The Cunning Man Novel - Sample

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chris
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The Cunning Man Novel - Sample

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The Cunning Man

(A Schooled in Magic Spin-Off)

Book I of III

Christopher G. Nuttall

http://www.chrishanger.net
http://chrishanger.wordpress.com/
http://www.facebook.com/ChristopherGNuttall
https://mewe.com/page/5cd32005dc9f631c9973f058

Cover by Brad Fraunfelter

www.BFillustration.com

All Comments and Reviews Welcome!

Cover Blurb

Adam of Beneficence wanted to be a magician, and even undertook a magical apprenticeship, but there isn’t a single spark of magic in his entire body. In desperation, his master arranged for him to study at Heart’s Eye University, a former school of magic that has become a university, a place where magicians and mundanes can work to combine their talents and forge the future together.

But all is not well at Heart’s Eye. The magical and mundane apprentices resent and fear each other, the teaching staff is unsure how to shape the university and, outside, powerful forces are gathering to snuff out the future before it can take shape. As Adam starts his new apprenticeship, and stumbles across a secret that could reshape the world, he finds himself drawn into a deadly plot that could destroy the university ...

... And leave Lady Emily’s legacy in flaming ruins.


Author’s Note

This book runs roughly parallel to Little Witches (Schooled in Magic 21) and, although it is stand-alone, draws on elements mentioned in earlier books, specifically The Sergeant’s Apprentice and Mirror Image.

I have attached a short spoiler-heavy recap of the overall series, up to Book 20, at the back of this book.

CGN.
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 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 much more to learn.

The problem is even worse in the non-magical communities. The concept of scientific research and technological development, first devised by me and improved by my sucessors, 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 must 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 magicians and mundanes wasting much of their time either reverse-engineering someone else’s work or simply spying on them in hopes of ferreting out their secrets. This, in turn, forces the creator 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 traced 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 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 progress, 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 of failure or condemnation, to see which are right and which are wrong. We will never seek to destroy the spirit of free thought and innovation through stomping 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. 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. 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. 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 out.”

“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 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 Sir Xavier 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. “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 fact that his style of magic demanded horrible things had kept him from packing up what few possessions he wanted to keep and heading to Heart’s Eye himself. “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 to be. And that meant ... who? A magical patriarch? Or another king? There was 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 forget 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.

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 as well. “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 rapture , 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 smiled tightly as he stepped 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 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, as they were thousands of miles away and therefore unlikely to pose any threat to the city, but they knew - deep inside - that 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.

A trio of young women ran past, 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, her daughters making their escape. He couldn’t tell if it had been planned. 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 widen 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, her clothes marking 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 down, 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 that 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. The news was good, too good. Ten necromancers dead, seven more wounded, billions of orcs slaughtered like sheep ... he shook his head, 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. 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 decided 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. 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 alley, 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.

His heart twisted. He’d wanted to be an apprentice. He’d wanted to be one of them. He’d wanted to belong. And yet, where did he fit in? Nowhere.

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 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 infinitely 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, while 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 his 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 magical. They were the lowest of the low, as far as their peers were concerned, yet they were still far more powerful than Adam. 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 smelled 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 scarce 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 that 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 him 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.

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 fair.

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

Adam’s heart sank as he followed Master Pittwater into his office. It was rare, vanishingly rare, for him - or Matt - to be invited into their master’s private chamber and it had been made clear to both of them that entering without permission would mean dismissal and disgrace. He couldn’t help looking around with interest, even though the last time he’d been called into the chamber had been for a strapping after he’d made a dreadful mistake and nearly gotten himself killed. Master Pittwater seemed to have crammed a desk, a pair of comfortable chairs, a sofa and a large cushion into the room, then lined the walls with bookshelves. They’d been packed when he’d last entered the room, but now they were practically bursting at the seams. There were probably spells in place to make sure they didn’t explode, scattering their contents everywhere. Adam hoped he’d get a chance to read the books. Master Pittwater had let him read more than he should, according to Matt, but there were textbooks he’d been told - flatly - he wasn’t allowed to so much as look at without permission. Adam suspected it was a waste of time. What did it matter if he read about the dark arts? It wasn’t as if he could perform them.

“Sit.” Master Pittwater waved at the sofa. “I’ll be with you in a moment.”

Adam frowned as he sat. He’d always known Master Pittwater was old enough to be his grandfather, but ... it had never really sunk in until now. He didn’t seem to have changed, yet ... he just looked older. It was never easy to guess a magician’s age - most of them used magic to slow their aging or wrapped themselves in illusions to hide their true condition - but Master Pittwater looked to have aged overnight. He moved like an old man. The end of the war couldn’t have affected him that much, could it? Perhaps it had. It was rare for their master to leave his apprentices brewing alone for long, certainly not on the busiest day of the year.

Master Pittwater sat, facing him. His expression was unreadable, but Adam felt a chill run down his spine. The old man was not shy. He’d never hesitated to express his feelings about Adam’s failings before, back when they’d started the makeshift apprenticeship. And yet ... whatever he wanted to talk about had to be bad. Adam wondered, suddenly, if the older man had gone to the guildhall. Talking to the guildmasters always put him in a bad mood.

“You can’t stay here,” Master Pittwater said, quietly.

Adam stared. “What?”

Master Pittwater said nothing for a long moment. “The guild expects me to retire at the end of the year,” he said, looking down at his stained and scarred hands. “They feel, and they’re not entirely wrong, that my career is coming to a close. I have been making mistakes in my brewing and some of those mistakes came very close to getting me killed. The guild thinks it would be safer for me to retire, passing the shop to Matt as my last apprentice. And they want me to dismiss you shortly before I do so.”

“I ...” Adam found it hard to speak. “Master, I ...”

“You have progressed far, in your theoretical knowledge of magic,” Master Pittwater said. “You know more magical theory than many magicians twice your age. I let you read books and devise experiments, experiments you couldn’t even begin to carry out yourself. If you were graded solely on theoretical knowledge, you would score higher than Matt or most of the other apprentices. But you can’t perform a single spell. The only potions you can brew are the ones that can be brewed without magic. And so you simply cannot progress any further. I had hoped, when I recognised your talent, that we could use wands and suchlike to overcome your disability. I was wrong.”

He held up a hand before Adam could find words to say. “There is no way I can leave the shop to you, even though I feel you would take better care of it than Matt. The guild would never allow it. The best I could do would be to insist that Matt kept you as a shopboy, if not an apprentice, but the guild wouldn’t be very happy with that and would certainly pressure Matt into kicking you out once I passed the shop to him. They were not keen on me taking you as an apprentice in the first place and only my vast prestige as an alchemist kept the protests to a dull roar. Matt doesn’t even begin to have the same clout.”

Adam stared, too stunned to feel much of anything. Master Pittwater was retiring? He hadn’t noticed any problems with his master’s work, although - in hindsight - it was clear Master Pittwater had let Matt do more and more of the work. Neither Matt nor Adam had seen anything odd in it - masters worked their apprentices hard, before they gained their masteries - but ... normally, Master Pittwater brewed beside his apprentices. He hadn’t done that regularly for several weeks. And Adam hadn’t even noticed.

His mind raced. He’d started here as a shopboy, until he’d shown a certain understanding and insight that had prompted the old man to take him as a sort-of apprentice. He couldn’t go back. Matt would lord it over him - or, worse, make a point of not pointing it out. The idea of having to bow and scrape in front of a magician no older than himself was unpleasant, to say the least. Matt would be his master in every way ... he helplessly shook his head. Matt would want to take apprentices of his own, magical apprentices. He would have no time for Adam ... no, he’d want Adam gone. There was nothing Adam could offer Matt that he couldn’t get from a magical apprentice.

Shit, he thought, numbly.

He tried to think. What could he do? He’d spent his apprenticeship years in the apothecary. There was no shortage of basic jobs, for those willing to work, but none of them would lead to a proper career. He’d wanted to study steam engineering and craftsmanship ... he knew it was unlikely he’d get one of those apprenticeships. Not now. His first attempt to win a steam apprenticeship had failed and there’d be no second chance. The craftsmen had so many applicants that they could pick and choose as they wished. What could he do? He could read and write and yet ... he hated the idea of becoming a secretary or an accountant. The bankers might wear fancy clothes and look down on the people who used their services, but their lives were boring. And yet, what else could he do? He couldn’t go back to the family shop. His mother would take him back, he knew she would, but there wasn’t enough work for everyone. How could there be?

“I spoke to an old friend of mine,” Master Pittwater said. “He had a proposal for you, if you’re interested.”

Adam looked up. “Anything.”

“You may regret saying that,” Master Pittwater said. “Have you ever heard of Heart’s Eye?”

“Yes.” Adam forced himself to remember. “Lady Emily killed a necromancer and took possession of the old school, from what I recall ...”

“My alma mater,” Master Pittwater said. “Lady Emily has been turning the former school into a centre of learning. Not just magic, from what my friend said; she’s investing in studying pretty much everything, from farming techniques to gunsmithing and steam engineering. The university - or so she calls it - was formally opened last year and grew rapidly. My friend, Master Landis, tells me that it has already made remarkable progress.”

Adam nodded, slowly. He’d heard about Heart’s Eye. He’d even considered going, when a number of craftsmen and their apprentices packed up and headed east to the university. But he’d been too attached to Master Pittwater and his apprenticeship to go. In hindsight ... he wondered, suddenly, if that had been a mistake. He’d dared to hope the guild would at least grant him a provisional status if he proved himself an asset. The guild hadn’t been anything like so obliging. He supposed he was lucky they hadn’t told Master Pittwater to kick Adam out at once.

“Master Landis is in need of an assistant,” Master Pittwater said. “I discussed your case with him. He was quite interested and, at my request, he has agreed to take you on as both an assistant and an apprentice. Heart’s Eye has made it clear it will not be bound by the guild rules, even the ones upheld by the White Council, and you will have a chance to reach for the skies. Even if you don’t make it as a theoretical alchemist, you will have other options. The town near the school - university - is booming. You should have no trouble finding a place there.”

“I ...” Adam said nothing for a long moment. “Do you think he’ll give me a mastery?”

“Heart’s Eye has plans to grant degrees in theoretical magic,” Master Pittwater said. “I believe they will simply cut the theoretical parts out of the standard exam and present them to candidates separately, rather than expecting them to demonstrate skills in magic. I think you would qualify, on those grounds. Precisely how far you could get without magic would be an open question, but it would certainly open more doors for you if you had a degree. You might even be able to turn it into a career.”

Adam nodded. There were a handful of theoretical magicians who managed to make a good living, although they were very rare. They tended to be closely linked to magical families and aristocrats, people rich enough to sponsor their education in exchange for first call on their services. Adam had hoped someone would notice him and make the offer, back when he’d been younger, but experience had taught him it was unlikely. Master Pittwater might be a big fish in Beneficence, yet the city was a very small pond compared to the Allied Lands ...

A chill ran through him as it dawned on him he’d be going far - far - from home. He’d never been more than a few miles outside the city in his entire life and that had been on a fishing boat when he’d been a child. He hadn’t so much as walked across the bridge into Zangaria, let alone ridden Vesperian’s Folly into the Barony of Cockatrice. He wasn’t even sure where Heart’s Eye was, relative to Beneficence. How was he even supposed to get there? He didn’t have the money to buy a horse, or hire a boat, or whatever. It might as well be on the far side of the moon.

He swallowed, hard. “How long do I have to decide?”

“Master Landis would probably like an answer by the end of the week,” Master Pittwater said. “I don’t know if he has other candidates, but he probably does.”

Unless he has a terrible reputation, Adam added, silently. There were masters who abused their apprentices, beating them until they bled or worse. The magical community might not be able to punish him - masters had near-parental authority over their apprentices - but it was possible his past apprentices had talked. Or broken the apprenticeships. That was so rare that the community couldn’t help but take notice. If he can’t get a magician as an apprentice, he might be satisfied with me.

“I’ll talk to my family about it,” Adam said, carefully. He’d go to the guildhall first and look up Master Landis. The Alchemists Guild kept very good records. There wouldn’t be anything overtly bad written into the files, but Adam knew what to look for. It would be a terrible sign if Master Landis had a high turnover of apprentices. “How would I even get to Heart’s Eye?”

“You’d take the railway to Cockatrice, then step through a portal to Farrakhan,” Master Pittwater said. “There’s another railway there that’ll take you all the way to Heart’s Eye. I ... I think, from what I was told, the university insists on everyone making the railway journey the first time they make their way there. It may be something to do with their protective spells. The university has enemies. Something happened there last year, although I don’t know what. All the reports have been contradictory, if not downright insane.”

Adam shook his head. “I can’t pay for it.”

“I’ll pay,” Master Pittwater said. “Consider it a gift.”

Adam flushed. “Master, I ...”

“You have been a good student,” Master Pittwater said. “You studied hard. You prepared ingredients more or less perfectly, to the point that your wastage was considerably less than many of my other students. You have been obedient and sensible and, while you did make mistakes, you never repeated them. If you had magic, I think there would have been a fair chance you could have taken your exams and earned your mastery by now. If it was up to me, the guild would take you on as a theoretical magician and let you pay for your studies by assisting in brewing. I even suggested as much. But the guild said no.

“I hoped I could change their minds. Back when I was younger, they listened when I spoke. They knew I was a skilled and capable brewer, an alchemist who made a number of discoveries and laid the groundwork for several more. Now” - he shook his head - “I’m an old man and they don’t listen any longer.”

Adam felt a sudden flash of alarm. “Master, are you dying?”

Master Pittwater snorted. “We must face facts. I’m nearly a hundred years old. The rejuvenation potions are no longer working quite so well, to the point I am starting to run the risk of poisoning myself if I try to retard my ageing any further. Old as I am, my life may be coming to an end even if I avoid a mistake that kills me. There is a very good chance I won’t live to see a full century.”

He glared at his hands. “The guild insists I make preparations for my death and legacy now, before I die on them. And they have a point. If I give the shop to Matt now, there won’t be any dispute over who owns it - and the rest of my property - when I die. The last thing the guild needs is a dozen claimants crawling out of the woodwork, demanding the guild gives them the shop instead.”

Master Pittwater met Adam’s eyes. “I can’t do much for you, not now. If I’d met you in my prime I might have been able to convince them, but ... I didn’t. I can’t leave you the shop or anything, really. The guild will claim anything I don’t pass down to Matt specifically. Let me pay for your travel and give you some spending money. It will be much less than you deserve.”

Adam felt hollow inside. He’d grown up in a culture where gifts brought obligations in their wake. To accept the money was to accept an obligation to the older man in return. It didn’t sit well with him that there might be no way to repay the debt, no matter what Master Pittwater said. The old man might die before Adam was in any position to repay him. And yet ... he tried not to think about what might happen if he didn’t take the money and go. At best, he’d be lucky if he stayed a shopboy the rest of his life. At worst ... he might never find stable employment within the city. His skills were of strictly limited value outside an apothecary’s shop.

And the guild might even try to confiscate the books I bought with my own money, he thought, numbly. A wave of anger shot through him. It wasn’t as if he’d stolen the books. He’d bought some in the bookshop just down the street and others through a mail order catalogue issued by a publisher in the White City. They hadn’t cared enough to ask who was buying their wares. The bastards might take everything I own on the grounds it came from Master Pittwater and his shop.

He let out a breath. “I ... thank you for the offer,” he said. “I think I’d like to accept.”

Master Pittwater raised his eyebrows. “I thought you wanted to consult with your family first?”

“I do,” Adam said. He had to give them the bad news. No steady job, no wife; no wife, no children; no children, no hope of a legacy that lasted beyond his death. Or anything, really. “But ... where else can I go?”

“I’ll speak to Master Landis tomorrow afternoon and tell him you accept,” Master Pittwater said. “Take the rest of the day and tomorrow off, but spend some time thinking about it. If you change your mind, come find me before noon. If not ... I’ll make the arrangements for you to leave as soon as possible. I want to make sure you get settled there before I finally go to the next world.”

Adam shivered. Master Pittwater was talking as if he expected to die within a day or two, not a few years. Adam wanted to ask the master if he knew something he didn’t want to share with his apprentices, but Adam knew better than to pry. The master’s private business was the master’s private business and trying to pry was a good way to lose the apprenticeship. And yet ...

“Good luck.” Master Pittwater passed him a handful of papers, then gestured to the door. “The party is still going on outside. Join the crowd. Have some fun. And just think about the offer.”

“I will,” Adam promised. He wanted to tell the old man how much he appreciated it, but he couldn’t find the words. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Master Pittwater said. “Work for Landis as well as you have worked for me, and he’ll have no complaints.”
chris
Posts: 16
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: The Cunning Man Novel - Sample

Post by chris »

Chapter Three

Adam half-expected to have his path blocked, when he walked into the guildhall, but neither the visible guards - a display of the guild’s wealth, power and importance to the city - nor the wards made any attempt to stop him as he strode into the library and started digging through the files. The Alchemist’s Guild of Beneficence was both an independent entity in its own right and yet, somehow, part of a much larger organisation that spanned the entire Allied Lands. Adam had a private suspicion the structure was designed to confuse outsider observers, although he didn’t know for sure. Magicians tended to have a far more global outlook than mundanes, if only because they could travel from place to place in the blink of an eye. It was a great deal easier for them to pick up sticks and migrate somewhere else if they wanted to go.

The files were, as always, strikingly extensive. Adam worked his way through them until he found a listing for Master Landis of Heart’s Eye. The alchemist had apparently studied at Heart’s Eye a decade before the school fell to the necromancers, gaining his mastery after an unusually long apprenticeship. Adam’s eyes narrowed. That was odd - and a little worrying. Why had he taken so long? He marked the question for later consideration and read on, cursing the magical community’s reluctance to gather more data under his breath. It would have been nice to have all the answers at his fingertips. Master Landis had apparently taken three apprentices in the last twenty years, a surprisingly small number, but there was no suggestion the apprenticeships had been terminated or abandoned ahead of time. His former students had gone on to have successful careers. Adam felt a twinge of envy. Matt and his peers didn’t know how lucky they were.

He frowned as he checked the rest of the file. Master Landis didn’t seem to be particularly involved in politics. There were no suggestions he’d served on any guild councils. He might not even be a listed guildsman. It wasn’t impossible, although it was rare. He’d published a handful of papers in academic journals, from the listings, suggesting he spent most of his time researching magic. Adam wondered why he hadn’t moved somewhere well away from anyone else. His last listed address was in Celeste. The file was clearly outdated, Adam noted, as he checked the date. It had last been updated two years ago. At the time, apparently, Master Landis hadn’t had an apprentice.

And he’s willing to take me, Adam thought. Why?

The thought nagged at his mind as he tugged his notebook out of his pocket and started to copy out the details. He had no illusions about his limits, even before Master Pittwater had spelled them out for him. No magician would take him as an apprentice if they could get an apprentice with actual magic. And that meant ... what? It was possible Master Landis was doing Master Pittwater a favour, but ... why? How did they even know each other? They’d gone to the same school, true, but there’d been decades between them. Perhaps it was just the Old Boy’s Network rearing its ugly head. The refugees from Heart’s Eye had formed a large and influential pressure group, demanding the Allied Lands commit everything they had to liberating Heart’s Eye from Dua Kepala. It must gall them, Adam reflected with a flicker of dark amusement, that Lady Emily had been the one to free the school. They must consider her little better than the necromancer she’d killed.

Ungrateful bastards, he thought. At least they have access to the school buildings once again.

He smiled, then stood and returned the files to the shelf before making his way back onto the streets. The guildhall was nearly empty, but there was no point in pushing his luck. The guildmasters might order him to leave - or worse - if they caught him inside the building, even if he did have a perfect right to enter the public sections of the hall. He felt his heart twist as he caught sight of a pair of young women in apprentice robes, giggling together as they ascended the staircase. Did they even know how lucky they were? He shook his head as he hurried onwards. The street party was still going on. He was almost tempted to forget his woes, pick up a tankard of beer and join them. But he knew he couldn’t.

The streets grew quieter as he made his way back to the merchant quarter. There were more guardsmen on the street, fingering their clubs nervously as they watched the crowd. It hadn’t been that long since rioting had nearly destroyed the city and the council was clearly taking no chances. Adam did his best to avoid being noticed. Beneficence’s City Guard was better than most, from what he’d been told, but they still took bribes and harassed everyone who refused to pay. Being a magical apprentice might protect him or it might not. It wasn’t as if he could really zap them into frogs if they looked at him funny.

He tried not to feel bitter as the shop loomed in front of him. His mother had made him work as a shopboy as soon as he’d been old enough to do the sums in his head, pointing out that the family simply didn’t have the money - or inclination - to hire outsiders. It was traditional for fisherwomen to run the shops and yet ... he wondered, suddenly, if he was a double failure. He’d never gone to sea as a fisherman and now he was no longer an apprentice. His father, may he rest in peace, would be unamused. His youngest son hadn’t lived up to his responsibilities. And yet ...

Adam pushed the door open, schooling his face into a blank mask. He’d never wanted to be a fisherman or a shopboy or any of the other traditional jobs. His father had died at sea. His mother had practically worked herself to death to make the shop work and he knew - they all knew - that the family was barely keeping itself above the waterline. His siblings ... there were just too many of them. Adam knew his mother had only let him go to the apprenticeship because otherwise she’d have to feed him herself. And he’d effectively lost the apprenticeship overnight.

Finnie, his oldest sister, stood behind the solid wooden counter, cradling a heavy blunderbuss in her hands. “Adam,” she said. “You’re back early.”

“I have to speak to mum,” Adam said. He wasn’t surprised Finnie hadn’t joined the party on the streets. She had always been a responsible girl. She’d even turned down a handful of suitors because they’d been reluctant to let her keep working. “Is she upstairs?”

“Yep,” Finnie said. “I hope it isn’t bad news.”

Adam shrugged and walked into the backroom before his sister could ask any more questions. She’d been his babysitter when he’d been a toddler - his mother had been working in the shop - and she’d been incredibly bossy. Adam understood, now, just how she’d felt, but he still resented her trying to tell him what to do. Finnie still seemed to think he was a little boy. He sometimes wondered if she hadn’t realised he hadn’t been a toddler for nearly two decades.

His mother was sitting in the backroom, using a needle and thread to repair a shapeless garment. Adam winced inwardly, remembering the sheer number of times his clothes had been patched up before finally being declared beyond repair and turned into rags. He’d never realised just how poor the family was until he’d started to work for Master Pittwater. It was far from uncommon for clothes to be passed down from wearer to wearer in the poorer parts of the world, but magicians laughed at the thought. They bought all their outfits new.

“Adam.” His mother squinted at the garment. Her eyesight had been getting worse recently and there was no way in hell they could afford treatment. It was just a matter of time, he feared, until she went completely blind and then ... who knew what would happen then? “You’re not dancing in the streets?”

“No, mum,” Adam said. “I just got back from the shop.”

His mother shot him a sharp look. She might have agreed to let him be an apprentice, but she’d had her doubts. Adam understood. He could have put on airs and graces and generally acted as if he’d been magically transformed into an aristocrat. He’d seen a handful of women who’d married well suddenly start acting as though their former friends were beneath them ... he’d told himself it wasn’t the same, but it wasn’t that different either. Matt certainly acted as if everything he touched turned to gold. If Adam had had enough magic to do it ...

She put the garment to one side. “What happened?”

Adam took a breath and started to explain, bracing himself for the torrent of questions he knew would follow when he’d finished the explanation. He’d often thought his mother would have made a great interrogator. She didn’t need torture to make someone talk. She could pick up on the slightest discrepancy and use it to unravel the whole story, piece by piece. Adam still scowled when he remembered how she’d forced him to confess how he’d made out with a girl from down the street. The lecture she’d given him about the danger of getting someone pregnant out of wedlock had been worse than the beating. She’d been so angry that he’d wondered, despite himself, if she’d had to get married in a hurry herself. It was far from uncommon.

“I see,” his mother said. “How do you intend to support yourself?”

“The apprenticeship offer comes with bed and board,” Adam said. He didn’t want to mention Master Pittwater’s offer of spending money. His mother would force him to refuse it. “I have enough saved to live there for a few weeks, if the apprenticeship falls through.”

“If.” His mother said nothing for a long moment. “And what if you’re wrong?”

Adam hesitated, then met her eyes. “Do I have a choice?”

“I should have marched you down to the boats and forced you to sign on as a fisherman,” his mother said, more to herself than to him. “It would have given you a chance to climb the ladder until you had a boat of your own.”

“I’m too old, now,” Adam said. It was true. Fisherman normally started when they were children and climbed up from there. If his father had lived, Adam and his brothers would have gone to sea with him almost as soon as they could walk. “And there aren’t many places that’ll take me on as an apprentice.”

His lips twitched. “Would you like me to go work in City Hall?”

“Bite your tongue,” his mother snapped. “The day a son of mine works as a thief ...”

Adam hid his amusement with an effort. His mother regarded taxmen as nothing more than bare-faced thieves, fools who knew nothing about the businesses and families they were trying to tax. They thought shopkeepers were practically swimming in gold, to the point they’d think nothing of paying thousands of crowns in tax. Adam knew better. The shop brought in so little they could barely afford to pay their suppliers. And his mother worked hard to hide what profits she could from the prying eyes and ears of the taxmen. He didn’t blame her. The bastards took everything they could and gave back nothing.

“I don’t have many options,” Adam said. “I’m too educated for most jobs. I might be able to get work as a labourer, but that won’t earn enough to keep me alive. The only options outside the apothecary are accountancy, scribing and tax collecting and none of them are particularly good positions ...”

“There are some people down the street who’d probably thank you for doing their taxes for them,” his mother said. “They made the mistake of keeping paper records.”

“And then someone will put a knife in me,” Adam reminded her. “You remember the tax collector who waltzed into the Lower Depths. They chopped his body to pieces and some of the bits were never found.”

His mother grimaced. “I don’t want to see you go so far,” she said. “But if you want to go you have my blessing.”

Adam hesitated. He’d read the papers he’d been given. Heart’s Eye sounded fascinating, the sort of place - he admitted, at least to himself - he wanted to live. And yet, he was all too aware how easy it was for someone to paint a rosy picture that might bear little resemblance to reality. He wanted to spend more time reading around the newborn university, but ... events were moving so quickly that the news might be outdated even before it reached Beneficence. The city was thousands of miles from Heart’s Eye. Even with portals and railways, it was a long way away.

“Thank you,” he said, finally. “I’ll do my best to stay in touch.”

“Only if you can afford it,” his mother said, firmly. “How much does it cost to send letters from there to here?”

“I don’t know.” Adam frowned. The international postal service was supposed to be cheap, but only by magical and aristocratic standards. For him, it would be expensive to send so much as a single sheet of paper. “I’ll have to look into it.”

“See that you do,” his mother said. She tilted her head as she considered the question. “There may be other ways to get messages from there to here. People going back and forth, or suchlike.”

“I’ll look into that too,” Adam said. He had his doubts, but it was worth checking. “I wish ...”

He shook his head. It wasn’t his mother’s fault that her husband had died at sea. It wasn’t her fault that none of her children had any talent for magic. It wasn’t her fault that she’d been forced to put them to work at a very early age. It wasn’t her fault ... he told himself, firmly, that he’d been very lucky. There were families that had sold their children into service - de facto slavery - or prostitution to pay the bills. His mother had worked hard and honestly, save for a limited amount of tax evasion, but she’d never crossed the line. Better they went hungry, she’d said, than sell themselves. He understood, now, that she’d been right.

“We’ll cook something nice for your last day,” his mother assured him. “And then ... we’ll wait for your letters.”

Adam nodded as he stood and headed to the bedroom he shared with his brother. It was cramped, so cramped that Greg and he had bumped into each other constantly as they’d grown into manhood, but there’d been no choice. The house was too small for them to have separate rooms and the idea of sharing with their sisters was appalling. He wondered, idly, how his sisters coped sharing with their mother. They had even less privacy than their brothers ... not, he supposed, that it mattered. There was no hope of getting separate rooms ... he rolled his eyes in disgust.

And to think Matt had made a terrible fuss about the garret over the shop, he thought, crossly. I wouldn’t have complained. The room might be cramped, but it would be mine.

He put the thought out of his head as he stepped into the bedroom. Greg was out, probably partying with the rest of them. He sat on the stuffed mattress - they couldn’t afford proper beds - and silently assessed his collection of clothes and books. It wasn’t much, he reflected, but he’d never been able to afford all the books he’d wanted to buy. He sighed, feeling oddly unsure of himself, as he collected a handful of clothes and put the rest aside for his brother or cousins. The family couldn’t afford to leave them lying around, gathering dust. They’d serve the family better by going to someone who needed them.

We owe it to our family to do what we can for them, his mother had said years ago, when he’d protested losing a stuffed toy to a younger cousin. It had hurt, even though he’d already outgrown the tatty teddy bear. And they in turn do what they can for us.

He shook his head sourly as he packed his clothes into a bag, then added books. The cheap novels his sisters loved had never really interested him - it hadn’t taken him long to realise the stories were little better than fantasies - but he wanted to catch up on his theoretical studies while riding the railway. And then ... he felt a thrill of excitement, mingled with fear. He was going to be travelling a long, long, way from Beneficence. He was going to go where no member of his family had gone before. He would be so far from everyone he knew that there would be no hope of help, if he ran into trouble. His family might never hear from him again. He was tempted, very tempted, to go back to the shop and decline the offer. It would be safer to stay where he was.

And that would mean giving up all hope of a brighter future, he told himself. There was nothing wrong with being a fisherman or a shopkeeper or even an accountant, but it wasn’t the life he wanted. He wanted to do something important, something significant, something that might change the world. And Heart’s Eye was the only hope of doing something that might be remembered after he was gone. I have to take the chance.
Chapter Four

“I trust you’ll do a good job,” Master Pittwater said, as the locomotive began to puff steam into the air. “And that you’ll remember everything I taught you.”

Adam nodded. It had been an odd few days. His duties at the shop had shrunk to almost nothing, Master Pittwater leaving the shop in Matt’s capable hands while he detailed everything he remembered about the old school and lectured Adam how to behave in the new university. Matt’s own advice had been practically useless, although Adam had to admit it would have been a great deal more useful if he’d had magic of his own. The idea of playing pranks on his fellow students might not have been so appalling if he’d actually been able to put them into practice.

“I’ll do my best, sir,” he said. He wasn’t an apprentice any longer, at least not until he reached Heart’s Eye. “And thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”

He sighed, inwardly, as he hefted his bag. His mother and siblings had held a dinner for him - they’d treated it as if they expected never to see him again - but they’d declined to come to the station to see him off. He wasn’t sure what to make of it. Perhaps coming and watching him board the train would have been a little too final. His mother didn’t like trains - she regarded the railway as new-fangled nonsense and had flatly refused to invest in Vesperian’s Folly - but his siblings were a little more adventurous. He told himself it didn’t matter as the whistle blew loudly. He’d said all his goodbyes when he’d left the house for the final time.

“Here.” Master Pittwater passed him a small bag. “Take this with you, open it when you’re there. And don’t lose your tickets or all hell will break loose.”

Adam took the bag automatically as the whistle blew again. The guards started slamming doors shut. He hurried to the door and clambered into the carriage, a moment before it was slammed closed behind him. The railway carriage stank of rotten cabbage, oil and something he couldn’t place, but he still felt excited as he sat on a bench and waved to the people on the platform. The whistle blew one final time, a moment before the train lurched into life and glided out of the station. The passengers started chattering excitedly, pointing out landmarks as they passed through the city. Adam was torn between excitement and a strange sense he was doing something wrong, something unnatural. The train wasn’t magic. Anyone could build a steam locomotive. And yet, there was something weird about it.

He put the thought out of his mind as he stared through the warded window and peered over the city. The train was picking up speed, puffs of smoke flashing past the carriage as it headed towards the bridges. Adam had walked along the cliffs before - it was a good place to bring girls, where they’d have some privacy but not too much - but he’d never seen them from a carriage. The people standing beside the lines were a blur. He wondered, idly, how many of them were train spotters and how many of them were using train spotting as an excuse to spend time with their girls. It wouldn’t be the first time everyone had pretended to believe such a ridiculous excuse. People would happily pretend to believe anything, as long as the formalities were observed.

The train slipped onto the bridge. The transition was so sudden that Adam nearly felt his heart stop as he stared down at the churning waters. He knew a handful of young men who’d taken small boats down the rapids in demented bids to prove their masculinity, but he’d never dared try it himself. Half the teenagers he’d watched set out had vanished, their bodies presumably washed out to sea and lost forever. And yet, teenagers still tried to do it every so often, even though it was officially banned. Adam sucked in his breath as the train reached the far side of the river and kept going. They were in Zangaria now. He was almost disappointed. It didn’t look like an alien land.

He smiled as the train picked up speed, gliding past fields and roads while dropping, from time to time, into tunnels cut into mountains. The fields looked healthy, the farmers looked happy ... he reminded himself that Cockatrice had been spared the worst of the Zangarian Civil War. Lady Emily had been well on her way to turning the barony into the kingdom’s breadbasket even before the civil war had ruined her competitors. Adam took heart as he spotted the neat little houses, so much better than the shacks and hovels he’d seen in the Lower Depths. If Lady Emily could turn a barony into a wonderland, who knew what she could do with a school?

The train kept going. Adam leaned back on the bench, resting his head against the wooden bulkhead. The motion was oddly hypnotic. He hadn’t been awake for long and yet he already felt sleepy. He bit his lip as he dug into his bag for a book, pushing aside the sandwiches his mother had made before they’d said their final goodbyes. The trip wasn’t supposed to take that long, he’d been assured, but his mother had insisted on packing him a lunch anyway. He told himself to be grateful. The trains rarely ran on time. It was quite possible he’d be delayed ...

He opened the book and started to read, losing himself in magical theory to the point he almost didn’t notice when the train started to slow again. The whistle blew, once again, as the train swept into the city, passing row upon row of brick factories, apartment blocks and houses clearly intended for merchants and magicians. Beneficence was cramped, the entire city perched on an island that could be crossed in less than an hour; Cockatrice City was huge and sprawling, spread out over miles and growing constantly as it sucked up more and more outlying villages. It looked as if the city would just keep growing until it swallowed the entire kingdom, although he was sure someone would do something to stop the expansion before it could get that far. The train slowed, then rattled to a halt as it swept into the station. Adam felt cramped as he stood, picked up his bag and joined the other passengers as they hurried out of the carriage. The station stank of smoke and oil, but he had to admit it was impressive. It looked as if one could get anywhere on the railway.

But you can’t, Adam reminded himself, as he followed the signs to the portals outside. I have to take a portal to get the rest of the way.

He kept a hand on his money pouch as the crowd flowed towards the portals. The streets outside were chaotic, guards and station officials trying to direct the crowd and not really succeeding. The people on the streets looked ... happy. He frowned as he spotted dozens of men and women wearing fancy clothes, too many to be upper-class ... surely. Back home, anyone who dared wear such clothes without being in the right social class would be lucky if they were only told to go home and change. Here, it seemed almost common. Adam was tempted to just walk into the city, to try and find work in Cockatrice. There were billboards everywhere, advertising jobs from the basic to the complex. But Master Pittwater had gone out on a limb for him, when he’d been pushed into taking his retirement. Adam couldn’t betray the old man by walking away, not now.

The portals stood in a field, surrounded by wooden railings and black-clad magicians. A shiver ran down his spine as he stared at the portals - sheets of white light, just hanging in the air - then held out his ticket for inspection. The magician manning the gates glanced at it, looked Adam up and down, then pointed to one of the portals. A long line of people were making their way through, stepping through the light and simply winking out of existence. Adam had seen magic before, hundreds of times, but the portal was something new. He couldn’t help wondering, as he joined the line and walked down to the light, why they didn’t set the portals up in Beneficence. It wasn’t as if it would be difficult.

They could just set them up in the magical quarter, he thought. And then charge anyone who wanted to use them.

The air tingled faintly as he stepped towards the portal. The light seemed to ripple unnaturally, as if it were water rather than light. He nearly stopped dead as it dawned on him that he was about to step into a maelstrom of raw magic. He knew enough theory to be aware of just what would happen, if the spellwork was even the slightest bit out of sync. And yet ... he forced himself to take the final step. His skin crawled, but ... he wasn’t sure if it was real or just his imagination. The world twisted around him and ...

... Adam recoiled as a gust of heat struck him in the face. He thought, for a terrified moment, that he’d actually walked straight into a blast furnace. The papers had made it clear that Heart’s Eye was in a desert, but ... he’d never really considered what that meant. Beneficence was always cool, even on the brightest days. The air blowing in from the sea made sure the temperature never grew stifling, at least on the streets. Here ... he felt sweat starting to prickle on his back. His clothes, so light by Beneficence’s standards, were suddenly hot and heavy. It felt as if he’d made a mistake.

“Get a move on,” a guard shouted. “You’re blocking the portal!”

Adam forced himself to walk forward, even as he looked around. The portal was just outside a railway station, a station that seemed to be considerably smaller than the one in Beneficence. On the far side, he saw a fence blocking access, funnelling the crowd through a series of checkpoints before they could get into the city itself. He couldn’t help noticing that most of the travellers from Beneficence and Zangaria were heading straight for the station, rather than Farrakhan. He suspected they were going to Heart’s Eye. His clothes felt heavier and heavier as he passed the guards, showing them his ticket as he headed to the platform. It was crowded beyond words. He wondered, suddenly, how many people were pushed onto the railway track.

He tried not to think about it as he waited. His throat felt dry. He looked at the locals and frowned as he realised they wore long flowing garments that covered them from head to toe, the men wearing caps and the women hiding their hair behind scarves that reminded him of something he’d read in one of Master Pittwater’s older books. They seemed much better dressed for the heat than most of the newcomers. He wasn’t the only one who seemed to be drenched in his own sweat. A pair of salesmen were making their way up and down the platform, offering water to anyone willing to pay. Adam would have been tempted, if he hadn’t known the dangers all too well. They weren’t bothering to clean the cups before passing them to the next drinker.

A thrill of anticipation ran through the crowd as the train slowly came into view, puffing towards them. Adam braced himself, watching with awe as the locomotive slid through the station and came to a halt on the far side. The station guards shouted orders, clearing a path through the crowd for the passengers to disembark before the carriages could be loaded again. Adam frowned as he studied the locomotive, her crew unhooking her from the carriage and guiding her towards a loop in the track. It was hard to be sure, but she looked more primitive than the locomotives in Beneficence. It puzzled him. Heart’s Eye was supposed to be a centre of innovation. Why didn’t they have the very latest models?

The crowd surged forward. Adam kept a tight hold of his bag as he was pushed towards and into the nearest carriage. It filled so rapidly that he could barely move, bodies crammed in so tightly he was uneasily aware he was pushed up against another man. The train whistled loudly moments later, the guards shouting more orders to force the unlucky passengers to wait for the next train. Adam almost wished he’d stayed on the platform himself. It wasn’t going to be a pleasant trip. The train lurched again, then slid into motion. This time, the banging and crashing was so loud he honestly wondered if their train had collided with another. It wasn’t impossible. There were no shortage of horror stories about accidents on railway lines. Some were even true.

He managed to catch a glimpse through the window as the train picked up speed. The city struck him as ugly, with more in common with Beneficence than Cockatrice. The walls marked a clear line between the city and the surrounding countryside, rather like the island city. He studied the landscape as the train kept moving, watching as fields slowly gave way to desert. The train rocked back and forth, the motion threatening to make him sick. It took all the determination he could muster to keep from throwing up. The noise - and the smell from further down the carriage - told him someone else hadn’t been so lucky. It sounded as if there would have been a fight, if there had been enough room to throw a punch or a kick ...

It felt like hours, hours upon hours, before the train finally started to slow once again. The passengers had shifted, blocking his view, but he could hear someone talking about Heart’s Ease, the town closest to Heart’s Eye. His body ached uncomfortably as the train came to a halt, the doors slamming open so loudly he thought someone was letting off fireworks outside the train. The passengers didn’t so much flow as fall out, the pressure on him slowly easing as more and more passengers clambered out until he could make it out himself. He yawned helplessly ... it hadn’t been that long, had it, since he’d left Beneficence? He didn’t think so and yet ... his head pounded as he heard someone calling for passengers who wanted to go straight to the university. It was all he could do to stumble towards the source of the sound. A pair of men in simple white uniforms were ticking names off a list. Adam gave his and joined the line. The air was, thankfully, cooler inside the station.

“We’ll be walking straight up to the university,” the leader said. “Follow me.”

Adam’s headache grew worse as he followed the men into the bright sunlight and up a stony road that had clearly seen better days. The air was hot and dry, stinking of coal and too many humans in too close of a proximity; the heat grew rapidly, until he could feel sweat running down his back and pooling in his boots. He made a mental note to buy more appropriate clothes as soon as possible, even if it meant going hungry. There was just no way he could look around, even as the university came into view. His head was just too sore.

“Heart’s Eye,” one of the men said. “Your new home.”

Adam forced himself to look, despite the growing pain. The university looked like a fancy castle right out of a children’s tale, the sort of building one might design if one didn’t have to worry about the towers collapsing under their own weight. Adam felt another flicker of envy - he was too sore to feel more - as he thought about the magicians who’d had enough magic to turn their dreams into reality. Vesperian had been the richest man in Beneficence, at least until his schemes had come crashing down, yet even he had never managed to build something so wonderful. Adam didn’t know much about magical construction, but he was sure there had to be hundreds of spells woven through the sandstone. Nothing less would suffice.

They stepped through the door and into the entrance hall. The temperature dropped rapidly. Adam breathed a sigh of relief, thanking all the gods that the building was spelled against heat. It would be impossible, otherwise. He heard someone calling his name and looked up, his head spinning as he saw a girl with snakes for hair. For a moment, he honestly thought he was hallucinating. He’d heard tales of Gorgons, but he’d never seen one. They generally kept to themselves. What was one doing here?

It was hard to look at her face. “I ... that’s me.”

“Travel sick?” The Gorgon’s voice was reassuringly normal. “Come with me. I’ll take you to your room.”

Adam nodded and stumbled after her as she led him through a maze of stairways and corridors. The stories insisted magical schools were bigger on the inside and he was starting to think they were right. His head didn’t get any better as they reached an open door, revealing a bedroom and a tiny washroom. A jug of water and a pair of glasses sat on a bedside table. Adam was too dazed to realise he was being given more space, and privacy, than he’d had in his entire life.

“Get some rest,” the Gorgon advised. “Let your body get used to being here. Your partner will meet you in the morning.”

“My ...?” Adam swallowed, hard. “I thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” the Gorgon said. “Like I said, get some rest. You’ll feel better in the morning.”

Adam could not help but obey.
chris
Posts: 16
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: The Cunning Man Novel - Sample

Post by chris »

Chapter Five

Adam awoke, suddenly.

He wasn’t sure, at first, where he was. His body ached. He hadn’t felt so feverish since he’d caught something nasty as a child, so long ago he’d buried them. Master Pittwater had warned him about Portal Lag, cautioned him that travelling so far in a single day had unfortunate side effects, but he hadn’t really believed the older man. It had seemed like something the magicians might tell mundanes, to keep them from using the portals to their fullest potential. He knew, now, the old man hadn’t been exaggerating. His head was pounding ...

No. Someone was knocking on the door.

Adam forced himself to stand. The light crystals embedded in the ceiling grew brighter as he clambered out of bed, his body protesting with every step. His stomach rumbled, reminding him he hadn’t eaten for hours. The sandwiches his mother had packed were still in the bag, lying by the foot of the bed. He hoped they were still good - and safe - to eat. The cheese was supposed to last for weeks, as long as you kept it cool, but he’d spent most of the previous day in a suffocating hot environment. It might be safer to throw out the sandwiches before he could give into the temptation to eat them.

He stumbled to the door and opened it, blinking with surprise at the sight that greeted him. A young woman - she couldn’t be any older than he was - stood on the far side, hands resting on her hips. Adam stared at her. She was tall and redheaded, wearing a bright green dress that was cut open to reveal the tops of her breasts ... Adam forced himself to look away before she took offense. A young woman who wore that was almost certainly a magician, capable of hexing or cursing anyone who stared at her too long. He’d heard all the stories, stories magicians considered hilarious and mundanes thought horrible beyond words. One moment, you were staring at a girl; the next, you were a frog or a slug or something even worse. He forced himself to look the girl in the eyes. It was the safest place.

“Well,” said the girl. “It’s about time.”

Adam blinked at her, confused. She sounded like a magical aristocrat, a type he’d rarely seen in Beneficence. Her skin was unblemished by life, creamy and soft as if she’d stepped out of another world, yet her pretty lips were twisted in a sneer. His heart sank as he looked at her. She was beautiful and yet she was studying him as if he was something she’d scraped off her shoe. Her eyes narrowed in contempt.

“I trust you are ready to attend upon us?” Her voice suggested she doubted it. “Or have you spent the morning lollygagging in bed?”

She looked past Adam, as if she expected he wasn’t alone. Adam felt his temper flare. He didn’t know who she was, but ... he didn’t like her, he didn’t like anyone, talking to him like that. He was a free citizen of Beneficence, not a serf or a slave or a runaway peasant. He might be an apprentice, but even apprentices had rights. They didn’t include having to take such ... disdain ... from someone who was clearly as immature as someone half her age.

Adam found his voice. “Who are you?”

The girl looked at him as if he’d said something stupid. “Lilith,” she said. “Don’t you know me?”

“No.” Adam shook his head in bemusement. “I’ve only just arrived.”

A shadow crossed Lilith’s face, gone so quickly Adam wondered if he’d imagined it. “I am” - she paused, as if she was rethinking her next words - “I am Master Landis’s apprentice. And I have to take you to the lab.”

Her eyes walked up and down his body. “And you’re not even appropriately dressed!”

Adam felt his cheeks heat. “I arrived last night,” he said. His body was insisting - loudly - that it was the middle of the night. “You woke me up.”

Lilith sneered. “That won’t do at all,” she said. “Get dressed in lab robes and meet me there in ten minutes ...”

“I don’t even know where it is,” Adam protested. “I can’t ...”

“Of course not,” Lilith said, more to herself than to him. “That would be clever.”

She stepped backwards and crossed her arms over her breasts. “Get dressed,” she ordered. “I’ll wait outside. Hurry.”

Adam took a perverse delight in closing the door in her face, although he doubted the flimsy wood would slow her down for a moment if she decided she wanted to get inside. Lilith had to be a magician. Her attitude, snobbish even by magical standards, proved it. Someone would have given her an attitude adjustment by now, if she wasn’t powerful enough to defend herself. Adam wondered, as he turned back to the bed, if she showed that attitude to Master Landis. It would be a rare master who’d put up with it. Master Pittwater had thrashed Matt for talking back to him and Matt, compared to Lilith, was a paragon of politeness and simple human decency.

He dug through the bag and pulled out the apprenticeship robes, then the letters of introduction Master Pittwater had provided for the university staff. His fingers lingered on the books, but he decided to leave them behind for the moment. Master Landis was unlikely to want to see them. He glanced at the washroom shower, feeling unpleasantly grimy, but there was no time to do more than splash water on his face and hands. Lilith was probably already considering blowing down the door, then frogmarching him to her master. His heart sank even further. The files he’d seen hadn’t suggested Master Landis already had an apprentice, but ...

And she’s a girl, Adam thought, suddenly. It was rare for a male magician to take a female apprentice. The only exception that came to mind was Lady Emily’s apprenticeship with the Sorcerer Void and he was her father. Why did he take a female apprentice?

He put the thought aside - he didn’t dare ask - then pushed open the door. Lilith looked him up and down, her eyes narrowing in disdain. Adam fought the urge to step back and close the door once again. He knew he wasn’t exactly the most handsome person in the world - and he was a far cry from the absurd statues of unrealistic men in even more unrealistic poses - but he wasn’t ugly either. And yet ...

“You’re not an apprentice,” Lilith said. “You shouldn’t be wearing those robes.”

“I came here for an apprenticeship,” Adam countered. He could tell she was trying to get on his nerves, perhaps provoke him into doing something that would give her an excuse to slap him down. It didn’t make her attitude any easier to take. “Shouldn’t I be dressed for the part?”

“You’re not a real apprentice,” Lilith snapped. She held up her palm. A spark of light danced over her skin. It was a trick magicians often used to identify themselves. Adam tried not to wince as he looked at the reminder he would never be a magician. “All you’re good for is preparing the ingredients. Menial work.”

She turned and marched down the corridor, then stopped. “Did you even think to have something to eat?”

Adam felt his stomach growl. “No,” he said. He was used to hunger - his family had often gone hungry, in the days since his father’s death - but he wanted to irritate her. Just a little. “Is there something to eat?”

Lilith snorted and turned to walk down a staircase. “Follow me,” she snapped. “And stay a step or two behind me.”

Adam ignored the insult as he followed her down two flights of stairs and a maze of corridors. Heart’s Eye was big, easily larger than the largest building he’d seen back in Beneficence. The corridors looked identical, although someone had helpfully hung signs and markers everywhere. A handful were covered in strikingly realistic paintings, the first truly realistic portraits he’d seen. Adam ran his eye over the names below the faces. MISTRESS IRENE. LADY EMILY ... the Emily, he assumed. MASTER CALEB. MASTER LANDIS ... he stopped to study his face, wondering just how closely the painting matched reality. He looked very different than Master Pittwater. A pale face, neatly trimmed goatee, green eyes ... Adam couldn’t help thinking he reminded him of someone, although he wasn’t sure who.

“That’s your new boss,” Lilith said. She seemed in no hurry, all of a sudden. “We don’t want people forgetting who runs this place.”

Adam gave her a sharp look. “Do you even want to be here?”

Lilith looked thoroughly displeased. “I have no choice,” she said, as she turned away and resumed the walk. “You do. Why don’t you leave?”

She kept walking, forcing Adam to scurry down a flight of stairs after her. The corridor widened suddenly. He heard people talking as they rounded the corner and stepped through a set of open doors, revealing a giant dining hall. He’d seen something like it in the guildhall back in Beneficence, but this one was an order of magnitude larger. The wooden tables were crammed with men and women, chatting happily as they dug into their food. They looked a strange mixture of people, from young men and women who were clearly magicians and older people who looked to be mature craftsmen. Adam felt a twinge of envy. A craftsman could work anywhere, if he had the right skills. In hindsight, perhaps he should have sought one of those apprenticeships instead.

The crowd parted in front of Lilith, allowing her to lead the way to the food tables. They were groaning under the weight of everything from porridge and fried bacon to bread and piles upon piles of fresh fruit. A large sign hanging above the fruit insisted that an apple a day would keep the chirurgeon away, a cute rhyme that made Adam smile even though he doubted it was true. Lilith picked up a bowl and passed it to him, then took a second for herself. Adam wondered, suddenly, if she was hungry too.

“Take what you want,” she said. There was an edge in her tone Adam didn’t like, although it didn’t seem directed at him. “Don’t worry about paying for it.”

“Really?” Adam had grown up in a shopkeeper’s family. He knew very well there was no such thing as a free breakfast. It sounded as though Lilith was trying to get him in hot water. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Lilith’s tone hardened. “Right now, the food is free.”

Adam hesitated, then filled his bowl with porridge and dried fruit. It was hard not to marvel at the sheer choice in front of him, from meats his family had only eaten on special occasions to foodstuffs so expensive they’d never been able to afford them. He didn’t even know what half of them even were. Where were they even coming from? People couldn’t grow food in the desert, could they? He vaguely recalled hearing someone saying the Desert of Death was receding, but he had no idea if that was actually true. The farms he’d seen outside the desert city hadn’t seemed capable of feeding the farmers, let alone the entire university.

They have portals, he reminded himself. They can bring in food from all over the Allied Lands.

He followed Lilith towards an empty table, frowning inwardly as he realised Lilith was getting wary looks from just about everyone. That was ... odd. She might be snobbish and unpleasant even by magical standards, but she was pretty and probably well-connected and he had no doubt someone would see fit to overlook her personality if courting her meant inheriting her connections when they married. Adam had heard all sorts of stories about magical courtships, but - at base - they were little different from merchant courtships. It didn’t matter, not really, if the happy couple liked each other or not. All that mattered was what they could do with their combined wealth.

“Sit, eat,” Lilith said. She waved her hand, summoning a pair of glasses and a water jug. They floated over to the table and landed neatly on the surface. “We don’t have much time.”

Adam nodded and tucked into his porridge. It was very plain, without even a hint of sugar or salt, but it was filling. Lilith ate slowly and daintily, as if she was eating more to humour him than to fill herself. Adam poured himself a glass of water and drank it, then quietly studied the rest of the room. It felt as if they were in a bubble, in the dining hall and yet not quite part of it. Even the older magicians seemed wary of her. She didn’t seem to care.

She can’t be much older than me, Adam thought. Why are they so ...?

He saw a young man at a nearby table, who winked at him the moment their eyes met. There was something oddly familiar about his clothes, a hint of Beneficence or Cockatrice that felt like a bit of home on the far side of the world. He was probably an apprentice to a craftsman, if not a craftsman in his own right. Adam winked back, wondering if he’d found someone who’d understand what it was like to jump from the city to the university. Lilith didn’t seem to notice.

“Time to go,” she said. She stood, brushing down her dress before sweeping out of the chamber. “This way.”

Adam hesitated - she’d left the bowls and glasses on the table - then hurried after her. “Who does the cooking? And everything else?”

“Depends,” Lilith said. “The cooks do the cooking” - she wasn’t looking at him, but he could hear the sneer - “assisted by students who are working their way through university courses. They do the labour and, in exchange, are allowed to attend lectures and take the exams. It is quite the arrangement.”

Adam stared at her back. “What’s wrong with it?”

“They cannot use it,” Lilith said. “What’s the point?”

“Maybe they can use it,” Adam said. “Maybe you’re underestimating them.”

Lilith tossed her head and kept walking. Adam couldn’t put his feelings into words. Lilith didn’t seem to notice as she led the way down two flights of stairs and along a long corridor. Adam felt a tingle passing through him, his hair threatening to stand on end, as they crossed the wards. Silence fell, noticeably. He hadn’t really been aware of the background noise until it was gone. A pair of young girls walked past, going in the other direction. They both gave Lilith a wide berth. Adam frowned. Lilith wasn’t that bad, was she? He’d met people who were worse.

“This is the lab,” Lilith said, as she pushed open a door. “Master Landis will key you into the wards, once you prove yourself.”

“I proved myself to Master Pittwater,” Adam protested. “I know ...”

“An apothecary,” Lilith said, in a tone that suggested Master Pittwater was one step above a gutter rat. “This is an alchemical lab. The rules are different.”

She muttered a word as she stepped inside. The air glowed with light. Adam felt a thrill, despite himself, as he looked around. The chamber was massive, a dozen wooden tables - neatly spaced, in line with the rules Master Pittwater had drummed into him - dominating the room. The walls were lined with shelves upon shelves of potion ingredients, alchemical textbooks and everything an alchemist needed, from cauldrons to glass vials, jars and bottles. He stepped closer, admiring the collection of ingredients. A number were so expensive that Master Pittwater had rarely, if ever, used them. He couldn’t help shuddering as he saw a pickled frog in a jar.

“That was a boy who tried to kiss me,” Lilith said. Adam couldn’t tell if she was joking. “I turned him into a frog and pickled him.”

Adam felt sick. “Do you think that’s funny?”

Lilith shrugged. “There’s a washroom through there,” she said. “I take it you know how to wash your hands and put on a proper apron?”

“I won’t bother to dignify that stupid question with a stupid answer,” Adam said. “Really.”

He stuck out his tongue at her back. He hadn’t worked a day in the shop before he’d learnt the dangers of cross-contamination and injury. It was very easy to get seriously hurt, even if one couldn’t brew the more dangerous potions. He’d helped Master Pittwater clean the wounds, after one of his previous apprentices had splashed himself with cockatrice blood. It wasn’t as lethal as basilisk or manticore venom, but it had still done enough damage to terminate the poor man’s career. Adam had no idea what had happened to the former apprentice after he’d left the city.

Lilith rattled around in the lab as Adam washed and dried his hands, then donned an apron. It wouldn’t provide much protection, if a cauldron exploded, but it might give him a few seconds to tear it off before the boiling liquid burned through to his skin. He tested it lightly, making sure he could pull it free, then headed back into the lab. Lilith had laid out a set of ingredients, and a small collection of tools. Adam felt a thrill when he looked at them. He knew how to use them all.

“To work,” Lilith ordered. She jabbed a finger at the pile. “Ready these for use.”

Adam frowned as he stared at the pile. Some were common, so common a child could prepare them properly. A couple required almost no preparation. The remainder were tricky. He couldn’t prepare them unless he knew what they were going to brew. The Darkle Roots needed to be sliced one way for a sleeping potion and quite another way for a purgative. The Candy Seeds needed to be left intact for a shape-change potion and crushed for a healing potion. And the daisies ... Master Pittwater had joked about a vile old witch who found daisies soothing, but - as far as he knew - they had no real magical applications. They were useless.

“Interesting,” Adam said, as neutrally as he could. “What are we going to brew?”

Lilith sniffed. “A simple painkilling potion,” she said. “Prepare the ingredients.”

Adam tried to hide his annoyance. She hadn’t said which one. There were over fifty different recipes, with varying levels of potency. It was a test, he was sure. If he started preparing the ingredients for the wrong recipe ... he kept his face under tight control as he considered the recipes he’d memorised. There were only four that involved all but one of the ingredients. The daisies were a mystery. He shrugged, resisting the urge to ask about them as he started to work. He chopped up the Darkle Roots, being very careful to avoid mixing them with the Hawthorne Thistles. They didn’t go well together unless they were blended in a cauldron. The Jigger Stems were of too poor quality for two of the four recipes, so he angled his work towards the remaining two. Lilith watched, occasionally tossing in a question. Adam was almost insulted. He’d covered most of them within the first two months of his time in the shop.

“I’ve done everything, but the daisies,” he said, finally. “What are we going to brew?”

Lilith snorted. “We? I’m going to brew ...”

Adam felt his temper snap. “I just prepared the ingredients for you,” he said, sharply. A thought struck him. “Did I just help you with your work?”

“It’s your job,” Lilith snapped. “You prepare the ingredients. I turn them into potions!”

“I came here for an apprenticeship, not to be a servant,” Adam snapped back. He didn’t mind preparing ingredients. It was part of the job. But he didn’t want to be just a preparer. If he’d wanted that, he could have stayed and worked for Matt. “I need to learn to brew and ...”

“With what?” Lilith turned to face him. “You have no magic. You can toss this lot into a cauldron and get what? Sludge! You cannot do anything with this. All you’re good for is preparing the ingredients!”

“I can learn,” Adam said. “I can ...”

Lilith jabbed a finger at him. His entire body froze. He could neither move nor speak.

“I learnt that spell before I went to school,” Lilith said. She tapped Adam on the head. It sounded as if she’d rapped her knuckles against solid metal. “You are powerless against it. You cannot defend yourself against even the merest touch of magic. You have no place here, save as a servant to your betters. And the sooner you learn it, the better.”

Adam struggled to move, but he couldn’t. His entire body was locked solid. He couldn’t even move his eyes. He watched, helplessly, as Lilith took the ingredients he’d lovingly prepared and started to turn them into a potion. She was good, he admitted grudgingly; she was far better than the other apprentices he’d met. Her fingers moved with easy skill, her magic sparking with life as she worked. And yet she thought of him as a servant ...

His heart sank. How the hell did I get into this mess?


Chapter Six

Adam stood, frozen solid, and waited.

There was nothing else he could do. The magic held him still. Matt had told him, more than once, that some magicians knew how to free themselves even if they couldn’t move their hands, but Adam didn’t even have the tiniest spark of magic. He couldn’t defend himself against even the simplest spell. Lilith didn’t pay any attention to him as she glided around the lab, moving with an elegance and grace he would have admired if she hadn’t cast a spell on him. His sheer helplessness gnawed at him as he waited. She couldn’t be much older than him - if at all - and yet she’d overpowered him effortlessly. It was shameful. If anyone found out, back home, he’d be a laughingstock.

“Good,” Lilith said, more to herself than to Adam. The potion was bubbling merrily as it settled down. “Very good.”

Adam wanted to scream. He wanted to ... he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. There was nothing he could do. Master Pittwater had been right. He could run the calculations and plot out how best to turn a collection of ingredients into a potion, but he could never do it for himself. Lilith could ... and more, much more, beside. He felt a surge of pure hatred, mingled with regret. He’d been assured Heart’s Eye would be different. So far, it was shaping up to be worse.

The door opened. Master Landis stepped into the room. His eyebrow raised as he saw Adam, then looked at Lilith. She glanced at him. Adam couldn’t see her face, but ... Master Landis gave her an indulgent smile and waved a hand at him. The spell broke. Adam dropped to the floor, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. It was all he could do not to scream. He didn’t want to give Lilith the satisfaction.

“He was very cheeky to me,” Lilith said, in a tone one might use to talk about the weather. “I had to put him in his place.”

“Good, good,” Master Landis said. There was a hint of exasperation in his tone, rather than anger. “I’m sure he won’t do it again.”

Adam tried not to glare as he picked himself up and brushed down his robe. Matt had hexed him. Once. Master Pittwater had strapped him so hard he hadn’t been able to sit down for a week afterwards. Adam had seen the welts. After that ... they might not have been close friends, but at least they’d managed to work together. Lilith ... Adam couldn’t believe she’d simply been allowed to get away with it. He had to bite his tongue to keep from snitching. The little ... witch ... deserved it and worse.

“Come over here,” Master Landis ordered. “Pittwater spoke highly of you.”

“Thank you,” Adam managed. He could feel Lilith’s gaze burning into his back. “He spoke highly of you, too.”

Lilith made a spluttering noise. Master Landis didn’t seem to care.

“What do you get,” he asked instead, “if you mingle Tostada Powder with Raymore Oats at room temperature?”

“A mess,” Adam said. It was true, although it was hardly precise. “The two simply don’t blend at room temperature. Worse, they clog up the rest of the potion and expend the magic too early. You have to put the powder in water and bring it to the boil before you add the oats.”

“Good, good,” Master Landis said. “Why can’t you use preservation spells on regeneration potion?”

“Because the magic within the spells triggers a reaction within the potion,” Adam said. It had been one of the very first things he’d learnt as a shop assistant. “The potion goes sour very quickly and becomes useless.”

“Any fool knows that,” Lilith put in.

“Yes,” Master Landis agreed. “How do you compensate for the effect?”

Adam hesitated, unsure what to say. As far as he knew, there was no way to compensate for the effect. Regeneration potions were incredibly difficult to produce, even for trained alchemists. There’d been times when they simply couldn’t be brewed in time. The best of them needed blood, skin and even bones from the patient ... he frowned. Was there something he’d missed? Or was it a trick question?

“I don’t think you can compensate for the effect,” he said, finally. “Stasis spells, preservation spells, even basic freeze charms ... they’d all have an effect on the potion. You could freeze it the mundane way, but it would take too long and ...”

“Impossible,” Lilith said.

Master Landis held up a hand. “It might work, but keeping the potion stable would be impossible,” he said. “You’re right. As far as we know, it cannot be done.”

Adam had no time to enjoy the moment. Master Landis bombarded him with questions, ranging from easy to extremely difficult, including a couple he had to work out before he dared open his mouth. He had no idea how well he was doing, although Lilith snorted a couple of times at some of his more uncertain answers. Master Landis seemed inclined to ignore her, something that annoyed Adam. Lilith’s attitude was going to get her in real trouble if she mouthed off to someone really dangerous.

“Very good,” Master Landis said, after what felt like hours. “You have a good grounding in basic magical theory.”

“But almost no practical skill,” Lilith put in. “I told him that ...”

Adam promised himself he’d find a way to get a little revenge as Master Landis showed him around the lab. It was even bigger than he’d thought, with a small kitchen next to the washroom and a preservation cabinet humming with magic in the next room. Adam was impressed, particularly with the library. Master Landis passed him a handful of papers and told him to check his work, forcing him to go through the calculations one by one. They looked accurate, but not precise. A skilled brewer could easily compensate for any weaknesses as he prepared the potion. It was only people like Adam who needed to be perfectly precise.

Except I can’t even get started, Adam thought, sourly. There’s no way I can trigger the reaction myself.

The day wore on. Master Landis had Adam slicing, dicing and otherwise preparing ingredients as he and Lilith turned them into potions. Lilith shot Adam snide looks every time he brought her a tray of ingredients, to the point he was tempted - very tempted - to make a mistake that would ensure the cauldron exploded in her face. He put the thought aside before it could push him into action. Master Landis would fire him on the spot, if the master didn’t kill Adam outright ... he ground his teeth, meditating on the value of patience. He’d find out what was actually going on first, before he did anything. He had never known a master to put up with such behaviour from an apprentice. There had to be a reason Master Landis was letting her get away with it.

Adam studied him, thoughtfully, as he brewed. Master Pittwater had been cool and calm and very precise. Master Landis seemed much more of a performer, practically dancing as he placed the ingredients in the cauldron and triggered the reaction that turned them into potion. It was impressive, although Adam couldn’t help thinking Lilith found him rather embarrassing. She cast sidelong looks as he worked, as if she couldn’t quite believe what she saw. How long had she been his apprentice? It had to have been quite some time if she was confident he wouldn’t punish her for bitchiness.

“Done,” Master Landis said. He put out the flame, then nodded to Adam. “Bottle it up and label everything, then put it in storage. We’ll take it to the infirmary later.”

“Yes, Master,” Adam said.

Lilith shot him a nasty look. He ignored her as best as he could. Master Pittwater had made sure he understood precisely how to label the vials, noting everything from the potion name to the precise time and date it was brewed. The basic healing potion would last for weeks, as long as it wasn’t exposed to the air. He wondered, suddenly, just how many people got hurt at Heart’s Eye. He’d heard enough horror stories about magic schools to fear the answer might be terrifyingly high.

Master Landis didn’t seem to flag. Instead, he tossed more and more questions at Adam as he worked his way through his books. It was strange to realise just how much he didn’t know ... just how much he could never know. Matt had tried to explain magic to Adam, and how it felt to use it, but Adam hadn’t been able to follow his explanation. It was like trying to imagine himself a girl, only worse. There were spells and potions to turn boys into girls - and girls into boys - but there was no way to become a magician. If there had been ... he was sure Master Pittwater would have made it for him. There were certainly plenty of rich mundanes who would have paid through the nose to become magical.

Lilith’s disdain seemed to grow with every successive answer. Adam rapidly came to realise she was more annoyed by correct answers than mistakes. Did she feel threatened? He found it hard to believe. She had magic and he did not and that was the end of it. Adam could work out how to produce a potion, but he couldn’t brew it. She’d get the credit if she took something Adam figured out and actually made it work. Adam wouldn’t have faulted her, either. It was a great deal easier to plot how to do something - anything - than doing it.

He allowed himself a sigh of relief as Master Landis seemed to run out of questions. He really did remind Adam of someone, although he wasn’t sure who. Master Pittwater? His imagination suggested that Master Pittwater could be Master Landis’s father, but it didn’t seem likely. They were very different. Adam wasn’t a carbon copy of his father, yet they were very clearly related. Besides, he’d never seen any sign that Master Pittwater was interested in women. Or men. How had they even met? Unless Master Landis was a lot older than he looked, they were from different generations. Adam wasn’t sure he dared ask. It would be better to wait long enough to figure out what would offend him before he tried.

“Work on this,” Master Landis said, finally. He held out a sheet of parchment. “Let me know if you can make it work.”

Adam took the parchment and stared at it as Master Landis and Lilith returned to their brewing. The spell notation was odd, strangely imprecise ... Adam glanced at them, unsure who’d prepared the parchment. The very first section was so badly aligned with the rest that he found it hard to believe they’d been written by the same person. Matt had made some howlers, when he’d started his apprenticeship, but nothing as bad as the one on the parchment. Adam allowed himself to hope that Lilith had prepared the parchment, as he started to straighten it out. Fixing the first section ...

His heart sank. Fixing the first section threw the rest of the spell out of alignment. He was suddenly entirely sure that Lilith had sketched it out. She had the power to hold it together long enough to make it work ... to make it do whatever it was supposed to do. Anyone else ... he shook his head. It felt more like a very crude piece of spellwork than anything else. He honestly couldn’t tell what it was intended to do. No matter how he looked at it, there just didn’t seem to be any reasonable endpoint.

Adam waited for Master Landis to finish his brewing, then cleared his throat. “I can’t figure out what it’s meant to do,” he admitted. “The first section draws on a great deal of power, but the second and third sections pull in different directions. What is the spell trying to do?”

“It was devised to split the potion in two, then brew each section separately before allowing them to recombine,” Master Landis said. “Does that make it any easier?”

“No.” Adam was too puzzled to pay proper respect. “Wouldn’t it be better to brew them in separate cauldrons?”

Lilith snickered. “What an idea!”

Adam glared at her. “And what’s wrong with the idea?”

“Tell him,” Master Landis ordered.

“Of course.” Lilith smiled at him. It would have been a sweet smile from anyone else. “The first part of the brew needs to be perfectly balanced. That means you cannot brew two separate batches, even if you make it as precise as possible. You have to produce one batch and split it into two. And then you have to let them merge as equals, once you have prepared the second stage. You cannot simply pour one into the other. You have to let them blur as equals.”

Adam scowled as Master Landis gave her an approving look. It was the sort of explanation, he felt, that only made sense to magicians. What did it matter if one batch was poured into the other? Why did it matter if they were equals? What happened if they weren’t? And wouldn’t it be easier, the nastier part of his mind wondered, if the cauldron was designed with a physical partition? One could separate the two batches without using magic, thus avoiding the risk of accidental contamination. Or was there something he was missing? He had no way to know.

Make a note of it, he told himself. The spell was an order of magnitude more complex than anything he’d seen in the old shop. Master Pittwater had never used anything like it. And follow up on it later.

He looked back at the spell notation, his heart sinking once again. There was no way to tighten it up, not really. It needed to be cast by someone who was perfectly attuned to both the potion and the spell ... a magician, a very experienced magician. There was no way he could even begin to make it work. He could fix the problems so someone else could cast the spell ... no, he realised suddenly. He could only make them worse.

“It can’t be fixed,” Adam said, pushing the notes aside. “I mean ... it’s cumbersome and stupid, but there’s no way to improve upon it without making it impossible to brew the potion. It simply cannot be done.”

“No,” Master Landis agreed. “Well spotted.”

Adam didn’t need to look at Lilith to know she was sneering. She knew he hadn’t really done anything. Hell, all he’d really done was waste time. He’d thought the problem could be fixed ... if not by him, then by someone else. But ... he shook his head. There was always a cost. One couldn’t make money without spending money, as Master Pittwater had said. It hadn’t taken him long to realise it applied to magic too.

“Thank you,” he said.

Master Landis nodded and turned away. Lilith snapped her fingers at Adam. He felt a burning pain on his hand, as if he’d splashed himself with hot water. She smirked at him as he glared helplessly at her, daring him to do something. He knew there was nothing he could do. She could freeze him in his tracks, or worse, before he could lay a finger on her. If her master - their master - noticed, he said nothing.

“Prepare me some Kava,” Master Landis ordered. “And then you and Lilith can go get something to eat.”

Lilith smiled. “Prepare me some too,” she said, in a tone that suggested she was addressing a lowly servant. “Milk, two sugars.”

Adam felt his cheeks redden as he turned and headed into the kitchen. It was surprisingly big, the walls lined with cupboards crammed with everything from powered grains to potion ingredients and supplies. He lit the fire under the stove, filled the kettle with water and started to dig through the cupboards for supplies. A handful of inactive potions rested above the sink, including one he knew from the shop. Inactive dogbreath potion was useless, unless it was given to a magician ...

And if I slip it into her drink now, he thought grimly, it could cost me the apprenticeship.

The kettle started to boil. He took it off the stove, poured water into the mugs and added the grains, then hesitated. He’d had more than enough of Lilith’s attitude, but his apprenticeship was at stake ... he took the mugs back into the workroom and passed them out. Lilith sneered as she took hers and drank. Master Landis nodded his thanks. Lilith didn’t say anything at all.

Master Landis cleared his throat. “Lilith, you are obliged to give Adam the tour,” he said, curtly. He dug into his pocket and produced a handful of coins. Adam tried not to notice he’d just given Lilith more money than he’d ever earned in a week. No wonder she was such a spoilt brat. “Take him for dinner in Heart’s Ease, then show him around.”

Lilith moaned. “Do I have to?”

“Yes.” Master Landis looked surprisingly firm. “It’s your duty.”

Lilith looked murderous. Adam almost offered to go alone. He’d been hoping to take a look at Heart’s Ease - and the foundry beyond - but he wasn’t sure he wanted to go with her. He was getting really sick of her attitude. It made no sense. Whatever her relationship with her master, he really shouldn’t have tolerated it. A bratty apprentice reflected badly on the master who tutored her.

“And behave,” Master Landis added. His eyes moved to Adam, then back to Lilith. “Both of you.”

“Yes, Master,” he said.

Lilith just glared.
chris
Posts: 16
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: The Cunning Man Novel - Sample

Post by chris »

Chapter Seven

Adam stopped as he reached his room. “Can I get a quick shower?”

“Probably a good idea,” Lilith said, rather sarcastically. “You do realise you smell?”

“I’ve been preparing ingredients all day,” Adam said, trying not to rise to the bait. Master Pittwater had insisted on his apprentices showering before and after they went to work. “Of course my hands are grimy.”

Lilith wrinkled her nose. “I’ll meet you back here in twenty minutes,” she said stiffly, as he opened the door. “Don’t get too comfortable in here.”

Adam blinked. “Why ...?”

“This is a temporary room,” Lilith explained. There was something in her voice that suggested she was telling the literal truth. “You’re only here because you’re on probation. If you succeed in impressing my master, you will be moved into the apprentice dorms. If you fail, which I am sure you will, you’ll eventually be kicked out of the university and you’ll have to go live somewhere else.”

She turned and walked away. Adam glared at her back, wondering how the hell he’d missed that. He hadn’t thought, not really. He hadn’t been given so much as a tiny garret at Master Pittwater’s shop ... why had he thought he’d be given a place at Heart’s Eye? The room was clearly nothing more than a courtesy, a chamber that could be given and withdrawn at will. If he proved himself ... he stepped inside, his heart sinking once again. If he didn’t prove himself, what could he do? Stay as an assistant? Try to find a job in the university or the nearby town? Or ... or go home, with his tail between his legs, and admit defeat? He shucked off the robe, making a mental note to find out how he could wash it, and hurried into the shower. The warm water almost made him feel human again. He scrubbed himself down, reminding himself not to waste water. They were, after all, in the middle of a desert.

He stepped out of the shower, dried himself and changed into more mundane clothes. It wouldn’t impress Lilith, he was sure, but he was starting to think that impressing her was pretty much impossible. What could he do, he asked himself, that she couldn’t do? Nothing came to mind, certainly nothing he could use to secure the apprenticeship. Perhaps he could find a way to improve her work ...

There was a sharp knock on the door. Adam opened it. Lilith stood outside, scowling impatiently. She’d changed her clothes, swapping out the green dress for a dark blue outfit that made her look as if she was in mourning. Adam hid his amusement with an effort as she looked him up and down, then turned and stalked away. Adam closed the door behind him and hurried after her. She barely slowed until she reached the staircase that led down to the entrance hall. Adam couldn’t help noticing the wary glances thrown at her from all directions. The students - even some of the staff - were acting as if they expected her to explode at any moment.

Perhaps she actually did turn an old boyfriend into a frog and pickle him, Adam thought, as they made their way through the entrance hall. Lilith was hardly old enough to have made a reputation for herself, although - when he thought about it - he had to admit Lady Emily couldn’t be much older and everyone knew her name. Or maybe she’s just too well-connected for anyone to call her out for being a little brat.

The sun hung low in the sky, casting rays of weird-coloured light over the sandy road leading down to Heart’s Ease. Adam felt his skin prickle and reminded himself to get something to protect his skin before it was too late. He’d always been more liable to burn rather than tan, even on the beaches near the great harbour back home. Here ... he spotted a long line of people making their way to and from the town, half of them wearing hats and scarves to protect their heads from the heat. He opened his mouth to ask Lilith to cast a protective charm, then thought better of it. She would probably refuse to do it for him.

He took a breath and regretted it instantly. The air outside was uncomfortably hot, the tang of sand and tainted magic brushing against his tongue. It smelt as if something wet was burning, a stench that lingered long after the fire was out. If Lilith noticed, or cared, she gave no sign. Adam did his best not to glance at her too openly as they started to walk down the road. It looked like a well-beaten dirt track, with people and carts hurrying up and down. He would have enjoyed it more if the air hadn’t smelt so bad.

And the company was better, his thoughts added. He’d always enjoyed going for walks with pretty girls - and he had to admit Lilith was pretty - but her attitude made it hard to tolerate her, let alone like her. Why do so many people seem to openly fear her?

He puzzled over it for a long moment, then sighed inwardly. It was probably going to be a problem, if he stayed with the apprenticeship. People talked, a lot. Back home, he’d been cautioned to be careful not to seek too much privacy for fear of what it would do to the girl’s reputation. And his, of course. Here ... here, he wasn’t so sure. Lilith wasn’t holding his hand, let alone letting him wrap his arm around her waist, yet ... people would talk. Who knew what they’d say? The rules were different for magicians. They, unlike their mundane counterparts, could silence the rumourmongers with a snap of their fingers.

Lilith seemed lost in her own thoughts as she walked down the road. Adam decided he didn’t want to know what she was thinking, although he suspected she was trying to devise something truly awful to do to him. King Randor had put his enemies through a series of tortures so unpleasant Adam found it hard to believe any of them had survived the first stage, even with magical healing. Lilith probably thought that turning him into a slug and stepping on me was too good for him. Or something. He shivered, trying not to edge away. Back home, girls were vulnerable. Everyone knew it. Here, he was the vulnerable one. It didn’t sit well with him.

Heart’s Ease came slowly into view. The smell grew stronger as the wind picked up, bringing the stench to their nostrils. Adam sucked in his breath. He hadn’t had the time to check out the town properly, back when he’d disembarked from the train and headed up to the university, but now ... he stared as his eyes wandered over the town, noting the train station and the railway line leading across the desert. Heart’s Ease was bigger than he’d thought, yet ... he couldn’t help thinking it looked a little odd. It struck him as oddly ramshackle, as if it had been thrown together without any forethought. Old buildings, marked by time, stood next to rickety-looking apartment blocks and tents large enough to hold a whole circus. He saw row upon row of smaller tents, with men sleeping on the streets or lining up outside the more solid-looking buildings. A row of signs invited new arrivals to seek employment as everything from craftsmen to ironmongers or shop assistants. Adam wondered, morbidly, if he could find a job here. The air was so full of energy that it was easy to ignore the smell.

The people looked ... different. Adam stared at them, feeling as if he’d stepped into another world. Men and women, magicians and mundanes, aristocrats and commoners, merchants and serfs ... they rubbed shoulders with remarkably little friction, even though it was pretty much the last thing he would have expected back home. Their outfits weren’t even remotely regulated by sumptuary laws. He spotted a common-born woman wearing a fancy dress and a man who was clearly an aristocrat, from his bearing, wearing a labourer’s outfit. There didn’t seem to be any guardsmen on the streets, as far as he could tell, but there was no sign of pickpockets or footpads. The town felt ... free. The inhabitants could do whatever they wanted without someone coming along to spoil their fun.

Lilith guided him through the edge of town and past a string of stalls and shops. People seemed to be buying and selling everything from paper books - lots of books - to food, drink and basic potions. Magical stores stood next to their mundane counterparts, their owners chatting happily as if they didn’t come from different worlds. That would never happen in Beneficence. Adam blinked in astonishment as he saw a fishmonger, his prices so high that he couldn’t believe anyone would even look at the poor man’s shop. And yet he had customers ... he stared, remembering - suddenly - that they were hundreds of miles from the sea. The nearest kingdom was almost completely land-locked. A sign in front of the shop informed customers that the fish was fresh. Adam didn’t believe it.

His lips twisted, torn between amusement and disgust. Unless the fish are preserved by magic, they’ll have gone bad before they got halfway here.

The sense of life and innovative energy only grew stronger as they reached the centre of town. It was bustling with activity, from people running around to horses and carts pushing their way through the crowd. Broadsheet sellers were screaming out the latest headlines from the war, never seeming to notice that they were contradicting each other; shopkeepers and recruiters, even political activists, were shouting at the passersby, trying to convince them to join … join something. Mobs of apprentices stood everywhere, making their way through the city. A steam engine tooted in the distance, coming into view briefly as it made its way along the tracks. Adam stared, remembering just how bumpy the ride had been. It was hard to believe the railway line was remotely solid.

“There are too many people here,” Lilith said. She sounded uncomfortable. “How do they live like this?”

“You should probably stay away from Beneficence, then,” Adam said. The streets here were crowded, but his hometown was worse. Far worse. “Where were you born?”

Lilith gave him a sharp look, as if he’d asked a silly question. Adam did his best to hide his irritation. He’d only known her for a day ... really, less than a day. He didn’t know anything about her, beyond the fact she was an alchemical apprentice with a stick stuck somewhere the sun didn’t shine. And ... he frowned, inwardly. He’d known a few girls who considered themselves social queens, but they’d been surrounded by fair-weather friends and others who did their bidding in exchange for their de facto patronage. Lilith seemed to be alone. She certainly hadn’t invited anyone to join them.

She turned and led the way into a long low building. The air was much cooler, somewhat to his relief, and smelled of food rather than sand and strange magic. Lilith walked through inner doors as if she owned the place, nodding to a waiter as she led the way to a table by the windows. Adam followed, trying not to gawk. It felt as if he’d walked straight into a palace. Even the guildhall back home hadn’t been so splendid. He averted his eyes as a pair of waitresses walked by, wearing clothes that revealed far too much of their bodies. It was ... it was a shock. He’d never seen anything like it in Beneficence.

The waiter bowed, then held out a pair of menus. Adam looked at the prices and blanched. It would cost him nearly everything he had to order even the cheapest thing on the menu. He wanted to suggest they went somewhere - anywhere - else, but Lilith was already ordering without looking at the menu. The waiter’s face was blank, yet his pose suggested he wanted to run. Adam had the feeling Lilith had visited before and made a name for herself - and not in a good way.

“Order whatever you like,” Lilith said. “Master Landis is paying.”

Adam swallowed, hard. Master Pittwater hadn’t been poor, but there was no way in hell he could have afforded to eat at this restaurant. Adam didn’t know anyone who could afford to eat in such a place regularly ... no, that wasn’t true any longer. Lilith hadn’t even looked at the prices before she’d started to order. How rich was she, and her family, that they didn’t have to worry about the cost? Adam could have fed himself, and his entire family, for a month for what she proposed to spend in a day.

“I don’t know what to order,” he said, finally. The menu was useless. He didn’t recognise any of the names. “What should I eat?”

Lilith shrugged. Adam scowled and picked something at random, then leaned back in his chair and surveyed the other diners as the waiter hurried off to the kitchens. There weren’t many other customers and those he could see, within eyeshot, looked older and richer than anyone he’d encountered in Beneficence. They didn’t seem remotely interested in either of them. A man wearing colourful livery, suggesting he was the sworn servant of a king or powerful aristocrat, was having dinner with a man in magical robes. Two rows down, there were three women in fancy dresses that showed off their breasts. Adam found it hard not to stare. Anyone dressed like that, back home, would almost certainly be a whore. What were they here? He didn’t know.

“This town gets bigger every year,” Lilith muttered, darkly. “I swear. They put up new buildings overnight and then act all surprised when they come crashing down.”

Adam frowned as it occurred to him, in a flash of insight, that Lilith might not like crowds. It wasn’t impossible. One of Master Pittwater’s old apprentices had come from the country and never been able to adapt to city life. He’d found the crowds terrifying. Did Lilith have the same problem? If she’d grown up in a village, or a magical estate, she might not be used to being surrounded by so many people. He felt an odd flash of sympathy, which he forced down before he could show it to her. She was just like Matt in one respect. She didn’t know how lucky she was.

He leaned forward as her words sunk in. “Do the buildings really fall down?”

“Yes,” Lilith said. “This place isn’t called the Desert of Death for nothing. The storms are nasty. Those tents out there? If they’re not charmed just right, they’ll be picked up and thrown all the way to the Great Ocean when the wind blows. Those buildings? They’re too big to be safe. And most of them aren’t anchored properly either. The gods blow and they come tumbling down.”

Adam shuddered. “All of a sudden, coming here doesn’t seem such a bright idea.”

Lilith smiled, rather humourlessly, then looked up as a waiter returned with two trays of food. Adam shook his head in disbelief as he realised he’d ordered lobster with boiled potatoes and a side of vegetables. His mother could have fed the entire family on one lobster ... hell, she could have cooked a dozen for the price of one in the restaurant. He started to eat, tearing the shell apart to get at the meat below. The lobster wasn’t cooked very well. The cooks seemed more interested in arranging the animal so it looked scary, rather than cooking it properly. He prayed to all the gods they made sure to wash their hands before they started to work.

“This place is scamming us,” he said. “Why do you come here?”

“It’s fancy,” Lilith said. “Of course it’s expensive.”

Adam didn’t hide his irritation. It seemed to annoy her. She honestly had no idea how much things were actually worth. Adam was sure she wouldn’t last a week on the streets. Traders would see her coming and mark up their prices, sure she wouldn’t lower herself to haggle. The lobster in front of him had been marked up so badly ... maybe it had been transported hundreds of miles. It was still massively overpriced.

“I think we’d better eat somewhere else, next time,” Adam said. “There have to be cheaper places.”

“But none so important,” Lilith said, firmly. “And what makes you think there’s going to be a next time?”

Adam swallowed the response that came to mind and turned his attention back to his dinner, picking the lobster apart to be sure he got all the meat. His mother would scold him for wasting food ... he felt a sudden pang as he realised he might never see his mother again. He wasn’t even sure if he could send a message, announcing his safe arrival. Perhaps he could ask Master Landis to send a note to Master Pittwater. Magicians had their own ways of staying in touch. If Adam impressed him enough, perhaps he’d send the message without demanding something in return.

Lilith stood, leaving a handful of coins on the table. “We’ll go straight back to the university,” she said, as she headed for the door. “We can pick up the rest of the tour later in the week.”

Adam nodded, trying not to yawn. “It’s been a long day.”

The crowds hadn’t abated outside, he noted, as they pushed their way out of the building and hurried up the streets. Lilith seemed to inch a little closer to him, although no one but a deluded optimist could have mistaken it for intimacy. Adam tried not to look at the newer buildings too closely as they walked past, dreading the thought of having to live there. They looked as if they were held together with spit and baling wire. Lilith might be a witch - and something that rhymed with witch, Adam considered - but she had a point. The majority of the newer buildings looked as if they were going to collapse. A handful were nothing more than a shell, being put together at terrifying speed. The workers looked surprisingly slapdash, compared to the ones he’d seen back home. But then, the guilds kept construction workers firmly under their thumbs. Here ... Adam had a feeling there simply weren’t any guilds. He certainly hadn’t seen any advertised.

A man ran up to him and shoved a leaflet into Adam’s hand. He read it as the man hurried away again, frowning. The very first line read LEVELLER MEETING, 2100HRS. He glanced through the rest of the text, including promises that a number of prominent Levellers would be there and quotes from others, including Lady Emily herself. He’d known Levellers back home, but he’d never paid too much attention. It was harder for them to gain a following in a city where everyone, at least in theory, could influence the council. They were far more prominent in Zangaria.

“They think we’re all equal,” Lilith commented, sardonically. “And that we are all one and the same.”

Adam glanced at her. “And you don’t think so?”

Lilith gave him a cold smile as they made their way back onto the road leading up to the university. “Do you know what I could do to you?”

“Yes,” Adam said. A shiver ran down his spine. Matt had told him that students played horrible pranks on each other. If a freeze spell was a first-year spell, nothing more than a joke, he shuddered to think what might be considered genuine malice. “It doesn’t make you better than me.”

“Keep dreaming.” Lilith snorted. “If it makes you feel any better.”

She didn’t bother to lower her voice as they walked on. “If you had something I wanted, I could just take it. Who could stop me?”

Adam considered it. “My sister is weaker than me,” he said, finally. “She still nearly broke my jaw.”

Lilith ignored him. “The Levellers can protest all they like. They can build all the fancy toys” - she turned and pointed towards a steam engine, making its way down the track - “they like. It won’t make any difference. If they cause too much trouble, we’ll crush them like bugs. We’ll turn them into bugs and crush them. So what if they’re smarter? So what if you’re smarter? I still have power beyond your comprehension.”

She grinned. “You have no power over me and we both know it. Your sister is on the same level as you. I am so far above you that the gap simply cannot be put into words.”

Adam gritted his teeth. No one, not even Matt, had put it so bluntly. “The last time I heard someone say something like that,” he said finally, “he took a massive pratfall because of his overconfidence.”

“But my overconfidence is justified,” Lilith pointed out. “Was his?”

Adam had no answer. The idiot had bragged he could kick Adam’s ass at Strategy. He’d been so overconfident that Adam had wiped him off the board, after he’d committed the sort of mistake no one would make when facing someone with half a brain. Or even a working knowledge of the rules. Lilith ...

His heart twisted. Sure, Adam could beat her on the gameboard. She could still slap him down any moment she wished. He wondered, suddenly, if she was connected to someone really powerful. Or if she was more powerful in magic than he’d thought. It was hard to believe that any magician would put up with her if there wasn’t a very good reason. Master Pittwater had certainly not put up with arrogant or snooty apprentices.

He was tempted to ask. But he doubted he’d get a straight answer. Instead ...

“Lilith,” he said. “Can I ask a question?”

“Of course.” Lilith spoke like a haughty monarch bestowing a favour on a courtier. “You may ask anything you like.”

“You didn’t like me from the start,” Adam said. It was true, but he didn’t know why. Oversleeping hardly deserved the death sentence. “You disliked and resented - perhaps even hated - me. You cursed me and ...”

“Hexed you,” Lilith corrected, coldly.

“Why?” Adam stopped and stared at her. “Why do you hate me?”

Lilith said nothing for a long moment. “I don’t hate you,” she said. “You simply don’t belong here.”

She started to walk, heading back up the road. Adam followed, a dozen questions running through his head. He didn’t belong ...? Master Pittwater had asked Master Landis to take Adam and Master Landis had agreed. Lilith ... Lilith didn’t have a say in it. Was that what she resented? Adam found it hard to believe. Apprentices were, legally, children. Lilith could no more boss Master Landis around than Adam could.

Adam paced her. “What makes you say that?”

“You have no magic,” Lilith said, flatly. “You cannot do even the simplest spells. All you can do is prepare ingredients and write spells, both of which I could do. Anyone could do, if they had magic. You just” - she scowled - “you just exist on our sufferance. You should not be here.”

“Heart’s Eye is for mundanes as well as magicians,” Adam said. He’d read the university prospectus very - very - carefully. “Lady Emily ...”

“Lady Emily is an idealist,” Lilith said, flatly. “I met her once, just before she left to take up her own apprenticeship. She doesn’t realise just how incompatible magicians and mundanes actually are. She has no grasp at all of the realities of the world.”

“And I suppose you do?” Adam couldn’t keep the mockery out of his voice, even though he knew just what she could do to him. “You know better than the Necromancer’s Bane?”

Lilith glared. Her hand raised - Adam braced himself to dodge - before she calmed herself. “What can you do,” she asked, “that I cannot do better?”

Father children, Adam thought.

He wasn’t dumb enough to say that out loud. Lilith would not have taken it calmly. Instead ... he tried to think of an answer. He knew plenty of magic theory, but Lilith presumably knew plenty herself. And she understood how magic worked on a level Adam would never be able to match. What little he could do would be easy for her to match, if she put in the time and effort. Adam was quite sure she knew precisely how to prepare potion ingredients. Master Pittwater had drilled Matt as well as Adam himself.

“I can find out,” Adam said. “Let me try.”

“You’re wasting your time,” Lilith said, darkly. A shadow crossed her face. “And Master Landis’s, too.”

“It’s his time to waste.” Adam met her eyes. “Let me try.”

“He isn’t sure himself,” Lilith mused. “He doesn’t know if you’ll be staying. He’s waiting to see if you’re truly useful or not.”

Adam winced. He wanted to believe she was lying, but ... it sounded true. Lilith didn’t strike him as a very good liar. It didn’t feel as if she’d ever had the need to learn. And ...

“Tell me,” Lilith said. “Why do you even want to be here? Why did you even want to be an apothecary’s apprentice?”

“Because ...” Adam knew the answer; he just found it hard to put into words. “Because I want to do something with my life.”

Lilith raised her eyebrows, but said nothing.

“There aren’t that many opportunities for someone like me, back home,” Adam told her, shortly. “The children follow in their parents’ footsteps. I ... I wanted to be something different, something special. And magic seemed a way out. Even if I couldn’t do magic myself, I could do something.”

And I wanted to find a place I might fit in, his thoughts added silently.

“There are very sharp limits to what you can do,” Lilith said. Her voice was carefully flat, as if something he’d said had touched her. “Everything you can do, I can do better.”

“Let me prove myself,” Adam said. “Give me time.”

Lilith smirked. “You don’t stand a chance.”

Adam held her eyes. “You want to bet on it?”

“Very well,” Lilith said. She leaned closer, so close he could have kissed her. He didn’t dare move. “I’ll give you two months. You impress me and I’ll withdraw all objection to your presence. You don’t” - she lowered her voice - “I’ll turn you into something small and slimy and drop you somewhere you’ll never be found.”

She grinned, then turned and sauntered off.

Adam watched her go, feeling sick. What the hell had he gotten himself into now?
Chapter Eight

Adam slept poorly.

It wasn’t until he’d gotten back to his room - Lilith hadn’t bothered to do more than just point him up the stairs before hurrying off - that he’d realised what he’d done. He’d made a bet he didn’t know how to win, yet dared not lose. He had no doubt Lilith hadn’t been joking when she’d threatened to turn him into a frog, then abandon him hundreds of miles from home. It was hard for a magician to make such a spell permanent and yet ... he had the feeling Lilith could do it. He remembered the dead frog in the pickle jar as he stumbled out of bed and felt his gorge rise. If she hadn’t been joking about that ...

His stomach twisted painfully as he looked at the clock and scowled. It was 0700. Lilith had told him to report to the lab - again - at 0900. She would pour scorn on him for being late, all the while badmouthing him to their master. He cursed under his breath as he stumbled into the shower and turned the water on, then stepped under the flow without bothering to wait for it to heat up. Showers were rare in Beneficence, outside the magical community. It was a sign of something, he was sure, that even a guest room at Heart’s Eye had a private shower for its occupant. He washed himself clean, relying on the water to wake him completely, then dried and dressed himself in his apprentice robes. Lilith might think he was no more an apprentice than he was a magician, but Adam knew better. He might not be a normal apprentice - and there were limits to what he could do - yet he was still an apprentice.

The corridors outside were quieter, even though it wouldn’t be long before classes and lectures started on the upper levels. Adam had glanced at a list of the latter, open to everyone who could be bothered going, and made a mental note of some he wanted to attend, although he suspected it would be better to concentrate on impressing his master - if not his fellow apprentice - before he asked permission to take time off to attend a lecture or two. He walked down the stairs, following the signs pointing to the dining hall. It would be impossible to get around without them, he realised. He had no idea how magicians coped with their schools.

Magic, he thought, tightly.

The dining hall wasn’t particularly busy either, Adam noted. There were only a few dozen people in the chamber, sitting at different tables. He frowned as he realised they were apprentices, magical and mundane, each group making a very deliberate show of ignoring the other groups. He wanted to join them, to meet someone who wasn’t Lilith, but he didn’t know which groups would accept him and which would tell him to get lost. Or worse. And being rejected, he knew from grim experience, would damage his reputation. He sighed, inwardly, as he took some food and found a seat on the edge of the chamber. He almost wished Lilith had joined him. She might hate him, but at least she didn’t pretend he didn’t exist.

“Hi,” a voice said. Adam turned to see the young man he’d spotted yesterday, wearing an outfit that marked him as a craftsman apprentice. “You’re from Beneficence?”

Adam nodded, feeling a twinge of relief. He’d never been really comfortable on his own, even though he’d chosen a career that practically guaranteed a degree of social exclusion. It had never seemed a problem when he’d had friends and family outside Master Pittwater’s shop. Here, though ... the only person he knew was Lilith and she would hex him as soon as look at him. His stomach burned as he remembered their agreement, and her threat. The odds were not in his favour.

“I’m from Cockatrice,” the young man said. He slipped into a chair facing Adam, then held out a hand. “Arnold, Son of Ben. Craftsman.”

Adam shook Arnold’s hand. “Adam, son of Alexis,” he said. “I only just got here.”

“So I heard,” Arnold said. He winked, mischievously. “One day here - less than a day, really - and people are already talking about you.”

“They are?” Adam wanted to be famous, but he wanted to be famous for doing something that changed the world. He hadn’t done anything - yet - to get people talking. “Why?”

Arnold leaned across the table. “You went on a date with Lilith,” he said. “People are talking about that.”

Adam blinked, then flushed. “It wasn’t really a date,” he said, remembering how the other apprentices had reacted to Lilith. They’d almost been scared of her. “It was just a meal ...”

“A meal at the fanciest and most expensive place in town,” Arnold said. “You can’t tell me there’s no feeling there.”

“We only just met,” Adam protested. His mother had thrashed him, once, for boasting - untruthfully - about how far he’d gone with a girl. “She just took me there.”

“She could have taken you somewhere a great deal cheaper, if she’d wished,” Arnold pointed out. He winked, once again. “You know what they say about sorceresses? They’ll do anything with anyone.”

“I think Lilith wouldn’t willingly give me the time of day,” Adam said. He’d heard all the stories, all the whispered rumours about girls with enough magic to ensure they didn’t get pregnant if they slept with their boyfriends, about witches with tastes so bizarre that hardly anyone could keep up with them. He was fairly sure most of the stories weren’t true. He’d heard enough boys bragging about impossible sexual feats to be certain most of the stories were made out of whole cloth. “She hates my guts.”

“And that probably means she’s attracted to you,” Arnold teased. “She’s just trying to hide it.”

Adam laughed, despite himself. “By taking me to the most expensive place in town?”

Arnold winked. “Women, eh?”

“Hah.” Adam shifted uncomfortably, then leaned forward as a question occurred to him. “Why do so many people treat her like ... like she’s a potion that’s about to explode?”

Arnold’s eyes widened in astonishment. “You don’t know?”

“No,” Adam said. “Why?”

“She’s like ... like royalty,” Arnold said. “Her father is on the university council. She’s pretty powerful in her own right, but ... her connections make her practically untouchable, no matter what she does. I doubt her master so much as raises his voice to her, let alone punish her. Her family probably paid for her apprenticeship as well as everything else.”

Adam cursed under his breath. It made sense. Master Landis would not put up with Lilith’s attitude unless he had a very good reason. She was a skilled brewer, Adam had to admit, but she was hardly unique. Her master should have told her off, then terminated the apprenticeship if she failed to improve. And he hadn’t ...

“But enough about her,” Arnold said. He settled back in his chair. “It’s always nice to see a cousin here, but ... how did you get here?”

“I was offered an apprenticeship,” Adam said. Beneficence had always had ties with Cockatrice, even before Lady Emily had turned the barony into a centre of innovation, but they weren’t that close. “How did you get here?”

Arnold shrugged. “My master came here, in the wake of the war, and set up shop in town. I came with him, if only because I didn’t have my mastery yet. It’s actually a pretty good place to live, if you don’t mind the heat and” - he lowered his voice - “the magical apprentices. Most of them are bastards. Or bitches. Don’t turn your back on them.”

“Crap.” Adam took a breath. “Is it really that bad?”

“Of course.” Arnold grinned, but there was no humour in it. “You know how apprentices are very ... protective ... of their positions? Magical apprentices are just the same, but with magic. They’re pissed at their masters for daring to offer some degree of training without the oaths, while they’re pissed at us for daring to pollute these hallowed halls of learning with our filthy presence. They can’t take it out on their masters, so they take it out on us.”

Adam swallowed, hard. Apprentices fought like cats and dogs. He’d seen street battles between gangs of apprentices, back in Beneficence, that had left dozens of young men dead or seriously injured. It had never occurred to him that magical apprentices might have the same problem, but ... he remembered the prospectus and shuddered. If Heart’s Eye was diluting the essence of magical education, as Matt had suggested, it was cheapening the apprenticeships and making it harder for apprentices to make a name for themselves. He remembered how shocked the scribes and accountants had been, when Lady Emily had introduced a whole new system of letters and numbers. They’d practically rioted. The magical apprentices might do the same.

“So, it’s just like Beneficence,” he mused. “Really?”

“More or less.” Arnold shook his head. “Not quite the same, to be fair. You can make a lot of money here very quickly, if you’re willing to learn. But there’s a great many tensions bubbling under the surface and, every so often, they pop to the surface.”

He looked towards the high table. “And the staff don’t do as much as they should.”

Adam followed his gaze. “Who are they?”

“The woman in craftsman robes is Senior Craftswoman Yvonne,” Arnold said, nodding to a grim-faced woman. “She’s on the university council too, which makes her important, and is also in a relationship with an enchanter. The magical apprentices are polite to her because they know her partner will beat the living shit out of them if they dare talk down to her. The fancy-pants next to her is Captain Walter Blademaster, the tutor in martial arts and magics; the sober man at the end of the table is Jayson, the head librarian. Also a magician, so don’t fail to get your books back before it’s too late.”

Adam frowned. “Captain Blademaster?”

“The general theory is that he is, or was, a mercenary,” Arnold explained. “Lots of mercenaries - and magicians - change their names, for all sorts of reasons. We don’t know for sure. His past is apparently multiple choice.”

Adam laughed, despite himself. Captain Blademaster looked like a dandy, wearing fine silks, a jaunty hat and a sword at his belt. He had a neatly-trimmed moustache and goatee that had to be held in place by magic. The sort of man, Adam reflected, who spent more care on his appearance than anything else. “What’s he like as a teacher?”

“I don’t study magic,” Arnold said. “I don’t know. And there ...”

He inclined his head towards the door as the Gorgon entered. Adam stared. He’d been so out of it, when he’d arrived at the university, that he’d wondered if he’d hallucinated the demihuman. It was clear, now, that he hadn’t imagined a thing. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. The Gorgon was tall, with green-tinted skin - he thought he saw hints of something scaly - and snakes for hair. Adam’s own hair tried to stand on end. He’d seen magic - all sorts of magic - and yet there was something unnatural about her. She moved with an eerie grace that suggested she wasn’t wholly human.

It was suddenly hard to speak. “What’s she doing here?”

“She’s Mistress Irene’s apprentice and aide and general gofer,” Arnold explained, drawing Adam’s attention back to him. “She’s also a close personal friend of Lady Emily, so none of the magicians know quite what to make of her. Should they shun her, as a subhuman monster, or kiss up to her? It’s been nearly a year and they still haven’t decided.”

Adam felt a twinge of sympathy. “Poor her.”

“She’s actually the most decent of the magicians here,” Arnold said. “But the bar isn’t set very high.”

He waved, suddenly. Adam turned to see a young woman walking towards them, carrying a tray of food. She was shorter than him, with long dark hair, a freckled face and eyes that flickered back and forth as if she expected to be attacked at any moment. She wore a set of apprentice robes, but he didn’t recognise the sigils woven into the sash. He guessed she wasn’t a magician - Arnold would hardly have invited her to join them, if she had magic - but he had no idea what she was. She was pretty, but there was something about her that made him feel more protective than anything else. She wouldn’t have lasted long in Beneficence.

“Adam, meet Taffy,” Arnold said. “Taffy, this is Adam, a new friend of mine.”

Taffy looked Adam up and down, then bobbed a short curtsey. “Pleased to meet you,” she said, shyly. Her accent sounded Zangarian, but Adam couldn’t narrow it down any further. “Do you like the university?”

“It’s been a bit of a mixed bag so far,” Adam said, after a moment. “How about you?”

Taffy flushed, as if she hadn’t expected to be asked for her opinion. “It’s safer than home.”

Adam blinked. “Safer?”

Arnold leaned forward. “Taffy is a runaway,” he explained. “I took her under my wing.”

“A runaway?” Adam repeated. “You were a serf?”

Taffy shook her head, then placed the tray on the table and sat. “My father was - still is, probably - a craftsman. He didn’t really want to teach a girl” - her hand fluttered in the air - “but I learnt some things anyway. He decided I was going to marry his choice and ... I didn’t get a choice. The man was unpleasant and I thought ...”

She shook her head. “One night, I slipped away and made my way here,” she added. “They’re probably still looking for me.”

Adam nodded, trying to hide his pity. His sisters would not have thanked him for pitying them. Taffy looked so small and vulnerable that he wanted to beat up the man who threatened her ... he wondered, suddenly, how her father could just tell her to marry someone and expect her to be happy. But it wasn’t uncommon, when money and property were involved. His sisters might have been married off by now if their father had lived long enough to see them grow into womanhood.

“They won’t find you here,” Arnold assured her. “We’re a very long way from Zangaria.”

“They’re probably wasting their time looking for you back there,” Adam agreed.

He smiled at the thought. Traditionally, a serf who fled and remained uncaught for a year and a day was a free man. Beneficence had quite a few citizens who were former serfs or their descendents. The town had no interest in helping the aristocrats recapture their runaways and would happily make life difficult for anyone who tried, although - given that Cockatrice barred the way to Beneficence, it was rare for runaways to have to reach the city to find a safe haven. Lady Emily didn’t seem to bother chasing down runaways either. Adam wasn’t sure if the rules were the same for runaway brides - it wasn’t something he’d ever considered - but it probably didn’t matter. Taffy’s father probably assumed she’d died somewhere on the road, if she hadn’t fallen into bad company and found herself sold into prostitution or worse. The chances of her making it all the way to Heart’s Eye had been very low.

And yet she did, he thought, feeling a rush of warmth. Her father will be astonished if he ever finds out.

“And you’ve become an apprentice,” he added. “What are you studying?”

“I started as a craftsman, but I moved to scribing and accounting,” Taffy said. She smiled in a way that made his heart melt. “Lots of people need help keeping up with their paperwork and so ... the Scribe Guild is dead, long live the Scribe Guild. I have plenty to do even though I don’t have a proper mastery yet. They’re still trying to decide if they should give degrees only to people who can read and write Old Script as well as the newer alphabet.”

Adam raised his eyebrows. “Can you?”

Taffy looked down. “Yes,” she said. “But I wasn’t meant to learn.”

“Her uncle was a scribe,” Arnold put in. “Her father wasn’t impressed when he found out she’d been learning how to read from her uncle.”

“Your father was an idiot,” Adam said. He’d known some neglectful fathers and he’d known some brutal fathers, but ... he sighed, shaking his head. Taffy’s father might have been a bastard, yet he’d had a point. Taffy couldn’t have become a practicing scribe without an apprenticeship and her father might not have been able to pay for it. It hadn’t been until Lady Emily that the guilds had lost their stranglehold on reading and writing. “You’re better off here.”

He heard the clock chime and scowled. “I have to head down to the lab,” he said. “I’ll see you both later?”

“Join us for a drink in town, afterwards?” Arnold winked at him. “You’ll probably need it.”

“Sure,” Adam said. Arnold was as rough-edged as any other apprentice, but at least he was trying to be friendly. And he rather liked Taffy. “Where do we meet?”

Arnold considered it. “In the main hall, after five? That’ll give us time to get a quick shower after we finish for the day, then go for a night on the town. How does that sound?”

“Great,” Adam said. He stood, brushing down his robes. “Do we just leave our trays here?”

“Hell, no,” Arnold said. “Take them over there” - he pointed to a hatch just past the tables of food - “and give them to the staff.”

And Lilith just left hers on the table, Adam thought. He felt a twinge of guilt. Why ...?

He shook his head. Right now, it didn’t matter.
chris
Posts: 16
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: The Cunning Man Novel - Sample

Post by chris »

Chapter Nine

There was no sign of Master Landis when Adam entered the lab, just Lilith sitting at a desk and reading an alchemy textbook. She barely glanced up when he entered, making a show of ignoring him as much as possible. Adam wondered, suddenly, if someone had given her a hard time over taking him to town, even though there had been nothing to it beyond a chance to eat outside the university for a change. Lilith might well be lonely, lonelier than she was prepared to let on. If her father really was one of the most powerful men in the university, if not in the world, she might have problems forming close friendships with anyone. And yet, her personality made it harder for anyone to even try to get close to her.

Odd, Adam reflected. You’d expect she’d be surrounded by sycophants and fair-weather friends.

She looked up. “Have you found a way to impress me yet?”

“No,” Adam said. He tried not to show any hint of apprehension as he realised they were alone. There were no witnesses if she decided to do something to him ... he did his best to stay calm as he washed his hands and prepared himself for the day. He knew from experience that bullies could smell fear. “It’s only been a day.”

“You have two months,” Lilith reminded him. She closed the textbook and placed it on the table. “If you don’t ...”

She let the words hang in the air for a long moment, then stood. “You have a bunch of ingredients to prepare,” she said, holding out a list. “I have work to do.”

Adam took the list and frowned. “Where’s Master Landis?”

“He’ll be here shortly,” Lilith said. “And he’ll be very unhappy if the ingredients aren’t ready for him.”

“You could have made a start,” Adam protested, as he scanned the list. There wasn’t anything particularly demanding, thankfully, but it would take time he suspected he didn’t have. “Why didn’t you ...?”

“I have real work to do,” Lilith said. She turned and sauntered towards the workbench at the rear of the chamber. “And if you speak to me once more, you will no longer have a tongue with which to speak.”

Adam bit down the sharp response that came to mind - he would have felt sorrier for Lilith if she wasn’t determined to be as bitchy as possible - and got to work. The piles of unprepared ingredients weren’t going to prepare themselves. He sighed under his breath as he sliced and diced his way through stalks, seeds and leaves, then started to chop up everything from slugs and worms to strange crab-like creatures that nipped at his fingers when he picked them out of the tank. He’d eaten shellfish his entire life - he’d caught crabs when he’d been a little boy, bringing them home for his mother to cook - and yet there was something unnatural about the creatures that made it difficult to bring himself to touch them. They were worse than spiders, worse than creatures that were magical and actively dangerous. His skin crawled as he pinned them down and pulled them apart, putting the pieces in cauldrons to soak until the water absorbed some of their magic. It was hard, so hard, to keep going until he was done.

He raised his eyes from time to time and looked at Lilith. She was bent over a cauldron, her face intent on her work. He couldn’t help thinking she looked like a different person, a much nicer person, as she prepared the potion with loving care. She was almost beautiful ... he caught himself staring and looked back at his own work, leaving her to brew in peace. It was strange. Taffy was pretty, rather than beautiful, and yet there was a kind of beauty in her face that Lilith lacked. But then, she was a far nicer person than the young sorceress.

You barely know either of them, Adam reminded himself, sternly. Taffy might not be quite as nice as she looks.

He felt another surge of frustration as he returned to his work. Lilith was working miracles in her cauldron, her magic enough to compensate for any errors in technique, while he couldn’t produce anything beyond sludge. He smashed a fruit with a hammer, picking it apart to get at the seeds inside ... they were rare and expensive and charged with magic and, as far as he was concerned, completely useless. There was nothing to be gained by sulking, he told himself, but it was hard not to let himself slip and fall. It just wasn’t fair.

The door opened. Master Landis stepped into the room, looking tired. Adam tried not to feel resentment. It was barely 1100. Why was he tired? He tried to imagine the older man having a night on the town and found it impossible. Masters didn’t have wild parties. Magicians matured slower than mundanes - privately, Adam suspected that was just an excuse for bad behaviour - but Master Landis was old enough to be his father. The thought of him getting roaring drunk was unthinkable.

Lilith cleared her throat. “The potion is ready,” she said. “Would you like to try?”

“Later,” Master Landis said. He looked at Adam. “Are you finished?”

“Just about,” Adam said. He checked the list, then nodded at the piles of prepared ingredients. “I’ve just got a handful left to do.”

“Very good,” Master Landis said. Behind him, Lilith made a rude gesture. “You do appreciate the importance of cutting them perfectly?”

“Yes, Master,” Adam said. “If they’re not cut along the line, the magic isn’t channelled properly and the results are explosive.”

“Correct,” Master Landis said. “Lilith, as you will be brewing with the prepared ingredients, inspect them.”

Lilith smiled, showing her teeth. “Yes, Master.”

Adam winced, inwardly, as Lilith went to work. If something was wrong ... he wondered, sourly, if Master Landis was counting on Lilith’s dislike of him to ensure she checked each and every ingredient. She was certainly examining each one with a cynical eye, turning the chopped ingredients over and over in her hand before reluctantly deciding they were perfect and putting them back down again. Adam silently thanked Master Pittwater for drilling the importance of perfection into his head, making it clear - time and time again - that poorly prepared ingredients were worse than useless. Better to toss something out, the old man had said, rather than risk a life trying to use it.

And yet, most of his ingredients were relatively cheap, Adam reminded himself. He could afford to discard something that didn’t meet his requirements.

“Let her get on with it,” Master Landis said. “You have something else to do.”

Adam hesitated - he wanted to keep an eye on Lilith, just to make sure she didn’t tamper with the ingredients - but there was no point in arguing. Master Landis directed him to find and lay out the cauldrons, tools and ingredients, making sure they were all on hand when they were needed. Adam was morbidly impressed. Master Pittwater had taught him to make sure he had everything ready before he started to brew, for what it was worth, but Master Landis treated it as a religion. It made a certain kind of sense. Master Landis worked with far more dangerous ingredients. If there was a delay in the middle of brewing, it might trigger an explosion that would send all three of them to the gods. Adam couldn’t help wondering if the gods would be pleased to see him. It had been a long time since he’d made an offering at the family shrine.

Lilith stepped back from the table. “They’re perfect,” she said, sounding as if she’d sooner be flogged than admit Adam had done a good job. “We can use them.”

“Very good,” Master Landis said. “Lilith, check your workspace.”

Adam had no time for relief as Master Landis bombarded him with questions, testing him on everything from overall magical theory to the specific properties of the ingredients he’d prepared for the two magicians. Lilith finished checking her work and leaned against the wall, arms crossed over her breasts, pretending she wasn’t paying attention. It would have been more convincing, Adam thought, if her green eyes hadn’t been watching his every move. If looks could kill - and there were spells that could do precisely that - he’d be dead a dozen times over. He put the thought aside as he struggled to answer a handful of more complex questions. He might have to brush up on some of his magical theory. He sighed, inwardly. He’d go find the library when he was dismissed for the day, before he went to town.

“Very good,” Master Landis said. “You would have gone far, if you had the gift.”

Adam didn’t dare look at Lilith as his master turned away. He didn’t have to look at her to know she was smirking. Instead, he forced himself to watch as Master Landis went to work, preparing a complex memory potion. He knew the recipe, but he’d never seen it brewed. Master Pittwater had flatly refused to either brew it himself or allow one of his apprentices to try. Adam had never understood the old man’s reluctance. It wasn’t as if the potion had been beyond him.

Master Landis put the last ingredient into the potion and set it to simmer, then looked at him. “You have a question?”

Adam blinked, then nodded. “Yes, master,” he said. He wished Lilith wasn’t there. She’d make fun of him for even asking. “Why did Master Pittwater refuse to brew memory potion?”

“Perhaps your master wasn’t as good a master as he claimed,” Lilith said. “Perhaps ...”

She broke off as Master Landis skewered her with a glare. Adam stared. It was the first time he’d shown her anything beyond mild annoyance. Adam just didn’t understand it. Why didn’t Master Landis react to Lilith being horrible to him, but shut her down the moment she insulted Master Pittwater? Perhaps they really had been close friends, despite the age gap. Or Master Pittwater had taught Master Landis. Adam supposed it was possible. Master Landis was the right age to be one of Master Pittwater’s first apprentices.

“Memory potions live up to their name,” Master Landis said. He returned his gaze to the shimmering liquid, his fingers beating out a timing pattern on his hand. “If you drink the potion, you will remember - in perfect detail - everything that happens while the potion is within your system. You will never forget. Go to a complex lecture and everything you hear will be recorded within your mind, allowing you to recall and think about it later. On the face of it, the potion is very useful indeed.”

Adam nodded, slowly. He could have used a memory potion, when he’d been studying. It would have saved him trying to remember all the letters and sigils, all the runes and ingredients and everything else he’d been forced to commit to memory. Matt and Lilith and their peers didn’t know how lucky they were. They had an instinctive grasp of something he’d had to force himself to comprehend. It would have been easy, so easy, to simply dismiss it as something completely beyond his ken and find something else to do with his life. But he hadn’t.

“The downside is that you will remember everything,” Master Landis said. The potion started to bubble. He reached for a jar of powder and poured it into the liquid. “Everything, and I mean everything. Break up with your partner? You won’t be able to forget every last cruel word. Get a lecture from your master? The words will linger in your mind until the end of your days. And if you’re unwell? You will never be able to truly get over it.”

“I see,” Adam said, although he wasn’t sure he did. “Why do you brew it?”

“Because there are students who feel they need it,” Lilith said. “And they’re old enough to understand the risks and accept them.”

Adam frowned as Master Landis kept working. It didn’t make sense. Master Pittwater had sold all sorts of potions, from simple contraceptives to healing balms. There was no reason he couldn’t sell memory potions. Adam could easily see scholars and engineers drinking the potion and using it to make sure they memorised something before the exam. Why had it been considered too dangerous to sell? It wasn’t as if it was a shape-changing or a love potion. They were banned, with good reason. Master Pittwater had called the City Guard on a lovesick young woman whose paramour had not returned her feelings.

“There must be another downside,” he said. “Why ...?”

“Good question,” Master Landis agreed. “Lilith?”

Lilith gave Adam a look that promised vengeance. Painful, humiliating vengeance. He made a mental note to duck out of the lab as soon as working hours had ended for the day and head straight to the library. It would give her time to cool down and think better of whatever she intended to do. It wasn’t the bravest thing he’d ever done, but ... he scowled. It had been a lot easier dealing with Matt. He hadn’t been quite so unpleasant in his early days.

“You cannot replace the memory,” Lilith said. “Whatever you learn, you cannot replace it.”

Adam gave her a questioning look. “Replace it?”

Lilith glared. “Suppose I told you that I was twenty, which is true,” she said. “You would believe me. You know it’s true. If you drank the potion, that fact would remain stuck in your head. But next year, I’ll be twenty-one. Right?”

“Yes,” Adam said, resisting the urge to point out that she was acting like a toddler. There was only a year between them, physically, but mentally they were worlds apart. “Unless something happens between now and then.”

“Yes.” Lilith’s glare deepened. “But you wouldn’t be able to ... to think of me as someone older than twenty. The fact - that I am twenty - would be so stuck in your head that you’d still think of me as twenty, even when I was two hundred. Logically, you’d know I couldn’t possibly be twenty. Emotionally, you would still believe me to be twenty.”

“The problem is worse than that,” Master Landis put in. “You might memorise a recipe for a potion, then find yourself unable to replace it with a superior recipe.”

Adam shook his head. “If that’s true ...”

“Of course it’s true,” Lilith snapped.

“If that’s true,” Adam asked, “then why are we brewing it?”

“Because the students here are supposed to be old enough to understand the dangers,” Master Landis said. “And there are certain fields of study that have enough ... near-certainties for the potion to be quite useful. A healer, for example, needs to memorise a vast array of facts about the human body. They can use the potion to remember the details. They’re generally isolated during the lecture and afterwards to limit the amount of accidental memorising they do.”

The cauldron started to steam. Master Landis motioned to Lilith. She came forward, holding a silver knife in one hand. Adam stared, unsure what they intended to do. He’d already sliced and diced everything he needed to brew the potion. Master Pittwater had taught him that there were some potions that required the brewer to perform all the steps himself, preparing the brewer as well as the ingredients, but memory potion wasn’t one of them. Master Landis wouldn’t have asked anyone to help if it was. He frowned as Lilith held her hand over the cauldron, then blinked in shock as she pressed the knife against her bare skin. A droplet of blood fell into the liquid. It started to hiss ominously.

Adam grabbed a cloth and held it out to Lilith. She shot him a nasty look as she snatched the cloth and pressed it against the cut. It had to have hurt, but ... she hadn’t made a sound. Adam was almost impressed. His mind raced. The blade probably wasn’t charmed. They didn’t want the blood tainted by outside magic ...

His heart skipped a beat. Blood?

It was hard to speak. “Master, why ...?”

“Wait,” Master Landis snapped.

Adam tried not to stare as the master stirred the cauldron, muttering a spell under his breath. Blood magic was dangerous. Master Pittwater had warned him that anything involving blood was risky, even if it didn’t cross the line into dark magic. A sample of someone’s blood could be used against them, if they didn’t take the right precautions. And yet ... he stared at Lilith, wondering what the hell she thought she was doing. Blood magic? She was mad. She had to be mad.

The cauldron blazed with light. Adam threw up a hand to cover his eyes. Lilith looked, just for a moment, as if she was caught in a storm. It struck Adam, as the light pulsed against the walls, that her senses weren’t such an advantage now. If the light was bright enough to hurt him, what was it doing to her? It snapped out of existence so quickly Adam was convinced, just for a second, she’d hit him with a blinding hex. The lab was suddenly very dark. Multicoloured spots drifted in front of his eyes.

“Lilith, bottle up the potion,” Master Landis ordered, curtly. He turned and headed for the door. “Adam, make sure to label every vial properly.”

“Yes, Master,” Adam said.

Lilith looked pale, even in the dimmed light, as she carefully ladled the potion into the vials and pushed the stoppers into place. Adam watched her, wondering just what she was doing. There were rules covering apprenticeships, magical and mundane alike. He found it hard to believe Master Landis had the right to demand her blood, certainly not when she wasn’t the one brewing the potion. It was ... Adam shuddered. He’d heard horror stories about bad masters, but none of them involved blood.

He cleared his throat. “What ... what was that about?”

“My blood has powerful magic.” Lilith sounded a little more like her old self. Adam was almost relieved. “It gives the potion a boost.”

“Your blood?” Adam gave her a sidelong look. “Why couldn’t he use his?”

“Because the potion would have interacted badly with his magic if he tried,” Lilith said, curtly. “Using mine was a risk, but ...”

She broke off. “Yours is useless, of course.”

Adam scowled. “How so?”

“You have no magic in your veins,” Lilith said. “It’s just ... blood.”

“And yet, I got told to take care of my blood, too,” Adam said. “Why would anyone bother if my blood was useless?”

Lilith snorted. “Your blood is linked to you. Someone could use it to brew you a healing potion, if they felt it worth the effort, or they could use it to curse you. They could put a spell on you from the other side of the world, if they had some of your blood. Mine? My blood can be used to power spells, because magic runs in my veins. There are magicians out there who sell their blood for money.”

Adam raised his eyebrows. “What else do they sell it for?”

“You don’t want to know,” Lilith said. “You really don’t.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Adam said. He’d look it up later, as well as a few other things. “Is your blood that powerful?”

Lilith smirked. “I can perform spells that would leave you gasping in awe,” she said, as she finished sealing the vials. “What do you think?”

Master Landis returned before Adam could think of a snappy retort. “Good work, both of you,” he said. “You’re dismissed for the day. Lilith, make sure you give Adam the rest of the tour. He’ll be doing some work for me in the library next week and I want him to know where everything is.”

Lilith’s face was a blank mask. “Yes, Master.”
Chapter Ten

“You can go anywhere that isn’t specifically closed to you,” Lilith said, after a whirlwind tour of the university. “Do not try to enter the dorms, the private bedrooms, the staff offices and the workshops without prior permission or you will regret it.”

Adam nodded, feeling his head start to pound. Again. Heart’s Eye was huge. He’d never seen anything so big in Beneficence, not even the guildhall. The university was so big it was practically a small town in its own right, with floors and compartments that were effectively isolated from the rest of the complex. His mental map of the building kept expanding and yet he was all too aware he knew only a tiny percentage of the whole. It would be easy to get lost, he thought, or spend his days moving between a handful of rooms and ignoring the rest of the university. And yet ...

It was hard not to be awed. Lilith had shown him giant workshops, where craftsmen studied their trade and experimented with bigger and better steam engines, and lecture halls designed for thousands of students. They advertised lectures on everything from farming to political theory, from explanations of how steam could be turned into power to detailed descriptions of precisely how to make gunpowder and guns. He thought he understood, suddenly, why the guilds regarded the university as a threat. Two of the guilds had already been destroyed and others were badly weakened, perhaps beyond hope of recovery. They no longer had a monopoly on knowledge, let alone experience. Given time, their rivals could bring them down.

He kept his face under tight control as he spotted people - students and staff - glancing at them. They really didn’t seem to like Lilith. It was hard to see how she felt about it - he knew better than to ask - but he knew from grim experience that the life of a social outcast was not worth living. A man alone was desperately vulnerable and everyone knew it. And yet ... he shook his head as he saw a young man carefully giving the pair of them a wide berth. That was so odd that he couldn’t help wondering if he’d stepped into a warped and twisted mirror of the world he knew.

“You probably know most of the rules already,” Lilith said, in a tone that suggested she didn’t believe herself. “Give people what privacy you can. Don’t intrude into their private spaces without permission. Oh, and don’t have romantic relationships with the staff.”

Adam blinked. “Does that happen?”

“It’s banned,” Lilith said, curtly. “The staff are explicitly forbidden to have any sort of romantic or sexual relationships with the students. Any students. If they do, they get fired. No second chances.”

Adam wasn’t sure what to make of it. He found it hard to believe that any student would want to start a relationship with a tutor. Master Landis was the youngest teacher Adam had had and he was still old enough to be Adam’s father. And yet ... he shuddered, remembering some of the nastier rumours about what certain people had done to avoid being forced to pay fines or being sent to jail. It might be tempting, he supposed, to offer sexual favours in exchange for a passing grade. But he couldn’t see how it would work. A magician who hadn’t done the work to earn the grade would rapidly prove themselves incompetent and then their superiors would start asking pointed questions ...

“I see,” he managed, finally. “I’ll bear that in mind.”

Lilith shrugged as they stopped outside the library. “The library is neutral ground,” she said, her tone lightening. “It is open at all hours, so anyone can come and go whenever they please. Books can be borrowed on a weekly basis, then renewed unless someone else wants the book. Don’t try to take the books out of the university itself without special permission or you’ll land in hot water. The librarians will do everything in their power to make the consequences as dire as possible.”

Adam believed her. “I’ll try to avoid it,” he said. “What if I want copies for myself?”

“Buy them at the shop,” Lilith advised. She paused, as if she wanted to say something else, then shook her head. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

She turned and walked away before Adam could say a word. He watched her go, wondering if she’d wanted to suggest they went out to eat again. The thought was absurd. She could have taken longer with the tour if she’d wanted to spend time with him ... he shook his head in annoyance. Besides, he didn’t want to owe her anything. Magical folk took obligations seriously. He really didn’t want to let her get him into her debt, then demand something in exchange for everything she’d done. It would make life difficult if he stayed in the apprenticeship.

The wards tingled around him as he stepped through the doors and into the library. It was a vast chamber, wider than the libraries he’d seen back home; he could see, through a handful of smaller doors, rows upon rows of books. A librarian sat at a desk, preparing a book to go on the shelves; two more roamed the stacks, carefully adjusting the books to make sure they were in proper order. Adam studied the instructions on the nearest wall, noting the library was far larger than it looked from the outside. There were a dozen chambers crammed with books and an entire honeycomb of tiny studies, the latter marked either reserved or unreserved. The entire system seemed to run on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. Adam allowed himself a moment of relief. The guild library had been, first and foremost, for the masters. Everyone else was only allowed to use it on their sufferance. Here ...

He walked to the desk. “Where do I get a library card?”

“Here.” The librarian reached into a drawer and produced three folded cards. “As an apprentice, you are entitled to three books at a time. Write your name, your dorm and your master’s name - if you have one - on these cards, then hold on to them while you browse the shelves. Bring them back when you have the books and I’ll take them from you and pair them with the cards in the books. They’ll be kept here until you return the books. Do not keep the books out past their due date or you’ll be dragged back here to work off your debt to society.”

His voice sounded bored, as if he’d given the speech so often he could give it without thinking. “Do not speak above a whisper in the stacks. Do not hex or curse other browsers. Do not attempt to damage books in any way. Do not attempt to hide books within the library or otherwise keep them for yourself. Do not attempt to copy more than twenty pages without prior permission. Do not attempt to make use of a study room without reserving it first. If you break these rules, the consequences will be unpleasant. Do you understand?”

Adam nodded. “Yes, sir.”

The librarian smiled, thinly, and handed over the cards. Adam frowned as he studied them - they looked like tiny envelopes - and then wrote his name and the rest of his details in the right place. The librarian returned to his work, making it very clear the discussion was over. Adam shrugged, put the cards in his pocket and turned away, his eyes sweeping the collection rooms. Some of them were busy, yet surprisingly quiet; some were almost completely empty. He picked a room at random and walked forward, admiring how the librarians had managed to cram so many books and bookshelves into a relatively small space. There were so many bookshelves that the room was almost claustrophobic.

He smiled as he scanned the shelves. The prospective bragged that Heart’s Eye had a copy of every printed book in existence and he could believe it. The bookshelves were packed with everything from farming manuals to magical textbooks, including a handful of older books that had been extremely rare - if not on the banned index - before they’d been duplicated by the new-fangled printing presses. His lips twitched with amusement as he spotted a row of blue books, some with very lurid covers. He had no idea why they were there. He’d glanced at a handful himself, purely for research, and they’d all had the same basic plot. Boy met girl. Boy and girl had chapter after chapter of increasingly unrealistic sex. Boy and girl broke up. Boy and girl got back together. The end. He was sure one of them had been nothing more than the author changing the names of his characters, then marketing it as a whole new book.

That’s the problem with the printing presses, he thought. No quality control.

He kept walking, moving into collections dominated by magical textbooks. The tomes were an odd collection; some clearly printed and new, others so old they predated him and his masters by centuries. A handful of magical apprentices were exploring the shelves, picking some of the books out of their places and reading them. They scowled at Adam, but didn’t make any attempt to order him out. Adam did his best to ignore them as he ran his eyes along the titles. Some of them were so faded it was impossible to pick out what they were, but a number were books he’d seen on recommended reading lists. He hadn’t been able to read them for himself. Master Pittwater hadn’t owned copies and the guild had never let him so much as look at theirs.

Bracing himself, half expecting a hex to explode in his face, he pulled one of the books off the shelf and let it rest in his hands. Magical books were often protected, from simple charms to hide their text from the unready to nastier charms that turned readers into rats or objects or cursed them to lives of misery and woe. He’d heard all the horror stories - Master Pittwater had made it clear Adam had to check with him first, before touching any of the books - but he found it hard to believe the library books were cursed. Who knew who might pick them up without thinking? The leather cover felt unclean and unpleasant to the touch, but there was no magic. He read the title - An Introduction to Basic Alchemy - and then opened the book. The text was clear and precise. Whoever had written the book, in the days before the printing press, had gone to some trouble to make sure their work survived. Adam allowed himself a tight smile as he closed the book and stuck it under his arm, then selected two more. He’d read the first sections after he returned from town.

A little bedtime reading, he thought, as he made his way back towards the desk. The librarian was attending to another customer, so Adam joined the line and started to wait. He thought he sensed eyes watching him, but it was hard to be sure. Arnold had told him he’d been noticed. He sighed, inwardly. Don’t people have anything better to do with their time?

He half-expected the librarian to challenge him, to demand to know why he wanted the books, but instead the man simply took the cards from the tomes and paired them up with Adam’s cards before stamping the due date on the books. Adam had to admit it was a neat, if cumbersome, system. It would be easy for the librarians to spot when the books were overdue, then send out the troops to recover them. He suspected there was probably a tracking spell woven into the books. Trying to remove it would have severe consequences.

“If you need them renewed, speak to us before day seven,” the librarian said, in the same bored tone. “If someone else has reserved them, you are required to return them before the deadline or you will be fined.”

Adam nodded as he slipped the books back under his arm. The librarian sounded as though he gave the same speech to everyone. Adam understood. Even in Beneficence, public libraries were relatively rare. It wasn’t easy to get a library card, certainly not for the guild collections. Here ... he wondered, suddenly, just how many people accidentally let their library books become overdue. If they needed the books, they might just keep them back a few days longer and pay the fine ...

He shook his head - he doubted he could afford it - and headed through the door. The corridors were quiet. He glanced at the clock as he kept walking, wondering where everyone was. It was mid-afternoon. Classes and lectures were mostly over. The students were probably in their dorms or heading to the dining hall or the town beyond the walls to get something to eat. His stomach growled, reminding him he hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. He should probably get something before he joined Arnold and Taffy for the walk down to town.

Someone spoke an incantation, behind him. Adam had no time to duck - or anything - before an invisible force caught his hands and yanked them forward, sending him sprawling to the floor. The books went flying. He yelped in pain as his hands struck the floor and stuck. No matter how hard he struggled, his palms were firmly glued to the stone. It was such a shock that it took him several moments to realise his feet were stuck too. He was trapped, his head so close to the floor he was practically prostrating himself. He heard someone snicker and looked up into a pair of merciless blue eyes. He’d feared it was Lilith, but ... it was a complete stranger. A young blond man who would have been handsome, part of Adam’s mind noted numbly, if he hadn’t so clearly been rotten to the core. Adam knew the type. He was a young man who delighted in causing pain and humiliation.

The magician knelt. “So, you’re the powerless fool who thinks he can become a magician?”

Adam’s cheeks burned with shame. He hadn’t stood a chance. The magician had zapped him in the back, but ... he could have come from the front instead and Adam still wouldn’t have stood much of a chance. His only chance would have been to punch out the bastard before he cast the spell and, unless Adam was completely wrong, he’d probably covered himself in wards to protect himself from sneak attacks. It was such a simple thing to do that Adam couldn’t bring himself to think the magician might not have done it.

“What? Nothing to say?” The magician laughed. “Do you want to beg for mercy?”

No, Adam thought, as he tried to look away. He really did know the type. Begging you to let me go would only make it worse.

“Of course not,” the magician said. He reached down and placed his finger under Adam’s chin, forcing him to look up. “You don’t have anything to say, do you?”

He snickered. “You really don’t have a place here, do you? I think I’d better take those books. You don’t have a use for them.”

Adam flinched. If the books were stolen when they were on loan to him ... who knew what the librarians would do to him? Could they find the books within the university? Or ... what if the magician destroyed them? If they couldn’t be recovered, who was liable? Adam knew he couldn’t even begin to pay for one of the books, let alone all three. He tried not to panic as he contemplated his complete and total failure. There was no way he could replace them if the books were lost ...

He found his voice. “If you take them, the librarians will hunt you down.”

“Oh, it can speak,” the magician said. “Do you think that I, Jasper of House Karut, would be scared of the librarians?”

Adam gritted his teeth. There was nothing to be gained by threatening the magician with the wrath of Master Landis. Even if Jasper of House Karut - Adam had never heard of the family, but he didn’t pretend he knew all the magical families - cared one whit for the alchemist, Adam’s own reputation would collapse if he turned into a snitch. He knew how it worked, in apprenticeships as well as schools. The one who betrayed his peer - no matter what sort of asshole the peer happened to be - would be excluded. Who knew who he’d betray next?

“Still, you have a point,” Jasper added. “Perhaps it would be better to do something else ...”

He waved his hand at Adam. The world went black. Adam nearly screamed. He was blind! He was blind ... he’d known it was possible, but no one - not even the worst of the magicians in Beneficence - had cast such spells on him. Jasper snickered - the nasty part of Adam’s mind insisted Jasper and Lilith would be well-matched - and walked away. Adam blinked hard, hoping his tears would break the spell. It didn’t work. He was stuck; unable to see, unable to move. Helpless anger surged within him as he tried, out of desperation, a technique he’d been taught to summon magic ... if he’d had any magic to summon. Nothing happened. He had to bite his lip to keep from crying ...

... And someone was coming up behind him.

“It’s alright,” a female voice said. It sounded oddly familiar, but he couldn’t place it. “Let me cast the counterspell and ...”

Adam recoiled as bright light stabbed into his eyes. His hands and feet came free at the same moment, sending him slumping to the floor. His muscles ached painfully. He forced himself to roll over and look up, directly into the Gorgon’s eyes. Up close, she seemed even more inhuman. Her eyes were disturbingly snake-like. And yet, he read sympathy within her gaze.

She held out a hand to help him up. “Who did this to you?”

Adam shook his head, wordlessly, as he stumbled to his feet and grabbed the books. There was no point in saying the name. Magicians banded together, even demihumans who spooked their peers as much as mundanes. She wouldn’t do anything if he told her and, if she did, it would make matters worse. No one would take him seriously ever again.

Lilith and Jasper would definitely be well-matched, he thought. The Gorgon made no move to stop him as he started to stagger down the corridor. It didn’t make him feel any better. She could have stopped him in an instant, if she’d wished. She was letting him go and he knew it. They’ll probably get on like a house on fire.

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