I did not remember how I had gotten encased in a cherry tree. Though fragrant, this was inconvenient.
It was much more tiring than you would expect, being entirely surrounded by tree. I tried to go to sleep, but the circumstances that had led me here were the only ones of which I could be blissfully ignorant; the oblivion of sleep was denied me. I began to suspect that I had been drugged or, more likely, put under a spell.
Probably I was still under a spell. It would explain how I was still alive and yet completely surrounded by living wood.
I had lived through many extraordinary things—though at the mo-ment, I couldn’t quite sort through which of them might be relevant to my predicament—but none of them seemed to allow natural explanations to breathing, even being alert, inside a cherry tree, bark in my nostrils, sap sealing my eyelids.
Therefore this was no natural circumstance.
I ran through comparisons to my past in my mind. Was it like being gored by an illusory bull: no, the cherry tree was all too real. Like being swallowed by a kraken: no, breathing had been significantly more of a problem then. Shot out of the flaming wreckage of an otherwise entirely satisfactory ornithopter experiment: probably not very similar, no.
My experience was not proving helpful here.
Inability to move my lips or fingers put a damper on my ability to cast spells. Well. I decided to take my time to think on this conundrum. I hoped that while I waited, my apprentice would find me and rescue me from it. Assuming that he was not similarly enshrouded.
My apprentice Verloc was very like myself, if I was charming and young and tall and male and in every other respect unlike myself. Except, of course, for being sorcerers, and scheming and researching obsessively, except for that, which seemed to matter quite a lot in an apprentice.
Very well then; I would focus on what I could do that was useful until Verloc did his part.
Up until I had been encased entirely in living wood—unless, of course, some of my memories had been obliterated, which it seemed that they had but was not something it was useful to dwell on—I had been in negotiations with two duchies to determine which would have my services in creating a magical weapon that would allow them to defeat the iron giants of the farthest north. Everyone wanted a way to send their ships smashing through the icebergs of that passage and out the other side to trade with the west, and no one had yet been able to force the iron giants to their knees, or even to an impasse.
I had no clear ideas for how to do it, either, but no matter, something would come to me.
Inside a cherry tree, I would have more time to think of it.
Or at least it seemed at first that I would.
Probably I had been imprisoned there by a rival sorcerer who wanted to secure ducal patronage for themselves, I thought. No matter. Between us, my apprentice Verloc and I would solve both problems: getting me out of the cherry tree and discovering what kind of weapon would make any difference whatsoever to iron giants, since nothing ever had in recorded history, or even in legend.
I had very little way to judge the passage of time, but it seemed that quite a bit of it passed without me coming up with any useful ideas on either front.
My confidence might have been misplaced, but time worrying about that also did not seem well-spent. Either I would come up with something or I wouldn’t, and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t look back and feel glad I’d worried about it. But the ideas weren’t flowing—and certainly I had no ideas for what to do without casting a spell.
I managed to wiggle my fingers a bit, and then a bit more. I dug my fingernails into the wood surrounding them and made enough purchase to clear a tiny space. And the edges of that space gently, slowly were tinged with sap.
Of course. It hurt the tree to be gouged, even from the inside.
I had known that before, but encased in the cherry tree, even knowing that it was not sentient, I couldn’t escape knowing how the cherry tree felt. I couldn’t avoid feeling a bit of the cherry tree’s sensations. It mattered. So. Blasting apart the tree suddenly seemed like a last resort, and I did not yet think that I was at my last resort. No more gouging for a bit, then, not until I was absolutely sure it was me or the tree.
But having even the tips of my fingers free would allow me to do spells that were not blasting.
I thought some more.
It might have been days that I was thinking. I couldn’t say.
If I couldn’t blast through the cherry tree—or at least, if blasting through was something to avoid—perhaps the cherry tree would go through me. On first blush that sounded scarcely more pleasant for either of us. However, having room to move my fingers and cast spells helped immensely.
I stretched my fingers as far as I could inside their living wood prison, tracing minuscule runes against the sticky sap wounds still drying there. Tree, my fingers danced, be one with me. Tree, we are already together. Be together in my form instead of yours.
For a long moment, I thought that I had chosen a magical language the tree could not or would not respond to.
And then, like water soaking into an apron, the cherry tree rushed into me. The first shock of it going through my cells was so painful I shrieked, as much as one can shriek when every inch, every fiber is permeated with wood, which it turns out is very little. I wondered if my spell would undo the protections of the one that had placed me in the tree without giving me any practical way out of the predicament, but it was too late now, counterspells were impossible while my hands and throat were covered with onrushing cherry wood.
And then it stopped, and I was standing naked, up to my calves in cool black dirt. I rubbed the remnants of what felt like bark and leaf mold out of my eyes. They watered and stung. There were voices around me. I had not heard voices through the cherry tree. I shook my head out, stuck a small finger in each ear to clear it out, and managed to get my vision to clear enough to see that it was a ducal court, filled with mirrors, tapestries, courtiers.
Many courtiers. While I stood naked in a pot of dirt.
“Greetings,” I attempted, and had to cough bark out of my throat. My second try was better, still painful and harsh. “Greetings.”
The buzz of courtier chatter silenced immediately, and one familiar voice replaced it. “Oh, ah, Shuang! Hello!” said Verloc. “I was just saying to the Duchess that when my assistant Shuang finished her contemplations, she would have a solution for all of our problems. And now here you are! Slightly earlier than I anticipated, though I had confidence that you would find some way out of the predicament that some, ah, miscreant put you in!”
Earlier than he anticipated.
I would not have been rescued by Verloc.
I had been stashed in the cherry tree by him.
How very tedious.
I didn’t give anyone the satisfaction of cowering and simpering like a schoolgirl caught in the bath. In my middle years, it was beneath me. “It is much breezier outside that cherry tree,” I announced. I looked down at my arms. They had always been brown. They were a different shade of brown now, distinctly redder.
Verloc did not seem to notice.
“Yes, of course, come with me, we’ll get the dirt washed off and find you some clothes, and—” Verloc was still so flustered that my suspicions were entirely confirmed. The courtiers had gone back to chattering among themselves, scandalized, titillated, I couldn’t tell what, I didn’t have to care.
I tracked dirt on their marble floors and did not look to the left or the right as I followed Verloc out of the grand receiving room and into the hall.
“You,” I said.
“It really wasn’t—”
“It really, really was,” I said.
His face fell. He was still extremely charming with a fallen face. Perhaps more so. One of the convenient things about having taught a young sorcerer from his teenage years was that his charm was completely wasted on me. A servant came in looking very impressed, bearing a bin with an assortment of robes, slippers, trousers, and underthings. I had no idea where she would have gotten it, but I thanked her. Verloc looked away in silence while I selected some clothes and put them on. I thought for a moment that they felt strangely scratchy, but no, it was my skin. Another thing to deal with later. After a moment, I decided to eschew shoes.
I waited, and the silence finally pushed him into an answer. “I only meant what was best for both of us. What does it matter who gets which title?” said Verloc. “We’ll be working together as we always have.”
“If it doesn’t matter, go ahead and tell them that you’re the apprentice.”
“But I’m the one who negotiated this contract here in Teledur for us,” he said patiently.
He might still feel patient. I did not—and he was not going to be able to surprise me again. “You negotiated this contract for you, Verloc, not for me. Thank you for telling me where you stand, and where the Duchess of Teladur stands. That will be most useful.”
I did not bother with a response. I didn’t have to. He may have caught me off guard and imprisoned me in a cherry tree, but when I’m on my game, there’s a reason he’s the apprentice and I am the master. I simply left. In a shower of cherry blossoms that the servant with the tub of clothes would report to her duchess.
The Duchess of Kala Tri would have a much better appreciation for my services now, and I, a much better appreciation of how best to serve her.
Appearing in the middle of her court in a shower of cherry blossoms did not hurt my case for being the strongest sorcerer for the job. I would travel that way whenever possible from here out, I decided, adjusting for the fact that it was rather energy intensive.
The Duchess found my ideas intriguing and assigned me a young sorcerer of her court, Lilno, to supply our project.
“Lovely, very fine,” I said. “I will need a great deal of balsa wood—some other light wood if you don’t have it, but balsa is best—fifty ells or so of white silk, some ballasts, we’ll talk about what when we’ve looked at the silk, the brightest pink dye your dyers have—in fact, bring me the dyer and we’ll talk about options—and the crew of your best ice-ramming ship, including the midships people, please, do not in the least bit neglect the middies, they are quite important to this plan.
“And can someone bring me a sandwich? I’ve been inside a cherry tree. It’s not very nourishing in there. For me; the tree takes care of its own nourishment.” I thought about it a moment. I did want that sandwich, but less than I would have expected. Having taken the tree into myself might mean that I would partake of its nourishments. Would I find leaves as part of my hair? Rooty feet? I couldn’t predict any of that yet, and I had iron giants to deal with.
I had built ornithopters before, but I needed pilots other than myself. The mids were small, light, easy to train, and more than eager to do it—once the machines were built and enchanted. This took much longer than I had hoped. My comfort was two-fold: one, that Verloc had been telling the Duchess of Teladur that I would make it all work, and therefore he would not be jumping in to ruin my plan; and two, that the people of Kala Tri were a joy to work with.
Lilno in particular was cheerful, bright, and eager to learn. He was a wonder with the dyers and herded mids as though he was born to it. This left me with only the ornithopters. I didn’t miss Verloc as a person. But oh how I missed his skill with enchanting frames of wood.
“I wish Verloc hadn’t stabbed me in the back,” I grumbled aloud—once, only once, when a mistake in a spell turned one of our first ornithopters to a delicate, beautiful silver framework that could no more fly than my cherry-infused self could. “He really was quite good at ornithopters.”
“You could give him a second chance,” said Lilno. “He’s probably struggling quite badly back in Teladur. He was relying on you to have the ideas for the weapons, from what you said. And they were a long shot anyway.”
I shook my head. “He’s making his own second chance. He can do it somewhere away from me. I taught him what I could, and if he didn’t learn from it, that’s on him.” And I turned back to the ornithopters.
Finally all was ready, or as ready as we could make it. The trip north was long and chilly. I felt slow-moving and sluggish. I wondered if I had enough sap in my blood now to make a difference in how I would react to temperature. Running through a series of spell exercises with Lilno was enough to make me feel myself again. Lilno, on the other hand, did not appear to feel himself in the least.
“I really need to know what we’re doing here,” he said. “I have seen all the pieces, but I don’t understand them. Can you do something grand with all this? Something devastating? People have dropped bombs on iron giants before. Ijothan fire. All of it. Doing it from above doesn’t seem to make a difference compared to from the side. If they have a vulnerable spot, it’s not their head.”
“I know that,” I said. “The height is to give perspective, to make it a large communication to get their attention. The duchess understands.”
Lilno frowned. “We have their attention. It’s how they know what to smash.”
I laughed. Lilno did not laugh. “No, but—I thought of this inside the cherry tree.” Lilno did not look enlightened. “My first thought was that I just wanted to get out of the cherry tree. And I didn’t think of what the cherry tree wanted. And now we’re—well, I still don’t know what just a cherry tree wants, rather than a cherry tree plus me, but this is better, this is working together. Verloc didn’t give the cherry tree the choice of going on through its life without a sorcerer embedded in it, so this is the best we could do. But it made me think differently about having little beasts pushing through you that you never asked for. It made me wonder how the icebergs feel about it.”
“How the icebergs feel,” said Lilno, and I could tell he wanted to run off to ask the captain to turn the ship around, that we were being directed by someone whose brain had been entirely colonized by cherry pollen.
“They’re not destroying the icebreaker ships at random,” I said. “At least, I don’t think so. They’re trying to stop us from breaking the ice. So—isn’t it worth at least offering not to break the ice?”
He stared at me. “No one has ever spoken with an iron giant.”
“I don’t know that anyone has ever assimilated a cherry tree before either. It will be an adventure.”
Apparently tiring of the view, he stared glumly at the increasing fields of ice floes over the side of the rail.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Nothing else has ever worked either. At least this will be a failure worth noting if it fails.”
“That’s very heartening,” said Lilno flatly.
When we came upon the closest stretch of water, with the tightest pack of icebergs, I had to say that I was no longer entirely convinced myself. The iron giants were ranged to either side of it like mobile mountains, their thighs slabs of red-brown with square edges, their faces like great flat statues of dead monarchs and gods. If I had this wrong, they would kill me without ever knowing that I had a name, and the tree inside me would die with me.
I took a deep breath. “Launch the ornithopters.”
The middies activated their spells, zinging off the upper deck like determined ospreys. They headed straight for the iron giants, brave little souls. I hoped that their swooping and flapping, magic sparks trailing off their wingtips, would make it clear that they were neither predators nor prey.
If I was right, they didn’t fully understand the concept of prey anyway.
The parachutes fell in the pattern I meant them to, white, pink, white, white, pink, white. I wanted them to look like cherry blossoms, even though the iron giants would never have seen cherry blossoms. That part was just for me. In every spell, you must put something of yourself, and I thought that perhaps reaching out to a new people would be like that as well.
For them, I wanted it to be a pattern that could not be accidental. That could not be a wound torn by a beast but would have to look like communication. And the brilliance of the pink we had chosen looked less like a cherry blossom for that, but it looked more like a communication: hello. Look. It is me, I am here, I am another person, so tiny, so much different from you. I am not a strange bird or a narwhal or a hairless bear. I am small and squishy and a person.
The rumbling deepened.
“What are they doing?” Lilno breathed.
“I think… I think they’re talking to each other,” I said. “About what they’re seeing.”
Then a deeper booming filled the sea, shaking our ship.
“We’re going to die,” said Lilno. He sounded cheerful, and I knew that he did not feel cheerful.
“Wait,” I said. “Just wait.”
I hoped that the ship itself could wait—not the crew, but the ship itself, the timbers and the rigging, which was shaking like a mighty storm was going through it.
The booming subsided. The icebergs parted. “Oh yes,” I breathed.
They turned to us simultaneously: the face of one iron giant, huge and grotty and speckled with rust, and the side of a moving iceberg.
The face of an iceberg. The face of an ice giant.
“Hope and joy,” breathed Lilno.
It was a traditional oath, but I heard it as if for the first time. “Yes. That was my aim.”
And I went forth to try to figure out a way to communicate with the races of the giants instead of blowing them out of the water, so that perhaps they would take us into them. So that we could do this together.
I came back hours later, exhausted, having established a protocol for yes and no, and perhaps, I thought, the beginnings of a protocol for “I want.” Which is a more complicated magic, an immensely more complicated magic, than I had expected.
On the deck of the ship, Lilno was grappling hard with nothing at all, the kind of invisible struggle that meant a magical battle. I wanted to close my eyes and huddle in the bottom of the dinghy, letting Lilno handle it, pretending I had not seen. But he was not clearly winning, and I could not have that.
I climbed the rope ladder to the deck of the ship and looked around for the source of the problem. If I had not been so exhausted, I probably would have noticed before: our fleet of ships was one larger than I remembered, sailing in. On the deck of that ship, Verloc crouched with a snarl on his face.
I knew why he was there, of course. It was tiresome but obvious: without his own ideas to get through the northern passage, he planned to follow me and leech from mine.
The cherry tree in my blood held me upright. I could feel its strength as though I was leaning against it in my weariness, but from the inside. I took a deep breath, not letting myself huff out a sigh, and considered what I could do to intervene without damaging Lilno. The main thing, I thought, was to keep everyone from getting hurt, to keep Verloc from sabotaging what we had done.
The tree in me had other ideas.
The tree in me reached out with—pollen? Did I have the magic equivalent of pollen now? The way that I was using magic did not feel like myself. But it also didn’t pull from my strength, and it didn’t feel like something Verloc would know how to counter.
The pollen was not going toward Verloc. It was going toward the iron giants.
I had told Lilno that Verloc would make his own messes, and that was true. It was true enough for me. But once he chased us down, once he followed us, the tree did not feel the same. And its life had been changed—uprooted—far more than mine.
The iron giants surged past our ship. Our sailors pointed and shouted—but the iron giants were so obviously passing us by that they did nothing unwise. And I continued to pollinate, to magically do what I did not understand, what only part of me knew of. My tree-self continued to reach, to act.
The part of me that was tree had suggested that I should try to under-stand the iron giants. Apparently they better understood the part of me that was tree, too.
They surfaced, climbing Verloc’s ship in two strides. They splintered its hull and sent its decks to ruin. Verloc still contorted on the planks as they cracked—Lilno held him there—and they plucked him from midair.
They carried him off into the icy water and were gone.
Lilno collapsed in a heap. I knelt deliberately beside him, still exuding, still sensing. The sailors were shouting things. Someday I would have to speak to them, some hour, some moment. Soon. First, my new apprentice.
“You came back in time,” he said, when he could speak again. “What was that you did, what—teach me that.”
“I will have to learn before I can teach,” I said.
His mouth twisted. “True of us all, I suppose. Where are they taking him?”
“I have no idea.”
“But the spell—”
“The tree, the tree that is me, the tree that I am now,” I said. “That tree has… ideas.”
“And we’re going to find out what those are?”
“I hope so,” I said. “Because the iron giants apparently already can.”
We stared out in the water, still slapping unsettled against the hull of the ship. The sailors awaited some kind of explanation, and I would make it more comforting than what I had given my apprentice. For him there could be no comfort. We would have a job to do, a large and fascinating job, but not the least bit a comfortable one, and it would not serve him to let him fool himself about how or why. That much, I had learned from trying to teach Verloc.
What he would learn from the iron giants, if they kept him alive, I couldn’t begin to guess yet. But I would hope to make a start on it in the morning, with the tools I knew I’d brought with me and the tools I hadn’t even known I had.
(Editors’ Note: “Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage” is read by Erika Ensign and Marissa Lingen is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 20B.)
© 2018 by Marissa Lingen