Erik drifted through the middle chapters of Frost after Rachel went out like a light. He found them enjoyable, if for no other reason than that they were full of action sequences.
Chapter six featured a full-scale air raid delivered via dirigible hot air balloons and Frost demonstrating qi healing techniques (Erik highlighted the latter). In chapter seven, DI Eareckson challenged Frost to no-qi duel in front of Chief Inspector Zacharias and Superintendent Piper, to show Frost’s fighting prowess and suitability for police work (favorite chapter thus far). Chapter eight was about Eareckson inviting Frost and Weaver to her home, so the Inspector could observe Frost in a different setting. As Erik discovered earlier, this led to Frost revealing the circumstances that brought her to the Emperor’s palace. Chapter nine featured Weaver, Helix, and Eareckson raising the same questions Erik had raised regarding Frost’s pre-Alba life, as well as several other questions that hadn’t occur to him to ask:
“The question isn’t just when Frost entered the palace,” I said. “I thought it strange the Empire’s foreign minister would abandon Frost and his attendants in a fit pique. One would think the Emperor would select a man who can keep his composure for delicate foreign affairs. Regardless, the Empire wouldn’t have let them remain here. They are a security threat.”
“Indeed,” said Helix. “You wouldn’t know this, my friend, but the Home Office sent a memo about the attendants. Is that not right, Inspector?”
“Yes. Superintendent Piper read it to us about a month ago. It said they are unlikely to pose a threat.”
“It is difficult to be a threat when your eyes have been gouged out, your tongue cut off and your hands severed.”
Erik assumed the ease in which Weaver, Eareckson, and Helix discussed horrific mutilation was due to lengthy overexposure to humans at their most heinous. Anyway, Weaver had a point: why did the Empire’s foreign minister merely abandon Frost in enemy territory? Why were her life and limbs spared?
The first possibility Weaver, Helix, and Eareckson considered was this: Frost was a spy. From their perspective, this made sense. Erik, who read the ending, knew this wasn’t so. The Seventy Year War ended when the Empire’s new Emperor, Shahzada Reza, agreed to a ceasefire mere weeks after Weaver and Frost met. If Emperor Reza intended to end the war, why would his foreign minister go through the trouble of inserting a spy in Alba?
Erik flipped through Frost to figure out the chronology conundrum. Alas, he found no footnotes or appendixes that spelled out Frost’s entire life in a timeline format. Nothing stood out in the unread chapters, either.
At length, he closed the book.
“You’re getting too invested in the story, Ransom,” Erik admonished himself. “Remember: you’re reading this book to learn qi. Now stop getting distracted.”
Erik checked the cat-shaped wall clock and realized it was very late indeed. Deciding he went above and beyond on his babysitting duties, he packed his bag and went downstairs.
He found David and Rena in the living room, each seated in a comfortable armchair, their prized Go board made of nutmeg yew between them. A handful of black and white stones dotted the board’s surface. As Rena and David’s evening Go games were vital to the health of their marriage, thus sacrosanct, Erik made moves to leave quietly.
But then Erik noticed the black Go stone orbiting around David’s fingers like a satellite and blurted: “What.”
Rena glared at Erik like she wanted to throttle him. David just looked up. The orbiting Go stone dropped into the bowl that had all the black pieces as he did so.
“Rena told me you know now,” David stated.
Erik swallowed hard. It just occurred to him that he should’ve asked Rena if her husband knew about qi, or if David was the one who told her. In truth, he had a bad habit of assuming Rena knew everything, and David didn’t.
“We need to talk,” David said.
“We can do it tomorrow, no rush,” Erik offered.
David shook his head. “This can’t wait.”
David patted the couch to his right and to Rena’s left. Erik took a seat. Rena folded her arms over her chest, glaring daggers at Erik.
“You shouldn’t do this alone,” David began. “Trust me on this. It’s dangerous to go solo.”
Erik shrugged. “I did find others.”
“So Rena said. That’s all well and good, but you need to join a proper group. Preferably one that has an experienced leader.”
“What, like a secret community for wizards?” Erik asked.
“Pretty much, minus the secret part,” said David.
“But those only exist in stories!” Erik protested.
“People seek others like themselves or else born into families they feel at home with,” Rena drawled. “It’s human nature. In these communities, culture and norms emerge.”
Erik mulled over this. “When you said I’m going into this blind, sis, you meant I should first learn wizard culture and qi best practices, right?”
“Oh, look, honey, he’s getting it,” Rena mocked.
“That’s enough, bae,” said David firmly, before Erik throw fit of temper. “And yes, exactly that. You might get away with self-learning, but you can’t avoid other wizards. The old wizard community has a vested interest in growing their numbers. Sometimes this leads to kidnapping and forced adoption.”
Erik looked at Rena.
“Yes, it’s the reason behind many qi related disappearances,” she said.
“How do you two know this?” asked Erik.
Rena’s answer was simple: “David.”
“My mother married into a wizard family,” David replied. “It didn’t work out. She left, but didn’t take me with her.”
Erik felt a pang of sorrow. His own mother and father, for all their multifaceted incompatibilities and issues, didn’t separate. Erik would defend to his last breath that his family had been better off for it. But then again, his parents weren’t drunkards or abusers, and their children, for all their eccentricities and lack of social skills, were as a whole obedient and respectable.
“Is this why your grandmother raised you?” Erik asked.
“As well as my father’s sisters, their daughters and so forth, yeah,” David replied.
“Was it bad, growing up in a wizard family?”
“Honestly? No. My dad and his family were decent and loving. I had so many people mothering me as a kid, I hardly missed my mother. They also understood and didn’t stop me when I told them I’m leaving and not coming back.”
“Why did you? Want to leave, I mean,” Erik asked.
David picked up a Go stone and toyed it between his fingers.
“I wanted a normal life. Wife, kids, and neighbors that aren’t family. A house I can call my own. Your chances of having all of the above when you delve into qi are vanishingly low.”
“Why?” Erik asked.
“Wizards are nomadic, in more ways than one,” David answered. “Don’t ask me why. I never felt that way. Growing up, I cried like a baby every time my family had to move, which was always. When I turned sixteen, I decided I wasn’t meant to be a wizard.”
“So wizards live like gypsies? Wait,” Erik scooted closer to the edge of his seat. “You were raised by mostly female relatives as a kid.”
“Caught that, didn’t you?” said David, with a small smile. “Boys grow up with their mothers and her relatives until they hit their teens. Then they get involved with their father’s male-only group until they join it on a permanent basis. Girls don’t leave her mother’s side except to get married and spend a year or two with her husband. Then they go back.”
“So you live with your mother or your father, but not both?” Erik asked, to make sure he understood what David telling him.
“You only get to have them both together once a year for three weeks at big family reunions, yes,” David replied. “Something to think about before you go deeper.”
Erik looked down at the Go board. Settling down and getting married wasn’t something he thought about often, if he thought about it at all, but the idea of no longer having the option was painful to contemplate.
“Why are things this way? Is it qi?” Erik asked as he looked up.
“You know what, I’m not sure,” said David, as he rubbed his stubble-covered chin. “If there are traditional wizard clans that don’t follow this pattern, I haven’t heard of them. But then again, I’m a black sheep.”
“Or a white sheep among a herd of black ones,” Rena said.
“Oh you,” said David fondly.
“I’m not sure about the wizard lifestyle,” Erik muttered loudly before the two could turn sappy.
“Might be too late for you,” Rena harrumphed. “You’re as restless as a wizard native.”
“I’m not restless,” said Erik defensively.
Rena gave him a look.
“You switch jobs every two years. Three is the longest you’ve lasted. You run twenty miles a day and spend ridiculous amounts of money entering extreme endurance races all over the world, even though Susan is no longer available for conquering. Your ideal life fantasies are primarily about being a global trotter who roams the earth. Does this sound like a homebody who doesn’t know restlessness even if it punched him in the face?”
Erik refused to respond to that, but instead asked: “Speaking of wizards, David, are you an expert?”
“Heck, no,” said David. “My skills, if you can call it that, look like weak telekinesis at best. If you want to know what a real master wizard looks like, keep reading Frost.”
“Cliff Notes version, please, if you don’t mind.”
“You lazy—I told you to read the book!” Rena snarled. “You don’t even have to look up anything, it’s all in the notes!”
“Excuse you. If your notes are so comprehensive, where is my timing of all events?” Erik snapped.
“There is one! Appendix A!” Rena yelled.
“I read that! There was nothing on Frost’s pre-Albion life!”
“Of course, there isn’t! It was never spelled out, you fool!”
“Girls, please,” David interrupted. “Here’s a summary: most people never go beyond pushing or pulling things with skin contact. That’s lay level or apprentice level.” He made a Go stone orbit around his hand again without touching it. “This is journeyman level. The greater the range, the finer the motion, and the more mass you can lift without touching, the better journeyman level expert you are.”
“But it’s still journeyman level,” Erik noted, his rage gutted instantly. Rena, on the other hand, still looked miffed.
“Yep,” said David. “Masters can do things to space-time-matter, or so I’ve been told. By the way, Frost is based on the last known grandmaster: Shin June Hu. The wizard community hasn’t seen a grandmaster in the last thirty years.”
Erik licked his lips. The urge to read through Frost came back with a vengeance as he tried to imagine what a grandmaster level wizard was like.
“How do you become a master or whatever?” Erik asked.
“Like any discipline. You study,” David replied.
“You’re going to elaborate on that to me later. Is there a committee that awards these titles?”
“Kind of,” said David, twitching a large palm like a rocking boat. “Clan leaders get together about once a year to discuss things and decide who is what. There are no official rules or standards.”
“Sounds subjective,” said Erik, wrinkling his nose.
“It can be,” David agreed. “But masters are so rare, it’s pretty obvious when you meet one. I reckon there are only twenty in the world.”
“It’s in the book,” growled Rena, shooting thunderbolts from her eyes. “The notes. Read them.”
Erik rolled his eyes. “Oh, fine. Just remember you might get a call from the ER.”
“Yes, I am very aware of your tendency to lose consciousness when someone tries to teach you history,” Rena drawled.
David squinted at Erik. “Sorry, but your reaction to history is rather extreme,” he said.
“You have no idea,” snorted Rena. “It got so bad at one point, our parents tried to get him diagnosed with Dissociative Fugue.”
David’s eyebrows rose to his hairline. “What was the verdict?”
“Inconclusive,” Erik answered. “I don’t forget what happened to me before I blackout, I never wander away, and I usually have no trouble watching history documentaries on Cable TV. One of the doctors theorized it might be the result of me having a singularly vivid imagination.”
David turned thoughtful. “Huh.”
“Anything else I should know?” Erik asked, eager to move on.
David clasped his hands between his knees and gave his entire attention to Erik.
“The wizard community is small and isolated,” he said. “It reminds me of an island village sometimes. In other words, everyone knows everyone else’s business, and nothing is more noticeable than a newcomer.”
Nameless fear smote Erik to the core. “Are you saying the entire wizard community may know that I exist?” he asked.
“Possible,” said David. “I’d say probable. Especially if the person you contacted is an old guy.”
The fear twisting Erik’s gut tightened its vice-like grip as he remembered Moe’s age.
“Should I worry?”
“Only if someone thinks you show promise or hates you.”
Erik felt the blood drain from his face as he remembered Moe telling him he was well out of the newbie state hours ago. In fact, he recalled with retroactive horror, Moe said it took him years to do the things Erik was able to do in one week.
Rena examined her fingernails. The smirk on her face was all schadenfreude and grim satisfaction. “I did warn you,” she said.
“Shut up. Your warning was as clear as mud,” Erik groused.
“I said I want you to put qi on hold until you know what your life is about and understand what it means to live in a world that has real superpowers. How much clearer can I be?” Rena snapped back.
Erik scowled. Yes, Rena had told him that…but she wounded his pride so badly beforehand, she almost guaranteed he wouldn’t heed her warnings. If he didn’t know better, Erik would’ve thought she did it on purpose.
Wait, did she? If so, to what end?
“Did I out you, David?” Erik asked. “Will this somehow force you to get involved with the wizard community again?”
“Only if you ask me to,” David replied.
Erik sighed in relief. “I won’t. You got out for a reason.”
“I appreciate that,” David said solemnly.
“You’re welcome. Now tell me the truth,” Erik eyed Rena. “Do you regret discovering qi?”
“No,” said Rena firmly; the kind of firm that said she was going to make the answer true, no matter what the current situation looked or felt like. “You, on the other hand, might, considering how delicate and sensitive you are.”
“Excuse me?” Erik exclaimed.
“See?” said Rena, as though his reaction proved her point.
Erik bristled. David, meanwhile, reached out to clasp Rena’s hand. The smile on his brother-in-law’s face was equal parts terrible sadness and heartfelt gratitude. “Good to know,” he said.
Erik felt his skin crawl as David and Rena gazed into each other’s eyes. “Am I doomed?” he asked, shattering the moment.
“Of course, you are,” Rena said heartlessly, while David dropped his face in his hands. “Just so you know, there’s at least one master level wizard who can pinpoint qi activity from hundreds of miles away, both in real time and in retrospect.”
Erik swallowed as the implications hit him like boiling oil.
“Beats me. Do I look like a master level wizard to you?” Rena folded her arms. “I only know because representatives from the old wizard community started loitering around the house a week after I activated my qi. This despite the fact I told no one and practiced in our off-grid cottage in Fredericksburg.”
“How bad was the harassment?”
“It was unspeakably ghastly. The nadir was when a two-star general tried to evoke eminent domain to force me to do DOD work. Having said that, I admit it might have been already too late to warn you the moment you did whatever it is that made you realize qi exists.”
A long silence followed.
“You can’t hide from them, bro,” Rena said, as she shook her head as though in sorrow, “you just can’t.”