Chapter 6: Lessons in Refraction

CW: amnesia/memory loss anxiety, abandonment

FROSCHSTADT HOSPITAAL, MEERGAARTEN, 1915

Anybody can be a thaumatist, in theory; the problem is that most of them take so many years of schooling that in practice it’s limited to the rich and privileged. Of course, every now and again you find the bright sparks. The safest thing to do is bring them to Den Elessa, because the last thing you want is some poor kid making a mistake with homemade glass that a few basic lessons in optics and Mirrorwork could have saved them from.

Thaumatist-Major Sylvia Christadocht Scheffen, letter of advice to Kringwalde Mayoral Office, 1916

According to the doctors who kept inspecting him, he was twelve years old. Roughly speaking, anyway.

According to the thaumatists who kept prodding at him, he wasn’t dangerous… probably.

According to the men in the lighthouse, there was no way he should exist. There were never ships on Bay Frosch. Nobody was stupid enough to sail on the ocean, let alone fish in it; people who drowned in the ocean were never recovered, and the lighthouse’s job was to watch for practically-mythic danger. Perhaps they had missed something, they would concede, but nothing the size of a boat.

All in all, Rook wasn’t quite sure how he was disappointing so many people just by existing. He knew how to write, apparently. That was a nice surprise. It wasn’t as good as he’d hoped, but it meant he could get his thoughts down.

Which also would have been nice if he’d really known what he was thinking.

Mostly he just stayed in bed.

He picked up information, bit by bit, from books and the daily newspaper, and from the overheard conversations from other people in the building where he was staying. Hospital. It was called a hospital. Maybe that was just where they kept kids here. He didn’t like the way it sounded. It had ‘spit’ in the middle, and words that started with ‘h’ felt like they were out of breath. He was somewhere called Elessa. Except sometimes people called it Meergaarten. He wasn’t totally sure on the spelling; he’d only seen it written once, and it sounded… strange. Not bad like ‘hospital’ did. Mee-er-gar-tin. Was it three syllables or four? He supposed you could say ‘Meer’ as one syllable if you tried really hard, but that seemed like a lot of work. Eventually he put together that Meergaarten was in Elessa, and then the hospital was in Meergaarten.

The days stretched on. Another week passed, and another, and Rook finally realized that they’d been waiting for someone to come find him. He realized it because the woman who’d found him was at the front desk, asking if anybody had come in. She looked so worried.

Rook hid behind the corner. She made him… well, he wasn’t sure what it was called. That was the trouble. He knew a lot of words. He just wasn’t sure what they referred to, yet. He probably had known, before, but he only had other people’s word to go off of – and the skills he did seem to have, like walking and talking and writing – that there had been a before. Maybe there hadn’t been. But Sylvia made him… Not angry. Not that one. There was some happiness, if happiness was the one where recognizing someone made your chest do a funny thing. But also he was… Scared? Maybe. Nervous? That might be it. She made him nervous.

Sylvia rounded the corner – the opposite way that he’d expected. He cowered a little, even though there was nothing saying he couldn’t leave his room. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. She might think otherwise, though.

Instead, though, she smiled, crossing her arms gently. “I see someone’s eavesdropping.”

Eaves-dropping. He didn’t know that one. “What are eaves?”

“Oh, sorry. Figure of speech. Were you listening?”

“…Yes. Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” She started walking, and he stumbled into step next to her, trying not to give away how much he was emulating her movements. He just wasn’t entirely sure he was moving the way he was supposed to. It was nice to check. “How much did you hear? Or understand, I suppose.”

“I understand plenty,” he complained. “A few things throw me off.”

“Oh? Tell me what you heard, then.”

He felt himself go pink. “…Um.” He did understand, mostly. “You’re… trying to find out if anybody’s looking for me.”

“That’s right.”

“…You, uh, haven’t had any luck, though.”

Sylvia didn’t answer that one – but her sad smile said plenty.

And you’re going to try something called -” He frowned. “Okay, that word lost me a bit. But something to see if you can find out anything else.”

Sylvia blinked a little. “-Thaumaturgy. You caught more than I thought.”

“I told you. I understand plenty. What’s thaumaturgy?”

“Let’s get you back to your room and I can show you.”

Rook had the faint sense he was being bribed. But it was working, so, whatever. Besides, he had plenty of stuff in his room.

Sylvia raised her eyebrows as she looked around. “Where did you get all of these books?

“Hospital library. Also some of the nurses brought me stuff.” Rook sat cross-legged on the bed. “I’m getting tired of re-reading them, though.”

“Re-r-” Sylvia laughed and shook her head. “You’re bright. I don’t know why that surprises me.”

“Did you think I was dumb?

“I don’t know,” she replied – a more honest answer than he’d expected. She sat down on his bed, chewing her lip, and Rook mentally indexed what she was wearing, mostly because it wasn’t the regimented uniform that he’d seen before. Other people in the hospital wore the same or similar kind of uniform; it was the main reason he was noticing the lack of it now. Dark green, silver-steel buttons in two rows down the front, things on the shoulders that were slightly different from person to person. He suspected that meant something, but he hadn’t figured out exactly what yet. Instead, she had a black dress on, her hair loose around her shoulders and a dark-red… oh, he was bad at words again. Cardigan. Jacket. Shrug. Something. Usually her hair was tied in a bun or a low ponytail. Quietly, he pinned the possible connection; that tying her hair back was part of the uniform. Maybe.

“I suppose I don’t know what I was expecting,” she said after a moment. “Part of me hoped you were someone’s runaway, that we’d get you home and this would all just be a little episode. It doesn’t seem like that will be the case.”

So they didn’t know what to do with him. Rook tried not to take it personally.

But Sylvia didn’t seem disappointed. Almost the opposite. “Thaumaturgy is… well, we’re not supposed to call it magic. Many of us do anyway.”

“Magic?”

She nodded, lips quirking upwards. “Magic exists on its own. It does what it wants to, which – well, isn’t always what we want. But most things are like that. Oil may burn, but it won’t power cars or trains on its own. And lightning strikes where it will – how do you harness something you don’t understand?”

Rook nodded slowly. He thought he was following.

Sylvia pulled something out from around her neck. “Open the curtains.”

“Huh?”

“I’m going to give you your first lesson in Mirrorwork.”

He didn’t need any more encouragement — he practically pounced to his feet, pulling open the curtains and shielding his eyes until they’d adjusted. He was sensitive to light, but he was getting better all the time.

Sylvia walked over to him, and showed him what she was holding. “This is a prism.”

“Prism. I like that word.”

“I thought you might. Now, you see how the light bounces off the dust? You can see it floating in the air.”

He nodded, eyes taking it in. You couldn’t see all of that in the dark. In the dark, it looked like the air was clear, but in the light, well, the room was full of stuff.

“Light goes in a straight line, unless something tells it otherwise. Most things would, given the chance.”

“That’s not true. When I throw something, it falls down eventually.”

She laughed at that, eyes sparkling. “I thought I was teaching you. But you’re right. Which way do they fall?”

“…Down. Everything falls down. Things can’t fall up.” He paused. “Can they? I don’t think I’d forget something like that.”

“No, you’re right. Gravity pulls everything towards the earth. But not light – or rather, if gravity affects light, it’s so barely that we can’t see it.”

Rook looked at the light streaming through the window again. He wasn’t sure what this had to do with magic, but he still liked it. He liked the way Sylvia talked — she didn’t treat him like he was stupid, but she wasn’t throwing so much at him that he couldn’t think, either. Then he stuck his hand out into the rays of light. “Straight line, til it stops.” The sun was warm on his hand. He was stopping it with his hand. Nothing else.

“You are clever. And your hand’s brighter, isn’t it?”

“…It is. Because it’s getting lit up, right?”

“Mhm. Light doesn’t just stop, it bounces. That’s why all the dust is lit up. But what happens if you don’t bounce it — you bend it?”

“How do you bend light?”

If he’d thought Sylvia was smiling before, he was wrong. Now she was grinning, looking almost as young as him. “Your hand looks smooth, but it’s not, is it? Skin isn’t smooth. It’s got all those bumps on it.”

“Right.”

“But this —” She showed him the prism. “It’s smooth, and it’s clear. It’s just made of something different than air. It’s thicker than air, and heavier, too. It won’t stop the light. It’s just going to slow it down, so you can see it properly.”

He blinked, suddenly raising his head and shoulders all the more. It hadn’t occurred to him that you weren’t really seeing light; just the fire it left in its path.

Sylvia raised the prism to the sunlight —

—and a rainbow burst out of the other side.

A shout of joy left his mouth before he’d even heard it, and he stuck his hands into the rainbow, watching his skin change hues. Blue, red, green…

He looked up at Sylvia, something lighting up inside his chest as well. “Teach me more.”

She hesitated; he could see it, although he wasn’t sure why. She seemed to like teaching him, but maybe he was doing something wrong without realizing it. But then her face softened, and she lowered the prism. “I suppose,” she said with a rueful note, “you can’t wait here forever.”

He wasn’t dumb. He knew what that meant; that if someone was going to find him, that if he had a past, it should have caught up by now. Rook would have been more upset — but you couldn’t really grieve a past you didn’t remember. That was what he thought, anyway.

COMMENTS

At first, I didn’t have these flashbacks; then I realized that especially with a magic system as complicated as Elessa’s, I really needed some outsider perspective. Csindra’s a bit of an outsider, but not enough of one; she knows enough about the magic system that she doesn’t need it explained to her. Baby Rook, on the other hand, has no idea. And as I went on, I realized this was a great way to establish his character and his relationship with Sylvia (and Jacob) prior to the story; starting in medias res is great and all, but it leaves a lot of extra ground to cover. Plus, this is cute.

All errors in science are either my own, or artifacts of the setting working with 1910s science. (Even the present day is like VERY early 20s.)

SONG: CANDLES AND CLOCKWORK by TYLER DEVER (Homestuck OST)

Bell, Clock and Candle is free to read online and I don’t plan on changing that; however, if you like it and want to support its author, please consider supporting me with a Patreon pledge or a Ko-fi donation! For bonus goodies, Patreon readers get every chapter a week early, and pledging to the Elementals tier ($5+) gets you access to deleted scenes and conlang progress posts.

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