“I think I’ll call you Red.”
“You know my name. We were given each other’s names when we were assigned this checkpoint.”
Py grinned. “But we haven’t been properly introduced. So in the absence of common social decency,” he said, clearly mocking the precise way Rianne spoke, “I’m forced to resort to nicknames.”
“I didn’t see you introducing yourself to me, either.”
“Yeah, but I’m an arrogant, inconsiderate jerk. What’s your excuse?”
Rianne thought for a moment. “Those same things, mostly.”
Py’s grin widened. “They must have messed up something fierce when they were training you, Red.”
“I received the same training as every other adept.” Rianne felt it best to omit that the training she was receiving from the Greybeard was definitely not standard. In fact, she didn’t much want anyone knowing what actually went on in that training.
“Maybe, but I really think they did it wrong with you.” Py had hopped up on the railing atop the wall. He wasn’t even looking out over the docks anymore. He was instead looking rather intently at Rianne. “Or at least, on the day when they gave you your red robes and shoved the stick up your arse, they didn’t get it as far up there as they normally do.”
Rianne smirked. “I’ll pretend that was a compliment.”
“I’m not joking. I look at your butt and I expect to see the thing sticking out—at least a little bit.”
“I catch you looking at my bottom and I will set you on fire with my brain.”
“Not up here you won’t. Unless you intend to set fire to a dozen or more zombies immediately following.”
Rianne sighed. “Fine. No brain fires.” Py puffed out his chest in victory. “There’s a perfectly good flame thrower next to that crate though,” she finished.
They hadn’t heard anything from the darkness of the docks since the zombie the previous evening. Rianne had been told that sitting the wall was ninety-five percent boredom and five percent mortal peril and that assessment was proving accurate. In truth, she had been dreading this interim almost as much as the peril. She was aware of the resentment that the laborer and tradesmen classes bore the magical community of Tressen and didn’t relish the prospect of spending a whole week hearing about every wrong ever visited upon a field worker by a mage.
Of course, Py hadn’t fallen short of expectations in this regard. He was quick to judge her and seemed to obviously harbor some seated resentment toward mages. Yet as the night drug on, Rianne was starting to find the boy’s company—well, if not pleasant, at least tolerable. It was reassuring that someone who didn’t like her, perhaps even had a reason to not like her, could still be bearable to talk with. Py might bait her, or try to make her angry, but it was more of a verbal joust. Rianne could play at this kind of banter. She had thought she was trying something similar with the Greybeard earlier, and the result had been disastrous.
Rianne wasn’t sure whether the Greybeard hated her personally or mages in general, but he didn’t banter—at least not for long. And his hatred wasn’t bridled by social conventions like Py’s was. Py might pretend to be fearless on the wall, but just because Rianne couldn’t seek him up here didn’t mean that he would be safe from her come morning. The Greybeard was clearly not afraid of magical reprisals, whether he was as powerful as he claimed to be or not.
The Greybeard hadn’t forbidden her from wearing the robes of her station, but neither could she wear them when he asked her not to. While she didn’t harbor any illusions about winning her new master’s favor, she would at least have to avoid setting off his temper again if she was actually going to learn anything useful from him.
So she didn’t wear her apprentices robes and tonight she didn’t wear her old Adept’s robes either, opting instead for a simple brown tunic over a light woven shirt and pants of the same dark red as the shirt.
Though she knew she might not like where the question led, she couldn’t help wondering aloud into one of the long silences, “So what makes you think I’m actually an Adept? We can wear whatever we want outside the magic district. I’m sure plenty of people have pretended to be above their station out here.”
“It ain’t just the color of your clothes, Red. It’s the color of your soul,” Py said, striking a pose and looking out over the docks for dramatic effect. “Red robes are an ambitious lot. It’s not enough for them to just be on conservation crews, exercising bindings and whatnot on us regular folk. Red robes have to be more powerful than other mage folk too and you can tell that about ‘em. It’s in the way they act, sorta like they own everybody, or ought to.”
“You think I’m power hungry?”
“What do you think?”
Rianne didn’t answer that. “And you could tell this just by looking at me?”
“You red robes get so used to being in other folks’ heads that you don’t even notice what’s right in front of your faces. It’s in your eyes, Red. Everything you do, everyone you meet is a challenge, or an obstacle. You always have to be smarter or faster or tougher.”
“I’ve met plenty of other Adepts, Py. I’ve never noticed these traits you’re describing.”
“Mayhaps I’m wrong then. Maybe it isn’t red robes. Could just be you.”
Rianne had been on the verge of telling Py that she was not, in fact, a mere ‘red robe,’ but was instead the foremost amongst apprenticed mages in the Three kingdoms. She now decided to keep this information to herself.
Rianne was finding herself disconcerted by Py’s easy confidence, the matter-of-fact way he said things that nobody in their right mind would say to an Adept, let alone an apprentice. Rianne had been warned about that too when she prepared to sit the wall. The commoners knew that no magic was permitted on the wall and they often used it to vent their frustrations toward any mages they happened to find there. The commoners could say things that would prompt seekings or even bindings under normal circumstances because they knew they could get away with it.
Mages, for their part, were expected to tolerate it. If the commoners didn’t sit the wall, no one would contain the zombies in the docks.
So Rianne didn’t get angry, and made an effort to show no outward signs that Py bothered her at all. She instead just tried to turn the conversation away from herself.
“Have you seen many Adepts out here?”
“Only every once in awhile. Sometimes, they aren’t any good at invading other folks’ thoughts and can’t make it in the conservation or reclamation crews, so they get stuck here. Most times, though, they just want to slum a little. Gotta prove that the common folk aren’t doing anything they can’t do better,” Py sighed. “Thing is, a red robe on the wall is almost always a disaster. And you’re not the first red robe I’ve told this to either. Knowing doesn’t help you none. A red robe on the wall always means dead Sitters or zombies or both.”
“But why?” Arrogant and power hungry or not, an Adept was still amongst the most powerful classes of mage in the Three Kingdoms. Getting to that point required intelligence as well as skill. Rianne had a hard time believing they could be so incompetent sitting the wall.
“You don’t get to be a red robe without loving magic something fierce,” Py answered. “A lot of them can do magic without even thinking about it, and some of ‘em do it out of habit. Nothing big or elaborate, just simple wards or traces.” Py gestured out toward the darkness of the docks. “It’s enough for them, though. They’ll come out of the woodwork to get a piece of a magic user. Plenty of decent folk got hurt or worse defending red robes.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“Council keeps it quiet,” Py shrugged. “Red robes are supposed to be paragons. Doesn’t reflect too well on them when one goes and kills a bunch of folk ‘cuz he couldn’t keep it in his magical pants.”
Rianne made a connection then, and the realization nearly floored her. The way Py acted was more than a game and he was nowhere near as random as he seemed. Everything he did and said was much more controlled than she was giving him credit for. He watched her when he said something that he expected would get a rise out of her not because he wanted to see it, but because he wanted to know right away if she resorted to magic. He was pushing her, egging her on while he could still stop her, so that he’d know if she really would be able to control her use of magic in a pinch.
It made sense. But if it were true, then, “When you shot the flame thrower in the air yesterday. That was a warning, wasn’t it? You’d just decided that I was an Adept, and you were letting everyone at the other checkpoints know.”
Py didn’t look at her. “Best not to have Sitters getting caught with their pants down, don’t you think? ‘Course not every red robe thinks the lives of the folks around him are worth his pride, so we try to be discreet about it.”
Unsure how to take this, Rianne remained silent. The silence persisted through the still grayness just before the dawn. As the sun appeared, so did the morning shift for Rianne and Py’s checkpoint. They both greeted their relief amiably, but left the wall without another word to each other.