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Fractal ModePiers AnthonyCHAPTER 1NONATHE child was clumsy and rebellious. This was the remedial class, and he had no taste or talent for music. He wanted to be outside playing tag-ball. Still, Nona had never expected him to bite her.Music was fundamental to the culture of Oria, and every child had to learn at least one instrument. This one would never be proficient, but he had to master the basics, or suffer consequences. The teacher did not want to call on a despot for punitive magic, so she tried kindness first. She assigned the prettiest and most talented music assistant to this difficult case. "If you can't do it, no one can, Ana," she murmured. She used Nona's pseudo name, not knowing her real one; only one other living person knew that. Well, perhaps another knew it, but that one would never tell.Nona smiled. The boy was only nine, the required age for the onset of musical training, but even at that age they could be moved by an attractive woman. She was two months shy of her second nine, in the interim between the completion of her training and the onset of legal maturity. Everyone assumed that she would become a music teacher, but she had serious private doubts. She dared not express those doubts, for if the despots learned her secret they would destroy her.She approached the boy. "Hello, Jick," she said pleasantly. "Why did you choose to play the lute?""I didn't," he said. "I don't want to. I hate it."So his parents had required him to use this instrument. It was not her place to second-guess them. "Well, perhaps you will like it better when you get to know it," she said with careful cheer. "Let me help you get set."She set his left hand on the stem of the junior instrument, his fingers on the frets. She guided the other hand to the body of it. "You hold it before you, like this," she explained, getting it into the right position for playing. "With this hand you pluck the strings, and with this one you adjust their tones. See, you can make several notes from a single string." She pressed on his left forefinger with her right forefinger, on the string, to demonstrate the effect.Instead of moving as she indicated, he jerked his head suddenly forward and bit her finger, hard.Nona shrieked, wrenching her hand away. The flesh tore and blood welled out.The headmaster appeared. He snapped his fingers. The pain abruptly abated-and the boy screamed. The man had performed an instant transfer spell, causing Jick to suffer Nona's pain. There was a muffled titter from others in the class; they knew it served him right.But in his agony, the boy threw down the lute, smashing it. Nona was busy inspecting her hand, trying to assess the damage, but she knew that this incident had already escalated dangerously. She was apt to get the blame for letting it happen."Go home and have your mother tend that," the headmaster said with a deceptively gentle voice. "I'll deal with this." His expression turned ugly as he faced the boy.Then Nona knew that the man had been watching, probably by means of an illusion in another room, and knew exactly what had happened. He was technically a theow, but had a despot ancestor, and so had more magic than was normal for a theow. That was why he was in charge of the school: he could enforce discipline. She put her finger to her mouth, licking off the blood, and hurried out, relieved.As she walked down the road from the school, she concentrated on her injured finger. The pain was returning as she got out of range of the transfer spell, but she should be able to craft an illusion of healing that would help.Under her gaze the torn flesh knitted itself back together, and the color became normal. The pain faded, and her finger looked whole. But of course that was only the way it seemed; the damage remained, under the spell. Only the despots could do the potent magic.She walked on out of the village and up the path to her house, which was nestled a bit apart. At first she had not understood why, but later she had learned: it was because of the secret. Her folks had made this isolated house and moved here twenty years ago, in anticipation of her presence. Now she understood how wise a decision that had been.Her mother was weeding beans in the garden beyond the house. Nona realized with a small shock that the woman looked old. She was in her fifties, having gotten Nona late, and now seemed to be aging more rapidly than she should. Nona felt a pang of guilt, suspecting why that would be. Stooped shoulders, gray hair, deep facial lines-yet the goodness of her shone through the fading shell of her body.Nona hurried out to her. "A boy bit my finger," she explained as she approached. "The headmaster sent me home to get it tended. I made a spell to hide it."The woman took the proffered hand. She touched the finger, and there was no pain. She had no magic of this sort, but much experience of the natural kind. "This one?" she inquired with a lift of one brow."Yes. He bit so hard he tore my flesh. The headmaster made a transfer spell, so the brat got the pain instead of me, but I still have the injury. I hope it won't hurt my playing!""Child, this finger is not injured," the woman said."I covered it with illusion," Nona reminded her."I think you did more than that."Startled, Nona looked at her finger. She flexed it. There was no discomfort. She touched it with her other hand, and found no injury. She lifted her eyes to meet her mother's gaze. "But-""I believe you," her mother said. "You are maturing."Nona fell in beside her and helped pull weeds. They did not speak much, because it was never possible to be certain that a despot wasn't magically listening, but they had long experience at communication with minimal speech.Nona remembered how her magic had gradually come upon her. As a child she had learned to convert her pease porridge to sweet pudding, and thought that others did the same. Later she learned that their conversions were mere illusion, while hers were actual. Similarly, when she conjured a living bird to her hand, it was real, while others fashioned only the semblance.Her mother had cautioned her to restrict herself to illusion whenever in company, and not to tell anyone of her abilities. This was because only the despots were supposed to practice significant magic, and a theow who did it would be in peril. The despots used magic to suppress the theows, and reacted fiercely to any conceivable challenge.So it was that Nona had lived, if not a lie, a charade. She could do significant magic, but no one knew. No one except her mother. Not even her father, though perhaps he suspected.Actually they were not her birth parents. They had somehow known that they would have a changeling, and had prepared for it. When their only baby was born, they had taken him out at night to the town meetinghouse and left him. Before dawn they had returned and taken the changeling: Nona.Who were her natural parents? Nona did not know. But she did know this: she was the ninth born of the ninth generation. The ninth of the ninth. That was what accounted for her magic.And she was the one who might have the power to rid fair Oria of the despots, according to the legend. If she could only discover how.That was why she had had to be hidden. Had the despots known there was a ninth of a ninth, they would have razed whole villages to destroy that baby. So her natural parents had given away an early baby, hiding the fact that it had ever been born, in this manner reducing the count. Then when they birthed the ninth, it was reckoned as the eighth, and they did not have a ninth. That eighth was then exchanged for another, so that if the despots became suspicious, they could verify that there was no special magic in that boy. The magic was in the lost one, Nona. Nona, called Ana, so that the significance of her real name would not give her nature away. For her name meant "ninthborn." The people did not know, but the body did; the magic was in her, and it was growing. To all others, she seemed to be the first and only child of her mother, who had had difficulties in her birthing and could not bear another. There was no magical threat in a firstborn theow, and little in a female, so her concealment was effective.Now she had manifested another ability: heating. She had cured herself of a troublesome injury, without even realizing. Illusion could be marvelous, but in the end it was transitory. Real magic lasted. Her healing, supposedly a mask over injury, had eliminated the injury itself.They came to the end of the row. "Come inside," her mother said. "I will bandage your hand."Because they could not let it be known that the healing had taken place. After a week, yes, but not after a day. After less than an hour, actually.Nona followed her mother to the house.A week later the bandage was reduced to a thin wrapping around the finger, and that was masked by a spot illusion. Only those who actually touched her hand sensed the bandage. In a few more days she would remove that, and wear only a small scar-which would actually be illusion, because her finger had healed scarlessly.The errant boy, Jick, had been severely disciplined. He now wore a muzzle. It would be long before he bit another person-and if he did, he might be subject to the discipline of the despots, who well might conjure away his teeth. Nona had been relieved of her assisting, not because they thought her injured or culpable, but because it was policy to let things settle after an incident.She used the time to query her mother, when they could converse with minimal risk. Her father worked at the castle as a horse trainer, so was no problem in the day. It was not that he would willingly betray her secret, but that the despots could use their terrible magic to get anything from anyone who knew an... [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]