Talbot had not, of course, been in the gym at the precise moment I wanted to talk to him. That would have been convenient, and the universe just hates being convenient for me. Instead, because I couldn’t contact Initiated students through the intranet’s messaging system, I’d just kind of wandered around quizzing random craftspeople until I found one who knew Talbot, and asked them to pass along the message.
So it was on the last day of my week of promised silence that we managed to meet on Agreabla Insulo. Talbot broke into Mae and Terry’s cottage (which wasn’t hard; the cottage was missing several roof tiles and the glass from two windows so there were multiple entrances to choose from), lit a fire in the small potbelly stove, and prepared a kettle for tea.
He settled down on an old crate that passed for a chair, rested his elbows on the very rickety table, and watched me through those stupid designer sunglasses that must have made it impossible to see anything in the already dim light of the cottage. “You wanted to talk?”
“My lawyer thinks I might have to do an apprenticeship instead of go through the Initiation,” I said. “I thought maybe you might have some advice.”
“Why not just go through the Initiation? Is there a problem with the school?”
“Yes, but I can’t explain for…” I checked my tablet… “sixteen more hours. But last time we met, I thought you said something about having a master, so I thought maybe – ”
“Yes, I had one for a while.”
“Then, if you don’t mind me asking, why are you here? I mean, it’s an alternative to the school, right? If you can come here, then – ”
“It depends on the situation. They try to put as many people through the school as possible; it’s better for socialisation, you know? If you want to join mage society, it’s more seamless if you grew up in the same environment as all the other mages. Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend taking an apprenticeship unless you truly have no choice. Skolala Refujeyo is better, or failing that, just go home and be commonfolk. Of course, that’s just my personal opinion; I’m sure some people have great masters and have an extremely productive apprenticeship. But it’s very risky.”
“Why would it be risky?”
“Well, let’s say you’re unhappy with how you’re treated at school. You’re being bullied, or a teacher is taking advantage of you. You take that to your surveyanto, right? It’s followed up. If you don’t like your surveyanto, or don’t think they’re doing their job, you take it to another teacher. You get reassigned, accommodations are made. Those checks and balances don’t exist in an apprenticeship. Once you take the vow, a single mage controls your future until they decide you’re qualified, or you meet whatever prearranged criteria there are. If you don’t get along, too bad. If you think you’re being taken advantage of, it’s very, very difficult to get any support or protection. You just have to hope that your master is both dedicated and competent at their job. It’s a lot of trust.”
“Then why did you do it?”
“I was nine years old and on my deathbed. People in that situation aren’t known for their critical thinking skills.” The water was boiling; Talbot swivelled around on his barrel, poured the hot water into the teapot, and set the kettle aside. He placed the pot and two cups on the table, laced his fingers, and rested his chin on them to watch me again.
I was, of course, wondering whether it was rude to ask for more details on the deathbed thing. He took pity on me, and smiled. “Did yours nearly kill you?”
“No. It nearly… I mean, it is killing someone else.” I swallowed. “He’s in hospital, and the trial’s coming up. And now it’s hurting people in the school, I think, so they’ll send me off on an apprenticeship…”
“Have they chosen a master for you yet?”
“They don’t know yet.”
“This the thing you can’t talk about for sixteen more hours?”
“You don’t seem to be taking it well. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Magic’s dangerous, and we didn’t choose this. Be hard on those bastards who did choose this; they’re responsible for it.”
“For their spells, sure. I don’t think they’re responsible for my curse.”
“They became responsible when they sent someone to your house to promise they could fix everything,” Talbot snapped, his voice suddenly hard. “Don’t let them forget that. Don’t let them shuffle you off on some sub-par master who won’t do his job properly; if it’s going to be an apprenticeship, make sure they get you the best.”
“The best aren’t going to want this curse anywhere near them.”
“It’s the school’s responsibility to make that worth the effort and risk, and don’t let them imply you’re not worth it. They’re going to pressure you. They’re going to want you to go along with whatever, and whoever, is easiest for them. So make sure you look out for your own interests.”
“What did your master do to you?”
Talbot didn’t answer right away. He picked up the teapot, swirled it around for several seconds, then poured two cups. He pushed one towards me, and raised the other to his lips, sipping thoughtfully. “Did I ever tell you what my spell does?”
I sipped the tea. “No.”
“Well, it’s like this: that tea you’re drinking? It’s made from seawater.”
I reflexively spat the tea back out. But it hadn’t tasted salty or anything. Talbot just grinned.
“It’s a change spell,” he said. “Once upon a time, it was called the Hand of Purity.” He brandished his right hand; in the dim light of the cabin, I could just make out the mage mark on his palm. “Have they taught you how to read these marks yet?”
“It’s a neat trick. Mine’s nice and simple, see? More experienced, more accomplished mages, mages with opportunities or families or a good education behind them to accomplish impressive things, can get pretty complicated ones. I’m sure you’ve seen them about; arrogant bastards with white tattoos over half their face or all up their arm or whatever. But rubes like us tend to keep them nice and simple for a good long while, and are supposed to just be grateful we get to play with the big boys at all. Here, I’ll show you.” I felt his externalised spell pulling at my sleeve a fraction of a second before his left hand shot out to grab my wrist. He used my own finger to trace the lines on his palm I could barely see. “Here’s the important bit – diamond with a line in it, right in the middle, see? That means it’s a change spell. Learn to read the center of a mage mark and it’ll tell you a lot about a mage’s spell without needing any awkward questions. On either side of the line, there will usually be shapes telling you what the spell specialises in, but these can be pretty hard to interpret because the range of possibilities is too wide for, you know, a set lexicon. This circle here, on the left side, that’s just ‘various things’, and over the line you can see it changes them to…” he traced my finger over something, but the symbols were far too small for me to tell what shapes he was making.
“Uh, I have no idea?”
“Water and air. It’s a simplification, of course, but that’s basically what my spell does. It takes things and turns removes the impurities, transforming them into their most pure forms – especially water and air.” He traced my finger over a large triangle with a straight line cutting one corner off, which surrounded the whole mage mark. “And this part is just my elemental designation, which is air, as I’m sure you can tell.”
I couldn’t. “What’s an elemental designation?”
“An old, useless tradition. Once upon a time it was thought that your casting ability was dependent on your spell and your internal nature, and they had lists of about a thousand different ‘elemental natures’ you could be. It’s nonsense, but it’s worked its way into the mage mark. And everyone who goes through the Initiation or is declared ready by their master, if they’re part of the Refujeyo system, will have this in their mage mark. Then they’ll surround it by a bunch of other details depending on who they are and what they’ve done, but that’s all nonsense. And this part is nonsense. The only part of the mark that really matters, is right here, right in the middle.” He pressed my finger right into the middle of his mark. “The part even you have.”
“The witch mark?”
“Yep. Can’t even see it under the ink, can you? It’s the exact same colour, and I don’t think that’s an accident. I’ve asked a lot of people and nobody’s ever seen a mage mark where you can still see the witch mark; all the designs involve tattooing right over it. I think maybe that’s the point. This whole thing is so the commonfolk don’t know they’re dirty, dirty witches like us. Only difference is they chose it, which is so much more civilised. Sorry, I’m getting off track. Point is. Purification.” He released my hand to sip more tea. I pulled back, rubbing my wrist. His skinny fingers had a grip like a vice. “I was nine. And I woke up one morning with a weird white mark on my hand. Nothing unusual, kids get bruises and cuts and scars all the time. Honestly, it might have been there for several days before I noticed, because the first time I noticed something weird was at the bonfire.” He reached behind himself to open the potbelly stove, where tiny flames licked red-hot coals. “Fire is very simple. It needs two things – fuel, and oxygen. And it produces steam and carbon dioxide, so if you don’t overwhelm it, it’s pretty controllable; it limits its own oxygen supply by replacing it with these things. Now, someone who’s learned to control the Hand of Purification over several years and can purify air to oxygen, nitrogen or carbon dioxide at will doesn’t have much to fear from a little wood fire, but imagine you’re a nine year old kid. You don’t know how fire works; you barely know what carbon dioxide is. You definitely don’t know anything about curses, and here you are sitting next to a bonfire with an active Hand, dutifully turning all that nasty steam and carbon dioxide into clean, pure, oxygen-rich air.” He reached toward the fire in the stove, and coals brightened; yellow flames leapt up with a billowing roar. Across the table, I couldn’t feel much of the heat, but it must have gotten uncomfortable quickly because Talbot only let this go on for a few seconds before the whole fire suddenly quieted down as if smothered by something.
“We were having a bit of a party,” Talbot continued. “The whole family was there. The neighbours were there. And the fire was at a distance from the treeline that should have been safe, if it hadn’t suddenly become a lot more fierce for no obvious reason. I knew it was me, somehow; I didn’t know how it was me, but it was me. The fire stirred up near me, and while everything else was smoking, the air around me was clean. I couldn’t even smell the woodsmoke. I freaked out, of course, and while everyone’s trying to get the fire under control before the trees catch, I run off into the forest. The air around me has no smell, and that’s really weird because the forest always has a smell; it’s been raining, and I’m slipping on tree roots and falling over, but somehow I’m not muddy. Where my feet land in puddles, they clear up. Blood beads on my skin where I’ve scraped myself, but it doesn’t scab over; it’s just suddenly… gone. Replaced with water. So the cuts bleed and bleed; there’s nothing to clot. There’s fire behind me, somewhere, and nothing makes sense, and I trip and fall on my face and cut open my lip but I can’t taste any blood. Whatever’s going on is drawing the energy out of me, weakening me more than running did. I’m tired and the water around me is clearing and I want it to stop, so I gather my will and…”
“And try to pull it back inside yourself,” I finished quietly. Just like he’d warned us never to do.
“Yeah. Stupid move. If I’d had any clue what was going on I would’ve known better than to try it; the curse was going to wear itself out sooner or later. The fire was well out of my range and the grown-ups were getting it under control, so what was the danger, really? That there’d be a little less mud in the forest, temporarily? Instead, I pulled the power inside me, and that’s not the same as not casting. I pulled a spell purifying air and water directly into my bloodstream, my lymphatic system, my muscle and organ and nerve cells. Not a good idea.”
“How on Earth did you survive that?!”
“Luck, mostly. The spell’s not designed for things like blood; it takes a lot of energy. And I was already weak; it’d almost run its course. They found me unconscious in the forest, with watered-down blood and some organ damage they’d find out about later, and by the time I’d recovered enough to do more damage to myself they were already transfusing. I ate through a lot of the hospital’s blood supply that day, but fortunately somebody took one look at the clean water output and called the mages right away. I survived. There’s damage, of course; some organ damage. A fair bit of nerve damage. I healed a lot of it, needed surgery for some of the rest, and some won’t ever recover. I only have one kidney, for example. And my sight’s never coming back, of course.”
“You didn’t know?”
“Uh… no. It didn’t occur to me.” Shit, had I said something insensitive?
But Talbot just grinned. “I should probably take that as a compliment, I suppose. Both optic nerves completely destroyed; I have no vision at all, which is rare even for blind people. Also some brain damage, as you’d expect, and about half my right calf has no sensation which is way more annoying than you’d think. You’d be surprised how hard it is to detect or manage injuries that you can’t feel or see so it’s a really inconvenient combination.”
“I get by. You didn’t come here for a Talbot pity party; this is just context. Point is. I wake up in hospital and my doctors and nurses and parents have to explain to me that I nearly died, and that I still might, and that I’ll never see again. They have to tell me that the thing that nearly killed me is still inside me and they can’t get it out. My parents are terrified, I’m terrified, nobody knows what to do, and then this man shows up. And he tells me that if I go with him, he can help me control it. So I don’t hurt anybody else. And that… that’s when I made my second incredibly stupid decision.”