The Color of His Magic
Robbed of his magic, Moineau returns to a war-torn land to regain what he lost…
Artwork by Katie Barrett
Today he would try shaving again, Moineau told himself. He tried to meet his eyes in the mirror, but his gaze fell to his neck as it always did. A gash that tore his still-pale skin. Without magic, the scar would never heal completely, he knew. But Magi were in short supply now, what with the Occupation Authority rounding them all up and shipping them back to Gern. He picked up the razor and instead felt a rough shard of glass in his palm, the flick of the wrist with which he’d slashed his own throat. The blade clattered into the sink. He steadied his shaking hand. Tomorrow, he told himself, tomorrow—he would try shaving again.
He used to spirit away his stubble with a flick of his fingers up north in Hironelle, in his rented room beneath the gaze of its towering cathedral. A place sunken in time as a fairy tale. The prefect used to scold him. You’re the town Magus, what would people say if they saw you using your powers like that? But he hadn’t given it a thought. Magic had overflowed from him then, spilling into everyone he spoke to, everything he touched. He used to fold his letters to his sister into sparrows, let them carry back her laughter on paper wings.
Lise, his sister. He watched her from the stairs a moment before joining her at the table. No trace of her usual smile lit her face now. After breakfast—a thin porridge she gulped down while stealing looks at him—she got up. Moineau had barely touched his. He was still used to eating slowly, to that time when the wound was fresh and it hurt to swallow. He heard her behind him, grabbing her bag, hurriedly unlocking the door.
“Where are you going?” Moineau asked her.
He wondered if she would lie again. Tutoring one of my students, she’d said last week, laughing a bit too loud. He doesn’t know fractions. Doodles spells in the margins of his paper—just like you used to, Jean. What a handful! She hesitated, then sighed.
“To collect our rations. Gotta get in line early.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“No. I mean, stay here,” she added quickly. “You’re still resting.”
Lise, his big sister. She always tried to protect him. She’d taken a train up to Hironelle to see him, braving countless checkpoints and Gern soldiers mere days after the invasion. A time he barely remembered, bedridden, delirious with blood loss as he’d been. She’d taken him back to this town where she worked as a schoolteacher, where no one knew him. Moineau knew he was being ridiculous. They both knew he wasn’t ready to go out. But all the same.
“I can’t hide forever,” he said.
She found a mauve kerchief, the most muted colors she had, and tied it around his neck. He didn’t protest.
“The Gern are everywhere,” she warned him before they stepped outside.
Despite L’astri’s small size, the Gern soldiers had draped telephone wire over the trees, houses, everything. A drakken, along with its unit, snoozed in the square, sluggish under its plate armor. Lazy flames leapt from its nostrils. A church Moineau distinctly remembered from a visit before the war had been reduced to a pile of jagged rubble. The whole scene didn’t seem real. It shimmered like a mirage in the summer heat.
An engine backfired in the distance and Moineau leapt. When the Gern army had taken Hironelle they thundered in on motorcycles in the dead of night. Lise grabbed his arm, her eyes downcast. She guided him into line. It sprawled from the butcher shop to the bakery, stretching into whatever shadow the rest of the block offered. She smiled at a neighbor, exchanged a few words with a friend. Moineau tried to reach out to the figures huddled next to them too. That magic had once come to him like breathing—discerning the hues of emotion that flickered around others, without even casting a spell. Now the effort felt like groping through a void. He could only guess at the icy greys of resentment, coiled into hunger. They knew the lion’s share of what they were waiting for had gone to feed that beast and those soldiers loafing in the square. The fog of resignation. What could they do? No one wanted to end up like that splatter of dried blood on the cobblestones over there.
Lise had tried to hide it from him, but the Gern had driven around the morning it happened, shouting the news. They’d caught a group of hotheaded high schoolers trying to slash the tires of their trucks, tied them to splintered posts in front of the entire town. Lise had cried. They’d been her students, not so long ago.
That engine was back again. Moineau heard it, an automobile pulling into the opposite end of the square. The unit scrambled to their feet in a cloud of dust, saluting as a Gern officer dismounted. Moineau heard his steps clicking closer, his voice hammering out the same question over and over again as he went down the line. Lise made Moineau take her arm, although, really, she was the one holding him up. Move on, Moineau mouthed. Leave us. Please. He stopped in front of them. Moineau kept his eyes firmly fastened on the ground. On his boots. He held a bullhook, a tool Moineau had seen used to goad drakkens back in Hironelle.
“You. Show me your papers.”
Moineau shook as he searched his coat pocket, handing his identity card over.
He’d been summoned by the Occupation Authority days after arriving in L’astri with bandages still around his neck. His fingernails had started growing back, at least. Lise had gone with him, even though she’d already been examined by the Gern seers. Like every able-bodied person in L’astri and all of Theridor they had to be registered, any shred of magic they possessed assessed and catalogued. Lise had held his hand while he’d held back a scream, while the Gern seer roughly probed his mind.
“Worthless,” the seer had declared. “This man has no magical ability.”
The word had turned Moineau’s blood cold, drawn out a soft ache from the deepest part of him. Magic was a manifestation of one’s soul. Why, then? Why couldn’t he feel it anymore? Where was it? Without it, could he even be considered a man—let alone a Magus?
“Look at me.”
The officer’s voice brought him back to L’astri. Moineau lifted his head for the briefest moment. He was young. His face as scornful as marble, as if he’d never even conceived of defeat.
“Seems to be in order.”
He grinned, evidently savoring Moineau’s fear, before sauntering away.
“Bastard,” Lise whispered. Moineau had never heard her swear before.
The line moved and she stepped forward, leaving him a moment behind. He felt someone watching him. A ghost of red in a broken window, the braided uniform of a state Magus. He turned and the vision faded, leaving only his reflection. His clothes hung loose on him, like they belonged to someone else. He searched his eyes desperately. Where was he? The Magus who’d stood up so bravely to the Gern? Who had defied them, who had remained in Hironelle when the artillerymen set to defend them had abandoned their posts, even when the prefect himself had fled? What would he think of this man cowering before the Gern now? He trembled beneath their contempt. And he was grateful for it.
He kept the kerchief on even after they’d returned home. While Lise put away the meager fare her stamps had earned them, he stole into the sitting room. Since he wasn’t working, they were surviving on her one ration book and she always tried to give him more than his share. He took a book off the shelf at random and held it in his lap as she joined him, staring at the pages, but that wasn’t enough to stop Lise today. She shuffled through the lesson plans she’d been preparing, then planted herself in front of him.
“You should magick something,” she said meaningfully. “One of your birds.”
It’ll make you feel better, she meant.
He didn’t cast spells to make himself feel better. He wondered if she, who had encouraged his talents for his entire life, his parents, who had barely tolerated them, had always misinterpreted his magic like that.
“Why can’t you?”
Talk to me, she meant. You always used to laugh and joke and now… He could barely speak while the wound was still fresh, it felt as though any motion would tear his throat in two. The stitches had come out, but it still hurt.
His jaw clenched. She knew most of all of what had happened. Wasn’t that enough?
“What did they do to you?”
What happened to my brother? She meant. Who took the fire in his eyes and left this husk here instead?
“It was the worst moment of my life,” Moineau lashed out. “I nearly died. I should’ve died! Why would you want me to remember that? Why would you want me to relive that?”
She recoiled, tears in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and fled.
Immediately he felt guilty. Perhaps to make it up to her, he actually retreated to the study upstairs. Yes, he knew why the door to this room had remained shut ever since he’d arrived. The spellcrafting supplies he had forgotten here on his last visit had been organized into neat piles on the desk instead of being pawned off as they undoubtedly should’ve been. There were no other chairs, so he was forced to sit down in front of them. He scanned the paints and powders he’d painstakingly ground out of plants Lise had helped him gather, the chemicals he’d traded for odd jobs at the apothecary. With a deep breath, he took a brush from its holder. He concentrated.
No. He could not feel it. Or he felt it all too well. Where the familiar warmth had once been. Worthless, the Gern seer’s words came back to him.
He rose abruptly, setting it down, but as he turned to leave, he caught a glimmer out of the corner of his eye. Like a sleepwalker he moved a book aside, pulled out something pressed underneath. A scroll. He unfurled it and recognized his own handwriting.
“Remember?” Lise said quietly. She stood in the door. Gently, she came up beside him. “You were working on this before the war.”
Everything came flooding back. He had visited Lise here, between jobs. Their days together had brimmed with conversation, with sparrow song, with spring. That’s right. It used to be like that between them. Like no time at all had passed since they’d seen each other last. He’d painted vast vistas in this room, castles and towers of magic, cast them half-finished aside. Waiting for the spark of inspiration that would complete them. He’d been so impetuous then. He’d had so much faith that that spark would come. With a sad smile, Moineau brushed his fingers against the runes, raising the spell out of the scroll. It wavered in the air in front of them, its supports scattering the setting sun like a ship erupting out of the waves. Yet he felt its heat. The color of his magic had been deep, scorching red. The color of revolution, of banners snapping against the wind.
“I always hoped you’d finish this one,” she said. “It reminds me of the spells you cast when we were kids.”
Yes, Moineau remembered, edging around the desk. He used to scratch runes into the dirt, mimicking the firebreathers at the circus his father had taken him and Lise to see. He’d pretend to be a drakken, Lise a knight. Only when their parents had stumbled on them had he realized magic didn’t come like that to most. He stooped under the unfinished spell to examine it more closely, tugging its threads gently aside.
“Mom always said Magi were a dying breed,” Moineau said, laughing a little. “That I’d need to find another line of work to survive in these modern times.”
Still, he’d lived happily enough, wandering from town to town. A speck of red in a sunflower field here, an easy smile in a vineyard there. Yet no matter how far he traveled, no matter how many people he helped, he couldn’t escape the feeling that something was missing.
“I always wanted to be like you, Lise,” he told her. “To have a place like your school. Something, someone to give myself to. I thought of marrying and starting a family, but that just wasn’t for me. In Hironelle, I thought I found what I needed.”
A duty for the first time in his life. To the ones who couldn’t flee as the Gern army had broken through the border. The ones who’d fled from neighboring prefectures with as much of their lives as they could. A sea of refugees. So many had been wounded when the drakkens finally swooped in. He remembered. The puddles of phosphorescent muck they’d left steaming in the streets. The acidic stench of the cathedral burning. A woman the same age as his sister, shrapnel in her leg. As he knelt over her, pricking his finger to draw runes on a bandage he’d torn from his shirt, sweat came over him like a fever. His magic had been drained to the dregs for the first time in his life. At last, her breathing steadied. He turned and saw a trio of Gern officers, a squad of soldiers, observing him.
“Impressive. We have need of you, Magus.”
He had gone with them without a fight, head held high despite his exhaustion.
“There is a band of Theridian soldiers out in the countryside who refuse to surrender,” the Gern told him. “You must find them for us.”
His magic had not been like that. It had been empathic, built up his entire life toward helping people. Or, failing that, at least understanding. That’s what Lise was like. This woman in front of him with the whole world on her shoulders—and still, she’d been trying to pull him back to his feet too. He wanted to tell her but the words caught in his throat. From the first moment, in some schoolyard, that she’d stepped between him and those who meant him harm, she’d been his inspiration. His magic had been built on her courage, her kindness. Because of her, even all alone back then, he could see the malice of those officers looming over them like the matted fur of wolves. This, he tried to explain to them.
“And knowing that, how could you ask me to use my magic to betray my fellow countrymen, to aid you?”
“Oh, but your poor little Theridor is no more,” they’d sneered. “We own everything in this land and that includes you. We will make you see that.”
And when they’d left him alone for a moment, throwing him into a makeshift cell—a ransacked room whose windows had been blown out by the drakken bombings—he had felt over the shards scattered over the floor, picked one up with trembling fingers. Compared to the bruises, the broken bones, it had been nothing, drawing it across his throat. He had been brave, so brave, knowing if it went on, he’d give in. He’d cast the spell. He’d become a weapon like one of their drakkens, a collar around his neck. Instead, he had resisted. Felt the warm blood dribbling through his fingers, puddling onto the red jacket of his uniform.
“I was so different when I was a Magus,” he finally said, his voice breaking. “I was brave. I didn’t even flinch from death. I didn’t break, I didn’t give in. I was—”
He stumbled, feeling the spell teeter. He remembered. This fear that caged him now, so tightly he barely dared let his heart beat beyond its bars—had all but suffocated him back then. He had been. Afraid. Back then too. So scared that he would lose control, that he would dishonor his country, that he would become someone he could not be. Someone Lise had lost. Someone she wouldn’t recognize. Someone who would hurt her. The spell, it was beginning to crumple on itself, and Moineau reached out instinctively to catch it. Light poured from his fingers, flooded the entire room. It took his breath away. Where magic had once flowed from him effortlessly—it now seared him to the bone. His other hand went to his neck, clenched the silken cloth. He felt the pain from back then, amplified because now it came from within. It whispered, spoke, screamed into a whirlwind. And when it stopped, he collapsed in a heap, utterly exhausted.
Lise stood over him, hand over her mouth.
The spell bloomed over upended bookcases, snaked its tendrils through the shattered windows and into the dusk. This was his magic. Blues and muted greys. Entirely different from the color it had been. Through its branches sparks of orange flickered, swirling into droplets of ember that danced in the cool breeze. This was him. All of it, him. He cried tears of pure relief. The man he was. The man he’d been. He was this love. He was him. Lise knelt. She wrapped her arms around him, burying her face in his shoulder.
“Jean—it’s so bright.”
She must’ve been thinking the same thing. It was him, it was him. And he was still here.
Andrea Kriz writes from Cambridge, MA. Her stories are upcoming in Clarkesworld and Lightspeed and have appeared in Cossmass Infinities, and Nature, among others. Find her at https://andreakriz.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @theworldshesaw.