Aucis kept Shir’s secret for four long years before he stumbled, and it all slipped away.
By that point they were well known throughout the village as being particular friends. That was on large part due to Shir, who still spent a lot of time tending to the growth of his preternaturally friendly and helpful persona. Aucis was hardly ever with him during these episodes, as Aucis on the whole preferred either solitude or solitude-with-Shir; however, Shir apparently enjoyed mentioning Aucis’ name whenever it was even remotely appropriate.
The result was that visitors to his mother’s library over the years became bold in seeking Aucis out especially just to make comments such as:
“You’ll say hello to Ashir for me, won’t you? He’s been busy lately, hasn’t he? You must know all about that, but he won’t tell me a word. How good to know that the two of you are friends.”
“Ah, Aucis. Perhaps you can help me. Ashir left us a Gilhert for the hearth, but you know I’ve never been good with his spells and as it turns out, neither is my partner. I’m hoping you could recommend another? We have no problems getting a fire started, the issue is with the duration. Ashir said to ask you.”
They all seemed to have embraced a huge misunderstanding — they thought that because Shir was, to them, approachable and beneficent, Aucis was by association the same. As though he would have absorbed Shir’s qualities via osmosis in the time they spent together. Or maybe they thought that good people kept good company as a matter of course.
Whatever the reason, Aucis had had to learn to weather the positive attention of people who had never previously bothered with him. He didn’t try to imitate Shir on this front; he knew very well he wouldn’t be capable of that. Instead, he was himself — as much as he was comfortable with being. He gave honest advice when asked for it, and replied minimally when obliged to make small talk. Before, he was aware that this sort of behaviour had been seen and dismissed as unwelcoming, but now he had Shir to give him credence. It was as though their known friendship became a filter through which strangers now could read hitherto unseen warmth into his words and actions.
Shir, of course, was annoyingly amused by it all when he wasn’t being point-blank blasé and trying to get Aucis’ attention on something else.
“You could try mentioning me less,” Aucis suggested once. “I had to listen to what’s-her-name, that old lady, you know who, talk about that thing to do with the fencing or whatever it was for ages. I couldn’t get her to stop.”
A little sardonically, Shir said, “Clearly you didn’t listen hard enough. Yujing is trying to coax the vines to grow in a specific pattern on her new garden trellis. It’s for her niece, actually.”
That was another thing: Shir was not being entirely or even partially sincere when he helped people, but he did help them. As far as Aucis could tell, he never left anything unfinished, and always gave whatever he could as long as it was in character (which was to say, as long as he was, to every observing eye, walking beneath the line). He paid real attention to the problems presented to him. He listened hard, he committed things to memory.
Shir said, because he was a liar, “Anyway, I don’t mention you much.”
“What?” Aucis said. “Yes you do! People are always talking to me about you.”
Shir gave him a weird look.
Aucis returned it with interest. He said, “I thought you didn’t like it.”
Shir’s mouth eased into a close-lipped smile; Aucis was familiar now with its shape — a tilt at the corner, sloped and uneven — but not quite its meaning. It was very different to most of Shir’s other (genuine) smiles, which were symmetrical and uncomplicated.
Shir said, “It’s not so bad lately.”
There seemed to be some significance in his admitting that much; he was leaning forward intently, full of concentration.
Aucis wasn’t sure what to say. The quips he’d had in mind all of a sudden seemed ungainly. So he hummed acquiescence and said nothing, bending his head back to the book he held in hand.
It was quiet for a while. Then, Shir got up and cast a spell which for some reason made the rustling of the trees sound instead like a chorus of windchimes. The music carried them through the rest of the day.
When Aucis did stumble, it was over a step in the path he had been anticipating, and which therefore by rights should not have caught him so off-guard.
But it was his mother. He should have known better.
She was approving of his relationship with Shir. She saw how it changed him outwardly and it fit the version of him that she had always wanted. Around the same time as when the visitors to the library had started having enthusiastic conversations with Aucis, Mother had also begun to talk with him more.
She would ask about his day; he would respond with brevity. That wasn’t difficult. As long as she asked broad questions, he could give her equally broad answers.
The problems began slowly. They began when her questions became more targeted.
“What spells did you work on today?”
“No spells,” Aucis lied. “We didn’t do much. We just, we walked around the northern ridge; Ashir thought he saw a cave.”
“You always take books. To walk around with?”
“I like books.” Then, defensively: “We’re friends.”
The exchanges always ended inconclusively, when Mother stopped replying and Aucis realised belatedly that his presence was no longer required. He started to watch her for reactions closely, but her expression rarely shifted from the same cool disinterest to which he was accustomed, even when the questions themselves seemed to indicate a level of engagement.
It made him feel sickly apprehensive, but the emotion was not concrete: he could not grasp hold of it to examine properly. It floated, nebulous. When he replayed the scenes in his head they more often than not seemed innocuous.
“Aucis,” Mother said. “Have you given thought to your future?”
Aucis fumbled the book he had been removing from a shelf. “I’m sorry, Mother?”
The village lived off the land. Children were taught all the rudimentary skills and the rest was left to individual ambition. Most carried on with farming, or whatever happened to be the family trade. That they had a library would have been unusual if the village had not been situated along a much frequented highway for travellers, a perfect point between the highlands and the lowlands. As it was, the library was small and Mother was its only Keeper.
Aucis thought quickly. He had been teaching himself bookbinding. The proper method, using aktissarite, although while practising he had to use a substitute instead of the real thing. He said, “The Grounding always needs binders —”
“You’re well read,” said Mother. She said it without inflection. He didn’t think she was mocking him.
“Yes?” he said, uncertain.
“What about Ashir? What is he doing?”
Alarm seized him. “He’s,” he stammered, “I, I don’t know.”
“He’s good at teaching.”
Aucis relaxed. “Does the village need an official tutor? For casting?”
For a moment he thought he saw amusement cross her dark eyes. She said, “No. I don’t think so.”
She never asked the same question twice, unless it was the broad opener, the how-was-your-day. Aucis tried his best to predict what she might ask about next, but it was difficult when he didn’t know what she was thinking. Either her attentiveness was benignly maternal, which he couldn’t imagine, or she was — suspicious, which was a conclusion he did not want to reach.
“Aucis,” she said, “a new book came in today. A travelling Keeper and her spellmaker passed by. She traded it in for two of our older volumes.”
She handed him the book. It was thin and small, new in every sense of the word. Freshly minted. Energy seemed to pulse from under the cover; it must have been the aktissarite, abuzz. He took it excitedly.
Mother said: “Ashir might like it.”
He felt touch of cold down his spine.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll … I can borrow it first? Show him?”
“Of course,” she replied. “Show him.”
Was she suspicious?
It began to occupy his mind, more and more. He debated telling Shir, but airing his misgivings seemed unwise, more likely to swerve things in the direction of wrong than right. He remembered Shir saying, I’ll run away, and knew that there was too much risk.
Then, one day, Mother asked Aucis to cast a spell.
It was mid autumn; the days were growing short. He’d returned home on the cusp of dusk, a bit out of breath because he’d run fast to keep warm.
As always, he was holding a book. He came into the foyer and was aware of her gaze on him.
“Mother,” he said in greeting.
“Aucis,” she responded, beckoning to him to come closer. “Cast a spell for me.”
“Oh.” He stepped up to the wooden counter, which bore across its surface an imprint of the Grounding symbol. “What is it? Did you need help with something?”
She gestured at his book. “You like the ones by Undera?”
Shir liked them. “Yes,” said Aucis.
“Good,” she said. “Cast me one of those.”
He didn’t ask why. She’d ignored his other questions already. He flipped open the book to search for a spell.
Shir liked Undera because, as he had put it, even the easy spells had a lot of open connections, avenues for alternative interpretations. That day, he had been going through them, looking for any possibilities he might not have yet considered.
Aucis wasn’t overly worried, no more than usual; he felt the anxiety of discovery so constantly he was, to a degree, used to it. Anyway, his mother was asking him, not Shir, so what did it matter? Aucis was just average.
He picked a spell at random. It was an easy one.
“From above, the smothered flame. From within, the messenger newly born.”
Shir had messed with that spell, too. He’d climbed up high on a tree, midway to the canopy. Aucis smiled inwardly at the memory.
The spell didn’t work.
“Huh,” Aucis said, “that’s strange.”
Mother appeared untroubled. She said mildly, “You were trying for the lights?”
“Yes,” Aucis answered. The sun had mostly set. The spell should have lit the candles which stood in brackets around the room (mostly for decoration; the library, though humble in size, had been constructed by the Grounding and had spells for illumination built into its walls).
“You’re sure?” Mother prompted.
He was looking at the page in puzzlement, trying to figure out what he had done wrong. His attention wasn’t on her. He said, “Of course I am, I could hardly try to call down lightning, could I?”
As soon as he’d said it, he knew that that was it. He’d blundered, and now the trap was sprung. The spell hadn’t worked: he’d been thinking of Shir, what Shir had been trying to do. His intentions had been fragmented. Stupid, stupid.
Could he pretend that he had been nervous with the casting? No, it would be a useless front, it was after all the smaller of the two mistakes. He had let slip on the lightning. Mother would know.
He shifted his gaze from the book to her.
She did know.
He felt a wave of vertigo. This wasn’t happening.
Mother’s eyes were like needles, pinning to him the spot.
She said, “Ashir.”
“No,” he bit out. “No.”
It was already far too late for that.
“You’ll meet him tomorrow?” she asked, and without waiting for his confirmation, went on, “Bring him here.”
“No,” he said again, putting a hand on the counter; everything was whirling. “It was, it wasn’t him. I thought of —”
“Do not,” she said, enunciating each word with ruthless precision, “finish that sentence.”
“Please,” he begged.
She leaned downward, so that their faces were a handspan apart. Quietly, she told him, “The line does not waver. Make sure he doesn’t run.”
There was one lesson Mother had taught him through repetition in his youth which he had never forgotten. It was the lesson of responsibility, of debts owed and debts repaid. His mother had owed a debt to the Grounding, and she was repaying it by being a Keeper. From the little that she had let him see while growing up, Aucis suspected that she missed life with the clan. She had deliberated over what she loved and what she felt was right and had forsaken one for the other. A clear conscience was a thin coat next to the fire of happiness, but the important thing, the point that she always made very clear was this: she had chosen it.
Those were the thoughts that crossed his mind that night, as he lay awake in the dark and was torturously aware that somewhere else, in a different building, Shir was sleeping, entirely ignorant of Aucis’ betrayal. The balance had been tipped: Aucis now owed a debt. Yet that evaluation while factually true was too clinical. He was not his mother, and he was not choosing between his conscience and his happiness. One path held everything, and the other was just a wide chasm, down which he could fall and fall.
The next day, he went to the river. Shir was there, and Shir turned to look at him.
Aucis supposed that it showed on his face.
He said, “You have to come with me, to the library.”
Shir said, very softly, “Do you know what I think, sometimes?”
Aucis didn’t reply.
Shir continued, “I think I should like it if there were a spell which would — which I could use to erase something. Anything.”
Aucis made an aborted movement. The ground was a carpet of damp leaves, rotting in layers. It was slippery, treacherous.
Relentlessly, Shir went on, “Like all the fish, swimming upstream. Or a single stone on a cliff. Or myself. I don’t mean death. Not that. I mean nonexistence. It would be so clean. The world would look different. And no one would know.”
Aucis forced the words out: “We’d never have met.”
“No,” Shir said. “Thus, cleaner. For you.”
“Cleaner,” Aucis echoed. “Not better.”
Shir sank down, rubbing his hands up his forearms as though he were cold. “The spell doesn’t exist,” he whispered. “I could write it, if I ran.”
“Don’t run,” Aucis said, hard scales in his voice. “They’ll catch you.”
“They don’t catch all the witches.”
“They catch all the ones who run too slowly.”
“You think I should’ve run faster? Earlier?” Shir said, losing the strangely detached air he had enveloped himself in when he had turned and seen Aucis’ face.
“I think you can’t run faster,” Aucis said miserably. “You don’t know anything about anything. You’ve hardly ever been outside the village. They’ll catch you and it’ll all be over.”
“You don’t know anything either,” retaliated Shir.
“I don’t,” Aucis admitted, because it was true. “But I know this much. Come with me to the library.”
“Then it really will all be over.”
“No,” Aucis said. “Mother — she, she likes you. And we’re young. It’ll be the letters.”
Shir just stared at him. Aucis realised that he had already known that.
He tried, “It won’t be —”
“It will.” Shir was crouching down but he didn’t look small; he looked like somebody who had been hurt and who was searching for an opening to do his own damage. His eyes were narrowed. “I don’t want to. Did your mother send you because she thought you could convince me? Because we’re such good friends?”
Aucis clenched his jaw and hammered down on his resolution. “I think she sent me because it didn’t matter to her. She could have sent a message to your parents instead, she could have done any number of things. She still could. I was slightly more convenient.”
He watched the words sink in before Shir grimaced and looked away, neck bent towards the ground.
There was silence: a stalemate. That was of no use to either of them. Aucis walked until he was standing in front of Shir. He reached down and pulled Shir up by main force.
“Earlier,” Aucis said, “you used … you said: ‘for you’.” He had a grip on Shir’s shoulder. He shook it, lightly. “I don’t want it to be cleaner. It can’t be. But if you’ve ever had any inclination to do anything for me, then do this: don’t run, come with me to the library and — and take the letters.”
There was bile at the back of his throat. He swallowed it down.
It felt as though he waited an age. But slowly, slowly, Shir raised his head. He said, almost inaudibly, “All right.”
When they reached the library, there were two other Keepers there. One of them was a two-heart, the other wasn’t. Aucis recognised their faces vaguely; he knew that they were from another library to the south, several hours of travel away. Mother must have sent for them last night, for them to be here already. He assumed they had made haste in the dark. They looked weary.
The two-heart gestured towards Shir, who was standing at the entrance, a pace behind Aucis. He asked, “That’s the one?”
“Yes,” answered Mother. To Aucis and Shir, she said, “Come in, the both of you.” She nodded at the two-heart, “Keeper Wrae,” and then at the other, “Keeper Olaine. After you.” She indicated the doorway to their left, which lead to the reading room. It was the only space in the library apart from the foyer which was not a labyrinth of bookshelves.
They entered. Shir lingered at the threshold, and Aucis, waiting by his side, noted that the room had been cleared: there was only one large, tall table in the curve of a semicircle with a hollow middle. Mother, Wrae and Olaine arranged themselves behind it. Shir and Aucis moved to stand in the centre. Shir’s face was completely blank.
Mother and Wrae, both — of course — being tall, remained standing. Wrae was well-built and grey-haired, his mouth set in a scowl that fit so perfectly it might have been its natural state. Olaine, in contrast, wore a polite smile and would have had absolutely no presence at all if she had not also been wearing formal robes. All three of them were, in fact. The red symbol of the Grounding lent severity to even the most unassuming of figures.
Olaine sat down on a high-seated chair that had evidently been placed on the right side especially for her. Wrae was on the left.
Aucis’ mother, standing directly in front of them, began the proceedings. She said, “The Grounding has reason to believe that Ashir, son of Ashid and Yunai, has risen above the Second Line.”
“You can’t prove it,” said Shir. It was a useless thing to say, but Aucis had a feeling that Shir, having been pressed to the precipice, wanted to do a little dancing while the wind howled.
Wrae said, “There is testimony.”
“There is,” Mother confirmed, looking straight at Aucis.
“Speak it, then,” said Wrae. “We are three.” The statement was heavy with ritual — three Keepers of the Grounding, enough for an ultimatum.
An ultimatum that was coming, no matter what.
Aucis breathed in, composed himself, and said, “I have witnessed Ashir rise above the line. I’ve no doubt.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Shir turn towards him with a start.
Aucis continued, keeping his voice calm, “For a long time I abstained from casting any spells, and as a result have been unfamiliar with the limits inherent in all of them. This shortcoming of mine may have allowed Ashir to rise above the line on many occasions in my direct company without my knowing better.”
“But you realised yesterday?” prompted Olaine, the first words she had uttered so far. Her measured voice was startlingly deep.
“I did,” said Aucis. “I went to my mother as soon as I could.”
“He ran back home,” said Mother, calculation in her eye as she looked Aucis over.
“And the spell in question?” Olaine asked.
“A classic, written by Undera,” said Aucis. “Intended for summoning light after sundown. Appropriated in an attempt to call down lightning.”
Shir made a noise like a suppressed cough. Aucis glanced at him, but his face was still blank and unreadable.
Olaine raised her eyebrows, looking between them. She asked, “And was Ashir successful?”
“Oh,” Aucis said. “Very.”
At this, Shir laughed into his hand. It was muffled and it died quickly, but it was unmistakably laughter.
“Amused?” Wrae asked.
“No,” Shir said. “Not at all. It’s just: Auc is very good at this. It’s almost like he’s given testimony before.”
“The boy is a Keeper’s son,” Wrae intoned.
Carelessly: “I suppose he is.”
There was a pause. Aucis knew that his own silence reverberated.
Dryly, Mother questioned, “Does the Grounding accept Aucis’ testimony?”
Wrae said, “The Grounding does.”
Olaine said, “The Grounding does.”
“You’re going to Ground me on hearsay?” Shir protested.
This time, Olaine was the one who said, “We are three.”
Turning to Mother, Wrae said, “Did you not say he was an understanding child?”
“I believe he is stressed,” Mother replied.
“Stressed,” Shir repeated derisively.
“Ashir,” Mother said to him, “if we asked you to demonstrate your casting abilities for us, would you?”
“Your real casting abilities.”
Mother looked satisfied. “And the same answers have been given by every single witch-to-be for as long as the Grounding has stood.”
“But you can’t just —”
“Enough,” Olaine said. “We can, and we will.”
“Ashir is young, and has potential,” Mother pronounced. “He came here willingly, and did not run. The Grounding has heard and accepted testimony. I propound leniency, as is custom.”
From there they followed what Aucis guessed to be a learned script that all Keepers memorised for such a scenario. His mother made several proposals: Ashir was to be given the letters, Ashir was to fall under her authority, there was to be no grace period. Each time, Wrae and Olaine voiced their agreement.
It was clear that the decision had already been made by the three of them prior to Aucis and Shir’s arrival. It had already been made by Mother, the night before. They were only going through the necessary motions. There was nothing to argue. It was concluded swiftly.
“The Grounding has spoken,” said Mother, with finality. She had never seemed as out of reach to Aucis as she did in that moment. It was almost incongruous that she was right there in the same room with them, when it felt like she was as distant as the heavens above, passing judgment. “Ashir, son of Ashid and Yunai, will now be brought beneath the line as a spellmaker for his own protection, as well as the protection of us all, against witchery.”
There wasn’t much time, after.
“You should have told me,” Shir said. He didn’t sound accusing. He sounded exhausted, entirely unlike how he had presented himself earlier.
They had been left alone in the room, but the doorway was open and the three Keepers were close by. There was hardly anything to fear: the room was empty of books. There was only the table, which Shir had moved to sit on.
“I thought it’d make you more angry,” Aucis said.
“I’m already ‘more’ angry. There’s a lot to be angry at. You should have just told me.”
“Do you know why I did it?”
Shir twitched one shoulder, kicked at the air with his legs. “No point in you incurring some sort of infraction or punishment for a lower rising, is there? You played it very well, though.”
Aucis ran a hand over his own face. “That’s only part of it. I had to do it like that.”
Shir commanded, “Tell me.”
Aucis thought: everything, or nothing at all.
“A precise testimony means there’s less room for gossip,” Aucis said. “People will rightly think that you only ever rose above the line when you were with me. I’m glad my mother played along.”
“I know all that.”
“Also,” Aucis told him, “I’m going to the Academy.” An unblemished record was necessary, for that. An unblemished record with a denouncement of a potential witch was even better.
“What?” Shir said, dull surprise rolling across his face.
For some reason that was what did it; after what had just happened, this was what Shir had not been expecting. Aucis rubbed his arm across his eyes, hard.
He needed control. There was too much pressure under his skin, too much rushing blood. He hated the pitiless pounding of both his hearts. He said, for a distraction, “At first I thought you were going to do the smiling thing and win them over, or something.”
“What?” Shir said again, sounding more and more lost. “No, why would I do that? I don’t … Auc, I don’t even know what I said. I mean I can’t remember. Auc. Auc, don’t.”
He meant, don’t go.
“I’m going,” Aucis said. “If you thought about it for even a minute you’ll realise why.”
“I don’t want you to.”
“I have to.”
“I don’t want — you don’t owe me.”
Except Aucis did, and anyway it didn’t matter, because the alternative was nothing at all.
“One year,” Aucis said, trying to give the words the confidence of a promise. “You’re taking the rest very well, this is just another thing.”
“No,” Shir denied, “I’m not taking any of it well. I’m currently drowning in fatalism. When that wears off it will get very ugly.”
Aucis attempted to joke: “Try not to provoke Mother.”
“I won’t, because I’ll provoke you. Because you’re not going.”
“I am.” He walked closer, and put his hand palm down on the table next to where Shir was sitting. Immediately, Shir’s own hand darted out and held on.
“Don’t,” Shir said. His arm was rigid in a way that implied fragility: pressure applied from the right angle would break it.
“Shir,” Aucis whispered, “think. Mother can be your interim Keeper for one year. After that, your position at the library, this library, will be considered permanent. Are you listening to me? Do you understand?”
There was no reply, not for several long minutes. Aucis waited. The room had windows only along one wall. Two of them were ajar, funneling through a chilly breeze.
At last, Shir said, “When are you leaving?”
“Tomorrow morning,” Aucis answered. “Mother doesn’t know.” She would approve, though. “I’ll tell her, and then. Then.”
“Right,” Shir said, and Aucis could distinctly hear the fatalistic tone, now. “Fine. Go tell her.” Shir pulled his hand away.
“Will you come?” Just for the rest of the day.
“No.” Shir shifted to look outside, at the trees shedding their dresses of red and orange and gold. “I have to tell my parents, too, before official word gets out. I’ll see you when you get back.”
“Have you ever tried talking yourself out of anything?” Shir asked, and the question was Aucis’ own from years ago, directed back at him.
“No point,” Aucis said; it was the only answer.
Shir drew his knees up, hugging them.
“Shir,” Aucis tried once more to say, “I’m sorr —”
“Auc. I don’t want to hear it.”