Text version

the comic's manuscript, without pictures

12. Burdens

Once he'd figured out how to connect with the Water element, Adrien eased himself bit by bit into his original task of filling the cup with water - as the waves of the sea would not slake his thirst in the middle of the night, and throwing saltwater around in his room would make too much of a mess anyway. Even if he had gained a better understanding of how to approach this assignment, it still proved to be very difficult for him. Each morning, Adrien would go to the practice tower, confident that one day he would surely succeed; only, that day was never the one. He patiently tried and tried again, keeping well in mind that each failure brought him closer to his destination, that it might take him one attempt, one hundred, or even one thousand. He did not question that he would get there at some point, but, in his worst moments, he feared that it would be a very long time indeed. Adrien tried to focus on keeping himself calm, on just going forward - even if he couldn't clearly see where he was going or when he would arrive; on working with uncertainty, and on doing his best in the present rather than worrying about the payoff in the future.

The breakthrough came when he completely stopped wondering whether he would succeed or fail. As Adrien watched the glass fill before him, he finally realized: water is that which bends to its surroundings to take the shape that suits them the most - it accepts and receives the form of its vessel; and so he understood why this had been so hard for him - he was the one who always struggled to inhabit his place, who always looked with apprehension at what would come while neglecting to fill his present. He had to employ all of his strength to be kind and patient towards himself, to accept himself exactly where he stood - to strive to become a little more like water in a cup, perfectly filling each space it occupies, capable of both stasis and change.

On one morning of grey sleet, the table had been set for breakfast with bread and fig jam for Adrien, and a cup of coffee with biscuits for Val; but then Adrien asked if he could have coffee as well, and Val decided to forgo the biscuits and have a slice of bread and jam, on which he nibbled while Adrien wolfed down slice after slice.

"Really, you eat so slow!", Adrien laughed. "And so little! Doesn't the cold make you hungry?".

Val's brow furrowed slightly. "...No, it doesn't", he quietly replied. "I... I never eat much".

Adrien grabbed another slice of bread, his fifth one for that morning. "How do you even live?", he shrugged.

Val did not immediately reply. "...Do not worry about me", he then said. "...Yes, anyway, I wanted to talk to you about your progress. I think you're ready to move on from Water spells".

"Oh, really!", Adrien exclaimed. "Then we're doing Air next?".

"Or Earth", Val said. "Whichever you want to do first".

"Then let's do Air", Adrien grinned in excitement. "I'm kinda prepared on that one!".

"Oh, you are?", Val said with a little smile and a tilt of his head. "Tell me everything".

Adrien set down his slice of bread on the plate, cleared his throat, and puffed his chest a little. "...Compared to Fire and Water, Air and Earth are more abstract... but still not as abstract as Light and Darkness. They're kind of in between, which makes sense, since, where they meet, they form the horizon. Right?".

"Yes, and that is a beautiful way of expressing it", Val smiled. "Yes... Air and Earth have a tangible form, but an intangible presence. Their nature is that of mediators between the concrete and the abstract, as you just said".

"And Air in particular", Adrien continued, "is one of the rising energies, like Fire, but without Fire's more -- physical, bodily aspects, I suppose. It's more about -- floating, about weightlessness. That's why it's connected with joy and innocence".

"Innocence... In a sense", Val said. "I wouldn't call it innocence, but rather -- the state of being unburdened by shame". He seated himself upright and folded his arms over the table. "You really are quite prepared. Does this mean that you have a special interest in these concepts?".

Adrien chuckled nervously. "...That's not really it, uh, it's just that I was reading about this the other day", he admitted, his face turning red. "I've never been able to cast an Air spell or anything like that... Sorry for cheating!".

Val couldn't help but giggle a bit. "Not that it's cheating, but... Well, in any case, you'll learn what to do with this information in the next few lessons. Your exercise will be to lessen the weight of a heavy object".

Val gestured at a bookshelf, and from one of the bottom shelves hobbled out a massive tome which looked to have no less than a thousand pages. It floated its way to the table, and when it landed, it made the coffee cups shake and tinkle over their saucers. The title read "The Great Book Of All There Is To Know, Second Edition".

"Try to lift it", Val simply said.

Adrien rushed to the other side of the table; when he lifted the book, he staggered backwards and almost dropped it - even if he had been expecting it to be hefty, he was still thrown off balance by its incredible weight.

"Quite heavy, isn't it?", Val said.

"...Quite", Adrien chuckled as he set one side of the book against his belly to compensate for its weight.

Val then spun his fingers and drew a Circle of Air on the cover of the book. Adrien gasped; since he could no longer perceive its weight, he thought he'd just dropped the book on the floor - he jerked downwards as if to catch it, and then realized that his hands were indeed still gripping on its sides. Adrien tried to lift the book up and his arms sprung up, finding no resistance - he almost knocked his jaw with the book's cover. It was as if Val had turned the book into an empty cardboard box fashioned in the shape of a book.

"Wow", Adrien laughed. "That felt weird". He cautiously bounced the book in his hand. "So that's Air magic... It's really useful", he said.

"That is why I am having you learn this as your first application", Val smiled. "Let us continue this in the practice tower".

*****

On the first of December, Val noticed that his pantry was in need of restocking; and so he decided that, the next day, he'd go to the village of Falderdeen to buy food and supplies. Adrien had offered to go with him and lend him a hand, but Val had refused. "You've been working so hard", he had said. "Tomorrow, your only duty is to rest as long as you'd like".

When Adrien woke up on that day, his eyes were greeted by the white glare of the midmorning sun over the snowy landscape. He lingered in the warm comfort of the blankets for a few more minutes before making his way downstairs. He opened the door to the main hall to find the table already set for breakfast. Val had left him a note folded onto his plate:

Good morning, Adrien. I hope you have had a good sleep.
Please enjoy this breakfast. If you need any more food, you can go down to the kitchen, declare "Kitchen, wake up" to activate it, and ask for what you would like.
I will be back by sunset. See you then.

Have a wonderful, restful day.
- Val

Adrien smiled broadly as he read the message. He refolded the note and propped it behind his cup of water, then started eating. He hadn't had a meal alone in months, and he had forgotten that the clink of the silverware against the plates could be so loud in an empty room. He didn't feel fully awake and present until his visit to the kitchen - the enchanted utensils were anything but quiet; their chatter rang in Adrien's ears long afterwards. Later, Adrien went back to his room and decided to write to his mother and to his friends; then he dropped himself on the bed and read a few chapters of a novel he had previously borrowed from Val's library. By then, it was about two in the afternoon. He dozed off in the sunlight, then treated himself to a long bath. He lowered himself in the tub and let his hair and his thoughts sway in the warm water. He had always enjoyed days of solitude for himself and no one else - company, no matter how pleasant, had the tendency to leave him tired and wishing to return to the space within himself. He knew that was the way he was, the way he'd always been. And yet, on that day, something felt different. He had been at the tower for three months, and he had spent most of that time in Val's company; the only times he'd had to himself had been the evenings, as Val was in the habit of retiring to his room early. In any other situation, he would be cherishing this day to himself and wishing for it to never end; and yet, he found himself at unease, restless - displaced; not lonely in himself, but looking forward to Val's presence again.

He had been waiting, he realized - he had been waiting for Val to return.

*****

When the sky started to turn red, Adrien moved to the hall downstairs. He sank into the couch and continued reading his book - he managed to finish one more chapter before he heard the loud creak of the heavy wooden door. He leaped up and rushed to the foyer. Val had returned, carrying his many purchases in overloaded bags slung over his back; he looked tired, but he was smiling.

"Oh, hello, Adrien", he said.

"Welcome back", Adrien replied. He ran around him and helped him take off the bags, expecting them to be heavy - and he was once again thrown off balance by their surprising lightness. "Right, that makes sense", he commented under his breath as he recalibrated his motions.

Val chuckled softly in response. Once all the bags were on the landing, Adrien went to bring them inside; after carrying one in, he tried to lift the second only to find that this one wouldn't budge.

"What --?", Adrien gasped. He looked up at Val, puzzled - and saw him snickering. Adrien crumpled up his face in disgruntled amusement. "Come on!", he laughed.

"Sorry, I couldn't resist", Val giggled. He whipped his hand in the air and magicked up the viper staff, which he handed to Adrien. "Can you put the spell back?".

Adrien chuckled. "I'll try". He found the spot on the landing where he had the most space to move, then carved a Circle of Air in the snow: a white glow enveloped both the lines he'd drawn and the bag in front of him. Val nodded, then easily went to lift the bag.

"Very well done", Val smiled. "I put you on the spot, and you still did this perfectly. You deserve a reward".

"A reward?", Adrien laughed, bemused. "What are you talking about?". But Val did not reply; he only opened the bag and rummaged in it. Eventually, he extracted a glass jar, the contents of which were marked on its label: "Apricot jam!", Adrien exclaimed.

"I bought five jars", Val continued, stuffing the jar back inside the bag. "We shouldn't be running out anytime soon".

Adrien chuckled; his brow furrowed a little. "You really shouldn't have...".

"Why not?", Val smiled as he carried the bag inside. "It is my favorite, too".

After Val magicked away all the things, each went to sit on his usual armchair - Val dropped his whole weight down and sank into the seat. He waved one arm at the fireplace to make flames appear.

"Finally", he sighed. He turned to Adrien. "Would you like to have dinner? I've brought focaccia, still warm from the oven...".

"Focaccia!", Adrien exclaimed. "I haven't had that in so long...".

Val spun his fingers again, and the table was set with a wheel of focaccia as its centerpiece.

"Oh! It's the kind with tomatoes", Adrien commented as he picked a slice.

"It's different in Ordly, isn't it?".

"Yeah... We usually do it with just rosemary, maybe with olives", he explained. He took a bite. "...This is great, though, don't get me wrong", he chuckled.

Val chuckled a little, too. He chose a slice and started nibbling at it. He sank a little deeper in his armchair, letting out a small sigh. "I'm very glad to be home", he said. "It is always... it is always such an endeavor to go to the village".

"I can just imagine", Adrien said. "It takes hours to get there...".

"Yes... But -- it's not just that", Val replied. "I just -- I just never like to go there". He paused before continuing. "I do not feel comfortable there", he then said. "I... do not feel comfortable around the people there".

"Why not?", Adrien asked.

Val said nothing for a long while before answering. "They don't know me. If they did, I don't think they would like me".

"I don't think that's true", was Adrien's immediate reply. "You're nice and kind! Why would anyone dislike you? Besides", he then said, "now that I'm remembering, on the day I came here I stopped at the tavern, and I talked a bit with the lady there -- Anne. She said that you're nice and everyone likes you! It's just that they don't see you much", he added with a chuckle.

Val smiled a little. "Adrien", he whispered, "thank you".

"There's no need to thank me -- that's really what she said! Which was very good, at the time -- I wasn't doing too well in that moment".

"What was happening?".

Adrien quickly swallowed a bite of focaccia to free his mouth for talking. "Well, you know -- I'd just been traveling for eight days and I was starting to wonder if I'd gotten over my head with this whole thing, and I hadn't met you yet, so I didn't know what it would be like... Then I'm almost there, and when I tell this lady that I was going to the tower, she reacts all surprised, and -- in that moment, my whole world fell on my head", Adrien laughed.

"She was surprised?", Val asked, his expression growing more concerned.

"Ah, because -- because she said you don't have many guests", Adrien explained.

Val looked down at his plate and nodded. "...She is not wrong", he sighed.

Adrien held his breath a little. He realized that this was a sore point for Val, and felt regretful that he'd touched this topic so carelessly.

Val looked up at Adrien, smiling sadly. "It's true. I hardly meet with my colleagues, or anyone else. I'm alone most of the time".

"What about your friends?", Adrien blurted out.

"My dear friend travels the world, and only visits once in a while. He is very... unique. He goes where he pleases, and you never know where he will be next", Val said with a fond smile. "We keep in contact through letters".

"At least that, that's good", Adrien smiled. "And your family?".

Val froze; and Adrien realized that he should have not asked that question. "I'm -- I'm sorry", he stumbled. "I'm so sorry, I didn't think --".

"It's alright", Val smiled, soothing. "It's alright". He lifted his head. "...Don't worry about me. It is true that I am usually alone... But I am not alone right now. You're here".

"Yes...".

Val looked down at his hands for a long time before raising his head; but when he did, he was smiling.

"Thank you, Adrien. Thank you for being here".