Roach's first thought after the thick furry rug slipped out from beneath his feet was that it could not possibly be his fault, because his balance was perfect, and there was too much light to see by for a novice mistake.
His second was that he really wished it had been his fault after all, because at least then, the silk coverlets across the noblewoman's bed wouldn't have come to life and dragged him bound and gagged to the floor.
- : -
It wasn't that Roach was particularly surprised by the turn of events. Lakik the Trickster transferred his favor from one person to another, as capricious as the touch of a street walker, and he had long used up any luck that could be reasonably allowed for one person.
When Roach was four, his mother narrowly escaped being stabbed in an alleyway at night.
When Roach was nine, one of the Thief Lord's gangs let him join them rather than the two-bit groups of cattle roaming Hajra.
When Roach was ten, some bag nearly stumbled across his robberies three separate times, and would probably have caught him eventually if the bag hadn't suddenly left the city.
When Roach was fourteen, the noblewoman-mage looked at the hollows in his cheeks, and rather than immediately calling the magistrate, actually asked him irrelevant details of his life she had no business knowing.
Roach decided upon his escape that he did not mind. Lady Sandrilene had received the life story of 'Briar, orphan thief who grew up alone on the streets,' in exchange for the gouges in the bedcovers he cut himself out of the moment she left the room.
In the shadows of the rooftops, Roach didn't have to look at the scars left on his palm from robbing a rich man's garden, and instead watched Sandrilene, framed by the gold-lit window as she threw her hands up in frustration, and sneered.
- : -
Which was why it made no sense when he found himself continuously blinking at every girl with sun streaked brown hair, who peered at him with eyes that weren't quite that shade of blue.
- : -
And really, he was being reckless and defiant, as usual, but this time without the Thief Lord's permission. It was not wise to follow mages around, even if she was a young one in training with a smile for every person she met in the marketplace.
- : -
Roach wasn't particularly surprised when Sandrilene stiffened, staring at the bolt of cloth, and he suddenly found himself embarrassingly intimate with a stall canopy.
The noblewoman's mouth gaped in a small 'Oh' when she caught sight of her prisoner. "You!"
Roach couldn't move enough to wave, and instead settled on frowning. "Do you know me?"
Sandrilene's mouth compressed, and she harrumphed, hands on hips. "Don't give me that. I thought I saw those rags in the corner of my eye two days ago, and I did, didn't I?"
"These are brand new rags," Roach protested. "I worked hard for each thread." He glanced down at where orange threads wove together with dirty brown. "Or I did."
"Will you run away if I release you?" Sandrilene asked cautiously.
He smiled, as sweet as the kid he had never been. "Nope."
At this point, the stall owner interrupted. "Lady Sandry, about my stall-?"
Sandry glanced at him, as though she had forgotten his presence. It took her a moment to give her answer, flushing slightly. "I'm so sorry," she said. "I'll compensate you, of course - how much for the entire canopy?"
There was a short period of silence.
"You could just set me free and - " Roach tried and failed to gesture at the canopy. "I said I wouldn't run."
Sandry ignored the implied injury in his tone. "You did say it. How much?" she asked the stall owner. Turning back to Roach, who was wondering how to best protest his innocence, she said, "Look at it this way. At worst, you'll have clothes that aren't made more of holes than threads." She grinned. "Or don't you believe me?"
- : -
"This is your idea of payback, isn't it?"
Sandry scattered another handful of breadcrumbs at the waiting birds, torn from a freshly baked loaf. "What do you mean?"
Roach nodded at the remaining half of the loaf. He no longer went constantly hungry, but when the Thief Lord was very displeased, there were long periods of time before he found the opportunity to steal food. "Giving it all to 'em."
"Nope." Lady Sandry had probably never been hungry a day in her life, and couldn't understand how he suffered, watching her tear at the loaves and feed it to scatterbrained birds, and him still being bound by fused threads, unable to do anything about it. She said, sweetly, "I'm just feeding the ones who'll actually take charity."
"I can get everything I need," he informed her.
Sandry sighed. "I know you can." Roach didn't quite expect her next question. "Was anything you told me the truth?"
"Course it was. 'cept for my name being Briar, but you can still call me that."
She looked about to answer, when something made her sit up straight, eyes flicking to the side of the garden. Roach twisted, trying to see for himself, but all he could see was the servant who had followed them.
"You don't have to try to shadow me anymore," she told him. "I'll be here every few days."
- : -
He wasn't sure what surprised him more: that she was, or that he cared enough to know it.
- : -
Sandry spoke of things that were entirely alien to his life - mages with farseeing eyes and oddly familiar names, exotic locations, the sensation of magic, copper skin and lightning - but there were a surprising number of topics they shared.
Roach would never have thought that a noblewoman with both parents still alive, who had to sneak away to meet anyone not born on silk sheets, could know a merchant child's daily duties or be interested in the nooks and crannies of Hajra. Or speak waveringly of plague, which had almost taken her family, and their narrow escape from a mob right after, all three huddled in a tiny room with no guarantee of escape. He imagined sometimes that it was probably the appeal of being able to correct Her Nobleness, constantly, that made him meet her, but the persistent urge to touch her braids, only to find she was watching him too intently to get away with it, proved it a lie.
He asked once on a whim, "And your noble parents, duchess, don't care that you wander through marketplaces?"
"They've given up, I think," she said, grinning. "Mage training spoiled me, or as much as I could be spoiled given the number of merchant's children I found more tolerable than my parents' friends."
"You're too young to be a proper mage," he scoffed.
"I'm not, yet," Sandry told him. "I'm only visiting." When he looked questioningly at her, his friend explained, "I actually live in Emelan. My parents wanted to take me for a short journey to see friends, so here I am."
- : -
Everything went well until his gang caught wind that he had a lovely noble friend, with a degree of wealth that they could not name, exactly, but knew far eclipsed their own.
He tossed and turned at night, two different sorts of loyalty conflicting. As it turned out, it mattered little what he consciously intended.
Because the moment one of his friends tried to lay hands on Sandry, her servant yelling in the background, something green and ropy fastened around his ankle and dragged him to the ground. It was a bean runner, Roach realized, frozen with shock. Not only was it attacking, but Roach couldn't understand, for an instant, what was wrong with moving plants. It felt so natural now that he'd seen it.
The entire gang fled, attacking his incomplete information on Sandry's abilities.
- : -
The flowers decorating the marker he'd made for his mother's passing were opening.
- : -
For the first time, it was Sandry who found him, and he almost wished she hadn't. It was his own fault, of course, for telling her about Hajra's nooks and crannies, but in his experience, the aristocracy did not dirty their hems trying to squeeze through cracks in the wall. Especially if it was the third one that day. Especially if it meant sitting so close to a street gang member that he could feel the warmth of her skin, where their shoulders and thighs brushed. His eyes flicked to hers, and found that Sandry was watching him, painfully earnest.
"Briar," she began.
Sandry's braids swung as she shook her head. She didn't say anything, though, merely stretched out her hand. Roach glanced down at her open palm, and the flower in it.
"If you think I'm going to start calling myself Lily -"
"Make it bloom."
As Roach blinked, and started protesting, she dropped it into his hand anyway, and closed his hand around it herself, one finger at a time. He stared at their hands, clasped for a moment; he hadn't thought to resist.
She insisted, as mulish as any noble, and in the end, Roach simply closed his eyes and gave in, following the breathing exercises she had suggested. No matter how hard he tried, he could not seem to relax, and had to pull his hands away from hers to before his racing heart would slow. Was it fear that made his breaths too shallow?
Eventually, he opened his eyes and uncurled his palm, to find that nothing had changed. The bud was still closed, had given no response.
Sandry looked crushed, which made Roach's smugness at being proved right feel less satisfying than dismaying. He wouldn't have minded having magic, he thought, resigned, and stood in the narrow space.
His companion's eyes widened.
Roach glanced down into the compact earth, at the pale green sprouts covering what had been bare ground when he first closed his eyes.
- : -
The argument over whether he needed to be taught lasted longer than it would have if Sandry had pointed out, immediately, that he wouldn't know how to use his magic without teaching. It was nothing compared to his response at her suggestion of teachers - Dedicate Rosethorn of Winding Circle. In Emelan. Roach could not even say in which general direction it was located relative to Sotat.
She had almost swayed him to properly consider it when her words registered in Roach's - Briar's - head. "What do you mean, 'she's been expecting me?'"
Sandry jerked. It was more of a response than Briar had expected, and he narrowed his eyes. "Well, there aren't many plant-mages you can learn from..."
"Don't bleat stories unless you can do it well." In his frustration, Briar had dropped the cues he'd picked up from her despite their short acquaintance.
"I'm not lying!" Sandry protested. Briar glared at her, and she crossed her arms in response, shaking her head.
"You think I haven't learned to tell when a kid's holding back?" Briar demanded, advancing a step towards her. "How long did you know? Letters take..." he pulled out a number he thought was reasonably accurate - "three weeks at least to get there."
"Three and a half."
Briar's stomach seemed to drop down to his toes. "You've known for that long?"
If he'd given himself away, why hadn't the Thief Lord already heard and made use of this reportedly rare magic?
"I didn't send her a letter," Sandry began.
"How long?" he asked, resisting the urge to shake her.
If possible, Sandry became even more reluctant, but his silent scrutiny seemed to unnerve her. Finally, she gave him an answer that made him take a step back. "Since you said your name was Briar."
- : -
Because it hadn't been fame that made the name Niklaren Goldeye - the bag who had, when he was ten, nearly caught him thieving - feel familiar, and Goldeye had told his three students of the boy that vanished when he tried to find him. He'd had a notion that the boy would, one day, be called Briar. By the time the mage had started to scry again, the only visions he received were of upcoming disasters.
Years later, Sandry had remembered.
- : -
Neither of them spoke as they left the cleft in the wall, now brimming with plants. Sandry bent down once they were outside to break a circle of scarlet thread. Briar waited, but didn't say anything.
Lakik's teeth! It was not right that he'd fall for the nobles' tricks too, him being so much wiser. Why did it bother him that the second time she tied him up, it was because of a vague memory? Or had he really thought her so easily fooled that she'd tried for a second time to get to know him?
Briar would have told himself it was merely a blow to his pride, which wasn't always a bad thing, except her hand touched his cheek, and despite their skin temperatures being practically identical, it burned. If it were mere pride, he wouldn't be aware of the cornflower eyes, so blue, and not nearly as transparent as they first seemed. He had been a bleat-brained fool from the first instant he stopped to look at her framed by amber light, through her glass-paned window.
"Where are you going?" she asked, as he made to leave.
"Don't worry your head over it, Duchess," he said, meaning it to cut, and felt vindicated when she flinched.
"I'll be going back to Summersea in three days," she called after him, as if Briar needed reminding.
- : -
The flowers around his mother's marker needed some tending, so he did. It could well be the last time he used his powers, however unconsciously, for himself.
If the Thief Lord had not known earlier, his spies would have reported that evening, and he certainly did now.
-the last time he used his powers for himself.
Briar's hands stilled. He frowned at the bold X on the webbing between thumb and forefinger of his right hand, then the left. If he was to be forever coaxing bushes to let them through, when would he find the time to tend to his mother's flowers? What if he were caught for a third time?
On the other hand, if he left, who would tend her grave?
But then - Briar's last memories of his mother caught her without cheap jewelry or makeup. She'd gladly parted with them to keep him safe, his own, for as long as she could manage it. And of everything he had, not one was solely his - friendships, names, new and old - except the magic.
Slowly, his hands began moving again over bright petals.
- : -
Briar had nothing to pack except his mother's marker - her ashes had long since floated out of Hajra's habor - and flower seeds harvested in previous seasons, wrapped in the least ragged of his shirts. He kept the clothes he had worked the hardest for, though in truth none of them were particularly worth bringing, and the arm band he'd sweated and bled to deserve. Bundles in one hand, food in the other, Briar hid.
It gave his resentment, for the only friendship he could keep being started from charity, time to grow stronger. With all the girls, pretty and playful, who would smile coyly back, why did he have to remember the mulish set of her mouth when they sat too close together for comfort, as her soft warm hands clasped his? He'd never so much as flirted with her and now he was going to trust her as they left the only home he knew?
The scars on his palms throbbed. He closed it into a fist, because Briar did trust her.
- : -
He was glad that his appearance in her stables, the morning she was supposed to leave, left Sandry the odd-footed one for once.
Except - "How did you get a horse for me?" he asked, patting its neck.
Sandry shrugged. "I told the truth: that there was a street kid with magic I needed to help. Father and Mother understood."
"Run out of an appetite for lies?" he couldn't help but ask.
"Did you forget the story you spun for me, the first time we met?" Sandry struck back, somehow managing to look down her nose at him despite Briar's half a foot advantage. "I wanted to be sure it was you. And..." she stopped. Generally, Sandry did not mind blazing out her opinion, unless there was something very interesting she was keeping back, so Briar stood straighter, questioning. "I didn't want you to leave because you thought me stupid. Or mad. Or both."
He could escape on the road to Summersea, if he wished, but Briar wanted to master his magic, and she would be the only one there that he knew. If he did not forgive her like she had him, he would have no one.
Briar would not lie and claim that being alone was better than that.
"I wouldn't have thought you were mad." That was an outright lie, and only proved her point, the ease with which he had fallen into lying to his friends. Maybe he could say something true instead? "And I wouldn't have run."
They both blinked. Sandry was the first to smile, no longer tentative. "Briar Moss, I don't even know why I believe you."
It was the perfect suggestion of a last name, so really, could he do anything else but kiss the wicked smile poised on her lips?
Briar didn't know what reaction he'd been expecting, but the abrupt laughter when he pulled away had not been it. "What?"
"Did I forget to mention," Sandry said, "that we'd be living in the same house in Summersea?"
- : -