There are always limitations.
Learning to be a mage was all about learning how to live within those limitations in order to maximize power. Neason had spent most of his life learning not to let stray thoughts leak away his power. At twenty he was well known for his control, and that was why the temple sent him to the valley of Kerisin where a curse seemed to be destroying the crops and orchards. He would have the best chance of finding the trouble, destroying it, and getting back to the quiet, safe simplicity of the temple.
He accepted the work, content to know he would do his best and that he shouldn't have trouble tracking down the trouble.
What he found was Marcella.
She had nothing to do with the curse and everything to do with self-control. Neason had met many women at the temple, of course. Some were mages in their own right; quiet and austere women who were sometimes quite beautiful in their distant sort of ways. They were untouchable.
Marcella was beautiful. She was alive and emotional, and from the moment he went to see her orchard he found himself distracted and fighting for his self-control.
"My orchard was the first touched by this horrible plague," she said, her voice like water flowing in a brook. "It began just after my father died and left this place to me. I can't help but think there is some connection."
"Was your father inclined to curses?" he asked and then thought how callous that sounded. "I mean --"
"He spent a lot of his time cursing everything from the roof of the house to the trees in the orchard. I didn't expect a mage to be so young and --"
He stopped, eyes gone wide. She stopped, blushing brightly.
"How did your father die?" he managed to ask.
"Fell from one of the trees while he was cutting away dead branches," she said, her voice slightly breathless. "He didn't die right away. And . . . And with his last breath, he cursed the trees again. You don't think --"
They had reached the edge of the orchard, a place that should have been filled with green leaves and cherry blossoms. Instead, row upon row of dead, naked trees stretched out over the land.
"You and your father took care of this alone? Just the two of you?" he asked, surprised.
"Father hired workers when the fruit was ready to be picked, but otherwise, he pretty much took care of it himself. I helped; I needed to know what to look for if a blight hit, or how to save the trees during a drought. We did well, really."
"Whatever has happened here isn't natural," he said. He'd gotten his control back, as long as the looked at the trees and not at her. "It could be that your father had some magic and didn't even realize it. Did he live an austere life?"
"Yes. After mother died, he hardly allowed himself any joy," she said. "And I probably make him sound horrible with his curses and all, but he wasn't really. I miss him."
He didn't want to know about her life. He didn't want to think about her here, alone. He'd never thought just meeting someone could be so dire.
Neason walked to the nearest tree and laid his fingers on the bark, his head tilted and his eyes closed. He thought about the father; a man with a little magic, living in his own shell of self-control, might have built up more power than he would have under normal circumstances. Then realizing he was dying, he might have given that last power out in something he never intended.
Neason had a little trouble feeling out the problem, but there it was -- a dying curse left inadvertently by a man who really hadn't hated the land. He could almost feel the man's loss and the fear for his daughter, here alone.
Neason pulled at the strand of darkness, a slow process since it had wound itself up through branches and down through roots. And then he fed a little life back into the tree --
"Oh!" Marcella said, her voice bright with delight.
He finally glanced up at the tree and found it already growing leaves and flowers, the scent heady in the air. The sight even surprised him.
"This is going to take some time, going from tree to tree --"
She threw her arms around him. "Thank you! You were our last hope and I feared -- Oh, thank you!"
She kissed him.
Self-control? That disappeared the moment her lips met his. He also realized she had inherited a little magic from her father, which in that moment of contact blended with his.
For the first time in his life he felt alive, joyful and glad that he could help. The feel of it surged through him, making him regret all those empty years -- but also glad to have saved them for Marcella.
By the time they pulled apart, slightly breathless, the entire orchard had come into bloom.
"Oh my," she said, her gray eyes wide with surprise.
"Well," he said. He had expected to find himself emptied of power but instead, he felt as though he could do anything. "There is a lot of dead crop land around here, too. And gardens. I think maybe we had better kiss again."
She laughed. And they kissed.
That night he sent a note back to the temple suggesting maybe they'd been looking at the control of power in the wrong way. He also said he was not coming back; he'd fallen in love with a cherry orchard and all that belonged there.
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