This was it, the day Alex and his fellow xyrthak hunters would be meeting up at the restaurant to celebrate. It was cloudy, but the air was its regular Generasi warm and he and Selina were having a brother and sister only picnic beforehand.
He watched his little sister for a long moment while trying to pick the best time for their talk. In a way, he was still dreading the conversation. She’d been pretty calm and relaxed lately, except for a few rare mornings and evenings when she’d gradually turned sombre. But those times had been growing less and less, so he was afraid of opening a wound that might be on its way to closing.
He was still working on different ways of normalizing her power and affinity to fire. The work they’d done together on the golem had kept her within the world of wizardry’s wonders—normalizing them—without rubbing her face in her own affinity.
After the xyrthak fight, Alex had told her about his classes’ adventures in The Barrens—including the fiery escapades of Rhea and Shiani—to maybe present flame magic to her in a neutral way. She had listened to the stories with rapt attention and little discomfort when the two fire wizards were mentioned.
But, she’d gotten really quiet when the story turned to Malcolm and his spells. Alex was beginning to see a connection between that and when he’d cast Call Through Ice in front of her. He knew how much Selina loved snow, and—with her dislike of fire—perhaps what she wanted was to practice ice magic: something that would nearly be impossible because of her affinity.
A gentle talk should work, but it would be a difficult balance. As the adult and head of their little family—still a strange thought to consider now that they were out of Mr. and Mrs. Lu’s house—it was up to him to make sure that his little sister was well taken care of and guided in responsible directions.
Young children lacked information and naturally couldn’t decide their futures as yet: half of the boys he’d gone to the church school with when he was Selina’s age had wanted to be knights-errant, not knowing that knighthood required either noble blood, or a peerage from the king. Knowledge most wouldn’t have until they got older. Still, he didn’t want to force Selina into something so important if she didn’t want it, especially considering their own trauma from fire.
It was a hard-line to walk, but all he could do was hope that the support he’d been providing her would help make it easier on both of them.
He turned to face her: she was in the middle of stuffing her face with cookies that he’d baked the day before, and making little sounds of appreciation as she wolfed them down. She had actually finished a big lunch beforehand, and was full and hopefully, happy.
She certainly looked happy.
She startled when she saw him looking at her, then gave a mischievous grin and opened her mouth to reveal a mess of chewed up globs of cookie.
“Ugh, gross, little goblin, gross!” he made a face and recoiled.
She swallowed. “You’re gross.”
He shook his head. “Selina…can we talk about something?” Alex paused. “I mean, I think we need to talk about something.”
She stopped mid-bite. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“No, no, you didn’t do anything wrong, we just need to talk about certain things that are becoming important as you grow up.”
She frowned suspiciously. “Is this about making babies?”
If Alex could have willed himself to die right then and there, he would have been in the afterworld, cracking his knuckles and looking to give Minervus’ ghost a punch. Unless The Mark was still on his shoulder after he died. Well, that was a dreadful thought...for another time.
“No, it’s not about making-” He paused, looking all around, then lowered his voice. “-no it’s not about making babies.”
“Oh okay, because I already know about that,” she said matter-of-factly.
“What!? Did some kid at school-”
“No, Mrs. Lu told me awhile ago.” She chewed her cookie. “So, I already know all about that.”
“Alright, okay, thank you Mrs. Lu, holy crap,” he said with feeling. “Anyway, no, I wanted to talk to you about you, and maybe starting to learn wizardry this upcoming year.”
She paused, and her shoulders began to sag a little. “Oh. Okay. …I was wondering if you were going to bring that up.” She looked at him sadly. “My friends are all talking about it. Everyone who has mana is going to start learning next semester…people keep asking me if I’m going to.”
“Have you thought about it?” Alex asked.
“A little,” she said. “But…fire.”
“Oh, you don’t have to learn fire magic if you don’t want to,” Alex said quickly. “You can learn any other magic you want. You can learn to summon things. You can make potions, you can make golems and build magic items…there’s all kinds of stuff you can do. You never, ever have to touch a fire spell if you don’t want to.”
“Yeah,” Selina said. “But I can’t use ice magic or water magic, can I?”
Alex winced. “Did…were you thinking about that?”
“How…what do you feel?”
She paused. “Sad.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s tough. You want to do ice magic but can’t…you can do fire magic instead, and you don’t really want to do fire magic, do you?”
Selina shook her head rapidly. “I thought I could make a snowman with everyone if I had magic…even here. So, it makes me sad.”
Alex winced. Suddenly, he felt really sad too. He was glad that he’d picked today—when they were going to have dinner with all their friends—to have this conversation. At least after it was done, Selina would have something good to look forward to at the end of the day.
“Yeah, that’s tough,” he said. “I don’t know…” he paused, searching for words. “It’s just not fair, is it?”
She nodded. “No. I don’t want fire…I want ice…I want water…I want mom and dad.”
Alex paused for a moment.
“Yeah, I want them too,” he said, looking at her closely. He noticed something. A strange look crossed her face briefly. “Is there something else you’re thinking about?”
“Um.” She frowned. “A little bit.”
“You can tell me if you want…or you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
She looked at him for a long time, her large green eyes searching his face for…something. “Promise you won’t be mad?”
“I promise,” he said quickly, even if he didn’t know if that would be true.
“Um,” she said. “I think about what Shiani said when we were eating together.” She took a deep breath and her face became very serious. Almost grave. “Fire can heal and fire can protect. It’s like a sword, or like Brutus or even a hand: they can hurt and they can help. Fire is like a child with no mind: it hurts when it runs free. It cannot help itself, but if it is directed, fire can heal and protect like no other thing in this world. That’s why it’s beautiful.”
Alex blinked. “You…you remember all of that?”
She nodded. “I said it to myself again and again so I would remember, like learning my multiplying tables, or Uldar’s prayer.”
“Oh wow,” he said. “So you think about that a lot?”
“Mhm,” she said. “It’s hard…it’s hard to protect people isn’t it?”
“I have no idea.”
“Yeah you do,” she said. “You did all that work to build the golem and you did it in…” She paused, then finished in a whisper: “…in the Traveller’s cave.”
“Uh,” Alex thought back hard. “Yeah…I guess it’s hard work. Maybe not for someone like Baelin because he’s so powerful…but yeah.”
“Mm,” she said. “You have to do things you don’t like, right?”
“Well.” Alex scratched his head. “The silence-spiders weren’t very fun, were they? Sometimes making the golem’s body was hard too, but, you don’t have to worry about protecting anybody, Selina. You’re eleven years old: it’s adults’ jobs to protect you.”
“But…you could get hurt too,” she said. “Just like mom and dad.”
“I…that’s not going to happen,” he said, though he knew he couldn’t really promise her that.
“And that person…that guy at your work…he died, right?”
Alex blinked. Where was this going? “That was a tragedy, it was just…something happened. You know how dangerous things can be out there.”
“Mhm.” She nodded. “And in the Cave of the Traveller…” she paused. You and Theresa protected us with…” She paused again, and had to force the next word out: “…fire.”
“Selina, that has nothing to do with you,” he said. “You take your time with getting used to anything having to do with fire. If you don’t want to ever touch fire magic, you don’t have to. If you don’t want to touch magic at all, you don’t have to. I know you don’t like it-”
Something passed over her face for an instant.
“-and I know you think it’s scary-”
“I hate fire,” she said suddenly. “I hate it! I hate it! I hate it!”
There was a desperate firmness in her voice, almost like she was trying to convince him of her words though he already knew they were true.
“I know, I know,” Alex said. “I didn’t like fire either. It’s okay, Selina. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, but if you decide to become a wizard…well, it’d be good for you to learn, and I could help you-”
“I want to learn how to be a wizard like you and Khalik,” she said. “Just…I’m sorry that I’ve got fire in me, Alex. I’m sorry.”
“Hey! Hey! Don’t be sorry!” Alex said. “That’s like saying you’re sorry that you have hands just because some people use their hands to hurt other people. It’s okay, Selina. You’ve done nothing, and I’ll always, always, always love you, okay?”
She was silent.
“Okay?” he asked again.
“Okay,” she finally said. “…is being a wizard as fun as it looks?”
“Yeah,” Alex said, smiling warmly. “Sometimes even more fun.”
He spread his arms. “Now, come here and give me a hug, little goblin.”
She made a face, looking around. “That’s embarrassing.”
“Hey, in like two years you won’t want to hug me at all, come on have mercy on your big brother,” he said.
“Alright, if you don’t then I’ll start wailing about how my sister hates her big brother right here and-”
“Okay, okay!” She quickly scooted over and gave him a hug.
He hugged her back. “I’ll always love you Selina, no matter what you do.”
She nodded, though he couldn’t see her face. “I love you too,” she said in a tiny voice.
He smiled back. “Alrighty, I release you from the hug.”
She held onto him for a little longer before finally letting go.
“So, are you ready for dinner tonight?” he said. “You can talk to Shiani for a bit if you want. Theresa’s going to take you there with Brutus: Khalik and I are helping Thundar with one of his assignments for Magic Lore, then we’ll be along right after, okay?”
“Okay,” she said.
“And don’t eat all the food before I get there.”
“You know, Thundar,” Alex grumbled as the sky-gondola finally pulled into the city. “ ‘I’m almost done the assignment’ doesn't usually mean, ‘I still need help writing half the damn paper.’”
“Oh by the gods, will you drop it!?” Thundar said. “I was almost done! And then this guy-”
He pointed a finger accusingly at Khalik. “This is the guy that went ‘there’s a better way to do this’, and said I needed to re-do half of what I did before you got there!”
Both Alex and Thundar looked at Khalik, who shrugged. “Does a man apologize for telling the truth?”
“I would have been fine!” Thundar whined. “It would have been a solid paper! At least a mid-eighty!”
“And now it is a mid-ninety, why are you complaining?” Khalik looked at him. “You say you are ‘leader’ of this cabal, and yet now you go on about how your efforts are ‘good enough’. Since when do we accept ‘good enough’?”
“When it’s good enough!”
Khalik shook his head. “You will thank me when you get your assignment back.”
“I might be dead by the time I get my assignment back, I’m starving!” Thundar growled.
Najyah, perched on the side of the sky-gondola, shook her head in a surprisingly human gesture.
“Oh, now the bird’s sassing me. Keep it up, and I’ll make you into emergency food!” Thundar snapped.
The magnificent eagle squawked in false fright as she took off and flew into the city.
Khalik smiled. “She’s off to the restaurant first, I think she will eat before we do. On purpose.”
Thundar snorted. “Your familiar’s evil. Crazy useful, like some kind of super minion, but evil.”
“She suits me fine when she is not in her evil moods. She has a sweet side too,” Khalik said.
“Too bad she never shows it,” Alex chuckled, drawing a glare from Khalik. He looked over the side of the sky-gondola and saw their restaurant a few streets ahead. The crowds weren’t too thick, luckily, and there wasn’t much in the way of sky-gondola traffic.
His eyes widened when he saw a familiar sky-gondolier lifting off from a nearby street, no doubt giving her dead-voiced speech to her customers. “Well, there’s Lucia.”
“Who?” Khalik asked.
Alex blinked in surprise. “Oh, I never told you guys about Lucia?”
Thundar shook his head. “Doesn’t sound familiar to me.”
“Right, well when we first got to Generasi we-”
Khalik gasped, his eyes going wide. His hand grasped his chest as though he was having trouble breathing. “No…no!” He looked at the sky-gondolier. “Set us down! Now! Now!”
Their gondolier blinked. “We’re still a street away from-”
The sky-gondolier gasped as Khalik barked out a spell and earth armour formed around himself.
“Did you not hear me?” He reached into his purse and threw a gold coin. “Set us down or I will bring us down myself!”
Thundar and Alex sat up in alarm as the gondolier abruptly landed them beside a shop.
“What’s wrong?” Thundar demanded.
Khalik vaulted out of the sky-gondola and was already running as he shouted back. “It’s Najyah!” he cried. “I can feel her mana being drained!”
Alex’s body went cold.