Ti awoke in the John’s bed, blinking in the soft morning light, and thought, Thank God. The blizzard was still roaring outside, thrashing the house with pellets of ice, but the man’s bed was warm, his blankets soft. Clean; no bugs. Compared to the haylofts and flophouses where he usually slept, it was heavenly.
The old man snored beside him, his back a slab of mole-pocked pink. He was old enough to be Ti’s grandfather, but it hadn’t been so bad. He’d been gentle and nervous, and far more courteous than the men usually were when they took him home from whatever godforsaken tavern or alley they’d found him in. And, Ti hadn’t had to spend the night outside in that storm. That was all that really mattered.
It had been a near thing too. Two days ago, he’d trudged out of the hills with just his bag and the clothes on his back, hoping desperately that this place, and these people, would be different from all the others. They weren’t. There was no welcome and no work here for a ragged transient, or at least none that someone like him could do safely. His one offer, shoveling horseshit out of a barn, was too risky—horses could sense his strangeness, and that would bring trouble from humans. By yesterday evening, with snow spitting and his empty stomach gnawing, he’d resigned himself to what he needed to do. Back to a tavern, back to a seat at the counter where everyone could see how young and handsome and available he was. He spent his last two coins on a pint, undid the top two buttons of his shirt, and lay in wait.
It had taken the old man in the corner a while to work up his courage. This was the kingdom’s heartland, where the Church’s word was law, the Ordermen were merciless, and the neighbors were nosy. A man with certain tastes had to be discreet, careful.
Not unlike a wizard.
Ti had been faint with hunger by the time his glances and smiles finally coaxed the man over, but his patience paid off. The old man’s paunch, the book under his arm, and his neat shirt and waistcoat spoke of a desk job, modest wealth, and a well-kept home. Jackpot. He bought Ti dinner, so Ti went home with him and fucked him.
The man had said his name was Berron, as if it mattered.
Last night’s pints drove him from the warmth of the bed. Careful not to wake the man, he slid out from beneath the blankets, wrapped himself in a robe, and padded from the bedroom. The grandfather clock in the hallway said it was just past eight. Tacked to the lintel of the doorway into the kitchen was something he hadn’t seen when they’d stumbled in the previous night: a saint’s medallion with a twist of ribbon.
He froze, one bare foot in the hallway, the other hovering over the cold wood floor of the kitchen. It was a charm to repel wizards and protect the property from their magic. A common folk superstition, and in reality completely useless, except for reminding wizards that they were unwelcome. In case they ever forgot. There had been one nailed over Ti’s head at the tavern last night too.
Finding one in a home like this wasn’t unusual, but it was still a sharp prick into a wound that never healed. For a moment he considered incinerating the hateful thing with a twitch of his powers. No. The old man had no idea what he was, and he couldn’t risk him finding out. They cut wizards to pieces in towns like this. Ti took a breath, passed under it, and went into the kitchen.
Outside, the wind was howling and tearing at the roof like a mad beast, but within, the house was silent but for the ticking clock. The man’s home was tidy and well-furnished, with a number of empty rooms that suggested there might have been a wife and children once. He lived alone now, except for a tabby cat, but still kept his lamps polished and a linen cloth on his table. He wasn’t rich, not the way Ti’s family had been—back when he’d had a family. But, there was a cast-iron hand pump in the kitchen and a copper tub in the bathroom, and that was a luxury the likes of which Ti had not seen in a very long time.
It was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. As quietly as he could, he pumped water into a pitcher, carried it into the bathroom, and filled the tub. The tub was cold and the water colder, but he didn’t know how much longer the man would sleep and didn’t want to waste time heating water in the hearth. Still, to be cautious, he lit the hearth anyway and made absolutely certain the bathroom door was locked. Then he dunked his hand into the water, focused his thoughts and will, and converted a fistful of his magic into thermal energy.
Within a few minutes, the bathwater was steaming. Ti carefully stepped in, folded his long legs, and sat down. God, it was glorious. When had he last had a bath that wasn’t in a bucket or a stream? There was even soap on a table beside the tub, along with a razor and a washcloth. He scrubbed every bit of himself, even between his toes, cleansing himself of the road and the old man’s touch.
Clean. Warm. Safe, for now. Sighing, he closed his eyes. He forced his mind to be as still and empty as the house, to let every thought drain away until there was nothing left inside him but a blank, white place. It was something he’d learned to keep the past in the past and the future in the future. To escape from the present, too, when necessary. To feel nothing, be nothing.
As always, the noise and sharp edges of the world inevitably intruded on the white place. From the kitchen came the sound of someone knocking about, followed by the smell of toast and frying eggs. Ti got out of the tub, chilled the water to a non-suspicious temperature with another swirl of his fingers, and dried off. He found Berron setting two places at the kitchen table.
With his hair wet and his jaw freshly shaved, there was no hiding that he’d made use of the tub. “Sorry,” he said.
The old man waved it off. “You’re more than welcome! Here, I made breakfast.”
They sat at the table with the white tablecloth, a little porcelain statue of St. Wynn the Benevolent between them, and ate their breakfast. The man was shy again, fumbling to make conversation. Ti listened politely, but said little. Somehow, this part was always more awkward than the fucking. The man’s earnestness was endearing, though. Ti liked him.
The man took his clean plate and peered out the window. “I say, there has to be at least a foot already.”
Ti helped clear the table, secreting the heel of the bread loaf into the robe pocket to take with him, then went into the bedroom to dress. The man watched from the doorway for a few moments before disappearing back into the kitchen. Ti wondered if he dared ask for some food to take with him. He didn’t want to do that—it felt too much like asking for payment—but it was either that or steal a candlestick to pawn, and he hated doing that to the nice ones.
But when the man returned, he was carrying a small burlap bag of bread and cheese. “For the road,” he said, and pressed it into Ti’s hands, like a gift.
“Thank you,” he said, with gratitude.
The man frowned through the curtains at the snow falling outside.
“Do you have somewhere to go?” he said.
Ti said nothing. In truth, he had no plan other than try to earn some coin shoveling snow—maybe move on to the next town, try to find another warm place to bed down for the night. He was packing up to leave primarily out of habit. The men always kicked him out first thing in the morning.
The old man trailed him through the house, wringing his hands, while Ti gathered his coat and bag.
“Thanks for breakfast,” Ti said, and opened the front door.
The squall of wind was like a punch. The house shook, and Ti stepped back, snow stinging his eyes.
Berron put his arm across the doorway.
“Lad, I can’t send you out in that,” he said. “You’ll freeze to death out there. If you were my son—”
His eyes widened as if he’d been stabbed. Ti was probably younger than his son. Ti didn’t begrudge any of these men their needs, but he resented this moment—after their lust congealed to shame—when they turned paternal to stave off their guilt. Ti already had a father, and if he wasn’t concerned about his son’s well-being—and he wasn’t—then who did these men think they were?
“I’ll be fine.”
“Please,” the man said. “You’re welcome to stay until the snow stops. It’s just me and the cat here.”
Ti looked out into the storm. The world was violent, swirling whiteness in every direction, so thick he could not see the other end of the street. Heading out into that on foot would be madness.
He heaved the door closed. “All right. Do you have a shovel? I’ll clear the walk before it gets any higher. Earn my keep.”
The old man chuckled, clearly relieved. “Lad, you’ve already more than earned your keep—”
“I’m not a whore,” Ti snapped.
The man dropped his eyes to the floor. “Beg your pardon. I didn’t mean to cause offense.”
He went to a closet and dug out a shovel.
“Kind of you to offer,” he said. “It’s rough on my back these days. I’ll make tea for when you’re done.”
Ti set down his bag, took the shovel, and went outside.
The whiteness engulfed him as he worked. The whole town was eerily silent, the streets empty. He threw himself into the practiced motions—scoop, lift, up and over—and tried to imagine the white silence filling him and obliterating everything. No thoughts, no memories, no fathers, only the cold, the crunch of the snow under his boots, the strain in his arms.
He wondered if it really made a difference if he asked for payment or not. He marveled that he still cared.
Soon he was sweating from the effort, the treasured cleanliness ruined. The irony struck him, as always: this would be so much quicker and easier with magic. If he didn’t have to hide the peculiar energy interwoven through his veins, he could melt the snow and ice with heat and have the walkway cleared in under a minute. He could clear every street in town, for a fee, and make a decent living. If only he was allowed to use his magic. If it was not seen as dirty, unnatural, a deadly insult to God’s Divine Order and the king’s monopoly on force. Of course, the Church and the king thought the current way he earned his living was dirty and unnatural too, but there was a world of difference between being reviled and pitied and being reviled and feared.
Berron had black tea steeping on the stove when Ti came inside. He helped him out of his snow-fringed coat and hat and placed a warm mug in his hands. The old man chattered absently while Ti sipped. The cat sat on the table and accepted a scratch around the ears. Cats could always sense a wizard, but they didn’t snitch.
The storm raged unabated for the rest of the day. The old man kept the fire in the study roaring, and they passed the time reading and playing chess. The man slipped in and out of fits of shyness, sometimes babbling to fill the silence, other times contentedly watching the fire. Ti, who could be very shy himself, didn’t mind at all and spoke just enough to be companionable.
The few careful words he did say fascinated the old man. Berron was delighted to discover that Ti appreciated his small yet respectable library, but puzzled that his tavern boy was well-read in Ying philosophy and 13th century poetry. He remarked with wonder that Ti held his fork and knife like a well-bred gentleman. Whatever he inferred from this made him sigh and watch Ti with sad, soft eyes.
“Do you have a mother and father somewhere?” he asked, while they ate a dinner of stew and red wine.
Berron chose not to pry. “I don’t even know your name.”
The old man didn’t seem surprised by the lie.
After dinner, they drank more wine and played another game of chess. Berron brought out an old bottle of Tannerly red, saved for a special occasion. When he was drunk and numb enough, Ti kissed the old man on the mouth and led him into the bedroom.
The storm continued for two more days.
“One for the history books!” Berron said, marveling through the curtains at the snow, which by the third afternoon was now as high as the windows and still falling. “Thank God you stayed. I would have been snowed in until spring otherwise. Would have had to toss the cat out with a message tied to his collar—Help, send more wine!”
“Ho!” he said with delight, catching Ti smiling. “That got a grin out of you, did it?”
Ti was grateful he’d stayed too. He wasn’t sure what he would have done, caught out on the road in a storm like this. Gotten himself arrested by the Ordermen just to get a roof over his head? Berron’s house was cozy and comfortable, and the old man had gone out of his way to make him feel welcome. They were quickly falling into a routine, like a real couple, with Berron cooking the meals and Ti shoveling and tending the fire.
He finished lacing his boots and stood. “I’d better get out there again.”
Berron kissed him sweetly and squeezed his bicep. “Thank the saints for those strong arms of yours.”
Outside, the neighborhood’s row houses and little shops were no more than vague shapes under a thick white blanket, but the street was no longer silent. Voices and the crunch of shovels filtered through the curtains of tumbling flakes. Neighbors, waging their own war against the snow. A loud shriek nearby made Ti’s heart stop, and for a split-second his entire being was nothing but a lightning bolt of run fight hide—but it was only a child playing in a drift.
He started in surprise a second time as what he initially took to be a bear plowed through the snow towards him.
“Afternoon,” the bear said, with a nod. Upon closer inspection, he was a massive man with a wild black tangle of a beard. “Where’s Berron?”
“Marius, hello!” said Berron’s wide eyes from the crack of the doorway.
Marius waved a mittened paw. “Came to check on you, old man! Brought you some milk and bread. Are you going to invite me in or not?”
Berron stumbled over himself to open the door wider and beckon him inside. “O-oh, yes, of course, come in!” After a moment’s hesitation he added, “You might as well come in, too, Tom.”
Ti and Marius shook off their coats and boots on the threshold and followed him into the house. Berron sat them both down at the table and gathered cups and saucers for tea. Marius eyed Ti.
“I see you met my nephew,” Berron said quickly. In his nervousness he nearly knocked Marius’s cup off the table. “My sister’s boy, from out east. Came for a visit. Not so lucky for him, getting caught in this weather, but quite fortunate for me!”
Marius shook Ti’s hand, frowning a little.
The two men were neighbors and had known each other for thirty years, but the kitchen felt tight and uncomfortable. The clock ticked too loudly. Berron babbled about the storm and his back and the cat and avoided looking at his “nephew.” Marius kept glancing at Ti, the furrow in his brow growing deeper and deeper as he worked through what he was seeing. Feeling the tension, Ti sipped his tea and kept his face carefully blank. He surreptitiously laced up his boots in case he needed to make a run for it.
Ultimately, Marius chose not to say anything. With his tea barely touched, he stood and said he ought to head home. Before he left, he shook Ti’s hand again, squeezed his fingers cruelly, and gave him a look of disgust—as if it was his fault for leading the old man astray.
Well, fuck you too, Ti thought, wondering why he was always the disgusting one.
“Good man, that one,” Berron said, closing the door after him and locking it. “Kind of him to check in on me. They worry about me, now that Mel’s gone…” His words caught in his throat. He went to the hearth to heat up more water. Ti waited silently for him to gather his thoughts about what they both knew had just happened.
“It’s not an easy life,” he said, his voice tight. “I made my decision. We were happy, me and Mel. We had a son. He’s grown now, living all the way down in Haizhou. Mel passed three years ago. We had a good life together. I made my choice. I kept some things hidden. It would have been hard otherwise.” He sighed and looked at Ti with sad brown eyes. “Well, I don’t need to tell you that.”
He thought he knew Ti’s story—that his God-fearing family, upon discovering his proclivities, had cast him out to wander the kingdom penniless and alone. Ti could see the old man seeing his younger self in him and thinking, that could have been me. That wasn’t Ti’s story, or at least not the whole story, but the old man was trying. It was something.
Berron’s eyes fell to his shoes. “I haven’t—I’ve never done this sort of thing before.”
“You don’t have to explain yourself to me,” Ti said, but internally he steeled himself for what was sure to come next. I’m afraid I have to ask you to go, I’ve got my good name to think of…
Instead, to his surprise, Berron came closer and swept a loose lock of Ti’s hair behind his ear. The gesture was so tender and unexpected, Ti’s white-knuckled stillness shattered. When Berron put his arms around him, Ti melted against his chest. He let himself be held as tight as a child and gripped the old man as if he were a life raft. The warm space between the soft arms and the woolen waistcoat smelled like soap and safety.
Late that night, they lay awake together under the covers. The snow had finally stopped, but the wind had grown even more bitterly cold. Ti, curled against Berron with his nose in the man’s fuzzy grey chest hairs, was warm and sleepy. Berron stroked his hair, letting the long dark locks slide through his fingers. The cat dozed against the small of Ti’s back.
“You could stay,” Berron said softly in the dark. “For as long as you like. I could find you work in town.”
Ti’s heart beat fast, barely daring to believe what he was being offered. It would mean a place to stay, not for just one night or two, but indefinitely. His future, currently defined by his next meal, would again open up into days, weeks, months. He could make money and save it.
He could stay in the same town for more than a week. There would be someone who would notice if he did not come home. There would be a place to come home to. With time, safety, the space to think and to breathe, he could be a man again, rather than just a silent, agreeable body.
His silence made Berron nervous. “What are you thinking, my dear? I know it’s a bit sudden, and I know I’m too old for you, but I’m alone here and I—well, I enjoy your company very much, Tom. I think we both have something to offer one another.”
Ti raised himself on his elbow and kissed him.
“Ti,” he said. “My name is Ti.”
The next morning, the sky was a sheet of blue crystal, the air dry and bone-shatteringly cold. Only the thought of a hot bath roused Ti from the cozy cocoon of the bed, and only the promise to let Berron watch had stirred the old man.
But, when Berron tried to pump water for some tea first—they were not savages, after all—nothing came out.
“Oh no,” he said. “Seems the pipe is frozen. Pray it hasn’t burst, or we’ll be melting snow until spring.”
Ti frowned. He wanted that bath.
“I’ll take a look,” he said.
“Goodness, Ti, is there no end to your talents?” Berron said, giving his arm a squeeze.
Ti grinned. “You’ve never seen me try to dance.”
He dressed and put on his coat and boots. Berron gave him a key, a wrench, and a shovel and directed him around the back of the house, where the pipes were accessible through a bulkhead.
Where he hadn’t shoveled, the snow was more than waist-high. He plowed through it like an ox, digging where necessary. The bulkhead was completely buried, and he was soon sweaty and hungry from shoveling it out.
Happy, though. Almost buoyant. He barely recognized the feeling. Berron had told him he could have a few days to think over the offer, but when Ti awoke, he knew he would accept it. It scared him, the thought of staying in one place and making a home out of it. Berron would start to know him. He would discover that his blank, beautiful cipher could be moody, insensitive, that when he did speak he often said the wrong thing. At some point he was going to discover that Ti was a wizard, and what then? What was more, if Ti stopped moving, everything that he was and that he’d done might catch up, and he would be forced to know himself again. But, the same things he feared were what made this opportunity tantalizing. He hadn’t realized until now how much he missed hearing someone call him by his real name.
When he found the padlock beneath the snow, it was a block of ice. With a quick look around to make sure no one was watching, he took his gloves off, wrapped his fingers around the lock, and quickly thawed it with magic.
The weather had cracked and broken the bulkhead’s wooden doors, so the little half-buried compartment of pipes and knobs beyond was full of snow. Ti knelt and used his hands to scoop snow away from the pipes. His fingers hit ice. The whole bottom of the compartment was coated in it. One of the pipes had indeed frozen and burst.
Grimacing, he felt along the painfully cold metal until he found the break. On the backside of the pipe, near the bottom, there was a split. Ice bulged through it, but the pipe was not severely deformed. A plumber could fix it with a coupling, whenever they could get a plumber out here.
Or he could use magic to heat the metal and fuse it back together. It might not be a permanent solution, but it should hold for at least a few more days. No one would ever know.
He wanted that bath.
Ti twisted onto his back in the narrow space. He wrapped his bare fingers around the broken pipe and sent heat into it.
The ice melted under his fingers and dripped cold rivulets down his arms. Ignoring it, he closed his eyes and focused on spreading the heat as far up and down the length of the pipe as he could. He could feel the ice melting and draining—much of it down his arms and into his face.
This was where it got tricky. Gritting his teeth from the exertion and focus the magic required, he took hold of the water within the pipe and held it in place away from where he needed to heat the metal. With his other hand, he called forth a small flame from his palm and directed it against the split in the pipe. If he could get the metal hot enough, he was confident he could coax it to forge itself back together.
The metal around the split began to glow red.
Ti hadn’t heard the footsteps approaching in the snow. His heart skipped a beat—the flame went out, and the water gushed free. He jerked upright as cold water sprayed him in the face and squinted into the glare of sunlight.
Berron was looking down at him, his face twisted with horror.
“You’re—” he said. “You’re a—”
Ti stared at him, speechless, defenseless. He felt his fragile, newborn future wobble on a knife’s edge. Slowly, he got to his feet.
Berron stepped back, afraid.
“Berron, wait,” Ti said.
The old man darted back through the path Ti had cleared and into the house. Wet and shivering, Ti followed.
Berron stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the hallway, white-faced and clutching the cat to his chest as if to protect it. Ti’s bag was at his feet.
“I don’t want anything to do with sorcery, lad. I’m a God-fearing man.”
“Berron, please,” Ti said helplessly. The kitchen was so warm the air burned his lungs. “I won’t hurt you. I’m not dangerous.”
“I’m sorry,” Berron said, his voice tight, “but I think you should go.”
“Please,” Ti said again. He took a step forward. “I want to stay with you.”
Berron lurched back in fright and ended up standing beneath his useless charm. “Ti, please just go—I-I don’t want to call the Ordermen.”
Ti’s temper flared. His real voice hissed out of the dark, ugly place he tried to keep buried. “Go ahead. Call them. Tell them your tavern whore isn’t who you thought he was. Do it, you fucking hypocrite.”
Berron stared at him. They stood at opposite ends of the kitchen, neither moving. The grandfather clock tick-tocked in the hall.
“Fuck you,” Ti said.
With magic, he lifted his bag from Berron’s feet and summoned it to him. The old man jumped in fright and twisted his fingers into the Church’s hand sign for warding off evil.
It was a slap. It always was. Like he was dirty, inhuman, nothing but vermin to be cast away. He’d been foolish to think he would ever be anything else. Incensed, Ti flung all the cabinets open with magic and smashed every plate and cup and bowl to pieces against the floor. The old man darted into his bedroom with a cry and locked the door.
The kitchen was silent again. The floor was a graveyard of glass and porcelain. Ti took a breath and stamped the anger and hurt down, down. Buried it down deep where the rest of it lived. He summoned Berron’s tin of black tea from the counter and the loaf Marius had brought and stowed them in his bag.
Hefting his bag onto his shoulder, he pushed open the door and walked out into the white.