I appreciate that Matt didn’t want to make Essek disabled and fall into the disabled villain trope, but as a disabled person I love the idea that Essek’s floating is a disability aid and that ableism played a role in isolating him and pushing him into over-achieving at all costs.
After Essek goes on the lam, he often has to walk without magic. He was partly lying about floating being a trick he got stuck with as an expectation. It was also that, but the real reason he learned to do it was the debilitating joint pain he developed in early adolescence. Having to walk again rapidly exacerbates it again, with an extra century of age on top.
He tries to keep it to himself since he was accused of faking it as a kid, punished for it, pushed harder, or excluded for not keeping up. Especially compared to his athletic brother. The doubt in his overall ability was one of the things that had pushed him so hard to prove himself at every turn, and ultimately led him to some really awful behavior he didn’t want to return to. But eventually, it becomes so debilitating he can’t hide it. At least not from Caleb.
He’d get to Caleb’s house and more than anything just need to sit down and rest. The pain was cascading into general nerve pain that made all touch into an over-stimulated agony. A silent internal war from nerves that want no sensation, and a heart that wanted the soothing grounding of being held by this man who somehow loves him so deeply. But the pain in his face and the flinching he can’t stop eventually give him away.
Caleb is gentle with him and understanding. He opens up about the torture Trent put him through with the embedded residuum. Going to class with long sleeves pretending to be fine when he could barely hold a pen. Sometimes the scars still have a stabbing ache. How lonely it was when touch of the only people who knew and cared was too much. They talk about inadequate pain scales. There is comfort in that shared understanding.
They brainstorm what Essek could do. On the road alone he can still float. It’s cities that are the problem. For his safety he already tries to stick to solitary remote research but supplies and contacts are always needed. They consider different mobility devices. Essek’s only hesitation is that the ones that meet his needs would be expensive, custom, and distinctive, making them more identifiable even as he changes disguises and personas and could give him away. The same reasons why he’s had to give up the sleek and fashionable clothes he loves for plainer ones people don’t notice.
That leads them to the idea of modifying Essek’s floating magic to essentially function like a series of braces. He could still look like he’s walking without aid, but the magic would take the actual weight off his joints. It proves trickier than just floating, with more concentration and more exhaustion, but it’s harder to detect and easier to disguise to keep his cover. It’s harder to keep his balance this way and does find a plain cane makes it much easier, even if it rarely supports his weight to protect his arms.
Caleb asks for Essek’s help with a second kind of slower cover. Now that he knows the floating was a mobility aid, can Essek teach it to him so that Caleb can teach it to his disabled students and others in the community? It could help many of them with quality of life (especially the Academy’s inaccessible buildings). And over time if they teach the technique and encourage it to be retaught, it will be less unique and identifiable. One day it will be safe for Essek to float in public again, and he’ll get his best mobility tool back.
Slowly things get easier. Essek is able to travel more easily again with fewer bad pain days and come back to the house of green beans without wanting to collapse. The brace magic gets easier for him to manage over time. It’s still a little easier to use a cane, but he can forego it for short periods if he needs the extra stealth. Caleb and Essek teach both the floating and the bracing and find each works for different disabilities and injuries better. It takes some decades for it to be widespread, but his floating technique is eventually widespread enough as a mobility tool that it’s safe to use. While he still prefers floating, he uses both with different personas to throw off the trail.
Every time he comes across another disabled person using this magic he developed in his room, alone in pain and trying to hide through an impressive trick, and now commonplace, it’s a reminder that for all the lives he hurt causing the war, there are now many others his magic has helped to live fuller more accessible lives. And that is a great comfort through the rest of his life.