Six impossible things

Across the Great Barrier sample

Chapter One (excerpt)

Being a heroine is nowhere near the fun folks make it out to be. Oh, it’s nice enough at first, when everybody is offering congratulations and making a fuss, but that doesn’t last long. And when the thing they’re congratulating you for is getting rid of a bunch of bugs, which you didn’t do all by your own self anyway, it feels pretty silly. Not to mention that it annoys the other people who ought to have come in for some of the credit.

The one it mainly annoyed was my twin brother, Lan. He’s the seventh son of a seventh son, which makes him a pretty hot magician, and it was his spells that had held the mirror bugs off of the Little Fog settlement long enough for Wash and William and me to get there. I thought that was a lot harder than what I’d done, but the only people interested in talking to Lan much were the magicians at North Plains Riverbank College, and even they were more interested in me than in my brother. Because what Lan had done was something they understood, but what I’d done was a mix of the Avrupan magic I’d learned in school and the Aphrikan magic I’d studied outside regular hours. The professors all said it was a new thing, and got very excited. Even Papa.

Outside the college, everyone from the North Plains Territory Homestead Claim and Settlement Office to the Mill City Garden Club was only interested in me, Eff Rothmer.

I wasn’t used to it. The only folks who’d paid me much mind before were the ones who thought I was evil and unlucky because I was thirteenth-born. I didn’t believe they were right, not any more, but I still didn’t like all the attention. I didn’t like strangers asking me questions or staring at me when I walked down the street. I didn’t like people asking me to make speeches and getting cross with me when I said no. I didn’t like folks expecting me to do absurd things for them, like the lady who showed up one day with a train ticket to Long Lake City, saying she wanted me to put a spell on her prize roses to get rid of the aphids. She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and Papa had to come out and be stern at her. And it wasn’t even a round-trip ticket.

I thought the fuss would die down after a few days, but it kept up all that summer long. William Graham, who’d been friends with Lan and me ever since we moved to Mill City, said it was because the newspaper reporters liked writing about a pretty young girl. I told him I was eighteen and nothing like as pretty as Susan Parker.

William turned beet red, because everybody knew he’d been sweet on Susan before he went East to school, but he stuck to his guns. Then Lan said that the newspapers would call any eighteen-year-old heroine pretty, even if she was swaybacked and had buck teeth. I whacked him with the flyswatter.

By that time, Lan had pretty much gotten over his mad, which was a big relief. Or at least it was until the week before Lan went off to study at Simon Magus College in Philadelphia, when he cornered me in the kitchen garden and started asking me all kinds of questions.

“You’re going to graduate from the upper school this year,” he told me. “Where are you going after that?”

I looked at him. The last few years at boarding school, Lan had sprouted up a good bit taller than me, and he’d grown sideburns and started slicking his brown hair back like an Easterner. He hardly looked like the brother I remembered … except for the gleam in his brown eyes. I knew that gleam, and it always meant trouble for somebody.

“I’m staying right here with Mama and Papa,” I said warily. “Just like Nan and Allie did. And the other girls, before we moved to Mill City.”

Lan rolled his eyes. “That’s what I thought. You haven’t even considered any other possibilities.”

“Other possibilities?”

“After what you did to the mirror bugs at the Little Fog settlement, any of the big universities would be glad to have you as a student. You could probably even get a sponsor, so it wouldn’t cost Papa and Mama anything.”

“Lan! Don’t talk nonsense.” I went back to my weeding, but Lan didn’t leave.

“It isn’t nonsense. You have talent and power; you deserve to get the training you need to use them properly.”

I sat back on my heels and rested my muddy hands on my green weeding apron, and just looked at him for a minute.

From the time I was thirteen, when I almost blew up my Uncle Earn at my sister’s wedding dinner, I’d had more and more trouble doing normal, Avrupan-type magic spells. It had only been a month or two since I’d figured out that the trouble was mostly in my head. I’d been so worried about being an unlucky thirteenth child that I’d nearly talked myself right out of doing any magic at all, ever, on account of being afraid of what might happen if I lost my temper. For the past five years, Aphrikan magic had been the only sort I’d had any luck with. I was still getting accustomed to the notion that it was a safe thing for me to work Avrupan spells at all.

Oh, I’d learned the basic Avrupan magic theories in school, like everyone else, but I had a lot of catching up to do on the practical side. I still had trouble even with simple things like housekeeping spells. And here was Lan, proposing that I go off to college as if it was me that was the double-seven magician.

“And don’t go objecting because you’re a girl,” Lan went on. “There’s lots of girls who study advanced magic. And Mama doesn’t need you here, really — not when there’s only you and Robbie and Allie left at home.”

He ran on like that for a while, while I just sat and watched. It was plain as day that he didn’t expect me to disapprove more than a token, for form’s sake. He ran down a whole long list of answers to objections I hadn’t made and worries I hadn’t mentioned. It was a while before he noticed that I wasn’t saying anything at all.

When he finally did notice, he stopped in the middle of a sentence. We looked at each other for a minute, and then he said, “Eff?”

“I’ll think on it,” I told him..

“Good,” he said a little uncertainly. Then he grinned, and I could see his confidence coming right back. “While you’re thinking, I’ll mention it to Papa, so that –”

“If you say one word to Papa before I’ve had a good long think, I’ll sew the tops of all your socks together before I pack them.”

“Eff!” Lan laughed, but he looked a little worried, too. “It’s a great opportunity. You have to grab it while you can.”

“I’m not grabbing anything until I’m sure whether I’m grabbing a fire nettle or a sprig of mint,” I said. “You’ve been thinking about this for a couple of weeks at least. I can tell. I want time to do some thinking of my own.”

Lan tilted his head sideways and narrowed his eyes at me. Then suddenly he nodded. “All right. But don’t take too long. And don’t go getting all tangled up in worries about what it’d be like. Hardly anybody back East is like Uncle Earn.”

He left, and I went back to my work. Weeding is a good job to do when you need to think about things, and I needed to think even more than I’d let on to Lan.

Papa had moved the family — well, the younger half of it, anyway — to Mill City when Lan and I were five, but I still remembered what it had been like before. Most of my aunts and uncles and cousins hadn’t liked it one bit that I was an unlucky thirteenth child, and they’d taken it out on me every chance they got. We’d gone back East for my sister Diane’s wedding when I was thirteen, and none of them had changed much except for being eight years older and eight years meaner. Uncle Earn had been ready to have me arrested or worse, just because I happened to be thirteenth born.

Mill City was different. It was right at the edge of the country, just this side of the Great Barrier Spell that kept the steam dragons and mammoths and other dangerous wildlife away from the settled parts. Some days it seemed like half the folks in Mill City were looking to move out past the Mammoth River into the Far West, just as soon as the Homestead Claims and Settlement Office approved their applications, and the other half had relatives and friends and customers out past the barrier, even if they didn’t go their own selves.

Being so close to the wild country made people here a lot less interested in making up dangers and a lot more interested in plain, practical magic. From Mill City on west, nobody would care if I had two heads and bat wings, if I could work the spells that kept the wildlife from overrunning the settlements. Of course, right that minute I still couldn’t work the wildlife protection spells, on account of the trouble I’d made for myself over learning magic, so even in Mill City there was no reason for folks to overlook my bad points. But back East … well, Lan had been going to boarding school there for the past four years, and I believed him when he said that not everyone was like Uncle Earn. But even a few people like my uncle would make more unpleasantness than I wanted to face.

I finished the row and began carting the dead weeds over to the compost pile. Lan was right about a lot of things, I could see that. I might not be able to go to one of the big important schools, like Simon Magus College or the New Bristol Institute of Magic, but between all the attention I’d been getting and being the twin sister of a double-seventh son, some Eastern school would surely take me in. It was an opportunity that wouldn’t likely come around again, and it didn’t seem right to pass it up only on account of a worry that folks might be unpleasant.

I thought about that, off and on, for the next couple of days, and about Lan. Even though we were twins, he’d always been the one to look out for me. We’d been growing apart, though, ever since I had rheumatic fever and got behind a year at school. And for the past four years, he’d hardly even been home summers. I could see that he wanted what was best for me, but I wasn’t sure that he knew what that was. Especially since I wasn’t sure myself.

I was still thinking when William came around to say goodbye. He still had a year of preparatory school before he went to college, and he was going back early to meet up with a possible sponsor.

“What’s this I hear about you coming East to school next year?” he asked.

I scowled. “That Lan! I told him not to talk to anyone about it until I was done thinking.”

“You’ll never be done thinking,” William said. “And he didn’t actually say much. So what is it about?”

I glared at him, but I knew there’d be no point to not answering. William didn’t look like he’d be difficult about anything — he was thin and sandy-haired and already wore eyeglasses like his father. Most of the time he didn’t say much. But when he was curious about something, he was stubborner than a bear after a honeycomb. He’d pay no heed to glares or hints or scowls or much of anything else until you told him what he wanted to know. Sometimes he’d listen if you told him straight out that you didn’t want to talk about it, or that you didn’t want to tell him, but I knew as sure as anything that this wasn’t one of those times. So I said, “Lan thinks I should go off to college when I’m done with upper school.”

“So it was his idea.” William didn’t sound surprised. “What do you think?”

“I–” I looked down at my boots. “I don’t know.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t!” I said. Then I sighed. I had no call to go snapping at William, just because I didn’t know what to make of Lan’s notions. “It’s a completely new idea. I never once thought about me getting schooling past upper school.”

“Why not?” William asked. His eyes had narrowed and I could see he was getting ready to be cross about something.

“I just didn’t,” I said. “I’m not like Diane or Sharl.” Diane and Sharl were two of my big sisters who hadn’t come west with us. Diane had been saving up for music school when we left; Sharl had finished college and been married.

William looked suddenly thoughtful. “And your sisters who came here — Allie and Nan both went to work as soon as they finished with upper school. Rennie — ” His voice cut off abruptly and he gave me an apologetic look.

My sister Rennie had run off and married a settler, a member of the Society of Progressive Rationalists who thought using magic was a weakness. Mama and Papa had been crushed and disappointed, and it tore up the rest of the family pretty bad, too, at the time. But we’d had five years to get over it, and we all pretty much had, even Mama.

“Yes,” I said, so William would know it was all right and I knew he hadn’t meant anything by bringing it up. “And Julie got married practically right out of upper school back in Helvan Shores, too. She just didn’t run off to do it.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to do the same.”

“I wasn’t planning to!” I looked at my boot tips again. “I wasn’t planning much of anything, I guess.”

“And neither was anyone else,” William said. “Don’t look at me like that. It’d take a blind prairie skunk all of ten minutes to see that the plans in your family have always been about Lan.”

“William!”

“It’s true,” he said in that stubborn tone that meant there was no arguing with him. “I think Lan feels guilty about it, too. Which is probably why he came up with this idea about you going East for school.”

“It’s not just that,” I said, because I knew William was right about my twin feeling guilty. “Lan has a whole pile of good reasons.”

“Like what?”

I started rattling them off. “It would be a chance for a kind of learning I’ve never had before. The best teachers — ”

William cut me off. “Those are Lan’s reasons,” he said. “There are other ways to look at the matter. What do you want to do?”

I just stared at him for a long minute. That was what Miss Ochiba, who used to teach us magic at the day school, had said over and over — there are always other ways to look at things. I thought I’d learned that lesson through and through, but it hadn’t occurred to me to try looking at this proposal of Lan’s from any other direction until right that minute.

“Other ways,” I said slowly. Lan saw going East for school as a great chance to learn spells and theory from the best Avrupan teachers in the country. Papa would see it the same way, especially if I found a sponsor so it wouldn’t cost the family so much, and he’d be especially pleased to have another child go for schooling past upper school. Mama would see it as a chance for me to get some Eastern polish on my manners, and a good way of keeping me far, far away from the settlement territory on the west bank of the Mammoth River.

And I…I didn’t know yet how I saw it, but I knew for certain fact that I wasn’t going to find out by arguing Lan’s reasons over and over in my head. I had some more thinking to do, of a different kind. I looked at William and nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Graham,” I said. “I needed reminding.”

William looked at me for a minute, then just nodded back. One of the good things about William was that he always knew when to stop pushing on a point. “You’re welcome, Miss Rothmer,” he said. “Anytime.”

We spent the rest of William’s visit talking about his plans for the next year. He still had a year of boarding school before he’d be ready for college. I told him I’d write if he would, which I figured meant maybe three times all year. William wasn’t much for letter-writing.

After he left, I did some more thinking, only this time I wasn’t just chasing my tail trying to counter all Lan’s reasons why I should do what he wanted. And the first thing I thought was that it was what Lan wanted, not what I wanted. Lan had always loved school, magic lessons especially, and he just kind of assumed that once I got over my problem with spell-casting, I’d feel the same.

I didn’t, and so I told him the very next day. He wasn’t happy about it, but I got him to agree that it was my decision and he would have to let it be. I could see that he thought I’d come around sooner or later, but as long as he didn’t go stirring things up right then, I didn’t mind. I figured that by the time he was around to bring it up again, I’d have done a sight more thinking about what I did want and how to get to it. Right then, I just knew that it felt wrong for me to go so far away from everyone I cared about and everything I loved, just to get more schooling that I wasn’t sure I had any need for.

Lan left on the train the first week in September, still sure that I’d change my mind before Christmas. I didn’t try to convince him he was wrong. I wasn’t certain that he was. I only knew that between him and William, I had a lot more thinking to do before I finished upper school.

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