daughter of flood and fury
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I crouch ankle-deep in running water, blind-folded, reading the current. I hear the whole chamber through the water: the mutters of the watching students, the patient tick of my trainer’s thoughts, the worry and anger of Erjuna across the wide floor from me, his mind seeking to read mine.
I refuse it. That’s the first rule of watersight: do not let your opponent in. Only those you trust.
I let no one in.
Erjuna tries to keep me out, but he’s slacked off in the last few months, like the rest of them, like the whole temple. Become more interested in politics than studies, and so they’ve all gotten weak. I’ve fought half my class today and not taken a scratch. Erjuna is the last of them, many say the best of them, because they don’t want to admit I’m the best. That a girl could be the best.
Sometimes I hate my dad for putting me here. For discovering I have watersight when I shouldn’t, for using his position to get me in anyway, for making me the only female seer in a temple of men. I’m a walking heresy, a challenge to everything they believe. That’s what finally got him deposed, got him drowned in front of me six months ago while the whole temple watched. I hate them for killing him, even though I resent him for putting me here.
It’s messed up, I know. Welcome to my world.
Erjuna makes his charge. I would know he was running even if I hadn’t read his decision because of the way his thoughts stutter, feet splashing in and out of the water. His mind is a mess, thoughts slipping through his blind like a school of fish through fingers—calculation on how to beat me and worry he’ll be humiliated and stress about losing his place as the head of his House.
I wait till the last second, confident in my watersight though I’m blindfolded and all I can hear are the shouts and cries of the watching students. I need to do more than win here. I need to win so decisively my enemies won’t dare attack me. I need it more than I need my trainer’s approval or a position in one of the Houses. Because this about more than the training now.
It’s about staying alive.
Erjuna strikes, chopping his staff down overhand. He thought it well before he did it, so I’m ready, rolling left at the last second, hearing his curse through the water as the wood cracks into stone. My staff slaps into his knee, but he’s good enough that he recovers with a strike at my chest, and for a few seconds we dance and dodge blows, staffs cracking and water splashing, though it’s a foregone conclusion. His concentration drops even more in action, and I read his thoughts like a merchant’s banner, see the desperate strike at my head before he tries it.
I duck, his blow cutting air above me, then drive the butt of my staff into his sternum, hard. He doubles over, wheezing, and I deliver a series of blows to his ribs, his knees, then a crack on the head that drops him like a dead man.
I should stop now. I’ve won, I know that, everyone knows that. But winning isn’t enough. I need fear from them, a show of strength so intense the other students won’t dare come at me, and the theocrats won’t dare disappear me, despite my gender.
So I press the staff into his throat, finding it even blindfolded. I can feel his throat flex through the wood. “Yield,” I say, not in the water as I should, but in the air, so everyone can hear it.
His thoughts are a mess, an angry jumble of defeat, and humiliation, and strategizing how to save face, how to convince his friends he should still be head of their House.
Apparently it includes not yielding right away. Too bad. I need everyone to see the second-best fighter in our class is a distant, distant second. “Yield,” I say again, pressing harder.
He starts choking. “Yield,” he finally croaks, throwing up his hands.
I lift my staff. “Witch,” he spits, getting up from the water.
Beating him is a mistake. Erjuna is the second-best seer in our class, the most popular, and the best with words, something I suck at. He’s an easy pick for class leader--which means his House will likely get elevated this year to full seership. If I had just bowed down to him, at least let him touch me, maybe he would have taken me, taken my strength and skill over my heresy. Not anymore.
It’s a mistake, but all I have are mistakes now. A mistake to not make friends, but a bigger mistake to trust anyone as my father’s usurpers disappear all my relatives. A mistake to defeat my whole class without taking a scratch, but a bigger mistake to show any weakness when they’d readily off me to improve their own chances. The best seer in generations, the town criers are saying. If only she wasn’t the daughter of the former Chosen. If only she wasn’t a girl.
So I have to be stronger than all that. Untouchable. The best they’ve ever seen. Or they’ll disappear me—kill me or marry me to some minor merchant or send me to a distant riverpost to relay messages the rest of my life. I can’t let that happen.
Because if it does, I’ll never find out what happened to my dad. And I’ll never be able to ruin the bastards that did it.
“Remarkable,” a voice says, and it takes me a second to realize I didn’t hear the speaker’s thoughts through the water, not even a trace. Someone who blinds as well as me—a senior seer, then. I pull off my blindfold.
Worse: it’s the head usurper, Nerimes, the seer who lead the charge against my dad’s heresies, standing framed in the door to the long open chamber. The ocean breeze lifts his elaborate robes, and sunlight sparkling off running water casts shadows in the pits of his eyes. This is the man who riled the temple’s traditionalists against my father, who took my dad’s place when he died.
He’s the one I would take revenge on, if I believed in revenge. I don’t. I believe in leaving people alive to see their own ruin.
Trainer Urte clears his throat. “She’s—doing quite well, your Grace. Eighteen of her classm—“
“Defeated today, and the rest too scared to challenge her. Yes, I know. I’ve been reading the waters for some time now.” He lifts a brow at the other students, now lined up along the far wall, at sixteen all taller and stockier than me. “And none of you can take this girl? Can even touch her, despite her heresy? Despite watersight being the gift of your sex, and totally foreign to hers?”
No one responds, but the water speaks volumes. That we can hear their thoughts at all speaks volumes, when they should be practicing, should be blinding their thoughts with breath and concentration. It’s pathetic. I would be better yet if I had someone with real talent to fight against.
Nerimes’s eyes snap to me, sharp in deep sockets, as if he heard me. My fingers go cold on the staff--did he hear me? Did my waterblind fail? He of all people I do not want reading my thoughts.
“Perhaps a friendly spar, then?” he asks, shrugging off the bulky robes of state. He did read me, somehow. And meanwhile his mind is silent as stone, not even a murmur through the water.
I look to Urte, who appears uncertain. It’s not customary for full seers to spar with students, especially not the senior seers. They hardly spar with each other, except those chosen as Overseers for the city. But Urte nods, and I catch a hint of his thoughts, as I often do these days. That it might be good for the class, to see me beaten. Might be good for me.
I tighten my fist on the staff. Nerimes has to beat me first. “Blinds or no, your Grace?” I ask, giving my robes a quick wring to free up movement.
He smiles. “No need for them. A real monk must use all his faculties.” He’s not a big man, or even a particularly muscular one, but there is an—air about him. A sense of power coming from his lean frame.
Good. It will feel glorious to hold his throat under my staff, like I did Erjuna’s. I let the thought slip past my blind. I don’t care. My strength is not in words. It’s in battle.
Take the lower position, he says through the water, his words precise, formal. I nod to him and stride across the hall, downstream in the flat sheet that flows across the floor, that originates with the River Thelle and runs through every room in the vast temple before dropping to the sea. The lower position is easier, as thoughts travel faster downstream, with the current. It is a small advantage, but I will take it. My pride is not so great as to think I can beat the Chosen of Uje as easily as I beat Erjuna. Though I do intend to beat him.
I crouch, fingers to the water, staff flat behind me, pushing my awareness out.
And see myself, with a shock. He isn’t even bothering to hide his thoughts as he strides confidently across the floor toward me, catching a staff thrown him by one of the students. I am a small figure in the sunlit room, black hair falling nearly to the water, body wiry under damp robes, violet eyes closed in concentration. I look small, vulnerable in the vast space. Maybe that’s why he’s letting me see.
I stand, uneasy. No one has ever done this before. It violates the basic rule, let no one in. And yet, I can’t read his thoughts, his intentions, the normal unrelated things that run through everyone’s minds. Only his sight. With a gasp I realize he’s partially opened his waterblind, showing some things and hiding others.
This is beyond me. Far beyond me.
I grip my staff tighter as he approaches. His thoughts remain completely closed, but the sight he offers gives me some small advantage at least.
It vanishes. And in the dead silence that follows he strikes. I manage to get my staff up, blocking left with a crack, but the force of the blow nearly knocks me from my feet. Floods, he’s strong. I step right, spinning my staff to catch his ribs.
He’s fast too—my staff whooshes through the air where he was, the Chosen circling left. I lean back to avoid a counter-strike, and the dance is joined. We circle and parry and thrust and slash in grim silence, water splashing and glinting around us. He is no better fighter than I, at base, but his speed and strength—they’re unbelievable.
I dodge back again, gradually giving ground, being driven back toward the flat stone walls of the chamber, our engagement already twice as long as any I’ve had today, and his waterblind still as silent as the ocean cliffs.
I need to do something, find some edge, or I’m going to lose. So I form a thought, a simple suggestion in my head: a slip. A stumble. A moment of gracelessness, or overreaction. And as I block a bone-shaking overhead blow I push the thought into the water, push it at Nerimes.
And for a moment he stops, eyes widening. I think maybe it’s worked, this power of watersight I’ve discovered, of actually planting thoughts in another’s head. Then his eyes narrow, and he comes at me again in a flurry of blows. Well done, his voice comes through the water. But I am beyond such tricks. I step back, running into the wall, and it’s a quick series from there to the corner, to the floor, to his quarterstaff on my throat, to me admitting I yield.
I almost don’t, preferring death to dishonor as he presses on my windpipe, but something else wins out. Something that says that I’ll have other chances at the man. When my skills are better than his.
The Chosen steps back, tossing his staff back to its owner without looking. “Impressive,” he says aloud, a calculating look on his face. “There are not many in the temple who could stand before you, Aletheia of the Vjolla, watersight or no.” He smiles. “But I guess I am one of them.” He nods to Urte. “My apologies, Trainer, for intruding on class. May it have been instructional in some way.”
His words appear intended for the class, but they cut into me, into my heart. Take instruction, he seems to be saying. You are not untouchable. You are not strong. I can take you at any time. As if he knows I intend to overthrow him. A chill runs through me, despite the heat, and Urte dismisses class. Dashan gives me a look on the way out, wide face concerned, but he’s clearly not going to say anything in front of Urte. Good. About the last thing I need right now is someone feeling sorry for me.
I pace back to the cubbies in the wall, trying to sort out what this means, why Nerimes came, what it bodes for my position in the temple. If he’s finally going to disappear me, the last of my father’s line. Or if he has some other plans. I don’t trust the man.
Then again, I don’t trust anyone.
Well done today, Aletheia, Urte says through the water, in a thought too soft for any but the closest to hear. He stands in a pool of sunlight, weathered chest bare, hands clasped behind his back.
You think I am foolish, I think back to him. I do not need to see through his waterblind to know his mind, not after so many years.
He inclines his head. You are strong—even the Chosen says so. But strength is little without insight.
You think I should have let Erjuna win. Should have bowed down to get into his House.
You need a House to be elevated, Aletheia. It is part of the test.
I kick at the water. And what good will a House do me if everyone sees I’m not the best? That the heretic girl isn’t even a skilled heretic? I’d be out of here faster than the spring flood, even if Nerimes doesn’t ship me off.
Urte sighs and turns to the windows, cool breeze carrying the smell of salt and the sounds of the city below. Child, how many forms of water are there?
Three, I answer, letting a bit of impatience slip through my blind. This is first-year stuff. Liquid, ice, and steam.
And which of these would you say is the strongest?
Ice, I answer without hesitation. Though we rarely see it in Serei, I learned my lessons well. Even before we started sparring, I had to be the best. Not only is it the strongest, when set in cracks it can split stone, as the philosophers believe even our sea cliffs were made.
Trainer cocks his head. And how does the ice get into the stone? Is it forced in there, solid and cold?
I frown. I—haven’t seen it, but I assume it must flow in first, then freeze.
I see his lesson a moment later. He says it anyway. Water’s strength is in its adaptability, little bird, in its ability to flow into the tiniest of cracks, and also to freeze and split apart mountains. But ice on its own? He shrugs. It is not nearly so strong as stone or steel. It will crack. It will shatter. It will break nothing apart if it cannot first flow.
I gather my things and turn to him. You would have me be fluid. Flow into the cracks of this temple, that I might break it apart?
He gives me a pained smile. I would have you serve this temple, as your father did. Not split it apart.
But he did split it apart, I think bitterly. With his heresies. With me. I’m what the traditionalists used to oust him. To kill him.
No, Urte says, his voice hard for once. Stergjon was no heretic. You are not a heretic. It is the temple that failed to adapt, that stayed ice when it ought to have been water. You can change that. But not if you do not first learn to be liquid too.
I sigh, gazing out the giant square windows at the ocean and the white-roofed buildings of Serei beyond, climbing the sides of the bay to the clifftops. All I’ve ever been is ice. If I change now…
He turns to me. You will still be the best of them. And the best version of yourself, too.
I sigh. Thank you, Urte. I wish I could take his advice, but it’s too dangerous.
I turn to go, then remember something. Is there another form of waterblind?
He shakes his head. What do you mean?
Nerimes let me into a part of his thoughts today, but not all of them. And I could swear he was reading mine through my blind. Is there more we haven’t been taught?
Little bird. There is no waterseer in the world who can do such things. But pride can imagine reasons to hide the truths it does not wish to admit. He drops his blind to me, and I see he’s telling the truth, as far as he knows.
Still--I wasn’t imagining it. I turn to leave, rather than be rude to Urte. He was loyal to my father, and is the closest thing I have to a friend among the seers.
I know what I know. And not knowing how Nerimes did it, or why he came today, feels like swimming in the ocean blind.