), but that they're in a big room with lots of other people potentially listening in. In December, I must go back and take that into account earlier in the scene.

2) Apparently, Morgalen's people are devotees of Sun Tzu. Who knew?

3) I think this may be the first time that I said anything about what magicians are -- and how they get their power -- on page. More on that later. Also, note that while everyone in Zerlon says Morgalen is bound to fire, she says she's bound to the principle of heat. Her version is more accurate, though still not necessarily correct.

This world doesn't have the disciplines that we would call physics, chemistry, and so on, but before the Gate and the miasma, they were making some progress along those lines, and magicians, in particular, have made some further advances in the next two centuries. In other words, they do know a bit about matter, energy, elements, and the idea of natural laws, though the fact that their data mostly comes from contact with other universes where natural laws work a bit differently -- manipulation of those differences being the entire point of the magician's art -- means their results are understandably inconsistent, and also often kept secret.

4) I have been doing a bunch of writing for this story at work. I then come home and add more writing on the computer, after I've transfered the handwritten parts. Usually the handwritten stuff gets a bit augmented as I type it up -- I can't keep up with my thoughts via pen, whereas I can generally keep up with myself via typing, so I add in the little tidbits I know I left out. Sometimes, though, I go off on entirely different tangents. This section, for example, had only two handwritten paragraphs between Morgalen's statement that people will always fight and Riam's abrupt change of subject back to binding. You will note that there is a LOT MORE between those dialogue passages now.

5) 1,650 words today, 12,825 total.

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rianaxrianax on November 12th, 2010 07:40 am (UTC)
Ooo, this is very interesting, you worked in the magical system, cultural differences, and metaphysics (soul of the world reminds me of the Dark Angel Trilogy)into one dinner conversation.

I enjoyed this a lot--Morgalen and Riam are very vivid to me now. Tir and Zalir not so much.

I think a few key phrase repetitions from this conversation to Riam's opening in the first bit would help smooth out the narrative. A whole in the world and so forth.

And I an shipping Morgalen and Riam right now in a kindred spirit kind of deal.
Elizabeth Culmer, only a *little* bit crazy...edenfalling on November 13th, 2010 05:38 am (UTC)
(soul of the world reminds me of the Dark Angel Trilogy)

Huh. I had not consciously thought of that, but you're right, there are some similarities. Well, I love Meredith pierce's books with the slightly desperate love that one only seems to really muster for stories one first reads in childhood or adolescence, so I am all in favor of any resonance I inadvertently picked up for my own work!

Yeah, the internal continuity of this story is a bit shaky right now. Usually I would make sure things flowed better, but that's a second draft process, not what I am thinking about in a rough draft. *makes note for December* Tir is a secondary character, so she'll remain less detailed than the others, but Zalir should come clearer as she's in more scenes.

And I an shipping Morgalen and Riam right now in a kindred spirit kind of deal.

Oh, GOOD. That's working, then! :-)