The Cunning Man Novel - Snippet

Snippets of upcoming and in-progress works.
Post Reply
chris
Posts: 40
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

The Cunning Man Novel - Snippet

Post by chris »

Hi, everyone

The Cunning Man is two things. First, it is the first full novel spin-off of Schooled in Magic. Second, it is the first time I have taken a novella (published in Fantastic Schools III - https://www.azonlinks.com/B095T3C7S7) and expanded it into a full novel. I hasten to add that while there will be some retreading of ground from the novella, a lot of details will be added and the story itself will process far faster (and a handful of minor details have been changed.)

I’m going to do my best to make this stand-alone. All you really need to know is that Heart’s Eye was a school of magic, based on a nexus point; the school was attacked and occupied by a necromancer after the nexus point was accidentally snuffed out; Emily recaptured and laid claim to the school (The Sergeant’s Apprentice) and determined to turn it into the first true university (Mirror Image). Now the Necromantic War is over, the university is starting to flourish.

Chronologically speaking, the story starts immediately after Oathkeeper and runs roughly parallel to Little Witches. You don’t have to have read either of them, but it helps. (And it puts more money in my pocket <grin>)

All comments are welcome; spelling, grammar, continuity problems, moments of dunderheadedness, etc.

I hope to keep a steady pace, but there will be a pause - my family and I hope (pray) to take a short vacation during holiday, which will obviously cut down on writing time.

I’ve been working on expanding my list of ways for people to follow me. Please click on the link to sign up for my mailing list, newsletter and much - much - more.

https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2021/ ... to-follow/

Thank you

Chris


Prologue I

Background: The following is a transcript of a speech given by Lady Emily, Founder of Heart’s Eye University, when the university accepted its first influx of students. It was warmly received by the newcomers, then transcribed and distributed shortly afterwards by the Heart’s Eye Press. Copies of the speech were, naturally, banned in many kingdoms. This did not, of course, stop bootleg copies being found everywhere.

***
I said: I want to build a university.

They said: what’s a university?

It was a hard question to answer. The concept of universal education is largely unknown and very rare, even in the magical community. Few masters have the experience and inclination to cover all the branches of magic; few apprentices, eager to make complete their apprenticeships and make a name for themselves, are willing to spend years, perhaps, studying all the different aspects of magic and learning how they work together. I was fortunate that my master was willing to do so, allowing me to develop my magic in ways other masters would regard as frivolous at best and wasteful at worst. Other apprentices, sad to say, were denied even the option of broadening their field of study. This has produced a sizable number of alchemists, enchanters and charmsmiths, to list only the most popular apprenticeships, but very few magicians who are prepared to spend their time researching fields of magic that do not either provide immediate results or the possibility of sizable rewards. Magical theory has advanced, as has the practical application of magic. We know far more than Lord Whitehall and his peers. But there is still far much more to learn.

The problem is even worse in the non-magical communities. The concept of scientific research and technological development, introduced by me, is still relatively new. It is difficult to convince someone to spend their lives, again, working on concepts that may never produce something worth the effort. They have to be funded and those who provide the funding demand results, results that can only be measured in something practical. Guns, for example, or steam engines. It is no coincidence that kingdoms, cities and independent communities offer huge rewards for gunsmiths and engineers who design and produce newer and better guns and steam engines. They have immediate practical value. But again, there is still so much more to learn.

And the only way we can learn is by standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before.

This is a persistent issue in both communities. The creators of newer and better ways to do things, from crafting a ward to forging a sword, want to benefit from their own research and experimentation. They rarely share their work with anyone else, resulting in both magicians and mundanes wasting much of their time either reverse-engineering someone’s work or simply spying on them in hopes of ferreting out their secrets. This, in turn, forces the creator to work to hide their secrets, wasting even more time. And yet, the original innovator may not be the one who develops the innovation to its fullest potential. His successor may be the one who takes the original idea and makes it better.

Eight years ago, I designed the very first abacus, the very first steam engine and the very first printing press. They were produced to wild applause. They changed the world. Now, they’re in the museum. People point and laugh at my designs and wonder what I was thinking, when I drew them out and hired craftsmen to turn them into reality. Of course they do.

You see, craftsmen - other craftsmen - looked at my designs and said ‘I can do better.’ And they did. And now their work is in the museum too, because the next generation of craftsmen looked at their work said ‘I can do better too.’ And so on and so on, each successive generation improving upon the work of the previous generation, each generation inspiring the next to do better. And that is how it has worked since time out of mind. The man who first learnt to work metal was rapidly superseded by the men who took his original idea and improved upon it. The man who first carved a wheel, who built a sailing ship, who came up with one of a million bright ideas, launched generations of better and better ideas that can be traces all the way back to the first spark, to the man who showed it could be done.

The university motto is in two parts. First, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Those men, the original innovators, are the giants. Without them, we would not exist. Second, and in doing so, we become giants ourselves. Our improvements upon the original innovations lay the groundwork for the improvers and innovators who will follow in our footsteps and carry our work to levels we cannot even begin to imagine. And the university exists to facilitate innovation, improvement and practical development. You and your fellows will share your ideas and innovations and bounce off each other to blaze a path into the future, a future that is bright and full of promise ... a future that can be ours, if we reach out and take it.

It is easy to say - many will - that we are merely providing free food and free drink to people who will produce nothing. Or that we are giving away knowledge - magical and mundane alike - to people who will misuse it, or take it away, improve upon it, and try to claim credit for it. They may have a point. We will not be looking for solid measurable progress. But we will ensure that those who do make process, in theory as well as practical application of said theories, will be rewarded. It is our feeling - my feeling - that creating a melting pot of ideas and knowledge is worth the cost.

There will be missteps, of course. There will be bad ideas. There will be ideas that look good, but aren’t. There will be impractical ideas; there will be ideas that will be impractical now, but may become practical later. These ideas will all be tested, without fear, to see which are right and which are wrong. We will never seek to destroy the spirit of free thought and innovation through stamping on ideas. Instead, we will question and test every idea and prove it valid - or not. We will have the right to speak freely - and we will also have the right to be wrong. To err is human. We will never make it impossible for someone to recover from their mistakes.

It will not be easy. There will always be the temptation to slide into an outdated mindset. It is never easy to admit that one might be wrong. Nor is it easy to see all of the little details, all of the tiny aspects of a problem that will defeat any attempt to solve it from a distance. There will be those who will focus on the whole and miss the tiny details and those who will allow the tiny details to dominate their minds, so they lose track of the whole. The only way to avoid disaster is to allow questioning, to allow people to put forward challenges, yet the urge to silence them will be very strong. It must be quenched. Those who choose to silence, no matter the provocation, are stepping onto a slippery slope that leads all the way to hell itself.

The university exists under the rule of law. The rules will not change, no matter who you are. The administrators don’t care if you’re the heir to a throne or if you were born in a pigsty, if you have magic or not. You will have the right to have your say, to engage in debate and carry out experiments to tease out the truth. You will not have the right to have your words accepted without question. You can talk freely, but no one will be forced to listen and agree. There will be no formal punishment for speaking your mind. You will never be forbidden to speak or, in any way, express your ideas. No one else, however, has to listen to you. You will have to put your ideas together, and present them, and - if necessary - defend them.

A good idea will stand the test of time. A bad idea will not.

Technology promises to solve all our problems. And it will. But, in doing so, it will create new problems. There will be those who will say that the new problems are worse than the old, that we should turn back before it is too late ... but it is already too late. The new problems will be solved in their turn, as will the problems that will come in the wake of those solutions. We can, and we must, embrace the future. And, to do this, we must learn from our mistakes. We cannot do that if admitting our mistakes, let alone learning from them, costs more than we can afford to pay.

You will not find it easy. Many of you come from societies that do not embrace the concept of reasoned debate, let alone freedom of speech. Others will allow the concept to overwhelm them, to engage in speech without thinking, to push the limits without any purpose beyond shocking and scandalising society. But you would not be here, listening to me, if you were not at least prepared to try.

The future is within our grasp. All we have to do is reach out and take it.

Prologue II

“You’re a hard man to find, Master Lance.”

Lance looked up, thoughtfully, as the older man slid into a chair facing him. The message had surprised him, although - in hindsight - he supposed it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Sir Xavier, Lord of the Black Daggers, the man who’d served King Randor from the shadows until the king’s collapse into madness and necromancy ... if there was anyone in Alexis who’d know about his presence, it was Sir Xavier. And yet, Lance was surprised Sir Xavier had dared show his face in public. Queen Alassa had never formally granted him the kiss of peace. The smart money suggested Sir Xavier would lose his head the moment he fell into the queen’s hands. He knew too much.

“I like it that way,” Lance said, curtly. He signalled the server for wine, then sat back in his chair. “How did you find me?”

“I have sources within the community,” Sir Xavier told him. “And one of them was kind enough to point you in my direction.”

“Sources,” Lance repeated. “Am I to assume they’re not working for Her Most Splendid Majesty?”

Sir Xavier’s lips tightened, but he said nothing until the server had been and gone. Lance smiled to himself as he lifted the wine to his lips and drank. The older man had once been a man of wealth and power, one of the few people King Randor trusted to any degree. It must sting to lose his position practically overnight. The mere fact Sir Xavier hadn’t left the city suggested he hoped he could worm his way into the queen’s good graces, although Lance suspected he was wasting his time. The queen was unlikely to trust anyone who hadn’t switched sides the moment her father’s necromancy became apparent. Sir Xavier had stayed at his post, rather than desert his monarch, until it was too late.

“I have a job for you,” Sir Xavier said. “I’m prepared to pay in gold.”

Lance raised an eyebrow. “And who are your patrons?”

“They wish to remain unidentified,” Sir Xavier said, curtly. “You will respect their feelings on the matter.”

“I see.” Lance kept his expression bland, but behind his mask his mind was racing. Sir Xavier wasn’t working for the queen or he would have offered land and royal appointments, rather than gold and gold alone. That meant ... what? Did Sir Xavier think he could use the mission, whatever it was, to convince the queen to return him to his old post? Or was he working for someone else? “And what do they want me to do?”

“Heart’s Eye,” Sir Xavier said. “Lady Emily’s university” - he stumbled over the odd word - “is up and running. It is currently accepting students from all over the known world.”

“Interesting,” Lance said, as if he’d never heard of the university. He had. He’d even considered going himself, when he’d first heard the news. Only the simple fact his style of magic demanded horrible things had kept him from packing up what few possessions he wanted to keep and heading to the university. “I heard a rumour Lady Emily had lost her powers.”

Sir Xavier shook his head. “The rumour was brutally quashed nearly a year ago,” he said. “Right now, Lady Emily is in the Blighted Lands. And will probably be there for quite some time.”

Lance nodded. “So she’s out of the way,” he said. “What do you want me to do?”

“The university must be discredited, or destroyed,” Sir Xavier said. “My patrons hired me to do the job. I have chosen you as my agent.”

“How ... wise ... of you,” Lance said. “I do trust you’ve taken care to ensure your patrons won’t cut all ties and leave you holding the bag?”

He ignored the older man’s scowl. Queen Alassa could not be Sir Xavier’s patron. She was as close to Lady Emily as it was possible for someone to be. And that meant ... who? A magical patriarch? Or another king? There were no shortage of possible suspects, men - and a handful of women - who’d be happy to accept Sir Xavier as their servant if they could bring themselves to trust him. Or to use him as a cat’s paw.

“It won’t be easy,” he said, finally. “How much support can your patrons give me? Give us?”

“Gold, and little more,” Sir Xavier told him. “They do not want to show their hand openly.”

“Of course not.” Lance allowed himself a grin. The magical patriarchs - and their mundane counterparts - were all too aware that Lady Emily, a young woman barely out of her teens, had killed necromancers. They were afraid of her and hated it. They’d probably be happier if Lady Emily’s father had terrified them instead. At least he was old enough to be a respectable tyrant. “They want to keep their hands clean, while we get ours dirty.”

“Your hands are already unclean,” Sir Xavier reminded him, sardonically. “Or have you forgotten why you were kicked out of Mountaintop?”

“I forgot nothing,” Lance said. He swallowed his anger with an effort. “I’ll need gold for supplies and bribes, as well as payment. Putting together a cover story won’t be easy without outside support.”

“You’ll have it,” Sir Xavier said. “You’ll have enough money to get whatever you want, as long as the mission is completed before the university is firmly established.”

Lance nodded. It wouldn’t be easy. He was a skilled and powerful magician, with a gift for magic even Mountaintop considered dark and dangerous, but the university had a nexus point. It would be difficult to destroy even if Lady Emily was on the far side of the Craggy Mountains. He’d have to go there, establish a cover story - perhaps as a magical apprentice - and figure out a way to turn the university upside down. He could do it and then ... his lips curved into a grim smile. The gold Sir Xavier promised would fund a lot of experiments. He’d just have to make sure Sir Xavier didn’t have a chance to kill him, after the mission was completed, in hope of covering his tracks. His patrons would certainly let Sir Xavier keep the gold if he eliminated the need to pay Lance for his services.

He stood. “It will be a long time before the war is over,” he said. “Lady Emily will be occupied for quite some time. I’ll build up a cover story, with your help, and then make my way to Heart’s Eye. And then we’ll see what I can do.”

“And make sure you send regular reports,” Sir Xavier said. He dropped a coin on the table, then stood too. “My patrons wish to be kept informed.”

“Of course.” Lance bowed, with mocking politeness. “It will be my pleasure.”

Chapter One

The war was over.

Adam, Son of Alexis, tried to stay out of the way of the cheering crowds as he walked through the streets of Beneficence. The news had leaked barely thirty minutes ago and the city was already in chaos, rich and poor dancing and laughing together as it sank in that the Necromantic War was finally over. Adam saw the people - young and old, male and female - shouting and singing and felt joy in his heart, even though he knew it wouldn’t last. The cityfolk hadn’t paid much attention to the war, believing the necromancers were too far away to bother the city and its population. It hadn’t been until King Randor of Zangaria - the kingdom on the far side of the bridge - had embraced necromancy that the city had started taking the war seriously and even that hadn’t lasted. The war had still been a very long way away.

He allowed himself a tight smile as he stood aside to allow a bunch of heralds to march past, their voices - normally boosted by magic - somehow tinny and weak and almost drowned out by the roar of the crowd. Their masters had finally decided - too late - what they were going to tell the population. Adam hid his amusement as a broadsheet seller wandered past, waving copies of the latest edition as a crowd of buyers surrounded him. The chances were good that the story, whatever it was, had come more from the writer’s imagination than the Blighted Lands - the full tale wouldn’t reach the city for days, if not weeks - but it didn’t matter. The crowd just wanted to hear the good news. He supposed he couldn’t blame them. They might have chosen to pretend the necromancers didn’t exist, or that they were thousands of miles away and therefore unlikely to pose any threat to the city, but they knew - deep inside - that it was just an illusion. Beneficence could stand off a mundane army, not a necromantic horde led by powerful and insane magicians. The city would fall within minutes if the necromancers brought their power to bear on the sheer rocks, collapsing them into the rivers to provide a bridge for their armies. It would be the end.

A trio of young women ran past him, fleeing their mother as they hurried to join the party before they were dragged back inside. Adam grinned as the older woman was caught in the throng, their daughters making their escape before she burst through and came looking for them. He couldn’t tell if it had been planned or not. Young men and women were not supposed to meet, except when chaperoned by their elderly relatives, but climbing out of the window and meeting in secret was an old tradition. Adam had done it himself, when he’d grown into manhood. His brothers and sisters had done it too. He felt his grin grow wider as he spotted one of the girls, fleeing - hand in hand - with a young man. She’d be in trouble when she got home, naturally, but for now she was free. He was almost tempted to wave at her retreating back. He might be the youngest of his family, and therefore with more freedom than his older siblings, but he still knew what it was like to grow up in such an environment, to feel suffocated by the weight of social expectations. It was why he’d worked so hard to become Master Pittwater’s apprentice.

The crowds grew wilder as he made his way along the street. A middle-aged woman who looked like quality, her clothes making her as a woman of the merchant class, was dancing with a man young enough to be her son. A pair of elderly gentlemen were regaling the crowd with war stories, a handful of soldiers were surrounded by female admirers even though they could not possibly have fought in the war. Here and there, the City Guard was trying to control the crowd, but failing utterly. Shopkeepers were either shutting up shop, locking and warding their properties before the crowd could turn nasty, or throwing open their doors and inviting everyone to come and browse. Adam’s lips twitched as he spotted a number of innkeepers, hastily putting up signs advertising FREE BEER. The bars in the lower reaches of the city were known for poor quality beer, but today - of all days - no one was likely to complain. The crowd was already halfway to being drunk on its own happiness and sheer relief the war was over. Surely, things could start getting back to normal now. It hadn’t occurred to them - yet - that the war had been going on for so long that it was normal. The post-war world would be unrecognisable.

“HEAR YE! HEAR YE!” A herald marched down the street, waving a bell to draw attention and carrying a stack of broadsheets under his arm. “LADY EMILY VICTORIOUS! TEN NECROMANCERS DEAD! HEAR YE!”

Adam took one of the broadsheets - the herald, perhaps wisely, wasn’t trying to charge - and scanned it quickly. The news was good, too good. Ten necromancers dead, seven more wondered, billions of orcs slaughtered like sheep ... he shook his head, feeling suddenly despondent. The figures were wrong. They had to be. The hastily-written story insisted the army had marched up and down the Blighted Lands, killing necromancers as easily as he might step on a slug. Adam knew that couldn’t possibly be true. Lady Emily was the only person who’d slain a necromancer in single combat and there were hundreds of question marks, from what he’d heard, over precisely how she’d done it. How could anyone, even her, kill ten necromancers and wound seven more? And yet, there had to be some truth to the story. The war was over. What had happened?

A young man, barely entering his teens, reached for the broadsheet. Adam passed it to him and carried on, making his way towards the magical quarter. The streets were normally quieter here, but now ... he shook his head as he spotted older men hurrying towards the guildhalls, muttering to one another as they tried to decide what to do. The guildmasters would have to get ahead of the news somehow ... Adam rolled his eyes at the thought. There was no point in trying to catch up now. The news was already all over the city. The best they could do was wait for the crowd to exhaust itself while they tried to decide how to react, then retake control once the streets were quiet again. It might be quite some time.

He glanced up, alarmed, as he saw a scuffle ahead of him. The craftsmen - their apprentices, rather - had gotten into a fight with a bunch of other apprentices. Adam gritted his teeth as the fighting threatened to spread out of control, more and more young men - and a handful of young women - hurrying to join the punch-up before it was too late. Apprentices fought at the drop of a hat and it wasn’t uncommon for fights to end in serious injury or even death, despite the best efforts of their masters and the city’s guardsmen. He stepped aside and made his way up the alleyway, giving the growing riot a wide berth. The apprentice robes he wore marked him as a target, yet he was alone. No one would come to his aid. If he was caught, he’d be lucky if they just gave him a good kicking.

The alleys were dark. Adam kept one hand on his money pouch as he made his way down to the next street, careful not to look too closely at the shadows. The dispossessed and homeless lived within the alleys, scrounging for what little scraps they could as they waited to die. They wouldn’t hesitate to rob him, if they thought he couldn’t defend himself. He tried to ignore shapes within the darkness as he reached the end of the alley and stepped into the light. It was like stepping into another world. The party on the streets was ... different.

He looked up as a young woman, roughly the same age as himself, hurried up and kissed him as hard as she could. Adam felt his body react to the feel of her body pressed against his, even as his mind spun in shock. People did not kiss strangers on the streets. They just didn’t. The young woman was ruining her reputation ... he kissed her back, just for a second, then forced himself to keep going. She didn’t seem put out as he left her behind. His hand dropped to his pouch, just to check it was still there. It was. He wondered, suddenly, what would happen if he turned back and rejoined her, then put the thought aside. Master Pittwater had summoned him. It would destroy his apprenticeship, such as it was, if he chose to ignore the summons.

His heart was still racing when he reached the magical quarter and forced himself to enter the street. It was infinitively fascinating, as always, and yet there was a constant hint of danger that both attracted and repelled him. The magicians on the streets - apprentices too, although they would be horrified at any comparison between them and the rioters behind him - had never been quite sure what to make of him. Some of them treated him as a joke, others thought he needed to be driven out for his own good. Adam wasn’t their only target, either. It was truly said that anyone entering the quarter after dark would be lucky to see the next sunrise. The magicians had marked their territory and guarded it very well.

He felt a pang of the old envy as he walked down the street to the apothecary. The young men and women on the streets had more power in their little fingers than he had in his entire body. The man eating fire might be performing a cheap trick, as far as his fellows were concerned, but Adam found it remarkable. The street magicians danced and sang as they wove their spells into the air, showing off tricks that were more sleight of hand and illusion than anything more magical. They were the lowest of the low, as far as their peers were concerned, yet they were still far more powerful than Adam himself. It burned, sometimes, to realise he knew more magical theory than almost every magical apprentice in the city, but he’d never be able to do anything with it. And yet, he dared to dream ...

The apothecary looked surprisingly busy, from the outside. A line of people - mainly youngsters - waited on the streets, the line inching forward as the apprentices and the hired shopkeepers handled them one by one. Adam walked into the tiny alleyway and entered the shop through the rear door, the wards parting the moment he placed his hand on the doorknob. The air smelt faintly of spice, tingling with the promise of magic. It had never failed to thrill him, even as he slowly lost hope of being able to put his knowledge to good - or any - use. He removed his cloak and hung it on the rails, then stepped into the brewing room. Matt - his fellow apprentice - and a young girl he didn’t recognise were bent over a pair of cauldrons, brewing potions. Adam looked at the remaining ingredients and put the pieces together. It looked as if they were brewing enough contraceptive potion for the entire city.

Matt didn’t look up. “Cut us some Ragwort, then Hammersmith Weed.”

Adam resisted the urge to make a sarcastic comment. Matt was his fellow apprentice, not his master. He didn’t know the young girl at all, although - if she was brewing potion - she was clearly a magician. But there was no point in arguing. Master Pittwater would be furious if they missed out on sales because they didn’t have enough potion to sell and that would be bad. Adam was all too aware - Matt had pointed it out, several times - that Master Pittwater had taken one hell of a chance on Adam by taking him as an apprentice, or as near to it as possible, and letting him work in the shop. It was a privilege that could be withdrawn at any moment.

And Matt has it easy, he thought, with a trace of the old bitterness. The master can’t dismiss him without a very good reason.

He scowled as he forced himself to get to work. They were very different. Matt was tall, dark and handsome, with a body that suggested physical strength as well as magic. Adam was short, pale and blond, with a face that hadn’t quite grown into maturity and a body that had been permanently stunted by a shortage of food. His father’s death had made food very short for several years and, while he knew his mother had done the best she could, he was all too aware it hadn’t been good enough. And yet, he’d been lucky. His mother had managed to keep the family together without remarrying, selling herself or - worst of all - sending her children into service. He knew there were people on their streets, only a few doors down, who’d had far less capable mothers. A handful had vanished so completely that everyone knew they’d sunk to the very lowest parts of the city. Their former friends pretended they were dead.

“I need a jar of powdered earwig now,” Matt shouted. “Hurry!”

Adam snorted as he put the knife aside and hurried to get the jar, as well as a dozen other ingredients the other apprentice was likely to need sooner or later. Matt wasn’t normally careless - Master Pittwater had drilled them both in making sure they had everything they needed on hand before they started to brew - but he was clearly distracted. Adam eyed the girl beside Matt, wondering who she was. Matt might have been on a date, when he’d received the summons from their master. He might have brought her back to the shop in hopes of ... Adam shook his head, silently. Master Pittwater would be furious if Matt brought a stranger into the back without permission. It was far more likely she’d just been hired for the day. It was rare, almost unknown, for a male magician to take a young woman as an apprentice.

The woman looked up and met his eyes. Adam saw a flicker of disgust cross her face before she lowered her eyes back to the cauldron. He hid his irritation as he turned away. He knew the type. A snobbish witch, looking down on the mundane who thought he could become a magician. The only thing that separated her from Adam’s sisters was her magic and it was an impassable barrier ... Adam sighed as he collected more ingredients for the couple without being asked, then returned to his table and continued his work. Matt was brewing cauldron after cauldron, everything from hangover cures to basic healing salves. They were simple potions, as long as one had magic. Without it ...

Adam forced himself to keep working as the day slowly gave way to night. The city normally went to bed with the sun - save for magicians, footpads and guardsmen - but the noise from outside, if anything, grew louder. He felt a twinge of sadness mingled with regret as the party swept through the streets; half-wishing he was out there with the rest of the city and half-glad he wasn’t. Not, he supposed, that he had much of a choice. Master Pittwater had summoned and Adam had to obey. His lips quirked into a cold smile. Matt and his girlfriend - they were clearly more than just friends, from the way they constantly brushed against each other - had been summoned too. They couldn’t be any happier about the situation than Adam himself.

But at least I have an excuse for not attending the party, Adam told himself. No one would fault me for obeying my master.

“Done.” Matt’s voice rang through the air. “Bottle up the potion, then give it to the shopgirls.”

They have names, you know, Adam thought. You could at least pretend to treat them as people.

He put the thought aside as he collected the tiny glass bottles, all charmed to be unbreakable, and started to measure out the doses. Master Pittwater had made it clear there was little margin for error, even with the most basic of potions. Drinking too much could be as dangerous as too little. Matt and his girlfriend watched - Adam didn’t need to look at them to know they were snickering behind their hands - as he filled the bottles, slotted the lids into place and piled them on a tray. The noise outside seemed to grow louder. Adam wondered, sourly, if they were waiting for him.

The door opened. Master Pittwater stepped into the backroom.

“Matt, take the tray to the front and then you can go for the night,” he said. He sounded harassed. “I’ll see you back at the shop tomorrow morning.”

Matt bowed. “Yes, Master.”

He took the tray from Adam and headed to the front, his girlfriend following in his wake. Master Pittwater didn’t seem surprised to see her, which suggested ... Adam felt another twinge of envy as his master headed towards his private office. There were times when he felt Matt could do anything, anything at all, without being kicked out of the apothecary and dismissed from the apprenticeship. Adam could not have brought a girl into the shop and proposed, in all seriousness, that she helped for a day. Master Pittwater would have laughed at him - if he was lucky - if he’d dared hint his girlfriend joined the staff. It was ... it just wasn’t far.

“Adam,” Master Pittwater said. His voice was calm. Too calm. “We need to talk.”
Post Reply