Thanks everybody for your suggestions and comments! I've incorporated what I could, and wrote out the rest of the first scene, which I include here below. Thanks again for reading!
The feather was blue, bright blue, as blue as the sky on a clear arctic day. It gleamed against the red and gold-turned grasses of the tundra, outshining even the lakes and ponds that pooled up every summer on the treeless plains.
“Look,” Yoonis whispered to her daughter. “A firebird feather.”
“Really?” Jayu breathed.
The awe in her daughter’s voice echoed Yoonis’s own sense of wonder. A firebird, rarest of all magical creatures, here, on the grounds of Lady Twazi’s plantation? Yet where else could the blue feather have come from? Even Yoonis, nomag slave though she was, could tell that the sheen on this feather was different. Flickers of yellow, of orange, of warmth and flame danced along its vane; Yoonis was almost afraid it would burn her if she picked it up.
With a single, cautious finger, she reached out to touch the very end of the feather’s hollow shaft. Before she could get close enough to do so, she felt Jayu tugging on her sleeved arm, pulling it back, restraining her. “No, Umma,” her daughter said, with all the earnest seriousness of a four-year-old. “You can’t. You’re not a magician! Only they’re good enough to touch magic things. Not us.”
Only they’re good enough…
Anger ripped through Yoonis. She could feel it burning in her chest. It was a familiar rage, one that uprooted every other emotion. I’m angry, I’m angry, she said to herself, a desperate chant to keep herself from grabbing and squeezing Jayu’s hand as hard as she could. I’m angry, but I’m not angry at Jayu. It’s not her fault. It’s the fault of the magicians, God, how I hate them, I hate them, I hate them, I hate them!
The hatred felt good. It allowed her to feel without hurting. It allowed her to be alive without pain.
“Come with me,” Yoonis said sharply, placing her hand on Jayu’s shoulder. “This way, come on, watch where you’re going. No, not that way, we’re going to the relic pool.”
“The relic pool? But that’s too far, Umma. Lady Twazi doesn’t like us to go that far.”
“This, Jayu. This is why we have to go to the relic pool. You almost broke your neck trying to get those stupid cloudberries for Lady Twazi’s offering, and you’re still obsessed.”
“I don’t want to hear another word about what Lady Twazi or any other magician wants, you hear me?”
Like saying no ever worked. But Yoonis managed to ignore Jayu’s continued protests by keeping her focus on a patch of wind-sculpted spruces up ahead. Stunted and half-stripped of their leaves, the trees all pointed leeward. When a gust of wind blasted into Yoonis and her daughter from behind, sending them stumbling in the direction of the pointing needle-leaves, Yoonis took it as a good sign. For the relic pool was over this way, just beyond the next rolling hill, yes, there it was, shielded and surrounded by a soapstone paver and even more flag trees, but still visible, its bright blue waters raining up into the bright blue sky, blue like the firebird feather Yoonis had not touched because she was no magician…
Her throat tight, Yoonis pulled Jayu to a stop right at the edge of the burbling waters. “Take your clothes off,” she whispered. “Here, I’ll help you.”
The wind was rising once more, blowing into the hot drops of rain that cascaded up from the surface of the relic pool. Yoonis took Jayu’s hoodless parka and tucked it under her boots, then peeled off each of Jayu’s underlayers until her daughter was trembling naked in the autumn chill. When Jayu began shivering, Yoonis’ anger dissipated in a flash. My poor sweet daughter, my poor sweet Jayu, my little Freedom, she thought, as she knelt and wrapped her arms around her. Then, with one swift motion, Yoonis bowed over and dipped Jayu into the steaming shallows of the relic pool. Beneath her knees the stone paver was sharp, as were the dark green needle-leaves of the tree behind her. But her grip didn’t falter. Not even when Jayu cried out “Hot!” did Yoonis pull her out. She waited until she was sure that every bit of Jayu’s skin had been touched by water – head, heels, all of it – before she drew her out and back into her arms.
She could tell at once that her daughter was mad at her. Glaring, crying, pulling on the back of Yoonis’s neck, insisting on comfort with rough, uncareful fingers. “I told you it was hot!” Jayu wept.
“Did it work?” Yoonis replied. She hated how desperate she sounded, but it was only Jayu there, and besides, Yoonis was desperate. The relic pool is the most powerful old magic artifact left in the entire continent, Tomxai had told her, back when they were kids and he’d still lived on the plantation. It’ll heal anyone of anything.
Of anything. Even mental states, even attitudes? God, Yoonis hoped so.
Jayu was still crying. Yoonis cradled her in her lap and kissed her forehead. “Tell me about Lady Twazi,” she told her daughter. “Tell me what you think of her.”
“I don’t know,” Jayu sobbed.
“Shh, shh, just tell me what you think about her, what do you think when you see her?”
“I told you! I don’t even see her!”
Yoonis hesitated. What did that mean? It was true enough that Yoonis and Jayu didn’t see much of Lady Twazi. They were nomag slaves; Lady Twazi was a master magician. But the distance between them had never put in a dent in Jayu’s adoration before.
“Jayu, stop crying for a second, please, I need to know—”
“But I need to cry!” Jayu screamed.
Yoonis took a deep breath. When Jayu was this upset, any expectation of reasonable conversation had to be thrown out the window. Forcing down her impatience, Yoonis turned herself toward comforting her daughter. “Shh, shh, it’s okay. It’s okay. Here, let me help you put your clothes back on. Hold still. No, don’t lean on me like that, I can’t get your arm through the sleeve then. There you go, good girl, good girl.”
Skin stockings, skin underslip, fur overdress, skin inner slippers, fur outer boots, hoodless parka. By the time Yoonis had finished re-dressing Jayu, she knew they had to get going back to the inner plantation. For months and months, Yoonis had schemed how to get a half day away from her duties for a trip down to the relic pool. Today there had been some sort of fuss going on in Lady Twazi’s south-facing house where Yoonis worked; she’d seized the opportunity to flee amidst all the excitement. Now she had to return before her absence was noticed. But Yoonis still didn’t know whether or not the relic pool had cleansed Jayu of her obsession with the magicians, and she had to know that before she could face the prospect of returning.
Then it occurred to Yoonis. Maybe instead of asking Jayu what she thought of the magicians, Yoonis should test the pool’s power by putting Jayu in front of a real-live magician and seeing how she acted. After all, that was the only way to really make sure the cleansing had worked.
Yoonis took Jayu’s hand. “Jayu,” she said, deciding to try one more time. “Do you like magicians?”
Jayu was still sniffling, and her eyes were rimmed red. She didn’t respond.
“I want to go home.”
“To the magicians?”
“No, just to home.”
Yoonis’ heart lifted. That was encouraging! Maybe the relic pool had worked. Maybe she didn’t need to test it after all. Which would be nice, as she’d rather not if she didn’t have to. The idea of putting Jayu in front of a magician and just waiting to see what happened sounded, well, terrible.
Then again, Yoonis did have Tomxai’s ring.
She could feel it even now, inside the pocket she’d sewn into her underslip, doubly secured by the string that also kept it tied to her belt. Letting go of Jayu’s hand, Yoonis pulled her arms back through her sleeves so that her hands were inside her parka. She drew the ring out of her pocket then untied it by feel. “Here,” she said, re-threading her arms through her sleeves. “Put the ring on now.”
At that, Jayu shook her head. “No, Umma, I don’t want to!”
Fighting the anxiety that leapt into her heart – Jayu always claimed the magicians didn’t like her wearing the ring, was that why she didn’t want to wear it right now? – Yoonis grabbed Jayu’s hand and forced the ring onto her daughter’s finger. As soon as it was on, Yoonis crouched down and urged her daughter to climb onto her back. “You’re grumpy because you’re hungry,” Yoonis told her, trying to will her heart into not beating so fast. “That’s all. You haven’t eaten since the noon meal. And you’re probably tired too. I’ll carry you, okay?”
Yoonis had to reach back with both hands to tug Jayu up and onto her back, but once her head was against Yoonis’ shoulder, Jayu relaxed and let Yoonis lift her. Staggering to her feet, Yoonis began walking as fast as she could back through the tundra. She felt better now that Jayu was wearing the ring. It’ll make you unnoticeable, Tomxai had told her when he’d given it to her. Nobody, nomag or mag, will notice you even if you’re standing right in front of them.
I’ll take Jayu to the library, she decided. It’s the one place inside Lady Twazi’s house I’m allowed to be where a magician might also be. I’ll pretend to be cleaning something, and then when a magician comes near, I’ll take off the ring, and see what happens. I won’t leave her side. If the magician tries anything, I’ll put the ring right back on her. It’ll be okay. It’ll work. It’ll let me know for sure.
And what if Jayu’s still obsessed? a dark voice inside her asked. What will you do then?
Pausing for a moment, Yoonis pulled Jayu up a little higher onto her back. I won’t stop looking, she answered. I’ll find a way. I’ll keep looking and looking, and looking, until I find a way for her to be healed.
But what if that book you found on it is right? What if Jayu is obsessed with the magicians because she was born a slave, and not captured into it, like you? What if the reason you’re different from her and from all the other slaves is because of something you can’t replicate?
The thought was too agonizing to bear. Bowing her head, Yoonis forged onward, struggling against the gusts of wind that blasted and bent the red and gold grasses of the tundra. More than once her long, dark hair went flying into her mouth and nose. It was still light enough outside to see clearly, but soon the sun would begin its crawl along the edge of the horizon. Winter wasn’t upon them yet, though, so it wouldn’t set.
“Umma,” she heard Jayu say from behind her head. “Umma, look!”
Blue, shot through with fire, flashed before her eyes. Yoonis gasped. Her heart racing, she watched with wonder as the firebird stopped in mid-air, untroubled by the wind, his wings and his magic keeping him floating in place only a few paces in front of her.
"I think he wants you,” Jayu whispered.
Yoonis could tell Jayu was right. There was an impulse within her, like a response to a call, something she couldn’t control, something she didn’t need to control. She let Jayu slide off her back, then, step by step, Yoonis stumbled through the dying grasses towards the shimmering, pulsating blue-feathered beast.
A handbreadth away, Yoonis stopped. She could almost feel the touch of the firebird’s wings on her skin, and then she realized, with a shock, that she was feeling it, that his feathers were brushing not only across her face, but that the firebird was flying around her, circling her like a spiral of fire, trailing the edge of his burning wings—yet there was no pain—against her back, her arms, her legs, and finally, the crown of her head.
Yoonis was encircled by fire, a blue fire, one that she could breathe in and touch, a fire that could not harm her. Tears came to her eyes, but she didn’t know why. Then all at once, she felt the wind once more cold against her skin. The fire—the firebird—they were gone.
She stumbled back to Jayu, half-falling as she embraced her. “Umma!” Jayu cried out again. “The firebird—the fire—”
Both of them were crying. “Oh, Jayu, oh, Jayu,” Yoonis wept. “I wish—there’s so much more I wish I could give you—I wish—I wish you had a better mother—”
“No, Umma, you’re a good Umma, you’re a good Umma, I’m sorry I didn’t listen, I’m sorry!”
Despite her tears, Yoonis found herself smiling. “You’re a good girl,” she said to her daughter. “Don’t ever think different, okay? Don’t—I wish—you’re as good as—”
As good as a magician, Yoonis wanted to say. And she almost did. But she couldn’t get the words out of her mouth. What if Jayu argued with her? What if Jayu affirmed, once again, her own worthlessness? Yoonis couldn’t bear it, she couldn’t bear it, God, she would give up everything, anything, to take this curse away!
“Come,” she found herself saying. “Come. We have to get back. We have to go to the library.”