The Girl Door
After the long night ended, Nylop wrapped the straw braid of his wand in a bit of fluff and tucked it away. He was late dispelling the illumination along the Grand Promenade. The sky was already deep blue over the twinkling lights of the palace, and the clouds in the east flared up pink on their way to gold.
Exhausted, he shoved his fists deep into his trouser pockets and trudged towards the alleyways. Behind him, the High Mage's army marched to war down the streets he had tended.
"Come in and eat," his wife called when he arrived home.
Nylop took off his boots and put his wand in its box, making obeisance to the High Mage's image before he stepped over the threshold into his wife's domain, where magic was forbidden.
And stopped short.
His wife, ladle in hand, stood by the kettle with her back to the table. Neela sat in her chair, raised up by a stack of clay tiles. Her tiny feet dangled above the floor. She wasn't running to greet him, as she always did, shrieking, "Da! Da!" Instead, her eyes were screwed shut and a look of complete concentration consumed her face. A grainy white trail led across the table to the salt dish, which hovered near Neela's outstretched hands.
"I need you to get lamp oil," his wife said, "and flour, and fat, and a bag of parsnips. And make sure the butcher doesn't cheat you on the bones."
But Nylop ran to Neela and held her in his arms.
"What is it?" his wife said, half-turning. She had not seen.
Nylop's heart beat with a catching, staggered rhythm. "I'll be back by high sun for dinner." He tried to hide his face in Neela's hair, though she had already seen his stricken eyes. "I must leave now or I'll miss the oilsmith." Nylop put Neela down and brushed the salt from the table.
"But your breakfast," his wife said.
He was already out the door. If he hurried, he could bring the healer before he had to work again in the evening.
In the market, crowded with men and boys, everything took too much time. The hired boys of the noble houses blocked his way imperiously with their carts. He waited for them to move with his eyes cast down and his head bowed, but they did not on that account make haste. The weavers had ensorcelled their street so that he had to pass down it three times before he heard the calling of the scribes and saw their work laid out on the cobbles. The food vendors' lines were so long that those who were able were giving advance orders. And the oilsmith, as he had feared, was nowhere to be seen.
"Girls," he said too softly for anyone to overhear, "don't have magic." He repeated it to himself as he went. Girls didn't have magic. Girls who did have magic didn't live to be women.
"Dispeller!" bellowed a voice over the crowd.
Nylop tried to make the panic drain from his eyes.
"You're needed here!"
He left the line for the parsnips and stood at the feet of an enormous man in the robe of a low alchemist. He pointed at his sandals. "Dispel that." The laces were knotted and snarled. Nylop waved his wand and clearly said the words of the spell, but the leather remained as it had been. There was no magic on it, only carelessness. To show respect he tried again, but the man had a hold on his shoulder and the magic went awry, untying a sack of carrots on a porter's back and spilling them onto the cobbles.
"Useless fool," the alchemist said. "Use your damnable hands."
When he finished, he went to the back of the parsnip line, his hands balled into fists of anxiety. He kept imagining the Mage's men arriving at his door for his child.
"My daughter-" Nylop began just past the healer's glass curtain, but Sheero grabbed his cheeks between his huge palms and greeted him loudly.
"The Mage's Grace upon you, Nylop," he said. "It's been long since you crossed my threshold."
He placed his palms upon the healer's cheeks. But instead of the customary grace he heard himself say, "Neela-" and his voice was strained to breaking.
Sheero seemed tense, but to Nylop his voice was smooth. "She's sick, is she? You look awful. Have tea with me,and tell me the signs." He pushed Nylop on to a cushion and sat facing him. With a flourish of his wand, an earthen pot appeared steaming in midair. Sheero poured the tea. "I'll bet I know what she's got, though. All the children have it. Don't worry, it won't kill her."
Nylop shrugged off the fact that the healer was not listening to him and took the tea with as much appreciation as he could manage.
Sheero produced a book and flipped through it. "Let me see... fever, trembling in the extremities, orange tint to the eyes. Loss of appetite. It's the Yellow Fit, if I'm half the healer I think I am. Your daughter needs treatment, but she'll be fine." He reached across the table and patted Nylop's knee.
"No," Nylop said.
"The Yellow Fit sometimes seems like something worse at first. You're right to be scared, like the good father you are." He rested his hands on his shelf of a belly. "Let me give you some plain sleeping draught. Will that ease your mind? Give her that and she'll rest until twilight, when I can come tend to her."
Did Sheero open his eyes a little wider when he said that? Did he give an almost imperceptible nod? Sheero had not given sleeping draught to Nylop's neighbor when his boy suffered Yellow Fit.
Nylop reached out a trembling hand and accepted the vial.
"At twilight I dispel the shutters on the lights in the Augur's Crescent," Nylop said.
"Then I'll come late." Sheero rose and gestured Nylop to the door.
"Where is she?" Sheero hissed as Nylop ushered him into the house. Sheero looked decidedly uneasy, and he glanced too briefly at the High Mage's image gazing down on them.
"She sleeps with her mother," Nylop said.
"Bring her to your chamber." The healer's voice sounded tired, burdened.
"But she's-" forbidden, he was going to say, but he surprised himself by realizing he didn't care. She had magic, after all. She should be in his part of the house.
He crossed his wife's threshold and held his breath as he walked through the kitchen and pushed aside the cloth before her doorway. He thanked the Mage his wife was not easily woken.
He knelt before the pallet and gathered Neela in his arms. Neela's blond head rested on his shoulder, and her body was limp and warm. He went into his chamber and set Neela down on the table.
She stretched and opened her eyes. "Da."
"This child doesn't have Yellow Fit," Sheero said.
"I tried to tell you," said Nylop, "this morning."
Sheero's gaze was cold. "And well you failed, fool. My chambers have more spies than the throne room."
Neela began to wail. Nylop reached for her, but Sheero's hand enveloped his arm and held him.
"Your wife can't hear her," said Sheero. "I've dropped a deep silence here. If you came to me this morning for the reason I believe, then we must wait and see what happens."
Goosebumps rose on Neela's bare skin in the chill air, and she wailed all the louder when she saw her father standing impervious to her cries. "Da, da, da." Her wailing turned to shrieks, and her outstretched fists trembled. "Wait," said Sheero. He was trying to make her Show. If withholding her father's care failed, he would try more drastic measures. Parents had killed their sons trying.
But Neela had Showed over the salt. The salt. It would have been funny. He imagined what he would have said to his jealous neighbors if Neela had been a boy child.
Nylop's free arm trembled. Suddenly, it lifted towards his child, but it was not he who lifted it.
"Don't!" said Sheero, but the arm cupped Neela's cheek in its palm and clumsily wiped her tears.
Sheero held his stone wand in the air. It glowed from within.
"She's Showing," he whispered with wonder in his voice.
Nylop's throat wrenched out a hopeless cry.
"How old were you when you showed?" Sheero asked.
"I was five. Your daughter's a better sorcerer than either of us."
Nylop's arm shuddered and itched under Neela's spell. He used his other arm to gather her to his chest, where she clung and gulped air. "It's all right now," he said.
Neela's eyes closed. With her head cradled against him, he fell into his chair and stared at the lamp flame. The dull aching in his arm told him that it had regained its will.
Sheero came and knelt before him. "Nylop," he said.
"I want to keep her," Nylop said, softly. "She's my only child."
Fury and indignation swept through Nylop in a wave. "You knew all along. You knew she had Shown. Why are you dragging this out? Why did you come in secret, in the night, if you weren't going to comfort me-" He put his head against Neela's and squeezed his eyes shut. "Don't tell my wife. Please, say she died of the Yellow Fit. Don't tell her that you sent for the Wise Men. She couldn't..."
"I didn't send for them."
Nylop looked up. "What?"
"I didn't send for them. But get up, quickly, because if you're missed at the Grand Promenade this dawn then all of this is for nothing, and I might as well have taken her to them myself. Get up."
Nylop rose. "What are you doing?"
"I'm doing for your daughter what no one did for mine. Put her back to bed."
"Put her back?"
"If you're not there to dispel the lamps, then you will not be able to do what needs be done."
"What needs to be done?" He held Neela so tight that she squirmed in her sleep and cried out.
"I am taking you to the one who can tell you," he said, "for it is a secret I only know the existence of, not the secret itself."
Nylop laid Neela beside his wife. Neither of them stirred. He had always trusted his wife, but his trust had fallen away. What would she do if she understood what happened to Neela?
He made obeisance to the High Mage's image, retrieved his wand, and followed Sheero into the night. By the time Nylop realized where they were, he knew he could not find his way back alone.
"I thought we were seeking a man of power," he said. Where the Wasted lived there could not be power. The Wasted had no magic. They were not even men, for magic was what made a man. They lived at the edge of the city by the High Mage's grace alone. Nylop looked around at the narrow alleyways clogged with refuse. He did not want to be here, but Sheero held tight to his hand.
"No one looks for power here," Sheero said.
They came to a door, and Sheero unlocked it with a long iron key. Inside, a steep stairway led up out of sight. Nylop was gasping by the time it ended at another door, narrow and shadowed. Sheero knocked.
A woman in a long blue cloak opened the door, and Nylop averted his eyes in shame. Then he realized what he was seeing.
"A woman can't be Wasted," he said.
"Hush, man," she told him. "Both of you come in."
Nylop covered his ears to keep from hearing the words of a woman who was not his. His face burned.
"Thiora the Watcher, Nylop the Dispeller," said Sheero. "He must make arrangements for his daughter."
"Bring him this way, then," she said. Nylop knew of no guild called the Watchers. How could there be an unheard-of guild that lived with the Wasted when they had no magic to build guilds upon? With his eyes towards the floor, he let Sheero guide him through the room and down a long hallway. In one day he had lost the city that he thought he knew.
The hallway ended in a low, narrow window, and Sheero and the woman stepped aside to let him look.
"What do you see?" she asked him, but Nylop would not court death and speak to her.
"What do you see?" she asked again, firmly, and touched him. The cold jolt that went through him left him on his knees upon the stone.
"Has she magic?" he asked Sheero.
"I have no magic, or I could not live within the city's walls," she said. "The High Mage would know, and he would find me. Now rise."
Sheero laid his hand upon Nylop's shoulder. "You're wasting time," he said. "For the Mage's sake, pretend she is a guildsman and speak to her now before the sun's rest ends." He pulled Nylop to his feet.
The woman drew near. He smelled the crushed herbs that warded her from harm. "You will not be punished for speaking to me," she said, "nor for hearing my words or seeing my face. Do you believe me?"
He shook his head. She was a fool if she thought it so.
"I will tell you why. A wife's claim on her husband cannot be enforced in blood. Only a man's claim on his wife may be. Do you believe this?"
"Then I cannot make the blood claim. And, as I am the wife of my wife, neither can she."
"It is the truth," Sheero said.
"And my father and brothers are dead," she said. "Now, look out, and tell me what you see."
"I thought you were a fool," Nylop said to the woman, "but now I do not." For one woman to marry another was impossible, but if it was the truth then somehow she had found a way. He had addressed her directly and his breath still came. He put his face to the narrow gap and looked.
It took him a moment to understand what his eyes beheld, for he had never seen outside the city. A moonlit plain stretched away in a sweep of silver. It was tranquil; not a soul stirred on the wide expanse of dust. He looked further. On the horizon, at the very edge of his vision, was a smudge of pure darkness. A cold fear touched his breast; that darkness was the Living Wood.
"What do you see?" Thiora the Watcher asked him.
"The enemy," he said.
He heard the scuff of her slippers as she moved away from him. He looked around for Sheero but he was no longer there.
"Let me tell you what I am offering you," she said, and at the terrible coldness of her voice Nylop began to wonder if he had done right to come. He could save Neela himself. He did not need this brazen woman who, with a few words and the view out a window, had made him believe that saving his child might be worse than not saving her.
"You can save your daughter from death at the hands of the Mage's men. She will go to dwell with the others who have escaped this city. She will be protected from harm and free to practice whatever her Showing brings. But she will become an enemy of the Mage forevermore, and his army will ride each morning through the gate to attack her lands. You will never see her again as long as you dwell within these walls, and she will never see you. Do you understand?"
"Neela will...dwell with the enemy?"
"In the Living Wood."
"But you said she could practice." In the Living Wood, no spell could exist. It was the enemy that each day tried to overgrow the city and suck all magic dry. His daughter would have no power there, only her life. Her whole unbroken life. He gazed at the shadow of the Living Wood, and a wild surge of hope flared up within him.
"Magic is in the Living Wood," Thiora said.
"If the Living Wood reaches the gate? Will I see her then?"
"Perhaps, before the city falls beneath it."
Above the palace, the first light seeped back into the world. Nylop ran towards home. Behind him all the chalices lay empty, their lights dispelled by his shaking hand. All through the long hours towards dawn, a feeling had grown inside him that something was not right. It made his work an unceasing terror. What if something happened? What if he was too late?
He shouldered through his door and threw his wand on the table. His wife sat on the floor, beneath the Mage's cold eyes.
She had crossed the threshold.
He stepped away from her in horror, but she reached out, clutching the hem of his trousers and staring at him with wide, incoherent eyes.
"Where's Neela?" he asked. He jerked his leg away and ran through the kitchen to his wife's chamber. The blankets lay crumpled on the floor, and the room was empty.
"They're coming," said his wife. Her face contorted with grief, and she reached out to him, curling her arm around his knee and burying her face against him. "I'm sorry. I had to do it."
"Tell me where she is!"
His wife shrank against his voice and repeated herself in a hollow chant. Her fingernails dug into the flesh of his thigh.
Nylop pulled from her grasp and ran down the hall to his chamber. "Neela!" he yelled.
She was hiding underneath his table. He wrapped her in a flour sack and carried her from the house. Outside, the streets were filling with market goers, and he found his place among them. The wooden wheels of his cart hit the cobbles and the frame rattled, but Neela did not stir. He put his hand down to touch her but quickly raised it again. A flour sack lay in the bottom of his cart, not anything else but that. And he was on his way to fill it.
He entered the market and was swept through it in a great press of men and boys, past the potters with their breakless cups, past the astrologers whose streets only an initiate could know the true names of. Ahead was the road that wound around the city to the supplication grounds outside the palace. The road was called Yzairshayee'o, the most sacred way in the city, whose tortuous curves and switchbacks purified the soul of the supplicant. He surged toward it with his feet barely touching the street.
And came up short.
A man wended through the crowd towards Nylop. His long pleated robe and silver mask did not disguise the cold assurance of his movements.
"Dispeller Nylop," a voice said. Another man stood before him, his shadow stretched over Nylop, the glare of his wand in Nylop's eyes. His mask occluded his voice to a whisper. "There is a call for your arrest. Come quietly and you shall be dealt with fairly."
"No," he said, and the man paused.
"No," he whispered, "I won't." The flour sack lay unmoving in his cart. He reached for his wand but it lay on the table at home, beneath the High Mage's unreadable eyes. Faster than Nylop could pull his hand from his tunic, one warrior ensorcelled him in a field of rigid bondage; the other lifted the sack from his cart's wooden boards and hoisted it above his head.
Nylop screamed. The magic had him in its grip and it made his breath reluctant to return to his lungs; but when it came he shouted again, this time the words of the dispelling chant, the words he lived by and knew the true force of. Even without his wand, they were dangerous, powerful words.
The hold on him cracked. His foot connected with the near warrior's leg. The man grunted and flicked his wand. Nylop spoke the dispelling chant a second time, struggling against the bands of invisible force around him, but they only tightened.
The man with the sack grabbed the pale curls Neela's head and yanked her into the morning light. Nylop strained every muscle in his frame but his limbs were frozen. He shouted, "Neela!" but the warrior added to his spell and Nylop's voice reflected back at him.
A flash of light seared through the marketplace.
With the stones of the avenue digging into his back, Nylop heard his daughter cry. Bright flashes swam in his eyes. He put out his hand and his fingers touched smooth metal, a mask, and it burned him. He drew back and flung off folds of heavy cloth as he rose, untangling himself from the warrior's corpse. The man was dead. The stink of charred flesh assailed him. As the bright spots receded he saw the warrior's corpses on the cobbles. Neela sat on a flour sack, howling.
He lifted Neela to his chest and stumbled through the sea of spectators that parted wordlessly before them. On half the faces was a look of terrified awe, on the other half conspiratorial idiocy. They knew what they had seen a girl-child do.
"Neela don't!" Nylop said. With each step down the Yzairshayee'o, he passed fifty supplicants without touching one, for a magic was on his feet that guided him unerringly along the road's unfamiliar angles. "They'll find us!" And sure enough, down from atop the walls they came, drawn by the magic that spilled off his daughter into him. He ducked beneath a cart as bolt of fire struck where he had been standing. Screams went up all around.
"They're trying to kill us," said Nylop. The cart burned in a spiteful green flame, choking him. There was no place left to hide. He shielded Neela with his body and tensed his legs. The supplication grounds were a stone's throw away.
He ran. Behind him the air thickened and pulsed, slamming them to the ground.
Neela disappeared before his eyes.
"No!" he said, "No! You can't have her!"
His hands disappeared, then his arms. Before the span of a breath, his eyes were seeing from a skull that let the light pass through. Blessed child! He gathered Neela and ran onto the supplication ground. A thrill shuddered up his spine and out his hands into the bare dirt court, dispelling the binding enchantments of a hundred men and leaving them free, blinking in the sunlight.
Ahead was the palace, the very center of the city. He was as far from the outer wall as he could possibly be, and a wild exhilaration was upon him. Here was the secret way to the Living Wood, directly underneath the High Mage's tower windows. He did exactly as Thiora had told him, passing along the southern wall of the supplication grounds towards the palace wall. He would find a stone, she had said, that was not there, though it appeared to be. He felt for it and his hands plunged into the stone. He stepped through into open space.
Beyond was the cool damp of rock and a steep stairwell leading into the earth. The passage twisted through darkness. The air felt as still as if trapped beneath the earth for a thousand years. Nylop forced his feet to carry them forward until a feeble light shone before them.
"Who's there?" said a woman. She was short like a dwarf, and dark; her eyes were ringed with green circles that led down past her check bones.
"Oh," he said and kissed Neela's ear because he could not see where her cheek was. "Neela, it's safe now. Let this woman see us." He wanted instead to tell her to hide them deeper. His daughter had bewildered the most accomplished mages of the palace guard. Surely, for such a child there must be a place in the city, a place of honor and power.
Neela's face was smudged and burned, and her hair hung in damp strings. Nylop brushed it back, let her fall against his shoulder where she panted in little breaths like a bellows.
"She saved us," he told the woman. "We would have died, but she saved us." He put his hand against Neela's cheek; it was dry, hot.
"She would have died even so without you," the woman said. Green lines flowed around her fingers. As Nylop imagined those hands on his child, his heart dried in his chest.
"I want to go with her," he said.
Her eyes lifted from Neela to meet him. "You cannot. The Living Wood would not suffer you to live."
He had expected her to say it, but he had not expected how heavy the weight of it would fall, nor how it would feel to bear it. "But I have nothing left. I will not live until sunset. My wife..." He bowed his head.
"You will live," she said. In her face was a power he had never seen and wrenched his heart with longing. Here, before his eyes, within the city walls, stood a woman mage who should not have been able to exist but instead had flourished. She stepped forward and put her hands in his. He felt a shock and a release.
His body felt light and empty. "What did you do?"
"I touched you with the Living Wood," she said. "You are now dead to the Mage and beyond his reach. You are a Watcher of the Guild. Your wife has already been taken to them." She stepped away from him and a curled piece of parchment remained in his hands. It was a map. "You have paid a terrible price for it, but take comfort. You will be in the company of friends."
She stepped forward once more. "What is your daughter's name?"
"Neela." He bent his face to her pale hair and whispered it.
"And your wife?"
His wife had a name, had always had one. "Sho," he said.
"And what is yours?"
"I...I was Nylop the Dispeller."
"Nylop the Watcher," she said, and she raised one hand as if in blessing. "Nylop the Watcher, you are now a father of the Women of the Wood, Sho a mother, and Neela a sister. Take heart, your child will be loved as a husband could never love her." Then she held out her arms.
Nylop pressed Neela against his chest.
"Please," he said, but she shook her head. Her eyes were small, deep, and foreign.
"I love you, Neela," he said. Neela opened her eyes and looked at him. "I love you," he said again," and Neela smiled, a small smile that turned into a yawn.
Her face looked older than it had the last time he'd looked. He uncurled her hand from his hair and gently lifted her. Looking up he saw a door. A low, unremarkable door that didn't speak a word of what passed beyond it.
He placed Neela in the woman's tiny hands and stroked her cheek.
"Please live well," he said. The green lines on the sorcerer's fingers curled around his daughter's body.
"Da," she said, rousing from the stupor of her spent power. Her eyes were open wide and she dug her teeth into her lip as she watched him step away. The woman turned and, without a word, they were gone. The girl door, closing, didn't make a sound.