Chapter One

Few wished to breach the Temple-Guild's border unauthorized. Nearly anything an intruder could want would lead to their capture soon enough regardless, so it was guarded, but not well; patrolled, but not carefully. Someone sufficiently desperate could get in, without magic.

On a certain night, someone did, and she stole through the Garden, between classrooms, and around clusters of housekeeps until she found her way to the Godspring.

It was here that she encountered someone who might prove to be an obstacle.

"You are not one of ours," said a man's voice in the dark.

The interloper froze. "I could be," she said.

"Oh? Would you care to prove it?" asked the other. "We are sworn to admit mages. Let the water support your claim." The water would make a mage out of a child, but it would only show existing magic, in this or any adult, if she touched it.

And apparently the visitor would care to prove it, because she thrust her arm under the stream of the Godspring -

And it ran gold -

Gold and clear, together.

"What -" hissed the man who belonged there, and the warm light pouring off the water showed the stranger's face, triumphant.

And the baby she held in that arm.

"You have to take us in now. You can't turn us away, my Meea's a mage now," said the woman with quiet triumph.

"We cannot turn her away," said the man.

Gold-shining water splashed, as the baby fell a few inches to land in the shallow pool, and her revealed magic illuminated a knife.

"And that has nothing to do with you," said the man to the woman's corpse.

Meea clipped her gold chain so the droplet sat neatly on her forehead and the rest of it wouldn't slide around and tangle in her hair. She knotted her gold sash over her neutral grey robes as fast as she could, and leaned out her bedroom door. "Ma? Are they leaving yet?"

"They're still waiting for Tse Celac," called back Artenna Witwex, as Meea stepped into her slippers. "Don't worry, girl, they're not going anywhere without you."

Meea trotted down the stairs. Her mother looked tired. "Did you remember to sleep last night?" Meea asked suspiciously.

Artenna smiled. "Sovar isn't going to start neglecting to send me to bed anytime soon, Meea."

"Did you eat breakfast?"

"No - and quite deliberately, don't give me that look, I'm meeting Lutsane for lunch and want room - but you should. There are some of Sovar's pearcakes left, in the cupboard."

"Ooh." Meea went for a cake and ate half of it in one bite. "Where's Pa?" she asked around the mouthful.

"He is with a client. He left last night after you went to bed."

Meea froze. She knew most of her father's usual clients and Artenna would usually say who. "Not a new one, is it -"

"No, no, goodness, girl, what must you think of me? An old one, but he's been off ferrying spices to Caplare for years, you've never met him."

"Good. Who's taking Pa home from that?"

"I am. It'll be well after you're back from your trip if it's anything like last year's."

Meea grabbed another pearcake. "I wasn't with last year's."

"You were home when they left and when they came back, yes? Go. You can talk to your father afterwards."

Meea nodded and, cake in hand, left the Witwex housekeep to join up with the party of mages who were going to the orphanage.

She stuck out, in the group, or even just in her family. The Witwexes were not her natural parents, and everyone in the Temple-Guild except Meea was natively Cefaxi. Meea's skin was two shades darker than Cefaxi parchment-beige, her eyes were huge and round compared to theirs with no corresponding benefit to her eyesight, and she had an unfashionably large nose, though that last wasn't unheard of among Cefaxi either. Her most recent growth spurt had seen her turn tall, for a girl, though she thought she might be through growing.

But the mages were used to her; she'd lived in the Temple-Guild all her life, wore their clothes, spoke their language, did their work, went home to a housekeep at night. No one looked funny at her within the walls.

Tse Celac, the greenmage representative for their party, appeared at last. Three people simultaneously asked him if he'd had breakfast, and he told them that he had, and it was finally possible for them to be on their way. They divided into two carriages, driven by Temple-Guild servants, and headed down the switchback path that led from the slope on which their home was built down to the town in the valley.

Meea shared her carriage with Tse Celac, and also the bluemage and whitemage. There was no particular reason that every type had to be represented on the annual excursion to the orphan asylum, but it was traditional, and it meant there were enough people along to divide up the job of interviewing candidate children.

"Have you done this before?" Meea asked the bluemage to her left. Meea had seen her before, but she was from another housekeep and they didn't interact much; she couldn't remember her name. She was pretty, though, petite and made up with enough paint that she looked like a figurine of enameled glass.

The bluemage shook her head and the blue agate droplet on her forehead bounced. If she was going on a trip like this, her schedulers had to be keeping her from overextension; a dwindled bluemage could barely carry on a conversation, let alone conduct interviews with cast-off children. "It's my first one. You?"

"Same here. I'm going to forget some key criterion and wind up with children who are sick already, or slow already -"

"Or who don't remember the gods' names already, or -" the bluemage chuckled self-deprecatingly - "don't understand that other people have thoughts, yet."

Meea nodded. "I don't remember your name."

"Luvi. You're Mia, right?"

"Mee-yay-ah," Meea corrected. "It's Caplari. My parents didn't change it when they got me."

"Did you come from a trip like this, then? I've always sort of wondered why there was a Caplari in a Cefaxi Temple-Guild. They have their own, I think. I never knew who to ask," said Luvi.

"When I was a baby my birth mother broke in and dunked me in the Godspring," Meea said. She'd told this story before. A hundred times. "Tse Alsar meted justice for the crime, but I was already maged, so he gave me to my parents."

"That's awful," murmured Luvi.

"I don't know what her other choices were," Meea said. "But there's a reason we have to interview the kids - why we can't just empty the orphanages - and why my birth mother shouldn't have done that. It's just lucky I'm able to pull my weight."

"What do you mostly do?"

"I'm underscheduled on clients, for now," Meea said. "I teach kids classes -"

"Magic classes?" Luvi asked.

"Some, and also knife-fighting, and reading, and once I did theology for a season but no one's asked me to try that again," laughed Meea ruefully. "I do a little attendant work for both parents, too, though Ma can do a lot of it for Pa, and one of Ma's boyfriends can do most of what she needs. What about you?"

"Underscheduled," agreed Luvi, "or by now I wouldn't even know you're a person -"

"Some bluemages last till they're twenty, twenty-five even," objected Meea.

"Do I not look twenty to you?"

Meea squinted. "Maybe. Are you?"

"Twenty-one. You're eighteen, I remember where your funny Caplari name is on the sacrifice wall. But they're going to put me on a normal schedule soon, I think."

Meea mentally withdrew from her attraction to Luvi. Twenty-one. Twenty-one and about to start taking jobs as often as once or twice a year. A bluemage at twenty on a usual schedule could still talk to people, but acted like those people were books, not living things with minds of their own. An overscheduled one could even stop thinking of him or herself as a person, and it took greenmagery and lots of attending to look after them then. There was a trick to talking to dwindled bluemages that Meea didn't have the hang of. Even if Luvi thought that Meea was pretty too, they'd have no time; it would only hurt.

The whitemage, sitting behind them next to Tse Celac, chose this moment to indulge a coughing fit. Whitemages had perpetual colds by the time they were ten; this one was either underscheduled too, or patched for the trip, by the fact that he was at least sixteen and able to get out of his sickbed.

"This is better," Luvi said. "For the children, I mean. Than whatever else they'd be doing."

"I'm not sure what else they'd be doing," Meea murmured. She wasn't the only mage in the Temple-Guild who hadn't been extracted from someplace similar, but most of them had, most of them knew it if they could remember anything.

Tse Celac spoke up. "The orphanages keep them as long as they can afford, but without our funneling away some of their charges each year, they have more mouths to feed, and they must make up the difference between their donations and their expenses somehow. I believe mines and mills are frequent purchasers. And occasionally, the Revel House."

"This is better than the Revel House," sneezed the whitemage. "Rather be feverish because I helped someone than feverish because the wrong patron gave me whorepox."

"I believe the incidence of disease is lower at the Revel House than at comparable smaller establishments," said Tse Celac idly. "And of course they take more girl-children than boys, when they take any, Tse Morin."

"Besides," Luvi said. "Some of the children will turn out to be goldmages, won't they? Goldmages are lucky - you're healthy all your lives. As much as anyone can be, I mean."

Meea swallowed. She had a speech about that, but she mostly saved it for other goldmages, younger ones, stupid little goldmages who used magic like it was a toy. "There is that," she said. She'd probably live longer and better than the whitemage - Tse Morin - and maybe even compared to Luvi; it would be repulsive to complain.

"All of the colors of magic have their own blessings exchanged for their own prices," said Tse Celac.

It would also be rude to snap at Tse Celac that he hadn't lost anything that couldn't be compensated for with a dedicated attendant. The Temple-Guild was well calibrated enough on greenmagic that they could always stop short of making their greenmages neglect to breathe. Tse Celac probably needed to be reminded to eat and sleep and eliminate and flinch away from too-hot food, but as long as there was someone to remind him - and there was - he'd sacrificed almost nothing.

No amount of attending or patching would get back what goldmages traded in.

"We're here," called the carriage driver.

Meea stepped out.

The orphanage contained three times as many people as the Temple-Guild, packed into half the space. Children who'd lost their parents, or whose slavemasters had died intestate, or who had run away from particularly bad keepers of either kind, accumulated there from all over the province. The older ones were farmed out as cheap labor for neighboring farms and other employers whenever possible, for revenue and to entice people to take them in; even the Temple-Guild would hire a few - as long as they were too old to get anywhere by touching the Godspring's water. The Temple-Guild took new would-be mages only through these visits.

Orphans slept in shifts, to stretch the space allotted for beds, but when the carriages stopped outside the building they were all awake.

Apparently, they didn't want to miss the chance to ride up the hill and fritter away their minds or their health or their lives on power and a life of regimented luxury.

Most likely better than the Revel House, Meea told herself as she stepped out of the carriage.

"Tse! Tse!" called some of the children. Mercifully none of them seemed to be addressing Meea in particular. "Tse, take me, I want to go -"

And then one of the children broke away from the throng of peers and caretakers and ran toward the redmage.

Meea waited until it was clear that the girl really did mean to touch the redmage - that no one else was going to be able to stop her before she touched him - and that she did value a day or so of her life less highly than a good fiftieth of the redmage's client capacity if that was really the choice.


Quick quick quick she did not have all the time in the world, she had to run, every second she spent with the world held still cost her at least an hour, likely more. She launched herself between the redmage and the child - well away from the redmage, it wouldn't do for him to touch Meea either - and unpause.

She landed in realtime, caught the little girl by the collar, and forced her to the ground. "You do not touch a redmage!" she shouted, loud enough to hurt her throat. "Do you have seven hundred thousand riaxi? Do you? Are you going to make that much money in your life, after we leave you here today? That is what it costs to lay hands on a redmage! Do you know what you were about to steal?"

The little girl - and a handful of smaller children nearby - burst into tears.

Meea didn't regret shouting, not for an instant. Everyone knew - even uneducated children knew - that you did not run up to anyone with a carnelian droplet on their forehead, a red sash around Temple-Guild robes, and try to touch them. Not unless you paid upfront, and sat with the redmage of your choice for a consultation beforehand, and coughed up the more modest per-sitting fee ever after.

Meea thought of the possibility that anyone could have done that to her pa and shuddered. He'd been pushed past advisable limits just by picking up Meea when he and Artenna had adopted her. He forgot his wife's name. He couldn't remember the contents of his childhood. He occasionally showed worrying signs of forgetting vocabulary, which didn't usually go until a redmage's entire personal history had been wiped away and replaced with clientele. Meea's father could never be allowed to touch another new person as long as he lived, and if some careless idiot like this child had seen him instead of this other redmage... It didn't bear thinking about.

"I have gloves," the redmage murmured, barely audible over the tears. "She most likely couldn't have gotten me." On inspection - he did have gloves, off-white ones, easy to miss, why weren't they bright red? The child probably wouldn't have gone for an ankle, right away, and couldn't reach his face. Oh, he was tall. Meea craned her neck. He had gloves.

"Nevertheless," said Tse Celac, coming up behind Meea, "Tse Witwex's action was commendable. Your gloves do not reach far enough into your sleeves to protect you from all possible rashness."

Meea hadn't even checked for gloves. She felt ridiculous, nauseated - what if that hour or day or who knew how long stood between her and the birth of a grandchild, a chance to save a life, the most beautiful piece of music she'd ever hear? - but it was done. Going back and undoing it would only make the cost worse, and leave a corpse for the orphanage keepers to clean up too.

"Thank you," said the redmage.

Meea knew this fellow about as well as she knew Luvi - recognized him but had no history with him - but in his case she knew his name. She was pretty sure. "Wiar Simfane?"

"Yes. Meea Witwex?"

He got it right on the first try; she smiled. "Yes."

"Now that this has been cleared up," said Tse Celac, "perhaps we should continue."

Meea nodded respectfully and walked the little girl over to the nearest orphanage worker, who took hold of the child's coat and hustled her inside.

"Form orderly groups, please," said Tse Celac in a loud, clear voice. "Remember, we can take four and five year olds only. The punishment for sneaking in an older child is simply that the Godspring will fail to change them and they will be sent back; the punishment for sneaking in a younger child to weigh overlong on the support of the Temple-Guild is death. Present us only with children four and five years old."

Meea went where she was directed and sat to wait for the first interviewee.

"Can you read yet?" Meea asked the little boy.

"A little," he said cagily. "I know my letters."

Meea picked up one of the test cards she'd brought with her. "Can you sound out this word?"

The boy stared at it with a terrifying intensity. "Magic," he finally guessed. Meea shook her head, and he looked stricken. "Does that mean you won't take me?" he asked. "Don't wanna go to the mines or wherever..."

"I can still maybe take you if you fail the reading test." Although it was a mark against him. "Why don't you want to go to the mines?" Meea asked. If he told her that he was weak, had a bad foot, didn't like to work - she had to turn him away. Anything that could shorten his span as a useful mage if he turned the water an inconvenient color, or that could make him a liability to the Temple-Guild - she had to turn away.

The boy looked at her like she was stupid. "That's where people go to die."

Meea closed her eyes. "Most kinds of magic can kill you, too."

"Not all of 'em."

"Not all miners die of it, either. And you may go somewhere else."

"I want to go to the Temple-Guild."

"I know. Now, I'm going to say some numbers, and I want you to repeat them all back to me."

Meea interviewed fifteen children and found six who passed all the tests she'd been told to administer - not including that first little boy, who failed. She was allowed discretion after that - she was supposed to submit four for Tse Celac's consideration, and he'd pick three or four of each mage's candidates, aiming for gender balance and pleasant dispositions. She struck from the list one who'd seemed afraid of her, and one who seemed suspiciously young-looking though she claimed to be four years old.

She called the remaining two boys and two girls by name, from the cluster they formed around the door to the room she'd been given to use, and led them to where Tse Celac waited in the front. He'd conducted his own interviews much more quickly.

Finally everyone was finished. Luvi and Wiar both chose mostly girls, so Meea expected one of hers to be sent back, but as it turned out Tse Celac approved all of her suggestions and managed gender balance by shooing other girls. Luvi didn't look at all happy when one of hers was dismissed. Wiar shed a tear, for one of his picks who Tse Celac rejected as being too spindly and weak-looking.

Wiar was almost generic-looking with a neutral expression on his face. Sorrowful, he was beautiful.

With the pool pruned, they loaded the children into one of the carriages and crowded into the other, doubled up as they hadn't needed to be on the way down. Wiar sat on the edge of a bench next to Meea, fussing with his gloves and sitting half-sideways to keep bare ankles away from her sandals.

"I won't touch you," she promised in a low voice. "If someone did that to my pa, I'd never forgive them. I'd never do that to any redmage."

"I know you won't try. And you'd feel terrible if the carriage jolted and I was close enough for there to be an accident," Wiar murmured back.

This was true. "Thanks."

"Thank you. Tse Celac was right, the girl could have gotten my wrist. I need longer gloves. And socks."

"Is this your first time out of the Temple-Guild?" Meea asked. She'd never been on an orphanage trip before, but she'd been into town for other things - shopping and festivals and mere changes of scenery. Then again, if someone tapped her on the arm, she wouldn't lose random snatches of childhood for the privilege of instantly knowing that stranger better than their dearest friends ever could, ideally positioned to serve as comforter and therapist to someone with no ability to support her.

"Yes. My parents have touched me, and the serving girl who's supposed to be my attendant when I need one - that's it," Wiar said.

"You're way underscheduled," Meea said. "You're seventeen, eighteen? Don't they fill you up with clients as fast as they can, with redmages, so you can pull per-sitting fees for longer periods?"

"Eighteen. I'm supposed to be presented to the royal court," Wiar explained. "They don't want me saturated."

Meea blinked. "I'm supposed to be presented, too. Next month."

"Oh," said Wiar.

"But so are four other gold mages. Her Highness probably won't pick me."

Wiar nodded. "They'll catch us up to schedule if we aren't picked, I guess."

"You have a journal, right?" Meea asked him suddenly. "It won't help forever. My pa can't remember anything he reads longer than two minutes -"

"What's his count?" Wiar asked anxiously.

"Fifty-four. He was already pushing it and then he and Ma adopted me," said Meea ruefully, "he couldn't not hold me, you know? But until you get all the way up there, you'll want a journal."

"I do have one. I don't always remember to write in it," Wiar said.

"You should. You really should," Meea urged.

"All right," said Wiar, smiling softly. "Today I'll write that I met a pretty goldmage girl, and she saved me from Knowing a little orphan I can't afford to love, and that maybe I wish the carriage had bumped us around a little bit so it wouldn't be my fault if I did touch her."

Meea was still blinking as the carriage came to a stop, and Wiar smiled at her and hopped out of it.

Meea's ma brought her pa home not long after Meea finished teaching her knife class. Meea was just taking the droplet chain off her head when she heard the door open and ran downstairs to hug him.

And Tsarian Witwex had already touched Meea, so it was fine for him to reach up and pat her on the neck.

That was what was worth seven hundred thousand riaxi. Redmages Knew the people they touched - and could not help but love them, knowing them so deeply - and those they loved could feel it.

Meea curled up in her pa's arms as Artenna maneuvered them both to the cushion and sat them down, and she was loved.