Royse’s hands shook. He kept closing them tight, forcing her fingers to stillness next to each other, and they still rattled like they couldn’t even stand up to the breeze. He tried to remember if he had started out steady today.
He knew what steady was supposed to feel like. He triggered the flow of the chill under his skin, spilling off the edges of the plates of his shoulder blades, and the cold was supposed to drip down either side of his spine and straighten it. It was supposed to turn his bones to river stones, his muscles to silk, his blood to hot iron, all smoothness and strength. Each breath was meant to hollow him and hallow him and make him into something whole.
Today, he just felt like sheet ice, sheet metal, cloth stretched too thin. He was shaking, and he was more likely to crack on his next breath than knit together.
He bunched his hands into fists again. The cool pooled behind his palms, bit deep into the long muscles of his forearms, and the smokey white flame around his fingers cooled.
“I can’t do this,” Royse said.
His teacher, Branten stood with his arms crossed, leaning back against the wall. Most of the heat in the room came off Royse’s hands, but Branten stayed in the shadows, hiding from the extra heat of the sun in the open sky. He didn’t move. “Try it again,” he said.
“I’m telling you, I can’t,” Royse said. “It won’t come out smooth enough. If I make it thin enough, it just starts coming out in chunks. I keep getting layers of air in between.” He shook his hands out, glaring at the skin on his palms.
“I can see that,” Branten said. He still didn’t move, though he blinked a little faster than he needed to. “So, you know the problem. First step accomplished. Second step: fix it.”
“I can’t,” Royse insisted.
“With all kindness,” Branten said. “You’re wasting heart on those two words. Try it again.”
Royse shook his head. He dropped his hands to his sides, let everything from his shoulders down fall. “I’m not going to get it. I might as well just quit altogether.”
Branten’s response came half a breath later than Royse expected. “Fine,” he said.
Royse’s eyebrows snapped together. “What?”
“Quit,” Branten said evenly. “You might as well.”
Royse stared. “You mean…” He stopped himself. Eyebrows pulling together again, he glared at Branten. “That’s not what you’re supposed to say!”
“What I’m supposed to say?” Branten asked. His eyebrows went up, almost comically high, and Royse could feel the danger in it before he heard his teacher’s crisp tone. “I thought I was the teacher here.”
“I thought so, too,” Royse snapped.
Holding his quiet for a few moments, Branten nodded.
“Did you get tired of telling me to stick with this? That I can do all this crap?” Royse demanded.
“Maybe I did,” Branten murmured.
Royse hesitated. “Were… you lying to me?”
“No,” Branten said, steady, even.
Royse went still, shoulders low again. “But today you want me to just quit?”
Branten shook his head. “I’ve been telling you to stick with it for years. Day in. Day out. And tomorrow, I’m going to tell you to stick with it again, and I’ll keep telling you as long as you need it. But today, I need you to understand one thing: it just doesn’t matter how many times I say it, unless it teaches you to repeat it. I can tell you that you’re capable as many times as the sun comes up, but at some point you need to be able to tell yourself.”
Royse shifted his feet. Branten didn’t usually talk that much, and the more words he strung together, the more Royse felt uncomfortable in the face of them. He looked at his teacher out of the corner of his eye, and Branten looked back, unabashed.
“So, boy,” Branten said.
Royse looked down, feeling the question that was coming.
“Are you quitting today?”
Royse shut his eyes. When he opened them again, he lifted his head and glared at Branten. “No,” he said peevishly.
Branten’s mouth twisted into a surprised smile at his tone. “Fine,” he said. “Try it again.”