Excerpt: Kiss the Rain

“Stop it! Stop it!”

“What’s the matter, rag boy? Fail another test?” Rough hands shoved hard, sending Selsor crashing into another of his tormentors, who shoved him into yet another boy, sending Selsor around and around in a dizzying circle of bruising shoves and cruel taunts.

Vainly he tried to block them out—the comments about his parents, how they’d died, how he didn’t belong, he was poor and dirty and had hair like a girl.

He stumbled, crying out in pain as one of the brutes kept him from falling by grabbing his hair.

“Maybe we should call you rag girl, huh? You can’t do magic, but with a bath and some proper manners I might let you clean my room.” The young man’s leer said exactly what he meant by cleaning rooms.

“What?” Selsor said. “Can’t find anyone willing to fuck you for money?”

Stars of pain exploded in his eyes, and he tasted cooper in his mouth, mixing with the mud and rain water on the stone tiles of the courtyard.

Selsor choked back tears, remembering with painful clarity what had happened the last time he’d cried.

All for stupid reasons. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone? He was failing his magic classes, his teachers would barely look at him—why this too? He just wanted them to leave him alone, to crawl back to his little space above the school stable, to study the small bit of healing that was all he could manage.

Someone kicked him in the ribs, and Selsor curled up, wishing, willing for them to go away. For something to make them go away. Like the flash spell he’d seen teachers use to startle first years. Something like that. Brilliant, blinding, scare them off.

He saw a flash of bright light, heard a loud, shattering CRACK, followed by the sound of people screaming, someone crying out in pain.

Then an awful silence.

Selsor slowly sat up, staring wide-eyed at the figure laying on the ground not twelve paces away.

Lying far too still. There was blood. The smell of burned flesh.

”He did it!”

“The rag boy did it!”

“He tried to kill us!”

“No,” Selsor cried in horror. “I didn’t—”

“That’s enough,” a cold voice said, and Selsor stared miserably up at Professor Rhea, his advisor. Rhea stared grimly back. “Come with me.”

“I didn’t do it.”

“Yes, you did, Selsor,” Rhea said, voice so cold Selsor shivered. “I saw you cast a spell. Didn’t I warn you that temper would cause you trouble one day? Look at what you’ve done!” He shook Selsor hard and turned him to look at where the Healers were working diligently on the figured sprawled on the pavement. “If he lives, Selsor, it will be a miracle. You let a few bullies get to you, and instead of fighting properly you try to kill them and instead kill an innocent bystander.”

“But—that’s not—I was just—“ Selsor choked back his replies when it was obvious Rhea wasn’t listening, and let himself be dragged away, wiping the tears from his face as Rhea’s recriminations mingled with the awful words pouring from the crowd gathered to see the spectacle.

Several hours later he’d given up hope that anyone would listen to him. He nodded wearily as they announced that he was being expelled, and his casting stones would be turned black. Should he ever attempt to practice magic, they would be torn out.

He wondered bitterly why they didn’t just do it now, given how terrible he was in their eyes.

Looking up, searching valiantly for some show of softness, of understanding, in the eyes of the Academic Council, Selsor swallowed nervously and licked his dry lips. “Could I…could I see the person I hurt? To say I’m sorry?”

“Sorry?” The Headmaster’s eyes were hard. “What good would sorry do? He will be lucky if he survives ‘til morning, Selsor. He wants nothing to do with you. I realize you had a rough time here, especially given your upbringing, but that does not excuse your behavior. What you did was far worse than anything done to you. Especially as you harmed one who was not involved. You will collect your things and be gone from the city by dawn. Is that understood?”

Selsor stood up, spine stiff, head high. “It’s understood. Perfectly. It’s no wonder my mother hated this place. She was right. You’re not interested in what’s fair or right. I’d rather be banished than spend another day here.”

Which wasn’t true at all. It felt like no pain he’d ever experienced before to collect his two shirts, extra pair of breeches and his mother’s old comb, and leave behind the city he’d once thought was the most beautiful thing in the world.

His mother had hated all of this, had much preferred wandering the world with just her husband and son, but she had understood when he said he wanted to try it.

Selsor wiped away angry tears as he left the stable and slunk off into the night, wondering where in the name of the gods he was supposed to go now.

Three years later

Selsor scowled, bit back several colorful epithets, and thought nasty thoughts about the group of soldiers who had just tracked mud and water over the floors he’d just finished cleaning.

Despair and anger and depression washed over him, but they were old, familiar emotions, and he shoved them back as he always did and simply returned to his hands and knees on the floor to clean up the new mess.

The innkeeper appeared, and spoke with the soldier who settled themselves loudly and messily at a table against the far wall. Selsor glanced up briefly to glare in their direction—and accidentally caught the eyes of one.

Bright, bright blue eyes, like the sea where he used to play as a child.

He jerked his gaze away, and returned all his attention to the floor. Stupid soldiers, stupid rain that wouldn’t stop, stupid inn, stupid innkeeper—and most of all, stupid him. Life would be so much grander if he were dead, and no longer forced to put up with it, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do the deed.

Oh, he’d tried half-heartedly. He’d spend hours walking around in the rain, hoping the cold and the wet and the sheer misery of it would do him in. No such luck. He must be the healthiest bastard in the kingdom, minus the near-constant headaches and mild dizziness that came with being perpetually tired and hungry.

After that, he’d been too worried that further attempts would also end in failure, and he already failed at everything else—he really didn’t need to fail at dying, as well.

Stifling a sigh, he threw his used rag down and hefted his bucket, trekking past the odious soldiers toward the back, ignoring the cooks and maids packed into the warm kitchen, and out into the yard. There, he tossed the dirty water to join the veritable lake into which the countryside was turning, ever since the rains had begun a week ago and never stopped.

Only the frantic work of the people and half a dozen mages kept the flooding from reaching the point it drowned the whole of the village. That was all that was being done, however. To date, no one had been able to figure out the cause of it all.

That the rain was unnatural was certain, but beyond that, nothing was known.

To Selsor, it was sheer agony. His jewels had been black for over three years now; magic was firmly in his past. He could still feel the faint itch of spell work, though. The lingering taste that hovered in the air, hinting at whatever was causing the rain.

He had been a useless mage, back in those days. The most he’d ever been able to do was a bit of healing. By the second term of his third year, his affinity should have been obvious. It was rare for students to figure out their affinities so late, but not entirely unheard of—so he hadn’t known what to do when he showed zero aptitude for anything. His professors had given up on him in disgust; Selsor had hated himself. How could he have the ability for magic, but be unable to do anything but heal small wounds?

The only thing which had saved him the slightest bit was an impressive ability to sense and feel magic. He’d always known what someone was about to cast; no spell ever came as a surprise to him.

Now, however, he could not do even that. The blackening of his jewels had made his magic completely dormant. It would take reviving the jewels to get any of his meager ability back, and there was zero chance of that ever happening. Why would anyone revive the jewels of an incompetent mage who had probably killed someone?

It was three years past, he told himself viciously. Over, finished, and nothing to be done about it. Why did bad weather always bring out the gloomiest of his thoughts and memories?

Despite that, the cold rain felt good against his heated skin, and it washed away the dirt and scum he’d accumulated while scrubbing the walls and floor. He could not, however, linger long. Sighing, Selsor dragged himself back inside, bucket half full of cold rain water. By the massive cook fire, he swung out the enormous cauldron and ladled out hot water until the bucket was mostly full. Then he threw in a fresh chunk of soap, and hauled it back into the main room of the inn.

The soldiers were still there, speaking in low tones accompanied by hand gestures and scowls.

Selsor watched them surreptitiously, curiosity getting the better of him as the hard labor absorbed most of his anger.

Something must have been figured out, if the capital was sending soldiers—six of them in total, and none of them appeared to be even the slightest bit green. Experienced soldiers, and such a small number. To most idiots, that would not seem like much. To those who knew soldiers, that said the problem was no trifling thing, and it would be dealt with accordingly.

Their leader seemed to be the central blonde-haired man with pale brown eyes and a wiry build. He looked vaguely familiar, but Selsor could not place him, which irritated him. On either side of him were two men with dark-red hair, obviously related. To the left were two more men, one dark-haired, the other fair, both relatively silent compared to the more talkative red-heads and blonde.

Off to the right was the man with the sharp blue eyes. His hair was dark, but cropped so short and close to his head that Selsor couldn’t tell if it was brown or black. He was the only one laughing and smiling, leaning back in his chair and motioning lazily. He said something to the others, which set all their eyes to rolling.

“You and that tired theory—” Selsor caught, before the voices once more dropped too low for him to hear.

He bent back to his work, but the sound of more laughter drew his attention again. It was warm laughter, real and hearty, with nothing cruel or mocking in it. Just happiness and gentle amusement. Selsor seldom hear such laughter; in his experience, all laughter came at the expense of someone’s misery—usually his.

The blue eyed man, obviously. He was probably the most handsome one at the table, Selsor thought, if one went for the dark-haired, blue-eyed, too-much muscle sort. Which, Selsor reminded himself, he most certainly did not. Men like him didn’t have sorts at all, especially since more than a few guests to the inn thought his sort was anyone willing to give him a bit of coin for a tumble.

He’d succeed at killing himself before he was reduced to that.

Across the room, the blue-eyed man’s gaze abruptly shifted, and Selsor once again found himself caught by them. Then the man grinned, and Selsor scowled and jerked his gaze back to the floor he was supposed to be cleaning.

Several minutes later, the innkeeper came in with a tray and so eager to please Selsor was amazed he didn’t simply get down on his knees and offer to service. Lip curling in distaste, he scrubbed more viciously at the floor, where someone’s boot had dragged in something that smelled remarkably unpleasant.

He’d just scrubbed the last of it away when a pair of muddy boots appeared in his field of vision—and he barely stifled a cry of pain as he was abruptly kicked hard in the chest, barely managing to avoid knocking over the bucket as he stumbled back. He grunted and braced an arm across his ribs, dragging his gaze up to scowl at the innkeeper.

“What the hells are you doing while I’ve got honored guests? They don’t want to see your pathetic ass scrubbing floors while they’re trying to eat.”

Selsor almost pointed out that he’d been instructed to clean the main room until bid otherwise, but decided it wasn’t worth being kicked again. Something pertaining to the soldiers had obviously angered old Tam, and Selsor wasn’t going to make himself even more of a target for venting than he was already.

Twenty two, Selsor thought miserably, twenty two and this was his life, and there was no hope it would ever really change. Not a mage, not out in the Territories—just a pathetic slave to the only man who was willing to give work to a mage with blackened stones.

“Here now,” the blue-eyed man said sharply. “Don’t go kicking him on our behalf. We had no problem with his working while we ate. Don’t say we did.”

Tam shrugged. “This one needs periodic beatings, anyway.”

“The same could be said of most men,” the blue-eyed man said, his meaning perfectly clear in his tone. “Leave off, old man.”

Shrugging again, Tam motioned impatiently. “Get on with you,” he snapped at Selsor. “To the stables, I’m done with you today. See you’re here before first light to finish the job.”

Selsor said nothing, merely gathered up his bucket and rags, and carried it all into the kitchen. Leaving it in the little corner where his stuff was kept, he then strode out of the kitchen, and all but had to swim to get across the yard to the stable.

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