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Michael wandered into Bastral City at dawn. His bleary eyes saw the dirt road he’d walked for so long turn to cobblestones. Quite a few paces later, his mind registered what it meant. He caught his breath, halted, and slowly raised his head, brushing back strands of floppy dark hair to get a clear view.
He was finally here. Michael Merenzia. Wizard apprentice. In the capital of wizardry. His heart beat faster.
He had passed the marble gateway without even noticing, and now all around him were limestone houses and marble towers, aglow in the rays of the morning sun.
He shifted the sack with his few belongings to the other shoulder. Glanced at the crinkled map in his hand with the name and address of his master, Mr. Raktata, written on it. Then he walked proudly on. Here, in Bastral City, no amount of scrawniness and oversized teeth mattered. Not while he wore this robe. It had cost his parents a great deal, but it was all right: he would make them proud in return.
Turning another corner, he caught sight of a fountain in the middle of a small square. In the same instant, he heard a rustling from behind, mixing with the soft trickling of the fountain. He turned his head.
"Good morning," a woman said, and Michael lost his breath. She was beautiful. Green eyes and dark curly hair, tinged red like the morning light. Her dress too was green, and it rustled as she walked past him. And she smiled. At him.
He flushed, tried to smile back. And he looked a fool, he realised suddenly, staring and standing there like something made of stone. He should at least say something. But what?
"Good morning," he finally murmured.
But only the rosy dawn light and a few cats filled the square now.
The alley where Mr. Raktata's shop was located was narrow and edged by tall houses and consequently a place of shadows. In some of the deepest shadows was a door, and above it hung a wooden sign, and Michael could just make out the words: Mr. Raktata's workshop--spells, artefacts and potions.
The windows next to the door were shuttered. Michael glanced one last time at his map, then folded it carefully and stuffed it into his sack. This had to be the place.
The knocker was an iron ring through a demon's nose. A sharp thud sounded as Michael let it hit the door. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. The only response was a plaintive mewing from one of the cats that had gathered around him and regarded him with narrowed eyes as though he were trespassing.
"Mr. Raktata," he called as he knocked again, harder.
And then, finally, the door opened. A man in a thin, white robe peered out, eyes half hidden under heavy eyelids, strands of greying hair sticking out from under a nightcap.
"Yes?" the man said in a dry voice, a look of drowsy disapproval on his stern face.
"Good...Good morning, sir. I'm Michael Merenzia, your new apprentice," Michael stammered.
Mr. Raktata's stern expression didn't ease. Had there been some misunderstanding? Was there no apprenticeship anyway? Michael began sweating.
"Yes, yes, I know. I didn’t expect you so early. But since you're here we might as well begin." Mr. Raktata stepped aside and with a wave of his hand beckoned Michael to enter.
"Thank you." Flushing, Michael entered the gloom of the store. Of course, of course--getting up at dawn was the country way. How could he have been so stupid? He shouldn't have made such a rush to get here; instead of impressing his master, he had done the exact opposite.
"Wait here. I'll be back in a minute." Mr. Raktata went in the back room and shut the door, leaving Michael alone in the store.
A shimmering light emanated from a silver mirror in a far corner. Trapped moonlight, Michael guessed. Barely bright enough for him to make out the jagged shapes of the flasks, and jars, and racks of books crammed in along every wall. The air was heavy with the scent of incense. And something more; his skin tingled. It was the feeling of residual magic.
Mr. Raktata was wearing a proper wizard's robe when he returned a few minutes later, of a thick fabric, the colour of dust. As he opened the shutters and lit an oil lamp to bring brighter colours to everything else in the room, the robe seemed somehow even duller, as though the light never reached it. His skin, too, had that grey look, and seemed no brighter in the light.
"We open in about four hours. Until then I have a task for you." Mr. Raktata reached under the counter and pulled out a bulging sack, which he lifted as easily as though it contained nothing but air. He untied the string closing it, and tiny spheres of luminous colours poured out onto the counter. Fey motes--crystallised Fey souls.
They were to be sorted and grinded into dust; the blacks would go into the ink used for writing curses, the whites into dust that could lift them, and all the other colours were essential ingredients in a number of other spells.
Green eyes, Michael thought, carefully picking up two faintly glowing green motes. These were like her eyes. He should crush them, now, pour the dust into the jar beside him. His eyelids slid slowly down. This time he didn't try to open them again; somehow there were only green motes left on the table--and he would like to keep it that way for just a little while longer.
"Will you put out the sign that we're open? And do you think you can mind the store alone for a while? The first couple of hours are never very busy."
Mr. Raktata's dry voice. Michael gave a start, blinked. The motes slid out of his hand.
"I'm at a crucial part of the spell I'm working at, and I don’t want to be disturbed."
"Of course." Michael straightened, feeling suddenly wide awake; this was a chance to prove his worth. "Don't worry about it; I was top of the class in both curses and potions and--"
"Good," Mr. Raktata interjected before Michael could finish the list of his merits.
"Alright," Michael said to no one in particular--Mr. Raktata had already turned, and presently the door to the back room closed shut with a decisive bump.
Michael sat behind the counter, feeling solemn and excited; he was to use his powers for something real. Every time a shadow passed outside the windows, his heart beat a little faster. But no one entered.
Michael's mind began to occupy itself with the question of where he was to put his hands; what seemed more dignified--to let them rest in his lap or lie folded on the counter or something else entirely? So when the door was opened, he gave such a start his hands flew apart in a wild gesture out of sheer indecisiveness where to put them. And as a result a potion of luck was swept to the floor, the sound of shattering glass ringing through the air.
Michael caught his breath. But Mr. Raktata didn't appear, and the customer, a thickset man clad in silk the colour of his slick, grey hair, entered nevertheless.
Michael stood, annoyed with himself for averting his eyes from the pale gaze of the man. But there was something unnerving about it. And his slow walk was no less unsettling. When he reached the counter, he put a jewelled hand on it, the short, fat fingers beginning to tap.
Michael cleared his throat. "Welcome, sir. How may I assist you?"
"You may tell Mr. Raktata that I, Ivan Tremor, have come to acquire his assistance."
"Mr. Raktata is not to be disturbed," Michael said, lifting his eyes. "I'm Michael Merenzia, his apprentice, and I'm fully qualified to perform whatever magic you're in need of."
"Are you now?" Ivan Tremor raised an eyebrow. "You seem a bit young."
Michael felt his cheeks heat. "I might be young, but I'm skilled--more than most of the old.”
Ivan Tremor hesitated.
"What do you need?" Michael demanded.
"Very well." Ivan Tremor shrugged. "I need a curse to wipe the smug smile off a fickle lady's face."
"A curse it is. Do you have the true name of the unlucky one?" Michael said, feeling at ease; for curses he had a remarkable talent, a teacher had once told him. And he knew it was true.
Ivan Tremor was prepared and pushed a note across the counter with a name already written on it. Luna Sparrowspring it said in letters hard and hateful.
Michael mixed ink and dark Fey dust and drew around the name hair of stinking mud, a pig snout, and a pair of tusks to match. What else could put out the smile of a lady? Blisters, and a rash, and hairy lips, he added as an afterthought, and then there was no more room around the name. But this would do, oh yes, he was sure it would.
He sprinkled a layer of Fey dust across the curse. And then he blew at it gingerly, and all the drawings and letters became one with the air. And unless she was a creature not breathing, they would find her and become true.
Michael was able to help every customer without disturbing Mr. Raktata, and he was pleased with himself when he finally went to sleep on a mat on the floor in the store. He slept heavily throughout the night. But he woke as usual at dawn.
From cracks in the shutters crept a greyish light. He sat. This would be about the time when he had seen her by the fountain.
Such a fool he must have seemed. And he couldn't bear to think she was out there, thinking that was what he was. But maybe, he thought, his heart picking up pace, maybe if she came the same way today, he could talk to her, and maybe, just maybe she would see he wasn't a fool.
It was hours till Mr. Raktata would awake--judging from the way he had looked yesterday morning. Michael had time. He put on his wizard's robe and set out.
The morning air was fresh and cool, and Michael felt lighter breathing it. Soon, he heard the trickling sound of the fountain, and a strange, fluttering feeling spread inside him.
He turned the corner and caught sight of the fountain. And the air became a wall; a putrid stench was carried on the breeze, and Michael stopped, gasping for breath.
Then, out of the shadows of a nearby house, moved the shape of what could have been a woman, head bend and partly covered by a shawl, which--though it was large and draped generously--was unable to hide the grotesque tusks, or the slimy mud dripping from her head, leaving a trail of stinking brown puddles behind her. Michael recoiled, feeling nauseous.
"Please help me," she whispered in a thick voice.
Michael shuddered; the dress of the creature standing before him was green, as were the eyes, which looked at him so imploringly.
"This isn't me," she sobbed. "You remember me? Tell me you remember me--we met here, yesterday morning. And you smiled at me. You're a wizard, right?" With a swollen, blistered hand she gestured at his robe. "Oh, I hoped so you would pass this way too today. Can you lift this curse? Will you help me?" Her hairy lips shivered, and she tried in vain to cover her face with her hands; the tusks made it impossible to do so.
This is my doing, Michael thought, and his jaw tightened. Had he known, he would have never--not her. With a decisive nod, he said: "I will. Follow me."
The door to Mr. Raktata's shop creaked a little too loudly for Michael's liking. But no Mr. Raktata emerged, and he continued, signalling Luna to be silent. And she was--apart from the faint squeaking of the mud inevitably dripping on the floor and the occasional grunt of her breathing.
The jar of white Fey dust stood on the shelf where he’d left it yesterday, glittering faintly in the wavering light from the silver mirror. And when he sprinkled the dust over Luna, it too shimmered like the stars.
Then silence fell, as dense as though all air had left the room, and Luna just stood there, no tusks, no blisters, no slimy, muddy hair dripping--just soft, dark curls framing her beautiful face.
"Thank you," she whispered and leaned over. Michael found himself holding his breath as she placed her warm lips on his cheek, and his heart fluttered. And even after she had left, it kept beating so loudly he was sure that was why Mr. Raktata had awakened and strode towards him, his face set in a grim frown below the white nightcap.
"Tell me you didn't," said Mr. Raktata, wrinkling his nose as he glanced at the stinking trail of mud on the floor.
"Ehrm..." was all Michael managed.
"You didn't just lift the curse you yourself had cast?"
"It was just--I didn't know it was her when I--" Michael croaked.
"It doesn't matter. It's against The Wizards' Code to lift a curse placed by yourself, surely you knew?"
Michael cringed; he had known, of course. He just hadn't given it any thought.
"It's practically cheating our customer. Our paying customer--" Mr. Raktata regarded Michael, an eyebrow raised. "I don't suppose the lady left any gold in return for the undoing of her curse?"
Michael shook his head faintly.
Mr. Raktata sneered. "I'll be out of business if this is ever known. And trust me; no one else will take you on as apprentice, then." He paused, breathing deeply and seemingly regaining his calm. "Let's just hope Mr. Ivan Tremor doesn't figure out what has happened."
He went to a cupboard behind the counter and rummaged through it, then placed a bucket and a mop on the floor. "This whole place stinks. When you're done with the mud, the rest of the place needs cleaning as well."
Michael felt somewhat smaller when he again was left alone to manage the shop--which was relatively clean now, though a remnant of the stench of Luna's muddy hair remained.
Every time the door was opened, he flinched; was it Ivan Tremor entering to put an end to his career before it had even begun? But it was just an old man looking for a cure for gout, or a girl buying a love potion, and Michael slowly began to relax. Until it was Ivan Tremor standing before him, regarding him with cold eyes.
Michael tried to smile, but it seemed more like a nervous twitch at the corner of his mouth. His hands he kept well below the desk to hide their trembling. "Welcome, sir. Again. How may I assist you?"
"Better than yesterday, I hope; I just saw Luna Sparrowspring. She was perfectly fine. Why do you suppose that is?" Ivan Tremor's voice was smooth, like a knife to the throat.
"I--I can't imagine. I'm shocked. Are you sure it was her?" Michael tried his best to look appalled.
Ivan Tremor nodded slowly.
"I--I--perhaps another wizard has undone the curse?"
"Perhaps so. But I don't think Miss Sparrowspring has the kind of money to pay for that kind of service. Do you know what I think?" Ivan Tremor leaned closer, curling his lip.
Michael closed his eyes; here it came--the end of his career.
"I think," Ivan Tremor continued. "I think you shouldn't have been so sure of yourself yesterday, young man. Clearly you weren't skilled enough for the task."
"I--" Michael swallowed his protest. Of his skills he had never heard anything but praise, but rather this false accusation than to lose his apprenticeship.
"So surely now you won't refuse me when I demand to talk to Mr. Raktata." Ivan Tremor slammed his fist on the table.
"No, no. I won't," Michael assured him and almost tripped over his own feet to get to the door to the back room, which was opened in the same instant by Mr. Raktata himself.
"I couldn't help but overhear what you said, sir. I was sure my apprentice was qualified for the task. But apparently I was wrong. I apologise; the blame is mine." Mr. Raktata inclined his head, as did Ivan Tremor.
"I'm sure we can come to an agreement, then," Ivan Tremor said, "that I am entitled to some sort of compensation."
"Of course, of course." Mr. Raktata did his best imitation of a smile. "We will redo the curse, make it nastier even--and to make up for the mistake we will throw in a curse or spell of your choosing for no fee at all."
"Very well. Since a curse is likely to be a temporary measure--if not due to some apprentice's incompetence then sooner or later someone might dispel it--I would like to make a more permanent arrangement." He paused and looked pleased with himself when he finally said: "I want her dead."
Mr. Raktata might have widened his eyes slightly but didn't otherwise seem disconcerted by the proposal. "That can be arranged, certainly. If so, will you give me your word not to talk about this unfortunate incident--you know how such rumours can be bad for business."
"I will, of course," said Ivan Tremor, sounding rather jovially now, and the two men exchanged a firm handshake. The deal was settled. And Michael felt more nauseous than even the stench from Luna's muddy hair had made him.
"You can't be serious," Michael cried. "I won't do it!"
"Very well. I relieve you from your contract, then. You are no longer my apprentice."
"Wait! No, don't do that--I--"
"What did you think wizardry was about? The good of humanity? In a way it is. But since humans more than anything want to hurt each other, what's good for one is, well, bad for another. If you can't handle it, you can't be a wizard."
Michael swallowed; being a wizard was all he had ever wanted. He tried to erase the image of Luna's green eyes looking at him so imploringly, and the feeling of her lips on his cheek. He hardly knew her anyway. "I can handle it," he said in a hollow voice. "I will do it."
"Good. Let's give Trivan Venom some value for his money," Mr. Raktata said, his face revealing no emotion.
Michael looked down, unable to meet Mr. Raktata's unfeeling eyes. The name Trivan Venom rang inside his head like a note out of pitch; Mr. Raktata had mispronounced it. The right name was Ivan Tremor. Michael frowned, then shook his head. It didn’t matter.
When evening came, Michael sat behind the counter, alone in the closed shop. Beads of perspiration appeared on his forehead. After a while he grabbed the quill pen. It was ragged, and the shadow it cast in the light from the oil-lamp grasped the parchment like a hazy talon.
There was nothing else he could do; with a trembling hand he wrote the letters forming the name Luna Sparrowspring. He stared at it until his vision blurred, his hand with the quill pen hovering next to it, black ink dripping.
He couldn't, he just couldn't write the death curse. Before he could stop it, the parchment was a crumpled ball in his hand and then, moments later, hurled at the floor.
Panting, he peered at the door to Mr. Raktata's study; had he heard? Would he come out to renounce his apprentice? To return home such a failure would be unbearable. What would they say, his parents and siblings, who had never been allowed any dreams of their own because there wasn't money for anything but his education?
He couldn't throw it all away, he just couldn't do that to them. Nor did he want to. He wanted to be a wizard. And he hardly knew Luna Sparrowspring.
Teeth clenched, he bent over and picked up the parchment, smoothed it out as best he could. But the same thing happened again; he just couldn't write the death curse. Every time he set his mind to it, her green eyes appeared before him.
Hours later nothing had changed except the number of crumpled up parchments on the floor and the darkness of the circles beneath his eyes. The new parchment in front of him was blank still. At the edges of the shutters, the shadows were getting softer; dawn was approaching.
Michael's hand grasping the quill pen became clammy with sweat; if he didn't do something soon, the choice would make itself--no more magic in his life, not legitimate anyway. But he couldn't...that hateful man! Ivan Tremor--if only somebody would curse him! Michael's hand jerked, and the quill pen left a black splotch on the parchment; that was it, of course, that was the answer--no customer at all, no one to complain.
He would have to know his true name, of course, but Mr. Raktata might have revealed that by a slip of the tongue, it suddenly occurred to Michael: he had called him Trivan Venom.
With any luck that was it, and perhaps it wasn't unlikely--had an enemy ever used Mr. Raktata to curse him, or had he ever come to Mr. Raktata for a dispel or a cure for any ailment, his true name would be known to the wizard.
Finally Michael wrote the death curse. And the name encircled by the curse was Trivan Venom. Then the dust, a lot of it, and the blow, and the parchment was blank once again; the curse was delivered.
Michael leaned back, breathed out slowly, feeling as though a massive hand had stopped pushing down on his shoulders. Mr. Raktata would never learn what had happened.
Unless--unless he learned Luna was still alive.
Then he would know Michael had been too soft to do the curse he had been hired to do. Would he still lose his apprenticeship then? Michael shot to his feet and began pacing, wringing his hands.
He would have proved incapable. If you can’t handle it, you can’t be a wizard.
The room began spinning; what he had done hadn't changed a thing. He could still lose it all in a heartbeat.
He sat down once more. 'Luna Sparrowspring’ he wrote on the parchment in front of him. The name was too soft to be written in ink that black. Nevertheless, there it was. And the grey edges of dawn at the shutters kept getting brighter.
Somewhere outside a cat was mewing, a long, plaintive sound. He raised his head, listening to the silence that followed.
He wouldn't kill her, he just wouldn't do that. But Mr. Raktata could never learn that she lived. Michael had to make her disappear. And here, no one would notice another cat around.
He clenched his jaw. Then he drew, pointy ears, whiskers, and slanting eyes, that familiar four legged shape with the tail raised. He drew faster than he ever had, the dark shapes edgy, sketchy, but they were enough; the dust and the blow made them one with the air.
And all that was left on the parchment was the clear drop that fell onto it after trickling down his cheek.
Michael felt like a ghost the next day. When he awoke by the counter, a jerk of Mr. Raktata’s head sent him cleaning up the parchments littered on the floor. That was all.
And the world continued like nothing had happened; a young woman looking for a magic ring, a nosy child asking too many questions. And cats passing outside. Several of them green eyed.
There was no way to tell if one of them was her.
Just before noon bells sounded. Michael soon learnt what it meant, as did Mr. Raktata, who emerged from his study; a customer entered, more interested in spreading the word than buying anything.
Someone had died. Someone important. Mr. Ivan Tremor.
Michael fingered some flasks on a shelf nervously, pretending not to pay attention, but soon stopped lest he break something, so bad was he shivering. Eyes fixed on the floor he could scarcely glimpse Mr. Raktata, but the outraged expression he imagined when they were alone again didn't fit the calm voice:
"So Ivan Tremor passed away? How convenient. Tell me, did you happen to have anything to do with that?"
Michael meant to deny it all, but the only sound coming out of his mouth was an incoherent croaking.
"By the look on your face I take that as a yes." Something sounding like a chuckle followed. Though it couldn't be, of course. It must have been a snort of disapproval.
Mr. Raktata continued: "That was not a bad way to settle this business; he has long been a tiresome customer--and to claim a death curse for free! It's 10 times as expensive as a regular curse alone due to the amount of dust required. And who knows if that had been the end of it."
Michael looked up, stunned, and met the gaze of Mr. Raktata. Was there a slight gleam of amusement in his eyes?
"So you don't mind?"
"Of course I do. Killing off your own clients is the most serious offence under The Wizards' Code. And if anybody finds out I cannot protect you. But I'll keep my mouth shut about it, as I trust you will." Mr. Raktata actually winked at him.
Michael hurriedly nodded. A lump was burning in his throat.
"Don't look so appalled."
Michael stood frozen, unable to blink even.
Mr. Raktata sighed, then whispered: "I'm only going to say this once, so listen closely: The Wizards' Code doesn't matter as long as no one finds out what you have done--and they won't, if you just lie about it. There's no way to prove it. All that matters is you didn't hurt my business." He paused, raising a finger to emphasise this point.
"And you didn't. As long as you keep that in mind, I don't mind that you are able to think and fight for what you want."
As Michael still did not respond, Mr. Raktata tilted his head, and said, a little reluctantly: "Tell you what. Take the rest of the day off. And go find your girl."
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