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Generated: Apr 26, 2018 10:03 PM
Post last updated: Feb 11, 2017 12:59 PM
time and trouble
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The Emperor is dead; long live the Emperor.

And about damn time, too. If that war had dragged on much longer -

But it didn't, and he managed to get the cleanup settled in time for his son's first birthday. First lighthearted public event in four years. Happy birthday, kiddo, you're an imperial prince.

Rainbows dance in the spray of the fountain at the center of the courtyard; lanterns flare to life as the sun descends behind the palace. Talfir would rather be doing paperwork, but this is important. A symbol of peace and stability. He just hopes the kid doesn't bite any diplomats today.

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That's about to be the least of their problems.

A woman--humanoid, but too ethereally beautiful to be an elf or a firebird maiden, let alone a human, and gowned in beautiful clothing a century at least out of date, but more vibrant than any cloth dyed yesterday--walks in.

At first, most of the guests don't seem to notice her, but as she comes closer to the child more and more people see her. Many of them are alarmed. Some are excited. Having a fairy--because she has to be a fairy--show up to a prince's birthday can be a really good thing or an absolutely terrible one.

She reaches the child and scoops him up.

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"Wab," he says, clutching her arm.

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A fairy. Great.

"Welcome," says the Emperor, as neutrally as possible.

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The fairy chucks the baby under the chin and pre-emptively offers him a finger to gnaw on before he can try to bite her somewhere less dignified. "Kereve Talfir," she says serenely. "You have done great good for this kingdom in its troubled time. I commend you."

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Well, all right, could be worse.

"Thank you."

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The baby chews industriously on the fairy's finger. He doesn't have all his teeth yet, but the ones he's got are sharp.

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If the fairy experiences any pain as a result of sharp baby teeth she doesn't show it. Certainly none pierce the skin. Her gaze drops to him regardless. "And to be graced with an heir already." Something comes over her face; her eyes go blankly white.

This is what fairies look like when they're about to make prophecies, if anyone recognizes the signs.

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Oh for fuck's sake.

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"Look to the future with hope and with fear, Keria," the fairy declares. Her voice isn't raised in the conventional sense, but it is perfectly and sharply clear to everyone, no matter their distance from her, and an unearthly quality overtakes it. "For a child has been born to the house of Razada who will, in the fullness of time, be a great hero--or a darkness greater than the one just past."

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...well, fuck.

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The fairy puts the child back down on the floor and glides serenely away.

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The only other living child of the house of Razada escapes her mother's arms and runs to hug the baby, who bites her and then starts to cry.

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Yeah.

A lot of people are alarmed. Some of them are suddenly inclined to view baby-biting as suspicious. Some are optimistic. Almost no one is calm. A few people attempt to resume festivities as though nothing had happened, but the total effect is conspicuously half-hearted.

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Yes, it would be, after that show.

Well. Not much he can do about it now. He accepts a procession of gifts on behalf of his son, who falls asleep on Alevrie halfway through and therefore misses the subsequent parade. Talfir wishes he could also miss the parade. Talfir would like to go just three consecutive months without having to handle an enormous disaster.

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Well, too bad, because the baby gets kidnapped just two and a half months later.

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"For fuck's sake."

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"Don't shoot the messenger. What are we going to do about it?"

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"Find him, obviously."

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If they try very hard and have a good enough magician, they can determine that it was almost certainly a warlock who did it. Attempting to trace the warlock's power leads to two mangled corpses and no further.

Sorani Savaross does not, normally, operate within Keria. He likes his rulers mediocre enough to work around, not swinging between hypercompetent and insanely paranoid and now back again. But when one of his informants brought him word of the incident at the prince's birthday, he was unable to resist.

He tells none of his other apprentices the child's true identity; he tells them the child's given name is Tassairen, and its surname is his own (the latter being his habit when he returns with a child young enough not to remember the original). It's unusual for him to bring back a baby, but not so unusual that the older ones don't know what to do with it until it's old enough to respond to instructions.

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Tassairen is a reasonably convenient baby if you don't mind the biting. He gets less convenient as he grows older. His favourite pastime seems to be making other children unhappy.

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Good. It wouldn't do for him to think the other children were his allies, or vice-versa.

When he gets to be five years old, Savaross begins teaching him magic.

"Hello, Tassairen. Do you know why I've called you here?"

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"No," he says, looking very much like his father, did he but know it.

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He examines the child critically. "Today is your fifth birthday, or close enough. This means you are old enough to begin learning the the art and power of magic."

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He smiles. The smile does not look very much like his father at all.

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Though Savaross does not mention it by name, the kind of magic he is attempting to teach is warlockry. The first exercise is tearing power from the ambient magical fabric, which he will later learn to use. For now he can focus on getting his hands on any. He is provided with an exquisitely detailed description of the meditative techniques required to perceive the ambient magical fabric, and a slightly less detailed description of how to tear a piece off, and instructed to begin.

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Meditation, it turns out, is annoying.

He tries anyway, stubbornly.

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After enough time with no measurable progress he gets a sharp rap to the back of the knuckles of one hand as a reminder that failure is unacceptable even when it is inevitable.

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He scowls and tries again.

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He receives two more sharp raps before he manages the trick, at which point, what with him not having any idea what to with the magic in his hands, Savaross plucks it from him, does--something--with it, and congratulates him warmly before explaining how to use magic to produce a brief force against a provided object and leaving him to it.

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Using the magic comes much easier than grabbing it in the first place did.

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Good! Then over the course of the lesson he will probably only earn one or two more raps with the metal stick!

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The second time the stick comes for him, he uses magic to shove it away.

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"Clever," he says, "but that's not allowed," and he cuffs him in the ear, not hard enough to concuss him but hard enough that his head will be ringing for a little while.

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He snarls, but doesn't object further.

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Snarling earns him a warning look, but not another blow so soon after the first one.

Savaross continues to be congratulatory whenever he gets something right, and when the lesson is over he is told to tell the apprentice in charge of food that he has earned dessert tonight.

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Ooh, dessert.

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Yep, dessert. Some of the other apprentices eye it, but between his demonstrated ability to inflict harm surprisingly well without even using magic and the fact that he's still only five no one actually attempts to take it from him.

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Good. Because if they did he would hurt them. That is his dessert.

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This one is. But he won't be five forever, and a lot of the apprentices are older than him and know more magic.

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He doesn't have magic lessons every day; there are a lot of apprentices, after all, and even the ones receiving less special treatment than him get some lessons. The older apprentices are expected to tutor the younger ones in non-magic subjects like reading, of course. When he is insufficiently swift to learn something in a lesson, he is punished; succeeding earns him a little more leeway for slowness but not very much. He is assigned things to practice between lessons, and at the beginning of each he is checked for proficiency of things he was supposed to be practicing; if he has made insufficient progress he is punished. Occasionally Savaross will test him on some non-magical subject, and if he does poorly enough both he and the apprentice who was supposed to be teaching him are punished. He earns dessert only on the relatively rare occasions where Savaross deems him to have made exceptional progress.

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This is a recipe for a very hardworking five-year-old.

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Excellent.

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As he progresses in magic the other apprentices slowly deem him an Acceptable Target. He does not get to eat every dessert he earns.

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Are they sure about that. Are they really sure.

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Some of them are not! Some of them, however, know way more magic than him.

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No one who tries to steal his dessert gets away unscathed, but eventually one of them does get away with his dessert.

His glare suggests that she is going to regret it.

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She left him enough control of his body to make facial expressions, and this is the thanks she gets? Well. She'll just completely ignore him while she eats his cake.

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Perhaps she should have paid closer attention.

The next day, she falls down the stairs.

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The next day he is not supposed to have a lesson, but Savaross calls him in anyway.

Apprentices, he explains, are a major investment of time and resources. Falling down stairs as steep as the ones in this tower can easily be fatal. Tassairen is to be commended on taking initiative in interpersonal problem-solving, but next time, he is to choose a method less likely to leave his victim dead.

However, this had not previously been explained to him, and she did survive, so he is not to be punished, this time, and has earned dessert again.

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Tassairen is very smug about this dessert.

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No one attempts to take it from him.

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Good! They're learning!

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Several of them are still horrible to him in other ways, largely in terms of rudeness, occasional minor 'accidents', and general disrespect, but the general consensus is that it's not worth it to try to take his dessert.

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Damn right it's not worth it.

He doesn't take well to being generally disrespected, but mostly doesn't start shit over it. Minor 'accidents'... well, that depends on the accident in question, and on how easily he can tell whose fault it is.

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Sometimes it's obvious whose fault it is; sometimes it's impossible to tell. Some accidents are simple things like ink spilled on the paper he was writing on; some are plausibly-actually-accidental bumps in halls, some are less-plausibly-accidental harder versions of same; some are actual injuries inflicted when he "gets in the way" of some kind of magic practice or other.

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He can learn not to get in the way. And study magic even harder, to shorten the time until he is the one they all have to worry about getting in the way of.

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Study is good for the soul, and for not getting hit with metal rods. At least until your teacher accelerates the curriculum to keep up.

The next time he goes in for a lesson Savaross is looking at him appraisingly.

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He notices, but can't immediately guess why.

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The lesson proceeds mostly as normal.

Near the end, he says, "I understand you've been having problems with some of the other apprentices."

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He shrugs. "Nobody tries to steal my dessert anymore," he says, with some satisfaction.

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"That's very good," he agrees. "But dessert isn't the end-all and be-all."

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Tassairen blinks up at him dubiously. Is he sure. Does he understand dessert.

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He sighs. "Just because you've solved the dessert problem doesn't mean the others don't exist," he clarifies.

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He shrugs again.

"I'm doing okay."

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He sighs. "I know perfectly well that the other apprentices have been...hazing...you, and you have been responding with...avoidance."

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"I'm going to be the best and then nobody will mess with me," he says reasonably.

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"They are getting into bad habits now."

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"I'll teach 'em later."

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"Procrastination is not a virtue."

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"'M not procrastinating."

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He raises an eyebrow.

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"I'm not!" he insists. "I'm gonna be the best and then nobody will mess with me."

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"And in the meantime?"

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"In the meantime I learn magic and if I don't want people to set me on fire I don't give them the chance."

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Savaross considers him for a moment.

"I strongly recommend taking a more proactive approach," he says, and then he assigns Tassairen twice as much practice as usual and sends him off.

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Well, he can strongly recommend a more proactive approach if he likes. Tassairen knows what he's about. He practices twice as much as usual; he studies; he thinks of clever tricks and practices those if they work.

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Many of his clever tricks work! When he keeps up with the increased workload Savaross increases it again.

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He keeps up with that one too, barely. This also leaves him with much less time to interact with the other children, who consequently get fewer chances to bother him.

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Well, there are some circumstances under which he'll have to interact with them, and most of them are leaving him alone more now that he's around less, but Dessert=>Stairs girl seems to be getting more aggressive.

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There is a certain amount of aggression he will tolerate. Up to her if she exceeds that limit.

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Probably eventually; she's slowly escalating.

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He'd better be ready, then.

He catches a squirrel and does some experiments. The squirrel makes interesting noises before it dies. He burns the body and dumps the bones out a window.

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At his next lesson Savarosse has a squirrel in a cage for some reason. He doesn't comment on it at all but at the end he informs Tassairen that he has earned dessert.

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He grins.

The first experiment having been so well received, he does several more over the next few days.

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This gets decreasing but nonzero returns dessert-wise.

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For once in his life, dessert is not the most important thing, although he certainly appreciates the encouragement. And the tastiness.

He turns seven. He celebrates by catching a bird. The bird dies disappointingly fast, so he catches another one.

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Savaross has a new technique for him to learn. It is called: "you can get more power from ripping it from living things than thin air." Of course, this has the side effect of killing the thing you're ripping from.

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What a good technique!

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Savaross is so pleased that he is taking to it so readily. Most of the apprentices, he has to wait until they're a bit older.

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He starts pulling power from the small animals he experiments on and storing it. They can teach him valuable lessons about creative uses of telekinesis and fire, and give him an extra supply of power in case of future need.

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Savarosse gives no indication that he has any idea that Tassairen is doing this like he somehow found out about the small animals in the first place.

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Well, then maybe it's not as impressive as it feels like. That's fine.

He burns and freezes and disrupts his squirrels - the chaos effect does some pretty amazing things to a living creature. He cuts them and bludgeons them and pulls them apart.

He thinks of something, and practices until he thinks he's got it right - magic that just induces pain and doesn't do any real damage. For completeness's sake he inverts it to see what that does, and it turns out to blind and deafen as well as numb, which is useful in its own way although he wishes he could separate out the different effects. He works on that. Blind and deaf and in agony is a good way for someone who crosses him to be.

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A few days later Savaross leaves the tower for a little while; he leaves strict instructions for how everyone is to behave while he's gone, and if they do not follow them he has very, very explicit descriptions of the consequences.

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Well, that gives him all kinds of interesting ideas.

He behaves perfectly the whole time.

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Good.

When Savaross returns, it's with a skeletal drakelet curled around his shoulders.

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...oooooooooooooooooh. Tassairen is jealous. He wants one of those now.

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It vanishes after a few days, uncommented-upon.

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Well. Now he has a side project. In addition to learning how to crush his enemies, he wants to learn how to animate a skeleton like that.

It takes him a while before he starts getting anywhere, and another while before he manages to get a squirrel skeleton to scamper up a wall before falling apart again. This is insufficient but promising.

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...Savaross is impressed! Have a dessert.

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He is ever so smug about this dessert!

Three weeks later, he has a skeletal squirrel friend that is stable enough to perch on his shoulder and stay balanced without him having to stop and fix it every two minutes. He keeps it on his shoulder the rest of the day.

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And aggressive stair girl...decides to escalate again.

"What's this?" she asks, plucking the skeleton from his shoulder.

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"It's mine," he snaps. "I made it out of a squirrel I tortured to death."

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...She blinks at the 'tortured to death' bit.

"Now why would you go and do something like that?" she asks after a moment. "You know you don't actually get more power out of it if they suffer."

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He grins.

"No, but it's fun."

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"Nasty little boy," she sneers. "What's so great about you, that Sorani Savaross favors you so?"

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"It's because I'm better than you. Give me back my squirrel."

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"You are not," she says flatly.

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"Give me back my squirrel," he repeats.

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"I don't see why I should."

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"Yeah? Want to find out?"

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She freezes him in place again and turns to leave.

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He hits her with the pain spell.

She is enveloped in complete sensory noise. Searing heat and freezing cold and agonizing pain all over her body - blinding white light in her eyes, a deafening roar in her ears, taste and smell overwhelmed by nameless intensity -

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She collapses to the ground. Her hold on him evaporates.

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He keeps it on her for a full minute and then lets up and retrieves his squirrel.

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She does not get up immediately, or in any way attempt to stop him from retrieving his squirrel.

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Satisfied, he walks away.

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Savarosse is very pleased with him.

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Good! He's pretty pleased with himself too!

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He has been progressing excellently in his studies, and taking decisive action like that against his co-prentice deserves a reward beyond just dessert; are there any materials he would like for magical experimentation?

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"A drakelet," he says immediately.

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"Alright," he says, clearly having figured out what prompted Tassairen into poking at necromancy in the first place.

A few days later he presents his student with a (drugged for convenient storage) drakelet, and advises him on when the drugs are likely to wear off, assuming he wants it more sensate when he kills it.

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Yes, yes he does. He learns all kinds of interesting things about drakelets before it dies.

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The next lesson is devoted to less haphazard necromancy than he managed with the squirrel. Here is a trick to use the corpse's lingering ripples to make it behave more like it did when alive; here is a clever trick to let the skeletal wings lift it like they still had membrane...

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Ooooh. He is going to have the best reanimated drakelet.

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Excellent.

After what he did to that one girl over the squirrel no one messes with it.

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That is just as it should be.

He is more conscious of his dignity now. People who spill ink on his work or bump into him in the halls are told to apologize.

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They generally do, although with varying levels of apparent sincerity.

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He is satisfied with insincere apologies as long as it's clear that he's gotten his point across. If anyone keeps messing with him after their first incident, then he might have to extract more than an apology.

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This one girl spills ink on him twice, but she's legitimately clumsy, apologized with apparent sincerity the first time, and panics slightly the second time.

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He smiles at her, pets his skeletal drakelet, and says, "Don't do it again."

The menacing effect is only slightly ruined by the fact that he's not quite eight years old.

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The girl in question is seven and thereafter stays at least two meters away from him at all times.

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Works for him!

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Savaross continues teaching him magic. He can generalize from necromancy to, in general, copying function-ripples from biological things. For example, if he takes a cunningly constructed model of a frog, and rips the magic from a frog very precisely, and applies it to the model just so...

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Then he has a little mechanical frog! Clever. Necromancy and related subjects are fun.

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Well, it needs to be very precise. Even he's not going to get it instantly. There are intermediate steps first. But eventually he will have a little mechanical frog.

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The clumsy girl, whose name is Anaseverina, does not earn dessert very often; she's not exactly above-average talented for an apprentice, and she's bad at holding onto anything any of the other apprentices want.

But not very often is not never, and the first time she receives dessert after the second ink incident, she hugs the plate to her chest carefully, crosses the room warily--almost no one tries taking food before the victim has even sat down--comes within two meters of Tassairen for the first time since the ink incident, and holds it out to him in offering.

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He looks at her appraisingly, then nods.

"Thanks," he says, accepting the plate.

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"Y'welcome," she says quietly. "...Thank you for not hurting me when I spilled on you."

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He shrugs. "I told you not to do it again, and you haven't."

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She nods, and goes to eat the non-dessert portion of her meal.

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Tassairen happily consumes his tribute.

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Anaseverina is not strong, but she is small, and quiet, and can often slip away and explore parts of the tower most of the other apprentices don't bother with. Not on any regular schedule, but on average once every few weeks, she has some small token she found, offered tremblingly in case he doesn't like it; an unusually shaped chunk of quartz, a small but bizarre taxidermied animal; at one point a thin, dusty book of poetry.

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He smiles at the chunk of quartz and keeps it; laughs at the taxidermied animal and keeps that too; keeps the book of poetry, and reads it during the rare moments when he doesn't have anything better to do. When he doesn't like something, he doesn't make a big deal of it, just shakes his head and says 'no thanks'.

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She nods solemnly when he doesn't want something, and smiles tentatively when he does.

He is almost to the point of being able to make a proper mechanical frog when he sees her backed into a corner with silent tears running down her cheeks and a nine-year-old boy saying something threatening to her.

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"Hey," he interrupts.

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"What," the boy says, irritated.

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"She's mine. I don't like it when people mess with my things."

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The boy considers him, considers Anaseverina, spits on her cheek and insults her for being a weakling and hiding behind Tassairen, and stalks off.

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"You all right?" he says to her, digging a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe spit and tears off her face.

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"Mhm," she says. "They go away faster if I start crying before I'm hurt bad enough to warrant it. Thank you."

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He smiles.

"People shouldn't mess with my things. Anybody else makes trouble with you like that, you can tell me about it."

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She smiles shyly at him, then a little brighter. "Oh! I, um, I found something again--I had to hide it, but--" and she reaches into her clothes and pulls out a slightly crumpled piece of paper. It's a picture of someone being vivisected that looks like it might have fallen out of an anatomy book.

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...He grins.

"Thanks!" he says, taking it.

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"You're welcome!" she says.

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It is a good picture. He keeps it inside the front cover of his poetry book so it'll uncrumple a bit.

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That works!

In a little while longer he manages to make his mechanical frog.

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Good. He doesn't carry it around with him all the time like his drakelet, but he keeps it by his bed and pets it sometimes and is very proud of it.

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And then Savaross would like it confirmed that he hasn't just memorized it by rote, he can apply the principles to these related magical effects.

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He can totally do that. He is good at magic.

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Excellent. Now let's look at healing magic; not very exciting, to be sure, but invaluable if you get injured or need more time to get information or compliance out of someone than their natural physical limits would allow.

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Healing magic sounds very useful! He practices on squirrels.

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Healing magic is super complicated. He's going to need a lot of practice.

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His supply of squirrels is not limited.

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He's going to need to get a little more creative about catching them, though; squirrels have survival instincts and learning capabilities.

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The supply of stupid squirrels is getting a little thin. He adjusts his approach accordingly.

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Then he will have plenty of experimental subjects. It's still going to take him a good while to get reliably good at healing.

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The solution to this is to work harder.

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Then he should be able to heal basic wounds within a month, and earn dessert in so doing.

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That is his due, because he is the best.

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There are other parts of healing! Don't ask where Savaross is getting these diseased animals to practice curing disease on, just work on it, preferably while immobilizing them so the rabid ones don't bite.

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He can do that. Once he has healed the diseased animals can he also practice other things on them?

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Sure; they're common animals like foxes and raccoons and so on; once they're not diseased there's nothing special about them.

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Great! It's always nice to have some variety for his experiments.

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It takes him less than a week to master basic infectious diseases; after that he can start on broken bones.

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Ooh, broken bones.

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Broken bones get really fiddly and complicated, especially when birds are provided to practice on.

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He can do fiddly and complicated. He is dedicated to mastering this skill.

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Eventually Savaross wants to test his skill on a human subject. Here is one of the older apprentices, with a broken leg and bleeding heavily. Whether he got this way by accident, inter-apprentice hostility, unrelated punishment, or if he was injured specifically for this demonstration goes unremarked upon.

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Tassairen heals the older boy. He doesn't do it as quickly as a more practiced healer might, but he does it right.

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Good! Tassairen is encouraged to work on improving his speed, but this is as much formal healing education as Savaross feels the need to provide. Have a dessert.

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Mm. Dessert.

He keeps working on healing in his own time. It seems like an important skill to have.

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A few days later Anaseverina doesn't turn up to dinner.

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Really.

He eats his dinner, and then he goes looking. Maybe it's nothing, but maybe somebody needs to be taught not to mess with Tassairen's things.

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She's not in any of the especially well-trafficked areas. If he looks really hard he can probably find her in one of the disused storage rooms she likes exploring.

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It's worth the search.

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Well, she's lying there with a badly broken leg looking like she's been crying.

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He sits down next to her and heals her leg, before anything else.

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She lies there for another second, and then sits up and says, "I'm supposed to tell you I fell off something and broke it by accident." The room contains a number of tall objects it would be plausible to fall off of wrong and break one's leg.

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"Uh-huh," he says. "Who did it?"

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"There were three of them. I saw Raokani and I recognized Sinatu's voice but I don't know who the third one was."

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He smiles. "I'll find out."

And he stands up and offers his hand to help her to her feet.

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She takes his hand and stands up and gives him a small smile.

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He pets her head, like he would with his drakelet, and goes off looking for Raokani or Sinatu.

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Sinatu is still eating dinner.

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And now Sinatu is knocked out of his chair and immobilized on the floor.

"I don't like it when people mess with my things," says Tassairen, standing over him.

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"What the fuck," Sinatu says.

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"You damaged something of mine," he says.

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"What are you talking about?"

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And now Sinatu has a broken leg.

"There, does that help you remember?"

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"What the fuck," he repeats, his face screwing up in pain as his leg breaks.

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"Admit it, apologize, and tell me who else helped, and I'll leave it at that," he says. "Keep playing around and you'll really regret it."

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"I don't know what you're talking about!" he insists.

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Pain spell, just for a second.

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...He doesn't say anything at all immediately after that.

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Tassairen waits.

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Slight whimpering?

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"Well?"

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He names Raokani and one other boy.

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"And admit what you did and tell me you're sorry," says Tassairen, very patiently.

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It takes him most of a minute to gather enough ability to words to string together the admission and apology.

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"Good."

Tassairen lets him go and walks away. Now, where will he find the other two?

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Raokani is in the dormitory.

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Now Raokani is immobilized on the floor! It's going around!

"I don't like it when people mess with my things," he says again.

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Raokani also attempts to protest innocence, but is worse at it.

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He breaks Raokani's leg and repeats his offer. Admit it, apologize, name your conspirators, and a broken leg is the worst you'll get.

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...Raokani breaks. He names Sinatu and the same older boy that Sinatu did.

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Time to go find boy number three, then.

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Boy number three...is also one of Savaross' favorites, and thirteen years old; he has his own room.

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Tassairen knocks on his door.

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There is a noise from within of someone moving around, but the door doesn't open.

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He's very patient.

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Is he patient enough to be constantly on guard while waiting?

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Well, he might not look it, but if someone mistakes him for an easy target while he's leaning against a wall petting his drakelet that's their problem.

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If he's paying careful attention to the magical fabric and has a very, very good reaction time he might be able to notice a spell coming at him through a wall in enough time to dodge it.

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Easy.

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The person inside the room does not come out that night.

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He doesn't keep watch literally all night, that would be silly. He goes back to his dormitory and has a reasonable amount of sleep and wakes up early and goes looking for Kerotiru again.

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Eventually he hears window noises.

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If he's climbing out the window, that's a sign that he has something resembling the correct amount of respect for Tassairen's ability to hurt him.

Tassairen lets him climb out the window, and then goes to be the first kid who shows up to breakfast.

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Kerotiru: does not show up to breakfast.

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Tassairen goes about his daily routine, makes sure to be the first to show up to every meal, and patiently waits for an opportunity.

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Does "spontaneous unconsciousness" qualify as an opportunity? Probably not.

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...it sure doesn't!

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He wakes up glued to the dormitory ceiling with a note reading, "Nice try, kid, but you're out of your league; let it go and you won't get hurt" pinned to his shirt.

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He unpins the note, reads it, burns it to ash, and gets himself disentangled from the ceiling.

All right. Stealth magic is evidently something that exists, and he doesn't know any yet. That puts him at a disadvantage. He needs to be clever about this.

The older favourites' rooms have magical protections on the doors, he knows that much already. How feasible is a 'quietly break into his room in the middle of the night' plan? He investigates his options.

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Quiet, theoretically possible, if he can figure out how to fuck up the lock spell well enough; discreet not really, it would be incredibly obvious that the lock was fucked with after.

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Oh, he has no intention of leaving anyone in doubt about whether and by whom Kerotiru has been fucked with.

He does intensive practice with picking apart spells for a week, until he's sure he has it. Then he breaks into Kerotiru's room in the middle of the night.

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Kerotiru: Is asleep.

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But he'd probably have a hidden spell guarding him, so now is not the time to walk right up to his bed. Tassairen spends a while carefully examining the magical fabric in the room first, to see if he can spot anything like that.

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Yyyyyep. Some kind of ellipse, about three meters from the bed on average.

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He doesn't know exactly what it does and he doesn't fully trust his ability to take it apart, but he does think he can work from outside its radius. He gets as close to the bed as he can while remaining a safe distance away from the mystery spell, and then he throws his pain spell at Kerotiru.

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There is a blinding flash of light.

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Then he will be holding that pain spell on Kerotiru for as long as it takes his vision to clear, and paying close attention to the magical fabric in the meantime.

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The circle is much easier to see once it's gone off on him; maintaining the pain spell across it isn't setting it off again but if he tries to put anything else over the barrier it'll go off again.

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Hmmmmm. Can he maintain the pain spell and work on picking apart the circle at the same time? Maintaining the pain spell is definitely the more important of the two, but if he can have both...

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He can try, but it makes picking apart the circle significantly more difficult, and it'll go off if he picks at it and isn't careful enough.

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He makes careful gradual progress while he waits for his vision to clear.

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His vision clears significantly before he gets very far with the circle.

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Hmm. And once he's blinked out the last spots and adjusted to the darkness again, it has been a few minutes...

He lets the pain spell go.

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The boy on the bed doesn't move.

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Yeah that's not a big surprise.

Tassairen can sit here and calmly take apart his alarm spell some more until he regains coherence.

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He's not going to move for several hours, at least; how much of that is can't and how much is doesn't want to is ambiguous.

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Tassairen dismantles the alarm spell, checks the room for any more, and looks at Kerotiru's belongings while he waits. He can be very patient.

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There are alarms on pretty much all of his belonging-containers, actually. Not the bookshelf, but the closet and the clothes bins and the box at the foot of the bed.

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There can stop being alarms on those things! It's good practice.

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His belongings are pretty bland.

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Anything worth taking as a trophy, while he's here?

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Not unless he wants to cut off one of Kerotiru's ears or something.

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Nah, he hasn't earned that much. Yet.

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Then pretty much no.

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Then he puts everything back where he found it, minus the alarm spells, and pets his skeletal drakelet and waits for Kerotiru to do something.

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Is he willing to miss breakfast for this?

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Nope! In fact, they are going to be the first kids to show up. If Kerotiru hasn't moved by the time he'd need to leave to get there, he is prepared to drag him out of bed and carry him there with magical telekinesis.

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Kerotiru: doesn't move.

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Then at the appropriate time, with a little margin for unexpected setbacks, Tassairen lifts him into the air.

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He opposes it and drops back onto the bed.

And then sits up, because he can hardly expect to pretend to be asleep anymore.

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"You're going to come to breakfast with me, and I'm going to break your leg in front of everyone, and you're going to apologize for messing with my things," says Tassairen. "And then I'll call it even."

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He looks at him incredulously. "Even? That thing was way worse than a broken leg."

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"That was for not taking me seriously. You take me seriously now, I bet," he says. "I don't mess with people until they mess with me, but when they do I make them stop."

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"...That's fair," he says. "Look, I'm sorry and I won't do it again, and if you wanna break my leg as a reminder, okay, I don't blame you, but we are not doing this in public."

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Snort. "We're not? Why not?"

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"Because it won't help either of us. If I go along with this, it won't send the message you're trying to send; it'll destroy my reputation, within my age bracket, because a nine--year-old got me to submit to them, and--look, what you did with the other two was good, clear dominance establishment, but that was, like, overpowering them in the moment. People won't make the right assumptions if I follow you to the dining hall and you break my leg. Also, if you don't do anything worse to me than what you did to the other two it looks less--professional. I can scream, if you want; and then if I avoid you for a while after that and put a haunted look in my eyes it'll make people unsure of what you're willing to do to them in a way a simple broken leg won't."

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He considers this.

"Yeah," he decides, after a few seconds. "That works."

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"Okay," he says. "In that case I shouldn't be seen for at least a few hours--oh, and you might want to plug your ears if I'm really going to sell the screaming part."

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He laughs and nods and covers his ears.

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He screams. He sells it.

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Nice. He turns to go.

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"Oh, one more thing," he adds. "I'd appreciate if you didn't let on that I told you this, but Savaross? Doesn't really approve of how friendly you're getting with that girl. He put us up to this."

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"Thanks," he says. "I won't let on."

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"Call it a bonus for listening to reason," he shrugs. "What was supposed to happen was we were supposed to play innocent so you wouldn't believe her and it'd damage your relationship. He was not best pleased that the other two squeaked."

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Snort. "Guess I shouldn't expect dessert for this one, then. See you around."

And he leaves and closes the door behind him and goes cheerfully to breakfast.

(He'll have to do a lot of studying before he can come after Savaross for messing with his stuff. And he'd better not leave him alive afterward when he does. So for now, he's a good little apprentice.)

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He does get dessert for this one, actually; Savaross has no idea that Tassairen knows he was behind it and no desire that he should come to, and it is the sort of thing that would be rewarded normally.

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He is a normal amount of smug about his dessert!

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Then things shall proceed with outward normalcy. Stealth magic is next on the curriculum.

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Ooh, fun.

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Good. Stealth magic is a form of metamagic and therefore way more complicated than most normal magic. It's harder than healing.

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Will it yield to effort and dedication? Most kinds of magic do that eventually.

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Eventually, yes. It takes the better part of a year before he's learned all the stealth magic Savaross wants to teach him.

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His tenth birthday comes and goes near the end of that time. He is pleased with how readily his peers have absorbed the lesson of not messing with him.

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It helps that he mostly isn't very interesting when he isn't being a vengeful little ball of not worth it.

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Yep! Study hard and destroy anyone who fucks with you, that's him.

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A reasonable policy, if less proactive on the destroying than would be optimal. Have some more metamagic. It turns out that the kind of magic they're studying is one of three; they are "warlocks," and there are also "witches" and "wizards." Here is a brief, vague description of how those work with basically no hints as to how to actually do witchcraft or wizardry; and here are a few examples of objects enchanted thereby that he can use to learn how to absolutely ruin a witch or wizard's day.

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It's nice to know how to ruin people's days!

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It is! The simplest way is to just overload their spells, which are much more passive and finicky than a warlock's--more the former for witches and the latter for wizards--but that's generally not the efficient way to do it, here are some better ones; and here are some tweaks to the stealth spells that will specialize against a wizard's scrutiny than a warlock's...

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Excellent! Learning is fun!

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That's probably because he's good at it.

Anaseverina continues to not be very good at it; she continues to be picked on (although almost always in passive ways that don't require Tassairen to intervene); and she continues to explore and bring back small treasures. She gets better at picking ones he'll like. She grows out of some of the clumsiness.

She does sometimes have injuries that would merit chastizing another apprentice for messing with his stuff, but they come from official punishments, and Tassairen is not yet strong enough to deal with Savaross.

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Yeah. He doesn't make a fuss about his Anaseverina being punished.

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Probably for the best; it happens more and more often as she gets older and doesn't outgrow the lack of talent like she did the clumsy.

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Yeah this probably isn't going to end well for her, is it.

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Probably. But it doesn't look like it's going to fail to end well anytime soon; she is making progress, slow as it might be, and she never comes back with anything worse than bruises.

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Good enough for now, he supposes.

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Maybe if he's lucky he'll be able to kill Savaross before anything irrevocable happens to her. Or maybe not! Who knows.

Once he's completed the anti-witch-and-wizard curriculum they can go back to non-metamagic topics for a while. Application of telekinesis-adjacent effects to reshape contiguous matter.

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Also known as More Awful Things To Do To Small Animals.

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Well, partly; this subject is tricky because it works differently for different--textures, for lack of a better word--of matter. Doing awful things to small animals will be useful, but not comprehensively so.

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Eh, fine. There are more things in this world than animal torture.

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Yes. Of course, if he's creative and really wants to, he can probably leverage stoneshaping-or-what-have-you into animal torture.

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It's a fun hobby.

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And one Savaross is happy to encourage!

Next: assorted defensive magic, including the blinding circle thing.

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Nice. That's a good one to know.

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It is one of the easier protective spells. Like most of the recent ones, this section of the curriculum is complicated and extensive. He will probably finish at just about the same time as his eleventh birthday.

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He celebrates his birthday by reading poetry and torturing songbirds!

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Anaseverina has managed for his birthday to locate a whole human anatomy textbook. Not all the drawings are as gory as might be hoped, but a lot of them are.

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She is pretty great and he is glad he has her.

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She is really glad that he is glad he has her. Being had by him is so much better than trying to navigate the other apprentices on her own.

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They have a pretty good thing going here!

He never mentions to her that that one incident was engineered by Savaross. That fact goes entirely unmentioned by him in all contexts. But he thinks about it, sometimes, and he studies very hard.

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Then he will move onto more advanced subjects! Lesser and Greater Transmutation should together take up about a year, if only because Greater Transmutation needs a lot of power. Lesser Transmutation requires specific categories of ingredient, for the given result, but can have fairly complex results. Greater Transmutation can turn any material into any other, but it's really hard to get more complicated than just a chunk of a given material, and some materials are more difficult than others.

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These skills have fewer applications in animal torture, but they're still kind of neat.

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He could turn bits of animals into other things, presumably.

For his twelfth birthday Anaseverina finds him a knife with a prettily carved wooden hilt and matching sheath.

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Awwwww. He likes that one a lot.

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Savaross starts him on enchanting. This won't take long to get the basics of but will be very hard to actually master.

The basics are as follows: a spell is "stuck" to an object, in such a way that it will activate when a given trigger condition is met. This is similar to some of the principles in the wards section, but it is distinct in the following tricky ways! The more complicated the trigger condition or spell, the harder it is; it's also possible to put more than one spell on a given object but that gets non-linearly more difficult. Also, enchanted objects only have a certain amount of charge, and need to be refueled every so often; the power will slowly bleed out even if the spell is never activated.

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It's fiddly and technical and not his favourite thing, but he learns it anyway. It's certainly useful.

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It's very fiddly and technical! Savaross is going to keep him on it for a while.

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He is extremely stubborn about learning all the magic as well and as fast as he can.

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When he is almost thirteen Anaseverina would like to talk to him about a thing.

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Then he will happily go somewhere with her to talk about a thing!

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"Have any of the older apprentices taken you aside to talk to you about--stuff?" she asks in a slightly hushed tone.

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"No...?"

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"Oh. The older girls did with me, they--explained some stuff--I dunno how the boys do it, boys don't bleed..."

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This is not the most coherent she's ever been but it's okay, he's patient.

"What stuff did they explain?"

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"Like, where babies come from, and that people want to do it a lot even when they don't want babies."

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"Huh. No, nobody's explained anything like that to me."

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"And girls bleed--not like normal bleeding, girls just bleed from their privates five days a month for no reason, and when a girl starts bleeding it means her body can make babies, so that's when the older girls take you aside and tell you stuff, but boys don't have anything like that so I dunno when they would tell you."

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...the information that girls just bleed from their privates five days a month for no reason is new and interesting!

After a moment, contemplating the boy version of this educational experience, he says, "Maybe they just don't."

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"Oh. ...I guess maybe I should tell you the things, then? There's a lot of stuff in there that only matters for girls but some of it's not."

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"Maybe you should," he agrees.

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"Okay. Uh, so, you have that anatomy textbook, you know boys have sticky-outy privates and girls have innie privates, did it have much else to say about privates I only looked at it enough to know there was a bunch of the kind of pictures you like."

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"It had some things to say but it didn't go into detail about that stuff beyond 'here's what all these things are called and what they look like when you take them apart'."

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"Okay, well, the boy parts go inside the girl parts, and then a sticky thing comes out and then sometimes the girl gets pregnant, except there's a nasty tea thing that can prevent that. And it feels good for the boy all of the time and it feels good for the girl if the boy knows what he's doing."

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"Huh," he says, contemplating this knowledge. It's good to have an Anaseverina to tell him these things. They are good things to know.

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"Some of the girls drink the tea all the time because sometimes boys don't ask first or do it even if you say no. But I'm yours and you're good at making people respect that so I don't think the other boys are going to do that to me. If you want to do it will you let me know far enough in advance to drink the tea, it's nasty and I don't want to drink it when I don't have to."

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"Sure," he says, shrugging. "How far in advance do you have to know?"

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"A couple of hours."

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"Yeah, that's fine. I probably won't want to until I've got my own room, anyway."

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"That makes sense, they mostly talk about older boys doing it."

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Nod. "Thanks for telling me," he says, giving her a smile.

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"You're welcome!"

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What a good Anaseverina he has.

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Eventually he turns thirteen and gets his own room.

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Having his own room is nice. He sets up a few alarm spells.

He contemplates what he might like to do with his Anaseverina, now that he has his own room.

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His Anaseverina is vaguely oblivious to his thoughts and not really worrying about it. If he wants her to do something he'll let her know, he doesn't expect her to anticipate what he's going to want from her ahead of time. She finds him a slightly fancier knife than last time for his birthday.

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He smiles and pets her hair. "You get me such good presents."

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"You're not hard to get presents for! You always like the same things. Some of the other apprentices change what they like a lot."

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He laughs. "Yeah, I'm very predictable."

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"I could probably find you knives for all your birthdays forever in those rooms if I just wanted to do that but I think that much repetition probably wouldn't be good."

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"I bet you can find other things I'll like." Pet pet.

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"Probably yeah."

More time passes. It becomes clearer that clumsiness wasn't the only part of her childhood gawkiness that she's growing out of; the puberty fairy hit her pretty hard with the pretty stick.

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Ooh. That's nice.

He doesn't tell her to go drink the nasty tea, though. Not yet. He is not in a hurry.

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She turns thirteen.

She shows up at his room looking like she's been crying.

"I think maybe you need to remind people not to touch your stuff. I--obviously didn't have enough warning to drink the nasty tea first or I'd've just come here so you could make him not but I'm bleeding and one of the other girls said you can't get pregnant if they do it while you're bleeding and um it was Jurevi can I stay here for a while. He did it in my bed and I don't feel safe there anymore."

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"—yeah, of course," he says.

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"Thank you," she says. If she has any idea what the look on his face meant she doesn't show it.

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"And I'll remind Jurevi what happens to people who mess with my stuff."

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"Thank you. --Maybe I should find the tea in case it does something even after, after a little while."

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"Yeah, that's a good idea."

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"Okay. I'll go do that. And then I'll be back."

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"If you're not back soon, I'll come looking," he promises.

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"Thank you," she says again, and then she goes.

She is back soon, smelling faintly of bitter herbs.

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"Will you be all right if I leave you here while I go find Jurevi?"

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"I think so."

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He nods.

He goes looking for Jurevi.

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Jurevi is in one of the common study areas, working on something on paper at one of the desks. There are some older apprentices, about fifteen or sixteen, in the semicircle of squashier chairs around the cold fireplace.

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He walks up to Jurevi and says, "You messed with my stuff," and gives him the pain spell for ten seconds.

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Jurevi falls out of his chair!

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Yep.

He waits to see if Jurevi will have anything interesting to say after this.

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"The hell? Is this about the girl?" he demands.

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"People should really learn not to mess with what's mine," he says.

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"It's not like I damaged her!"

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"Yeah?"

He uses the inverted pain spell this time, deadening all his senses instead of whiting them out, and picks Jurevi up and carries him off to an out-of-the way room where they can discuss the definition of damage in more detail.

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...Well.

The fifteen and sixteen year olds...observe that this is a thing.

Several of them quietly resolve to gossip about this with their other peers at the first opportunity.

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When he's done making his point to Jurevi he leaves him on the floor of that out-of-the-way room and goes back to his own room to see how his Anaseverina is doing.

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She is sitting on his bed hugging a pillow and looking at her lap. When he comes in she looks up at him, looks almost like she's about to ask something, and then drops her gaze again.

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"...hm?"

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"...Can I have a hug?"

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"...yeah, sure."

He goes over and sits next to her and hugs her and pets her hair.

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She curls up into him and starts crying.

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He - keeps hugging her. And petting her hair. It seems the thing to do.

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"The other girls said it could hurt, but they didn't--I've been hurt, I get punished a lot--why am I more upset by this than the time they broke my leg--"

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"Don't know," he says. "It's weird, isn't it?"

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"Uh-huh. I feel all--mixed up inside. I don't--I don't want to go out there again, but I have to--I have a lesson day after tomorrow--"

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Hug. Pet pet.

"Anybody messes with you I will make them regret it."

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"I know but I knew that too before and--"

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"Yeah."

More hug.

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"And I'm scared that you'll want me and I'll want to say no and--I don't--I'm not scared of you, I don't want to start being scared of you."

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"I haven't decided if I want you yet," he says. "But I like that you're not scared of me. I want to keep that more than I'd want to do things that scared you."

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"...Okay. Thank you."

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Hug. Pet pet.

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Hug.

Eventually, around dinnertime, her stomach starts making rumbling noises. She looks conflicted.

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"Pretty sure you'll be safe if you go to dinner with me," he says.

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Nod.

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So they can go to dinner.

Does anyone else feel like messing with his things today?

Permalink Eye

Nope.

Some of them are giving him varyingly inscrutable weird looks, though.

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If he cares maybe at some point he'll try to find out what that's about. But right now he's going to eat dinner and then maybe torture some small animals. The supply of feral cats around here is limited but he thinks he'd kind of like having a pet skeletal cat.

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Anaseverina is vaguely unsettled by the weird looks and mostly hunches over her dinner trying to eat as quickly as possible.

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Seems pretty reasonable of her, all things considered.

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Once she has finished she fidgets nervously until he has.

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Doesn't take long.

Back to his room?

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Yes please.

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Back to his room it is.

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Good.

...More hug?

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Sure.

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Okay good.

Eventually she unhugs to practice magic because the only thing scarier than being raped again is Savaross if she slacks off too much.

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That is very true.

Tassairen starts working on that skeletal cat.

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Anaseverina is completely unbothered by the animal torture. Such is growing up in this hellpit.

If Tassairen happens to pay any attention to what she's doing he can probably notice pretty quickly some of the more egregious things she's doing wrong.

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He pays enough attention to casually point out a few of those in between cat screams.

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She thanks him and goes back to practicing, now somewhat less haplessly.

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By the time they should probably be sleeping, he has a skeletal cat curled up with his skeletal drakelet in the bowl where he keeps the drakelet when it's not with him.

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Aww. "Those're cute."

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He laughs. "Yeah."

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"I'd've done a songbird if I could've gotten the hang of the wings. Something I could put out a window and have fly around where the other apprentices couldn't get it when I couldn't have it with me."

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"I haven't done a songbird yet. Maybe I'll give you one for your birthday."

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"...That'd be lovely. You're the nicest person I've ever met, Tassairen."

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He shrugs. He goes over and pets her hair.

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Hairpets are so good.

"...We should probably sleep. Where do you want me?"

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He considers.

"In my bed unless you'd be scared there."

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"--As long as it doesn't actually entail--it'll be fine, I'm not scared of you."

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"Yeah, it won't be that." Pet pet.

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"That's fine, then."

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So they can go to sleep. It is not a huge bed and it's kind of close quarters but that's fine by him; she is warm and soft and nice to be close to.

Permalink Eye

She is all of those things. And he is safe. This arrangement is not going to disrupt either of their sleep significantly.

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Cozy.

He wakes up in the morning and goes about his day pretty much as normal.

Permalink Eye

Anaseverina accompanies him to meals and otherwise lurks in his room practicing magic.

Permalink Eye

He decides he doesn't really care that much why people are giving him funny looks. He attends meals and lessons and practices magic a bunch.

Permalink Eye

Anaseverina continues to be soft and warm and comfortable to sleep cuddled up to.

She is also adorably sleepy, some mornings.

"M'rn'n, Tn'sairu," she mumbles semi-coherently.

Permalink Eye

He giggles and ruffles her hair.

Permalink Eye

She successfully gets out of bed and does morning things.

It is a little while later, once she is more awake, that she snorts softly and shakes her head.

Permalink Eye

"Mm?"

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"Vaguely amused by how badly I mangled your name when I woke up."

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"It was cute."

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"You think so?"

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"Yeah."

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"I completely misplaced the final consonant...Sairu's a relatively common shortening of your name, though, that part's less weird."

Permalink Eye

"Well, if you want a version of my name you can still pronounce in the mornings..."

Permalink Eye

 

"I've never called anyone by a nickname before."

Permalink Eye

He pets her hair.

Permalink Eye

Hairpets are so good.

Permalink Eye

They're pretty great! Having an Anaseverina is also pretty great.

Permalink Eye

That's really really good. Things would be so much worse right now for the Anaseverina if he didn't have her.

Permalink Eye

Yyyyyep. But he does and she is his and no one is allowed to mess with what's his.

Permalink Eye

Yeah.

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Despite the fact that she's improving faster with his help, Savaross continues to disapprove of their friendship.

Permalink Eye

Sairu feels free to completely ignore his disapproval until such time as he expresses it openly!

Permalink Eye

It's a few months later when Anaseverina says, "So, um--I've been--thinking about it--kind of a lot, and, um, if you wanted me--I think we could do it without--it being too scary."

Permalink Eye

 

He smiles.

Permalink Eye

"So, um--that." She doesn't really have any idea how to proceed from there.

Permalink Eye

He has some ideas.

Permalink Eye

...She didn't actually do the tea thing before talking to him about this, so Ideas can wait a couple of hours, right?

Permalink Eye

Yeah, of course.

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Yeah okay good.

The process is nonzero scary but she doesn't come out of it with her trust in him destroyed so that's good. It's...actually kinda nice.

Permalink Eye

It is!

...and he kind of likes that it's nonzero scary. He doesn't want to destroy her trust in him, he definitely does not want that, but... a little bit scared is nice.

Permalink Eye

Well that's good because it's not going away any time soon.

Permalink Eye

They can keep doing this every so often and see how that works out for them.

Permalink Eye

Tentatively positive!

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Good!

Sleeping in the same bed every night is even better now, too.

Permalink Eye

Mhm. And it helps take some of the edge off, after. A little scared is okay during but it's better if it doesn't stick around.

Permalink Eye

Yeah.

Permalink Eye

Savaross drops heavier hints. He criticizes Tassairen's association with such a talentless apprentice; he refers to her offhand as a childish attachment; he decides that clearly if Tassairen has nothing better to do than her he must require a heavier workload.

Permalink Eye

A heavier workload is just not a good way of discouraging Tassairen from things.

 

And despite it, he still manages to get her a skeletal bird for her fourteenth birthday. It perches on her finger with its tiny skeletal feet.

Permalink Eye

She is utterly delighted.

Permalink Eye

Aww!

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She names it Pikiro and manages to get it to make actual songbird noises.

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Awwwwwwwwwwwww.

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It's nice being able to have more-than-generic possessions that won't go missing when she isn't there to identify the perpetrators to Sairu!

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It's nice having his Anaseverina right there in his room to cuddle with every night!

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Yeah. Cuddling is nice. And she is more pettable than bony animals.

Permalink Eye

This is true! Bony animals are not soft. Anaseverina is soft.

Permalink Eye

So soft!

Softness sometimes means things hurt more, but pain she's used to; if they're carefulish it's no impediment at all.

Permalink Eye

It is very nice that she doesn't mind a little pain.

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Just as long as he fixes her up when he's done. It's more than anyone else ever did.

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Every time. It's important to keep his Anaseverina in good condition.

Permalink Eye

He's good at that.

For his fifteenth birthday she finds a bracelet with a songbird on it in a little mosaic of gemstones the same blue-grey as her eyes.

Permalink Eye

Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!

He hugs her. "You're my favourite."

Permalink Eye

"Out of what competition?"

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"All the people I know. I never said being my favourite was a very impressive achievement." He ruffles her hair and hugs her again.

Permalink Eye

Hugs. "That's okay. Being good at presents is enough of an achievement for me."

Permalink Eye

Smile. Pet pet. "You're very good at presents."

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"Good." Hug.

Permalink Eye

What a good lovely huggable Anaseverina he has.

Permalink Eye

Yes. Yes he does.

A few weeks later she comes back with another book of poetry.

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She's so good at finding things!

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Years of practice. Before she was his it was the safest place to be.

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Yeah.

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Although she never brought anything back before she started courting his protection; there wouldn't have been any point.

How about hugs instead of thinking about the shitshow that is their lives.

Permalink Eye

Yes that's much better. They can snuggle and read poetry, how about.

Permalink Eye

That sounds really nice.

Permalink Eye

It is really nice.

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It is good poetry. And good snuggles.

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Both those things!

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Yeah.

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Unfortunately, a reputation is a hungry thing, and a faded one is as likely to make one a target as to defend one. And with some of the...rumors...floating around...

Permalink Eye

 

One evening Sairu goes out after dinner to see if he can catch an owl to add to his skeletal menagerie, and he doesn't come back until almost midnight.

Permalink Eye

Anaseverina stays up waiting for him.

Permalink Eye

He does not have an owl, skeletal or otherwise. His clothes are torn and bloody, although he's good enough at healing that there are no remaining signs of injury anywhere. He shuts the door behind him and stands there, a blank and distant look on his face.

Permalink Eye

Permalink Eye

Permalink Eye

 

"--Do you want a hug?"

Permalink Eye

 

He nods.

Permalink Eye

Hug.

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He shivers and wraps his arms around her and - now he's crying, that's a thing that's happening.

Permalink Eye

Yes, yes it is. She has no idea what to do about that. Except hug. She can do hug.

Permalink Eye

Hug is good.

He lets go enough to pull her to the bed, where he curls up and wraps his arms around her and cries some more.

Permalink Eye

Okay.

...Hairpets? He does not have as much hair as her to pet, but still.

Permalink Eye

Yes those are good. She is so good.

Permalink Eye

Okay. Hugs and hairpets until he says otherwise or falls asleep or something.

Permalink Eye

He does fall asleep eventually.

 

The first thing he does when he wakes up in the morning is get out pen and paper and write down a list of names. The last five items on the list are numbers instead: Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve.

Permalink Eye

...Okay.

"What--what happened?"

Permalink Eye

 

 

"I understand what you mean now, about it - mattering more -"

Permalink Eye

 

"--Oh."

Permalink Eye

Hug.

Permalink Eye

Hug.

She looks at the list. She looks at the number of items on the list.

"Maybe if you teach me the pain spell I can help."

Permalink Eye

 

...he smiles a little and hugs her some more.

"Maybe," he agrees. "That'd be nice."

Permalink Eye

Hugs. "When you're ready. None of the names on this list are gonna get less hurtable in--however long."

Permalink Eye

"Can't let it go too long, though, or people will start thinking they can get away with this shit. Anyway, I've got a plan. Let's see how fast you can learn the pain spell."

Permalink Eye

She is very motivated to learn the pain spell, and Sairu is a much better teacher than Savaross.

Permalink Eye

So he catches small animals to practice on, and they work on it for the rest of the day minus time spent at lessons or meals, and he explains the plan -

- and that evening he goes out looking for whichever of the people on the list he can most easily ambush.

It's one of the ones whose names he didn't know; she's on the list as Nine. He pain-spells her and drags her back to his room, where he dumps her on the floor and sets up the pain spell to last all night, and an immobilization for good measure. Anaseverina can take first watch, just in case the spell slips or Nine manages to get free somehow.

Permalink Eye

Anaseverina can do that.

Permalink Eye

Nine does not manage to get free somehow.

Permalink Eye

And after four hours it's Sairu's turn.

It occurs to him that he's never done this to anybody for more than a few minutes at a time, and his point will not quite be made in the way he intended if she comes out of his room completely dead to the world because he hurt her so much she forgot how her senses are supposed to work. He takes apart the pain spell and waits a few minutes to see if she does anything.

Permalink Eye

In the space of just a couple minutes, no.

Permalink Eye

What if he gives her the pain spell again, just a flicker of it, less than a second...?

Permalink Eye

She twitches and makes some kind of nonverbal vocalization.

Permalink Eye

Progress!

He sits near her and watches and waits.

Permalink Eye

After half an hour she sits up, slowly.

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"Good morning," he says.

Permalink Eye

She's not going to dignify that with a response. A look of fear, yes, but not a verbal response.

Permalink Eye

"I assume you know why you're here. Anything to say?"

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She shakes her head.

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"Apologies, pleas for mercy...? No?"

Permalink Eye

"Would it help?"

Permalink Eye

"It might. There are a lot of ways the rest of this night could go and you won't like any of them but some of the possibilities are definitely worse than others."

Permalink Eye

 

"I'm sorry."

Permalink Eye

"Then I won't leave the pain spell on you for the rest of the night."

He does other things instead. He enjoys them very much. She probably doesn't.

Just after dawn, he heals her and lets her go.

Permalink Eye

She leaves with whatever tattered scraps of dignity she can clutch.

Permalink Eye

And he crosses her off the list and goes about the rest of his day as normal and then goes hunting again in the evening. The one he finds first this time is a boy named Tezuin. Back to Sairu's room they go, and Tezuin can have four hours under the pain spell and then an opportunity to grovel. He chooses to babble threateningly. Sairu gives him three more hours under the pain spell, some poetic retribution, and lets him flee at dawn with most of his injuries healed but some burns lingering in uncomfortable places.

This pattern continues over the next week. One per day, whoever he can catch. The first few are the easiest, of course. When he catches Twelve on the sixth day, she manages to put up a fight, though not much of one.

It helps to have something to do, but achieving revenge does surprisingly little to calm the constant feeling that something is wrong and awful and intolerable and needs to be set right. Maybe there just isn't a way to set it right. Maybe it will just stay wrong forever.

Permalink Eye

This is not what most of the other apprentices think is wrong. That's mostly that the tough but fair nerd apparently just went insane, because he isn't bothering to explain the reason behind his actions and none of his 'victims' are telling.

Permalink Eye

Yeah, that's the price of ambushing people alone, is not getting a chance to explain yourself to bystanders.

On day seven, he finds two of them in a study room with five other people. It's probably the best shot he's going to get at any of them tonight. He drops them both with pain spells the moment he opens the door, before they can look up and see him.

"If you're worried you might be next, don't be," he says to everyone else in the room. "They know what they did."

And he picks up Ten and leaves Melara sitting at a table under a sense-deadening spell set to last ten minutes.

Permalink Eye

This quiets some of the rumors but not all of them, and starts up a new set.

Permalink Eye

On day eight, the remaining five of them are all in a room together, waiting for him. He scries them through the wall, pain-spells the whole room, takes Melara, and leaves the rest with ten minutes of pain as a preview.

On day nine they form a slightly better-prepared ambush. Eleven tries taunting him about - things he'd rather forget, so Eleven is the one he takes that night. Eleven does not have a very good night.

And on, and on -

The morning of day twelve, when Anaseverina wakes up, Sairu is sitting on the floor by the bed looking pensive.

Permalink Eye

Yeah. Hug?

Permalink Eye

He leans on her.

"It's... not helping as much as I thought it would," he admits.

Permalink Eye

 

"I wasn't all better either after you did for the one who got me."

Permalink Eye

"Yeah - I just - feel wrong," he says. "I mean... I'm - not scared of them, not anymore, it helped with that part fine. And I feel - weird, unsettled, and it helps with that too, having something to do, having something to do about it... but... I still feel wrong. Nothing helps with that."

Permalink Eye

"Time," she offers helplessly. "I felt like that too but I'm--okay, now."

Permalink Eye

"Okay." Hug.

Permalink Eye

Hug. "It might take longer for you. It was only one person for me."

Permalink Eye

"Yeah."

Hug. Sigh.

Permalink Eye

Hug. Hairpets.

Permalink Eye

That is good. She is good.

Eventually there is breakfast to be had, and the rest of the day after that.

Permalink Eye

 

That evening the last of them shows up to dinner, which she hasn't done in a while, and walks right up to him and Anaseverina as they are finishing their meal.

"All right, it's clear I'm not getting out of this and I don't feel like spending the next few hours waiting for you to find me. Hi, I'm Kaseo, I fucked you over and I'm sorry. Take your one night of unspeakable torment and we'll call it even."

Permalink Eye

 

...he was really not expecting that.

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Neither was anyone else! A vague surprised murmur goes around.

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But he can go with it. He shrugs and stands up. "Very reasonable of you. Come with me."

Permalink Eye

She follows him to his room, with an astonishingly casual attitude for someone expecting unspeakable torments.

Permalink Eye

 

"So you're weirdly calm about all this."

Permalink Eye

"Yeah," she says. "I fucked with the wrong person, I didn't get away with it, it happens."

Permalink Eye

"Why did you even do it in the first place."

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"I think the rest of them had some kind of complicated agenda going on. Me, I was just bored."

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...he actually laughs.

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"You were bored," she mutters, not sounding impressed.

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"Have you considered getting a better hobby?"

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"Maybe I should get more serious about magic. Where the fuck did you dig up that one spell?"

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"Invented it."

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"Teach it to me sometime?"

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"Not a chance."

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"Literally why would he do that."

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"I would if it was me!"

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"Do you even experience fear," Sairu wonders aloud.

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Kaseo laughs.

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"How are you not dead?"

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"Good question. I'll let you know if I figure it out."

Permalink Eye

Sigh.

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"Since you've been so helpful, I won't leave you under the pain spell for four hours first," says Sairu.

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"Oh, is that what you've been doing. No wonder everyone's so fucked up."

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"I help, sometimes."

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"That's cute."

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"Not what I'd call it."

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Shrug.

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"...I'm genuinely curious now if I could leave the pain spell on you all night and in the morning you'd look at me and say 'wow, that sucked. Did I miss breakfast?'"

Permalink Eye

She cracks up.

"Wouldn't rule it out!"

Permalink Eye

"It occurs to me to wonder if you aren't as unflappable as you look, just really clever and good at bluffing."

Permalink Eye

"Guess you'll find out."

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"I think you're for real," he says, "and luckily for me, I also have a convenient way to test that theory -"

And he puts the pain spell on her and carries her the rest of the way to his room.

Permalink Eye

Anaseverina opens the door since he has his hands full.

Permalink Eye

"Do you want me to wait for you to go to sleep before I start on her?"

Permalink Eye

Shrug. "I don't really care."

Permalink Eye

"All right. I'll give her half an hour of this and then see what she's like."

Permalink Eye

"'Kay. I don't think I'll be asleep by then, I have some magic practice to do."

Permalink Eye

He nods.

He sits by Kaseo and reads a book for half an hour, and then he ends the spell.

Permalink Eye

She lies there for a few seconds just breathing, and then:

"Wow, that fucking sucked."

Permalink Eye

...That actually startles a small snicker out of her.

Permalink Eye

Kaseo laughs.

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"Half an hour," he says, "which is better than anybody else got. And now I think I'm going to take that attitude of yours as a challenge."

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"Better men have tried," says Kaseo.

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"I doubt it."

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"Where exactly is it you're claiming to have found better men in this cesspit?"

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"Fair point."

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"If we had met under better circumstances," says Sairu, "I think I would like you very much."

And then he spends several hours doing his best to shatter Kaseo's composure.

Permalink Eye

She's very cooperative. One might almost suspect her of orchestrating all this just to get him to do exactly what he's doing right now, except that who in their right mind would do that, and also - she does feel fear, she does feel pain, he can make her scream and beg and cry -

- and then five minutes later she's laughing again, every time.

Permalink Eye

Anaseverina goes to bed partway through this.

Permalink Eye

Sairu politely tries to keep the noise levels down after that.

Permalink Eye

Aww, that's hardly any fun.

Permalink Eye

The objective here is kind of to get her to stop having so much fun.

Although the fun is kind of compelling, in its own way...

Permalink Eye

Isn't it just?

Permalink Eye

Well.

He's very persistent. He wants her broken, if not forever, at least for longer than five minutes, and he's willing to take all night trying if that's what it takes. All night, every trick he knows, a few new applications of a more precisely-targeted version of the pain spell, and one of his birthday knives.

Permalink Eye

 

And eventually, with all that, he can have her sobbing helplessly and flinching from his touch and not immediately recovering.

Permalink Eye

"That was fun," he murmurs into her hair. "What do you think, do I win this one?"

Permalink Eye

She nods shakily.

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"Thought so."

He heals her. He lets her go.

Permalink Eye

She pauses in the doorway, not quite looking back -

But whatever she was going to say, she leaves instead.

Permalink Eye

And he still has time for a couple hours of sleep before breakfast.

Permalink Eye

Anaseverina snuggles up in her sleep when he comes to bed.

Permalink Eye

Awww. Cozy sleepy snuggles. Perfect.

Permalink Eye

And in the morning breakfast. Fortunately stimulants are available.

Permalink Eye

Yeah he's a little tired. But very very satisfied.

Permalink Eye

Good. It doesn't fully solve everything, but--good.

Permalink Eye

And most of them are avoiding him assiduously now. Even Kaseo is noticeably staying out of his way.

Permalink Eye

Good for her.

Permalink Eye

The rumor mill is having a field day with that one. If he managed to freak out Kaseo...

Permalink Eye

He's a little bit smug about that.

Permalink Eye

This does not help. Or does, depending on your definition of help; the rumors get more elaborate.

Permalink Eye

What-all are they even saying about him?

Permalink Eye

Well, no one ever specified what it was that these people had done to prompt this; he said "you know what you did" and Kaseo was likewise vague when she came up to him, so there's rampant speculation on that, as well as what various options for triggers relative to his vengeance suggest about his mental state; there is discussion of the fact that he is apparently not gay after all; there is speculation on what exactly it even was that he did to these people.

Permalink Eye

It's kind of funny, honestly.

...wait, they thought he was gay???

Permalink Eye

Not, like, all of them conclusively, but it's been a popular misconception since he extracted that one revenge over Anaseverina.

Permalink Eye

The logic there is just bewildering. Why are people like this.

Permalink Eye

Possibly because they were raised by Sorani Savaross.

Permalink Eye

...fair point.

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Yeah.

Anyway, no one's messing with him for a while after that.

Permalink Eye

Which is good!

But... hmm.

He likes his Anaseverina very much. But because he likes her so much, there are things he wants to do that he doesn't want to do to her.

He finds himself thinking about Kaseo a lot. She seems to like nearly anything. If he wants to make somebody cry without ruining his carefully cultivated reputation for only messing with people who mess with him first, she's probably his best bet.

 

One night he goes looking.

Permalink Eye

She's sitting alone in a less-used study room, and she grins when she sees him.

"Hey there."

Permalink Eye

"Hey," he says. "If I take you back to my room and fuck you up, am I going to start a terrifying cycle of revenge that lasts until one of us graduates?"

Permalink Eye

"Nah, that sounds great."

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"All right."

He takes her back to his room.

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Anaseverina looks up.

"Did she do something again?"

Permalink Eye

"Nah, this is just for fun."

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"Okay, enjoy." She goes back to her magic practice.

Permalink Eye

They have fun.

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So much fun.

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It doesn't distract Anaseverina from her practice any more than miscellaneous animal torture ever does.

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Eventually she leaves. It would be kind of awkward to stay the night.

Permalink Eye

The bed is not big enough to fit three.

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It really isn't!

Sairu happily snuggles his Anaseverina.

Permalink Eye

Such good snuggles.

Permalink Eye

So good.

Permalink Eye

Things are good for a while.

But--

Apprentices are very much not allowed to kill each other without permission, and there are measures in place to prevent most common forms of suicide. That doesn't mean apprentices never die. An apprentice is an investment, but sometimes it's time to realize that you're not getting your money's worth. Sometimes a less-than-talented apprentice goes to a lesson and doesn't come back.

One day Anaseverina goes to a lesson and doesn't come back.

Permalink Eye

 

He searches the tower for her, very methodically.

She is not there.

So this is not someone else fucking with him, and Savaross did in fact kill her.

Well, he's hardly going to take it out on Savaross, but he is very, very tempted to take it out on someone.

Permalink Eye

Most of the other apprentices are smart enough to avoid him! A few, however, make snide remarks.

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The first such unwise individual gets a five-minute pain spell.

Anyone else?

Permalink Eye

...No one who was in the room at the time, but the gossip network is not so swift that everyone inclined to be snide gets warning that this is a Bad Idea.

Permalink Eye

The second one gets set on fire and then pain-spelled for five minutes!

Permalink Eye

 

Ow.

No one else says a word to him for the rest of the day.

Permalink Eye

Good.

 

He finds Kaseo shortly after dinner.

Permalink Eye

"Heard you were in a mood," she says.

Permalink Eye

He sets her on fire.

Permalink Eye

She douses it and snorts.

"All right, let's go back to your room and fuck, I bet you'll feel better after."

Permalink Eye

They do that.

He isn't quite trying to break her again, but he definitely has a lot of feelings to express.

Permalink Eye

Yeah, wow.

Permalink Eye

And then he kicks her out of his room and curls up in his empty bed and cries for half the night.

The next day, his mood is only slightly improved.

Permalink Eye

The next day he has a lesson.

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He attends his lesson.

Permalink Eye

It is a perfectly ordinary lesson. Anaseverina does not come up at all, directly or indirectly.

Permalink Eye

That is probably best for everyone involved.

Tassairen continues to be in a very bad mood. People who annoy him can generally count on being pain-spelled for at least a minute. If anyone gives him cause to come up with worse things to do to them, they will find he is more than capable. He takes Kaseo to his room almost every night, which helps some.

Permalink Eye

Savaross finishes reviewing him on things learned years ago and less practicable on a day-to-day basis than healing, and moves him on to a theory-heavier section; less novel practical effects and more efficiency tricks and so on.

At one of these lessons, a short while after Tassairen's sixteenth birthday, he brings in a terrified young woman, and instructs Tassairen to rip her; humans are better for that than most kinds of animals.

Permalink Eye

He does that.

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She dies with a look of exquisite agony on her face.

Permalink Eye

It's kind of glorious.

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Excellent.

A few days later he will find a young woman he doesn't recognize bound hand and foot in his room.

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"Well, hello there," he says. "What are you for?"

Permalink Eye

"A reward, apparently."

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"Oh, fun."

Permalink Eye

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He laughs. "Don't give me that look."

Permalink Eye

"Yeah? Or what?"

Permalink Eye

Five-second pain spell.

Permalink Eye

 

She comes out of it looking a little shaky but still defiant.

Permalink Eye

"Ooh, a tricky one. Let's see what you're made of."

Permalink Eye

 

All the same pieces in all the same structures as any other human of her demographic, it looks like!

Permalink Eye

Good to know.

He takes her apart and puts her back together and explores her reactions to variously targeted pain spells.

Permalink Eye

...she likes variously targeted pain spells, it turns out.

Although she still seems understandably dissatisfied with her situation.

Permalink Eye

Yeah, the fact that she has complaints is not a big surprise. The fact that she gets off on being tortured... well, he's not about to complain.

Permalink Eye

This is decidedly not the best day she's ever had.

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That's just too bad for her.

Permalink Eye

Savaross doesn't mention her at Tassairen's next lesson, although he does give him a small, knowing smile.

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In the absence of clear instructions, he decides he can do whatever he wants with her, and what he wants is to keep her in his room and torture her in his free time. He'll probably kill her eventually, but she's so much more entertaining alive.

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Kaseo finds her entertaining too.

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Oh, that's fun.

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As he calms down the rumor mill gradually calms down about him, although he's still erratic and unusual enough to be a popular topic of speculative gossip.

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He's still kind of perpetually on edge, but now he is sometimes in good moods and no longer pain-spells people for being mildly annoying!

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Then people will avoid him less assiduously.

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Acceptable.

He still misses her. Every day, waking up alone in his bed - he makes Telana sleep on the floor - he wants his Anaseverina back. He can't have her. She's gone. Nothing he does will return her to him, unless he invents resurrection.

 

...he develops an even keener interest in necromancy and related subjects.

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All materials he can find on the subject agree that even if there was theoretically something he could do about it, which there might not be, he would need her body to do it.

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Well, maybe he can find her body after he murders Savaross.

He starts experimenting on Telana. He'd prefer not to kill her permanently, but she's certainly the most expendable human available. And torturing her to death and then bringing her back is - well. An enjoyable pastime.

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He'd better be exquisitely careful if he doesn't want to kill her too dead to bring back; it's a very fine line, and even resuscitating her from the point where it is possible takes a significant amount of power.

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He has plenty stored up from his animal torture hobby.

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Then he will be able to continue in this vein for quite some time.

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Fun!

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Why.

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Why not?

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Ugh.

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He continues to do well in his lessons, although those are a bit less frequent, lately; Savaross has been leaving the tower for brief trips more often.

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He likes doing well in his lessons. Magic is fun. Particularly when he can torture someone with it but also just in general.

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Magic is fun! And he is good at it! But not perfect. And sometimes to learn new things you have to try things that might not work.

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He wins the first such gamble, but loses the second a couple of months later.

Oh well. She was fun while she lasted.

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One of the other apprentices notices he isn't bringing food for her back to his room anymore and wants to know if he's doing anything with the body.

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"Why, did you want it for something?"

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"Not personally," he shrugs, "but there's some guys who might."

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"Well, as it happens, I did have plans for it."

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"Okay. Just thought I'd check," he shrugs.

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Shrug. "Yeah."

(His plan for the body is to preserve it for further experiments. He does that. She goes in a box under his bed.)

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His magic lessons get interspersed with social studies lessons. He's going to have to interact with the world outside the tower eventually, he'll need to have some clue of how it works.

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Huh.

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Countries: are a thing. The one they're located in is called Laantharet; the other language spoken occasionally in the tower, Keriani, comes from Keria which is on a huge island a ways across the ocean. Marriage: is a thing. Money: is a thing.

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The world outside the tower is kind of weird.

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So weird! Laws: are things, specifically against murder, stealing and torture.

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Well that's just no fun at all!

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Yep. ...Also against kidnapping.

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Hilarious.

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So hilarious. Here, have lessons on social things not related to justice systems.

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Well, it'll probably all be useful eventually.

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One night, about three weeks before Sairu's seventeenth birthday, there is a loud explosion from the upper floors of the tower. Anyone quick enough to get to a window in time and lucky enough to be on the correct side of the tower can watch chunks of stone and flaming timber rain down onto the surrounding landscape.

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That is a non-zero number of people! It's all anyone's talking about at breakfast.

By lunch there is more information. Kaseo, Nokavalu and Minfaara are all dead, and Savaross has started interrogating people who were unusually close to any of them.

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...that sure does sound like Kaseo just kind of blew herself up for no damn reason! Kaseo what the fuck.

(It could have been one of the others, but... Kaseo. It was pretty obviously Kaseo.)

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At some point during the afternoon he is informed that Savaross would like to see him in his office, please.

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He shows up.

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Savaross would dearly love any information he might have about what just happened that he might have acquired at any point in time.

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"I had no idea it was coming, but from what I've heard since, it sounds like Kaseo got bored and blew herself up somehow and maybe killed a couple other people in the process. Unless one of the other two was even more the kind of person who would do that, I wouldn't know."

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He would like to be very sure that Tassairen did not know about any of this in advance but he is eventually satisfied.

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He really didn't know about any of it in advance, and it's kind of frustrating not to be believed the first time. Or the fifth. Seriously.

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Well, warlockry can't do lie detection, so.

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With an absolutely heroic effort, he manages to avoid critiquing Savaross's interrogation techniques.

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Yeah that's probably for the best for everyone.

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Yep.


He misses Kaseo. Why do all the people he likes end up dead.

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If Anaseverina were here she'd probably say it's because all the people he likes--all the people he knows, for that matter--live in a horrible cesspit.

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Well. That's... true.

 

He's distracted from his studies for a little while, and he no longer has anyone he can just grab and torture whenever he feels like it for stress relief. Maybe he should've tried harder to hold onto Telana.

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He turns seventeen. This makes the second birthday without her.

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He holds the lovely bracelet that his Anaseverina gave him when he turned fifteen, and he thinks about how she'll never get him another present again.

...he is in a really bad mood that day, and to a lesser extent for the entire following week.

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It is about a month after that that he brings in another girl.

This one isn't like the other two.

"This is Ikera," he says. "She's older than I usually take apprentices, but she has clear potential; as one of my more talented students yourself I'm placing her in your care to help her get caught up.

She is your fellow apprentice, so I don't want a repeat of what happened to the last one, but otherwise when I don't need her for lessons I leave her to your discretion."

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Ikera is already badly bruised, and her cheeks are puffed from tears, but the look in her eyes is not that of someone who reacts to pain with cowering.

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He looks at her. He looks at Savaross.

He nods. "Understood."

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"Excellent." He shoves her forward. "Her first lesson is tomorrow after lunch."

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She stumbles forwards. Her fists clench a little tighter but she doesn't otherwise react.

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He smiles at her.

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She glares at him.

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"Come in," he says cheerfully.

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She stands still for a few seconds and then stalks inside.

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He follows her into his room and closes the door behind them.

"Where'd he even find you?" he wonders.

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"I was somebody else's apprentice and he decided to poach."

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"You were probably better off with them, whoever they were."

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"I'm going to kill him."

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He looks at her appraisingly for a long moment.

 

Then he says, "You'll have to get in line."

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...She considers him. "He killed my mother in front of me because I couldn't do something well enough."

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"If I'd ever met my mother maybe I'd know what that's like," he says. "Of the two people I've ever met that I liked, he killed one and the other one killed herself for reasons that were probably his fault, but I can't ask her because she didn't say a word to me about it before she blew herself up."

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"Okay, I guess we'll have to collaborate, then."

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"Guess we will. Do you know anything useful?"

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"I know some stuff. Mostly he noticed me because I can do this," she says, and reaches out, and rips the power from an obscenely large chunk of space.

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"Huh. Nice."

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"Well, if I couldn't do it my mother would still be alive, but as long as I'm already here..."

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"He gave you to me because he expects me to torture you. I'm not sure you can plausibly act like you've been tortured. I'm not sure you could plausibly act like you'd been tortured even if I actually did."

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"Why does he expect you to torture me?"

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"Care to guess?"

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She looks at him.

She does not guess.

She says, "What does 'has been tortured' look like?"

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"It's kind of hard to describe... if I tortured you I'd just expect you to kill me, I tortured Kaseo and she decided it was great and she wanted to be friends, I tortured Telana and she just kind of constantly made snide remarks, but those aren't the normal thing. The normal thing is... you're scared and you really don't want it to happen again, it's constantly on your mind, everything you do you're thinking 'is this going to get me tortured again, how do I not do that'... and then eventually you get better but that part takes a while."

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"I would kill you if you tortured me," she nods. "What do you think he expects me to act like?"

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"...Can you manage 'intimidated'?"

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"Yeah."

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"That, then."

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"Okay. Do you already have a plan, or...?"

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He shakes his head. "Haven't thought of one that'd work."

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"Tell me all about why not."

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"Mostly it's that I can't take apart his personal wards unless he's very very distracted and I can't distract him enough without going through his wards. I'm working on something for it, but until you came along I would've had to do the whole thing myself, and taking spells apart while holding one on somebody is kind of difficult. Oh, and he spies on us secretly sometimes, but I can tell when he's doing it if I look hard enough and he never does it in anybody's room, I think he's afraid to catch us having sex."

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She shudders. "Good."

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"It's kind of stupid of him, makes a really predictable weakness if anybody guesses, but I'm not about to complain."

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"He's stupid," she says dismissively, "he killed my mother."

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"And didn't immediately kill you, yeah. Same with me and my Anaseverina."

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Nod. "So you're definitely more skilled than I am--I was somebody's apprentice, but he only used non-abusive teaching methods--so I need to be the distraction, do you have a particular kind of distraction in mind?"

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"Yep. I call it the pain spell."

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"That sounds promising. How does it work?"

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So he explains about the fundamental principle of activating all the sensory nerves in a given area.

"I don't know why I'm the only person who's thought of this, it seems really simple, but all the other sensory-affecting spells I've seen that aren't just 'turn all the nerves off' - I can do that too, that one's easy - they're way more complicated because they're trying to do specific things, like only heat, only pressure, only some pain... the pain spell just blasts everything, so I don't have to fuck around with that kind of detail and I can get more refined with the rest of it."

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Nod nod. This seems like an excellent thing to do to Sorani Savaross.

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"I can catch birds for you to practice on."

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...She does not look entirely comfortable with this, but says, "Alright."

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"And you shouldn't let on that you know it, I've only ever taught one person and it was my Anaseverina."

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Nod. "I'm sorry for your loss."

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He blinks, caught off-guard and unsure how to respond.

After a moment, he settles on, "Thanks."

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"You're welcome."

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Well that was surreal. Is this what people who grow up outside the tower are like...?

He shakes his head slightly. "I should try to catch you up on the curriculum, I'm sure I'm supposed to do that whenever I'm not torturing you."

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"Yeah, okay," she says, and starts describing where she currently is. Her teacher taught her a lot of the same things that Savaross taught him, but less in-depth, in a different order, and without any of the torture or animalmurder.

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She definitely needs to learn how to rip animals, then, and here's a bunch of details about assorted magical practices that she seems to have missed...

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She is not going to hide that she finds most of this absolutely horrifying but she's also not going to hesitate to learn it.

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It's weird that she finds it horrifying, but as long as she learns it...

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Torture: generally considered Really Bad, outside the tower.

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He's had the sociology lessons, he knows in theory how these people run things, but wow, he still kind of has trouble with the idea that there's an entire functioning society out there where people just don't ever torture each other.

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What the fuck is this tower even like.

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"When I was a little kid I painspelled somebody for a full minute because she stole my undead squirrel."

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He laughs. "What's that look for?"

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"It is horrifying that you or anyone else had to grow up here."

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He shrugs. "I guess."

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"I guess getting your toys stolen isn't something that never happens to kids, but..."

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"What do kids out there even do when somebody messes with their stuff?"

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"Tell an adult. Or punch the other kid and take it back, sometimes, but that's discouraged."

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"Nobody'd have taken me seriously if I just punched them!"

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"Yes, because this place is a horrible cesspit where the stakes are higher than that."

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"My Anaseverina used to call it that too."

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"Well, she was right."

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"Yeah."

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"Do you have anything resembling a plan for after he's dead?"

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"Not really."

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Shrug. "It shouldn't be too hard. Skilled magic-users can find work just about anywhere. Although you'd probably need to not admit the torture."

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"Hmm?"

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"...People get uncomfortable around people who've done things they consider horrible."

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"Huh. All right."

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Nod.

It transpires, over the course of the next few weeks, that Ikera has exactly two modes: working ruthlessly and obstinately towards vengeance, whether that means attending her lessons with sufficient levels of faux-submission to not give the game away or ruthlessly practicing the pain spell on animals or working her way through the curriculum she has to "catch up" with, and curled up crying for her mother. The latter doesn't occur very frequently. The closest thing she has to an off switch is "asleep," and she does less of that than would be perfectly optimal for her health. Not to mention that she doesn't sleep as well as she might, given that she banished herself to the floor before Sairu had a chance; she does not trust him enough to sleep next to him.

The first time he catches her in the latter state is four days after she arrives.

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He looks at her.

 

"Do you want a hug."

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"...Yeah."

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Hug.

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Crying.

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And now he's crying too. He was not expecting that.

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Grief is a bitch and a half, ain't it. They can just. Hug each other and cry for a while.

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Yeah that sounds like a plan.

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Eventually the tears peter out.

"Her name was Evasari Edari," she murmurs.

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Hug.

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"Wanna go home," she mumbles.

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"Wonder what that's like."

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"I--I don't know how to describe it."

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More hug.

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Yeah.

Eventually Vengeance Mode reasserts itself and she wants to go back to doing things that will lead to Savaross dying horribly.

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Doing things that will lead to Savaross dying horribly is an excellent use of their time.

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Yep.

...

Warlocks have a range as well as a volume limit. Normally this doesn't come up because why would you rip any air besides what's right next to you. But most warlocks' ranges, it transpires, are smaller than Ikera's volume limit radius if she does it in a sphere.

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Well, that's a major magical combat advantage and then some.

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Yes, yes it is. Can she have some of his stored animaltorture magic so she can practice ripping stored magic along with the air?

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Definitely.

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Good. Can he surreptitiously study the wards Savaross has on whatever stored power he has on him, then duplicate it so she can practice on that?

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Yep!

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Excellent.

...

Wow, these are really good wards. This's gonna take her a while.

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Sairu has some expertise at picking wards apart, and has been studying Savaross's wards for a while; he can help her figure it out.

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She's not going to have time to pick the wards apart carefully when this is for real; she needs to be able to bypass them flawlessly and instantly. But knowing how they work--their weak points, how they ravel--it's useful. It will still take a long time, but not quite as much.

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It's good to be making progress.

 

He probably should have expected this, but it's really difficult to pretend he's getting to torture someone on a regular basis. He is just - not that calm, but he needs to be that calm or everyone in the tower is going to know he isn't.

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Ikera has no idea what's behind him being so on-edge but she notices that he's on-edge.

"What's wrong?"

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"Mm?"

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"You're acting--stressed."

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"That's just... kind of how I am," he says. And then he sighs. "The problem being that I'm not like that when I can torture somebody regularly, so I have to act calm whenever I'm out there or someone's going to notice."

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"...Ah."

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"It wasn't such a problem before my Anaseverina died, but ever since then..." He shrugs.

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Nod nod. Sigh. "How bad does it have to get before it qualifies as torture on the relevant level?"

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"...why, are you offering?"

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"If not torturing anyone risks us getting caught and not being able to kill Savaross and it's not more than I can handle then yes."

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"...even if it wasn't more than you can handle, I'm not sure if - you might have a harder time working with me afterward, and then we'd be kind of fucked."